Sermon, May 8, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
On the church calendar, today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Sunday we recognize and celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It always falls on the fourth Sunday after Easter, which this year is doubly appropriate to remind us that Mother’s Day is a day when we celebrate those who have acted as shepherd to us, tenderly and compassionately offering comfort or guidance in a rocky part of life. We celebrate and remember our mothers, our first guides and caretakers, those who bathed us and clothed us; prepared meals for us took responsibility for us. In gratitude for the many memories in our lives, we offer thanks to our Mother’s and wish them a Happy Mother’s Day, wherever they are. And we send a Happy Mothering Shepherd Day to all who may not have born children or raised children, but to all who have mothered someone they love in their life, and all of those who have shepherded us as well walked through our own valleys or when we needed someone to help restore our souls. Our cup runneth over because of our mothering influences, and we give thanks.
will you pray with me…?
Here again, this morning, we have yet another story of the resurrected Jesus eating a meal with his followers. “Come and Eat”, he says to them, just as a Good Shepherd would, as most mothers do. Come and Eat. Just as we do every Sunday. Again, he is known in the blessing and the breaking of the bread. Not at a table, not this time, but he has prepared the meal and is ready to share with them.
Again, it was in the mundane, not the sacred, where Jesus shows his resurrected self to his followers.
Faced with the unfathomable situation of their Messiah put to death - and yet not dead - the disciples find themselves stuck. In a season of great expectations and equally great disappointments, mere hours are enough to paralyze someone with doubt. Days pass into weeks since the reports of the empty tomb were confirmed by Jesus’ appearances among those who knew him best. The disciples were waiting on the Spirit Jesus had promised but they didn’t know what to do while they waited.
Going back to what they did before all the hope and hype seemed a good option. Like the ones who walked home to Emmaus, they reverted to what they knew. They are clustered in an upper room, they are gathered near the Sea of Galilee, they don’t know what to do. Peter and his friends are living in the meantime — the time when we wait on God’s next move. So with almost comedic timing, Simon Peter says, “Well…. I’m going fishing.” Peter turns back to the life they once knew. He plans a late-night fishing trip, and seven of the eleven show up. This attempt to return to the way things were ignores that the encounter with Jesus gave them a greater mission.
Failing to move forward, career fishermen failed to catch anything all night long. Failure in fishing brings back the frustration and disillusionment felt on that important Friday. But the resurrected Jesus meets them in the old, familiar circumstances of their lives - at the lakeshore - in the place where he had met them before to remind them of their new purpose in this life.
It is hard to hear this scripture and not bring to mind the other passages where Jesus interacted with people near the Sea of Galilee. This was the site of the first miraculous catch of fish. This was where Jesus turned five loaves and 2 fish into a meal for thousands. This was where he calmed the seas and walked on water to meet Peter, who quickly sank. This was where Jesus called on them to follow, where he offers to make them fishers of men. This is a reminder to them and to the reader of the call of the disciples; that to follow Jesus is to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God.
They spend a night on the water, catching nothing. But when day breaks, a stranger on the shoreline suggests they try again, just on the other side of the boat. And then, suddenly, the nets are so full they are unable to pull them into the boat.
There’s so much fish - 153 of them - that the net is strained, heaved, hauled, but miraculously not broken. Why 153 fish? That’s a tremendously specific number. I have always been taught that there is meaning in the details in scripture, especially numbers. Once you think about it, you’ll see what I mean. Take the number 7; God created the earth in 7 days; Jacob labored seven years to win the hand of Rachel; Egypt suffered seven years of plenty and seven years of famine during the time of Joseph; God commanded the Israelites to eat unleavened bread for seven days in memory of the exodus from Egypt; and the year of Jubilee - the year that debts shall be erased - comes after seven sets of seven years, i.e the year after the 49th year.
Or the number 12; Jesus calls 12 disciples. After Jesus’ death, when the inner circle is down to 11, we read in the book of Acts that the apostles ‘cast lots’ to decide on a 12th disciple to replace Judas. Why is 12 so important? It’s apparently not a random number. Rather, it recreates the 12 tribes of Israel that lead God’s people.
Or 40 - when I say ’40 days and 40 nights’ - what comes to mind? Is it the 40 days of temptation of Jesus that we echo in Lent? Or is it rain, 40 days and 40 nights of rain that flooded the earth? Both of these things echo the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness in Exodus.
