This Holy Mystery

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John 21: 1-19

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In the Morning

The sermon begins with a recitation of Psalm 110, in gender neutral language.

Habits lead us forward.  Come Easter. Death makes us mortal.  Facing death makes us human. At the tomb.  Come Resurrection. This is a Holy Mystery.

Jan and I have grave plots in the local cemetery of Eaton, NY.  Where is Eaton? Exactly. It is nowhere. We bought them for $400 each, which is a real estate bargain.  Especially when you amortize the amount over eternity! All need to plan ahead, one way or another. In addition to burial or equivalent, you will want to employ the Robert Allan Hill planning for post-retirement system:  OOPS. O O P S. My mom always remembers the OOPS but then asks, what do they stand for? Order of worship. Obituary. Photo. Special papers (DNR, will).

Over the Hill from the fancy Hill post-retirement real estate there is a little town, Oriskany Falls, dating, like the graves in Eaton, from just after the American Revolution.  Our friend’s dad, Russell Clark, a Colgate and BU graduate, loved life as a pastor there. One winter a farmer, his lay leader died, and the widow was not in church for a long time.  The pastor tried to console and help, but she didn’t want company. Grief is a slippery dragon. If I had another two lifetimes I would spend half of one really studying, trying to understand grief.  It is a dark stranger, an opaque mystery, individual to each. For Russell’s Oriskany Falls widow it was too. Then one day she called to say that she would like a pastoral visit. She told him something, when he asked how she was doing.  She began: Don’t take this the wrong way, Rev.  (You know you are already in trouble with that prelude.)  It has been so unutterably hard for me.  There were days when I could not get out of bed.  But I did. And do know why? It wasn’t the resurrection sermons I have heard. No.  What got me going, got me out of bed was…the chickens. Every morning at dawn they would fuss, and rustle around and cluck, waiting to be fed.  They were hungry and they needed feeding. So I got up and put on my robe and went out and fed them. By then the sun was up, by then the mist was lifted, by then I was awake, and by then I could stand the thought of breakfast, and after that, well the day opened up.  So don’t take this the wrong way, Rev. (you know you are in trouble when…), don’t take this the wrong way, but the clucking of those hens meant more to me in my grief than all the hymns of Easter.  The clucking of those chickens meant more to me than all the hymns of Easter.

You see?  The rhythms of life, evening and morning one day, detailed disciplined attention to the routine can by grace admit illumination, the light in which we see light.  Including religious practice. Joanna, the newcomer, found it so. So can you, especially if you on Easter are a newcomer, looking for a first helping, an initial course in faith, a church family to love and church home to enjoy.  Particularly in grief. It is one thing to attend to religious practice, and another to do so, to visit the body, when you have loved the person. As some of you have done so this year.

A Later Addition

Here are some notes about the unusual chapter John 21, our Gospel today.  R Brown: *An added account of a post-resurrectional appearance of Jesus in Galilee, which is used to show how Jesus provided for the needs of the church.  *1-14; 15-23; 24-25… *‘The gospel never circulated without 21’…. *Appendix, supplement, or epilogue?… *Stylistic differences…. *We shall work on the hypothesis of composition by a redactor… *Material drawn from the same ‘general reservoir of Johannine tradition’… *Completion or correction? (RAH)…  *Other miraculous catches of fish (Lk 5)… *Ecclesiastical and Eucharistic and Eschatology, symbolism of the chapter… *‘There are good reasons for finding Eucharistic symbolism in the meal’…*15-17 ‘Peter’s rehabilitation’ (!)… *‘As shepherd, Peter’s authority is not absolute’. *Did the community think the BD would not die?* Dodd:  ‘The naïve conception of Christ’s second advent in 21: 22 is unlike anything else in the Fourth Gospel’…*Thus, while the differences are not significant enough on their own to suggest that the original author did not write the 21st chapter, it does texture its continuity: *it is not immediately apparent why the original author, “wishing to add to his own book, would add [to] it in so clumsy a manner” (577)… *This chapter occurs after a strong conclusion (ch. 20:30). It is rhetorically weak to have material after a strong conclusion. *The chronological introduction of the narrative (“After these things Jesus showed himself again”) is strikingly less precise than other temporally-concerned introductions (ch. 20:1: “Early on the first day of the week;” v19: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week;” and v26: “A week later.”)…* From these comments, Barrett suggests that chapter 21 be read as if it were a metaphorical account of the birth of the early Christian church *for the purpose of explicating the different, yet equally important, roles of Peter and the beloved disciple, penned by a second author (577). Read this way, we are to see the disciples as “catching men” (579)… *“pastoral ministry and historical-theological testimony” (587).

