Dear Blog Readers (all four of you!),
I find that it is becoming something of a chore to turn an outline, or notes, or whatever I take into the pulpit with me into a manuscript that is readable by others on such a regular basis. That it feels chore-like tells me that I need to take a break from it for awhile. A sermon is an oral event, for which one prepares differently than in preparing a written piece. Turning whatever transpired in the pulpit into something that can be read takes a little work, and sometimes it takes more time than I have to spend. Perhaps after a summer respite I will feel motivated to take up the work again. It is hard to believe that there are over five year's worth of sermons posted here!
I think we also need to explore the possibility of webcasting the Sunday service, which obviously would include the sermon, so perhaps in coming months that might become a new option for those of you who like to re-hear, think some more about, or revisit something that caught your interest when you heard the sermon. If that comes to pass, you would be able to listen to the webcasts at whlc.org. Stay tuned for more info.
Several of you have told me that you appreciate being able to read my sermons after hearing them. I am glad that this has met a need for you, and am sorry that I need to step away from it for awhile. Thanks for paying attention, and on occasion, offering feedback!
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Do you like this story? How many of you would say that it’s one of your top-10 favorite Bible stories? How many of you would be willing to admit that it makes you somewhat uncomfortable? One commentator says that if this story doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re clearly not paying attention. What makes us uneasy, of course, is the sheer physicality of the woman’s actions. There’s just way too much touching and kissing for church.
Right? I mean think about it. The woman sneaks into a dinner party and approaches the honored guest, who is reclining at the table. In those days they sat sort of propped up on one arm, bent at the waist, with their legs and feet off to the side. This is how the woman is able to bend forward over Jesus’ feet and let her tears rain down upon them. She then moves even closer and dries his feet with her long hair. Can you imagine a dinner party where this kind of physical touch would be deemed appropriate?
But there’s more. She also repeatedly kisses Jesus’ feet. There is no way to interpret this metaphorically. She repeatedly kisses Jesus’ feet with her lips. And then she takes costly ointment and rubs it in into his feet with her hands.
The woman’s interaction with Jesus is, in fact, entirely physical. She does not speak a single word. She says nothing when she enters the room. She offers no greeting to Jesus. She is identified as a sinner — we do not know the nature of her sins — but she has no well-rehearsed confession of sin. At the end, she offers not a word of thanks, not even an “Amen.” It is all action.—100% physical, skin to skin contact.
And it is the touching that offends the Pharisee Simon, who had invited Jesus to his house for dinner. Simon is a scholar of Torah. He has been intrigued by Jesus’ teaching. He was expecting an evening of intellectual conversation with the rabbi, an opportunity to discuss and debate at length their various understandings of God. But instead of carefully chosen words and lively conversation, there’s all this touching.
The problem, so far as Simon is concerned, is that Jesus should know. Simon said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus should know this woman’s status. He should know that she is a sinner. He should know that he should not allow himself to be touched, even a little let alone so much, by this woman. Jesus should know all the facts that are knowable, and should know better than to allow this kind of behavior. For Simon it is essentially an intellectual problem. How could Jesus not know and understand these simple facts? The touching would have been scandalous in any setting, all the more so in this setting where reasonable, articulate discourse was the expectation.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, tells a story about arriving early one Sunday morning at a church where she was to preach. Since no one else had arrived yet, she took time to look around the beautiful church and noticed a mural of Jesus emerging from the tomb. As she stood there looking at the mural, something started to nag a bit at the back of her mind. Something seemed to be missing. Then it struck her: Jesus looked too ethereal. In fact, his pale skin had no body hair whatsoever.
Without thinking she turned to a parishioner who had appeared at her side—an expensively clad, well-manicured, very put-together woman—and blurted out, “He has the arms of a six year-old. His chest is as smooth as a peach.” The parishioner gazed at Taylor in horror. “I can’t believe you’re saying this to me,” she said cooly. “I just can’t believe you’re saying this to me.” Apparently Taylor should have known better than to imagine aloud an earthly Jesus with body hair, just as Jesus should have known better than to allow himself to be touched so profusely by this woman, a sinner.
