Monday, March 24, 2008

narrative sermon from sunday

Sermon: Hope reborn from the ashes

Sooner or later everyone finds themselves sitting in the dark. And in the darkness they wonder where their faith went…where their hope went.

It has been called the shadowlands or the dark night of the soul.

A place where that small candle of faith and hope that we carry inside of us is battered by the winds, twisting and flickering, it is a place where all the lights go out and we feel totally alone.

This is what Peter experienced on that passion week so many years ago. And as his candle was blown out and rekindled, I ask that you would join me in walking in his story this morning. For his footprints are the same as ours, and thus his story becomes a guide to us. A map that leads us out of the wastelands and back into the mountains of glory. Let Easter awaken in us the full force of her light, slowly and gently, firmly and fully.

Like scrooge experienced the ghost of Christmas past, let us look in at that Easter week so many years ago so that we can see our Easter today in that light.

Thursday…It is cold outside, the sun fading in the west, and Jerusalem which has been busy preparing for the Passover is quieting down and slipping into homes and hovels. And down a barren street on the poor side of town a group of men is gathered in a room. We float up to the window and peer inside. There are the disciples, but the odd thing is they look like us, like some of our closest friends, and each of us sees Peter…but Peter has our face. It is oddly disturbing.

As we listen through the evening, the disciples seem so fragile and immature to us, selfishly bantering over who would be greatest in the coming kingdom. They seem so small and shallow in this moment. But perhaps that’s because we know what will happen…for tonight these men who held such promise will all abandon their king. As the darkness deepens they will find themselves in the thickets of fear and confusion…engulfed by grief…shaking in terror…and crying in shame. As we all do.

Jesus has warned them, he told them this would happen “this very night you will ALL fall away on account of me, for it was written by the prophets of old: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

It will happen just as he predicted. The pack of blood-thirsty wolves will come, their teeth bared for the kill. They will lead away this good shepherd, who will, with crimson love, lay down his life willingly for his sheep. And the sheep, will huddle themselves away in cold, frightened, groups of two and three.

But self proclaimed Gibraltar fortress of the disciples still holds the steady faith of emotional passion and focus. But tonight the rock will crumble. Tonight he / we will be reduced to a pebble of a person. The anchor of his faith and hope will be cut away, and he will be cast away and dashed on the rocks of circumstances beyond his control.

He strides forward all evening in a resolute posture of strength. In the upper room he declares boldly “Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you and even to death.” And with bragging machismo he condescending speaks over the other disciples “Even if all these fall away on account of you, I will never fall away!” And indeed later this night he will single handedly stand against a mob of Roman soldiers, wielding his sword like a spartan in a torch lit Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knows this and smiles, and then his eyes close slightly knowing that before dawn, he wouldn’t even be able to defend himself from the stares and accusations of a young servant girl.

What could account for so great a defection from so dedicated a disciple? Why does he…why do we…go from such great moments of faith and spiritual resolve…into the darkness of betrayal.

The answer is carefully wrapped in words from Jesus lips. Words plaintive and tender, words Peter does not yet understand with the force of truth and the weight of reality that is behind them. Jesus warns him “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.” The implied conversation between Jesus and Satan echoes through time reminiscent of the permission Satan obtained from God to test Job. And it echoes forward into each of our lives, that will in due season and turn, be tested and sifted as well.

This night Satan has asked for a shot at Peter. He will thresh his heart and beat it into the ground until the husk breaks open. Then he will show the world what is really inside. And Satan muses that once the other disciples see this; the backbone of the revolution will be broken. One more failure in Gods investment in these people. Us. Me…you.

This is that night we all stand in sooner or later. And it is the greatest fear of the Christian…that our faith will not survive the test, that we will be exposed as frauds, and that the full stench of our failures will gush out of us for all to see. The naked and raw exposure of all we are.