Lessons For Us

Our Gospel today offers us three lessons.

The first is that change, amendment, development, becoming are not only a part of life and life in faith, but also and earlier so, found right in the heart of the Bible.  The Fourth Gospel, twenty chapters long, written in the years leading toward 90 a.d., was composed out of sermons stitched together: a wedding in Cana, Nicodemus at night, the woman at the well, healings of body, feeding 5,000, debates with opponents, sight given to the blind, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus in farewell, passion and resurrection.  But then, a decade later, another chapter was added, because another chapter was needed. And all the things left out of the Gospel—so beautiful the Gospel—now have their time to appear or re-appear: the importance of the church, the centrality of leadership, the holy mystery of communion, the inherited tradition of the eschaton, the rehabilitation of Peter, the importance of pastoral care, the significance of evangelism.  The Bible has a story, too, and it is a story of becoming, not of static changelessness, but of adaptation, flexibility, formation—evolution. The Gospel ends in chapter 20, and is re-started in 21. If you find that you are changing, learning, growing—GRADUATING, well, you have some hints about how that happens, in the Holy Scripture. New occasions teach new duties.

The second is that institutions matter a whole lot, including the church.  If you eliminate ethics and pollute politics and contaminate culture, then you are left to go all the way upstream, from ethics and politics and culture, into the higher ground, the colder waters of religion.  The thing about institutions is that they don’t go away, they just either get better or worse. Love is finding a way to use time, even to waste some time, in the advancement of institutional health, in learning virtue and piety, in knowing, doing and being.  In leadership. Leading by example.

(The Methodist church hit an iceberg in February, for instance, and we are a long way from beginning to fathom the cost, damage, impact and consequence that crash.  It was an institutional failure of colossal proportion, and a spiritual defeat of colossal dimension. There is enough blame and responsibility to go all around. The question now is how to care for him who has borne the battle and his widow and his orphan and do all we can to attain a just and lasting peace, for ourselves, and for all.  Start with ten facts:

St Louis was decided by 27 votes.

42 votes were neither cast nor counted.

2/3 of US votes were liberal.

Of $400M spent outside the US by the UMC in 2017 $398M came out of US collection plates. (Funds 1,4,7).

In Finding Our Way 2014 the African UMC general superintendent referred to gay people as ‘beasts of the field’.

In 1972 mainline Christians were 33% of the US population; today 11%.

In 1972 ‘nones’ were 4% of the population; today 24%.

All but 6 UMC general superintendents finally supported the One Church plan, but they did not say so clearly and early with signatures.

Baldwin Wallace University in April 26, 2019 severed its 174 year old affiliation with the UMC by unanimous vote of the University Trustees.

Marsh Chapel marries gay people and employs and deploys gay clergy on a regular basis.

The third is that personal concern, and pastoral care, feed feed feed, have no substitute in the peculiar holy mystery of the church.  We are present for each other come Sunday. We are present for each other in Sacrament.  We are present for each other in fellowship. We are present for each other in education.  We are present for each other in visitation. We are present for each other in spoken prayer.  We are present for each other in care. In the ministry, stay close to your people. In the church, stay close to your neighbors in town and in the pew.  Love one another, as Christ has loved you.

On Friday, after senior breakfast, I met a new friend, who said, with some poise and calm, ‘well, I guess people gathering once a week to be together and remind each other to be good people and become better people, I guess that’s not such a bad thing’.  I guess not.

The sermon concludes with a recitation of the Canadian Creed.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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