Strangers on the Shore

I have a wonderful friend in Wellsburg who runs what our House of Hope team thinks is the best restaurant in town.  Nicol and her husband are the owners of The Dovetail – dovetail as in wood working.  It is a joint that is made up of interlocking fingers if you will.

Nicol has quite a bit of experience running kitchens, having managed them in several large institutional settings.  She and her husband Rob are a couple of the hardest working folks you’ll ever meet.  She is up early, early in the morning to make sure breakfast is going smoothly.  The Dovetail is a place of wonderful dishes, and in the morning the oatmeal covered with baked apples is to die for.  Along with the coffee.

Unfortunately, Wellsburg isn’t large enough to support the Dovetail the way it should.  As hard as Nicol works, she and Rob barely keep their heads above water.

This is the story of many people these days.  Yes, the economy is booming and unemployment is at its lowest since the late 60’s.  But most workers have seen far too little to show for their efforts.  So it is with many of our clergy.  Pastoral work is a lot like housework.  It’s never done.  Yet in an age that sees less and less need for what the church offers, the long hours most pastors put into their work seem to bear little fruit.

In our gospel selection from John, Peter and some of the disciples have gone out fishing.  Maybe, after the utter disaster of the past few days, they had given up on the disciple thing.  Maybe they were just at odds about what to do.  Anyway, Peter had announced, “I’m going fishing.”  The others decide to tag along.  But they catch nothing.  I have certainly been on plenty of fishing trips like that!

The fishing business has been so unrewarding that now they’re fishing at night to try and survive.  And for all their efforts, in spite of their all-nighter, they’ve caught nothing.  That’s when a stranger a ways off on the shore calls out to them, “Hey, guys!   Have you caught anything?”  Who is this busybody?  What does he care?  “No,” they have to admit.  For all their effort, they’ve come up empty handed.  There’s not even a single catfish in the net.  Zip.  Nada.

At this point everything changes — this intruder has the nerve to tell them how to do their job?  “Try casting your net on the other side of the boat.”  Yeah.  Right.  Sure.  But, having nothing to lose, that’s exactly what they do. Maybe it’s an authority they sense in his voice.  And surprise upon surprise.  The net is now so full of fish they can barely pull it back in.  About this time, they recognize that in the guise of a stranger, they’ve encountered the risen Christ.  And the confirmation is abundance. All in all, one hundred fifty-three fish.  But we’ll get back to that number later. 

How often it is that strangers on the shore alert us to God’s abundance.  Alert us to the presence of divine possibility.

Many of the people I’ve encountered in my trips to West Virginia, though they live sparse lives, experience an amazing abundance in spiritual gifts.  The comradery around a campfire, in family connections and in community gatherings — there’s an abundance that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.  Friendships are deep and rich. And church is often at the center of lives that are well-lived.  In new found friends, over and over I’ve been alerted to an abundance I would have overlooked. This has been the case with our Wounded Warrior project we hold on our farm.

Our little church of St. Francis may never reach its glory days of the 60s and 70s, but we do have an abundance of joy in one another.  We have abundance in the vision of reconfiguring our campus for mission, as we seek to walk with the addicted and homeless. 

Abundance comes in guises we often fail to recognize.  It’s not necessarily about number, what can be measured.  It’s about the quality and the timelessness of events.  The Bible calls this quality Kairos time.  The fitting season – when time is right.  Fishing is like that.

There’s the old saying that any days spent fishing are not deducted from one’s allotted lifespan.  Days spent fishing are days of “miracle and wonder,” as Paul Simon put it.

When I was in about the second grade my family went on a summer trip to Ensenada, Mexico.  I was somewhat upset because the trip was during the time of my birthday.   I was very disappointed that I wouldn’t have any friends over for a birthday party.  I remember my parents assuring me that we would do something special for the day anyway.  They wondered what I might like to do.  I hadn’t the slightest idea.  What did I know?  I had never been here before.  I didn’t know anyone here.  It seemed that my parents had spent most of the time during the drive down in an ugly family fight.  I was most unhappy.

As we drove through the town of Ensenada, we passed all these fishing boats and rows and rows of fishing poles with signs advertising fishing trips.  I immediately knew what I wanted to do for my birthday.  I wanted to go fishing.  My mom knew nothing of fishing and somehow, between my mom and dad, it was decided that he would be the one to take me out on a charter boat.

I remember waking very early.  It was cold and foggy as we walked along the beach front.  I could taste the salt air.  When we approached the boat, the smells of diesel and fish also permeated my senses.  It was an old wooden boat that creaked as it moved with the gentle swells in the harbor. 

Several of the crewmen spoke English and, as I was the youngest on board, they adopted me as their mascot.

As we were leaving the harbor that morning, I remember my dad sternly warning me, “Don’t look down at the water; look at the horizon.  That way you won’t get seasick.”

It seemed that it took forever to get out to the fishing area.  On the way, we stopped by a boat and picked up a load of little fish that we would use for bait.  By the time we had arrived at the fishing grounds, my dad was not feeling too well.  He said that he was going into the cabin to lie down. 

