Sermon by The Very Rev. Tracey Lind
On the Beach
Last Sunday, a small group of summer parishioners from The Chapel of St. James the Fisherman in Wellfleet, MA gathered at low tide on the town beach for morning prayer. As we sat six feet apart on beach chairs, dutifully wearing our masks, the oyster farmers were out on the bay, working in the early morning fog. It was a beautiful sight and a perfect setting to reflect on John 21:1-14, one of the Easter appearances in the Fourth Gospel.
As the story opens, the disciples have come full circle and are back to square one. Three years earlier, Jesus invited Simon Peter and his fishing buddies to leave their nets behind and become “fishers of people.” Now, after all that has happened, this motley and beleaguered gang was back in Galilee, sitting on the shores of the sea of Tiberius, not knowing what to do with their lives. When Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing”, they got in the boat with him.
I’m going fishing” is one of the great anti-climactic lines in all of literature. It’s like: relapsing after a period of sobriety; falling off a diet; sliding back into overwork; reverting to bad acquaintances and bad habits; or believing that, sooner or later, life will return to “normal” – back to the way things were before COVID-19 came among us.
That’s not what Jesus had hoped for his closest disciples. When he told them, “Go to Galilee; there [you] will see me.” (Mt 28.10), Jesus was talking about resurrection, which is not a circle; it’s more like a slinky. With resurrection, we never end up back from where we started; we always end up in a new place, even if our zip code hasn’t changed.
In a recent blog post, Richard Rohr called this universal pattern: order, disorder, reorder. Social scientists describe this process as: construction, destruction, reconstruction. I think of it as creation, erosion, restoration.
On the beach that morning, Peter had lost sight of the vision and way of Jesus, which was not surprising given what they had witnessed. First, Jesus was arrested; then he was tortured and executed; then he appeared to them; but, then he left again. This abrupt turn of events left Peter and the rest of the disciples to wonder: “What’s up with that?”
The apostles who gathered on the beach were not “the contented simple fisher folk” we met in the beginning of the Gospel. They felt let down, abandoned, depressed, ashamed and afraid. Their highest hopes had been dashed. Everything had fallen apart. It was over!
Peter – he felt the worst of them all. Remember how he had denied Jesus in front of the Roman authorities. All he wanted was an escape from his pain, shame and disappointment, and so he said. “I’m going fishing.” Since it appeared that there was nothing else to do but to return to the way it had been, the others followed.
They set out as usual, but they couldn’t seem to catch anything. Experienced fishermen in familiar waters, a solid crew with a home court advantage, in plentiful waters, couldn’t catch a darn thing.
Life can be awfully frustrating when you return to your old ways and things don’t go right, when you don’t seem to have the same touch. It’s like putting on an old pair of glasses that you probably should have discarded when you got new ones. But you saved them – just in case. Now, when you put them on, they really don’t fit and you can’t see very well.
In the gospel narrative, something remarkable, something incredible, happened on the waters that day. A stranger stood on the shore calling out to them like a good mother, “Children, have you no fish.” Don’t you hate rhetorical questions like that? They are perfectly designed to make you look foolish. Isn’t it obvious that they don’t have any fish.
Jesus – in his anonymity – instructs them to cast their net to the starboard side, and they will find some fish. Have you ever been working on a problem that can’t be solved? You can’t see the forest for the trees. Somebody comes up and sees the solution from a different perspective, which in hindsight, appears to be so obvious. I call those “Ah! Ah!” moments I think that’s what happened to the disciples that morning. On their unusual fishing excursion, they couldn’t see fish through the water (so to speak). They followed the advice of a stranger who had another perspective, and they caught so many fish that they could not even haul in the net.
At that point, Peter immediately recognized the stranger as Jesus. Why or how? We don’t know. It’s as if he remembered that Jesus had always taught them to look to the other side, to see beyond the obvious, to consider things from a different perspective: blessed are the poor; love your enemies; the first will be last; the one who leads must serve; and you want to gain your life, you must lose it.
In remembering what he had learned from Jesus, Peter was energized. In fact, he was so invigorated that he pulled on his clothes, dove into the water and swam to shore, leaving his co-workers to drag in the net and row back to shore. Upon reaching the beach, the disciples found Jesus, still in disguise so as not to be recognized, standing over a fire grilling fish and bread.
After a hard night at sea, Jesus was there – making breakfast for his beloved friends. In this simple act, Jesus re-enacted the Eucharistic moment from the Last Supper. He took bread and gave it to them. They ate and remembered. None of them dared to ask Jesus, “Who are you?” They already knew.
They had not come full circle after all. They had slunk down the stairs from the Upper Room into the fresh air. And, Jesus was there to meet them – just as they were. Jesus was there with a hot cup of coffee, freshly baked bread and grilled fish. What more can you ask for after a hard night of fishing.
In this time of pandemic, we can’t gather to bless and share bread and wine around God’s holy table. In this time of pandemic, we can’t really gather together except in small groups outside, six feet apart with our faces masked. However….
God still comes to meet us at all the tables of our daily lives. God is among us as we make meals with family and friends in quarantine, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries over zoom, send treats to loved ones in the hospital, grocery shop for neighbors who can’t leave their homes, deliver meals to the sick and shut-in; pack food and load up cars at local pantries; hand out bagged lunches to the homeless on our city sidewalks; or give bottles of water to demonstrators on the streets.
Not all of us – in fact, few of us, will have a Sea of Tiberius experience, but all are given the chance to start over in the eyes of God. We all can be a part of the re-ordering, reconstruction, restoration, and resurrection of our lives and the life of our nation and the world. However, we will be asked to consider life from a different perspective and live in a new way as we throw the net to the other side of the boat.