Sharing the Keys

One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.

When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.

Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.

This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”

These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”

To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.

There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.

Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.

Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).

Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.

Flipping the Script

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here for the scripture reading.

I got to do some traveling this week with a team that’s doing some research for our presbytery’s camping ministry. One of the places we visited, in addition to being a Christian summer camp, is also a wildlife refuge for injured animals.

As a staff member was showing us around, she introduced us to a male duck and told us that he is “fully imprinted.” Not being very knowledgeable about animals, I had to ask what that meant. She said that many animals, shortly after birth or hatching, form an identity bond with the first creature that cares for them (whatever the species). In this case, the duck in question was hatched and cared for by humans, not other ducks.

“So,” I then asked, “does that mean this duck thinks he’s a human?”

The staff member replied, “Yes, he does.” That’s what “fully imprinted” means.

I find this idea terribly fascinating: this duck had an early experience with humans, and that experience continues to shape his sense of identity today. Of course, he’s still a duck and not a human. He looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck… he’s a duck! But in his little duck brain, he looks at us and thinks to himself, “I am one of you.”

It’s not all that different for us humans, either. We, no less than that duck, have a tendency to build our idea of who we are based on past experiences. In this morning’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter meets a group of people who have done just that.

They were a community of widows living in the Israeli city of Joppa, on the coast. Widows in that culture were extremely vulnerable to poverty and exploitation, especially if they didn’t have living (male) relatives to take them in. The early Christian church became well-known for supporting these women and incorporating them into the life of the community. In the context of the church, these vulnerable women were able to band together, support one another, and take an active role in the ministry of the church. Some scholars speculate that this community of widows might have even served as a basis for the ministry of nuns and convents, which would appear much later in history.

The event that has prompted Peter’s visit to this community of widows is the death of one of their own. A woman named Tabitha, well-known as a seamstress, had become ill and died suddenly. Peter was invited to come and pay his respects.

What I find most fascinating about the story up to this point is that these widows form a community that has been brought together by their common experience of grief. Each of them has lost someone important to them, most likely a husband. They all know full-well what it means to say goodbye to a loved one. And here they are again: brought together by grief, and saying goodbye to one of their own.

Just like that duck I met this week, their past experiences (of grief and loss) has shaped the way they see themselves today. And this new experience (of losing Tabitha) only serves to confirm their sense of identity (as “losers”). They have come to see themselves as “the ones who lose people.”

Now, enter the Apostle Peter.

Peter was staying in the nearby town of Lydda and was invited to come and pay his respects after Tabitha died. Like most pastoral visits to bereaved people, Peter visits with the community and hears stories about Tabitha’s accomplishments. The biblical text doesn’t say, but maybe he brought a casserole? And, of course, like all pastors do on bereavement visits, he prayed.

And that’s when things got really interesting.

The text tells us that Peter “turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”

Through Peter, God has flipped the script for this community of widows. Experience had taught them to identify as “losers,” brought together by their common experience of death, but that’s not who they are anymore. Their identity is now rooted in something far deeper than death. As St. Paul says I his letter to the Colossians, their identity “is hidden in Christ with God.” They are Christians. They are the baptized. They are the ones who have passed through the waters of death and have been raised to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit. That is who they are now, and nothing in all creation, not even the power of death itself, is able to shake them loose from that identity. This is the truth that Peter has come to proclaim to Tabitha’s companions.

It is also the truth that Christ is proclaiming to us today, through this text of scripture. Who we are is not confined to the sum of our parts or the sum of our past experiences. Like the women in this story, we too are the baptized, whose “life is hidden with Christ in God.”

This truth flies in the face of everything the world throws at us in this life.

This American culture we live in brainwashes us to identify with our money and our possessions, whether we are rich or poor. It also tempts us to identify with our accomplishments in life, be they many or few. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

That is who we are.

The people around us might try to pigeonhole, scapegoat, or oppress us because of our race, ethnicity, social class, national origin, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Some of us are excluded or made to feel less-than because of these things about ourselves that we did not choose and cannot change. They call us names that I dare not repeat in church because that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That is who we are.

