Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Charcoal Fire and Forgiveness: Sermon for Easter 3C

We have a lovely story today in this gospel selection, but I will be honest, during the time I was thinking about this precious gospel passage, I was also mourning the loss of Rachel Held Evans, far too early at the age of 37. Her beautiful, passionate voice helped lead so many people who had been burned by the Church back to being open to belief, and although I never met her, her words and her witness meant so much to me. I was thrilled when, like me, she found her way to the Episcopal Church from the rocky shores of evangelicalism.

Her beautiful writing about the importance of story was something I've been thinking about since the news of her death this morning hit me.

In her last book, she spoke of the importance of story in helping us to find our own meaning in the Bible, regardless of the vastly different culture and circumstances we find ourselves in from the people who produced these texts.

She wrote,

Why do bad things happen to good people? Will evil and death continue to prevail? What does it mean to be chosen by God? Is God faithful? Is God present? Is God good?
Rather than answering these questions in propositions, the Spirit spoke the language of stories, quickening the memories of prophets and the pens of scribes to call a lost and searching people to gather together and remember:
Remember how in the beginning, God put everything in order and made the whole cosmos a temple? Remember how we are created in God's image, as stewards, not slaves? Remember how Adam and Eve disobeyed, how Cain and Abel fought, how all the people of the earth grew so rebellious and cruel that God regretted creating the world in the first place? Remember how one family's faithfulness was enough to save them from the Great Flood?
Remember how God promised an elderly Abraham his descendants would outnumber the stars? Remember how Sarah laughed? Remember how God chose a peopleless nomad, a second-born son, a stuttering runaway, and a little shepherd boy to create, to liberate, and rule a nation? Remember how that nation is named for a man who limped from wrestling with God?
Remember how God saw the suffering of a banished Hagar, the unloved Leah, and the oppressed Hebrew slaves? Remember how Pharaoh's mighty army drowned in the sea?
Remember the desert? Remember the manna? Remember the water from the rock?
Remember how it is our God who said, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)?
Remember how this God has been faithful? (1)

I thought about God's faithfulness, perhaps especially in the midst of heartbreak and loss, as I though about the story of Peter we heard just now. So how can we view Peter's story?

Peter’s head was swirling with thoughts, and his heart was churning with emotion. He needed to get away. So he decided to say he was going fishing—and of course, half of the other apostles immediately jumped in, demanding to come too.

It was torture. All he wanted was to be left alone with his failures—but instead he spent all night listening to the chatter of his fellow-apostles, who didn’t seem to notice he wasn’t his usual, impulsive self.

All he could think of was the red glow of that coal fire, and the reflection of that glow in the faces all around him as he had denied again and again that he knew Jesus. And then the rooster had crowed, and his heart had sunk like a stone, and he had run away.

He would never forgive himself.

Jesus had made a terrible mistake in claiming that he could be the head of the group, the leader of the apostles. He couldn’t continue Jesus’s work in proclaiming the good news of Jesus! He couldn’t even stand up for what he believed standing on a side street with a bunch of strangers.

Dawn came and, on top of having to endure PEOPLE all night long in that little boat, they hadn’t caught a damn’ thing. It was hot, and it was still, and the beer had run out a long time ago. It was the perfect combination of conditions for someone determined to be miserable, and it almost gave Peter a grim, black sense of satisfaction.

Then, just about dawn, some guy on the shore had started calling out advice—and if there’s one thing a fisherman can’t stand, it’s some yahoo giving advice from the comfort of shore. “Cast your net on the right side,” the stranger had called. Oh, sure, THAT must be the problem.

But they hauled the nets up, sorted and rolled them, and then cast them on the right side of the boat. For a moment, the nets just sunk out of view into the gloom. And then, when they started to haul it up, the resistance caused the boat suddenly to tilt to one side. As soon as they had shifted their weight to right it, John had yelled out that the guy on shore was Jesus. He sounded so sure that Peter squinted hard at the stranger—and he recognized the slope of those shoulders.

Peter’s heart leapt to his throat, and he did the only thing he could think of—he made himself presentable and jumped over the side. It seemed like it took just seconds to reach the shore. Dripping, he took the hand Jesus offered as he flopped through the rushes, but then dropped it like it was hot. He saw that coal fire, burning merrily, and remembered. 

He had no right to expect anything other than condemnation. He had denied his Savior three times to save his own neck, and he deserved nothing more than to be cast out.

Instead, he got breakfast. Breakfast, and forgiveness.

One of the things that is most striking is the ordinariness surrounding Jesus’s encounters with his followers after his resurrection in the gospel of John.

Jesus appears so ordinary that no one recognizes him at first. Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener just outside his empty tomb. The other apostles have to see the wounds on his body to recognize him—and some even demand it. And now, here he just shows up on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, another name for the Sea of Galilee.

And, once again, it is in a simple meal that Jesus communicates so much. Jesus himself has provided the fire, some fish, and the bread—and invites them to contribute too, just as we do to this day in the Eucharist. As the apostles struggle to get the boat to shore dragging their bulging net, some of them remember that time along that same shore that Jesus had fed a multitude with just a few fish and a couple of simple loaves of bread.

