Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
That's a Lot of Fish! John 21:1-14
Did you know that some scholars think the Thomas story might have been the original end to the book of John? It's kind of like how scholars think that Mark really ends after the women run away from the empty tomb, except we actually have a really old manuscript of Mark with the shorter ending. We don't have a version John that stops at Thomas. I found that out during my sermon prep last week. I mean, it makes sense. The last few lines of the story seem to be a good way to wrap up a whole book. "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." And, the story of Thomas is a pretty great story about building the Body of Christ. It is a story powerful enough end the Gospel and inspire us to begin to tell our own stories of Jesus. The thing is, if we finish the Gospel with Thomas, we miss something important. We miss all the fish. And, there's a lot of fish.
Scripture says that there were 153 fish, all caught in one fling of the net. That is pretty amazing. What's more amazing is that all of these fish are said to have been caught after seven disciples had spent all night not catching one single fish. That's right... just shortly after seeing a resurrected Jesus for the second time in a week, they decided to go fishing. Scholars have suggested a couple different explanations as to why they may have been fishing. Maybe these were our first bivocational ministers going back to their day jobs since they weren't sure that their ministries would be supported in the same way since most people think Jesus is still dead. These guys know how to do two things: follow Jesus and go fishing. It wouldn't be strange to imagine them going fishing. Another scholar suggested that something else may be happening here. Maybe this is one of those occasions where someone has a rich experience of the Divine, but, in time, the experience fades and they simply return to the patterns of behavior to which they are accustomed. They know that Jesus wanted to send them, as he had been sent, but they didn't yet know how to do that. So, they did the only thing they were sure they still knew how to do. They went fishing. It turns out, though, that they weren't able to even do that very well. Over several hours, they didn't catch even one fish.
As is his habit here in John, Jesus just appears, this time on the beach while his friends are still out in the boat. They are doing the kind of fishing that requires a large net and boat, not the kind of fishing that uses a fishing pole. They fish like people who have made a living doing it, trying to haul in as much as they can. Jesus, from his vantage point on dry land, sees that their nets are empty. He calls out, "Children, you have no fish, have you?" Now, they don't yet know who Jesus is. It's like when Mary thought he was the gardener. These guys must've thought he was a really great fisherman because they didn't seem to mind that he called them children. They just responded with a despondent, "No." Jesus then gives them some fishing advice. I am struck by the simplicity of the instruction. He says just throw the net off the right side of the boat. You'll catch some there. Now, throughout this Gospel, Jesus has spoken enigmatically. The disciples have often been confused. Thank goodness after this long night with no fish, they finally got a clear, plain-spoken suggestion. They understood exactly what they needed to do. They threw in the net. They caught more than they could have ever imagined.
The net which had been despairingly empty was now full of 153 large fish. It was so heavy that these men, these professional anglers, young and strong, could not pull the net into the boat. They had to drag it behind them as they made their way back to shore. This full net was exactly what they need, more, in fact, than they needed. This giant pile of fish would feed them and fund their on-going ministry. Just as importantly, it helped them figure out who the guy on the beach was. It was Jesus. They saw all the fish and they knew. Do you remember the moment when Mary knew that the gardener was, in fact, Jesus? It was when he said her name, reminding her of their close relationship. These seven disciples needed to be reminded of their relationship, too. Jesus did so when he helped provide for them in their time of need. He showed them that, even though he had died, even though he would ascend to heaven, their relationship remained, and he would continue to provide for them. He would bring them abundance so that they could follow the mission on which he was leading them. They would not have to rely on old ways of getting by. Grace was still with them, even if things looked different now. He reminded them that Holy Spirit, Jesus' spirit, was with them, and they would be loved in abundance.
In whole Gospel of John, Jesus' presence has been consistently associated with abundance and love. In this Gospel, the very first sign of Jesus living out his incarnation is when Jesus turns between 120 and 180 gallons of water into really good wine at a wedding in Cana. A few chapters later, in a slightly different version of this story than is told in the other Gospels, Jesus blesses and shares five loaves of bread and two fish with 5,000 people. The Gospel reports that there was enough leftover to fill twelve baskets! Incidentally, this feeding of the 5,000 took place alongside the very same sea where today's Gospel reading was said to have happened. Oh, and one of the seven men in the boat is a disciple named Nathanael, a disciple whom we've only heard mentioned one other time, back at the wedding in Cana. The same sea. The same disciple. The same Jesus who's is known by abundant love and consistent provision. These folks have seen Jesus in action. They know that his love and justice is best understood through abundance, especially abundance in unexpected places. When they realized how many fish they had caught, they knew that this could only be the work of Jesus. And, they went to him, Peter jumping in the water to swim his way and the rest, dragging alongside their boat the holy, impossible, fishy sign of his ongoing presence in their lives.