Past experience might tell us that we are “losers,” who will never fit in, and will never amount to anything in this life. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

That is who we are.

Past experience might tell us that we are unlovable, but God tells us, as God told Jesus at his baptism:

“You are my Son (or Daughter), the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Just like Peter with Tabitha’s companions, Christ stands among us today in Word and Sacrament, bringing new life where we had given up hope. We can no longer afford to identify ourselves with our past experiences, like that duck at the nature center. We have to find our identity with who we really are in Christ.

We are the baptized: those who have passed through the waters of death and been reborn to life in the Spirit. The waters of baptism have washed away every other name or label that we might be tempted to identify with. Now, there is only Christ. Paul writes, in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Through the sacrament of baptism, you have become the hands and feet of Jesus in this world. Baptism is not just a rite of initiation into church membership; it is also an ordination to ministry. Once we have realized the significance of our baptismal identity in Christ, we are sent out into the midst of the culture we live in. We are sent to expose the cultural lies that trick people into identifying with anything other than who we are in Christ.

Now, I want to ask you a serious question: Can we believe this for ourselves, as Christians? Can we believe it for ourselves, as the Church?

This is a challenging time to be a Christian in this culture. Most denominations and congregations, ourselves included, are facing a steep decline in membership, participation, and financial support. Many, like us, are facing the loss of our buildings and full-time clergy. The temptation for us, at this point in our shared experience, is to identify with these peripheral things. One video we watched in our Tuesday afternoon Bible study called them “the 3 B’s: Buildings, Budgets, and Behinds.” If those things are how we measure success, then we are no different from the culture around us. We are like the community of widows in Acts: huddled together around our shared experience of loss; pining after the good old days.

But the truth is that we are not those things. The truth, in this Easter season, is that Christ is risen and living among us today, breathing new life into us, flipping the script, and unraveling the twisted knots of death, so that we can begin to find our identity, not with our past experiences or present circumstances, but with Christ and Christ’s mission in the world.

And Christ’s mission is ever and always the same:

To proclaim to the ends of the earth, in word and deed, the good news that “I love you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Dark Night of Denial


Since autumn, I’ve been pretty good at staying on top of my Daily Office discipline, but I’ve fallen woefully off the wagon when it comes to Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer. Here is my attempt to get back on top with a little public journaling.

So, I did my Lectio today on the Gospel from the Daily Office Lectionary:

JOHN 18:15-18, 25-27

Peter and John followed Jesus, as they had for years, but this part of the journey was the most difficult by far. Jesus was asking them to follow him into a place of darkness and cold, a place of suffering and death, a place where their faith would be challenged and (literally) torn to shreds.

This is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” All traces of divine blessing and consolation disappear. It is a season of emptiness and suffering. So it was for the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest, and so it is for Christians today. The Jesus we loved (and thought we knew) is suddenly taken away from us. Like Peter, we find ourselves haunted by terrifying questions.

The temptation in this season is to flee the darkness and warm ourselves around the old familiar fires of certainty. This is the tactic employed by secular skeptics and religious fundamentalists alike. When the mystery becomes too difficult to face, they default to easy answers that can be fully understood. The problem is that any such answer amounts to a denial of our Lord.

Better to remain silent in the face of uncertainty and allow the mystery to remain as it is. Jesus tried to warn us that the journey would lead to this place, but we were not willing (or ready) to listen at that time. Now that we find ourselves here, will we deny the disturbing mystery or live with it long enough for Christ to bring us through the dark night to the morning of faith’s resurrection?


The Great Ends of the Church: The Preservation of the Truth

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

These are the words that rattled around inside Peter’s head.  They were troubling, even disturbing.  The implications of these words would shape the future of Christianity and the world for millennia.