So often, we expect to see Jesus surrounded by the miraculous. That expectation fools us, though, and makes us forget this most important fact that Jesus himself alluded to time and again in his teaching: Jesus is almost always found where we least expect him, because he is most present to us as one of us-- the stranger offering us advice we don’t want to hear. The hungry elderly man choosing food over medical care. The homeless person seeking shelter and community who feels she’s been cast away by anyone she has ever loved. The refugees fleeing the only home they’ve ever wanted for the probably unfriendly shores of a foreign land where they may never be accepted.

Jesus’s parable of the king judging the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 makes it clear that Jesus is among us, and that’s why we keep missing him so much. We don’t expect to see him in the stranger who says unexpected things. We don’t expect our work as disciples to be doing the boring dirty work of putting down our nets around the lost, the forsaken, the broken, the hurting, the desperate. But we are wrong in that.

I just returned from two days in our nation’s capitol, meeting with faith leaders and political leaders across the spectrum to talk about the importance of humanitarian assistance both at home and abroad in eliminating hunger, malnutrition and lack of medical care to the most vulnerable populations among us. It was thrilling to hear people of all stripes commit to supporting concrete action in providing assistance in the holy work of peace, compassion, and generosity that reflect our values in the world. In our Christian tradition, the words of Matthew 25:37-40: “Then those who are righteous will ask him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and gave you a drink?’… Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” Blessings are only truly blessings if they are shared.

In my free time, one of the blessings of this trip was to be able to spend some time in meditation and prayer at the Washington National Cathedral, one of my favorite holy places. Besides sitting near the Space Window, which contains an actual moon rock, I spent some time praying noonday prayer in the Chapel of the Resurrection in the lower level of the Cathedral for two people hovering on the edge of this life, one of whom I never actually met.

This chapel features beautiful mosaics along the walls which depict scenes from the resurrection, and so it is the perfect place to be during our glorious 50 Days of Easter, since many of the scenes depicted there are from our gospel readings in John during this season. Tonight’s gospel was one of the featured scenes there. The mosaic along the front wall of the chapel depicts the scene we just heard described, with the risen Jesus is standing on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias pulling up their bulging nets, filled with every kind of fish—the net filled, straining, but not breaking.

Those nets have been empty all night—and they remind me of the growing desperation that many proclaim as the number of people who profess faith in God and who attend religious services continues to shrink. Empty nets, empty pews.

If our nets are empty, perhaps it’s because we are putting them down in the wrong place. Perhaps we need to remember to cast our nets down where the fish are. No longer can we expect the fish to swim right up to our boat and hop in. And really, was that ever how it was, or just how we’ve thought it was?

That scene is a reminder to all of us to put our nets down where the need is the greatest. And be willing to joyfully take part in the work of discipleship-- the reason why we're here in the first place, really. We're reminded of that at the end of our gospel, because the reading ends with two simple words: “Follow me.” Simple, but not easy, as Peter and the apostles and as you and me all know.

As we continue with our celebration of Easter this weekend, which will include another joyful baptism tomorrow, I hope you take some time to pray about where God is asking us, as both individuals and as this parish and as this diocese, to cast our nets. And that we can all then be bold enough to cast those nets far and wide, moving from invitation to action. I pray that you listen and respond to those two simple words as they are specifically directed at you in your life.

I pray that you hear the loving voice of Christ urging you to cast your nets wide that you may know the abundant love of God and share it with others, as we all seek to say yes to that call to follow Jesus in faith, empathy, and hopefulness.

Christ is all around us, and it is in the ordinary things that he is most at work in our lives, and he doesn’t always show up wearing a nametag.

Jesus feeds us, and asks us to contribute, to share in the offering that he himself has exemplified. This is what the resurrection life means—the simple acts of fellowship, charity, forgiveness and generosity that bind us together in the name of Jesus, and through which we testify to the world of his great mercy and lovingkindness.

Jesus meets us where we are, but his abundance moves us beyond what we could have ever imagined in ourselves, restoring our faith in ourselves and each other through his faith in us to entrust his work of reconciliation into our unsure hands.

It is in the ordinary that the true miracle of Christ’s love plays itself out for us in each moment, whether of joy or sorrow. We have all been called, like Peter, to proclaim our discipleship—and all of us have had times where we have failed. But not a word of blame is spoken by Jesus to Peter, or to us. Just a simple question: Do you love me? And then he feeds us, body and soul.

Each time Jesus asks, one of Peter’s denials is blotted out. Do you love me? Jesus asks, and he already knows the answer. Then let down your nets, and gather all you can. Draw the world to Jesus in your words and actions, and in your love most of all. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed, or about the net breaking. The net of faith is strong enough to hold everyone. Don’t worry about your own failures and shortcomings and doubts—know that you are beloved of Jesus, beloved, and worthy, and called.


Preached at the 505 at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO, on May 4, 2019.

John 21:1-19

(1) Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, p. 11.

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