May 25, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

John 21: 4-19

Peacemaking Words: Come and Have Breakfast

It might seem like we have to choose: Is Church of Peace going to be a congregation shaped and guided by its history? Or is Church of Peace focused on the not-yet-imagined possibility for the future? Yes. Exactly yes. It has to be both.

Here we remember our history with imagination and hope. We envision what’s next for our church by looking back at how far we’ve come. You know it won’t work to divide ourselves into two committees, one to do the history and one to do the future planning. We can only do both, together. It is how we live up to our name. When remembering and imagining come together, we begin to see the things that make for peace. Believe me. Our world needs people who can see the things that make for peace.

Every Sunday this spring, we’re pairing one of our winning provocative proposals with a simple action Jesus teaches his disciples in the light of the resurrection. Our proposal for today goes like this: Church of Peace is a church with a long history and heritage. We hold a commitment to those who have gone before and a promise to those who will come after.

And if that seems like a lot to hold onto, like our nets are too heavy to haul to shore, we learn this action from Jesus: Come, have breakfast.  Come and eat and remember what happened in all its shame and sorrow. Come and eat and see it won’t stay like this. It’s still early and there’s so much to do. Forgiveness blessed, and broken, and shared by the fire. And could it be that peacemaking— actual guns down, trauma-healing, policy-shaping peacemaking— is the work of remembering well…

Which sounds hopeful enough. Except for the part about remembering well, because there’s nothing easy about that. For one thing, our memories get lost. You can’t make yourself remember what happened on this day twenty years ago,  any more than you can make yourself remember the capital of Montana, but you could probably make yourself crazy trying to.

Then there’s this. If it’s something terrible that happened, remembering comes with a cost. Remembering might be the work that saves your life, but there’s no way to go back to that day without getting hurt. I know this is something everybody here understands, and we’re not alone.

Every year at the beginning of April, the people of Rwanda observe a week of mourning commemorating the genocide in 1994. In an article describing this year’s memorial events, Philip Gourevitch explains the genocide with these words: “At no other time in the history of our species were so many of us killed so fast or so intimately: roughly a million people in a hundred days, most of them butchered by hand with household tools and homemade weapons…”[1] This is difficult to imagine; not nearly as difficult as it is for the survivors to remember.

Gourevitch comments on the banners hanging up in Kigali. They feature a single word: kwibuka “remember”. It’s not clear whether this is a respectful invitation or an insistent demand that you had better. But it is clear that remembering comes with a cost. As Gourevitch observes, for survivors, learning to cope with the present means learning how to forget, how to get a break from the memories that haunt you every time you pass that house on the road, or close your eyes, or look in a mirror.

Of course, the problem is you can’t make yourself forget, any more than you can make yourself remember, but you could probably make yourself crazy trying to. Your body remembers even when your mind turns hazy. So this article by Gourevitch leaves me wondering, how can people take up the work of remembering well?

Not remembering that makes you rehearse the past by circling the same day again and again, as though if you do this enough it will be easier to let go. It won’t be.

Not remembering that glorifies the past, that says we have to go back and do things exactly like we did back then, back in the good old days, before we knew better.

Not remembering that is imposed on you by somebody else. Not like that.

I’m thinking that if we human people ever learn how to remember well, it will take the grace of God. And it might be, the grace of God is exactly what we have. You go back again and again to the same day, and you re-live the morning. First, she stands there, then he comes through the door, and you speak the same words every time. But this time. This time you notice something you never have before, and now you can’t unsee it. It changes the ending. Grace changes the ending every time, thank God.

Today our Gospel story begins a good while after the resurrection. The disciples have gone back to fishing, and who can blame them? Their dear friend and teacher died, then he came back from the dead, and at some point you have to go back to work. Early in the morning, while it is still dark, they’re out on the water, and Jesus taunts them from the shore, but they don’t recognize him. “Children you have no fish, have you?” When they say “no” he tells them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. They catch so many, they can’t even pull it into the ship. This is when the beloved disciple recognizes this man as Jesus, and this is when Peter loses it.

The Bible says he puts on his clothes then jumps into the sea, and if you think that sounds completely bizarre, me too. What is he thinking? Here the man who used to be his friend has come to find him, again. Peter knows he’s in trouble. When he reaches the shore drenched and exhausted from swimming, he sees Jesus built a charcoal fire, just like the fire where Peter stood and denied being his disciple (John 18:25).

There’s a quote, but I don’t know who said it. It goes, “We can never forgive those whom we have injured.” What can Peter do? Can he keep carrying all this guilt? It’s heavier than all those fish that fill the nets. Maybe Peter feels betrayed by Jesus who went and got himself killed? It’s a lot to sort out. But here they are. Jesus by the fire, Peter helping to haul in all the fish. Then Jesus speaks the words that change the story, “Come and have breakfast.” That’s how you say grace.

Now the disciples recognize the Lord! He is made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Here Jesus is re-enacting the Last Supper, the holy meal of remembrance. But instead of a cup poured out, he shares their fish to go with the bread. Instead of a supper that marks an ending to their time together, this time it is breakfast, the sign of a new day. Together they remember the day gone so wrong. But this time there’s a twist, a chance to change the ending.

This time after they’ve eaten, Peter does not go and deny Jesus three times. Instead, Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter says “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Every time. Denial is not the last word for Peter, and death is not the last word for Christ. This time Jesus says, “Go feed my sheep,” and our story today ends with Jesus telling Peter, “Follow me.”

See remembering make a way for reconciliation.

I love this about our story, but what I really love is that our scripture does not just document an incident of remembering well. The story itself demonstrates how to do this. It’s like a play-within-a-play. See, many scholars believe the Gospel of John, at one point, concluded with the twentieth chapter.

The last verses have cadential finality: “Jesus did many other signs… which are not written in this book. But these are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Period. The End.

Except we know, you’ve got to be careful where you go putting periods, God is still speaking. And along came another writer who added this ending to the Gospel in order to explain why the beloved disciple eventually died and to foreshadow Peter’s death as a martyr. Somebody went back and remembered the horror — no hiding evidence, no sugar-coating. Remember what happened. This time listen for the word of God’s grace. This time we can change what happens next. Because we can always change what happens next, thank God.

It is Memorial Day weekend, and we know this holiday holds a variety of meanings. For some, it is a day to celebrate patriotism and pride in America. For some, it is a family celebration to mark the beginning of summer. We mean to remember the people who have given their lives in service to our country. And while it’s one thing to remember their sacrifice, I think it is really important to remember the people—their stories and their lives. Every life is holy.

Now our Memorial Day observance is different from the memorial events in Rwanda. In Rwanda, trauma is announced out loud through cries and wails that will not be silenced. Here our trauma is subdued by ceremony. In both countries, and in nations around the world, we human people are wrestling with what it means to remember well. I’m thinking when we get this right, we might learn to actually help our veterans. We might see war lose its luster. By remembering well, we begin to see the things that make for peace.

Already it happens in the hallway outside the courtroom. The parents of the victim see the mother of the defendant, and they all remember what happened on that terrible night. But now these parents go up to her and invite her to have lunch. After hours of remembering on the record, it is time to change what happens next. Forgiveness blessed and shared at cafeteria tables in the courthouse, in the hospital, in the Middle School of all places. See somebody has to invite the remembering so this time, we try something new. Somebody has to see these signs of peace. And I think it might be us.

Together we remember the people and the stories that have shaped our lives and our church. We remember what happened. And this time, we hear a word of grace spoken by the fire. We see a sign of hope we never noticed before. This time, we hear Jesus say “Follow me,” and together we change what happens next. Grace changes the ending every time. Amen.

[1] Gourevitch, Philip. “Remembering in Rwanda,” The New Yorker. April 21, 2014. pages 31-32.

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