“A Different Kind of Peace” John 14:23-29

Sometimes it’s impossible NOT to hear something. 

 If, for instance, I were to start this sermon with the phrase “It’s a small world,”  (simply saying that phrase), you might be open to hearing it a variety of ways.  

Your mind might consider (for example) little incidents that you have had along the way yourself, of running into someone on vacation, or meeting an old hometown acquaintance in an unexpected place. 

          “Oh, it’s a small world..” you might say to them with a smile.

If, on the other hand, I were to begin this sermon by singing, “It’s a small world, after all…” 

Well then, there goes that earworm, and you will conjure up not pleasant happenstance and unexpected meetings of friends and acquaintances, but rather find imposed upon your psyche that Disney boat ride populated with cut-out and animatronic children singing that phrase over, and over, and over again.

          And, once that image is implanted… you won’t be able to think anything else, will you?

          Well, maybe I’m overestimating that.  

          It would only “stick” if you were of a certain age or had ever visited Disneyland or Disneyworld and taken in that ride.

          It would only stick if you were my age, having grown up with “The Wonderful World of Disney” and all of its iterations, where the song and ride were used repeatedly as a way of inviting thoughts of inclusion and understanding across cultures.

          “It’s a small world, after all…” was a kind of anti-cold war anthem.  It arose in the same time as the bleak reality of “duck and cover” drills in schools and back yard bomb shelters. It’s cheery phrases bring back to mind the days of “peace through mutually assured destruction (MAD)” and the maintenance of larger and larger nuclear stockpiles and more sophisticated weapon delivery systems in a race against our adversaries.

          The anthem sung at “the happiest place on earth” was sung as a kind of hope for a better day, a larger understanding of how the world could be, should be, but was not.

          If you want to understand this gospel lesson for today, (and maybe particularly how it sounds on this Memorial Day Weekend,) you will need to approach this passage from John from the angle from which Jesus’ disciples would have heard it.

When Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.”   Jesus’ disciples would have heard in his words a familiar refrain, an earworm of sorts that came from of living under Roman occupation.  They would have heard and brought to mind the “Peace of Rome,” the Pax Romana in which they live. 

That’s the “peace that the world gives.”    It was impossible for them to hear anything else.

          The “Peace of Rome” was a timeframe extending roughly from 27 BCE to 180 CE, ushered in under the reign of Emperor Augustus Caesar and lasting until the reign of Marcus Aurelius.   It was the time when Rome was at its zenith, having expanded throughout the known world.   The “Peace of Rome” meant that there were no other competing nations vying for commerce or for supremacy.  There was no “competition” to Roman authority, so Rome could use the vaunted Roman Legions as occupying forces throughout the Empire to keep their conquered lands in order.

          Rome expanded its borders, consolidated its control over everyday life.

          Rome developed trade corridors, built roads between the nations that it had conquered, to funnel the wealth back home and to facilitate control.

Rome built bridges and aqua ducts, engaged in public works projects and palaces.

          Rome appointed local governors and rulers, tipped the scale of power in its own self-

interest and administered affairs of state on behalf of those under its “wing” for their own good.

          Rome extracted the wealth from conquered and occupied lands for the benefit of the Empire, both to placate the populace back in the city of Rome (bread and circuses) and to pamper the privileged.

          If you heard “Pax Romana” as a citizen living in Judea at the time of Jesus, you heard not just that phrase but all that such a phrase meant to you.  The “tune” that went with it, if you will.

          “Peace such as the world gives” meant living under Roman occupation, with Legion forces stationed in your hometown.

          “Peace such as the world gives” meant a relative “peace” purchased at the expense of the ability to guide one’s own destiny and determine one’s own affairs. 

          It meant your best fish were taken from your lake and your best crops taken you’re your fields, and all of it shipped off to feed Rome’s populace.

It meant that your goods and property were taxed to support all of Rome’s building projects locally and across the Empire. 

It meant you got to pay for the privilege of having foreign troops stationed nearby to keep things orderly, and to keep an eye on you.   

It was a peace that was imposed at the tip of a spear and by officials who were far disconnected from your own experience and your own wishes for life, so it was not always that “peaceful” an experience if you were not a Roman citizen.

          Such was the peace that the world had to give.  

