Sunday, February 25, 2007

First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” 5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Elie Wiesel: “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”

Thomas Jefferson: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The last one is my favourite. Uncle Ben, of course, is the Uncle Ben of Spiderman fame. Who says comic books can’t help in sermon preparation?

Who has power?

I hope your answer is “I do.” More often than not, we begin our list of “who has power” with others, some powerful leader or institution that has power over our lives. Rarely do we begin in the mirror. I recall a rather spirited discussion at school once where the question was “do ministers have power?” A class of eighteen produced a variety of viewpoints, from the ridiculous (“ministers have no power, we’re servants”) to the profound (“we have the power of access—access to the most important moments on people’s lives”). My own power at this moment comes from the fact that I’m the only one with a key to the elevator. Wanna ride? See me.

In many ways, power is the ultimate human topic. God gave us the power to create and destroy, the power to cooperate or go our own way, the power to serve others or serve ourselves. We have the power to imagine that are all somehow connected, or to imagine that problems that exist elsewhere do not touch us. We have the power to heed the lessons of the past or ignore them.

My mini-homily on power, of course, is inspired by the second temptation, where the devil gives Jesus a glimpse of all the earthly kingdoms and offers him power in exchange for obedience. It’s possible to find power in the substance of each of the three temptations, but two is the most blatant. In the end, the story of being tempted in the wilderness is a bit like a very quick game of Bible trivia. Jesus and the devil are busy quoting scripture at each other until Jesus prevails. This is, no doubt, the source of the line “even the devil can quote scripture.” An indirect quote, more like an echo, is the way in which this entire passage from Luke finds a source in 1 Kings 3:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said…give your servant…an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. (vv. 5, 9-13)

In many ways, this is the positive version of the temptation story. It forms the beginning of the story and takes the form of a kind of “anointing.” Solomon is given the opportunity to ask for any kingly power, and the power he chooses is the power to discern. In an early version of the famous “three wishes” he chooses to make a single wish (to be wise) rather than the traditional approach (more wishes!).

Solomon is also asking for the thing most likely to honour and serve God. In his wisdom, Solomon brings justice to the land, and glory to Israel among the nations of the earth. In a wonderful bit of biblical storytelling, the very next episode in the Solomon story begins: “Later, two women with a baby came and stood before the king…” You know the rest.

Lent is meant to be our time of wilderness wandering. It is meant to be a moment where we anticipate the journey up to Jerusalem and find our place in the story. The story has one direction, and we are encouraged to imagine ourselves at each moment: in the cheering crowd, in an angry crowd, and in a crowd of people to steal way. In the midst of this movement, we are given “snapshots” of Jesus ministry and clues to understanding the meaning of Good Friday. There is only one direction to this story arc, and we are meant to participate.

Reflection one, on the use and misuse of power, is a good starting point on our Lenten journey of understanding. To be human is to choose, to admit that we have a great deal of power to determine our own outcome. Not all the power, but much of it.

Case in point. Back in the summer, during my three-weeks of study in Chicago, I was a participant in an incident that I have struggled to comprehend and struggled to put into any kind of context. I have described this incident in various ways over the last months, from the most benign “lost my wallet” to the most literal “I was robbed at gunpoint.”

Leaving the pub (why do all bad stories start this way?) Carmen, James and I were suddenly confronted by three young men, one of whom was holding a gun. The whole incident lasted seconds. A bit dazed, we made our way to a security kiosk (they are all over campus) and pressed the button. A voice said “Campus Police, can I help you” and Carmen, the most coherent of the three of us, replied “we’ve just been robbed by three young men.” The voice shot back: “were they black?”

In an unpleasant bit of foreshadowing, the question set the tone for the rest of the evening. Over the four hours we stood on that street corner with the police, we were shown several cruisers full of very frightened young black men, obviously scooped up because they happened to be black and walking in the neighbourhood nearby. Of course the young men who robbed us were long gone, later confirmed by the use of my credit card and some distant gas station.

When this service is over, please do not express sympathy. “I’m glad you’re not dead” is okay, but I took the risk of telling you this story to illustrate the many ways people use the power they are given.

Three young men had the power to frighten us and take our things.
We had the power to access the police and get a rapid response.
The police have the power to protect us but also to apprehend with what seemed little cause.
The school had the power to adequately warn us, but chose not to.
I have the power to tell this story (or not to) and to spin the story in any way I choose.
You have the power to interpret this story in any way you choose, and to either bolster or challenge whatever preconceived notions you have about crime, the United States, or foolish ministers who go to the pub late at night.

