5 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 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. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Let us pray: Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
There is a song by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper called Shallow. I wanted to hate this song because it somehow makes the two syllable word Shallow into nine syllables… In the Shalalalalalalow. But it is dreadfully catchy such that when that guitar lick starts, my children go “Oh no, here she goes.” And I can’t even not sing it when people are “cooling down after a fitness class.” The words are Tell me something boy, aren’t you tired of trying to fill that void. Or do you need more? Is there something else you’re searching for? Then the chorus: I’m in the deep end, watch as I dive in, we’re far from the shallow now.
Longing for something deep, away from the void, Gaga dives into one of the most powerful currents in being human. And that is where Jesus takes Peter in today’s reading. This story starts with the exhaustion of the shallows and the void of empty nets, but goes on to describe a vocation out in the deep water that is safe and full and joyful.
First the exhaustion of the shallows. The crowds are pressing in around Jesus. That’s what crowds do. They want something. They want out of something, or maybe in on something. But it’s a sweaty sea of shoulders and tiptoes there at the Sea of Galilee, also known as Gennesaret. We don’t know if Jesus was tired by this or not, but we have a term for the kind of exhaustion that often accompanies the yawning disparities in the world and the intractable problems that press in on what feels like a limited supply of helpers. We call it compassion fatigue. I imagine that was present in the shallows.
Then, there was the work of cleaning nets that had caught nothing. What a perfect metaphor for a labor that is both physical and emotional. Maybe we call it the void or fruitlessness, ennui or languishing. Either way, it one of the hardest feelings there is. Work that is physically tiring we can handle and it often makes us stronger. However, work that is emotionally tiring because it seems pointless really messes with us. I suspect many in our world have been in these shallows as the pandemic has dragged on and on. Maybe we have not been exhausted by barnacles on fishing nets, but we are drained by junk on the internet. Maybe we have not felt a void due to lack of silver musht, the fish in the tilapia family that Peter’s crew might have been trolling for. But maybe we have experienced a void in progress or productivity, that foggy feeling when someone says “what have you been up to?” and you struggle to respond.
That is when Jesus tells Peter to put out into the deeper water and let down those nets for a catch. I wonder if Simon Peter had to take a deep breath, because those nets had just been cleaned. I wonder if he had to bite his tongue so he didn’t say “look, I am a professional fisherman, ok, not just a hobbyist, so kindly spare me the tips.” But, instead, it seems Simon Peter calmly explained they have been fishing all night and had come up empty. It makes me wonder if Peter was so tired he simply had no resistance left in him. “If you say so…” he responds. And, you know what else, I suspect that Peter knew enough of Jesus not to bet against him. “If you say so.” Peters words come from that soft place where exhaustion and hope pool together. “If you say so.” And off they went, to catch a flopping haul of fish that requires multiple crews to bring in. The fish is the symbol of the way of Jesus: the way sacrificial love and hope, found somewhere beyond the self, grow exponentially because of the nature of God.
I have noticed that many of my conversations with friends, with church members, buzz with the question, “Am I doing enough?” As people change how they do their jobs or move through retirement, a lot of questions about vocation are surfacing. “Where is God calling me at this point in my life?” Church leaders may relate deeply to this text, saying, “Lord, I stayed in the boat. But, I think I’ve thrown by back out working on these nets and I am not sure what we have hauled in and now we are to go out again?”
BUT, if we are in the same boat with Peter, the good news is we are with the same Lord. It’s interesting. Often, we think the call of Christ (vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare, to call). We think it should be like a trumpet blast, or a blinding lighthouse beam, a 2×4 to the heart, or a descending dove. And sometimes it is. But it comforts me to know that it can also feel like a sunburned surrender, when Jesus invites us not to go somewhere else but to go a bit deeper where we already are, trusting the results to God.
Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian minister who served the same congregation for almost 30 years. I love his definition of God’s call as a long obedience in the same direction. Now while serving that same church, Peterson translated the Bible into modern language, the version we call The Message, cleaning and mending that old net for use by a whole new generation of readers while letting the Bible remain as deep and untamable as it actually is. He became rather famous. Bono from the band U2 sought him out as a mentor. Still, he remained deeply humble, like Peter and Jeremiah in today’s readings. He remained hopeful. He wrote,
“Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what God said God will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith.”
That’s what this story is about. The boat is the faith but the oars to push out further, that takes imagination. That takes effort, commitment, discipline of hope. That is what makes the difference between a job and a vocation. Vocation, insomuch as this story describes it, doesn’t mean just staying in boat. Vocation means pushing out beyond the shallow waters into the deep blue, pushing out even if you are already tired, even if your faced is covered with salt, even if you feel washed up, even if on that particular day the endeavor seems pretty unlikely to dredge up much more than an old boot. Jesus invites us to go deep because that is actually how we develop the muscles of hope and train our eyes for joy.
This past summer, our family went whale watching out of Boothbay in Maine. The posters around the check-in station were curled around the edges like the whale tales they advertised. The crowd pressed on board, pushing each other to get that prized seat near the side of the boat for the best view. People kept their cameras on their laps as if Moby Dick would wave at us from just beyond the buoys. A woman who worked on the boat said, “Yes, we saw a few yesterday and the day before, and we’ll see what today brings.” Her eyes sparkled. “Did you say we’ll definitely see one today?” my son asked. “No,” I said, “We’ll see. But I can tell you one thing, it’s easier to spot them out there than from the dock.” But then the waves and wind kicked up. Some folks popped a Dramamine, others went below deck looking a little green. We saw a bunch of white crests of waves, darting birds, and lighthouses. “There’s one!” a child would yell. Heads would whip in excitement and the child would clarify, “I meant there’s another boat!” Eventually it was time to head back and instead of consoling people, the woman on the speaker said, “Whales are wild creatures so we don’t get to control their movements, but when you do this often enough, over many years, it feels like you see them all the time.” It was clear to me that this bright eyed woman had found her vocation.
This week, I was feeling a bit drained, probably due to lots of time providing pastoral care to annual meeting videos, which are much grumpier than any congregant. So, when I drove to dinner at the hypothermia shelter, it was in a tender spirit of “Lord, if you say so.” Mara Ashby walked me through the church where FACETS had set up a friendly welcome table and a narthex had been turned into sleeping quarters. The fellowship hall was set up with round tables and white table cloths and a hive of Presbyterians and Baptists prepared food. Guests came in, sunburned, windburned, and we all sat around tables together and feasted on what felt like a January Thanksgiving meal. I spoke with Enrique in Spanish. He removed his earbuds. “What are you watching?” “Cobra Kai!” he said. He had just left the hospital where he’d gotten treatment for a painful molar. We talked for a long time, about how our children love macaroni, about the blessing of a decent night sleep, and how hard it is to lose someone you love. Finally he said, “I never forget a face. I will probably see you again in 17 years and remember this.” Then he got choked up. “People never forget when they feel God’s love, especially when they really need it.” On the way home, I felt full in a way I can’t really describe. Hope. Vocation. Enough. Humility. Joy. A kind of communion with macaroni and bagged rolls. But without question, it was the deep waters to be sure. Seeing the spout of the spirit. Nets bracing with the weight of new hope.
I’ll leave you with this. If you are tired, perhaps what you need is not vacation but to reconnect to your vocation. To listen for how Jesus might be calling you to go deeper. In service to others. In your relationships. At church. At work. A long obedience in the same direction but beyond the familiar shorelines that you didn’t realize had made you so tired. You may not see doves descending every day, but if you pull those muscles of hope and train your eyes for joy, there will be days so full of God’s love you will never forget it.