          So, when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you…”  The question on everyone’s minds as Jesus uses that phrase would have been “What sort of peace is that?”

          We know what kind of peace the world gives.  Rome reminds us of that daily.

          What is the peace that Jesus gives?

          Will it be like the kind of peace Rome has to give?   A peace that comes with a price that makes the populace chafe and live uneasily with their master?

          Or is this peace something else?

          This is a peace Jesus promises. 

It comes not at the tip of a spear, or imposed by force from outside, but rather it is a peace that comes from loving with and living.

          “Those who love me will keep my word and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

          That’s the offer of peace that Jesus makes.

          It is a peace that does not come as imposition from the outside by force, but rather as an assurance of relationship, a promise that God will be present with you.

          It is not imposed from on high, but rather a peace that has the authority of God.   However, this authority is all about local administration of something very personal, a “Spirit” that Jesus promises will live within us and remind us of all that Jesus came to teach and say.

          It is a peace that does not extract things from you by using fear, terror, or force you to  do things, but rather a peace that descends and quells your fears and eases your mind.

          The world gives peace that will benefits those far off.

The world gives peace that will speak of sacrifices that must be made.  Sacrifices that will ultimately cost someone dearly, and that will probably only benefit those in power and in privilege.

Jesus gives peace that begins and ends with relationship.  A peace that, while it speaks of him having to go away, also promises continued presence.   The Spirit, the Advocate, who comes to remain with those disciples, with us, daily, guiding us in the way of life.

This is, of course, what makes preaching on Memorial Day a proposition fraught with danger! 

We do honor the sacrifice made by those who gave the “last full measure” and who gave their lives willingly for a greater good, to preserve a Union, to quell the spread of evil, to make a stand against the darkness.

We do wish them peace at the last, and honor their graves, their memory, and their sacrifice.

But we do so mindful that every grave of a veteran also marks a tragic failure for sorts.  

A failure of diplomacy.

A failure of this world to learn how to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.

A failure to seek for the things that would make for peace, choosing instead the peace we think can come only by imposing our own will on others.

That is tricky, I know, but to not acknowledge that is to make of Memorial Day just another “Disney ride song,” a faint hope of what we wish could be, sung as a vain hope.

Those who rest in hallowed ground deserve more than that.

The Gospel says that such peace is not unattainable, but rather comes because Jesus comes.

The hope of those whose graves we will visit this Memorial Day Weekend is ultimately now the hope of the resurrection, which is also a gift the comes from Jesus.  But they died hoping for something else.

Hoping for a day when we would learn war no more.

Hoping for a time when the rattling of sabers would not mean another row on row of small white stones.

Hoping the world would find a better way, a way in tune with the creator who wept when Cain killed Abel, exclaiming “what is this you have done?” and who weeps still at every conflict, where “peace such as the world can give” is chosen over the peace Jesus comes to give.

          Jesus gives peace by coming to dwell with you, to abide with you, to reside with you and with the promise of God’s continued presence in the way of meeting and greeting.  A promise that you will find people, others who will also “keep Jesus’ word” with you.

          This is exactly the kind of peace that makes you smile.

This is the kind of peace that you experience when you do come across an old acquaintance or new friend who shares your point of view, your passion for life, and with whom you can find common purpose.  

This is the kind of peace you find when you discover that there are those who will share your own desire to live as Jesus has shown us all how to live.

The kind of peace that comes when you find those who will treat each other as those who know the love of Jesus, no matter what their belief, for Jesus would sit and eat with all.

          This is a different kind of peace, and one that can only be attained by abandoning the project of imposing peace from the outside.

          This is the peace that comes from making the decision that loving will be your way in this world, your decision in this life, even if it takes you to a cross.

This is the peace that comes you discover that Jesus sends the Advocate to remind you that this is exactly what he was all about as he fed the hungry, healed the sick and broke bread with those who this world had very little regard or “peace” to share, or love to spare.

Beloved in the Lord, I wish you a different kind of peace this day.  The peace that comes not from this world, or of this world, or such as this world can give, but rather the peace of Christ, which is often at first no peace at all.  

It is a call to love deeply, to live earnestly, and to see in the other the face of God.

This is the peace that passes all understanding. This is the peace that makes for life.

“Seeing Plainly” John 10:22-30

I have become increasingly fascinated with the matter of “seeing” over the last year or so. 

