Kurt Nelson, 04/26/10
This day marks the 4th Sunday of Easter.
A day also becoming know as “Earth Sunday”
And it’s also the beginning of LGBT Pride week at Dartmouth.
So it’s an exciting day for me.
And I am proud to be part of a community,
that can celebrate the resurrection, and the earth, and Pride all together,
though we probably don’t all agree on the convergence of Easter, and Pride, and Earth Day,
we are deep and broad enough to know that these things matter deeply.
And they matter together.
And we can talk about them together.
There’s a whole lot swimming around up here in my head.
A number of disparate ideas kind of shifting and moving.
And I hope that they’ll fall into some meaningful order for us.
but I’ve decided to provisionally title this sermon:
“It all makes sense in my head.”
Now it may not surprise most of you, that I would consider myself a liberal.
I am, after all, the kind of person who’s invited to preach,
during LGBT Pride Weeks, and on Earth Sundays.
And I suppose that, being honest with myself, I’m pretty happy about the label most of the time.
But be sure that mine is a distinctly Christian liberalism.
And there’s room for you there if you consider yourself a liberal.
Or if you don’t.
It’s a perspective, really, founded really in one word,
a word which is at the very center of my faith,
indeed at the very center of our Lutheran Church.
And I hope, of the Christian people as a whole…
and that word is “Grace.”
That simple, but radical notion that all of this is a gift of God’s love,
which we didn’t do anything to deserve.
And the notion that each question we live out,
whether about sexuality, or the use of natural resources,
or anything else,
is lived out in that context of that gift we call Grace.
Now in my own grace‐full liberal sense of the world,
I’ve come to answers regarding big and important questions,
about sexuality and ecology,
which, I’ll admit, don’t often put me in the center of church politics.
And I will occasionally end up in loving arguments with those in church power.
And we go back and forth about ethics, and scripture, and pastoral care,
and congregational life.
And almost without fail,
as they get frustrated with me,
they will say something like,
“well…of course you can say such liberal things,
you work at a liberal college campus!”
And what I seek to explain to them,
and to you,
is that while Dartmouth is indeed a liberal place,
it is not a liberalism that cares much for faith.
And while there’s much religion here,
it cares little for Pride Week, or Earth Day, or contemporary issues.
I work daily with thoughtful young people,
seeking to live a life of service,
who have no desire to talk or think about faith.
I love them, but they are different than me,
and I think they are missing something.
And there are many good people,
seeking a simple Christian faith,
founded on unambiguous answers, and biblical literalism.
I love them,
but their faith is different from mine,
and I think they are missing something.
And it’s a faith think different from the Lutheran Church’s
which , at its best, seeks after a deep faith,
that can live with the complexities and uncertainties of life and scripture,
making use of both our hearts and our intellects.
We stand somehow in the midst of this
with a growing number of people who assume,
for better or for worse that “Christianity”
is synonymous with televangelism and literalism and political conservatism.
Churches like ours –
which are broad enough to gather liberals and conservatives, old and young
into ongoing exploration of life and faith and scripture ‐
We are shrinking.
And being crowded out.
And are easily ignored even, and perhaps especially on college campuses.
And I’m left often to ask myself,
“What have we to say to this mixed up world?”
Standing somewhere in the middle,
of what often seems like a great conflict,
over issues of faith, issues of sexuality and issues of ecology, and so many others.
And so I ask today that we return to this 21st chapter of John.
Because it’s a weird and amazing little book.
And something really interesting happened,
while we may not have been paying attention.
Caught up in all the excitement of the Easter season,
and the change to setting 8.
Two weeks ago, many of you will (hopefully) remember,
that we read about doubting Thomas.
In the 20th chapter of John centers on the empty tomb
And then Jesus appears twice through a locked door –
once while Thomas was present,
and once while he was not.
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
And then book of John seems to be coming to an end…
“30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.
31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and
that through believing you may have life in his name.”
That certainly seems like the end of a Gospel,
but then comes this strange chapter 21.
It’s as if John says,
“Jesus did a bunch of stuff that we aren’t going to write down,
and hope you can believe in him…”
Okay, maybe one more thing…
And so I think this passage gets short shrift.
I can actually remember that my first youthful coherent thought about this story was,
“Fish for Breakfast? ! That sounds disgusting.”
And I’m honestly not sure I had another thought about it again for many years,
since the lectionary always pairs it with Saul’s conversion story – which is a hard one to ignore…
Then, when I got to Divinity school,
and really started to get in there,
we learned that scholars call Chapter 21 the “Epilogue” to John.
And at least to me,
Epilogue always meant the part of the book I could skip,
and still claim I had finished it…
But all of that is too bad, because this is really interesting and important stuff.
It’s a story about crossroads,
for Peter and the disciples as they contemplate their life without their Messiah.
It’s about Crossroads for the Gospel writer’s community,
as the world keeps moving and changing,
and Jesus’ life recedes further and further into history.
And indeed a story about Crossroads for our own church,
as we think about what we have to offer to this mixed up world, standing where we do.
When one studies the bible,
we think about these three distinct periods:
the period that the book is about,
in this case the early 1st century in Roman‐controlled Palestine,
and we think about it’s applicability to our own period –
early 21st century in New Hampshire, for those who may have forgotten.
But also we make educated guesses about the period of the writing of the book itself.
John wrote a Gospel.
Gospels are pretty odd things.
And John is a pretty odd Gospel.
Letters were fairly common,
so we have many of those in our scripture.
But very strange to write a narrative.
Stories of faith were passed down orally,
from person to person, parent to child,
leader to community.
But John wrote it down
And really, we can only guess when and why.
but we can make good guesses about a couple of things:
first, everything there, is there for a reason.
