When Walking on Water isn’t the Goal: Sermon for August 13, 2017

You’ve listened to enough of my sermons by now to know the general way I preach. I usually start with a story, and then I talk about the Scripture, and then I tie it back to the first story, and then say something about how it matters for our life now. I’m predictable. So, I wanted to say upfront that today I’m doing something different. I’m starting my sermon by diving right in to the Scripture. I’ll explain why this week was a little different, but first, the story.

The disciples were in a boat together. They had gone on ahead of Jesus who had stayed in their last place to pray. And they look out and see this figure coming towards them, and they think it’s a ghost, because that’s actually probably more likely than what it really was. Jesus was walking on water; walking out to them.

Jesus tells them, “Don’t be afraid…it’s me.” And Peter, who is just so earnest in times like this, says to him, “Jesus, if it’s really you, tell me to walk on the water over to you.” So Jesus says, “come on”. And Peter does it. He starts walking on water too, and he even makes it a few steps, and then he seems to realize what he is doing. And then a strong wind picks up all around him, and he panics.

He falls into the water, and starts to sink, calling out for Jesus to help him. Jesus pulls him up, and says to him, “you of little faith…why did you doubt?” Jesus takes him back to the boat, the wind dies down, and the disciples start to understand, just a little more clearly, who Jesus is.

I knew that was the Scripture for this morning when I went on vacation two weeks ago. I was sort of kicking it around in the back of my mind as I swam in Gosport Harbor, or looked out at the ocean. And I was going to preach a sermon today about how everything had been fine for Peter until he got too afraid. I was going to talk about how our faith lifts us up, and helps us to do impossible things, but our fear drowns us.

And then, I saw the news. Karl Barth, probably the greatest theologian of the 20th century, said that Christians are supposed to read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. In other words, we have to watch what is happening in our world, and we have to figure out how to faithfully respond. And yesterday I was thinking about a story I heard recently.

John Martin had stopped in for his music for today. Some of you know that John’s father, Paul, was the pastor here for twenty years, including the time during World War II. John was telling me about how during the war his father had a civil defense assignment, which was to climb to the top of the old Robinson Seminary just down the street, and scan the night skies for German aircraft. He never saw one, but if he had, his job would then have been to warn the people in town that the Nazis were coming.

I was thinking of that story, and of my predecessor, this weekend. I was thinking about what it means to watch out for the people you love, and to sound a warning to them when something dangerous is coming. I was thinking about that because I’ve spent most of the last day watching and reading the news out of Charlottesville, Virginia.

_82A2202b

Photo credit: Washington Post

I’ve been reading about a mob of angry people surrounding a church with torches – literal torches – and intimidating the people inside of it who were praying before a peaceful protest. I’ve watched a video I didn’t want to see of a car speeding down a street and plowing into a crowd. I’ve heard angry mobs shouting their hatred of anyone who is black, Jewish, gay, and…well…in any way not like them.

These were people proudly carrying flags with swasticas. They were using slogans like “blood and soil”, an actual phrase from Nazi Germany. They were sharing the words of Adolf Hitler as though they were the Gospel. And I thought back to Paul Martin’s task, to stand on the roof and warn his neighbors that the Nazis were coming, and all I could think of is standing in the same pulpit today, the one where he once stood, and how my duty is to say to you, “I’ve scanned the horizons, and the Nazis are here.”

The people who gathered in Virginia yesterday, they were literal Nazis. Like, you could call them that to their face and they would agree with you. And it’s tempting to dismiss them as the fringe. It’s more comforting to think, “well, that’s happening down there…things are different here.” But, these people who gathered in Charlottesville had come from all over the country including, I am sure, New Hampshire, and they don’t see themselves as the fringe. They think they are just the first wave of a movement that will not be stopped.

I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the story of Peter. I was thinking about how I’ve been reading this story, thinking that the problem was that Peter didn’t have enough faith. And I began to wonder if it the point wasn’t so much that Peter could have walked on water if he had been faithful enough, but that, just maybe, the point was that Peter wouldn’t have been so scared of going into waters had he not doubted that Jesus would be there with him.

I say that because, more and more, I think the point of being a Christian is not to stay safe and dry. I think following Christ means getting out of our boat, and diving in, unafraid of the deep waters, and what lies beneath.

Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to do something special, something that keeps him above the abyss. He wants Jesus to do something for him. He wants a power the others don’t have. But the point of being a Christian is not getting something from Jesus. The point is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, even into the deepest waters.

As I thought about what to say today, I struggled with the temptation to stay in the boat, the way most of the disciples did. We have a baptism this morning, and that is always a joyful occasion, and we could have just talked about that. Or, I could have preached the sermon I was going to preach today, about trusting Jesus, and staying dry.