It really seems like this story of a heaping net-full of fish is in the Gospel to assure Jesus' followers that God will still provide for them even after Jesus is physically gone. It also reminds them that Jesus often found abundance in places of scarcity. So, when we follow Jesus, we find places of abundance and then share than abundance with others. Here is one of the best stories of abundance that I heard last week. The Missions Board of Windham Hill UCC in Windham, Maine was in the midst of discerning a missions project for the church to undertake during the season of Lent, when a member of the board suggested they serve through Heifer International. Heifer is a program that allows people to invest in families all across the world who live in poverty. For example, someone can invest $120 to pay for a goat that will then be donated to a family. The goat provides milk, helping to nourish the family, and also provides a source of income as the family can start a small business selling goat's milk, cheese, and soap. Even more importantly, this family will also train their neighbors in the healthy farming practices they learn and will donate the first female offspring of their goat to a neighbor, thereby serving others just as they themselves have been served. Because the people served also become donors and serve their own communities, Heifer estimates that each gift really has 9 times the financial impact of the original investment. Though Heifer, you can also financially support empowerment programs for women, access to water for whole communities, and agricultural education.
Windham Hill has about 70 people attend worship every week. Congregants took small household banks home and saved their pennies and dimes. The church school held a pancake breakfast. Several people made other donations, large and small. Together they were able to raise $2530 to donate to Heifer. Adding to the abundance of their gift, their donation was doubled through a grant available from Heifer during the month of March. Given that the Maine Conference has been working to build a strong partnership with churches in Honduras, Windham Hill asked that their donations be put to work in Honduras. Because of their belief in God's abundant love and willingness to serve in abundant joy, Windham Hill was able to send $5060 to Honduras, which will really be more like making a $45,540 investment in the well-being of our Central American neighbors. That's a lot of fish, and a lot of goats, and chickens, and cook stoves, and girls in school, and fresh water wells dug! Talk about God's abundance!
There is a song that says they'll know Christians by our love. Well, this story reminds us that Christians will know Jesus by his abundance... by piles of fish, by gallons of wine, by baskets and baskets of bread. This story reminds us that a life following Christ is a life confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to show us Christ's abundance in our midst, like when our own church collects enough things for 17 Church World Service school kits, 25 hygiene kits, and raises enough money to fund a whole disaster clean-up bucket. These are some ongoing signs of Christ's abundance and the greatest part is that we get to participate in them. So, let's go fishing. I'm sure that we'll catch all that we need.
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2809
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4583
Sermon Brainwave: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=745
Karyn Wiseman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1619
Frank L. Crouch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=569
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
For more information on Heifer International: http://www.heifer.org/about-heifer/index.html
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
To Have Life: John 20:19-31
Just because you hear that someone else has had a deep and meaningful experience with God, it doesn’t mean that you will believe them. This seems to hold true for both the disciples as a whole and, more specifically, for Thomas. After Peter and the beloved disciple saw that Jesus' body was not in the tomb, they left and missed out on seeing Jesus. But, Mary stayed. Jesus called her to be a disciple and share with the others the good news of the Ascension, that is, renewed relationship with God and the possibility of becoming a child of God. Mary, the disciple to the disciples, went to them and told them good news. And yet, on that same evening, they were still locked away. They were afraid, and even Mary's recounting of her amazing morning with Jesus was not enough to help them manage that fear and continue their Gospel mission. Even with an eye witness to a miracle, they needed something more to inspire them to leave the confines of the one place that they know is safe.
