Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We're All in Peter's Boat

“I am going fishing,” announces Peter. Six others like the sound of that, so off they go, this little clutch of disciples, trying to normalize their lives. They have lived through deep trauma, the bleak execution of Jesus their teacher, whose word and way had given new birth, new meaning to their lives and was himself the hub that joined them in a community of purpose, bringing to earth the reign of God’s justice and peace. The brutality of death on a cross had suddenly disrupted life as they knew it, and shock waves were still rippling to the edges of their world.

In light—and shadow—of the week we’ve just seen, it’s good to remember that each time our Lord Jesus Christ appears from Easter morning on, his purposes include helping his friends normalize life after the mayhem. He keeps moving them through their grief by doing two things at once: by letting them revisit his wounds, see them, even touch them if they need to, and by treating his friends as he always would have treated them.

“Shalom,” he says to them on Easter night, exactly what they would have expected him to say whenever they reunited around the table. And today, he’s all about fishing because they’re all about fishing. Even before they know he’s watching, he observes how they aren’t catching anything and so he gives them advice where to throw their nets. They don’t seem to know who he is yet, but in that moment didn’t they feel him teaching them again?

And what happens next? Breakfast. He’s got a charcoal fire going, and the menu is bread and fish. By then, they surely know who he is: the head of their family is providing for them, hosting them on familiar ground, the same seashore where he had first recruited them.

Normalizing life can be a Godly thing, just the right remedy after trauma. The closer to the epicenter of the tragedy, the harder that is to do. On this first Sabbath after the shootings at Virginia Tech, imagine the choices today for sixty-two families (I mean to number the families of all who were injured and of all who died, including the killer). When will they be ready to say their own equivalent to “I’m going fishing,” and step out in public, or back to the workplace? Perhaps, understandably, they are still like the disciples on Easter night, staying behind well-guarded doors so as to have the safety of an inner circle of family and friends around them.

Do you recall how the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 caused the earth to wobble? In a like way, a tragedy of epic proportion knocks normalcy out of its usual spin. I believe that in certain ways we need it to, and let me say what I mean.

Before Seung-hui Cho opened fire on April 16th, any Virginia resident of age and with basic identification could do what he did, walk into a gun shop and purchase a semi-automatic firearm with frightening ease. And then return 30 days later to purchase another, as Cho did. Anyone still can. This is normalcy, the kind that must be changed.

What made this young man a deadly risk with firearms was his particular burden of mental illness. Our society, as advantaged and sophisticated as it is, has barely a clue how to successfully treat people who live with mental illness. Nor is this enough of a priority at either state or federal level to see that mental health care is adequately funded anywhere in this country. That is another status quo that we need to change. And not just in circles of insurance, health care, and providing options like group homes that are so badly needed—but in all circles, including schools and colleges and churches and communities that need to learn how to live as neighbors and colleagues and relatives of people who have particular burdens of mental illness.

“Feed my lambs… tend my sheep.” Peter isn’t the only disciple needing to learn that God’s reign of justice and peace depends upon compassionate and consistent care of human beings as children of God. We’re all in Peter’s boat. Each national tragedy like the one we’ve lived through this past week shows that our society is in this same boat, needing a deeper wisdom to guide where we throw our nets. And needing new safety nets, the old ones long gone.

Thirty-three peopled dead. One by his own hand, thirty-two by his, with twenty-nine injured.

That we are all of us vulnerable in ways we can’t always control does not adequately explain what happened, last Monday morning. That thirty-two gifted, admired, loved and loving members of an academic community, some of them heroes, should have their lives snuffed out by the madness of one person is way beyond any acceptable norm of human vulnerability. This should not happen, must not become more normal. Yet it did happen very near the anniversary of the Columbine shootings. The killer appears to have admired the Columbine killers. And the broadcasting of his sad testimonial caused outrage because it could perpetuate not only the trauma, but also the invitation to copycats intent on making their mark.

We’re not facing only a madness that is in one person, then another, and another. We must face also a madness in our culture, prone to use guns and force to even a score and settle a grudge. In its global shape, this madness believes that shock and awe can make the world a safer place. It’s closer to the truth to say that violence is the last recourse of the impotent and the desperate.

St. Paul knew about that. To use antique language, he had breathed threats and hate against the Christians until he met the Christ and the Christians whose compassionate consistent care restored him to health, opened his eyes to his madness and to God’s unboundaried goodness. The love of God in Jesus Christ is stronger than human madness, can meet a person on the road to mental disaster, and can meet a society on the road to breakdown—and speak grace and truth that madness has never let in.

Every story about an appearing of the risen Christ makes the same point: the love of God in Jesus Christ is closer to us than breath itself, but it requires disciples, apostles, through whom that love can move. In our Gospel today, our Lord is all about fishing in part to normalize life for his traumatized friends, and in part to teach them to fish for people.

Let’s go fishing. Let’s find the will to keep semi-automatic weapons only in the trained hands of the police. Let’s make the treatment and support of people living with mental illness a high priority nationally and locally. Let’s learn how to protect the health and safety of all in our schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Let’s learn how to become a church committed to compassionate and consistent care of human beings as children of God.