“On the Beach”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
May 17, 2015
University Baptist Church
The story of Peter
I’m Peter, the supposed leader of the church. How can I do that? I am impetuous. I am passionate. It’s my greatest asset and also my greatest liability. Sometimes I speak before I think. I wanted to build a booth for Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the time of the transfiguration. Jesus told me to calm down. I was the first to declare Jesus the Messiah. Jesus told me to be quiet.
I also denied Jesus three times, leaving him when he needed me most. It still haunts me. He told us to meet him in Galilee after his resurrection and when we didn’t find him here, we got into the boat and went fishing. When you’re grieving, it helps to do something familiar. Well we fished all night and caught nothing. Someone even taunted us from the shore, we couldn’t see who it was. “Children, you don’t have any fish, do you.” How dare he call us children? Who did he think he was? Then he suggested putting our nets on the right side of the boat. As if fish will only swim on one side of the boat. But we did it anyway. We were bored and frustrated. Sure enough we caught so many fish that our nets almost broke. The beloved disciple declared that it was Jesus. I immediately put on my clothes, jumped into the water, and swam to shore. I know, I do things backwards sometimes.
And sure enough, Jesus was there tending a fire. We brought some of our catch to the coals and had breakfast there on the beach. We shared bread and fish, just like when we fed 5000 people.
After breakfast he said to me, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Why would he use my old name instead of my new name? I like Peter better than Simon. Peter means rock. It’s a solid name. Simon means one who hears. I think he was telling me to listen up. I told him, “of course I love you.” I wanted to add, “Please call me Peter.” He said, “Feed my sheep.” He did this three times and each time I answered him the same way and he answered me the same way. It was like he was testing me. Maybe it was one question for each denial.
I went on from that beach encounter trying to feed his sheep. Some called me the first pope. Even though I was a fisherman, they gave me a shepherd’s crook as a sign of my office. Art depicts me with keys in my hands. Keys to the church, I guess. But it was that simple meal on the beach, those annoying questions and Jesus’ piercing eyes that motivate me. They give me courage when I don’t feel like I can do anything else. I guess that’s a form of grace.
When Lynn and Ann spoke about the date for Logan’s dedication, Mother’s Day made perfect sense. “But,” replied Lynn, “That’s the fishing opener.” The choices we make in this life.
One of the things we loved about living in San Francisco was that it was a destination city. We were inundated with houseguests who wanted to do touristy things. So we visited Alcatraz, Pier 39, Muir Woods, Wine country, Candlestick Park, things we never did on our own. I remember an especially opportune visit from a seminary buddy Tim Clark. I bought my bike from him years ago, because he couldn’t use a road bike in Crested Butte, Colorado where he was serving as a UCC pastor. I still have that bike. It’s vintage, kinda like me.
Anyway, Tim talked me into doing something I’ve never done before. Fly Fishing. The closest I had even been to fly-fishing was watching the film “A River Runs Through It” where the preacher-father played by Tom Skerritt is obsessed with the spiritual lessons gleaned from fly-fishing. He passed the lessons on to his sons. When everything went awry, there was always fly-fishing. And if you listen enough to the water, the narrator muses later in life, you can hear all of the voices and all of the lessons all over again. Tim told me how important it was to him and how being in the water and using finesse and cunning to catch your food was central to his theology.
I figured this was good for a sermon or two, so I said to Tim, “sure.” So we geared up and headed to the Russian River a couple hours north of San Francisco to see if we could catch our meal of salmon. All day long we practiced the art of casting. We paid attention the pulsing movement of the currents. We practiced the discipline of patience. We didn’t catch a single fish. But I think I caught a glimpse of the serenity and that peace that Tim was looking for and to which I didn’t object.
Jesus loved the beach. It was at the beach that Jesus met his earliest disciples, Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, James and John the sons of Zebedee all of whom were fishermen. He called them to follow him and they left their nets and followed. But they would be constantly drawn back to the shore. They all knew that the sea was their place of reflection, of revelation, of re-energizing. I have a friend who says she needs to be near the water in order to connect her with her higher power, with God.
When I was in San Francisco, we held a worship service on the beach one Sunday. We felt the spirit in the sand, in the water, the waves the wind.
The beach has always been a place of miracles.
It was at the shore that Jesus gave his sermon on the Mount.
It was at the shore that Jesus fed 5000 people with just a few fish and some bread.
It was on the sea that Jesus walked when he wanted to be alone.
It was at the sea where Jesus calmed the waters and called us all who have little faith to believe in something greater than ourselves.
It was at the beach that Jesus confronted those same fisherpeople going back to their old work now that Jesus had died. Jesus appeared to them and told them that if they kept following him, they would be fishers of people. It was at the beach that they shared a meal to sustain them for their journey ahead.
