Preaching a gospel of inclusion in a world overwhelmed by hate and fear: A sermon for 5 Easter C, 2022

On Thursday morning, I remarked to Parish Administrator, Christina, how strange and wonderful it felt to have other people in the offices. JF was working away on various projects in his office, and our new Communications Coordinator, George Decker, was at work in his. It’s been a long time since we’ve had that many staff in place. As we begin to build relationships and establish camaraderie, there’s the excitement that new things are bubbling up, new opportunities, new life. 

Thursday was also probably the best day to enjoy the beauty of Spring. With the high temperatures this past week, the bulbs and flowering trees won’t last long; but I was at least able to get a couple of photos of the crabapple and redbud out in the courtyard.

But our hope and excitement is tempered by the reality of all of the uncertainty and problems we face. Over the weekend, the shootings that left 20 people injured in Milwaukee after the playoff game and the news from Buffalo of 10 killed and three more injured in a racist shooting attack. The perpetrator was radicalized to white supremacy and great replacement theory, once a fringe notion that contends white people in America are being replaced by people of color. Now, it has been taken up by media personalities and by politicians.

We watch the ongoing, senseless war in Ukraine and the horrific human suffering it has caused. Our record high temperatures ought to remind us of the climate crisis that is unfolding across the planet. Reports this week that the pandemic has cost a million lives in the US alone and that it has laid bare and exacerbated the inequities in our society and across the globe. There are also more local effects. Among the long-term changes intensified by the pandemic is the long-term decline of Christianity in the US, with church membership and attendance (virtual or in-person) falling precipitously in recent years. Our downtown was hollowed out by the pandemic with empty storefronts on our streets and the likelihood that many office workers will never return to full-time in-person work.

There’s so much more I could add—the rise in gun deaths, suicides; the shortage of baby formula; the exhaustion we all feel so much of the time. We are a society on edge, and our anxiety and fear leads us to lash out in violence and anger.

Contrast that with the vision cast by our reading from the Revelation of St. John the Divine. While it is a complicated text, full of violence and symbolic imagery that eludes interpretation, as we approach its end, we are presented a vision of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and new earth. At the heart of that vision is God, a God whose home is now with mortals, a God who comforts mourners and ends suffering. It is a vision that may inspire and comfort us as well.

But before that vision becomes reality, there is work to do. In the reading from Acts, we see that work taking place, and the conflict that such work often initiates.

For many of us it’s a familiar story. This is its second appearance in Acts. The first time, in chapter 10, it is told by the narrator. Now, in chapter 11, we have Peter’s version of it, testimony, as it were presented before suspicious and skeptical believers when he has returned to Jerusalem from his travels. Peter has a vision of a cloth descending from heaven, filled with all sorts of unclean, that is to say, non kosher animals, and a voice from heaven commands him, “Take and eat.” 3 times this happens and each time Peter refuses. 

Just as the vision comes to an end, there’s a knock on the door. The Roman Centurion, himself the recipient of a divine vision, has sent for Peter to come preach to him. Peter does and during his sermon, the Holy Spirit descends on the assembly. Peter’s version of the story leaves out  what happened next, that he baptized everyone in the household. 

Peter’s speech is in response to questions from some of his fellow believers in Jerusalem. But we should be clear on the issue at stake. Even though we have this dramatic vision of a sheet filled with all sorts of unclean animals and a divine command to take and eat, the issue at stake was not about food rules or about baptizing Gentiles. It was about Peter eating and presumably also staying with Gentiles.

To be clear, this is something of a false problem. While first-century Palestinian Jews were concerned about eating certain foods and about the idolatry that was widely practiced in Hellenistic culture, there were no clear rules or bans on interacting with Gentiles—such bans would have been almost impossible to maintain in the ethnically and religiously pluralistic Roman empire. This was even more true of Jews living in the diaspora, Alexandria Egypt or even Rome.

What we do see reflected here is something of an identity crisis brought on by the rapidly changing events and community. As the Holy Spirit takes the disciples out of Jerusalem into the world, baptizing Ethiopian eunuchs, preaching and baptizing in Samaria, visiting the house of a Roman centurion, there emerges this fundamental question of who are we, and how do we maintain our identity as we embrace these new people and go into new places? It is a question that preoccupies much of the book of Acts and much of Paul’s writings, as he sought to find a way to include Gentiles equally and fully alongside Jews in the Body of Christ.

In a time when White Supremacy runs rampant and has overtaken much of one of our political parties, and baseless, incendiary claims that the Federal Government is sending baby formula to refugees and immigrants at the expense of white suburban families, the message that God shows no partiality needs to be proclaimed as loudly and urgently today as Peter boldly proclaimed it before the community in Jerusalem.

We Episcopalians don’t do a particularly good job of incarnating inclusive community—we are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, over aged 50 and our efforts to do so at Grace are made more difficult by the lack of diversity in our city and county and the ongoing, systemic racism and marginalization of communities of color.

Still, we have done some good work. Over the last eight or nine years, our Creating More Just Community has helped us address the racism in ourselves, our church, and community. It has built relationships with African American churches and organizations; and through its work with MOSES, has advocated for criminal justice reform. Similarly, our Native American initiative has explored the history of US relations with Native Americans and developed ongoing relationships with a number of Native American groups and individuals. And the outreach committee has committed itself to supporting our neighbors across the square at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

These are all small steps, for our congregation and for our community and may feel terribly inadequate in the face of white supremacists spouting replacement theory nonsense in manifestos and on tv and the internet. We may feel helpless to counter white supremacists shooting down people of color in malls or on the streets, or as they gather for bible study in churches. But Jesus’ words in the gospel, “love one another as I have loved you” ring as true today as they did two thousand years ago. He is with us laying down his life for us, for his friends, and for his enemies. And he calls us to do the same.