I have probably mentioned it several times, but I have a cataract forming in my right eye which my optometrist tells me is not “bad enough” yet to do anything about it.

That however, does not make it any less a source of frustration and fascination.

          I don’t “see” what other people see, or what I used to see.

          In classic parlance, yes at night I have dandelion effects around headlights, but only in my right eye, so closing one eye gives me relatively clear vision.

          But then, closing one eye also robs one of the stereoscopic vision required for depth perception, so when I close my right eye so as not to be distracted by the halos around the lights, I can no longer tell how far or near the lights are to me!

          That’s a problem in merging traffic.

          I’m also developing a deeper appreciation for the Impressionist painters.  

I remember my art instructor telling me that most likely Monet had cataracts, which is what influenced his impressionistic paintings filled with swirling colors and blurred details.  “Waterlilies” his most famous work gives one the impression of a quiet pond and garden scene but not the detail of sharp lines and focus.   

I now discover that I can make an impressionistic picture out of any picture or scene by closing my good eye and letting the colors, lights, shades and details fade into a washy blur with my cataract affected eye.

          I spent an hour at the Nelson Atkins recently opening and closing one eye and then the other in various galleries to note the effect. 

          I was happily not tossed out for winking my way through the galleries.

          Anyway, all of this is simply to say that we do not all see alike, not visually, not politically, not spiritually, and certainly not in terms of our ability to connect things clearly.

          So, with the eyes of people not “seeing” things in the same way, I hear this Gospel lesson in some new ways today.

          I have to first of all confess that my eyes and thoughts usually go straight in this gospel to the matter of sheep and hearing the master’s voice.  I’ve usually skipped all the stuff leading up to that when I have preached on this story.

But today I want to linger a bit in the Portico of Solomon and take note of what is being seen and not seen there.

          Just putting Jesus in the Portico of Solomon tells us something, but we do not see it because, well, we haven’t had the eyes to see it, or at least the knowledge of history to recognize it.

          The Portico of Solomon was a covered cloister-like walkway on the eastern approach to the Temple.  It gave access to the court of the Gentiles, and from there then to the court of the Women, and then to the court of the men and finally to the Holy of Holies.

According to the prophet Zechariah, when the Messiah comes, he will enter the temple from the East. 

          So, here is Jesus, entering and teaching at the Eastern entrance to the temple, the Portico of Solomon, named for the one who prayed for Wisdom.   There Jesus is being asked by the religious leaders, “Are you the Messiah?”

          The Teacher, the “Logos”, according to John’s Gospel, the Word or Wisdom that existed before everything else existed is entering the Temple from the East by way of the gate of Wisdom, and the religious leaders, the “Jews” as they are called in John’s gospel, can’t see that this Jesus is the Messiah.

          That’s a “seeing” problem.

          It gets a little more direct. 

          In John’s Gospel, Jesus is identified as “The light” and “life” as well from the very beginning.  “…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

          The time of year here we are told is the Feast of Dedication, or as we might better know it, “Hannakkah, which is the “festival of light.”   The festival that celebrated that while there was only one flask of oil left in the Temple that had not been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, nevertheless a miracle happened and that oil lasted 8 days and 8 nights.  

The light did not fail.

          So look again, here you have Jesus, “Light and life” itself is coming into the temple from the East, attested to by miracles and signs, during the festival of light, and the question being asked by the religious leader is “Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah.”

          It gets a little more direct even than that, for the question is phrased in an interesting manner.   The religious leaders come to him and ask, “how long will you keep us in suspense?”, but the turn of the phrase used in Greek to express “suspense” is “Psyche”.   So literally, the phrase would be, “how long will you take away our (psyche), our life?”

          So, look again, the “logos” or wisdom is entering by the Wisdom Gate, coming from the East; light and life is entering the temple from the East, making its way from the Gentiles to the Holy of Holies, and the question being asked is literally “are you the life (psyche) we are looking for?  Tell us plainly!”

          How much more plain can Jesus get?

          “I have told you,” he says to them plainly, “and you do not believe, …. You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

          Why is it that they can’t see that Jesus is the Messiah, despite all of this?

          It comes down it appears to a question not about seeing, but rather about belonging so that you can see.

That, (curiously enough) is where my eyesight affliction has been helpful.