But then I remembered Paul Martin, and how he would climb up to that roof because he loved his neighbors enough to warn them about the dangers he saw, and I knew I needed to say this today, because the point of Christian faith is not to stay safe and dry, but to dare to get into the deep end and swim. And that means telling the truth when the winds are howling around us.

What happened in Charlottesville yesterday was evil, and it was sin. The things they were saying were idolatrous, and contrary to every part of the Gospel. White people are not superior to any other of God’s children. Jewish people are not the enemy of Christians. LGBTQ people are not a threat to this country. Immigrants do not destroy us. Muslims are not terrorists. Women are not inferior to men.

And people of integrity, people who truly love this country and every one of our neighbors in it, will not be silent and allow this to happen.

We think that walking on water is the hard part. It’s not. Walking on water is nothing to

IMG_6140

Vigil at Exeter Town Hall. Photo by Susan Cole Ross

aspire to. It’s just one more way to avoid the real work. Instead, we have be willing to risk jumping in, and diving in to face what scares us. We have to learn to trust that even in the deep waters, especially in the deep waters, God will be with us, making sure we do not drown.

The good news is that others have been in these waters before us. I make it a point to go down into our vault every so often, where we keep all of our church history. This church has been around longer than this country, and there is a lot down there, and just before vacation I spent time reading some worship bulletins from the 1940’s.

I found one in particular from June 4, 1944. It was two days before D-Day, when thousands of Allied soldiers would storm the beaches of Normandy, and begin the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The people gathered that morning didn’t know when the invasion would begin, but they knew it would be soon. And so printed in the bulletin are these words:

“With all our fellow countrymen we wait the invasion of Europe from England. On the day when that announcement is made, this church will remain open in prayer from noontime until 9 o’clock in the evening.”

I thought about the people who sat in the sanctuary that day, waiting for news and praying for loved ones, and I thought about what they would think had they awakened to the news that we did this weekend. What would they think of young men in Nazi armbands marching triumphantly on American soil? And what would they think of us, if we said nothing?

IMG_6138

Some of the crowd who turned out to support their neighbors in Exeter. Photo by Susan Cole Ross. 

I refuse to try to walk on water anymore, staying safe and dry. Instead, I’m ready to plunge into the waters of my baptism, and resist evil and oppression in every form. This morning we will baptize the newest member of the body of Christ into these same waters. Make no mistake; we are not baptizing her into safety. We are not baptizing her so that she can stay in a boat. We are baptizing her into a life of following a savior who calls us out of silence and apathy, and into the deep end, that we might tell the truth, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

As we make these promises to swim these waters with her, let us rededicate ourselves to a life of staying in the living waters, and proclaiming the goodness of Christ over any ideology that would teach us to hate what God has called good.

 

Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

My favorite books of all time are the Harry Potter books. I was an adult when they came out, and at first the idea of reading books that were written for children held no appeal. But over time everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!”

So I gave them a shot, and I thought they were pretty amazing too. I tore through all of the books that were out at the time, and then I went at midnight on the release dates for the rest of them, just waiting for the moment I could get the next part of the story.

rehost-2016-9-13-4685a819-e442-4e36-af5b-9c8c42bfbf00One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. Transfiguration is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.

They’re such great books. But…Jesus never went to Hogwarts. So you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places in my life I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.

Once a year, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two guys from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. At my seminary there was a wooden carving of this moment that showed the faces of the three, and what I remember the most is that the eyes were wide open like this.

Fair. Mine would have been too.

The disciples are, understandably, scared to death. They are on the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are all gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.

Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, with what was probably the voice of God talking to me, I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. I’d need to process this. But apparently the three guys came down and didn’t say a word to anyone else.

But they knew. They had literally just had a mountain-top experience, and now they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.

But something had happened. And they had been changed.

I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their everyday lives. I wonder if they wondered why Jesus hadn’t let them tell the world. It would have been a whole lot easier for them if he had.

But sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t. And that can feel unbearable. It can even make us forget what we have seen, and try to just go back to the way things have always been.

Newton_j

John Newton

There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply complicit in the evil of slavery. But one night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started with water. He was about to die. But he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.

From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He gave us swearing, stopped drinking, and didn’t gamble again. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.

But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where most still thought this was acceptable. Maybe he didn’t know how to get out. Maybe he didn’t really understand yet the evil he was committing. For whatever reason, he didn’t stop for a few more years. And even after that, he was silent. In fact, it took him 34 years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist. That’s 34 years of being complicit.

When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we can understand in a real way that he got to a point where he realized what he had done, and he truly repented, and he truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough.

Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter had been changed. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed so much in the Transfiguration. It was Peter. Jesus was just shown more clearly than ever. He was simply revealed as holy, and the son of God. But Peter, James, and John…they got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even thought Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.

Even still, it took Peter to really get it. In fact, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by this son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration of ourselves. We see the truth, and like Newton yet we drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. We see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us to death.

Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”

I think that one of the reasons so many people love the Harry Potter books is because they are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.

Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that “transfiguration” is found in these two places: Holy Scripture and Harry Potter. Maybe it’s a word that only fits when nothing less than life-changing transformation, the kind that will ultimately demand courage from you, will do.

Peter ran away. But that’s not the last of his story.

In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock” or “petros”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even onto death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint.

It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.

And so here’s where Jesus’ words ring true: Get up, and don’t be afraid.

We have all likely experienced God’s grace or love at some point in your life. The transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving.

But go ahead and take that next step anyway. Be transfigured. And get up, and don’t be afraid. Amen?

But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

Breakfast with Jesus: Sermon for April 19, 2015

John 21

21 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

One Sunday when I was preaching at my last call I looked out in the congregation and saw the face of someone I knew, but had never seen in church before. I knew she had a spiritual life of her own, but I also knew that she wasn’t so sure about churches or about Christianity.

We had developed a growing friendship through some other friends in town, and she had been curious about what I did for work, and so I had invited her to come to church some Sunday. And, to my great surprise, she had taken me up on the offer.

A few days later I asked her what she thought about the church. And she told me, “I liked the people, I liked the music, and I even liked what you said. I would consider coming back, but for one thing. I don’t really mind the God-talk, but do you think you could talk about Jesus a little less?

I told her no, that Jesus was there to stay. And she said, “yeah, I thought so,” and we let it go at that.

The sad thing is, I sort of understood where she was coming from. In her life she had heard people talking about Jesus in ways that never felt meaningful or sincere to her. Jesus had always been this figure she had seen as judging her, or someone her parents or priests appealed to in order to get her to behave, or someone that friends told her she needed to accept as her personal savior or else she would never get to heaven.

And I get how that can make you a little wary. Growing up in the South, a lot of my friends would talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. So much so that when someone asked me, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I knew it was time to get away, because someone was about to try to convert me.

Now the truth is, I was already a Christian. I did have a spiritual life, and I did follow Jesus. But it wasn’t because I had ever had the sort of revelatory, sudden conversion experience that my more fundamentalist classmates told me I had to have, but because I’d always had this sort of quiet, questioning faith that had grown over time

And my only exposure to churches were in the kind that often get jokingly called the “frozen chosen”: Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. The ministers there emphasized God’s love for us, and mission, and trying to live a good life, just like we do here every week. But we rarely talked about what it means to have an actual relationship with Jesus. We knew who we are were and that God loved us, but we just didn’t talk what it meant. And, truth be told, some might say the same about those of us who are members of the UCC today.

And often, we are just fine with that. We have our faith, and it is a good faith, a well-reasoned and deep-thinking one, and it sustains us. But sometimes even we who are the frozen chosen need something more. Sometimes we need a relationship that goes deeper. And thats where Scripture passages like today’s come in.

Not long after the Resurrection, a little while after that first Easter, the disciples, Jesus’ friends and followers, were gathered. And Peter was among them. And you have to remember what’s been happening with Peter. On the night before Jesus died, Peter had done exactly what Jesus told him he would do, and the very thing Peter had said he would never do: he had denied that he was a follower of Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

After Jesus had died he had been crushed by the weight of his grief, and the weight of his own betrayal. And it was only now, in these first confusing days when it looked like Jesus might be back, that he was starting to understand what that meant. Because if Jesus had come back, how amazing would that be? But, if you are Peter, and Jesus is back, and you had denied him, how awkward would that be? Can you imagine what he must have been thinking? “What am I going to say to Jesus when I see him?”

Scripture tells us that Peter tells the others, “I’m going fishing”. I get that. He probably needed to do something to clear his head. And a few of them go out in their boat, throwing the fishing nets out again and again and each time they pull them up and find nothing.

10273557_10152954505737538_7593581376163540580_nAnd then a man calls to them from the shore, “try the other side of the boat”. And they do, and this time it is so filled with fish that they can’t even bring it up. And that’s when they realize who that man standing on the shore is.

Can you imagine being Peter in that moment? This is the moment you’ve both been waiting for and been scared to death of. He sees Jesus there, and he doesn’t even wait for the boat to head back. He jumps into the water, and goes to the shore to meet Jesus there.

And this is the part of the story that I’m always struck by. When Peter gets there, Jesus doesn’t yell at him. He doesn’t chastise him for his lack of faith, or call him a coward. He doesn’t tell him to get lost, that he had had his chance. Instead, he says this: “Come and have breakfast.”

I sometimes wonder if we have a hard time talking about our relationships with Jesus not because of what we will sound like to others, but because of how scary that kind of intimacy can be. It’s a little easier to talk about this creator God who made everything and who is so very different from us. Maybe even distant. But it’s harder to talk about someone who actually lived as one of us, and felt the same feelings as all of us, and who knows the truth about us, good and bad, and who still loves us anyway.

