movin’ on

preachinga sermon, based on John 21.1-19 and Acts 9.1-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016

Easter Day has come and gone. Again. Sometimes life is this simple. We anticipate a great moment, joyfully greet its arrival, gently or not so gently feel letdown when it passes, then inevitably return to life as it was, as it is with all of its necessary ordinariness of regular, routinized, daily, sometimes drearily repetitive cycles and schedules.

What’s not simple is that great moments inherently bring together our highest hopes that something will be transformed, that we will be changed for the better and our deepest fears that nothing ever changes, that we always will be as we always have been. Years of Easters and of life in this world teach us, perhaps unintentionally, but no less truly, this lesson: Be skeptical of the potential for the lasting fulfillment of our expectations. Perchance, then, the best Easter can provide is a temporary rush, a transient thrill, then a return to that norm called “today.”

However, I believe, and this is good news, there’s more, which I euphemistically call “tomorrow.” So, how do we move on from today toward tomorrow? Looking at today’s gospel passage, the reactions of Jesus’ disciples to his post-resurrection appearances offer this ironic insight: Try to return to yesterday.

The disciples gather at the Sea of Tiberias. Jesus, raised from the dead, already has appeared to them twice before, gladdening their hearts that had been broken by his crucifixion and death. But gradually they realize he hasn’t returned to them, isn’t (and won’t be) with them the way he was before, the way they desire; day by day, talking, walking, preaching, teaching, healing, leading and guiding. So, now what? A reasonable, achievable course of action is for the disciples to do what they know how to do. Peter, a fisherman, announces, “I’m going fishing.” The rest of the disciples, equally at a loss and without a clue of what to do, leap at his recommendation: “We’ll go with you!”

Several years ago, when my brother, then my father died, I entered one of the most turbulent periods in my life. Already heartbroken in grief, I had to face the reality that into my trembling, ignorant hands was placed the responsibility of caring for my mother, who had begun her long sojourn in the shadows of Alzheimer’s disease. Fretfully, fearfully, and at a distance, she in St. Louis and I in Washington, DC, I searched for information, answers to advise my actions; never certain I was doing the right thing. I also threw myself more fully into my then work as rector of Trinity Church, DC. There I found the consolation of the familiar, something I knew how to do, when everything around and within me was chaos.

I think Peter and the disciples sought the comfort of returning to the life they knew. But, after a night of fishing, they had no success. (Truth be told, I also know the experience of being in a state of anguish or anxiety so severe when the familiar becomes foreign, when I struggle with little success to do what I’ve done countless times before.) Jesus appears, asking, “Do you have any fish?” Though prefaced with an affectionate “Children”, Jesus’ question must have irritated, infuriated those tired and frustrated disciples! (As I read the text, I “hear” the tone of exasperation in their answer, “No!”) Jesus gives good advice that nets a great catch of fish, then prepares breakfast, leading to one of the most poignant exchanges in scripture. Jesus thrice asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes.”

Christ Sharing Breakfast with the Apostles in Galilee, James Tissot (1886-1894). New York, Brooklyn Museum

Whenever I have denied something I said or did, which I should not have said or done or whenever I have betrayed a cherished belief or value through expediency or cowardice, the thing I most fear is a conversation, a confrontation with the person or persons I have wronged. Likewise, when I believe I have been wronged, the last thing I want to do is engage my offender.

Yet in this dialogue between Jesus and Peter, they painfully, courageously opened the tomb of the rotting bones of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus when he faced the cross of his crucifixion and death. Thus, they shared in the resurrection of reconciliation. In the encounter between Ananias and Saul, Ananias willingly followed the ostensibly insane directive, notwithstanding that it came in a vision from Jesus, to go to Saul who was on a mission to kill the followers of Jesus. Thus, they shared in the healing of reconciliation.

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631

These conversations can help us find a way to move on from today toward tomorrow. A way that involves our naked honesty and vulnerability about who and where we are. Jesus and Peter did not deny the mutual pain of Peter’s betrayal. And they, yearning to be liberated from the prison of the misery of that infidelity, held out the hope of reconciliation through their reaffirmation of love and the resurrection of trust; for Peter, expressed in the renewal of the call, “Follow me.” Ananias and Saul did not deny the record of Saul’s murderous persecution. And they, each following the voice of Jesus, Saul to go to Damascus and wait, Ananias to go to Saul, were reconciled; for Saul, expressed in that term of endearment, “Brother.”

I close with the words of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, a 19th century Swiss moral philosopher and poet: “Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”[1]

In the Easter-light of these words and given the acts of denial and betrayal done by and to me, I know that there are people (yes, some have died, yet some are still alive) with whom I need to have a conversation like Jesus had with Peter and Ananias with Saul. Intending no judgment of you, I would guess the same is true for you.

Will we take the risk of Easter and go to the tombs of the rotting bones of our broken relationships, daring to trust in the hope of resurrection?


Illustrations: Christ Sharing Breakfast with the Apostles in Galilee, James Tissot (1886-1894). New York, Brooklyn Museum; Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul, Pietro De Cortana, 1631


[1] Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881)

4 thoughts on “movin’ on

  1. Paul,

    Every possible emotion was stirred in me in reading your sermon, I am assuming this is because of the emotional activities I’ve been involved with since Easter Sunday, all involving my mom (our annual Easter Egg hunt, handling medicare billing issues and preparing for and participating in a PBS documentary filming). I feel honored to have read this sermon today. After so many Easters, you write that a lesson we could take away would be “Be skeptical of the potential for the lasting fulfillment of our expectations”. I smiled broadly when I read that line. You haven’t seen my entire presentation on Being My Mom’s Mom that I’ve been giving and updating since 2014, but in it is a slide that reads – my motto for dementia is having “NO EXPECTATIONS” of how this disease will progress or how my mom will be from one day to the next. Since I approach every day with no expectations, when my time with mom goes well, I say “GREAT” and when it doesn’t or I cry, I think “tomorrow will be better”. So in your sermon when you asked how do we move from today until tomorrow? I was near tears. I actually LIVE for tomorrow. That there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s.. that I will get to see all of the things I want to see in this world before anything bad (Alzheimer’s included) catches up with me. I always think that tomorrow will be better, but we have to make a great effort to make it so too.

    We have to reach out and have conversations with those we need to as you mentioned, but I especially feel we also need to focus on part of the quote you included to “be swift to love and make haste to be kind”. Today at church during the Prayers of the People, a woman I’d never seen before asked for prayers for her grandmother. But before she could get it all out, she started to cry. No one was sitting within three rows of her, and I was halfway across the Nave serving as verger. But I quickly walked over to her, stepped into her row and hugged her. She grabbed onto me and literally cried for a few minutes. When we finally let go we introduced ourselves and she thanked me for my kindness. As I was hugging her, I was facing the choir and I could see several of them watching us and a few of them appeared to be wiping away tears. When the service was over, quite a few choir members spoke to me about my kindness with the woman.

    You mentioned your father and brother in your sermon, and when I sprinted over to the woman in need today, I was thinking of my mother, the kindest woman I know. Would the woman have eventually been fine without my hug today? Of course she would, YET I felt compelled to go, because if it were me in that situation I certainly would have wanted a hug. Love and kindness. It just doesn’t get better than that, and it sure makes us look more forward to our tomorrows.

    Thank you for sharing your sermon, and for giving us something to focus on and look forward to. I’m guessing some of your parishioners are planning on having a few conversations this week with people they need to love and be kind to, even if those people have failed to meet their expectations.

    With love and gratitude!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Loretta, love and gratitude back to you. Thank you for sharing your encounter with the woman in church this day. Thank you, especially, for encountering her, that is, going to her, being with her in her clearly expressed (through prayers and tears) moment of need. Many are the times our God puts folk in our life’s path who are saddened, broken, or otherwise in need, asking of us to act. Many are the times, I confess, I’ve not acted for reasons of not wanting to be inconvenienced or in fear that I would not, COULD not be able to respond to the need. You acted. Frankly, in my experience of you, you tend to act, to move, to encounter, engage others, to be in their places of woundedness AND joy. Bless you a thousand-fold. Much love, always

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Paul! I’ll certainly say that I saw you act many, many times, to comfort and embrace and to provide what people needed they truly appreciated it!! I think it all comes down to believing that you know what the person needs. I’m so glad I acted and I hope I will continue to do so for many tomorrows. Bless you too, I learned a lot from you. Much love!

    Liked by 1 person

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