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Moving Back Into Our Neighborhoods

Sermon – December 6, 2020

New Testament Scripture Reading – John 1:1-14

Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ predicting the fall of the temple and the disciples’ asking when all this would happen (Mark 13:1-4, 24-37.) Today’s Scripture puts us on the other side of that question. By the time John wrote his gospel somewhere around 90 A.D., the temple had been destroyed, and John’s audience was trying to come to terms with that loss. The temple was the center of their life. From the days when God led them out of slavery in Egypt, when they carried the ark of the covenant through that long journey in the wilderness to the promised land, the temple was tied to the presence of God. Now that the temple was gone, it felt like God’s presence was also gone. The temple was where they gathered every week to worship. It’s where they saw family and friends. The temple was the center of their life. To lose one’s center is disorienting, to say the least.

For many of us, the temple, the church, is the center of our lives as well. Thanks be to God, our temple has not been destroyed. And yet, while it hasn’t been destroyed, it may feel like the church has been displaced. Our buildings aren’t open. We can’t go into them on Sunday as part of our weekly lives, or for some of us our daily lives. Like John’s audience, many of us also associate God’s presence with the sanctuary. When we can’t gather here and be reminded of God’s presence, that’s disorienting, to say the least.

This year a lot of us may feel like John’s audience – displaced and disoriented. Not just in terms of losing our church life, but in terms of other things we’ve lost. Economically, we’ve lost jobs, profits, and sales. Personally, we’ve lost loved ones. We’ve lost our sense of security. Maybe we haven’t had a physical temple displaced, but we’ve had so many other things displaced that it makes us wonder: Where is God?

When we feel displaced and disoriented, how do we find our center again? 

Scholars believe that John was the last of the gospels to be written and that John was aware of the other gospels. John didn’t want to write a fourth version of the other gospels. Instead, he chose to write a different gospel. We could list the differences between his gospel and the others, but most notable for this Advent season would be the difference in the way John described the birth of Jesus.

Luke is most known for his birth narrative. From the lead-up to his birth to his actual birth, Luke gives Jesus’ birth two full chapters. Matthew comes in a close second in length, with an emphasis on Joseph and the wise men. As for Mark, he’s kind of the fast-and-furious “just the facts, ma’am” kind of gospel writer. The most common word he uses is “immediately.” He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about Jesus’ birth. He talks about John the Baptist, saying, “The one who is more powerful is coming after me….“ (Mark 1:7-8),  and then in the next verse, this one who is coming came into Nazareth – not as a baby, but as a grown man.

John’s account doesn’t have a baby Jesus either. John’s account of the birth of Jesus is this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). 

When writing to a people grieving the loss of their temple, John knew the people didn’t necessarily want to hear any baby talk. They could hear about that from the other gospel writers. When grieving the loss of the temple, what John’s audience wanted most is reassurance: Will we ever be back in the temple again?

John wasted no time but got straight to the point: The temple is still here. It’s in Jesus, he said. The temple was never just a building; it’s a living human being, God walking among us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Greek can literally be translated, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” 

Pitched his tent. That phrase may not mean much to us, but it meant a lot to John’s audience. It echoed back to those days in Exodus, those days in the wilderness, when their ancestors were making their way to the promised land. When they set up camp to rest, they set up a tent for the ark of the covenant. They set up a tent for God. 

God pitched his tent among them.

John wrote to remind them that, just as God pitched his tent among their ancestors when they were wandering in the wilderness and trying to find their way forward, God was with them now, when they had lost their temple and were trying to figure out how to live life without a temple. The temple isn’t gone, he said. It’s more present than ever, not as a building, but as a living human being, God walking among you. 

The Word became flesh and lived among us.

We call God’s Word a living Word, an ancient and modern Word. That means these words, these promises of God spoken through John some 1900 years ago are just as fresh and new and true today. Just as God spoke through John years ago to remind the people that the temple isn’t gone, it’s more present than ever, so God speaks through John todayto remind us that the Temple isn’t gone – it’s more present than ever. 

The Temple has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person. That was true at Jesus’ birth. It’s still true today.

Christ came as the Temple, the Word made flesh. Before this Temple left the earth and ascended into heaven, Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit on the disciples. After he did so, he gave them their marching orders in John chapter 20, verse 21: “Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In John’s Temple language, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple; now YOU are temples.” Just as the Father has sent me, so I send you.

And where did the Father send the Son? To live among us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.

I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse in The Message: “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” 

In the context of those marching orders from John Chapter 20, you might translate that this way: Jesus said, “I moved into the neighborhood; now I’m sending you to move into your neighborhood.”

Jesus is the Temple; now we are the temples. Just as the Father sent the Temple to move into the neighborhood, now the Son sends us to be the Temple, the Church, in our neighborhoods.

That’s not news. It’s old news. Ancient news. We the Church have always been called to go out into our neighborhoods. That’s old news. 

And yet at the same time, it’s new news. During this season of sheltering in place, we’ve had to be in our neighborhoods. We haven’t had a choice. For a while, we were even mandated to stay in our neighborhoods. 

What if we reframed that?

What if we saw being stuck at home in our neighborhoods, not as a mandate – at least not one from a government official? Could it be that this year Jesus has given us the gift of remembering his mandate to love our neighbor? Could it be that it’s not that we have to be in our neighborhoods, but that we’ve been given the privilege of being in our neighborhoods?

In this second wave of the virus, it seems we’re having a second wave of the same debates. More specifically, we’re having a second wave of national debates about whether the church should be open or closed. We had these conversations back in March when we debated what is and is not considered an essential business. Now with the Supreme Court case ruling and various reactions to it, we’re having some of the same conversations. 

What I said in March I still say and believe now: The Church is not closed. The church building may be closed. But the Church is not closed. In fact, it’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus Christ is alive. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s about Jesus Christ and his presence among us.

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person.

It’s not really possible to close the Church so long as we believe that Jesus is alive. And it’s not really possible to close the church so long we take seriously Jesus’ marching orders: Jesus said, “I am THE Temple. Now I’m sending YOU to be temples.” Jesus said, “I moved into your neighborhood. Now I’m sending YOU to move back into your neighborhoods.”

This passage in John celebrates what theologians call the incarnation – God becoming flesh for us. It also celebrates our call to be incarnational – God in the flesh for others. 

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It’s always been about a living person, God walking among us. It’s always been about Christians – that is, little Christs – moving into our neighborhood. 