The hour is late; the night dark and chilly. Events swirl by…Judas kiss like a dagger in the heart of all of them…the arrest…the creeping sense of doom as the nightmare unfolds. Peter has followed all this at a safe distance trying to figure out what to do. His faith draws him near, and the fear keeps him distant. The hypocrisy of the paradox will soon force a decision.

Cloaked in anonymity, Peter comes to warm himself by a campfire near the temple courtyard. He comes to warm up, to recalibrate, to strengthen his resolve. He sits on his haunches pushing his palms into the heat rubbing them together like a man trying to start a fire…a fire within. He plays with the handle of the sword on his belt, he slits his eyes, and he builds his nerve into a smoldering strength of action. There are strangers at the fire, idle companionship, soldiers and onlookers of the strange night events. Talk around the fire crackles with news of the Nazarene’s arrest. They point to Jesus and lay odds on his chances. Snakes of fire slither upward and hiss, licking the night air. By the light of these flames Satan begins his work. A small servant girl squints at Peter through the uncertain light cast by the fireglow.

She points at Peter, like an archer with a fiery arrow on a bow. And then she accuses “this man was with him.” And the fiery arrow in his heart draws the attention of all eyes nearby to Peter.

Peter stung by the arrow feels the heat of the incriminating flames and flatly lies and denies the charge. He is sweating now, cold frigid sweat. He turns his back on them…and Jesus and walks away. We all walk away.

He wanders around a bit, shaken but unable to fall completely. Sometime later there is another accusation, and immediately another denial, more forceful this time. Finally his accent gives him away and another accuses “You’re a Galilean, I can tell by how you talk. You must be one of his disciples!” Peter would have to be quick to get around this one. He curses and swears, letting loose a stream of expletives only a sailor could know. He throws around his anger and rage in an attempt to keep himself in the shadows. In no uncertain terms his distances himself from Jesus. And the ploy seems to work, the circle around the campfire acts satisfied. And Peter for a moment smiles, satisfied that his stealth has succeeded.

But somewhere in the now silent night a rooster stretches its neck. Shakes its feathers, and crows an indictment. It pierces the sky like lightening.

The disciple jerks his head around, as the sound seems to cut him in half. He feels his heart sink, and the damns in his eyes shatter. For a brief moment he stares through his blurred tears into the courtyard and catches Jesus looking at him. It is a half-moment…but it burns itself and is seared into his mind for the rest of his life.

The savior utters no words. Nor does he shake his head is disgust or disappointment. There is no I-told-you-so smile of irony. It is sympathetic, from one who knows what it is like to fall into the winnowing hands of Satan. Jesus has been there as well, a forty day wilderness with a ruthless adversary. No, he holds no grudge; it is the look of a friend who understands.

With that look, all of Peter’s pent-up emotions suddenly cave in on themselves. And his faith holds in and is exposed for the deck of cards that it is. He runs from the courtyard, bitter tears stinging in his eyes. Finally, lost down some dark street he beats his fists into a stone wall till they are raw and bloodied. He collapses into a heap and wails and cries…he heaves till there are no more tears to cry…and then ne chokes and throws up and cries some more. He sleeps half frozen in a barren field of wheat stalks.

But remember it is not Peter in that field it is you and I. It is our failure that stings us the final days of the holy week. Lent is full of reminders of our weakness. A grey Maundy Thursday, falls into a sarcastic “good Friday,” finally filling us with the dread, doom midnight of black Saturday.

Yesterday or 2000 or so years ago. Peter has by now left town. The winnowing is over. Jesus has been falsely accused; beaten, stripped, whipped, a crown of thorns put upon him, blindfolded and slapped, mocked, humiliated, spit on, crucified, lifted up, stabbed with a spear…Jesus is dead.

And with this death, Peter is broken…shattered…and spent. Peter is a smaller man now, without that thick husk of hollow promises and shallow strength. He is now broken enough by failure, and softened enough by tears to be the moist clay that Jesus needs to reforge him into the cornerstone of the church.

