Feed my sheep

A colorful drawing depicting the disciples catching many fish after Jesus' command.

A sermon on John 21:1-19, for The Table United Church of Christ in La Mesa, CA.

Before we get started, I must share a confession: I can be a little bit of a procrastinator sometimes.

That’s a habit I’m trying to break. But the problem is, there’s a positive feedback loop for me around procrastination.

It seems like every time I procrastinate, not only does it work out… it works out really well. Magical things happen that convince me this work just had to be done last minute.

Like, take this week for example.

This chapter of the book of John is known to biblical scholars as the Appendix. While every copy of John’s gospel that exists includes this chapter—so it’s unlikely that it was added on by a different author, or completely after the fact—it’s clear for literary reasons that the original writer of the gospel of John intended to end his gospel at the end of chapter 20. Jesus rose from the grave, revealed himself to Mary Magdalene, appeared to the disciples, and gave Thomas a chance to test his doubts, then, story’s over.

But after all that, just before closing his moleskin journal or rolling up his scroll or whatever they would have done in the first century, John picks back up his pen, or quill, or whatever and begins writing again.

“After these things, Jesus showed himself again…”

But this time, this story of Jesus showing himself would be different. In the last three stories, the whole point was the resurrection. “There is something more powerful than the forces of death!” was the lesson those stories provided.

This time, the point of the story would be instruction.

It would be to tell us what people of the resurrection, people who believe there is something more powerful than death, do with that belief.

Have you had nothing to eat?

A few of the disciples are out on the sea, back to do their day jobs now that they’re no longer following around the preacher-rebel from Nazareth. And if you think you’ve had a terrible day at work lately, just imagine fishing all night long and catching nothing. These guys are about to come home from a long day’s work with no food to eat, no product to sell in the market, nothing to fill their stomachs or provide for their families.

And at that time, Jesus shows up, but the disciples don’t recognize him.

Some commentators say it’s because of the day break—maybe it was too dark out to see Jesus, or they could only see a silhouette.

But this also would not be the first time in the scriptures that the resurrected Jesus did not appear immediately recognizable to the people who knew him before his death, and I’m inclined to think there’s something more there.

But regardless, Jesus—who to them is just some mystery man on the shore—calls out, knowingly, “you’ve had a tough day, haven’t you?”

The way he asks that sentence is so sweet and lovely to me. It takes me right back to childhood, going over to my friend’s house after we stayed late at school for a student government thing or a school project. Every time you walked in the door, her mom would act like you were a starving child on one of those commercials with the Sarah McLaughlin soundtracks. “Have you had nothing to eat?”

The disciples, probably a little confused at how a stranger knew how their night fishing went, reply “no,” then Jesus tells them to try the other side of the boat.

Which, like, I’m certain they have tried at this point, right? Like that sounds like when tech support asks if you’ve unplugged your modem and plugged it back in.

Like, yes, I’ve done the obvious first thing.

But they do it, and then suddenly they catch a bunch of fish, and then—once they’ve miraculously caught the fish—John looks to Peter and goes “oh my gosh! That’s Jesus!” and Peter jumps out to swim to shore.

I find that part fascinating, and at least a little telling.

John and Peter recognized Jesus not when they saw him, and not when he had some magical knowledge of the fact that they caught zero fish that night, but when he when he met their material needs, put food on their table, that’s when they knew it was Jesus.

The story goes on and Jesus is holding a fish fry on the beach. “Come and have breakfast,” he told all the disciples, and at that moment, not only did John and Peter recognize Jesus, but the scripture tells us all the rest of them knew. “None of them dared to ask him “who are you?” after he offered them breakfast.

After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter, three times, if Peter loves him, and each time, Peter says yes. And each time, after Peter says yes, Jesus tells Peter “feed my sheep,” “tend my sheep.”

Then there’s an allusion towards Peter’s future death as a martyr, and an affirmation that Peter is to follow Jesus. It’s sort of like Jesus is saying “this is all going to end soon—I’m going to go away, you’re going to die. I need you, with every moment you have, to feed my sheep.”

Folks have a lot to say about Peter being asked to affirm his love for Jesus three times, and about what this means both for Peter—who, only a few pages before this denied that love three times—and for the Church Universal, which Jesus many chapters ago said Peter would be the foundation of. All of that is good analysis, but it’s not what I found interesting for this week’s passage.

