Empowering Leadership – May 5, 2019
Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian, Associate Priest
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday of Easter
In the name of God who loves us totally, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that in her youth, she believed six impossible things every morning before breakfast and counsels Alice to believe in impossibilities as well. The White Queen may have been referencing this morning’s lessons. There are several seemingly impossible things taking place, on the road out of Jerusalem and beside the lakeshore.
Paul is walking along the Damascus Road, fresh from approving and witnessing the stoning of Stephen, first Christian martyr and with permission in hand to punish any Jesus’ followers. Suddenly he is knocked to the ground (note there’s no horse mentioned in the text) and hears a voice, literally from nowhere, that asks, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” When he gets up, he can’t see; struck blind in that very instant. The text goes on to tell us about the same voice speaking to a Damascus disciple, Ananias, telling him that the notorious and much feared Saul is about to become his best friend, a follower of the Way, and Christ’s chosen apostle to the Gentiles. This sure seemed impossible earlier.
And in today’s Gospel, this post-resurrection narrative of the last chapter of John, we have more impossibilities to ponder. Jesus, the man returned from death (which itself borders on the impossible) is inexplicably unrecognizable and appears out of nowhere on a Sea of Tiberius beach. Then he suggests that Peter, his friend-turned-deserter, cast his fishing net on the other side of the boat from which he and his friends have been fishing through the night without a catch. Immediately the net is full to bursting and Peter, now aware that this is the man he betrayed, jumps into the sea and heads for shore. Having gone ashore and again without explanation, Jesus has already prepared a breakfast of charcoal-grilled fish and bread. I think sometimes that believing six impossible things before breakfast is good advice!
In all of Jesus’ resurrection appearances recorded in the Gospels, those seeing the risen Lord are disbelieving. First Mary at the tomb, then the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, then the disciples hiding out in the upper room, then Thomas, and again in Jesus’ last appearance that we read today. Resurrection was, and is, such a hard thing to believe that from one experience of Jesus’ showing himself alive to another, the disciples cannot believe it. They go back to their old way of thinking about life and how the world operates, and cannot believe that resurrection happens.
When life gets difficult, when we become lost, confused, and afraid, when the changes of life are not what we wanted or think we deserved, we tend to run away. We try to go back to the way it was before – to something safe, something familiar. Often, we revert to old patterns of behavior and thinking. Even when we know better and do not want to go backwards it seems easier than moving forward.
And this is what has happened to Jesus’ disciples. Peter and his friends have left Jerusalem, traveled the 80 miles north to the Sea of Galilee, and gone back to what they knew, what they could count on, their day jobs as fishermen. They try to leave the trauma and grief of the past weeks behind, and try to rebuild their lives with the comfortable and familiar. Even if fishing is boring, even if one never knows if s/he will catch anything.
Suddenly a figure shows up on the beach while they’re fishing, and tells them how to fish differently. Now these were professional fisherfolk, and they’d tried and tried that night without success. So when this stranger tells them to try something new, something different, to throw their nets off the other side of the boat, I can imagine they rolled their eyes; they knew how to fish and they’d worked all night.
Surprisingly, the stranger’s advice led to success! There were so many fish in the nets that the nets were breaking. They risked and did something out of the ordinary, something different than they’d done before, and it worked! They were met with abundance.
Did the enormous catch jolt their memories of all the other times they had experienced abundance? Did they remember the day when Jesus fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish? Did they remember all the wine at that wedding they went to in Cana? Did they recall his words that he’d come to bring them abundant life? I wonder what they were thinking as they tried to haul in their nets. Perhaps those memories helped them to recognize that it was Jesus on the beach.
When they rowed their way to shore, Jesus had breakfast waiting. The breakfast is reminiscent of the last meal the disciples shared with Jesus before his Passion. Here Jesus again acted as host. Jesus took the grilled bread and gave it to his disciples and likewise the fish. It was to remind them, and disciples in every generation, that no matter what our situation or state of mind, God always feeds us.
In that after breakfast conversation around a charcoal fire, the same kind of fire around which Peter denied Jesus, Jesus asks him three times, “do you love me?” And three times Peter answers in the affirmative. Jesus charges him to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” Peter may have wondered if it was payback for his denial of Jesus.
But Jesus does not ask for Peter’s repentance. He does not ask three times, “Peter, do you love me?” to remind Peter of his three-fold denial, to test him or to trap him. Instead, Jesus reaffirms who Peter needs to be, the disciple Jesus needs him to be now. With his encouragement of Peter, Jesus empowers him to preach and teach the Good News he himself proclaimed, that all persons are beloved of God.
Leadership is about empowering others. Leadership is about helping others identify and own their gifts. Jesus was all about helping his disciples, and others he encountered live into their true identity as God’s beloved children. About knowing that they were loved and cherished and valued. About emboldening them to love others. And then sending them out to share the news that all persons are loved and precious to God.
For the past 26 years Fr. Lang has striven to empower us through his preaching and teaching and pastoral care, conveying the idea of radical welcome for all. That St. Paul’s is a place of sanctuary, where all persons can be who God calls them to be. That persons hurt by the Church can find refuge here. That all are welcome at God’s Table. That worship doesn’t have to be stuffy, that sneakers and incense are quite compatible. That God loves every person unconditionally. Thank you, Fr. Nicholas, for your love and leadership. For empowering and inspiring us.
The breakfast on the beach was not the end of the story. The story continued back in Galilee, where the women and the disciples lived. It continues in our lives in the ordinary places, where you and I spend most of our time, where we work and live and make our home.
The Easter story continues when ordinary people do extraordinary things with their lives, because they gave up pushing against stones and fear. The Easter story continues when the hungry are fed and the homeless are given shelter, when broken relationships are mended, when the lonely are included, the sick are visited, and those experiencing loss are comforted. The Easter story continues when the powers of hate and evil are called out for what they are. It continues when parents find time to raise their kids, when business people exercise their practice and crafts with moral character, when government leaders cease their bitter rage and act with dignity, civility, and respect.
The Easter story continues when we recognize the face of Jesus in one another, in the faces of all the persons we meet. My friends, we are the ones who continue the Easter story today and tomorrow and the next day. Alleluia! Christ is risen!