These words came to Peter in a vision he had while meditating one morning on the roof of a house.  The Bible records his vision as a very clear and vivid experience, but I tend to think it was probably more fluid and subtle when it first happened.  I bet it started with a hunch, a nagging feeling in the back of Peter’s head that just wouldn’t leave him alone.  In time, this hunch gave way to a particular mental image, which was then summed up in this single phrase, arising from the depths of Peter’s subconscious mind.

Peter’s vision, as the Bible records it, went like this:

He was meditating on the roof of his friend’s house when he saw a sheet come down out of heaven with several ritually unclean animals on it.  Then a voice came from the sky saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

This was a big deal for him.  This voice, which Peter identified with the voice of God, was telling him to go against the cultural traditions of his people.  There were certain animals they just weren’t supposed to eat.  It wasn’t “the way they’d always done things.”  Even more than that, the vision went against everything Peter had been taught from the Bible in his youth.  According to Jewish dietary laws in the Torah, known as Kashrut, there were certain animals that God had commanded the Jews not to eat.  So, from Peter’s perspective, the voice of God in this vision was asking him to do something that went against everything he’d read in the Bible.  This was a problem for a good Jewish boy.

Just think about that: even today, we continue to look to the Bible as the primary source of inspiration for our faith.  The Bible holds an honored place in our churches and our worship services.  Its authority was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and continues to sit at the center of our Presbyterian tradition.  What would we say if some preacher showed up denouncing the Bible’s authority on a Sunday morning?  We’d be pretty upset.  So you can imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

As it turns out, the vision wasn’t actually about food at all.  Coincidentally, just as Peter was having this vision, there was a knock at the door.  A group of people arrived who would take Peter to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, not a Jew, who wanted to convert to Christianity.  Cornelius’ conversion turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that would transform Christianity into a truly multicultural religious movement in the early centuries of the Church’s existence.

Peter determined pretty quickly that his vision wasn’t really about kosher food at all, but kosher people.  The message he took from his experience is that the kingdom of heaven is a community where all people are welcome, regardless of their ethnic origins or adherence to Jewish ritual laws.  This welcoming event, far from being accepted by all, became the Christian Church’s first controversial debate in history.  Church leaders back then were as divided over the issue of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together as current church leaders are now divided over the issue of same-sex marriage.  After two thousand years, the issues have changed but the process remains the same.

I made us of Peter’s vision this week because this is the fourth week in our series on the six Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve already looked at the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, and the maintenance of divine worship as three Great Ends of the Church.  This week, we’re looking at a fourth one: the preservation of the truth.

Now, this is an aspect of church life that Presbyterians have specialized in over the centuries.  We’ve always been an intellectual bunch.  We like to bring our brains to church.  So, you can imagine that questions of truth tend to factor rather highly in the Presbyterian mind.

In the past (and sometimes in the present), we’ve done such a good job at caring about the truth that our theological debates have led to fights, which have in turn led to church schisms.  At one point, there were so many different Presbyterian denominations in the United States that people started jokingly referring to our tradition as the “Split P Soup” (P is for Presbyterian).  Each and every one of these separate denominations claimed to be the one true Presbyterian Church while all the others were simply heretics.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century,  the largest group of American Presbyterians, then called the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, came up with a new way of expressing its relationship to the idea of theological truth: they adopted a Book of Confessions in place of a single statement of faith.

Before the 1960s, American Presbyterians had almost uniformly looked to a series of documents called the Westminster Standards as the summary of what they believed and taught.  The Westminster Standards included a confession of faith, two catechisms for teaching theology to young people in Q&A format, and a directory for planning and leading worship.

These documents, so it was said, presented the summary of Presbyterian teaching in a single voice.  But the problem is that Presbyterians, going all the way back to John Calvin himself, have always acknowledged that there are other legitimate believers in other churches around the world who don’t necessarily know about or follow the Westminster Confession.  In fact, John Calvin himself never read the Westminster Confession or called himself a Presbyterian.  In recognition of this fact, American Presbyterians in the twentieth century adopted a collection of multiple statements of faith from various times and places around the world.  Taken together, these documents present a composite picture of what we value and believe.  All have equal authority as confessions of the church.  No single statement perfectly summarizes what we think.  Many of these statements even disagree with one another.  Moreover, our Book of Confessions is not a closed book; it can be added to.  The last document to be added was the Brief Statement of Faith, which was added in 1991.  As recently as 2010, our denomination has contemplated adding yet another document: the Belhar Confession from South Africa, although this document failed to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote to be included in the book.

