Rock the Boat

Luke 5:1-11 [watch the sermon video here]

Ugh.

Another useless night.

Why do I even bother? Simon Peter thinks.
He’s come up empty handed after a night of fishing.
Night after night he has been fishing.
Trying new parts of the water.
Asking other fishers for the best method of catching fish.
Mending the nets.
Surely, he must be one throw away from a great catch of fish.
Ah, but it has been another futile night.
What else can he do?

He’s exhausted!

It’s like he has spent everything that he has.
Emotionally. Mentally. Physically.

And it isn’t just the fishing that exhausts him.
It’s the world!
He isn’t just some freelancing fisherman.
He is a peasant accountable to an empire.
Everything he catches is taxed and controlled by the empire.
Each fish he catches is processed and then transported
for the enjoyment of wealthy families.i

The whole thing just feels exhausting.
Go to bed. Wake up. Barely survive.
Do the same thing again.

Ugh.

What’s the use?
Of anything?

With a heavy sigh, Simon picks up his heavy, smelly fish nets
and begins to clean them. Methodically.
With his full attention. As if his annoyance could be swept away
if only he focused hard enough on cleaning.
So much is out of his control, but at least this he can do this well.
And so, he cleans his nets. Tuning all else out.

He tunes out even the people packed together on the shore,
which is hard because they are so loud.
They are excited to listen to that new guy, Jesus. Jesus …

Simon knows who Jesus is.
Jesus had helped his mother-in-law who had been really sick.ii
They had been scared for her. But now she is feeling better.
Yes, Jesus had helped her.
Jesus had even stayed over at their house after that.

Still, Simon can’t quite figure Jesus out.
Well, Simon also can’t figure fishing out.
So, well, there is a lot with which Simon Peter struggles.
He is exhausted. And the harder he tries, the emptier he feels.

Simon Peter thinks,
Isn’t that what you are supposed to do when life feels overwhelming?
Just try harder? Just push with more muscle?

Why isn’t that working for him?

Speaking of pushing, the crowd jostles his boat,
awakening him from his reverie.
The people press Jesus close to the shore.
Not many more people will fit on this beach!
Still, they push forward.
It’s like they think, with sheer movement alone,
they can push out that emptiness that lives inside them.
Like a pulsing wave, their desperation crests and crashes as they press forward.

How will Jesus respond to all these people?
Simon wonders.

Jesus sees Simon and gets an idea. Jesus slips into the boat.
“Push out on your vessel,” Jesus instructs Simon.

Jesus has already helped Simon’s family this week.
Even though he’s weary,
Simon can see that it is now his turn to help Jesus,
so he rows out the boat.

Jesus sits down and finishes his sharing his gems with the people.
Time passes until it’s just Jesus and Simon,
Simon and Jesus there on the boat.

Jesus looks at him.
Why? Is there something on his face?
He impulsively checks.
No, only some crusty sand.

Jesus’ gaze continues.

“Row out further into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch,”
he encourages Simon.

The request is almost laughable;
well, it would be laughable if it didn’t make him angry.
Do more? Simon is supposed to do more?
He has already done everything he could.

Even he knows that it is quitting time.

With a sense of surrender, Simon states the truth to Jesus,
“We’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.”

He’s done all the things,
and gotten few results.

Surely, we can relate.

Going into the third year of the pandemic,
we know what it is to try to do the right things
and then still find ourselves in a place of restricted humanity
and shrunken life.iii

Some of us have masked. We’ve quarantined.
We’ve lived life on Zoom.
We’ve survived toilet paper shortages.
We’ve celebrated a brief respite of the pandemic in the summer.
Then, Delta. We’ve masked again. We’ve socially distanced.
Then, Omicron.

We did all the things! Still, two years after the pandemic started,
we have a life much more constricted that it was in 2019.

It’s tiring. We’ve done so much;
it feels like we’ve moved so little.

What I love about Simon is that
Simon doesn’t hide how he feels.

Like a prayer, he says to Jesus,
“Teacher, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.”

“Teacher,” we might likewise pray, “We’re exhausted.”

Still, Simon remembers what Jesus has done,
how Jesus helped his mother-in-law.
Curiously, Simon continues,
“Alright, because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.”

Empty nets are what Simon has.
Empty nets after an empty night of fishing.
Simon gives these, too, to Jesus.
Simon gives Jesus all his small offerings.
Or rather Simon gives Jesus his heart as meager as it is.

With greyness in his soul,
Simon mechanically lowers his nets into the water.