Our burdens seem so heavy, the world’s pain so intense, that we may lose heart and hope. We may feel alone and abandoned

But we are not alone. As we watch events unfold around us and around the world, as we move into an uncertain and challenging future, may we be assured that the Holy Spirit is with us. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter guides us, strengthens us, helps us to discern our way forward, to respond to the world’s needs and helps us to love one another as Christ loved us, to deepen our relationships with each other and to reach out to the neighbors we have never met.

Charcoal Fires, 153 fish, and Discipleship: A Sermon for 3 Easter C, 2022

3 Easter

May 1, 2022

Friends, I love this gospel story. It’s full of fascinating details that invite speculation. There’s the 153 fish—what a strange number! I’m sure you can imagine how much has been written about the significance of that number. There’s the detail that apparently Peter was fishing in the nude and put on clothes in order to swim to shore. There’s the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Strange to begin with, but even stranger when you consider that Jesus uses two different words for love in the questions he asks Peter—again, think about how much has been written about that!

There’s more to puzzle over. For one thing, this whole chapter seems like an addition to the gospel. Chapter 20 ends with a beautiful summation that sounds like the perfect way to end a gospel: 

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.

Then, it’s like, “Oh, I forgot. I gotta tell you this other amazing thing that happened! 

I don’t know whether it’s a later addition. If it is, it is carefully written to connect this story, this resurrection appearance, with the rest of the gospel. I’ll just give you a couple of examples. Nathaniel is mentioned here. The only other time he’s mentioned is in chapter 1, when Jesus calls several of the disciples. There’s the charcoal fire; mentioned here and in chapter 18. There’s a charcoal fire in the courtyard outside of the high priest’s to them, and is the location of Peter’s third denial  of Jesus, when he hears the cock crow. 

I would like to pause and reflect on the significance of the confluence of those two things. With Nathaniel, we are drawn back to the original story of the calling of the disciples. In John’s gospel, the location of that initial call is not clear. All we know is that Jesus is walking. We may conclude because of the presence of John the Baptist in the story, that these calls are meant to be taking place in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. The disciples mentioned are not quite the same. Several are unnamed in chapter 21; there are the sons of Zebedee, who are not mentioned in Chapter 1; and Simon Peter, who like Nathaniel, is mentioned in both places.

However, the presence of the Sons of Zebedee; and the location of the story in chapter 21, the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee bring us back to the story of the calling of the disciples in the synoptic gospels. There, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, working in their fishing boats.

What I’m getting at here, is that this story is about call and discipleship as much as it is about the appearance of the Risen Christ. Simon Peter, at that other charcoal fire, denied Jesus and turned away from following him. Now, at this charcoal fire, he is called again. As he denied Jesus three times, now Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and then gives him a task or responsibility, to feed his sheep. After the third question and answer, and an allusion to Peter’s martyrdom, Jesus commands him, “Follow me!”

But perhaps the most significant parallel has to do with the location—the Sea of Tiberias or Sea of Galilee. It’s mentioned here, and in chapter 6; where it is the site of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. And it’s a similar meal on both occasions: bread and fish. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the jumping off point for Jesus’ great discourse on the bread, an extended reflection on the meaning of the bread of the Eucharist, Jesus as the Bread of Life. Jesus says there: 

When we think of Christ’s resurrection or the presence of the risen Christ, we tend to think of those gospel stories: of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ in the garden or the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples in the upper room. We tend to think of those spectacular events.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Or for another spectacular appearance of the Risen Christ, consider Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus; struck down, struck blind; transformed from a persecutor of the Gospel to an apostle of the Gospel. We may not consider Paul’s experience quite like those gospel stories. But Paul did. When he describes it in I Corinthians 15, at the end of his list of the appearances of the Risen Christ, Paul writes, “And last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, … but by the grace of God I am what I am.”

Gathered around that charcoal fire, eating bread and fish; the disciples were in the presence of the Risen Christ. They might have wanted to linger over that meal, to enjoy being in his presence and being with each other, to rest after a long night’s work. 

But Jesus had other plans. He took Simon Peter aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” And three times, he said in response to Peter’s affirmation, “Feed my sheep.” Relationship with Christ, experience of the Risen Christ is not just about, or primarily about, our own spiritual experience, our own personal faith. It is about what we are called to do for others. To feed them, to offer them daily bread and the bread of life. 

But even more. It had never occurred to me before this week as I was preparing this sermon, and I don’t know how many times I have read this chapter; discussed in classes both as student and teacher. It had never occurred to me that in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ last words are to Peter, after he tells him to “Feed my sheep.” He says then, “Follow me.” He will say it again to him a few verses later, “Follow me.”

Think about it. Where was he going? In the synoptic gospels, of course, the story ends not with resurrection or resurrection appearances, but with Jesus’ final departure from his disciples, his ascension, to the right hand of God, as our creeds say. In the gospel of John, that’s not quite the case. Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” Follow me, away from here into the future, into the unkown.

Jesus says to us, Feed my sheep. He also says, “Follow me.” He is calling us to follow him, into the future, into the uncertainty of the world in which we live and into the world that is being made. He is telling us to follow him as disciples, making disciples. He is calling us to gather around charcoal fires and tables,, to encounter him in the breaking of the bread and in the community gathered. He is calling us to follow him, into the unknown, into the world. Let us heed his call and follow him.