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2019 6th May -ANGEL IN THE DETAIL
John 21: 1-19

It is said that what you see depends on where you stand. Today I want to take that a bit further and suggest that what you see depends also on how closely you look.

It is also said that the devil is in the detail. To illustrate this, I want to show you a photograph of the severe dieback of eucalypts in the snowy region of NSW, where we recently spent 5 days. As you can see, the desolation of dead trees is extensive.

The obvious question is, "What has caused this? My research tells me two things. The first is that the region faced an extensive drought in the years preceding the worst of the dieback. This put the trees under significant stress. However, this on its own may not have cause the serious damage. To understand what did, you have to look very closely at the trees. There you will see the little creatures called eucalypt weevils, a normal part of the ecosystem, which created havoc to the trees already under stress. The devil is in the detail.

But the news is not all bad. Walking among these trees (second photo), one begins to notice that on many of them are good signs of regrowth. Looking even more closely, one sees new little shoots coming out of apparently dead branches.

The angel is in the detail.

The famous Greek philosopher Socrates is reputed to have made this statement- THE UNEXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING. In my experience and observation, when people simply go with the flow, accept everything at face value, never challenge themselves with deeper self scrutiny, they end up in a predictable monotony where nothing changes.

Further, the unexamined community is not worth it either. When we fail to subject our society to honest moral and ethical scrutiny, we end up, by default, as passive citizens who are easy to exploit. Consider for example the saying that falls easily from some peoples lips "My country right or wrong. Well, for a start, it is not actually my country but our country, which immediately creates a more complex situation. "Right or wrong for whom? In the middle of an election campaign, it is obvious that a fairly large percentage of the population have little or no interest in scrutinising the candidates or policies, except perhaps with the hip pocket nerve in mind. (My investment- right or wrong). An unaware electorate is easy prey to the unscrupulous who use the main stream media to prefer one party over another, or snow people with misinformation on social media platforms, such as wi-chat How much scrutiny are we willing to exercise, in order to expose the devil or the angel in the detail?

Another hot topic that rewards a little deep thinking and analysis is the case of the South African champion middle distance runner Caster Semenya. Her natural advantage due to higher than normal testosterone levels has made her a target of the Court for Arbitration in Sport, that now requires her to take performance-reducing medication if she wishes to compete. The surface advantage is that her physiological condition gives her an unfair advantage. It only takes a few moments thought to wonder about how top athletes might be advantaged by naturally occurring characteristics. It is not that hard to go deeper these days. I only had to google the word "Phelps to discover that the former champion USA swimmer had double-jointed ankles. Not only that. His body also only produces half the normal amount of lactic acid, meaning that he experienced much less muscle fatigue than normal. Yet no one ever suggested that he should take medication to increase his lactic acid output. Among other things, we could ask why Michael Phelps was treated like a marvel, and Caster Semenya, like a mutant. One answer could be that there exists an element of racial or gender bias in the debate, if not both. What you see depends not only on where you stand but on how closely you look.

Nor is the unexamined bible is worth reading. Someone on twitter recently, in defence of anti-gay vilification, was claiming that their church takes the bible at its word- every bit of it. Well, they do not, of course. If they did, they would be calling for the death penalty for homosexual people, also women who commit adultery, not to mention children who disobey their parents. A few "useful quotes to back our prejudices is not only unintelligent, it is not honest.

You have to look deeper. Both the devil and the angel are in the detail.

And so we come to our Gospel reading for the day from John. It is helpful, when coming to passages such as this, to know that modern biblical scrutiny tell us that John was not written so much as a literal historical narrative, but a deeply symbolic and spiritual theological text. If you are fooled by the deceptively simple vocabulary of the writer, and therefore dont look deeply into John, you will miss the point. Well, you will in fact miss many points.

Here are just a few examples from the passage about the fishing expedition.

1. "When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish and bread on it. (21:9). Did it not strike you as strange that they have just gone through this whole process of catching nothing, then catching everything, only to find that the meal was already prepared by Jesus? The theological point is?

2. "So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty three, and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 153 large fish, say 1kg each, and he pulled it ashore on his own and the net was not torn! Why this detail? What does it mean?

Because we will never know, we are entitled to speculate at this point. If I sat with the idea that the net was not broken and meditated on it, I might get down to the place where I ask myself what are the structures of my life that are able to contain such bounty without failing?

3. "Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (21:13) What other incident does this bring to mind?...Remember the feeding of the 5 000? Now, this incident is one of the few recorded in all four gospels, but there is one seeming small difference in Johns account. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus gives the bread and fish to the disciples, to give to the crowd. In John, the meal comes directly from Jesus hand. So too, in todays story.

If I am looking more deeply into the theological emphasis of this passage, I find one thing at least that was not a first obvious. In spite of the best efforts of the disciples, it is actually Jesus who is the primary provider. I suspect that we are meant to know from this that wherever we will be lead in our Christian journey, it is Jesus who makes it possible, and Jesus who will be there, even if only in the shadows, to amplify our best efforts and encourage us even when nothing seems to be going according to plan.

Like the disciples fishing fruitlessly on the Lake, when we look deeply into ourselves, the first thing we are likely to see is the barren places, the dead trees. Most people start there; which may be why they do not want look any deeper. If they do, they might find, along with the drought of meaning and purpose, there are small persistent and invasive influences that suck the residual life out of them.

We have to get past this stumbling point. Finding our shortcomings, noticing our deficits, we need to keep going. For where the wilderness devils inhabit, there too are the angels of mercy, of rehabilitation, of resurrection. We need to stay with the scrutiny long enough to notice also the regrowth, the green shoots, the life emerging, slowly, persistently. And when we do, we may, with Johns help, see that the God that Jesus portrays is the one who has fish for us before we even caught one, has the bread of life ready to sustain our journey through the places of dark and light, and the net that holds us together, that is never going to break under the strain of our thrashing around.

So do not be afraid to look deeply into the formerly unexamined places, for therein lies the evidence of the life worth living.


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