Failing with Peter
September 17, 2006
Nobody wants to fail. None of us tries to make mistakes. All of us are embarrassed when we mess up. But mess up we do. Failing is a part of living, and all of us can fail in a variety of ways. We can fail in our relationships: hurting our marriage, our children, our friends. We can fail in our jobs, taking on more than we can handle, cutting corners that lead to disaster, betraying the trust that others place in us. We can fail ourselves: giving in to apathy and self-pity, nurturing a private selfishness, trading in on our good name.
There are many ways to fail. The question is not whether we will make a mistake, but how we will respond when we do. Here is where the experience of Peter can help us. In today’s gospel, among the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Peter makes a serious mistake. Buoyed up with pride at his ability to realize that Jesus is the Messiah, he pushes off from that shaky foundation and challenges Jesus. He corrects the Lord, when Jesus announces his upcoming passion and death. Peter oversteps his bounds, reveals his ignorance, and betrays the trust that Jesus had placed in him. Jesus reacts strongly, pushing Peter aside and calling him Satan. This failure of Peter foreshadows an even greater failure, when, during the passion, Peter three times denies Christ. There is no doubt that Peter was a good person, that Peter had great intentions and a big heart. But there is also no doubt that Peter made big mistakes. Peter is like us, and his experience in today’s gospel points to two truths which we need to remember when we fail.
The first truth is this: God does not reject us when we fail. Peter’s mistakes may have surprised and discouraged Peter, but they did not surprise or discourage God. God knew who Peter would be from the moment of creation. Nevertheless, God chose to create Peter and called him to lead the church. God relates in the same way to us. Our mistakes do not surprise God. God loves us in spite of them. No matter what we have done, God still calls us to be daughters and sons, agents of Christ’s Kingdom. God’s love for us is constant. It is everlasting.
The second truth is this: when we fail, we are called to face our mistake and move on. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Those who wish to be my disciples must take up their cross and follow me.” Normally when we think of a cross, we image it as some burden which life places on our shoulders. But crosses can also be burdens we place on our own shoulders. Our mistakes and failures are our crosses. What are we to do with them? We are not supposed to deny them or excuse them. We are not are not called to put them down and bury them; we are called to take them up and carry them. We carry our failures as crosses and move forward with the help of Christ.
It is not a question of whether we will make mistakes but how we shall respond when we do. Peter shows us the way. I am sure he never forgot those foolish words he spoke at Caesarea Philippi or Christ’s stinging rebuke. I know he always remembered the three times that he denied Christ before the cock crowed. But he took up those mistakes and moved forward as a disciple. We can do the same. No matter what we have done, we can take up our failures and follow after Christ. We need not fear that those mistakes will crush us, because God never stops loving us, and the love of God is the most powerful force in creation.
Not only does God’s love allow us to take up the cross of our failure and move forward; God’s love can make that cross light.
A Savior Who Suffers with Us
September 13, 2009
Mark 8: 27 – 35
Why does God permit evil to happen in our world? Where is God when another small African child dies of starvation because of a corrupt political system? Where is God when hundreds of people are killed in an unexpected earthquake? Where is God when a young mother of 25 with two small children is told she has a brain tumor and 6 months to live? Where is God when the people we love reject us or the people we trust betray us? Where is God when time and again it seems as if greed and violence are stronger than service and peace in our world?
These are important and frightening questions to believers, and that is why today’s gospel is important. Because the question of where God is is connected to the question of who God is. And Jesus asks a “who question” of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is quick to respond: You are the Messiah. You are God’s chosen agent, the one through whom God will save us. Peter’s answer is correct and Jesus accepts it, but immediately he orders Peter to say nothing about this to anyone. Jesus gives that order because although Peter’s answer is correct, it is incomplete, and Jesus knows it. Although God is Savior, Jesus knows that at times God will not be savior. If time and again we can point and believe to events in our life where God protects us from evil, we can also point to some events where God seems to be absent and where evil seems to have its way with us and those that we love.
