Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Easter 3, May 1, 2022
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
Good morning, St. Aidan’s. In a bit of a pandemic throw-back move, I’m preaching a pre-recorded sermon this morning, as your vestry and I are away this weekend on retreat at Bishop’s Ranch. This is the first time this leadership group has gathered in person for retreat since before the pandemic, unless you count last August when we gathered for a half day in the Wajnert Room, freezing with the windows open, blowing in the fog. This time, fog has been nowhere in sight, but animals certainly have— wandering chickens, goats, many different kinds of birds, lizards, insects, frogs (heard but not seen), and cows—one of which mooed through the window just as we said Amen yesterday. We’ve been careful not simply to work, but also to have fun and strengthen our relationships as a team along the way. We played Apples to Apples our first night here-- a goofy tradition started by Martha Olmstead several years ago. Last night we watched a movie, something the wardens and I have continued over the last few years (this year we watched Soul). In our conversations, we’ve begun from a recognition that especially in this pandemic time, we need to plan for the months ahead by looking and listening carefully to where we are in this pandemic moment, asking what we have learned this last year, and what this unique location and learning can tell us about where we need to head in the year ahead. To ground these conversations, which took place for most of the day yesterday, we steeped ourselves in the gospel passage for this morning.
It's one of my favorite resurrection stories. I love it so much in part because I discovered it fairly late in my church-going life. No doubt I had heard it many times prior to my divinity school years, but it was then that I remember really taking it in, receiving it, as a story of the resurrection. I suspect that because of its overlap with other fishing stories from Jesus’ ministry, especially Luke’s version of the miraculous catch, it had blended into that collection in my mind. It just didn’t shout resurrection! in any kind of obvious, earth-shattering way. When I finally was in a place in my life where I was able to actually hear it, to quiet my assumptions and truly take this narrative in as a resurrection story, I was blown away by it. I remember being struck first by a stillness at its heart. The framing of the story sets that tone as it begins, “Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.” It doesn’t say, “Jesus did another amazing, spectacular thing!” It says Jesus showed himself to them. He revealed himself to them. He revealed himself in this way. There is a sense of precision, of deliberate disclosure that invites observation. This ramping up of the story invites us to prepare ourselves to observe, to listen, to be ready and open to what Jesus has to show us. Reading or hearing this, I sit up straight in my chair, I lean forward. I center myself. The risen Jesus shows himself and invites us to see.
How did he reveal himself? At dawn. At a beginning, a turning, a gradual growing of light. A group of disciples are out fishing – they had been doing so all night, prompted by Peter. As the sun rises, “just after daybreak,” we hear, Jesus stood on the beach, looking out at them. At the beginning of a new day, he stands at the juncture of sea and land, a holy threshold of new life. We hear, “the disciples did not know it was Jesus,” suggesting that, as with some of his earlier sightings, there was something different about him. He was not immediately recognizable. I wonder if the disciples noted him for a while. Who is that person standing there, looking out at us? We hear the boat is about a hundred yards off from the shore—fairly near as the text envisions it, yet a football field away, which I don’t think of as very close. Over that distance, using the natural microphone of sound carrying over still water, Jesus is able to say clearly, without shouting, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" The disciples were able to answer equally clearly, "No." “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some,” Jesus replies, and then of course they cannot pull the net back into the boat, there are so many fish.
Now, if this sequence sounds especially familiar thus far (aside from the oddly precise number of 153 on whose significance there is sadly no scholarly consensus), this is likely because a couple of months ago in the season of Epiphany we had a very similar reading – the other so-called “Miraculous Catch” story I mentioned earlier from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. In that story Jesus had commandeered a boat to preach with a little distance from a press of people. And then after finishing he asked Peter to “put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter had protested, “we toiled all night and took nothing! Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” As I noted back in February, there is in the Lukan passage a sense of “exhausted limitation followed by an expansive yet…. a ‘yet’ that” – as it turned out – “opened a door to new life.” When those nets catch an imprecise but huge number of fish, they start to break and Jesus and Peter have to wait for the sons of Zebedee to come from the shore with the other boat to help. In his overwhelm, Peter has a bit of a meltdown in the boat with Jesus (“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”).
In today’s story from the Gospel of John, I imagine the disciples are just as exhausted. They have fished all night and caught nothing. And again, they are asked to do the same thing, in a different way, as takes place in Luke. But this time when they catch a miraculous abundance, the nets do not break, even as they are dragged toward the shore, too heavy to be loaded into the boat. This time there are no meltdowns, though Peter is not without reactivity, as someone noted in our vestry conversation. He strangely clothes himself and then jumps into the sea after the Beloved Disciple recognizes (as at the empty tomb), “it is the Lord!” But once ashore, this drama is exceeded by that stillness once again. Jesus is calmly waiting for them, charcoal fire burning, fish and bread ready, inviting, “Come and have breakfast”. Here is resurrection life shared, refreshment beyond our wildest imagining, offered in simplicity, your own fish welcome. Not quite potluck, far from a banquet, it is a meal beyond measure. John’s miraculous catch is so similar to Luke’s, and yet it feels so different. Not exhausted but refreshed. They had been through Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, suffering, and death. They had seen him in his risen embodiment twice already. Notably—as also emerged in our vestry conversation – the disciples were continuing to do what they had previously done: fishing. Yet they did so differently, with new openness. That sense of persisting through exhaustion in Luke’s story is not the pervasive mode here. Resurrection in its radical, abundant simplicity has made all the difference. Even after a night of fruitless fishing, the dawn call to cast the nets again now becomes an expression of new life, an active participation in it, graced with refreshment. This story situates our lives and ministries in resurrection light.
As we sat with this story this weekend, reflecting upon this year and the year prior, there was a sense of listening to how Jesus is showing himself to us in the things of our everyday life and work. There was a gratitude for the ministries we have continued to engage at St. Aidan’s through the pandemic, in all their humanity, imperfection, and beauty, whether in our hybrid forms or in our in-person, neighborhood work. We gave thanks for the food themed ministries we continue to care deeply about. We were inspired to think about newer efforts we have been undertaking or renewing, from our gardening to the Little Free Library, to Habitat for Humanity in our neighborhood. There is a rhythm to our life together that beats with resurrection life, and a stillness at its heart that calls us to prayerful presence.
I’ll leave you with a walk some of us took late yesterday afternoon. We made our way through shady ravines and hilly paths to the Peace Pole, adding our own cloth prayers to flutter in the wind. Then we continued to the Cristo, a sculpture of the crucified Christ, stunningly rendered in rusted metal, beneath a massive oak tree. For several minutes we sat in its shade and talked as hawks soared overhead. Then we walked to a small pagoda, a “trailside sanctuary,” just off the path in the shade of another large oak. As the engraving next to it reads, the pagoda is “dedicated in peace and love in memory of Leonora and Jack Martin Dowling.” We sat in its shade for several minutes, giving thanks for our St. Aidan’s friends living and departed. As those of us here make our way back home this afternoon, this morning’s gospel story invites us to steep ourselves in it. May we look for the risen Christ who shows himself to us in the holy rhythm of our ministries and invites us to discover and inhabit them anew in the life-giving dawn of resurrection light.