Thankfully, Jesus just shows up, in the middle of their fear, and says to them, "Peace be with you." I guess he could tell that they needed some compassion. Notice that he does not fuss at them for hiding away or chastise them for not understanding what to do with the good news that Mary brought them. He addresses the need he sees first... he sees their fear and offers them peace. He offers them his hands and his side, sharing with them his wounds, not because they asked, but, it seems like he knows that it might help them to understand if they see. Just like with Mary, Jesus gives them a mission. He tells them that just as God has sent him, he will send them. Now, remember, Jesus' mission in John is to help people renew their relationship with God. He is creating new life, life that mirrors the richness and intimacy between God and humanity that we have read about in the creation stories of Genesis. Jesus creates new life in these disciples. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them, just as God once breathed life into a lump of mud to create humanity. In a sense, as I have preached before, at this moment, Jesus is creating a new body, his renewed body that is the body of believers. This Body of Christ will carry his work. He gives them one job, to forgive people. And, he disappears, just as quickly as he once appeared. And, Fearless Thomas missed it all.
I'm not sure where he was. Scripture doesn't say. I will say that Scripture does indicate that Thomas was not known for being fearful. Back in the part of the story where Jesus resurrected his friend Lazarus, the disciples were afraid that Jesus was going to be attacked when he went to help Lazarus. After Jesus said that they would go despite the danger, Thomas was the one who spoke up and made it clear that he did not fear death if it meant following Jesus. Maybe Thomas had listened to Mary preach about the Ascension and went out into the world, hope restored, searching for new ways to connect with God. Wherever he was, he missed this second appearance by Jesus. As I stated last Easter season when I preached on this passage, Thomas only asks for the same physical experience as all the other disciples had. He wants to be incorporated into this body of Christ, too, and to do so he needed to actually see Jesus.
It is fascinating to me that the disciples, including Thomas (though I'm not sure about Mary... she seems more inclined to action than the boys were) are still in that same house a week later. Now, I don't know if they stayed hiding away the whole time. I don't know if fearless Thomas stood in a corner, hands on hips, tapping his toes, waiting for Jesus to show back up. Or, maybe they just were practicing their mission with Thomas, forgiving him for insinuating that they might be lying or for being too hard-headed to believe, just like they once were. Maybe they chose to wait, hoping that Jesus would appear again for their friend. Either way, the next place we see them is the last place we saw them, in the same house, doors shut. Waiting or hiding.
Jesus just pops in again, not bothering with the doors that they have closed to protect themselves. Again, he offers peace and he offers his body as proof. Now, the next line of the Gospel has tripped up readers for hundreds of years. In most English translations, it says that Jesus said to Thomas something like "Do not doubt, but believe." I have learned this week that we might do better to translate that word a little differently. In Greek, the word is "apistos," which really means "unbelieving." Doubt is a whole other word, "diakrino." Jesus doesn't tell him not to doubt. He tells him not be unbelieving but to believe. Doubt is a sense of being somewhere between belief and unbelief... it means something more like being uncertain. According to at least one scholar that I read this week, John isn't really concerned about levels of certainty. John is more concerned about the relationship one becomes invested in when one believes. Remember, Jesus is a bridge holding humanity and divinity together. To believe in him is to be in relationship with God through him and to be connected to all of creation through that belief. In this moment, when Jesus asks Thomas to believe, Jesus wants Thomas to affirm that he is in relationship with him, with God, and is now fully a part of the Body of Christ. Unsurprisingly, Thomas, fearless as ever, quickly asserts his belief and renews his relationship, calling Jesus, "My Lord and My God," making one of the most clear statements of belief in the whole Gospel.
The story goes on. In chapter 29, Jesus says that those who have believed without seeing him will be blessed. Karoline Smith, the same author who talked about the difference between doubt and belief, notes that throughout history, many have read verse 29 as Jesus chastising Thomas. Given how gentle Jesus has been with both the large group of disciples and with Thomas in these previous two appearances, that seems like a reading that is out of sync with Jesus' presentation in this portion of the Gospel. She, and other scholars, suggest that this verse is for us, the ones who follow Jesus but have never touched his actual hands or seen his own bleeding side... the ones who've only experience the Body of Christ through the work of his believers, the ones enlivened by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus said "Blessed are those who have not seen (my actual wounds) and yet have come to believe," Jesus was saying that our belief is welcome, too. We can join in the Body of Christ, renewing our relationships with God. Our belief is not second-best. Our belief is powerful and relationship building, too.
