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Easter 3 & Wedding Sermon
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on the Third Sunday of Easter, Wedding of Oulton/Bell, April 14, 2013

Christ Church Andover
Year C, Easter 3, Wedding of Dawn Oulton & Peter Bell
April 14, 2013

Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee. AMEN.

Some weeks, the lectionary just lends itself to the somewhat arbitrary events that are scheduled for a particular day. Perhaps it’s divine sympathy, perhaps it’s all in the ears of the listener, but several months ago, I knew that this was going to be the gospel preached on the day of Peter and Dawn’s wedding. It’s not one of our marriage texts, not suggested in the Book of Common Prayer, and to be honest there are more subtle pieces of scripture in the gospels for days where we affirm our covenant with God and with one another. But, it is one of the most honest, and, I believe, true, pieces of scripture when it comes to our ongoing relationship with the risen Christ. This ‘final’ experience of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias with his disciples offers not only a final experience of what it means to be a disciple, but what it means to be in relationship with God. And as we hear again and again in scripture and in our prayer, how we are in relationship with God impacts and models how we are in relationship with one another.

This (last) pericope of Jesus and Peter finds them sitting on the shore after a long night of fruitless fishing with the rest of the disciples. Having been disappointed in their efforts, Jesus appears on the shore, telling them from afar to cast their nets on the ‘other side’. They are more than satisfied with the result of this change in tactic and they are overcome with plenty of fish. The disciples come to shore to find Jesus waiting for them, and enjoy a small breakfast barbeque with him, partaking of bread and fish (sound familiar from other passages?), everyone, including the risen Jesus, eating together. This is when Jesus, filled with fish and the company of his friends once again, starts this conversation with Peter.

There is an ancient and scriptural image of Jesus as a bridegroom. Christ is waiting at the church, right up here at the altar for us, imagining the Church as his bride, to come down the aisle and meet him. He will always be there waiting for us, ready to complete the covenant of trust and faith and love, if we will but take the first step of showing up, and the second step of saying ‘I will’. We do this writ small in the covenant of marriage, but also in the covenants that we make with God and each other throughout our lives—in baptism; in confirmation; every time we confess our sins and then open up our palms to receive God’s grace in wafer form. First we show up; then we say that we will. The form of the relationships will change over time, and over the course of our lives- we only have to think back to the last two weeks, when as one parishioner mentioned to me, we have covered the gamut of the Christian life just in the context of our announcements: we baptize, we confirm, we receive into the church; we marry, we die, we celebrate new life once again. While the nature of the relationships changes, the essence of what we are asked to do in that life of faith does not.

And this is where Peter and Jesus come to this day, this feast, this covenanting of two people, so beautifully.

Dawn and Peter, I can give you very little advice on marriage. Luckily, that’s not my job. What I can offer you today, and to the community here gathered, are what I have gleaned from this gospel about the nature of mutual relationships. And those relationships are not just about two people in fancy outfits on only one day of their life; it is about relationship on three levels: between two people covenanting with one another in marriage; about the relationships between people and their community; and about our relationship with God in Christ. Jesus was a multitasker when it came to covering bases and he does that well in this passage. I have learned five things from this passage in my own prayer, and I offer them to you and to this congregation this morning.

1) Sometimes you just need to say ‘I love you’. This is one of the clearest passages in scripture that engages with the nature of love. Jesus’ conversation with Peter isn’t about what Peter has or hasn’t done; it isn’t about his worth or his abilities, or really even his faith. Jesus doesn’t test Peter in the way the disciples put Thomas to the test last week—it isn’t about faith over proof, or doubt or any of those things. Jesus wants to know if Peter loves him.

With our hearty Puritan, New Englander heritage, many of us often forgo the words for actions. We can be strong silent types, confident that any betrayal of emotion would shatter others image of us, or even worse, our own images of our selves. Obviously our actions should mesh with our feelings, but even the best of us find it easier to do love rather than say love. Jesus knew that Peter loved him. There was never any doubt of that. But sometimes you need to hear it. Sometimes you need to hear those three words “I love you”—because we forget that we are human creatures borne of love and sustained by it. And we don’t just need to limit that to our partners and spouses and families—we need to say it in our communities, to the people we sit and pray with and cry with and celebrate with; and believe it or not, we need to say it to God. We assume all too often that people know how we feel. Affirming our love for another is not an acknowledgement of our weakness or emotional vulnerability; it is an affirmation of our strength and commitment to one another.

2) Sometimes you need to say ‘I love you’ more than once. There are no meaningless repetitions in scripture. I’m sure you all know this by now. Whenever there is a repetition, it most likely wasn’t an errant monk in the middle ages with a penchant for dozing off in the middle of copying a manuscript, but rather a verbal cue that something is really important to pay attention to for a community that was largely illiterate and learned these stories orally.

It is in our nature to want to hear things over and over again. Our children ask for the same stories because they touch them somehow—‘read it again!’ we hear. We repeat our baptismal vows at every baptism because we are creature of limited time and space and memory, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of just what exactly we agreed to at our baptism and at our confirmation. And when Jesus asks Peter the three times if he loves him, Peter says that ‘yes Lord, you KNOW I love you’, but in a broken world filled with hurt and competition, it’s all too easy to forget that love. We tell it to our children. Hopefully you hear it every time you walk into this sanctuary. And it should continually come from those around you, and come from you.

