Sermon: “Just After Daybreak” (April 10, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Just after Daybreak” (John 21:4)
April 10, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the 2015 comedy film Trainwreck Amy Schumer plays Amy Townsend.  As a little girl Amy’s parents get divorced and her father repeatedly tells her that monogamy is unrealistic.  She internalizes this in her thirties is still living a life replete with promiscuity, as well as rampant drug and alcohol abuse.  She has a younger sister named Kim who is married with a stepson and also pregnant.  Amy relentlessly makes fun of her sister and the tension peaks at their father’s funeral.

Meanwhile through her reckless behavior Amy also sabotages her relationship with a successful doctor named Aaron Connors and loses her job as well.  Amy Townsend hits rock bottom.  She goes to her sister’s house to apologize:

“I’m sorry,” Amy begins.  Kim is dubious, “I know you’re sorry.”  Amy continues, “No, no, I’m really sorry.  I want you to know that I act like everything you do in your life is so wrong and stupid, but it’s just because I don’t think that I can have that.  I’m not okay, I’m not okay.  I know what I am, I know who I am, and I’m broken.”

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has a special place in his heart for the broken, a special place for those who like Amy Townsend, hit rock bottom.

In today’s gospel lesson John records one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and one of the most beautiful episodes of mercy and restoration in all scripture.  Peter, whom Jesus called “the Rock,” had hit rock bottom.  The one who had first proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the one who had the guts to step out of the boat and walk on water, the one who personally seen Jesus raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead, the one who had personally seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain, the one who at the Last Supper had promised Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you”—not only denied Jesus in his darkest hour, but did so three times in a row, which caused him to weep and despair.

Peter had hit rock bottom.

And like many people who hit rock bottom, Peter decided to return to his old life, to go back to what he knew, so he told the other disciples, “I am going fishing.”  The other disciples decided to join him.  They fished all night long, and caught nothing.  But then John writes, “Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know it was Jesus.”  Jesus goes on to instruct the disciples to cast their net on the other side of the boat, which they did, and this time they caught 153 fish.  John, who identifies himself as “that disciple whom Jesus loved,” tells Peter, “It is the Lord!”  Peter is so excited he jumps into the sea and swims a hundred yards with his clothes on all the way to the shore.

Jesus makes Peter and the others breakfast over a charcoal fire, the same kind of charcoal fire that Peter stood next to when he denied Jesus (John 18:17-18).  No doubt the smell of the fire triggered that awful memory in Peter, but Peter was soon to experience that in more ways than one, the mercy of Jesus would mean the dawning of a new day for him.

A couple months ago I visited my friend Paul Zahl, an Episcopal priest and author, down in Florida.  We had an amazing barbecue lunch and then talked for a couple hours in his study.  As I was leaving he gave me a DVD of a 1986 French film called Summer (aka The Green Ray).  “You might wonder why I would give you this movie of all movies,” he told me excitedly, “but trust me, watch it all the way to the end, and you’ll get it—and don’t worry, there are subtitles.”  So one night last week while I was out of town I watched it, and it messed me up in a good way.

The film stars Marie Riviere as Delphine, a thirtyish woman whose boyfriend had just dumped her a couple days before her vacation during which she had planned on traveling with him.  So instead she goes on vacation alone.  She tries some sightseeing in Paris, then tries visiting some relatives, then tries hiking in the Alps, then tries the beach, but no matter where she goes her loneliness and fear of intimacy follow her—no escape.

About two thirds through the film Delphine is wandering by the seaside near sunset and eavesdrops on a conversation five elderly people are having about Jules Verne novels.  One describes how 20,000 Leagues under the Sea bored her stiff but then speaks effusively about a lesser known Jules Verne novel called The Green Ray, a “fairytale love story” whose characters who are on a quest to see “the green ray.”

The green ray refers to a rare optical phenomenon in which immediately before sunrise or immediately after sunset a green ray of light is spotted on the horizon, especially where there is a clear, unobstructed view.  It is special because green is the color of hope.  Perhaps some of you have seen this.  While continuing to eavesdrop Delphine watches the sunset, hoping to catch a glimpse of the green ray.  The sun slowly sets, and the various rays disperse across the horizon…but no green ray.

Later Delphine befriends another woman who is traveling alone.  While talking at a little table overlooking the ocean Delphine’s friend begins encouraging her about finding someone new:  “A guy won’t come to you, you have to do something,” she says, “It’s like a card game: you can’t show what’s in your hand right away.”  Then Delphine eyes begin to well up, “My hand’s empty,” she says.

“You must have something,” her friend replies.  Delphine shakes her head as she softly begins to cry.  “I’m not like you.  Things aren’t obvious to me.  I’m not normal, like you.  If I had something to give, people would see it.  If I’m dumped, it has to be my fault…If people don’t come to me it’s because I’m worthless.”  A moment later two men join them at the table and begin flirting with them.  She splits and goes to train station.  Delphine had hit rock bottom.