I read a powerful article this week that reminded me of the true gift that this kind of belief is. Cindy Huggins, a lay member of Centre Street Congregational Church, UCC in Machias, Maine, wrote of her own vocational evolution in a blog post called "Everything is finished. Everything is beginning." Huggins, long-time English professor, retired last year from her position as president of the University of Maine at Machias. She spoke of the all-consuming nature of such a role: "But from 2005 to 2015, I stopped being Cindy and became the president of a college." While she was honored to do the work, in order to do so as she saw fit, she put aside parts of her life that had given her great meaning.
She knows that retirement was the right choice, but it was still a hard choice. Or, to put it in words that John might understand, she's has heard that there is new life possible, but it is a little hard to see where that new life is. She might could use Jesus to pop in right about now to show her his hands and side. While she didn't say he showed up in her kitchen, it does sound like she's seeing some glimpses of Jesus as she has made her way back to practices that once gave her life. It is particularly interesting to read of her new-found passion for professional editing, a very intimate, relational process in writing, especially in light of this week's Gospel, which is a very intimate story about intimate, renewing relationship with Christ. I'm not surprised that she is finding new life in that kind of work.
She said that at this point in her life, the primary question of her calling is "Who am I know?" She doesn't know yet. But, importantly, she believes that she will find a renewed, maybe even new, calling, even if she can't yet see what that new calling will be. She finishes the essay with these words, paraphrasing the Western novelist Louis Lamour: "Questions with no answers. Faith with no proof. Everything is finished. Everything is beginning." Those phrases seem to capture so much of this Gospel story. The relationship you thought you had with Jesus is finished. The new life with Christ is just beginning. And, the ones who have only seen New Life through the reconstituted Body of Christ, well, we're welcome here, too. We may not have answers to all of our questions but we have a relationship with God through Christ, and we believe that the ongoing relationship matters. We believe so we have life. We have God. Through the Holy Spirit, we are the Body of Christ. Let's go where he sends us.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Cindy Huggins: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/everything-is-finished-ev_b_9667006.html
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3580
Pulpit fiction podcast: www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/61-easter-2c-april-3-2016
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
I Have See The Lord: John 20:11-18
We should know that something important is going to happen in this story because it takes place in a garden. In the Bible, really important things take place in gardens. In Genesis, creation took place in a garden. In the Song of Songs, two people fell in love in a garden. I wonder what is going to happen in this garden, the garden near where Jesus was crucified... the garden where his friends laid his body to rest. The garden where one of them, Mary Magdalene returned to pay her respects. I think something important is going to happen in this garden. I think we're going to see some new life here at the tomb, a place where we least expect it.
The story says that while it was still early enough to be dark outside, Mary Magdalene traveled to Jesus' tomb. Unlike the version of this story from Luke that we heard on Easter, Mary went alone. Like the account in Luke, she saw that the stone covering the tomb had been moved. In this story, however, she assumes that Jesus' body has been stolen. She ran and got two of the most trusted disciples in the book of John, Peter and the unnamed disciple, the one most frequently called "the one whom Jesus loved." These two returned with her to the garden. They saw that Jesus' grave clothes had been left behind. It is not clear what they believed happened as the Gospel says that they didn't know about the Resurrection yet. The beloved disciple believed something, but doesn't say what. Whatever they believed, it wasn't enough to keep them in the garden. They left, going into hiding with the other disciples. Mary stayed. She stood in the garden and wept.
She looked into the tomb and she saw two angels. It is a tomb in a garden and maybe Mary remembered that amazing things happen in gardens, including the appearance of messengers of the Divine. She doesn't appear to think seeing angels is strange or, maybe her grief is too strong for her to recognize what is happening. She treats them as though they are just regular people. They asked why she was weeping and she was honest. She told them she cried because she was sure that someone had taken Jesus' body and she had no idea where to find him. Then, this other guy showed up. Maybe she didn't remember that amazing things happen in gardens because she had no idea who he was. Had she remembered what kind of stuff happens in gardens, she might have figured out who he was sooner. But, she was just to sad. She just figured he was the gardener. Maybe he had moved Jesus' body while he was trimming the hedges. She asked him, begged him really, to tell her where Jesus' body was so she could move it somewhere safe. Then, this man did something she did not expect. It turns out that he wasn't a gardener. He said her name. "Mary." In that moment everything changed.