2 scorching dawns of emptiness have come and gone…but Sunday is coming

Yet even Sunday morning will be a mystery to Peter. The women report empty tombs, and John and he race there to find grave clothes folded up. Breathless and panting he stares in mystery; will his faith trying to re-ignite but push though he does again and again the pilot light refuses fire.

So what do you do when you have failed a friend, and fail to find faith? After you have cried and prayed till you’re numb. After you have replayed your failure over and over in your mind; after you have run yourself down and can’t think of any more names to call yourself. What do you do then? We all do the same thing; we try to find something to hold back the pain. A distraction, a narcotic, a way to check out. Peter goes fishing.

But the sea is unsympathetic, and the night refuses to give him a reprieve. In the melancholy darkness Peter is lulled by the rhythmic slapping of the waves against the boat. His mind drifts back to nostalgic moment with his friend Jesus. Back to when Jesus calmed the storm…back to when he walked on the water with him…back to the 1st time he called out to peter when he was fishing.

He is with his friends now, each silent on the boat, each lost in the storms of the seas of their mind.

The night passes without the hope of a nibble; it is sad how life seems to conspire to make some dark nights into midnight. But as the sky starts to scorch red with the dawn, the fog starts to burn off, the haze of day begins. And then he hears a voice like a smooth stone skipping out to him from the misty shoreline. A faintly familiar voice, but Peter knows that exhaustion can play tricks on your mind. The voice says “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some fish.” Peter’s brow furrows in anger, even as his heart is jostled from numbness. A memory surges forward breaking free from the sleep of hopelessness as Peter throws out his net. A quick tug, and then a surge, the net grows heavy and the ropes cut into Peter’s fingers as he tries to gather his strength to pull in the load. And as the net fills up his memory fully awakens to a strikingly similar morning 3 and ½ years ago.

It was the morning Jesus first called him to be a disciple. He and his partners were cleaning their nets after they had fished all night and caught nothing. As they did, they listened to Jesus teaching on the seashore. He remembers when Jesus finished he told him to row out to the deep water and again, let down the nets. He doubted then as well, even as he doubts now. But then as now the nets were suddenly full of fish…nets breaking…a catch so great it threatens to sink the boat.

He remembers how he realized how unworthy he felt to be in his presence. He remembers pleading for Jesus to leave him. But Jesus refused to leave. Instead he invited him to be his disciple…his follower…his friend. This memory so precious and fresh to Peter right now, twitches and squirms like the fish in his hands. And Peter instinctively dealing with fish is suddenly freshly awake that there is much more going on. A rooster crows in the red dawn, and with that sound Peter lets go of the nets, and again he is split in two with a sudden war of faith and doubts battling for his heart, mind, and hands.

John shouts out “it’s the Lord!”

Peter can’t constrain himself. Like a rocket he jumps into the sea, a hundred yards from shore. Heavy from the weight of his garments, he strains with all of his strength to swim to shore…his tears mingling with the water, his heart pounding, his lungs straining, his arms exhausting. Wet and shivering he reaches the beach on his hands and knees, sand caught on his clothing and in his hair and beard.

He staggers forward and his eyes look down at the fire, and there is a sudden chill remember the fires of his night of betrayal. He can’t yet look at Jesus…he isn’t ready. What do you do when you have failed a friend? He had rushed forward, but suddenly his steps are tentative and uncertain. So unlike Peter, as if the old Peter had somehow been drowned and lost these past few days. He doesn’t know what to say, and so he stands there numb with cold and yet again drawn to the fire.

The other disciples are now with them, and he gets a reprieve. They too are timid with guilt, and settle down in silence to listen and eat the meal that Jesus has provided.

After the meal, Jesus puts a hand on Peters shoulder squeezing firmly and gently. Peter cannot look up, but as he sees Jesus walk away he knows he is supposed to follow. Stopping on a lonely piece of shore with the dawn rising behind him Jesus looks fully into Peters eyes. Into our eyes. Peter at first tries to avoid his eyes, but he can’t, and so he looks deeply into them…and he is swallowed up in them.

