I grew up in a small but historically important town on the East Coast. It was a beautiful place, probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been. There were trees everywhere and roads lined with almost virgin forest. There was my river, my sacred place before I knew what a sacred place was. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t where I really wanted to spend the rest of my life.
Through my travels I lived in several places, like Southern California, the Philippines, and then a period in Eastern Oregon. Now everybody thinks of Oregon as green, wet and mossy but that’s basically the western side of the state. Much of the east is a high desert with sparse vegetation, dry climate, very hot summers and cold winters that can feature an occasional goodly bit of snow . Even though I lived near the Columbia River, it wasn’t MY river. I lived there for seven years before I escaped, and as I left, I swore I would never live in another desert as long as I lived.
Fast forward about three years. I met and married a man who worked in construction as I did. I was in San Francisco and loving it but he was in Arizona. You see where this is going, I’m sure. I ended up just on the southwest edge of Phoenix in a high desert surrounded by sparse vegetation, very hot summers and little rain. So much for saying “Never.”
I thought about all that when I read the passage this morning, especially the part after the institution of the Eucharist. That Last Supper was like a banquet given to soldiers going out to fight, a kind of royal send off before things get bloody, beastly and deadly. When Jesus reached the Mount of Olives, he gave his disciples a vision of what was to come beginning that very night. It too was going to be bloody, beastly and deadly. They really had no clue of what was to come, although Jesus had given them some pretty broad hints from time to time. This time he got a little more specific, telling them that despite their faithfulness during his ministry, they were going to desert him and his cause. Of course, Peter led the charge, “Oh, no, I don’t care what anybody else does, I’ll never leave you, I’ll never desert or deny you.”
There’s no doubt he really meant it–at the time, anyway, but we know how it all ends with Peter in the courtyard during Jesus’ trial, pointed out by someone as a follower of Jesus. He didn’t just deny it once, he did it three times! So much for saying “Never.” His fellow disciples weren’t much better. Peter and most of the boys holed up somewhere in Jerusalem as Jesus was hung on a cross and suffered for what must have seemed like forever. Only one unnamed disciple, his mother, Mary Magdalene and a few other female supporters were actually brave enough to not just show up at the crucifixion but to stay through the whole thing and close enough for the crowd to see them as family to the guilty man hanging there. He had to be guilty, right? They wouldn’t crucify innocent people would they? Meanwhile the deniers were safely hidden, wondering how it could have all gone so wrong.
“I’ll never do that again.” We say it almost without thinking when things don’t go well. “I’ll never shop there again!” “I’ll never speak to Bob (or Sue) again!” “I’ll never smoke another cigarette/take another drink/drive recklessly/shop at that store…” The list goes on and on and quite often we who have been so adamant about something we’d never do again find ourselves precisely in that predicament of having done it, are doing it, or getting ready to do it without thinking about the “never” we swore probably not that long ago.
The disciples, especially Peter, had no inkling of how quickly his “No, I’ll never deny you” would be put to the test. I also wonder how long it took him to not only get past the shame and guilt of doing what he swore to his teacher and friend he would never do but the added shame and guilt that he hid out to save himself while Jesus was dying.
I wonder if Peter, when he saw and knew the risen Lord, wept and humbled himself before him, confessing things Jesus already knew? I wonder if Peter felt a bit like Isaac after Abraham had untied him and sacrificed a ram found in the thicket instead. I wonder if Peter and the others reflected on what they had done and tried to find ways to make it right. I wonder too, how often do we?
“I’ll never deny you” as a statement to Jesus is far higher on the list of things to regret than “I’ll never live in another desert” but the word “Never” is there in both of them, a common thread of being something we would normally consider as impossible. It’s when it becomes not just possible but actual that it gets noticed for what it is–a broken promise whether to self or to God.
Jesus was forgiving of those who said “Never” to him and then turned around and did that very thing. He is even forgiving when I promise “I’ll never…,” no matter what it is, whether it is failing to reading more scripture, praying more prayers, or remembering to be mindful about the things I should do. He forgives before we ask, just as he forgave the disciples before they expressed regret and repentance. Sometimes forgiving oneself is far harder but just as necessary.
I think I shall have to be more careful about the use of “Never” in my thoughts and words. The thing I say I will never do may become the very next thing I will do, or will have to do, no matter how ugly or hard or dangerous. It’s the same for any of us, whether it is something like never smoking another cigarette or never denying our faith because it could be dangerous to us if we don’t.
But we never know…