Who Is My Neighbor?

Aloha friends.  I’ve recently returned from 2 weeks’ vacation in Hawai’i (O’ahu) and am between assignments.  I’ll be starting the first part of my first call in Washington State in August, and until then I’ll post as able.  Today I preached at midweek worship at the ELCA Pacifica Synod office, on the text for this coming Sunday.  I hope this breaks the story open a little more for you.  Blessings.

Sermon Notes – Pacifica Synod Office Midweek Worship, July 10, 2019

Vicar Mary Shaima

Text:  Luke 10:25-37

Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Dear friends, grace and peace and the wind of the Spirit be your rest and your guide this day.  Amen.

I’m honestly not sure if there is a more familiar parable in all of Scripture.  We know it generally as “the good Samaritan.”  It has been the topic of endless interpretation, both from a theological standpoint and from its relative place to human life.

It’s such a familiar story that we run the risk of not really hearing it.  We can almost recite it from memory; certainly we can paraphrase it from memory.

And the risk of not really hearing it means that we can tune out and miss the subtleties that are always present in Jesus’ parables.

So I was intrigued when my first glance at the Sundays and Seasons page for this Sunday summarized this lesson as “parable of the merciful Samaritan.”

Merciful.  Not “good.”

I thought about that for a while, and the more I did, the more sense it made.

Particularly in the context in which we find ourselves today.

Because the other big takeaway from this story is the question Jesus elicits from the lawyer: “who is my neighbor?”

And we are utterly inundated with examples all around us of where this question needs not only to be asked, but to be answered.

In our neighborhoods:  who is my neighbor?

In our cities and towns:  who is my neighbor?

In this Synod: who is my neighbor?

At the border: who is my neighbor?

In the places of suffering and oppression: who is my neighbor?

Jesus’ teaching method is brilliant here.  By way of storytelling, he prompts the lawyer to answer his own question.  Who was neighbor to the man?  The one who showed him mercy.

The one who showed him mercy.

Not the one who was “good.”

That’s a value judgment we’ve put on the Samaritan.  And when we consider the standing of Samaritans in that society, it’s a value judgment that speaks more to redeeming his standing as “other” than to his innate character.

You see, “good” is a term that is utilized by the dominant power structure to describe those who adhere to the structure’s rules.  If you’re a “good” student, you’re following the rules and getting good grades.  You’re not making trouble.

If you’re a “good” citizen you’re voting, obeying the laws and not making trouble.

If you’re good, you’re not making trouble.

But as we know, the trouble with not making trouble is that it just covers up more trouble.

The Samaritan in Jesus’ story was unconcerned with whether he was welcome, or whether what he was doing was “ok” with the powers-that-be.  He was merciful to the man who had been attacked.

The Samaritan did what needed to be done: he showed mercy to a fellow human being who was suffering.

I submit that the most pressing places where we might be merciful today are in the situations of migrant detention camps.

If we are “good” then we will stay away.  We’ll “stay out of ICE’s way”.  We won’t interfere.

As we have seen, this is not merciful action.  Rather, it is enabling action – enabling evil to continue unchallenged.

Jesus is clear on this.  Scripture across the board is clear on this.

I don’t need to remind you of all the places we’re told in our sacred texts about what God expects of us when it comes to the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee, the migrant.

In those expectations, the concepts of welcome and mercy are constant.

But it’s not always that we find ourselves in the role of the Samaritan as mercy-giver.

Sometimes we are the Samaritan as the outcast.

Sometimes we are the wounded person.

And I think it can be helpful to consider this story from different perspectives so that we don’t fall into a trap of easy platitudes and lofty exhortations.  So we don’t default to the most honorable role in the story.

If I think of myself as the wounded person, who would be my equivalent of a Samaritan giving me help?  From whom would I recoil in horror, seeing their face through my pain?

Can this story help me see them as neighbor?

If I’m the Samaritan as outcast, maybe I’m finding myself having to explain at a protest or in a community action how I live my faith, because the folks around me fear they can’t trust me due to the behavior of certain so-called people of faith.

Can I see through this story that my actions are critically important, that whether or not I stand with the oppressed says more than any words I might use?

And what about the innkeeper?

The one person in the story about whom we hear almost nothing.

It’s interesting to note that the word usually translated here as “inn” is pandocheion – which literally means “all are welcome.”  When we think “inn” we think about the one in the birth narrative, right?  That’s a different word, translated more accurately as a kind of guesthouse.

But here the author of Luke has Jesus making a distinction.  This is the “all are welcome” inn.

(Having run a B&B, I’ve gotta say: that’s kind of a risky thing to name your inn.)

Isn’t that just like Jesus: use a play on words to open our minds to a picture of the peaceable realm of God.

This All Are Welcome Inn is a place of hospitality and healing, of respite and rest, of wholeness and of renewal.

It’s a place to which we bring people, and to which we are brought.  Where the Samaritan is not questioned about his motives, and the wounded man is tended and healed.

It’s a place – but it’s not a place.

And herein, I think, is one of the great challenges for the church.

We are quick to think of this place, this “All Are Welcome Inn”, as an actual physical place.  (Specifically, our church.)

But I am certain that God is bigger than that.

I don’t think this inn is so much a place as it is The.Actual.Peaceable.Realm.Of.God.

It is a way of living in the world that cares for all, and allows oneself to be cared for as well.

Dr. King called it “the Beloved Community.”

If we imagine God’s peaceable realm as the inn, and Jesus as the innkeeper – then I suspect our answers to the question “who is my neighbor?” might have some bearing on how the world sees and experiences the inn.

Jesus’ reputation precedes him as the innkeeper.  I’m more and more aware of how people generally have a pretty accurate picture of what Jesus said and stood for.