Both Lent and life are about power. The greatest temptation we face is to misuse the power we have been given. The greatest gift we can ask for is the wisdom to use the power we have wisely. The greatest task in Lent is to reflect on the ways we have used our power and ask God to help us understand what this means. And the greatest source for reflection is the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ, who had power, but gave it away. He had life, but surrendered it for you and me.

May God bless you and keep you on this Lenten journey. May you be held and led as you look within, to discover what it means to be a Lenten people. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9

28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

My son is a film snob. After six years of maintaining our weekly commitment to see a film, his taste is best described as “eclectic” with a definite preference of “art house” films.

Like all parents who take their work as parents seriously, I have developed elaborate ways to manipulate my son into believing that the films I choose are in fact the films he chose. Case in point: Last Wednesday I picked him up at the appointed time and asked “so, have you seen that new film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck?”

“No, I haven’t” he replied, “does Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck have a film out?

“Yes, of course” I said, and played what always becomes my trump card: “And his film has been nominated for an Academy Award…want to see it?” At this point I had him. The combination of Oscar and an obscure sounding director gets him every time.

We saw the film Isaac thought he chose, “The Lives of Others,” and would encourage you to see it. The film is set in East Germany in 1984 and centres on a State Security agent (Stasi) assigned to spy on a famous playwright and his partner, a famous actress. The assignment is complicated by the fact that a high government official has a romantic interest in the actress and has ordered the investigation to discredit the playwright and clear the way for a relationship. Wiesler, the Stasi agent, is assigned to watch this couple. In learning about their lives, and learning the true nature of his assignment, his view of reality begins to change. I won’t spoil the rest.

Part of the appeal of this film is to learn more about waning days of East Germany (GDR) and relive some of the history of my lost youth. One of the wonderful things about having a son with similar interests is being able to describe things from the past that I recall first hand (such as the Cold War) and discover together how the world has changed. Being born 2 years after the Berlin Wall came down, Isaac belongs to another age—perhaps an equally frightening age—but certainly another age.

For those of us that lived in the midst of Cold War, particularly in scary early Reagan years, it all seems quite unreal now. Europe divided, NATO troops along the frontier, a commercial airliner shot down for drifting into Soviet airspace, even the name “Soviet Union” seems like some long ago era. Such is the nature of human history. What seems far off is recent history, but superceded by recent events. The end came quickly for the GDR and the Soviet Union, and the world moved on.

But more was happening, that day that the wall came down. Behind the wall, amid the population of the former East Germany, there was a sudden end of fear. Suddenly the people were no longer terrified of their government, and were willing to act collectively to end tyranny. It too tremendous courage and a willingness to see the world through new eyes. It was as if there was a sudden burst of light and people could see the reality of where they lived and demanded a new beginning.


Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Bathed in light, a new reality appeared. Ignore the fact that Peter and company miss the point of this experience. They will have time to catch up. Bathed in light, we the reader know that this is a significant turning point in the story of Jesus. This is a “mountaintop experience” that will inform most of the rest of the earthly ministry of Jesus as he “sets his face” Jerusalem.

Yet how are we to understand this event? What did the disciples see that day and how can we avoid the trap they fell in, which is to stop to long. In their desire to erect monuments they saw an endpoint, a conclusion, when in fact it was just a sign. It was a sign and a waypoint that led up another mount, to the Holy City and the cross.

The clue to understanding this passage is cleverly hidden in the unfolding conversation. In verse 31 we read that Moses, Elijah and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Now, for Peter, James and John, only recently introduced to the idea of Jesus’ death, this would have made little sense. They would not have twinned the idea of a violent death with an “accomplishment” in Jerusalem. They were confused. We, however, have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, and know where this is headed.

But the is more: hidden is the Greek original is another clue as what is really happening here. Where we read “speaking of his departure” it translates literally “speaking of his exodus.” Let me get this straight, you are thinking: Jesus is having a conversation with Moses on the mountaintop, and Luke says they were speaking of his “exodus” and we’re neck deep in important symbols and the translators simply replace “exodus” with “departure.” Strange, but true.

Translated properly, they (and we) are speaking about something much larger than a departure, we are speaking about an exodus: and that means were are speaking about liberation, freedom from bondage, and the powerful activity of God in human history. Not bad for adding a single word through mistranslation.

So transfiguration is much more than simply being overwhelmed by light and receiving a blessing. It is more than a rest before the journey to Jerusalem begins. These words belong to Walter Wink:

Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of the broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements that have come already, within and among us.

