Go deep

Text: John 21 (casting one’s nets on the other side)

In prayers of confession, the phrase “sins of omission and commission” is sometimes heard. In my memory, it is the sins of omission that stand out.

Sins of commission are things like lying and stealing. Sins of omission are actions we neglect to take, like not helping a neighbour in distress.

Self-care is fertile ground for my sins of omission. My Higher Self may urge me to spend more time in meditation, watch what I eat, and be a better friend. But then other voices get in the way, and I lose focus.

All of us have a Higher Self that flows easily with the winds of the Spirit. But we have many other parts as well. And when I listen to my inner fears, I can become ambivalent. This can make it harder to speak my truth, to act on my feelings, and to spontaneously follow my intuitions.

The story I told the children a few minutes ago about an impulse I felt to sing “Deep Waters” at a worship service six years ago is an example. Instead of following the impulse, I bit my tongue and stayed seated. Even today, I wish I had acted. Although who knows — it might have turned out badly.

Other times, I have acted with surprising spontaneity. Of all the crazy things I have ever done in my life, the craziest one is deciding to become a minister. But despite seeming crazy to me, I had no ambivalence about it. When I felt the call – in July 2007 — I responded without hesitation. By September of that year, I was a full-time student at Emmanuel College and in Discernment with my home church and Presbytery.

Ever since then, my work in the church has been marked by a few moments of bold faith as well as times of petty fears and inaction.

Worship, pastoral care, and church administration seem to demand boldness. In worship, there is a gracious stress that comes from the weight of our collective search for meaning amid the mystery of life and the force of Love we call God. In pastoral care there is a gracious stress that comes from being present to people who are sick or bereaved. In church politics, there is a gracious stress that comes from trying to speak truth about a congregation or the whole church in the face of powerful cultural shifts that have unmoored all religions.

With grace, I can sometimes get myself out of the way and take action. At other times, I listen to my inner fears, and I let the moment pass.

Today’s Gospel reading provides an example. I feel ambivalent about this reading. On the one hand, I love the story of Jesus telling his friends to fish on the other side of the boat. At the same time, I wonder if this version of the story even belongs in the Bible.

Last week we head the end of John’s Gospel. In chapter 20, John wrote: “Jesus performed many other signs as well — signs not recorded here — in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the only begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.”

Except there is another chapter to John, the one we heard this morning. It includes not only the story of fishing on the other side but other strange passages about the Beloved Disciple, the fate of Peter, and a second ending.

It seems clear to many scholars that whoever wrote chapter 21 did not write the rest of John. This is why many Bibles call this chapter an Appendix. Its main story – the one about fishing on the other side – has been lifted from the fifth chapter of Luke, except that Luke sets it at the start of Jesus’ ministry and not after the resurrection.

If the church were bolder, it might not even include chapter 21 in our Bibles and we might never read it in church. For one, it makes resurrection too literal for me. Nor do I think it improves on the story from Luke.

In Luke’s version, Jesus tell his friends to cast their nets in deeper waters, which is the metaphor found in the anthem, “Deep Waters” and one that I find more helpful than the metaphor of fishing on the other side.

Why, then, did we read this passage this morning? The short answer is because it is the Gospel selection for the third Sunday in Easter of Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. Yet this begs the question of why we follow the Lectionary.

Last week, I had a conversation with a long-term member of the church who no longer comes to our Sunday gatherings. She told me that she was disappointed with how conservative I am compared to the previous two ministers. I was surprised to hear this since I consider myself to be on the bleeding edge of theological radicalism.

Her perception may come from words such as death and resurrection and the cross that I use. Perhaps she has not noticed that I use them to try and wake us up to radical change occurring all around us.

In late August, I began a sermon by asking: “What dies with Jesus on the cross?” I then continued with an answer: “Everything. For me, the cross is a symbol of the death of all that stands between us and God: things like addictions, nationalism, and ancient beliefs and traditions.”

I see this stance as revolutionary and not conservative. It is about the death of old beliefs and traditions, including our notions of God.

The latter is one reason why I stand with controversial Toronto United Church Minister Gretta Vosper. Under a hail of sharp criticism, Vosper will soon be called to a hearing on her continued fitness to be a minister not because of her actions but because of her stated beliefs.

Although Vosper no longer uses symbols like the cross, I defend her right to preach a non-theistic path within the United Church of Canada. For me, the Way of the Cross is one that helps bury the false idols we often mistake for God. Many leaders in the church seem to miss this dynamic, and so for me Vosper’s atheism often feels closer to the heart of the Spirit of Love than others’ theism.

In thinking further about my conversation with the member who no longer comes on Sundays, I wonder if she was referring to my liturgical conservativism. I choose hymns with words and tunes that grate against some people’s sensibilities. I like a fairly traditional order of service. And I tend to follow the Lectionary.

I follow it not because I love everything written in the books of the Bible. I do so because it helps me wrestle with this central part of our tradition; because it helps our gatherings remain focused on the seasons of the calendar and church year; and because it gives me a foil against which to reflect on our congregation, neighbourhood, and world.

I have now preached through the three-year cycle of Lectionary more than once. In the future, I imagine that I will ignore the Lectionary more often and perhaps centre some of our gatherings on readings that are not from the Bible. I look forward to your comments on the worship survey about this.

To close, I turn to the metaphor of deep water. When I am caught in fearful ambivalence, I try to remember Jesus’ call to go deep. On the surface of life, there is a lot of turmoil and conflict. But in the depths, we find more stability. At our roots, differences disappear and unity becomes more evident.

I may like the fishing story from Luke 5 better than the one in John 21. But at a deep level, who cares?

Some people prefer church hymns composed in the 19th century while others want to sing nothing composed earlier than the last 10 years. But at the deepest levels, we see that we are swimming in a mystery of Grace and Love that might be touched upon but can never be fully grasped by any music.

Some people may like using creedal language such as “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” while others may not want anything more abstract than the words Love and Justice to pass their lips. But in the depths, we are all mortal individuals struggling to find meaning in a mysterious cosmos of great complexity and with other people who are coping with the same curses and blessings as we are.

In John 21, the Risen Christ tells his friends to fish on the other side. In Luke 5, Jesus of Nazareth tells his friends to fish in deeper waters. Both of these stories contain good advice for a person like myself who is prone to fear and ambivalence.

In this season of Easter, I pray that all of us will find ways to cast our nets on the other side and in waters of great depths. I have no doubt that when we do, “harvests of faith will overflow.”

And for this Easter truth I say again, “Thanks be to God.”


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