He waits. He feels a tug.
There’s fish?
He tries to pull the fish in. He can’t!
He can’t do it alone.
No matter how much muscle he uses.

Just like he couldn’t somehow magically will the fish into the net last night.
By himself. Simon looks at Jesus. Jesus who stayed with the sweaty, anxious people who needed help. Jesus who asked him for help.
Huh. Maybe what Simon needs is help.
Maybe part of what he needs to release
in order to receive these fish is the idea of self-sufficiency.
Maybe what Simon needs to release is the idea that he can single-handedly strongarm his way to these fishes.
sigh
Even that idea has to go!

Simon takes a deep breath. Simon calls in his partners.
It is with their help that they are able to bring the fish up,
and just barely make it to the shore with this bounty.

I find it interesting here that the Greek word for partners is koinonio.
That word means partners or cooperative.
The early word for church is koinonia.iv
It’s the same root!

Today’s story is the first example
of an early partnership or cooperative formed around Jesus.

We need community. We need Jesus.

This realization scares Simon.

He wants to be close to Jesus, but he doesn’t.
What if he disappoints Jesus?
What if Jesus doesn’t like what he sees when he gets to know Simon?

“Leave me alone,” Simon cries out, “I am a sinner.”

Simon knows what he has to offer: nothing.

Yet, I am riveted by Jesus’ response.
Jesus remains with Simon Peter and replies, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid.

We are so afraid.
How could we ever not be afraid?

Our fear makes me think of this story.
It’s a story of a young daughter who is thirty years old.
In a therapy session, she tells her forty-nine year old father
that she has always known that he and her mother broke up because of her, because she was conceived when they were in college and no one in the whole family really wanted her. She has kept her view to herself until this moment in therapy.

You didn’t want me, she says.

The father shifts his whole body towards her, puts his hand on her shoulder and says, “Where did you get that view, honey? It is totally 100% wrong. On the day that your mother told me that she was pregnant, we both cried with joy, even though we were not married, we immediately threw a party for both sides of the family and I got up and announced our big news.”

“As for our divorce,” the father continues, “That had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how young and stupid and stubborn we were about much less important things, that looked so important at the time.”

The daughter starts to cry.
The father cries.
The therapist cries.v

She was wanted. Desperately desired.
You are desperately wanted by God,
no matter how deflated your soul may feel.

One of my friends once wrote a poem called “Small Coins.”
In it, they write, “You say you have nothing left to give.
Rubbish.
There is pain, anger, sadness, loneliness, and emptiness.
Find a way to give those things away, too.” vi

Even our sadness is a gift.
For it allows people to know us. To see us.
Even to love us.

Pain can be given away along with illusion.

And as we empty ourselves of illusions,
we receive the love of God which is greater even than a full net of fish!
God’s warmth and care is larger than we can hold
or even strongarm our way into owning.

Author Maria Popova writes, “Whatever we may mean by the word ‘love’ we earn the right to use it only by the hard work of knowing and being known.”

This is what Peter does.
As he shows his exhaustion.
His failure.
His empty nets.
His meager heart.

It’s enough.
You can rest. It’s okay.
God is present here.

You are loved.

God has always wanted you,
just as you are.

Nothing is required.

Amen.


[i] This historical reference comes from the enfleshed commentary for February 13, 2022. It is written by Nichola Torbett (she/her).  If you have a paid subscription, you can read the commentary here: https://enfleshed.com/

[ii] Simon first meets Jesus when Jesus heals his mother-in-law.  You can read this story in Luke 4:38-39.

[iii] The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber preached a sermon on February 6, 2022 that tied Peter’s words, “We’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing” to the experience of pandemic.  This sermon inspired my own linking of the pandemic experience to Peter’s words.  The Rev. Bolz-Weber’s sermon is called “Between Exhaustion and the Deep” and can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKxOUeEnWOc

[iv] This Greek word references come from the enfleshed commentary for February 13, 2022. It is written by Nichola Torbett (she/her).  If you have a paid subscription, you can read the commentary here: https://enfleshed.com/

[v] This story comes from PEACE ETC.: a journey through open heart surgery and other scary things, written to lessen your anxiety, whatever it may be by Bob Beverley.  The complete dialogue, which has been shortened for the sake of the sermon, can be found on page 40.

[vi] I am referencing the poem “Small Coins” written by the Bro. Anthony Zuba, OFM.  You can find this poem on his old blog, Letters Along the Way: https://lettersalongtheway.blogspot.com/2010/04/small-coins.html

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