In other words, it is standing near cross. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we are asked to prepare for Holy Week: prepare for Last Supper, betrayal, death, waiting, Resurrection and glory. It is a journey we make, pausing for each station and reflecting on the meaning for our lives. At this moment we are begin stretched to look backward and forward and make a connection between suffering and liberation.

The light of transfiguration shines on the suffering in this world, as it shone on the suffering of the Israelites long ago. The people were enslaved, and cried out to God to release them from their plight. The moment Moses understood he could help God to free his people there was transfiguration. When Moses understood that he could speak to power and work to defeat Pharaoh, there was transfiguration. And when people dropped their tools and began walking east there was transfiguration. Freedom was not immediate—there were many trials ahead—but the people were transformed and ready for what lay ahead.

From Walter Wink:

In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness…or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.


Another film I hope to see in the next few days, “Amazing Grace,” presents William Wilberforce’s lifelong campaign to ban slave trading in the British Empire. Friday is the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Slave Trade Act, an important milestone in the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire. And while the film and the media will recall this modern era exodus, there will be other voices that will remind us that while no longer legal in any county in the world, slavery still exists. There are slave markets operating openly in Sudan, and conditions of virtual slavery that exist in many other places. The Anti-slavery Society suggests that there may be as many as 27 million people worldwide who live in conditions that could best be described as slavery.

When will they witness transfiguation? When will the light of God’s justice shine brightly on their situation? And when will the situation of the poorest Canadians become visible to the majority of our population. Every week we feed the invisible poor, those who labour at minimum wage or exist on minimal social assistance and have become our own domestic example or virtual slavery: dependent, dehumanized, and largely ignored. When will the wall that separates rich from poor in this country finally come down? Who will make a film about it? Who will tell their story?

Transfiguration takes us from new vision to a time of suffering and finally to liberation and freedom. The cross of Jesus is our next exodus, the next time God will intervene in human history to free us from sin and death. Looking back we give thanks for the new life we received, and looking forward we say “may it always be so.” Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17
5Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
6They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse— who can understand it?
10I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

It is perhaps the most famous photograph ever taken. Late in December 1968, as the Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon, the crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders oriented the craft in such a way as to get photos of the moon's surface. At the end of their fourth orbit, Borman reoriented the craft to allow for communication with mission control. At that moment they saw it. As they looked over the mass of the moon below they noticed an “earthrise” as the earth emerged from behind the moon. It was at this moment that Anders snapped the photo.

The amazing thing is that the photo was never meant to be taken. Borman, Anders and Lovell were not space tourists but scientists, charged with taking moon photos in anticipation of Apollo 11's moon landing. Despite this NASA understood the remarkable nature of this photo and shared it with the world.

Back on earth, the photo was viewed in a variety of ways. Some saw it as the triumph of the American space program (remembering that this was a race) while others took a different view. It was hard not to miss how vulnerable the earth looked, a small blue dot in a sea of vast space. There was a first look at our breathtakingly beautiful planetary home presented in context for the first time.

John McConnell, the founder of Earth Day saw it, and was inspired to make it the basis of the Earth Day flag he designed. Others saw it too, and were galvanized by this image of a fragile earthly home. Nature photographer Galen Rowell has described the image as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

I recall finding the photo, about 15 years ago, in a very old National Geographic. I recognized it immediately and clipped it out and put it on the bulletin board above my desk. This happened around the same time I was working on my qualifications to become an Interim Minister and this little photo seemed to speak to me in the midst of all this study. As I thought about interim ministry, and the idea of ministry in a transitional setting, I kept coming back to this “earthrise” picture. Then one day I saw it. I got a little tape and gave that picture a caption: “Change your perspective.”


7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Today's readings all seem to revolve around the idea of blessing and curse, or blessing and woe and all seem to give voice to the familiar theme that the righteous will prosper and the wicked won't. In Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1, those who trust in God and follow God's ways will thrive while those who live in the “way of the wicked” will perish.

It is easy, in the face of all of these words, to imagine a some stark choices and clear directions to follow. The way of the righteous and the path of the wicked must be clear, and our reward will come through the judicious application of such wisdom. Oh that it were that simple. Immediately before Psalm 1, back just a few pages, is the story of Job. You remember Job, the righteous man who loses everything and then must contend with three so-called “comforters” who spend several chapters trying to get Job to own up to his sin. Surely, they say, you did something to offend God, for otherwise you would not suffer so. But he didn't. And all his loud complaints go unanswered until the very end of the book when finally God speaks from the Whirlwind and says (in effect): Yes, your friends are idiots and no, you cannot begin to understand my ways. Accept this and move on.” Job does, and his life resumes, and what we are left with is a single book that defeats most of the simple “wisdom” that neatly allows the righteous to prosper and the wicked to suffer.

