Six weeks before the federal government enacted a moratorium on the northern cod fishery, I was standing on the back of a cape islander, jigging for cod with two of my friends off the north shore of Cape Breton. We caught 65 pounds of fillets in 30 minutes. We thought that was impressive. But I still remember the words of the captain: “If I don’t catch 600 pounds a day, my family goes hungry, and the fish aren’t there anymore.” That was 26 years ago. In Ottawa, that moratorium probably sounded like good common sense: if the fish aren’t there, you can’t expect to keep catching them. But if you were from the East Coast, you understood how devastating this was. That captain and thousands of other inshore fisher families were broken into pieces throughout the Maritimes. Still, even in that painful moment, we had cause to think of that too-often- used quote: the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Indeed, it was, in large part, humanity’s insistence on doing the same things over and over again that lay behind the tragedy of the fisheries.
The ties with our famous gospel this morning are obvious. Jesus’s following is growing, and on this day, he goes out on Simon’s boat so that his voice might carry better to the crowd on the shore. Afterwards, he learns that Simon and his crew have not caught much that day; the nets have come back empty. Working as they have always done has not worked. So, Jesus tells them to change course: to go out deeper and try again. This is not how it is done, they grumble, but still they follow his advice. And, of course, we know the result: when they pull up their nets, they are fuller than ever.
And so, we have a story of risk, and one that illustrates the difference between what psychiatrists call perseveration – the repetitive actions that lead nowhere good – and perseverance – the stick-to-it attitude that achieves a goal. Telling the difference is not so easy. I am sure my ancestors on the east coast – just like the disciples that day – felt they were persevering by continuing to brave the seas and fish cod, even as the returns became harder to achieve. Certainly, they were taking risks: fishing, according to studies, is one of the most dangerous jobs in Canada. But when do our actions slip into perseveration? When is risk a good idea, and when is it not? If only, we think, we could know the future.
The source of that famous quote is unclear. It is often attributed to people like Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin, but the evidence there is more than a little shaky. We can logically see them saying it, though – they were outside-the-box thinkers; they took chances and looked at the world a different way. We can also imagine it might be something Jesus said, for isn’t the gospel a critique of society’s perseveration that leads to inequality and injustice, and a manual for thoughtful risk and intentional perseverance?
On that day in the water, the disciples weighed the risk: should they listen to this stranger with the silver tongue, and take their boat out to deeper waters, where fishing is more dangerous? Should they just keep doing things the same old way? Let’s consider what would have happened with the latter choice. Maybe on the 10thor 20th try, they would have caught some fish. Jesus would have probably gotten off the boat and carried on. In taking a calculated risk to listen to him, to innovate, to shake themselves out of the way things had always been done, they caught many more fish. But it could also have gone the other way: they might also have caught nothing. They could also, then, have got back to the way things were. Or they could have been inspired – to persevere not in the same old-same old – but to persevere in risk-taking: what else might we try next?
This is the reality of the risk in life: it sometimes works out, sometimes it doesn’t. We should not read the lesson this morning and assume that every time we go out into deep water, we get a full net. In fact, we know that out in that deep water, a sudden storm would eventually sweep over the ship and frighten those fishermen – a storm they could have avoided had they stayed closer to shore. Risk doesn’t promise certain outcomes; otherwise it wouldn’t be a risk.
But what are the takeaways from that gospel? First, we learn to be mindful of our tendency to perseverate; society, communities, and individuals tend to roll along with the same ideas and the same speed, until a sudden rut comes along and swerves everything sideways. An uprising, a change in leadership, a death – and suddenly we are forced into change we didn’t plan for or want. Suddenly, you have no fish to feed your family that day and you are taking advice from a carpenter’s son about how to solve the problem. On the boat with the disciples, Jesus models a posture of openness to risk, to hearing suggestions from diverse sources and asking the question: what if we tried this, what if we chose this path, what if we made this change?
The full story of that day on the sea tells us to be prepared for risk to be a mixed blessing: a full net of fish to celebrate, and a storm to handle. Ending a bad relationship releases you from some burdens and add new ones. Moving away from your family opens up new opportunities and creates other complications. Our gospel reminds us that, in that mixed blessing or risk, God is present.
At the end of the gospel, Jesus extends his invitation to the disciples: come with me, and you will not be catching fish, but people. You will be changing society, not serving yourselves. That is the ultimate risk that the gospel offers– to see ourselves as risk-takers for something larger than ourselves, to change our way of doing things for the sake of others. The disciples followed not knowing what they would be getting into. They were unsteady at times, strong-hearted at others. But they continued to persevere in that risk, as we know, all the way to the cross.
How do we know if a risk is worth taking? We might consider, as the disciples said, who is guiding that risk. Are they jumping ship, or joining us? (After all, Jesus stayed on that boat with the disciples and sailed with them into those deeper waters.) Is our current state preventing us from being loving or kind or patient? Can we see where that risk has led others, and learn from them? Is our motivation for taking the risk honest and pure?
The disciples didn’t have answers to all those questions that day on the sea. But they had enough, and they leapt. What they found, by shaking themselves out of tradition, and out of the ordinary, was a new calling, a new way of seeing the world. It wasn’t safe; but it added purpose to their lives.
That is the promise that the gospel makes over and over again to people like Simon Peter and Simon Edward. Ditching the comfortable life, the easy traditions is its own kind of madness. By using the principles of the gospel to calculate risk, to guide the changes we make, we may not always be safe, but we will find purpose. And in the storm, should it come, we will not be alone. That’s a promise worth risking for.