Some months ago, my laptop keyboard began to fail. It was the “e” key that gave me trouble. Only the most-used letter in the English language! For months, I put up a persistent stiffness in the key that impeded fluent typing. Then the problem reached a new level: the key would only work when pressed repeatedly. I knew I should take action, get the computer fixed. But I also knew they would have sent it away. How could I get my work done? To be honest, I’m weird about broken things. I would rather patch it up and make do than invest the time and energy it takes to fix something. It’s a lifelong hang-up. I’m not proud of it. So I put the whole thing off.Finally, the cover of the “e” key just flew off one day. I kept putting it back on and it kept popping off. That was when I made the appointment. Of course they didn’t have an opening right away. As I waited for help, the key failed altogether and I resorted to copying and pasting my “e”s.
I’m both happy and frustrated to report that the repair was amazingly quick, that it cost me nothing and that my computer now works very well. This computer crisis touched a nerve in me; it brought up feelings of futility. My own stupid inertia felt symbolic of areas of my life that are stuck or stalled, of deferred projects and unfulfilled hopes. And it seemed like a microcosm of the futility in the world all around us. I mean, our systems are breaking down. The economy, our democracy, policing, schools, healthcare—none of these institutions work the way they should. None are just, none are sustainable—ecologically, financially, or ethically. The shooting at a Richfield school this week illuminates our utter failure to care for teens in mental health crisis fueled by trauma, poverty, and racism, and deepened by the pandemic. And Amir Locke is the latest heartbreaking example of why policing as we know it is an abomination. Almost two years after George Floyd’s murder, police are still invading the homes where Black men sleep and executing them nine seconds later. What is the point of the marches, the protests, the massive global uprising? What is the point, even, of the convictions of Derek Chauvin and Kimberly Potter, if these judgements do not fundamentally alter the culture of the institution? What avenues are available to us, really, to make deep change having failed to rewrite our city charter?
The fishermen were (pardon my pun) in the same sort of boat we are when they encountered Jesus after a night of fishing. Their nets were empty. They had worked hard and long. They had used all their skill, applied all their knowledge. They had exhausted their energy and expended their hope. And they had not caught a single fish. Futility. And, even more than that, they, too, lived in an age of broken systems that did not work for people, that did not support human health and flourishing. Minister and blogger Debie Thomas illustrates the situation. She writes:
In Jesus’s day, the fishing industry in Palestine was fully under the control of the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported—leaving local communities impoverished and hungry—and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold. To catch even one fish outside of this exploitative system was considered illegal.
I’m curious about the behavior of the crowd by the lake, a crowd that included the demoralized fishermen. “The crowd was pressing in on [Jesus] to hear the word of God,” Luke says. What was this word of God? I wonder. It could not have been some theological lecture. This word must have really accomplished something. The communication itself must have bestowed on the crowd some great power. It’s clear, with this word Jesus spoke, God did God’s thing. God loved and healed and liberated. I also wonder if the crowd, in their desperation to get what Jesus had, was unintentionally threatening him? Did Jesus jump into the fishermen’s empty boat because he found himself pressed into the water and the mud by hungry, needy people?
It was against this backdrop of utter desperation that Jesus approached Simon and directed him to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” “Deep water” here is bathos. This is the same, very specific word that those who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek used to describe the primordial sea, the chaos that was all that existed before God made the world. In creation, God tamed the wild sea. And yet God did not banish this life-threatening force. The waters of the great deep still raged beneath the earth. Creation, in the Hebrew imagination, is an ongoing process, is never finished. And so, in urging Simon to take his boat into the bathos, Jesus was inviting him to participate in God’s act of creation, God’s work of making life-sustaining abundance and safety out of chaos.
Simon’s response models faithful discipleship. He lamented the scarcity and futility of the present moment. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” And still, he trusted Jesus’ leading. He opened his exhausted heart again to hope. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And out of Simon’s willingness to keep trying, to try and try and try again, the abundance came. Piles and piles of fish. Enough to meet everyone’s needs. And more for later. And some security for the future. And liberation from the colonizing control of Rome! In John August Swanson’s joyful rendering of this scene, both the lake and the net are absolutely teeming with life, with fish of all colors and patterns. What changed then? What changed? I notice that abundance came from the futility. I notice that what they were seeking was there all along. Perhaps that’s what Howard Thurman meant when he said: “There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility. This is the great deception. By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion.”
Abundance became possible, and visible, and real, when Jesus unleashed God’s spirit on the community. He was no longer the sole teacher, healer, and provider. The fishermen joined Jesus in ministry, mobilizing others, leading an ever-growing movement toward change. Their role as disciples was to gather people, to organize and build, to support and serve, to marshal the strength and power of the beloved community to care for each other and to reimagine and rebuild futile, broken systems.
The great deception is that change is impossible, that the way things are is the only way things can be. We all get caught in the great deception, and we must all be set free from it. As amazing as the net-breaking, boat-sinking abundance is, it is also incredibly disorienting. Our old tools simply cannot hold the freshness of God’s ways. Our previous pattern of thinking, being and acting are no longer adequate. We cannot welcome the brilliance and joy of God with hearts conditioned by scarcity and futility. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Simon cried out at Jesus’ feet. Clearly, Jesus had to reassure Simon, “Do not be afraid,” because he was afraid. And his fear was fueling the great deception in him, the feeling that he was unworthy, the conviction that he was a failure.
Are you afraid amid the futility and chaos of our present moment? It is terrifying to observe the breaking nets and sinking boats of the institutions that order our common life. However, we absolutely must remember that the idea that these institutions never worked for all of us. The idea that they did is a version of the great deception. It is an outright lie. They were built on exclusion and exploitation. They worked only for people with privilege—white people, cis-gendered, able-bodied people, people holding citizenship. And we are now experiencing the terrible consequences of that truth. Their current breakdown is in fact essential, the only way forward. And our only viable choice is to steer our boats out into this bathos and let down our nets for a catch.
Our only hope, friends, is to join God. Our only hope is to allow ourselves to be filled with the word of God, a powerful and practical word, a word that accomplishes things. Our only hope is to open our hearts to the possibility of abundance, to the promise that the world is, in fact, teeming with life, color, and beauty. Our only hope is to answer the call, to become creators, working by God’s side to make something utterly new, something the world has never before known. Amen.