And the words I hear from them tell me they are looking for the inn.  They are looking for that place where being “merciful” completely eclipses being “good.”  They’re looking for that place where their hands are needed at the table.

And they are looking for that place where “neighbor” is not only the whole human family, but all of creation as well.

Who is my neighbor?

It is the person living next door – but it is also the person I’ve never met, who has just arrived as a refugee on the other side of the country.

Who is my neighbor?

It is the charter member who cares deeply about every aspect of church life, and it is the person who likes coming to church, but doesn’t see what the point of membership is.

Who is my neighbor?

It is the person with whom I completely agree – and the person who argues with me on every single topic.

Dear friends, when we answer that question, let us follow the example of the Samaritan.

Let us be merciful, instead of good.  For such is the kin-dom of God.

Amen.

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The Spirit is on the loose

This was my sermon today, my last Sunday at St. Andrew Lutheran Church.  I preached on Acts, because it’s such an incredible story.

John 14:8-27

8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace and the wind of the Spirit to you this day, from our empowering God through Jesus the risen Christ.  Amen.

Even though I’ve never met your new pastor, Pastor Jeffrey Nelson, I know why he really wanted to start his ministry among you on this day.

You couldn’t wish for words as inspiring as these, if you’re a pastor just starting a call in a new place.  Not the words of the gospel story, though they are very inspiring too.

I’m talking about our story today from Acts.  This wonderful story of the Spirit coming in

no uncertain terms and rushing through those gathered.  “Spirit” in Hebrew is ruach and it’s pronounced while breathing out.  Very much like a breath.

But let’s be a bit honest here: this story might be great, but it might make us uncomfortable too.  People speaking in tongues?  Little tongues of flame sitting on their shoulders?  Seems more like one of those Pentecostal kinda churches than a gathering of faithful Lutherans.

A stereotype, yes.  But in many places, it’s absolutely true.  We are a little afraid of the Spirit.

And maybe we associate the word “Pentecostal” with a definition of “weird and out there” but I want to make a case that the Spirit is moving in our world in more places than we can possibly count.

And St. Andrew is one of those places.

The action of assembling a call committee and embarking on a call process is an action that invites the Holy Spirit to come into that process, into this place, and stir in us what she will.

I am here to tell you, the Spirit has been at work at St. Andrew.  And I think I’m also here to WARN you that the Spirit has been at work, and continues to work, at St. Andrew.

The Holy Spirit of God will never work in a way that harms you.  This is a promise we have from God, who keeps promises.  The Spirit WILL, however, generally move in a way that draws you out of dark places, places that are safe, and places that keep you from being fully who God created you to be.  Because that is the deep and powerful desire that God has for each and every one of you.

One of the realities of living in Southern California is that it isn’t hard for us to hear another language spoken around us.  Our geographical reality dictates that we most frequently hear Spanish:

Nuestra realidad geográfica dice que con más frecuencia escuchamos español.

So consider what it must have been like for all those gathered “in one place” as our Acts lesson tells us.

Instead of everyone having to learn one particular language, God spoke through the disciples, to those gathered, in their language.  In a way they could hear and understand.

For us, this might be the equivalent of finding someone in a foreign country who speaks English.

I’ve had some interesting experiences with language.  I have something of a natural lingual ability and one of these days I’m going to invest in Rosetta Stone and bring my languages back up to fluency.

I remember being in France, working on using my 7 years of French classes, and being THRILLED when I understood the folks I spoke with and they understood me.  Well, after I said “parlez lentement s’il vois plait” (speak slowly please).

And I recall being in Mexico and adding to my Spanish vocabulary every day while we were out fishing on our captain’s boat.  Como de side en español?  He added to his English vocabulary as well.  Como se dise en ingles?

In these situations, when the comprehension, the understanding happened, things immediately jumped to a deeper level.  Relationships formed.  Walls crumbled.  In the Mexico example, more than ten years after the last time we fished with that particular captain, he happened to be on the beach in front of our hotel one afternoon.  We didn’t see him, but he shouted “amigo!”  And just like that we were reunited with this old friend.

That is how the Spirit prefaces everything the Spirit does with, to, around, in, and for us: “amigo!”

I wonder – if we keep that in mind, that the strange and amazing things the Spirit seems to bring to us might not seem so off-the-charts.

After all – as the Scriptures say, God knew us in our mother’s womb.  God has counted the number of hairs on our head.  (I lose enough hair each day that I must be keeping God pretty busy.)  God’s infinite ability to know us doesn’t put limits on who God calls us to be.

God and the Spirit are calling us into the fullness of our identity in God.  Which involves being pulled out of comfort zones, out of unhealthy patterns, and into life.

Life lived fully is what God desires for us, dear friends.

I have been honored to be able to spend the last six months with Elyse and Natalie as they made the final lap of their journey towards confirmation.  Affirming their faith, the faith in which they were baptized.  Taking on the promises their parents made long ago, for themselves now.

And it’s been a fruitful time together as I’ve watched these young people lean into the identity God carved out for them.

When I read their faith statements this week I was struck by how perfectly each reflects its author.  And I realized that sometimes the Spirit is at work in very quiet ways, as well as big and noisy ways.  Whatever it takes for us to experience life lived fully.

[pause]

I have been told by many of you that you feel very fortunate that I have been here for the last several months, with my particular skill set.

There are a few things that I need to make quite clear:

I had no idea that St. Andrew would need a bridge pastor.

I had no idea what was going on in your lives and on the property.

I thought that my previous careers were more marking time than anything of any importance.

It was not until I stepped foot on this campus that I began to understand how my work in the past would become incredibly valuable as you navigated a varied assortment of paths.

Bishop Andy did not recommend me based on my work experience.  He simply thought I would be able to help you through a transitory period.

