More Than Words

Linda blog pic

We have family that has a place in Rockport and I took my younger son out fishing one evening about 10 years ago- just the two of us- and we caught a big one, reeled it in, didn’t know what to do with it, sure didn’t want to touch it, so we threw it in a small cooler and slammed the lid and cut the line. Took it back to the house. My mother was there- everyone else was gone- she didn’t want to touch it either. We thought about just throwing it in the freezer- let it freeze to death- but we didn’t want it to suffer.

So we called the guy next door. “What’s it look like?” he asked. I described it. “Don’t touch it!” he yelled. “It’s a hardhead. I have a scars up the side of my left arm from one of those things- their fins are poisonous. Throw it back- and be careful!” So we did.

Next day, Tom and I decided our son needed a better experience fishing- so we went out on one of those tourist fishing boats- that would practically guarantee a fish for him. So, we joined 25 other passengers led by a guy who looked every bit like a real life pirate- I’m serious- Nice guy, though. We all got our identical rods and reels, identical bait, and dropped our lines in the water and the fish started flying in the boat. Everyone was catching Redfish, Grouper, Yellow snapper- everyone except us.

It got to be a joke with the people around us. We changed sides, we changed bait. We got nothing. Finally, a nice man next to Matthew said, “Son, the next time I get a bite on my line, I’m going to give you the rod and you reel him in, ok?” Matt was so excited. It didn’t take 2 minutes before he got a tug- a big one! “Whoa! He’s a big one. Here you go, son- reel him in.” So Matt pulled and reeled in the line. It was a fighter. Finally pulled it up over the rail and dropped a good sized fish on the deck.

About 10 passengers were watching- we were becoming famous for being the ONLY people on the boat who had NOT caught a single fish- so, surrounded by cheering, our lead pirate yelled, “Wait! Don’t anybody touch it. It’s a hardhead! And it’s a big one! Gotta throw it back!” (Oh, by the way, NO ONE else on the boat caught another hardhead) It didn’t help that when we left, the pirate speaking over the loud speaker said, “Sorry to the whole McDermott family- the only three people on the whole boat who are leaving without one fish. Never seen that happen- three people- and all in the same family.”

So, I’m a little sensitive about fishing stories. But, there’s another reason today’s story bothers me. It reminds me of my own bad habits- my own human nature. Maybe its true for you. That we are such creatures of habit that any kind of change- even for the better- even when we really want it- is really, really hard for us to accept. People don’t like change- even in themselves. Even when they are hurting.

Look at this story. The disciples of Jesus, just one week, one week after the absolute miracle of Easter- have gone back to life as it had always been- as if nothing had changed. Nothing had changed at all. That bothers me. Let’s go back and look at the end of John’s gospel. Actually, it almost seems to have two endings. Our scripture reading this morning comes from chapter 21, but if you read chapter 20- about the empty tomb, about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, then to the disciples in the upper room- twice, the second one with doubting Thomas- the end of chapter 20 definitely sounds like the end of the Gospel.

After all that, it says: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book- but 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.” Sounds like a good place for an AMEN to me!

But then, here comes Chapter 21- another story. Wonder why John tacks on one more story. Seems like a P.S. One week later. Just one week You get through Easter, the resurrection of Christ, the appearances, and this “blessing”, and you think the gospel has ended and then the next thing you know, here we are with Jesus cooking up breakfast on the beach!

Now here’s the troubling part: What are the disciples doing? what is the reaction of his closest companions, the ones who witnessed his teachings and healings, his unbelievable, triumphant resurrection, his victory over the powers of this world, over the power of death- what are they doing in response just one week later? They’re fishing!!!! They are doing exactly the same thing they were doing when Jesus called them the first time. Now, doesn’t that bother you? Bothers me.

I like the way Bishop Will Willimon phrased it, “Oh, it was back to the sweet, anesthetizing calm of Monday morning, back to the normal. ‘It was a good campaign while it lasted”, somebody said, “didn’t get him elected Messiah, but..’ Somebody else said, ‘you know the exorcisms and the healings and the raisings from the dead, that was interesting for a while, but… let’s go fishing.’ Back to the sweet normality of life before Jesus.” Never mind that that sweet normality was pretty miserable. Familiarity trumps hope most every time.

I think it’s exciting to see the church packed to the gills on Easter Sunday and then half empty on the week after. We walk through Lent- Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday- and all the Sundays in between- and emerge to the glorious celebration of Easter with full orchestra, a packed house- and then, back to the sweet normality of life before Jesus, the anesthetizing calm of Monday morning, the comfortable old familiar. Now, I want to be clear- I am not about to criticize the people who come to church twice a year- Christmas and Easter. At least they’re coming and hearing a good word. I do think they’d get a little tired of hearing sermons on the same two stories, though. Whatever.

But what about the rest of us? Do we experience Easter and then, back to the old familiar? At least you’re here today. James Forbes, preacher at the Riverside Church in New York, once preached an Easter Sermon whose message I’d like to re-phrase just a bit: “If your life has not been changed, then Easter has not completed its work in you- yet!” If your life has not been changed- utterly changed inside and out- then Easter has not completed its work in you- and I love the added ending- YET!

