5 Epiphany, Year C, 2019: Don’t turn your back on the moment

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“If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry
along to business as usual, it may lose you
the ball game. If you throw your arms around
such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save
your soul.”
Excerpt from “Listening to your Life” by Frederick Buechner

I love that piece from Fred Buechner
about not turning your back on the moment.
But there is a moment I know
from personal experience,
that is r-e-a-l-l-y hard
not to turn your back on.
It is when you have been fishing for a long time
and there has been no action,
not even a nibble,
or any hint that there is life below the surface.
You’re sitting in your boat
or standing out there in the stream
or leaning over the pier
but nothing is happening
and nothing has been happening
for what seems like hours.
That is a really tough moment
to “put your arms around and hug like crazy.”

But then, out of nowhere,
without warning you get a strike
and everything changes in that moment.
Your every tendon and corpuscle
is riveted to a single unseen event
that has pulled your line taunt
as your pole bends nearly in two.
Now, in an instant,
you are fully in that moment
and nowhere else.

That is the kind of rush and excitement
with which we need to tell this story from Luke,
so that we can get in the moment too.
It is not until we get in the story,
and hug it like crazy,
that we understand what is really going on here –
and just as importantly,
what is not going on
that we may have thought was going on.

First of all, it says that Peter and the Zebedee boys
have been up fishing all night.
Who goes fishing at night?
People who didn’t catch anything
during the day,
and because their income depended upon it,
they now have to get out there
and fish all night.

Luke doesn’t tell us
why they didn’t catch anything all day long,
and maybe he didn’t know.
Maybe it stormed all day,
or maybe there was a funeral they had to attend,
or maybe they ate some fish chowder that was bad
and they all got food poisoning
and were violently ill all day.
Whatever the cause of paucity in their daytime fishing,
we know they had to go fishing all night.

But, as the story goes, they got nothing.
Nada. Skunked.

I am pretty sure that if I had kept a balance sheet
over the course of my fishing life,
it would show more goose eggs
than numbers caught –
which is a good reason not to keep track.
So, I know what those boys felt like
and it wasn’t happy.
And besides the joylessness
of emptyhandedness,
any adult past the party-stage
who has stayed up all night,
knows how you feel the next morning.
Remember that feeling?
If you do, then drape that heavy sleepless sensation
over Peter, James and John.

On top of feeling just plain terrible,
they got nothing.
Work all day – nothing.
Work all night – nothing.
Money in their pocket – nothing.
Food on the table – nothing.
Cash to pay back the nudnik for their business loan – nothing.
They got nothing.

Peter, James, and John are a wreck.
They feel awful,
their day-to-day existence is precarious,
and they dread going home
to wife and children
empty-handed in addition to being exhausted.

Suddenly, along comes a crowd
yammering and shouting and all abuzz.
back aching, bent over,
cleaning the crap off their empty nets,
they could have cared less
except that it was a distraction.
Except…except the local chair maker
gets into their boat.

That’s right, Jesus just steps into their boat
drifting by a rope
from its anchor on the beach.
He doesn’t ask, he just steps in and
waves them over
as if there was nothing unusual about it.

Maybe if it wasn’t so outrageous
Peter and the Zebedees
would have objected.
Maybe if there wasn’t a crowd watching
that included their friends and neighbors,
they would have wrapped that net around
the skinny little rabbi and tossed him
into the water like so much lake junk.

But instead, for whatever reason,
the go along with it.

I am not buying Luke’s account
that Peter says to Jesus,
“But master, we have worked all night…”

I think he says something like…well,
I can’t say what he says from the pulpit.
He says, “You…”
insert your favorite nasty adjective,
“You, ______,
we have worked our butts off all night long
and got nothing,
and you have the _____ nerve
to tell us where to throw our nets?
You, _______, _______, _______!
Where do you get off telling us
how to do our business?”

Now doesn’t that seem more like it?
All that tiredness just pushing its way to the surface
like a bubble under pressure, and ‘pop’
it explodes all over Jesus.

But Jesus practices non-anxious presence.
He does not get offended, and he is not reactive,
and all he does is tilt his head
and look sympathetically at those poor tired men.

Then Jesus, without speaking,
picks up one end of the net
and hands Peter the other corner,
kind of like you do with your partner or spouse
with a bedspread.
Peter, exhausted by his rant,
sighs, and takes the corner of the net
in total capitulation.
They heave it – Jesus with earnest intention
and Peter with half-hearted resignation.
Then, almost immediately,
like a bass bites a lure, the net heaves.

Suddenly the boat rolls
and Peter and Jesus struggle
to regain their balance and rock with the waves.

