Boundary Lines & Waters

sermon on Psalm 16
It’s often said with much of the New Testament that we are reading other people’s mail. Paul writing letters to deal with issues and relationships that weren’t meant for snoopy us to eavesdrop.

A notch worse, I realize I have the feeling with Psalms I’m inserting myself into somebody else’s prayers, ancient or your own.

I’ve gotten to consider today’s Psalm for a couple weeks, including the quiet time in the Boundary Waters, where it joined Psalms I’m reading for my devotions this year and Psalms the youth were selecting day by day to fit their experience. It was so steeped in my mind I started jotting sermon notes at early dawn beside Ashigan Lake.

It was occurring to me it will be a challenge this summer to preach on Psalms, since it’s essentially trying to preach a poem. In a minute, I’ll do what probably should never be done by dissecting the poetry, picking it apart for kernels of my choosing, even though that doesn’t let the poem stand in its full voice. I have doubts that I could let it stand in its fullness and be able to hold all of that (even in these little 11 verses) and preach on the whole poem today, partly because it has such movement, vast theme and feel.

But the stand-out snippets make meaning for each of us, where a poem speaks to us, or in this case where we pray and speak with the Psalm to God.

I’ve been told by a famous poet that it doesn’t really matter what the poet meant or was thinking when writing. When it comes down to it, it’s the reader in conversation with the poem. It makes the author a third party to the conversation, not really having a say.

That leaves me as preacher more like a fourth party, really out of the channel of communication you are having with the Psalm. The most this sermon can be is a little boost, an echo cheering and encouraging you. I especially cannot tell you what it means. It’s not speaking a new word, adding a competing voice, trying to debate the Psalm. It shouldn’t be in opposition, making you feel your interpretation—much less your prayer—was wrong. At best, it should offer an opening that validates your prayerfulness, amplifying not my voice but your dialogue with the Psalm. It’s especially important because it’s not just a literary topic but involves your relationship with God. That is to say, I’m deeply hoping—worried enough to have been awake in a tent ten nights ago—that something of my reflection will resonate for you, reinforcing your faith’s voice.

To begin the dissecting, the Psalm’s snippet that stood out to me was “the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.” Boundary lines and Boundary Waters. I kept spiraling back to that, instead of getting absorbed into other snippets, trying to explain away the violent wrongs of blood-sucking devotions, or to question the theology of chosenness, or to deal much with the first commandment and how often we do have other gods.

birch lake“The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places” was a verse that grabbed me, becoming my prayer at least in part because I spent a couple days looking across Birch Lake with Canada on the other side. It was pleasant for the sun and sunsets and bird song and calm, quiet rippling waters and agenda-free hours. Instead of boundaries and borders as contentious and fearful, this boundary—an invisible international line floating someplace down the middle of the lake—felt very peaceful and pleasant.

I rightly realized I was lucky. My own fortunate place stood in contrast with many others, like as I was reading about Palestinians confronted with shifting boundaries that are deeply un-pleasant, and remembering last year coming back from canoeing to the news of family separations at our southern border, and that displeasing news continuing to fall all year long as we keep learning more about the horrific conditions we are putting those children through or of no-man’s-land demilitarized zones.

I may indeed feel very privileged, but the prayer of this Psalm doesn’t use that for guilt. It doesn’t mention my boundaries so I feel bad about others. It begins with gratitude. I can pray very honestly: “the boundaries for me have fallen in pleasant places.

“I have a goodly heritage.” It is, after all, an honor to spend a wilderness week with our young people as they’re overcoming challenges and exploring identity and discovering who they’ll be, thinking of their future.

Or if heritage is supposed to look back, it’s goodly heritage to be connected to Sigurd and Aldo and the 55-year-old Wilderness Act with foresight to preserve those Boundary Waters, and we inherit the rewards of their efforts. It’s also a stunning heritage to be on the same lakes and portage paths, not only of most of 50 years of the MCC, but more which French fur trappers and generations of native Americans used. Not to mention moose, wolves, and turtles with wild roses.

