Thursday, April 22, 2010

Every One Counts - the Sermon

This is the sermon on John 21. A warning - I typed this without using very many capital letters. So pretend that i was channeling e.e. cummings or something, O.K.? Thank you.

A few years ago - five years ago - this text served as the basis of our worship for every Sunday between easter and pentecost. i preached on it 6 times in a row. and those were some good sermons, if i do say so myself. so when i saw that the lectionary was again pointing us to this text, my first thought was . . . i’ve said it all. every single solitary thing that the holy spirit might like this congregation to know has already been covered. we’ve been there, done that.
then, at lectionary, i heard the story read aloud. and noticed that one sentence that had never captured my attention would not let me go. this is, in case you ever wondered, one of the ways preachers try to discern what God wants us to preach about. what aspect of the story do we find ourselves thinking about as we drive to the grocery store? what verse do we want explained as we dig through commentaries? what phrase or image are we reminded of as we read news stories, and make hospital calls, and get our taxes ready to mail? this is how we think God nudges us to put together a sermon that the Spirit can use to speak the Gospel to some of you, at least, on Sunday morning.

and this is the verse that i think God wants us to think about and do something about this easter season: after the Risen Christ appears on the shore to his disciples as they finished a long night of fishing, and he helps them catch something, it says, “the net was full of large fish - one hundred fifty-three of them.”

it worked on me, that verse. why does John say, 153 fish? what about that number matters?

There are lots of theories about the odd little number 153. some scholars have said that it was the number of fish species known in the ancient world. so it meant one of each. that’s wrong. ancient authorities only knew of 74 species of fish. other biblical interpreters suggest that it is the number of nationalities or races. wrong. some say it refers to a VERY obscure prophecy in Ezekiel (and ezekiel is probably one of the more obscure books in the old testament. I ought to know, i took a senior seminar with a reknowned OT scholar of the book and he would often tell us about some controversy and then just shrug. who knows what it means, he’d say.) that seems like not a good answer. others try to make something of the fact that 153 is the triangulation of 17 - which makes me wonder how faithfully we can approach the Word of God if we treat it like a mystical sudoku puzzle. Most of the really hot shot high powered theologians through the ages have not improved on what Augustine said in the 4th century: The number is one of the great mysteries of the Gospel of John. Though the number itself was a mystery, he took it as a sign of the abundant number of those brought to God. 

Everybody agrees that the fish in the net represent those who Jesus and his disciples would gather up into the church. So if the quest for any mystical or symbolic meaning leads to a dead end, then why DID john specifically note this number? why not just say, “a whole bunch”??Well. maybe it because somebody counted the fishes. every one fo the fishes.

I’m not the first person to consider this possibility:
In "The River Why", by David James Duncan, a novel which tells the story of fly-fisherman Gus Orviston. From the chapter titled "Concerning Statistics": "Like gamblers, baseball fans, and television networks, fishermen are enamored of statistics. The adoration of statistics is a trait so deeply embedded in their nature that even those rarefied anglers, the disciples of Jesus couldn't resist backing their yarns with arithmetic: when the resurrected Christ appears on the morning shore of the Sea of Galilee and we learn that the net contained not 'a boatload' of fish, nor 'about one hundred and a half,' nor 'over a gross,' but precisely 'one hundred and fifty and three.' This is, it seems to me, one of the most remarkable statistics ever computed. Consider the circumstances: this is after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that in the net there were 'great fishes', numbering precisely "an hundred and fifty and three.' How was this digit discovered? Mustn't it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, Jesus and the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting 'one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . .' all of the way up to a hundred and fifty and three.”

The person who wrote the gospel of john wanted us to know and to notice that for someone there, every one of the fishes counted. Someone counted them. And john wouldn’t have recorded the total if he didn’t think that we, his readers, should be paying attention to the importance of every single one, too.

When we meet the Risen Jesus - every one counts. Every one matters. The difference between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and fifty three is that in the former case those three fish aren’t counted. but in the light of Jesus, every one counts. Every one is vital. Everyone is equally important to the total.

