April 15, 2013

Networks and Nets


Text: John 21:6: “He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ ”

During the season of Easter this year I have set myself a course to focus on the Gospel of John in this moment of the service. Easter season is our chance every year to hear the words of John’s gospel, and it is worth remembering that the fourth gospel is a distinct expression of the life and meaning of Jesus. It is, appropriately enough, an Easter gospel.

What I mean by that is that there is no mystery about who Jesus is from one end of John’s gospel to the other. The other three gospels give us a picture of Jesus who is gradually being understood as something other than a carpenter, or a rabbi, or a prophet. It’s what screenwriters would call a “slow reveal.”

But John’s gospel takes a very different line. Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity right from the opening lines of the gospel. So instead of the slow reveal, there’s an ongoing conundrum: We, as the audience for John’s gospel, know who Jesus is; but most of the people around Jesus are only dimly aware of who he is or what significance he has for their lives, indeed for all humanity.

•  •  •

This morning’s story is about the disciples not quite getting it, even after they have lived all the way through the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry. It is a post-Easter story, a story from after the betrayals and the cross and the death and the confusion of the empty tomb.

In defense of the disciples, remember for just a moment that they didn’t have the enormous advantage we do of knowing how the whole story was going to turn out. They didn’t even have the advantage of knowing what Easter meant when it happened.

Last week Dr. Strayer preached to us about the deeply faithful experience that doubt is, or can be, relying on that old story about Thomas that always come to us right after Easter. But think for a moment about what happened for these bedraggled twelve people between, well, Friday, March 29th and Sunday, April 7th. They had spent pretty much every hour of every day for the last three years in the company of their friend and teacher. They had seen him teach people who responded immediately to his words. They had seen people healed. They had had some of their own deepest prejudices—their most treasured ways of knowing who they were—challenged and taken away.

And now, they had seen their controversial friend fall under the weight of official suspicion; they had seen him subjected to a peremptory trial, sentenced, beaten, and executed. And they had melted away in their shame, leaving his body to be buried by a couple of acquaintances.

Then, one of them—one of the women—dared to visit the grave. She found it open and empty. She ran to tell the men; two of them came, saw the same thing, and left to tell the others. She stays at the grave, wondering what to make of all this; she sees a vision of angels. She turns around and confronts Jesus, or someone who sure seems to be Jesus, who reassures her.

For at least that whole day, and maybe that whole week. That is all they have to go on. Then, one evening, when most of them are there, Jesus suddenly just appears in the room; we know that story. A week later it happens again, this time with everyone in the room; finally the disciples get the idea that Jesus really has been raised from the dead.

But it’s not as though Jesus is just hanging around with them like before. Saint John’s four accounts of post-resurrection appearances always seem to be sudden, episodic, and bewildering.

Today’s account is the last of those stories in John. It begins in a way that would have suggested to people hearing this for the first time that the story had come full circle. The story opened with Jesus calling disciples. Some of the disciples were fishermen. They had left their boats and their nets behind to take up with the wandering preacher. Now they are back in business of fishing. It almost seems as though nothing that had happened had made any difference.

Maybe they hadn’t been very good fishermen before. They sure aren’t having any luck now. They’ve been at it a long time, all night long. They caught nothing. It’s a little after dawn; they’re coming into shore, tired and disappointed.

When they’re still a way off, some guy on the shore starts yelling at them. It’s almost as though he’s making fun of them. It’s first thing in the morning, they’re headed in to shore, and they have an empty boat, and this guy says: “Catch anything?”

And then he has the gall to make a helpful suggestion. “Hey, try throwing your net over the right side of the boat.” You know what this is? This is the first-century equivalent of “Is it plugged in?”

And the very worst thing about that suggestion is the same thing that’s the very worst thing about the have-you-plugged-it-in suggestion. It’s that when you try it, it works.

And wow, does it work. John bothers to tell us exactly how well it works, in a tiny little detail just to give the accountants and the actuaries a little shout-out: not just a lot of fish, one hundred and fifty-three fish. For all the rest of us the idea is, it’s a boatload of fish.

What has happened in this little story at the very end of John is we’ve been given one last reminder that even though the whole story, the life and teaching and miracles and arguing and trial and murder and resurrection, all of it may have seemed to have made no difference—in fact it made all the difference.

Even though things might have seemed to go back exactly how they were before, now nothing will ever be the same. Sure, we will go back to our own routines and ruts; but now we are meant to be on the lookout. We never know when Jesus is going to come right into the midst of our lives, very likely in a way that really annoys us—but offering us the encouragement we need to do the work we have been called to do.

Now, we could just leave it there with a reminder to keep your ears and eyes open for whenever you hear an annoying suggestion after a major disappointment. But here comes the confession part of this sermon. I have had to confront the reality that there is in my own life an equivalent to that bothersome business of where to throw the net. It does not have anything to do with nets. It does have to do with networks. Particularly, social networks. I don’t really understand them; I don’t especially want to understand them; I wish I didn’t even have to acknowledge them.

About exactly a year ago I stood outside a restaurant in a rainstorm to interview a young woman who would eventually come to work at Saint John’s with a completely catch-all job description encompassing Christian Education and Parish Communications, and for all I know occasional plumbing and roof repair. Of course I am speaking of Kate McKey.

We employ Kate for pretty much a quarter-time position. I wish we saw more of her here on Sunday. I wish I saw more of her.

But what I do know is that in the time she has worked for us, Saint John’s has suddenly become an entity in the world of social media. We have a web page, one that gets updated a few times every week. Every week! We have a Facebook page. Heck, we even created a Facebook page for all the Newton churches. Let me say that again: Eight churches in Newton, and it took Saint John’s to make a common Facebook page for us all to share information. Us!

But that hasn’t been the only voice annoying me. Because at about the same time I was standing in the rain interviewing Kate, we also elected for ourselves a new Junior Warden. And he, too, is fairly adept at the whole matter of social networks, at least to the extent of knowing what tools exist to help us understand what happens when we lower the net of our social network over the right side of the boat.

And so now here is what I can tell you. I can tell you that we have a web site that other churches have called me about, asking how we did it. Churches much larger than ours. And I can tell you that in the last month, since March 13, three hundred and ninety-five people have visited our web site. Think about that this way: in the same period of time, two hundred and ninety-nine people showed up for services here.

Sixty of those three hundred and ninety-five people looked at our site on a telephone or a tablet.

People have visited our site from the United States, Canada, England, and—wait for it—Brazil. (Brazil!)

Seventy percent of the people came directly to our site because they knew what they were looking for; about thirty percent came because they were searching for something.

Usually they simply searched for “Saint John’s Newtonville.” Sometimes they searched for “Saint John’s Episcopal Newtonville.”

A couple of people showed up on our site because they searched for “church vision future.”

But here’s the thing that really bothers me. Not one of them got to our site because they searched for me!

We have a story today about the disciples using nets to do their work. We hear about them getting disappointed and frustrated, and receiving obvious advice from someone who seems at first like a stranger, and finding themselves almost unable to cope with the scale of their success.

Well, our net is the network; it is the social network, our social networks. We, all of us, live in social networks, whether or not we pursue them on the world wide web. And if we will cast those networks over the side, if we will overcome the seeming commercialism of daring to promote this beloved community with the means right at our fingertips, we may well end up bring in here a great draught of fish, maybe even a hundred and fifty-three, to meet the stranger on the shore—who will turn out, for them and for us, to be the God who made us, the Lord who saved us, and the friend who walks with us.  Amen.