          As I said, I had heard way back in college that Monet’s painting was influenced by the fact that he had cataracts, but it never really clicked with me, I never understood, until I belonged to the group of people who knew what having cataracts was like!

          This is the dilemma for the religious leaders have in John’s gospel.  

          The “signs” that point to Jesus?   They only make sense if you belong to the group who are affected by those places where Jesus comes to give light and life.

          If you are holding yourself at arm’s length from Jesus, or from those who find his message to be life and light to them, you will not be able to see it.

          You will not “see” the sign of water being turned into wine as transformative unless you have lived, belonged to a life that was robbed of its joy and capacity to celebrate.  If you’ve known, belonged to a people robbed of hope and gladness, then to suddenly, unexpectantly have life and wine given in measure to you is an experience beyond belief!

          You will not “see” the sign of healing of that Roman official’s child as transformative unless you yourself have fretted, belonged to the anxious group of parents who have worried about their children’s health or life.  Unless you yourself have been an outsider depending upon the kindness of those from whom you have no right to ask, but do so hoping desperately that they will respond. 

It is only then, after you have experienced the sign of God’s mercy in health restored or regard given that you can see how such grace is a gift beyond measure!

          You will not “see” the sign of being “abled again” as God’s intervention in life unless you belong to those who have had to struggle with being “differently abled,” or restricted, or denied access. 

If you belong to those who have to struggle against the barriers of life, then to see the sign of Jesus healing the paralytic, to be given the gift to move and work and live freely again, is everything!

          You will not “see” the sign of feeding the multitudes as the coming of Messiah if you have never lived in want or hunger yourself.  If your belly has always been full, your next meal always guaranteed, you will have no way to “see” what it would be like for those who hunger so.

          You will not “see” the importance of Jesus walking on the water or calming the storm if you have never belonged to those who have spent terrifying nights on the open water in the midst of storms, or at least have belonged to the group who has done so metaphorically, known the chaos of living in a world that is out of your own control.   Storm tossed by cancer, or illness, grief, or loss; addiction or generational poverty.   You will not see the coming of Messiah in the calming of personal storms or the upheaval of social conditions.

          You will never “see” the relevance of the man who was blind from birth receiving his sight if you have not struggled with your own lack of empathy, or your own blindness to those who are all around you.   You will never see the coming of Messiah in blind eyes being opened and new circumstances with all their inherent complications being made possible.

          You will never “see” the threat that raising people from the dead brings if you do not belong to those who seek to keep things buried, locked away, hidden, the way things are… status quo, and you will never experience the joy of resurrection unless you belong to those who have lived without hope of change.

          It’s all about belonging, these seven signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

          Either you belong to those who see these signs as the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom, the arrival of the Messiah, the changing of everything– or you look in vain trying to figure it all out from the outside, never having “belonged” in a way that gives you any access!

          “My sheep hear my voice.”  Jesus says.

          The folks who have lived with this, belonged to this experience — they know what I’m talking about, and no one “snatches them away from my hand.”

          The religious leaders questioning Jesus cannot see him as Messiah, not because they do not know or see the signs Jesus performs, but rather they have not yet belonged to those for whom the signs are everything, life itself, the world transformed.

          This is the tricky part about following Jesus. 

          This is why it never really works to keep Jesus at arm’s distance, or to casually observe faith from a safe distance.

          If you do that, you will never end up belonging.

          You will never belong to Jesus, be captured by him in such a way that you can’t be snatched away from him.

          You will never belong to those around you in such a way that you can experience the depth of these signs, know what it is like to be blind and then to see, to be dead and then to live again, to be hungry and know satisfaction, to be bereft of joy and to have your cup filled to overflowing.

          All those things happen in relationship, they happen in belonging.

          It’s all about belonging.

          Belonging to one another.

          Belonging to God’s vision for this world.

          Belonging to Jesus in such a way that no matter whatever tugs and pulls this world may have on you, you have a sense that you’re not going anywhere that Jesus can’t hold on to you.

          You can’t understand it really, see it, until you belong.

          And, here’s the really great thing.  

          You do belong, you may just not know it yet.

          That’s what Jesus is trying to tell these religious leaders.  In the Gospel of John just before this story, we have the long story of the man who was blind from birth, which ends with Jesus telling the religious leaders that they are “blind.”

