Scripture: John 21:15-25
YesRev. Leanne Walt
7th in our series on Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 Simple Words
We venture on this morning, we venture onto the final leg of our summer sermon series and journey through Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words, but the end is just the beginning. We especially affirm this today as we take up the last movement of his book with a consideration of the word “yes.” Months ago we gathered under the large oak tree on the side lawn to begin with the word “here,” that was our starting point: “Here. Now? Who? You. We.” “Here I am” was the call to communion with one another and with God, but now we have the call to commission, we say “Yes”: “Yes! we’ll go. Yes! We’ll prune. Yes, We’ll pluck. Yes! we’ll follow.” So that the end is just the beginning. As the passing of some months and days has brought us to Labor Day weekend that threshold, that relic of mainline New England Protestantism, that summons us into the new year, we duly sense that the end is just the beginning ~ that this exploration and consideration of the spiritual life is but a prelude to the coming year for our congregation.
We begin at the end this morning, the end of the Gospel of John, that is. Beside the Sea of Galilee, here we meet with Jesus’ questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation. A scene featuring beloved Peter – precious Peter - denier and disciple, rebuked and regretful, fisher of fish and men. In the last notes of John’s Gospel, in the final act of Jesus’ ministry, from the tomb to the beach, he has breakfast with the disciples around a bonfire just after dawn and he invites Peter to walk with him. Just some steps away from the fire, Jesus asks this man who denied and betrayed him: “Peter, do you love me?”
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he asks him, “Peter, do you love me?
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says to him, “Tend my sheep.”
A third time he asks him, “Do you love me?”
Hurt now that Jesus has asked him three times,
Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus says to him, “Follow me.”
The other gospels, the brotherly synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, begin with Jesus saying, “Follow me,” but John’s gospel ends with this invitation. The end is just the beginning.
We discover in this scriptural moment, in this divine proposal that love precedes call. Love precedes commission. Love precedes vocation. Theologian Frederick Buechner has written that, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” Where is your greatest passion? Have you married that with vocation?
As a minister, I receive all kinds of email forwards, as you can imagine. They really run the gamut – some quite serious, tear-jerking stories, usually involving a terminal illness and miraculous healing or a child and a dead pet frog. Others are funny, tongue and cheek Bible jokes, like “What do they call pastors in Germany? German Shepherds.” Or, “Who was the greatest financer in the Bible? Noah. He was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.” And, I do enjoy these so please keep them coming.
Someone recently forwarded me an article from the Boston Globe entitled, “The Latest Trend in Dying.” Now, I didn’t realize there were trends in dying. I wondered what this trend might be. Hand painted caskets? Eulogies given by way of interpretive dance? Or, in anticipation of the open casket, are people starting to request nose jobs or hair transplants upon death in addition to the standard embalming service? But no, as it turns out, the latest, hottest trend in dying is the self-written obituary. Have you heard this? There are, in case you are interested, workshops on how to write your own obituary available both online and in your area. Many book clubs and other groups are hosting informal obituary-writing sessions. You can even purchase your very own “obit-kit” online.
Although I wanted to, I resisted purchasing an obit-kit and convincing Bill to join me in writing our obituaries now that we have a child, given that just before James was born he was a little taken aback when I told him that I’d planned my own funeral service and would have that available for him. Should the day or time come sooner than expected, I want to be sure that he knows the hymns I want and in what order. The scripture I would like read, and of course where the service would be and who would preside. Plus, with James now in the world, we’re in the midst of preparing our wills. So, I thought it may not be the right time to bring an obit-kit into the equation.
But you know; there is something about encountering to new life that orients us toward our death – not in a morbid or depressing way - but in a wholly hope-filled way, thankful for the reminder that the end is just the beginning. In bringing about or bearing witness to new life, we become grounded in our humanity unlike ever before. We begin to consider our legacy – financial and professional; our legacy of story and memory, character and disposition, faith and community, vocation and call – and if not on paper, perhaps in our hearts we begin writing those words that will remain in this world after we no longer do.
In the process, we discover that our lives hinge on those moments of questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation/call and response. Will you go? Will you feed? Will you tend? Will you plant? Will you pluck? Will you prune? Will you stand? Will you speak? Will you stay? Will you lead? Will you follow?
There are many reasons to say “no” given the state of our nation and realities of our world. 12 million Americans out of work, the dramatic decline of communities of faith, underachieving public school systems and insurmountable costs of higher education, engagement in wars abroad with vague purpose, shrinking coastlines. There are many reasons to say “no.” No, I will not go, I will not feed, I will not tend, I will not follow.
