Archive for April 26th, 2010

John 21–Follow Me, Peter

I’ve been reading Thich Nhat Hanh lately.  Reading his words is prayer for me.  He reminds me that there is no past and no future, only the present.  The past and the future do not exist.  Only the present moment exists.  Therefore we must be mindful of the present moment, seeking the joy and the freedom within it.  In this way, we can know and live in the Kingdom of God.

What follows is my sermon from the fourth Sunday of Easter.  I dedicate it to all those who, like myself, have trouble letting go of past mistakes.

“Follow Me, Peter”

John 21: 1-19

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

April 25th, 2010 – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Some mistakes cling to us longer than others.  Take, for instance, the mistake I made that mortified my poor husband and made him question my ability to have any sort of social grace.

You may not know that one of the things Dan does at St. Andrews is line up speakers for a couple of the college’s endowed lecture series.  This means that Dan is often calling or receiving calls from some very important people, scholars who receive thousands of dollars to come and share their very important wisdom.  But, in my defense, Dan does not usually receive these calls at home.

So…one night we are all hanging out in the kitchen.  Dan is cooking dinner.  I’m chasing after Isaac.  And the phone rings.  Before picking it up I notice on Caller ID that it is a call from Pennsylvania.  And seeing as all of Dan’s family lives in Pennsylvania, I assume it is one of Dan’s brothers.  So I pick up the phone, say “Hello,” and this is what I hear:  (putting on my best fake British accent)  “Hello.  Is Dr. Dan Ott available, please?”

Immediately thinking that this was some kind of joke, the very kind of joke one of Dan’s brothers would play on me, I respond to the voice by saying, (again in my best fake British accent) “Dr. Dan Ott?  Why, yes!!  He’s right here!”

Then I hand the phone to my confused-looking husband, whose face suddenly turns into a horrified expression of, “Oh my gosh!”  After which he runs out of the room apologizing profusely to the person on the phone for his wife who didn’t realize to whom she was speaking.

You see, the man with the funny accent was not one of Dan’s brothers, but Philip Jenkins, a Cambridge man who is now teaching at Penn State and today’s premier scholar of global Christianity.  Needless to say, Dan did not invite me to join him for Dr. Jenkins lecture.  In fact, after this mistake, I’m not sure Dan will ever allow me to help host his very important friends.

Mistakes and failures; they plague our lives.  We can’t go 24 hours without making some sort of gaff, slip of the tongue, or outright betrayal.  We’re human; therefore we often fall short, failing others and ourselves.

No one knows this better than Peter, the disciple known throughout Christendom as the one who denied Jesus.  At the beginning of John 21 Peter appears to be a mess.  He doesn’t know what to do with himself so he decides to go fishing, at night, without any clothes.  Now I’m no sailor, but going out on a small boat at night sounds pretty scary to me.   Naked night fishing sounds even scarier.  But maybe that scary, dark, naked place feels good to Peter.  Maybe that scary, dark, naked place resonates with Peter because that’s how he feels inside.  The last thing Peter did while Jesus was still alive was betray him.  Peter betrayed Jesus around a hot charcoal fire not once, not twice, but three times.  And it wasn’t until the cock crowed that Peter realized what he had done.  It wasn’t until the cock crowed that Peter realized he had made a mistake….a big mistake.

Think about it.  You’ve been in Peter’s shoes.  You know what it’s like to realize you’ve just made a huge mistake.  Your face gets instantly hot.  Your palms sweat.  Your breathing gets rapid and your heart thunders in your chest.  What was I thinking?  You say to yourself.  But the problem was you weren’t thinking.  And now the consequences of your mistake are messing with you physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Our mistakes can consume us, our mistakes can control us, our mistakes can define us and our lives, if we let them.

And I imagine this is what was happening to Peter.  I mean it’d be hard to openly deny Jesus like that as a disciple and not obsess over it later.  It’d be hard for a mistake like that not to mess with your head and your heart.  So Peter goes fishing, because fishing is what he knows and because nothing else in his life was certain anymore.