The many documents that now comprise our Book of Confessions are taken together as “subordinate standards” and “expositions” of what the Bible teaches.  We acknowledge that these documents are not perfect, they can be mistaken in their interpretations.  Nevertheless, we include them in our book because we feel they are important.  They are the first, outer layer of church tradition that we embrace and honor as our own.

The next level down from the Book of Confessions in our preservation of the truth is the Bible itself.  This is the big one for most Protestants.  We view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative witness to the Living Word of God revealed in Jesus.  Some have supposed this means that the Bible itself contains no errors of a doctrinal or historical nature.

While I respect such folks’ reverence for the biblical text, I’m not inclined to agree with them about the Bible being inerrant or infallible.  These folks claim that the Bible speaks with a single voice on all matters and serves as the final, debate-ending source to quote in a theological argument.

However, reality is much more complicated than that.  First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice about anything because it’s not a single document.  The Bible is a library.  Like the Book of Confessions, the Bible is a collection of many different documents produced by different people in different places and different times for different reasons.  Parts of it contradict one another.  Most of the documents are stories, poems, and letters that have been preserved over millennia.  This collection is much more central and important to our identity than the Book of Confessions, but it too falls short of the modern ideal of a once-and-for-all source of accurate information.

What we have in the Bible and the Book of Confessions is conversations within conversations about conversations.  Like late-arrivals to a cocktail party, we present-day believers walk into the room, pick up on the nearest conversation, and try to get involved while catching up on what’s already been said.  Chances are, the party and the conversations will still being going on when it’s time for us to leave.  The best we can hope for is to contribute meaningfully to the best of our ability and bond closely with our conversation partners in the time we have available to us.  At no point does anyone seem to have the last word on any part of this conversation.

How then can we be preservers of the truth?  By admitting that we don’t hold all of the answers.  Truth is not a commodity that can be owned, bought, or sold in the open market.  The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is something that is known only to God.  The rest of us are obliged to listen to one another if we are to enlarge our understanding of truth.

Preserving the truth, for Presbyterians, means continuing the conversation about God, the church, the Bible, and morality.  We often disagree about what the truth is about any given matter.  I would dare to say that it’s okay.  Faith is not about having all the answers.  Faith is about reaching out beyond what we know in order to touch the mystery of existence.  Faith is the trust that transforms our lives to look more like Jesus’ life.

In Peter’s case, faith meant trusting the voice in his heart that said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  For him, faith meant opening the doors of the church to welcome those who were not previously welcome due to someone’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible and religious doctrine.  Preserving the truth, for Peter, meant keeping an open mind toward the new thing that God might be doing in the world, in spite of the fact that it went against what felt familiar and sounded orthodox to him.  Preserving the truth and possessing the truth are mutually exclusive of one another.

When Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Even Jesus admitted that there are truths that could and should be spoken but didn’t pass through his lips.  He entrusted that ongoing work to the Spirit of God living in the hearts of his followers.  He told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, [that Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.

A church that preserves the truth is a community of people who continually listen for the still, small whisper of that Spirit in their hearts, who keep open minds toward the mystery of truths they do not yet know, and who welcome the presence of outsiders in their midst as potential messengers of truth, insight, and discovery.  May we be such a church and may we preserve the truth to the best of our ability.

The Art of Letting Go

Over in Africa, they have a very interesting way of catching monkeys.  First, they secure a hollowed-out coconut to the end of a line and make a small hole in one end.  Next, they put something small and tasty (e.g. some nuts) inside the coconut.  Eventually, a monkey comes along and realizes that there’s a treat inside the coconut.  It reaches inside to get the treat.  Here’s the catch: the hole in the coconut is only big enough for the monkey’s hand to get through if it is empty.  As long as the monkey is holding onto the treat, it can’t get out.  If the monkey wanted to, it could let go and get away any time.  However, they almost never do that.  Instead, they hang on for dear life, even though it means their death.