In Jesus, God becomes human. God becomes like us. And we are able to know God not as the CEO who gives us orders. Not God the lawyer with a bunch of statutes for us to follow, neatly bound together. Not even God the heavenly father. But God, standing there on the beach, cooking breakfast.

If Jesus ever showed up in my kitchen, I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t be asking what was for breakfast. I’d probably be so dumbfounded and scared I wouldn’t know what to say. And I think that’s normal. Because relationships can be scary when it’s just us everyday people. But really having a relationship with Jesus? God incarnate and you? That’s a whole other level.

And yet, Jesus shows us what it can be like. Because he invites Peter to breakfast.

Can you imagine that? You expect to be persona non grata, and instead you get breakfast. The very one you denied, the one who knows the worst about you, isn’t angry. He doesn’t reject you. Instead, he’s cooking you fish to eat, and telling you to pull us a seat to his table. And he loves you. All the stuff from the past, all the mistakes, they don’t matter. He loves you.

And that may be the scariest part of all. The fact that we are loved no matter what. The conviction that grace is real, and that we can’t somehow mess things up so badly that we lose it.

The first time I really understood that, the first time I realized that no matter what God still loved me, it was actually a little terrifying. Knowing that God’s grace was for me, and for everyone, was overwhelming. But then, it was profoundly freeing. Because God’s love went from something I had to earn to something that was there. All I had to do was let it in, and believe that I was loved.

That’s amazing. But it’s also not the end of the story. Because Jesus’s love does not depend on me. I can choose what to do because of it. I can choose to do nothing. I can just accept it and not really think about it much. But, when you are truly loved, and you know that you are truly loved, can you really just do nothing?

I think the answer is “no”. Because I think love always transforms us, and I think that when we know we are loved, we are never the same again. And I think that Peter knew that too.

When Peter sat down to eat breakfast with Jesus, Jesus asked him a question: Peter, do you love me?

Peter says, “yes, Lord, I love you.” And Jesus says to him “feed my sheep” or, as we might say it, take care of my people and guide them.

A clear cut mission. But then a second time Jesus asks him the same question. “Peter do you love me?” “Yes Lord,” Peter says, “you know I love you.” “Then feed my lambs.”

And then a third time, “Peter, do you love me?” And this time Peter is hurt, and he wonders “why doesn’t he believe me?” And he says, “yes Lord…you know everything…you know that I love you!” And once again Jesus says, “feed my sheep”.

He asked him three times. I don’t think that’s because Jesus didn’t believe him. I think it was because Peter didn’t really believe himself. Peter had denied Jesus three times. And so Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And in those questions, there’s a certain grace. An assurance that as many times as we want away, God will call us back just as many times. Whether it’s three or three hundred or three thousand. God will always ask us to return in love.

When we think of the great saints of the church, Peter is up there at the top. The guy who ran away from Jesus on the night he was betrayed was the same guy who jumped into the water and ran onto the shore when he saw him again. And he was the one that Jesus named Peter, or rock, saying “you’re the rock upon whom I will build my church”.

What sort of amazing love, and amazing grace, is that? One minute you can be the one who denied Jesus three times. And the next, you are the one he loves so much that he trusts you to do something amazing. And all of this takes place over something as mundane and everyday as breakfast.

This is a story about a saint, but it’s not just a story for saints. It’s a story for us all. Maybe we won’t be invited to breakfast on the beach, but there are little signs all around us that we are still invited to the feast. There’s a chair for us, and the table is overflowing with the grace and the love of God. And all we have to do is say “yes” to the host who wants to get to know us better. Amen?

But What Do You Think?: Sermon for 24 August 2014

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to you, o God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

When I started eighth grade my least favorite class was English. And when I ended high school, my favorite classes looking back were English classes. Up until 8th grade English classes had been all about spelling and grammar and diagraming sentences. And that’s important to know, but it was never all that interesting to me.

But in the 8th grade we started to be handed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Catcher in the Rye” or plays like “The Crucible”. And then, instead of multiple choice questions or fill-in-the-blank tests, we were given these questions that we had to respond to in essays.

ucccommaAt first I thought this was a trick and that I was missing something obvious. Like the test question that asked me about Atticus Finch and whether doing the right thing matters even when you know you’re going to lose. I was sure there was a paragraph in the book that would give me exactly the answer that I was looking for so that I would ace the test.

We all thought that. And so when we didn’t find it we all seemed to write some variation of what the teacher herself had said in class in our essays. Which is why when she handed back our exams and seemed less than excited about them we were confused. We had listened in class. We had taken notes. We had read the book. Why didn’t we get A’s?

But that was the first time I heard a teacher really say, “I don’t want you to tell me what other people think. I don’t want you to tell me what I think. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I want to know what you think.”

Today’s passage doesn’t take place in an English class, but it’s another that reminds me that Jesus was, among other things, a good teacher. Jesus has pulled his disciples aside and he’s asking them an important question: Who do people think that I am?

And Peter, who always seems to be the first to raise his hand, has the answer. “Well, Jesus,” he says, “some think you’re John the Baptist, some think you’re Elijah, and some think you’re a prophet like Jeremiah.” And my guess is that Peter thought he had covered all the right possible answers there. He had done his homework. He was getting that A.

But Jesus pushes the question just a little more. He asks Peter, “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

Whenever I read that question I think about my English teacher, and the long line of teachers I had after her, and how they would push us to go deeper, and find the answers for ourselves. And in that moment I can picture Peter sitting there, trying to think of what to say, and how the easy or memorized answer was no longer enough.

And then it comes to Peter: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”

And here’s the difference between a high school English student and Peter. In high school the right answer can get you an “A”. But with Jesus the right answer gets you something more. It gets you a new purpose and a whole lot of other questions.

Jesus says to Peter, “blessed are you” and he tells him that Peter is going to be the rock that Christ’s church will be built on. In that moment Peter goes from a guy who knew everyone else’s answer, to a guy who had his own and who would become a teacher in his own right.

After high school I went to college and, much to the chagrin of my parents who were pulling for law school, I became an English major, and then I went to seminary. I’ve always held the English major partially responsible for that. Because throughout college I ran into professor after professor who didn’t want to know what some critic thought, or even what they thought. They wanted their students to wrestle with the texts, to think for themselves, and to find the truth not in cliff notes or lectures, but in the process of truly trying to understand something complex.

And when you think about that, that’s pretty similar to what we as Christians are asked to do. Or, at least, we should be. Because Jesus, as you may have noticed, was rarely in the mode of handing out answers. He was much more the kind of teacher who gave his followers questions. In fact, I think that at times it must have been pretty infuriating to be a student of Jesus.

And yet, do we really want someone who just gives us the answer key? Do we really want to be able to just turn to the back of the book and find it there? Okay, maybe sometimes we do, but in the end do we really want an easy, simplistic faith? Or do we want one that forces us to go deeper, and that transforms us?

There is, as is fitting, no right answer there. And if you do want all the answers there are plenty or pastors and churches and people of faith who will purport to have them. But I’ve always been a little wary of those who claim to have all the answers about God, and who are unwilling to tell Christians to keep asking the tough questions. I guess that’s because I’ve always been careful of anyone who gives easy answers…because I’ve often found they won’t hold up in the hardest of times.

So, what does it mean to have a faith that embraces that question Jesus asks us: “Who do you say that I am”?

For starters, I think it’s about not being afraid to ask questions. Somewhere in so many of our faith upbringings we were been taught that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions, or to wonder. But Jesus was all about the questions. He was all about making people think. Just going through the motions of acting faithfully meant nothing to Jesus if there wasn’t true meaning behind it. And I don’t think there can ever be true meaning behind it if there is no depth. It’s like a plant that’s put into shallow soil. It may bloom for a little while but it won’t last for long.

So instead, what does it look like to not be afraid of knowledge? What does it look like to ask the big questions not in spite of the fact you are a person of faith, but because of it? This isn’t a new concept, just a somewhat lost one. Colleges like Harvard and Yale and Dartmouth were founded by our Congregationalist ancestors. So was Phillips Exeter and a host of other schools. There was an assumption that education, and asking questions, didn’t hinder our relationship with God. It brought us closer. And it deepened it.

And here’s why I think this is. I don’t think Jesus was just asking Peter what Peter thought. I think that Christ continues to ask us all what we think. And in that, I think Jesus is asking us to go deeper. Not just into the questions and into the possible answers, but deeper into a relationship that demands more than us just repeating what we have heard from others. And that invitation, like any invitation to think for ourselves and experience something for ourselves, can be anxiety producing at first.

I didn’t really grow up in the church. My parents left it up to us to decide. But I had a lot of questions. So when I was 17 I decided to start going to church on my own. And the deeper I went in search of answers, the deeper my relationship with God became, and the less I was able to ignore it.

One morning towards the end of senior year I was driving to school with a good friend of mine who had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist family. And while I was finding faith, she was finding her way out of the church. But we were close, and I wanted to explain to her what was going on with me and I talked about how I just had this feeling and the more I explored the more I just felt this closeness with God that I couldn’t explain.

And I grew up in the South, you may remember, so about half way to school she sort of looked at me and rolled her eyes and said, “Emily, are you trying to tell me that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

I was so surprised, and so afraid of what my friends would think, that I said, “no, of course not, I’m just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all”.

But while that’s not the language I would have used for it either then or now, the reality is that, yes, there was a relationship there that I had never had before. It didn’t look much like what I thought it was supposed to look like. There were more questions than answers, and sometimes more doubt than faith, but taking someone else’s word for it, and using their answers wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to at least start to answer that big question for myself. It was time to ask who I said that Jesus was.