Taylor writes that Christians often find themselves "in the peculiar position of being followers of the Word Made Flesh who neglect our own flesh or worse — who treat our bodies with shame and scorn.” And also, says Taylor: "Here we sit with our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage, mostly insensible to the ways in which every spiritual practice begins with the body.”
Every spiritual practice begins with and incorporates the body — like the sacraments? Yes, there are words, but at its heart, baptism is splashing in water — cool, even cold, water running down our foreheads, and over our brows, and off the tips of our noses. Sometimes babies even scream at the top of their lungs, a very physical response to a very physical act. And yes, there are words spoken at the table, and yet Holy Communion is essentially a piece of bread taken in your hand and a sip of wine sliding over your lips and down your throat. Communing with Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, is a physical act: eating and drinking.
Perhaps these spiritual practices, these sacramental actions, are meant to remind us that the Word is, indeed, made flesh, that the gospel is meant to be embodied. More than meant to be embodied, the gospel only is the gospel — can only be good news — when it takes on flesh and blood and becomes a tangible thing in the world, rather than merely a good idea about God, a lovely theological concept to be debated and discussed. The gospel becomes real only with tears, and feet, and flowing long hair, and kisses, and even body hair.
Could it be that we, like Simon, are made uncomfortable by this story because we also prefer our spirituality disembodied and detached, a mere idea or a feeling in our hearts, rather than so intimately embodied, so messily, even embarrassingly, enfleshed? Every time we are tempted to think that faith is all about what we know, the story of the woman’s bodily love for Jesus calls us back to an embodied faith, calls us to embody the gospel with our own bodies--our hands, and feet, and faces, and tears.
Feet get dirty. Feet are smelly. We don’t want to get our faces anywhere near them. It is not easy work washing dirty feet. It is never easy to do dirty jobs. It is not easy to empty bed pans in a nursing home, or to get too close to a homeless person who hasn’t bathed for a week, or to wade through the stinking muck to clean up a community after a devastating flood. It is not easy to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, or in any way to get face-to-face, face-to-feet, skin-to-skin with the broken, hurting world that God loves and that will only know God’s love when we, like the unnamed woman, dare to embody it in our flesh and enact it with our bodies.
Surely St. Francis was onto something when he said, “Proclaim the gospel always. Use words if necessary.” Our bodies matter. Our physical actions make all the difference in the world, far more perhaps than our thoughts and words. As the old song says, they will know we are Christians not by our words, by our words, but by our love. By our love.
Thomas, Debbie. "What the Body Knows." Journey with Jesus. Web. 9 June 2016.
Sunday, June 5, 2016
As a religious leader called, as Dr. King said, to participate in being "the conscience of the state," I feel compelled to share this statement from a very broad coalition of Christian leaders regarding the current presidential campaign. I do not agree with every conclusion articulated, but with most I do. It is somewhat long, because it is thoughtful, but I urge you to read, and perhaps re-read, it. I believe it speaks the truth, and in a non-partisan, deeply faithful way.
1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:11-17
The books of First and Second Kings tell the stories of the kings of Israel — the good, the bad, and the ugly, and there are frankly more bad and ugly than good. In time God responds to the wickedness of the kings by raising up the prophet Elijah to express God’s dissatisfaction with their faithless leadership. In today’s first reading, Elijah has found refuge — in other words, the prophet of God is a refugee — in a foreign land, Zarephath, in the home of a widow and her son during a time of drought. Because of the woman’s hospitality for the refugee prophet, God provides a way of sustaining the three of them through this time of global crisis.
But then trouble comes. The widow’s son, her only security in the male-dominated social structure of the ancient world, dies. The widow turns on Elijah. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Her words reflect the ancient belief that all bad things that befall a person are the result of some previous sin. So, she thinks, somehow the mere presence of the man of God in her house has brought her sin to light and resulted in the death of her son.
It’s not necessarily how we think about suffering, loss, and tragedy, though if you have ever asked the question, What have I done to deserve this?, you sort of get the logic of it. We have a tendency to seek explanations for why bad stuff happens. [But that’s a topic for another day.]
Elijah takes the boy from the widow’s bosom and carries him to the upper level where he has been staying. I don’t know why this detail never struck me before, but the boy must have been young and small enough to be carried in his mother’s, and then in the prophet’s, arms. That certainly adds a poignant image to the scene. This is a young one!