Letting go is a hard thing to do.  Just ask parents who have ever dropped a sons or daughters off at college.  You hope that everything you’ve said and done over the past 18 years will be enough to guide them on their way, you draw out the goodbyes for as long as you can, but there’s no stopping that inevitable moment when you just let go, get back into the car, and drive away without them.

Our Buddhist neighbors have a lot to teach us Christians about the art of letting go.  Their entire spiritual path is built around that idea.  They start with the observation that life is full of suffering.  We never suffer, so they say, for the reasons we think we do.  We think we suffer because we lack something we want.  We say things like this: I wish I had a better job.  Why?  So I can make more money.  Why?  So I can buy more expensive things.  Why?  So I can impress this other person.  Why?  So she or he will like me.  And so on and so forth.  Happiness, we think, is always just one step outside of our reach.  We think it lies in some other job, object, or person.  If I could just have that, then I would be happy.

“No,” the Buddha says, “you won’t be.”  Real suffering doesn’t come from your lack of something, but from your desire for it.  If you can learn to let go of that inner urge to always be reaching and grabbing for the next big thing, you’ll find real happiness.  Along the way, you’ll also begin to find out who you really are inside.  We tend to lose sight of that in our endless pursuit of the next big thing.  We get lost in the rat race.  As we learn to let go, we find ourselves again.  The end result of this process is what Buddhists have always called Enlightenment.  All of their rituals and meditation exercises are oriented toward this one goal.  It’s all about letting go.

The art of letting go factors rather highly in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Mark.  Our story is part of a series of stories that we started talking about two weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday.  It began with the story of a blind man who Jesus had to heal twice.  After the first time Jesus touched him, he was beginning to see, but everything was still blurry.  After the second time, he could see clearly.  We took this as a kind of metaphor for Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, who was in the process of learning how to see (in a spiritual sense), but wasn’t quite seeing things clearly yet.

In the section just before today’s passage, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter boldly replies, “You are the Messiah.”

Then Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah.  He tells his disciples that the Messiah “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

At this point, Peter steps in and pulls Jesus aside with some friendly advice.  One might say that Peter saw Jesus as the hot new presidential candidate and himself as Jesus’ campaign manager.  Peter’s idea of Jesus as the Messiah (or “Christ”) was very different from Jesus’ idea of himself.  Peter thought the Messiah was supposed to be part political leader, part military revolutionary, and part spiritual guru: Che Guevara meets Barack Obama meets Dr. Phil.  With God on their side, they were supposed to have a meteoric rise to fame and power.

But Jesus, it seemed, had a very different idea of what his life is supposed to be all about.  Instead of fame and fortune, he talked about suffering and rejection.  This really got under Peter’s skin, so he got up in Jesus’ face about it, but Jesus let him have it right back.

“Get behind me, Satan!”  He said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  In other words, there’s a bigger story going on than the one you see right in front of your face.  Jesus knew how he fit into that bigger story because he knew who he was as God’s beloved Son.  He would conquer the world, not through violence, but through the power of self-giving love.  This was not an insight he could have had if he had been busy selling out to his culture’s idea of what a Messiah should be.  But Peter, as it turns out, was having a hard time letting go of that idea.  He was holding onto it so tight because he was absolutely convinced that the future security and prosperity of his country depended on it.

Don’t people still do that all the time?  If you flip through the various noise news channels on any given day, you’ll find no shortage of people angrily shouting at each other because everyone is convinced that their idea holds the key to peace and plenty in the future.  Whenever they stop to take a breather, the audience is instantly swamped with commercials for products that also claim to hold the secret to happiness.

