Stuck in Ruts


A sermon preached on April 18th, 2010 based upon John 21:1 – 17.

In the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel we hear the wondrous stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples that took place in Jerusalem shortly after his crucifixion. In the story we heard today from the 21st chapter, time has passed. The disciples have left Jerusalem and are back in Galilee where they originally had come from. Life has become “routine” again. Things are getting back to “normal”, whatever that means.

For the disciples, the question arises, “Now what do we do?” They’re not sure. Not knowing what else to do, Peter declares, “I’m going fishing.” The community needs to eat, after all, needs to pay its bills, and fishing, at least, is something Peter knows how to do, having started out as a fisherman. Lacking any other ideas regarding what to do now, the others decide to go with him.

But the fishing doesn’t go very well. Through the course of a night, they lower their net time and time again off the side of their boat, only to bring it back up each time empty.

Jesus’ resurrection seems fading into the past. It has meaning for the future in so far as eventually they hope to be with Jesus again, presumably when they die and go to heaven. But his resurrection has lost its meaning for the present.

And so what we have described here is the disciples falling into a “rut.” They are just putting in time — killing time, doing the same thing over and over again, because at least they know how to do it.

So this is our theme today: ruts. Where in our lives have we fallen into ruts? We can get stuck in our work life, so that we’re just biding time, not really looking forward to work, with the purpose for being there merely earning a paycheck.

Our family life and most intimate relationships can get stuck in ruts, where we wear one another out, having the same old arguments, frustrations, conversations repeated over and over again.

We can get stuck in our friendships and our community involvements, so that they come to evoke little enthusiasm from us.

We can get stuck in a rut in the church.

Where in your life are you falling into a rut?

At the end of this long, tedious night of fishing, Jesus appears on the seashore, unrecognized by the disciples who are a hundred yards out in their boat. “Children,” he asks, “Do you have any fish?”

I am struck by the fact that he calls them “children.” I doubt very much they felt like children at that moment. They were weary adults, joylessly shouldering the responsibilities of life, doing their job.

Children don’t fall into ruts the way adults do. Children know how to play. Is Jesus reminding them that they are, in fact, children of God, and that unless they turn and embrace their identity, they will be doomed to stay stuck in their rut? Is Jesus implying that they need to sop working so hard and begin playing to find a way out of their rut?

I take his question to be pretty straight forward: Do you have any fish? How’s that fishing thing working out for you? Are you finding satisfaction, gratification in your work? Do you have anything to show for all your labor?

The same question comes to us, inviting reflection upon our lives. In our labors, whether at home, or in church, or at our job, are we finding satisfaction?

Following the question, comes a direction: “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat.” Apparently they’ve been casting their nets repeatedly on the left side — why not try the right side instead?

Again, I take this direction to be pretty straight forward. If you’ve been doing something over and over without success, why not try doing something different? What have you got to lose?

The definition of a neurosis is said to be doing the same thing over and over again, each time hoping to get the satisfaction that every other time you failed to receive. Eventually you despair, realizing you’re stuck. You conclude it has to be this way: dull, tedious, lifeless. You start putting in your time waiting for retirement, waiting for death and the promised happiness of heaven, because life itself has become a rut.

But as you plod along unsuccessfully in your fishing bot, Jesus appears on the shore to tell you it really doesn’t have to be this way. You think it does, but it doesn’t.

One of the striking things about the various resurrection accounts in the New Testament is how down-to-earth they are. They involve breakfast, supper, fishing. The resurrection of Jesus is meant to transform these very down-to-earth lives we live in the here and now. There is an abundance hiding here that we’re missing, Jesus is telling us.  To discover it we’ve got come at life from a different angle — try something new.

The experience of being stuck in a rut is a denial of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter was a fisherman. I’m a preacher. It is pretty much all I’ve ever done. I wish I knew how to do other things, but this is what I know best. Over the nearly 30 years I’ve been doing this work, there were often times I’ve fallen into ruts. Preaching became a tedious, burdensome thing. There is a sermon that has to get written by Sunday, so I’ve got to force myself to sit down in my study and get busy reading over the commentaries and such until eventually I get a bite on my line, and pull something together for Sunday.

Jesus shows up in my study and tells me, “It really doesn’t have to be this way. Your whole demeanor as you go about this work is denying the fact that I am, in fact, alive. You could be catching a whole oddle of fish instead of waiting around for little nibble. Writing a sermon can be fun — a kind of play — an adventure, full of surprises. Stop approaching it the same old stuck way, and you will discover insights and inspirations showing up in all kinds of surprising places.”

And I have found it to be so.

And so I move now from the experience of writing a sermon to the business of building cars. A surprising leap, I’m  sure but with Jesus encouraging me to look in new places for the fish, that’s the leap I’m making.

