This afternoon we gather around Word and Sacrament as one expression of God’s family – as a community of believers who are united in one regional expression of the Body of Christ. We’re glad – I hope – to be together! It’s a kind of “family re-union” and we’re happy to have these few days where we can celebrate and nurture all that this family means to us.
We do this, however, knowing that this gathering really isn’t all about us – or at least it shouldn’t be. We gather as a church that is called to be looking outward – to look beyond ourselves. We gather as a church called to be in mission for others.
The Gospel lesson chosen for today is the famous encounter between Jesus and Peter that is recorded in John 21. Peter and Jesus are together on the beach and Jesus asks Peter the pointed question, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter replies, “Yes Lord, I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.”
A second time, Jesus asks “Peter, do you love me?” Peter answers again. “Yes, Lord, I love you.” “Then tend my sheep.” And then, leaving no possible doubt as to his point, Jesus asks a third and final time. “Peter, do you love me.” ”YES LORD,” Peter replies, perhaps a little frustrated! I LOVE YOU!” “Then feed my sheep.”
Can there be any doubt, any question as to the true work of a disciple? Can there be any doubt, any question , as to the true work, the true calling of a church that claims to follow Jesus? “Feed my sheep!”
Heaven knows there are innumerable flocks of sheep starving and thirsting on planet earth today. For the first time since the Second World War era, the number of people forced from their homes worldwide has surged past 50 million. That’s six million more than last year. Syria alone accounts for 9 million refugees. And sadly, many of those displaced persons are being housed and cared for by nations who themselves exist in extremely fragile circumstances; places like Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan. Apparently Canada has been challenged to receive 10,000 Syrian refuges by 2016. That doesn’t seem that many when compared to the 647,000 refugees who cling to a very fragile existence in the Kingdom of Jordan today.
The Lutheran World Federation was born in the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II, primarily as a means of assisting the millions of persons who were displaced by that great conflict. Many of those people came to Canada as immigrants; some were your moms and dads, grammas and grandpas. And the federation continues that work today, through the efforts of agencies like our own Canadian Lutheran World Relief. We do great work and there is much to be thankful for. But we can and need to be doing so much more, both abroad, and right here at home! “Feed my sheep!” Jesus says.
We’re going to spend significant time this week considering how we might answer our church’s call to contribute to the building of right relationship between indigenous and non indigenous people here in Canada. More than fifty percent of First Nation’s children live in poverty. Many of those who live on reserves wake up in an overcrowded home that may have asbestos, probably has mould, is likely in need of major repair, that does not have potable water and has no proper school to go to. That such a situation exists in Canada in the 21st century is an absolute disgrace, particularly given that we have the means and wherewithal to do something about it! “Feed my lambs!” Jesus says.
It’s amazing isn’t it, to consider how much of Jesus’ ministry involved the offering and sharing of food and drink? The table, that place where people meet and share gifts of nourishment, whether physically, socially or spiritually, is truly the “primary focus” of Jesus’ entire ministry. “He eats with sinners and outcasts.” Imagine!
The liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanaugh once suggested that it ought to be a mandatory part of pastoral training that a certain amount of time be spent serving food in a restaurant. His point was that every pastor ought to know what it means to lovingly and hospitably serve good food to hungry people for that is the heart and essence of what pastoral ministry is all about. “Feed my sheep.”
Songwriter Bruce Springsteen tells us that “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” He’s right! Theologian Frederick Buechner says it another way … (and with more words, as theologians are want to do!) He writes, “Like sheep we get hungry, and hungry for more than just food. We get thirsty for more than just drink. Our souls get hungry and thirsty; in fact it is often that sense of inner emptiness that makes us know we have souls in the first place. But once and a while that inner emptiness is filled. That I think is what the Bible means by saying that God is like a shepherd. It means that, like a shepherd, God feeds us. God feeds that part of us which is hungriest and most in need of feeding.”
That is the centre of our work. The feeding of hungry people ... in all that hunger can mean ... in all that feeding can mean. And it’s such an amazing thing that God would share this work … this privilege and responsibility with us! How privileged and blessed we are to be able to make such a claim! But make no mistake. This work is far from easy. This work is anything but safe!
Our Atlantic conference delegates know an old saying which reminds us that a ‘ship in harbour is a safe ship.” We all know, however, that that isn’t what ships are made for. Likewise for the ship that is the church. It can remain safe … comfortable in the harbour … it’s disciples … it’s pastors … can remain safe, locked away behind closed doors like the disciples on that first Easter … but that’s not what this ship has been made for either … that’s not what disciples are made for … that’s not what the church is made for.
A chapter earlier in John’s Gospel we saw how the disciples of old could not reveal Christ while they remained hidden away behind closed doors. Their witness couldn’t even convince Thomas, one of their own number! And neither will our witness convince modern day Thomas’s so long as we remain in a similar posture . . . timid, fearful and anxious.
The night before this encounter between Jesus and Peter we read how, when Jesus’ disciples were fishing with little apparent success he told them to put out a little further – to put out into the deep – duc un altum! Similarly, Jesus’ call to ministry is a call to put out further – to put out into the deep of this world – to put out into the deep of our neighbour – to put out into the depths of the mission that God is engaging for the salvation of the world.
In our first lesson today we were introduced to two incredibly brave Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. They defied the command of the Egyptian pharoah, who had ordered them to kill all male born children. They stood against the king and quite literally took matters into their own hands. As a result, the people prospered and families grew and became strong through their faithful care and ministrations.
During these few days together, we too will have the opportunity to serve as faithful midwives, to assist in birthing that which God is bringing to life. Will we have the ‘guts’, the courage to stand up and say no to Pharoah? Will we be able muster the strength to exhibit just a fraction of the courage expressed by these two brave women? Will sheep be fed? Will justice be advanced? Will hope be ignited? Will our coming together have contributed anything to the net worth of God’s kingdom building work? I sure hope so.
May God help us to not lose sight of our true reason for being here this week, and may our time together at this family gathering equip us to more faithfully, generously and courageously answer Jesus’ command to feed God’s precious lambs. AMEN