Tuesday, July 12, 2016

(Ir)regularity

We can make all the jokes in the world about how Episcopalians don’t like change, but the truth is that most people, religious or not, don’t handle uncertainty and change very well.  Even positive changes, events like marriage, the beginning of a new career, or purchasing a new home rank as some of the biggest factors of stress in a person’s life. But regardless of whether the experiences are blessings, like the aforementioned, or curses, like experiencing loss or death…the things we experience and endure leave deep, indelible marks upon our lives and destabilize the comfort and regularity we cling to…the comfort and regularity that helps us remain sane in an often confusing and insane world.

And yet, change is an intrinsic and unavoidable aspect of being human.  Life moves around us in ways outside of our control, and truly there is very little we can do to stem the tide of life’s unpredictability. All we can control is how we respond to what comes our way, how we order our lives once we endure or experience something that destabilizes and discomforts us.  And as we gather this morning, basking in the glow of the Resurrection, we must confront the impulses of our own hearts that would have us treat such a magnificent event like just another moment we simply observe in a parade of religiosity, moving around us, going by us, and leaving us feeling joyful but fundamentally unchanged.  Once we experience the power of the Risen Christ, there simply is no going back to what we have left behind, to the lives we lived before such an encounter, to lives marked more significantly by things other than this world-shattering and world-reforming event.
In my office hangs a painting of St. Andrew, one of my patron saints.  It was given to me by a former parishioner who thought it ‘too bleak and melancholy.’  At first glance, you would probably agree with her too.  St. Andrew is an older man, carrying a large wooden cross over his left shoulder.  He looks wearied, tired, a bit worse for wear.  And the background of the painting is starkly black.  Even I agreed with her when she gave it to me, but then I looked closely and saw something peeking out from the poorly installed matte and frame.  In his right hand are the bones of a fish.  And therein lies the beauty of the painting.  St. Andrew, the first-called of Jesus’ disciples, left behind his life as a fisherman to take up his cross as a disciple of Jesus, and he never returned to that life.  Hence the bones of a fish in his hand…a reminder of the life that he left behind…the life he would never return to after answering the call to Christian discipleship… the life that died and gave way to something new in Christ.

Andrew stands in sharp contrast to the disciples named in today’s Gospel.  Whereas Andrew never returned to the life he lived before following Jesus, these disciples couldn’t help but sink back into routines of normalcy and comfort, even though they had experienced the Risen Christ in an Upper Room.  Even after having their tears of mourning washed away, they couldn’t help but return to the boats, to the breeze of the sea, to the coarseness of the nets…to the things that once defined them and gave them purpose.  Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We will go with you." They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  We can’t know exactly what drove them back to the water, but if indeed these men shared the same human impulses we do, then I imagine returning to the waters, to a life on the sea, was an attempt to recover some sanity and control in what was an unprecedented and unbelievable situation.  Their Lord and Master was dead.  And now he lives again, bursting through locked doors and showing them the wounds in his hands and in his side.  But rather than staying with them, he presumably left them in that Upper Room.  Their world had just been turned upside down, inside out, and they are left with one another, trying to make some sense of what they have experienced.  So, to familiar territory they went, to the sights, sounds, and smells of something a bit more believable, something a bit more tangible, something a bit more predictable.  But their return to what they once left behind was all for naught, for as the Scriptures say, ‘they caught nothing.’

Though I’m not a fisherman, I can certainly relate to their experience of ‘catching nothing.’ Time and time again, even after having the most sublime and beautiful encounters with the Living Christ, I find myself slipping back into routine…into the quest for a certain sense of ‘normalcy’…returning to a life that isn’t fully consumed by the penetrating and illuminating light of Christ.  And time and time again, what I find myself returning to feels so much emptier than those moments where I am in tune with God’s Holy Spirit, lost in wonder, love, and praise as I commune with the Living Christ.  So it’s not in judgment that I read this story and question the disciples’ return to the boats and nets of their former lives.  I, too, am guilty of returning to what I once left behind.

But thanks be to God that we serve a Savior who meets us on the shores of whatever sea we find ourselves returning to.  We serve a Savior who meets us where we are, and in the midst of our lives, whether or not we are fully and totally living as people transformed by his Resurrection, he offers us a life more abundant and rich than we could ever imagine or secure for ourselves.  We serve a Savior who welcomes us back, sits us down, and nourishes us with his goodness.  But more than any of those things, we serve a Savior who is delighted by the opportunity to restore us, commission us, and send us out into the world to set it ablaze with his love. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.” Alongside the disciples’ return to a life of ‘regularity’ and ‘normalcy’, in the midst of their attempts to control and make sense of their lives, and even after Peter’s three-fold denial of him, Jesus restores Peter’s dignity, and entrusts to him a task of paramount importance that is as close to the heart of Jesus as anything could be.

That’s the beauty of Jesus Christ.  Try as we might to return to how life was before we experienced his Resurrection, to a life not marked and governed primarily by the call and cost of discipleship, he will show up with an invitation to deeper discipleship and communion with him.  Though the human impulse to resist change is strong, Jesus’ call upon our lives is stronger and more fulfilling than anything else we might experience.  There certainly is danger in following Jesus, in claiming the power of his Resurrection as our own, and it might lead us to places of discomfort and uncertainty.

Jesus’ words to Peter indicate as much.  But such is the occupational hazard of being a Christian. Encountering the Risen Lord, even if our encounters come after the joy and pageantry of Easter Day have passed, is an experience that should leave us disquieted, discomforted, and destabilized so we come to know what it truly means to rest on nothing else but Jesus and his righteousness. Then, and only then, can we answer his call to follow him with a true conviction that there is no going back.

*A sermon preached on the third Sunday of Easter 2016 at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were Acts 9:1-6, (7-20), Revelation 5:11-14, and John 21:1-19.

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