What Jesus says is remarkable…what he doesn’t say is even more so.

He doesn’t say “some friend you turned out to be…I’m really disappointed…you really let me down…you’re all talk…coward…failure….boy was I wrong about you…what a fraud.” None of these words come out, none of the words that have swirled relentlessly in Peter’s soul the last few days.

Instead, he simply asks us, “do you love me?” He asks three times…once for each denial. Not to rub it in, but to give Peter an opportunity to openly confess his love. Something Peter desperately needs to say. And with every question and response Peter is reforged. His clay heart squeezed and shattered in its own strength, the fingers of Jesus voice both crushing him and creating in him something new. A new heart centered in Jesus power…Jesus strength…Jesus love…Jesus forgiveness…Jesus compassion…Jesus courage. Peter the rock crushed…and turned into a diamond from the pressure of love.

By the 3rd time Peter gets the connection with the denial. A flame leaps from that smoldering memory, and it burns. But Jesus is not here to inflict pain; he is here to take it away. All of Peter’s failures and our own are now locked into this moment. And the power of the cross makes something unspeakable possible. Peter must face his failures and his love if his faith is to be reborn. This is what Jesus is doing, it feels like a knife, but it is the surgery of the savior that all must face if they would walk with him.

Jesus had seen his bitter tears when the rooster crowed, that was all he needed. That was repentance enough.

Peter looks up again for his face had fallen with each of the three questions. He looks into Jesus eyes for the faintest glimmer of forgiveness. And in a language beyond words, in the language of love, it glows from the saviors’ eyes. Peter shakes uncontrollably and cries out in joy as he falls to his knees, and Jesus arms wrap around him with warmth and love.

Jesus with his hand lifts Peters quivering chin. “feed my sheep, Peter,” is Jesus way of saying I still believe in you…I still think you’re the right man for the job.”

And so here we all are this morning. For Easter reminds us of just how much of a failure we are…and Easter fills us with a faith reborn. And on Easter it is not enough to just believe in him, wonderful though that is…we must also remember that he believes in us, and that his restoration, renewal, and rebirth for us is always just a moment away. Faith is a two way street.

And so with the words “follow me,” the restoration of Peter is complete. The painful memory is healed. 31/2 years ago Jesus asked Pete to follow him, and the offer still stands despite Peter’s…and our…monumental failures.

Jesus orchestrated everything to bring two painful memories to Peter’s mind-a precious memory and a painful one. Today is the same, for Easter is both the most torturous of Christian memories and the most precious.

For the empty tomb on Sunday morning is devoid of accusations and arrows. Satan finds himself without ammunition and we find ourselves suddenly again set free from guilt, shame, and despair. The dawn of Easter morning Jesus meets each of us on the shoreline of hope and lifts our chin. With one hand he points to the cross and with the other to the rock that was rolled away. And he tells us that we were worth it…and that he still believes in us, even as we find ourselves suddenly re-believing in him.

Peter will witness, write, plant churches, and thousands will come to follow Jesus who had never seen him. But the Bragging Peter is gone from the pages of the letters he writes, for by then his faith had changed him into a totally different person. And finally Peter is crucified, upside down tradition says, as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his savior.

What kind of person inspires devotion like that, changes people like that, and rebuilds them like that?

A friend like no other. A friend who prays for you when you are weak, and picks you up when you are down. A friend who forgives you when you fail. A friend who heals your memories and heart. A friend who loves you. A friend who still believes in you.

A friend like Jesus.

A friend who died for you. And if you will let him…a friend who will live in you forever.

Let us pray:

Thank you, Jesus that no matter how miserably I fail and let you down, you are always there to pick me up. No matter how many times I blow it, you are there to forgive me. No matter how far I have drifted you are there on the shore, waiting for me to return-waiting with a comforting fire, warm food, and a comforting arm to put around me and reassure me of your love.

excerpts from Ken Gire's book "moments with the savior" several of his stories mixed liberally with my own thoughts.



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