Of course, we already know that the wisdom formula is deeply flawed. The biggest jerk at the office seems to get the promotion and the nastiest mom has the most beautiful children. People do unspeakable things and get away with it and I go a touch over the speed limit and I see flashing lights. So if we need to set aside the neat righteous-wicked formula, what are we left with?

We are left with some remarkable Hebrew poetry. And what's more, it is the poetry that I think holds the key to finding a way forward. Let me explain: Back in 1985 two American scholars, independent of each other, unlocked the secret of Hebrew poetry and presented their findings to the world. Odd that 3000 years had passed, and a few hundred years of intensive study, and the key came to two scholars at the same moment. (They sued each other, by the way -- to illustrate the dog-eat-dog world of biblical scholarship)

Robert Alter and James Kugel both discovered that what seemed like a repetitive devise in this poetry was in fact something else. To illustrate, from Zechariah 9:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king [a] comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It sounds like a restatement: “gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” but it is not. What Alter and Kugel discovered was a “heightening” in the poetry, an intensification that comes when you restate the idea in the second line. Kugel described it this way:

“[idea] A is so, and what's more, [idea] B is so.”

In other words, when the two ideas are put together, each is more meaningful than the individual idea. So let's go back to Jeremiah:

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

Each idea is intensified by the way the poet describes them. These ideas were never meant to create either-or worlds where things are defined as good-bad, positive-negative. The poetry defines the movement. Those who trust in God are like trees planted by water, and what's more, it is as if the very roots of these trees extend into the stream. This is the kind of perspective we are meant to have: The key to well-being is trusting in the Lord, and what's more, those who trust in God can never fail.

Picture again that famous photograph. This is a picture of the planet earth, and what's more, it is rather vulnerable looking sitting out there in space. Find the “what's more” and you will find a fresh perspective on whatever you're pondering.

The congregation will meet today, and what's more, we have an opportunity to recommit to our shared mission.

The renovation is nearly complete, and what's more, we have the chance to reinvent ourselves in the new space.

The community continues to say “yes” to this congregation, and what's more, we can say “yes” to them in our welcoming ministry.

We have changed our surroundings, and what's more, we can also change our perspective on church growth and evangelism.

We have been given a new beginning, and what's more, we can begin to reflect that in our life together.

Ultimately, this is a call to reject the either-or thinking that the world seems to thrive on. Since we know that all the neat formulations about what will happen to the righteous and the wicked are not really accurate, we are left with the need to see the world from a new angle. Like our friends on Apollo 8, we need a new vantage point beyond the narrow thinking that surrounds us. We trust in God, but things won't always unfold as we plan. We work for the Kingdom, but it won't come tomorrow. But God is with us, and what's more, God will never be farther from us that our own breathing. We can trust in God, and what's more,we can trust in God to guide us today and everyday. Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Fishing is about quantity and quality. Catch your angler at the end of the day and you will inevitably have two questions: how many and how big. Most anglers, of course, will ignore the first question (I guess anyone can catch a fish) and focus instead on the more interesting second question.

It is a bit of a cliché to talk about the “big one that got away,” code for the exaggeration that comes when you have ended your day in frustration. ‘No, the boat is empty. But you should have seen the one that got away.”

Out of sheer curiosity, I googled some of the fish that didn’t get away, namely Canadian fishing records, and will happily share what I found. Some records are rather under-whelming: The largest White Bass ever caught in Canada, on our very own Lake Ontario, was a mere 3 lbs. Come on, people, we can do better than that. To prove that some have, the national record for Brown Trout, again in the lake at the end of the street, is 34 lbs. Now that is impressive. That would make a lovely meal (except for women of child-bearing age and children under 15 according to the Ontario Government).

Of course, we are provincial losers when it comes to the arena of truly big fish. In British Columbia, where presumably everything grows bigger (and taller), the record for the largest Sturgeon is an incredible 800 lbs. Now, never one to fall for any old fish story I regoogled it (I coined the word “regoogled,” but you are free to use it) and discovered that indeed an 800 lb. White Sturgeon was caught in the Fraser River. And, hold on to your fishing hats, the White Sturgeon is reported to grow to 2000 lbs and nearly 25 feet long. So far, it is the one that got away.

