We don’t have an actual photograph of Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address because the speech was over before the photographer had time to take one.
I’ve been talking about it on Facebook and Twitter for weeks, and here it is, today’s “Gettysburg sermon.” At 272 words, it is the same length as Lincoln’s masterful address, delivered 150 years ago on Tuesday.
Err… let’s just say he had a gift.
(Preacher nerds: you’ll notice I couldn’t resist trying a Lowry loop, even with so few words! Old habits die hard.)
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
November 17, 2013
O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Here is a psalm for the month of thanksgiving! It is infused with gratitude as the psalmist rhapsodizes about God’s glory, the wonders of creation, and the thankful songs of the people of God. We are sailing along on a swelling sea of words like joy, steadfast love, faithfulness.
And then, like a thud, or like a needle scratching across the record, we’re told:
God is coming to judge us. To judge.
What comes to mind when you hear that word?
Maybe you’re rubbing your hands together imagining “bad guys” getting what they deserve, and “good guys” getting their reward, courtesy of God’s perfect justice.
Maybe you’re making a mental tally of your secret transgressions, squirming, wondering what side of the ledger sheet you will come out on.
Maybe you’re disturbed by the idea of a judging God.
Note that, in the midst of God coming as judge, the psalmist doesn’t tell us to shape up…
or beg us to repent.
He doesn’t even urge us to get to work doing what God commands.
Instead, he asks us to sing.
God will come—God does come—among us. But we don’t worry or calculate. We don’t try to measure up or crack God’s code. We simply inhale deeply, breathing in God’s spirit, and sing—with our voices, with our lives, and here with this community.
Yesterday’s health fair, and last week’s CROP hunger walk, are more than mission activities. They are songs of praise, joyfully offered to a God who promises to be with us always, who calls us not to despair, but to offer a new song.
This is a slight adaptation of what I preached yesterday…
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
July 14, 2013
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
We’re going to start with a little quiz this morning. Now I know it’s summertime, and for those of us who follow the school schedule, we’re on a bit of a mental break… but let’s see how awake we are this morning, eh? I will give you a list of two items; your job is to fill in the third. We’ll start out easy:
Larry, Curly, __________
The Good, The Bad, _________
This one is too hot, this one is too cold, and ________
Who’s on first, What’s on second, __________________
Let’s kick it up slightly:
Can anyone name the three musketeers? (Athos, Porthos and Aramis)
How about the three races that make up the triple crown?
Now let’s get biblical:
Gold, frankincense and ___________
Father, Son, ______________
What we’re seeing here is the rule of threes, which is a basic structure used in literature, folktales, and yes, scripture. Master storytellers know this structure and use it either to provide a predictable pattern, or to disrupt the audience’s expectations… although good ones do that carefully and intentionally.
Here’s one more:
Priest, Levite, ________________.
We say Samaritan because that’s how the story goes that we’ve received. But that’s not what Jesus’ audience would have been expecting. According to Amy-Jill Levine, a professor of New Testament, the expected order at this time would have been Priest, Levite, Israelite.
So imagine Jesus spinning this yarn, as the lawyer and other people listen on. They know what’s coming. And they’re probably starting to feel pretty good about themselves, until:
Samaritan. Boom again.
“Samaritan” would have been a complete reversal of expectations. It’s the last thing they would have expected Jesus to say.
We often hear about the Samaritans as the down and out, the persecuted; but according to Levine, Samaritans were not just the downtrodden people. They were enemies of the people of Israel.
Imagine if I had disrupted the rule of three in our little test… if I’d said, “Larry, Curly, and Bubba.” Or “gold, frankincense, and paper towels.”
That would be a little uncomfortable. It would feel a bit wrong.
Now imagine if I stood up at the end of the service and blessed you all in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Prophet Muhammad. Boom.