We human beings have this crazy tendency to get so caught up in our own egos, ideas, products, and relationships that we forget who we really are inside.  We are God’s beloved children.  Our lives are part of a bigger story that has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue until its end.  Jesus never forgot that truth.  His faith in his identity as God’s beloved Son gave him the strength to resist the temptation to sell out to the popular ideology of his day.  Suffering and rejection didn’t scare him one bit because he knew the great Love at the center of the universe that transcends fear and death.

Today, God is inviting you to enter into a greater awareness of that Love by letting go of your attachment to those things, people, or ideas that compete for your trust.  Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

You are invited to participate in the art of letting go and trust in the Love that is stronger than death.  Maybe the thing for you to let go of is an idea, thing, or person.  Maybe it’s an old grudge or crush.  Maybe it’s an unhealthy attachment to work or a cause you believe in.  It can be good things too:  like your attachment to your family, church, or system of beliefs.  Many of these are wonderful things, but they can’t tell you who you are or give you lasting happiness.  Whatever your attachment is, Jesus is inviting you to let it go and rediscover your true identity as God’s beloved child.

It’s not an easy path.  Christians call it “the Way of the Cross” for a reason.  You will have to face your own fear of mortality.  You will have to sacrifice your sense of security.  But the promise, as Jesus gives it, is that you can ultimately save your life by letting go of it.  That’s what faith in the Resurrection is all about.

None of us does this perfectly.  We’re all refusing to let go of something inside that keeps us from embracing who we really are and living the kind of full life that God intends for us.  The good news is that our refusal to let go doesn’t change who we are as God’s beloved children; it only keeps us from recognizing the truth about ourselves.

As I was writing this sermon, I got a message about an old college buddy who passed away quite suddenly this weekend.  Like all such announcements, it reminded me of the fragility of our biological existence.  It also reminded me that the call to let go extends even to letting go of life itself.  God asks a lot from us (everything, in fact).  I compare it to doing a trust fall off the edge of the Grand Canyon, believing that we are held, as the apostle Paul says, by a reality that is higher, deeper, longer, and broader than we can possible imagine.  It is the Love that passes knowledge and the peace surpassing understanding.  When we are called upon to trust and let go, whether it’s letting go of some person, thing, or idea that we’re clinging to for happiness and security or letting go of life itself in our final moments, we journey forward in faith, trusting that we are not wandering into the darkness, but are being welcomed into the light.  We are not enveloped by oblivion; we are embraced by eternity.

Love Covers a Multitude of Sins

This is the sermon I preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church, Boonville, NY.  The text is John 21:1-19.

Parents, in my experience, have a way of knowing us better than we know ourselves.  I know this because I am a parent and, even though she’s only sixteen months old, I can already pick up on distinct aspects of my daughter’s personality emerging.  I also know this because I have parents and, much to my chagrin, they have often been able to finish my sentences, predict my next move, and see a part of my personality that I thought I had hidden well.

I felt particularly cornered one day when my mother aptly pointed out that I suffer from an “over-active conscience”.  Little things, small errors in judgment that most people would be able to let go, bothered me to the point of needing to confess to someone.  On one such occasion, my father interrupted my tirade of self-loathing to give me one bit of advice.  “Son,” he said, “go easy on yourself.”  To this day, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

I am hardly the first person in history to wrestle with such a compulsion.  Psychologists have identified a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called “Scrupulosity”, which manifests itself as an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sinfulness.  Historical scholars suspect that both Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist churches, might have suffered from this ailment.

These “scrupulous” tendencies in myself, combined with a church environment that condoned such an inclination, brought me to the point where I disqualified myself from serving as a minister in the church.  Even as I graduated college and started seminary, people would ask me, “Are you planning to pursue a career in ordained ministry?”  I would respond, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

Because of this experience, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the apostle Peter felt at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading.  This story comes to us from the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We read that Peter was certainly present for the events which took place around Easter Sunday, but the last time he played a major role in the plot of this story was on the night when Jesus was arrested.  Earlier that evening, Peter had expressed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus in no uncertain terms.  By the next morning, Peter had publicly denied that even knew Jesus.  He did this, not once, but three times.