Dear people, the Spirit was at work in Bishop Andy, in me, and in you. 

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

God is at work here.  You are on the precipice of what is to come.

And so of course I understand why Pastor Jeffrey would have wanted this to be his first Sunday with you.  To be able to read those words from Acts:  Prophesy.  See visions.  Dream dreams.

But I am thrilled that he gets to walk into a situation where this is already happening.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and supplied an impressive number of quilts to folks worldwide who need some warmth.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and developed an after-school Homework Club.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and figured out how to use a land-locked part of your property for a beautiful and bountiful community garden.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and opened your doors for a wide variety of community groups.

Where you’ve seen visions, and dreamed dreams, and took a huge step into the unknown to lease a part of the property to the preschool.

And what God has in store for you next, I of course cannot say.

But if it bears any resemblance to what you’ve shown me, the Spirit is surely leading you to a place of service to this community in ways deeper and more varied that you could ever have imagined.

I have been with you for the time that God has determined.  Now Pastor Jeffrey comes alongside you to walk with you on this journey.

I pray for you on that road.  Traveling mercies.  An easing of the path when that is needed.  But I also pray for you, traveling challenges.  An intensity of the path when that is needed.

Because you have shown me tremendous resilience, determination, and deep, deep compassion and care for one another.

And I think it’s very likely God is calling you to bring that to the community on this path.  Whatever you choose, you have my prayers.  Amen.

That We May Be One – With Those Unseen

This week, I explored the relationship between the Acts lesson and the gospel lesson, and why they might have been selected to be read together.

John 17:20-26

20[Jesus said,] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our gracious God, through the risen and uniting Christ.  Amen.

This passage from John’s gospel today is the end of what is known as Jesus’ “farewell discourse”, his lengthy speech to his disciples at the Last Supper.  Here in particular, Jesus prays that his followers would all be one.

How well has that hope gone?

How many times have you been asked, or perhaps heard someone asking, “why should I be a part of this church thing if y’all can’t even get along?”

A fair question.

It’s one that drives our ecumenical dialogues and our interfaith efforts in the Lutheran church.  However, I’m seeing a subtle but interesting reflection of “that they may all be one” in the Acts reading today – not in the baptism of the jailer so much as what we don’t know about what ultimately happens to the slave girl.

Acts 16:16-34

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

This episode with the slave girl is, perhaps, not one of Paul’s finer moments.  Here he and his colleagues are basically getting free advertising and his response is annoyance.  Paul has discerned that this is coming from a dark spirit and commands it to come out of the slave girl, which it does.

Then what?

Paul and Silas are called to account, because the girl’s owners have lost one of their sources of income.

Yet we never hear about what happens to the slave girl.

Now I suppose we could wave that aside, saying “well you know patriarchal society, likely male writers of the book” and so on.  And those are truths about the context here.  But they aren’t any reason to stop asking “what happened to the slave girl?  How do we see her character echoed in our lives today?”

I think this is an intriguing part of this lesson, and may provide a clue as to why it’s paired with THIS particular gospel passage.

“That they may they all be one” is Jesus’ prayer.  Still, this Acts story tells us how societal structures and systems can stand in the way of realizing the fullness of Jesus’ prayer and God’s intent for the world.

Societal structures like that of slavery and class divisions.

Societal systems like those of patriarchy, power and privilege.

And considering this story within those contextual realities gives us a way to think what may have happened to this girl next.

She was a slave.  Was it only for her so-called divination powers?  If so, when she is freed from that particular spirit, was she also freed from slavery?

If so, did she have a family to return to?

If not, what options, if any, did she have?

I think this is where Paul falls short in this story.  His is a human character that is ever-evolving, like all of us.  But to have no apparent concern for this girl after he gets rid of the irritating spirit is something that he is able to do by virtue of his power and privilege.

That said – I don’t think that his eventual imprisonment with Silas is “payback” for his treatment of the slave girl.  Rather, it’s a way this Acts story illustrates an interesting embodiment of Jesus’ prayer “that they all be one.”

For indeed here Paul has found himself literally bound – enslaved – by the power structure of Rome, shackled in a prison cell with Silas.  And while they are praying and singing, the earthquake occurs and shakes the foundation of the prison so that all the cell doors open and their shackles come undone.

And then we have another subtle picture of the impact of power structures.  The “Pax Romana” or Roman peace wasn’t something that that happened because all the planets were aligned and folks were in a first-century version of the Age of Aquarius.  No, it was maintained at the end of a weapon.  This jailer, as the fool of a potential jailbreak, would face horrific punishment from Rome.  But Paul and Silas realize that he is a human being, like them, and they call out to not harm himself.  They are still there.

We know how the rest of the story goes; the jailer and his family are baptized and share a meal with Paul and Silas.  The end of this story reveals that Paul and Silas are actually Roman citizens, and Paul speaks truth to power by insisting on an apology from the magistrates who threw them in jail.  And that apology is received, and they move on.

But what of the slave girl?

I’d like to think that at some point, she might have encountered that community of others who had also experienced a kind of ‘setting free’ once they knew themselves embraced and empowered by the love, the forgiveness, the hope that was theirs as they followed the Crucified and Risen One.

But we don’t know.

And so I look at her very brief cameo appearance here, and I believe it is paired with this gospel to remind us that we are all one.  Jesus’ prayer has, in a way, been realized before he even prayed it.  The interconnectedness of life on this earth means that decisions made on one side of the planet have the potential to impact life on the other side.  We talk about the human family; this slave girl was as much a part of the human family as was Paul.

And so if we are all one, then perhaps the subtext of Jesus’ prayer is that we will continue to live into that state of being.  That we will look for the ones who are forgotten, like this slave girl, not even worthy of so much as a footnote.