Now, as I’ve said many times to you, I do not see Muslim people as our enemy. The problem is with fundamentalist radicals, regardless of their religion. Still… that benediction coming from me would be… concerning. That’s not what the Christian minister is expected to say. At best, you may wonder if I made a slip-up. Like you would question my theology and fitness for ministry.
That is the level of disruption that Jesus’ words would have elicited in his listeners.
How dare he elevate one of “those” people? How dare he make the priest and the Levite the villains and the Samaritan the hero of this story?
And yet there he is. The person who fulfilled the greatest commandment—to love God and love neighbor—is the last person you’d expect it to be.
* * *
Why do we not go and do likewise?
What keeps us from behaving as the Samaritan does in this parable?
In keeping with our rule of three, I’ll suggest that three things keep us from “showing mercy”:
The first is time. I’ve shared with you before about the Good Samaritan study at Princeton Seminary. Read about it here, but what the researchers found is that the primary predictor for whether someone will stop to help someone else is whether they think they have time to do so. The busier we get, the less likely we are to respond with compassion to someone in need. That’s not good news in our world of perpetual motion.
The second is the sheer immensity of the need. Who is our neighbor? Potentially everyone and anyone. We know that. Technology has connected us in amazing ways, but it also connects us to tragedy like never before. It gets to be too much sometimes. So we shut down, tune out, ignore. Pope Francis preached recently on the Good Samaritan story and lamented “the globalization of indifference,” which “makes us all ‘unnamed,’ responsible yet nameless and faceless.”
…The globalization of indifference.
The third is a sense that we can’t do anything. The needs of the world are great, and our abilities seem so small. And yet… take a look at the Samaritan’s response. He goes to the man, tends his wounds, takes him to a safe place…
…And then he leaves.
My whole life with this story, I’ve always wondered where he goes. Isn’t he supposed to drop everything and devote himself to this man’s full-time care and healing? He’s the Good Samaritan, after all!
Well, apparently not. The Samaritan helps him, he pays for the man’s care, and then he goes about his business. His part in this drama, important as it is, is over.
What does this suggest about our call in such situations? What does it suggest about God’s ability to work through the lives of many, many people, neighbors to one another? We respond as we are called and able, and we do what is ours to do. But we don’t do it all. We cannot be God… and we do this work together.
We think we have to do everything, which too often keeps us from doing anything.
* * *
About 12 hours ago, a jury reached its verdict in the George Zimmerman case in Florida. As you’ve no doubt heard, Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder (and a possible verdict of manslaughter) of Trayvon Martin. It’s very hard to comment on the case itself, because only two people know what really happened that night, and one can no longer speak for himself. It’s also hard because I was not in the courtroom and I did not hear every last bit of evidence offered.
What I can comment on—and as a minister of Jesus’ gospel, I feel I must comment on—is the reaction, and the emotions and pain this case has unleashed. Many people I know are heartbroken, or downright irate, at what looks like a travesty of justice. And I also know people feel satisfied with the decision was made. So what do we do now?
My friend Ashley-Anne Masters, a pastor and a writer, wrote late last night about an experience of being called a racial slur. Ashley-Anne is white. Her husband, Reggie Weaver, also a pastor and a friend of mine, is black. She wove together her experience with that of the Zimmerman verdict and spoke directly to this business of feeling overwhelmed and indifferent to our neighbor, of going something rather than nothing:
Choosing to raise children teaching them that all faces are equal and valued regardless of color can change something. Not standing for being called a racial slur, or calling out others when they use one in our presence, can change something. Not categorizing every person in any given race as the same as one particular person of that race can change something. Not being afraid of each other can promote equality among races. Killing negative stereotypes and racial profiling would change something. Not killing each other would change a lot.
My face is white. My husband’s face is the same color as Trayvon Martin’s. Our future children’s faces will likely be some shade of mocha or khaki similar to George Zimmerman’s biracial coloring. One day they will hear about the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial and ask us about it. We will be aware that how we respond as representatives of two races will directly impact our children’s view of multiple races. And that changes everything.