Elijah then laid the boy on his bed and “cried out to the LORD.” This is no tepid, quiet prayer. Elijah cries out to God, perhaps in anger: “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
His words betray an unfortunate truth: the death of the son will bring calamity upon the widow. She will now be desolate, poor, and vulnerable to exploitation for the rest of her life as a woman not attached to a male-headed household. Elijah’s desperate cry reflects compassion for the woman who will now have to face the very harsh realities of a difficult life.
And notice that his compassion is for an outsider, a gentile, a non-Jew who does not hold to the same traditions or even worship the same God as Elijah. He has compassion for this foreigner who has shown compassion for him as a foreigner. Our holy scriptures are trying to teach us something important here: compassion for the plight of another human being can never be dependent upon sharing the same language, creed, or race. We are never called to show compassion only for those of our own tribe, only for those who are like us. The test of true compassion is our willingness to show it for the stranger.
In fact, compassion is the catalyst to healing in this story. It is the compassionate intercession of Elijah — his passionate cry to God on behalf of the widow — that stirs the compassion of God, who takes pity upon the widow and restores the life of her son. Despite the differences in language, culture, ethnicity, geography, religious identity, gender, and situation in life, the one thing the Widow of Zarephath and the prophet of Israel have in common is compassion. And that seems to be the one thing that they both have in common with God, who acts compassionately to sustain and restore life.
I hope when the gospel was read a moment ago, you heard the obvious parallels between these two stories about widows. The widow of Nain faces the same plight as the widow of Zarephath. Stunned, she walks the same path to the same cemetery where her husband had been laid to rest, watching the pall bearers carry the lifeless body of her only son. Really she walks toward her own funeral. Her life is over. Her prospects for a stable and sustainable life are gone.
Nain was in Galilee, called Galilee of the Gentiles because so many foreigners lived there. To the elite down in Jerusalem, Galilee was the wild frontier up north filled with so many of “those people.” Interestingly, it was where Jesus chose to do most of his ministry. Think about that for a moment: when God chooses to take on human flesh and dwell in the world, God takes up residence in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, pluralistic environment filled with a diversity of languages, customs, attitudes, and lifestyles rather than a world of cultural, religious, and racial homogeneity. The chief criticism of Jesus from his own people is that he associates with and helps strangers, outsiders, and foreigners.
Listen again to what happens when Jesus comes upon this funeral procession: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Seeing the widow’s grief and understanding the desperation of her situation, the Lord’s first response is compassion. The Greek word is splanknizomai. Splankna are your guts. When something really strikes you, when you really feel it forcefully, you feel it in your gut. It is this sort of forceful, passionate, compassionate reaction that Jesus has to the widow’s plight. And so, once again, compassion — divine compassion — is the catalyst for healing. The Lord restored the woman’s son to life and “gave him back to his mother.”
Importantly, this is the first time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus is identified as Lord, as if to say, “this is what it means to be Lord.” To be Lord, to be Son of God, is to see the suffering, the desperate need of humanity, and to respond with compassion. To claim Jesus as our Lord implies a commitment to see the grief, the pain, the desperate need of others and to respond with a Jesus-like compassion. This is discipleship: to see with the eyes of Jesus and to respond with the compassion of Jesus.
Many, many things have changed in the world since Biblical times, but one stays the same: our call to see the world with the eyes of Jesus and to respond with the compassion of Jesus. We began worship today with me sharing announcements about the homeless shelter and Family Promise. These are two ways that we as a community of faith see the needs around us and respond with compassion.
But surely seeing with the eyes of Jesus and responding with the compassion of Jesus has many other implications for followers of the compassionate Lord. What does it look like to see refugees desperately fleeing warfare and inhumane conditions with the eyes of Jesus? Can those committed to practicing the compassion of Jesus support banning people from our country based purely on the religion they practice? What does it mean to see with the eyes of Jesus the plight of those who suffer lack of opportunity in our society simply because of their race or gender? Must it not hit us like a kick in the gut every time we see sisters and brothers excluded, hated, vilified, or subjected to violence because they are different from “us”, and does not their suffering always call forth from us the compassion of Jesus?
