Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Friday, September 30, 2023, at the funeral for member Duane Miller, who died Sunday, September 24, 2023, at age 89. Commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee and St. Teresa of Avila inform the message.
A nourishing fringe benefit of being a small-town pastor is the surprise delivery of food.
The ringing doorbell breaks the quiet of a Saturday afternoon, and when you answer the call, your visitor holds a sack of fresh-picked green beans or bushel of crisp apples. Sometimes it’s a chicken that earlier in the day had been clucking around the farmyard in blissful ignorance of its fate, but now – cleaned and dressed, the prized capon cocoons in a Zip-Lock bag, ready for roasting.
Other times, the smiling face at the backdoor hands off a container of snow-white filets: Bluegill, crappie, maybe some perch, that just hours ago had been innocently swimming around some slow-moving backwater of the Mississippi.
Words of marvel over God’s Creation – and the telling of a few “fish stories” – furthered the charity and enriched the nourishment. Then back to his running vehicle he’d go.
“Have a good one, pastor. See ya Sunday!”
“You too, Duane. God bless!
Look out for deer on your way home! And tell Shirley is says “hi.”
I assume Duane limited-out on the day’s catch when and only when he was fishing solo.
When he was drowning worms with the grandkids, Duane, I’m told, spent most of his time baiting hooks, untangling lines, and just generally making sure the barb of an errantly cast hook didn’t sink deep into tender, young flesh.
Anxiety, impatience, and youthful exuberance notwithstanding, Duane logged countless hours along the shoreline and aboard the pontoon, blessedly nourishing body and mind, soul and spirit, of young and old alike.
But in this moment, the boat sits empty and tied at the dock, and we’re all feeling more than just a little hungry. Death has a particularly nasty way of making a body feel empty and hollow. Death makes our insides growl and groan with a kind of starvation that’s never fully fed.
Grief hangs over you like the gray skies above. Tears flow like a great river, and rough wake tosses you to and fro like a rag doll. You need to find safe harbor. You need some comfort food – maybe even a stiff tumbler of straight-up brandy and a pinch of snuff.
Yet there just doesn’t seem like there’s anything good to eat or drink. Nothing but hunger, the glass well below half empty. You cast your nets – far and wide, but throw after throw, you get skunked – no fish flipping and flopping inside the faded-blue Igloo cooler that normally held abundance.
Then, along comes Jesus. “Catch anything?” – No?
“Then come. Sit by the fire. Warm yourself. Have some breakfast.”
Listen for the Word of the Lord in the Gospel of John:
After he rose from the dead, Jesus showed himself to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he showed himself in this way.
Gathered there together one evening were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.
The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. (John 21:1-14)
Hanging around on a remote beach with a bunch of hapless fishermen who came up empty the night before isn’t exactly where you’d expect the Lord to show up.
After all, Jesus has just risen from the dead, and he ought to be back in Jerusalem telling old Herod and Pilate the truth of what had happened to him as a result of their execution orders.
Jesus ought to be anywhere else but on that beach. He ought to be off somewhere – oh, I don’t know – maybe curing cancer or healing the blind, releasing some prisoners or making some crooked ways straight – all the stuff that makes the big headlines for the Lord God of abundance and goodness.
Even the spectacular catch of fish that Jesus hauls onto the beach that morning seems puny compared to all the stuff he’s done before. Earlier in the Gospel story, Jesus takes a couple of fish and a piece or two of bread and pulls off the eye-popping, jaw-dropping miracle of feeding 5,000-or-so people.
Now that was impressive!
But now, here, in our lesson this morning, Jesus goes to the opposite extreme: He feeds seven people from a catch of 153 fish. Doesn’t seem like much of a big deal.
Maybe, then, we need to rethink where we expect the Lord to show up in our lives and what we expect him to do when he gets there.
We’re often so desperate to infuse the resurrected Jesus with such meaning that we don’t see him showing up in the ordinary circumstances of everyday living and doing the little things that mean so much – like providing a simple meal when we’re so incredibly hungry!
It is in the ordinary routine where we probably need to see Jesus more often – seeing Jesus in exactly the everyday set of circumstances that John’s Gospel shares with us – on a beach, cooking breakfast, filling hungry stomachs, warming and lifting up sagging spirits.
Because isn’t that precisely where we need to encounter a Savior? When hooks need bait, and lines need untangling?
We don’t just need a stained-glass Jesus who is so heavenly and other-worldly, a Jesus who speaks at only the holiest and most obviously sacred of events and occasions. We need a Jesus in the kitchen – “amid the pots and pans,” as one ancient writer puts it.
We need a Jesus who’s on the beach and at the office, with us in the car running the errands, riding behind us on the motorcycle, sitting next to us in the classroom, milking the herd in the parlor, riding shotgun in the tractor during planting and harvest.
We need a Savior who accompanies us on our everyday journeys – a Savior who reaches out and touches the ordinary circumstances of our lives with much-needed abundance and goodness.
We need the humble cook who prepares a meal over a simple charcoal fire so we can sit back and savor an abundance of comfort and strength that we need to make it through from one day to the next – never really “getting over” the death of a loved one but, with the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, learning to live with such heartbreaking loss.
While in the shadow of death it seems impossible, but indeed joy and laughter, a sense of wholeness – however scarred – one day will return, even as the “first withouts” – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries – dampen eyes and lump throats.
Thanks be to God, an abundance of healing mercy and a goodly amount of resurrection hope rises with the dawn of each new day.
Such amazing grace probably won’t taste as flaky delicious as pan-fried perch. But it’ll be sufficient – grace so adequately nourishing and effectively comforting, that we join the psalmist in joyful, full-throated celebration:
“The Lord is shepherd of my life; I shall not want for anything. He anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.”
In this world or the next, may nothing in life or in death separate us from the healing love of God – the good and abundant love of God made known in simple and comforting things that show up at just the right time: In the breaking of bread, in the frying of fish – and maybe even, dare I say, in the sipping of a hot toddy on a chilly autumn night.
Surely so, in the kind face of the caring soul who shows up at the back door some morning bearing a sack of comfort food and extending a gracious invitation: “Come, let’s have breakfast.”
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.