Having been raised in Wisconsin by an accountant and a city-girl homemaker, the only occasions I had to go fishing were with my friends or their families during the summer. Mind you, I never actually wanted to eat anything I caught, but I enjoyed the open water, the sun on my face, the water beneath the boat a mysterious, blue expanse that seemed to have a life different from yet somehow connected to my own. I have always loved the water, so when my own boys became a certain age, I decided that we needed to do some quality time together fishing.
If you’re going to go fishin’, you can’t do better than to go after lake trout. Even a small 6 inch fish will put up a great fight on the line, and if, God forbid, someone wants to actually eat one, they don’t have scales, so all you have to do is slit ’em, gut ’em and fry ’em whole in a pan. When the eye turns white, they’re done.
But, the fish are fickle friends. Sometimes they cooperate and allow themselves to be caught, sometimes they just mock you and swim around your fly, trying to play psychological games with your head. They know you want them, but sometimes they make themselves unavailable to you, so you appreciate them even more on those occasions when they do allow themselves to be caught. The boys and I were sometimes elated with our outings, but just as many times, we came home emptyhanded, disappointed that our efforts had been fruitless.
And so it was with Peter and friends the day Jesus walked up and wanted to use his boat to escape the crowds who were by now always following him. “Hey, Simon,” he says, “wanna get some fish?” This is a weird way for Jesus to wrap up his homily, which he has apparently just given to the crowds. There isn’t even an offertory blessing or collection, not even a hymn. He just wants to get out of there, away from people for awhile.
Peter’s response is less than enthusiastic, although he agrees to take Jesus out on the boat. All night long the boat had been out on the lake, with nothing to show for their waiting and hoping. Now that daylight is here, they’ve got to dock the boat and clean the nets of all the algae and debris from hanging in the water so long. Nobody wants to dock an empty boat, so they moor near shore and are cleaning their nets at the water’s edge.
“Hey, Simon, why don’t you let down your nets over here-on the deep side!” Great. Just what they need: a non-fisherman giving advice to the professionals! And to make matters worse, there are a whole lot of people on the beach, watching and listening to this new guy tell Peter what he ought to be doing.
This sort of thing happens all the time in our lives. We have our own field of expertise and there is always someone, usually an outsider, giving us his or her two cents about how we might make our jobs better. And, of course, it’s our pride that will resist doing whatever it is they suggest, even if it makes some sense to try things their way.
Whatever Peter may have thought, the exhaustion and desperation are captured in his statement: “We have worked hard all night and caught nothing.” Like all of us, he has just had one of those fishless, sleepless, fruitless nights, when the thing he wants most continues to elude his grasp. He is disheartened, depressed, exhausted from having exerted so much effort on a project that has not been successful in the way he imagined. He is just like you and me:
Sobriety? “I’ve worked so hard to stay sober, but today. . . ”
Financial security? “My credit card debt is killing me, but this week was so tight financially, I actually had to…”
Faith? “I want to believe so much that God loves me, but . . . ”
A positive attitude? “ Every time I try to find abundance in my life, I fail, so why should I…? ”
Healing? “I’ve been sick, I’ve been in such pain for so long that I . . . ”
Happy relationship? “No matter what I do or how much I try to change things, it seems like . . . ”
“I’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.”
But then something changes, and Simon adds, “But, if you say so…” The situation suddenly feels different somehow, like maybe trying one more time isn’t such a crazy idea. It’s the same for you and me when our gut tells us to keep going, regardless of how irrational our head thinks it is. Whether this happens in church, at the beach,at work or on a fishing trip, God somehow breaks in and all our frustration dissolves into a moment of what might be.
Peter throws the net into the water, watches it sink below the waterline. And suddenly the net is suddenly ready to break from the weight of all the fish. In that moment, for the first time, he sees Jesus as he is. Not Jesus the magic Fish Finder. Not Jesus the People Magnet. Not Jesus the Rabbi. Peter sees Jesus as the incarnation of God’s Abundance.
In the end, this is not a story about fishing. It’s not about turning our career over to Jesus so we’ll die rich. It’s a story about one person’s encounter with the reality of God’s abundance. Through this encounter, Peter finds he real calling, his reason for being here in the first place.
You’ll need to draw your own conclusions of what God is saying to you personally in this story. But consider these three guidelines as you wrestle with the idea of why it is you exist, why you came here:
1. The call to discipleship isn’t based on salary or skill or book smarts: it’s based on grace. God doesn’t love you because you’re smart or clever, God loves you because you manifest the divine presence in a world that is largely in the dark.
2.The call to discipleship can happen anywhere, anytime. Some of us hear God clearly when we are here at Mass, or when we are in a silent retreat, or when we engage in group spiritual direction. But God also reveals himself on the factory floor, in the office cubicle, in the lunch room, and along the shore of the St. Mary’s River. God’s been known to climb into boats, ride buses, and even drop in at gay bars and brothels to remind people that it’s never too late.
3. The call to discipleship will mess you up! If you say “yes, I will follow”, your priorities and commitments are going to be shuffled around. When I reluctantly said “yes, I will become your priest and I will start an independent Catholic parish.” I had no idea how that was going to work; I still don’t. But I believe in this work, and that’s enough.
By the end of this story, everything is screwed up: the expert fishermen don’t have the skill to fish, an unemployed carpenter’s son shows them a way to abundance, and the whole lot of tehse characters end up giving lives, in one way or another, because of what happened that day on the seashore. From that day forward, through the generations, down through the teachings of our own mothers and fathers, the invitation has come to us. We are now standing on that same seashore, many of us lost in our feelings of lack and insufficiency. The only question these fishermen had to answer is the same question to which you and I must now respond: You wanna go fishin’, or what?