They are indeed already blind, they “belong” and they are indignant that he puts them into that category. 

However, If they would but own up to their own blindness, they would “belong” to those whom Jesus has come for!   They too, would begin to understand, to “see” as only one who belongs to one of these categories can see!

We all find ourselves “belonging” to one of these seven signs, don’t we? 

          It’s all about belonging, or as John puts it elsewhere, “abiding”, being connected to God and to one another in such a way that you begin to see that the signs Jesus performs, it is as if they are done for you.

          For so they are!

          Beloved in the Lord, this is what my crazy cataract has helped me see.  It’s not a group I would choose to belong to.  I’d much rather deny it, or never had it happen, but belonging gives me the ability to see things differently, and the promise given is that sight can be restored and healing can be granted, a promise I would have taken for granted had I not first belonged to those who can not see.          

Belonging is everything, and belonging to God is what the light, (Jesus)has come into this world to make happen, for you and for me. 

“Love Me More Than ‘These?'” John 21:1-19

“Do you love me more than these?”    

             It’s a rather curious question for Jesus to ask if you think about it.  This is, (as John tells us,) now the third of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples. 

He had appeared to them twice in the upper room, each time breathing on them the Holy Spirit and reminding them that they were “sent.”    You would think the disciples would be well on the way to figuring out what it will mean to follow Jesus now.

            But it’s hard when life has been shattered and expectations dashed to figure out just what to do next.  While Jesus has appeared to the disciples, it is also painfully clear that things will not be the same, the way they used to be when  the journey began.

            There will be no traveling with Jesus.

No listening to him speak, captivating crowds or puzzling scribes and Pharisees.   

No watching his ministry unfold, with miracles and healings and demons scattering as he rebukes.

            The direction has now shifted, as has the responsibility.   

The way ahead for Peter and for all the disciples is uncertain. 

And so, in some respects, what happens in this gospel story is absolutely natural.  They follow Peter’s lead in going to the lake, because that is where Peter needs to go right now to sort things out.

            We know this impulse.

            Which of us doesn’t have some touchstone to which we return life gets a little muddied?    

When life is muddled and you’re not sure what comes next, you go to that place where things seemed simple, or clear, or at very least “familiar” where you can catch your breath and sort things out.

            For some people it’s a trip to the mountains, or to the seaside, or to the desert.  Or maybe it is the hometown, or the college campus, or summer camp.  You go to that place where you can re-evaluate and examine things.  The place where you figure out what is most important to you, where your passions reside, and what comes next.

            For Jesus, it was always a “lonely place” where he would beckon the disciples to follow.

            For Peter, that place is and has always been the lake and fishing.  This is the place where Jesus first found him and called to him.

It is a place where he can immerse himself in the things he did when living was clearer and simpler. 

            There are nets to wash, fish to catch, a boat to sit in and a time consider life doing familiar tasks.

            It’s important to see that Jesus knows this too. 

            Jesus knows exactly where to find Peter after all, and knows what he’s up to, and even allows him this time to do it. 

It’s a gift, really. 

God knows that from time to time we all have to sort things out and figure out for ourselves what we’re being called to do.

            And so, the fishing happens, the physical toil, the thoughts mulled over, and after that time on the boat, the questions are raised by Jesus to help Peter sort things out.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?”

That’s’ a question about what one is seeking, and are you finding it?   For all your cleverness and skill, is what you are seeking, what you think you want, still eluding you?

How terribly frustrating it must have been for Peter and the others to fish all night and catch nothing. 

This is what he’s supposed to be good at, what should come second nature to him, but he now sucks at it.

That sets up the opportunity for Jesus to give direction.  The “this makes no-sense at all” direction to switch sides of the boat on the net, which of course results in unheard of abundance of the catch. 

That is the moment of revelation, when Peter sees Jesus, … or at least hopes he does, senses Jesus’ presence in what he has been doing, the old and the familiar.

 The invitation comes to share a “shore breakfast” and it is yet another opportunity to eat with the Master, who always seemed to be inviting people to feast and sit with him.   Another chance to find Jesus in the familiar.

The bread is broken, the fish are grilled, and then comes the next question, what feels like the “really big one.”