The deck hands helped me bait my hook and showed me how to cast out from the boat.  Within a very short time I had caught my first fish.  They helped me get it over the rail of the boat and off the hook.  It was the biggest fish I had ever seen as it flopped about on the deck.  And to think, I had actually caught it.  Looking back on the episode now, I realize that it was only a medium sized sea bass.  Probably not that big at all.  But to a young fellow, it looked like it might have hooked Moby Dick or Jaws..

We continued to fish into the afternoon.  I caught fish after fish.  By the time we headed back into the harbor, I had quite an impressive gunny sack full of them.  It was so full that I couldn’t begin to lift it.

As we arrived back at port, I saw my mom and brother waving at the railing of the pier.  All I could do was to point to the huge sack of fish.  About this time, Dad appeared from the cabin of the boat.  By his acrid breath I could tell that he had been seasick.  He really didn’t look too good.  As a big orange sun was setting into the sea, I rushed up the gangway to Mom with Dad trailing somewhat unsteadily behind struggling with my sack of fish.  The first thing I blurted out was, “Mom, Dad didn’t look at the shoreline!”  Even, Dad, woozy as he was, cracked a smile.

Together we all walked back home.  For that moment we were a happy family.  It was the best birthday ever.  Nearing our cottage, we passed what seemed to be some shacks.  Even as young as I was, I realized that these were a pretty poor houses, not at all like ours back home.  I had bad feelings about it.  I remember my mom and dad talking to one of the guys standing out in front in a language I didn’t understand, and pointing to the sack of fish.  I was upset when they then gave away almost all of the fish.

Coming up to the patio out in front of our place, my dad explained that these people didn’t have much and their families would certainly appreciate the fish.  Besides, we could only eat a few of them.  No use wasting them.  My mom didn’t like them at all because she said that they smelled up the place.  To my mind, they were they were the most delicious fish I had ever eaten.

Later on, I came to realize what a gift it really was for Dad to have taken me.  Now I, like him, only have to experience the boat going up and down about three times before I’m hanging on the rail feeding the fish.  He knew that he was going to be absolutely miserable and yet he took me anyway.  I now realize what a sacrifice that was for him.

One of the lessons that I have taken from this first fishing trip is that God’s abundance is seen in the sacrifices we make for one another, the big and small ways we go out of our way just because we know that the gift of time or presence will be important to another person. We are Christ to one another in this gift of self.

That day, though I didn’t have the words for it then, I knew that I and my family had been blessed in a way I would never forget.  Life was full and overflowing with goodness.  Abundance.

In our Gospel story from John, we have a continuation of appearances by the Resurrected Christ.

In the risen Christ we experience forgiveness as well.  Why is it that Peter is asked three times if he loves the Lord?  It is to undo the three-fold denial at Jesus’ trial.  Peter is now reclaimed and sent out as an embodiment of the same Easter abundance.

Likewise, as we experience forgiveness for the daily stupid and carless things we do and say, we are restored to gospel usefulness.  Abundance brought so often by a stranger on the shore of our life.  Christ in the guise of a stranger, an interloper.

In the abundance of fish, the Beloved Disciple recognizes the man.  “It is the Lord.”

The net is so full of fish, 153 in all – large fish – that all the disciples come out to the boat to haul it in.  When they get back on land, they saw the charcoal fire with fish and bread roasting on it.  Jesus invites them to also bring over some of the fish they have just caught.

This is a story about abundance and sharing.   John wants his community to know that they will recognize the Risen Christ in the abundance God provides when life is shared.  That’s it.

I could go on at great length about all the theories of the 153 fish.  Looking at the commentaries, there are all sorts of speculations about the significance of this number.  But, I fear, you might have as much trouble staying awake hearing about them as I did just in reading about them.

So, if anyone asks you about the meaning of the 153 fish, just tell them, “Fr. John had nothing profound to say.”  Our salvation does not depend on knowing the significance of this number.

However, John in his Gospel has something most profound to say about abundance, and this revelation has a lot to do with our salvation.   Christians, when gathered together, will experience the Risen Lord in the daily abundance that God provides for us when it is shared.  In the sharing we will know his real and living presence. 

When we gather around this altar, let us remember this teaching.  Food is basic.  It is to be shared.  It is our very Lord who said, “I am food.”  In the sharing of this bread broken and cup poured out, he is present to bless and encourage us. 

In a similar way long ago, I experienced God’s goodness to me on my birthday – in the abundance of a monstrous gunny sack full of fish that were shared with those who had none.  (There had to have been 153 of them!) And in the abundance of love that permeated our family dinner that evening, I now know Christ was present.


Third Sunday of Easter
Strangers on the Shore

Acts 9:1-6, [7-20]; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14;
John 21:1-14

Preached at St. Francis Outreach Center, San Bernardino;

 The Rev. John C. Forney
May 5, 2019

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