I'm telling you, something special always happens in a garden. God once said, "Let's make humankind in our image," and people showed up to take care of a garden. This time, Jesus said Mary and a mourning woman regain her joy in a garden. Once she heard him say her name, Mary knew that Jesus was alive and she knew that all hope was no longer lost. It was though new life had appeared in this garden, a garden that had once been a holding place for death. She called out "teacher." She might have even wanted to hug him. But Jesus said to her that she should could not cling to him. He couldn't would remain in the garden, at least not like he is right now. His work was not yet complete. His calling was not to stay in the garden or even stay in the same kind of existence as the rest of creation. He had a next step in this improbable journey of incarnation. He needed to ascend to God.. return to Word from which he had been formed.
What in the world does that mean? What does it mean for Jesus to ascend to God? Here's what I've learned this week. At least once scholar I read explained that the book of John understands Jesus to be the ultimate connection between creation and God. The whole point of Jesus' life as an incarnation of God is to build and rebuild a connection between God and humanity. In fact, our whole notion of the Trinity, a God who is three in one and one in three, is rooted, in part, in this concept of Jesus as human/divine connection. This same scholar, Karoline Lewis, points us back to the beginning of the Gospel of John to explain. In the beginning of the Gospel, John shares an interpretation of the creation story from Genesis. John even starts with the same first phrase as Genesis, "In the beginning," in order to be very clear that the story of Jesus that he is going to tell is a story best understood on the same cosmic scale as that first garden story in the whole Bible.
As John describes creation, there is God and something called the Word of God. The Word is both with God and is God. Now, you may ask what precisely that means. John isn't exactly clear. He doesn't explain how a thing can be really two things while still kinda being one thing. The thing is, John isn't interested in math. John is trying describe a relationship. This Gospel should be read more like poetry. It explains a relationship or a feeling. So we do best to pay attention to the feeling, not the numbers. The feeling is connectedness... liveliness. The author of John said that all of creation came into being through the Word. And, then, most importantly, the Word became flesh. There's your new life. And, Jesus is that Word. Jesus is both God and human, called the Incarnation. In becoming human, Jesus ultimately takes on life under the same terms as it was created by the Word, identifying so completely with humanity that he will die a death that mirrors the death that all of us humans face. Jesus, as the Word, has the power to reconnect people with the ultimate reality of God. Those who hear the Word become children of God. This Word brings life. The Word can return to us as Christ, one who lived as a human but lives on as Spirit.
Mary heard a word, her name, and the richness of her life was restored. In fact, Karoline Smith argues that she's given a whole new life upon hearing this word from Jesus. As I said, when she called him "teacher," she was also proclaiming herself to be a student, a disciple. We would do well to remember that Teacher is the first title given to Jesus by his disciples. Throughout John, disciples are understood to do one thing: be willing to tell others what Jesus has taught them. We can see that Mary has new life as a disciple because Jesus' needed Mary to be a disciple, to go tell the others what he had shared with her. He needed her to tell them that their hope in the future lies not simply in the Resurrection, but in the on-going relationship with God that they have been offered through Jesus' own ministry. Jesus' Ascension is the sign of that on-going relationship. Jesus must return to God. All of the rest of us are invited to return to God, too... to return to the intimacy with God, renewing a relationship that looks more like the early relationships between God and humanity as described in the creation stories of Genesis, the very first garden. Jesus needed Mary to tell the disciples about this possibility of renewed relationship with God. He needed her to live into her new life as a disciple, to preach of the resurrection, and of the opportunity for Ascension. She ran out of the garden, not in fear and not into hiding, but back to the other disciples. She said to them, "I have seen the Lord" and told them the things Jesus had shared with her.
All of this talk of incarnation, resurrection, and ascension can seem awfully heady and disconnected from our actual lives. Maybe we're like Peter and the beloved disciple, not sure exactly what to believe. I have one short story about a different garden that helps me sort out what I believe. Because when I see this garden, I can say that I've seen the Lord at work. But this garden's not in Bible. It's down in Westbrook. After hearing a sermon from Rev. Kelli Whitman asking about ways to serve their neighbors, two members of Prides Corner Congregational UCC asked if they could build a garden on the church property and donate the produce to the local food pantry. Making use of the passion and dedication of the congregation and a grant from the United Church of Christ Neighbors In Need program, over the course of several months, the congregation turned part of their property into a fruitful, healthy garden. It is a multi-generational project, with everyone from Sunday school kids to the most senior members of the church working together to plant, weed, harvest, and deliver food to their local food pantry.
