A prelude. Once upon a time there was a husband and a wife, both of whom worked. A few days before a summer holiday, let's say the Fourth of July, the husband's out-of-town family called to invite themselves for the up-coming holiday week-end. The husband immediately says yes, please come, we would love to have you. Now husband cooks only barbecue ribs. Not breakfast or lunch or potato salad or baked beans. Does not go grocery shopping and nor make up beds.
When the wife, who had been looking forward to a long week-end of rest, complains about this change in plans, the husband (unable to admit a mistake) responds, you don't like my family. Whereupon the wife turns to the husband and says you don't want to go there.
We've all had our own occasions where the nicest, most appropriate warning we could give was you don't want to go there. And if you haven't, as the old folks used to say, keep living.
Now, Jesus' words and tone in the final chapter of John, verse 18, were a little different...When you were younger, you fastened your own belt and went where you wished to go, but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go....I'd like to spend a few minutes this evening, at this most auspicious occasion, as my dear friend and colleague Olivia is installed as an officer of the United Church of Christ and as Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries, to reflect on "Where you do not wish to go."
If you have ever lost a loved one – one central to your life, your identity, your raison d'etre – a spouse or partner, a mother or father, a child or closest friend, then you know how the disciples must have been feeling in the days and weeks immediately after the crucifixion, and even after Easter Sunday morning, because the joy of knowing for yourself that Jesus had conquered death must have been tempered by the realization that he would not be with them in the same way day after day. There would not be that same shared smile or comforting touch. Not that familiar laugh or fond "good morning." That must be how the parents and husbands and wives and children of those 714 American soldiers now killed in Iraq must be feeling right now.
So, in the fog of those days after Easter, the disciples returned home, to the place and the work they knew best – fishing in the Galilee. Somehow, doing something they knew so well how to do, doing something they could do by rote, must have seemed comforting to them. I remember the morning my mother died, 14 years ago almost to this day, and I remember her sister coming up on the front porch, only to find me with a broom, sweeping it off. And she said, why are you doing that now? Let me do that if it needs to be done. And I said to her, I need to do this right now. There was something about the routine of moving that broom across that porch that was familiar and repetitive and comforting to me. So, there were the disciples, the ones whom Jesus had called from the seashore, back there once again, fishing.
Almost two months ago Joe Malayang and I were privileged to be a part of a delegation which, as a part of our General Synod pronouncement on the Marshall Islands, went to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Bravo test on those tiny atolls. 50 years ago on March 1 our country dropped a 15 megaton hydrogen test bomb on Bikini and the people and the waters and the atolls have never been the same since.
Surrounded by water, it is no surprise that the Marshallese are fishermen and women. On our first night there, as we looked at the lights of the fishing boats out on the water at night, Joe told us how much he was reminded of home in the Phillippines. Well, it was the same for the disciples. They were fishing at night, but they were catching nothing. All night they fished, but there was nothing in the nets.
It wasn't until Jesus arrived just after daybreak, and guided them to the fish that they found success. No, not there – you're in the wrong place. Cast your nets on the other side. And then there were so many fish in the net that they could not haul them up on the boat.
Where we do not wish to go. We're like the disciples. Casting our nets only on the same side, the comfortable side, the side we've always cast them. But when we allow Jesus to guide us, then we too will recognize his presence and our nets will be full.
Maybe this passage is really an invitation to us here, the board of Wider Church Ministries, the board of Local Church Ministries, the Executive Council and the board of the Office of General Ministries and the board of Justice and Witness Ministries; the officers and national staff of the United Church of Christ, members of the Southeast Conference and our local congregations – we who would dare to call ourselves the United Church of Christ – maybe it is calling on us as a community of disciples of Jesus to think how we are going to experience Jesus' presence in our own lives. Maybe it is an invitation to let Jesus guide us and use us in the turbulent waters all around us. Maybe it is an invitation to Decide how we are going to experience Jesus' presence in our lives and how we are called to carry on his work in the world. That's what Jesus and his disciples were doing on the beach then and that's what Jesus and we, his disciples, are called to do now.
And just what work of his does Jesus mandate us to carry on? Maybe we might find the answer in that end of the story. When the disciples pulled the net and the boat to the shore Jesus invited them to join him for breakfast and he turned to Peter and asked him do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And three times Peter responded, Lord, I love you. Then, feed my sheep. Then, care for my sheep. Love, then feed. Feed, then love. Jesus wanted Peter to understand without a doubt the connection between the mission and the love. If you love me, if you truly love me, if you accept my sacrifice of myself out of my love for you, then love and feed.
Where we do not wish to go. Sometimes it is easier to ignore or dismiss than to love. Sometimes it is easier to wage war than to love. Sometimes it is easier to create committees than it is to love. Sometimes it is easier to fall back on tradition than it is to love. Sometimes it is easier to just about anything than it is to love. Peter do you love me? Olivia, do you love me?
This morning JWM visited the King family home and the Ebeneezer Church, and I was reminded again of how central love is to non-violent resistance. One of our board members used the quote from Dr. King, "Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word – it is not a question of if, it is only a question of when."
It's about the power of love. It's all about the power of God's love. It's all about the power of God's love to conquer all, even death itself.
That day the disciples experienced the resurrected Jesus as a real person, not some vision or hallucination, but a walking, talking, breathing, eating, feeling, loving person. The resurrected Jesus was real – he sat with them and ate with them and felt the warmth of the fire with them.