Over the past two months that I’ve had the privilege of serving as your interim pastor, I’ve asked various groups, “What’s been one positive thing for you that has come out of this pandemic?” I’ve heard some amazing stories with two common themes: First, we’re in this together, and second, when Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he meant it.

Some have shared stories about taking walks – many, many walks – in your neighborhood. Because when you can’t do anything else, what do you do? You go for a walk. On those walks, many of us have met neighbors we’ve never met before. Because when we can’t hang out and talk with our normal circle of friends, suddenly we talk to our neighbors. It’s amazing how it took a pandemic for us to get to know our neighbor…

Some have shared stories about the difficult decisions we’ve all had to make about Thanksgiving celebrations. How when COVID-19 meant our family gatherings of 20-30 suddenly got reduced to a gathering of two or three, but we still had food for that 20-30, those two or three took food to a neighbor. And for some of those neighbors from other countries or cultures, you learned it was the first Thanksgiving dinner they had ever had. 

What might God do through our Christmas dinners of two or three? 

Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

This week I’ve witnessed firsthand a great example of God at work, not just in our individual neighborhoods, but in our Clairmont neighborhood. The past few weeks a young couple has been sleeping under the portico outside our office, along with their rescue kitten. We’ve affectionately begun calling them the “Kitten Couple.” They moved to the area a year ago, he found a job, and they began trying to get established here. But they’ve been hit hard by COVID-19. He lost one job, found a second job, and then lost that job also in the pandemic. They began living out of their car. Then their car broke down, which is how they ended up here. 

Many of our members and staff have noticed them and asked what we can do to help. A commonly heard question is, “What is it about this one couple that I keep feeling God prompting me to help them?” Andrea and Lady T got some initial information about housing possibilities. We told the couple last week that, once we had more details, we’d pass it along to them, if they were interested. “Yes, please. Thank you,” they said. 

On Sunday morning, I arrived at the office with a list of resources and gift cards we had collected, but they had already left. Don, Barbara, and I arrived early Monday morning in the hopes of finding them at the office. No luck. Don and I drove around the area in search of them. Still no luck. Knowing the temperature was going to drop significantly overnight, Don and I said we’d come back again at sunset to try one more time to find them. 

Later that day, while talking with our Preschool Director Barbara, she said to me, “By the way, one of our teachers Stacy happened to mention she saw the couple head behind a store earlier this afternoon. Perhaps they found a way inside and are staying there.” I’d already looked around the store that morning, but I said I’d check one more time that evening. The store was locked up tight – no way anyone was in there. But as I rounded the corner to head back to church to meet Don and continue searching, I noticed a familiar-looking bag behind a dumpster. Don and I walked back to look at the bag more closely. That’s when Don noticed a litter box scoop sticking out of the bag. 

That bag had not been there earlier that morning. Had Stacy not “happened to” notice the couple heading behind the store, had she not “happened to” mention it to Barbara, and had Barbara not “happened to” mention it to me, I would never have gone back and looked there a second time. And had Don not noticed the litter box scoop, we might never have known it was the couple’s bag. We left the list of resources, protein bars, and, yes, cans of cat food by their belongings, along with a note saying, “Come to Clairmont Presbyterian tomorrow! We want to help!” Our administrative assistant Linda arrived extra early on Tuesday to make sure she saw them if they stopped by. Around 8:30 Tuesday morning, she texted me: “The Kitten Couple came back! They saw our note, and they came back!” While we’re working on more long-term solutions, they are currently settling into a warm hotel for the week, and they have been telling us repeatedly, “Thank you. Thank you. We cannot thank you enough.” 

It takes a village, as they say. In this case, it takes the body of Christ working together to be the body of Christ, God made flesh, in our neighborhood.

That’s what God did in our neighborhoods last week. I can’t wait to see what God might do in our neighborhoods this week.

This week I encourage you to take a walk in your neighborhood. I know, I know – you’re thinking, “I’m already taking lots of walks in my neighborhood.” What else is there to do, right? Take a walk in your neighborhood. Not just any old walk. But a quiet, observant walk. If you typically walk with someone in your family, don’t talk. Don’t listen to music. Just walk in silence and observe your neighborhood. Maybe go for a walk at a different time of day or take a different route than you normally would. And look around. What do you see? Whom do you see? What needs do you see? Then pray, “Lord, how are you calling me to respond to this need?

The Temple, the Church, has never been about a building. It has always been about a living person. God became flesh for us. Now God sends us to be God in the flesh for others. Go be that church. 

Keep Awake

Sermon – November 29, 2020

This morning we turn to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 13. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus and the disciples were leaving the Temple when one of the disciples pointed out the Temple’s large stones and building. In response, Jesus asked (read Mark 13:2-4.)

We pick up midway through Jesus’ answer to their question. Listen again for God’s Word from Mark Chapter 13 beginning with verse 24.

Read Mark 13:24-37. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and I was fifteen years old. My parents had finalized their divorce just a few weeks earlier, so it was sort of a different Christmas for my family that year. My grandparents came to visit us in Atlanta for the holiday week. On Christmas Eve, the four of us had a quiet dinner, went to worship, and then we all went to sleep. 

About 5:00 in the morning, I felt someone nudging my shoulder. It was my grandfather. In all my life, I’ve never known anyone who anticipated Christmas more than my grandfather. My guess is he had been lying awake all night, waiting for Christmas morning to arrive so he could wake up the rest of us – and I was his lucky first victim. “Time to get up,” he said, “it’s Christmas morning! Hurry! You don’t want to miss it!”

I mentioned I was fifteen, right? If you are a teenager or if you’ve ever had a teenager in your home, you know that, given a chance to sleep in, a teenager won’t see morning. So I pulled my blanket over my head and mumbled, “OK, Papa, I’ll get up; just give me about five more hours.” 

Not only was my grandfather enthusiastic, he was also persistent. “Go wake your mother,” he said. I got up, trudged down the hall, and called into my mother’s room, “Mom, Papa says it’s time to get up.” “It’s 5 am,” she said, “Go back to bed.” Never in my teenage years was I ever so eager to obey my mom. I walked back down the hall, passed my grandfather on the way, and said, “Mom said go back to bed, and you know I always do what I’m told.” 