Kids with dirty knees. Grownups with arms full of tomatoes. A garden filled with rich earth and clean water. Hungry bellies filled with fresh vegetables. This just might be what returning to a relationship with God can look like. At the very least, this is a group of people who know what to do when they hear the Word of God. They build relationship with one another and serve their community. Like Mary who runs and tells the disciples where she saw the Lord, their work together in service to their community has become their testimony. New life. Rich relationships. Healthy food. See, I told you that good things happen in gardens.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources in writing this sermon:
Barbara Lundblad: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2807
David Tresemer and Laura-Lea Canon's preface to The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, translation from Coptic and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans. from English by Joseph Rowe (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2002)
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4571
Sermon Brainwave podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=738
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
An article about Westbrook's garden: http://www.ucc.org/maine-garden-neighbors-in-need-09242013
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Recognizing Jesus in Our Midst: Luke 24: 13-35
They decided to call it the Lamb House, not because they like sheep, but because the Lamb family used to live there. Their old house, built in the 1840's, was in pretty good shape. It had six bedrooms, four of which were ready to be used. The folks who bought the place realized that they'd want to turn the current kitchen into a bathroom and utility room and remodel the dining room into a new, more modern kitchen. The structure was sound, and, more importantly, the people bought this house were ready. Cherryfield Congregational Church was ready. The members of this church, all 33 of them, knew that the project was big. But, they knew that the needs were big, too. They had some resources and were ready to put them to good use. They were ready to serve. When a congregant offered to donate the money to buy the property, they jumped on it. At first, they weren't sure exactly what to do with it, but, eventually the greatest need would become very clear.
This church is located in the town of Cherryfield in Washington County. In 2011, the year before the church bought the property, 11 homes burned in their county, displacing 30 people. While house fires are always disruptive to the families who lose their homes, such tragedies are particularly difficult in a town as small as Cherryfield and a county as sparsely populated as Washington. According to Larry Zimmerman, the pastor of Cherryfield Congregational Church, members of the church regularly saw first-hand how difficult it was to recover from such a loss and also stay in the community. He said that residents often had to relocate in order to find somewhere to live, sometimes even leaving the state. Children often had to change schools, adding the lost of friends and familiar teachers to the loss of their homes. Sometimes families would even have to live separately for a while, with the parent with the better job needing to live near work but unable to find a place suitable for the whole family. There was simply no local agency that was able to provide free, temporary housing that would give families time to get back on their feet. The only place that families could find for temporary shelter were the local hotels and motels or by staying with other family members.
Over the years, I have learned that a really good way to offer Christian service is not to decide that you want to do a specific thing and then go find some people to force your charity on. The best way to serve our neighbors is let people know that we want to help, ask if they have any needs, and find out what would help them the most at that time, then work together to make it happen. That seems to be exactly what this church did. They found a need for temporary free shelter and they happened to own a home that could easily converted into such a shelter. They worked together with people from across their community. Accord to Rev. Zimmerman, one of the church trustees who was a local contractor began the work with start-up money and donations. A retired plumber showed up and donated his time. A local building supply company gave a very generous discount on building materials. Volunteers from all over... neighbors from right here in Maine and folks from Pennsylvania who came up to help at the Lamb House while working at the Maine Seacoast Mission. Even inmates from the correctional facility in Machias came over to help renovate the building.
Now, the project hasn't always gone perfectly. This past fall, the boiler in the house finally croaked. In order to be able to house people in the winter, they were going to have to replace it. Fortunately they were able to find a used system to replace it. In addition to the sweat equity they've put into the renovation, they have worked to find grants to fund the project, too. Due to the strength of their plan for how to address the needs in their community and their partnerships within the local community, as well as their ability to explain the positive impact this home will have in their community, they have received some amazing grants. They received a $5,000 grant from the Maine Conference Resourcing the Local Church fund. The Maine Community Foundation, which supports local community programs that build on the strengths and assets in the community, has recently awarded them a $15,000 grant. They also received $1000 from their local fire department and another $1000 worth of donations from a local building supply.
