"Those Unpredictable Appearances"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 29, 2001
Psalm 30; John 21:1-14
One of the great pieces of information that can be missing from the lives of countless people is that God loves us very intensely and very personally. Because so many people do not see God through the lenses of this understanding, their awareness of how God manifests love will appear almost non-existent.
In other words, God could be doing handsprings in front of us and we might miss seeing it. Part of the reason for such blindness is that God is totally spirit, while our spirits are housed in these temporary, changing, physical forms we call our bodies. More than anything else, it is this perception that separates us from our awareness of God's love. Even when all is well in our lives, the possibility exists that we will miss so many potential discoveries.
There are two families who enjoy each other's company so much that over 28 years ago, they began the practice vacationing together at Bethany Beach. This practice continues to this day. The two families live in the same community, so their children went to school together. The oldest boy in the one family "hung out" with the oldest girl in the other family all during their high school experience. There was such a comfort level between them.
But as with so many pleasant experiences in life, after a good run, change was inevitable. The two enrolled in out-of-state colleges and pursued different careers. The young woman met a young man in her junior year and they eventually married. As their relationship evolved, there were too many differences that both were unwilling to resolve, so they separated and divorced after a year and a half.
The young woman was overwhelmed with a sense of failure and went through a considerable period of self-doubt. She eventually called her buddy of 24 years and invited him to dinner at a restaurant the two used to frequent during their high school days. As the two were recounting their life adventures with each other she said, "You know, all during my college years I think I was trying to find someone like you." He said, "When I heard you were engaged, something inside of me died. I realized that our life-long friendship had to change. I guess I was not prepared when that change came."
They both stared endlessly at each other in silence. She broke the awkward moment and said, "Really?" And he said, "Yes." She said, "Had you ever thought of marrying me?" He looked down at his plate as if he understood the direction the conversation was going. He said, " Everyday. Besides, I thought you would never ask." They both laughed and cried. They immediately called their parents who became filled with unimaginable enthusiasm. Then they contacted me, and I performed their wedding ceremony on the very beach where 24 years earlier their diapers had been changed.
How many times have we watched a movie that frustrated the viewing audience because the actors did not connect on what is so painfully obvious to everyone in the theater? Directors call it "creating the tension that captures and holds the audience's attention."
How many times do we find young people entering their college years majoring in a subject that appears to be the farthest thing from what we know evokes their passion and excitement? This happens all the time. We often cannot see what is performing handsprings in front of us. We have too many other elements of life in competition for our undivided attention.
Fortunately, God has equipped us with the capacity to make mid-course corrections. Every time we grow in our awareness, we are reminded of how creative God is. The Prodigal Son knew enough to change his mind and come home. The Apostle Paul knew enough to change from being the chief persecutor of those following Jesus' teachings to being the greatest missionary the world has ever seen.
What do all of these illustrations have in common with our Gospel lesson? Just this! Missing the opportunity standing in our midst can happen to the best of us. The disciples had just gotten their comfort levels to the place where once again they could go into the sunshine. But they were acting as though they had just awakened from a dream where none of their recent history with Jesus had registered with them.
Simon Peter said, "I am going fishing." The rest of them said, "We will come with you." They had no defined direction. The only thing they felt equipped to do was perform the tasks they were doing before Jesus met them. They did not feel prepared to be "fishers of men and women." They did not consider themselves to be healers as Jesus had been. They could not display the wisdom and insights of their Master. They were still mourning their loss and filled with periods of self-doubt.
This story of Jesus asking his friends to throw their fishing net into the water one more time is familiar to us. John is the only Gospel writer who connects the fishing story to a resurrection appearance. It took James to recognize what was going on. He said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" There is an additional statement in our passage that says, "None of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they knew that it was the Lord." Isn't that a curious statement?
In the beginning of my message this morning, I pointed out that God loves us very intensely and personally yet those of us who do not maintain this constant awareness can miss seeing all the ways love has been woven throughout the fabric of our lives. It took James to point out that "It is the Lord!" before the others understood.
