Jesus transforms our familiar places

Sermon Notes for 041016
Title: Jesus transforms our familiar places
Text: John 21:1-19     Also: Acts 9:1-6

Jesus meets us where we are, as we are, but does not leave us or the place unchanged.
When we encounter the resurrected Christ, we will be transformed, if we don’t run away.

The notes below are prepared in advance in a process of reflection on the text.
They do not represent a manuscript of the sermon.

Listen to the sermon audio here.


Jesus transforms our familiar places.

Where do you go, in reality or in your imagination, when you feel lost and don’t know where to turn? What are your safe places, your happy places, your sanctuaries? Where do you feel most comfortable, most at home?

For the earliest disciples, one of these places was on the water, in their fishing boats. Here they knew what to do – so well they didn’t even have to think about it. You know how it feels to get into that zone where muscle memory takes over and your subconscious can guide you while your conscious mind takes a break from everything? This is what happens when we drive down the highway and realize we don’t remember the last 10 miles. Often it is engaging in some kind of physical activity – gardening, yard or house work, a hobby like playing an instrument, painting, wood working. So there is a physical location, and often an activity of some kind. And there are the relationships that exist (or not) in these places and activities. The people you know, with whom you work or play, with whom you share memory, story, history.

When we don’t know where else to go, we go there. How often do people journey back to their childhood homes, in person, in memory, and in dream, to rehearse, recall, and relive formative moments? “Perhaps,” we think, “the people, places and activities that formed me once will re-form me now that I’m feeling dis-integrated.”

Encounters with Jesus, and with the God we encounter through him, can be disorienting. They can dis-integrate our self-understanding and the values that provide a foundation for our lives. The messages around and within us say to build walls and separate good from bad. God says all that I have made are good. We are taught to distinguish friend from enemy – to love the one and hate the other. God says to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. We behave as though we can, should, or must perform with righteousness and perfection so that God will love us. God says that we are beloved because God made us, and that any good actions flow from within us out of this reservoir of knowing we are loved.


And our world tells us Y.O.L.O.  – You Only Live Once! Get everything you can here and now, because this is all that counts. God tells us that death does not win, that life and love are bigger than death. We live in fear. And the Risen Jesus invites us to live in hope and faith instead.

Disorienting, indeed.

And so we go fishing, because we don’t really know what else to do. We stay busy, doing what we know, what is comfortable and feels concrete and solid.

And today’s story tells us this is absolutely OK, because Jesus will come and find us there.

It also says that Jesus will not just leave us alone. Jesus will transform us, and our familiar places.

The 4 resurrection encounters between Jesus and the disciples occur in familiar places. First Jesus appears to Mary Magdelene among the tombs where they had laid Jesus’ body. Mary thus becomes the “Apostle to the Apostles”. Next Jesus appears behind locked doors in an unspecified but familiar home (perhaps the home of the Upper Room in Jerusalem). Then eight days later Jesus appears to them there again, this time with Thomas present. And the final story takes place in Galillee, at the Sea of Tiberias where Jesus first met Simon, Andrew, James and John at their fishing boats and called them to follow him and become “fishers of men.”

All three locations were places of comfort, places of history with Jesus and with one another. They were the places that these disciples might be reminded of their previous encounters with Jesus and the way things used to be.

What are those places for you? Where might you go to remember the way things used to be? What places represent and remind you of your previous encounters with Jesus? Perhaps it is a church campground. Or your childhood church home, or your grandparents’ house, or even here, in this very space. When you arrive in those places, in this place, are you transported to an earlier time and suddenly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses? Do you see, hear, smell and touch the familiar and have your faith undergirded and your heart comforted during times of distress because of the great heritage and legacy that enfolds you?

IF so, then you understand what the apostles were doing. They were going back to what they knew. Even after they encounter the risen Jesus twice, these guys still don’t really know what to do with themselves, so they, perhaps in stereotypical guy fashion, go fishing.

Let’s pause for another moment and consider this.

These are people who have journeyed with Jesus for three years. He has been in their homes. They have heard and believed his teaching. He has given them power over forces of darkness – power to support healing and transformation in the lives of their neighbors. They witnessed his crucifixion, saw his body laid in the tomb, and now have met him, touched him, eaten with him risen from the dead. And they go fishing. Granted, many a true angler will say that few places bring them closer to God than on the water, focused and attuned to the rhythms of nature. Be that as it may, I don’t think this is what’s going on here.

They have yet to capture (or be captured by…) a vision for their future life and ministry together. And in the absence of a new vision, they just keep doing what they’ve always done. In their previous relationship with Jesus, they were accustomed to him leading the action, and then delegating specific assignments to them. “OK, Peter, I want you to go north, while James and John go south.”

They lacked not only the vision, but the power and the organization to carry out the vision. They had not as yet received the Great Commission about which we read in Matthew 28. They do not understand themselves to be empowered to take initiative in bringing the kingdom of God about which Jesus preached so frequently and for which he taught them to pray. They are still relying on Jesus to initiate and guide all of the work. The Holy Spirit’s anointing, though mentioned by Jesus in John 20:22, has not yet fully come upon them.

In some ways we may be like these disciples just a few weeks after Easter. We have had experiences of Jesus. He has taught us and led us, but we are not sure how to take the initiative. We lack the confidence to forge ahead, trusting that God’s power of resurrection and transformation will be available when we need it. We have celebrated, rejoiced, and worshiped the risen Christ, and now we so easily slip back into our old familiar places, with their activities and relationships still intact.

But the good news and the bad news is that Jesus transforms our familiar places, and the activities and relationships we know there. Jesus does not leave us alone once we have given our lives to him. He makes these old places new, and in the process seeks to make us new.

Perhaps we are like the disciples in another way. We return to the old and familiar, but things don’t work for us the same way anymore. Now that we have encountered the Risen Christ, we simply aren’t able to go back to the way things used to be. We are different, and we now recognize that the world is different, even if we don’t quite know what to do about it. We cast our nets like usual, but catch nothing. Jesus has ruined us for the old ways of being and doing. They no longer satisfy as they once did. The familiar places are transformed, because we are transformed.

And now what? I wish there were three simple steps we could take that would put things back in order. We won’t go back to how things were. The past is gone, never to return. What we do have is practices that can put us in a better posture to receive what God has for us next.

  • Keep showing up. That sounds simple because it is simple. As we saw earlier, it is ok and good and right to return to those familiar places, just don’t expect things to be as they once were. Which brings us to practice #2.
  • Open your heart and mind to something new, or to doing the old things in new ways. If we keep expecting the old ways to work, we will continue to be disappointed. Jesus calls us to something new. He proclaims, “I make all things new!”
  • Do some new things, even if they don’t seem to make sense, or even seem silly. This story represents the second time in the gospels that these professional fishermen had worked all night but caught nothing. Along comes Jesus, who is not a fisherman, and tells them, “Try casting your net on the other side.” Try the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Try it upside down or backwards. Risk failure. Risk looking foolish.

We find ourselves on familiar ground, doing familiar things, but not getting the results we need or want. We look around and realize that though we may not know fully how to walk forward into the future, we cannot go back to the past. That is at times unsettling and even scary, which is why we return to the familiar places. The risen Christ will meet us there. He will meet us here, and he transform our familiar places, and us along with them, so that we can work together to usher in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, right here in our own communities.

Fruitful Vines – God wants to work through you

Sermon notes 10/5/14; Isaiah 5:1-7Psalm 80:7-15Philippians 3:4b-14

God wants to work through you.

God has planted the people of faith to bear fruit in the world –
personally and collectively.
God desires and requires that we do our part,
that we allow ourselves to be fruitful.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  • In what ways have we been fruitful? A vine provides food for others that is sweet and good. A wild vine represents sourness, bitterness and lack of good fruit.
  • In what ways have we been like a wild vine and wild grapes? How have we not produced as much good fruit as we could?
  • What good is in our past that we do well to remember and celebrate?
  • What greatness lies in our future that compels to not be held by the past?

God wants to work through you.

You came to this place, to this day, because God wants to be a part of your life, and because God wants to work through you. One of the images that scripture uses for this idea is fruitfulness. Jesus talks about fruitfulness in the gospels. We see the fig tree in Mark 11 and the parallel passages – it has no figs on it so Jesus places a curse on it and it withers. Jesus has work to do – a gospel message so share, people to redeem and set free, a kingdom of righteousness and peace to build here in the world, in the very midst of all the chaos and heartache that surrounds us. To do this, He needs plants that will be fruitful.