By the middle of last July, about three years after the initial purchase, the house was in good enough shape to host their first tenants. The first people to stay at the Lamb House weren't displaced Washington County citizens, but instead a group of medical volunteers who come Downeast each summer to provide services to the migrant workers who harvest blueberries. Once the church replaced the boiler in the fall, they were able to host a woman named Tammy who's home had been completely destroyed in a fire in late September. They also supported another family, the tenants in the same house, in finding temporary housing. As of December, that family had found a new permanent home in Columbia. Tammy moved into her new home in February. When Tammy was ready to move in to her new place, she wrote on Facebook, "I give many thanks to the good people of the Cherryfield Congregational Church. The Lamb House was a cozy and quaint home for myself, (my pets) Love Bug and Angus while I waited for my new house to come." Thank God for the generosity of Cherryfield Congregational Church and the people of Washington County. It would have been much more difficult for these two families to recover had the church not been so prepared to serve people in need.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I read this story, I see Jesus. When I first heard Darren Morgan, one of our Associate Conference Ministers, share the story of Cherryfield Congregational Church and the Lamb House, I was amazed at what the Holy Spirit helped brew in this small church in a small town in rural Maine. It's not like I didn't expect to see God in such a place. It's more like I was amazed at how this particular iteration of the Divine really seems to be just exactly what this particular community needs at this particular time. So many moving parts have been clicking right into place. The church, town, two counties, the denomination, and even state-wide foundations are all working together. Even though it is early in the life of this ministry, and there will undoubtedly be more bumps in the road, right now, because this church was willing to work with and serve their community, there has been tangible results of Christ's love in action in Washington County. Migrant workers have gotten much needed medical attention and two families have been helped recover from a fire. I see Jesus here, and my, is it good to see yet more evidence of the Resurrection in this struggling world.
When I remember the two disciples walking down the road to the village of Emmaus, I remember how hard the last several days have been. They had watched Jesus be tortured and executed. They had seen him die and be tucked away in a tomb. The women had come forward and shared their certainty that Jesus was indeed alive, but, these guys weren't so sure. They had seen the empty tomb, but they didn't know what it all meant. And, they were just so sad. They sorely needed a reminder that all was not really lost, that God would still move in this world. They needed to be reminded that their call to repentance and service was still worthwhile, even if the mission seemed so different now that Jesus had died. Just as they needed a sign to keep going, a strange man appeared. He listened to them, he taught them, accepted hospitality from them, and then, when he blessed and shared the bread with them, they finally knew who it was. They saw Jesus. When they knew that he lived, they knew that they could go on.
There are people in this town, in this country, in this world, maybe even in this church, having a hard time having any hope. They, like the disciples, have witnessed violence: war, torture, abuse by people in power. Many people have watched every bit of change that they wanted to see in the world shrivel up or be beaten back by those who prefer the oppressive status quo. In a world that seems so broken, people need to be reminded that their effort, repentance, and service are still worthwhile. They need to see Jesus again. They need to know that God is still working in this world. This means that Christians get the chance to tell everyone, and especially tell ourselves, when we see the Resurrection at work in our lives. Remember what the women did when they realized that Jesus was alive? They went and told the men. Remember what these two men did when they realized that Jesus was alive? They told the other disciples. And, they went about their lives following their mission to love God and love neighbor. They crafted their whole movement to be a witness to the Resurrection... to be on-going Resurrection in this newly constituted body of Christ.
We can be like the women at the tomb and the men who met Jesus on the road. We can tell everyone about the Resurrection that we have seen. We can be witnesses, and hopefully people can see a bit of Jesus reflected in our service in our community. Maybe we won't buy a house and refurbish it, but I bet we can show up en masse to help unload food at the food pantry or volunteer our time to drive people to chemo treatment. I know that we can show up to worship, sing, pray, and cook with and for one another. For surely when we gather together and do these things, Christ is present like he was once present there by the roadside. Christ is with us. We are Christ's body in this world. Let's make sure people recognize his love and compassion whenever they see us gathered.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
The story of Cherryfield- http://files.ctctcdn.com/a2a15f94201/2dbf2563-2b33-43e0-9258-72cca8364b4f.pdf
BDN story: http://bangordailynews.com/2014/09/29/news/down-east/its-sorely-needed-cherryfield-church-seeks-help-to-renovate-home-for-temporary-shelter/
Arland J. Hultgren- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=54
Sarah Henrich- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933
Richard Swanson- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1992
Marilyn Salmon- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1671
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.