Empty Nets

HomeEmpty Nets
February 3, 2019

Empty Nets

Passage: Luke 5:1–11

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“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.
Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”—Luke 5:5


The story I just read is about a long night of futility followed by a calling to a new adventure.

Until last week, no inductee has ever been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame unanimously. Not Cal Ripken, not Willie Mays, not Ted Williams, not Joe DiMaggio, not even Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. Ken Griffey, Jr., came the closest with 99.3% of the vote.

Until Mariano Rivera—unanimous pick to the Hall. He retired five years ago at the age of 43 after pitching for 19 seasons—all of them with one team, at one position, throwing mostly just one pitch—his famous and unhittable cutter—one inning at a time.[1]

He’s from a tiny fishing village in Panama. When he was a kid, he carved his bats from tree branches, and wrapped fishing net with tape to make a facsimile of a baseball, and fashioned his baseball glove from milk cartons or cardboard boxes. “It had to fit in your back pocket,” he says.[2]

When you ask him to explain his singular success, he just says, “Christ.” “God made me what I am. The only thing that deserves any credit is the providence of God.”

His hero is David, the Shepherd-Boy/King, because David was humble, and knew that it was God who gave him that right arm strong enough to hurl a hard round object at a burly opponent with a giant club in his hand, and emerge victorious. Today Mariano Rivera has a fancier glove than a milk carton, but it’s still inscribed with the same words from Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Derek Jeter famously said, “More men have walked on the moon than have gotten a hit off Mariano Rivera in the post-season.” Twelve have walked on the moon; eleven have gotten a hit off Mariano in the post-season.

Crane Kenney—our baseball guy, our Cubs guy—told me this. I didn’t know this.  Maybe you knew this. Mariano Rivera started his career with the Yankees as a starting pitcher. His first year in the majors he started ten games and pitched 50 innings and ended up with an Earned Run Average of 5.94.

If you are a baseball fan, you know that with an ERA of 5.94, you have no future with the Yankees.

And then of course someone taught him that famous, unhittable cutter fastball and moved him to the bullpen, and the rest…

One team, one position, one pitch, one inning at a time. He is a singular success.

But sometimes success follows futility. But most of us aren’t like that. One night Jesus is sailing the Sea of Galilee with a stranger named Simon, better known as Peter.

Peter is a fisherman who has just suffered a long night of futility with empty nets. He can’t find any fish. Jesus tells him to throw his net on the other side. Peter is skeptical, but he gives it a whirl, and there’s the jackpot George Clooney sailed all over the Atlantic looking for, right into the teeth of the perfect storm.

What must have gone through Simon Peter’s bewildered mind at such a strange series of events? His livelihood depended upon finding the fish. Most nights he did. He was a professional, leaning on long experience and schooled intuition, air temperature, water temperature, the season of the year, the direction of the wind, your own secret holes, reading the water till it tells you where to go, becoming one with the elements. But this particular night he simply came up empty.

So what must Peter have thought when after a long night’s futility, this preacher man, this rabbi, tries to tell him how to practice his craft? Now, here’s a guy, this Jesus of Nazareth, who apprenticed in carpentry when he was young but then abandoned that profession to study theology. Jesus was raised a landlubber in Nazareth, which is 16.4 miles from the Sea of Galilee, as the crow flies, and 20.2 miles from the Mediterranean. What could a carpenter-preacher possibly know about the fine art of fishing? He didn’t know a jib from a mainsail or a flounder from a snapper. How could he know where the fish are?

When they finally haul their extravagant treasure to shore, Jesus tells them to dump it and says “I will make you fishers of people.” And off they trot for parts unknown and adventures unimagined.

What I want us to hear from this story this morning is that Jesus calls Peter to a new life of discipleship at the end of a long night of futility. Jesus calls Peter at the moment of failure and frustration, at that moment when he has stretched his own limited abilities and come up empty. “Master, we have worked all night and have caught nothing.” That’s when Jesus pops into his life to show him new possibilities that are not at all dependent on his own efforts.

I mean, I’m just wondering if there are people here this morning who have worked all night but then face the rising sun empty-handed, who feel as if all their backbreaking exertions have been for nought. “Master, we have worked all night and we’ve hauled up nothing but seaweed and detritus, flotsam and jetsam.” It just doesn’t seem to amount to anything at all.

You ever experience a long night of futility, a long spell of life when no matter what you did or what you tried or how hard you worked, your nets always came up empty?

Does it sometimes seem like you’re trying to do surgery with mittens on?

That you’re running the hundred-yard dash in snowshoes?

That you studied for an exam but not the one the teacher just handed out because somehow there was this terrible misunderstanding where the American Lit teacher decided to focus on Melville but you studied Frost?

That you’re playing tennis in handcuffs?

That you’re trying to swim the English Channel in a snowmobile suit?

That you’re playing a 550-yard par-5 with nothing but a pitching wedge in your bag?

That you always dreamed of teaching kindergarten at a place like Joseph Sears but somehow you ended up teaching seventh-grade on the South Side?

You know, pick your metaphor; we all know how Peter felt.