So, when all is said and done and Peter has eaten his fill of the catch he has so longed for and labored over, Jesus says to him, “Do you love me more than these?”

            It is a question finally about whether or not Peter gets any satisfaction out of what he has put so much effort into, the familiar old that is his touchstone.  

Do you want to go back to this?   Stay in this?

            Put that way, isn’t this the burning question for our day and age as well?    “Do you love me more than these?” — whatever the “these” are that we identify might identify?

We phrase it in different ways. 

What do we wonder sometimes if we “love” more than Jesus?  

You see, despite believing that Jesus is indeed raised from the dead and that he is indeed the Son of God, we still feel the pull of the old, the familiar, bucking up against the call of Jesus for us to be sent into the world.

So, what is it that vies for your “love”?

Is it your work?   That job that was ideal for you, that you labored long to find, struggled to advance in, get someplace in the company.   Is there a familiarity to it that you find comforting, or secure, or maybe even a bit of a trap?  

“I’d do something else but I’m not sure what it would be anymore.”

Or, “I’m afraid to leave what I find security in right now.”

I think it’s possible it hear in Jesus’ question to Peter this day an echo of questions that nag at us all.

Am I doing what I am doing because it pleases God, and is what I’m called to do, or am I settling for what is safe, familiar to me?

You can ask the same question about hobbies.  Am I loving my golf game, my collecting, my sports or music pastimes more than I love Jesus? 

When I look at the resources that I pour into those things, is it like dragging the net on the wrong side of the boat in the end? 

It is, of course, an awful lot of enjoyable, physical activity, “something to do” – but does it have  any real return for me, or any joy in the end?

You can ask the Jesus question about your need for recognition.  Do I love being looked upon with admiration, or competence, or seen as important more than I love being seen as a servant?   Am I doing what I am doing because this is what God calls me to do, or am I doing it because I’m good at it and it feels good?

You can ask the Jesus question about your worldly possessions, your money, or your retirement plans.  Am I laying plans for my future to be of service, or for my own comfort?   What about my investing?   Am I choosing the companies I do as a means of working for justice in this world, or am I making decisions solely on returns I can get, no matter what the cost to others or to this world?  Do I love making money more than I love Jesus?

Now, I don’t want to make this a guilt trip sermon. You are perfectly free to pursue all of these “things,” as Peter was perfectly free to go back to fishing!

I’m just saying that this gospel story simply reminds us that Jesus knows where to find us!

And, when Jesus finds us, he’s liable ask us uncomfortable questions about why we do the things we are doing.

Faith proclaims that it is in the midst of the encounter with Jesus that we gain validity and a sense of purpose for our lives and our efforts.   In the encounter with Jesus we often wrestle with uncomfortable questions as to why we do the things we do, and the most nagging one of all will be, “Do you love me more than these?”

It is in the encounter with God in Jesus Christ that we are given to us a sense of clarity and direction that is not our own, but which comes from the Lord of Life who knows what life is all about.  

And a savior who went to the cross and gave up all the tangible comforts of this life is wont to remind us that life is not about “these,” — whatever the “these” may be for you.

            Beloved in the Lord, the Gospel today reminds us that we have a God who meets us in Jesus Christ and who asks us to examine where we have put our love, our trust, our energy.     Today Jesus stands on the shore of your life and shouts out to you, “Getting anything from that approach to life?”  

            If the answer is an honest “no,” then Jesus has a few invitations for you.

            He may just tell you to try something different.   

He may just say, “come and eat,”  taste something different for a while.

He may ask you searching questions about who and what you are loving.

He may even give you instructions, sending you out to feed those who are dear to him instead of doing what is comfortable and safe for you.

Don’t worry if it takes you a couple of encounters with Jesus before you’re ready to wrestle with his questions, it took Peter three at least!

Don’t forget that before Jesus asks for action from you, he first gives food to sustain and peace to empower.

And most importantly, don’t forget that Jesus is perfectly comfortable letting you go back to your touchstone places, your safe retreats to sort things out. 

Just be ready when he comes to you where he knows you are, seeks you out there, and presents you with questions to consider about whatever it is that you happen to be doing at the time.

This is the way it works now, as Peter and all the disciples find out.

Jesus comes to find us, wherever we are, and bids us examine just what it is that we love.