In his book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis urges leaders of the church to be compassionate shepherds to a wounded humanity. This message is consistent with what the Pope always seems to say. Wherever he goes, whenever he speaks, to whomever he speaks, including his address to congress last fall, he unfailingly calls us to practice compassion—compassion for the poor, compassion for the hungry, compassion for refugees and immigrants, compassion for addicts, compassion for imperfect people, compassion for the most vulnerable among us.
You get the feeling that for Francis, compassion is what it’s all about. Compassion is what it looks like to follow Jesus as Lord. Which only makes sense. If God desires to heal this broken world, and if compassion is the catalyst to healing, then it only makes sense that this would be our highest calling in life: to learn to see the world with the eyes of Jesus and to respond with the compassion of Jesus.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
Some years ago I traveled to Tanzania with a group from the congregation I was serving to visit our companion parish in the Pare Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania. Because of various travel difficulties, we arrived much later than they were expecting us. Still there was a huge crowd of church members gathered in the darkness to greet us when we finally showed up severely travel fatigued. They led us immediately into the parish hall, where a great feast had been prepared in our honor.
As you know, Tanzania is a very poor country, but somehow they had procured and prepared a goat, the traditional festive meal for welcoming special guests. They brought the goat to the head table where we all sat facing everyone else in the room, and plopped the goat down in front of me. As leader of our delegation, it was my job to receive the goat. The assistant to the bishop fortunately was sitting right next to me, whispering in my ear what to say so that this ritual would unfold as expected. He advised me that I should thank our hosts for the gift of the goat and then — and this is the important part — invite everyone to join in sharing the goat with us. Since it was a gift, I had the prerogative to do with it whatever I wished — even keep it all for myself! Everybody was waiting for me to say the word that would invite them to join in the feast.
I had never before and have never since been treated with such deference and received that kind of special treatment. I’m actually glad for that because it made me feel rather strange. But it did make me wonder about the important, powerful people in our world — presidents, ambassadors, prime ministers, movie stars — who are always regarded with deference and given special treatment. I wonder if they get used to it and even come to expect it?
Roman centurions were accustomed to receiving special treatment. Being the commander of a hundred soldiers with sharp swords and pointy spears tends to encourage an attitude of deference, I suppose. People tend to do what you command without hesitation. The centurion would have been used to his word being obeyed immediately by his soldiers, his servants, and the citizens of Capernaum.
The centurion is a powerful person. He can increase his power by associating with other powerful people. (We would call it networking, right?) When he does a favor for another person, they know that they can ask him for one in return. Even when he does a favor for someone of lower status, the centurion is enhancing his reputation in the community, raising the level of esteem with which people regard him.
The powerful oftentimes help the needy in order to make themselves look good. We could think of many examples from our time, which is to say, the world still kind of works like this. Corporations do community service because they know it enhances their reputation in the community. The same kind of power dynamics apply to us. We often use our power to increase our power.
And that strategy has obviously worked for the centurion. The Jewish leaders of the community think he’s great because he built their synagogue for them.
Since the centurion has done this favor for the local leaders, he knows that they owe him a favor. So when a valued servant falls ill and is near death, the centurion asks the Jewish leaders to contact Jesus on his behalf. Apparently Jesus had a reputation for being a powerful healer in Capernaum. So the powerful leaders go to the powerful healer on behalf of the powerful centurion and say, “This guy is deserving of your help.” One could interpret that to mean, “he did us a favor in building the synagogue, so now we owe him one.”
But just when Jesus is about to show up on the centurion's doorstep, all of a sudden he says no. He sends emissaries to meet Jesus on the road with the message, “I am not worthy to receive you.” The centurion, whom everybody deems worthy to receive this favor from the Jewish community and the Jewish healer, unexpectedly confesses that he is not worthy, not deserving of the reciprocal favor.
And then, through the messengers, he asks Jesus to not even come to his home. Some say that the gentile centurion realized that the Jewish Jesus would become ritually unclean by entering the home of a gentile, but Jesus interprets it as a sign of faith. “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” The centurion has faith that Jesus can heal from a distance. He only need say the word, and healing will come for the servant.
This is important: it is usually the other way around. The centurion speaks, and his word is obeyed immediately by his subordinates, which would be pretty much everybody in the community. The centurion is one of the most powerful people in town. He now makes himself subordinate to Jesus and the power of Jesus’ word. It is this remarkable reversal of roles that Jesus commends.