3) Which brings me to this: forgiveness is essential. Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. I’ll give you a minute to bring to mind why Jesus might have wanted to hear something from Peter three times. Remember that scripture on Maundy Thursday evening and on Good Friday? Peter denied Jesus three times. This, then—this is redemption. Jesus offers Peter a chance to undo those three denials in this passage by an affirmation of his love. We mess up. You will mess up. You will mess up a relationship, you will hurt one another, hopefully inadvertently— and you will from time to time forget the first two insights from this passage, and leave love to the side of practicality. We mess up. But we can ask and receive forgiveness.

And forgiveness isn’t so much about saying ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘It’s okay’ in response, but about the creation of a new relationship in the wake of hurt. One does have to apologize; one does have to acknowledge complicity and hurt—we recall that in our baptismal covenant as well. But even the promise we make then is to repent, which literally means in the Greek, stop and move in a different direction. Learning to rebuild a relationship in the wake of hurt takes more chutzpah than almost anything else. Peter and Jesus’ relationship was never the same after that morning on the shore, when that shame Peter was carrying was given the gift of forgiveness and amelioration. No one likes saying they were wrong. We like even less to acknowledge that we are not always ‘right’. But that humility that we show—with our partners, our community and with God—that offers us a new life in that relationship. It offers us the trust that we are loved even when we do mess up. It offers us a love which is not dependent on our goodness, but our faithfulness.

4) And that faithfulness is shown in the little things. Peter tells Jesus three times, ‘Lord, you know that I love you”, and Jesus replies: Feed my lambs; Tend my sheep; Feed my sheep. I’m not going to lie, those tasks don’t sound awesome or fun at all. Granted, I’m not an animal husbandry enthusiast, but you can imagine that the non-metaphorical aspect of that command might have damped Peter’s love for Jesus. When feeding sheep or tending lambs, there are basic tasks to be done. And they have to be done every day. They probably get tedious, especially on rainy cold days, and frustrating to uphold, especially when there are better, more fun things to be out doing. But love doesn’t always manifest itself in the large, epiphany producing ways. There are reasons that Bachelorette and Bachelor show relationships get rough post-production. My guess is because there are fewer roses and more laundry baskets involved.

The small things are the building blocks of how we live in relationship. In a marriage it might be the grocery lists and household budget and coordinating schedules; in a community, it might be returning a phone call or email to another person, bringing a snack for fellowship, or a can or box of food for the red wagon. In our relationship with God, it might just be offering a twenty-second prayer before eating; before going to bed; saying ‘thank you’. Scripture tells us of the huge events that heralded God’s presence, but most of them could be writ small—it was at meals; time away with each other and by oneself; it was in the ordinary work of the day. Even today, these disciples were not out for a boat ride, kicking back with a beer and a rod, they were at work, at their day jobs. Tending sheep seems romantic, but it is hard—but as George Herbert tells us, it’s part of our call to make ‘drudgery divine’.

5) Finally—and I hope that you know I could have given you twelve pieces of advice from this gospel, but won’t because especially Dawn and Peter shouldn’t even remember these five—you all can remind them!- it takes a community. None of this was done in a bubble. Jesus didn’t get Peter alone to have this conversation, or to tell him that in order to know his love it should be reserved just for him. To engage in the metaphorical aspect of tending sheep, it meant that it isn’t about an adorable relationship between two people only, but about how that relationship nurtures and empowers those two people to go out into the world. In a plain way, it isn’t all about just you. What we learn from our relationships enables us to go forward with others in ways we weren’t able to before. When we pray, it might just be about our own relationship with God, but ultimately, that is only known when we are bringing the fruits of that relationship to our relationship with others. When we are in community, we are nourished in a way that lets us nourish others around us. When you live into a forgiving loving relationship, it changes the way you envision the world, and the way you interact with it. What you cultivate, you will reap.

Say I love you. Over and over again. So that you can give and ask for forgiveness, which you will have to do over and over again. Take note that love can be found in a grocery list or full dishwasher, and believe it or not, it isn’t all about you.

Dawn and Peter, I expect you to remember very little of this other than the ‘tell each other you love them’ part today. But I will ask you to do something. Stand up and take a look around. There is a reason you are getting married in this community. My guess is that you already know everything I’ve said to you *because* of this community here present: your family, your friends, your congregation, your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. These are the people who will also continue to teach you these lessons, as you will them. And I’m going to ask the rest of the congregation to take a look around at the people in the pews behind and before them. These are the people who will teach YOU the lessons Peter learned and that I’ve just outlined, and that we will learn and try and learn again together. Nothing is done in isolation. Every relationship relies on the same building blocks, the same as when we covenant with another person in marriage. It’s not just about Peter and Dawn today affirming their vows to one another, but we do that as well as a community bound together on this pilgrimage, and to God.

Yes Lord, you know that I love you.

Amen and amen.

Last Published: April 23, 2013 3:50 PM