A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on April 10, 2022
Arresting Jesus, they marched him off and took him into the house of the Chief Priest. Peter followed, but at a safe distance. In the middle of the courtyard some people had started a fire and were sitting around it, trying to keep warm. One of the serving maids sitting at the fire noticed him, then took a second look and said, “This man was with him!”
He denied it, “Woman, I don’t even know him.”
A short time later, someone else noticed him and said, “You’re one of them.”
But Peter denied it: “Man, I am not.”
About an hour later, someone else spoke up, really adamant: “He’s got to have been with him! He’s got ‘Galilean’ written all over him.”
Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” At that very moment, the last word hardly off his lips, a rooster crowed. Just then, the Master turned and looked at Peter. Peter remembered what the Master had said to him: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Every year, every year, we get to this point and stall out. Because, you know, the front story is nothing but success… crowds, palms, loud hosannas, the whole thing just says, “we’re winning!”. You can just picture the disciples sitting around a fire in the evening and counting up what they’ll have next week. They know it’s coming. They’re going to be in charge. They will be the ones who overthrow the compromising religious authorities. They’ll tell the Romans what for. Yes, the army may stay, but they’re going to be the one occupied country the occupiers respect.
Yes, indeed. The crowds are behind Jesus, and winning is inevitable.
But, looking ahead, this week is going to be one of unending failure…. one bad day after another, each worse than the one before. On Sunday, Peter is Jesus’ right hand man, next in charge, about to become really really important. But by Friday, he’s cringing in the shadows, denying he even knows Jesus, frantic to save his own life. On Thursday night, he’s willing to kill for Jesus, but on Friday night, he’s not even willing to stand with Jesus.
This week, this Holy Week, is the most important part of the story. It lays the foundation for the triumph of Easter, because Easter is about winning despite failure. Without Good Friday, without the betrayal of Judas, or the denial of Peter, the new life of Easter doesn’t make sense.
On Thursday, we know, Jesus will eat the meal we remember as Holy Communion. We remember it because the story tells us it was his Last Supper. But even more importantly, we remember it because it was a meal with people he loved, including the man who would betray him before the evening is over. Jesus loved Judas.
Later in evening, after the arrest, Peter was hanging around the edges of the crowd at the Chief Priest’s house, trying to find out what was happening. And it was there that he was caught – you sound like a Galilean, the maid said – he responded, not me. Not just once, but three times, Peter denied he even knew Jesus, much less that he was a leader in Jesus’ movement. And still Jesus loved him.
Being good isn’t easy. Peter was all in, right up to when he realized that it might cost him his life, and that hadn’t been on his radar before. Stuff happens, but we are still loved, still accepted.
Following Jesus isn’t easy. We try and fail, and try again, and sometimes fail again. We work as hard as we can, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. It’s discouraging.
And part of the challenge is the illusion that what we do, who we are, isn’t worth much unless we succeed all the time, unless we always have it together, unless we never never fall short of the goal. If there’s one thing to learn from this COVID epidemic, it is that the idea that we control our world, that everything will be good, and well, and pleasurable is fake, that life is not about unending success, . . . and, yet, in the midst of all this difficulty, we are loved, we are welcomed, we are strengthened to go out and do it again.
Years ago, when I was in seminary, we had a professor who was enormously intelligent, and notoriously impatient with students. It seemed to me that one of the challenges that teacher had was that they didn’t realize how much smarter than most of the students they were. Lfe is not all that different: when all is going well, we don’t realize how well off we are, how much better off than some, or even what extra help our good jobs, ample funds, well-made homes, sturdy health, give us in navigating our world.
And then a pandemic hits, and while what we have is good, it’s ever so much easier to see what we don’t have – no more guaranteed health, no more sure work, no more this, no more that… and, if we pay attention, we develop more sensitivity to the challenges others face.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest rabbis of the twentieth century, once wrote: “A religious person is a person who holds God and humanity in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”
Peter failed, but he didn’t give up. He took all his experiences and allowed them to enrich and strengthen his life, his work.
That is the gift of this week of despair. Yes, it’s about failure, betrayal and death. And it’s also about new chances, new opportunities, about growing through all our challenges. Don’t close your heart to the times when things have not gone the way you wanted. Don’t turn away from pain, even death. Live with all life gives us.
And trust in the truth that no matter who we are, no matter where we are in our lives, no matter our struggles, no matter our successes, we are always loved by God.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child