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Every family has an event that defines its history: “That was before Uncle Billy went to prison or that was after Cousin Sally ran off with the vacuum cleaner salesman.” And it is so tempting the make the worst day in our lives the most significant day. But, the significance of an event is never a matter of something occurring in a vacuum, because nothing does. Everything draws its significance from its context.
And, if we allow one event to overshadow its wider context, we risk losing access to the other resources that are embedded in the details. A major event is better seen as a large threshold connecting rooms rather than its own space.
Even in our sacred stories, there is rarely such a thing as the “plain meaning” of a biblical text. The “word of the Lord” is not a static concept. Consider, for example, this morning’s gospel when Jesus invites Simon Peter to get back up on that horse.
Three times he asks, “Do you love me?” Some amount of time has passed since that evening in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin while Jesus was being tried for his life, and Simon Peter denied 3 times that he even knew who Jesus was. But now, instead of glossing over that event, Jesus offers him the chance to mark time NOT by the worst thing that ever happened to him, but by the moment he recovered from it.
But before Peter can accept the offer, he needs to get straight with Jesus about that night. “Why do you keep asking me whether I love you? You know everything. You know about what I did that night. You know that it was me who betrayed you. Why are you doing this?”
Because, Peter. Because of the resurrection. I need to make sure that you use your betrayal as a threshold through which you move from hopelessness to hopefulness, and not the place where you are going to end up forever. And that you know that, regardless of what things looked like that night in the courtyard, now you see that “knowing” me means loving who I love and caring for what I care about.
Then, there’s this odd moment when Jesus starts to talk about Peter’s independence and that one day someone else will decide whether to dress him and will choose how he spends his day. Maybe this stands out to me because I am aware that as I age I go through an instrument check each morning before I get out of bed: Did anything break during the night? Can I still use both shoulders, etc.?
The helpful editor (by using what passes in NT Greek for parentheses) has told us that this is a foreshadowing of the manner in which Peter will die one day, referring to the tradition of his imprisonment and martyrdom.
But, what if it is not that complicated? What if it is simply — and profoundly — a reminder that, for each of us, the day will come when our independence evaporates and someone else will decide how we spend that day? Maybe Jesus is highlighting the human aspect of the context. That is, he’s stressing to Peter that the time to get through that threshold and on with life is now!
In the early nineteenth century, the father of experimental psychology, Hermann Ebbinghaus, wrote about the way our brain works when it comes to maturing through experiences. Two things need to happen.
The first is that we need a block of time between an event or an experience and being able to learn something from it. The lessons to be learned from an event cannot be absorbed too soon after the initial event.
In other words, as helpful as it is for us to always approach a regrettable moment by asking, “What can we learn from this?” the BEST answer really cannot be fathomed too soon after the event. We need some times to pass. Ebbinghaus called this the “spacing effect”. Jesus might’ve called it “tomb time.”
The second thing that needs to happen is that we have to rehearse something at least three times in our minds to set our brains up for making sense of it. Obviously, we cannot literally repeat the event. But we play it over in our minds, for most of us, in an endless loop, not just three times. In fact, the water is always muddiest nearest to the initial event. This is why, even in the history of the Christian religion, that as the water springing from the initial well of the Incarnation moves through the centuries, and is continually filtered through different social contexts, we develop additional theology that just makes sense. This is why over time we have come to appreciate the significance of this young woman who agreed to be the “theo-tokos” the “bearer of God” or why we developed the idea of the communion of saints, those people who are with us but not visible to us because they are on the other side of the thin places between time and eternity.
When an image is extremely strong, and we get stuck on it, we have to apply an equally powerful image alongside it. And so three times Jesus asks the man who betrayed him three times whether he loves him.
And, then he pushes him a little with another image to discourage him from getting stuck back at the worst day of his life by reminding him that life is short.
This is yet one more of those holy tensions that we have to live in. Living in tension is a key part of being Anglican. If you need to live with all black and white I can send you to several other churches in the area and they can make that happen for you. But here, we believe it’s important to allow some time for regrettable or even disgraceful behavior to unsettle us. It makes me nervous as a priest and as a therapist when someone rushes to confess or apologize. We need to sit with it for a bit and ask and answer hard questions about what’s really going on. We know better than to betray someone or insult someone. So what can the Spirit of wisdom say to our hearts about why we did that? Were we acting out of righteous indignation? Rarely. Or did somebody just pinch our ego? Likely.
When we have those answers, we can start to take the lessons to heart. It won’t be easy at first. Radical change never is.
But, even before we feel love, we can practice loving what God loves and caring for what God cares about. We cannot take up permanent residence in a threshold event — and just as an aside, this is true whether we are talking about something wonderful OR something horrible. We’ve got to move through it to what comes next. “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
We can use the memory of that regrettable event as a wedge to pry apart the stiff interstitial tissue that blocks the light of Christ from penetrating our stubborn insistence; insistence that we can never truly love someone who is our enemy or make room for the stranger who approaches God differently from our approach or who speaks another language, or change our minds about an idea. Friends, the net that God has cast over us can hold it all without tearing!
Imagine how different the mood of our life stories might be if we were willing to decide that the worst thing that ever happened to us was not going to be what defines us. This practice doesn’t deny our vulnerability. It allows us to use it appropriately. With God’s help, we can allow the thing that marks our life’s story to be the moment of grace that allowed us to begin again.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
May 5, 2019