In our Acts story last week, we heard about another woman – Lydia, the seller of purple cloth.  She merited a better writeup than did this nameless slave girl; before Paul and Silas headed out of town they returned to Lydia’s house.  That alone – one woman with a name, the other without – says so much about who was considered in and who was out.

Is Jesus’ prayer that we will recognize these inequities, and call them out, and work to reverse and correct them?  That we will become one with these folks in the suffering they experience because of that inequity?

While prayer and worship can lead to the loosening of shackles that are physically visible, what happens when we – or others, for that matter – remain bound in ways that are not readily apparent? What if the prison break story isn’t about Paul and Silas?  (Although in our superhero world, we sure do like a hero.)

What if the prison break is teaching us that liberation is a communal act? Recall that everyone’s chains were broken, not a select few. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer declared: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Our collective liberation requires that we first acknowledge our connectedness.  In Africa, the word is ubuntu – I am because you are.  I am able to walk through my grief because you are walking with me.  I am honored to celebrate your accomplishments because you are a part of my community.

If freedom is the removal of a hindrance and making the path clear – then perhaps liberation is an extension of this, and is the ability to live into that freedom.  The impediments of social structures that are designed to limit and take away freedoms result in a world where the capacity for justice and peace is diminished.

As a result, if Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one is to be realized, then we have a part to play as well.  God’s beloved community must work to make the path clear, to remove the obstacles, to remember the enslaved girl as clearly as we remember Paul and Silas.  Ultimately, our liberation is connected to her freedom.

What about the role of the church in all of this?  How are we called to be communities of mentors and friends and guides to those who have been enslaved by poverty or violence or addiction or grief or mental illness or – any of the innumerable things that hold us in bondage, as our confession and forgiveness reminds us.  We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves; it is God in Christ who frees.

The story of the slave girl surely does not end where the account in Acts leaves us. I can’t help but wonder if you and I are meant to write the ending.

As we consider Jesus’ words, his call to unity in our gospel story this week, maybe this is exactly where it begins: maybe this unity is not so much realized as the result of weighty theological discussions – in the big, headline-worthy summit meetings – but rather in working together to stand alongside those who have been enslaved and are now free.

Perhaps this unity is one of action and of love, lived out for the sake of all who have been set free and are now trying to live into that freedom.

Lived out for the sake of all of us, of course, for we are all also formerly enslaved.

And for the sake of a whole world of people who are yearning for such freedom, too.

How will you write the ending of the story of the slave girl?

How will you write the ending of the story of all those in our day who are unseen, cast aside, marginalized?

Our movement into God’s future will write the ending, in all our varied ways.  For that is how the world will know that God has sent Jesus, and that God has loved the whole world.  By our love in Christ for one another, and for the world.

Amen.

 

 

 

Wearing Purple

Sermon from May 26, 2019, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Whittier, CA.

John 14:23-29

23Jesus answered [Judas, not Iscariot], “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

As has been the case the last few weeks, we have a rich collection of scripture before us today.  A story of a woman’s faith, a vision of the new Jerusalem, and the promise of the Holy Spirit from Jesus.

At the beginning of the Easter season, we were reminded that this season is a week of Sundays, seven in all.  It is a season of abundance and today is no exception.

Let us begin with Lydia – a woman living in Philippi, and we are told she is a “dealer in purple cloth.”  Purple is, of course, a color generally reserved for royalty in ancient civilizations, and Rome was no exception.  So Lydia is a successful businesswoman.  But it’s doubtful she could have been this successful selling only to Roman nobility.

Lutheran songwriter John Ylvisaker imagined the situation of Lydia, borrowing from that well-known poem “When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple.”

At Thyatira in Macedonia there was a lovely woman wearing purple

She had a clothing store, so very popular, and all the women there were wearing purple

(Refrain) So difficult to choose the colors and the hues; Lydia thought the blues very dull

She loved to praise the Lord, and generally ignored the ones who spoke against her wearing purple

I have a feeling we’re all thinking of [congregation member who wears purple ALL.THE.TIME.]  I have it on good authority that Jan did not wait until what the song says, she’s been wearing purple for a long time.  And I think that may be what’s been going on in Philippi.  And these women gathered near the river, friends of Lydia’s – maybe they too were wearing purple.

So it’s rather interesting when Paul is prevented from going where he’d planned, but instead the Spirit via a vision sends him to Philippi in Macedonia.  And Paul is drawn to the river, where he meets this group of women.

St. Paul and all his friends, in holy confidence, went looking for the women wearing purple

He found them deep in prayer, and soon became aware that these were Christian women wearing purple

(Refrain) So difficult to choose the colors and the hues; Lydia thought the blues very dull

She loved to praise the Lord, and generally ignored the ones who spoke against her wearing purple

And for all of Paul’s misogynistic reputation, he knows this whole thing is happening because of the work of the Spirit.  Lydia and her household are baptized and she offers gracious and abundant hospitality.  It is a model of church.

Keep in mind, Lydia is female, a Gentile, and rich.  None of these are considered the places where Messiah would reach.  But we’ve started to see those barriers comes down, first with Jesus’ life and ministry and now with the experiences of the apostles.  And we’ve also started to see what the church could be:  a place of real welcome for all, particularly the ones who’ve always been considered “not one of us.”

Our Revelation reading takes this yet a step further: not only what the church can be, but what the church is called to move towards:

“…..for the glory of God is its light…..”

“The nations will walk by its light…..”

“Its gates will never be shut by day…..”

“….. the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal…..”

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

A church where we are led by God’s light, where our doors are always open, and whose people (the leaves) are for the healing of the nations.

It’s a tall order.  But don’t we need this?  Doesn’t our broken and hurting world need this?