The things more powerful than death

No what I found compelling was related to something Father Gregory Boyle said in an interview he gave for On Being, on NPR.

Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest in LA. He’s famous for founding Homeboy Industries, a company that provides jobs to folks with criminal records. He’s also become a sort of patron saint of folks who are gang involved in certain neighborhoods in LA.

This interview was recorded live at a conference and he was talking about some of the gang members he worked with, and about treatments he had received for leukemia, and about how much his life involved being confronted with the reality of death.

And that the only way through it, for him, was keeping a list of all the things more powerful than death.

Then he sort of moves on, but someone in the audience asks him, like “wait, what is more powerful than death?”

Like a good priest, he says, you know, “Jesus!”

But then he gets to talking about why and how.

He says that Jesus, at the resurrection, put death in its place. And the thing he did that with was kinship.

It was the feeding of the sheep, but not just in some formal customer service-y waiter-y way, but a real, familial, “young’ns, do you need something eat?” way.

He talks about how his relationships with the folks in his parish and in his work, and the relationships they have with one another, transcend religious division and social division and even gang rivalries, with folks who used to hate each other working side-by-side on the shop floor.

He talks about the prayer Jesus prayed before his crucifixion, that “they all—we all—may be one.” That’s a phrase which may be familiar to you not just from scripture, but also because it’s sort of the motto of the UCC—it’s on the bottom of our little emblem.

He talks about the eucharist—the holy communion that Megan will be leading us in in a few moments—as Jesus giving his disciples not just a meal in a moment, but a meal that they will keep having, time and time again, feeding each other for millenia forward.

And all of that, he says, is the thing more powerful than death. It’s the thing you do that takes you from death to resurrection to living in the new light that resurrection brings. Living with the new reality, the Jesus you maybe don’t recognize at first glance but you know the moment he feeds you.


And that’s kind of all I had. Quoting a Catholic priest. I figured I’d write some more later on, build it out a little.

But then, I procrastinated, and something different happened.

My Monday through Friday job is with a government agency that operates job training and placement programs.

For four or five years now, this one community group has made a point of holding my agency accountable for providing equitable service in their neighborhoods. We have not, for the record, always been good at that, and if I’m being honest, we really still aren’t. Their director and I have spent countless hours together, with her sharing complaints her community members have about our services, me working through them internally, us working together on plans for ways we can improve service in the region.

This organization is grounded in Islamic values and led by a majority-muslim leadership team. We are in—today, actually, is the last day of—the month of Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar. During Ramadan, followers of Islam fast all day, from just before sunrise to just after sunset, eating nothing—no water, no food. Makes all of us look like absolutely weaklings when it comes to lent!

When the fast is broken at night, it’s at a meal called the Iftar, and from what I hear, an iftar is often quite the celebration.

This week, the director over there invited me to join them at a community iftar the aforementioned organization was hosting on Friday night, like two days ago. If you’re keeping track, yes that means I really procrastinated.

I was honored, but also, a little bit nervous. I spent all night the night before looking up like, what does one wear to an iftar meal, what do you do, do you bring a gift? So many questions. I and my agency were just started to build trust with this organzation and I didn’t want to mess anything up.

But as soon as I showed up I knew how silly that was.

There was this spirit of joy and kinship in the air, you could just feel it. My friend greeted me from the parking lot and gave me a big hug, showed me to my table, then ran over to help set up food service.

The place was full of the most lovely, warm, inviting people—folks from the neighborhood, activists who they had supported, governmenty folks like me who Pillars had been having some tough conversations with.

I started talking to the folks at my table and I met this one woman, we’ll call her Ms. Patty, an activist they had been supporting.

Ms. Patty has two sons. Both on the harm end of violence caused by police.

One son is in jail still, right now, actively being denied medical care he needs.

And you know what Ms. Patty is doing about it? She wrote a bill that protects due process for Californians in a situation like her son’s and she’s lobbying to get it passed. She’s fighting, not just for her son, but for everyone in California whose care is so often neglected.

Man what a hero.

Our conversation got interrupted as the founder of the organization stood up and introduced the invited guests—the members of congress, city council, all the governmenty folks.

He said something along the lines of “almost every other time, we are here to hold them accountable and to reclaim self-determination for our community. But here, at iftar, they are family.”

Then he leads all the folks there who are muslim in prayer, and invites us all to eat. The food, we learned, was made by an Aphgan refugee who had been in the US for only 6 weeks, he just arrived. And oh what a gift from heaven, I mean seriously, you would have thought it was made by Jesus, the best lamb you’ve ever tasted.

