They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. (Jn. 21:3)
Shortly after I added a second dog to my household, I realized in no uncertain terms that I had become dependent, not on the company of my dogs (which, of course, I am) but on the help of several people, chief among them, Kent John, known to many of you as the person who is the first to come to work at Saint Mark’s every day, the last to leave, and the lowest paid. Kent John is also devoted to my dogs, and can be relied upon to look after them when I go away, to walk them if I am at a late meeting, to feed them, coddle them, and generally dote on them in the extreme. After adding the puppy to the mix last fall, I said to Kent John that I would like to think that I am capable of raising this puppy and taking care of my other dog on my own, but I was awfully glad I didn’t have to find out.
There many things in life, not much more complicated than taking care of a dog, with which we regularly need help. Around Saint Mark’s, opening the safe or dealing with the copy machine are regular challenges that leave several of us calling for help. In many homes it’s opening pickle jars or threading needles that constitute simple tasks for which help is almost always required. In some families it’s getting directions and navigating in the car that are better delegated to someone not in the driver’s seat: help will be required. None of these things is a complicated task. It’s not as though a person shouldn’t be able to manage without help, but somehow in our lives we discover that we simply wouldn’t accomplish a number of simple things without help.
Most of Jesus’ well-known disciples were fishermen, but in the New Testament, their most publicized moments at work in their trade are when they are unlucky with their fishing nets. They need help, as the Gospel reading today shows us. Now, this would appear to be a problem, since fishing was not just a hobby or a pleasant pastime for these men, it was their livelihood. It is the first thing we know about Peter and Andrew and James and John, when they are introduced to us: they are fishermen. And it is one of the very few biographical facts we know about them at all. Yet throughout the entire New Testament, these disciples – who we see at work several times – are never reported to have caught a single fish without the help of Jesus. Think of it. Either they are utter failures, completely inept at their trade… or there is a message here to be learned.
Now I don’t know much about fishing, but I know that this is not Deadliest Catch we are talking about. This is small time: small boats, small nets, small fish.
And they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Remember that the scene here is in the days after the resurrection of Jesus, the days after Easter. Perhaps the disciples are going fishing because life is returning to normal and their checking accounts are running low. After all, they have been missing a lot of work, what with Passover, and then the trial of Jesus, his crucifixion, their mourning, and now the several, strange appearances he makes to them, in locked rooms, or traveling on the road, and now on the shore.
In any number of the episodes that the risen Jesus shows himself to the disciples they do not recognize him. And this is one such occasion. When he tells them to cast the net on the right side of the boat, they are not following the instructions of the Lord of the Universe, recently risen from the dead, they don’t know it’s him; they are taking advice from some guy on the shore, and they are hoping that perhaps he knows something they don’t.
Of course, when they do as he tells them to they catch so many fish that they can barely haul them all in. Now, it might be that these guys are capable of getting by as fishermen on their own, but it seems an awfully good thing that they don’t have to find out. When they fail at the work they expected to do on their own, Jesus helps them, and with his help their nets are full.
Well, here we all are in the days after Easter. Life has returned to normal (it didn’t take long). There is work to be done, the taxes had to be filed last week. Lovely as Easter was, we have to get on with our lives, go to work, pay the bills, watch the Phillies lose. Maybe we had a warm, fuzzy feeling at Easter, but it’s faded now. And if Jesus seemed like a big part of our lives for a weekend, well, now it’s back to church as usual, if at all. It’s back to the fishing boats, so to speak.
But remember, in the New Testament, the disciples never catch a single fish without the help of Jesus.
I wonder what you and I are trying to do that we think we ought to be able to do on our own but that we cannot do without the help of Jesus.
I wonder about the work we do every day at Saint Mark’s: from the humdrum work of taking care of these old buildings and ironing the linens, and making copies at the copier, to the more lovely working of offering our prayers and praises to God every day, to the good work of making soup for the hungry and feeding them, to the more challenging work of establishing a school at our mission at Saint James the Less.
And I wonder about my life and about yours: about nurturing meaningful relationships, caring for the people in our families, tending to the elderly and those who are sick, or just to those who are far away. I wonder about how we deal with what we euphamize as our “inner demons” as though we could not describe them more clearly, even though we know exactly what our personal miseries look like: the depression, the self-loathing, the sleeplessness, the hatred, the anger, the fear, the addiction, etc, etc, etc. What are we trying to deal with on our own that we cannot manage without the help of Jesus?
Easter, just two weeks away, already seems a distant memory. The flowers are gone. Angels have fluttered back to their heavenly coops. Trumpets have been sent off to other, better-paying gigs till next year. And it’s back to work in the fishing boats of our lives.
How sad it is to sit in the boat in the cool dark of the last hours of the night with nothing at all in our nets.
But there is a man standing on the shore shouting something: “Children, you have no fish, have you?”
No. No, we have no fish, we have nothing.
Cast your nets to the right side of the boat.
And you know, of course, what happens next.
You think you can get through life on your own. You think you are strong, smart, sophisticated. Or at least you think you are capable enough to get on from day to day. You think you ought to be able to make your own living, solve your own problems, and determine your own future. I certainly think all these things about myself, much of the time. We think that we ought to be able to catch fish on our own.
And does it surprise us how often life leaves us with empty nets strewn around the bottom of the boat? And how heavily hangs the sorrow in our lives of the repeated trips out in the boat, night after night, giving it everything we’ve got, doing the best we can, and still coming up empty handed? We don’t let on, how much this hurts us, but it does; it weighs heavily on our souls that we cannot do the things we think we ought to be able to do. Even though the whole world thinks we are successful, we know the places in our lives that we just fail again and again: no fish, nothing but empty nets.
And I don’t know why you come to church, and it doesn’t really matter to me. But I do know that if you are here, you are within shouting distance of the shore on which a man is standing, who mostly you and I do not recognize. He is telling us not to give up. He is telling us that we can do what we set out to do. He is telling us that there are fish waiting to be caught. For all we know he has been calling to the fish, as well, talking to them, guiding them to the right-hand side of the boat. He knows that we have begun to feel like failures, and certainly to look like failures to much of the rest of the world.
And it takes some faith to pay attention to him, because he does not seem to us to be the Lord of the Universe, recently risen from the dead. He is just some guy on the shore shouting to us. But his voice is carried to our ears on the loveliest breeze, scented with orange blossoms that even overcomes the odor of fish in this boat. And it seems to us that we should do what he says, though we can’t say why, for sure. Except that we know, we have read about these experiences that others have had before of not knowing, not recognizing, not seeing.
And there is that gentle, sweet-scented breeze that seems to be stirred up by something we cannot explain.
“Cast your nets,” the voice comes to us, “on the right side of the boat.”
And what have we got to lose? Who knows but that when we bring them up they might be so full we cannot haul them in?
We would like to think that we could have done it our own. But if we need help, it is OK. There is this voice, this gentle breeze to help. And all we have to do is cast our nets, which is to believe.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 April 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia