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If I had spent a month looking for it, I could not have picked a better lesson than this one assigned for today from the Gospel of John.
Let’s recap: After Jesus dies, the disciples go fishing, and when they get back to shore, a stranger cooks them breakfast on the beach.
They don’t recognize him as Jesus until he breaks the bread. And then Jesus proceeds to instruct Peter on what needs to be done:
Feed my sheep.
Today is my last Sunday with you before my sabbatical leave-of-absence begins. I will be away until August.
For the next three-and-a-half months, I will be working on a book.
And I’m going to do a little fishing and have breakfast on Fridays with old newspaper friends back in Sacramento.
They may not look like Jesus, or his disciples, but you’d be surprised at their hearts of gold.
You should know that a great deal of planning has gone into what will happen while I am gone.
Christie Thomas, our senior warden, John Reid, our parish administrator, and Peter Carey, our senior associate rector, have devised a detailed 28-page plan for who will be doing what in my absence. You are in very good, able and organized hands.
Sabbaticals are normal and positive occasions in the rhythm of parish life. Sabbaticals are a time of renewal for your rector, and for all of us to step back to reconnect with the foundations of our shared ministry.
While I am gone, the Vestry will be engaged in a process known as “mutual ministry review” and will be guided by the Rev. Pat Wingo, who is the canon, or chief assistant, to the bishop in our diocese, Shannon Johnston.
That process will culminate in an all-day retreat with the Vestry, Canon Wingo and myself when I get back in the fall.
I have been here almost five years, and we have experienced many changes together both personally and collectively.
We’ve welcomed new people, said goodbye to others, and grieved the deaths of still others. We ended some ministries, strengthened others and developed a few new ones.
The life of a congregation and rector unfolds in chapters. We’ve been through the getting-to-know you chapter, and the getting-down-to-work chapter. This sabbatical will mark the beginning of a new chapter.
How that new chapter will unfold none of us yet know. It will be written not just by us, but will be the work of the Holy Spirit working in all of us – of that I firmly believe or I wouldn’t be here. As a clergy friend pointed out to me last week, I will be on sabbatical, but the One who creates us and redeems us is never on sabbatical.
And that brings me to this remarkable story of Jesus feeding breakfast to his friends on the beach. Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep.” And as if to underline it, Jesus tells Peter three times, feed my sheep.
So, Peter, feed my sheep.
Biblical commentators speculate that Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep” three times as a way of closing the episode before the crucifixion when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.
That has a nice literary bookendish quality to it, and the fact the Jesus entrusts Peter, with all his flaws, is a statement that God’s boundless grace and love will triumph over our biggest mistakes and our worst sins.
I definitely find comfort in that idea.
But I wonder if there is another reason Jesus tells Peter to feed my sheep three times?
I wonder if Jesus says that three times because Peter isn’t quite getting it who the sheep are; that the sheep aren’t just the 12 guys enjoying breakfast together.
The sheep are many. The sheep include all of us who are here today; and the sheep include people who haven’t found their way here yet.
They include our students from across the street and people in our community who are hurting. Jesus does not come to establish a private dining club. He feeds his disciples breakfast and then sends them out to feed the sheep – and feed them everywhere.
He especially sends his disciples to be with the poor, the sick, the starving, the prisoners, the homeless, the unemployed.
He sends us.
Feed my sheep.
Feed my sheep.
Feed my sheep.
William Temple, the truly great Archbishop of Canterbury in World War II, once said: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Feed my sheep. All of them.
In 2010 we celebrated our centennial with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the chief bishop of the Episcopal Church.
She challenged us in this pulpit, where I stand, to hear Jesus’ call to “be bold.” And we’ve been living into that challenge of how to be bold here at St, Paul’s.
Our Stephen Ministers visit with those who need a sympathetic ear; our hospital visitors spend time with the sick. Our Sunday school teachers educate our children in the faith, and our acolytes and choir brighten and inspire our worship.
Many of you bring dinner on Sunday for our university students, who gather regularly for prayer, study and friendship.
Martha’s Guild volunteers work tirelessly on hospitality events like the “Women Walking Together” luncheon yesterday.
Feed my sheep.
Our sheep are many, and are beyond our walls. PACEM volunteers give shelter to to people who live on the street, and our Salvation Army dinner teams feed those who are down on their luck. Feed my sheep.
We also need to look at why some sheep are hungry. We are part of a coalition of congregations in Charlottesville called “IMPACT,” which stands for:
“Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.”
IMPACT is the only organization in our region that brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together, and a common cause to change the social systems that perpetuate poverty, unemployment and homelessness. In a world that is torn to pieces by religious strife, uniting across religious lines to do anything at all is extraordinary.
These past two years it has been my privilege to serve as the co-president of IMPACT, and my time in this post will soon draw to a close.
So there is something I want you to do while I am gone.
IMPACT’s annual gathering, called the Nehemiah Action, will be on Monday April 29 at 6:30 pm at the John Paul Jones Arena.
I cannot go, but I want you to go.
All of you.
And I want you to invite others to go with you.
This year we’ve been working on the most complex and difficult issues we’ve ever tackled – unemployment and homelessness in our region.
We need you there to show support for these efforts.
You need a ticket to get in, and you can get one this morning from some folks right near you. Feed my sheep. Be at the Nehemiah Action.
My friends, thank you for having me as your pastor and priest, for supporting Lori and me, and for serving each other and the world beyond these walls.
We have traveled far together already, and there are more miles to go on our road together. You will be in my thoughts and prayers, and may each of you go from strength to strength, and blessing upon blessing.
It is time for me to go fishing. Be bold.
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux