Sunday 19 August 2012

Rivers & Lakes

Address given at the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving for the Lough Derg Yacht Club Regatta, at Killodiernan Church on Sunday 19th August 2012.

We’re so lucky, aren’t we!
We are all so lucky to be able to spend time relaxing and enjoying ourselves, with friends and family, on the beautiful waters of the ‘Lordly Shannon’ - whether it is for just a few hours, or for a full two weeks, if you’re one of those hardy souls who’ve sailed both Regattas! I personally feel particularly lucky to have been able to make my home with Marty in sight of the water, in a community where my family has lived, worked and played for generations.

Actually, I feel certain it is down to much more than luck. The right way to see it, I think, is as a gift from God. God has blessed us, blessed us all with this great gift of the Shannon which we have been enjoying, and blessed us with the even greater gift of the families and friends who we’ve been enjoying it with. That is why so many of us keep coming back here, year after year, generation on generation.

It is the worst of bad manners not to thank someone who has given you a wonderful present.  So it is very right and proper that we should come together at the end of the Regatta season to thank God for his gifts which have given us so much enjoyment. And this is just the sentiment that Isaiah expresses in beautiful poetry in the 1st reading (Isaiah 43:16-21): ‘Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters … I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.’

And in just the same way as we expect a child not to wilfully spoil or break a generous present, our duty is to look after the great gift of the Shannon, as well as the greater gift of our families and friends. We need to cherish our families and friends because these relationships are precious and fragile. This is not the time or place to go into the politics of water abstraction, but we should surely also do our best to ensure that however we use the gift of the Shannon we conserve it for those who come after us, because it too is precious and fragile.

The Sea of Tiberias is also a great gift from God to the people of Galilee.
Jesus and his disciples were Galileans and they surely loved their lake, just as we love our Shannon lakes. Today’s 2nd reading (John 21:1-14) is set around the Sea of Tiberias, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. After all the heightened emotion in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, it is not surprising, I think, that the disciples returned to the Sea of Tiberias. They surely needed to take some time out to work through all that had happened, and where better than the lake they knew so well?

I’ve never seen the Sea of Tiberias, but it’s much the same size as Lough Derg - about 40% bigger in area, and wider, but not so long. In my mind’s eye I like to imagine the many Gospel stories that are set in and around the Galilean lake as taking place around Lough Derg.

So, indulge me, let us imagine Jesus standing, just after daybreak, on a grassy lake shore - in Luska bay, perhaps, where there are still places which scrub has not invaded. The seven disciples, prompted by Simon Peter, have been fishing all night without catching a thing – how frustrated they must be! They’re about 100 yards out when Jesus calls to them from the shore, saying ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find (fish)’. They do as he suggests, and they catch so many fish that they can’t bring the net back into the boat. They have to pull it into the shore, where they find they’ve caught no less than 153 large fish.

Notice, this is not described as miraculous – just amazing. Perhaps Jesus, higher on the shore, could see a shoal of fish which those in the boat could not.

But there is something strange about the story, as there is with all the stories about the disciples encountering the risen Christ. They do not immediately recognise their close friend Jesus, even when they came ashore. Just as Mary Magdalen mistakes Jesus for the gardener. Just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognise their companion on the road as Jesus.

‘None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord’, we are told. You don’t ask a friend you know well ‘who are you’. The risen Jesus on the shore must have seemed rather different to the Jesus the disciples knew so well. But they just knew it was him.

It is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ who first makes the connection, crying out, ‘It is the Lord!’ He is traditionally believed to be the apostle John, the author of this Gospel. Hearing this, Simon Peter – brave, impetuous Peter – jumps into the lake to get to Jesus on the shore before the others. But first he pulls on some clothes, because he has stripped naked to work the nets – now that's a striking image, St Peter stark naked in the boat!

Jesus has already prepared a barbeque breakfast for the disciples, with fish and bread over a charcoal fire. Just imagine the delicious smells of the fish grilling! How hungry the disciples must have been after fishing all night! He says to them, ‘Come and have breakfast’, and then he waits on them. He ‘took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish’, we’re told. It reminds me of the Eucharist in which we re-enact the Last Supper, but with bread and fish instead of bread and wine.

It’s a lovely, vivid story - it could almost be a film script! But what are we to make of it?
John is not writing a biography of Jesus, nor is he writing history. John is writing a Gospel, in which he weaves stories of Jesus’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, into a rich tapestry, in order to explain Jesus’s true significance – Jesus the incarnate Word, the Son of God, through whom those who believe have life in his name. No doubt this particular story can be understood in many ways, but this is what I take from it.

We often encounter the risen Jesus when we are struggling and failing, searching but unable to find what we’re looking for. We find him in the stranger we do not recognise, at the time and in the place we least expect it, with a sudden realisation, ‘It is the Lord!’ If we listen carefully we will hear Jesus call us to change what we are doing – in other words to repent – to cast the net to the right, not the left. When we do so we haul in a great catch of good. And this risen Jesus feeds our spirits in a life-giving banquet – a Eucharist if you will - with the gifts he has prepared for us.

God spoke through Isaiah saying, ‘I am about to do a new thing.’ As Christians we believe that God is doing this new thing through Jesus - not 2000 years ago, not in the distant future, but now, today. In Isaiah's words, ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’.

Let me finish with a prayer:
Loving Father God, may we all encounter the risen Jesus, may we respond to his call to change, may we haul in a great catch of good, and may we join with him in the life-giving banquet he has prepared for us. Amen