A Forward-Looking Faith

5/5/19: Easter 3
Scripture:  John 21:1-19

Each of us comes to a place where we give up all our hopes for a better yesterday.
— Charles Reese, Oklahoma wheat farmer and personal spiritual guide

Central Idea: Events good and bad happen. They just happen. Resurrected living translates into a forward-looking faith – superseding our search for meaning at every turn.

Prayer: In the words of the Psalmist today, O God of resurrection, you turn mourning into dancing. You take off our sackcloth and clothe us with joy.

And in so doing, the lion of another winter finds a warming and welcoming lair in the fierce lamb of resurrection and spring. 

And so, as we enjoy … let us, this day, be enjoined by you. And so, as you stand beside us … let us, this day, stand beside you: wherever you may appear.

It’s the fullness of Springtime – with reminders of resurrection all around us. All the green afoot: Have you seen our church front lawn lately? The thread cypress … the arborvitae? And the coats of many colors? The azaleas especially? Adorned as they are with wraparounds, such as lily of the valley?

With the happy conjoining of Spring and Easter seasons, baseball – our national pastime -- has returned. U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall captures the Eastertide spirit of the game quite well with these words:

The game wakes gradually, gathering vigor to itself as the days lengthen in February and grow warmer; old muscles grow limber, young arms throw strong and wild, legs pivot and leap, bodies hurtle into bright bases SAFE … Clogged vein systems, in veteran oaks and left-fielders both, unstop themselves, putting forth leaves and line drives in Florida's March. Migrating north with the swallows, baseball and the grass's first green enter Cleveland, Kansas City, Boston …1

Spring. Baseball. Resurrection. Even diehard Detroit Tiger fans like me are given hope by the promise of resurrection.  

And then there’s the story of former Tiger pitching great Denny McLain.

A twice-convicted felon, McLain is the author of two books: Nobody’s Perfect – written after his first felony conviction – and later, after his second conviction, his second book: I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect.

Before finishing his career with the old Washington Senators, Denny McLain helped pitch the Tigers to a World Series championship in 1968. That year, he became the only hurler since the Great Depression to win 30 games or more in one regular season. The only one, still.

He is the same Denny McLain who was one among 300 inmates at a federal prison camp where I served three months for an act of nonviolent resistance I have spoken about elsewhere. One day in that prison, the hefty McLain was sitting in front of me as we were watching a football game. He leaned back – his plastic chair broke – and he toppled into my lap. If ever I am fortunate enough to have grandchildren, I can honestly tell them that I once caught the great Denny McLain.

Due to his pitching greatness and prison time, McLain has experienced the highs and lows of life as few among us have. But what you may not know, and what he writes about in the opening chapter of I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, is that he experienced something worse than anything experienced in his years in federal custody. McLain lost his firstborn child, Kristin, in an auto accident in 1992.

Denny recounts his spiritual struggle in the wake of this tragedy. He writes,

To someone who hasn’t been through it, you can’t explain what it’s like to lose a child. Whatever you imagine the words to mean, reality is much more unkind. Our parents taught (my wife Sharon and I) to trust and accept that God always has a reason, and you never show weakness, no matter how severe the pain. You deal with it and move forward. But we find no relief in accepting God’s way. There was no escape from the grief. There were no consoling words, wisdom, or church doctrine to soothe the pain that went beyond what either of us could bear …

… I still feel God owes me an explanation for what He allowed. I believe in God again, but to take a child, any child, is plain wrong. I have heard 10,000 explanations from priests, rabbis, clerics, and anyone else who thinks they have an explanation. I can honestly say that no one ever gave me an ounce of comfort in trying to explain why God did what He did.2

Such a hard question: “Why?” May be the hardest. Whether the tragedies we experience be global (Venezuela, Sudan, Palestine spring to mind) – whether they be national – or, most likely, whether they be intensely personal: Denny McLain’s words and the questions they beg echo among us. Doesn’t God owe us an explanation? And do we owe a faith-based explanation, to those who experience the unimaginable?

Well … What does our resurrection tale say, today?

Simon Peter thinks he has found an answer to the horror of losing their zealot leader to crucifixion. Having experienced the resurrected Christ twice while they were in hiding, he is transformed enough to say to six other disciples – all of them male – “I am going fishing.” The resurrection answer to their tragic loss! “I am going fishing.” And the six follow him.

And why not? Several of them fished for a living, didn’t they? And now that their resurrected leader has shown himself to them – twice – and has unlocked their room and hearts from fear of the civil authorities, returning to their livelihood seems the reasonable thing to do. Why continue to call attention to themselves … otherwise?

But there’s a problem. The fish don’t bite. Not until, that is, Jesus comes to them yet again. Reminding them that the big catch – the Jewish metaphor for the powers and principalities of the world – (the big catch) awaits them if they but seek his help.

First, though, Jesus must secure a threefold promise from Peter. A threefold promise to offset Peter’s threefold denial of him back in the courtyard of the high priest. “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

And then, lest Peter’s repentant expressions of love cheapen the grace, Jesus presents him with a forward-looking faith: the cross-bearing consequences of living resurrection. To truly follow me, he tells him, you must be both pastoral and prophetic. You must do more than care for my flock. You must, as the novelist E.M. Forster once wrote, “be willing to let go of the life (you) have planned … to have the life that is waiting for (you).” The life waiting for you – which includes, come your faithfulness to resurrection living, circumstances that may threaten your very being.

In the midst of tragedy, Denny McLain’s words and the questions they beg echo among us: Doesn’t God owe us an explanation?

And do we owe a faith-based explanation to those who experience the unimaginable? I certainly hope not!

Perhaps we can best answer the hard “why” questions by addressing this even harder question: Do not these questions echo among us, because we would do almost anything to know the mind of God – if there is, indeed, a “mind of God”? That we would search to the ends of the earth for meaning in our life at the expense of following Jesus’ way?

For beginning with the oldest of scriptures – the Book of Job – our biblical witnesses as a whole consider these proverbial “why?” questions not all that terribly important. Not with a God whose desire for us is unquenchable, a God whose forgiveness of us is unfathomable, and a God whose claim on our lives is unquestionable.

A God not of life we wish to hold on to. A God of resurrection we are called to bear, and to share. Not a God of better yesterdays … but a God of forward-looking todays?

Still: what to make of all those tragedies, those calamities … life’s disasters? As Maundy Thursday and Holy Friday testify, there are times I believe we are called to live in the midst of apparent meaninglessness in this world. Be the tragedies our betrayals of others, betrayals by others, or just plain accidents: It seems to me that through less dissembling explanation and more prayerful presence – less “let’s go fishing” and more risky response – we breathe the stuff of resurrection into God’s world.

I believe scripture calls us to live with the tragedies, not by them. For how can we cast resurrection light with Peter by either denying or reliving the darkened courtyards of our heartbreak? Inner sanctums we would nurture in sorrow, guilt, or shame? And worst of all, delude ourselves that this darkness we embrace is life’s true light?

Instead, scripture stories seem to tell us that God has given us and always gives us – if we dare but look – not so much a reason, but a season – an Easter season – of looking forward among us to life made new.

A God not of life we wish to hold on to. A God of resurrection we are called to bear, and to share.

Per Jesus’ words today: We may be taken to a place we do not want to go in our lives. Still: Ours is a forward-looking faith. Not because resurrection living is always bearable. But because resurrection living is always inescapable.

Thanks be to God. Amen!

  1. Donald Hall, “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons”, 1985. Found at http://www.siteboard.de/cgi-siteboard/archiv.pl?fnr=14494&read=1509.

  2. Denny McLain with Eli Zaret, I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007), pp. 274-75.