Based on John 21: 15-19
This week has been absolutely exhausting. On Thursday, I noticed the physical exhaustion. The cost of the adrenal rush required to keep up with five consecutive days of full agendas. On Friday night, I noticed the emotional fatigue. The cost of an open mind and a compassionate heart exposed to the realities of our political environment.
As busy as I find myself during a normal week, I rarely find myself without at least a few quiet blocks of time set aside to write sermons, log financial transactions or write thank you letters. Even if I could openly confess that I am regularly overscheduled, this week blew up my monotonous normality.
Scheduled to provide my daughter with a comparable experience as her classmates who spent this past week touring the nation’s capital in Washington DC, this week’s self-organized stay-at-home DC trip embraced the promise of grassroots movements creating local, sustainable change. While I had been concerned about finding enough learning opportunities for her to participate in, the challenge actually ended up being too many learning opportunities to choose from. (It didn’t hurt that this was the final week of our state legislative session).
A snapshot of our week’s agenda includes attendance at a public hearing against the delisting of the gray wolves as endangered species, a guided tour around the capital building, attending the final Faithful Tuesdays at the capital for the year, touring the Molly Brown museum, and listening to a Human Rights advocate share about her work in Gaza with Palestinian refugees which included stories of devastation from the recent and total defunding of American financial aid to Palestinian refugees. There were also many interviews with ordinary people doing extraordinary work. Retirees, United Methodist clergy, Mennonite pastors, Disciples of Christ ministers, lawyers and lay people stepping into the public ring to advocate for human dignity, moral transparency and human equality.
All the stories, the facts, the realities exposed just past the safe boundaries of my self-imposed monotony have wiped me out. Like the poorly trained distance runner crawling across the marathon line, this sermon is my attempt to finish the race after an emotionally daunting pace.
Our scripture this morning is in a way reflective of arriving at a biblical finish line. Where once Simon Peter had three times denied knowing the falsely accused Jesus, now the Risen Christ stands before Peter as he three times affirms his love for Jesus.
Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” The same question repeated with the same answer given. While the scene is a strategic response to the denial dialogue with Simon Peter, it is worth imagining what Peter was doing that caused Jesus to ask again…and again. Perhaps comparable to the universal scenario of a parent asking a child if they have done their homework; the child answers yes but shows no evidence of having completed the task in question.
Three times Peter is asked, “Do you love me?”
And three times, Peter replies, “Yes.” But we must consider that it is not the words to the question that Jesus requires but the behavioral response.
We see each emphatic “yes” received with a contemporary translation of “well, then, do something!”
You say you love me, but you are just standing there! Feed my sheep, tend my lambs, get up, go out and do something. Jesus requires not a verbal confession nor some doctrinal commitment, but an absolute and ongoing transformation exemplified in our daily interactions with the world.
This morning’s commentary reads, “Jesus’ words about the future of the faith community after his glorification reflect his concern regarding how the community will live in his absence. What shape will their lives take? How will they endure persecution and the world’s hatred? How will they experience Jesus’ presence? What will be their identity as a people of faith?”
The residue of fatigue from this week is as much about the inability of our political system to resolve systemic issues impacting vulnerable populations as it is from the absence of people of faith in the political work required to help solve them. This week I witnessed courageous individuals showing up to noticeably underattended hearings, rallies, gatherings and worship services. What I did not witness was a community of believers showing up together to support a cause, to support one another, to support the ongoing work of the living Christ.
Our final interview took place on Friday morning. Dana Miller is a community activist. She founded Grow Local among a million other things. She is an agnostic which in an unconventional sense could be understood as the ultimate form of faithfulness an act of surrender to the limits of our knowing and a reconciliation to our call to love to the point of death; death to prejudice, opinions, beliefs. Her work is motivated by a moral imperative to do the right thing which she described as being obvious if we were to love all people and show kindness in all we do.
Her work with the Indivisible movement is exhausting but she belongs to a community of committed, diverse individuals who support one another. If she needs a break, some one else can take over. They may be far from achieving their vision of a just and equitable society, but they can sustain the movement because they do not exist in the current reality alone. Dana may not believe in any God defined by a defined religion, but she may be the most faithful person I know. The community she has cultivated would never describe themselves as the Body of Christ, but they are the closest description of what Jesus described as the Church as I have ever seen.
This morning as we sit in the beauty of this prairie, breathing this fresh air, watching birds fly and flowers bloom, three black men sit in the Colorado State petitionary facing a death sentence that may or may not come true. One of these men, Robert Ray, is 18 years old. In this same City we worship in, right now, approximately 1,532 men, women and children are being detained in the privately owned and managed ICE detention center. Less than half a mile from us, just over 400 families reside in a mobile home park known as “felony flats” while 206 new houses are being built this Spring for people like us. Middle Class. White. Educated.
And Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?”
Together we have broken out beyond the walls of the institutional church. Suddenly we find ourselves free from the fears inherited by the way things used to be and the expectations of how things should be done. Will we waste this opportunity? Will we squander this call? To love the world as Jesus loved us. To share good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, and to set free the captive. To embody the spiritual direction to do justice, love kindness, as together we walk humbly with our God.
The measure of success for our community will be defined not by the walls we build but the walls we are able to break down. Identifying places of divisiveness and flooding them with love will never be a successful funding plan nor a sought-after business model. There will be many times, we will feel as though our hands have been tied, our voices have been silenced and the outcomes we have committed our lives to have led us to a place we never intended to go. I imagine this is the place where Jesus waits for each and every one of us to arrive out of breath and brutally broken.
Dana Miller was right when she said that religion is not a requirement to live a morally responsible life in community. But for us gathered here today, we are reminded that loving Jesus undeniably requires us to live lives of love in the public sphere. That a yes to loving Jesus is a yes to loving a world. Rabbi Tarfon, who lived and taught 2,000 years ago writes; “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”
Our work is to spiritually feed people who have been abused and abandoned by a structure posing as church. Our work is to sit with and care for people whose lack of access to fresh food, adequate health care and an equitable justice system are wrapped in the systemic complacency of our relationship to our own privilege. Our work is to grow food and feed a population who is overfed and depleted of nutrition. Our work, in all we do, is love as Jesus loved – without limits – without judgment – without disappearing into despair.