We are doing a writing prompt each week in confirmation in these last weeks of the year, and one of the prompts was “imagine a church.”  I wanted them to not be bound by anything, but write what their idea of a wonderful church would be.

Dear friends, you can be joyful in these young people.  Each in their own way, they imagined a church very much like Lydia’s house and the picture in Revelation: a peaceful place, good food, good music, helping all in need, and making everyone feel like they have a place at the table and a part in our work together.

Imagine a church.

When the disciples began their work, as is related in the Book of Acts, they had no idea what they were doing.  None.  No seminary, no online blogs to read, no conferences to help them figure out the next steps.

But Jesus’ words to them in this gospel story are the key – not only to them, but to us:

26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The Advocate will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.

There is a statue in the Riverside Superior Court, in the historic courthouse on Main Street, called “The Advocate.”  It is a statue of an attorney making an argument for his client.  An attorney advocates for his client, or represents their interests, by teaching or reminding the court of the facts of the case.  It is a bedrock of the judicial system in our country.

In our story from Acts we see that the Advocate’s case load is by no means limited to the disciples, but has been expanded.  Paul has been affected, as has Lydia.  We heard last week about Peter’s realizing the breadth of God’s love, thanks to the Spirit’s work in his life.

The Holy Spirit is on the loose in these stories.  We are getting hints of this in these lessons leading up to Pentecost.  Peoples’ ideas of what following Jesus means are being radically re-shaped and re-imagined into something that has very little to do with power and control, and very much to do with love and all the aspects of being together in community.

And I don’t think Jesus is just saying pretty words when he says “don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t be afraid.”

These are very important words to remember.  They were important for the disciples, and they are critically important for us today.  The presence in our world of things that can trouble our heart is undeniable, just as that presence was real in first-century Palestine.

And perhaps Jesus is also making a distinction.  That our hearts ought not be troubled, because they rest in the Lord.  But our spirits – well, I wonder if that isn’t what the Spirit is up to, troubling our spirits for the sake of the world.  Untroubled hearts can make room for the work of troubled – maybe we should say activated – spirits on the path of peace.

Jesus leaves to make room for the Spirit, and in turn to give rise to the community of the church – the movement that will go on to this day, in the midst of messy humanity, seeking to follow Jesus.

Imagine a church.  A church of mutual indwelling.

What would this look like?  It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us – that is, it would look like us being true to ourselves, the people God made us to be.  In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to-earth love. And from another angle, it would look like peace: not just any peace, but what Jesus calls “my peace,” the shalom of God, a buzzing, blooming, fruitful community, coming and going, alive with the Spirit, healthy and whole.

This is the church for which the Spirit seeks to activate us, and towards which Jesus leads us.  We get a taste of it at this table, sharing a common meal, and we are fed with holy food.  Bread for our journey.

A journey of peace from Christ.  What a gift.

Amen.

 

 

All Means All

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”  This is what Peter says when he realizes God’s grace and love are for EVERYONE.  I am exploring more of the Acts text this week, so I’m including that too.

John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our embracing God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

This gospel piece is the last passage of the longer one we read together on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.  This is the text that is pointed every year for Maundy Thursday, and we explored it in detail just over a month ago.  And so while this “new commandment” Jesus gives is the operative phrase of the day, I want to take a deeper look at the Acts reading.

Acts 11:1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Last week at our Synod Assembly we heard a dynamic speaker, Dr. John Nunes, who spoke about how to communicate in divided times.  Like many, he emphasized that relationship is the key, and pointed out that “whoever stops listening to others, soon stops listening to God.”

This is most certainly true.  If I stop listening to other people, I run the risk of convincing myself that I am the only one who’s right, the only one with all the answers.  There’s categories for this kind of behavior in modern psychology.

This is the spot in which Peter finds himself in our reading from Acts today.  He is being called out on drawing lines in the sand, according to his religious tradition, that determine who is welcome in God’s kingdom and who is not.

This is a great lesson, one that holds a lot for us to consider – and a lot of places where we might find ourselves reflected.  I know I sure did.

And Peter’s conclusion is so accurate:  Who was I that I could hinder God?

When Peter utters these words it is a transformative moment for him.  He comes to grips with the understanding that it simply is not possible to put God in a box.

He realizes that the overwhelmingly binary way he has used to move through life to this point will no longer work.  There’s no more either-or.  His field of vision has just been cracked open, and the line he’s always known dividing clean from unclean and sacred from profane has been irreversibly blurred.  He comes face to face with the truth that Jesus’ saving action, God’s amazing grace, is for everyone.  “The Spirit told me,” said Peter, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”  [finger snaps]

Peter goes through this whole vision he’s had – “he explained it to them, step by step” – which makes me think he must have been a good storyteller – and paints a very linear picture of how his thinking is now broad and expansive and inclusive.

In seminary we read a phenomenal book called “On the Mystery” by process theologian Catherine Keller.  She examines this either-or way of thinking as it relates to theology, and proposes a third way, one that is itself “on the way” as Karl Barth insisted all theology is.  Instead of the absolute and the dissolute, she proposes a third way, which she calls the resolute.  It is neither compromise nor midpoint, but an entirely new way of thinking about God.

I read a striking op-ed piece in the New York Times last Wednesday morning, one that read more like a regular article.  It’s called “President Trump, Come to Willmar.”

Willmar, as in Minnesota.  West-central MN, aka Luther Land.

Author Thomas Friedman’s aunt and uncle moved to Willmar in the 40s and opened a steel distributing plant there.  He visited them many times and decided to return to the town to see how it was doing.

I commend this article to you.  I will link it on my blog when I post this sermon later today.  It is a fantastic piece of journalism, one that I’m going to ask your council to read before our next meeting.

Friedman writes:

The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is “flyover America,” where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.

That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.

The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of “leaders without authority”?

These are business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving — even if formal leaders won’t. These leaders without authority check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works. They also network together into what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” to spearhead both economic and societal change.

Willmar has the right answers to all three questions. It has almost zero unemployment. If you can fog up a mirror, you can get a job in Willmar — whether as an agriculture scientist or as a meatpacker for the Jennie-O turkey plant. The math is simple: There just aren’t enough white Lutheran Scandinavians to fill those jobs.

Many of the people coming here for work are people who practice faiths not previously common in these parts, like Islam, Bahai and Buddhism; whose skin is much darker than the locals’; and whose women often wear head coverings that aren’t baseball caps. They also don’t speak with Minnesota accents like those folks in the movie “Fargo.”

Have no doubt, the battle for inclusion is a daily struggle in Willmar and across Minnesota — and in some towns the battle is still being lost. But if you are looking for a reason to be hopeful, it’s the fact that in places like Willmar, a lot of people want to get caught trying.

(Here is a link to the entire article:  Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 5-14-19)

This town has decided to abandon the binary thinking that was limiting its ability to thrive in the 21st century.  It has not come without struggle, and it is by no means perfected, but it IS on the way.

The reality of our world is that many, many things are throwing more of us together with more so-called “other” people, in more places, than ever before.  Things like economic opportunity, globalization, war, climate change.  Perhaps you remember the refugee resettlement after the Vietnam War?  The Lutheran Church was the primary agency assisting in that resettlement.  That’s why Clint Eastwood says in the movie Gran Torino, “Everybody blames the Lutherans.”  [I wear that badge proudly.]

But if you’ve seen that movie, you know what happens.  [Side note, if you haven’t seen it, see it.  It is a great film.]  What happens is that Eastwood’s embittered character is eventually drawn in by the hospitality of the Hmong family next door even after their son violates societal norms and trust.

What is happening in Willmar, MN tells you just how deep this unfolding diversity is going and why every town in America needs to get caught trying to make diversity work — or it will wither, says Friedman. It’s that simple.

Friends, our gospel lesson gives us the most basic and simple of directions here:  love one another as Christ has loved us.

And it’s the second part of that phrase that bears consideration today.  As Christ has loved us.

What does that bring to mind for you?

For me, I think of utterly unconditional acceptance.  Of challenges.  Of encouragement to try something new.  Of an urgent yank backwards so that I am reminded to rest up before heading out again.  And the times of tough love, too.

And I hold all of that with the community organizing template spelled out in this profound article, and I think YES.  YES.  We do not live as Christians by withdrawing into our safe spaces, but rather by stepping out into the world to work with our neighbors near and far to make the world a better place.  As Jesus demonstrated in last week’s gospel, we let our actions tell the world that Christ dwells within us.

We are on the way, dear friends.  And thanks be to God that through all the shifts and changes this world brings, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  For that is the only constant we need.

Amen.

My sheep know my voice

This 4th Sunday of Easter brings us the familiar Scripture passages about shepherds (Psalm 23) and some not-so-familiar, like this passage from John.  What does it mean to actually listen, not just hear?

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from the God who holds us close, through the good shepherd, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

This 4th Sunday in Easter always uses scriptures that illustrate and break open the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd of the sheep.

“Good Shepherd” is a powerful image indeed, one that has been with humanity since we began tending sheep and even today in an urban setting holds deep meaning for us.  It is such a powerful image that there are many churches who have taken it as their name.

Show of hands, who has ever had the opportunity to engage with sheep, maybe in a petting zoo, or if you maybe raised sheep?

I raised sheep myself, in 4H.  I raised market lambs and eventually had breeding ewes too.  I really got to know about how sheep behave.

And like our gospel story today, they did hear my voice and they knew it.  (Now they may have only known it as the one who fed them, but still.)

Over the last few days I’ve been at the Pacifica Synod Assembly with your voting members, Betty Dagen and Kathy Mitzen.  The theme of the assembly was “O Lord, Open My Ears: Listening for God While Listening to Each Other.”

The desire for something around this theme has been building, so it may have been completely coincidental that it dovetailed with this gospel story.

Folks in our synod have been hungering for some practical work, ways to address the difficulty we have in our society of having a constructive dialogue around difficult topics.  We engaged in active listening in 5-minute breakout sessions, we heard from keynote speakers who are specialists in communication across the divides, and we spent time in quiet prayer, listening for God.

In our gospel story, the folks who have come to him – and again, this is better translated as “the religious authorities” instead of “the Jews” – are looking for a quick, pat answer.  Tell us if you’re the Messiah.

Now in all fairness, they are operating within their religious tradition, which also happens to be Jesus’ religious tradition.  But Jesus’ overall message has been and is that he is not the warrior Messiah they’ve been expecting; rather, his work of reconciling us to God is almost beyond scope and description.

But they make a mistake: they say “tell us plainly.”  So he does.  VERY plainly.  So plainly it’s almost rude.  It could almost be paraphrased as, you’re not paying attention.  I’m telling you and I’m showing you who I am but not only are you not watching, you’re not listening.  And that means you are missing out.

This is a little different from the gentle and gracious good shepherd picture we all have in our minds, isn’t it?

But if God’s love is meant to include the entire kosmos, then we do need Jesus to speak plainly about what sort of Messiah he is.

The key, of course, is to really listen when Jesus speaksAs we learned at Assembly this week, listening is different from hearing.

If Jesus’ audience here were to actually listen, with all their senses, to what he was saying, they would remember all they had heard about him, all they had seen him do, and realize that he is talking about being a different kind of Messiah.

Different, because Jesus is willing to let his works be his first and primary witness, instead of any words he might use.  In our modern vernacular, we would say “he walks the walk, not just talks the talk.”