The Psalm says “My body rests secure,” itself a securing thought, instilling confidence while in a fragile tent and feeble body surrounded by wilderness winds and nighttime noises.

My boundaries extended back to Madison, of the goodness of life I came home to, back to my house, my routines, my rhythms, my fridge and running water, to stroll around the grounds and peruse my territory, to be in my own familiar and comfortable element. To be here now. The Psalm keeps helping me pray gratitude and contentment and hope.

To be clear, I might not have done that first; where up north I could’ve thought of bug bites and blood-sucking leeches and raindrops, and all that I was missing, and then arrived back here to wish again I was away from stress and emails and the stupid stuff in life, the Psalm instead keeps pointing me to gratitude and security.

Still, Bible and Beer on Tuesday night raised a question of gloating, of having it easy on the west side of Madison. Ken Streit compared it to wearing an old “Life is good” t-shirt. It could make us wonder whether this Psalm is only pray-able by fairly well-to-do people like us.

Yet that probably reads the Psalm backward. Circumstances don’t prove or disprove God. It’s not because I’m in a pleasant place that I can gain reliance on God. The Psalm doesn’t read from a happy situation as the lead-in to faith.

Rather, just the reverse and often the opposite, trust in God leads through the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalm begins exactly with a migrant, somebody displaced and maybe worried about being on the wrong side of the boundary or border, one worried about oppression: it says “I take refuge in God.” I, too, am a refugee. Even (or maybe especially) from American life, I seek refuge and a hiding place, and that place is in God. A refugee in whatever way danger and harm confront you, God is the safe place. This Psalm voices your confidence.

With this focus on Psalms, I had the chance this week to dust off my Hebrew a bit, and there’s a good word here: shamar. Many times the Psalms assert God as shamar, as Keeper, it goes with the image of a shield. But it’s also the word in the Garden of Eden, when the earthling is told to till and keep the soil, observing and tending and preserving. In a way, a translation of that Genesis phrase often gets placed on police badges; not just till and keep, the phrase can be “serve and protect.” It also is translated with guarding, watching over, caring for, remembering. For one thick view of God’s “keeping,” I suggest reading Psalm 121, where the word is used five times in eight little verses.

This expands the boundaries of our view of God. Yes, we can give thanks for all the good. But when something bad happens, it is not that God has forgotten you or turned against you. It is not that your prayer has failed. God is your Keeper, a refuge. Maybe not a shield that prevents any wrong from hitting you, but God will keep on keeping you. God will keep watching over you, without batting an eye, never slumbering. God will strive to lift you out of the mire and muck. God won’t give up.

This Psalm gets picked up in the New Testament, where it exemplifies the extent of God’s care. It is used in reference to the resurrection of Jesus, with the snippet verse “you will not abandon your holy one to the grave.” Far from saying that “life is good,” this is a confession that even though death may strike, God still will not give up. Even then God will rescue you, raise you, and bring you safely into the path of life with pleasures forevermore.

Again, I don’t think that’s needing to compare and say it’s even better than your life now, or that it makes up for the shortcomings now. It’s most directly that you may have confidence in God’s goodness. In the end, it’s not about how well you keep faith in God. It’s that God will faithfully always be your Keeper. And you are never left out of bounds for God.

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Christmas Eve sermon #1

Let’s do some Christmas ABC’s.

We begin with A—Adorable, but not because baby Jesus is so darned cute. We adore and bow down before him not just as a precious infant, but first for identifying God’s presence in him.

That’s more shocking because of our letter B—Barn. “Were you born in a barn?” is a condescending question, but tonight it ascends to the highest point. The one born in a barn is identified with God. God isn’t located in halls of power or the fortress tower, not identified in lifestyles of the rich and famous. God is marginal, left out, when there was no room in the inn. Yet in that kind of birth is where God wants to be found.