* * *
About a month ago, a woman named Eliza Webb found her car ransacked near her home in Seattle. The car had been left unlocked—no windows broken—so at first she thought her husband must have been looking for something. Then she saw the unfamiliar cellphone on the seat and discovered that her gym bag had been rifled through, and her running shoes and sunglasses were missing.
She opened the phone and began going through text messages and phone contacts. She pushed the contact listed as “Mom” and reached the prowler’s mother. The owner of the cell phone was 19 years old and of course, had left it behind by accident.
At that moment, Eliza faced a choice. The normal course of action would be to call the police, but something stopped her. Instead, she showed the boy mercy. She asked the woman whether she might meet with him, ask him to acknowledge what he’d done, and seek some kind of alternate resolution. The mother said she would support whatever Eliza decided.
When she arrived at the house, she met the teen, who quickly and tearfully confessed. He said his actions had been fueled by alcohol and boredom, and he apologized.
Webb’s husband, who had come along with Eliza, then told the teen his own story.
When he was 20, Blake Webb was charged and convicted of underage drinking after he went out partying with friends. Now, 12 years later, that stupid mistake follows him on every job application, rental and school application. The Webbs wanted to spare the boy that outcome.
But there were consequences for the boy. He had ransacked many cars and had lots of items to return to their owners. So the Webbs went with him, house by house, to explain what he’d done and ask for forgiveness. At the neighborhood block party, he and his friends who’d been involved read a letter of apology to the neighborhood.
The boy later said, “It felt terrible to hear that people are worried and feel like they have to lock the door because of what I did. In a funny way, I feel closer to my neighbors and kind of look forward to seeing them around in different circumstances.”
His mother said, “I’m deeply grateful to Eliza for taking the time to become personally involved with my son and giving him the chance to go face-to-face with the people he victimized and make amends. Kids need somebody besides their own parents looking at them and holding them accountable. She did a beautiful thing.”
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
A teenage boy was shot in Florida.
A young man in Seattle made a very stupid mistake.
A holy man walked by.
A lawyer threw the book at him.
And then a follower of Jesus showed up.
Yes… I’ve decided to take a break from Friday Link Love through the summer, at least. I will still link to stuff at Twitter and Facebook, and will probably drop a link here and there occasionally. But this summer is too squirrelly to commit to a regular posting schedule, so I’m hanging out my Gone Fishin’ sign on this feature.
But we’re going out with a bang! TON of stuff today. A couple of gleanings from social media and some other random stuff. Away we go:
But I am also compelled by this post, which questions the rise of edutainment:
Most importantly, is the central claim [by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, in a recent interview] that the test of education is whether or not it’s entertaining. Wales asks, “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” Is there evidence that the most entertaining lecture is the one that gets “knowledge into people’s heads”? Again, I’m not suggesting that a boring lecture is going to do the trick, but I’m arguing that entertaining students doesn’t necessarily equate with teaching them something.
When I lecture on Kant, I don’t think I’m really entertaining my students. In my opinion, Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals doesn’t lend itself to entertainment; it’s a dense text that needs some serious explication. Now, I don’t speak in a monotone and I try to find relevant examples to help them make sense of the material, but I’m not standing in front of the class hoping that they’ll all have a great time; I’m standing there with the express purpose of teaching them about Kant.
At the risk of a “get off my lawn” moment… Yes.
I read a New Yorker profile about TED not long ago and came away a bit soured. TED talks are very formulaic—not necessarily a bad thing, I’ll admit—but the organizers work with presenters to make their content fit their rigorous. This includes dumbing down some material. Do we really want to go down that road?
Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work.
A nice argument for living “as if.” Which is what I see in a lot of church work.
…We found that people who wrote about engaging in a ritual reported feeling less grief than did those who only wrote about the loss.
This site is just getting going but looks very promising: “Explore stories about musicians, crafters, dancers, painters, and more, who demonstrate the many inspiring (and surprising) ways art can deepen your relationship with God.”
