May 8, 2011

“It’s Easter—Look Again!”


I Peter 1:13-16

John 21:1-14


Easter redirects our sight.

Two weeks ago we hear how Easter calls us to look up—beyond ourselves and our world.

Last week we heard that Easter calls us to look forward into God’s new future.

And this morning’s scripture lessons suggest that Easter calls us to look again at where we are today.

Now, this is the kind of day that happens rarely in congregations. As we worship this morning we also give thanks to God for Richard and Ethel Bloesch and their forty years of service to the music ministry of this congregation. At the end of June Richard is retiring as our choir director. And while Ethel is not a member of our paid staff, she has served as the music librarian and substitute conductor, and has been an invaluable part of our music program throughout the past four decades. Together they have brought beautiful music in praise of God from our choir since 1971. We have the excellent choir and music program that we do because of Richard and Ethel.

Last Tuesday I talked with Ed Heininger. Ed, as many of you know, was the pastor of this church in the seventies when Richard and Ethel began attending worship here and Richard was hired. Ed couldn’t be here today—he is coming to Iowa City later this month when his grandson will graduate from UI—but he sends his greetings and spoke with such great fondness of his time working with Richard and Ethel.

I’m glad that my immediate predecessor, Bruce Fischer, is here today, and he and I will both have some time to talk further about Richard and Ethel during the lunch after worship.

While today is a day for giving thanks and recognizing the great work that the Bloesches have done, I recognize, as well, that in addition to possessing a humility that really doesn’t like this kind of acclaim and always directs attention away from themselves, Richard and Ethel know that the purpose of worship is to center our minds and hearts on God. They are, after all, both children of ministers of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, one of the denominations that formed the United Church of Christ. They both studied with and knew some of the greatest theological minds of the past one hundred years.

So instead of trying to get by with a sermon about them, I would seek to honor them in these minutes, not with praise, but by proclaiming the Word of God as it comes to us today.

And that Word tells us to look again and try something new.

A week ago we heard the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. After nearly a decade of searching, after the deaths of so many American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the deaths of countless Iraqi and Afghani civilians, after the heightened security, the suspicion and vilification of Muslims in our county, the spending of over a trillion dollars, and our descent into torture, bin Laden is dead.

One person asked: “Can I have my country back now?”

I would like to hope that after all the death and injury and destruction, after the growing spiral of violence begetting greater violence, I would like to hope that there might be something like resurrection, something like new and redeemed life possible for us a nation. I would like to hope that we can indeed have our nation back now and that we can get back to life as it used to be.

Yet, if we are to hold such a hope and wait on such a promise, we must first encounter a great “No.”

No, we cannot return.

No, we cannot have the nation of September 10, 2001 back.

Life has changed. Life has changed forever. That’s what so many said after 9/11. And that is our reality.

We do well to recognize this and to listen to that “No.”

The Gospel of John tells of Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and other disciples of Jesus sometime after Easter. After betrayal, arrest, desertion, and crucifixion—even after resurrection—there they are, on their own once more.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter says. That is to say, “I’m going back to what I know. I’m going back to what I did before Jesus came along and called me from my boat and my nets. I’m going back to what used to be.”

The others agree to go with him. They, too, are ready at last to get back to life as they knew it—to the boat and the sea, to the nets and the fish. Perhaps in returning to these familiar pursuits, to what they remembered, they could get their lives back.

In three words, John tells us the result: “They caught nothing.”

Resurrection is not about a return to what once was. Many people—those in college and high school and younger—have little or no “pre-9/11” world to recover. The rest of us must recognize that life has changed, the world has changed and it will not be the same.

Rather than inviting us on a journey to the past, resurrection calls us to look again at where we are.

“Children,” the risen Christ calls out somewhat condescendingly to those in the boat, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” Peter and the others took a trip back in time that produced nothing. They’ve come up empty.

And they admit it with a simple “No.”

Is it dawning on them yet that life has changed, that their world has changed, that they have changed?

At the very least, they seem open to trying something else—they act when Jesus tells them: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some fish.” The experience of the disciples was a great catch of fish—something they could not achieve on their own, something that required looking once more in the midst of discouragement and despair.

This is the “Yes” of the resurrection. Following the risen Christ we look again. We reassess our situation so that we can see new possibilities and take new actions.

I Peter addresses early Christians in difficult circumstances. The author encourages them to set aside the thoughts and desires of their past—for life has changed—and to live according to their new calling in the resurrection.

Living into the future instead of the past will require some mental strength, some new ways of thinking. After the development of the atomic bomb Albert Einstein said: “Everything has changed, save for our thinking.” Still today our changed world calls for new thought. Like the early Christians, we, too, hear the summons: “Prepare your minds for action!” A more accurate translation is “Gird the loins of your mind!”

Walt Whitman makes a similar appeal in Shawn Kirchner’s wonderful setting of his words: “Rouse up my slow belief, give me some vision of the future…war, sorrow, suffering gone, the rank of earth purged, nothing left but joy.”

The “Yes,” of the resurrection is given to those who will look again at their lives and their world and see the new, previously unconsidered and untried possibilities. The “Yes” of the resurrection is given to those who will take on the mental, physical, and especially the spiritual work of trying the “other side of the boat”—building a future for this nation rather than futilely trying to rebuild its past.

I think that we’ve caught some sense of that new vision for the future in this congregation—an affirmation of basic human equality before God and one another, a respect for other faith traditions alongside our own, a commitment to thoughtfulness in our faith and faithfulness in our thinking, the creation and sharing of beauty in music and the other arts. And yes, in all of this joy—the “indescribable and glorious joy” of First Peter; the “joy in freedom, joy in worship, joy in the ecstasy of life” of Walt Whitman.

This is the joyful and empowering “Yes’ of resurrection that comes to us today, that calls us into greater engagement with the world, that will rouse our belief and give us vision for the future.

Returning to the past is not an option—neither for our world and our nation nor for our individual lives.

I think of all the changes that people in this room are facing: retirements and new jobs, upcoming graduations and marriages and births. All of us go out these doors into a new part of our life’s journey in a new world. At all times, we give shape to God’s future.

It’s Easter—look again. Look—and try the other side. Look—and try a new way.