And if he could do it with them then, can not he do it with us here now? If he was real to them then, is he not real to us? This story is about the power of God's love to conquer fear, to conquer divisions, to conquer pain, to conquer arrogance, to conquer ignorance, to conquer injustice, to conquer oppression, to conquer evil, to conquer intolerance, to conquer insensitivity, to conquer the cross not just then, but here and now.
A few weeks ago I preached at Mayflower Congregational UCC in Minneapolis. And the pastor was doing the children's sermon and she asked the children what was the definition of justice. And one little girl, maybe about 4, raised her hand and very confidently said that the justice meant love. And I thought all these years I've been preaching and teaching about justice and all I had to say was what this 4 year old knew – that justice is love.
And I thought about the Marshallese that Joe and I had met, men and women with incredible stories of what happened to them that horrible day 50 years ago and what has happened to them since and yet, they are not people filled with bitterness or hate, rather they are filled with love. I thought about the South Africans I know, who were not filled with hate but with love. I suspect that some of them know that there is nothing that the world fears more than the power of love.
Now, this story is also about the power of God's abundant love which can fill our nets, which can fill every net and still have more left to spare. It's difficult to talk about God's abundance in times of financial crisis, but maybe the message is it's not about abundance of money, maybe it's about abundance of love. Maybe it's about helping us to re-define our understanding of abundance so that we understand it's not about abundance of members, it's about abundance of love. Maybe in this time of trial and testing, it's about understanding for ourselves and our denomination, the power of God's abundant love.
Because once we understand that – not up here, but here, in our hearts – once we yield ourselves to the power of God's abundant love, then and only then are we able to go into new, and unexpected and difficult places. Only then is this new doorway, this new passageway available to us.
Another Marshall Islands story. My husband, many of you know, is a sailor and doesn't often travel with me, but he wanted to go to the Pacific. And we had not even been there 24 hours when he had already arranged for a trip on an outrigger, one of the sailing canoes which the Marshallese are known for around the world. Indeed, many believe that the Marshallese were some of the world's earliest long-distance sailors. Maybe you know what their boats look like – there's the canoe part, and unlike our sail boats here, the bow and the stern are exactly alike, and alongside the canoe part of the boat is a kind of a miniature version of the canoe, called an outrigger, which gives the boat added stability.
Well, my husband went sailing with two young Marshallese and he said after they had been going out from the harbor for 45 minutes or so, he said, ok, let's turn around and go back. And he expected that they would lower the sail and tack around, as he was accustomed to. But instead of turning the boat around, these Marshallese sailors merely moved the sail from one end of the canoe to the other, accomplishing the turn with much less fanfare. A very different way of accomplishing the very same thing. No need to turn the boat around, turn the sail around instead.
I think that was what Jesus was trying to say to Peter that day. God's love is kinda of like that. It takes us to unexpected places in unexpected ways. We only know one way of sailing our little boat, but God knows many.
Olivia, eighteen months ago, you didn't expect to be sitting here today. You thought you had your retirement all planned out. Just as, when you came to seminary in the U.S. so many years ago, I don't think you expected that it would change your life in the ways that it has. Your story and Peter's story tell us that If we just open our hearts and open our minds to the possibility that God will sail our little ships in ways we can not anticipate or understand, if we allow ourselves to be used by God to share God's abundant love, then, yes, sometimes God will take us where we do not want to go. Sometimes God will take us to far off places, as God has taken missionaries from the very beginnings of the American Foreign Board. Sometimes God will take us to nearby places, to work with those who are outcast, who are forgotten, who are naked and imprisoned. Sometimes, when we think we're too young and without experience, God will choose us to lead. Sometimes, when we think we're too old and worn down, God will use us to lead. Sometimes, when we're just a little too comfortable, God will turn the sails and we will find ourselves sailing in a new direction. But in all of those times, the resurrected Jesus is with us, encouraging us, guiding us, always sharing ever more love.
The great American poet and writer Maya Angelou told the story of how when she was a young girl and times got tough, she would hear her grandmother say, "I will step out on the word of God." And little Maya could see a vision of her six-foot tall grandmother flung into space, moons as her feet and stars at her head, comets swirling around her. So, she said, she grew up knowing that the word of God had power.
But, in her twenties in San Francisco, she became a sophisticated agnostic. She explained that God just didn't seem to be around the neighborhoods she frequented.
But then her voice teacher had her read aloud a book entitled Lessons in Truth, a section which ended with these words: "God loves me." In Maya's words:
I read the piece and closed the book and the teacher said, "read it again." I pointedly opened the book and I sarcastically read, God loves me. He said, "again." After about the seventh repetition I began to sense that there might be truth in the statement, that there was a possibility that God really did love me. Me, Maya Angelou. I suddenly began to cry at the grandness of it all. I knew that if God loved me, then I could do wonderful things, I could try great things, learn anything, achieve anything. For what could stand against me with God,, since one person, any person with God, constitutes the majority?
That knowledge humbles me, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in their gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I'm a spring leaf trembling in anticipation.
The words of Maya Angelou. The thoughts of Peter on the beach that morning long ago. The power of God's love will take you where you do not want to go, Olivia. And it will humble you, melt your bones and make your teeth rock loosely in your gums. But then it will liberate you and allow you to fly over high mountains and tremble, like a spring leaf, in fear and yes, in anticipation. That's God's promise to you and God's promise to every one of us.