by Jonathan Strandjord
director for educational partnerships, Congregational and Synodical Mission Unit of the ELCA
It is a great privilege to preach at this service where we honor and give thanks for James and Donna Echols. It is also deeply humbling. For this occasion deserves a much more articulate preacher; this day calls for a wiser theologian who can explicate more profoundly the significance of this moment in the life of James, of Donna, of LSTC, and of the church.
But though I’m not equal to the task, I’m still glad to be here--and even to have this role. For I am deeply grateful to James Kenneth Echols for his long, fruitful years of service as the president of LSTC, years which have included some of the most challenging times for the work of theological education in North America (exceeded perhaps only by the Civil War and the Great Depression).
I’m also grateful to have this set of scripture texts before us—especially the passage from John’s gospel. For in addition to the fact that it is so fitting for this occasion, it also has personal resonance: this was the gospel lesson at my ordination service many, many years ago. It meant a great deal to me then—and has come to mean much, much more over time.
This handful of verses is rich—especially if we pay close attention to the very first phrase: “When they had finished breakfast . . . .” . We shouldn’t rush by these words; they’re absolutely crucial. They put this dialogue between Jesus and Simon Peter into context and open up the depth dimension of God’s action.
This dialogue happens after breakfast—in the morning. And it’s been quite a night. Hours and hours of fishing yielding nothing but empty nets. Now recreational fishermen may deal with getting skunked by talking about “how great it is just to be out here.” But Peter’s a professional—this is not a pastime or a sport; no fish means rotten trip. There’s nothing to eat or sell. And working with nets is hard, heavy work that almost always results in hours of net repair the next day. Fishing in the dark makes it easier to fool the fish—they can’t see the nets. But it’s tough to handle the gear at night without ending up with tangles and snags—even more repairs. I’ve lived in a fishing port and worked some summers on docks and boats. Based on that experience, I’m guessing that echoing across the Sea of Galilee that night you could hear swearing.
But then comes dawn with some big surprises:
- Jesus stands on the shore and calls out to ask if they’ve caught anything. When they say “No”, he directs them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. While they don’t recognize him, they do as he says—and suddenly, a huge catch (153 big ones): abundance.
- The Beloved disciple recognizes this stranger on the shore as none other than the risen Lord, Peter jumps overboard and swims to shore, leaving his boat and this catch of a lifetime. The other six disciples tow the full net to shore where they see a charcoal fire with a fish and bread already there. Jesus asks for some of the fish and then calls them to breakfast—taking the bread, giving it to them and doing the same with the fish.
And then a conversation between Jesus and the one who very recently denied him three times while standing by another charcoal fire (the only other charcoal fire in the Gospel of John); a conversation that issues in a three-fold call to apostolic, pastoral ministry.
But we shouldn’t just skip to the end of the story, rushing by breakfast to Jesus challenging question “Do you love me? Do you love me” Do you love me?”; to Peter’s persistence in saying he does, he does, he does ; and Jesus’ simple, enormous commission “Feed my lambs . . . tend my sheep . . .feed my sheep.”
For only those who have had a good breakfast can bear the weight of this question and this commission. “We love, because God first loved us.” Only as persons welcomed and forgiven by God can we love God. And we can have the strength to feed and lead others only because we ourselves have been fed. For the feeding and leading to which Jesus calls Peter (and all who lead in the church) is a weighty thing indeed.
I first sensed the reality and seriousness of that weight at my ordination service at First Lutheran Church in Astoria, Oregon. It was the late 1970’s—a time of much liturgical experimentation and so I’d decided it would be a great thing to have many participate in the laying on of hands. So, in addition to the bishop’s representative along with several pastors from the area, my internship supervisor and my seminary faculty advisor, a good number of others also came forward, including my baptismal sponsors, the congregation’s president, some Sunday School teachers and mentor figures from a previous congregation in Seattle, my mother and grandmother. More than twenty people surrounded me as I knelt in the front of that small sanctuary. I felt so special. And then they all leaned in to place their hands (and hands on top of hands) on my head . . .and suddenly, a flash of panic as I was blind-sided by the amazing weight: heavy hands. And I knew both in mind and body just how weighty ministry is.
James Kenneth Echols made sure that the LSTC community (faculty, students, staff and board) sensed that weight—understood that all leadership in the church is servant leadership, that this is a servant seminary. And just as importantly—no, even more importantly, Jim gave fourteen years of his life to seeing to it that members of this community have ample opportunity to be fed:
Jim helped gather and sustain a strong faculty in order to feed students—and this church—with good news of God’s radical, transforming grace, good news in an idiom that can make itself heard in our time.
What’s more, Jim worked diligently and well to mobilize the friends of this seminary and to find new friends to provide crucial financial resources even in incredibly challenging times. And he set in motion the visionary planning processes we’re so engaged in, processes that can renew the feeding work of this seminary for years to come.
And here we are, gathered in the Augustana Chapel, the architectural embodiment of Jim’s concern that this community be regularly fed through word and sacrament, through prayer and song and the mutual consolation of the saints.
Thank you, Jim, for seeing to it that so many have had and will continue to have the chance to breakfast on God’s grace, both here and all around the world through those who have moved out from this place to cast nets wide and to feed and lead Christ’s flock. God bless you and Donna in the next chapters of your baptismal callings. And most of all, may you have many, many opportunities to be served breakfast along the way.