A little bit of Getting Things Done jiu jitsu—this is good advice even if you’re not a disciple of David Allen as I am:
In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.
First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.
If you’ve seen Dewitt Jones’s now-classic DVD, Everyday Creativity, you know he talks about putting yourself in the place of most potential. This photographer has clearly done that—as Christopher notes on Colossal, she must never be without a camera, because she’s able to capture things like this:
James Hollis, Jungian analyst and writer, suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God – a God, if God, who cannot be controlled or defined; a God, as theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted, who was Wholly Other, a God who remains ultimately a mystery. And a mystery is not the same thing as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore inherently unknowable. The German theologian Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) reminded us, “A God comprehended is no God.”
How about closing with two links from my alma mater, Rice University?
HOW LUCKY IS THE CLASS OF 2013 TO GET NdGT AS COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER?!?
We got Elizabeth Dole, which… eh.
Tyson, whose wife, Alice Young, is a Rice alumna, challenged the new graduates to become part of the new drive to discover. “There is no solution to a problem that does not embrace all we have created as a species,” he said. “The original seeds of the space program were planted right here on this campus, and I can tell you that in the years since we have landed on the moon, America has lost its exploratory compass.
Also: some straight talk about what motivates humanity to explore:
War, money and the praise of royalty and deity. He noted Kennedy’s speech at Rice that laid out the plan to go to the moon followed one a year earlier to Congress that first proposed the adventure.
“We haven’t been honest with ourselves about that,” he said, reciting the part of JFK’s 1962 speech to Congress that appears in a monument at the Kennedy Space Center. What’s missing, he said, is a reference to the war driver: in this case, Yuri Gagarin’s orbital mission for the Soviet Union six weeks earlier.
“No one has ever spent big money just to explore,” he said. “No one has ever done that. I wish they did, but they don’t. We went to the moon on a war driver.”
I was honored to preach at the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at their stated meeting on May 9, 2013. It was a bit of an introduction to NEXT Church. I share it here in hopes that others will find it a helpful taste of what we’re about:
The Hour Has Come
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.
When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Many preachers I know have a love-hate relationship with the gospel of John. The Jesus in John is just so muscular. I don’t mean that in the sense of brawny, I mean… he’s so capable. Confident. Free of angst. Every move he makes is deliberate. There is no sweating blood in the garden in John, no cry of anguish on the cross, no “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” (Yes, he does say “I’m thirsty,” but John is quick to assure us: He didn’t really need a drink; he just said that to fulfill the scriptures.)
This is a man who knows what he’s doing at every moment. And that’s a comforting thing. But it’s also what makes John’s Jesus really hard to relate to. Jesus is never, ever caught off guard.
Except… here. Here, in this story, we get a little bit of a different picture than the Jesus we meet in most of John. He seems caught a bit off guard. Plus, this is Jesus’ first sign, and it feels different from the others. There are seven in all, and in case you need a review, here they are in no particular order:
- Walking on water.
- Three healings.
- Feeding 5,000 people with the contents of a child’s picnic.
- Raising a guy from the dead.
- And… restocking the bar at a wedding.
One of these signs is not like the other.
* * *
Jesus’ mother comes to him: “They have no more wine.” It’s a statement… that’s really a question. A request. And Jesus gets that, because he responds to what remains unsaid: No mother, that is not my concern. This is not mine to do.
Mary is saying to him, Look… here is an opportunity.
And Jesus responds: Really? Beverage service? For my inaugural sign? I don’t think so. Anyway, my hour has not yet come.
And she turns toward everyone else: Do what he tells you. And again there is a subtext: Yes, your hour has come. You are needed, right now, right here.
I love that Jesus’ first sign is one he never intended to make.
Jesus, it seems, had a plan. He had something in mind for his first sign. I’m not sure what he hoped his first sign would be, but water into wine wasn’t it. I bet it was something great. Maybe he was planning to heal an entire household in one fell swoop. Maybe a nice juicy exorcism. Later he would walk on water; maybe he was going to kick things off by flying through the air like Superman.
But instead he realizes that when it comes to sign #1… mother does know best. And of course, it’s not just about the wine—it’s about hospitality, it’s about providing something amazing for a whole village of people. It’s about God’s abundance. So yes, he’s in.
He looks around: What’s here that I can use? He scopes out his provisions like some kind of Palestinian MacGyver, and he finds 6 water jars.
You remember the number 7 as a holy number in scripture. It is a number of perfection, completion. The seven days of creation. Seventh day as the day of rest. Seven signs in the gospel of John, seven churches in the book of Revelation.
But there are only 6 jars. Not good. In the ancient world, 6 was not a holy number. Far from it. Six was seen as a deficient number, imperfect, lacking. So we can see why Jesus would be reluctant to act—wine from seven jars would be a fabulously meaningful sign, dripping with significance. But the tools aren’t right. Things aren’t quite right. Six jars is somehow not enough.
I serve a small congregation in Northern Virginia that has grown from about 70 to about 85 in the last few years. We rejoice at this growth. And we are grateful to have a number of things going for us. We own our building; it’s not too big for us, not too overwhelming for the budget. We have a small endowment. We have great people and an excitement about the future.
And yet… and yet… even with all of those gifts, it is still hard to move forward.
It’s difficult to find the money to do what we want and need to do.
It’s tough to find the people power to move forward on projects and ministries that we feel passionate about.
It’s nearly impossible to figure out how to cut through the noise of the DC area so that our neighbors will know who we are and what we believe and why we’d like them to be a part of it.
It feels sometimes like a six jar situation.
And I wonder if you, too, look around your congregation, or your presbytery, and see six jars.
If we could just catch a break,
if we could just finish that camp,
if we could just get a few more young people to join our church,
if we could just hire a pastor—then, then, we could be the sign that we really want to be, the sign we’ve always dreamed of being.
Maybe you, like Jesus, feel like the timing is off. Jesus says his hour has not come, but for many of us, we feel like our hour is past. The statistics about membership decline in the PC(USA) are repeated so often that they have become a cliché. So many churches, here and around the country, are doing faithful ministry but without the means to call a pastor. Our buildings need maintenance. Meanwhile, a recent Barna survey of pastors and found that 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry. And an astounding 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
We’re a day late and a jar short.
Unless it’s not up to us to perform a sign, but simply to be the sign.
Unless we worship a God of possibility.
Unless John’s Jesus, our Jesus, can take our jars and look at the clock on the wall and say, “Forget what time it is. I can work with this.”
For the last couple of years I’ve been honored to be a part of the leadership of the NEXT Church. This is a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has been working to celebrate the places of health in the church and to support those places and help them propagate. The premise of NEXT Church is that the church is not dying. The church is changing, and changing quickly. And we are capable of change, but we can’t wait for Louisville or presbytery or our pastors to do it for us. We are the church.
Last year we hosted half a dozen regional events around the country where ruling elders and teaching elders came together not to transact business or kvetch about presbytery, or argue about ordination standards or gay marriage. They came together to share resources and inspiration. They formed relationships and partnerships.
NEXT Church recently had our national gathering in Charlotte, and we heard about churches that were on life support who turned their worship life around through improv and storytelling. We heard about a large church partnering with a small church through an adminstrative commission. We heard about congregations coming together through community organizing to transform entire neighborhoods.
You can hear these stories and many more on our website. What’s interesting is that many of these folks were reluctant to speak at the conference because they felt like what they had to offer wasn’t all that radical. I’m no expert, they would shrug. They might as well have said, “Eh, I’ve only got six jars.” But their testimonies set the place on fire.
When we offer up those jars… when we fill them to the brim, like those servants did… well, that’s when the good wine starts to flow.
* * *
We’ll never know what Jesus had in mind for his inaugural sign. But it’s significant to me that his first sign wasn’t a healing… it wasn’t an exorcism or a sermon or feeding 5,000 people. It wasn’t a life or death situation at all. The first sign of Jesus helped the hosts of the wedding save face, but otherwise it had very little utility. It was just an act of pure beauty. The party needs to go on, says Jesus. The love and fellowship should continue.
Water into wine is such a small sign. But maybe this sign is just the sign we need. Jean Varnier, founder of the L’Arche Community, reminds us: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of man is to accept his insignificance, his human condition and his earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness.”
We get mixed up sometimes. We want to save the church. We want to save the world! But maybe it’s enough to keep the feast going for as long as we can—not cautiously, not fearfully, but brimming over with hope and trust that the wine will flow as long as God means it to.
Maybe God is preparing us for something really, really—small:
I’m off-sync from most of you in terms of lectionary… but here’s what I preached Sunday morning:
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 21, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Answer Me These Questions Three
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,* Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon 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.
4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He 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.7That 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 lake. 8But 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.
9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus 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. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 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.’ 16A 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.’ 17He 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. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your 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.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
The headline appeared over an article in The Guardian newspaper (online) this week:
News is bad for you – giving up reading it will make you happier
The subtitle elaborates: News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.
The article goes on and lists a few of the reasons:
News can mislead. It highlights events in a sensational way to the point that we are convinced that things are much worse than they are
News activates the fearful, reactive side of us.
Panicky stories release cortisol, which impacts our immune system and makes us function poorly.
News stories make us feel passive, because so many of them are about things that are beyond our control.
There were many other reason listed, with a blunt conclusion: don’t consume news:
Society needs journalism, but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news.
Don’t consume news, the article concludes; consume long-form articles and books instead.
I don’t see our 24/7 culture taking hold of that message and putting CNN and Fox News out of business anytime soon. But if any week could possibly convince us, it was this one. It was a terrible, heavy, tragic week. It got to the point, round about the time of the Senate’s vote on universal background checks for gun purchases, that I was clicking on Facebook and news sites with one hand over my eyes. And by the time a fertilizer plant exploded in the sweet little town of West, Texas, and by the time the Des Plaines River had overflowed its banks in Chicago after torrential rains, I had my hands over my proverbial ears singing Lalalala I can’t hear you.
Add to that the chronic sadness that hums around us all the time—in the form of illnesses, family strife, poverty, the everyday tugs and squabbles and griefs, and it feels like too much. Just way, way too much.
It may not be much consolation, but Jesus’ friends were also dealing with too much—way, way, too much—though admittedly, a different kind of too-much. Jesus, their friend and teacher, the one they had pledged to follow has died and apparently, been raised. I say “apparently” because yes, he’s appeared to them, two strange and fleeting visits in the house where they’re staying, but nothing lasting, no lengthy teachings or long road trips, nothing permanent they can hold onto. He just pops up when they least expect it, like some holy Jack in the Box. From that first resurrection moment in the garden when Mary Magdalene grabs hold of Jesus and he says “Don’t hang on to me,” Jesus seems intent on giving them just a little glimpse and then—gone.
It’s all very disorienting. Is he out there or not? Is he raised or not? Is it true or just their imaginations? Who can say? It’s all very heavy, man.
So what do they do? They go fishing.
There’s a saying in family systems thinking: “When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know.” The emotions of the week prior have stunned them, and Peter most of all. He’s always been the one who’s wanted to get it right.
Don’t wash my feet, Jesus. Oh, you’re supposed to? Then wash my whole body. Deny you three times? Not only will I never deny you, I will die alongside you!
Peter is that guy that makes grand promises and really means it, but just can’t deliver. So the events of the last couple of weeks aren’t just disorienting. They have held up a mirror to Peter’s every weakness, every good intention gone awry, every last failure.
So he goes fishing.
He doesn’t know what to do, so he does what he knows.
