Tuesday, May 11, 2010

nb. This month's "Rector's Letter" in our church magazine was, in fact, a revision of an ordination sermon I preached ten years ago. All the then-candidates are, as far as I know, still in ministry so the original sermon didn't do overmuch damage to their morale.

I try not to revise old material. In my youth I rolled my eyes at the fifty-somethingish clergy who fished through old stuff and updated it for their current needs and now, it seems, I have become what I once mocked.

Rector's Letter, May 2010
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon
son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time “Do you love me?”
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger
you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old
you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead
you where you do not want to go”
Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.
Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them
(This is the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and
had said “Lord, who is going to betray you?”)
When Peter saw him he asked, “Lord what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return,
what is that to you? You must follow me.”

Peter turns around and sees John walking after them
a few paces behind
humming one of his new hymns

What about him? Peter asks. Does he have to feed the sheep as well? Does he have to follow too? Does he also have to die in service?

There is a child’s question here -a question about Justice. Am I the only one who has to do this? What about him, what about her?

There is an adult’s fear of loneliness as well. Will I have company?

And the answer – the grown up answer is – yes and no

Yes, you are the only one who has to do ‘this’ and no, you will not always have company while you’re doing it.

But maybe I need to backtrack: Most of my early essays were filled with the words ‘this’ or ‘these’ circled by the professor because it was no longer clear from the context what ‘this’ of ‘these’ referred to.

Jesus asks Peter – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? These ‘what’? More than ‘this’ life, represented by the tokens of a fisherman’s livelihood scattered around on the beach – these nets, these spools of braided line, these floats?

Or – do you love me more than these other disciples love me? You, Peter, pre-eminent among my followers, do you love me more than these others do?

The question arising between a man and a woman, - a parent and a child could be playful or maybe it probes at some perceived weakness:

Do you love me (of course you do)
Do you love me (I want to hear you say it)
Do you love me (I suspect that you do not)
Do you love me (I wonder if you know what that means)

I’ll roll the dice and will hold that:

1. When Jesus asked Peter if he loved him more than these that he was referring to the other disciples gathered with them on the beach.

2. He asks the question three times because Peter has denied him three times and

3. That when he asked Peter whether or not he loved him he was wondering if Peter knew what that meant.

Because it is not clear that we always know what love means.

The general moves to the particular:

The general - whether it is love (in general), ministry (in general) or the life of human beings (in general) - is something that can be talked about but never experienced.

We will never meet humans in general. We will meet Stan and Doris and Tabitha and Rex.

Nor will we live in a neighbourhood which is typically working class or typically old money but, rather, live and minister in a particular place with its particular population and its particular history. God (in general) is the god of the philosophers - the idea of god, the possibility of God,

We know very little about God in general

The glory of the Incarnation is that God wrapped himself up in the particular life of Jesus of Nazareth and achieves His highest moment not in the solitary being of a point of light but tied up with the smells and sounds of the Middle East, the dust of the road, the quiet of the Garden, guests at a wedding, the crowded roads of Jerusalem at Passover.

The local church is asked to interpret the fact of the resurrection. The request will be similar in most cases. What does the fact of God’s love mean here? What does it mean for me - in this moment in my life and in the life of my family?

What does Christ say about this?
What does the Bible say about this?
Where is God in all of this?

In all this grief – in all this change?
In this weakness of mine?
With respect to this son of mine, this illness of mine, this loss that I have incurred?

Will you translate the generalities of the Bible, the generalities of the Mass, the generalities that my child is taught in Church school into something which can give me life?

Does this beautiful field of wheat, blond, expansive and everlasting, ever become a loaf of bread?

And then ministry of the congregation, like love, will become knowable and known:

We have the choice of extending our personalities and our energy and our time into the lives and fortunes of other human beings and we decide to do so rather than simply falling into line

We do so not because we are impelled by some Ghostly force (that would not be a gift on our behalf but rather an empty reflex) but because we choose to - we want to - we feel we must.

There is a price to be paid for wrapping ourselves in the life and the environment of another person. Acts of love take their toll on our person, on our time, on our innocence and on our sleep.

But we are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake but for Christ’s sake.

We should be up for a little adventure - the demolishing of a few horizons We’d like to see things go ‘boom’. We should cultivate a healthy and godly curiosity about what people are like on the inside, and entertain the fancy that maybe – just maybe – the parish or the ministry we are a part of might just turn a corner and bring the whole Church with it and that we might have had some small part to play in that transformation.

And why not?

God knows that we’ve waited long enough for something more than this: that we should simply preserve ourselves at all costs – our buildings and our congregation as it stands.

We’ve been there – we’ve done that. We are ready for something more. We might be ready to participate in what God is about in the world - at the risk of seeming foolish, or credulous and at the risk of falling flat on our faces.

John likens it, in the larger story about fishing. We have cast our nets the better portion of the night and have gained only questionable purchase on anything remotely resembling a school of fish.

So why not now – with us – with out particularities of history and personality?

That we would cast our nets for the five hundredth time this time at a different angle and at the behest of a voice which we hear within ourselves and that something would, in fact, pull back – that to our surprise our net would actually grab on to something and we would find ourselves hauling in a miraculous catch of fish?