Which brings us to C—Christ, the title that gives us the name “Christmas.” We already had our letter A, but the English word for Christ is Anointed. The Hebrew is Messiah. It’s a term about being chosen by God, to accomplish God’s work. Generally in the Bible, priests and rulers and prophets were anointed for their chosenness to do God’s tasks. For baby Jesus, it’s not about recruiting him for one of those specific godly jobs. Calling him Christ means his entire life is revealing God for us, showing us how God works and what God is up to.

But we note he’s not the only Christ. With those holy workers of old, you are also Christ-like, or—in a term I prefer—you’re little Christs. Anointed in baptism, you’ve also been chosen to receive and embody God’s presence.

Which raises the obvious question: what is God up to, then? What is God’s work for and through you? What is Jesus showing or proclaiming about God as he lies there asleep in the hay? What should we know about God’s presence?

For that, we get to D—Don’t. We have a pretty strong sense that approaching God comes with “don’ts,” with rules to follow of stuff we shouldn’t do. For example, during college when I told friends that I was going to be a pastor, their first reaction was always to apologize for swearing around me. There’s some sense that connections to God mean Don’t Swear. Beyond that, we also presume: Don’t Cheat. Don’t Lie. Don’t Fight. Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Abuse. Don’t Drink Too Much. You probably in your mind can keep adding to lists of Don’ts, of what we imagine are God’s expectations of our actions.

But the Don’t we hear tonight is: Don’t Be Afraid. Don’t Fear. Do not worry or be scared. This is the primary definition of God’s work, what Jesus is arriving to enable us to trust, the good news of Christmas.

Don’t Be Afraid is a hard message to believe, though, isn’t it? Our fears stretch from tiny and silly to unfathomably complex, from being afraid that we won’t get what we want for Christmas on to being afraid our lives won’t turn out how we wished. We may fear we won’t get what we need—food, a warm bed, the next paycheck, an effective medical treatment, resolution to an argument, home safely. And yet the angel has the nerve to tell us Don’t Be Afraid.

It gets worse than those individual concerns. We’re overwhelmed by fear in these days, of what will or won’t change with the next President and the next budget cycle. We’re afraid of tragedies caused by racism and immigration, from xenophobia. We worry about homophobias that undermine people’s wellbeing. Our societal phobias stretch on and on. There are wars and rumors of war, irrational fears of getting caught amid terror attacks or being shot. We have reason to be terrified of climate change. This all nearly incapacitates us, immobilizes us, silences, shutters us and shuts us down, almost forcing us to surrender when things go wrong.

That may be why God announces so definitely and defiantly Don’t Be Afraid. Because our fears confined us, but God wants us to be both free and open to each other. More, God operates in our capacities, the sharing of abilities that join to make this world good and better.

That is so important that I got away from our alphabet for a minute there. Let’s get back to it with E—Everybody. This is also core to the proclamation. It’s not just about people who make it to church often enough. It’s not a Christian deal. It’s not those behaving to follow the religious rules (because, remember, there weren’t rules; the only Don’t was Don’t Be Afraid). It’s not just for shepherds who were in the right place at the right time or a blessing one can claim more of. The angels announce this is for everybody. The good news, calling an end to fear, this birth, the arrival of Jesus is for me, for you, for your family who’s far away, and the dude at the gas station tonight, and folks waiting in hospitals and nursing homes, and those sadly infected by violent thoughts, and ladies wearing headscarves, and guys refusing this celebration. For everybody. No one should feel or be separated from this.

F—Find. In order to trust that amazing, extravagant message, you need assurance. “You will find a baby,” the angel says, wrapped in warm pajamas and snuggled in a feed trough, as a sign, an indicator. This isn’t hypothetical good news leaving you to speculate whether it could really be true. This verification you find first in baby Jesus. And extending that forward, as you follow him, you’ll witness the fulfillment of the promise. In him you may know and trust God’s work is happening.

G could easily be God or gospel or grace, good churchy words. G could be government, since this story confronts the given order. But for Christmas, let’s say G is Gifts. The Christmas presents you give are symbols of sharing and practice at cherishing and caring for each other, just as we already said God’s work is found in our living together in community, building each other up and supporting everybody. In these broadest views of sustaining life, we should especially recognize here on Christmas we are able to give because of what God chooses to offer. God adores you and wants full and abundant life, so all you have is a very good gift.