And he doesn’t want just any fruit – he wants good fruit. 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7 sermon on the mount) The good fruit is sweet, refreshing, a delight to the soul. When you bite into a great Texas peach, and the juice drips down your chin and over your hands, a wide grin spreads across your face. You can’t help yourself. When you buy one that looks, smells and feels wonderful, but bite into Styrofoam or cardboard, you feel utter disappointment. Better to not eat peaches at all than to eat bad peaches. A friend of mine just moved back from central California and was bemoaning the loss of good strawberries. People who have only ever known subpar fruit are surprised when a juicy, fresh from the field, vineyard or orchard piece is handed to them. They just don’t know any better.

Paul talks about the need for us to bear fruit and grow (Rom 7:4; Eph 5:9; Col 1:10). Our faith may be an inward experience of the head and the heart. Even so, it is meant to produce outwardly so that others can see, experience, and be blessed. When we taste good grapes we don’t thank the vine, we thank the one who created the vine. In the same way our fruit, our good works, are meant to point back to the one who created us and made those good works possible. They point to God in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus puts it this way:

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (Jn 15)

God wants to work through you.

None of this is surprising, given the way Isaiah uses this image. And he is not alone. We find the theme repeated in in Jeremiah 2, almost verbatim. Similar passages are found in Jeremiah 8 and Ezekiel 19. God formed a people, Israel, for relationship and partnership in ministry to the world. Israel’s purpose was to proclaim, represent and demonstrate God’s faithful love. Instead, they became self-absorbed and so concerned with their own power and preservation that they utterly failed to fulfill their calling. Even so, God always kept a remnant from which to raise up a new generation. God never wants to give up on us. God always wants to redeem and restore, but can only work with us when we are willing to show up, stand up, and be filled up with God’s love and mercy.

Hear how Zechariah describes God’s intentions: Zechariah 8: 11 But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, says the Lord of hosts. 12 For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. 13 Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing. Do not be afraid, but let your hands be strong.

“You shall be a blessing” –  God wants to work through you!

We find a similar message in Psalm 92: 12 The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; 13 planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. 14 They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, 15 proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

One of the things that got Israel into trouble was spending too much time looking backward. They tried to live as though things were still like the days of David, the days of glory. Each group with any authority tried to claim a royal or priestly heritage that gave them the right to rule. Israel certainly had days of glory, and God wanted the people to remember that God had made those things possible. It is God who gives us the ability to grow and be productive. God gives us the power to effect positive change in the world for His glory.

What the Israelites forgot is the reason why God has chosen David in the beginning – because he was humble, had a servant’s heart, was compassionate and just. David ruled through his righteousness, and Solomon through his wisdom. But each generation must live with righteousness and wisdom for themselves, not simply harken back to the days of their ancestors, or even their own previous accomplishments.

Our past matters, because it shapes our present. But our past does not define our present, nor determine our future. Our failures and sins need not separate us from receiving God’s goodness and blessings. Our past accomplishments cannot put food on the table tomorrow. Last year’s harvest is already gone. If we do not plant and tend a new harvest this year, everyone will go hungry. The grapes picked last year have already been put up in barrels. Unless we tend the vineyard continually, we will not have good wine in years to come.

Paul understood this well. In Philippians 3 he makes clear that his past is difficult to beat, but is insufficient for securing his future. The only thing that matters, Paul says, is Christ living in me today. Neither yesterday’s sin or righteousness can determine my tomorrow. What I do today matters.

I have been fortunate to do some cool things in my life. I’ve traveled to Europe, Central America, Canada, Mexico and Hawaii. I started and ran a soup kitchen that fed over 200 people each time it opened. I taught at two colleges. I have memories from those things, but none of them matter much to you today. Sure, they’re interesting, but, as the saying goes, “What have you done for me lately?”

Imagine a marriage where one spouse says to the other on their 20th wedding anniversary, “You know, I don’t really feel loved anymore. You never hold me. You never spend time with me. You never look at me or talk to me. You never tell me that you love me.” The grief stricken and dumfounded reply comes after several long moments of silence…. “But, what about those first five years? I did all of those things faithfully every single day. I still remember each day of it. Don’t you? Isn’t that enough?” “Yes,” the first replies, “I do remember, and it was wonderful, but no, it is not enough. I need all of that still, today and tomorrow and every day.”

When we put it this way, it would sound absurd if it were not so painfully common. Perhaps not quite this stark, but nonetheless real. Our relationship with God is no different. God want’s us to show up today, to communicate today, to listen and share today. And God wants us to be fruitful, today.