Now this is by no means any endorsement of works righteousness – which is the concept of earning your way into God’s grace that moved Luther to action.  Instead I want to encourage us, as we read last week, to follow Jesus.  What would happen if we let OUR works be our primary witness?  What actions might testify most authentically to the presence of God in our lives?

In Scripture, the shepherd’s task is one with dangers on every side. The shepherd must drive away predators and navigate hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd risks injury, even death for the sake of his flock.  It’s the work and dedication of a shepherd that has made the image one that represents Christ.

Luther Glen Farm was added to the camp in Oak Glen some years ago now, and it’s become a place where young people learn about creation and God’s love for them while working with growing crops and interacting with a delightful assortment of animals.  Two of the goats, Sarah and Nugget, are visiting us today.

Our Lutheran camps are places where young people are encouraged to live lives that demonstrate what God’s love looks like in action.

Like all farms, this one has a dog.  Actually, Luther Glen Farm is blessed with FOUR dogs.

The senior lady is Gracie, an English Springer spaniel.  Her sight and hearing are questionable at her age, but she loves life on the farm.  She gets a senior discount; she doesn’t have any responsibilities.

But the other three dogs are working dogs.  They are Grands Pyrenees, some of the best protector dogs there are.  They are big and affectionate, but they are also vigilant when protecting livestock.  The matriarch dog of Luther Glen Farm, Annie, proved this in the fall of 2017.  She’s the sweet big dog on our bulletin cover today.

Fall is a somewhat quiet time at the farm.  Both the executive directors, Pastor Glen and Lauri Egertson, were off the property on business.  Nate and Anthony and the others were done with their day’s work and were in their quarters.  Pastor Glen arrived back at almost 10 PM, and as he got out of his car, Annie jumped the fence at the retreat center with a rattlesnake in her mouth.

It was still alive.

Pastor Glen raced inside to get his BB gun to dispatch the snake – relocation was not an option.  Annie was barking ferociously at it and had certainly fulfilled her guard dog duties of protecting the herd.

But no one realized what she had really risked until the next day.

The next morning, her face was horribly swollen, and she was having trouble breathing.  Lauri raced back to the farm, and the vet confirmed their worst fears: Annie had been bitten by the rattlesnake, more than once.

She had had the anti-venom vaccine, of course; this is standard procedure in the back country and the mountains for dogs.  But being bitten more than once compromises the effectiveness of that vaccine, and Annie was struggling.  Even with steroid injections and all the anti-venom follow-up that was safe, she was likely seeing the foot of the Rainbow Bridge in the distance.

It was a very frightening several days.  When I arrived with women of my home congregation for a retreat, Annie was still sequestered, only allowing Lauri to be with her.  We had been praying for this sweet, brave dog, and she seemed to be holding on.

At the end of the weekend, I stayed on for a few hours to absorb the beauty and the calm energy of Luther Glen.  Lauri brought Annie up to the retreat center, and she was doing better.  “Don’t touch her face, though,” Lauri cautioned.  Understandable.

Annie and I sat out on the patio in the fall sunshine.  And after a time, she got up and walked carefully around the fenced perimeter, nose to the ground.  I followed her, and we explored the area together.  Eventually she laid down under the big oak tree and went to sleep.  I took that opportunity to help out by pulling some weeds around the retreat center.

Not fifteen minutes later, I came back around the corner and Annie was gone.

“You had one job!!!” I yelled at myself as I grabbed her lead and went tearing down the hill.

But I didn’t need to be afraid.  Annie had jumped the fence and was back down by the herd, checking on their welfare and making sure her younger cohorts were doing their jobs.

She, along with Jesus, is the good shepherd of Luther Glen Farm.  She quite literally laid down her life for the sheep.  And goats, and pigs, and chickens, and so on.  Today, she is as healthy as ever.  And if I were a rattlesnake, I’d stay far away from Luther Glen!

Jesus speaks to us today of the Shepherd’s voice.  It is a voice of promise.  It is a voice that promises stubborn protection and care.  It is the voice the flock hears and knows and follows.  It is the voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain.  And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.  And yet even when those other voices overwhelm; yes, even when we don’t pause to listen – it is always there, inviting and comforting and urging us on.

And in those times when you can’t quite hear it, that is when the tangible, lived witness of others reminds us what it looks like to live with God in your life.  These are times of accompaniment, of walking with others who hear the shepherd’s voice and hold space for us until we can hear, and listen again.

And I am sure that if we listen closely, we’ll hear God’s voice speaking through those selfless actions of others.  For the family of Luther Glen Farm, they hear God’s voice speaking through the bark of a big white dog named Annie.

God is still speaking.  May we be found listening.  Amen.

A Fishing Story

My sermon from May 5 2019, 3rd Sunday of Easter.  Lots of fish.

John 21:1-19

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our generous and loving God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

So as many of you know, I am an angler of many years.  It was one of the things my late husband, and my son and I loved to do together.  We fished down in Loreto in South Baja for years every June and July.  We also had boats from which we fished in San Diego waters over the years.  When I finally sold the house and downsized, we had over 150 fishing rods and who knows how many reels and how much tackle.

Suffice it to say – we loved to fish.

So our story today holds some interest for me.

I’m seeing Peter and some of the other disciples in a bit of a fog as the story begins.  Jesus has said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” and honestly, I think they have no idea what he’s talking about, because they haven’t gone anywhere.  So they figure, well what the hey, let’s go fishing.  And out they go.

Any of you who are anglers are familiar with the next part of the story.  They don’t catch anything.  In the parlance of a fisherman: they get skunked.

Now, keep in mind this has been their livelihood for their entire lives; there are days where you come up empty.  And they’re a pretty short distance from shore when some joker on shore basically calls out “didja catch anything?”

