Fishing Beneath Futility
The message of all of our scriptures today is: “I’m not very good at this. I don’t think this is working.”
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah says.
“Do not abandon the works of your hands,” the Psalmist pleads to God.
“I am the least of the apostles,” Paul says, “Unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Peter says.
“I’m not very good at this. I don’t think this is working.”
Have you ever felt like that in life? In ministry? I certainly have.
My first two calls out of seminary were epic failures.
For very different reasons, I left both congregations feeling like I’d let myself and the church down.
I questioned whether I really was called to be a priest.
(I definitely questioned the amount of student loan debt I’d gotten into to become a priest.)
Particularly by the end of the second call, my first gig as a rector, I believed I probably didn’t have what it takes to be a faithful ordained minister.
And of course, I was right.
I don’t have what it takes to be an ordained minister…by myself.
I need God to be my partner in ministry, and I need my congregation to be my partner.
Healthy and flourishing ministry is comprised of a group of people striving together after God’s will. Lone rangers and self-centered agendas and stubborn, close-minded perspectives often disintegrate into hurt feelings and the breaking apart of community.
We’ve all been in situations like this, where things deteriorate over time until we no longer trust one another.
I’ve watched myself do it, and I still have to fight the tendency.
I begin to attribute only positive motives to myself, and only negative motives to my “opponent.”
And the more I do that, the more I isolate myself from God.
God is not interested in my self-justification or martyrdom.
God wants to know if I am willing to humble myself in service to the community, whether I am willing to trust the voice of vocation even when it leads in unexpected or scary directions, whether I actually live my daily life as though redemption and resurrection are real.
There is one word that describes the feelings of all of our scripture writers this morning: futility.
There is an overwhelming sense in these texts of seriously being about to give up.
And that caught my attention because I am noticing more and more a sense of futility in our national discourse.
Many of us are perilously close to giving up on ourselves and those with whom we disagree.
We’re headed for the lowest common denominator as hard and fast as we can go.
We’re starting to believe that change is not really possible.
We’re starting to believe our efforts are futile.
This is the situation in our scriptures, and this is all too often the situation in our lives.
Futility is a dangerous state. It robs us of hope, of possibility, of faith itself.
This is where Peter is one early morning on the Lake of Gennesaret. He and his companions have been out all night fishing and have caught nothing.
They will have nothing to eat that day and nothing to sell that day.
They also may be doubting their skills and capability as fishermen.
This is where the slow-rising tide of futility can land us.
We don’t just begin to doubt what we can do. We begin to doubt who we are.
Then Jesus comes into the situation, and everything changes.
“When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.”
For me, this story is about far more than just, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
Over a year ago, one morning during my prayer time, one thing Jesus says here jumped off the page at me.
“Put out into the deep water.”
That phrase struck me to the heart.
“Put out into the deep water.”
When we are feeling swamped by futility, we need to go deeper.
When you can’t figure out what to do next, go deeper.
When you are mad at everybody and everyone is mad at you, go deeper.
When the tasks placed before you seem insurmountable, go deeper.
When you feel like you have nothing but failure to show for your very best effort, go deeper.
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets.”
What is the difference between beating our heads against a wall, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and following Jesus’ advice?
Two things. Jesus asks us to return to the ground of our futility, the place of feeling stuck and stymied and sad, and go deeper there.
Fish beneath the same assumptions and habits and patterns that we have used before.
Ask ourselves harder questions.
Give ourselves and others more time and more commitment.
And then do something radically different: take Jesus with us.
That is what changes the disciples’ action from “doing the same thing and expecting different results” into a sudden and bountiful harvest.
When Jesus is with us—in our minds, in our hearts, in our conversations, in our discernment, in our priorities, two things happen.
First, we are empowered to go out into the deep water.
We are able to take risks and stretch ourselves and each other toward something new.
And then, we can let down our nets and actually find fish.
What was once the site of futility becomes the site of abundance, discovery, and sustenance.
I noticed one more interesting detail as I studied the text this time around that sounds like kind of a big deal.
At the end of the fishing part of the story, we read this sentence: “And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.”
They began to sink?
That sounds pretty problematic. Like, actually took on water and started to get alarmingly low in the frighteningly deep water?
If they go down in the deep water, they’re in trouble.
They’re a pretty good ways offshore.
It might be hard if not impossible to swim back, and the disciples may not have the “walking on water” skills that Jesus has.
We don’t actually know how they dealt with it, Luke doesn’t tell us that they started rowing hell for leather for the shore, or had to chuck some of the fish out of the boat or whatever.
Peter, in fact, is so overcome by the miracle that he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that the boat is about to sink.
He falls to his knees before Jesus and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
We do find out by the end of the story that they make it back to shore, but I think that detail that Luke includes is important.
The boat begins to sink.
Notice the significance of that in the context of the end of this story. This is Peter, James, and John’s call to ministry.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people,” and “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
The boat begins to sink. I think this is a symbol of having to leave your old life behind.
The boat was the fishermen’s primary tool of the trade, the economic engine of their lives.
They needed that boat, and they needed it to stay afloat, so they and their families could stay afloat.
But when Jesus showed up, the bounty and abundance his presence brought into their lives completely overwhelmed their old worldview, their old tools, their old ways of living their lives.
“Business as usual” just couldn’t stand up to following the call of Jesus.
Saying yes to Jesus means we have to give up all our most cherished sources of security, to find true security and freedom in him.
And remember what the call is to Peter and his friends: to become fishers of people.
This is about evangelism.
And that’s one of the reasons I love this story, and why it speaks to me so deeply.
We don’t expect energy and vocation around evangelism to be sparked out of being swamped by futility.
Peter and his companions begin this story sad, frustrated, afraid, and almost hopeless.
They don’t believe there are any fish, and they don’t believe that have what it takes to catch them.
But Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch,” and everything changes.
The shamefaced group of failed fishermen are courageous new evangelists and followers of Jesus by the end of the story.
So ask yourself: where do I find futility in my life?
Where do I feel like a failure?
Where am I ready to give up?
Where have I lost hope?
And then listen to the call of Jesus: “Put out into the deep water, and let down your nets for a catch…Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”
The road from failure to evangelist is quite short—it just requires saying yes to Jesus and saying yes to depth.
What will you do?
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