This was no minor misstep for Peter.  In doing this, we know that he turned his back on his faith; he rejected everything he had come to believe about God through Jesus.  But more than that, Peter had also turned his back on his closest friend at a critical moment.  According to ancient near-eastern custom, Peter’s infidelity had violated Jesus’ honor.  Jesus would be expected to demand vindication for such an offense.  Perhaps Peter thought of those words which Jesus had spoken earlier, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of his Father and of the holy angels.”

So Peter was probably not all that surprised when at Jesus’ first appearance after the resurrection, his friend did not address him directly.  I can imagine Peter, in his crushing guilt, believing that his denial had purchased his exclusion from the ranks of apostles.  He had been reduced from the role of leader to that of spectator.  When Jesus commissioned his apostles, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I can see Peter, sitting in a far corner of the room, relieved to see Jesus, excited for his friends, but also sad for himself.  I can even imagine Peter saying the same thing I did, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

After the events of Easter, Peter has to decide how to get on with the rest of his life.  It made perfect sense for him to return to fishing, the only life he knew before Jesus.  I find it interesting that six other disciples accompanied Peter in his return to the maritime business.  I like to imagine that they went along as Peter’s social support system.  Maybe they were hoping to shake Peter out of his paralyzing guilt so that he would come and join them as they sought to preach the Good News about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Peter, hoping he could forget the past (or at least put it behind him), was finding his old job to be a hollow pursuit on multiple levels.  We read that his nets kept coming up empty.  I think this is a comment about something more than the fishing conditions at the Sea of Tiberias.  I think we, as the readers of this story, are getting a glimpse inside Peter’s soul at that moment.  The fisherman’s life to which he was returning seemed empty and meaningless after his experience of traveling with Jesus.  I also imagine that it must have been hard for Peter to work those same shores, remembering the day he met Jesus on that very spot, when Jesus used his boat as an impromptu pulpit.

In this sad moment, the risen Christ makes a sudden reappearance.  Jesus encounters Peter in the midst of his daily routine and brings two gifts.  First, he brings Abundance.  Like the symbol of emptiness, this miraculous catch is a sign to Peter that he is about to find that which he was really seeking (and here’s a hint: it isn’t fish).

As they are gathering the nets, one of the disciples, the one “whom Jesus loved” (identified as John by most biblical scholars), turns to Peter in realization that this catch was no ordinary coincidence.  “It is the Lord!” he says.  In this moment, John is acting like a true pastor by pointing out God’s presence and activity in Peter’s life.  This, by the way, is how I spend most of my time on the street as a Community Chaplain.  I’m not a street preacher, I’m a street pastor.  It’s my job to walk with people through the triumphs and struggles of daily life and help them see how God is at work there.

Peter responds to this observation immediately.  But we read that he does something quite unusual: he puts his coat on just before hopping into the water.  I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to swim without being fully clothed.  But, like the nets, I take this to be a statement about Peter’s internal state-of-being.  He doesn’t want to feel so exposed in front of the one he has let down.  Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter wants to cover himself because he feels ashamed.  Too often these days (even in the church), God’s children fall victim to this mentality.  They assume there is something about themselves that is unacceptable, so they duck and cover.  Hiding in the closet, they wear the mask constructed for them by society’s expectations.  But, as we will see in a moment with Peter, Jesus has this uncanny ability to pierce the veil of our shame with his love.

Which leads me to Jesus’ second gift:

Jesus appears bearing the gift of Acceptance.  When Peter and the disciples finally make it to shore, they find breakfast waiting for them.  This is evocative of Jesus’ meal-sharing ministry, which got him in even more trouble than his teaching and healing.  You’ve heard me describe before what a powerful statement it was to share a meal with someone in the ancient near-east.  Eating with someone signified one’s total acceptance of the other person into the family unit.  By feeding the multitudes and dining with outcasts, Jesus makes a statement about the scope of his radically inclusive love.  In this passage, that love is extended to the disciples, even Peter.  By eating first, Jesus is effectively saying that he has rejected Peter’s rejection of him.

