Sermon for May 5, 2019 | Easter 3
One of my earliest childhood memories is that of Richard Anderson banging on the front door of our house in Burlington, Washington. Richard was a dear friend of my parents – and, thus, could bang away in the early morning. He was also an avid lover of seafood; that is, the seafood one finds and collects with one’s hands. My parents and I would get in the car with Edie, his wife, and zoom off to the shore of Padilla Bay or into Anacortes to dig clams, find mussels, or fish for salmon. By late morning we were done and would come home with a bounty of sea creatures in buckets and coolers. In late spring and summer, Richard insisted on a barbeque of fish, accompanied by a fine white wine.
It should come as no surprise, then, that his favorite stories from the gospels were those that involved fish and fishing folk. But his interest in these stories went deeper than dreaming of wide-mouthed bass on a Sunday morning in church. He looked for the meaning in the story and as an avid student of the gospels he could pick up the gospel writer’s nuance. Indeed, his short musings on the gospel readings were frequently printed in the church newsletter. For instance, he recognized that this story at the end of the John’s gospel, resonated with earlier stories: the calling of fishermen to join Jesus’ movement of reform; Jesus feeding thousands of hungry people with bread and fish; his urging this group of dazed and nervous disciples to be persistent in their fishing. Far from a naïve literalist, Richard recognized that these stories of fish and fisher folk expressed something far greater and that, in his words, was the desire of Jesus to feed his disciples, to feed anyone in need, with food. “Those disciples were a bunch of weak-kneed cowards,” he once shouted while arguing with my father [and “cowards” was not the colorful and crude word he used]. “Though they abandoned him when the needed them the most, he still insisted on feeding them. So forgiving it makes you cringe when you think what we should be doing with those who hurt us.”
While he loved the bounty of the sea – and could wax intelligently and joyfully about its many delectable creatures – he was not unfamiliar with pain. That is so because Richard was the one physician in town. He was familiar with the reality of wounds, of human infirmity and disability, of death. He knew quite well the anxiety and hopes and fears of his patients – the patients who could pay for his services and those – the working poor and the many migrant workers of the Skagit Valley – who had no access to healthcare except that he would treat anyone in need. Perhaps this is why Richard’s bountiful catch – frequently exceeding the limit required by the state – was found in metal coolers filled with ice where he would direct those he knew had little food to take home a beautiful fish or large cluster of clams. Richard violated the laws of the state for the sake of human need. He paid for prescriptions his patients could not afford. Against the orders of wealthy landowners, he visited, under cover of darkness, the deplorably unclean dormitories where seasonal laborers were housed to heal the suffering.
In a little known work on the critique of Hegel’s philosophy, Karl Marx, the intrepid critic of capitalism, wrote these challenging words: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” To Marx’s claim, I say both “Yes” and “No.” I say, Yes: Religion or faith can become a narcotic that numbs Christians, that numbs you and me, to the reality in which we live; when faith or religious practice desensitizes us to our own pain or anxiety, and to the pain and suffering of others around us. After all, who in American culture invites you and me to feed and care for the lambs, the wounded and suffering of our neighborhoods and city? And I say, “No” as well. For what we see in the gospels and in this gospel story is Jesus: Jesus wounded by a heartless and soulless empire and yet risen by God, risen by God to lead his disciples, to lead you and me, in his merciful and life-giving movement that privileges the well being of people over the thirst for profit. For here we Jesus feeds anyone who is hungry, feeding his still dazed and uncomprehending disciples with bread and grilled fish but feeding them – and feeding us – so that you and I can continue his mission, his work of reform in our world today. For what other reason does he give us his wounded and risen self: to make us feel content with the way things are in the world – or – to become more clearly the heart and soul of God uneasy with the fact that far too many of our neighbors have no fish and little bread? Here at the end of this story, Peter the fisherman becomes Peter the shepherd. But, of course, the story is less about Peter and more about you and me: fed here with the Body and Blood of our shepherd and called by him to seek out and care for the wounded and suffering among us – even when that may entail violation of law and custom so that the healing work of shepherd who is the physician of our souls and bodies might continue unabated.
Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find sobecomes Peterme.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”