"Where You Do Not Wish to Go"

Sunday sermon from the third Sunday in Easter, April 14, 2013
Text: John 21:15-19 and Acts 9:1-20
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Well, for the first time in a while, it's just kind of a regular Sunday service. No communion. No sunrise service. No receptions, no big ordination service this afternoon. Just a normal Sunday service. Everybody take a big deep breath in, and let it out. There you go. Everybody take a moment to relax and save your energy. Make sure you put a little extra in the tank, because next week we will once again be a long way from normal. Next week, as you heard in the announcements, is preschool Sunday here at Amherst Presbyterian, which means that the teachers and parents and children from our weekday preschool will be here to join us in worship. I can't wait for all of them to have a chance to spend time with this congregation that so graciously makes its building available. I can't wait for all of you to spend time with the amazing teachers and children that bring such joy and life to this building Monday through Friday. I can't wait for all of us to offer thanks to our outgoing director for the servant leadership she has provided for nearly twenty years.

But mostly I can't wait for the singing. I know they've been practicing. About Ten O'Clock every morning, the whole neighborhood can hear them practice: "Jesus Loves Me," "This Little Light of Mine," and one I didn't know just called "The Bible Song" that is sung at a volume I thought only reserved for football games and jet engines. They don't lack for enthusiasm, is what I'm saying. And maybe none of this will be new for you; maybe they sing the same songs every year. I don't know. I don't really care. I can't wait. Though I suspect they will not in fact do my favorite part, not with so many people here, not with so many adults here. It wouldn't really make any sense at the time. But my favorite part is at the end of chapel time, when the two-year-old class departs from worship, and they have this comically-large plastic foam chain that they all have to grab onto. It's like a rope to tie them all together, but somehow in the novelty oversize category, and of course it's not like the two-year-olds are going very far. They're walking out this door, turning right towards the fellowship hall, turning left towards the classroom, and there you have it. It's not complicated. And it's not like they don't do it every day. But I also have no illusions about the wanderlust of toddlers. Who can say where they each might end up if left to their own devices? And so the giant foam plastic chain rope comes into being, and each of them takes up a link as they make their long journey from one end of the hallway to the other.

If I'm honest, I think that is very often what childhood felt like, the feeling of being led even when I thought I already knew the way, the feeling of not having the freedom to choose my own path. What is it to be a child if not to be in that time of life when your journey is not yet entirely yours to choose? Nothing so dramatizes my memory of going through school than the actual process of getting from one class to the other: when I was in grade school, we would all go from classroom to classroom in these choreographed lines, so that if you stood in the hallway intersection between classes the traffic of third-graders would look something like a great convention of snakes. And bit by bit the restraints came off, so that by high school, of course, it was complete chaos, and nobody knew where anybody was supposed to go or when they were supposed to be there, and everybody in the hallway was entirely alone, and there were no giant plastic chains in sight. Growing up tasted like freedom, and we loved every second of it.

This is an easy story, and I think it is the story that children tell about childhood. It carries with it the great hope of the future: that when I'm old enough, that when I'm an adult, that when I grow up, I will have the freedom to choose for myself, the freedom to make my own path, the freedom to lead myself down the hallway to any destination I choose. There is such hopefulness embedded in those words. And then we read Jesus's words, the words to Peter here at the end of the Gospel of John, and, if we're honest, they tell a very different story: Very 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.

All of a sudden, this isn't the child's version of the story. All of a sudden it has the nostalgia that only adulthood knows: when you were younger, Peter, you could do whatever you wanted... but when you grow old. Forget the giant plastic foam chainlink rope; forget the traffic jam running through an elementary school hallway; that's just what it looks like on the surface. Underneath, in the adult version of the story, underneath all the hand-holding of childhood is great vast potential of what might yet have been, the great freedom embedded in choices we had not yet made. There was a time when we could have done anything... 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. This is the adult version of the story. Immediately after this verse John notes that this is to indicate the kind of death Peter was to die, and readers of this passage for generations have concluded that Jesus is here predicting Peter's own capture and crucifixion, that he would be bound and led through the streets and taken to the death where he did not wish to go.

But certainly we need not also be crucified for the adult version of this story to still take hold of us. How can any of us - and yes, I recognize that I am younger than many of you, but surely the hour hand keeps the same beat for everyone - so how can any of us read these verses and not think on the slow march of time that haunts us all in equal measure, that gradually fastens its belt around each one of us, that with total disregard for our illusions of freedom and independence marches us towards that place we would rather not go. Sarah shared with me an image from a recent visit to a nursing home where a family had come to visit a woman bound to a wheelchair. When the family visit was over, the woman clearly wished to stay right where she was, but couldn't make her desire known, and instead she found herself wheeled back to her room by I am sure a most well-meaning grandson. Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. And in this text the resurrected Jesus is prophesying to Peter about his own pending martyrdom and death and so the adult version of the story strikes our imagination and stokes our fears, because we all know that at some point the great plastic foam chainlink rope will wrap itself around every one of us.