Once breakfast is over, Peter is finally ready to come face-to-face with Jesus and talk about the painful events of that night.  Jesus uses his words like a surgeon’s scalpel: cutting ever deeper, exposing the source of the pain in order to heal it.  It is not an easy soul-surgery for Peter to endure.  Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him.  One time for each denial.  Each time, Peter affirms that he does love him and Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

Instead of enacting vengeance upon Peter, Jesus asks him to take care of that which is most precious to him: this new community of believers.  In verse 16, Jesus uses the term “Shepherd”, which is “Poimaine” in Greek, and will later be translated into a Latin term that is very familiar to us: “Pastor”.  Jesus doesn’t punish Peter, he ordains him!

Jesus says to Peter, in effect, “Do you really love me, Peter?  If so, then I want you to take that love and give it to these people who need it the most right now.”  Peter now stands before Jesus as a healed and restored person.  The shameful hurt of denial has been replaced by the warm embrace of love.

History tells us that Peter did, in fact, take up this call.  Peter stands out as one of the great pastors in the early days of the Christian Church.  We have stories and letters in the New Testament that bear witness to this fact.  I think Peter walked away from that meeting with a newfound faith in the power of love to set things right.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Peter had this encounter in mind when he wrote to a group of churches years later, saying to them, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

I went to seminary declaring, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”  I said it as a joke, but my sarcasm was a thin veil covering my deep sense of shame and unworthiness.  But it happened that as I heard Jesus’ words to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, I began to notice a new desire rising up within me.  I realized that I wanted to feed Christ’s people with his Word and Sacraments.  Following this desire has led me out into the streets, where many of Christ’s lost sheep stand desperately in need of love.  I am being transformed by that love, even as I try to give it out.  My ministry in the neighborhoods of inner-city Utica has only increased my faith in the radically inclusive love of God.  I believe Jesus is teaching me to read my Bible with a new set of eyes as I read it with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.  I no longer see it as a book of rules and doctrines, but as a library of stories, poems, and letters, documenting a millennia-long romance between God and God’s people.  Like Peter, I find myself being transformed by the warm embrace of a love (God’s love) that covers a multitude of sins (my sins).

I don’t know where you are this morning, in relation to this powerful, transforming love of Christ.  Maybe you feel like there is something inside of you that you have to hide from the world?  Maybe you feel like you’ve committed some unforgivable sin and Jesus has finally turned his back on you?  Maybe you feel the crushing burden of doubt or guilt?  If that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you with this Gospel passage.  Jesus is coming into your life now with his gifts of abundance and acceptance.  He is not coming to punish you, but to heal you and, finally, to commission you into his service.

Maybe you’re here today and you’ve already experienced that healing love of Christ firsthand?  If that’s you, then I want to encourage you to take it with you into the world.  There are many of our sisters and brothers who are still bound by chains of guilt, fear, and despair.  Jesus is calling you this morning to follow him into those dark corners of the world, bringing with you the light and the warmth of his love.  One need not be a pastor in order to feed Christ’s hungry sheep.  Each of us, regardless of age or occupation, has a call to ministry.  Likewise, one need not go to Palestine or the inner-city.  There are hurting people who stand in desperate need of love in your own family, neighborhood, and community.  Your co-workers, clients, and supervisors need it.  If you are still in school, look for that fellow student in the cafeteria or playground who always eats or plays alone.  If you are retired, look among your friends and neighbors.  None of us has outlived God’s call on our lives.  For as long as there is still air in your lungs, God still has plans for your life.

Jesus has a lot of love to give and the hurting people of this world desperately need it.  Let’s learn to accept that love for ourselves and then pass it on.  Come on people, let’s feed some sheep.

Let us pray.

Eternal and Holy One, your love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, has covered the multitude of our sins: Grant us vision to see your love more clearly in our own lives, that we might pass it on to those hungry sheep who you have entrusted to our care; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.