We like what is familiar, even if it’s not good. Seems to be human nature. The Hebrews followed Moses through the Reed Sea, leaving slavery- slavery!- behind them onward to the Promised Land- and when they find themselves wandering in the wilderness for a while what do they do?! They want to go back to Egypt- to being slaves! “Hey, at least we knew what we were doing!” The paralyzed man Jesus found lying beside the healing waters- “why don’t you get in the water”, Jesus asks him. “I don’t know- guess I just got used to sitting here watching others get healed and never really thought about doing something different.” And these disciples- the ones who had witnessed more astounding things in three years than most see in a lifetime, the ones who literally walked with the Son of God- saw him crucified, dead, and then resurrected and appearing right in front of them, commissioning them to go and be his body, his hands and feet in the world, doing what he had done to heal and renew and bless this world and what do they do? They go fishing! Back to the same old grindstone. And that bothers me!

There’s a poem, written by Portia Nelson – it’s about her struggles in life. Its called, There Is A Hole In My Sidewalk: Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. Chapter 1. I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. . .I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out. Chapter 2. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out. Chapter 3. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I fall in . . . it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately. Chapter 4. I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it. Chapter 5. I walk down another street.

It’s a great poem- often used with those struggling with addictions. And for a lot of us we think, “well, that’s dumb- why would you keep falling in the same hole!?” But, friends, we do this. God knows we do this. We are wronged by another and over and over, we refuse to forgive and then wonder why we can’t find peace. We climb to the top of the ladder and over and over, we let no one get in our way and then wonder why we can’t ever experience the love of God. We keep ourselves so preoccupied with busyness, day after day after day, that we don’t take to time to pray, to worship, to study, to serve and then wonder why we can’t feel God’s presence. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I don’t know if it was Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein who said that, but its pretty on target! Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And we are really good at stubbornly holding on to what is familiar, even if it’s not good- even if its sucking the life out of us. At least its familiar. The disciples go back to fishing. We go through the soul searching of Lent and the exuberance of Easter and then, no sooner than we can blink an eye, we are back to the same relationship problems, the same feelings of dissatisfaction, the same addictions, the same bad habits- and we’re shocked that nothing changes. “If your life has not been transformed- then Easter has not finished its work in you- YET!”

But John tells us one more story. Back to the routine- Jesus comes one last time. So, after being out there all night, all night fishing, as the sun is beginning to rise over the lake and they are just starting to gather in their nets and call it a big failure- they hear someone call out to them from the shore, “Hey, kids! Caught any fish?” And when they get to shore, there is a charcoal fire, fish on the grill, and bread in the basket. Be careful not to miss the symbolism here- that charcoal fire? The last charcoal fire mentioned was in the courtyard where Peter was hiding after Jesus’ arrest- the place where Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. And the loaves and fishes? Remember a time when 5000 gathered and there wasn’t enough to eat- but when the small offering of 5 loaves and 2 fishes passed through Jesus’ hands it became more than enough for all to go away full? And then, another time when Jesus broke the bread and blessed it and gave it to them- they’ve seen this before.

This breakfast on the beach is a meal of forgiveness, a meal of remembrance, a meal of re-uniting these disciples to become the Body of Christ in the world with these words, “Follow me”.

What would it TAKE for Easter to be at work in your life?

Jesus asks Peter three times- do you love me. Peter answers, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. But Jesus doesn’t stop with the words. Jesus is offering something more to Peter- more than just speaking the right words, having the right beliefs, writing the perfect essay- its more than words, Peter. Its LIVING. Its EASTER working in you- on you- transforming you to love. What would it TAKE for Easter to be at work in your life?

It’s a tough question. I know it’s a hard hitting question for me. Much easier to go through Easter disguising the challenge of Easter with cute bunnies and colorful candy (don’t get me wrong- I love that stuff)- but it can be a smokescreen to avoid the real question of Easter. Much easier to go through Easter disguising the challenge of Easter by getting all bent out of shape, arguing with our brothers and sisters in Christ about what really happened at the resurrection- but it can be a smoke screen to keep us from the real question of Easter.

We can have all the right words and profess all the right beliefs, we can even wear a great new Easter outfit, but if your life has not been transformed in some truly tangible way, then Easter has not finished its work in you, in me- YET. Easter means through the death defying power of God’s love, you and I can love deeply enough that there’s even room for an enemy. Easter means through the death defying power of God’s love, you and I can offer genuine forgiveness and grace even when it isn’t deserved. Easter means through the death defying power of God’s love, we can be the Body of Christ, a force of healing and goodness in this hurting world. And if we are not there, then Easter has not finished its work in you, in me, YET.

Let me end with a paraphrase of John’s ending for this beautiful gospel: And the Word, the creating power of God, became flesh- and it lived among us. And that creating power of God made flesh was full of grace and truth. And from that Word made flesh, you and I have all received grace upon grace. And now… through our believing…our loving… our giving over our lives to following the ways of Jesus, we will know LIFE, true and abundant life. And you and I can be made an Easter people even yet. Amen

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