Writing was no easy or cheap task in those days,
and was done carefully.
Second, we can guess that John was written later
than Mark, Matthew, Luke and Acts.
It’s much more theology than history.
Poetic and carefully crafted.
it’s an explicit interpretation of the life and message of Jesus Christ,
much more than it’s a historical account.
and we can guess, based on this, and its language, and some internal clues,
that it was a late book.
Finally, we can guess that it was written for a distinct community,
with distinct troubles.
Now it seems to me the choice to write a Gospel,
speaks to a deep need within the community.
and the choice to add this strange final chapter,
means to me time had passed,
and there was still a need for yet one more reminder.
This is, as I said, a story about crossroads.
A story about transition.
a story about Peter,
the great, but flawed, symbol of the church.
who denied his Lord at a pivotal moment.
and then had seen the risen Jesus.
But as time moves on,
Peter seems to say,
“well, that was fun…but I’m going fishing.”
So he takes off his pants, for some reason,
and heads back to the life he had before Jesus called him.
And I think we can imagine this community,
around the Gospel of John,
wondering about the implications of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
This wasn’t meant to last so long, they thought.
The world was supposed to be made right by this messiah.
But instead it just kept spinning.
Bad things kept happening.
And people kept sinning and dying.
And my guess is this final chapter,
was about helping the community understand their role,
in the long term work of Jesus the Christ.
Which is why I think it matters so much to us,
as we consider our work here and now.
It speaks to us,
Because I think we’ve all had moments,
when the good news meets the real world
and we simply cast our own proverbial ships,
back into the sea of life and its challenges, thinking,
“well…the message is good and all, but I’ve gotta get back to work”
So Peter, pantless, returns to his fishing.
Just like John’s community returns to normal troubles,
and we return to living the chaos of modern life…
And the first thing I think we must notice,
is that Peter, shirking his disciple duties,
isn’t even doing a very good job at fishing.
They haven’t caught anything.
And so too John’s community likely wasn’t flourishing.
And we too likely are missing out on much of what’s good in life…
when we’re so wrapped up in the troubles and details.
It’s not, in the words of W.S. Coffin,
that Christ converts us from real life to something greater than life.
It’s that we’re converted from something less than life, to fullness of life itself.
We aren’t plucked up out of real life,
but rather become better at it.
A life where fish and work and sexuality, and the environment all still matter,
but a life where they are all wrapped up in God’s love and grace and forgiveness, and true life for us.
So Jesus suggests that the disciples cast their net to the right side,
which it seems they had forgotten about.
and the fish appear, 153 of them.
and they notice that it’s Jesus standing on the shore,
with breakfast waiting.
And here’s the second important piece,
That this is a story of conversion,
doesn’t happen because Jesus is standing on the shore screaming,
“Peter, put your Pants on!”
It’s not about the skies opening and a booming voice,
or a litmus test of proper belief.
It’s a simple act of Jesus’ welcoming his disciples into their roles as fisherman,
and offering them a meal on the shore.
A simple gift. An act of welcome.
And they thus come.
This isn’t moralizing.
It isn’t guilting or bashing them over the head.
This is a welcome. And a near wordless welcome,
that brings the disciples back into the fold.
Reminds them how great this grace, this love is…and that they’ve work to do.
The Fish come first,
and then Peter puts his pants back on,
and let’s not take that metaphor too literally…
this meal is the simple symbol of Grace.
God’s love ‐ that gift which we cannot begin to fathom.
And especially in this Easter season,
we are reminded that we are a resurrection people.
A people who believe that the world is a great gift,
full of God’s love,
even when we face its pain, and suffering and hardship.
Even the cross and death cannot overcome this gift, and this love.
Like Peter, and John’s Community, we all need that reminder from time to time.
So finally comes the end of this story,
Where Jesus asks Peter again and again and again if he loves him.
This is the moment of handing over the keys, in John’s Gospel.
a symbolic action, meant to move us forward as Christian people.
Peter is reminded that the work is now his,
and that his job will not be easy.
And John’s community is thus reminded that the work of the resurrection is in their hands now.
Jesus is not the only one who can preach and pray and heal,
and do God’s work.
But rather this is a gift that asks something of them.
And asks something of us.
We are reminded that we are the body of Christ.
We are the ones standing on the lakeshore of the chaotic sea of life.
And we must ask ourselves how we are living and showing and revealing God’s grace to the world.
We, its recipients.
This is a moment in our life‐long process
of learning to believe that this Grace is at the base of our very selves.
Of each decision we make.
Of each argument we have.
When we consider our church,
When we fight amongst ourselves,
we are to be reminded that community is a gift.
When we consider our church’s welcome of gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered people.
When we deal with people who spew hate and vitriol.
We are the voice which reminds the world that sex and sexuality
And when we consider the impact of our actions on the earth,
we are the voice that reminds the world,
that the world is itself a gift.
This is our call –
to stand on the shore,
in the midst of the world, and all its troubles.
And attempt to live into the gift that we have been given,
and share it with the world.
God is working, and working through us.
Grace is real and it’s wonderful.
And if we allow it to form the basis of our lives,
I think it will change the way we talk about sex and sexuality.
And I think it will change our relationship to the earth.
And I think it will change our fragile church community.
These are all wonderful and important gifts,
that we must rightly and smartly use.
And as we ask ourselves,
What have we to offer the world?
The answer can come back to us…Grace.
Grace we have been given,
and Grace we have to offer.
To lowly sinners, like Peter and John,
and like ourselves.
So let us sit down, and make some breakfast,
so we can welcome ourselves,
and the whole world, without exception, into the fullness of life,
of God’s grace.