Sermon preached April 10, 2016
Texts: John 21:1-19
Sometimes it is best to talk about tough topics when you are a bit removed from them. When I was a district superintendent, I much preferred discussing church conflict management when churches were not having a conflict. Pre-marriage counseling is about discussing potentially challenging subjects before they arise – do you squeeze the tube from the end or the middle? Do you put the paper over or under – paper towels or toilet paper?
This is not prime gift giving season, unless there is a birthday in your family, so let’s talk about gift-giving, particularly about bad gift giving. Doing a little research, I found a list of the worst gifts actually given. Here are some highlights
· Styrofoam alligator head with solar-powered light up eyes
· A stainless steel wok, given to a ten-year old
· A mom gives her son a 3-D, the son who is blind in one eye
· A mother-in-law gives her daughter-in-law a rice cooker, for three straight years
· A six-pack of AA batteries, containing only four batteries
· A grandmother gives her grandson wood block cars, the grandson is 15
· A glittery metallic tattoo kit designed for an 8-year old girl, including sayings such as “you go girl’ given by a grandmother to her 15-year old grandson
· The ever popular toilet bowl cleaner as a Christmas stocking stuffer
· A lighter shaped like a gun given to a man who had just quit smoking
· A mother-in-law gives to her daughter-in-law a used purse with a new box of diet pills inside
The advice we are often given these days is that we should express our appreciation to others, that we should show love for others, in ways that are meaningful for the person we are appreciating or loving. Harville Hendrix, in his book on marriage, Getting the Love You Want, makes the case for this revision of the golden rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” (124) He calls this “re-romanticizing.”
In their book How Full Is Your Bucket? Tom Rath and Donald Clifton tell a story about a manager named Susan who wanted to reward her best customer service representative, Matt. Susan designed a celebratory evening to honor her customer service reps. It was a nice event at a fine hotel. The grand finale would be awards given to the top sales representative, and she was saving Matt’s award for last. She knew how much she always appreciated that kind of recognition. It all blew up. Matt was less than delighted when his name was announced as the top sales representative. He said a few words about having all the plaques he needed. Susan knew she needed to do something different, so she tried to find out about Matt. She discovered that the greatest joy in his life was his two daughters. When Matt was again the top performing sales representative, instead of presenting him a trophy, Susan had arranged for Matt’s wife to take their daughters to have a portrait made by a fine photographer. This time, Matt was brought to tears by the thoughtful recognition. (81-84)
In a classic work from the middle of the last century, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote about The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. Niebuhr wrote that the purpose of the church, the goal of the church is “the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor” (31). That’s why we are here, to increase the love of God and neighbor.
So how does God want to be loved? For Christians, we look to Jesus to find our deepest clues about God. How does Jesus want to be loved? What does it mean to say we are loving Jesus?
The scene is richly drawn. Some of the disciples are together and Peter says, “I am going fishing.” Apparently it is very early in the morning, before dawn, for the fishing ends at daybreak, and they have been skunked. A voice from the shore asks about their fishing, and then offers advice. “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” They did, and the haul was almost more than they could manage. Jesus is recognized. Apparently Jesus is an awesome fishing guide. Peter puts on some clothes for he had not been wearing any, interesting detail – no wonder they went fishing in the dark. Then he jumps into the water. Seems a little backwards to me. The scene becomes very tender. There is a fire, and fish are cooking, to which more fish will be added. There remains a mysterious element. They know it is Jesus, but they don’t know.
The next moment, however, there is no doubt that it is Jesus who talks to Peter. Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says “yes.” Each time Jesus responds: “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “feed my sheep.”
How does God, as we know God in Jesus want to be loved? Apparently by having us love others, care for others. H. Richard Niebuhr, hundreds of years later writes insightfully: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exits without the other (34). Ponder that for a few moments. God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exits without the other.
Loving God in Jesus, loving Jesus has something to do with things like worship and prayer. How do you love someone who never gets any of your time or attention, and that’s at the heart of things like worship and prayer, taking some intentional time for God. But that isn’t what seems most important to loving God in Jesus, or at least it is dramatically incomplete.
In one of his sermons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,” John Wesley wrote that religious words were not enough – whatever creeds we may rehears, whatever professions of faith we may make, whatever number of prayers we may repeat, whatever thanksgivings we read or say to God (John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, 371) Instead, what matters is the person who: loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his mind, and soul, and strength… who in his spirit, doeth good unto all men (374). God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exits without the other.
H. Richard Niebuhr also wrote brilliantly about our neighbor. He is the near one and the far one; the one beside the road I travel here and now; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in convictions and loyalties. He is my friend, the one who has shown compassion toward me; and my enemy, who fights against me. He is the one in need, in whose hunger, nakedness, imprisonment and illness I see or ought to see the universal suffering servant. He is the oppressed one who has not risen in rebellion against my oppression nor rewarded me according to my deserts as individual or member of a heedlessly exploiting group. He is the compassionate one who ministers to my needs: the stranger who takes me in; the father and mother, sister and brother. (38)
After his death, Jesus shows up. He shows up on the shore just as light is dawning, in that dim light of day. He asks how the fishing is going, and offers some help. He prepares a breakfast for his friends, who are no doubt hungry after their early, early morning work. Jesus shows up with some questions. “Do you love me?” Feed, tend, care. Be there for others on the misty mornings of others hungers. Be there to offer wisdom when it can be offered. Be there to connect others more deeply to Jesus.
Last weekend, I taught some Minnesota United Methodist lay speakers more about John Wesley and the Methodist movement. During the lunch break, just before I left to return to Duluth, a young woman, a mother of two, asked me some questions about licensing as a local pastor, about what it could mean for her life and her passion which is working with youth. Last Sunday evening I received a Facebook friend request from this woman, and then a message. She thanked me for teaching, then said that she is committing herself to following a call into becoming a licensed local pastor. “In am nervous, excited and taking a leap of faith – but wanted you to know that it was you who helped make the decision clear. Thank you for you being you.” All I can do is marvel at how when we offer something of ourselves to others in care, wonderful things can happen, and Jesus feels love.
Still in the misty morning light, the voice comes. Do you love me? Then love, care. Invite people to discover who they are in Jesus. Help them hear the voice. Do good. Build the common good. Worship matters. Praying matters. But they matter most because they help us listen, listen to the voice of Jesus, listen to the voice of our neighbors. Somehow responding in care to our neighbors, we love not only them, but Jesus, too. Amen.