A Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Fourth Sunday of EPC Stewardship Season. John 21:1-19
We cannot do the work of restoration without your Word.
We cannot do the work of remembering,
releasing, or reimagining without your Word.
We need you like the earth needs rain and a sailboat needs wind.
We come to you in prayer to ask that you breathe new life into us.
Grant us the clarity needed to hear your Word anew.
And as you do, restore us to your breath.
Restore us to your Word.
Restore us to one another.
Gratefully we pray.
Helen Keller, the American educator, political activist and advocate for the blind and deaf, wrote:
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
The quote has stuck with me ever since I saw it printed on the back of a T-shirt for a Middle School Mission Trip in Asheville that I attended several years ago with half a dozen teenagers. Keller’s words are a constant reminder to me that despite the enormous amount of suffering that exists, there is still a lot beauty and hope in the world. There are still people who refuse to give into distress and who continue to work hard for a better world.
Life is painful and messy and God is with human beings in the muck. God meets us in our mess and loves us unconditionally, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it this way in a speech he gave at the National Cathedral in 2011:
“When we fall, God picks us up, dusts us off and says, ‘Try again.’”
We jump back into the work we are called by God to do, knowing that we will get bruised, battered and knocked down along the way. Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to avoid suffering as Tutu reminds readers in the book, God Has A Dream:
“In the universe we inhabit, there will always be suffering. Suffering is often how we grow, especially how we grow emotionally, spiritually and morally. That is, when we let the suffering ennoble us and not embitter us.”
Author and pastor Rob Bell pontificates further on the effects of suffering in his book, Drops Like Stars:
We are going to suffer. And it is going to shape us. Somehow. We will become bitter or better, closed or open, more ignorant or more aware. (We will become) more or less tuned in to the thousands of gifts we are surrounded with every single moment of every single day.
Bell then shares an illustration on suffering from a recent novel he has read, in which a theologian and sculptor talk about the nature of God. The theologian offers elegant and complicated thoughts about God, suffering and life. But the sculptor provides a different and simpler perspective based on her experience of making art:
No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work because you’re chained to the bloody thing. It’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of all the distortion and beauty out of all the mess—but it’s agony, agony, agony—while simultaneously being the most wonderful and rewarding experience in the world—and that’s the creative process which so few people understand…You can’t create without waste and mess and sheer undiluted slog. You can’t create without pain. It’s all part of the process.
Over the last four weeks, we’ve been immersed in the season of Stewardship at Emory Presbyterian Church, specifically focusing on the meaning of Our Money Story in light of God’s money story of liberation and justice or God’s economy.
Our money stories have moments of agony, and some of you have bravely shared your fears and struggles in our special Stewardship class on Sunday mornings via Zoom. I’ve had similar experiences—times when I foolishly wasted a lot of money on frivolous purchases or had to pay late fees more than once on the power bill. I’ve also incurred expenses I hadn’t planned on having due to bad life decisions.
In mid-December 2001, when I was 25 years old, I did one of the dumbest things someone could do and that was driving home from a Saturday-evening Christmas party after imbibing several drinks. A couple of miles from my home in Alabaster, Alabama in the Birmingham Metro Area, I swerved slightly over the median of the road while putting a CD into my car’s CD player. Flashing lights immediately appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and within minutes found myself spending the night in the dungy cell of the Alabaster city jail. The next morning, I was given breakfast from McDonalds, however I chose only to drink the coffee because of a massive hang over and the misfortunate of having to hear the police officers discuss a great-tasting sushi place, which I’m pretty sure was concocted to teach me a lesson.
I felt awful physically, but more so emotionally. I was weighted with a humongous amount of guilt and embarrassment. I could’ve harmed myself or someone else with my drunk driving, and I had caused a lot of worry and grief for my mother, brother and grandparents. I also disappointed the youth at my home church because I missed the Christmas party that they were having in their newly remodeled youth room. Furthermore, I temporarily lost my license and had to pay my family back for bail money and getting the car out of the impound, plus the cost of a fine and DUI & Defensive Driving School classes that, once completed, would reduce the DUI charge to a minor traffic violation for swerving.
