Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs. Continue reading “Spiritual Topography”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”


Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

precipice“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.

God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.

The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.

The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.

One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.

That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.

But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.

That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.

When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”

Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.

This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.

When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.

The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.

10,000 Talents

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35

10000talentsImagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.

I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.

For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.

He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.

But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.

This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.

During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.

But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”

You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.

That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.

So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.

* The calculation about the 10,000 talents comes from this article by Karl Jacobson.


Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20

(A problem with our sound system rendered the audio for this sermon unusable.)

TrailblazerFor as long as I can remember, my father has worn a cross beneath his clothing, resting on his skin close to his heart. So when my parents gave me a cross of my own to wear when I was in my early teen years, I was thrilled. I was going to be just like Dad, wearing my cross all the time, even in the shower! The trouble was I kept losing it. I couldn’t wear the cross all the time because I played soccer, and there was a “no jewelry” rule. So it would get lost in the depths of my soccer bag (which was not a place for the faint of heart). The chain broke once, but I managed to find the cross beneath the seat of my car. Then during my freshman year of college the chain broke again, and I lost the cross for good.

At that time, I was just beginning to glimpse the edge of the expanse of the life God was calling me into, so I was quite upset at losing my cross. I’m not naturally a superstitious person, but I took it as a bad omen. So two weeks before I turned nineteen, I went to a local tattoo parlor and emerged a few hours later with a Celtic cross indelibly inked on my back. It was my way of telling myself that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus, that if push came to shove there was no way to deny my identity. At baptism I was marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,” but now I was visibly marked as Christ’s own.

And yet, walking out of the tattoo parlor on that fine January day, I don’t think I could have told you what it meant to me to be a follower of Jesus. I think I could do a bit better job today, but such meaning-making will take the rest of my lifetime to unfold, so check back with me again sometime. What’s telling is that – in my tattoo experience – I identified as “follower.” Since I put myself in the position of “follower,” for me Jesus took on the identity of “guide.”

As my guide, or better yet my “trailblazer,” I envisioned Jesus walking ahead of me, as if we were tramping through a marsh and he knew where it was safe to place one’s feet. Because he was my trailblazer and I his follower, I attempted to step where he stepped and to stay on the path he showed me. When people learned I was in the process to become an ordained minister, they asked if I was following in my father’s footsteps. I responded, “No,” because in my mind, we were both following in Jesus’ footsteps. Thus, in my language and in my imagination – two of the most potent vehicles for meaning-making – I identified as the follower of a trailblazer.

But the trailblazer-follower relationship is only one of myriad possibilities. And this is why today’s story from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important for us today. You see, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s really asking them, “What kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”

This powerful secondary question hovers just beneath the primary one because no matter what the disciples say, they set up the presumption of a relationship. Let’s take Simon Peter’s answer, for instance. I imagine his words rushing from Peter’s mouth all at once, as if an unseen force reached into his heart and yanked them out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

So if Peter names Jesus “Messiah,” what title would Peter use for himself to relate to this identity? Would it surprise you if I said soldier? The title of “Messiah” was something of a political identity at this time in Israel. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a warrior like the great King David, who swept away the forces occupying Israel with his martial prowess. It’s not a coincidence at all that Matthew sets this exchange in the city of Ceasarea Phillipi, a city named for the Roman Emperor. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah tacitly sets Jesus against the power of occupying Rome. That Peter identifies as a soldier in the Messiah’s army is made clear both in his use of a sword when Jesus is arrested and in the very next passage after ours today. We’ll read it next week, but here’s a spoiler. Jesus reveals to the disciples what is going to happen to him – namely something basically the opposite of kicking the Romans out of Israel – and Peter is stunned to hear the Messiah will die. Another set of words rips itself from Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It takes the rest of the Gospel, and indeed the rest of Peter’s life, to fathom Jesus’ understanding of “Messiah.” Peter’s journey takes him from confession to denial to redemption to proclamation as he struggles with his relationship to Jesus in light of calling him Messiah. By the end of his time in the book of Acts, Peter has moved from soldier to something of a herald of Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship.

So Peter undergoes a long transformation of his identity in the light of calling Jesus Messiah. I still think of Jesus as my trailblazer, and I try to follow his steps. But what of you? When Jesus puts this question to you, who do you say that he is? And what does that say about the kind of relationship you want to have with him?

