If you find this service at Washington National Cathedral today a bit stale, a might stiff, a tad stuffy—okay, boring!—then you should have been here two weeks ago. Oh, it was glorious—Easter Sunday!
The Cathedral was filled with eager worshipers, and they weren’t disappointed at all with what happened here: the soaring music, the brass ensemble, the incense, the uplifting readings and sermons, and the sheer pageantry of it all came together for a powerful experience of worship.
Just a few days ago a woman came to us and thanked us for the Easter services, saying that it was the first time she took communion in many years. After she left, I turned to a colleague and said, “Make a note: have communion every Easter.”
But the glow of Easter has faded somewhat, hasn’t it? Gone are the crowds and the energy of the Sunday of the Resurrection. Gone is the incense and the hundred-strong procession of vested participants down the great aisle. Gone are the bonnets and the pretty dresses. My Easter lilies have all wilted by now, and the last of the colored eggs in my house was eaten this morning—a little past the “best eaten by” date, but still well in the “Sure, honey, you can eat it” stage, I hope.
So what do we do now? Did all of the excitement of “Alleluia! Christ is risen” make any difference at all? Was any of it real? In a way, we’re just like Jesus’ disciples in this morning’s very strange—and very funny—gospel lesson, sitting around several days after the resurrection of our Lord, wondering what to do next.
What do we do? Well… what did the disciples do? Let’s visit with them for a few minutes this morning. Sitting in a room somewhere in Jerusalem is Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and two other disciples. Notice there are only seven of them present; already some were beginning to fall away from the once-full band. Apparently, dips in attendance and the “post-Easter blues” have their roots in antiquity. Can you imagine the conversation among the “faithful few”?
(after a long silence) “Anyone want to go out and do anything?”
”I don’t know….I was just thinking.” (silence)
”You haven’t seen Jesus, lately, have you?”
”No…not since last week.”
”Oh.” (more silence)
Finally, Peter can’t take it anymore, and he blurts out, “I’m going fishing!”
”Okay, we’ll go with you!” they respond, and off they go.
Isn’t it amazing to read how the church began?
So, what did the disciples do after the resurrection? They did what they knew how to do, and that was fishing. Except apparently they were bad fisherman! I don’t know how the disciples made a living at it, come to think of it, because nowhere is it recorded in Scripture that they actually caught anything without Jesus’ help. I don’t know what made them think that it would be any different this time, but hope springs eternal. I’m told that there’s a fine line between being a fisherman and just sitting in a boat looking stupid, and it is not at all clear that the disciples knew where that line was.
After casting their nets from the boat all night, they—surprise!—came up empty-handed. And as dawn arose they, too, arose to one simple realization: that they were losers. They were not strangers to this feeling. They had lost everything in following Jesus: their old friends, their jobs, their former way of life, and a lot of their esteem in the community. And then they even lost Jesus to a criminal’s death! For a brief moment they thought had him back again, with an implied promise that he would stay awhile to make things better for them. But after his resurrection he vanished again, leaving them in the lurch once again, empty nets and all. They had bet it all on Jesus, and now Jesus had obviously abandoned them. It was a bad bet; they lost their shirts on this deal. “You’re a loser..You’re a loser…” kept playing in their minds in the predawn hours like an unwanted broken record, and they couldn’t get it to stop.
Just after daybreak, they saw a figure standing on the beach, motioning toward them. They couldn’t make out who he was, but they could hear him shout out to them, something like, “Hey, guys! Did you catch anything?” They put their heads together and came up with a brilliant answer: “No.”
Now apparently there must have been something in the accepted fishing practices of the day that insisted that fishermen cast their nets out on the left side of the boat. No one knows why, but it was the done thing. Their fathers fished on the left side, their fathers before them fished on the left side, and so on as far back as anyone could remember. You just didn’t question it, or if you did, people would give you a strange look and say, “We’ve never done it that way before!”, and that was the end of the conversation.
You can imagine their shock, then, when the disciples heard the man on the shore shout to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and see what happens!” It was crazy, but what did they have to lose? When you’’ve lost everything, you’re willing to try anything. Besides, there was something about his voice, something about the firm, yet caring, way that he commanded them to try again, that compelled them to throw those nets overboard one more time. Not long after they did this, their nets were overflowing with fish—a hundred fifty-three of them, the gospel reports, which some historians have claimed were the exact number of species of fish known in the world at that time. In other words, these weary, despondent, unsuccessful, loser-type fishermen had hit the jackpot: they caught it all—all the world had to offer!
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that that was no ordinary stranger on the shore. The last time they had a catch like that—okay, the last time they caught anything—somehow Jesus was in the picture. John said to Peter, “Here’s twenty shekels saying that’s the Lord.” That’s all Peter needed to put on some clothes—(oh, did I mention the part about nude fishing at night? Refer to those “accepted fishing practices” above)—jump into the water, and swim toward Jesus.