Jesus’ command to silence is a way of acknowledging that simply to say that God is savior is not complete. Evil will remain in our lives. And it would have been really helpful for Jesus then to tell us why God permits evil in our lives. But he does not do that. Because he does not do that, to this day, Christians have no explanation for the presence of evil. We know that God does not send evil and that God is not the cause of evil, but why God permits evil—we have no idea. It remains a mystery to which Jesus gave no explanation. But even though Jesus does not explain why evil is present, he does tell us something important about evil. Jesus tells us that God will somehow share in the evil of our lives. Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he must suffer and die on the cross. Jesus himself will suffer. So who is Jesus? Messiah, Savior, yes. But not a Messiah or Savior who will protect us from every evil. But rather one who will share in the evils we must endure.
Elie Wiesel the great Jewish writer tells of a horrible scene in his book called Night. It occurred while he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. Two young children close to starvation had stolen some bread from their Nazi captors. In response their captors sentenced them to death, but they wanted to execution to be public so that everyone could see what would happen if the camp rules were not followed. So Wiesel remembers standing in horror among the group of prisoners as the children were led up to the gallows, as ropes were slipped around their necks, and as they were hoisted up. Because they were so little, their weight did not help them to die quickly. The horrified crowd had to watch as they slowly suffocated. In response to this unspeakable violence and injustice, a man standing behind Wiesel whispered, “Where is God? Where is God now?” To his surprise, Wiesel heard a voice in his own heart whisper back: “Where is God? God is hanging with the children on the gallows.”
Who is Christ? We commonly say that Christ is the one who suffered for us. That is true. But Christ is also the one who suffers with us. We cannot explain why evil remains in our lives and in our world. But the revelation of Christ makes it clear that when evil happens, God is not distant or unconcerned. We cannot explain why evil happens, but we know where God is when evil happens. When we must face loss, sickness, rejection, or pain, where is God? God is with us on the gallows.
How to Carry the Cross
September 16, 2012
All of us have a cross, a difficulty, a pain that will not let us go. Now this cross can be in the area of our family, health, job, or finances. But in whatever area our cross is located, we want to put it down. We want our cross to go away. This is what is so discouraging about Jesus in today’s Gospel. Jesus says if we are to follow him, we have to take up our cross and carry it. We can understand why Peter argued with Jesus and tried to change his mind. But Jesus would not budge. Being a disciple means that our cross must be carried. So how do we do it? How do we find the strength to bear the burdens that are ours?
There is a very old movie called “The Man who Played God.” It is a story about an internationally-famous musician. He was very successful and accumulated a great deal of wealth. But was given a great cross to bear. He began to lose his hearing. No longer able to do the thing he loved, he became angry and embittered. He turned against his family and friends. He cursed God. He withdrew into his penthouse where he spent his time learning to lip-read, preparing for his deafness.
Outside the penthouse was a beautiful park. One day, looking out his window, he saw a young man sitting on the bench in the park. The man was not sleeping or reading. He seemed to be talking, but there was no one there. So the musician took out some high-powered binoculars and began to read the man’s lips. He was praying. He had lost his job and he was asking God to help him find money to pay his mortgage.
The musician laughed. “God doesn’t care,” he said. “God will not answer your prayer—but I will.” He sent his butler to go out and find a secret way of providing the money to the man in need. The musician scorned God: “I’m a better God than you are. I answer people’s prayers.” It felt good, so he continued to search the park for other people in need. When he could not find enough people in the park, he began to sit in the corner of churches and read the lips of people who came in. Whenever there was a need he could meet, he found a secret way of providing it.
The musician continued this eccentric way of giving for months. In time, it changed him. What began as an insult to God was transformed into a service for others. His anger was turned to compassion. Service led him to acceptance and a kind of peace. The man who played God found God. In serving others, he found the strength to carry his own cross.
All of our crosses are different, but every cross has its own kind of difficulty. That is why it is important for us to remember that we do not gain the strength to carry our cross by turning inward, by feeding our anger and our discouragement. We gain strength by turning outward, by finding some way to give, some way of touching the life of another. Self-pity and sadness deplete us of energy and power. But, even the smallest act of generosity, whatever giving we can muster has the ability to free us and empower us to continue.
Jesus was able to carry his cross because he carried it for us. We will be able to carry our crosses when we give of ourselves for others. So when your cross becomes heavy, look for a way to serve. Giving of yourself will not deplete you but refresh you. God is the giver of all good gifts, so do not be afraid to play God. Giving to others provides us with the strength to take up our own cross and carry it.
