Sermon: “Feed My Sheep” [John 21:1-19] (5/1/2022)

What do you do when life keeps throwing you curveballs, when you wake up every day to a new reality?  After settling into a pattern of working with Jesus to teach and heal, suddenly–boom!  Jesus is arrested and executed.  Then, as you’re trying to wrap your head around that reality–boom!  The word comes that Jesus is alive again.  Then, back in the upper room–boom!  Jesus appears alive again to you and your friends.

For Peter and the other disciples those first days after Jesus’ resurrection, it probably was like a bomb going off every day.  Boom!  It reminds me of a recent service where one of our young ones kept dropping their bottle on the floor–Boom!  Every time, people nearby jumped.  Yeah.  It must have been a little like that for the disciples.  Boom!  Trying to adjust to a new reality every day?  It must have been exhausting.  

What’s the one thing you long for when life keeps changing, keeps throwing you curveballs?  You want something familiar, right?  Something you don’t have to think about.  Something you just do because your body knows how to do it.  The familiar comforts us.  

Which might be why Peter says, “I’m going fishing.”  He was a fisherman.  Catching fish is what he knew.  Before Jesus called him to “follow me,” Peter made his living fishing.  When push comes to shove, when life hands you one change too many, going back to work that is familiar–yes.  It’s comforting.  So, Peter goes fishing..and takes a few of the other disciples with him.

But maybe during those three years of following Jesus their fishing technique had gotten rusty.  Peter and the others “fished all night and caught no fishes.”  Then someone (whisper, It’s Jesus) appears on the shore and asks how their fishing is going.  “Zero, Beach Person.  We’ve caught zero.”  The person on the beach tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  The abundance of fish swimming into the nets nearly overwhelms them.

That’s when someone adds two and two and comes up with four.  “It’s Jesus!”  Boom!  Peter is so excited he dives into the water and swims toward Jesus, leaving his companions to haul in the nets heavy with fish.  No worries, though.  Peter makes up for it later when Jesus asks them to bring some fish to the breakfast he’s prepared.  Peter hauls the whole net-full all by himself.

Two-plus years into the pandemic–that we might be able to call an endemic now?–two years after an onslaught of curveballs, of working every day to adapt to new realities, perhaps we can relate a little to where the disciples were that night fishing in their boat.  How many times in the last two years have you said, “Nope.  That’s it.  I can’t make one more change.  Just give me the TV remote and a carton of cookies and cream ice cream and leave me alone.”?  

Yes.  The familiar brings us comfort.  And short respites where you aren’t having to do anything new are healthy and important.  In the context of faith, we call that practice Sabbath.  But… growth –for individuals and for communities–growth requires change.  Adapting to new realities–that’s what it means to be alive.

If adapting to new realities is a sign of life, then we’re full of it!  (Full of life!)  We’ve been through so many changes; we’ve had to adapt to so many new realities, sometimes daily.  And, y’all.  As a congregation, you have done an amazing job of adapting to new realities the past two years.  For a congregation to get itself through a pandemic without pastoral leadership for most of that time?  That’s part of why I accepted the call to be your pastor.  Because there is something vital, something phenomenal in the DNA of this congregation.  You can adapt.  You want to grow.  You want to thrive.

And…with all the changes that have happened in the last two years–especially, the times we haven’t been able to meet together…meeting together is what churches do, right?  Robbed of that?  Yeah.  All faith communities have and continue to struggle with how to nurture community in ways other than physically meeting together.  But now?  We’re getting closer to how things used to be.  The temptation, of course, is simply to do things how we’ve always done them.

But here’s the thing.  Sitting in our old fishing boat…casting our nets the same way we’ve always cast them…doing things the way we’ve always done them…many of those techniques no longer work.  We can work as hard as we know how doing what we’ve always done–things that worked very well in the past–and then, at the end of the day, have nothing to show for it except sad, droopy, empty nets.

Church is changing.  The biggest change, perhaps, is the way in which we’ve expanded our understanding of “congregation.”  Congregation used to refer to people who came to the church building on Sundays and attended gatherings during the week in person and served others in the wider community together–in person.

Now, some people who used to attend worship faithfully in person attend faithfully online.  Others have found us online and have never–maybe never will–set foot on our property.  For everyone joining us virtually today, we’re glad you’re here!  The Board of Stewards now meets in person once a quarter, then by Zoom the other other months.  Some committees, I suspect, will continue to meet online, simply because it’s easier.  It also helps the planet by reducing carbon emissions.

What does this more expansive understanding of “congregation” mean for us, a church intent on growing and thriving?  After all that’s happened in the last two years–the pandemic and, now, a new pastor, how do we figure out how to do and be church now?  

Maybe we can do what the disciples–Peter, in particular–do:  follow the risen Jesus.

After serving the disciples breakfast–which includes both fish he provided and fish they brought themselves–Jesus takes Peter aside for a private conversation.  The last time Jesus and Peter interacted was just before Jesus’ death…that’s when Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, even as Jesus was being led to his execution.  When the cock crowed–the sign Jesus told him would signal his denial–Peter realized what he’d done and wept bitterly.

John doesn’t tell us why Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him.  One tradition holds that, in asking the question three times, Jesus is inviting Peter to confess his love for Jesus three times, thus neutralizing each denial.  There’s something about that interpretation that feels right.  Chances are good that Peter had some residual baggage from his denial of Jesus.  Clinging to that old baggage was going to hold Peter back from doing the new work that needed to be done.  Perhaps in asking the questions, Jesus was inviting Peter to release the old baggage so that he’d be better prepared to help Jesus’ followers after Jesus left them.  

As we seek to find our way forward, to reinvent our faith post-pandemic, I wonder if we have any old baggage?  We’re human beings.  And not only are we human beings, we’re also part of a community–OF COURSE, we have baggage!  What baggage do we need to let go of in order to free ourselves to find our way forward as a faith community?  I just got here, so I’m not going to hazard any guesses about your baggage.  I am acquainted with my own baggage… It’s a tall task, isn’t it?  Letting go of baggage.  But, oh, if we can, it will free us!

Free us to do what?  “Feed my sheep.”  “Feed my lambs.”  “Feed my sheep.”

This was Jesus’ point, the point of the whole morning with the disciples:  to give them a new vision, new marching orders, a new way to follow him.

Let’s think about this a minute.  Jesus was raised from the dead, right?  Surely, he could have etched a message in the tomb’s stone wall on his way out, right?  “Disciples’ To-Do List:  Feed my sheep.  Feed my lambs.  Feed my sheep.”  He probably could even have etched those little check-off boxes to the left of each task.

But that’s not what Jesus did…because finding their way, living into their new reality, figuring out a new way to follow Jesus in their changed circumstances…it takes time to do that, doesn’t it?  It takes time to assess all the changes, to jettison our baggage, and to envision what following Jesus will look like now…and into the future.

So.  Here we are.  Two and a half weeks into our journey together as pastor and congregation, two years into our life-altering journey with Covid, on the brink of a whole new way of following Jesus.  What’s our vision for moving forward?  How will we feed Jesus’ sheep now?  Two times this month we’ll LITERALLY be feeding Jesus’ sheep.  How else might we heed Jesus’ call to feed his sheep?  Which techniques will continue to work?  Which tried-and-true techniques that used to work will leave us with sad, droopy, empty nets?  Who will we be now, United Church?  Who will we be now, Jesus-followers?  Who will we be now that Jesus is risen and living among us?

What are we going to do now with these nets we’re holding in our hands?  

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2022

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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