January 2021: In Case of Abundance

We are three weeks into our series called “Together.” This is a time when we get to consider all that God has given us individually and communally, and we consider what our response could be. 

Last week, Ravi talked brilliantly about the posture of our heart while we give. In fact, he went through so much scripture that I started to worry that there would be little left to say. But leave it to Jesus to always have something for us to mull over. 

So, I want to start this message with a story from the Gospel according to John. It takes place after Jesus’ resurrection, and after he appears to the women at the tomb, and after that, to his disciples. It’s a longer passage, but it’s narrative – a beautiful story, I think. And I encourage you to imagine that you are with these figures in the boat, on the beach, the smell of the sun warming the sand, your belly rumbling after a long day of fruitless fishing.

John 21:1-17 says this:

Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together. Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”

They said, “We’ll go with you.” They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus. Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.

When they landed, they saw a fire there, with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.” Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish. This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

“Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish.”

I love this story. I think it says so much, and part of the beauty of scripture is that it’s like a diamond or a path. No matter how you look at it or listen to it or walk it or touch it, you can always find something new.

And when I read this story this week – of Jesus and his disciples fishing and catching an abundance of fish and then sharing this bounty on the beach ­­– there are three things that I come away with.

First: Jesus calls us to give. Second: Jesus shows us what to do in case of abundance. Third: Something mysterious happens between what we give and what gets received.

153 Fish

So first: Jesus calls us to give. When Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him, Jesus immediately follows Peter’s response with a command. He must have meant it, and he must have wanted Peter to take it seriously, because he issued this command three times. Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. This, Jesus implies, is what it means to love him.

Too often, our faith gets wrapped up in itself, anxious about believing the right thing – the perfect shade of the most right thing. 

But throughout the Gospels, Jesus doesn’t quiz people on their statements of faith. He demonstrates how he wants us to live by living his own life that way and by teaching about a life well-lived. He teaches us how to live the good news. And when he asks Peter if Peter loves him, he says, “Then this is how you do it. This is how you love me. You feed my lambs. You take care of my sheep. You feed my sheep.”

Second: Jesus shows us what to do in case of abundance. In case of the emergency of abundance. I like to imagine that, sometimes, Jesus was really playful during his life. His first recorded public miracle was at a wedding, where he turned water into wine. He was frequently sassy in his retorts to stubborn religious leaders. And here, I think he was playful again – interested to see his beloveds respond to a miracle with joy and delight.

His friends, the fishermen, don’t just catch enough for breakfast. They don’t just catch enough for themselves. They catch a ludicrous, hilarious number of fish. And I think this play – this delight – has a point.

Because right after this miracle in which they catch 153 fish (and 153 was a number in ancient Jewish culture that meant “a lot”), they make a fire on the beach, they roast and eat their fish. And then Jesus says that how they show they love him is that they feed his sheep – his flock, their community.

In other words, he wants them to draw this conclusion, I think: in case of abundance, feed the others. In case of abundance, share your joy.

If we have an abundance of time, let us give time, by this measure. And if we have an abundance of resources, let us share our resources. If we have an abundance of voice and privilege, let us share our platforms. If we have space in our hearts, let us share that love and commitment to prayer and togetherness.

After all, what do you do with 153 fish when just one will fill you up?

And then, we also learn from this and so many other stories in the gospels that something mysterious and beautiful happens between what we give and what gets received. Something mysterious and beautiful happens, also, between what someone gives us and what we receive.

“Synergy” is the word for when things work together and create something greater than the sum of what those two entities could create on their own. So, it’s like saying that 2+2=5. This happens all the time in the natural world. 

Clownfish and sea anemones work together for both protection and food. And long ago, single-celled organisms teamed up with animal cells, and today they serve as our cells’ energy-makers, or mitochondria. Now, humans cannot live without these once-foreign cells. 

And there are plenty of examples in the human-made world, too. One of my favorite examples is the difference between donating food to a food pantry and donating money.

Donating food to a food pantry is vital. And, if we give five dollars, that five dollars goes a lot farther in the hands of the food pantry than it does in our hands. That’s because of the connections that food pantries have with suppliers so they can purchase food at a heavily discounted price. And that special connection can feed so many more people.

This year, while we can’t collect food items for the Souper Bowl of Caring, we are collecting money, and that is transformed into something greater than what we can buy, ourselves.

But anyway, I think it’s the same way with us and the Holy Spirit. Something happens with a gift in transit between the giver and the recipient. Maybe it’s a miracle, or the leavening of love, or maybe it’s the mathematics of the divine. 

Whatever this mystery is is Jesus’ invitation to us. “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Not because it’s a chore. But because it’s an opportunity to witness the abundance that we can pull up with a net that will not break. Because it’s how we are all fed, because our own nets will not always be full. 

Some days, we may come home empty-handed, and it will be our community that fed us. Some days, we may come home lonely, and it will be our community that met us. It has been for me, time and again.

The Mathematics of the Divine

Most of you already know that, last week, someone showed up anonymously to worship with what was probably the intention of making me feel personally unwelcome or unsafe in this community. This wasn’t the first time that this happened, either. At first, I felt embarrassed and didn’t want you all to know, even though I trust and love you. 

But the opposite of what this person intended occurred. In fact, Sara, the rest of the staff, and so many of you have made me feel even more welcome, more safe, and more affirmed than I had ever felt before because of your kindness. When I felt weary, this community gave me strength in abundance. You overfilled a net that will not break. 

That was the leavening of love, or maybe the mathematics of the divine.

Like a net, we are as strong as what we choose to weave together. And the consistency of this community fabric is not in its thread count, not in our numbers, but in our strength and our daring love.

We are a people who give even if our pockets are not deep. We are a people who know, also, how to receive a gift with gladness. We are a people with a deep and lasting commitment to anti-racism. We are unafraid to call white supremacy what it is, to preach and protest and give and learn. We are a people who don’t mind sticking out or speaking out. And we are an un-territorial people, ready and willing to work with other faith communities.

We are a people who host long-table Thanksgivings, who buy groceries for strangers, who take a chance on generosity, who send cards and emails and who pray and hold one another’s parents and children in the light. We are a people who hold diverse perspectives about what God is like, but we are connected by a belief that She is dazzling love. We are a people who dance and sing and hug and make sidewalk art and bake cookies and shake the hands of every last person in the building. We can be so silly that we cry with laughter, even over the screen like this. And we also ask big questions and study life’s most pressing questions and remember one another’s aches and sit with each others’ pains.

We are a people who light candles in our windows for friends who may feel alone at the horizon of a very long road. We are a people who change when we learn better, who seek out the edges to which Jesus calls us, who do not always get it right but who eagerly and earnestly try.

We are because we are. I am because you are. You are because we are. And thank God, that it is so.

In a world like this, in a time like this, this community is special. You are special.

One of the unique things I love about HopeGateWay is how we think about membership. We don’t keep a very formal log, and we don’t keep people for years, long after they’ve moved someplace else. We get to decide, every year, whether to keep showing up. And every year, we participate in this occasion of recommitment to the practices that make us “us.”

It reminds me of how Jesus doesn’t ask his followers to recite a statement of faith. He asks them for their commitment to action. And the practices of this community are prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

Today and next week, we are culminating this series with opportunities for each of us to respond to Jesus’ call: Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. 

Today, we’re responding to the call to be in community once again, to commit once more to the practices of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. And next week, we’ll dive on deeper into that invitation.

As you’ll hear Tim sing in a minute in Spanish and English, “Haznos una familia, que se une por obras de su amor. Make us all one family. Bring us together to do the works of love.” This is our calling. This is our task.

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