Not to be defeated, my grandfather said, “Fine, I’ll go make breakfast.” Now I’m not much of a cook. I don’t know nearly as much about cooking as my chef of a husband does. But I do know this: Making breakfast does not require pulling every pot and pan out of the cabinet and dropping them on the floor. After about ten minutes of listening to metal clanging, my grandmother, my mom, and I gave in and reluctantly walked down the stairs.  There on the table were hot coffee and Pillsbury biscuits my grandfather had made, and there he was, sitting in a chair, holding a piece of paper on which he had written this poem:

‘Twas Christmas morning and in the town of Atlanta, nothing was moving, not even Santa.  So I got the paper and made me a cup and sat at the table waiting for all to get up. Not a sound could be heard, not even a peep. All were upstairs, trying to sleep. I thought to myself, “Why sleep?  For you know, if you close your eyes, there’re not too many Christmases to go.”

Why sleep? That wasn’t the question the disciples asked Jesus, but it was definitely the question he seemed to want to answer. Upon hearing Jesus tell them that the temple would be thrown down, the disciples asked when these amazing things would happen. Before answering their question, Jesus told them all kinds of horrific things. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes and famines. Oh, and after that suffering, in those days, there will be more suffering: The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

The disciples were thinking, “Gee, sorry I asked.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jesus said.  “About your question: When will all these things happen? Yeah…no one knows.”

The disciples were thinking, “Again, gee, sorry I asked.”

The only answer Jesus gave them was this: “Keep awake.”

They seemed pretty awake to me. They were walking and talking with Jesus. They were awake enough to notice the temple’s large stones and building. They were awake enough to ask him when all this stuff would happen.  

But were they awake enough to hear his response: “Keep awake”?

The disciples asked Jesus about when they could expect these things to happen. Jesus’ response called into question whether they still expected anything to happen. They had been expecting a Messiah for so long. They’d seen many would-be messiahs all of whom had disappointed them. A few Sundays ago, we looked at a passage in Luke where John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:19). You can almost hear the fatigue in their question. They’d been waiting and hoping and expecting so much for so long that, after a while, they’d given up expecting anything at all. 

Lower expectations lead to less disappointments.

Almost nine months into the pandemic, I can relate. I imagine you can, too. When everything first shut down in March, we expected life would return to normal soon. But then one day turned into the next and the next – until we couldn’t distinguish one day from the next, and every day began to feel like what a friend of mine calls “blursday.” I mean, when we’re stuck at home all week, how many of us have forgotten at some point this year – or maybe multiple points this year – what day of the week it is? When Monday is just the same as Tuesday, and Tuesday is just the same as Wednesday…every day is blursday. 

When every day is blursday, it’s easy to get lulled into a stupor.

And that’s just what’s going on in our individual lives and our individual homes. Then we turn on the news. We hear of vaccines and rumors of vaccines and think, “Are you the vaccine that is to come, or are we to wait for another?” We hear of ongoing vote recounts and ongoing virus counts. With every political update and COVID update, we wonder when the other shoe is going to drop. Many of us have started tuning it out, thinking, “If we close our eyes, there’re not too many 2020 days to go.”

When we’re most tempted to tune out, that’s when Jesus says tune in: “Keep awake.”

I remember in seminary preaching classes we were taught always to find the good news in a Scripture passage. Some passages were harder than others. Like this text, when what Mark calls “those days” feels more like “these days.” When we may not be experiencing nation against nation, but it feels like we are a nation against ourselves as a nation. When we’re not just experiencing earthquakes and famine, but we’re experiencing West coast fires, East coast hurricanes, and coast-to-coast sickness and death. Then to read in Mark about more suffering and no end in sight? Where’s the “good news” in that?

It’s there. It may be hard to see, but maybe that’s the point: Jesus said, “Keep awake, and you will see it.”

Jesus gave us three ways, or rather, three reasons to keep awake and believe the good news. First, Jesus flat out tells us the good news: The Son of Man is coming in clouds, with great power and glory, and he will gather up all of his beloved and beleaguered disciples from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. Who knows when all these things will happen? No one knows – except for one: the Father. In ways we can’t understand, in ways we can’t even see, God has planned the perfect time for all these things to take place. We may not know when that time is here, but we know that time is near, for Jesus told us so. “Keep awake,” Jesus said, “for I am near.”

Jesus next told the disciples a way to see that he is near. He told them to take a lesson from the fig tree. When its branches become tender and it puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is coming. 

It sounds like a “take time to stop and smell the roses” moment, but it isn’t. It’s something much more powerful. I don’t know about you, but in this year of sickness and death, fires and hurricanes, nation against nation and nation against itself, it’s been so easy to get preoccupied with the bad news and miss any sign of good news. Every now and then God gives us glimpses of it. 

On Friday, May 29th, protests and riots broke out downtown near the CNN Center and throughout our city in reaction to George Floyd’s death. As we live not far from CNN, my husband James and I were awake most of the night listening to sirens and screeching cars. The following afternoon I was sitting on our back deck praying about the racial injustice in our nation when I heard a rustling sound. It was the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. The leaves were that of a tree that has been sick and on the verge of dying for quite a while. But, by golly, that tree keeps on standing – it just won’t give up – and the wind blowing its leaves was a reminder that, no matter how dark or lost things may seem, new life is blowing where we least expect it.       

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and see that I am near.”

The past few weeks I’ve seen several signs that Jesus is near, two in particular. First, over the weekend our Children’s and Family Ministry Team delivered an Advent devotional, calendar, crafts, cake mix, frosting, sprinkles, and candles – the makings of a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” cake – to the children in our congregation, as well as the children in our Azalea Village and LaAmistad missions. We normally would do these things together in person at our “Advent-ure” event. We can’t this year due to COVID-19. But that didn’t stop our ministry team from celebrating his coming because they know God’s presence and power are bigger than a pandemic. God’s Spirit is more widespread than a virus We may be six feet apart, but by God’s spirit we can be closer than ever.

A second and similar sign of Jesus’ presence is our poinsettia mission. We set a goal to collect funds to give out 20 poinsettias to homebound members of our community. This Sunday we will give out three times that amount – over 60 poinsettias. God once again showed he can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

Jesus said, “Keep awake, and I will show you that I am near.”

In answer to the disciples’ question as to when these things would happen, Jesus closed with a second parable: that of a doorkeeper. A doorkeeper’s number-one job is to keep awake. But the doorkeeper doesn’t just keep awake for his own sake. He keeps awake for others’ sakes. If he sees danger, his job is to go and tell the others in the house. If he sees good things on the horizon – in this case, if he sees the master is coming back – his job is to go and tell the others in the house. 