This is long before those flags you could raise on your center console to show folks what you caught – marlin, tuna, whatever.

So the disciples reply that they’ve got nothing.  I’m thinking they’re expecting a little sympathy from the dude on the beach.

Well, dude on the beach then says: “try the other side!”

[withering glance]

Seriously??

As an angler, it’s SUPER annoying to have someone who knows nothing about fishing to tell you what you should have done to catch more fish.  THEY didn’t get up at zero-dark-thirty.  THEY didn’t deal with the boat motor with a bad attitude.  THEY don’t smell like anchovies or whatever bait you’re using.

But I’m guessing the disciples all mumbled, “oh great, one of THEM” – some smart aleck who thinks he’s got the answers to everything.  And so they decide, to keep it simple we’ll just humor him and let the nets down on the other side.  We’ll have the same result and maybe he’ll leave us alone.

Famous last words.

As they begin to haul in this epic catch, they all realize this is not some annoying heckler but JESUS.

Once they are all back on shore, they find that Jesus has a fire going, with fish cooking and bread to share.  Anyone who’s ever had trout from a mountain stream cooked over a fire after a long day can surely identify with this scenario.

And so the disciples gather around yet another table, one that is no more than a circle around a fire, and are fed by the Son of God with all they need to be filled.

And after they are filled, Jesus asks Peter three times “do you love me?”

This has been interpreted in the past to be a sort of ritual by which Peter is absolved of his denials and admitted back into the disciples’ club.  Three denials, three assertions.

It’s an interesting idea, but to me it sounds a little too neat and clean.  Almost contrived.  Almost – conditional.

And if there’s anything our Lutheran theology assures us of, it’s that God’s love IS. NOT.CONDITIONAL.

So let’s look at what Jesus says, after Peter’s three answers of yes.

Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.

What an interesting response to “of course I love you.”

It’s a response that says “ok, then pay it forward.”  Don’t pay me – pay it forward.

And by that simple directive, there is a new way to walk in the world.

Instead of paying BACK we start paying it forward.

It’s a term we’ve heard more and more these days – pay it forward.  It works from the axiom of “it’s more blessed to give than receive.”  And while that is certainly true, I think I’d say that everyone involved is blessed.

Some years ago when I was in seminary, I was the recipient of such generosity.

I was in a tough financial spot.  Probably towards the beginning of the semester, when financial aid awards hadn’t yet been disbursed.  I was desperately trying to figure out how I was going to pay my mortgage and keep the power on when I had no money in the bank.  I posted something on Facebook about requesting prayer that I’d figure out how to pay all the bills.

I got an email later that day from a colleague in North Carolina.  She said “I don’t have much, but what I have is yours.  Let me know where I can send $300 to help you out.”

I was stunned.  I knew she didn’t have much.  I wrote her back immediately and said you don’t have to do this, but I can pay you back as soon as my financial aid comes through.

She replied well obviously I don’t have to do this, but I want to.  And I don’t want you to pay me back, I want you to pay it forward.  You’ll know when the time is right.  Keep that good energy moving through the world.

This is what Jesus is teaching Peter and the disciples: pay it forward.  You honor me best by extending me into the world.  Keep that good energy moving.

And finally, Jesus says to Peter, follow me.

Not “worship me.”  This is such a fascinating distinction.  It shows us that Jesus is about empowering all of us to be his hands and feet in the world, while we worship the triune God.

It’s a reminder that worship is both passive and active.  We have moments in worship of passivity, of sitting and listening to God’s word, and those of activity – offering our gifts, or standing for the gospel acclamation, or actively receiving communion.

In the world, we are active in serving others, and we are passive in resting and listening for God.

To return to the first part of our story today, I wonder if perhaps the disciples were rather passive as they let down their nets yet another time on the left side of the boat.

It’s only by Jesus’ comments that we know they had been fishing off the left side of the boat; he tells them to put their nets down on the right side of the boat.

I want to have us think of these two sides in mariners’ terms, because if we think “left” and “right” we are likely to drop into political categories, and that’s not helpful here.

So the disciples have been dropping the nets on the PORT side of the boat.  The left side of a boat, looking towards the front or the bow is known as PORT and the right side is STARBOARD.

PORT is a word that implies a place where you tie the boat to the dock.  When you come into port, you come into a safe place where you tie up and don’t go anywhere for a while.

STARBOARD doesn’t have any such connotations.

But the word STAR invites us to look out.

We look towards the stars.

And of course, in ancient traditional navigation, the stars are the compass.  “Starboard” is composed of two Old English words: steor meaning to steer, and bord meaning the side of a boat.

You steer the boat by the stars.

And the stars by which the disciples steered their boats are the same ones used by the ancient navigators in the South Pacific.  They are the same ones the crew of the Hawaiian voyagers of the Hōkūle’a use today.  Hōkūle’a is the voyaging canoe that has been sailing the world to keep alive the traditional sailing and navigating ways of the Oceania peoples.

The word Hōkūle’a itself means “star of gladness.”

Likewise, Jesus is our star of gladness.

When we follow Jesus’ invitation to let down our nets on the starboard side of the boat, we open ourselves to possibilities we can’t see.  Looking out towards the stars, knowing as we do now that there is much beyond them we can’t see, we follow Jesus’ lead to step out of what we know and into the place where he needs us to be, so that we too might tend and feed his sheep.

But make no mistake – the place where Jesus needs us to be is also the place where he feeds and tends us.  Where we are held and cared for.  Where we gather as people of God.

People of St Andrew, you are standing on the deck of your boat, holding your net.

Where will you cast it?

How will you steer your boat?

However you answer those questions, I tell you this: Jesus gives you all you need on your way.

Peace be the journey.

Amen.