Netting the Absurd

Fishing on the other side of what we think possible

Nancy Hastings Sehested
John 21:1-14

While standing in line at a bookstore a small girl in front of me turned around, looked up at me and said, “I’m scared of spiders.” I’m not accustomed to such forthright honesty in a check-out line. As far as I could tell there wasn’t a spider in sight. I thought I should be bold and confess my fears too.

“I’m scared of lightning,” I said.

“Oh, I’m not scared of lightning,” my little friend said. “I just get under my bed. You can do that too. It makes the ‘scaries’ go away.”

Don’t we wish that getting under our beds would make the “scaries” go away? Of course, how much time would we be spending under our beds if we named all our fears?

This past week we observed the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. What would you name as some of the scaries of our earth home? Climate changes and environmental disasters bring out the “scaries” in us for good reasons.

What’s next? What will happen next? What do we do next?

Maybe that was what Peter was wondering when he decided to go fishing. What’s next?

With Jesus’ appearing and disappearing like a shooting star in the night, Peter was confused, disoriented, and wondered what was next. What would become of their small band of followers in Jesus’ radical movement? And hadn’t he been a leader, even called “Rock” by Jesus? Was their movement dead in the water? What next?

Peter couldn’t sit still. He couldn’t go back. He couldn’t go forward. When all else failed, he went to the familiar…fishing. Some of the disciples joined him, “Hey wait up. We’re going with you.” They went back to the same place that they’d been called just a few years before…to the seas.

It was a long hard night of fishing. They cast the nets and hauled it in again and again. Peter stripped down for the strenuous work. Near the break of day their empty nets matched their empty hearts. Nothing.

A voice from the shoreline yelled out to them. “Hey guys! Good morning! Catch anything for breakfast? No? Try fishing on the other side of the boat.”

Who was this guy? Hadn’t they tried everything? Hadn’t they already given it all they had, tried every possible spot already? But they had nothing to lose. They tried it one more time. They threw their nets on the other side of the boat. Lo and behold….fish! So many fish they weren’t strong enough to haul it in.

One of them yelled, “It’s Jesus!” Peter threw on his clothes and jumped into the sea and swam to shore. The others pulled the haul of fish with the boat to reach shore.

Jesus had a fire going and invited them to throw some of those fish on it. Peter joined the haulers and pulled in the load of fish. One hundred and fifty-three fish in un-ripped nets.

One hundred fifty-three. It’s a number that has stumped theologians and historians trying to figure out the symbolic significance. Pope Gregory the Great was great in coming up with the idea that the sum of the numbers 1 through 17, multiplied by 3 (the number of the trinity) adds up to 51 and multiplied by 3 again makes 153. Historian Jerome thought there were 153 species of fish corresponding to the 153 known nationalities.

How about another explanation? Someone said, “Wow! Look at all this fish. I wonder how many there are?” And don’t fisherfolk count their fish? No matter how you count it, 153 was an absurd number after a night of nothing.

Can you imagine all those disciples pulling the fish out of the net and counting, “One, two, three, four….” And while they were putting the fish in piles, Jesus was standing there ignored. Maybe he kept tending the fire, amused by their choice of what to do next when he was standing right there among them.

In the resurrection stories Jesus had a knack for sneaking up on people, and looking not much like himself. Mary thought he was a gardener. She recognized Jesus by his voice. Thomas thought Jesus was dead man. He recognized Jesus by his wounds. Disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was a stranger. They recognized him by his supper table blessing of bread. Disciples huddled in the upper room thought they’d seen a ghost. They recognized him by his storytelling. Peter and those disciples fishing all night long….they thought Jesus was an opinionated shore line fish consultant. They recognized him by his cooking.

With every story we see Jesus appearing as a mischief-maker…letting things play out, maybe with a twinkle and a grin….playing along with whatever the misperception seemed to be in the moment….and then doing something very simple and mundane….and ordinary….and suddenly there was a new way of seeing.

