Apparently Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I guess it only comes true if the result you get isn’t the one you want. The disciples weren’t doing anything wrong as they went fishing, for when you fish from a boat as they did, you do the same thing every time, sometimes you find the fish, sometimes you don’t. But on this occasion clearly Jesus has decided to agree with Einstein’s position – the disciples had been out all night, they had no doubt taken account of the wind and the current and thought they were doing the correct thing but they weren’t getting anywhere, so he suggested they changed their approach and do something counter-intuitive. Was he just lucky; was it a miracle to make sure they understood that he still had his powers? As usual we don’t absolutely know, but it worked.
Those of you that know me well won’t be surprised that I was puzzled by the number of fish they caught – 153. Now as you know numbers in the bible usually mean something and it turns out that 153 is no exception. I suspect we were being told that they caught a lot of fish, but it turns out that if you count up all the people Jesus blessed as recorded in the gospels, yes it’s 153!
Of course the disciples are now in the same place we are – they now worship the risen Christ, someone different to the person they had spent the last three years with. I suspect there was an element of Jesus proving he could still do miracles but he made the disciples join with him – they had to respond, they had to change.
We don’t like change do we? It upsets our rhythms, but life changes. Apparently if you were alive when Jesus was you might have seen two significant changes in your lifetime but we see several every day. I just get used to the new technological gadget and along comes another one and then I have to work out how to use that, which when you don’t read instruction booklets can be quite an issue. But some change is good.
In late 2008 I had two very interesting jobs, one was subcontracting all of Ian Newman’s stonemasonry work and the other was looking after the finances of a local building firm which only took on bespoke projects. Then the recession hit and less people could afford gravestones and less people were building. God stepped in at this point and the Trussell Trust sent me an email asking if I, amongst others, had any time spare for three months as they needed someone to oversee the foodbank centre until they appointed a new manager. They were offering some money so I decided that rather than sit twiddling my thumbs for part of the day I might as well do this and claw back some of the lost income. When the job was advertised I applied and I was appointed and for almost 4 very happy years I ran Salisbury foodbank, which to be honest was a bit of a doddle. So much so, I started inventing new things to do and mixing with the local business community where I raised some income.
I got a call to the Executive Chairman and the General Manager’s shared cupboard expecting the worst only to be asked “will you set up a fundraising team?” Now, I had only just secured my own income for the next 3 years from a trust fund and so I had the safest job in the building but I decided to take the risk and for 4½ years I have run the fundraising team and latterly also the communications team. In the first year the budget was £400,000 and last year it was £7.2m, that’s how it changed in 4 years.
I had been asked to start the team because my two bosses thought I had an eye for business, and in that time we partnered with Waitrose, Tesco, Unilever, Kelloggs and a few more, but I am not a fundraiser and last year I realised that I had probably reached my peak and so I suggested I step aside and make room for a professional who knows how to raise £10m and £15m and so on. The question I kept being asked was – why? “You have raised every penny we have needed in the last 4 years, why stop now? Because”, I said “because I have reached the limit of my ability. And then God stepped in again.
Some of you know my real background for a quarter of a century is banking, and to be specific, regulated and legal compliance for financial services – or to put it in a simper format, I managed risk. So imagine my surprise when a new staff structure is proposed which has a new box which says Quality Assurance and Risk Management. I say “so who is going to do that then” and the reply is “we don’t know yet” to which I reply, “I think I do”.
So on Monday of last week I sat at a new desk in a new chair and a clean sheet of paper to begin my life as the Trussell Trust’s risk management function, because we have 425 foodbanks in our network, 14 shops, 130 staff, lots of partner organisations, customers, clients, we have workshops that train people to make things but those workshops have dangerous electrical saws in them, we have 5 vans on the road and lots of lifting goes on, and of course fundraising is coming under huge scrutiny after the sad case of Olive Cooke who, bombarded by fundraising requests threw herself from the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
People say to me – “how long have you been at Trussell Trust” and when I say 9 years, they say, that’s a long time, well perhaps it is but I’m on my third job and the change keeps me fresh and interested. So change might bring its worries and concerns but it keeps us vibrant and tuned-in.
Well that’s far too much about me, but I hope it makes the point; every day is a new day. We need to cast our nets in new directions from time to time.
And that is our challenge right here and right now – where should we cast our net? We come here week by week to worship a constant God but what we do not do is worship a static God. Jesus did a miracle, on average once a month, and that’s the ones we know about, once a month he changed a life or many lives. As he toured around he caused mayhem, huge crowds, fallings out with the authorities, and at times general outrage. But that’s not what we are, is it? The only way we would cause outrage here would be to put a sign outside one of our two churches saying “this church is closing due to disuse”. Then there would be a mighty outcry. And in my opinion that isn’t very far around the corner. So do we want to hit the Forest Journal due to “how dare they close our wonderful church (brackets – which we neither visit or support)” or do we want to hit it with “twenty people in the villages of Hale and Woodgreen serve their neighbours by…” And for it to go on “this amazing small band of Christians have reached out to their community and provided help to… and to… and to… and they ask nothing in return. Local resident… said “I used to think they were irrelevant until I heard what they had done for Joe down the road, but now I take my hat off to them, in fact I’m thinking of asking if I could get involved, not sure I want to go to church but if I could do someone a favour I would”.
But to do that we’d have to chuck our net in a different direction.
As I said on Easter Sunday – we come here to be with Jesus to worship the Father, and we go out in mission with Jesus where he takes us, and if we don’t we die.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts.
So today we have two really big picture readings, fabulous imagery, fantastic stories, huge signs of the transformation that is possible in Christ.
Are they stories that you relate to? Or do they seem too big? Too fantastical?… how do they speak to you today?
One of the ways that I think we relate to these stories is in juxtaposition to our own stories… what in them is familiar… what is in contrast…
So I thought I would share something of my story with you today, some of you may already know parts of this, to help us as we explore these readings.
I had grown up in a Christian family, I’ve been going to church since before I was born, and since I was a teenager I’ve been involved in leading Christian youth groups, summer camps, and leading services in church. The colour I associated with myself at that time was blue, and you would typically have found me wearing blue, black or white.
In my late twenties, I hit a bit of a wall… I was really unwell. I’d had to stop doing a lot of the things that seemed to make me me… I could no longer lead the youth groups, or the summer camp, I wasn’t always at work and had had to reduce to part-time hours to try and get well. I felt really useless, I couldn’t ‘do’ anything… I couldn’t see any ‘value’ in being me… in just existing… what could I do.
It was a really dark place for me, I really struggled. I went away on a silent retreat at a convent… and yes, I can be quiet!…
And on that retreat, I spent time thinking about my image of God, and my connection with my experience of God. I played with colour, with paint and paper, and realized that the picture I had of God, was of gold, a formal, bounded goldness… this wasn’t a colour I related to well, it spoke perhaps more of the awesomeness, the remoteness of God…
The nun I was seeing showed me various diverse images of God, to help me think about and reflect on my image of God.
Within the images that she showed me there was an icon of Jesus, which really struck me. (Now, I’d grown up in a Baptist Church, only becoming an accidental Anglican when it turned out that I was allergic to the floor polish in the Baptist Church)…. Icons were well beyond my area of experience.
But this image really affected me, it was as if someone had struck me in the stomach. There was something about this image – only the size of a postcard – that turned inside out my understanding. And there, in the silence of this small room in the convent, I started to encounter God radically afresh, in a new way.
Colour is significant to me (you’ve probably noticed that already…), and the thing that sat really uncomfortably with me was seeing Jesus pictured wearing a red robe, with a blue cloak. The red was a shock to me. Red wasn’t a colour that I associated with Jesus or with God at all…
I sat with it for quite a while, and let it sink in. Why was I so uncomfortable with associating Jesus with red… eventually I took it into playing with paint & paper… and I realized that for me, red was a colour that I associated with life, with vibrancy, with energy & enthusiasm, with passion and exuberance… and those weren’t words that I connected with God.