Because of this one incident and mistake, I believed I was a terrible human being who wasn’t worthy of going to seminary the following summer. Adult mentors of mine, Presbyterian ministers and Christian educators, who taught me about Jesus’ love and inspired me to hear God’s call to ministry, wouldn’t let me beat myself up for long. They reminded me that I also was deserving of second chances, worthy of grace. Their love and support—as well as that of family, friends, my home church and seminary classmates like Elizabeth—carried me through the mess. With God’s compassion, they restored me.
When we’re down and out, family and friends and the church, comes to our aid and pulls us out of the gloomy pits of despair and into the sun.
Our scripture reading for today finds Simon-Peter in a dreary state. After hiding behind locked doors of their meeting house with the disciples, Peter decides to go fishing and the others join him. All night long, they cast their nets but come up empty. At dawn, Jesus appears on the beach and instructs them to cast the net one more time. When they do, they catch so many fish that they struggle mightily to haul it to shore. Minutes later, they are reunited with their teacher and enjoying a delicious breakfast of fish and bread. Once, Peter and the disciples were lost, but now they were being fed. Even though they had previously abandoned Jesus and denied knowing him as he faced persecution, the disciples were forgiven. They were restored.
So then, how does this miracle text relate to our present fear? That is the question Hannah Garrity of A Sanctified Art, wondered about during the beginning of the pandemic in March as she created the art that appears on today’s bulletin cover. She writes:
Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, people are dying, people are losing their livelihoods, people are isolated, people are going to run out of food, people are going to run out of money, people are going to lose their family members, people will lose their homes. This moment in our story delivers scarcity in ways that we have not seen in living memory. Our whole precious global society could unravel. Can we be the safety net?
Three weeks into stay-at-home orders, our local food banks are being tapped more heavily than normal. Economic stimulus checks are arriving in American bank accounts. Factories are retooling to build medical equipment. The public is following the stay-at-home measures. Legislative consensus should ensure that unemployment will be enough for many to survive on. All of these miraculous actions are funded by each of us.
In the artwork, patterned fish represent the miracle that Jesus performed that morning so many years ago. This miracle convinced the disciples that they must tell the story of Jesus and act out the love Jesus modeled. This miracle continues to inspire us to contribute and act as God’s disciples in this critical time for humanity. We are the safety net.
As I worked with this text, I contemplated that money has a lot to do with saving lives. Therefore, the background of this piece is woven with a guilloche pattern, reminiscent of currency. It portrays the flow of financial resources from government support, to charities, to crowdfunding, to church missions that are the fabric of the net that will catch us all. Jesus inspires us in this text—and in this moment—to weave God’s safety net.
Weaving God’s safety net, fishing for people, feeding the sheep, caring for the hurt, the sick, the broken and the vulnerable, requires faith in God’s ability to transform…redeem…restore.
Nearly a decade ago, while serving as an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Duluth, a parishioner who was employed with a non-profit that provides water purification systems to villages in the Dominican Republic told me a remarkable story about restoration.
In the village of San Joaquin, less than 10 miles northeast of the capital city of Santo Domingo, Pastor Alejandro ministers to 1,200-1,500 Haitian refugees, about 200-300 families. While the community is now one of the most calm and peaceful in the country, it had suffered for many years from the existence of a bar/drug-infested prostitution den where girls as young as 12 could be seen dancing out front.
One day, Alejandro stood defiantly in front of the bar and shouted at the drug dealers who owned the business, “This land belongs to God and you must leave!” While the chronological details of what happened next are fuzzy, the drug dealers cleared out and Alejandro eventually reclaimed the land and the building where horrific abuse, violence and oppression occurred. With a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs, the space has been transformed into a place where children can joyfully play without fear of being harmed. The building is also used as a trade co-op for San Joaquin residents to sell clean water and manufacture their own shampoo and soap for purchase. Pastor Alejandro and the villagers of San Joaquin restored their community and they continue that restoration by weaving God’s safety net and tending to God’s sheep.
We too are called to do the same with the gifts of our time, talents and money, no matter how often we cast into empty waters or fall down in the mud or neglect to help someone with the resources God has given.
We keep listening to Jesus on the shore. We keep looking up to God who picks us up and dusts us off. We keep on following and weaving and feeding and loving, knowing that at any moment God will surprise us with more than enough for us to carry and share with one another.
 Drops Like Stars by Rob Bell, Zondervan Publishing, 2012