But for my part I am not convinced that Jesus is only interested in prophesy. Historians have interpreted the image of Peter stretching out his hands as a prediction of Peter himself being physically bound and tied. But the stretching out of hands is an image with vast consequence throughout scripture. In an invocation of Divine power, Moses stretched out his hands and commanded the Red Sea to get out of the way of the fleeing Israelites. Meeting one of the unclean lepers, Jesus stretched out his own hand and touched him, and the man was made clean. In our reading from Acts today, after the villainous Saul of Tarsus is struck blind on the road by a visit from the resurrected Christ, he is led by outstretched hand back into the city. And after Saul is reborn as the apostle Paul, he actually combines the two words together to indicate the divine appointment -- the ordination by outstretched hand -- of his friend Titus to the Corinthian churches. So for Jesus, too, even here at the end of John, especially here at the end of John, especially since the next words out of his mouth to Peter are "Follow Me!," the vision of the outstretched hand is much less about being bound to the inevitability of time and much more about being bound to God. Which means we're not really talking bout decay. We're talking about discipleship. And we're not really talking about getting old. We're talking about growing up.

There's a difference, of course. The infinitely wise Maya Angelou puts it this way: "Most people don't grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging." We're talking about growing up. We all age; yes, the hour hand keeps the same pace for everyone. But the resurrected Christ -- Christ who has already claimed victory over that same deathly inevitability -- the resurrected Christ is much less concerned with the time left on Peter's clock and much more concerned with how Peter spends it. There was a time when you could fasten your own belt and lead yourself where you wished. But, now, Peter, follow me. Rock upon which I build my church, we are going where you do not wish to go. Follow me. So yes, the hour hand keeps the same pace for everyone. But in the meantime. In this Eastertime meantime, even as we age, it's time to grow up.

It's time to grow up. And in this text, growing up doesn't come with the freedom and ability to make our own way and choose our own adventure. Instead, growing up, spiritually; growing up in faith; growing up as a congregation of resurrection witnesses to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ means one thing and one thing only: it means following Jesus; it means listening for God's call, even and especially to the places where we do not wish to go. Of course it would be convenient if discipleship instead came with a range of acceptable options. If you're really into doing justice but not so big on loving mercy, that's fine, we can accept that. Or if you're not really into justice or mercy but mostly interested in walking humbly with one another, that's fine, one out of three ain't bad. It would be remarkably convenient if discipleship didn't come with this absolute demand, if we could approach God's call on our lives with the sense of freedom and possibility that adulthood was supposed to be. But this story isn't about adulthood. It's about growing up. In a world crying out with hunger and despair, growing up will take us beyond these privileged walls bearing offerings of more than we think we can afford. In a world overcome with injustice, growing up will take us into the highest corridors of power as witnesses to God's righteous judgment and overabundant mercy. In a world set through with deception, growing up will make us ambassadors of truth, even into our own homes and to the lies we have chosen for ourselves. It may not be comfortable. It rarely is, being pulled along by our outstretched hands to places we'd rather not go.

This past week two Augusta county students went through an ordeal I'm not sure any of us could imagine. Sean Wies and and Amy Guevara were driving down Interstate 81 to get to class at Blue Ridge Community College when they realized, in trying to make their exit, that the car's brakes had simply died. Amy's driving this old Mazda Protege with a full tank of gas in it and all of a sudden she just can't get it to stop at all. In the passenger seat, Sean calls 9-1-1, and the transcript will chill your bones. The dispatcher tries everything to get the car to slow down, but nothing works: it turns out that not only are the brakes dead, but the engine is locked in; even if they hit an incline, the engine starts to rev back up to ensure that the car doesn't drop below fifty. But over time, with the gradual slope of the highway, the speeds begin to climb. 60. 70. 80. They can't use the median or the shoulder to stop, because at those speeds they'd easily flip the car. Amy is screaming in fear on the other end of the phone line, and Sean is desperately trying to stay calm while repeating over and over that it just won't work and it just won't slow down.

Eventually state troopers come and begin to escort the car down the highway, hoping at least to clear the road ahead as the Protege's speed climbs. As the 9-1-1 call escalates, the dispatcher exhorts Sean and Amy over and over to trust the police cars around them, to just concentrate on following the trooper, but Amy says over and over that they're about to run into him, that he won't get out of the way, that they don't understand how fast this is all happening, that they are now accelerating down a course that they would much rather not be on, and how could we possibly ask them to trust the voices in their ears. Now, this story ends remarkably well. As the car crests over 100 miles an hour with no signs of stopping, Sean and Amy make the rational decision to simply jump from the vehicle. They hang up the phone, undo their seatbelts, open the doors, and go, and they walk away from the scene with only cuts and bruises to show for their effort. And I am so relieved that they made that rational decision; it almost certainly saved their lives. No one could reasonably ask them to stay behind that wheel, not with the car leading them uncontrollably and far beyond comfort down a path they do not wish to go. No one could reasonably make that demand, but it is precisely the demand that Jesus makes of Peter, and of us: to follow him beyond comfort; to trust him beyond reason; to live our lives as witnesses to the Lord of all Creation. It is the question that rings through these words: when we leave this church today, will we go home in comfort, or will we grow up? The choice has consequences. You may at times be overcome with fear, and you may at times be undone by doubt, and you may at times feel terribly alone.

But when you are afraid. And when you are in doubt. And when you feel alone. Remember that God is the one leading you with outstretched hand. Remember that God who created the universe and set the Heavens themselves in their orbit is the one who pulls you on your way. Remember that Jesus Christ who followed even unto death and now stands victorious over fear and doubt themselves; remember that he is the one who beckons you: "Follow Me." Remember that no matter how much you age, and no matter how much you grow up, you are still children of God and inheritors of the covenant of grace. Yes, the call of discipleship is absolute, but no more so than the love and the power and the mercy of God who leads us forward. This is the truth of the Gospel: that the great foam plastic chainlink rope has already wrapped itself around every one of us. Its name is providence. Its master is Jesus Christ. And it surely will lead us home. Amen.