H—Home. That’s distinct from H—Heaven. Christians sometimes claim heaven is our home and this world isn’t. But God’s work isn’t kept for afterdeath experiences somewhere else. This story tonight places God in our midst and surrounded by livestock. We find God’s gifts here and now. Jesus is born so we may know God dwells among us; the home of God is among mortals. God’s presence is here on earth, in our lives, in the places where you’ll return (just as the shepherds do), at the tables you’ll gather around, in beds where you’ll lay your own heads to rest (just as baby Jesus did). God is with us, in the very ordinariness of it all.

Realizing, then, that this story can only be fulfilled when you leave church to go back with many other good things to do in those places of home, I’m going to leave you the rest of the alphabet to fill in on your own, as a gift of one more H: Homework. You’re welcome, and Merry Christmas.

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An Offensive Highway

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Advent

Isaiah35:1-10; Matthew11:2-11

 

With the unexpected expectations we’re encountering during Advent, the twists and turns and surprises to heighten our hope, today we find ourselves on an offensive highway.

Recall slippy or blocked roads you traversed to get here on this snowy day. Or picture that Beltline with a traffic jam, lanes closed for construction and then you see flashing lights around an accident because a deer ran out. Yet even as those agitate your nerves, they aren’t the offensive highways. Remarkably, that comes with Isaiah envisioning the opposite of those stretches of road, though it will take us another moment to get to why it’s offensive.

Isaiah’s vision of a lovely highway starts with a roadside beautification project, a barren area brought to bloom, a sunbaked desert expanse turned to a lush oasis of crocus flowers, and what had seemed drably lifeless instead filled with abundant joy. Already that scenic highway is a different picture than the monotony of some long car trip on an interstate.

Still, it’s no byway in Isaiah’s vision, not just for those looking for the pleasant diversion of a side trip. No, this road is for everyone. Since we’re accustomed to hopping into a car to take us most anywhere, it has lost some shock, but for ancient people who traveled only by foot, it’s astonishing that the blind would be able to find their way and the lame would have strength for the journey.

For a sense of that promise, I read these verses in the surgical prep room before Dorothea Torstenson’s knee surgery, and you’d better believe she heard this as good news: “make firm the feeble knees, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God who will come to save you. Then the lame shall leap like a deer.” Sure, Dorothea had still been able to get around, but this sense of mobility that might enable her to get back onto a bike and to visit museums and even to stand around to chat after worship, this is exactly the promise she yearned for. She even joked about dancing like a deer in worship today to illustrate it!

That’s a sense of Isaiah’s envisioned highway. To go a step further, he says you don’t need GPS on this trip or even how to read a map. In another of my favorite Bible verses, Isaiah proclaims “no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” There’s no way to get lost, no risk of falling off this route, even fools.

In Isaiah’s time that was extraordinarily good news for a people who had felt abandoned, with no way home for generations. These people had suffered first under the Assyrian Empire until 300 years later in 587 BC they were defeated, destroyed, carried away, and held captive by the Babylonians, with no way to return home, to their temple and their cultural practices and the life that they so longed to have. Dreaming of home wasn’t the good ol’ days but ancient history, receding ever further into the past.

Home. An extraordinarily good word. A release from what imprisons and a return to life. We might have sense of that longing for college students far away and returning for winter break and getting to be back amid familiar and comfortable places. You may long for bygone traditions of a family that has fractured and found other ways of celebrating, wishing for restoration and resuming what you miss. Or it’s in the song “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” written from the perspective of soldiers stationed overseas during World War II.

But from that bittersweet tune crooned by Bing Crosby, it’s still a long way to offense, so we need to turn from Isaiah’s proclamation of abundant homecoming, a celebration so joyful that the land itself will excitedly welcome exiles home and so insistent for all that none will miss out on the journey or even need roadside assistance, from there we turn to the offense of the Gospel reading.