The disciples had expected so much. After expecting so much and being disappointed too often, they’d probably forgotten to expect much of anything anymore. They’re like many of us, and they’re like many of those around us. We live in a world that hopes for little and expects less. We live in a world that desperately needs a door keeper to alert it to God’s presence among us.

Jesus said, “Keep awake. Be that door keeper. And when you see signs of me, go tell someone.”

It is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we celebrate that the Lord has come and look forward to his coming again. In this year 2020, perhaps most fervently we long for that coming again. That’s God’s greatest promise and our greatest hope. So keep awake, for the Lord is near. Keep awake, and see that he is near. Keep awake, that the world may know he is near. 

Our True Allegiance

Our Old Testament Scripture reading comes from Psalm 146. We read the first two verses as our Call to Worship. Listen again to those verses and the ones that follow. Listen for God’s Word. Read Psalm 146.

In the New Testament, we turn to a scene in Matthew. Last week we talked about our baptismal questions: “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior? Do you trust him?” In our text today, Jesus asks the disciples a similar question. Listen again for God’s Word from Matthew Chapter 16, verses 13-20. Read Matthew 16:13-20. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

On November 9, 2016, a friend posted the following as her Facebook status: “Jesus is Lord. Live like it.” That Facebook status would be true and powerful on any day, but particularly that day. November 9, 2016, was a Wednesday, more specifically the day after the 2016 Presidential Election. 

When my friend made that Facebook post, she wasn’t making a political statement. “Jesus is Lord. Live like it” could be said any day, any week, any year. 

But perhaps the time when we most need to be reminded of that great truth is the week of an election, such as this week.

Jesus is Lord. Live like it.

Back in July I listened to the sermon that same friend preached on November 13, 2016, the first Sunday after the election. At one point I had to pause the podcast to make sure I had clicked on the right sermon and that I hadn’t accidentally clicked on a sermon from 2020. Because the way she was describing the state of things in 2016 sounded remarkably similar to how one might describe the state of things today. Political division. Racial tension. Economic disparities. Healthcare struggles. Disease. Poverty. And so on. And so on.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Of course, this year we might put it differently: The more things change, the more it seems nothing is the same anymore.

Scripture would put it differently still. Scripture would say to us: The more things change, the more we need to remind ourselves of the one thing that will always be the same

Scripture says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8.)

Jesus is Lord. Live like it.

When I heard about that Facebook post, I thought, “Yes! Amen, Jesus is Lord. Yes, I live like it! … Er, I mean, I try to live like it. … I hope I live like it. … Do I live like it?”

It’s one thing to know Jesus is Lord. It’s another thing to live like it. And some days it’s harder to live like it than it is on other days. 

That’s why this scene in Matthew is so important. Not just because of what Peter said, which is one of the first professions of faith in the gospels. Not just because of what Peter said, but because of where he said it. 

Peter is one of my favorite disciples. Why? Because I can relate to Peter a lot. Like me, Peter suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. Anyone else suffer from that disease? You open your mouth and somehow immediately insert your foot? Peter was famous for blurting out answers to questions, no matter how rash or ridiculous they were. 

Every now and then, Peter got it right. 

Like he did in this scene.

Jesus asked Peter one of the most important questions of life, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” I can almost imagine Jesus looking at him and smiling, like, “Yes! You’re catching on!”

As great as Peter’s response was, this scene is important, not just because of what Peter said, but because of where he said it. 

Jesus could have held this teaching moment in the quiet sanctuary of the Temple or in the privacy of a boat in the middle of the water or in an upper room away from the crowd – all places where he had taught the disciples many times before. Instead, he intentionally chose to have this conversation in Caesarea Philippi. 

For years Caesarea Philippi was a Canaanite site for the worship of Baal. When Herod the Great conquered the city, he turned it into a different place of worship, building a temple for Caesar Augustus, a Roman emperor whose preferred title wasn’t emperor, but rather the Greek title for a divine leader. Caesar Augustus’ preferred title wasn’t emperor: it was son of god. 

In this place where people had worshipped the gods of their culture for centuries, in the shadow of the temple of the emperor who called himself the son of god, Peter professed his faith in another Son of God, the true Son of God. 

On the surface, Peter’s confession may sound like just good ol’ polite church talk. It sounds a lot like some of the creeds we often say in worship.

But when spoken in this location, it’s a bold, courageous statement. 

Caesarea Philippi was a bold, courageous place – a risky place – for Peter to call Jesus the Messiah. To go against the culture of his day usually came at a high price. Yet that’s exactly where Jesus calls his disciples to go and speak this truth. 

That was his call for Peter – and that’s his call for us today.

You and I each have our own Caesarea Philippis – those places where Jesus calls us to declare he is Lord in a world that tempts us to believe otherwise. The Caesarea Philippi of school, where we’re tempted to go along with the crowd or make the grade at any cost. The Caesarea Philippi of the workplace, where the pressure to make a buck and get ahead may clash with who Jesus calls us to be. 

Maybe that Caesarea Philippi for us is the comfort of our churches, when it’s tempting to do things the way we’ve always done them, instead of hearing a fresh call from the Lord.

We all have our own Caesarea Philippiss today, those places where Jesus calls us to declare he is Lord in a world that tempts us to believe otherwise.

This Tuesday is a Caesarea Philippi moment for us. No matter who you vote for, no matter whether you’ve already voted or are waiting ‘til Election Day, this Tuesday is a Caesarea Philippi moment. 

This Tuesday is a chance for us to declare that Jesus is Lord and to choose to live like it.

Like many of us, I’m looking forward to the election being over so that the robocalls, texts, and political mail will stop. To read some of the political ads, you’d think some people believe their candidate is the Messiah – and some in fact do. Actually, to read some of the political ads, you’d think some people believe their candidate’s opponent is Satan incarnate – and some in fact do. The other day I was scanning some of the political mail we received. Every postcard had one word in common. The one word they had in common? The word “destroy.” So and so is going to destroy our economy. So and so is going to destroy healthcare.

It’s sad to me that in so much of our discourse today, political or otherwise, we’ve begun to speak more about what we’re against than about what we’re for.