God wants to work through you.

Paul says “forgetting what is behind, I press onward…” Now, of course he hasn’t forgotten, because he has just told us. And he understands that those things mattered then and still matter. He is being hyperbolic to make his point. “Knowing Christ matters so much that everything else pales in comparison.” Paul values his background as a Pharisee or he would not continually reference it. That history shaped him to be the vessel that Jesus needed to carry his message. You see that shift – what you were and what you did and what you experienced made you who you are today, and that’s what God wants to use now and in the future. God honors your past also, redeeming and making it holy by working through it today. God wants us to be fruitful, today.

During our time together in the coming months we will focus on three tasks:

Honor our past. Understand our present. Live faithfully into our future.

I’m looking forward to joining with you individually and in small groups to hear your stories and help you hear each other. We want to honor the history of this congregation, as well as our individual histories. One way we will do this is by meeting in homes over the next several months. Some of you love to provide hospitality, and I hope that you will open your homes for 8-12 people to meet for coffee and desert and sharing. These will be scheduled for mornings, afternoons and evenings, and even weekends, so that everyone has an opportunity to attend at least one. You probably have other great ideas for how we can get to know one another and hear our stories so that we can honor our past.

In the weeks ahead we will say more about the other two tasks. For now, I’m just excited to be among you and to learn from you.

I am confident that, as Jesus said at the Last Supper, “you will do even greater things that what you have already seen.” (John 14:12)

Virtual Ash Wednesday

Secular and religious people have many important things in common. One of those, that is being remembered and honored by Christians today, is the need to experience repentance and forgiveness. Who among us has not fallen short of the moral, ethical or relational standards we set for ourselves, to say nothing of the standards others try to set for us? When I fail to honor the sacredness of friendship and love. When I make a promise that I am unable to keep. When I speak words in anger or fear that assault and wound. When I neglect my duty to nurture and care. When I tear down rather than build up, degrade rather than construct, poison rather than nourish. When my silence supports systems of oppression, particularly when I then gain in the process.

When I do these things, what then? How can I move from this position to a status of restored relationship? What can I offer, what do I need to receive? Who can help?

In my own life, I have found the story of Jesus to be a compelling witness to my own brokenness and frailty and lack, because he shared in it, even to the point of death and fear of the same. For me the greatest pain in my own failures is not that I have committed them, but that I may be unable to experience restoration. What if things can’t be repaired (some can’t)? What if time runs out and I never get to say, “I’m sorry,” and hear, “You are forgiven”? What if… I live not in certainty, but in hope.

I hope that you know where to turn, to whom you can go, to find the help that you need when you face these issues in your own life. I also hope that you are able to extend compassion and mercy to others, not because they deserve it, but because you need it too.

Experiencing resurrection hope in times of struggle

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Believing in the resurrection seems easier on a beautiful Spring morning, when children and flowers are newly clothed in bright colors and fresh pastels. Less so when we are facing struggles and an uncertain future. The Christian community, with the help and encouragement of our consumer culture, wants to focus on Easter, and forget about the week of struggle that preceded it. In the Jewish story of the Exodus from Egypt, it is easy to focus on the moment of rescue, and then the final entry into the land of promise flowing with sweet blessings – and ignore the suffering and struggle that accompanied the departure and the journey from where they were to where they ultimately would rest.

Life is not all fresh flowers, laughing children, and abundant prosperity. I read an interesting observation recently – that dependency is our natural state. We begin and end life that way – unable to fully care for ourselves. We are all in some way “dis-abled”. The notion of being independent, autonomous, all self-sufficient persons is a myth and aberration, fleeting and ephemeral. This is not to suggest that life is bleak and hopeless. That too is a myth – the idea that dependency equals deficiency; that we are somehow less if we need others. In the life and ministry of Jesus we see one who makes himself vulnerable. Paul says is Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus “emptied himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. In Christ God chose to experience the fullness of human limitation, and thereby blessed it as holy. Whether or not God NEEDED human help, God chose to enlist and even rely upon the help, support and agency of humans, who were and are limited. We are at one time marvelously able some ways, and dis-able in others. God entered fully into this dis-abled state. God knows the road we walk, because in Jesus he has walked it with us.

