St. Paul’s Congregational Church
May 5, 2019, Easter 3C
“The Way Forward”
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
We do protect our safe and predictable routines, don’t we. We can dig in our heels, resisting with everything we have. I’m no different, though I have come to realize and appreciate that ministry is a series of disruptions, interruptions, a challenge to those ever present “to do” lists – and that’s a wonderful thing.
I’ve been thinking about one week in particular back in Connecticut – a week that promised to be a full and busy week. Lots to do, people to see, visits to make – I was certainly focused on crossing some tasks off my “to do” list. But it was to be a week that changed my ministry forever – I was pulled out of my routine in a profound way.
The Westover School is a private girls’ high school in Middlebury right across the Green from the congregational church. I was asked to accompany two students on their career shadowing day deep into the inner city of Waterbury. It was to be my first trip out of the comfort zone of Middlebury, a typical New England small town. My resistance was high: I didn’t have time to give a full day. And to be honest, thoughts of the safety of the girls, myself, and my new car kept crossing my mind. I was surprised at how very anxious I was – didn’t sleep too well before our day in Waterbury.
The day came – early in the morning we left Westover and arrived at the St. Vincent DePaul homeless shelter. We walked through the facility, smelled the remains of breakfast, heard the sounds of crying children, and saw some of the guests who were still there. We sat and listened as a Red Cross Caseworker interviewed through an interpreter, 3 women who had been burned out of their apartments the night before. We learned that 4 people slept in 2 beds. We learned that each woman had her first child by the age of 15. And we learned that “they” had names – they had faces. They were real people with the same worries about caring for and providing for their children that we have.
We went on to the St. Vincent soup kitchen where we prepared and served lunch to probably 200 people. People who looked like us. People who didn’t look like us. Children. Men. Women. Very old. Very young. People who met our eyes with smiles. People who said thank you. People who didn’t look at us, who didn’t speak at all. People who came in with plastic containers to take home food to those left at home or to provide a hot evening meal for themselves. As the girls and I dished out steaming, hot lasagna, I heard a voice inside me, “Feed my sheep.”
We left the Soup Kitchen with pasta stains on our clothes, our fingers sticky from canned peach juice, cake, and blueberry pie. We stood on the steps for a minute talking to little children. But then we could leave the neighborhood. We ate our lunch on a bench on the Green in Waterbury and recognized faces of those we had seen at the shelter or at the soup kitchen. We silently watched them gather cans, just sit and watch the world go by, or walk aimlessly down the Green. But they were not just faces now – they were people. They were no longer “them”, no longer “other.”
After lunch, we went to a store front church – the pastor took us on a walking tour of the neighborhood – not an area where I was at all comfortable, especially on foot. But we saw the beginnings of gardens in front yards. We saw a park that would be cleaned up by volunteers. We saw boarded up houses used by addicts and prostitutes. Children came running out to the street to greet us, called the pastor by name.
Finally, we drove back to Westover. My mileage indicator said we’d made a 7.8 mile circle. Inside that small circle we had met another world. The two girls were quiet and reflective on the way back – they’d been jolted out of their routines, their comfort zones too – our eyes had been opened, our hearts had been opened, in a profound way.
The next summer I spent my sabbatical time working in that storefront church at their day camp with that wonderful pastor – I got to know the children and families, many of the homeless population in the neighborhood by name – and they knew mine. This was the beginning of my passion for hands on mission work, ministry with my brothers and sisters in Christ. A life changing day for which I will always be grateful.
I think we can identify with the disciples in today’s gospel reading. They’ve been through a roller coaster of emotions – but where are they now? The disciples are back to doing what they did before they met Jesus – before he called them to be his disciples. They are fishing. How is it possible to sustain the highs, the Easter faith and Easter joy? The disciples had trouble – just like we do. So we, like them, go back to the reassuring routine of ordinary life. Those disciples get into the boat, spend the night on the water, but they don’t catch a thing.
Morning dawns after a frustrating night – they see a stranger on the beach – he calls to them – and tells them to cast their nets on the other side. They do just that and the haul strains their nets and their imaginations – and yet their full nets – and their full hearts – hold. It was then that they recognized the stranger – it’s the Risen Jesus calling to them – and they immediately head to shore.
He meets them – and says to the lonely, exhausted, fearful, depressed disciples, “Come and have breakfast.” Jesus extends the invitation to be fed – an act of extraordinary hospitality – a new day is dawning. A new world is taking form. He turns to them – the same disciples who had denied him, had run away when the going got rough, the same disciples who have failed to recognize him even when he spoke directly to them – and he commands them to feed his sheep. He tells them, if they love him, the way to love him is to care for those for whom he cares. “Follow me” he says.
This breakfast story is for us too: there are some profound truths about life after Easter here for us too, both as individuals and as church.