In the quest for the historical Jesus we discover the hysterical Jesus. Jesus was funny! Easter absurdities. Tragedy resurrected can become comedy. This is our story. Fish on a different side of the boat. Throw those nets out again. Net the absurdities of life that is still being hauled out of the dark nights into the dawn of a new day.

Friday April 24 was the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble telescope. Jason Kalirai, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute spoke of one image that really changed everything. In December of 1995, the telescope stared for ten days at a tiny patch of apparently empty sky. The patch was named the Deep Field, revealing more than a thousand undiscovered galaxies. It made researchers realize that earth is even smaller than we thought. “We're basically sitting on a rock orbiting a star, and that star is one of a hundred billion in our galaxy," Kalirai says. "But the Deep Field tells us that galaxy is one galaxy out of a hundred billion in the universe. I think Hubble's contribution is that we're not very special. I think it's exciting. It gives us a lot more to learn about…If we're not very special, you can continue to ask that question: 'What's next?' "  (NPR 4.24.15)

What next indeed. There’s a galaxy of difference between people who ask with resignation and despair, “What’s next?” and people of curiosity and expectation who ask, “What’s next?” It can mean the difference in netting some absurdities that we couldn’t have imagined. Just think about some of the things people once thought absurd. Abolishing slavery? Women with voting rights? Civil rights laws? State-sanctioned same gender marriages? Absurd!

We are in the midst of a community of people who throw our nets on the other side of the boat to catch the absurd. Our curious and faithful community knows how to ask, “What’s next?” We know that every day is Earth Day. We give ourselves to the small and big efforts of being merciful to our common earth home.

In the summer of 2013, eight of our members joined the Walk for our Grandchildren. It was a one hundred mile walk from Camp David to the White House. Mahan at 78 years old was the oldest walker and his 11-year-old granddaughter Leigh was the youngest walker to make the whole journey. At the rally, Mahan threw out the net with other grandparents to say, “We make it together or we don’t. We can speak out and act out with a sense of urgency…It’s not time to re-tire. It’s time to re-commit.”

One of our consistent encouragers in our community is Greg Yost. He has a gift for writing with clarity and passion about our common concern for our earth. In deciding to make the walk, he wrote these words:

I used to be isolated. I'd sit in front of a computer screen and read scientists' predictions about the consequences of carbon pollution and I'd feel so low, not just because the predictions were depressing, but also because it seemed no one was paying attention. It was difficult to talk about, to be that guy who brought it up to friends and family, at work or at church. Good, otherwise emotionally healthy people have filters in place to screen the stuff that is depressing or scary, and especially if they feel like there's nothing they can do about it, anyway. For a long time, climate change was simply getting caught in the filters.

But that's been changing. At some point in the last few years I feel like the tiny little trickle of awareness I had about the enormity of the climate challenge became one tributary to a gathering river of people. These folks aren't just worrying or wringing their hands, either. Like any good river, they're moving. We're taking action. I've even learned how to do it myself and it's actually not so hard. You just empty your hands, setting aside a few parts of your life for a moment to ready yourself for work that needs doing. Then you think about what you love and want to protect, you roll up your sleeves, and you wade in. (excerpt from “Why I am Walking,” July 12, 2013)

Greg carries pictures of his high school math students to every environmental action he participates in. He gave copies of the photos to the judge at his trial for his December arrest in the non-violent action at the construction site of the $4 billion LNG export facility of Dominion Resources in Maryland.

I am responsible for these young people even after I clock out of my teacher job. Because the battle for their future is being waged right now in Cove Point, Maryland, I have to report for duty.

We gather here each week to remember our holy orders, to prepare ourselves to report for duty again. Whatever the call, personally or communally, it means what its always meant when Jesus is around…fishing on the other side of what we think is possible. It means casting into those same waters to discover gifts from the sea hidden just below the surface of our perception.

As we throw those nets in the waters with all the love and courage we can muster, we might just haul in some Easter absurdities. And we’re sure to see Jesus with a twinkle and a grin, smiling at the haul, offering us bread, feeding us again. It is there the question lingers, “So what’s next?”

Circle of Mercy
April 26, 2015

©Nancy Sehested @