The centurion willingly takes the lower place, and for that Jesus praises him. This gentile seems to understand what Jesus’ disciples are still struggling to grasp. Jesus’ teaching about the authentic use of power is difficult, countercultural, contrary to expectation. It is about becoming last and least and being servant of all. You recognize those words of Jesus, right? The one who would be first must be last. The one who would be great must be servant of all. It’s about using your power for the good of others and not primarily to benefit yourself.
Throughout his life Jesus demonstrated this very different way of thinking about power and authority. He associated with those who were considered dishonorable, or unworthy, or simply a waste of time and energy. He sought out not those who were well and successful, but broken and in need of healing. He found those who were left out and pushed to the margins and welcomed into his community those who were welcomed nowhere else. He was the helper of the helpless, who could offer him nothing in return. This countercultural view of power reaches its highest expression in Jesus when he gives his own life for the life of the world.
Like many of you I am considerably moved by the public witness of a modern role model who seems to understand Jesus’ teaching and example on the use of power and authority: Pope Francis, who avoids the trappings of his office, chooses a simple lifestyle (insisting on paying his own room bill at the end of the conclave that elected him!), intentionally associates with those who are most vulnerable and least powerful, and uses the power and authority of his position to champion their cause.
We all have power and authority. I know we don’t like that word authority, but it simply means the ability to get something done. And we all have it to some degree — probably more than we realize. We all have some power and authority. The ever-present question is, How will we choose to use it? For our own benefit? In service of others? To advocate for the least powerful and the most vulnerable?
Brothers and sisters, we confess our faith in God by our actions, by our public witness. What we do in our daily lives matters! May the ways we choose to use our power and authority reflect the One who chose to use his power and authority for our good and the good of all. Like the centurion, may we be willing to take a lower place so that the lowly be lifted up as God desires.
Cougar, Charles B., et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C. Louisville: WJKP, 1994. Print.
Williams, E. Louise. “Living by the Word.” The Christian Century. Web. 27 May 2016.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
In my newsfeed one morning this week I found the headline “14 Stress Management Apps to Relax Your Mind & Body.” I glanced at the first paragraph of the story, but didn’t download a single app. I’ve had experience with stress management techniques.
A number of years ago I discovered that I have marginally high blood pressure, a gift from my genetic heritage, and my doctor put me on a low dose of medication. One day I read an article about how meditation (meditation not medication) can reduce blood pressure, so I thought I’d give it a try. Why take medicine if you don’t need to, right? So I would take my blood pressure, spend the recommended number of minutes doing the recommended meditation techniques, and then measure my blood pressure again. Nine times out of ten, my blood pressure was higher after meditating. So I decided I’d better forgo meditating in favor of medicating.
This says something about how we tend to define the word “peace” in our language. We tend to think of peace as the absence of something bad, like stress. When we do not have stress, we say that we feel at peace.
Or we may think of peace as the absence of some other bad thing: war, violence, conflict. Certainly that kind of peace would be a welcome thing in our war-torn world, and maybe even in our own feuding families, peace as the absence of something negative.
Yet when Jesus says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he seems to be saying that peace is not only the absence of something negative, but the presence of something positive, something good, that he bestows on us as a gift.
The biblical word for peace is shalom. Rather than absence of conflict or trouble, shalom means the presence of positive things: a sense of wholeness and wellbeing, a feeling of goodness that fills us, a sense of the presence of God with us. Shalom means harmony or balance within ourselves and between ourselves and the people and the things around us. Shalom means to rest securely in the knowledge that our lives are held lovingly in the hand of God, and because of that, our hearts need not be troubled or afraid.
When we define peace in this way, then it can come even in the midst of negative things. We can know peace even in the midst of hardship, difficulty, stress, and struggle.
Think about the context in which Jesus says these words. It is the night when he is about to be betrayed and handed over to death. Even as he knows fully what lies ahead, he is able to say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” In the midst of a time of great trial and distress, Jesus is able to experience peace and give it as a gift to others.
This kind of peace comes to us as a gift, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We can’t manufacture it for ourselves, or meditate ourselves into it, or for that matter, medicate ourselves into a place of peace, though we sometimes try. It is not synonymous with being happy, or financially secure, or successful, or finding ourselves in a stable place.
