I'm not generally a fan of recycling sermons. But it seemed both necessary and proper this week, as I hope you'll see. Preaching texts are here.
It’s been a long week for us. Ainsley had her tonsils out on Monday, and complications with dehydration forced her back into the hospital on Thursday morning. The entire week has been pretty much a wash for me in terms of pastoring. But it’s Sunday, and that means a sermon is needed. So I sat down last night to write, and just to center myself in the text, I took a look at my sermon from three years ago, the last time I preached on these texts. I was astonished to see that what I had to say then remains true today, even though I’m in a new state, a new call, and dealing with a whole new batch of mourning.
Do you remember what happened three years ago this week? I didn’t, until last night. Three years ago this week, thirty-three Virginia Tech students were murdered by one of their own. An astronaut killed herself and her former lover at Kennedy Space Center in Houston. The genocide in the Sudan continued to horrify the world. Three years ago this week.
Today we mourn the death of Jon Lacina and TJ Good, two students claimed by death when they should have been claimed by the joy of springtime at Iowa State. In the midst of the big VEISHEA celebration, friends and family are weeping. And that’s not all that causes grief today – that’s only the grief we know about, the grief we can see right in front of us.
Three years ago, I found it hard to preach, hard to find within my heart a capacity to rejoice in this Easter season. So much in this week had gone tragically wrong. How could we rejoice when young people are cut down less than two weeks before finishing a college degree? How could we rejoice when a college professor who survived the Holocaust is murdered holding shut the door of his classroom, providing his students a chance to escape? How could we rejoice when thousands live in daily turmoil and danger, where a trip to the market can easily be a trip to the grave? How can we rejoice now?
Nikki Giovanni, a poet and professor at Virginia Tech, spoke to a convocation assembled to address the horror and grief brought about by the senseless killing of innocent victims. This is part of what she said:
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. ... We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.
Yet tragedy comes to us all in time. We are no more guaranteed a life without tragedy than we are guaranteed a life without death. Sorrow and grief are, unfortunately, companions on the journey of this life we travel.
The psalm this morning is poetry to which Ms. Giovanni’s words bear a striking resemblance. “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while,” says Giovanni. The psalmist says, “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to death? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?” “We not moving on, we are embracing our morning,” says Giovanni. The psalmist says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” When we live in the night of morning, the darkness can seem endless, but we hold on, because we know that someday there will be daybreak again; someday the light will burst into the darkness and we will feel joy again.
Peter knew tragedy. Being a man of his time, Peter probably knew tragedy better than any of us here today. Peter lived in a time when life was not guaranteed. Children could be swept away by illness in the blink of an eye. A cut that seemed insignificant could develop an infection and lead to death. Peter was a fisherman by trade; the sea could claim his life and no one would ever know where to find his body. But the greatest tragedy in Peter’s life was one Peter brought on himself through fear. On the night Jesus was betrayed, as Jesus was being questioned by the powerful Sanhedrin, the high council of the church, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times. Hours earlier Peter had sworn that he would never abandon Jesus, that he would go to the grave with Jesus if he must, but Jesus had said, “No, Peter, I tell you, before a rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny knowing me three times.” Here is a tragedy for you. Peter was a friend and confidant, a student who lovingly and enthusiastically served his teacher for three years; but Peter was afraid, and in his fear Peter did the very thing he swore he would never do: he abandoned Jesus to save his own life.
Yes, Peter knew tragedy; but Jesus knew tragedy even better. Jesus knew the tragedy of the children of God, who chose darkness to hide their sin rather than risk living in the light of God and having that sin exposed. Jesus knew the tragedy of how we live in fear, how we live denying pain, denying sorrow. Jesus knew that if Peter was ever going to feel joy again, Peter needed to stop denying what had been done, and start living his life with his sins behind him. So Jesus called Peter to a breakfast fire, and over a feast of grilled fish and bread, Jesus confronted Peter with the tragedy of his denial. “Do you love me, Peter?” asked Jesus. Not once, and not twice: three times Peter denied Jesus, and three times Jesus asked his own question. “Do you love me, Peter?” Here Peter could not deny his tragedy. Here Peter could not pretend ignorance. Here Peter was confronted by the Messiah he denied, the Anointed One of God who should have been dead but was risen and asking him, three times, “Do you love me, Peter?”
Here is tragedy addressed by reality. Jesus didn’t spend any time looking into Peter’s soul for the cause of Peter’s denial. There is no false forgiveness here; no “don’t worry about it” offering grace that never forgets the sin it supposedly forgives. There is no refusal to address the sin itself, as if pretending Peter never denied his friend would somehow heal the wounds that denial inflicted upon Jesus and upon Peter himself. No, here there is confrontation with tragedy. Here the evil that was done is faced head on, and tragedy is exposed and embraced by Peter and Jesus both. Here Peter and Jesus are sad, and will be sad for quite a while; but here also Peter and Jesus love one another, and the love is all the more deep and true and real because the wound has been exposed, the infection of sin brought to the surface like poison from a snakebite, and now love can begin to heal what tragedy had once sought to destroy.
Here is the incredible work God does: God takes us, with all our sins and in the midst of all our tragedies, and begins to heal us. The power of God is nowhere more apparent than in the deep joy that comes to a person who has embraced tragedy, walked with God through a time of deep mourning and grief, and come out of the valley of the shadow of tragedy into the light of a new day. Such a person knows that even though tragedy and sorrow will come, and darkness will overshadow each of us in our life, they do not have the final word, and we need not feel that tragedy, sorrow and darkness will forever hold us in their grip. More than that, we learn that we can extend the light of God to those walking in darkness, providing them hope in the midst of suffering and grief. The grace of God is far more miraculous and powerful when it works through fellow sinners who follow Jesus into the darkness, tending to one another in the love with which Christ once tended to us. It is this power that makes the story of Paul’s conversion so incredible. The miracle of Acts 9 is not God’s call or Paul’s blindness and healing: the miracle of Acts 9 is the willingness of Ananias to put aside his fear and anger and heal the wounds of the man who had been hunting, persecuting and killing those who followed Jesus. Ananias was a man who had learned to dance again, and was willing to risk tragedy in order to follow God’s lead.
The psalmist says this morning, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my funeral outfit and clothed me with joy.” In this week of tragedy, I know that many have wondered, “When will we dance again?” For those of us on the periphery of tragedy, the healing will be swift and mostly unremarkable, but someday we will face tragedy again, and we will know the anguish felt by the communities who suffer today. Will we, like Dr. Giovanni, be given the grace and courage to face that tragedy head-on, to embrace our mourning? Will we, like Peter, be confronted with the tragedy of our sins, left with no hiding place where we can deny or pretend that our tragedies never happened? Will we, like Paul, be brought to a moment where we are blinded by God so that we must learn to rely on those around us for comfort and support? I hope so – I hope for that with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, for this is the only way we will ever be able to dance again. The power of the resurrection is weakened when we pretend that death will never touch our lives. The depth of our joy is lessened when we pretend that sorrow and grief can be ignored and rejected. The miracle of grace is cheapened when we pretend that our sin was never so serious as to cause God any kind of injury or harm. Only when we admit and embrace the honest reality of our lives of sin and death can we experience the blessed daybreak of forgiveness and repentance, the coming of the morning of joy. Tragedy cannot cripple us permanently if we admit that it exists, for God will have the last word, and when God has that last word, then tragedy will be no more, and joy and resurrection will come; then we will learn that yes, the morning has come, and it is time to dance again. Amen.