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  • Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed

Good Neighbors

February 6, 2022, FPC Auburn

Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

***

I.

We all have moments where we are not at our best. I once received a good piece of advice regarding these moments which is that sometimes we all need to treat ourselves the way we would treat a cranky toddler. Feeling tired? Grumpy? On the edge of a tantrum? Well then ask yourself:

“Self, are you hungry? Do you need a snack?”

“Did you not sleep well last night? Do you need a nap?”

Often these questions lead to a humbling moment where we take a step back and realize the world isn’t coming to an end. We’ve just been neglecting our basic human needs.

The same logic holds true for our spiritual needs.

When we find ourselves bitter, lashing out, acting in ways we’re pretty sure are anything but Christ-like, it’s the perfect time to ask:

“When was the last time I prayed? Have I read any Scripture lately? Worshipped? Connected with my neighbors?”

Today the lectionary offers us two stories of individuals who know this feeling all too well. The Apostle Paul and Simon Peter.

II.

Both have moments in their journeys of faith where they are worn down in spirit, their souls are tired, and their doubts are real. In today’s gospel story we encounter Simon Peter at a moment when he has been up all night casting nets out and reeling them in over and over only to find he has caught absolutely nothing. When Jesus Christ himself says to cast the net one more time, you can almost hear Simon’s eyes roll.

Paul reminds readers that at his worst not only did he doubt he actually went after followers of Jesus, seeking to do them harm.

“I am the worst!” Paul says. “The least fit person to be called apostle!”

We are living in a historical moment when it is so easy to relate to all of this. The world is tired. We’ve been casting nets for almost two years now, on that boat, in uncharted waters, waves taking us up and down and up and down. And so we get why, when Jesus says to Simon, “toss that net out there again” his response is, “I am tired. I am hungry. Let’s just go home and order pizza.”

But as Paul demonstrates with his own story - personal struggles don’t just affect the individual. There are ramifications for every community we are a part of when our spiritual health is in jeopardy — when one member is hurting, the others are affected by that pain.

III.

Just a few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Carla Keirns, who is a medical ethicist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The interviewer opened with several examples of people calling for hospitals to refuse treatment to COVID-19 patients who had not been vaccinated. When she Dr. Keirns asked what she thought of this demand, her reply was:

“It makes me sad.” because, “These are our neighbors.”

Her response struck me on a couple of levels. First of all, typically when someone is being interviewed they strive to give answers that sound professional and impressive. But what I heard in Dr. Keirns response was an absolute heartfelt sadness.

“This is sad.” she said, the subtext being: Look at what this pandemic is doing to us.

The second thing that struck me was her comment, “These are our neighbors.” Now, no mention was made of religion in this interview but for any Christian person listening to this, of course hearing the word “neighbor" in this story points us to Jesus’ commandment to “Love God and love neighbor.” End of story. No matter what.

It’s simple, really.

And yet when we are tired, when we are hungry, when we’ve been casting nets and coming up empty for what seems like forever we do lose sight of the basics. We forget our calling to love and forgive just as we have been loved and forgiven in and through Jesus Christ - and we lash out at each other. And we harm our very own body, the body of Christ.

Keirns went on to say:

“It’s really a sign of the stress and tragedy of our times. You know, why would people be so angry and mean? And I think the answer to that is that we are all tired, and we’re angry, and our lives have been disrupted for two years now. And some folks are facing things like having surgeries delayed, and they’re looking for someone to blame. But they’re also looking for a sense of control.”

IV.

Unlike Simon Peter in today’s gospel story, the Apostle Paul has the benefit of hindsight. He looks back at his own life and he sees that when he was the most disconnected from his own faith was when he treated his neighbors with hate and contempt. He makes a confession to anyone who will listen in verse 9:

“I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

I was in a bad place and it caused me to hurt my neighbors.

But even Paul was not beyond redemption. And neither was Simon Peter. When he saw those nets overflowing with fish he threw himself at Jesus’ feet and made his confession saying: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Neither of these men were hopeless. And neither is the three year old throwing the tantrum on the floor of the grocery store.

Sometimes we’re just tired and hungry.

V.

After naming the heartbreak of this current tension in the medical world, the sadness of neighbor turning against neighbor and wishing harm upon one another, this Dr. Keirns made what I thought was a funny comment.

She’d already named that her first reaction to the thought of not treating an unvaccinated patient was simply sadness, and then she perked up a bit and said:

“And the second thing is we don't do that. In health care, we treat people based on their need.”

It was that simple language - that toddler language. What child hasn’t been told at some point in their lives, “We don’t do that.”

“We don’t bite our friends.”

“We don’t throw our food on the floor.”

It’s just a given. It’s very simple.

We don’t harm our neighbors.

The medical ethicist says: treat the patient.

Jesus says: grab the net.

Paul says: remember the good news of the gospel.

Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again so that we might have hope for new life… even (and perhaps especially) when we are at our worst.

VI.

In the life of faith, grabbing the net, clinging to the good news of redemption begins with the basics. Just as a toddler needs a steady rhythm of rest/play/snacks, just as a patient needs a prescribed treatment of medicine/scans/follow ups, for Christians our spiritual nurture requires a steady rhythm of worship/prayer/sacrament/service. This is the rhythm that grounds us. For us Reformed Christians we rely on Creeds and Confessions like the Apostles Creed to write themselves upon our hearts and rest in our souls so that without thinking we can return to the basics of: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…” Jesus gave his followers the Lord’s Prayer so that when we weren’t even sure how to pray we could always return to: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

We carry these basics with so that when we go out into the world and see mistreatment of our neighbors we know to say:

“That is sad… that is our neighbor… and we don’t do that.”

VII.

Of course, we don’t always do this well or even at all. Especially when we are tired, and hungry, and cranky. But Paul reminds us that periods of spiritual struggle are not failures. They are opportunities to realize our complete and utter reliance upon the grace of God. “It is by the grace of God that I am what I am.” says Paul. Grace that nourishes us so that we might build relationships of faith, hope, and love even when the nets keep coming up empty and we are at our worst.

I want to close today with an excerpt from a prayer written by Dr. Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School:

Blessed are we who are trying a new thing, though we can’t quite see the whole of it. That’s the beauty of the life of faith…

Blessed are we who remember that we will fall short. We will fail, but that doesn’t mean we are ruined. We simply pick up and begin again.

Blessed are we, willing to be beginners all over again.

Amen.

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