The church isn’t immune to that temptation. The world has heard for too long what the church is against. It’s time we spoke about who and what we are for

A frequent prayer request shared during our Facebook Live worship services recently has been a prayer for healing and unity for our nation that is divided in so many ways. That healing and unity comes by declaring who we are for, and this Tuesday is our chance to make that declaration. 

Many people are heading into this week with a lot of anticipation, maybe even some fear and uncertainty. Some people, maybe even some of us, are putting a lot of hope and faith in certain candidates, hoping their election will bring some of that healing and unity for which we’ve been praying.

If we are putting all of our hope and faith in a political candidate or party, Scripture has a word for that, and that word is idolatry.

Does that mean we shouldn’t even bother with voting? Of course not! We’ve been given the freedom to vote. God calls us to be good and faithful citizens of our nation, even while we remember our true citizenship is in heaven. God calls us to pray for our leaders – all of our leaders – whether we voted for them or not. Scripture is clear about that.

But Scripture is equally clear that we aren’t to put our trust in princes or mortals. There is only one Messiah, only one son of God. It’s not Caesar Augustus. It’s not Donald Trump or Joe Biden or any other candidate.

There is only one son of God, and his name is Jesus. Jesus alone is Lord.

And because he is Lord, we are free to live like it.

Because we know who alone is Lord, we can go into this week with confidence, even boldness. No matter what happens on Tuesday, we know Jesus still sits on the throne. No matter what we face at school or work, we know God’s got us in the palm of his hand and that God’s got a plan. No matter if our holidays aren’t quite the same this year, we know Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No matter what the rest of this crazy 2020 year brings, still we can say through faith it is the year of our Lord.

“Jesus is Lord. Live like it,” said my friend.

The question is not whether Jesus is Lord. He is. 

The question is: Will we choose to live like he is Lord? Will we choose to live like it on Tuesday, throughout this week, the rest of this year? Will we choose to live like he is Lord today? Will we?

An Easter (Un)like Any Other

It is an Easter unlike any other, isn’t it?

No sanctuaries filled with people in their Sunday best sitting, not six feet apart, but shoulder to shoulder. No large Easter gatherings with family and friends to feast on honey-baked ham, deviled eggs, and the like. None of our usual traditions to which we look forward every year.

Many have likened this Easter to that very first Easter, noting there wasn’t a huge crowd gathered then either. Depending on the gospel writer’s account, there were no more than two or three present.

The others, like us, were sheltered in place in their homes. They, like some of us, were struggling to feel any Easter joy that morning.

The difference between that first Easter and today is the reason they stayed in their homes.

They sheltered in place out of fear. We are sheltered in place out of love.

Jesus’ first disciples holed up in their homes out of fear for good reasons. Having just seen their master arrested, tortured, and crucified by those in power, they feared for their own lives. Having left family and jobs for three years to follow Jesus, they may have been afraid of how to return back to normal life – or if there even was a normal life to which to return.

Some of us today may be holed up in our homes out of fear for similar good reasons. In the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we fear for our lives and the lives of those dear to us. Many of us have begun to fear if and when we will ever return to normal life and what that normal life might look like.

Yet the ultimate reason we are called to shelter in place is not fear. It’s not because of a command from those in power.

The ultimate reason we are sheltered in place is because of a command from the One who is ultimately in power.

We are sheltered in place out of love.

We are sheltered in place because Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor. We are sheltered in place to care for the most vulnerable among us. We’re checking in on one another, offering resources to help one another. We’re laying aside our normal routines and lifestyles to ensure life for another.

What better way to celebrate the message of Easter?

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

When we were at our most vulnerable, Jesus laid down His life for us. We are now called to do the same. Not our of fear, but out of love. As those living on the other side of the cross and the other side of the empty tomb, we know that in the end there is no reason to fear. There is every reason to love.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that sickness and death are not the end. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that, though we grieve sickness and death among us today, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). If ever there were a picture of that hope that we need to hear – perhaps especially today – it is John’s vision as recorded in Revelation Chapter 21: “‘Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'”

I do miss my Easter traditions. I’ve heard many pastors and congregations say that, whenever we are able to gather again as a large group, we will have traditional “Easter” worship, complete with a brass ensemble and the most joyful singing ever of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”

Rightly so.

While today is the Day of Resurrection, because of today, every Sunday – indeed every day – is a day of resurrection.

I look forward to that day when we get to have our normal Easter traditions again. At the same time, I pray, on this Easter unlike any other, that we claim a new Easter tradition – or rather, reclaim that first Easter tradition: Easter is about the One who laid down His life out of love for us. Today He has given us the great privilege of doing the same for one another, for “greater love has no one than this…”

May every Easter be like it.

A Good Friday to Acknowledge Grief and Death

I’ve had several conversations the past two weeks with pastoral colleagues about how to navigate this unique Holy Week. Typically on Palm Sunday, we encourage our congregations not to rush forward to Easter, but instead to walk through the events of Jesus’ last week – his suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial. Yet in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s tempting to gloss over Good Friday and opt for a spoiler alert: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Who wants to focus on suffering and death when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death? Who’s ready to move forward to brighter, more hopeful days ahead? Who’s wrestling with how to hope for those brighter days when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death?

In talking with colleagues, one conversation in particular helped bridge some of these questions. She, her husband, and children had a sabbatical scheduled, beginning next month. A large portion of their sabbatical was to be spent traveling to Europe and South America. While they are still taking a sabbatical, obviously, their travel plans have changed. She said that on Good Friday they planned to bury – literally – their sabbatical plans in their backyard. Then on Easter Monday they will start fresh and design a new sabbatical.

There’s something powerful and deeply theological in that for me.

On that first Good Friday when Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the disciples thought all of their plans, their hopes, their dreams were buried right there with him.

But then on Sunday, they discovered all those plans, hopes, and dreams were alive and well again. Not the way they expected. Something far better.

Like my friend and those first disciples, each of us has experienced the death of some of our own plans and aspirations as a result of the pandemic. The loss of a job. A reduction in our retirement savings. A canceled commencement. The loss of a sports season. No end-of-year school activities. A postponed road race. The inability to gather in a hospital room or at a wedding or funeral. The inability to go out to eat or get a haircut. The loss of routine and “normal” life.

Each of us has experienced a loss, and each of us is grieving that loss. As a way of acknowledging that grief, what if today, like my friend, we took time to bury that which we have lost?

What do you need to bury today?

