By Laura Stephens-Reed
In Luke 5:1-11—a recent lectionary text—we note the struggle to notice all that we have when it is much easier to take inventory of all that we don’t.
Simon Peter and his buddies are packing it in after a long night of tending their nets. They are no doubt exhausted, likely frustrated and maybe even a little bit ashamed that they don’t have so much as a few sardines to show for their shift. They’re also wondering what they’re going to feed their families and sell to buy other necessities. In the midst of this physical fatigue and negative self-talk, Jesus asks Peter to turn his boat into a floating pulpit. Peter pushes the boat out, probably drifting between dozing and listening as Jesus teaches the crowds.
When Jesus is done with the lesson, he turns to Peter and says, “Let’s push out a little further and drop the nets. I’m in the mood for fish sticks.”
Through gritted teeth Peter replies, “What do you think I’ve been doing all night, with nothing to show for it?” Peter does it, though, whether to pay Jesus back for healing his mother-in-law or to prove that there ain’t nothin’ biting in that lake. All he can see is that empty net, taunting him. All he can feel is his tired back and bruised ego. But Jesus sees a boat, a net, and an experienced fisherman. And he has a sense of the loyalty and the work ethic and fervor that we note in Peter as the gospels go along. Where Peter sees poverty, Jesus sees possibility.
We know what happens next. The nets bulge and stretch with the capture of so many fish, to the point that the other fishing boat has to be called out to share the load. Even then, it’s touch-and-go whether the skiffs will make it back to shore or sink under the weight of their haul.
Peter’s reaction to his newfound plenty is interesting. Instead of a “Thank you, Jesus!” he drops to his knees and says, “Get away from me, Lord!” His first thought is to distance himself from the man who has turned a busted night of work into a lottery ticket. He is afraid – of the closeness of indisputable holiness, of what he himself is capable of with the help of the divine.
I think that is where we get caught a lot. We would prefer to keep God at arm’s length, knowing that if we give God too much room to work, change is inevitable. We would rather stay stuck in long-held patterns that don’t work than dare to imagine new ways of being and doing.
We can be afraid to know what we can do with God’s equipping, knowing that to whom much has been given, much will be required. And whether or not we’ve been afraid like Peter to embrace abundance for ourselves, many churchgoing folks feel that way for their congregations. As a clergy and congregational coach, I hear a lot of this kind of anxiety. “We have worked all night long and caught nothing,” or in congregation-speak, we have tried everything we can think of, but our budget is still shrinking and our membership is aging and our children’s Sunday School rooms are empty half the time and our average worship attendance ebbs more than it flows.
This is what scarcity sounds like, and these worries reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. But really, the congregations I work with are full of knitters and woodworkers and tax experts and teachers and nurses. These churches have underutilized space and prime locations and volunteers with time to offer in ministry with their neighbors. They have connections with denominational partners and community organizations and local businesses that they could leverage to do great things. The gifts are there, waiting to be acknowledged.
To focus on abundance is not to ignore real hardships that we face – individual, interpersonal, and systemic – or to give us a pass on working for justice. Jesus is here for that too, make no mistake. But a shift in focus from dwelling on what we don’t have to noticing what we do so that we can live into it and share it allows us chip away at those deeply felt, practically constraining, multi-level problems. So may we let God draw out what God put in us as individuals, as groups, as churches for our own good and for the building of God’s reign. And may we pay attention what God is doing in, through, and among us, leaving our fear behind in order to follow the call that God extends to us. In doing so we will be amazed at all we can do in the name of God’s love.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.