But as she awaits the train a young man sits across from her and they begin talking, change their plans and go to a café.  Unlike all the other guys she had ever met, he was gentle and kind and really listened to her.  “I’m wary of guys,” Delphine tells him, “I’m crazy…I’ve been in love three times in my life, three times.”  Then she looks at him, “Are you in love at the moment?”  “No,” he smiles, “but I hope to be.  It could happen.”  Then as they stroll near some shops Delphine catches a glimpse of a souvenir shop called, of all things, “Le Rayon Vert” (The Green Ray) and she giggles, and asks him if he’ll walk to a ridge and watch the sunset with her.

As the sun begins to set Delphine asks him, “Ever seen the green ray?”  “No, what’s that?” he replies.  “The last ray at sunset.  Jules Verne wrote a book on it…it helps you to know…”  “What?”  “Tell you later.”  The sun continues to set a few tears roll down her cheeks and he asks, “Are you crying?”  He gently wipes her eyes and as they both turn to watch the end of the sunset he says, “Look…wait.”  And sure enough at the split second after the suns sinks below the horizon they catch a brief glance of the green ray.  It is beautiful.  Delphine is so overcome she begins laughing and crying at the same time.  Roll credits.  Delphine had seen the green ray, and her hope had been renewed.

Back to the gospel lesson…after Jesus and the disciples have shared breakfast on the beach Jesus asks Peter the same question, three times in a row, “Do you love me?”  The first two times Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” and then the third time he replies, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And after each of Peter’s three responses Jesus replies similarly, “Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.”  For each of the three times Peter had denied Jesus, Jesus gave Peter a chance to reaffirm his love.  And Jesus did not stop there, for in each of those three times he also commissioned Peter anew to do his ministry of caring for Jesus’ sheep.  In other words, Peter was fully forgiven and fully restored by Jesus.  There was no season of penitence, no discussion groups, no red tape.  It was very simple and very clear, and Jesus was intentional about doing all of this for Peter in front of the other disciples present.

Jesus was fully aware that Peter was sorry, really sorry, that Peter knew that he was not okay, that Peter knew he was broken, that Peter felt worthless.  And in response Jesus gave Peter unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional restoration.  In other words, Jesus showed Peter the green ray, and Peter’s hope was renewed.  It was the beginning not just of a new day for Peter, but a whole new way of life—a life of sharing the mercy of God with fellow sheep.

The gospel always comes back to the mercy of God for broken people like Amy and Delphine and Peter…and you…and me.  Nothing can stop the mercy of God.  In her poignant and at times hilarious 2015 book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way:

There are many reasons to steer clear of Christianity.  No question.  I fully understand why people make that choice.  Christianity has survived some unspeakable abominations: the Crusades, clergy sex-scandals, papal corruption, televangelist scams, and clown ministry.  But it will survive us, too.  It will survive our mistakes and pride and exclusion of others.  I believe that the power of Christianity—the thing that made the very first disciples drop their nets and walk away from everything they knew, the thing that caused Mary Magdalene to return to the tomb and then announce the resurrection of Christ, the thing that the early Christians martyred themselves for, and the thing that keeps me in the Jesus business…is something that cannot be killed.  The power of unbounded mercy, of what we call The Gospel, cannot be destroyed by corruption and toothy TV preachers.  Because in the end, there is still Jesus (10).

Back to Trainwreck for a moment…after Amy hits rock bottom, she reconciles with her sister, cleans out her apartment, throws away all the drugs and alcohol, and lands another job.  Then in order to show her love to Aaron Connors, who is a huge New York Knicks fan, she organizes a dance routine with the Knicks cheerleaders on the basketball court at Madison Square Garden, capped off with her hilarious attempt to jump off a trampoline to do a flip and dunk a basketball.  She runs the length of the court, leaps on the trampoline only to land right on her face.  As she’s laying facedown, motionless, Aaron runs up, turns hers over:

“Are you okay?”  Amy’s face brightens up, “Did I get it?”  “Did you get the basket?  Oh, of course not.  You didn’t get enough height.”  “No?”  “No.”  “I thought I got a lot of height.”  “No, zero height…Usually when people hit trampolines they go high, but for some reason you went down, you went straight down, hard.”  Amy is earnest, “I really want to impress you…I want to show you I can work hard and put myself out there, you know, that I’m not afraid to fail…I want to try with you.”  Aaron grins, “I want to try too.”  “I love you,” Amy says.  “Yeah?”  “Yeah.”  “I love you too, baby.”

You see, the gospel is exceptionally good news for the broken who have hit rock bottom—for those who have gone straight down, hard—because the gospel is centered on the “unbounded mercy” of Jesus Christ, who fully forgave and restored Peter, and who fully forgives and restores you.

So when it comes to your life, may the Holy Spirit give you a glimpse of “the green ray” today, and renew your hope.  For whether you have been up all night or are beginning to watch the sun set, keep your eyes on the horizon—“look…wait”—because just after the daybreak of eternity, you too will see your Savior.

Amen.