Whether you literally bury something – a vacation itinerary, an unused sports ticket, an invitation, an old business card – or figuratively bury it through journaling, meditation, or prayer, take time today to acknowledge the loss and allow yourself to grieve. Then take time to consider what new thing God might have in store for you in the future…

…for it is Friday, but Sunday is surely coming.

To Love Is To Stay And Listen

Like many of us, my husband James and I celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper tonight at home while worshipping via Zoom. Before worship, we read today’s Daily Lectionary Gospel text Mark 14:12-25. We then read John’s account of that fateful night. I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because his way of recounting Jesus’ offering his body and blood was by recounting Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. Second, because that’s when Jesus gave us a new command: “Love one another.”

I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because he reminds us that to lay down one’s life for another often takes the form of humbly serving another. Second, because he reminds us that this “new” command is one we need to hear anew: “Love one another.”

In reading these words from John that I’ve read hundreds of times, what struck me anew tonight was what took place between his washing the disciples’ feet and his giving the disciples this new commandment: He spoke to one disciple in particular. He spoke to Judas.

Jesus spoke of one who would betray him. In identifying who it was by dipping a piece of bread into the dish and offering it to Judas, Jesus said to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas left, and the other disciples immediately began speculating as to why. Maybe Judas left to be practical and tend to their practical needs. (What do we need for our Passover/Easter celebration?) Maybe Judas left to be charitable and tend to their charitable needs. (What can I do to tend to the needs of others?)

Whatever the reason, Judas left.

To those who were left, to those who stayed, Jesus gave his new command: “Love one another.”

When I think about Jesus’ words to Judas and the disciples’ speculations as to why he left, I realize I’m a lot like Judas. I tend to think of what’s the practical thing (even when it’s not the most practical thing to do in the moment), and I tend to think of what’s the charitable thing (even when it’s not the most charitable thing to do in the moment.)

Like Judas, I, too, am tempted to run off and do what I want to do rather than sticking around to hear what God calls me to do.

What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen to Jesus’ command: “Love one another”? What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen anew to Jesus’ new command: “Love one another”?

And for those of us Judases who don’t always make the right choice when it comes to those questions, remember anew: Jesus spoke to Judas, and Jesus gave him a choice: “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Jesus gives us the same choice tonight: What are we going to do? Will we get up and leave this night to do whatever it is we planned to do? Or will we sit up and stay and listen this night to God’s call to love one another?

Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a lot at stake in our choosing to obey that command. Indeed, there always has been. As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35.) May it be so.

In our Presbyterian tradition, we offer a prayer of confession before partaking of communion. One of my favorite prayers of confession is the following from the Book of Common Worship. Join me in this prayer prayed by thousands tonight across centuries of years:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Sisters and brothers, hear the good news! Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

God’s story – and our story – continues tomorrow.

Fear and Anxiety

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening volunteering at Atlanta Track Club‘s America’s Marathon Weekend Experience, greeting some of the 15,000 athletes who will be running and walking the streets of Atlanta this weekend and handing out T-shirts. When I signed up for this particular shift, I didn’t take note of the media stage schedule for that day. I didn’t know who would be on the stage – or what I would hear from the stage.

During our dinner break, as I was munching on the pizza provided for us, I overheard the press conference already in progress hosted by Jay Holder. When Jay welcomed to the stage some of the top women and men contenders for the Olympic Team Trials – Marathon, I quickly ditched the rest of my pizza. I could eat later; I could only hear from these amazing athletes now.

The top five women contenders and top five men contenders, based on their qualifying times, were invited to a press conference, where they would be asked questions by high school journalists. Whoever thought of the idea of having high school students interview these Olympic hopefuls was genius. Their questions were equally as insightful as the answers – and what an amazing gift for these high school students, filled with dreams and aspirations, to hear from those who are toeing the line tomorrow to pursue their own dreams and aspirations.

There are so many great quotes from the press conference. Des Linden’s mantra “Keep showing up,” as quoted by her teammate Jake Riley. When asked how he deals with pressure, in speaking as a father of a 13-year-old and 10-year-old to a panel of teenagers, Bernard Lagat said, “Put in the work. Just keep working and doing your work.” (Did I mention what a gift these interviews were to high school students – and to the rest of us?)

The statement that has stuck with me most came from Jared Ward, who placed 6th in the 2016 Olympic Marathon. When asked, “Do you get nervous, and, if so, how do you control those nerves?” Ward answered, “The key to managing anxiety is not to get too far ahead of yourself in what you’re thinking about.” He then quoted Brigham Young University sports psychologist Craig Manning: “Fear and anxiety live in the future. Those emotions don’t exist in the present.” Ward responded, “When I start feeling fear and anxiety, I think to myself, ‘I’ve got to get my mind back to the present and focus on what I’m doing right now that will help the future, instead of focusing on what might or might not happen in the future.'”

I’ve been there – not just on race day, but in the everyday. I can get too far ahead of myself in thinking about things. Everything. Our family. Our vocations. Our finances. Healthcare. The stock market. The upcoming election. The list goes on. I can get so focused on the future that I lose sight of the present. When I do, I start feeling fear and anxiety.

When I start feeling fear and anxiety, am I able to recognize those are emotions of the future, not of the present? When I get too far ahead of myself, what can I do to get back to the present? I can ask: What am I doing right now that will help the future?

I’ve recently begun reading Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck. In his insightful writing about habits, Dyck states, “Ultimately, it’s the habits that are built into our lives that shape (for better or for worse) who we end up becoming. Habits help us translate what we believe into how we behave.” He goes on to quote C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

What we do today impacts what will happen a few months from now. It sounds like a cry to think about the future when really it’s a call to think about today. What am I doing right now that will help the future? What’s a small act I can do today that might lead to victory a few months from now? Will I give way to a trivial indulgence in lust or anger – or will I make way for something better?

I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions, but here are a few thoughts – or rather, more questions – that come to mind for me: How do my everyday habits today affect what will happen tomorrow? Especially those habits I can choose – or neglect – when life gets busy or hard. Those habits I do – or don’t do – when no one’s watching. What I eat or drink. What I read or watch. How I exercise – or not. How I rest – or not. How I treat my neighbor – or mistreat my neighbor. In this political season, when we’re all focused on what might happen a few months from now (and rightly so!), how do my choices today – what I say, what I do, the news sources I read or to which I listen, what I post on social media, for whom I do or do not advocate – how do they shape who I am becoming? More importantly, how do these habits shape who God wants me to become?

