Monday, March 30, 2009

Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 3/29/09, Matthew 14:23-33, Mark 8:27-37, Matthew 26:31-35, 57, 69-75)

Peter, The Rock

Today, we finally look at a disciple about whom something is actually written, about whom we actually have significant information to go on in our study! Today, we’re looking at Simon Peter. Simon Peter became one of the most prominent leaders in the early church, along with Paul and James, the brother of Jesus. He is considered the first bishop of Rome, the first Pope of the church. And, thankfully, he appears frequently in the gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles, more frequently than any other of the twelve. Of course, this makes sense. The gospels in our Bibles were not recorded until some 30 and more years after Jesus walked on earth. By then, Peter was already considered a great leader of the church who had been martyred for the cause, and so when retelling the story of Jesus, authors naturally highlighted stories of the most famous of the twelve. The benefit for us is that in Peter, we have the most holistic, multi-layered look at him that we have of any of the followers of Jesus.

Today we’re looking at three passages in which Peter plays a central role. First, we hear in the gospel of Matthew about the famous incident of Peter stepping out of the boat to follow Jesus and walk on the water. Jesus and the disciples have just been with the crowds, while Jesus fed the 5000+ people. The disciples get into the boat to cross the lake, and Jesus stays behind to pray. Eventually, the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, but because of the situation, no doubt, they think Jesus must be a ghost. But Jesus calms their fears right away, saying, “it is I.” Peter then makes a bold gesture: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “come.” So Peter gets out of the boat and begins walking on the water to Jesus. But suddenly he’s overwhelmed by what he’s doping, and he begins to sink, calling, “Lord, save me.” Jesus catches him, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In Mark, we return to a passage we’ve been looking at in parts throughout Lent, a theme we’ve been focusing on. Jesus asks the disciples what people have been saying about him, who they’ve been saying he is. The disciples tell him that some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, others, another of the prophets. And Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “you are the Messiah.” But then Jesus tells them about the suffering he will undergo and Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such things. Jesus responds with his own rebuke, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It is then that Jesus tells the crowd and his disciples that if any want to become his follower, they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him.

Then finally, we come to a most-known scene with Peter, back in the gospel of Matthew. It’s a tense evening, the time following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, after Jesus has announced that someone will betray him, after they’ve shared bread and wine together with new meaning, and after they’ve sung a hymn together. Jesus says that his flock will be scattered and that everyone will desert him. But Peter responds, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus tells Peter that actually on this very night he will deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. But Peter insists, “even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But then, just verses later, Peter indeed denies ever even knowing Jesus, much less being his follower. And as Peter remembers his conversation with Jesus, he weeps bitterly in shame.

Peter seems to be such a bumbling disciple sometimes. In these three lessons, and in other appearances in the gospels, Peter always seems to be a curious blend of making great leaps of faith and commitment to following Jesus, accompanied by, sometimes in startlingly quick succession, failures, mistakes, or blunders. I can picture Peter sinking rapidly into the water after walking on it, or Peter identifying Jesus as the Christ and then having Jesus call him Satan just a few minutes later. Sometimes when I read the gospels and see Peter’s behavior, I want to shout through the pages and centuries at him to help him get a clue a little sooner in the story. Of course, we have the benefit of knowing who Jesus is and how the story unfolds, while Peter did not. But even while I find Peter’s actions sometimes laughable, I also find them comforting. Peter, one of the twelve, and in fact, the most famous of the twelve, hardly ever had a clue what Jesus was trying to tell him, and yet still managed to be a leader of the church. I think that’s good news for us! I think Peter can help us understand our own paths of discipleship.

I’ve always had a sort-of love hate relationship with running, although since I broke my ankle while running, I guess my relationship has perhaps been one of mutual dislike! Running and I apparently don’t get along anymore, so I’ve tried to substitute walking and hiking instead. At any rate, over the course of the last several years, I’ve tried to run or walk or hike or something, and I’ve had different locations for running and walking. At Drew, right across the street from my apartment, was a big three mile loop that I would usually run around in the mornings. Here in Franklin Lakes, I walk around the loop that connects the playing fields near the library and rec. center. But when I was living in Central New York, or when I’m home visiting, I usually go to a track at the high-school or the local School for the Deaf. There’s no special walking loop available. Walking or running on a track is a different experience than one single loop. There are no big hills there to drag me down, so I usually could motivate myself to at least get over to the track. But there's another dilemma on a track. Unlike the course at Drew or here in Franklin Lakes that was just one time around, to go three miles at a track, I have to go around the circle 12 times! Not only is it hard to keep track of the progress I'm making, since it seems that I'm getting nowhere, but it's also difficult because there's always the temptation to quit before I hit my goal: the exit from the track comes up each and every lap, offering me the chance to give up and walk home. At Drew, and here, if I want to stop part way around the loop I’m out of luck – I still have to at least walk the rest of the way home. On a track, I can give up part way as easy as can be.

