One man asked another, ‘Tell me, in just one word, how is your life?”
His friend replied, slowly, “In one word? In one word, my life is, well…good”.
Sensing something, the man asked again, “Then tell me, in just two words, how is your life?”
His friend replied, slowly, “My life, in two words? In two words, my life is, well…not good”.
Both the brevity of life and the strange estrangements of our experience in life, place us, if we are honest, come Sunday, somewhere between the first and second replies, between good and not good.
We know the thrill of victory and the agony of betrayal. We know the joy of birth and the pain of death. We know the exuberance of growth and the hurt of departure.
The Gospel of John ended last week, with its concluding sentence, ‘This things are written that you may believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. Jesus: Lord and God, doorway both to allegiance and to reverence. Jesus: word incarnate, good shepherd, feeder of thousands, alchemist of water and wine, healer of the blind, raiser of the dead, doorway to grace, freedom, love, spirit, community, and friendship. Only believe, only believe. Live in tune with the universe.
Startling then, today’s lesson, added twenty years after the Gospel conclusion. A simple meal, of 153 fish, breakfast with Jesus. Different language and imagery here. A different, now heroic role, for the robbing and disrobing Peter, here. A different voice for the beloved disciple here. A different reflection on death and life here. A different prediction of Peter’s martyrdom here. What is the meaning of this strange breakfast?
Just this: for all the grace, freedom and love, all the spirit, community and friendship rightly trumpeted in the Fourth Gospel, people are still people. This chapter is about fishing and farming, about catching and tending, about boats and fields, fishermen and shepherds. In church language, that is, 21 is about evangelism and pastoral care.
You are leading a Christian life, you are committed to the way of discipleship, the path of love. Then, and so, you will need to receive and give invitation and comfort.
The deep resonance of Handel’s Messiah, its third part sung gloriously today, undergirds our good and not so good life with triumph, with the triumphant song, with the triumphant promise, with the triumphant promise of redemption, heaven, hope, healing, wholeness, God. In a word, today, triumph.
In a word, triumph. In two words, evangelism and pastoral care, work and structure, laity and clergy, world and church.
Breakfast is a simple meal. The worst hour of the day, the worst food of the day, the worst attitude of the day, everything and everyone more human than not. Carried by triumph, we re-enter the world of invitation and compassion, the world of the preacher and the pastor. Every week, you are encouraged to make one invitation to another about what you find lastingly good. Come to worship with me. Every week, you are encouraged to offer one compassionate word to another from the source of lasting compassion. I will pray for you.
Public worship places us in the necessary presence of others who are not our own kith, kin and kindred. With the child behind us, the student beside us, the professor ahead of us, the widow across from us, we worship God. We perceive again the utter variety and actual need of others. It is a cautionary move against the prevailing winds about us, including tornadoes, including dehumanizing techno-communication and distance drone aerial bombardment. A woman will receive that email. I might have seen her, or her kith, kin and kindred, in church. A child will be harmed by that bomb. I might have seen his kith, kin and kindred, in church. Public worship places us in the necessary presence of others who are not our own kith, kin and kindred. So crucial, saving, significant, then the simple invitation: join me for worship.
Compassionate pastoral care, personal kindness, a willingness to listen—feed, tend, sheep to sheep—connects us to the deeper dimensions, those for which life is given. Fifty years ago M L King sat writing in a prison cell in Birmingham Alabama. He wrote the famous Letter, which bears your re-reading this afternoon, addressed to pastors, fellow clergy, who could not or did not or would not hear: “when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness”. While most of us will not regularly write such a momentous letter, in our pastoral that is personal correspondence, we will write. You know of another’s inattention, another’s pain. You can sit down, put pen to paper, and select some caring words—sorry, condolence, hope, help, prayer. You can imagine another opening the mailbox, holding the letter, seeing the penmanship, removing the page, reading the card. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
It is not I believe that the Fourth Gospel diminishes or discounts invitation and compassion, evangelism and pastoral care, laity and clergy. It is just that the writer(s) had bigger fish to fry and sheep to tend of another fold. So along came—someone—who wrote 21 for us, to remind us. In a word—good. In two words—not good.
Triumph, triumphant joy, triumphant promise comes your way. Put them to work this week.
I know that my Redeemer lives.
Behold I tell you a mystery.
The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised.
Death is swallowed up in victory.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory.
If God is for us who is against us? If God is for us , who is against us?
Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him.
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel