Fifth Sunday of Easter – And a River Runs Through it

My friend Steve Ebling is the retired pastor from New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fishers.  About two years ago, Steve and I met and he discussed his decision to retire from serving the local church and was wondering what he would do next. There were three things he knew he loved:  Jesus, Pastors, and Fly Fishing.  He knew the statistics that pastors were dying on the vine, burning out, and needing their souls renewed.  Low and behold he found a program called Alter Fly Fishing, run by a once lead pastor of a church in Chicago.  The program is designed to take leaders and teach them to fly fish while also facilitating time for renewal, discussion, and soul tending.

Steve and I had many lunches where he discerned if he should retire and take on this new adventure of working for Alter.  One year later, he retired and joined the staff at Alter.  I prayed over him at our Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry meeting and quoted from my favorite book and movie, A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean. Our daughter Maclean is named after him.  I quoted the book as he started this new beginning of serving and helping pastors saying:

“Sunrise is the time to feel that you will be able to find out how to help somebody close to you who you think needs help even if he doesn’t think. At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear”

Six months later Steve was relentless saying, “Shelly, anyone who names their daughter after Norman Maclean and can quote a River Runs Through It, has to learn how to fly fish.”  So, last week I went – joining 12 pastors in our Presbytery, we traveled to Penns Creek Pennsylvania and were guided by amazing fly fisherman, who taught us how to cast a line, study the water, notice bugs, and become an angler.

It was holy and needed and reminded me of a couple of things that I had forgotten.  First, I spent 7 hours outside three days in a row.  One day it was sunny, the next day was rainy, and the last day was overcast and warm.  Every day was perfect.  Walking on rocks, feeling the air on my face, gliding my hand through the clear, icy water, it was heaven and restorative. I was reminded that I need to spend time outside every day to be alive.  This is how my soul is restored.

Speaking of the soul, how often do you think about or pay attention to your soul?  You know you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. Every part of you:  your vocation, your physical self, your emotional self, your mental self are all streams that are part of your soul and when one of them is contaminated with fear, or sin, or unhealth the soul acts out until we pay attention to it.

Our Gospel reading today is about the care of the soul.  It comes from the Gospel of John and is known as the farewell discourse.  Jesus is preparing his disciple for his leave and he says, “do not let your hearts be troubled and do no let them be afraid.”  The what if questions start popping up, what if we fail, what if we don’t have enough, what if we aren’t good enough…Jesus says, trust in God and trust in me, if it were not so would not go ahead an prepare a place for you… to which Thomas says, but we do not know the way, and Jesus replies that infamous scripture passage, with a threefold answer:  I am the way, the truth and the life.

Preacher Sam Wells makes the good point that people quote, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ but in practice they only get as far as ‘the way.’   We get prescriptive here and believe that we alone know the road map, or the way to Jesus.  We get so bogged own in the arguing about making sure our way is the right way, we forget about the other two parts of what Jesus had to say.

Let’s spend a few moments focusing on this first part when Jesus says I am the way. Every time I watch the Disney Plus Star Wars show, the Mandalorian, I think about this scripture passage.  The Mandalorian are a group of people who follow a protocol, a life purpose and when they make decisions around their integrity or their ethics they say, “this is the way.”

About a decade ago, Martin Sheen and Amilo Esteves were in a father son movie called “The Way.”  Which is story about a father who walks the El camino de Santiago in honor of his son.

In an interview Martin Sheen reflected on the story saying that the central message is that every time the father tried to go it alone, he would fall into trouble.  While he had to take the pilgrimage by himself, he never walked alone.

On the first day of our adventure, we were paired with another pastor and were given a fishing guide.  My first guide was Ashton.  Ashton was true outdoorsman in every sense of the word. I discovered later he placed second in a national fly-fishing competition.  We pulled up our waiters and tied on our boots and attached our walking sticks.  He taught me how to walk through the river and not fall, he taught me how to cast a rod,  angel a line and reel in a fish.  He showed me the way.  Jesus is a guide.  He shows you the way.  He shows you how to treat others, how to pray, how to forgive, how to see people up in trees and down in the mud, how to welcome, and how to hold people accountable.  He shows you how to love yourself as you love another.  When Jesus says he is the way, he means he the guide on the pilgrimage of your life.  You have to do the walking, but you do not walk alone.

Jesus says, I am the truth. Jesus is the truth.  The truth isn’t something that can be bended to our own wills or desires, its simply and powerfully the truth.  Along the way, we might believe false truths, but eventually we discover those truths are shallow, misguided, even sinful. The truth is bigger than us, it’s beyond us, it’s eternal. We want so much to make the God’s truth our truth, to make God’s way our way.  We want some assurance.  Phillip says to Jesus if you can just show us God, then we will be satisfied.

Nadia Bolz Weber writes, My friend Phil used to tell a story about how he was broke and needed to buy a car but he only had $500 to spend.  Then one day he found one – he found a $500 car on Craig’s list and on the phone the seller indicated that it was a blue Toyota – banged up but in working condition. . . and my friend Phil joked, oh, it’s blue? I was really wanting a red one” 

Lord, give me a RED $500 car and I will be satisfied.

In John 14 14 Jesus is trying desperately to tell his disciples in about 600 ways that the Father has sent him, that if they want to see the heart of the Father they need look no further than to him, that he and the Father are one. To which Phillip replies “Lord, just See, in John chapter show us the Father and we will be satisfied”

Will you though, Phillip? Will you be satisfied?

Jesus was literally standing right in front of him, in that present moment, and he was too in his head to be satisfied by that. I love Phillip for this.  We disciples do this all of the time – what will it take for us to be satisfied?

One evening, my friend Terry told a story about his day on the river.  He said it made him think about all of the churches and how worried they were about not having enough – enough money, enough people, enough resources.  He said,  today, our guide put his hand in river and pulled out a handful of sand.  From our perspective it just look like a big clump of sand with sticks and rocks stuck in it, but the guide showed us within this pile of sand were hundreds if things that the fish will eat.  At first glance it can look like nothing, but when you look closer, you see that God, through creation has provided everything the fish need.  Believing that Jesus is the truth means trusting in the assurance of things hoped for and believing in things not seen.

Norman Maclean wrote: My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Jesus says I am the life.  Jesus: God incarnate is life.  Without him, you don’t have a life.  The chronicals of Narnia book the Silver Chair, CS Lewis tells the story of Alan the Lion and Jill: 

““Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.
”Then drink,” said the Lion.
”May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
”Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
”I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
”Do you eat girls?” she said.
”I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
”I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
”Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
”Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
”There is no other stream,” said the Lion.””

You can live a life focused constantly thirsty, avoiding Jesus, trying to drink from the well of consumption, or power, or success, but you will always come up short and discover that is not really living, and you will always be thirsty.

Jesus is the life. He’s that moment when you come alive, when you feel pure child-like joy, when suddenly out of nowhere something snags your line and you feel a pull, and you come alive and you see this miraculous, gorgeous trout.  It’s amazing.  It’s joy.  That’s life.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Amen.


Rev. Dr. Shelly Wood

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