Dustin Snyder had enough. He was tired of the long work weeks, low wages and grumpy customers. He was assistant general manager of a McDonald’s restaurant in Bradford, Pa., but in early September 2021, he drafted a petition to the regional office and invited his workers to sign it.
“We are all leaving,” his petition stated, “and hope you find employees that want to work for $9.25 an hour.” Nearly all of the 24 day-shift employees added their names. (They all knew that, just 20 miles away, employees at a McDonald’s across the border in New York did identical work, receiving that state’s $15-an-hour minimum wage.)
It wasn’t a strike. It wasn’t a protest. To Dustin and his low-wage employees, it was a simple statement of fact.
Dustin faxed the petition to the regional office in Buffalo. Moments later, his phone rang. It was the regional supervisor. “Why did you do it?” she wanted to know.
“I was trying to get better pay for my people.”
“There are better ways to go about this,” chided the supervisor. “No one gets a raise,” she told him. “If your workers don’t like it, they can quit.”
And so they did. Nearly all of them. On the spot. They took off their headsets and abandoned their stations at the drive-through and cash registers.
The line at the drive-through began to grow longer. Mystified customers watched the employees congregate in the parking lot. Then they watched Dustin lock the building and hang a sign on the door. On it he’d scribbled in blue highlighter – the only pen he could find – “Due to lack of pay we all quit.”
“Hey!” a man called out to Dustin from his car. “We just want a Quarter Pounder and fries.”
“Well, we just want to be paid more and treated better,” Dustin replied.
When Dustin told Stephanie Kelley, the store’s general manager, what they’d done, she wasn’t upset. She was sympathetic. More than that, she decided to join them. She texted her night shift employees, telling them what the day shift had just done, and that she, too, was quitting. Most of the night shift did the same. Dustin and Stephanie spent the next few days helping their workers find better jobs – in some cases driving them to other fast-food restaurants with vacancies.
As for the Bradford McDonald’s, it wasn’t long before the store was up and running again. The franchise owner also owned the store across the border in New York. He bussed in $15-an-hour workers from that location to re-open the drive-through, then hired a whole crew of new employees from Pennsylvania. But he had to do it for $10 an hour, giving his new workers the 75-cent raise his former employees had been asking for.
The Bradford McDonald’s walkout wasn’t, strictly speaking, a labor action. It’s just one example of what economists have been calling The Great Resignation. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, workers across America – professionals as well as shift workers – have been rethinking the work they do. In some cases, they’ve decided to walk away from it, sometimes to new jobs, and other times to no jobs at all.
Today’s gospel lesson tells a story of someone who walks away from it. It’s the apostle Peter. The job he walks away from is commercial fishing. Remarkably, this incident from John 21 is the second time the gospels describe Peter walking away from that job.
The first time is in Luke 5:1-11. After a long day of unsuccessful fishing, Jesus invites Peter (then called Simon) to take him out in his boat for one last try. The net comes back bursting with fish, and Jesus says to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you’ll be catching people.” Simon, along with his fishing partners James and John, rows to shore. Immediately, they leave everything and follow Him. Clearly, this resignation is about a lot more than just changing jobs. It’s more like swapping one life for another.
Today’s passage opens with the words, “After these things …” Sounds ordinary, but it’s anything but. The “things” John’s referring to are the death and resurrection of Jesus.
From the highs of the triumphal entry to the lows of Calvary, to the glad and unexpected news of Easter morn, Peter and his companions have seen it all. First, they were scared to death, then thrilled with life: the unexpected new life in Christ that has no end.
In light of these “things” Peter and his friends have just experienced, his remark sounds like the biggest non sequitur of all time: “I’m going fishing.” Really, Peter? Fishing? That same life you’ve already walked away from once? Peter’s already been part of one great resignation. Now he’s drifted back to the fishing nets he once, in his zeal, abandoned.
What happens next in John’s story is reminiscent of the first calling of Peter, in Luke chapter 5. Jesus doesn’t sit down in Peter’s fishing boat this time. He’s standing along the shore, as Peter and his mates row back, discouraged. All they have to show for their long night on the sea are sore backs and heavy hearts.
“Friends, haven’t you any fish?” Some translations start that question with ‘Children.’
It’s a question, but also a statement. Does Jesus observe how high the empty boat’s riding in the water? Or does He just know, from the drooping of the men’s shoulders as they row, that this is a failed fishing expedition?
The late Peter Gomes of Harvard calls it, in one of his sermons, a lawyer’s question. “A very good lawyer,” he remarks, “never asks a question to which he doesn’t already know the answer” – and this is what Jesus is doing. He knows they’ve had a miserable, heart-rending night. He just wants to hear them say it.