There is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle. Yet this does not end or even ease our struggle. The fact that you are also sick with the flu does not lessen my symptoms. In fact, if we share life together, things become more difficult if we are both down at the same time. Ideally when one is weak, another is strong, so that we can adequately share one another’s burdens and joys.

The book Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album offers a wonderfully poignant illustration of this idea. In this story Morrie, a retired professor living (dying from?) with ALS tells Mitch, his former student turned reluctant biographer, about his own transition back to dependency. Morrie reached a point in his disease process where he could no longer perform the tasks of personal hygiene and self-care – in other words he could no longer wipe his own bottom, clearly not a condition from which he would recover. Rather than fight the humiliation and shame that often accompany this situation, Morrie chose to interpret his experience as one in which he was receiving tender, loving and compassionate care as he had in the first years of life. Think about this. Many people long for intimacy and are starved for human touch. Here Morrie is forced to receive both under less than ideal circumstances. By grace his is able to shift his attitude and thinking to humility rather than humiliation. What needs to happen in us to experience that same freedom and release from pretension?

In Morrie we see both emotional and physical struggle. He makes a mental shift that helps him receive care with a new attitude and emotional experience. But does this lessen his physical distress? Perhaps not. Yet many scientists and psychologists have demonstrated a connection between the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences of being human. A positive attitude actually does ease our experience of pain, and a discouraged countenance will reduce our tolerance to hardship.

As someone who proclaims hope in the resurrection, I want to believe that suffering does not have the last word in our lives. We want to think and believe that things will get better. But sometimes they don’t. So what do we do with our hope in the resurrection and its power in our lives when things go from bad to worse? The cancer patient and his family pray and hope for treatment to work and to hear the words “remission” or “cure”. The cardiac patient and her family likewise hope for a full recovery from surgery and return to a vibrant and active lifestyle. This is our hope and prayer. Yet we know that none of us gets out alive. We will all die someday, from something. Our hope is not to avoid dying so much as to live a long and full life, and to avoid prolonged suffering. We want 70 or 80 years or more, and then we want to go quietly in our sleep, not being a burden to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control three fourths of the US population will die following a prolonged illness or injury. The vast majority of us will not “go gently into that good night“.

When we have this conversation in a hospital or long-term care setting, we are not saying anything new. One might even ask at this moment, “Where is the word of hope?” Yes, that is precisely the point. At Easter of all times we want to hear, believe and proclaim a word of hope. Let me suggest several things that can help us experience and share resurrection HOPE even in times of struggle:

  1. Honesty: Be honest about what we are experiencing. We cannot find true hope until we honestly face our real struggles, fears and even despair. This is not easy, but it is essential.
  2. Openness: Share our awareness. You can do this by writing in a journal or letter. You can talk with a trusted friend, confessor, or professional. We need to BOTH feel/think it and externalize it somehow.

When we do these two things, we begin to get a handle on our struggle, and gain some power over our fear and despair. This is why many spiritual traditions call for confession – naming the struggle is a form of personal agency and gives us mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical power in it. In AA this is revealed in the 4th & 5th steps. We may discover that things are not as bleak as we first believed, and that we are not alone.

  1. Projection: Identify and name positive outcomes – project them into the future. Remember how Morrie reframed his experience from shame to blessing. Consider how a funeral may become a time of when people give and receive forgiveness, mercy and grace to heal old wounds. The Apostle Paul presumes to use pregnancy and the birthing process as a metaphor for struggle followed by blessing. The struggle is real, but so is the potential for positive and life-giving future. What inspiration can be found in those who face illness and death with courage, integrity and even joy?
  2. Expectation: Anticipate the good that can and will come. As we read in Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This theme recurs in scripture, particularly regarding the experience of Jesus and his role as our example.

It may help us to also remember that no one believed in the resurrection until they personally experienced the risen Jesus. The Apostles and disciples had been repeatedly told, along with the rulers of the people and the crowds. It is hard to experience resurrection hope during our times of struggle, hard even to hope and believe. One great blessing of walking this road is that we are then in a position to offer real hope to others because of what we have seen and known. Everyone’s experience is unique, and yet we can draw strength and hope from each other. We proclaim the Easter resurrection of Jesus each year both to remind ourselves, and to tell the world, that we might all live in hope. (Acts 2:22-28; Psalm 16) There is always room for HOPE.

To explore these ideas further, please contact me: cell: 214-288-1663; email:

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May you live a Synchronous Life of integrity, vitality and harmony.