Counting is a funny activity. It makes you focus on what’s important, even when the important thing isn’t the number. The denomination counts congregations and members - 10,751 congregations and 2,140,165 members in the Presbyterian Church. Some people count their money. Some count the miles they travel transporting their children. Some count meals at home. At one point in my life I counted the number of loads of laundry I did in a month.

That’s why I count the number of you who show up for worship.

But you know what number i’m more fascinated by? how many of us are out there living your faith in some significant way during the week. how many instances of forgiveness? how many acts of mercy? how many different expressions of loving concern for each other and for God’s creation? that’s a harder number for me to come by. Impossible for me to know. but not for God. God knows. And every one of our attempts to live our faith and share God’s love counts with God.

sometimes, something we say or do may matter far more than we can know. Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, writes about how events and ideas often behave like infectious diseases: they start with only one person, then explode into a huge phenomenon, that seems out of proportion to their “cause”. he likens it to chicken pox - first one child has it, then 4 or 5 more, then the whole class. Kindness, gentleness, generosity . . . these, too, are contagious. Love of neighbor is contagious. tolerance of differences is contagious. And the results can be almost incalculable.

Sometimes, starting with something that you can count leads to results that are beyond your ability to calculate. Here’s an example:

There is a documentary film called "paper clips" about how a middle school class in a small town came to understand the killing of six million Jews under the Nazis by collecting 6 million paper clips. they couldn’t come to grips with the magnitude of the historical event, until they came to grips with the actual counting of six million something. And sort of a miracle happened when they began to count. it soon became clear that six million was too much for one class to calculate. So the whole town became involved. And the word got out. People began sending them paper clips, with letters about people in their family, people they knew of, who had perished in the camps. The paper clips came with names. They came with pictures. They came with stories. The project became a way for people to tell those stories and pass on the hope and the dream of a world in which every life mattered, and was honored and respected and no life was snuffed out in ignorance and hate.

counting helped the students and their whole town and later on the world, know that every life counts. numbering them teaches us to value lives - even lives different than their own..

The Good News is each one of us counts to God. We are the fish. We count.

And challenge is that those folks who we might think "don't count" DO count to God, too. Every single one of them. And we have to keep letting God remind us of that. because, on our own, we forget. As Sara Miles’ writes in her new book, (p. 19) Because it is so tempting to believe there are good people, who should be rewarded, and bad people, who deserve their problems, and that God will sort things out fairly according to our own ideas about justice.
And yet Jesus’ very life tells us something different. . . . (p. 10) In the public works that follow his baptism and call to those first followers (peter and the lot were hardly prime candidates for spiritual enlightenment, by the way) Jesus, the itinerant teacher and healer, keeps making the point that salvation doesn[‘t depend on worldly status, or even on religious observance. In a whole series of stories, jesus demonstrates that God deliberately chooses the strange, the outcast, the foreigner, the sick and unclean - in short the wrong people - to show the scope of his love.

We model our lives on a guy for whom poor people, as well as rich people, sick people, desperate women as well as the quiet ones, children, tax collectors and sinners, the socially ostracized, the guys that smell like sweat and like fish - these folks count. So the challenge of this passage is for us to count these folks, too.

I know that you know people who Jesus would like to “catch” in his net of grace. One person. Every one counts. If you want to experience the Risen Christ in your life this week, count that one person. In your prayers, pray for them. In your thoughts, consider their situation and their point of view. In your actions, find one small way to include them. Tell your God, “I know this person counts.”

