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God’s “Yes”

John 21:1-19 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples
by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there
together 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. That 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, a hundred fifty-
three 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.
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. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your

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own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of
death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

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“God’s Yes”
I don’t know if you have taken a close look at the bulletin on this
Confirmation Sunday, but there are 26 names listed in that middle panel. It
is a remarkable Sunday when 26 youth stand up to say—that, in spite of
their questions, in spite of the ways we have disappointed them, they are
not walking away. They are voting their hope; they are saying “yes” to
what they have sensed of God’s presence in this place, in these people.
Five of them are coming to be baptized.
For a whole year this group has been meeting together during the Sunday
School hour. They’ve been on retreat together: first in November, and then
again for a day in January. They’ve juggled all kinds of commitments to be
here as often as they could. They’ve met regularly with mentors, and in the
process tried to put what they believe into words, in conversations they’ve
shared and in statements they’ve written.
Their faith statements are humbling to read. We don’t ask as much of
adults who join the church as we do of our youth. They raise great
questions: How does God work in the world? What lies beyond this life?
What about the problem of evil? How do I find the courage to show
compassion when the world doesn’t think that’s cool? How do we reconcile
the claims of faith with the evidence of science? What do I do with the stress
and guilt I feel? What in the Bible is real? Who is Jesus to me, and how do I
make sense of the Trinity? How do we balance all that is asked of us? Do I
really understand enough to say “yes”?
Our youth want us to know that they are just getting started on their
journeys; they haven’t worked out all their answers. Today it is our
privilege to thank them for their courage and persistence, and to welcome
their voices fully into all the deliberations of the church. In two weeks
when we gather to hear the report of the Pastor Nominating Committee
and vote to call new leadership for this congregation, their 26 voices and
votes will be received as equal contributions to this community’s
discernment.

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But if statistics are any measure, the likelihood is that at least some of
their voices will be more absent than present in the years to come. If that
is the case, I hope they will carry today’s passage in their hearts until their
feet lead them back to a place like this.
Although there are a number of characters in the story, the spotlight
mostly rests on two: Jesus and Peter. That’s how it is when things come
apart in important relationships. Everyone watches to see how it will play
out. And things have come apart for Jesus and Peter in the most public sort
of way. Peter had been at the heart of Jesus’ band. An acknowledged
leader, he’d talked a very good game about his level of commitment. And
then when things turned chaotic and dangerous and Jesus was taken into
custody, three different times Peter turned his back. Three times he
denied even knowing Jesus. That betrayal hangs heavily over today’s
passage.
It’s fascinating to see how Jesus makes a way for relationship to be
restored. Jesus doesn’t shame Peter; Jesus doesn’t correct him or require
that he apologize. But neither does Jesus avoid what is between them.
Jesus takes Peter back to the place of his denial; Jesus invites Peter to
warm himself by a fire. The context of Peter’s betrayal is recreated, except
this time the two friends are on the far side of Peter’s fear and Jesus’ death.
Jesus invites Peter to bring some of the fish that he has caught, welcoming
his contributions to the meal they will share. It’s only after Peter is
warmed and fed that Jesus engages him in conversation. It’s in moments
like this that our faith statements really get written.
My sister, Kathy, works with lots of people whose lives and relationships
have come apart, some in very public ways. I couldn’t help hearing a
recent story of hers in conversation with this text. When Kathy settled in
Asheville about six years ago, she started a small non-profit called the
Equal Justice Collaborative, but Buncombe County recently received a
large grant from the McArthur Family Foundation to try to reduce jail
populations. Thanks to that funding, Kathy has just gone to work for the

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Public Defender’s Office. My irrepressible sister—who is as extroverted as
I am introverted—loves that work. I think she loves it in part because it
helps her to see that her story is part of a much larger story.
Coming of age was hard for Kathy. She was eager for life, resented
restrictions, and was quick to experiment when opportunities presented
themselves. Some of her choices came with painful consequences. But she
will tell you that God never gave up on her. And in time she began to see
how much blessing God could bring from those very same choices when
she turned and offered them back to God. She began to watch for those
opportunities.
Let me give you an example of the way that plays out. When Kathy took on
her work with the Public Defender’s Office, she had to give up her existing
clients. But when one of those clients—I’m going to call him Paul—was
picked up recently on a new charge, the court determined that there was
no conflict of interest and he was re-assigned to Kathy. Paul is young and
has been in and out of trouble. Kathy showed up at his cell to become
reacquainted before his bond hearing.
My sister says that preparation for a bond hearing involves learning
enough of a person’s story to be able to advocate for that person in front of
a judge. She says that most of us are lousy advocates for ourselves because
the things we think will matter to the judge don’t matter at all, while the
things that don’t seem important to us, can make all the difference.
Kathy began by asking Paul whether he had a place to stay if she could get
him released. He began to cry. He said he could stay with his parents, that
they loved him. He said that his mom is a teacher and his dad also has
steady work. Hanging his head, he said that he was so ashamed that he’d
been such a disappointment to them. Kathy said, “Look at me. I know. I
can’t even tell you all the ways I disappointed my parents. But that can
change.” My 60-year old sister, said to this young man, “For decades now
not a week has gone by without my parents telling me how proud they are
of me. You can turn things around.”

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The thing that’s powerful to me about that story is that those of us who
have lived safe and cautious lives would not have been nearly as
compelling to Paul as Kathy was. Through his tears he said to her, “I want
you to know that I see how hard you try to help me.” She said, “I want you
to know that I’m not about to stop.”
When Jesus says to Peter—three times— “Do you love me? Feed my
sheep” he is saying “You are just the person to take care of the ones who are
most precious to me. Because of what we have been through together, you
understand the depths of my love in a way not everyone will. I need you to
help other people experience that love. “
This is the life we’re called to, friends— to use every chapter of our
stories— however long or convoluted they may be— to tend the world
God loves. There is no part of our story that God cannot use; nothing about
your life needs to be wasted.
Jesus is clear that this calling will not inoculate us from pain; it will not
save us from suffering, but oh, the life we will get to know when God’s love
passes through us. Kathy says everyone would want to do what she does if
they only understood how blessed it makes you feel.
Friends, I think we misunderstand the sacrament of baptism, the act of
confirmation, the life of faith, when we focus too much on what we
understand, what we can affirm, what we are willing to do. From beginning
to end, it’s so much more about what God understands, what God affirms,
what God is willing to do. The “yes” we offer in response to God is never
more than a feeble echo of God’s persistent “yes” to us.
If this community is really going to thrive, I’m convince that we adults
need to be more transparent about the places we struggle and the places
we have discovered life. I dare say that most of us have not weighed all the
evidence and come to logical conclusions with which we are satisfied. We
are not here because we have worked out all of our doctrinal kinks. I
suspect most of us are here because particular relationships changed us:
someone along the line saw something in us, someone asked for our help,

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someone satisfied a bit of our hunger, someone extended mercy—and
we’re still hungry for more of that.
And so I want to say this to our confirmands. Remember this story. When
the paths you’ve chosen seem to come to an end, when you’ve
disappointed the ones you love, do what those disciples did: stay in
community, go fishing together. Keep watch with each other, and if you
spot God moving in the shadows, for heaven’s sake, speak up. When you
do sense the presence of the Christ, remember the feel of the water and let
it carry you back to the one who waits to warm you and feed you and set
you on your way.
It is the life we are called to live in response to God’s eternal “Yes.”

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.