May 5, 2019 - Sermon - Rev. Susi Kawolics

Scripture  - John 21:1-17

Remember 2 weeks ago? Full choir on risers, brass quartet? Lilies, flowers and palm banners bringing an abundance of color and scent to this space? Overflowing crowd in our sanctuary?  Of course, it was Easter Sunday! A time to pull out all the stops to celebrate the good news of the resurrection! Death has been conquered – new life abounds! On most calendars, Easter is listed as a one day event. But on the church calendar – Easter is a season. We are on the third Sunday IN Easter – and this season will go on through Pentecost – through June 9th. While we still see the gold dossal curtains hanging, and we’re still reading stories about the appearance of the risen Christ, it feels more like the third Sunday AFTER Easter than an Easter Sunday – right?

We don’t know exactly when the gospel story we read this morning takes place, but it was probably around the third Sunday after Easter.  The disciples had had the first experience of the risen Christ appearing to them on the first day of the week – on what we celebrate as Easter Sunday. Then, a week later, Jesus appeared to them again in the story we heard last week about doubting Thomas. These were pretty miraculous occurrences, and you’d think that this would put the disciples in the frame of mind of perpetual Easter, that these experiences would encourage them, ignite them and propel them into becoming the disciples Jesus had mentored them to be. But here they are, maybe two or three weeks later, and what are they doing? They’re going on with their lives as if they’d never even met Jesus. They are not following in his footsteps like they had been for the last three and a half years or so.  They’re not continuing to do the work of ministry which they had been doing while he was with them. Instead - they have decided to go back to doing what they were doing before they even met him. They were going back to being fishermen.

What happened to them? Or maybe the question is, what didn’t happen?  Many of us perhaps expect that AFTER all that had happened, they would enthusiastically and without looking back - follow the path of Christ, doing his work ever after.  Now, I admit I can’t always relate to the stories in the Bible about the followers of Jesus. I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a fisherman, I have never even gone fishing! So it’s hard for me to imagine the appeal of going back to that life.  But what I can relate to is trying to pretend that something tragic didn’t really happen. I can imagine living in denial, as if something really painful doesn’t hurt at all. This is basically what the disciples were doing. They were trying to go back to life the way it was before they even met Jesus. They were trying to pretend that he had never come into their lives and turned them upside down. That they had never even known him, or followed him or seen his many miracles. They were pretending that his ministry, and his death, and that even his resurrection appearances did not mean a thing to them.. They just wanted to go back to fishing.

And what happens when they try to go back to fishing? Nothing. Well, actually something. What happens is that they catch nothing. No fish – not a one – even after all their professional expertise, and after being out the whole night – the best time to catch fish, they come up empty. They just can’t get back the life they used to have.

Peter Woods, pastoral counselor and blogger writes: “It was that master of integral thought, Ken Wilber who first woke me up to the reality that, “YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK…” No matter how great the trauma, nor how strong the nostalgia, there really is NO place like home. It doesn’t exist anymore.” He goes on to say about the disciples that: “[theologians] like John Shelby Spong would posit that their dreams of ministry and mission for the Kingdom had been totally destroyed, and that Peter’s statement, ‘I am going fishing,’ and the other disciples’, ‘We will go with you’ are statements of resignation to having to return to the way of life they left when Jesus called them away from those very shores three and one half years before. They soon learn that you cannot go back, and that you cannot cast your nets into the same lake twice.”1

These disciples were experiencing grief. Despite the resurrection appearances of Jesus, the bottom line is that he was still gone, he was still not around anymore as their flesh and blood companion, teacher, friend. 

We know what that’s like. When someone near and dear to us dies, we can believe in the promise of the resurrection for that person, and rejoice that their spirit is still alive, that we’ll see them again one day. Just like the disciples knew that about Jesus. But that really doesn’t take away our grief. We’ve probably had people tell us that we shouldn’t be sad when someone dies, that we should actually be happy that they’re gone – they’re in a better place after all. Which we don’t deny, but still.  We miss them. We long to be with them again. And in the same way, even though the disciples were experiencing the presence of the risen Jesus, it was still not the same as when he’d been with them before his death. And they knew it would never be the same. They were trying to figure out life after the loss, after the death and after the resurrection.

Those disciples, like many of us, needed support, they needed encouragement, they needed the presence of Jesus after suffering a loss. Jesus comes to them as both the one who feeds them, and the one who summons them. Sometimes, we need the Jesus who comes to and reminds us of our mission, and calls us to “Feed my sheep” - to take care of others so we can fulfill our purpose in life. But sometimes, we just need the Jesus who comes and says – “Come, have breakfast with me. Come sit by the fire and just sit, eat, talk, and receive what I have to offer.”

