Not-So-Secrets to New Life: Generosity
The last time I asked you all if you had seen a movie – at that time What Dreams May Come – I got a bunch of blank looks from most of you. I gave this a test run at our Christian Ed Leadership Retreat yesterday, and I’ll have better luck so I’m going to try again! How many of you have seen the Bill Murray 1993 movie Groundhog Day – gosh, did that really come out 20 years ago? The premise is this: Bill Murray’s character, Phil, isn’t really enjoying life. He’s a news reporter, and he has to report on Punxutawney Phil, and whether or not he sees his shadow on Groundhog Day. The day doesn’t go very well as a whole. He finally goes to sleep, wakes up in the morning – and instead of being the next day, it’s the same day all over again. He finds, for some reason, he has to keep living the same day over and over. And at first, he doesn’t really try to do anything differently. Presented with the same day, Phil does basically the same thing. Eventually, eventually, dissatisfied with the life he is experiencing, dissatisfied with the way he’s spent this day, again, and again, he starts to make changes. Finally, when he’s changed his life, inside and outside, he wakes up to February 3rd and a new beginning.
We are still in the season of Easter. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we are Easter people – we always live in the reality of the resurrection, and we specifically celebrate the Great Season of Easter for 50 days – the time between Easter morning and the day of Pentecost. And today, that’s where we again find the disciples. They are in this sort of limbo time – Jesus has been resurrected, he’s been seeing the disciples, but they haven’t been doing anything different. They’re not talking to others, as far as we can tell, about the fact that Jesus has been resurrected. They don’t seem to be talking about his teachings, or his miracles, or his healing, or his ministry, or the last three years of their life. In fact, at the opening of this passage, they’ve gone back to doing exactly what they were doing when Jesus first called them years earlier. They’re fishing, and not catching any fish. It is as if they’re just starting over, back at square one. And just as before, Jesus intervenes. He tells them where to cast the nets, and they catch so many fish they can barely get back to shore.
Once they’re back on land, Jesus shares a meal of fish and bread with the disciples, and he sits down for a conversation with Peter. Jesus say, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ which has the sense of, “Do you love me more than anything?” And Peter answers, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ And Jesus says, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he says to Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ And Peter answers, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ Then Jesus says a third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter, we read feels hurt because Jesus keeps asking him this question over and over, as if he is not satisfied with Peter’s response. But he answers again, with more detail: ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ And Jesus says once more, ‘Feed my sheep.’ With just a few more verses, the gospel of John comes to a close.
Peter had, of course, denied he even knew Jesus, three times in a row, just days before this encounter. Even though Peter seems hurt, frustrated here, I see this encounter as a generous gift from Jesus. He’s telling Peter that even though Peter thinks everything is the same, back to normal, his regular old life, in fact, everything has changed. He is forgiven, forgiven, forgiven. Jesus accepts Peter’s love, and lets him say it as many times as he once denied Jesus. And Jesus, three times, tells Peter he has work to do, work that God is entrusting to Peter’s leadership, even though Peter has made mistakes, sinned, screwed up in major ways. God is far from done with Peter. It is just beginning. Everything is about to change for Peter, again. There is no going back. His life has been transformed, and he’s been resurrected alongside Jesus.
Jesus reminds us that the thing we need to inspire change has already happened: Resurrection! New life! All things new! New creations in Christ! If we are looking for that one thing that will finally inspire us to live new lives, Jesus reminds us that we’ve already received the gift. We just need to open it, and put it to use, instead of leaving the wrapped gift sitting on a shelf. We need to be resurrected alongside Jesus. Otherwise, we read the gospel and find that life before and after Easter looks pretty much the same.
That’s what I’m wondering about today. It is fascinating that a story in the gospel before and after the resurrection can look so similar – until you get to the part where Jesus pushes and prods and encourages and nurtures until Peter is finally ready to do a new thing. What about our lives? Do they read the same, before and after? Is there any difference in our lives with and without Jesus? I think of those images, those puzzles, where you see two images side by side, that are almost identical, and you have to find the minute, tiny changes. Is our before and after picture with God like that – so small you can hardly tell that it isn’t the same old same old? Or is the transformation obvious?
I just shared this story with some folks here in the past few weeks: Some years ago, when I was serving my first church, I had found a lump in my collarbone that wasn’t there before. My mother, always an optimist, was hopeful, encouraging me to be so too. But I couldn’t be. I just had a bad feeling about things. I was very worried. Stressed to the max. A big black cloud hanging over my head. I had an exam with my doctor, who didn’t just wave it off as nothing. He recommended a CT scan. I had a scan, then a second, which showed several lymph nodes that were slightly enlarged. One doctor wanted to do surgery, a biopsy, right away. But at the last minute, he wasn’t able to do the procedure, and I had to see another surgeon. He wanted to wait. He thought it was an infection that would resolve. And so I waited, six weeks of waiting. I found it to be a long time to wait. And in those six weeks, I found I’d become something of a hypochondriac. I worried about everything, and wasn’t really enjoying anything. But finally, the six weeks passed, and I got good news. News I hardly dared to hope for. All the lymph nodes were smaller. I walked out with a clean bill of health, and I knew I should be grateful for receiving news that so many others wished to receive and didn’t. Only, I didn’t seem to feel much relief. My good news was too hard for me to believe. I had been so convinced that something was wrong that I kept forgetting, actually, that I'd had this good news. I kept checking my collarbone, feeling the node, worrying. I'd been in such a funk for so long that I kept wanting to feel and react as if I hadn’t had the good news yet. I wasn’t quite ready to believe that the news could be so good. There was no difference between my before and after picture.
In the book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, he writes, ʺMerely to survive and preserve our life is a low-level instinct that we share with [animals], but it is not heroism in any classic sense. We were meant to thrive and not just survive. We are glad when someone survives, and that surely took some courage and effort. But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.ʺ (21) God wants so much more for us, for our lives, for our congregation, for our world, than that we survive. More than getting by. More than the same old-same old. So much more. So much more, that God breaks into our life in human form to give it to us – life, abundant, resurrected, transformed, new, more than we’ve imagined.
We’re embarking on our stewardship campaign today. We’ve been asked to think about what dreams and hopes for our congregation will fill our buckets. In our wildest dreams, what is God calling us to do? In my experience, it is really hard for us to dream big, and believe that God has big dreams for us. Somehow, we’re sure that there’s nothing new under the sun. Somehow, we’re sure that we’re going to wake up tomorrow, and it will be Groundhog Day all over again, and instead of trying something different, we might as well just go through whatever we did to get through the first time. Somehow, we’re trying to just survive. Somehow, we’re just getting back in the boats and fishing in empty waters.
Friends, our generous God offers us forgiveness for whatever has held us back in our past, and reminds us as many times as we need to be reminded that the slate’s been wiped clean, just as Jesus reminded Peter. Our generous God will fill our nets again, or fill up our buckets again, if we need reminding of what God at work in us can do, the beyond-our-wildest-dreams miracles God can work in our world. And again, our God will start us out with a charge, a call, a commission, a challenge: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Get going, get moving, get dreaming, get loving. The resurrection is now, new life if yours, start living. Our generous God will give us as many beginnings as we need. Let’s take advantage of even one of them, one new beginning, and we’ll see God’s dreams become our reality. God is doing a new thing here. It’s a new day. Where we see endings, worse – where we see the same old thing, God gives us a new beginning. An after picture. A flock to feed. A gift to open. A tomorrow that’s today. How will you change?