“History Lessons”

“History Lessons”
I am somewhat of a history buff. I suppose you can’t help but be that if you spend your life studying the scriptures to help discern what the story of God messing with God’s people has to do with or say to people in the current time.

What we say about our past shapes who it is that we become.

I remember my first experience in a history shaped differently. We were on vacation and stopped at the picturesque but decaying town of Holly Springs Mississippi for lunch. There we found on the historic courthouse square this historical marker pictured above. It told their “narrative” of how they saw themselves, what had shaped them.

This is who we are, an”Ante-bellum cotton town.” (Although cotton had long ceased to be grown around here and production of textile raw materials ended really with slavery.)

This is what we are, a “Center of social and cultural life.” (The town barely supported one restaurant, had no major shopping that we could find, and besides being the seat of county government, very little activity at all.)

These are our heroes, “Home of 13 generals of the Confederacy.” I let that sink in for a bit. Would you find a plaque in Germany that commemorates how many Nazi generals you could claim? Would you find a plaque in Iraq or Afghanistan commemorating how many Bathist or Taliban leaders hailed from your town? This was a town defining itself by being on the losing side of history, and doing so proudly!

This is our claim to fame, “Grant’s southern advance halted here by Van Dorn’s great raid, December 1862.” That point really made me scratch my head, because I’ve studied Civil War history somewhat extensively and can tick off major campaigns and what happened during them, but I had never heard of “Van Dorn” or a “Great Raid at Holly Springs.” I had to do some investigation.

I finally found that Van Dorn was a rather obscure Confederate Cavalry commander who was better known for losing the battles than winning them. He lost at the battle of Pea Ridge and the battle of Corinth, MS. He had mostly distinguished himself for his drunkeness and tendency to cavort with prostitutes.Nevertheless, Van Dorn was given command of 3 brigades of Cavalry and sent to Holly Springs with little expectation.

The “great raid” was actually an attack on a Union Supply Depot where (as luck would have it) Van Dorn’s cavalry caught 1/3 of the Union detachment asleep and cut off from the rest of their forces in the middle of the night. Most historians concentrate not on the raid, but rather the fact that in their first attempt at Vicksburg Grant and Sherman had procured a large portion of their troops from another General’s fresh soldiers and so were ill prepared or trained.

Van Dorn remained in the area of Holly Springs for only a few days, and then came under hot pursuit by Union Troops, forcing him to flee 500 miles in two weeks to evade capture.

While Van Dorn did halt the first attempt on Vicksburg, he was dead a mere five months later. He was not a casualty of battle, but rather was shot to death by the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Where am I going with all of this?

There is one more detail you need to know about Holly Springs that I could find no evidence of when I was visiting there. No mention of at all in any historical markers or brochures that told me how to find the 13 General’s homes.

Holly Springs was also the birthplace of Ida B. Wells, an internationally renowned Black Investigative Reporter, Teacher, Civil Rights worker and co-founder of the NAACP. 

She had been born as a slave, and had risen to prominence and accomplishment, and this town did not claim her or proclaim her as their own at all.

The town of Holly Springs was captive to the narrative they had told themselves, and that narrative did not include any messy truths about people. It was also a narrative disconnected with the truth of who they were today.

One wonders how the town would be different if instead of claiming their Confederate identity, they had claimed a different one. One that acknowledged past mistakes and looked for a new way forward. One that said, “we once enslaved people, but we also shaped them to become something else.”

One of the things that keeps me in the scripture is that this biblical story which forms us is filled with people who have flaws, foibles, and it is imperfectly told. The narrative begs us to go back and re-examine, to revisit the empty tomb, and the pain of Peter’s denial, and the scandal of Paul being on the wrong side of history and coming around to a new way of thinking and believing. Scripture forms us to take seriously the shortcomings of humans, and the ability of God to reveal new things and ways of being.

One wonders what kind of narratives we still tell ourselves as church, about who we are, what we are, who our heroes are and what our claims to fame are? Do they hold up under the scrutiny that Scripture invites us into?

Or, is it time to lay claim to new identities, new heroes who have always been in our midst, and find new ways forward with a different identity?

What we say about our past shapes what it is that we will become.

Are we being shaped by Jesus and the cross? By the hope of resurrection always making all things new?

Or, have we settled into a narrative that no longer is interested in the truth we see today?