Perhaps you answer that Jesus is “Lord,” which makes you his “subject.” If so, this means you cede your sovereignty over to him. You surrender your will to his. You are a vassal and he is your liege. We might not want to give up our autonomy to a higher power, knowing as we do how badly that turns out most of the time here on earth. But Jesus is a Lord who is trustworthy and true, and giving up our wills for his leads not to enslavement but to freedom.

Perhaps you answer not Lord but “Teacher.” This makes you Jesus’ “student.” If so, you desire to learn all you can from him, both by searching the scriptures and listening for his instruction as you pray. We have so much to learn from Jesus our teacher, and we will never graduate from his class, not until we “know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Perhaps you answer not Lord or Teacher, but “Savior.” Thus, you relate to Jesus as someone who needs saving. He is the knight in shining armor and you are in distress in the dragon’s lair. As our savior, Jesus accomplished the great work set before him between the cross and the empty tomb. But if we let him, his presence in our lives continues to save us from all the small, yet debilitating, ways we drift towards annihilation.

And if not Lord or Teacher or Savior, how about “Friend?” If Jesus is your friend, then you are his. This is not blasphemy, for Jesus calls his disciples friends in the upper room on the night of his arrest. As a friend, a companion, Jesus is not walking ahead of us blazing the path. Rather, he is walking with us, hand in hand, as we discover the way together.

Of course, these ways of answering Jesus’ question are not mutually exclusive. Jesus is trailblazer and Messiah and Lord and teacher and savior and friend. And that is just a small sampling. Answering his question – “Who do you say that I am?” – does not limit our relationships with him, but it does define them. Discerning how we relate to Jesus at any given time or in any given situation will only serve to strengthen our relationships with him. And the more we follow our trailblazer and proclaim our Messiah and serve our Lord and learn from our teacher and reach out to our Savior and walk with our friend Jesus Christ, the better and fuller and deeper will we answer his call in our lives.

Art: Detail from “Handing Over the Keys” by Raphael (1515)

A New Dream

Homily for Maundy Thursday || April 17, 2014 || John 13

MaundyThurs2014Imagine with me the Apostle Peter at night in his prison cell in Rome near the end of his life.

It all happened so long ago. Thirty years or more now. And yet sometimes – like tonight – I wake up in the cold wee hours of the morning gasping for air because my dreams drag me back to that week. One moment, I’m being suffocated by the crowds pressing in on me, buffeting me, shouting for blood. The next I awake in my prison cell, take in great swallows of stale air.

My cellmate – another follower rounded up here in Rome like I was – he says, “You were shouting in your sleep again.”

“What was I shouting?” I ask, though I already know the answer.

“Something like, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ ” he says.

Yes, of course. The same old dream. I always wake up when the rooster crows.

Why can’t I dream of the happier times? Lugging the huge catch of fish onto the beach. Talking with Jesus around the campfire. Sharing a meal with him in our hideout in Jerusalem.

“Perhaps you still feel guilty,” my cellmate says. “We’ve all heard the story: how you denied you knew Jesus when he needed you most.”

“But Jesus forgave me,” I say. “I told him I loved him. He gave me a mission to feed his sheep. He knew I couldn’t live with myself, so he told me to live for him instead…And I have…”

My voice trails off. I used to give this defense with more fire.

He might have forgiven you.” My cellmate again. “But have you truly accepted his forgiveness? Have you ever forgiven yourself?”

I want to say, “yes.” I want this fellow in my cell to know that I am one of Jesus’ most fervent followers, that I remember everything he ever taught, that I apply it constantly to my life. But it’s all a lie. A front I put on so others will be encouraged. If they knew the doubts that assail my hearts, they’d be less eager to follow, I tell myself. I do follow, but…fervently?

His question lingers in the stale air: “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” I want to say, “yes,” but something about the dank prison cell drags the truth out of me instead. Must be the hardness of the floor, the right angles of the walls, the smoothness of the stones. In Rome, even the prison cells are plumb. “No,” I say. The word rebounds off the wall. The echo indicts me.

Silence replaces the echo, and we listen to each other breathing in the dark. “I’d always heard you were stubborn, Peter,” says my cellmate. “But that forgiveness. That love of his. It was a free gift. You didn’t need to earn it. Your denial didn’t make you unworthy of it. Do you not see that?”

A recent convert, this one. I can always tell by their zeal. This one is mouthier than most.

He presses on. “It’s the footwashing all over again.”

“The what?”