As I wrestle with these questions, it strikes me as no coincidence that today’s “Daily Practice” in the Lenten devotional Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days is: “Make two lists today: ‘What brings me life?’ and ‘What takes life from me?’ Add to the lists throughout the day. At the end of the day, reflect on these two columns and ask God for guidance.”

So I’m making my lists, asking myself questions, and asking God for guidance.

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Casting Calls

Actors in the film industry often talk about the idea of being type-casted, that is, being cast repeatedly in the same type of role. For some, this notion is exciting. In watching the Academy Awards tonight, I’m reminded that many have won Oscars for playing the same role over and over again until they have perfected it. For others, this notion is unsettling. If they keep playing the same role over and over again, will anyone ever be able to picture them in a different role?

Pastors can also be type-casted in a certain role. Take, for example, the roles of an installed pastor and an interim pastor. Some pastors feel called to be in an installed position for an extended period of time. They’re the “cradle-to-grave” types, a term I first heard when I did a Clinical Pastoral Education internship as a chaplain in a hospital one summer in seminary. Others prefer interim positions. Whether they need or want a contract for a set period of time, or whether they have particular gifts in helping a congregation work through any conflicts and prepare the way for their next installed pastor, there are those who feel called to interim ministry.

Then there’s another type: those of us who have been serving as an interim pastor when we feel called to be an installed pastor.

I have recently been serving in interim roles due to the geographic restrictions of my husband’s career: he needs to live in or near a city with a medium-large hub airport. In order to accommodate both of our vocations, I’ve been serving as an interim pastor in the greater Atlanta area for the past five years.

But my heart longs to be an installed pastor. Moreover, I know Christ has called me to be an installed pastor.

Don’t get me wrong. I have loved experiencing different congregations, seeing different ways of being church, and getting to know the amazing people that make us the Church. And, yes, I do have gifts in conflict management and in preparing the way for the next generation of leadership. At the same time, I know I am one of those cradle-to-grave types. I love getting to know and being in relationship with people for the long haul. The kind of relationship where we discover and grow in Christ together. Where we learn to trust each other. Where we begin to see and cast a vision that is bigger than ourselves – a God-sized vision that is only possible because God is with and for us.

So I’m doubling down. I’m doubling down on Jesus’ call on my life. I’m seeking an installed position with a congregation that sees the Kingdom life of a disciple as an adventure. In running language, I’m seeking a congregation that sees ministry together, not as a 5K sprint, but as a marathon. And I’m trusting the One who’s coaching us every step of the way.

Jesus Christ is in it for the long haul with us. Are we willing to be in it for the long haul with Jesus Christ and His Church?

9/11: The Light Shines in the Darkness

This photo was taken in December 2011. Every year on this date, I remember visiting the 9/11 Memorial in December 2011. While there, we saw this faint rainbow shining up from the middle of the North Tower Memorial Pool. A powerful reminder of the Light that shines in the darkness…

Like many or all of us, I’ve been asked on this date, “Where were you?” Like many or all of us, I remember exactly where I was on that day and at that time.

It was a Tuesday morning. Roughly two months prior, I’d begun serving as the Director of Youth Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Virginia. My first time living in a naval community. That Tuesday morning I arrived at my office shortly before 9:00 am. Instinctively, I checked my email, where I read an email from our Director of Music Ministries that he was resigning to take a position with our local orchestra. A second later a colleague walked by my office. He said, “Did you hear the news?” I said, referring to our Director of Music Ministries’ email, “Yes, I’m excited for him, sad for us.” My colleague said, “No, the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center North Tower.” He walked away as I clicked on Internet Explorer and searched the Internet. I thought, “How could a plane get that far off course?” Then a darker thought came: “Or…what if it was right on course?” At 9:03 am, when a second plane struck the South Tower, I knew which was the answer. 

It was my first time living in a naval community. I naively thought, “Well, we’re totally safe in a naval community.” I quickly learned how unsafe that made us. We were a major target. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. 

It was a Tuesday morning. Every Tuesday we had a worship service for staff in the Chapel, followed by our staff meeting. On that particular Tuesday morning, we all lingered in the hallway leading down to the Chapel. We discussed what we needed to do, whom we needed to contact in light of the attack. We never made it down the hallway to the Chapel to worship. And yet, we worshipped. Not in the Chapel, but in our community.

Not sure exactly what to do, I went to our local high school, Maury High School. I went to the administrative office, introduced myself, and asked, “How can I help?” I was directed to the guidance counselor’s office, where there were maybe two dozen students present. Most of their parents had been called to their ships right after the attacks in case they needed to be deployed immediately. One such student asked me, “Will I ever see my parents again?” I opened my mouth to say the usual default, “It’ll be ok.” But on that day, it wasn’t so easy to say those words. On that day, there were no words.

Flash forward a few hours, and our church staff and other religious staff organized an amazing ecumenical service that night. I remember calling a local secular radio station that afternoon and asking them to promote the service. The DJ said, “Yes, we’ll advertise it. Because, right now, it doesn’t matter your religious or ethnic group. Right now, we all are one.”

I went home after that worship service and after a great impromptu gathering of our staff at our senior pastor’s home. In my move to Norfolk, it was the first time I lived alone without a roommate. Until that night, I’d loved the sense of independence. 

But that night I went home alone. 

But that night I wasn’t the only one who went home alone. 

The following week our church was scheduled to launch our church-wide small-group initiative. On that following Tuesday night, exactly one week after 9/11, I hosted an initial small group for young singles. When I asked in my living room the typical icebreaker question, “Why did you come tonight?”, the answers were quite atypical: “Because on 9/11 I realized how alone I was.” “Because on 9/11 I realized there was something missing in my life.” “Because on 9/11 I realized I needed God and other people to be in my life.”

And so began an amazing ministry.

There have been many people who have asked me how we launched such an amazing Young Singles’ Ministry. There have been many a Facebook meme that have wished we could go back to September 12, 2001.

The answers to both are one and the same.

I would never wish to go back to September 12, 2001, or to that week later, September 18, 2001…because I know that means going back to September 11, 2001. And yet I would wish to go back to that sense of spirit on September 12, 2001, and to that sense of community in that living room on September 18, 2001. In the words of that DJ 18 years ago: “Right now, it doesn’t matter what your religious or ethnic group is. Right now, we all are one.”

May it be so. Amen. 

You’re Not One Of His Disciples, Are You?