You will be blessed with an experience of knowing the Risen Christ and his Resurrected Life within your own life. As the dawn was breaking, you will recognize him, waiting for you. He’s waiting to say to us, “you count. and you count. and you count.” And he is waiting to count with us those he has gathered, “you count and you count and you count. every single one.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

april 25 is shepherd sunday

It always sneaks up on me!

beautiful day

Warm and beautiful. I walked Caleb's bike to Casey's and filled up the tires. Then I rode it home and raised the seat til it fits me. He's never going to ride it. And it is a good bike. So maybe I'll have a nice new way to get around town.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Every One Counts

is going to be my sermon for Sunday. The Bible starting point is that when the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples beside the sea, and they had that miraculous catch, John records that there were 153 large fish, and the net was not broken. I have a quote that asks, "Who counted the fish?" Somebody who knew that every fish counted. That's who.
Also, there is a documentary film called "paper clips" about how a middle school class in a small town came to understand the killing of six million Jews under the Nazis by collecting 6 million paper clips. Counting is important.
So how do we count? What do we count? Who do we count?
Oh. The Census! I can use that, too.
The Good News is each one of us counts to God. And challenge is that those folks who we might think "don't count" DO count to God, too.

There. That's about 153 words.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thinking ahead

The sun is just coming up and I'm thinking about the Gospel text assigned for this week - Jesus' appearance, at dawn, to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. John 21. It's the passage that I preached 7 sermons on one Easter season. I'd kinda like to do that again. Maybe this is why ministers move, so they can do their best sermons over again.
I don't know what I'll do this year.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April 11

I get to go talk about Nicaragua again.
Going to preach and show my pics at Westminster, Champaign.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Day in the Yard

It was so great to get out in the garden/yard and play around.
I trimmed and weeded a little and pulled some of the old leaves out of the flower beds. Then I got out the electric trimmers and tried to chop the shrubs on the east side of the house down to size. They look awful, but less awful than they did, I think. I want to be able to see out of my windows!
Then, for my grand finale, I got the clippers and saw and went inside that big ol' thing growing outside the bedroom window and chopped off the "mohawk" that was sticking out of the top.
Everything looks much better. And my arms haven't fallen off yet, though they certainly feel like they are going to do so. ARG!

Thursday, April 8, 2010


This link is to a blog I read sometimes, for the laughs. But I'm not laughing now.
This post has captured a particularly graceful, healing response to hatred and fear.

It's so hard for me not to get angry when people are mean and ugly. But Jenny's response is so full of grace and love. And I want to respond more like she does.
Here's an example of God healing and reconciling and moving in the world. And the "visible church" is nowhere in sight. (But is it all right if I say that the Spirit of God is there? That's what I see)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter Communion Meditation

Here's what I preached on Easter Sunday -
Scriptures were Luke 24 (the Road to Emmaus part) and I Corinthians 15:20-26 or so.

We are gathered here this morning because
Love is stronger than death,
because the Power of Life is trumps the power of hate,
because all the evil in the world cannot stop God’s grace from Raining Down,
because Forgiveness never Fails to win the Day.

But that first easter morning, the Easter victory was not all that clear. The first easter dawned slowly on the disciples . . . the huge implications weren’t apparent to the disciples right at first. In fact they even had trouble recognizing their resurrected friend and teacher. The Gospel of John tells us that Mary thought he was the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was just a fellow pilgrim. People had trouble recognizing Jesus on the other side of the grave.

But Jesus kept showing up, listening to what was on their hearts, speaking to them through scripture, saying Peace and letting them touch him, and eating with them until they got better at recognzing him. And their biggest doubts and fears were resolved once they finally recognized the resurrected Lord.

At the same time that that process was happening, it was beginning to dawn on people like Paul what Jesus’ resurrection meant for the rest of us: That resurrection was also for Jesus’ followers. As he wrote in our passage for today: I Corinthians 15: “So all will be made alive in Christ. Each in order - Christ the first fruits, then those who belong to Christ.”

First Jesus gets resurrection. Then because of Him, we experience resurrection too.

The thing is, like the first disciples failed to recognize Jesus’ familiar face, we still have trouble recognizing resurrection. I’m not talking about beyond the grave. We look forward to that, and, once we get past dying, I think it will be easy to see. But Jesus always was very clear that the New LIfe he offers starts here and nowl

But just as recognizing Jesus’ resurrected was hard, recognizing resurrection in our midst can be a challenge, too. In her provocative study of the resurrection, Seeing the Lord, Marianne Sawicki defines the church as a community of those who have the competence to recognize Jesus as the risen Lord. It specializes in discerning the Risen One.