“The night before Jesus went to his death on the cross. We’ve all heard that story, too. Jesus knew he was going to God and so he wanted to show you all the importance of service. Of love. The fact that service and love are really the same thing. So he took off his robe, got down on his knees, and washed the feet of his friends.”

“I remember. I was there.”

“But…but when he got to your feet, you didn’t want them washed. You didn’t feel worthy of that either.”

This I have to answer. “He just looked so small,” I say. “Crawling on his knees, pushing the wash basin before him. It felt so wrong for him to humble himself like that for my sake. His humility made me feel even more unworthy.”

More silence. Again, the truth tumbles out.

“It still does.”

And what does my cellmate do? He starts to sing:

“Being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

“I heard that the day I was arrested,” he says. “We sang it at a gathering.”


“It says Jesus humbled himself and became obedient. Don’t you see, Peter? How can I, who is so new to the Way, be the one to teach you this, you who have the keys to the kingdom? Humility and obedience go together.”

I shift on my cot. I don’t want to hear this, but his voice has taken on a new tone, one I remember Jesus using: excitement and insight mixing together to form revelation. I sit up and feel the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

“When he washed your feet he demonstrated humble service. And what did he do next?”

“He told us to love each other.”

“No. He commanded you to love each other. It wasn’t a request. Jesus gave you a direct order, a new commandment. To obey you had to love. To show love you had to serve humbly. To serve humbly you had to obey – to listen deeply for his call and act on it. I found my church – my new family – because I watched them loving each other, serving each other, and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to follow Jesus’ commandment.”

“And yet here you are, in prison with me.”

“I believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.”

“And what exactly is that?”

He takes a deep breath. “Helping Peter find a new dream.”

I grunt my derision, but the memory of the rooster crowing still hovers behind my eyes. I’m listening, in spite of myself.

“Look,” he presses. “You can dismiss everything I say as the ravings of convert’s zeal. But just because I’m new doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Those words you said in fear that night still haunt you. Let them go. Tell me now. Say it aloud. Say you know him.”

His words awaken the same ones in me. I open my mouth. My voice catches in my throat. But I force them out. “I do know the man.”

“Say it again.”

“I do know him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s here in this cell. I hear him speaking through you.”

“What is he commanding?”

“He wants me to let go, to let his forgiveness wash me clean, to release my stubbornness and pride, to hear and obey.”

“ To hear and obey. To love and serve in humility?”

“That is his command. Loving and serving. The command and the gift, both at the same time.”

He reaches across the divide between our cots and grasps my hand. I can feel his blood pulsing. And for the first time in God knows how long, I feel the fire blaze in me again. He squeezes my hand and holds it fast. “Peter, my friend, there’s your new dream.”

*Art: detail from “Columbus in Prison” by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

Do You Love Me?

(NOTE: I completely forgot to post my sermon on Sunday, so here it is, two days belated. Devo180 will be back tomorrow.)

(Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2013 || Easter 3C || John 21:1-19)

I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection. At the last supper, he promised Jesus: “I will lay down my life for you.” He was willing to draw blood when they came to arrest Jesus in the garden. He followed Jesus all the way to the gate of the high priest’s house. And then everything fell apart. People began recognizing him and he felt afraid and in his fear he did something he never dreamed he would do, not even in his worst nightmare.

But this was worse than his worst nightmare. “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” I am not. “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” No. “You are one of his disciples.” I am not. And at that moment the rooster crowed, signaling the dawn. But Simon Peter remained in the night with his denial – afraid, ashamed, broken. The nickname Simon received from Jesus when they first met – the nickname Peter, “Rock” – must have haunted him from that moment on. How could a rock be so inconstant? He was supposed to be steadfast, strong; but in the moment of decision, he crumbled. As I said, I can only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts roiling in Simon Peter’s head in the weeks following Jesus’ resurrection.

So to quiet the storm raging within, even for just a short time, it makes sense for Peter to suggest a fishing trip – something normal to take his mind off things. He and his friends fish all night but catch nothing. Even though Peter has met the Risen Christ, Peter himself is still shackled to the night, where his shame and fear have kept him since his denial. No wonder he didn’t catch any fish. But then day breaks, and Jesus calls to him from the beach. He and his friends let down the net one more time and catch more fish than they know what to do with.

They bring the catch ashore and have breakfast around a charcoal fire with Jesus. Peter gazes into the flames, and suddenly his maelstrom of thoughts transports him back to another charcoal fire, around which he warmed himself – and denied his Lord. He is still lost in the night of his regret, his fear, and his brokenness. Though a new dawn has come, Peter cannot bring himself to step into the light. He sits around the fire with Jesus and the rest, but he himself is far away, reliving the nightmare.