They admit it; then Jesus gives them a fishing tip. He tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat – a crazy piece of advice. (Why one side, rather than the other?) For some reason, these seasoned mariners take the beachcomber’s advice. Once they do, the net comes back so full, they fear it will split wide open.
Then it dawns on the disciples who this man is. After that comes that touching scene when Peter dives into the sea, so as to reach his Lord that much faster. They all gather on the beach for breakfast: fish grilled over charcoal, and bread.
Their impromptu gathering is the exact opposite of another meal they’ve recently shared together, the Last Supper. You could call this meal “the First Breakfast” – for it takes place at daybreak rather than night, in joy rather than solemnity, in hope rather than fear.
After breakfast, Jesus turns to Simon and asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
It’s not at all clear what Jesus means by the word “these.” There are three possible explanations. Maybe Jesus is asking Peter whether he loves Him more than these others love Him; or he could be asking if Peter loves Him more than Peter loves the others; or maybe Jesus is asking Peter whether he loves Him more than he loves these fishnets.
We can’t say for sure what Jesus means by His question, but we do know how Peter responds. He leaves his boats and his nets behind — not for the first, but for the second time — and embarks on the life of an apostle. That task will occupy Peter all his years, until he finally dies his martyr’s death in Rome.
From that day forward, Peter begins to fulfill the challenge Jesus sets before him: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep.”
I believe these three questions are Jesus’ way of letting Peter atone for his sins. Remember, Peter denied Jesus – not once, but three times. Jesus allows him three opportunities to cancel out his denial with a promise of faithfulness.
“Children, have you any fish?” Jesus could just as well ask that question of us. He could ask it any day. There we’d be, taking care of day-to-day business as usual – arms full of groceries, fingers on the keyboard, hands on the steering wheel, drumming out the rhythm of our lives.
“Have you any fish?” He wants to know.
“Fish! What do you mean, Lord, by ‘fish’?” But we know. We really do. We don’t need to be lectured.
Jesus doesn’t ask the sort of questions the world asks to define success. He doesn’t ask:
- “Have you been pulling in a paycheck?”
- “Have you achieved a level of professional competence, commensurate with your years of experience?”
- “Are you able to finance the type of leisure activities you want?”
- “Will you be able to take early retirement?”
- No, Jesus looks at the big picture. And then He transfixes us – like a deer caught in the headlights – with a single question. The question is, “Have you any fish?”
One of the hardest experiences in this life of ours is futility – and lots of people, in these post-Covid days, are living futility. They relate to the ancient tale of Sisyphus, King of Corinth in Greek mythology. Sisyphus offended Zeus, king of the gods, who condemned him to roll a great boulder up a hill in Hades for all eternity, only to almost reach the top and watch it roll back down again.
To many people, the goal of life is to achieve a vague notion of success, but they’re not at all sure they’d know it if it dropped in their laps. Achievement can be like an endless staircase: each time they reach the next landing, they look up and see the next flight winding upwards, into the hazy and uncertain beyond.
Peter doesn’t have that problem. Jesus cups hands to mouth and shouts, “Have you any fish?” But Peter already knows the answer. No more illusions for him. No more losing himself in the frantic rat race, hoping it may yield some small prize or modest success. Peter knows his net is, and forever will remain, empty. So, too, it’s only when our nets are truly empty that – paradoxically – we’re most receptive to the message Jesus has for us.
This Christian faith of ours is an Easter faith. It grows best in the fertile soil of utter desperation. It thrives in those bleak moments when we have no place else to turn. The net has to be empty, the wine jug exhausted, the tomb entrance sealed up, before the likes of us are inclined to let the Lord take over. We have to acknowledge that our cup is empty, before God fills it to overflowing.
A wise teacher has said, “The Lord doesn’t ask about your ability, only your availability; and, if you prove your dependability, the Lord will increase your capability.” Martin Luther puts it another way when he famously remarks: “I have held many things in my hands and have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
When Peter realizes who it is who filled his net, he leaps from his fishing boat into the water. So eager is he to leave behind the futile striving of his old occupation that he doesn’t mind getting wet. He doesn’t even wait for the boat to ride up on the beach. He goes to Jesus immediately.
Afterwards, he walks away from it all: boat, sail, oars – and most of all, that net bursting with fish. The other gospels tell of the day, three years before, when Peter and the others “leave their nets and follow him.” But this incident is different. This time, the net Peter leaves behind is full. It has been filled by the sheer grace of God, present in Jesus Christ.
For the first time in his life, Peter truly knows this. And for the first time in his life, he’s received a call so compelling he’ll never return to his fishing boat again.
We could all use someone to meet us on the beach and challenge us to declare, truthfully, if our nets are empty or full. Then, having made that self-inventory, may we have the courage to leave it all behind, to walk away from it all, if that’s what it takes to obey the command of the one who says, simply, “Follow me.”