On Sunday mornings during this season of Lent, we’ve been considering questions of Jesus’ last week. Up ‘til now, we’ve looked at questions asked of Jesus either by the disciples or Pilate. Tonight we turn to a question asked of one of the disciples when Jesus wasn’t with them – or, more to the point, when they weren’t with him.          

Hours before this scene we’ll read in a moment, Peter, along with James and John, had been with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when suddenly Judas appeared and betrayed Jesus, just as Jesus had predicted. And just as he also predicted, he was arrested, and all of the disciples deserted him. In our text tonight, Peter will be reminded of yet another one of Jesus’ predictions. Listen for God’s Word from the Gospel of John Chapter 18, beginning with verse 15. Read John 18:15-18, 25-27.

Each of the gospels records Peter’s denial. What is unique about the way John recalls the scene is that the denial comes in response to a question. The other gospel writers describe Peter’s denial in response to a statement – “This man was with Jesus.” “Certainly, you are one of his followers.” 

When we overhear statements made about us or to us, we sometimes are quick to respond in kind. Lord knows Peter was known for kneejerk responses, like when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Or when at supper that fateful night when Jesus told Peter, “This very night you will deny me three times,” Peter immediately replied, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.”

When we hear statements made about us, we can choose to respond. Or we can choose to ignore them as just one person’s opinion.

But a question demands a response: “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” Yes or no?

 We all have those times when we’re eager to say we’re one of his disciples, and we all have those times when we’re a little less eager. Back in the day when it was the popular thing to put a fish symbol on the back of your car, I admittedly didn’t because, well, let’s be honest, when I’m sitting in traffic on I-75, and my foot gets a little heavy, and my patience gets a little light, I might not want people to know, yes, I’m one of his disciples.

Psychologists say we should especially be mindful of our actions and reactions when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. H-A-L-T. When we are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we need to halt and take a second to think before we speak, lest we say something we might regret. 

Peter was likely feeling all four. He was likely hungry. It was around midnight or later by this time. Even a big meal like the Passover feast they’d just enjoyed would have been long gone by now. He was likely angry. Angry at the soldiers who arrested Jesus. Angry at Judas who betrayed him, thinking, “You mess with my mentor, you mess with me.” He was likely lonely. His friends had all scattered. The one friend who had been with him had since gone into the courtyard with Jesus, leaving Peter standing alone by the fire. And he was most definitely tired. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. 

Beyond these basic human emotions, the times when the question of discipleship becomes the most telling are those times when there is risk involved. Those times when, like Peter, to answer yes might make us an outcast or the butt of a joke. Those times when to answer yes might bring us unwanted attention, higher expectations, undue scrutiny, or worse. Those times when, to answer yes, we might have to be willing to die to something in us, or, in Peter’s case, to die for someone close to us. If the guards knew that, not only had Peter been in the garden with Jesus, but that he’d cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves, then Jesus might have had some company on that cross.

Faced with that choice, Peter chose to save his own skin rather than profess his allegiance to Christ. It was something he imagined he’d never do, something he even insisted he’d never do. When the cock crowed just as Jesus predicted, I imagine Peter winced, as he realized Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. Now he’d turned his back on the one who knew him best.

It was his darkest night of the soul.

Yet sometimes healing begins during the darkest part of the night. The rooster crowed, Peter wept, and the road to healing began.

A few weeks later, and a few chapters later, in John Chapter 21, John tells us about another healing step in Peter’s journey when Peter found himself once again standing around a charcoal fire. 

As many of us know and have experienced, the sense of smell has great power to awaken memories. The aroma of a certain cologne or perfume. The smell of a favorite family dish. And suddenly are these memories flood our minds. 

Charcoal fires have a particular smell to them. Much like probably any rooster crow he’d heard since that night, the smell of charcoal likely called up for Peter the memory of that awful, awful night. He’d tried to forget his denial. He’d hoped Jesus had forgotten it also. 

But try as he might, the memory came back – and as it turned out, that was a good thing – because around that second fire, Peter learned that healing comes, not from trying to bury our past, but by exposing it to the light – and allowing Jesus to redeem it.

Peter hadn’t forgotten that painful night, and neither had Jesus – and as it turned out, that also was a good thing. Jesus knew exactly what question Peter needed to be asked this time around to help him heal and move past the way he responded to that earlier question. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked. 

He asked the question three times, once for each time Peter had denied him. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? 

In our English translation, it’s the same question every time. In the original language, the third time is actually a different question. The word translated “love” in the first two questions is agape. Agape is that perfect, unconditional love, the way God loves us. The word translated “love” in the third question is philia. Philia is that brotherly or sisterly love, the love shared between friends, the way we humans love…genuinely…yet imperfectly and conditionally. 

Twice Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me perfectly all the time, in all circumstances and all conditions?” Twice Peter gave his trademark kneejerk reaction, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” The third time Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me, even if not perfectly? Peter, do you love me as best you know how right now?” Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything.”

Jesus does know everything. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us. He gets us. He gets that there will be those moments when we like Peter will confess with bold confidence, “You are the Messiah. Am I one of your disciples? Yes. Absolutely.” He also knows there will be those times when we betray him, desert him, and deny him. “You’re not one of his disciples, are you? No, I am not.”

Jesus knows everything about us. And the good news? He still loves us. 

But there’s more good news. Not only does Jesus still love us, but he gives us a purpose.  Each time Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.” If Peter’s words of denial “I don’t know him” were unimaginable words to Peter, Jesus’ words “feed my sheep” were equally unimaginable – the one portraying the depth of our sin, the other the depth of God’s mercy. 

We may think all of our failures are permanent. Jesus says, “No, they’re not. Your present situation is not your permanent destination. I have a greater purpose for you: Go feed my sheep.”

If ever there were a sign of God’s love and purpose for us, it’s this meal we remember tonight. Even though he knew how the disciples would fail him, Jesus set a place for them at the table. Even though he knew they would never be able to love him as fully in return, Jesus showed them the fullness of his love: “This is my body given for you and my blood shed for you.”

Even to the one who would betray him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to those who would desert him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to the one who would deny him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to you and to me, Jesus says, “Come to the table.”

Tonight as you come to the table, as you tear off a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup, remember his love for you. Remember also what Peter discovered: that God can use you, despite your past…maybe even because of it…if you offer your past to him and trust in his redemption.

May we come to the table, may we remember, and may we discover that grace.