Most of us have moments just like those of the disciples. We are unable to interpret the meaning of God's appearances. Sometimes we become preoccupied with the form it assumes. We act as if we know what God's love is going to look like. For the disciples, it was Jesus telling them to throw their nets back into the water after being unsuccessful all night.
If we are not sensitized to seeing God's activity in our lives, how easy it is to think that our lives are spiraling and are out of control. How easy it is to conclude that God has abandoned us. How easy it is for us to assume the worst. If anyone had "the right" to feel abandoned by God, certainly it was the disciples. Put yourselves in their place. How could God stand by and do absolutely nothing when Jesus was bring crucified? This is the same kind of question many Jewish scholars and theologians asked during the Holocaust. Where is God? These are good questions!
God's Easter message to us is that there is no such thing as death. There is only change. Every resurrection experience in the Gospels provides visibility to this truth. If we concentrate on the form of Jesus dying on a cross, we miss the point. God's love is not stopped by nails and crosses. Such cruelty is never in short supply in our world. Everyday our newspapers are filled with such evidence.
God's role has always been to be a light in darkness. In our prayer life, we frequently turn to God as though God were a life raft—a being who will save us from the "dark circumstances" that surround us. Jesus, however, invited everyone who had the courage to stand forth as light in the midst of darkness. Once the disciples understood that, they took off "Fear" as though it were a garment and marched into our future unafraid of what it might cost them. For us, maintaining such a consciousness remains a challenge.
Like the disciples, typically we are not prepared for experiencing those unpredictable appearances of God's presence. I truly believe that God plans it that way. If God has any secret desires, I believe that one of them is the ability to surprise us with joy, to come to us in a moment of weakness, and to hold our hand while we evolve during some of life's challenges and reversals.
We broke ground today for our new expansion. We had five banks who were willing to loan us the 2.8 million dollars, and one of them did this past Friday. Building this new wing will be easy to do. It is what we will do in it that will shape the destiny of tomorrow's world. St. Matthew's cannot stop being a growing, expanding, alive, spiritual learning center that remains open and accepting of all people. Through the process of being what we have been called to be, light is defined. People feel safe and accepted. Such light calls others to assume a greater responsibility for living and understanding.
We do not all agree theologically, but we all agree on the loving spirit we have been invited by Jesus to display. As long as the light of love is present, learn to expect many, many unpredictable appearances of God's presence that will allow St. Matthew's to be the safe harbor for all those who come here today and tomorrow. That is what we have been called to be. This is who we are.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and always present God, our lives are frequently inspired by what makes us afraid. When we are fearful, we seek security. We desire to have control over how we order our days. We resist change. Too often, our choices make visible what does not reflect our claims of faith. Yet you come to us anyway in many strange and wonderful ways. Our spirits have often been lifted by a friend's kindness. In a silent, unguarded moment you have surprised us with joy. Children have revealed your presence through their smiles and innocence. Someone who could not have known our deepest fear has spoken your word to us. Thank you for allowing us to live alongside many signposts that reflect your loving presence. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious and loving God, now that we have passed through the Easter experience, we have much to consider. We have been trained from our earliest memories to think about our material world. All our lives we have had success defined for us. Our parents have modeled what it means to win many of the prizes our world offers.
Yet we learn that Jesus had no place to lay his head. He enjoyed being with those who were known as sinners. His family did not understand his message or his intentions. He spoke of a Kingdom where the symbols of success were much different. He taught us about inward qualities that he claimed all people possessed. He did not tell us what we needed to believe; rather, he told us how we should live. Then when his material world collapsed, he lifted up the power of his Kingdom and the value of our world has been suspect ever since.
Guide us, O God, to understand each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of all the barriers that appear to separate us. May you find us holding out our hands to each other even in our thoughts. May our smiles and kindnesses radiate to everyone. May we understand that we do not die; we only change. And may we learn that everyday presents an opportunity to build a bridge, to make a friend, to heal an ancient wound, and to resurrect what we believed was dead. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .