Answer Me These Questions Three: A Sermon Post-Boston

UntitledI'm off-sync from most of you in terms of lectionary... but here's what I preached Sunday morning: MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church April 21, 2013 John 21:1-19 Fourth Sunday of Easter

Answer Me These Questions Three

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin,* Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards* off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’


The headline appeared over an article in The Guardian newspaper (online) this week:

News is bad for you – giving up reading it will make you happier

The subtitle elaborates: News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether.

The article goes on and lists a few of the reasons:

  • News can mislead. It highlights events in a sensational way to the point that we are convinced that things are much worse than they are
  • News activates the fearful, reactive side of us.
  • Panicky stories release cortisol, which impacts our immune system and makes us function poorly.
  • News stories make us feel passive, because so many of them are about things that are beyond our control.

There were many other reason listed, with a blunt conclusion: don’t consume news:

Society needs journalism, but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news.

Don’t consume news, the article concludes; consume long-form articles and books instead.[1]

I don’t see our 24/7 culture taking hold of that message and putting CNN and Fox News out of business anytime soon. But if any week could possibly convince us, it was this one. It was a terrible, heavy, tragic week. It got to the point, round about the time of the Senate’s vote on universal background checks for gun purchases, that I was clicking on Facebook and news sites with one hand over my eyes. And by the time a fertilizer plant exploded in the sweet little town of West, Texas, and by the time the Des Plaines River had overflowed its banks in Chicago after torrential rains, I had my hands over my proverbial ears singing Lalalala I can’t hear you.

Add to that the chronic sadness that hums around us all the time—in the form of illnesses, family strife, poverty, the everyday tugs and squabbles and griefs, and it feels like too much. Just way, way too much.

It may not be much consolation, but Jesus’ friends were also dealing with too much—way, way, too much—though admittedly, a different kind of too-much. Jesus, their friend and teacher, the one they had pledged to follow has died and apparently, been raised. I say “apparently” because yes, he’s appeared to them, two strange and fleeting visits in the house where they’re staying, but nothing lasting, no lengthy teachings or long road trips, nothing permanent they can hold onto. He just pops up when they least expect it, like some holy Jack in the Box. From that first resurrection moment in the garden when Mary Magdalene grabs hold of Jesus and he says “Don’t hang on to me,” Jesus seems intent on giving them just a little glimpse and then—gone.

It’s all very disorienting. Is he out there or not? Is he raised or not? Is it true or just their imaginations? Who can say? It’s all very heavy, man.

So what do they do? They go fishing.

There’s a saying in family systems thinking: “When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know.” The emotions of the week prior have stunned them, and Peter most of all. He’s always been the one who’s wanted to get it right.

Don’t wash my feet, Jesus. Oh, you’re supposed to? Then wash my whole body. Deny you three times? Not only will I never deny you, I will die alongside you!

Peter is that guy that makes grand promises and really means it, but just can’t deliver. So the events of the last couple of weeks aren’t just disorienting. They have held up a mirror to Peter’s every weakness, every good intention gone awry, every last failure.

So he goes fishing. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does what he knows.

And so do we, yes? Perhaps that’s why couples have the same arguments over and over. Or why some companies cling to outdated business models when faced with an uncertain new future. Or why churches look at a changing landscape of decline and instead of saying, “Let’s be open to something radically new,” we say, “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing, just more so.”

“Doing what we know” also explains much of the rhetoric of the past week. There’s never been a week exactly like April 14-20, 2013, and yet the public discourse seems sadly familiar. When we don’t know what to do, we do what we know. We retreat to our camps and our talking points:

This is about Muslims coming to get us. This is about needing to keep immigrants out. Where did those two young men get all those guns and explosives? We need gun control!

It’s about the same old things it’s always about. And everyone’s susceptible to it.

And I wonder whether Jesus is… wherever Jesus is, taking all this in and saying, Stop making it about your own pet issues. You are missing the point.

There’s been a lot of speculation by preachers and commentators about this “Do you love me” business. Why “Do you love me?” What kind of person asks, “Do you love me?” An insecure person, sometimes. For some, “Do you love me” is right up there with “Does this outfit make me look fat?” But I don’t know. I don’t see the Lord of all creation as needing validation.

And why three times? Well, three is the number of completeness in scripture. It’s also a common narrative device. Three little pigs, three little bears, three questions from Jesus. But notice, each exchange is not exactly the same. Jesus changes it up a little, feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep… eh, that doesn’t feel like much, but Peter. Peter goes somewhere. The first couple of times he just… answers. “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Like a teenager: Yes Mom, curfew’s at 11. No Dad, I won’t do anything stupid.

But the third time… the third time Peter is hurt. The question finally pierces the armor and hits a tender place, and Peter is laid bare.

He feels hurt, that Jesus would keep questioning him. He feels hurt… He feels.

Last week one of you came out of the sanctuary and told me about an encounter you’d had with a homeless person. That’s such a hard one. Do you give money, do you not? If you don’t give money shouldn’t you at least look at the person rather than ignore? This is a human being, after all. And you know what? It’s supposed to be hard. That never gets easy, because love is not easy. It’s not an easy, perfunctory love that Jesus calls us to.

I’d like it to be easy.

…I am so tired of people killing each other. I’m sure you’re tired of it too. Maybe you want to just tune out and stop listening. These events seem to come at us so relentlessly that it’s easier to change the channel, keep it all at arms’ length, and retreat into our talking points. But we can’t.

Because when a bomb goes off in Boston or in Baghdad, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?” And every time a teenager is shot on the south side of Chicago, it’s Jesus again. “Do you love me?” Whether it’s a family losing their homes in Washington, or an earthquake in China, or a town in Texas that lost some of its bravest fire fighters and emergency workers, the ones that ventured into the fire, there's that question again. “Do you love me?”

And that doesn’t mean we are called to respond to every piece of bad news that we encounter. Not everything is ours to do. But we do have to confront that relentless question every time. Because that’s Jesus there, devasted in Boston and Baghdad, that’s Jesus, sorting through the rubble in China and in West Texas.

Jesus asked Peter because he needed to see evidence of it. Do you love me? Prove it. Follow me.

Fred Craddock was the keynote speaker at a conference at Clemson University. Before his lecture a young woman was going to begin the program with a devotional. She was a plain, earnest young woman and as she approached the microphone he could see that she had a yellow legal pad that had a lot of writing on it. “Uh oh,” Craddock thought, “we’re here for the night.”

She spoke softly and in what he thought was a foreign language. Just a short burst of words. And then another language. What was she saying?

And then another one, and on and on it went. It was relentless... like a question they couldn’t answer. Thirty times. Forty times. Fifty, sixty, seventy.

When she got to German and Spanish and French, Fred Craddock finally began to recognize it. The last time, it was English.

“Mommy, I’m hungry.” And then she sat down.

Tend my lambs. Feed my sheep.

They won’t know we are Christians by our flag, they won’t know we are Christians by our friends, they won’t know we are Christians by our incredible potlucks, or our doctrine, or our political party. They’ll only know we are Christians by our love.

Nothing more. Nothing less. [2]

[1] Source:

[2] Elements of this sermon, including the concluding story, are taken from Becca Gillespie Messman’s paper for The Well preaching group, and subsequent discussion.