By Rev. Joan Kessler
John 21:1-14 (15-19)
I have been thinking this week about Normal… What is the definition? Who decides? What does it feel like, look like, taste like? In my reading and research for today’s message I noticed a change in what was being said about a return to normal post COVID. When the topic was raised a year ago, in COVID 2021, normal was assumed to mean life as we knew it before the arrival of the pandemic in early 2020.
We all remember this… you went where you wanted, when you want, you shopped how you wanted, you touched all the produce, you stood in any grocery checkout like that looked the shortest and fastest. We remember this normal. But when I compared headlines about normal this spring, I noticed normal now contains quotation marks around it, like it is ironic somehow, like tongue in cheek, or “You wish!”. “Normal” in 2022 is decidedly different from the normal of 2021. So, the “normal” of today has apparently been redefined, reimagined, reshaped all because of the continued journey with this virus.
And this “new normal” is still an uneasy feeling for us around the Church as we have made many sacrifices to keep one another safe and healthy. And we are so ready to leave the masks in the cupboards and see one another’s smiling faces again…it can feel like a bit of an emotional tug of war. New normal is not the old normal. Decision-making is still weighty, still considering what is the safest way to do things together…but we have tools and we have knowledge at our disposal to help in the process of our “reawakening” to this new time.
Today’s reading from John is not normal. It is a gift of abundance, of eyes opened, of efforts and perseverance acknowledged and valued. Peter and some of the other disciples, not sure what to do with themselves following the recent turn of events, return to what is normal for them. They go fishing. In their life before Jesus, they fished to live and lived to fish. For three years, they put their lives on hold, and set their nets aside to follow the one they believed to be the Messiah… the one who would deliver them from oppression and establish a new world order. They travelled many miles with him, encountered innumerable challenges with him, spoke up for him, denied him, left him… watched him die and along with it, their hopes for a radically altered world.
They experienced the empty tomb, appearances of him in the garden and in their locked room…was it real? Was it a product of their hopeful imaginations? Now he appears yet again, calling to them from the beach with fishing advice: cast your net to the other side of the boat and there you will find some. And they don’t just catch a few fish, John declares, but rather a net full of large fish, 153 to be exact! It was such a wonderful sight; someone must have taken the time to count each and every precious one!
The resurrected Jesus shows up in moments of friendship and eating. This is good news indeed! As John tells his version of events, Jesus is the consummate host; he prepares the fire, and he cooks some of the fish for their breakfast. But our story isn’t finished…
What follows is a conversation between Peter and the Risen Christ. We can imagine some of the feelings Peter was harboring after the events of Jesus arrest and execution. Peter denied his friend and teacher three times… scared for himself, scared for Jesus, he couldn’t own up to the fact that he was part of a movement of radical love and belonging. And now, sitting beside the warmth of the fire, their hunger satisfied with bread and cooked fish, Jesus and Peter finally talk about their relationship. Jesus doesn’t lay any guilt; he doesn’t grant forgiveness of an absolution because it wasn’t necessary. Instead, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him… three times he asks… Do you love me? Do you Love me? Do You Love Me? And to each, Peter answers yes. Well then, Jesus says, go on and take up the work we started together… spread this Love to others.
I have a piece of poetry to share with you all as we consider normal. It is entitled, Phase One written by Bangladeshi-American poet Dilruba Ahmed. She interrogates herself for her many self-perceived flaws as she goes about her daily life… and she find forgiveness… these words might speak to you as they did to me:
Phase One by Dilruba Ahmed
For leaving the fridge open last night, I forgive you. For conjuring white curtains instead of living your life.
For the seedlings that wilt, now, in tiny pots, I forgive you. For saying no first but yes as an afterthought.
I forgive you for hideous visions after childbirth, brought on by loss of sleep. And when the baby woke repeatedly, for your silent rebuke
in the dark, “What’s your beef?”
I forgive your letting vines overtake the garden. For fearing your own propensity to love.
For losing, again, your bag en route from San Francisco; for the equally heedless drive back on the caffeine-fueled return.
I forgive you for leaving windows open in rain and soaking library books again. For putting forth
only revisions of yourself, with punctuation worked over, instead of the disordered truth, I forgive you.
For singing mostly
when the shower drowns your voice. For so admiring the drummer you failed to hear the drum. In forgotten tin cans,
may forgiveness gather. Pooling in gutters. Gushing from pipes. A great steady rain of olives from branches, relieved
of cruelty and petty meanness. With it, a flurry of wings, thirteen gray pigeons. Ointment reserved for healers and prophets. I forgive you.
I forgive you. For feeling awkward and nervous without reason. For bearing Keats’s empty vessel with such calm you worried
you had, perhaps, no moral center at all. For treating your mother with contempt when she deserved compassion.
I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you.
For growing a capacity for love that is great but matched only, perhaps, by your loneliness. For being unable
to forgive yourself first so you could then forgive others and at last find a way to become the love that you want in this world.
Forgive yourself…this is Phase One.
I need these words this morning. You see, I have been having a little conversation with myself the past two days… ever since Friday evening. I was coming out of Walmart… it was busy, lots of shoppers were all around. A woman walked rather slowly across my path, and I followed her with my eyes and saw her go over to an older man slumped over his backpack, sitting on the ground, right by the entrance. As I walked away, I could hear her calling to him, trying to rouse him. I went to my car, and I stood outside of it longer than usual. I was unsure of what to do next. Do I go back? How can I help, when I don’t know how to help? This scene is becoming so Normal we don’t even see it anymore; we just walk on by.
I got in my car, and I had a conversation with myself, and I prayed. That’s what I do when I don’t know what to do. I reflected that someone knows what to do about this. I prayed for this man, and I have continued to do so as I have thought of him often. I noticed him. I saw his human frailty in that moment, his condition. Do you love me? Do you Love me? Do You Love Me?
Forgive yourself and you can forgive another. Love yourself and you can Love another. This is how the Jesus formula works. This is how Easter makes sense. It’s why we count 153 fish, for Pete’s sake, and keep on showing up week after week and ask what is in the net? What have we to share with each other and wider community? A meal? Some undivided attention? A listening ear?
The beautiful scene of breakfast on a beach takes me back to our Easter sunrise service. We gathered together in the midst of our “normals”, our wonderments, our hopes and our fears. This is how I image our community to be. Maybe it is less about defining what normal is and more about being real. Together, let’s grab onto the line and pull in the net of abundance together and share with one another, our wider community, and our world.