Through the years the people of faith I have respected the most have been the ones who have asked that question themselves, no matter how messy the answers seemed. Their lives have proven to me that our personal faith stories, and our relationship with God, matter.

There was the friend who grew up in a church where he was always given easy answers, and who left it, and God, behind. Or so he thought. But now, he asks those questions again, and this time he doesn’t settled for what others say. He’s finding out for himself.

There was the friend who went to Iraq as an Army medic and came back questioning everything, and why God allowed the suffering she saw. In her darkest moments she wondered if God even cared. But she kept wrestling, through good and bad.

And there was the friend who narrowly escaped the Twin Towers on 9/11 and, for the first time, asked questions about faith. A few years later he left his law office and went to seminary.

When I think about what it means to answer “who do you say that I am”, I think of them and so many others like them. And that’s what faith looks like to me. Not easy answers. Not being so self-assured that yours is the first hand up in the classroom. Not belief that tries to answer for others. But faith that would answer the old question of “but what do you think” well, and that never settles for an answer key that someone else wrote. Faith that settles for nothing less than a relationship, and life of searching. That’s the faith I hope you always feel like you can have here, and that’s the journey I pray we can go on together. Amen?

A Ghost Story: Sermon for August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-31
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When I was about six years old, I went to a haunted house at camp. And looking back now, it was probably way too scary for a six year old, but none on the counselors were stopping us. And thought I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, it did. The ghosts and the people scaring you and the spooky scenes in the graveyards stuck with me.

2011082816icon_water_2_insideThis was especially true once it got dark at night, and it was time to go to bed. And just about every night I was convinced that there must be a ghost in the house somewhere. I’d hear a noise and get scared. Or I’d see something move and be convinced something was there.

I think my parents wanted to find those camp counselors. But they were also sensible, and decided the best way to help me face my fears was to help me to find more reasonable explanations for what I thought I saw or heard. The hissing noise outside of my window was just the sprinkler coming on. The figure I saw moving in the hallway was just my mom’s shadow as she turned off the lights. The thump I heard in the early morning was just the paper being delivered and hitting the front walk.

For everything, there was an explanation. And after a little while I wasn’t quite so scared of the dark anymore. And I learned that when it came to bumps in the night, ghosts were the least likely explanation.

I was thinking about that while reading this week’s text, which is a ghost story of a different kind. Like me, the disciples saw something in the night that they didn’t understand. But it’s a little different with them because what they saw was so unexplainable that they couldn’t just say it twas shadows. No, they looked out and they saw something so unbelievable that the most plausible, most reasonable, most likely explanation they could think of was “it must be a ghost”.

To set the stage, this morning’s story falls right after last week’s story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. After he feeds them Jesus sends the disciples on and ahead of him in a boat while he stays behind to pray. And the disciples are out on the sea, being tossed in the boat all night. But early in the morning they look out and they see Jesus walking on water, coming across the sea to them.

And this is when they decide that they’ve seen a ghost.

Now, that might sound ridiculous to us now, but when you think of it, that was no more ridiculous than a man walking on water. In their mind a ghost was far more likely. So when Jesus calls to them and says, “it’s me…don’t be afraid,” they don’t believe him. And they do what six year old me would not recommend; they decide to talk to the ghost.

Peter, who is probably my favorite disciple, goes first. And Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He runs away from Jesus on the night before he dies. He denies he knows him three times. He gets overly-excited and reacts quickly when people challenge Jesus. And he’s sort of the one we look at when we think about the disciples and think to ourselves, “boy they really got it wrong sometimes”.

But here’s the other thing about Peter. He was the one who was always willing to take the chance, and to take the first steps, stumbling though they may have been. And so he decides to test the ghostly Jesus in front of him and he says, “Jesus, if that’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come on”. And so he does. He gets out of the boat, and somehow he walks on the water, and towards Jesus.

So, if the story ended here, it would be pretty amazing. Not only could Jesus walk on water, but his disciples could too. It would be proof that Jesus not only was who he said he was, but that just a word from Jesus could ensure that anything we put our mind to, even the most crazy of things, would be successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Because suddenly Peter realizes what he is doing. He sees the water under his feet, and he feels the wind picking up, and suddenly it clicks that he is doing something he’s not supposed to be able to do. And that’s when it all comes crashing in. He falls into the water. He starts drowning. And he calls to Jesus to save him.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to do something like riding a bike? I’m always struck by how quickly kids “get it”. They practice peddling with their parents holding on to the back of their seat and running, and then one day the parents let go, and the kid keeps going.

And have you ever watched what happens when they suddenly realize that the parents aren’t holding on anymore? Sometimes the kid is fine and they keep happily peddling away. But others times they realize they are there, doing it on their own. And what happens? They panic. And they ride into the grass or stop as fast as they can. And everyone else is cheering, “you were doing it…you got it.” But in the moment, the kid is not so sure.

