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Maybe you have no idea what it’s like to spend all night fishing—not for fun but for survival, not for sport but to be able to put something on your family’s dinner table. All night with the nets—letting them down, pulling them up, finding them empty, letting them down again, waiting, and watching, and coming up empty every time. All night long catching nothing, growing more weary with every empty haul, until the very last thing you want to do is get back in the boat, let those nets down one more time, as if to invite the universe to laugh at you again.
Maybe you have no experience with failure, no truck with discouragement. Maybe your life is so charmed that you don’t know what it’s like to have nothing left to give, to be absolutely exhausted from trying, completely worn down from trusting, sick and tired of hoping things will be different.
Maybe you can’t imagine ever getting to the place where you’ve poured so much of your love into another person or your energy into a noble cause, reaping nothing but pain and abuse, that you can no longer sing the songs or pray the prayers or even pretend to believe.
Maybe you would swear on a stack of Bibles that nothing and no one could ever make you doubt for a moment that love always wins.
Maybe you can’t relate to poor Simon Peter at all.
And if that’s where you find yourself this morning—Praise God!
If that’s why you can’t relate to this story about desperation and trust and grace and faith and abundance and dropping everything to follow a wonder-working lover of all—hallelujah, and good for you!
But if your resistance to Jesus telling Peter to try again, to use what little strength he has left to put out into the deep one more time, comes from your own place of exhaustion and discouragement and doubt—well, then: Welcome to the human race.
And do not be afraid; because God can work with that. Be not afraid because God will work with that.
If you’ve been down so long that you can’t even imagine a good day, much less a great catch—well, then: Jesus wants to get into your boat, to walk beside you.
And if you’re thinking that a younger you wouldn’t have thought twice about going for it, but now you’re less adventurous and more risk- and failure-averse—well, then: Consider that deep water is a metaphor for whatever will open you up to the fullness of life and the abundance God wants for you.
Consider this story an invitation to more—more life, more hope, more strength, more love, more justice, more of whatever it is you most need, more of whatever it is our world needs.
Consider this story a summons—to your truest self, to new life, by way of the only path guaranteed to get you there: surrender and transformation, death, and rebirth.
Consider that this story is not about fish at all, but about listening for what God might ask you to do with your life—and whether you, like Simon Peter, will do it.
Consider Jesus, who has come to the lake of Gennesaret, another name for the vast Sea of Galilee, after his ministry has gotten off to a pretty rocky start. After the glory of his baptism, he spent 40 days alone in the wilderness. Then, filled with the Spirit, he began teaching, and things seemed to be going well, until he proclaimed his purpose at his home synagogue—and the people tried to kill him. But he hightailed it out of there, and began moving about the region, healing as well as teaching. One day found him in Simon Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law had fallen ill. All across the Galilee, word of Jesus was spreading, how he would rebuke fevers and demons and all manner of diseases, as if he were the one in charge. He tried to steal away to a deserted place to pray, but the people managed to find him.
And so he comes to the lakeshore, where the crowds are pressing in on him again, and he has an idea. Jesus is compassion personified, but perhaps also a little claustrophobic, or just very savvy about staging. So when he sees some empty boats, and that guy Simon with the formerly sick mother-in-law, he climbs aboard one of them and asks Simon to row out a little ways from the shore.
Jesus teaches the crowd from the boat, but Luke tells us nothing of what Jesus says, because this story is not about that. This story, despite the subtitles in your Bible, is not even primarily about Jesus calling his first disciples.
No, this story is about how God calls us. This story is about everyone who’s ever thought their life was about one thing—catching fish, say, or paying the bills—and then discovered it was actually about something altogether different—say, loving people as God does, or serving the least and the lost, or working for justice, or building up the people of God, or sharing the good news that the realm of God is at hand.
This story is about deep calling to deep, the God Who Is Love seeing the suffering of her children and then becoming one of them, the better to understand them, the better to walk with them, the better to beckon them out of their darkness and into the light, out of their brokenness and into wholeness, out of their weariness and isolation and disappointment into power and community and joy. This is about God meeting us where we are, as we are—at the lake, in a boat, in our families, in our struggles, in our pain, in our worries and our weariness—and not leaving us there.
This story is about getting everything you ever wanted and more—and then discovering that what you want is not the gift itself but to be with the Giver.
This story is about who and what we will follow, who and what we will serve.
This story is about life, life that is real and full and meaningful.
But if you’re still having a hard time with the whole fishing thing, if you’re still doubting whether you can muster up the courage to put out into the deep, if you’re not even sure what “the deep” is for you and you really don’t think you can leave your present life behind to follow Jesus into the unknown—well, here’s another way to think about how God summons us to life and love, in a prose poem by the luminous Mary Oliver:
You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks––when you hear that unmistakable pounding––when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming—then row, row for your life toward it.
This, too, is what it means to follow Jesus. This, too, is what it means to live.