That’s the point at which Jesus calls Peter to a new way of being, while he’s standing there holding an empty net after a long night of futility. It’s a difficult moment when you reach the end of your own achievement and realize that you’re never going to get where you want to go under your own power, when you realize that you’re going to have to surrender your own choreographed future to one who knows you better than you know yourself.

I have a minister friend who says, “My call to the ministry was a course in statistics.” He got a ‘C’ and realized he’d never make a good CPA or actuary or investment banker, so he makes his living with words. After seminary he joined the Navy and became a chaplain and saw hard combat in Vietnam and preached the word and administered last rites to many American soldiers. After the Navy he became a brilliant preacher in a local parish. Sometimes futility can lead you away from what you planned to do and into the place where God always wanted you to be.

Does anybody listen to The Moth podcast?  Tara Dixon told this story there recently. Tara Dixon was trained at Johns Hopkins and at the University of California as a trauma surgeon. After medical school Dr. Dixon joined the Army and eventually rose to the rank of Major, fixing wounded soldiers in Iraq.

She remembers the grueling years of her residency when she was working 134 hours a week; 36-hour shifts, a few hours off, another 36 hours. This was before they limited residents’ working weeks to 80 hours. 134 hours a week. She points out that there are only 168 hours in a week. One stretch she went 93 straight days without a day off.

One night when she was serving as the chief resident in the trauma unit of a small-town Southern hospital, a young woman came in. It was her sixteenth birthday. She’d taken her car out for a spin, the first one ever by herself, and she missed a curve, went flying down a hill, no seatbelt, got ejected. The car landed on top of her.

When she arrived at the hospital, the staff didn’t know her name. She was Patient Doe. Dr. Dixon says this 16-year-old had five separate injuries, each of which could kill her: head injury, bilateral lung contusions; grade 4 liver fracture; grade 5 spleen injury; grade 5 pelvic fracture. “This girl was broken.” They worked frantically to keep her alive through the night, but they didn’t have much hope.

When the girl’s family arrived at the hospital, Dr. Dixon stepped away to tell them how grave the situation was. “Any one of these injuries could kill her by itself, and she has five, all trying to kill her as we speak.”

She gave what hope she could to the family. “She’s 16; she’s healthy; if anyone can beat this, she can.” The family was weeping and wailing and sobbing. When Dr. Dixon turned to leave the waiting room and put her hand on the door, the sobbing suddenly stopped. Instantly.

She turned around. The girl’s mother said, “She’s going to be all right.” Dr. Dixon said, “What did you say?” The mother said, “She’s going to be all right.” “How do you know this?” The mother said, “Her name is Savannah. Your Patient Doe is Savannah.”

And then Dr. Dixon remembered that the scrub pants she was wearing were from her internship. She’d trained in Savannah, Georgia, so ‘Savannah’ was plastered across her backside.

She says, “That’s all they needed, that little bit of encouragement, and I said ‘Hey, if my backside can give hope to the people, I’m all in.’”

For the next two months, Dr. Dixon worked day and night keeping that girl alive. Savannah was unconscious for two months, but Dr. Dixon would talk to her constantly. Tracheotomy, huge tubes and lines all over her body. “This is going to hurt, Savannah, but I’m going to do my best to make it as painless as possible. You go, girl! Stay with it.” Over and over again for two months.

After two months, it was time for the resident to leave and take another rotation at another unit in another hospital. Among the hundreds of patients she treats, Dr. Dixon lost track of Savannah. Never knew what happened to her.

About a year later, Dr. Dixon is back at that same hospital, and she’s standing at the nurse’s station talking to a nurse, and this young woman comes up and says, “Hey!” Dr. Dixon says “Hey!?? Do I know you?” “It’s me, Savannah.” She looked completely healthy. She was 17 and one class away from graduating with her high school classmates. Dr. Dixon was so delighted that Savannah had done so well.

But then Dr. Dixon stops and says, “Wait a minute. You’ve never met me. You were unconscious the whole time we were together. How do you know me?” Savannah says, “I recognized your voice. You were the one who talked to me the whole time.”

And Dr. Dixon says, “So all those times, ‘Savannah, this is going to hurt, but I’m going to do everything I can to make it as painless as possible.’ She’d heard me. And she remembered it. And so I knew that treating people like a human being, it does matter, and it does make a difference, and that was the first time I realized that all that sacrifice and all that blood, sweat, and tears, it was worth it.”[3]

Well, most of us can’t patch broken people back together again, and most of us don’t have that definitive moment when we find out what we’re born for, that unmistakable voice of God calling us to kingdom work. “Hey! I’m Savannah.” I’ve never heard anything like that.

Sometimes we fish all night and come up with nothing. Sometimes after a long night of futility, or a long week, or a long year, many years, we have nothing to show for it but empty nets. Then through the smoky scrim of shadow just before dawn, we stand up in our little boat and see someone standing on the beach, and he’s waving us over. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of people.” And we try again, and—lo and behold!—our nets are so full they burst. Whose voice do you hear? Whose lead do you follow?

[1]Joshua Prager, “Mariano Rivera: A Singular Pitcher,” The New York Times, June 29, 2013.

[2]John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God, written with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwarz (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), pp. 127–128.

[3]T Dixon, “Critical Crash,” Themoth.org, recorded March 7, 2018.