In light of Peter’s circumstances, we might pause to ask ourselves what we do with our mistakes once they are made?  Do we dwell in them, linger over them, replay them, and suffer through them again and again and again?  Do we allow our mistakes and failures to define us?  Or do we learn from them, work to right our wrongs, and then move forward? Do we arise from our mistakes in order to follow a higher, nobler path?

Isn’t it interesting how Jesus keeps reappearing in Peter’s life long after Peter’s mistake was made?  Peter’s gone fishing but here comes Jesus, once again, waving to Peter and calling to him from the shore, beckoning him to get his naked butt off the boat and back where he was always meant to be, in the presence of his Lord.  Jesus offers Peter a way out of the mess he has made.  Jesus offers Peter a way out of his mistake and his failure.  He meets him on the beach with another hot charcoal fire and another chance.  Don’t let your mistakes define you.  Jesus seems to be saying.  Don’t let your failures fill your life.  Follow me, Peter.  Not your mistakes.  Feed my sheep.  Not your sense of failure.

Perhaps the most appealing character trait of all of Jesus’ disciples was their innate humanness.  They made mistakes.  They made a lot of mistakes.  But Jesus didn’t give up on them.  In spite of the way they failed him time and time again, Jesus still believed in them.  In spite of their mistakes, Jesus still believed that they could be great disciples.  Jesus believed that they were more than their mistakes.  Even Peter, even the denier, the betrayer, the liar, even in him, Jesus believed.

It’s pretty powerful stuff….to have someone believe in you.  To have someone who believes that you are more than your mistakes, that you can do better, that you can be better.  It’s pretty powerful stuff…to do what Jesus did.

This past week Dan and I watched the movie Precious. This was a terribly difficult movie to watch about an overweight African American girl from a very violent, abusive home.  Precious didn’t believe in herself.  And her parents’ certainly didn’t believe in her.  But two teachers in her life were able to see in Precious what no one else could.  Two teachers in her life believed in her.  So, riding on the wings of their belief, Precious stayed in school and slowly but surely built a life where there was once no life.

This movie made me reflect upon the power of teachers who believe in their students, the power of teachers who can see beyond the mistakes and who know that our failure does not have to define us.  Teachers have the power to change lives simply by believing in their students.

As do we all.  I am also reminded here of GB’s invitation for us to join him in the new Kairos ministry, or the prison ministry at Scotland Correctional Institute.  Perhaps believing in someone and believing that they can be more than their mistakes has the most power when offered to those who are imprisoned by their mistakes.  The power of prison ministry really lies in those willing to say, I believe in you.

This ministry of belief, of belief in people to become more than they are, really doesn’t take very much.  In fact, oftentimes all it takes is a suggestion.  I remember noticing the tiniest, shyest, geekiest 6th grader in my first church’s youth group.  He was a good kid and he paid attention during Bible Study so I asked him one day if he had ever considered going into the ministry.  He hadn’t.  So I suggested he consider it.  That was all.  I just said consider it.  We didn’t talk about it again.

By chance, I actually spoke to him on the phone a few years ago.  He was all grown up.  His voice had gotten really deep and he sounded so mature.  He told me he remembered what I had said to him years ago.  And he told me that he was considering going into the ministry.

I believe in you.  Within these words lies a powerful sentiment that can inspire great things.  Everyone deserves to hear them.  Everyone deserves to have someone who believes in him or her.

So…here comes Jesus, waving to us from the shore, telling us to get our butts off the boat of self-pity and self-loathing and around his fire of second chances.  I believe in you, Jesus says to Peter.  I believe that you are more than your mistakes.  I believe you can rise above your failures to do better and be better.  I believe in you.  So follow me, Peter.  Feed my sheep, Peter.  Tend my lambs, Peter.  Rise above your mistakes, Peter.

Upon hearing these words and upon feeling the power of Jesus’ belief, Peter is able to leave his mistake behind.  He is able to leave his mistake behind in order to become St. Peter, a martyr of the faith, and the rock upon which the church was founded.

I believe in you.  So what will we do with Jesus’ sentiment?  What will we do with the opportunity of a second chance?  What will we do with the power of Jesus’ belief encouraging us not to let our mistakes define us, not to let our failures fill us, but to let Christ define us, to let Christ fill us.  Follow me, Jesus says to us today.  Follow me, because I know and believe you can.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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