One of the things that struck me when I travelled to Tanzania some years ago was the sense of peace and joy that somehow pervaded the Christian community there. Certainly there was nothing in their outward circumstances that warranted such peace, where poverty and hunger were endemic and lack of access to healthcare and fundamental basic services was the way of life.
I remember standing one day in the pastor’s office — the pastor of our Tanzanian companion congregation — as a member of our group wondered about this incongruity between the peace and joy evident in the people and the dire circumstances in which they lived. He answered, “It’s because we know that Jesus is with us. Jesus is present with us in our struggles. Jesus does not abandon us. Jesus gave his life for us. Our future is secure in God’s hands. How could we not be filled with peace and joy?”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” No, the peace the world gives is a peace we win for ourselves through our good choices, hard work, and good behavior. When we have done enough and achieved enough, and when we feel like we have enough, at least for the moment, then we sit back and say, “Ah, peace.” This kind of peace is like vacation, a brief respite from our striving.
But the peace that Jesus gives is different. The peace that Jesus gives lasts. The peace that Jesus gives endures, even through times of trial and stress and difficulty. The peace that Jesus gives has no strings attached. It is not a by-product of our achievements, but a pure gift of God given through the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of reassurance of all that Jesus said, all that he taught and showed us through his life: that God loves us and is well pleased with us, that nothing can ever separate us from so great a love, that God is with us and for us always, no matter what the circumstances of life may bring.
This — this — is the peace we share with one another every time we gather. When we take the hand of our neighbor and say “Peace be with you,” this is not a churchy version of saying “Good morning” or “Hey, how ya’ doin’?” It is a wish, a prayer, for that person to know the peace of Christ right here, right now, this day, this week, in the circumstances of his or her life whatever they may be. With this gesture, with these words, we are reassuring one another of all that Jesus said, of all that Jesus promised. We are reassuring one another that God is truly present in our lives. We are reassuring one another that each and every one of us is beloved of God and our lives held safely and securely in God’s hand. We are extending to one another a peace that enables us to go into this week confident that God is by our side and confessing, along with the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
So now we are going to sing. And then we are going to confess. And then we are going to pray. And then we are going to turn to another, take their hand in ours, and say “Peace be with you.” And because the Holy Spirit is at work in this — through these means, through these words, through these hands — you will receive not merely a friendly greeting from a friendly neighbor, nor the fleeting peace that the world gives, but the deep and lasting peace of God that Jesus keeps on giving through the Holy Spirit. May this gesture remind us of all that Jesus said to us and keep our hearts from being troubled and afraid.
Lose, David. "Easter 6C: The Peace the World Cannot Give." http://www.davidlose.net/2016/04/easter-6-c-peace-the-world-cannot-give/
Sunday, April 10, 2016
“After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias.” The timeframe is rather ambiguous isn’t it? The last thing we’ve heard is the story of Jesus’ appearance to Thomas in the room where the disciples had gathered behind bolted doors — last week’s gospel reading — and we have no idea how much time has elapsed before we come to this week’s story. It takes place simply sometime “after” that previous story.
I have a feeling that maybe some time had elapsed since Jesus’ last appearance, because the disciples have gone back to their previous way of life as fishermen. There they are in the boat, trying once again to make a living and having no luck. They have been out all night and haven’t caught a single fish. They have all seen Jesus in that room where they gather, so I wonder what is going through their minds. Where’s Jesus? What is he doing? Will he appear to us again? Will we ever see him again? Working through the stillness of the night, there would have been a lot of empty moments for those kinds of questions to roll around in their minds.
Then just a few moments after daybreak, they see a figure on the shore, who calls out to them, “Not catching any fish, are you?” “No,” they reply. “Try casting your net on the other side of the boat.” Which they do. What have they got to lose, right? And then they are amazed by a catch that strains their net to capacity — a 153 fish! Augustine said that God created 153 varieties of fish and interprets this passage to mean that all of creation comes to serve the risen Lord.
In any case, the disciples somehow recognize Jesus in all this abundance. Maybe because Jesus is always mixed up with abundance. It seems to follow him around.
