On the Friday before last, I drove Bishop John to meet with members of Christ Church, Marysville. I had not been in that part of the diocese and was again struck with the particular beauty of northeast Victoria.
But when we came into area around Marysville I saw the remnants of Black Saturday and something more: the scars of the fire in counterpoint with the signs of new growth and recovery: dead trees cut and stacked along the road, old wreckage and new construction, blackened trunks with green shoots. It was like seeing the wreckage of a great war, but a somewhat scarred survivor in the foreground, going on and doing what must be done to build again, sharing a strong smile and showing broken teeth.
I joined the bishop at the ending of his meeting with the members of Christ Church and I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s definition of style: “Grace under pressure.” You could see these people have been through a tribulation and trial, and you could see that they were still going on. They might have been down, but they weren’t defeated by the tough times. There were some very gracious people there doing some very good work.
The lessons for today have to do with endings and beginnings, and doing good work in tough times. The prophet Isaiah is given the task of speaking God’s word to the people of Judah after Kong Uzziah has died. Over the 40 years of his rule, Judah and neighboring Israel had lived in peace and expanded in power and prosperity. But within a generation Israel and Judah will be completely destroyed; within a decade conquering armies of will make a vassal state and move images of Assyrian Gods into the temple at Jerusalem. Isaiah sees the nation he knew coming to an end, and his call is to watch and pray and speak at a time when people shall be taken into exile, the land will become a desolation. He lives in the midst of trying times, with the death of the old and with a new hope as well. For he is assured there will be a resurgence, renewal, unexpected birth, like the fragile green growth that comes from the stump of a burnt tree.
In the Epistle, Paul defines himself as one who has been born “out of time,” as the least of the apostles, yet - like Isaiah - he sees a saving truth in a trying time. Paul has found that this Jesus, whose followers he has persecuted and presented for trial, that this Jesus is the Christ, the holy one of God: and Paul’s former understanding of the law and the prophets, of what is required and what is right or wrong, has been terminated, put to flight by the dark death and the new light that comes to all humanity in the revelation of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, making all who participate in it part of a new creation. Both ending and beginning.
In Luke’s Gospel we move into new territory with Jesus. No longer in his hometown synagogue, he’s teaching from a boat on a lake, gathering crowds on the shore, making new disciples, and opening them up to new understandings, new ways to stand in relationship to God and neighbor. Then he turns to his disciple Peter. “Put out into the deep water and let down your net for a catch.” Jesus says, and Peter says...
Let’s detour for a moment. One of joys of the Gospels accounts of the early Christian community is the deep honesty and the great candor in the way the disciples are pictured, those assembled friends of Jesus. With all appropriate respect, they are such a mixed bunch! Often concerned with personal power and wrong priorities, misunderstanding Jesus, they often serve as wonderful examples of how not to do it! What tremendous humility and honesty they must have had to hear their stories being told over time, as the community grew, as legends and letters were folded into the growing self-understanding of the community of those on the way of Jesus, of the church. When I read the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ dealing with his apostles, I often think of the bumper sticker, “Be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet!” It gives me hope. What examples they are that the wisdom of the way, followed over time, will bring us home!
So Jesus tells Peter to take the boat to the deeper water and prepare for a big catch, and he responds, “Master, we’ve worked all night, with no fish, with no luck.” But he follows Jesus’s lead and he is overwhelmed by the size of the harvest. It is too big for his boat! His reaction is so similar to Isaiah’s some 400 years before. “Go away from me, [literally,“Get out of the neighborhood”] Lord I am a sinful man!” Can you imagine what’s happening here? What would it be like for Peter? His friend and master is the Lord! Imminence and transcendence staring you in the face! The universe is bigger than we know!
And Jesus calls him to prepare for a another big fishing expedition, to join in the new creation, the great harvest of hope, to bring all people to the kingdom of God!
In each of these encounters, for Isaiah, Paul and Peter; a person comes up against God’s proclamation of a larger life, and is renewed in a kind of death: the death of culture and kingdom for Isaiah; the death of Saul’s understanding of law and custom, as he is renewed as Paul the apostle to the outsiders. For Peter, is is the death of occupation and, perhaps, a loss of self-identity (who he thought he was), leaving all that behind to follow Jesus unto a new way, a greater bounty, a life unbelievably large. For each of them, to take a journey tied up with toil and trouble and grace and growth and life and death and resurrection. Those fiery moments that break you down and, by God’s grace bring you through to be part of a new creation. It is not easy.
Last night I shared a meal with Deb and Paul da Silva, and Daniel too, and over tea and dessert at their table we talked about Black Saturday and what followed, and they told me about the prayer and thanksgiving service here at Christ Church: how in the midst of pain and tragedy and trauma, a celebration of courage and compassion, the community came here to remember.
We come here, we bring others here, people come here, when the air gets close and life is difficult, and there is threat of fire or famine or flood and the radio is noisy and we need it most, we come here with our possibilities, and potentials and problems to be with Christ, to remember Christ.
and in the midst of that, even more improbably, we come here in the midst of it all, with something larger than life in our heart, we come here to celebrate, to make Eucharist! And that is right!
For in the journeys of Isaiah and Paul and Peter, of so many witnesses, saints and martyrs, and most fully in the life of Christ; we come to see that God has sewn his thread deep into the fabric of humankind, tight into the texture of everyday life, into the midst of all new beginnings and dead ends, miraculous births and tragic deaths, into earth, air, fire and water, drawing it all together until history is fully saturated with the grace that abides in eternity. It is not easy and we need to pray, in the words I recall so frequently,"that God will keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, lest we grow hard."
But in the end we join in the Eucharistic banquet because we are the Eucharistic banquet. The feast of grace and love that we recollect today is built by God’s grace in the broken flesh and spilled blood of our own tragic tales and tough times, our incomplete lives and unfinished journeys. All washed clean here in the font of Christ’s love. It is always here and always now to give us hope and help us on the way. For God is hidden, waiting to be discovered, in both the pain and the glory, in the good times and bad, failure and fullness; waiting to be discovered here in this painful and glorious opportunity for compassion, grace and redemption in the middle of it all.