On the radio program “This American Life” I heard the story of a General Motors auto manufacturing plant in California that had such a poor record in producing cars that in 1982 the plant was shut down. A couple of thousand workers were laid off.

In an unusual partnership, however, the plant was reopened a few months later, jointly run by Toyota and General Motors. This time the plant would operate under the principles of a Toyoto plant, which for some time now had been producing higher quality cars that General Motors had managed to build.

For the most part, it was the same old workers who were re-employed in the new plant, but in preparation to the re-opening the workers were flown to Japan in small groups for two weeks at a time where they worked side by side with workers in a Toyoto plant, learning a new philosophy of car production.

In the old GM plant there had been a highly adversarial relationship between workers and management, with neither side trusting the other. On the assembly lines workers were pigeon-holed into one specific job that they did over and over endlessly. (Sound familiar?) The workers were never allowed to stop the assembly line, which meant that when something went wrong, the defect was simply passed along, costing the company in terms of both poorly made cars as well as the added expense of having to correct the mistakes after the fact.

Management assumed that if you let the workers stop the assembly line they would just do so endlessly because workers didn’t really want to work and would take advantage of the situation to avoid working. Absenteeism was rampant in the old model, but because of the power of the auto worker unions, there was little management could do about it.

From the point of view of the workers, the whole purpose of working was merely to accumulate seniority by putting in year after year at tedious, unsatisfying jobs, eventually reaching a level of earning that their education and skills could never find elsewhere.

The Japanese model, in contrast, emphasized teamwork. Workers were placed in teams; in the course of a day the workers within a team would take turns doing a variety of jobs, thereby lessening the monotony of the assembly line. Workers were given economic incentives for making suggestions for how to make the system work better — unheard of in the old model. And workers were empowered, even encouraged to stop the assembly line whenever something wasn’t progressing right, at which point managers would come to assist in rectifying the problem.

In this new model, absenteeism dropped dramatically. Workers described looking forward to coming to work for the first time, and taking pride in being a part of a team that was constantly engaged in a process of building a better car.

In this one particular plant the successful implementation of this entirely new work culture led to dramatic improvements in the plant’s productivity and efficiency.

Whereas once upon a time GM had been far and away the most successful automotive company in the world, as years passed the company saw its market share dwindle in face of other world-wide companies that were producing better cars more efficiently.

Now here’s the unfortunate part of the story: Many people within GM recognized that the success experienced at this particular plant pointed the way the entire company needed to move in order to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. Attempts at implementing such changes, however were met with tremendous resistance from the institutional status quo. “This isn’t how we do things. There is nothing wrong with the way we do thing. We don’t need to change.” Over time, more and more workers ended up being laid off. And last year GM filed for bankruptcy.

I thought about the institutional church when I heard this story. For the past fifty years the mainline church has been gradually losing members. That status quo however resisted any fundamental change in the way we go about being the church. But that’s another story.

Unfortunately, there is something about we human beings that prefers being stuck in a rut. The rut is familiar. We’re doing the thing we already know how to do, and even though our sense of satisfaction in our work diminishes, we prefer to keep doing the same thing over and over.

So take a look at your life. If there is a place where you are stuck in a rut, take it as a given that God doesn’t want you to be in that rut. Jesus came that we may have life, and have it abundantly, and ruts are the opposite of abundant life.

Make a point this week of trying to do something differently from the way you usually do things. Cast your net down in new places. Trust that Jesus is there with you; what have you got to lose?

In our story, the disciples do as Jesus says, and suddenly there is this enormous catch of fish in their net. They realize that the stranger on shore is Jesus, at which point Peter jumps in the water and swims to shore. They others drag the catch of fish to shore.

Jesus has breakfast waiting for them. (When was the last time you had breakfast on the beach?)

When breakfast is over, Jesus comes and sits down beside Peter. Back at the Last Supper, Peter had told Jesus that even if the other disciples abandon him, he wouldn’t. But that night Jesus denied Jesus three times.

Looking now into his eyes, Jesus asks three times, “Simon Peter, do you love me?’ Peter doesn’t want to have this conversation. He doesn’t want to go back there to his failure on the night Jesus was arrested.

This is a story about dealing with unfinished business. One of the reasons we get stuck in our ruts is we have unfinished business that is holding us back from living open to the abundance of God’s grace.

Jesus knows that Peter won’t be able to provide the kind of leadership needed in the new community until he deals with the guilt he is carrying around inside him. He’ll play it safe, doing the same old things over and over because he’s afraid that otherwise he may screw up again.

So Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to deal with his unfinished business. His three public affirmations of his love for Jesus makes amends, so to speak, for his three public denials. He can move on now.

So try something new this week. Be playful; a little bit crazy. Trust that its better to look foolish than to be stuck in your rut. And know that Jesus is with you.

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