I preached this sermon to my dearest colleagues, the Episcopal Service Corps Program Directors, at our spring meeting.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
At the Belfry, where I routinely preach on Wednesday nights, we use the lectionary from the Sunday prior. Since there are no assigned texts for today in the daily lectionary, I was told I could choose. As an enneagram type six, my deep commitment to the authority of the lectionary—and anxiety about the near-infinite options—led me to just stick with what I know. My, uh, fairly insincere apologies to all y’all who have heard this scripture and a sermon on it already this weekend. At least once. You’re about to hear about it from me, now. You’re welcome.
Okay. So. I self-identify as a word nerd. It’s just too perfect that it rhymes. So, I noticed, as I was reading the texts for the first time, that they all have something in common, grammatically. Each pericope begins with a conjunctive adverb! Pause for enthusiastic response…
In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written, Meanwhile
In the Revelation of John, it is written, Then
In the Gospel According to John, it is written, After
So, in all three of these stories, we’re jumping into the middle of something. Something has happened before we’re involved, or something is happening simultaneously somewhere else, and now we’re just in the thick of it.
How true is it that we are, here and now, in the thick of the story of God? There are thousands of years of human history behind us, and untold myriads ahead. Any time we open the Bible, we’re being invited to participate in a story that already exists, and helping to write the story of the kingdom which is not yet.
Those of you who are my friends on various social media platforms may be tired of hearing about all of the podcasts that I listen to. Again, fairly insincere apologies. I was recently listening to some old episodes of On Being with Krista Tippet. She has the most classic public radio voice, right? Anyway, a couple of years ago, she was interviewing a man named Gordon Hempton, whose profession is as an “auditory ecologist.” He, admittedly, made up that title. But what Gordon does is travel the world, listening. He records the sounds of natural and human-made ecosystems, preserving the most pristine places through their landscapes of sound.
He talked about the importance of hearing for life. He said that there is no animal, that we know of, that has evolved a way to “turn off” the sense of hearing. No creature with ears has evolved a way to shut them, like we have our eyes. You may think that you can shut your ears off, like when you’re asleep. But there’s a biological reason that alarm clocks work. And that strange noises in your dark house creep you out. Your ears are always on the job.
Hearing is in all three of our texts today. The revelator heard every creature in heaven and on earth, singing; Saul and Ananais heard the voice of the Lord; Simon Peter heard the voice of his fellow disciple. And the Lord called Saul, Ananais, and Simon Peter by name. God is always speaking, so it’s a good thing that we are, technically, always hearing.
But this is where we get to dive into the semantic difference between hearing and listening. In this gospel story, Jesus and a handful of disciples have breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. I bet there’s a reason why this author calls it by this less familiar name, but, it beats me. This was a place the disciples had been, before. When Peter said, “hey, guys, I’m going fishing,” and they joined him, I doubt there was a discussion of where to go. Probably an autopilot journey to where their boat was already docked. Since nothing about the last few weeks of their lives together had been very routine, a trip to their regular fishing spot would feel normalizing, comforting. As usual, it ends up being anything but.
We, readers of the Gospels are accustomed to Jesus waxing poetic, launching into parables with complex storylines or hard-to-decipher allegories. This time, Jesus enters the story with a simple yes-or-no question. He helps the disciples with an abundant catch--153 fish, as the story goes--and feeds them breakfast. He exchanges several lines of dialogue with Simon Peter, again, with the yes-or-no questions, and simple, declarative sentences. “Do you love me?” He asks, three times. Hearing “yes”, he says “feed my lambs”, “tend my sheep”, “feed my sheep”, “follow me”. Simple instructions.
And so here ends the story, here ends the sermon, right? Just listen to those instructions, and then do ‘em. You wish you could be so lucky.
When Amity asked me if I’d preach today, I was like, “Oh, man, preaching to priests! I have to dig out all my best theological textbooks and explicate some really complex points where Lutherans and Episcopalians diverge!” And then I started reading, and writing, and hearing, and listening. And I remembered who you are. When you read these texts, and you hear these words of Jesus, you probably get out your to-do list and add “feed sheep” and “follow Jesus” to the very bottom, and then hope no one has noticed you just transfer them to next week’s to-do list…
And then in your sermon, you listed all of the sheep in our world that need tending and feeding. You listed all the ways in which we are not following Jesus. You challenged your congregation to do more feeding, more tending, more following. And you vowed to feed and tend them better, to follow Jesus better. Then you looked at that to-do list again.
Since you are an Episcopal Service Corps Program Director and/or Board Member and/or Executive Director, you have already done a good job of listening to these simple instructions. Helping to shepherd young adults through their journeys of faith and their searches for justice and their personal development is no small feat. I am routinely surprised by how many trips to Costco it takes to tend my particular flock.
Day in and day out you are tending. You are feeding. You are following. During recruitment, you’re even fishing. In doing all of this, you are inspiring and encouraging the young adults you serve to do the same. They’ll move through this year with varying degrees of success, having heard you--and maybe even listened--when you spoke. They’ll remember the ways in which you tended and fed. They’ll remember the ways in which you led by following.
As we sit in this particular time and place, we are in the thick of the story of God and we are in the thick of the story of Episcopal Service Corps. As we transition into a new era of Executive Directorship, we are grateful for the ways in which we have been tended and fed by Amity. As we celebrate the blessings in our programs, and lament the maybe less-than-stellar recruitment numbers, we are grateful to be part of a larger story.
As we go forward, together, keep up the good work. Feed, tend. But remember to also be fed, and be tended. Inasmuch as you are a shepherd, you are a sheep. And for that, thanks be to God.