Now here’s where the story gets really funny. Peter, obviously the head fisherman but losing his own head once again, forgets all about the greatest catch of his life bursting at the seams of his fishnets, abandons his ship and goes swimming. The other disciples are left holding the bag, so to speak, and they do the hard work of hauling the full nets back to shore. Once upon shore they all find Jesus having a barbecue with some bread and fish that he had brought, and he was asking them to put some of their catch on the grill as well.
Bread and fish? Do you remember the last time Jesus prepared such a meal? The time when Jesus asked his disciples for food donations to feed the multitude? They finally came up with a nameless young boy who gave all that he had—5 loaves and two fish. Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke the bread and gave it to the them, miraculously feeding over 5,000 people, foreshadowing the first eucharistic feast.
Now, several weeks after his resurrection from the dead, Jesus is hungry! “Come and have breakfast,” he tells his disciples, and the scene ends in warm Hollywood-comedy kind of way: a group of scruffy guys sitting around a campfire singing “kum ba yah” and eating fish sticks that the cook brought in his cooler from home. Fade to black…
What do we do? We do what the disciples did: start fishing, and then listen for that firm but loving voice that wants to get our attention, saying, “How are you doing? Did you catch anything? Try doing it a little differently this time, and when your nets start overflowing feed one another with whatever you’ve got.” In short, Jesus’ disciples do what Jesus himself is always doing: feeding people.
A tired clergyman walks into the hospital room, making his last call of a very long and busy day. He’s taking the Eucharist to a parishioner who barely has the strength to speak. As he comes to the Sanctus in the eucharistic prayer, he hears a voice from the bed on the other side of the curtain say, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory; hosanna in the highest.” That unknown patient gave all the familiar responses, ending with “Alleluia, Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, alleluia!”
”May I have the holy communion, too, Father? It’s been a long time, though, since I’ve been in church” The priest replied, “Then you must be very, very hungry.” And he pulled back the curtain, and gave her the Body of Christ, the Bread of heaven.
The homeless man walks into a local church down the avenue from this Cathedral, and he’s in bad shape. The people in the church know that man; he’s the one who has been throwing raw eggs at the windows and doors of the church for years, causing headaches for the pastor and staff in trying to clean it off. But now the man needs help, and they take him in. They take off his clothes to wash them in the parish washing machine, and then they give him a shower and shave. They prepare a simple meal for him and a few other men from the streets, and they sit down and eat with them. They are sharing the Body of Christ, the Bread of heaven.
A banker works tirelessly behind the scenes to change the system so that low-cost loans can be provided for poor people to fix up their homes in the neighborhood. Jesus was reportedly seen recently in that neighborhood, giving himself, giving thanks, giving Eucharist.
A congresswoman stays up late several evenings in a row trying to get legislation passed to provide prescription drugs for low-income seniors. She hears a voice calling to her on the other side of the caucus room, “How are you doing? Did you catch any votes today? Let’s try it again a little differently this time…” And she is giving Eucharist to the world, the Body of Christ.
A youth group spends a lovely Sunday afternoon visiting residents in a long-term care facility. An interfaith group marches downtown to press for a living wage for workers so that they can have decent housing and feed their families. A retiree hovers over a ten-year-old in an afterschool program, going over the spelling of what shouldn’t be that difficult a word for the hundredth time, and then savors the moment when the bright-eyed child’s face breaks out into the biggest smile in the world, for he finally “gets it!” “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” They are all giving the gifts of God for the people of God; they are all giving Eucharist.
But one of the best examples we have in this Cathedral community of someone giving of himself for the sake of many is Bruce Neswick, assistant organist and choirmaster of the Girl Choristers. This is his last Sunday with us, for he has been called to a new position as organist and choirmaster at St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia. Bruce came to this Cathedral four years ago as founder of the new girls choir, and he has taken that ministry to levels of distinction and excellence that we could have only imagined possible. Whenever they sing, it has never been merely a performance for Bruce Neswick; rather it was a pouring out of himself in love to Christ and his Church. Through giving such beautiful music to us, he and the choir have given us the Body of Christ, and offering that has fed us marvelously, more than satisfying our hunger for the beauty of God’s language. We will sorely miss you, Bruce, and may God go with you in all your endeavors.
So, what do we do now? We do what we can. We do what we know how to do, and we keep on doing it until we hear that voice in the distance; that firm, loving voice leading us into new directions, and finally calling us to shore to share in the great banquet that our Lord has prepared for us and all the world. Let us therefore keep the feast! Alleluia! Amen.