John the Baptist had sent messengers to ask about Jesus. Jesus replies his mission has been what Isaiah envisioned: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

But there’s a distinction, as Jesus concludes: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Isn’t this extraordinarily good stuff? Who would take offense? Well, John the Baptist for starters. Last week we heard John’s proclamation in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, making paths straight for the coming Anointed One. He was setting expectations that the Christ would come with a raging fire, burning the chaff, clearing the threshing floor, chopping trees out of the way. Instead Jesus came not to consume and clear but to heal and share freeing good news, for the sick and hurting and poor and outcast. That subverted John’s expectations and maybe caused offense. That wasn’t the Messiah he made way for or the kind of Lord for whom he was preparing.

Jesus then rubs in the offense with a pretty heavy backhanded compliment: “no one is greater than the John the Baptist; yet (!) the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than” John. What does that mean? Well, Jesus started his first sermon with these words: “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). So much for John’s greatness; even if you are spiritually inept and lacking in any holiness or one of those fools who would tend to lose the highway, still the kingdom is yours and (ipso facto) you’re greater than John the Baptist.

Jesus ends that first bit of preaching in the Beatitudes reiterating: “blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). An obvious fact is that if you’re being persecuted it means someone’s against you, trying to claim you’re undeserving, and certainly not great or holy or blessed by God. So when Jesus stands on behalf of the persecuted, the poor in spirit, or (maybe slightly less apparent to our perspective) the sick and hurting, he is offending the offender. He rejects the persecutor. He upends our expectations.

As Jesus stands on your behalf, in spite of your poverty of spirit, he is causing offense to those who have been striving to enrich their spirits and were feeling proud of their piety. In bringing good news to the poor, he contradicts those who claim that wealth is a blessing from God. In curing disease and healing Dorothea and all who need health care, Jesus stands against those who write us off in our disabilities and our aging or who would claim we need to earn our own strength and wellbeing or say that our weak flesh is corrupt and cursed by God.

As we go with Jesus on this way toward home, toward the will of God, down a beautiful highway lined with celebration and accompanied by those who need the work of seeing, hearing, cleansing, freeing, life out from death and good news amid poverty, this way is bound to offend. That this is God’s highway is offensive to those who don’t want God to do these things, who want it to be their way on the highway. But, as Isaiah saw, God’s promise is uninterruptable.

Now, we may find ourselves on both sides of that message, occasionally resistant to the bounty of blessing, and occasionally overflowing in joyful gratitude that we are the fools who won’t be left lost or manage to go astray from God’s extraordinary goodness.

Two closing examples for that split, that dichotomous pairing where God’s highway goes right through our society: UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank was the keynote speaker at the Wis. Council of Churches annual meeting this week. Amid adverse state budgets, she talked of defending the university and advocating for the faculty, when being hired for “thinking is not always an appreciated activity.” If that seems sadly laughable, she also noted that for every $1 the public invests through taxes, the university returns $24 to the economy of our state. It should be a no-brainer, the obvious way to go, and yet some still find education offensive.

Second example: in preparation for that meeting, I was reading a book by Chancellor Blank. She’s a committed member of the UCC and describes how important her faith is as a framework amid difficult decisions. She helped write the denominational statement on economics back in the 1980’s and the book I’m reading is called Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life. In it she presents another of these offensive conundrums for us, with the words of Mary we’re singing during this Advent season. She writes, “Those who have worked hard to achieve economic security respond very differently to the news that God feeds the hungry without charge and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:53) than do those who are struggling with unemployment or discrimination” (17).

This is God’s broad highway, inviting us all along to make the world more beautiful and filled with celebration. It’s an invitation for when we need it, and also for when we’re part of society’s foolish resistance, which maybe means we need it even more.

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Setting things Rights

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter

John21:1-19; Revelation5:11-4; Acts9:1-20; Psalm30
The purpose of this reading—which I mentioned last week was a later postscript to the Gospel of John—could be seen as trying to set things right. Actually, the whole season of Easter could be seen as God’s ongoing effort to set things right, to overturn wrongs, to stop injustice through the ever-expanding kingdom of God, to overcome death with life. Last week, that setting right focused on making sure sins are forgiven and that those who doubt and are uncertain are still welcomed and given what they need.