First of all, if we are to be met and then called by the Risen Christ, the truth is it may not happen on Sunday, here in worship. Oh yes, that happens for sure but it’s not the only place, the only time we meet Him. It could just as easily be on Monday when we’re at work, or shopping, or doing laundry, or taking children to school. Jesus Christ is lord of all – the whole week, the whole of life. The Risen Christ is free and moving. He does not stay boxed in on one day of the week, for an hour at church in worship. He does not recognize the separation that we all tend to make between “secular” and “religious.” He intrudes, comes to where we are, speaks to us, and reveals himself to us – wherever we are. So pay attention tomorrow or the next days when you are sitting at your desk, washing the clothes, sweeping the floor, reading a book; pay attention to those stirrings you feel in your heart – because Jesus is looking for each of us, calling to us where we live our lives. In the ordinary. In the routine of our lives. Just go on about your business, catching fish, or whatever it is you do to earn a living, whatever you do during your days, and Jesus will find you. As night passes and day comes, he comes to us. At breakfast. On Monday! And when he comes to us, he calls us, if we will listen.
There on the beach, Jesus calls the disciples into action. Do you love me? Feed my lambs. Do you love me? Tend my sheep. Do you love me? Feed my sheep. We are called like those first disciples to give ourselves in service to others, our brothers and sisters – and we, like those first disciples are warned too: we may well be taken where we do not wish to go.
God will break into our ordinary lives in profound ways. But so often we don’t even realize how stuck we are in our routines! We don’t even realize that God is trying to break in. What awesome opportunities are we missing? How do we let God pull us away from “the way we’ve always done things”? The good news is, though, God doesn’t quit!
Can you identify a time in your lives when your routine was disrupted by God’s call? Has there been a time in your life when your faith has taken you where you’d rather not go? What happened?
We’re called to love but we’re called to a love that includes action. We’re called to confront our blind spots, our prejudices, called to expand our vision. Called to something new. Called to new life. Maybe it’s not for all of us to spend our days at a shelter or a soup kitchen, or to serve as missionaries in a far away country - but we are called to open our eyes to life around us, to expand our vision to really see. To see the person ahead of us in the grocery store checkout line. To listen to our next door neighbor who is observing a sad anniversary of the death of a loved one. To pay attention to what our children are saying to us – or maybe even more importantly, to what they are not saying to us.
But there’s more here than our individual calls – we have gathered in community as church living in covenant: as we observe this wonderful milestone of 125 years of ministry, we are called to look ahead – yes, we have an aging building; yes, our membership isn’t what it used to be – fewer people involved in the ministry of this church – and the reality is, we’re not alone in this dilemma. The world has changed, hasn’t it!
Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is calling us as church to cast our nets on the other side. Aren’t we promised too, as church, that our nets will be filled? I suspect that those disciples had some reservations after their long night of fishing – but they did as this stranger on the shore asked. And it was then when their nets were filled that they recognized Jesus calling to them.
How are we encouraging a “go for it” spirit which could well allow us to cast our nets in a new and different direction? Those early disciples set aside their hesitation and went for it, doing exactly as Jesus called them. Those early disciples didn’t respond with “we tried that before and it didn’t work.” Or “we can’t do that for whatever reason.” Or “we’ve never done that before.” They listened to Jesus’ call and responded, trusting him, and how they were rewarded!
Here’s the challenge for us all: during this anniversary year we’ve issued the invitation – come grow with us! That invitation isn’t just for the community – it’s for each of us too! We want to grow in our faith, we want to love God and our neighbor, serve God and our neighbor, we want to share this discipleship journey: and to do that, maybe we need to listen harder for Jesus’ call to us – help each other hear that call, empower each other to respond to that call – to cast our nets in new ways – and to experience the joy of knowing we are being held in the palm of God’s hand all the time, in good times and in bad – we want to offer radical hospitality to all God’s people – in other words, the challenge is to listen for and hear Jesus calling each of us by name - he is ready and willing to serve us breakfast on the beach. Jesus will fill our nets more than we can possibly imagine – what an awesome promise that is! What a joyful promise that is! Where is God calling us to offer faith and encouragement, to extend a helping hand to all God’s people in our next 125 years? Let’s find out together. Amen.
Let us pray: Almighty God, you have called us together at this time and place into your church. Deep within we know that you have called each of us by name and that we are your chosen instruments. Give us the courage to step boldly into a future that may lead us to places we do not want to go – out of our safe, comfortable lives. We ask that you give us the power to hear you and then say yes every time you ask. Forgive us when we hesitate and help us to let go of our fear. Help us to embrace with joy whatever path you set before us, for we know that the path you place before us is the path that leads to wholeness, for us and the world. We ask all this in the name of the Risen One, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.