I picture Peter on the sea as being a little like that. He was walking on water. He was doing it. But when he realized what was happening, and that what he was doing was unbelievable, that’s when it all went off the rails. It’s not until he panics that he starts to sink. It’s not until he thinks he can’t, that he can’t.

And Jesus pulls him up from the water, and all he says to him is this: “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

I think a lot of us can relate to Peter here. Because sometimes our fears and our anxiety mean that even when we are doing things well, we panic. Sometimes especially when we are doing something new, and something we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Call it self-sabotage. Call it lack of faith. Call it what you want. The reality is that ghost stories might scare us, but sometimes finding out we can do things we never imagined scares us more.

Peter found that out that day, and it terrified him. He took a step out in faith and then he nearly drowned. Because even though he trusted Christ enough to get out of that boat, he didn’t trust himself when Christ called him.

I think that happens to those of us who are people of faith more than we realize. And it starts when Jesus calls us out of the boat. You might remember that all twelve of them were in there together, and I’m sure the boat was fine. Maybe a little crowded. Maybe a little sea-swamped. But fine. It was getting the job done.

But Jesus had bigger plans for the disciples than what could be accomplished in a small boat. And as much as Peter looks like a cautionary tale in this passage, he’s the one who has the courage to take the first steps. He gets out of what is comfortable and familiar, and he enters what is tumultuous and ever-changing. And as long as he trusts that even when the ground is shifting, Christ will remain the solid foundation, he does just fine. In fact, he does what is unimaginable.

That’s good news and bad news for us. Because those of us who are Christ-followers have for a long time had a pretty comfortable boat. It’s gotten the job done. And it’s seen us through some stormy sea. And everyone just sort of knew who we were, and where we were, and they wanted to get on board.

But now the world is different. Church isn’t a place everyone goes on Sunday anymore. Faith is not a given. Our friends might not understand why we are here on Sunday mornings, instead of out at brunch. And maybe it feels like the once solid ground we felt below our feet has given way to waves of change. Now our friends, our community, and our world, have to be engaged in new ways if we want to remain relevant, and share why exactly we believe this Jesus guy is worth following, and why we come to this place, and why we do what we do to love our neighbors and our world.

So, there are two options. First, stay in the boat, a perfectly fine boat, and hunker down. Or, look out across the water and find that Christ is already out there in the unknown, somehow standing in the midst of it, calling us to him.

I don’t know about you, but I want to follow Jesus. It’s great when things are familiar and comfortable, but in the end there’s not much that’s inspiring or life-giving about it. But when we step out in faith, and we trust that Christ will be our solid ground, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined. And when we refuse to let our fears and doubts drown us, we find out that the world outside the boat isn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, it can be amazing.

I’ll close with this. Like I said earlier, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He feels like the punch line in a bunch of Gospel stories. But the thing is he was also Jesus’ go-to guy. Remember, Jesus named him Peter, or “rock”, and said “you are the rock upon which I will build my church”.

This is the guy Christ chose. The one who sinks like a rock, and the one who comes up sputtering from the ocean after doubting. I think that’s good news for you and me. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to have fears and doubts. But in the end we just might find that our solid ground has been in Christ all along, and that even when what we are called to do sounds more scary than a good ghost story, Christ can still use us to do something amazing.

Amen.

A Church Built on Second Chances: Sermon for April 14, 2013

mi752-l-231x300A couple of weeks ago, right before Easter, we shared the stories of Holy Week. And one that we read was the story of Peter, one of Jesus’s disciples. We read about how on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples that they were all going to leave him before the night was over. And Peter said, “I’ll never do that Lord”. 

But Jesus tells him that by the end of the night he will not only abandon him, but Peter is going to deny that he even knew Jesus. Not just once. Not twice. But three times. And that’s exactly what happens. After Jesus is arrested, Peter is asked three different times whether or not he knew Jesus and each time he denies it. “I don’t know him,” he says.

Judas betrayed Jesus. The other ten just ran away. But Peter was the only one to stand there and say, “I don’t know the man.” He was just too afraid. 

Peter saw Jesus after the Resurrection, so today’s Scripture isn’t the first time he realizes he’s back. But it is the first real conversation we see between the two after Easter. In today’s Scripture the disciples are all out on the sea fishing, and they’re not catching anything. And a man calls out from the shore, “Cast your nets to the right.” And they do, and they haul in more fish than ever. And then they finally realize who is on the shore. And John says to Peter, “It’s Jesus.”

Everyone else stays on the boat and they start going towards the shore, but Peter jumps into the water, and starts swimming towards Jesus. And after breakfast, Jesus turns to him and starts to ask him questions. 

He asks, “Peter, do you love me?”

Peter says, “Yes Lord you know I love you.” And Jesus tells him, “feed my lambs.”

And then again he asks him. “Peter do you love me?”