Do What You Love
September 13, 2015
D W Y L: This is an acronym for Do What You Love. This expression becomes a refrain at the end of the academic year as young people graduate from college. Keynote speakers at graduation ceremonies throughout our country often offer the “do what you love” advice. Here is what Steve Jobs said to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005: Find something that you love. You will spend a great deal of your life working, and you will never be completely satisfied unless your work is great. And your work cannot be great unless you love what you do. Now let me say at the beginning that Steve Jobs has a point. If we are able to earn our living doing something good and loving what we do, that is a great blessing. It is a gift to love what you do.
But, as I began to think about this, I wondered whether my father loved what he did. My father was a butcher, and unlike many butchers today, his job was more than unpacking packages of pre-prepared meats and setting them out on the shelves of the supermarket. My father carried huge slabs of beef on his shoulder and cut them up with a cleaver and a hacksaw. It was hard work, and I remember watching him do it. But I never asked my father, “Dad, do you love what you do?” I think if I would have asked him, he would have said, “It’s good enough on most days. But it is steady work and fair pay, and that is what I need.” My father did not necessarily love being a butcher, but he loved providing for his family. And therefore, his work was good, even if it was difficult.
Jesus is saying something similar in today’s gospel. When he tells us to take up our cross and follow him, he is not saying that suffering is a good thing or that we should go out and find something difficult for its own sake. He is saying that when we carry a burden, when we do something that is hard, it can have value, if it brings about something good. It is not easy being a parent, waking up in the night with a newborn, being patient with our teenage daughter, forgiving an adult son who makes some major mistakes. But, unless we are willing to take up such difficulties and carry them, we cannot be the parents that our children need us to be. It is not easy to remain positive when we have to deal with ongoing sickness or deteriorating health. But unless we take up that burden and bear it, we will end up being negative and depressed people. It is not easy challenging someone who acts unjustly or treats others with prejudice. But unless we speak out, it will be less likely for our society to be the place it should be.
If we love our life and our job, that is indeed a blessing. But even then, we cannot all the time do what we love. Sometimes we must do what we hate, because it needs to be done. And each time we do something difficult for the right reason, we not only prove ourselves to be people of worth. We also show that we are disciples, carrying our cross after Jesus.
Carrying the Cross for Whom?
September 16, 2018
Mark 8:27 – 35
Today’s gospel contains one of the most famous sayings of Jesus, “Whoever wishes to come after me must take up their cross and follow me.” Now, we know what the cross means. It stands for suffering in our lives. Many of us know what our cross is. It might be a crisis in our family, a betrayal by a friend, or a serious sickness that is crippling us. Jesus says that the way we face our suffering will define us as his disciples. So, since the cross is so central to our relationship with Christ, it is important to understand it correctly. If you will, I would like to offer two truths about the cross that we must never forget.
The first is this: Jesus does not want us to suffer. God does not send suffering into our lives. Suffering is the result of our own imperfections and the imperfections of the world. Therefore, we as followers of Christ are not called to accept suffering, but to avoid it. If there is abuse in our home, it is not a virtue to embrace that abuse. We should escape it. If we are beset by depression, God is not calling us to accept depression, but rather work with counselors and other professionals to resolve it. Disciples of Jesus are called to avoid whatever suffering they can.
But there is some suffering we cannot avoid, some pain we cannot escape. Here is where the second truth about the cross is important. The cross allows us to give our suffering a purpose. The most important question to ask about the cross is not, “What is my cross?” or “How heavy does my cross feel?” The most important question is, “For whom do I carry my cross?” You see, you and I have the freedom to offer the suffering we cannot avoid for the sake of someone else. We can offer the pain of dealing with cancer for the sake of our family or for a grandchild who has lost his way. We can offer the pain of divorce for married couples experiencing difficulties, asking that their difficulties might be resolved.
When we offer our suffering for the sake of someone else, it gives suffering a purpose and makes suffering redemptive. This is why Jesus talks about “taking up the cross.” Taking up means we are in charge. We have the freedom to tell God, “Use my pain for this purpose or for this person.” We can say, “I take up my cross today for the benefit of my cousin Tony, for the victims of Hurricane Florence, or for world peace. When we take up our cross with a purpose, we are following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Jesus took up his cross for us. For whom do we carry our cross? Suffering that has a purpose will not destroy us. It can change pain into an offering for others and make an instrument of death an opportunity for life.