April 14, 2013
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” I’ve thought of that phrase from today’s Psalm so many times in this blood-soaked, tear-stained week. Last Sunday night I lay awake for hours after hearing about the terrible tragedy of Bishop Burnside’s car hitting and killing Maureen Mengelt. I cried for Bruce and for Maureen, for Maureen’s family and Bruce’s family, and for everyone whose existence was totally transformed in that terrible moment on the road.
That led to my remembering that next Monday is Earth Day, a day on which we are called to be mindful of our relationship with this planet. How can we ignore the effects of global warming, or the concerns about the environmental and health implications of genetically-modified food? When are we going to deal with the apparent lack of initiative to finding alternatives to fossil fuels? Our ecosystem is being decimated in order to satisfy human greed. It was a downward spiral. Indeed, “weeping linger[ed] in the night.” So I did what people in Scripture always seem to do, I cried out to God to help us and save us.
We can look to the Bible for clues about how God’s people historically have handled struggles, but at the same time we have to be mindful that our context is not the same as it was for Christians in 1st century Palestine, much less like that of our ancient Israelite ancestors before Jesus was ever born. They never encountered guns or cars; mental illness was still considered demon possession; and there was no 24-hour media feeding frenzy, stirring up fear and blame on every topic. So many of today’s problems would have been unfamiliar to the church in Acts, or to the community of faith in John’s Gospel.
But we are Easter people. We do not believe that the story of Jesus is locked up in a history book. We do not believe that resurrection happened only once a long time ago. We believe that resurrection happens again and again, that life conquers death repeatedly! We believe that Jesus is still shaking things up, still at work in the world, still bringing joy after a night of weeping. We believe that Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!) And since we believe in that kind of life, it is possible to believe that God is speaking to us still through ancient texts. So let’s consider how we are called to follow Jesus in today’s lessons.
We start with our first reading from Acts–especially since the central character is a deeply religious man, and we are, presumably, religious people (anyway, here we are in worship on a Sunday morning, instead of reading the paper over brunch). Unfortunately, Saul’s religious zeal is not exactly commendable. It does not spring from love or express God’s love. Instead, it leads him to violence against anyone he thinks is threatening his beliefs. Sadly, that’s a concept that isn’t too far-off from our reality. It’s always dangerous when violence and religion mix. Anyway, Saul is on his way to Damascus, continuing to attack people who are straying from the Scriptures as he understands them, when he himself is struck down on the road. He hears God’s voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
It is not a question we’d want to hear God asking us, is it? We aren’t persecuting God, are we? But it’s worth remembering that religious Saul didn’t think he was doing anything against God either; he thought he was defending God’s honor! So let’s just try hearing this question addressed to us: “Why are you persecuting me?” Are we in any way harming a person, or a group of people, or part of creation that God loves? Worse still, are we doing that in God’s name? Are we hurting others by things we are doing/saying or by things we are leaving undone/unsaid? Isn’t that what Saul was doing–hurting a part of the creation that God loved? Could it be that God is still calling to misguided and sinful people across the ages? Is there really any legitimate answer when God’s voice calls out to us on the road, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Saul’s resulting confusion after this event is described in the Bible as blindness. It may be a literal condition, or it may be a symbolic description. In any case, the word invites us to consider how we might be being blind to the ways our actions harm others, to the awful consequences of neglecting the creatures and places and things that God loves. Thank God for sending Saul-turned-Paul a helper in the person of Ananias, who helps him SEE the next turn in the road. Let us remember that everything can change in an instant on our journeys. And let us follow Saul’s example, not only by ceasing to harm others, but also by embracing new opportunities for mercy and service that God sends our way.
God’s voice is calling out in our Gospel lesson too. Here, Jesus is on the shore, while his fishing buddies are out in the water. He yells out, “How’s it going?” Not well, it turns out. Jesus shouts, “Stop throwing your nets out that way. Try the other side of the boat!” In other words, “Stop doing it the way you’ve always done it. Try a different way.” That way, of course, yields more than anyone imagined–153 fish! Weeping may have endured for the night, but joy indeed has come in the morning. What might we make of that for our own work, our own context? What might we need to try doing differently, in light of the fact that Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed) and is urging us to try something unusual?
In John’s story, once the disciples are back on shore with their huge catch, Jesus serves them breakfast. Then he singles out Peter for some questions–or really, just one question, three times. Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?” The question might be as off-putting as the one he asked Saul about persecution, if we think God asking it of us. Of course we love you! How can you ask that? We get why he had to ask Peter that question, because not long ago, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Still, it starts to wear on him, and frankly, I think that I might react like Peter, offended that Jesus had to keep asking if I loved him. “Lord, you know that I love you.” Well, then, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Oh, and Feed them some more.” Not only does Jesus forgive Peter, but he makes a point of entrusting him with important work. Weeping may have endured for the night, but joy–in the form of a renewed relationship– comes in the morning.
Jesus’ message to Saul was STOP what you are doing. His message to Peter was START doing something else. And what is his message for us? In a world filled with tormented, violent, terrified, grieving, heart-sick people, what is the church’s calling? On a planet seemingly on the road to destroying itself with improper abuse of natural resources, what is Jesus asking us? At a time when grief and depression and death seem to be the rule of the day, what is Jesus asking us to do and be–individually and together?
As a congregation, let’s commit to praying about this. Let’s spend time not just talking to God, but also sitting in silence, listening to God. Let’s share with one another the questions we hear God asking us on the road. They may or may not be new questions, but God’s response definitely will be to do a new thing in this time and this place. Who we are to stop persecuting and who we are to feed and tend to may not be the same as they were 20 years ago. God is not locked in history: Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed) and he is with us on this road–today, now–among these people, under our present circumstances, in this context for ministry.
And here’s the really Good News: Jesus never picked perfect people with all the right answers to complete his mission. He chose violent, self-righteous Saul, who becomes Paul, to nurture the church into being. It might console you to remember that Paul spent a lot of time in jail. Not only that, but he and Peter actually started the ugly trend of church infighting before the church was even a year old. Peter, meanwhile, we all know was hardly a fool-proof choice. He repeatedly made a fool of himself, resorted to violence when Jesus said don’t, and often shot off his mouth when he should have been silent…. And yet, Saul turned Paul and Peter the Bigmouth were people Jesus invited to stop hurting the church and to feed, tend, and feed his people some more. If God can use those guys, then how can we doubt that God can use the ELCA? If God calls such losers, then surely God can use Trinity! And the really good news is that no matter how individually problematic any of God’s followers might be, no matter how distressing the situations in which they find ourselves, we are never alone. Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)
Jesus feeds his friends, and promises to be with them even to the end of the age. He sends the Holy Spirit to guide them, and entrusts them to each other’s care. Ministry happens in community. When we are disconnected from one another, and from the plants and animals and minerals that make up this world, we are less than we are designed to be. Saul’s healing happens when Ananias leads him into relationship with the people he has been persecuting. Peter’s healing happens when he actively serves others.
Jesus calls us to work, eat, and to get stronger together. It isn’t just that this is the most effective way to complete a task, it is also satisfies a deep need that we have. We are designed to sing collectively of the goodness of our God. Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them join together in wholehearted, harmonious praise to our God. Whatever Jesus asks us do, he will be in the midst of us, making sure there’s enough fish and enough friendship to go around.
~Pastor Susan Schneider