By now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with our gospel lessons, with Peter, with anything really, but I assure you there's a great connection coming up! I think we like to think of our lives and our faith journeys more like the great big loop I run at Drew or the loop here in Franklin Lakes – one big loop, certainly has hills to climb, but new ground is always being covered, there is clear progress toward the goal, and once you see the finish line, that's it, you're finished! There's no where to get on or off except the beginning and the end. But actually, I think our lives and our faith walks are much more like going around the track. We often have to cover the same ground more than once to really make any progress. And yes, like on a track, we are offered chance after chance to give up and get out. We have many chances to stumble, to get off course, to lose our way, every time we think we're making some progress. The journey can be quite frustrating, and it's easy to feel like we’re sinking like Peter sank.

But God calls us, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" Instead of one long path, beginning to end, we have chances in life to try again, to go around one more time, to enjoy our gifts and graces in different contexts and settings. We have chance to measure our progress, even within the safety of the course, and we have the task of confronting our temptations too. Imagine if the disciples' time and journeys, Peter’s time with Jesus had only been on one long path, beginning to end. He would have been no opportunities to learn from his mistakes, no chances to try again to share the good news with communities, no second chances when he let Jesus down so completely.

One of my very favorite books is Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. As you might guess from the title, the book is a comedic fictional look at Jesus’ ministry from a written-out disciple. But mixed in with the jokes are some deep theological reflections. In one scene, Maggie, aka Mary Magdalene, says to Jesus and Biff: "You two are the ninnies here. You both rail on [the disciples] about their intelligence, when that doesn't have anything to do with why they're here. Have either one of you heard them preach? I have. Peter can heal the sick now. I've seen it. I've seen James make the lame walk. Faith isn't an act of intelligence, it's an act of imagination. Every time you give them a new metaphor for the kingdom, they see the metaphor, a mustard seed, a field, a garden, a vineyard, it's like pointing something out to a cat - the cat looks at your finger, not at what you're pointing at. [But] they don't need to understand it, they only need to believe, and they do. They imagine the kingdom as they need it to be, they don't need to grasp it, it's there already, they can let it be. Imagination, not intellect." (394) Maggie – or Mary – is trying to explain that the disciples are followers of Jesus not because of their great understanding and wisdom, but because of their faithfulness. Peter’s blunders may make me smile, but his show of faith, especially when you look at the whole course of his life, is no laughing matter.

Today we are celebrating Layperson of the Year Sunday, and we are honoring Jack Willer, a very special person. As I was looking over Jack’s bio and thinking about Jack, I was reminded of Jack’s reaction the day I told him he was selected to be Layperson of the Year. He seemed totally astonished, and tried to convince me that he wasn’t a worthy candidate for the honor before it finally sunk in a little bit. I think Jack was convinced there were better candidates who’d done more than he had who should be getting honored. But here’s the thing: I see the Layperson of the Year award not as an award for a person’s greatness, but for their faithfulness. And I’m not saying Jack’s not a great person – you all know how special he his! But we honor him today for his faithfulness, for his faithfulness through 55 years of membership here at FLUMC. I’m guessing that he’s had times when he’s been more active and less active, times when he felt closer to God, or closer to the congregation, times of great joy and times of struggle too. So we celebrate today not a consistent unwavering journey – none of us have that. We celebrate a life of great faithfulness all along a journey of discipleship.

Our song from Superstar this week is a duet between Peter and Mary Magdalene, “Could We Start Again, Please?” It expresses the angst that both feel as Jesus is arrested, and tried, and they feel helpless to stop it. Peter, especially, post denying the Christ he’s followed for years, wants to know, “Could We Start Again, Please?” The answer is yes, yes, yes. We can start again, and again, and again, and again. That is the gift of grace from God that we receive, that we can, indeed, always start again when we make a ridiculous mess of what God has given us and with what God has called us to do. We can always start again, because God always has faith in us. And if God can have faith in us, in you and in me, who make so many wrong turns, who fail so often, who give up so many times, who sin and hurt one another and walk away from God – if God can have faith in us to help us start again, can we not have faith in God?

Peter sank into the waters. He had Jesus calling him Satan. He denied Jesus at the very time he was most needed. What an example of faith for us! But he also stepped out of the boat, out of his safety zone. And he tried again, even after he let Jesus down so utterly. And he know who Jesus was, and had faith because of it that he could continue to follow God, even if it meant starting over again, and again, and again. Even when we know the answer to that question we’ve been exploring – Who Do You Say that I Am? – even when we let our answer change us, we, like Peter, will find that our path is not a straight line from beginning to end. But we follow a faithful God who inspires faithfulness in us, and we can always, always begin again.

Amen.

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