Sermon given at the ordination of the Rev. Claire Brown to the priesthood, Sept. 8, 2018
Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele, Co-Executive Director Highlander Research & Education Center
This passage is part of John’s last recorded appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. It is among the last breaths of John’s Gospel, which the author wrote “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in Jesus’ name.” (John 20:31).
Claire, to be with you this morning gives us life in Jesus’ name. It’s a moment for all of us to consider that a life of Christian discipleship is learning how to say “yes!” to a life with Jesus.
All who encountered the resurrected Jesus before this final chapter had to work through how to say yes to what they saw. A sobbing & stunned Mary Magdalene had to turn around to see Jesus at the tomb; the famously hesitant Thomas needed to touch the wounds from Jesus’ execution.
But by now, the gospel tells us, by now the disciples “knew that it was the Lord.” That’s where they were in their journey at the time. And in what we hear today, John turns our attention to an encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.
Hear again the word of God:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”
And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep … “
Know me & Love me, Peter; take care of my Creation. Say yes … and have life.
Claire, daughter of Janet & Tom, grand-daughter of Caroline, Jack & Ellen, Bob & Jim & Mary … like Peter, you are about to receive a litany of questions that will invite you to say, in so many words, Yes. Your consistent Yes will allow your bishop, Brian, and all of us here to formally ordain you into the role of priest. It will be an affirmation of your discipleship, but it will also be a confirmation of your willingness to assume an ancient form of servanthood.
Because in so learning to say yes, you aren’t just satisfying the conditions of a group of folks in Eastern Tennessee, you are succeeding Mary Magdalene, and Thomas, and Peter and the rest of the earliest disciples who said Yes to carrying out the dangerous ministry of Jesus—the kind of ministry intended to turn the world over; the kind of ministry intended to bring others life.
Already, this is a holy & beautiful occasion. So, like many others will say to you today, let me say from this pulpit that I am grateful you have invited us here. I am grateful you have extended to all of us Jesus’ invitation to Peter and the rest to sit at this charcoal fire on the beach, where Jesus has laid out breakfast. I am just so grateful.
But, Claire, I am also sorry, because there will come times in your ministry when instead of saying Yes, you will wish to say No. In fact, you may already have from time to time said No. And we all do. It’s our lot. And it’s happened from the very beginning.
For example, don’t forget the first charcoal fire, the one in John’s 18th chapter, before the empire executes Jesus, where Peter warms himself by a charcoal fire made by the police and other henchmen. There, while Jesus is bound and interrogated by the authorities, Peter denies three times that he is a disciple of Jesus. There, shivering, he says, “No … I am not.”
Peter’s denial is a part of discipleship. Peter’s denial is a part of ministry. And on one hand, we should be a little thankful for it. Peter’s denial of Christ signifies an uneasy relief of the burden of ever having to be God.
On another hand, Peter’s ancient denial gives voice to Christian ministry’s contemporary struggle for what it really means to step into the Yes of it all.
I am not with that troublemaker, says ministry, and so our outreach fails the most marginalized among us.
I am not with that troublemaker, says ministry, and so the priesthood becomes a class of people responsible for the maintenance of an institution.
I am not with that troublemaker, says ministry, and so the liberating message of Jesus gets nailed to another cross.
And even if the church universal were the best at dismantling the death machines of empire and white supremacy and capitalism on every corner in Chattanooga … even if the church shone a righteous light on every example of police brutality against black people in this community … even if the church were to stop gentrification and displacement in every working class neighborhood in Hamilton County … even if all the parishes in this Diocese were to provide sanctuary for every immigrant seeking refuge … even if the church did all of that, Jesus tells us that ministry will still take you to places where you do not wish to go.
You see, even though Peter says “Yes” all three times in the passage we heard today, and even though that seems to suggest that his three denials have been redeemed, listen again to what Jesus still says to Peter:
“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, Peter, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
Claire, like Peter, you will find yourself standing next to a lot of charcoal fires trying to stand warm, and when the guardians of the status quo and their lethal henchmen ask you whose disciple you might be, you may not wish to go there.
As a priest, saying Yes means caring for the family of the murdered and the murderer, and you may not wish to go there;
As a priest, saying yes means preaching righteous anger on behalf of those displaced by progress and giving pastoral care to those who are intoxicated by the power of the state … and you may not wish to go there;
you are called into to the ICU; the morgue, the graveside; to the streets on fire with anguish and pain; the mundane office room;
you are called to read the suicide note, to mop up the toxins of opioids … and you may not wish to go there.
Your body will break and your marriage will struggle and a teenage Sylvan will try to reject your motherhood
& you will feel even more deeply the strain of having to stand in your power as a woman in the Church
and when all that’s happening at once and the Church matriarch’s funeral is the next day … you will not wish to go there.
Claire, my sister, this role may not be a call to death, but it certainly is a call to the possibility of it. And because of that, and because the sacrifices made in the name of following Jesus are so great in number, you will wish to say No.
So where do you go when you do not wish to go … there?
Well, Claire … well, all you other disciples … Jesus has already told you, “come … and have breakfast.”
There [point to table] … there, Jesus tells you … that’s where you go when you are taken where you do not wish to go. “Follow me,” Jesus tells you. Follow me there. When you are afraid … when you are hungry … when you are resentful … when you are worn from walking the burning streets … when you are sore from holding the parent who’s lost her child … when you delight in God’s blessings … whenever and wherever and with whomever you are … Remember to come and break your fast, and help others do the same.
Remember that with God, there will always be another charcoal fire. There will always be another meal laid out. The promise of the table … the promise of another charcoal fire … is that our God is a God of infinite Yes’s, even though our hands will stretch out and we may sometimes be taken to places we do not wish to go.
And as for you, Claire, remember that a profound responsibility of this new role to which you are about to say yes, is to call people together to remember this promise … this promise of God’s desire for transformation … God’s desire for reconciliation … God’s desire for all Creation to meet and merge at one place.
Help us unleash the remembrance of that, Claire, even as a belt is fastened around us … even as we are led to places we do not wish to go.
So let’s end by going back to the beginning. In the first scene of this chapter, Peter says, “I am going fishing” and some other disciples respond, “We will go with you.”
You are going fishing, Claire. And we will go with you.
When the disciples come ashore, they see a charcoal fire. The fish is cooking. The bread is warming. Peter hauls in the huge catch of fish; Jesus welcomes them to breakfast.
And in your ministry, Claire, and in our collective ministries, my sisters & brothers, God’s promise is that Jesus will always be saying, “Come and have breakfast.”
Say yes to that, and help us keep the feast. Amen.