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Sermon | A common center, ever-expanding
Text: John 21:1-17
Speaker: Joel Miller
Every fall I teach an Inquirers Sunday school class. It’s open to anyone, with a special invitation to new-ish folks. We do an overview of Christian faith in a Mennonite perspective and look at the story of this congregation.
One of the things we talk about is a couple different ways of forming community. One focuses on strong boundaries, the other focuses on a strong center. If you’ve been part of that class, this will sound familiar.
In a community with strong boundaries, there’s a pretty clear line between who’s in and who’s out. Or at least what you need to do to be in, and stay in. In congregations this often comes down to a set of beliefs and a few moral issues. The key is whether a personal can intellectually assent to this set of beliefs – about God and Jesus and the Bible and salvation and such - and if they live a moral or righteous life – sometimes narrowed down to certain understandings of sexuality, sometimes a bit broader. Sometimes focused on dress codes – like head coverings for women and jackets with the right kinds of buttons or no buttons for men. Rarely focused on other Bible-based issues like whether or not you pay your workers a fair wage or whether you welcome the refugee or share your resources with the poor. But, alas.
In a faith community with clear boundary lines if you can believe and do or not do these things, you’re in.
And in these kinds of communities, a fair amount of energy from leadership goes into monitoring that line. Defining it. Articulating the importance of being inside it.
And a fair amount of psychic energy from membership goes into pondering whether one is actually in or whether one is disqualified due to doubt or questions, or not quite measuring up. And whether one is hypocritical for parading as an insider when you feel like an outsider.
I’m highlighting some of the pitfalls of this way for forming community, but every healthy community, every healthy organism, has some boundaries for its own and others’ wellbeing. Last week’s service focused on our commitment to child safety and some of the steps we take together to do this. Boundaries, at their best, create a space where everyone is able to thrive and live out the fullest of their humanity.
A second way of forming community is through a strong center. Rather than Do we all believe the same thing? a primary question is Do we care about the same things? The values and the stories we tell and the way we tell them form the gravitational center. And like gravity we’re all being drawn in. Or we’re all in orbit, held in the same field, whether you’re out there like Jupiter and Neptune or really close in like Mercury, or if you defy classification like Pluto, we share a common center.
Another image, for all you farmers and ranchers out there, is the difference between building fences and building a well. Fences clearly define who’s in and who’s out. But for horses grazing on an open pasture, if they’re part of the same ranch, they’ll gather at the well for a drink.
So if you’re following the metaphors for this one we’re either horses or large gaseous bodies.
This distinction between centers and boundaries goes back to the late 70s through the work of Paul Hiebert. So there’s been plenty of time for people to have their own commentary on it. And as far as I can tell just about everybody who picks up on this celebrates the centered approach to faith. And this is indeed how I present this to the Inquirer’s class. Rather than being a congregation that monitors the boundary line between who’s in and who’s out, we function more like a well, or a gravitational center, recognizing we’re all at different places. And where we are is exactly where God meets us and where to try to meet each other. Questions and even doubts are part of what hold us together rather than put us on the other side of the line. We have fuzzy edges, or maybe no definable edges. If you drink from the well that we share, welcome to the ranch. You’re in inasmuch as you swirl within the gravitational field of the life of this congregation.
Today’s gospel reading, from the closing chapter of John’s gospel, contains a couple different examples of Jesus inviting his friends toward a center. It’s a post-Easter story, although it starts much the same way these folks first encountered Jesus: A fishing trip. A small group of them, including Peter, are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. They fish all night, but catch nothing. As morning is dawning Jesus appears on the shore line and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They don’t recognize Jesus until they catch so many fish they can’t even bring in the whole haul. At which point Peter jumps in the water, leaving the heavy lifting to others, swimming all the way to shore to see if this really could be Jesus.
It’s worth remembering at this point that these are the same friends who had failed Jesus. During Jesus’s most trying hour, when he was facing death, Peter had three times denied knowing Jesus. Other male followers had fled the scene. In the end it was just a group of women standing with Jesus as he died, visiting the tomb two days later, and a couple secret disciples not in the fishing club, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who handle the body of Jesus after he died. John’s gospel does mention “the disciple whom Jesus loved” also standing with the women at the cross, but that likely is John’s way of referring to himself and it does look at least a little suspicious if the only gospel that records you staying near Jesus until the end is the one you wrote.
Regardless, this was now a collection of individuals without much in the way of a boundary or a center to hold them together.
And then comes Jesus, in whatever resurrected form it may have been. He shows up on the shoreline, starts a fire, and spreads out a meal of bread of fish. Rather than reprimanding them for their disloyalty, rather than give them a list of things they have to belief in order to rejoin the movement, Jesus offers them breakfast. “Come and have breakfast” is the first thing Jesus says once they’re all ashore. And there, at the edge of the lake, with the sun rising on this new day, a common meal to which they are all invited becomes the center of gravity. Jesus builds a well. And they gather around it to drink and eat their fill.
But Jesus isn’t done quite yet. At least not with Peter. For Peter, Jesus has three questions. Which is really just the same question repeated three times. Do you love me? Each time Peter answers Yes, each time Jesus asks him to tend the flock, with a follow up question Do you love me? Three times love, three times yes, allowing Peter to fill in for that earlier three times No when he was asked if he knew Jesus. And again, Jesus builds a well, offers a dense gravitational center that will hold Peter and those other companions in its orbit from here on out. Even if they veer far to the outer reaches, there is always the chance to say Yes to Love a 4th, 5th, 100th, 1000th time, and be drawn back in. And around this they will they tend the flock, and the church will take form.
One of the challenges of being a center-oriented congregation is that, well, it doesn’t work real well without a center. Not centralized leadership – we don’t roll like that. Not necessarily a geographic center – like a building - where you always meet. We learned that during Covid. But a center of what we care about. A common set of values and stories and practices around which we gather. And while Love and Breakfast was a pretty great way for the church to get started in John’s gospel, we might need a little more definition to keep this thing rolling through the 21st century.
I do think our 12 Scriptures project, quite a few years ago now, still hanging in the foyer, was an example of naming the substance of that center. I also think our Sanctuary relationship with Edith thickened that center in a very public way. I would also like to suggest that it is our Membership Commitment statement, reimagined and rewritten three years ago, which is the best thing we have that gives language to our common center.
Next week is our annual Membership Sunday and we’ll be led in worship by our new members and hear a bit of their faith journeys. We’ll also recite the statement together as we always do as a way of renewing our own commitments, or, to put it in today’s language, as a way of remembering the center. I guess there’s an argument to be made that having membership at all is a boundary-oriented practice, so I guess we’re a bit of a hybrid, although it’s not a you’re in or you’re out practice.
It’s been a pretty scattered two years, so it’s a good time to be reminding ourselves of the center. We’ll be referring to different parts of this statement throughout the month of May. I’d like to end today by highlighting one stanza that that seems to stand out to folks when they see this. It captures the beauty and the challenge of having a center with fuzzy edges. If you want to see the statement it’s copied into the back of our hymnals, the inside of the back cover.
The part I’ll highlight is the third from the top: “Ours is story grounded in scripture, centered on Jesus, re-envisioned by Anabaptists, ever expanding in our time.” There’s a chronology to those phrases.
There’s also a movement outward, as if Jesus unleashed a big bang of spiritual energy and we in the present moment are at the blind edge of that expansion. It’s that last phrase “ever expanding in our time” that catches a lot of people’s attention, in a positive way. Sometimes a shout Hallelujah kind of way. And there’s the beauty and the challenge of this form of congregational life.
The beauty is that there is no outside. There’s no realm, religious, secular, or otherwise where love cannot be known and expressed, no source of knowledge where our connection with the Eternal cannot be deepened, no shoreline where Christ won’t show up, and so there’s a tremendous freedom in being unbounded.
The challenge is having a strong enough center. And I think this is especially where congregations with a progressive or liberal bent can either thrive by practicing a strong center, or just drift along with a strong sense of what they don’t want to be – those boundary focused people – but not a weak sense of what they do want to be.
That’s why most of the ink on this statement has to do with practices and not abstract ideas. Practices like gathering around the table where all are welcome. Could be for a breakfast of fish and bread. Could be communion. Could be in homes or at the YWCA Family Center. Practices like honoring the seasons of life, sharing our time and resources, pursuing wholistic peace with justice and caring for creation. You can see what’s there.
This month we’ll have a chance to think about some – not all- some of these a little more in depth. It’s my hope that we can continue to move ever closer to the center that Jesus summarized to Peter in three words, which was really just one word. Love, love, love.