That made me wonder if we recognize resurrection life when we see it?

Where do we see resurrection in and around us?
The proof of it lies just in front of our noses. But sometimes we don’t quite see it for what it is.

Resurrection from the dead makes us unrecognizable. When the old life dies, we are resurrected strange and new.
A few years ago, my life, as I knew it, came to an end. I’d been a minister’s wife, shrink wrapped in expectations - my own as well as other people’s. It was a good life, I thought. And then, quite against my expectation and hope, it came crashing down. And I wasn’t the same person any more. It hurt. A lot. And when I came out on the other side, I noticed a very strange phenomenon: People that I had known before no longer recognized me. I don’t mean that they were being unkind, or anything like that. They just honestly didn’t know who I was. I’d see them on the street and greet them, and they’d look at me out of the side of their eyes, and I’d say, “Cindy Shepherd.” Ususally that was enough. Sometimes I had to add, “I knew you at First Presbyterian” which was embarrassing for us both. But they’d say, “Oh, of course! Wow! How are you? You look so different.”
I don’t know that I looked different. But I WAS different. I had been resurrected by the grace and forgiveness of God.

I think about the friend of this congregation who is now cheering us on from heaven - Roger. Who knows what happened to Roger that brought him to Philo and this church! He walked through these doors pretty much alone, freely admitting some self-induced setbacks that amounted to having it all and losing it all. But the life he made here was extraordinary. Don Rice has said, “I’ve never known anyone to come into a place and make such an impact in such a short time.” He died, and his family, with whom the reconciliation was occurring, came to the funeral here. His wife said, “We know you are telling us the truth about Roger, but, honestly, it’s hard to even recognize him as the same person.” His was a resurrection life - graced and forgiven and resurrected. She said, “God redeemed all those years he was lost.” It’s a resurrection story.

Proof of the resurrection - of the miraculous restoration of life - is all around us: I saw it far away, in Nicaragua, where a country devestated by war and poverty learns to love peace and justice. where villages and families are raised to new life through God’s love. That’s why I’m so happy that we are part of One Great Hour of Sharing during this season - because our gifts help make that new life possible for people all around the world.
But resurrection life doesn’t just happen far away. It’s right here, all around us.
In these pews this morning are (the hardest part of writing this sermon was trying to point to resurrection life without using names.)
A child whose very life is a miracle.
And at the other end of life, many examples of shining faith that burns brighter, clearer, warmer as darkness closes in.
A broken spirit that is stronger than it seems possible for her to be.
A marriage that is growing again - who but God can reconcile us that way?
Young lives blown open to the world’s beauty and pain by encountering Christ on mission trips.
We are a church that is becoming unrecognizable to itself, as God does his resurrection thing among us.
The whole world needs to to see us practicing resurrection and we need to look out into the world and see where God is resurrecting somebody so that we can celebrate and participate in that.
We’re here because of the resurrection of the dead - J’s resurrection, yes. But if J’s resurrection just meant that HE rose from the dead, that would be good, but . . . probably not enough for us to get up, 2000 years later to sing about. We’re here because J’s resurrection means the we shall walk in newness of life. We’re here because J’s resurrection means that we, too, can and will and must experience the resurrection.
Just as the people who saw Jesus’ triumph over sin and death had a little trouble recognizing him on the other side of Easter - so we may need to help each other recognize resurrection in our world, in our community and in our own families and our own lives.
Thanks be to God, Jesus is still providing that help -
still breaking bread with us -
still opening our eyes -
still helping us to recognize the miraculous power of God to bring life out of death - still making our hearts burn within us
by his amazing grace and death defying love.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Happy Easter!

Easter music was especially beautiful this year!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Holy Thursday

Last night I googled Wendell Barry's poem that ends with "Practice Resurrection"
It's so good.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry