St Francis, Norris
April 22, 2007
This past week has been one of opposites for me. Monday is my day off, so I played golf with Joe Fink and Fred Fields. One of the longest holes, over the water, turned out to be a place of great celebration. You see, Fred hit a low screaming iron shot at the par three green that landed just short of the green and bounced up toward the hole. The sun was at an angle that made the ball difficult to see. When we got to the green the ball was nowhere to be seen and Fred was headed to search behind the green. I jokingly said, look in the hole before you go over in the bushes. You guessed it. A hole in one! We all celebrated and laughed at the fact that Fred was the only one of the three of us to ever have had a hole in one, while playing much less than the two Joe’s. Fate is like that some times.
While all this great fun was being celebrated there were unspeakable horrors being revealed to the world from the campus of Virginia Tech. The frivolity of a sport that involves hitting a little ball with a stick with the objective of getting it into a hole, cut into the short mown grass was intensified. Devastating, life changing events were unfolding as we played our silly little game. Celebration and agony were existing side by side in two worlds not very far apart. Not very far apart geographically that is. The circumstances in these two worlds were about as opposite as one could imagine.
What I want to talk about today is that these worlds not only exist in time and space, as was the case Monday. These diametrically opposed circumstances also exist within individual human beings. They exist within united groups that human beings form for community.
The gospel of John is constantly referencing the opposing light and darkness concept. Good versus evil. God against Satan. The gospel reading today has a part in it that I noticed for the very first time. The part where Peter puts on his clothing and jumps in the sea. My commentaries tell me that he was not actually naked but wearing what we would envision as a night shirt. Putting on his clothing would mean throwing a cloak or robe on. The thing that I envisioned for the first time was this; Peter was so happy to see Jesus that he could not contain himself. He actually jumped in and swam to shore because he couldn’t wait for the boat to get there. Elation is the word that comes to mind. A happy spirit. A joyful soul.
It doesn’t say how long it was since the crucifixion that this event took place. My opinion is that it was little more than weeks. So remember back to Peter at the crucifixion. He vehemently denied that he even knew Christ three times in order to save himself. Immediately after the third denial he saw the lords face and began to weep bitterly. Peter knew that Jesus knew. What Peter had bragged about was a blatant lie. He had shown his cowardice directly to the man he had sworn allegiance to. And now, he runs to greet him. Shortly after this encounter is when Jesus appoints Peter to be the leader of the church. He never knew it, but did you know that Peter is considered by Roman Catholics to be the first Pope.
Peter has assuredly experienced the highs and lows that life has to offer, in a brief time span. I have always felt that Peter, more than any other disciple, represents the average person in this world. Both then and now.
His faith was so strong that he could walk on water. His faith was so weak he couldn’t stop himself from denying Christ those three times, even when warned of what was to come.
And then we can go to the road to Damascus story about Paul. Talk about your highs and lows! Boastfully and with determination he sets out on a journey to put down this uprising of Christians. Without any warning he is felled and blinded. Defenseless. Never even saw anything coming. He became, in an instant, totally dependent on others for his every need. And Jesus sends a total stranger to administer healing and to fill him with the Holy Spirit. And, Paul becomes, arguably, the most influential leader the church has ever seen with the exception of Christ himself.
It is no accident that these two stories appear on the same Sunday. The lectionary is good that way. We are learning of the formation of the catholic (meaning universal) church. The Christian church for all. The foundation of apostolic succession has its roots in this formation. All the way to ordinations and confirmations that we have experienced.
Notice the big similarity of these two very different men regarding their coming into leadership. Paul fought Christ while Peter followed Christ. They had totally different upbringings. Peter would spread the word to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles and kings, we are told. Yet the similarity is that same circumstance that allows so many to come out of the storm, under the umbrella to be with Christ. Both of these men were completely broken before coming to Christ. In Peter’s case it was a return to Christ. In Pauls it was the discovery and acceptance of Christ as the savior of the world. Both men accepted, with vigor, the new task set before them and both gave their lives for the mission. But they had to be broken first.
There are a lot of very broken people in the Virginia Tech family right now. Many are likely shaken in their faith. Angry with God. Can you blame them? Have you taken the time to be alone and imagine what it must be like to have the news brought to you that your child, brother, sister, friend or any loved one had been killed, senselessly by a hate filled psychopath. Can you think about the video you have seen in relation to a loved one of yours. That body that was being carried out of the dorm was someone’s child. Can you think about the killers parents? What horrors they must be living now. Try to imagine the situation and the feelings you would have if you were a part of the unspeakable evil that happened on Monday. Try as you might, it is impossible to even feel an infinitesimal fraction of the despair that they feel. Most of us will never experience that feeling to the degree that they do.
On the other hand most of us have been just as broken and deserted at some time in our lives. Tragedy strikes without warning every single day. The Virginia Tech murders are sensational in that it happened to so many at one time. Every day people are killed senselessly. Cancer and other disease take the lives of innocent children constantly. Automobile accidents, casualties of war, strokes, heart attacks, aneurysms and so on and so on. There are a lot of reasons to lose ones faith. I doubt that any adult here today has escaped tragedy. And the children that haven’t already faced tragedy will be unable to avoid it in the future.
Seeing the events in my home state this week reminds me that life can disintegrate at any given second in any given place to any given person or persons. I know, all too well, what it is like to be in that stupor where the world seems surreal and that you will wake up from this nightmare. Soon. And as time passes the realities of what has happened begin to permanently scar you very being, your soul. Those Virginia Tech people are in different stages of the process right now. Pray for them. Pray with all your heart.
As rotten as all this has been for everyone; God has not deserted any of these people. I hope all of them will discover that at some part of there grieving. The hurt will never go away and most of them will discover they don’t wish it would go away. Wishing it had never happened is not the same as wishing it didn’t hurt.
These people who are so greatly suffering right now are in the midst of something incredibly powerful. Chances are they are unable to realize what is going on due to the pain. But, I believe with all of my heart, that God is working through the people that are surrounding those who are suffering. They may not see it now, but the love of Christ is being exhibited to them. Love thy neighborness is rampant in not just the people they are close to, but in total strangers. People that they didn’t think they cared for will exhibit profound caring. People that they didn’t think cared for them will exhibit profound caring.
Now I couldn’t venture a guess as to what percentage of these suffering masses will realize that their faith is increased following the grieving process that will follow the shock of the situation. My guess is that it will be significant. There will probably be a few that will never get over the feeling that God has betrayed them. We should not have a problem understanding why they might feel this way.
These people will go on because there is no choice but to do so. In time they will learn to laugh again. They will once again play. I hope that all of them will survive the torturous ordeal that life has slapped them with. I pray that the time they might sometimes think of their loved one with smiles instead of tears comes soon. I pray that they reach that point where even the tears bring the comfort of remembrances. I pray that each and every one of them has that “hole in one experience” that allows pure happiness in the moment, regardless of what is happening elsewhere.
Peter witnessed the hideous torture and crucifixion of a loved one. Saul was blinded and made helpless. In both cases Jesus came to them. In both cases they were sent out to care for the flock that Jesus began. They were charged with bringing more into the flock. And they responded. Neither Peter nor Paul began these quests before they came to realize they are totally helpless concerning things of real importance. It was through brokenness that the scales were able to fall from their eyes so they could see that which is truly important.
Pray that all those suffering from the result of tragedy, throughout the world can have an encounter with the Holy Spirit that brings them closer to God and closer to loving thy neighbor. Pray that they can see the joy of this life as they take comfort in the promise of eternal life. Allow your mind to descend to your heart and pray. AMEN