Peter again says, “Yes Lord you know I love you.” And Jesus says, “tend my sheep.”

And the, a third time, Jesus asks again, “Peter, do you love me?”

And by this time Peter is hurt, because he thinks Jesus doesn’t believe him, and he says, “Jesus you know everything…you know I love you.” And Jesus says again, “Feed my sheep.”

Three times Jesus asks, and three times Peter says he loves him, and three times Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. 

It’s sort of like how three times Peter was asked if he knew Jesus, and each time he said no.

I’ve always believed that God is a God of second chances. I’ve always believed that no matter what we do we can’t separate ourselves from God’s love. Peter knew Jesus himself and he turned his back on him not just once, but three times. And even still, Jesus comes back to him, and gives him another chance to answer the question. Not just once but three times. He gets a second chance.

And, truth be told, we all have needed a second chance. I know I have. We’ve all messed up, and we’ve all dropped the ball at the worst possible time, and we’ve all torn ourselves apart because of it. 

And for many of us, there have been times where we have messed up so badly, or so consistently, that we have come to believe that God could never forgive us. That we are somehow beyond grace.

I’ll bet Peter knew what that felt like. I’ll bet he knew the guilt and the shame and the horrible realization that he had turned his back on someone who loved him like no other had. And I’ll bet he thought he’d never get a second chance to make it right again.

So it’s little surprise that when he sees Jesus standing on the shore, while everyone else just stays in the boat and rows back, he jumps out and heads for Jesus. 

I often found that those who know they need the second chance the most are the ones who most refuse to pass it up when they get it. We all need a second chance from time to time, but it’s the ones who have really hit rock bottom, who have really come face to face with their need for grace, who come running when they see God’s love standing on the shore. And the ones who know they needed it usually ending up being the ones who are the most grateful for it too. 

Ask anyone who has ever had a second chance, a real second chance, how they feel about it now. If they know that they had it, they will tell you that they are grateful. And gratitude is great way to live your life. Gratitude alone, more than fear and more than anger, allows you to do extraordinary things.

Jesus asked Peter to do some extraordinary things. With every answer that he gives to Jesus, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep”. Jesus takes the one who needed grace the most, and he decides he is not just going to forgive him, but he is going to use him to build his church. 

And Jesus tells him it won’t be easy. He tells him that in the end, he is going to lose everything, even his life. He never hides this from him. But Peter is so filled by gratitude for what has happened, so overwhelmed by forgiveness, that he doesn’t want any other life than the one that is being offered to him. 

You and I are not being called to lose our lives. Not in the same way Peter was, anyway. But we are often being called to choose a new life, a life that centers not on our fears, but on Christ. And a life that is rooted not in our mistakes, but in our redemption.

Scripture tells us that Jesus gave Peter his name because it means “rock”. He’s the rock upon which Jesus is going to build his church. He’s the foundation. Which means that you and I belong to a church that is literally built on second chances. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it, and it’s good news for you and I.

Last week I went over to a house in East Dorset, Vermont. It’s an old inn next to a Congregational Church that looks a lot like ours. And one day in 1895 a baby was born there, behind the bar. And, ironically, he grew into a man who frequented bars and who sank deeper and deeper into his addiction that he blew every chance that was ever given to him. A man who let down everyone who loved him. And a man who thought himself that he was better off dead.

Until one day in 1934, long after everyone had given up on him, he got a second chance. And along with a others, he founded a program that today has helped millions of people to recover from addiction. His name was Bill Wilson, or as he’s sometimes called, Bill W., and he founded AA. He got a second chance, and he used it not just to save himself, but to save others. 

It’s tempting to look at Bill W’s story and think, “Well he really was down and out…he needed that second chance.” But to look at Bill W. with pity is to miss the point. Because the only difference between him and many of us is that he realized he needed that second chance. And he swam for the shore. Don’t pity the ones who jump at a second chance. Pity the ones who don’t. 

And that’s what is truly remarkable about Peter. Because he could have been one we pitied. His life could have been defined by his greatest mistake. He could have never come back to the other disciples, and instead have gone off on his own, so filled with shame that he never gave himself another chance. He could have been a cautionary tale.

But he wasn’t. He was the guy who jumped into the waters first, and opened himself up to God’s grace. He can’t wait, because more than anyone else in that boat he needed that second chance.

Maybe you have been there. Or maybe you are there now. Maybe you feel like you have done something that has shut you off from God’s love so completely that there is no chance of ever getting it back.

I used to feel like God’s grace was true for everyone but me. I could believe in it for anyone else, but not for myself. Later on I found out that a lot of people actually feel that way. A lot of us feel we are somehow so horribly special that we are beyond God’s love.

But we are never beyond God’s love. And we are never beyond God’s redemption. And if Peter is any indication, we who get the second chances might even be the ones who get asked to do things that we have never imagined. And if God never gives up on us, who are we to give up on ourselves? Amen.