And so do we, yes? Perhaps that’s why couples have the same arguments over and over. Or why some companies cling to outdated business models when faced with an uncertain new future. Or why churches look at a changing landscape of decline and instead of saying, “Let’s be open to something radically new,” we say, “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, just more so.”
“Doing what we know” also explains much of the rhetoric of the past week. There’s never been a week exactly like April 14-20, 2013, and yet the public discourse seems sadly familiar. When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know. We retreat to our camps and our talking points:
This is about Muslims coming to get us.
This is about needing to keep immigrants out.
Where did those two young men get all those guns and explosives? We need gun control!
It’s about the same old things it’s always about. And everyone’s susceptible to it.
And I wonder whether Jesus is… wherever Jesus is, taking all this in and saying, Stop making it about your own pet issues. You are missing the point.
There’s been a lot of speculation by preachers and commentators about this “Do you love me” business. Why “Do you love me?” What kind of person asks, “Do you love me?” An insecure person, sometimes. For some, “Do you love me” is right up there with “Does this outfit make me look fat?” But I don’t know. I don’t see the Lord of all creation as needing validation.
And why three times? Well, three is the number of completeness in scripture. It’s also a common narrative device. Three little pigs, three little bears, three questions from Jesus. But notice, each exchange is not exactly the same. Jesus changes it up a little, feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep… eh, that doesn’t feel like much, but Peter. Peter goes somewhere. The first couple of times he just… answers. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Like a teenager: Yes Mom, curfew’s at 11. No Dad, I won’t do anything stupid.
But the third time… the third time Peter is hurt. The question finally pierces the armor and hits a tender place, and Peter is laid bare.
He feels hurt, that Jesus would keep questioning him.
He feels hurt…
Last week one of you came out of the sanctuary and told me about an encounter you’d had with a homeless person. That’s such a hard one. Do you give money, do you not? If you don’t give money shouldn’t you at least look at the person rather than ignore? This is a human being, after all. And you know what? It’s supposed to be hard. That never gets easy, because love is not easy. It’s not an easy, perfunctory love that Jesus calls us to.
I’d like it to be easy.
…I am so tired of people killing each other. I’m sure you’re tired of it too. Maybe you want to just tune out and stop listening. These events seem to come at us so relentlessly that it’s easier to change the channel, keep it all at arms’ length, and retreat into our talking points. But we can’t.
Because when a bomb goes off in Boston or in Baghdad, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”
And every time a teenager is shot on the south side of Chicago, it’s Jesus again. “Do you love me?”
Whether it’s a family losing their homes in Washington, or an earthquake in China, or a town in Texas that lost some of its bravest fire fighters and emergency workers, the ones that ventured into the fire, there’s that question again. “Do you love me?”
And that doesn’t mean we are called to respond to every piece of bad news that we encounter. Not everything is ours to do. But we do have to confront that relentless question every time. Because that’s Jesus there, devasted in Boston and Baghdad, that’s Jesus, sorting through the rubble in China and in West Texas.
Jesus asked Peter because he needed to see evidence of it.
Do you love me? Prove it. Follow me.
Fred Craddock was the keynote speaker at a conference at Clemson University. Before his lecture a young woman was going to begin the program with a devotional. She was a plain, earnest young woman and as she approached the microphone he could see that she had a yellow legal pad that had a lot of writing on it. “Uh oh,” Craddock thought, “we’re here for the night.”
She spoke softly and in what he thought was a foreign language. Just a short burst of words. And then another language. What was she saying?
And then another one, and on and on it went. It was relentless… like a question they couldn’t answer. Thirty times. Forty times. Fifty, sixty, seventy.
When she got to German and Spanish and French, Fred Craddock finally began to recognize it. The last time, it was English.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.”
And then she sat down.
Tend my lambs. Feed my sheep.
They won’t know we are Christians by our flag, they won’t know we are Christians by our friends, they won’t know we are Christians by our incredible potlucks, or our doctrine, or our political party. They’ll only know we are Christians by our love.