Or maybe it is the diversity of the catch. All types and sorts of people found welcome in Jesus’ presence. Maybe that extends to fish too!
But what’s extraordinarily different about this post-resurrection appearance is that for some reason the disciples obey before they recognize the Lord. When he tells them where to cast their net, they do it, even though they don’t recognize him yet. This may sound a simple thing, but think about it: obedience precedes recognition. And in obedience they then recognize the Lord.
Albert Schweizer in the book for which he is most famous (The Quest for the Historical Jesus) comments eloquently on this:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings, which they will pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.
How do we know who Jesus is? How do we encounter him in our time? In obedience. In doing the things he asked us to do. Love one another. Serve those in need. Care for the hungry and the poor. Welcome all people, especially the outsider. Forgive one another. It’s not like we need to know Jesus and then do these things, but that we come to know him, come to recognize him, as we obey the commands he has given us.
Earlier this week Pope Francis tweeted (yes, gotta love a pope who tweets!), “I encourage you to bear witness to Christ in your personal life and families: a witness of graciousness, solidarity, spirit of service.” It is in obeying Christ’s command to serve — in our personal lives, in our families — that we come to recognize him.
Another extraordinary thing about the amazing catch of fish is its diversity — 153, symbolic of the great diversity of fish created by God. We should read this as symbolic of the mission of the church. In obeying the command of Jesus to love and to serve, the church will embrace a great and abundant diversity of folks — all types and sorts and conditions. And the net will not be torn despite the vast number and variety of fish. The unity of the church can be maintained even amidst its great diversity.
As I was leaving the church one night this week, I was struck by the diversity of people and activities taking place in the building. One of the younger Heartland Choirs was rehearsing, learning to make music with one another. Some of their non-singing siblings were sitting in a room doing homework. Some of their parents were sitting together chatting. A couple of families were in another room learning how to shop for and prepare nutritious meals on a budget with an instructor from ISU Extension. And another group sat in silence in another room engaged in contemplative prayer.
What a great diversity of activity practiced by a diverse collection of people all under one roof. It struck me as symbolic of the great diversity of the church, which we can bear and not break because we are the church, we are the community that does what Jesus commands us to do. And when we are doing what he asks us to do, we can bear all the diversity and difference that it brings.
The second scene of today’s gospel reading shows Jesus welcoming the disciples on shore and feeding them breakfast, a substantial meal of fish and bread to sustain hungry workers who have toiled through the night. Symbolic of the mission of the church, do you think?
Yes, Jesus will sustain us for lives of faithful obedience. Jesus feeds us with his Word and with his very life communicated through bread and wine. Fed and sustained by his grace, we have the sustenance that we need in order to be obedient to his command in our daily lives. And as a community, as a congregation, he provides the resources that we need to do the loving and the serving that he commands. Jesus never asks us to do anything as a congregation that he has not already given us the resources to do. Jesus will sustain us for the work of loving and serving that he asks us to do.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the third scene of today’s gospel story, the scene where Peter experiences the forgiveness of Jesus. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Clearly Peter’s three yeses are meant to parallel his three nos, his triple denial of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. His denial of Jesus is met by the forgiveness and reconciliation that he experiences from the risen Lord.
And then notice how he is commissioned by the Lord for a task. “Feed my sheep.” Three times Jesus repeats the commission, the sending, the command to love and to serve: “Feed my sheep.”
Might we see a parallel again to the mission of the church? Of course. We are fed. We are forgiven by the gracious presence of the risen Lord. And then we are sent to feed his sheep. To seek the lost. To care for the hurting. To lead the vulnerable to safety. To be good shepherds in our daily lives in obedience to Jesus’ command.
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” You might say that Jesus asks each of us this same question everyday. “Do you love me?” And we answer that question with our lives. We answer that question in our relationship with our children and parents, our spouse, our friends, and co-workers. We answer that question in how we spend our money and choose to use our time. We answer that question when we forgive others and when we do not forgive others. We answer with our lives, every day, Yes and No.
“Do you love me?” asks Jesus. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks you. May our answer be, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Cousar, Charles B., Beverly Gaventa, et. al. Texts for Preaching, Year C: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV. Louisville: WJKP, 1994. Print.
Sundays and Seasons. Augsburg Fortress, 2016. Web. 7 March 2016.