As our hosts were serving plates, all I could think about was this scripture—a scripture where Jesus’ disciples recognize him by the fact that he feeds them, then he tells the disciple who will found the church to go feed his sheep.

I pictured this man, just barely getting settled in the US, then as day 29 of a fast starts to come to a close, as I’m sure the hunger is strong as all get out, he gets in a hot kitchen and starts cooking for us.

Talk about feeding the sheep.

I mean, us as sheep, to be clear—the lamb did not get fed. Well, it got fed to us.

And then I pictured all of our hosts, who’d also been fasting all day, but got here early to set up canopes and lights and run a program for us, for folks from their community and folks serving their community.

Their response to injustice, to their communities’ overpolicing and underservice, was to joyfully and eagerly feed the sheep.

I thought about Ms. Patty, reaching out to this community partner, learning how to write a bill, working with her representative to get it passed. I thought about how much her writing that bill was her own way of feeding the sheep—of feeding her community, even in her own time of crisis.

I am not muslim—I am satisfied, mostly, with Christianity. But man, in that space, I could sure see and feel Jesus nodding in delight as so many folks were feeding his sheep.

The worst social media app

And then, as I was thinking about all that, starting to write this sermon in my head and like taking some notes on my phone while trying not to look too distracted. I kid you not, in that exact moment, I got a notification from Next Door.

Next Door, if you’re not familiar, is a social network for your neighborhood.

It is like 50% people posting that they have some extra potting soil if anyone would like it,

and 50% people posting about how their neighbors are the absolute worst.

I really should delete the app because that latter 50% just riles me up, but I can’t do it. I need the leftover potting soil.

The notification I get is from this guy who, I have to confess, I find to be the absolute worst.

I live in a sort of “up and coming” neighborhood in San Diego. “Up and coming” really just means it’s suburban but not as suburban as it was 50 years ago.

More houses are being built, some of them, even condos or apartment buildings. This guy who I got the notification from has been here for that whole time, and has made it his personal mission to resist the change in our neighborhood by blaming it on and demonizing homeless people.

To be clear, I’m open to a world where we all have different policy perspectives on what to do about homelessness and how we set up our neighborhoods to have room for everyone.

But this man is a regular on Next Door and he loves going around, taking up-close zoomed-in pictures of people “loitering” in our neighborhood park, on benches, and so on, rolling everything they own down the street in a shopping cart. He posts pictures of them on Next Door to shame them for “invading” our neighborhood, talks about how “dirty” they make things.

It’s obscene.

There is literally no solution to the homelessness epidemic that involves naming and shaming homeless people.

But man, this Next Door poster saw his neighborhood going away.

He saw things breaking, he saw what he felt to be an injustice.

And his response was… was whatever the opposite of “feeding my sheep” is.

He didn’t see homeless folks as his neighbors, whose care he was responsible for. He didn’t see it as his responsibility to figure out why his neighborhood was changing or why people are experiencing homelessness and to do something about that.

Instead, he saw the homeless folks as “invaders” and he antagonized them.

And man, what a contrast to experience those two moments side-by-side.

On the one hand, I’m on someone else’s turf, watching all these folks feed their sheep. On the other, my home neighborhood is calling out to me, with all sorts of less-kind alternatives.

What people of the resurrection do

And If I’m honest, I feel a lot like that guy on Next Door, sometimes.

I don’t love seeing my neighborhood changing, I don’t love being confronted with the injustice of homelessness on my commute to work. I don’t love that the neighborhood park where I used to go to sit under a tree and write now has folks sleeping in it out of their personal necessity.

The only difference is, instead of antagonizing homeless people for it, I just… do nothing. I ignore it.

Sure, that’s probably marginally better.

But is that what people of the resurrection do?

Not according to Jesus, and not according to the gospel writers.

The thing that John couldn’t leave out, the “one last thing” that Jesus had to tell Peter before he left, was to feed his sheep.

That’s what my friends who hosted the iftar are doing every day, from when they call on government institutions to serve their people better, to when they serve dinner to the folks working for those same institutions.

And I hope, friends, that this week, I and you, all of us will follow the model of Peter, and the model of my friends who hosted the iftar, by doing the same. Whatever that means in our communities I won’t pretend to know yet. We’ll have to figure that out.

But let us go feed his sheep.