Now lift the flap on this moment
and take your own experience inside it.
Did you ever have someone tell you something
that you strenuously disagreed with,
and they turned out to be right?
Yes, you have,
and it made you fume, didn’t it?
Remember how that burns, that resentful feeling?
Sometimes in that situation,
even though our rational mind knows they were right,
we continue with a stubborn refusal to agree.
Now honestly, you’ve done that, right?

We hate ourselves for it,
because we know it is like a little kid
folding his or her arms across their chest
and holding their breath.
That little kid lives in all of us – we know it.
We can feel that little kid make an appearance
at the most inopportune times.
So, I am guessing that Peter
was standing in solidarity with that little kid inside,
when he tells Jesus to, “get away from me!”

The way Luke tells it,
Peter is acknowledging his own sinfulness,
and with that, they all go away happy.
But Luke tells the story that way
because he is telling the story
so his audience will follow Jesus too.

The way this story gets told to us,
it is a metaphor meant to deliver its audience
to a moment of personal decision,
in which we raise our hands,
wiggle them in the air, and say,
“Me too! Me too!
I want to be a fisher of men and women too!”

I think Luke has turned this story
into a motivational speech,
so that if the speaker tells it just right,
the audience is clamoring to sign up.
But I’m not buying it.
I’m the guy in the audience that says,
“Oh yeah, let’s hear what REALLY happened.”

Well, what really happened
is that Mr. Zebedee lost his work force.
And what really happened
is that Peter’s wife and kids were left
with a sudden income shortage.
And what really happened,
is that Jesus got three new recruits
with divided loyalty
because they kept thinking about
where they should be
and what they should be doing.

And, if I am right about this,
when Jesus asked them to follow him,
he did not mean full time and forever.

What? Whoa, stop right there.

Wasn’t Jesus asking Peter, James and John
to give up everything else
and follow him,
full time and forever?
That is the usual storyline
but where does it say that –
even in Luke’s actual words, where does it say that?

It doesn’t, but that is the usual
sermonic interpretation of the story
that has been preached ever since the first days
that the Jesus movement became
the Christian Church.

The way us preacher-types
and religious professionals
have told this story, it is about becoming
a full-time follower of Jesus, forever.
It has been told as a recruitment story.
We have made this story about a singular,
personal commitment to Jesus
as if he is the only truth, way, and light.
Follow Jesus and be blessed,
or reject him and be cursed.

You see? We have made this story
into an either/or decision
meant to motivate or frighten.
If you want to be good instead of bad;
if you want heaven instead of hell;
if you want to be faithful instead of a reprobate;
then you will be like Peter and the Zebedee boys.

But let’s be honest.
You and I are more like Mr. Zebedee
or Mrs.Peter and the kids,
stuck at home with the chores and the bills.
If stories like this are to have any traction
for us in life as we actually live it,
then it simply cannot be so categorical –
the punch line cannot be a binary up or down vote
as we have traditionally interpreted it.

So, let’s step back for a moment and remember
that traditionally those doing the interpreting
have a professional bias
and are deeply invested in you and me
and everyone else,
jumping up and down yelling, “Me too! Me too!”

We know what Luke’s editorial bias was.
He wants his audience to sign up and follow Jesus,
full time
and forever.
And we know what angle Church professionals
are telling this story from.
They want us to sign up
and follow Jesus
full time
and forever…
and oh, by the way,
the Church claims it is the current
incarnation of Jesus, so follow it
full-time and forever.

But I have a different take on this story.

Here is my take.
We may get skunked during the day.
We may work all night
and discover it was for nothing.
We may be dog-tired and morose,
and angry and bitter.

if we allow ourselves to get stuck there
we are in danger of missing
the big catch
waiting for us underneath the boat
at every moment we breathe.

I don’t think it is magic
or any kind of supernatural juju.
Instead, it is much simpler and more direct.
The wisdom of Jesus will give us access
to the catch below the boat
when otherwise we would have just
followed our tiredness
or bitterness
or frustration
and missed the opportunity.

Following the wisdom of Jesus,
which is indeed infused with the presence of God,
will give us a resource
or capacity
or perspective
that allows us to keep fishing
when everyone else has been skunked
and we don’t really feel like trying any more either.

You and I may think we know more about
our own business than
God or Jesus or the other wise guys,
but the fact is,
most of the time we have no idea of the abundance
that is swimming under our own little boat.
That well-known Inuit metaphor is a perfect fit
for Luke’s story:
We a riding a whale
while fishing for minnows.

So we have doubled-back around
to that Buechner quote:
“If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry
along to business as usual, it may lose you
the ball game. If you throw your arms around
such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save
your soul.”

It is much more difficult
to hug the moment like crazy
when we have been up fishing all night
and caught nothing,
than in those intense moments
when the fish strike.
It is for all those hard, empty,
and monotonous moments
that the wisdom of Jesus gives us a lens
with which to see the abundance
under our own little boats.

That is the punch line I hear
in this story – at least the way I want to tell it.