The Long Night of Empty Nets
A long time ago I used to be a summer camp counselor. I used to teach canoeing, and I remember one day I was out in the canoe with three small boys, a four year-old, a six-year old and a seven year old. We were out on the lake paddling, sort of, and, as you might imagine with three small boys in the boat, we weren’t going very fast, in fact we weren’t really going in any particular direction at all. But all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this huge gust of wind came up behind us. It felt like someone had put a motor on the back of the boat and all of a sudden we were just flying across the water. The three boys started screaming, and I snapped quickly to full alert as I steadied the boat with my paddle, double-checked that the boys had lifejackets on and did everything I could to make sure we didn’t flip the canoe.
It seemed like that gust of wind lasted a long time, but it was probably only a few seconds. Our canoe travelled farther in those few seconds than it had by the power of our own paddling over the previous ten minutes! And during those few seconds, I had a taste of what it is like to encounter and to be overwhelmed by a sudden force of great power.
Today in our readings we have the stories of two people who encounter and are overwhelmed by a sudden force of great power. In today’s readings, first Isaiah and then Simon Peter have an encounter with the word of God. And the encounter with the word of God isn’t just an exchange of information. The word of God is a dynamic force with great power. The word of God is the power that in the beginning brought forth creation; it’s a power that seizes the one who hears it, transforms their self-understanding and demands a response.
The story of the encounter between humans and the word of God can be told in many different ways. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah tells us of his experience of the encounter with God. Isaiah has a vision of the power and glory of God on his throne, filling the temple, surrounded by angels singing praises. He experiences the word of God as a burning coal that touches his lips and transforms him by taking away his guilt and sin. When God asks “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah’s response is “Here I am; send me!”
In today’s gospel, Luke tells us the story of Simon Peter’s encounter with the word of God. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, we’re told that Jesus saw Simon the fisherman casting a net into the sea, said to him “Follow me”, and that Simon left his net and followed Jesus. Luke, however, tells us the story in more detail. He doesn’t just want to give us the facts about what happened. He wants to give us a much deeper insight into the transformation that occurs when humans encounter the word of God.
And so he tells us a story about fishing. Fishing in the Sea of Galilee was normally done with long drag nets which were set out at night in deep water and then hauled into the boats around daybreak. It was hard, back-breaking work. There were no electric winches. Simon and the others had been up all night, setting and pulling in their nets with nothing to show for their efforts. It had been a long night of empty nets. And just because there were no fish didn’t mean that the work was finished. They still had to wash and dry the nets, and put them away so that they would be ready for the next night. After the nets were put away, the fishermen would return home, hungry, with no fish in hand, knowing they would have to face the disappointment of their families.
You can imagine that these fishers probably weren’t in a very good mood when Jesus showed up early that morning. And they probably grumbled even more when the crowds arrived, trampling on the nets that had been laid out to dry as people pressed closer to Jesus to hear the word of God. The crowds were hungry for the word of God – the fishers were just plain hungry. Simon must have been surprised and maybe just a little annoyed when Jesus asked him if he could use his boat to address the crowd from the shallow waters!
When Jesus finished teaching, he turned to Simon, and told him to put out into the deep water and to let down his nets for a catch. Now, Simon was tired and hungry; he’d worked hard to wash and dry and put away his nets so that he could go home. He knew that there were no fish around, especially now that it was the middle of the day. Letting down his nets again right now meant more work for nothing. But there was something about Jesus that convinced Simon to do it anyways.
And when the nets were in the water, the fishermen must have seen the water ripple and darken as the fish surged into them. Excitement raced through the boat. The men laughed and shouted as they started to pull in the catch of their lives. The nets were heavy, heavier than they had ever been, and they started to burst as they came through the surface. Fear now seized the fishermen as their small boat started to take on water and the nets began to break. They called out for help to the other boat, and soon both boats were loaded so full of fish that they began to sink. It must have been a chaotic scene, fish flapping, men shouting, boats sinking. In that moment the fishermen’s hearts raced, their adrenaline was pumping and that they must have felt fully alive. And even after the boats had been brought to shore and the monster catch unloaded, they remained filled with awe and amazement.
Why does Luke tell us this story? Well this story isn’t really about fish, and it’s not just about Simon Peter. It’s about what happens to you and me when we encounter the transforming power of the word of God, the dynamic presence of the living God in our midst.
All of us have known the long night of empty nets. Times when we’ve worked hard, and gotten nothing for our efforts, nothing but a feeling of emptiness. Some of us have experienced it in our jobs. Others may have experienced their empty nets in a difficult family situation, at times of illness or after the loss of a loved one. We experience it in suffering, and we experience it in everyday life. But today’s gospel is telling us that even in the midst of these empty net situations, God is urging us to let down our nets and God will fill them, fill them to bursting with love, and with meaning, and with a sense of purpose that may not remove all our difficulties but can allow us to transform and transcend them.
The story of the empty nets which are filled to bursting is the story of the transformation which happens in our own lives when we encounter the word of God.
What lessons can we draw from Luke’s story about this encounter?
First, the story tells us that the encounter with God can happen anywhere. God is encountered in the ordinary stuff of human existence, in the daily activities of human life. Simon Peter didn’t have to go to the temple or the synagogue to encounter the word of God. He went fishing.
Second, even though clearly the encounter is God’s initiative, we have a role to play. We have to be willing to put out into the deep water and let down our nets, even when it may not make any sense from a human perspective to do so. It didn’t make any sense for Peter to keep fishing, but he was willing to do so in response to Jesus’ words.
The third insight that we gain from the story is that the transforming power of the word of God creates community. The nets of the first boat were filled with so many fish that they had to call the second boat to help them. If the second boat hadn’t come to help, the first boat may well have sunk. The love of God is so great that it overwhelms us and obliges us to share it in community and to build relationships with each other.
My hope is that here at St. Albans we are a community that is constantly being transformed by our encounter with the word of God. That we are a community that is willing to put out into the deep water and let down our nets, in anticipation of what God will do next. And that in all of this we will support each other, because when our nets are filled, if that second boat doesn’t show up, we may not be able to bring in all the fish.
Because the story of the nets tells us that we may get more than we bargained for. This story tells us that God is not a God of scarce resources. Our God is a God of abundant love, who wants us to live fully, to be fully alive. Simon Peter is overwhelmed and amazed, and is overcome by a sense of his own unworthiness. How does Jesus respond? He says, “Do not be afraid. Follow me.”
When we experience the long night of empty nets it is easy to despair. When we encounter the word of God, it is easy to feel that we aren’t able to do the things that we’re called to do. But do not be afraid. We are an Easter people, and more than anything else, today’s story is a story of resurrection. In fact, check out chapter 21 of John’s gospel, and you will see that John uses a very similar story to describe the transformation of Peter and the disciples when they meet the risen Jesus.
If we as individuals and as a community are ready and willing to let down our nets and be transformed by the encounter with the living, dynamic, word of God, then amazing things will happen.
Just ask Simon Peter.
Homily: Yr C Proper 5, Feb 10 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Ps 138; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Image by Let Ideas Compete, Creative Commons