It makes sense that Jesus did all of this on the shore. The shore, you see, is the border. It is the place where decisions are made. It is the barrier between chaos and order. How many of you have stood looking out at the water and contemplated your place in the world, drinking in the serenity or power and contemplating your next move. Victoria, I imagine you looking over Puget Sound in just a few weeks, imagining your future. When you do, remember us. And remember that we hold you, like the waves, in our prayers.
Jesus came to the beach, I believe for at least three things: Renewal, Revelry and Recommitment.
Like many of us, Jesus needed someplace to go and recharge himself throughout his life. To have some solitude, to have some reminder of who he was and what he was all about. Not unlike his time in the desert, or his prayers at the garden of Gethsemane, I believe Jesus received renewal at the beach. I bet he let the sand bury his feet. I bet he remembered the constancy of the waves, the sandcastles that came and went, and the new life crawling to shore like turtles and hermit crabs.
I bet part of his renewal, his recovery, his healing came from the sheer joy which is found at the beach: the revelry; the children playing; the people sunbathing; the splashing in the water; the excitement of food and music and good friends relaxing. The revelry in all of this is so important.
I saw some powerful evidence of this a number of years ago in Nicaragua. It is said that in a revolutionary situation, there are three committees that are vital to the survival of a community. The first is shelter. The second is food. The third is joy. The Nicaraguans realized that joy is a vital ingredient in creating and sustaining a community of justice and integrity. It’s something we sometimes forget.
At the First Baptist Church of Managua on New Years Eve, the church gathers for a service of thanksgiving for all that has transpired in the past year, and for all they hope to have happen in the coming year. They recommit themselves to being disciples and walking with God at their sides in a very difficult land. Then as soon as the service ends at midnight, they pile into cars and buses and head out to the Pacific Ocean and they face the New Year in joyful and unabashed revelry with one another at the beach. The entire day is spent at the beach with children running every which way, with great food surrounding them, with laughter and great joy. It’s hard work being a Christian. But it’s also joyous. It’s important to get to the beach every once in a while if for no other reason than to revel in the beauty of God’s creation. Jesus came to be beach for renewal and revelry.
All creation stories in all faith tradition begin in the water. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is chaos in the water. But then a miracle happened. God breathed and we were created to attempt to bring order out of chaos. We know how much of our lives can be filled with chaos. We seek out places like the beach to find a respite from the world. We seek those we love and we seek community in order to have an antidote to chaos.
As spring makes way to summer, the chaos of the academic year winds down and smart Minnesotans head for the lakeshore. We get perspective and joy as we shun our shoes and dip our feet first in the sand and then in the water. At first, it’s a shock, but then it’s followed by an “Ahhhh”.
Several years ago Megan invited us to plan out the Sunday school year on her pontoon boat on Lake Owasso. So we took off from the shore, found a place to drop anchor in the lake and then jumped the water. I don’t remember what we decided at that meeting, but I’ll not soon forget floating on noodles in 80-degree weather and laughing with my UBC friends.
Finally, Jesus came to the shore to seek recommitment. On that day after the resurrection when he shared fish and bread with the disciples he not only said, “follow me,” again, but he also called them to commit, right there on the beach, to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. He was telling people to serve humanity. That’s how they will know you are worthy.
The Pew Research released a study this last week about church affiliation, showing an across the board drop regardless of denomination. Surprisingly, the American Baptist Churches, USA actually showed growth in the past seven years, a whopping .3%. Many have taken to the blogosphere and have decried the lack of interest by the millennial generation. I find compelling the idea that millennials are less interested in doctrine and more interested in action. Millennials are drawn to service, like feeding sheep, more than doctrinal disputes focused on keeping certain people out.
Jesus came to the beach seeking renewal, revelry and recommitment. SO this summer, go to the beach. And while you’re there, remember the Christ we follow.
Remember the beauty of this creation amidst all of the chaos of our lives.
Remember that we are called to rise above the chaos.
We are called to create order
We are called to be refreshed and renewed.
We are called today to have some revelry under God.
We are called to recommit ourselves to becoming fishers of people.
But we cannot do that if we do not remember who we are.
We cannot do that if we forget that God is more vast than us.
We cannot do that unless we are refreshed and renewed.
So, like the disciples, like Jesus, go to the beach.
Go to be renewed.
Go to be reawakened
Go to revel in God’s power and in God’s bounty.
Go to see evidence that God makes all things new with every new tide, with every breath of wind, with every decision we make.
And God looks upon each of us, disciples that we are, and calls us to feed those sheep, tend those lambs, feed those lambs.
May we feed them with justice.
May we tend them with mercy.
May we go forth with humility and the power of God which makes all things new.
And may we receive courage and grace for the journey ahead.