And so when Jesus says his name, Simon Peter flinches out of his daydream and returns to the present. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks him. Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Do you love me?” And with the third question, a wave of sadness washes over Simon Peter because he realizes what Jesus is doing. The sadness is the echo of the nightmare, the last vestige of the darkness Peter has been mired in. Lord, you know everything (including my shame and my guilt and my brokenness); and you know that I love you.

Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to affirm their relationship three times, once for each denial; and with that, they are reconciled. Peter’s love for his Lord trumps his fear and his brokenness, and he finally steps from the night into the day. This reconciliation shines with the good news of the resurrection. The Risen Christ meets Peter in his brokenness and reaffirms their relationship. The Risen Christ meets us in the same place – in our fear and our brokenness – and affirms that nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from his love.

sheepBut Jesus is only half done with Peter and with us, because Jesus takes this reconciliation one step further. Jesus doesn’t just heal Peter’s brokenness and leave it at that. If he had, then Peter would have no direction to travel, nowhere to bring his healed heart. So Jesus renews their relationship and then gives Peter a mission. “Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.”

Jesus knows that Peter, despite his nickname, has shown inconstancy in the past. Jesus knows that Peter once crumbled because of fear. Jesus knows that Peter isn’t perfect. And still, Jesus affirms their relationship, binds himself to Peter in love, and gives him a mission. The Risen Christ gathers to himself all of Peter’s fear and brokenness and says, “This stuff will not hold you back from doing my work. This stuff may rear its head from time to time, but it will not win. This stuff is now mine, and in its place you can have my love and the promise of eternal relationship with me.”

Sounds like a pretty good deal. Imagine someone coming up to you and saying, “You give me all your junk, everything about yourself that you don’t like or you don’t want, and I’ll give you the most precious thing in the world.”

That’s what Jesus did on the beach with Peter after breakfast. And in the power of the resurrection, that’s what Jesus does with each of us. And after we make such an unbalanced trade, Jesus invites us to join him in a mission. Feed. Tend. Listen. Support. Help. Love. Serve.

If we listen for the Risen Christ’s call in our lives, we will each hear something a little different because Jesus knows what sets each of our hearts on fire. And Jesus knows where the world most needs us to serve. He combines the two and then sails these unique calls to us on the wind of the Holy Spirit. And if we listen for that wind whispering in our hearts, we will hear the call. Peter heard the call to feed God’s sheep. I hear the call to proclaim God’s presence in our lives. What do you hear? What is Jesus healing you to do?

In our story today, Jesus heals Peter with love. This love propels Peter into service. And this service brings healing to all of God’s people. And thus the cycle renews. On down through the ages, God has propelled this cycle of healing, loving, and serving. Now we are the inheritors of the legacy of this chat on the beach after breakfast. The Risen Christ sits with us across our kitchen counters after a bowl of oatmeal – the most ordinary of moments, mind you – and offers us his love, his healing, and his mission.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then notice me healing your brokenness.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then feel my love binding us together.

“Do you love me?” Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Then go out and serve in my name.

Breathing In (April 12, 2013)

…Opening To…

For a second after Aslan breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back — then it spread — then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licked all over a bit of paper — then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

…Listening In…

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22; context)

…Filling Up…

…Day five with the Apostle Peter (click here for day one, two, three, four)

“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he continued. With these words, we, who had been as still as statues mere minutes before, all leaned in, like trees bending toward the sunlight. And he exhaled a deep, cleansing breath, then another and another. As he breathed out, I breathed in. I breathed in his breath, the wind of his life. I breathed in the words he had spoken twice since his arrival, the very peace that he proclaimed, that he radiated. This was Jesus, and he was alive, and he was breathing life back into us, into the ones who had entombed ourselves in that locked house.

As we leaned closer, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And his breath washed over me, into me, through me. His Spirit brought peace to the war raging within. His breath blew across the faint glow of hope, turning the glow into a spark, and the spark into a flame, and the flame into a fire. And the fire set my heart alight with all the fervor of rekindled belief in this Jesus, this risen Lord, this one who would not abandon me to the grave even after I had abandoned him to die.