Certainly for us today, Jesus is not going to show up exactly as he did for those disciples, starting a charcoal fire and cooking fish. And yet, I would still go so far as to say that he does indeed show up for us “in the flesh.”  But today, his flesh takes on many different shapes, colors and sizes. Jesus shows up in the guise of those who embody his love. Jesus often shows up for us after we’ve experienced a difficult, disheartening change in our lives, after we’ve suffered the loss of something or someone important to us, after we’ve lost hope that there can ever again be a good tomorrow. Jesus shows up in those who come and offer a caring presence.  Jesus shows up today in those who serve him, those who go out to tend his sheep, to feed his lambs – those who know his love deep inside themselves, and therefore can embody that love for others. And today we are reminded that one of the ways he shows up most tangibly is through our Stephen Ministers.

Stephen Ministry was begun in 1975 by Reverend Kenneth Haugk, to train a group of lay people in his church to offer comfort and care to hurting people through one-on-one relationships. Stephen Ministry has since developed into an international program that offers distinctively Christian care in about 11,000 congregations.

Who are Stephen Ministers? I love the way they are described on the Stephen Ministry website as “the after people.” 

Stephen Ministers are there:

. . . after the phone call you hoped you’d never get

. . .  after the funeral, when everyone has left and the emotions you’ve held at bay come crashing in on you

. . . after the relationship falls apart and the bottom falls out of your life

. . . after the doctor says, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more we can do.”

. . . after the nursing home director shakes your hand and says, “Welcome to your new home.”

 . . . after the last child honks the horn, waves, and drives away—and the house suddenly seems empty

. . . after the gavel comes down, the handcuffs go on, and your loved one is led away.

. . . after the baby arrives, demanding more of you than you ever dreamed possible

. . . after you find a pink slip with your final paycheck

. . . after your family and friends have heard your story one too many times, but you still need to talk it out.

Stephen Ministers are the After People. They are ready to come alongside you—or your friends, neighbors, coworkers, or relatives—and provide comfort and support for as long after as needed.2

Stephen Ministers are trained to be God’s love in Action, God’s presence to those who are hurting.  And Stephen Ministers are also aware that it is Christ who works through us to bring about any healing. Pastor Jo Anne Taylor says, about the encounter on the shore between Jesus and the disciples, “… Jesus doesn’t need their fish. He is already cooking while their nets are still empty. But when they follow his commands, he invites them to add their fish to the food he has already prepared. Jesus uses our God-given talents and adds them to the work he is already doing in our lives. He invites us to share in a feast that he has prepared, using whatever gifts we bring him. 3 We Stephen Ministers are always aware that we are care-givers, but that God is the cure-giver. 

The Stephen Ministry program has been part of the fabric of Federated Church since 1982 when it was started by Rev. David Pointer.  Federated Stephen Leaders have trained nearly 200 people since that time to become Stephen Ministers, which is no small thing, considering that the training is a commitment of 50 hours. I would like to invite all the active Stephen Ministers and Leaders who are here today to please stand so the congregation can see who you are.  And all non-active, trained Stephen ministers also please stand.  I thank you for all your time and caring that you have provided and continue to provide.  As you can see, Stephen Ministry is an integral and core part of who we are as the Federated Community. (You may be seated).  

Currently we have Stephen Ministers who are available to connect with hurting people, to be with and companion them. If you, or anyone you know, even from outside the church family, could use a Stephen Minister, please get in touch with me, and we can follow up.

Just as the disciples sharing a meal with Jesus were ready to hear and respond to his call AFTER they had been nourished by him, so too are we. Some of us are in a place where we can only open ourselves to receive his presence and love, we’re in a place where we need time to grieve, to heal, to find and make peace with, our new normal. But many of us are ready to answer, or have already answered the call to go out and feed God’s sheep. It may be through becoming a Stephen Minister. Or it may be through the countless other ministry opportunities available through our church and beyond. But we know that no matter what ministry we do, we do it because we ourselves have first been nourished by our Lord.  Jesus is the giver of the feast that feeds the body and spirit for the journey. As we break bread together, as we share in the meal of the body of Christ, may we answer the call to be the ones who feed hungry bodies and despairing souls, who tend Christ’s sheep, bringing hope and healing to the world. Amen.