Yet, the invitation remains. A precious offering, a sacred window into the Way, the Truth, and the Life – into the love that fearfully and wonderfully formed and fashioned each one of us, our partners, parents, grandparents, children, and great grandchildren, generations of old and those to yet to come. We are asked to say yes to the love that invites us into the composition of life, the love that calls us into the cadence of our faith, to the rhythms of friendship, to the dance of partnership, to the note of vocation.
Love precedes call. Love precedes commission. Love precedes vocation.
In our tradition, nowhere is this reality more pronounced than in the sacrament – the sacred moment - of baptism, where we are visibly marked by the love that calls us into being. And that love, should we choose to accept it, overrides all worldly reasons to say “no.”
For the Christian life is a yes life - it whispers yes to what has been, to what is, and to what is to come ~ as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end ~ in our living and our dying, from the waters of our baptism to the ashes of our departing, we affirm that, “Yes, the end is just the beginning.”
Yet we know that this morning James isn’t the only one saying yes – in fact, he can’t say yes. He has yet to make that determination of faith. But we say, “Yes.” We say yes to God’s invitation into this life, this world, this communion, this community, this day, this hour, this minute – into the common hope that there is an achievable common good and that we can leave this world a better place than when we came into it.
And we say “Yes!” Yes, we will offer James this same invitation into the Christian life. And by accepting, we pray that he will lead a life worthy of the calling to which he has been called.
One in which he allows love to precede call. Love to precede commission. Love to precede vocation.
And if we listen closely in this old, holy place, we hear the faint echoes of Jesus in our hearts calling out to us on this sacred occasion. We sense the whisper of his questioning and commissioning/inquiry and invitation: “Do you love me?”
“Then, tend my sheep.” He calls out, take this one, this beloved, precious child of God, into the fold.
“Tend my sheep.”May it be so.
Scripture: Psalm 51 and Romans 5:1-5
Rev. Leanne S. Walt
This morning we continue to work through Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality: a life with God in 12 simple words. We explored the practice of confession several weeks ago through the word “sorry” and now, as we consider the word “Help”, I am compelled to do so within the context of the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
For, it is our Christian duty to acknowledge that we proclaim our halleluiah’s while being full of sin and in need of help. That we draw upon our halleluiah’s in the face of a sadness that festers from deep within. That we cling to our halleluiah’s over and against the fear that pervades and sing our halleluiah’s into the wounds of violence.
I would like to share a version of this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans from a biblical translation called “The Message.” This is a modern translation of the Bible that is considered academic. The translator, Eugene Peterson was working from the original Greek and Hebrew and he translates Romans 5:3-5 as follows:
We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next.
This past week we’ve received a stark reminder of the hemmed troubles of this world, of a deep sadness and dark darkness that permeates our nation. It is the church in its right and true and purest state which shines the light to combat the sadness and overcome the darkness that infects God’s people ~ “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.”
It is the church in its right and true and purest state, which sings praise in the face of these troubles - “Halleluiah!” “Lo!” “Behold!” “Hallowed Be!” Glory Be!” “Halleluiah” “Praise Ye the Lord!” – praise, a call to action, to live better, to speak better, to do better, to be better.
It is the church in its right and true and purest state which tends to the spiritual health and wellness of God’s people, developing that passionate patience about which Paul writes, that passionate patience within us that gives way to virtue, to wholeness, to righteousness, to goodness, to peace, to true prosperity and true life.
Last Friday our family woke up on Cape Cod, in a quaint cottage of peace and security tucked back in the woods yet still within nose-shot of that ocean air. I was feeding James his morning carrots and looking toward a day of beach jumping, hopefully topped off with lobsters and steamers and the glimpse of a sunset. This as we received the news that one of the more popular movies of the year, the latest in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy had opened in a suburb of Denver the previous day. The theater was packed for the midnight showing and as many of you know, in the middle of the first act a young man, a student of neuroscience, walked into the exit door of the theater wearing a tactical vest and helmet and a gas mask and began to shoot into the seats. Many thought this was part of the show, but they quickly learned that it was not. He had with him an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. He had a magazine for the AR-15 that would have allowed him to shoot a hundred bullets before reloading, all purchased legally. Although the magazine jammed while he was shooting, he killed 12 people and wounded 58.
Immediately, I was brought back to another day and time, one that you may or may not remember so vividly. I was transported to the moment at 16 years old when I watched the news of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The next day I joined the other 15 million high school students across the country in walking into a place of learning and growth with my innocence marred and trust diminished - like all those who boarded a plane in the wake of September 11, 2001 or who have walked into a movie theater this past week. Freedom in the free world.
We experience devastation and destruction in various ways throughout our lives. Sometimes it occurs in our personal lives through cancer, mental illness, a car accident, job loss, addiction. Other times, whole communities experience trauma through natural disasters - a hurricane, a tsunami, or earthquake, just last year we saw the devastation a tornado brought to the western part of the state. Such tragedies are like waves crashing on an ocean, their arrival is beyond our control and their reach cannot be contained.
Yet, there are other kinds of tragedies we experience that are not like the waves but rather like bulldozers that destroy the dunes and crush sand castles along the shoreline - gang violence, a drunk driving accident, mass bombings and shootings.
When a tragedy that falls into this second category occurs, it ignites a dormant anger in us that wakes us up from our malaise, our ennui, from our apathetic notions that we so often carry that what we do doesn’t and won’t make a measureable difference in the world. We are, at these times, compelled to ask if our actions could have changed the course of the bulldozer, if we could have done more to stop it.
A senseless national or communal tragedy charged with such public symbolism, like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado urges us toward corporate confession - as a nation and as a people - for not doing more to prevent the legal purchase of assault weapons and for not better defending the forefathers’ intent as to the nature of our freedom.
Several weeks ago we lifted up the importance of naming our sin – both individual and corporate - as a way of deepening our relationship with God, of engaging in change, in transformation, in a process of becoming. This morning we go one step further and, after recognizing our weakness and failures, ask God for help.
There is this interesting juxtaposition in scripture and one that we discover as we delve into our own spiritual life and practice that when we approach God through our weakness, we actually become strong. When we consider, even, the image central to our faith, the image of Christ on the cross, we see that it is one of ultimate despair, of need, of weakness, and yet we know also that it is an image of unspeakable strength that gives way to beauty beyond comprehension and restoration beyond all imagining.
The apostle Paul is very instructive in this regard, especially in the 5th chapter of Romans where he writes that that there is a kind of strength to be garnered from our weakness, that we ought to celebrate our sufferings, because they produce in us endurance, which in turn produces character, which in turn produces hope, which in turn makes us receptive to the outpouring of God’s love in our hearts.
For there is no such thing as patience without delay, courage without danger, forgiveness without offense, generosity without need, skill without discipline, endurance without fatigue, persistence without obstacles, strength without resistance, virtue without temptation, and strong love without hard-to-love people (108).
Paul does not, nor should we glorify suffering or wish upon humanity any kind of violence or senseless tragedy. Yet, he does urge us to recognize our needs, our wounds, and sufferings and in turn reach out beyond ourselves to God, to Jesus, so that we see healing is possible, that transformation is reality, that a change is gonna come – and we are taken to a place where hope floats and grace prevails.
Brian McLaren points out that oftentimes when we approach God in prayer and petition we are ask God to help us by removing a particular burden from our lives:
We are running late, due to bad planning on our part so we ask God for no traffic and a parking space.
Someone is angry or disappointed in us and we pray that God will change their heart so that we won’t have to deal with whatever it is that’s bothering them.
We say yes to too many things and then ask God for strength to accomplish all of them.
Instead he suggests that we reframe the situation and rename our need or our pain so that it has the power to transform us:
God, I’m running late again, and once again, it’s because I thought I could get just two or three extra things done. Please help me develop wisdom so that I won’t be so prone to tackle too much in too short a time.
God, I have a problem with ____ (you can fill in the blank with that person's name). I need to speak frankly with him about it. Please help me to tell the truth and not hold back, but help me to do it cleanly, without bitterness or hurt.”
God, once again I’ve taken on too much. Now I’m exhausted. Please liberate me from the fears and insecurities of saying, “No, I can’t.”
We exercise this practice in the case of the Aurora, Colorado shooting – to reframe the situation, to rename our need so that we transform our pain into strength and empowerment.
Lord, yet again we are outraged, angry and heartbroken because of the senseless killing of innocent civilians not by terrorists or foreign powers, but by one of our own. Please help us to use the gifts of reason, voice, compassion, and love that you have given us to react to this situation responsibly and productively. May our pain inspire us to action that will strengthen and protect the virtue of our freedom.