I tell you, friend, that in the years since that day, my daydreams have often brought me back to that moment when Jesus breathed his Spirit into me. When I am in distress, when I am in grief, when I forget that I believe that I am with God, I can take a breath. And I will remember that I am breathing in the peace that our Lord has given to each of us, the peace that passes all my ability to understand and lodges where I need that peace the most – in the secret places within where the war still rages from time to time. You see, every time I take a breath, and, for that matter, every time you take a breath, we are not only filling up our lungs with air. We are filling up our souls with the Holy Spirit of God, who continues to breathe into us the new life of the Risen Christ.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the life-breath of all things. Thank you for the Holy Spirit that you breathe into my soul, so that I can know on a level beyond knowing that you are sustaining me with your life. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, feeling you breathe the peace that passes all understanding into my heart and soul.

Not Full Enough (April 11, 2013)

…Opening To…

For a second after Aslan breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back — then it spread — then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licked all over a bit of paper — then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

…Listening In…

He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. (John 20:19-20; context)

…Filling Up…

…Day four with the Apostle Peter (click here for day one, two, three)

I leapt up and stared at the man in the center of the room. He was slowly spinning in a circle, studying each statue in turn. I looked where he was looking: at the hollow eyes, at the sunken cheeks, at the dried up streams of tears that had washed clean lines on dirty faces.

As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had noticed his presence. Since my rational mind was still turned off, I didn’t even wonder how someone else had entered the room while I was sitting against the locked door. I just stared at him, uncomprehending, but the sliver of hope that lay dormant in me since the tomb was beginning to glow. Then he said, “Peace be with you.”

They were the first words spoken since Philip’s one-word response to my question hours earlier. The words rang out, and the others began to stir. They raised their heads. Some stood up. The man walked over to me, gripped my arm in a firm grasp, and I noticed fresh wounds that cut through both of his wrists. He went around the room clasping the others’ shoulders and lifting their chins with his fingers. “He can’t be,” I said, as the war of guilt and pain and loss continued to rage within me, stronger now that the faint glow of hope was illuminating the battlefield.

The man heard me and turned to face my direction. “Peace be with you,” he said again. We were all standing now. The room, so empty a moment before, seemed full now, but not full enough for him. He gestured to me. I turned, unbolted the lock, and opened the door. Mary, still slumped against the other side, fell into the room. I helped her to her feet. “Is he?” I whispered to her. She looked from the man to me, and she beamed at me through brimming eyes.

…to be concluded tomorrow.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the life-breath of all things. Help me feel the peace you are speaking into my heart, so that I may show that peace forth to others. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, feeling you breathe the peace that passes all understanding into my heart and soul.

We Might Have Been Statues (April 10, 2013)

…Opening To…

For a second after Aslan breathed upon him the stone lion looked just the same. Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back — then it spread — then the colour seemed to lick all over him as the flame licked all over a bit of paper — then, while his hind-quarters were still obviously stone the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stony folds rippled into living hair. (C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)

…Listening In…

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. (John 20:19; context)

…Filling Up…

…Day three with the Apostle Peter (click here for day one, two)

I shut the door with Mary on the other side. Sliding the bolt home, I slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Oblivious to Mary’s pounding on the door, I looked around the room. Judas was gone, of course, but everyone else was there, I was sure. We had escaped the mob and the authorities. Would they be content with the death of our leader or would they be coming after us, too? I counted the others. Nine, and I made ten. Someone else was missing. “Where’s Thomas,” I called out.

Philip looked up for a moment and managed a one-word response. “Gone,” he said, and he put his head back into his hands. I sat with my back to the locked door. Eventually Mary gave up her pounding. I could hear her sobbing, her breath coming in great heaves. She was, no doubt, sitting against the other side of the door. Three inches of wood separated us: three inches of wood and my disbelief and the war raging within me.

Inside the room, we might have been statues. I couldn’t even hear the others breathing. Hours passed and no one noticed. No one spoke. No one ate or drank. We were entombed in the locked house, alive but acting like dead men. And all the while the war raged on while numbness froze my body against the bolted door.

The ten of us were still frozen in place when evening fell. I had been staring at nothing in particular when I began unconsciously counting the others again. “Eight. Nine. Ten.” I counted aloud, and then I put my finger to my own chest. “Eleven.” I counted again. Eleven again. I leapt up and stared at the man in the center of the room.

…to be continued tomorrow.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the life-breath of all things. Help me to invite you into the locked rooms within myself, all the places I don’t want you to see, but where you are needed most. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, feeling you breathe the peace that passes all understanding into my heart and soul.