My own experience with fishing is rather limited. When Isaac was just a baby I went on a fishing trip to Frontenac Park and caught a trout that must have been (insert hand gesture here) this big. Puffed with manly pride I set about to prepare my catch for eating and was so traumatized by the experience I’ve never fished again. I guess I was only meant to be a fisher of people.


The purpose of the boat trip was crowd control. They had spent a frustrating night on the water, and only welcomed Jesus into the boat in an effort to get some distance from the crowd that was pressing in on them. And it worked. He taught the crowd and eventually was done. But rather than end their time together, Jesus said to a very tired Peter “head to the deep water, and cast your nets.” But Peter, fatigue showing, said “if you insist, Master, but you need to know we fished all night to no avail.”

The catch, of course, was extraordinary. The men strained at the catch, nets near tearing, and both boats were soon full to overflowing. Some imagined they might sink. Amid this, fish-filled and wide-eyed amazement, Peter makes his confession: he is a sinful man. Jesus doesn’t respond, except to say, “fear not, for now on you will be catching people.

But I’m leaping ahead. Let’s go back a wee bit and listen once more as Jesus suggests they head out, and listen to Peter’s response: “we tried that once—and it didn’t work.” Sounds vaguely familiar: “we tried that once—and it didn’t work.” Every hear that before? Where? Hmmm. Back in Chicago, when I was doing all that book-learnin’ we would call that “recontextualization.” Take something Peter said on the shore of Lake Gennesaret and translate it to today by the shore of your own lake.

The curious part, to my mind, is how can a congregation with a history best measured in months rather than years have enough history that someone could say “we tried that once—and it didn’t work”? The truth is, they can’t. And without becoming annoying among your peers, I suggest every time someone tries to say “we tried that” you can remind them that unless it happened in the very short history of Birchcliff Bluffs, it didn’t happen at all.

At the risk of sounding petulant, we are entering one of the most critical moments in the life of this congregation. The novelty of amalgamation is wearing off, the polite goodwill that comes with working with strangers is gone, and now you are left with a congregation with lots to do and very little historical experience to draw on. And so the temptation comes. “I remember one time…stop! If it didn’t happen here (and it didn’t happen after 2003), it didn’t happen. It didn’t exist. It was like a dream.


What happened that day on the water, was the first lesson of “abundance school.” Jesus was the first citizen of the Kingdom of God, and as such, it fell to Jesus to take something that lived in the abstract and make it real for his followers. This is how God operates. Like leaven, the Kingdom does not come with power or a show of force, but quietly, and abundantly, like nets filling with fish or nets strained to breaking. It didn’t rain fish, there were no 800 lb. fish to overwhelm the boat, only the bountiful catch that would wake the crew to understand that this was no ordinary day and Jesus was no ordinary man.

The invitation, in various forms throughout the gospels, from “come and see” to “follow me,” each stress that something is going to be revealed, something hidden (the Kingdom) will be made plain. And sometimes the new reality is hidden in the words themselves. Our invitation, from Luke 5, seems simple enough: “Have no fear…from now on you will catch people.” But underneath, within the original Greek, the verb translated “catch” really means “to take alive.” This actually gave me a bit of a chuckle, thinking of the dusty outlaw who says “you’ll never take me alive.” Well, in fact we will. Because Jesus says our whole purpose is to catch people, meaning take them alive.

Now Fred Craddock, our commentator on this passage, goes a step further, and suggests that the word “catch” means “to take alive in the sense of rescuing from death.” Now the stakes are getting higher. Peter and his friends are no longer looking simply for new followers, they are engaged in a life and death struggle where following Jesus is the most important thing that can happen for anyone. This is no mere “catch and release,” but the struggle to reacquaint people with the living God, to bring them life, and ultimately, to save them from death.

Now, how often do you perceive church as a matter of life and death? Sure, church is important: we do good things in the community, we care for one another, we echo important statements that come from mother church, but how often do we imagine that church is a matter of life and death? Do we even take the interim step of reminding people that without a relationship with God through Jesus Christ your life will be diminished? Can we say that much? Dare we?

When you approach the table this morning, and you enjoy ‘communion’ with the living Christ and all his saints here gathered, I want you to imagine that it is a matter of life and death. I want you to imagine that a body broken and blood spilled was more than a long-ago-event in the founding of our religion but a very personal sacrifice by someone who only understood faith as a matter of life and death. I want you to recall the joy you find in others and the abundance that surrounds you and I want you to imagine that finding others to join you on this journey is a matter of life and death. And I wish for you courage: courage to follow the disciples’ way, courage to live the message of new life, and courage to share this message with others. Amen.