So I had to go back to the scriptures to check it out… and I talked to the nun…. And I realized that those were words of God too… yes, the awesome, hugeness of God that I associated with gold was there… but this red, energetic, passionate, wild, life-giving God was also part of God… and it was a side that I hadn’t connected with.
Well… you can see, visually, what happened to me… as I prayed, and sat with this really uncomfortably new picture of God… what did it mean to be me, living in relation to this God.
For me, it wasn’t about doing… I wasn’t able to ‘do’ very much… but it was about well ness… about being the person that God had made me to be, about connecting with this passionate, life-giving God… and for me, interpreting things very physically through colour… for me, that transformation was the start of pink for me. It has been a visual reminder for me over the last 10 years or so, of the amazing love, life and grace of God… a remembering of a deep encounter with Christ, as I let go of my images of myself and of God… of encountering something so much bigger, more life-giving than anything I could imagine.
It is that encounter – in the stillness of a small room at a convent, that changed so much for me.
This week, in Richard Rohr’s meditation email he said:
“This realization that Someone is living in us and through us is exactly how we plug into a much larger mind and heart beyond our own. Afterward, we know in a different way, although we have to keep relearning this truth over and over again (the point of daily prayer). But it demands a major dying of our own small self, our ego.”
This Lent, as many of you had noticed, I chose to give up pink for Lent…
I needed to check that pink hadn’t become the new thing I was holding on to… was it just short-hand, a memory of that encounter all those years ago… had pink become my ‘brand’…
I gave it up, to see if it was in some way blocking other understandings of God for me now… and whether it had started to become a barrier that I put up, to separate me from other people…
I’ve been profoundly disoriented this Lent… a couple of weeks in, I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it to Easter… it’s affected my way of relating with God, it’s felt like giving up my identity.
As Easter came, I was really grateful to put some pink back on; because for me, at the moment, pink is still a visual reminder to me, a physical enactment of the transformation that God offers for all of us, the calling for each one of us to draw closer to him, to experience his love, his life afresh. It is a reminder that we are each called to let go of those things that we hold close, those certainties that we have that can get in the way of us encountering God afresh, and reaching out to those around us.
What I see in our readings today is the highly personal way in which each of us encounter God. I don’t think it’s saying that everyone has to have a dramatic conversion experience. For some their experience of God will be through a life-time of faithful prayer and devotion, for others their slow shaping through the rhythms of worship, for others it may be a dramatic encounter, it may be a glimpse of God through the natural world around us, our awareness of something more than each one of us.
However it is that we encounter God, I think these stories are showing us how we are shaped and changed by our encounters with God. Our faith in God is a faith in transformation, the transforming power of God’s immense love for us. For Paul we see this in his very public transformation… from killing followers of the Way… to preaching the good news.
For the disciples, we see them listening to his voice and returning with nets so full of fish that they couldn’t haul them up the beach.
This pattern of transformation that we see in Acts, and in the stories of the disciples is not one where transformation collapses into sanctified self-absorption (New Interpreters Bible Commentary, p155), Rather, conversion prepares the believer for performance of concrete tasks in the service of God.
Transformation isn’t a purely inward, personal endeavor, this conversion, this conversation with God, this working out of faith is something that is done in community. In community here, with each other, in our conversations with those around us.
And so… as we reflect on our own encounters with the divine,
are we willing to learn from those encounters…
Can we let go of our need to be right, to be in control…
are we willing to let the Holy Spirit work in us, and let our lives be transformed… to follow that journey, wherever it may lead?
Are we open to grow in the love and mercy of God, to be freed from our separateness, and to be made in the likeness of Christ?
I will end with a prayer.
God of new beginnings, we ask you to meet us on our journeys. Interrupt our lives with the light of your living truth. Teach us to bear witness to the inclusiveness of your household. Transform us from individuals to a community. And make us ready to be changed. Amen