So what exactly is being set right in this week’s reading? Depending on the perspective, one view of the purpose for this section being added is either setting right or else turning unfortunate. This view observes that John’s Gospel is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that John promotes sharing of love in close-bound relationships, laying down our lives for each other as a beloved community. It could be that John’s congregation or set of followers had some different understanding, then, than the others who followed the Matthew-Mark-Luke synoptic-style of believers. Notably, in John’s Gospel Peter is much less central. He is more simply among the disciples rather than being their spokesperson. So maybe instead of a community of equals, this addition to John’s Gospel reinforces the other vison of Peter’s leadership, helping John’s group to integrate with the larger church by accepting this figure as central, who would become bishop of Rome, a role eventually enshrined in the hierarchy of the pope.

If that leaves you questioning whether this passage is actually setting something right or was accepting a less-ideal turn of history, we’ll move on to something more favorable: the location of this reading. Last week, we ended still behind locked doors in Jerusalem, but this takes us back up north to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It’s not only a more pleasant, pastoral place of scenery, but also a return home. It is a logical subsequent step of the story, because we have to wonder what happened next.

And that parallels our own story. On Easter Sunday, amid fresh lilies and the joys of bottled up Alleluias and crowds in worship and brass and rich, sweet treats, amid the newness of the thrill, it seems almost anybody could believe. It seems not too good to be true, but just good. It seems—maybe most of all—like a pleasant diversion. Then Easter passed and Monday came and you went back to work and normal rhythms and then school resumed and homework and what happens in these busy spring weeks, what decisions need to be made, chores accomplished, details taken care of, and you couldn’t ignore the election forever, and now are thinking about what comes next.

While the disciples weren’t worried about presidential primaries and the state supreme court, those original followers of Jesus and witnesses to resurrection also soon must’ve fallen out of the radical newness, the exciting disruption of Easter, and returned to the rhythms of life. This reading is setting straight that vital matter, that we can’t keep the after-effects of Easter locked up, but need to, must encounter them at home and amid the flow of our lives if they are true and consequential.

So the disciples went home and have gotten on with life. Maybe we’d wish Easter would’ve made more of a difference for them, more impact, that life just plain couldn’t be the same afterward. But we know this is actually how it works. We want Jesus to have shown up and changed everything, for God to be so lively and present and amazing that each moment of our lives would be imbued with a radiant glow and holiness so pervasive that we’d all don haloes like in the paintings and share so much love, peace, goodwill it would overcome all our problems and all evil. It would be nice, but that’s just not how it goes, at least in my experience. Instead life kind of goes on. Work goes on. We get busy with living our days and occupying our time and trying to make sense of our world and to do something that feels worthwhile.

In that way, the disciples went fishing. Not a bad choice for spending some time. But it also was indicating the three-year pilgrimage with Jesus had come to an end. Although John didn’t tell the story of Jesus calling fishermen out of their boats to follow him, to “fish for people” as he says it in the other gospels, we can’t help but hear this story as the bookend to that. They’ve given up on catching people and gone back to their boats, back to their nets, back to their old life.

We might be disappointed in that, wanting them to be doing something more special or powerful, to be permanently changed by their close encounter with God and time with Jesus. But as they go fishing, they seem to have moved on…or moved back. Maybe they’re like the original college grads who have to move back into their parents’ basement, after transformative experiences, with other opportunities not panning out, returning to the family business and same old way of life.

But then Jesus shows up on the shore. What will that mean? Last week he sent them on a mission; will he criticize them for goofing off, rebuke them for so soon neglecting their calling? Will he tell them they should be doing something more important than fishing, lecture them to take more seriously God, resurrection, and Easter?

Well, actually, in this encounter, Jesus seems less concerned with any of that. There’s no proving himself with holes in his hands.  He doesn’t explain the Scriptures about suffering, dying, and rising.  He doesn’t seem motivated to share the peace or to breathe on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t so much talk about forgiving sins or healing or teaching.  He doesn’t reiterate a call away from fishing boats to catch people or even—for that matter—mention God.

Instead, Jesus essentially says, “I will make you fishers of fish.” He tells them where to cast their nets so they can catch the lunkers, 153 fish all at once. And then he wants to have breakfast.

That is extremely important to tell in this story and is another thing being set right here, that is: following Jesus is not always about a call to forsake your old life and journey to a new strange way of being. It may be that for some, but for many—including, apparently, for much of this group of disciples, Jesus called them exactly to where they were, a calling to fish for fish and eat some brunch. In your calling and vocations, too, in your lives of work and engaging with family and the regular stuff at home, in your volunteering and all, a calling from Jesus is not necessarily more spectacular or glamorous or pious or rigorous, but may well be the blessing in your tasks as you already face them, and your skills already in use. It’s the guidance of how to fish, so to speak, and sharing a meal, of his presence with you right where you are.

Peter may be the exception in this case. Jesus is repeating a call to him away from fishing, toward shepherding. With that is another occasion of setting things right, with the issue of love for God or Jesus. Do you love God? That’s hard when you can’t see God (as the letter of 1st John will explicitly remind us) (4:20). Peter may have loved Jesus, but he was running out of chances to show that devotion. Soon Jesus would be gone. What then? Well, Jesus sets it right by saying that your love, your devotion ought well be given to those who are there, to sisters and brothers you can see, to care for the lost and tend the hungry, meeting needs around you of those Jesus also loves. That’s a good role, a worthy responsibility.

And in that particular calling, Jesus was also setting something else right for Peter. This story is notably paired to reverse the events on the night of Jesus’ arrest, when Peter was huddled at another charcoal fire and three times denied even knowing Jesus. Here, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to undo his denial, to reclaim the relationship.

Now, for some of you, that may be extraordinarily good news, that you have a God of second chances, and third chances, and in this case fourth chances, and probably a lot more beyond that. It may be an amazing amount of grace, that no matter how much you feel you’ve strayed or done wrong or neglected God and faith and how you ought to be living that there’s room for a fresh start.

That is, indeed, a central aspect of our faith, of repentance met by the embrace of forgiveness. We might even claim it’s the Spirit that does this work in us, of warming our hearts, of turning our minds, of returning our feet and rejuvenating our lives.

Yet I also have to confess that I have discomfort if it depends on devotion, on my sustained vigor, on being able to stay interested, on how long our attention spans are. One of the most disheartening phrases I hear is when somebody who has been away from church for a time exclaims, “I’m not going to miss a week!” Mostly they don’t even make it once. Or when they lose their goal of perfect attendance, then they feel like a failure and give up. Jesus may be ready to forgive 99 times, but what if I’ve only turned to repent 98 times? Even at three, Peter is aggravated, worn out on the process. How directly, how eagerly must we love for this to work out? Is it our responsibility to seize opportunities?

Sure, our God is able to restore Peter and set right his denial. Yes, our God is able to transform murderous terrifying Saul into missionary Paul, from persecutions into proclamation of life. Sorrow may last for the night but joy—indeed—come in the morning.

But we need a God who claims Peter during his denial, a God who embraces Saul even as he rebels, who puts up with Ananias refusing to heal, who doesn’t just overlook our failures but loves us all the way through them, who doesn’t give up on us when we ignore discipleship but will call us to fish for fish, who isn’t looking for us somewhere else but right where we are, at home over breakfast, who isn’t waiting for us to make amends or just encouraging us to mend our own brokenness, who is able to right our wrongs and to raise up our lives from the pit, bringing you also from death to new life, who is also there in sorrows and darkness and disappointment and death and redeeming it for us. We don’t need just a process for restoration and reconciliation, nothing that is so easily explained or apparently routine, but somehow we even more need the Revelation of a wild unbelievable newness of a slaughtered Lamb ruling as king, and angels and chickens and myriad thousands of unexpected tongues and every last creature singing in praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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