And so, I’m always wondering in this passage, why 153 fish? What an odd number! I went on a search, feeling like that scene from everyone’s favorite Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan movie, “You’ve Got Mail” when they are searching for meaning in the email address of Joe Fox, NY152.
Hanks says, “He’s 152 years old. He’s had 152 moles removed so now he’s got 152 pockmarks on his face!”
She suggests; “The number of people who think he looks like Clark Gable…” and he counters, “The number of people who think he looks like a clark bar."
He thinks it stands for Mr. 152 Felony Indictments, while she thinks it’s Mr. 152 insights into my soul….” (in reality it is the number from his street address.)
This scene is a great illustration that sometimes we see what we want to see. Such is the case for the haul of 153 fish in today’s passage. Some scholars propose that it’s the number of nations or nationalities identified when Jesus lived, suggesting all the gentile nations who would come to know Jesus. Some say it’s the number of known species of fish at that time - which seems oddly biological for the bible. Some scholars pontificate that 153 were how many people were in the Christian movement… but that seems like a pretty small number to create such a ruckus and threat in Jerusalem.
All of these explanations feel like a stretch, like an attempt to see what we want to see in scripture, like a desperate attempt for 153 insights into our souls. Contrary to all my former understanding of scripture, perhaps there is no special meaning to this number, 153 - except a message of plenty. At Jesus’ instruction, the disciples haul in 153 fish for 7 people. That’s 21 fish for every fishermen. 21 fish that certainly can’t be eaten all in one day, 21 fish that won't keep for the several weeks it would take to eat them, perhaps 21 fish to sell.
The meaning of 153 fish is just abundance - it is way more than enough fish. It reminds us of the loaves and the fishes, of the generosity and abundance of the landowner, of the extravagant welcome of the father for the prodigal son, of the shepherd that leaves the 99 to find the one. It reminds us of the wedding at Cana and the exceedingly abundant supply of new wine. It reminds us that we are promised the plentiful love and and abundant grace of God. It reminds us that Jesus came to offer us life, and offer it abundantly, and that when we live and lead our lives in faith, we will find abundance.
And in truth, it is the unexpected abundance that helps the disciples recognize Jesus. It is in the reminder of the abundance of God that they remember their purpose, their promise, their greater mission. They remember that they are now carriers of the abundant grace promised for all. Resurrection appearances of the risen Jesus are an invitation, not a conclusion. The disciples realize they can’t go back, but they don’t yet entirely know the way forward. The visits by Jesus are a reminder and an invitation to join with Jesus on God’s mission.
The disciples are still on a journey to become the doers of the gospel, the proclaimers of God’s kingdom, the healers of the sick and the carriers of justice. They have to recover the habits of discipleship they practiced for three years; to remember the regular experiences of God intruding on the ordinary, to reconsider the experiences that betrayed common understanding but now make more sense. They have to review those teachings from Jesus about the difference God’s grace makes in the lives of people who encounter Jesus’ acts of love and kindness. The disciples have to grasp who they now are in light of the resurrection, they are now the messengers of God. Their old occupations have been transformed into a godly mission that is as unpredictable as fishing all night and catching nothing, and as intimate as a breakfast on the beach with a friend who knows how much you love them.
Discipleship is not a state of mind, it is a call to action. Jesus’ followers are doers, and here he’s reminding them of their call. The resurrection appearances are invitations to the disciples to be the bridge for someone else to experience God’s justice, grace and abundance. And that is the challenge to us; the acts of God in the world count on our witness, the witness of our incarnated lives. It is up to us to watch for the abundance of God; the miraculous experiences of God intruding on the ordinary. it is up to us to proclaim the goodness in our lives. It is up to us to see the plentifulness of 153 fish when we expected none.
So, perhaps instead of looking for 153 insights into the soul of scripture, we should spend our time counting 153 instances of abundance in our lives. On this mother’s day, we can all be aware of the abundance of 153 options we have to feed ourselves in the decadence of our place in history. Perhaps today, we should make a list of 153 mothering shepherds who have guided each of us through life, and say thanks. We can think of 153 reasons to love the earth - like what feels like 153 varieties of flowering trees in Kansas City right now. We could all probably make a list of 153 laws that keep us safe, 153 events we were excited to experience, 153 ways being part of a congregation has added to our lives. And, most importantly, in our abundance we could brainstorm 153 ways we could make a difference in the lives of other people as part of God’s greater mission. May God’s abundance be shared, this day, with others in 153 different ways that reflect the unending love and grace of God’s kingdom. May we be the doers of God’s abundance. Amen.