Sunday, April 18, 2010

Precipitousness vs. Patience

Sheepscott Community Church April 18, 2010

Acts 9: 1-20

John 21: 1-19

Precipitousness vs. Patience

Paul knew it all, he thought. He was an organization man. As a specialist in the Law, he was a pharisee among pharisees––a pharisee for pharisees, we could say, just as we speak of an actor’s actor, or a writer’s writer. Yup, Paul knew it all, and as a know-it-all with his credentials in his pocket in the form of letters for the synagogues in Damascus, he was on the road, on his way to arrest any followers––men or women––of the Way, viz., the new teaching of Jesus that was spreading like proverbial wildfire. To be fair to Paul, he thought he was quashing blasphemy, that he was doing the right thing, and he was, as he saw it

As the reading from Acts tells us, he didn’t make it to Damascus in quite the time frame he had carefully planned. Uh-uh. An encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, the power and light from which knocked him off his horse, moved him into another time zone, where he remained for the rest of his life. Thus it happens when we meet God on the road.

Paul was no longer in charge of his life. God, in the person of Christ, had intervened and Paul’s own plans went into the round file permanently. His old life as he had known it as a company man went into the round file because he had met the Living God on the road. I want to say, we should be so lucky to know with such certainty, but some of us might protest under our breath, Yeah, right. Thanks, but no thanks. Help yourself––not my cup of tea. I can hear that, and I expect that some of us will continue to imagine and pray to a God we don’t ever anticipate will interfere, or intervene in our lives as we carefully plan them out according to our needs and our desires. Noble as those plans may be they are, are no match for the plans of God which incorporate us into the living, breathing Body of Christ, truly becoming those legs and arms, hands and fingers of the body that moves about being and bearing Christ into the world.

Let’s move on to the gospel, which is actually the basis for that title, “Precipitousness vs. Patience.” Whose precipitousness? Whose patience? I suppose I could catch Paul up into this net. If we think about his hustle and bustle as he went about getting his letters from the synagogues, checking whatever passed for a timepiece in those days, gauging how many days on the road to Damascus, where he and his entourage might stay, and so forth. He was a planner, a careful planner, as I said, a man who abided by the letter of the law and would make others do the same or his name wasn’t Saul of Tarsus. He would make an example of these wayward Jews to the rest of the Jewish community as unacceptable and arrestable. Shades of the Taliban.

That was his frame of mind and how he had framed time to serve his purpose. As I said earlier he was knocked into a timeless zone, the place of eternal verities, when he had the transforming vision of Jesus. He was blinded and had to be led by the hand into Damascus, where he prayed and waited to be told what to do. Saul went from a place of precipitousness––my will enacted now; to a place of patience, where he couldn’t hurry God, but had to wait on God in the darkness of blindness, until God chose to act.

The gospel. I had never before noticed the subhead that precedes the second part of this reading until I was preparing this sermon. “Jesus Reinstates Peter,” it reads. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Twice Peter answers that he does, and the third time, he was hurt that Jesus would ask again, and says, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” The reinstatement? Three times Peter had denied Jesus, and now three times he has the opportunity to redress that denial. It isn’t for Jesus’ sake that Jesus takes him through that litany of professed love. No. That is for Peter’s sake. What a loving and understanding thing for Jesus to do. The opportunity for Peter to go from denial to affirmation.

As three of the gospels tell us, Peter had already repented with tears, copious tears, when he fully understood what he had done, when that cock crowed and he remembered what Jesus had said. It had also been at least a few weeks since all of this happened, so Peter had had plenty of time to feel bad, to experience the guilt, shame and grief that any of us with a conscience feels after sinning against, or hurting someone whom we love, or even someone we don’t particularly love. Peter had had time to repent, and now Jesus gave him this opportunity to be forgiven and to feel the forgiveness, to hear those words from Jesus and testify to his own love for the Lord. What a gift that must have been.

Contrast Judas. Although Judas isn’t mentioned in today’s gospel, I cannot help thinking of him in connection with Peter’s repentance because Judas’ reaction was so different. We know from the gospel of the passion that when Judas realized that Jesus was condemned, he went to the high priest and the others and threw the 30 pieces of silver at them in the Temple, saying that he had betrayed innocent blood. That was not their concern, they said, but his. They got what they wanted and didn’t care a fig about the betrayer. As far as they were concerned, they had fulfilled their contract with him, which was to cross his palm with silver when he turned over their quarry. Judas’ love of money was his downfall. He ran from the Temple, and “seized with remorse,” as it is written in Matthew 27: 3, he hanged himself.

If only he had given himself time to repent of what he had done, there might have been a different outcome for Judas. He felt the remorse but he acted precipitously, like Paul; and no doubt in paroxysms of grief and remorse, he saw himself as unforgivable. How could he go back to the other apostles, his friends in whose company he had spent the last three years? He had betrayed their leader, the Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world. What a sad outcome for Judas, and what a contrast with Peter’s choice to repent, accept forgiveness and go on into a greater and greater life of service. Somehow the lasting tribute to Judas, a cemetery for foreigners called the Field of Blood outside the city of Jerusalem, purchased with the blood money he had tossed back into the Temple––somehow that is a fitting tribute. Death leading to death.

Think of Peter and his legacy––heading the early church, working with Paul, James and the others to spread the message as the Lord Jesus had commanded. That is what becomes possible when we repent and accept forgiveness and don’t act precipitously but wait on God to discern what God’s idea is, what God would have us do. We need to listen that way, to recognize the action of the Spirit in our lives that bends us toward this course rather than that course. It’s a fine line, kind of like walking the Knife’s Edge on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. It’s all about balance.

We need not be paralyzed by our fear of falling, of a making mistake as we try to discern God’s will in our own lives as well as the life of this church that we share together. We will make mistakes because we’re human, and human beings do that. It goes with the DNA. Good will, good intention, and then acting on them is all, and, finally we are not in charge.

We have to have patience with our human process that includes sin, mistakes, fear, hurting others, impatience with God and situations, not being able to make things happen when we want to make things happen, to control outcomes. That impatience with ourselves and others can lead to despair, as it did with Judas. Some scholars believe Judas was frustrated with Jesus because he wouldn’t show his power hand, that he wasn’t accepting the role of worldly redeemer and savior as Judas and some of the others pictured it would be. There were numbers of self-proclaimed savior types in Palestine at the time, a relatively common phenomenon when one country is under the boot of another country. In this case it was Palestine under the boot––or sandal––of Rome. Zealots were waiting and hoping for the promised Messiah to come now and free them from the yoke of bondage to that imperial power. People, including some of the apostles and probably Judas among them, were waiting for Jesus to make his move. As the time they spent with him went on, it must have been becoming clearer that he was a different kind of savior, whose kingdom was not of this world.

And service. Always he was talking about service. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he said to the apostles after washing their feet at the Last Supper. “You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” How must that have exasperated Judas, who the gospel of John says had already been prompted by the devil to betray Jesus. That was the last straw, and off he went into the night to do his dirty work.

But it wasn’t just Judas, who was waiting for Jesus to turn over the power card. Recall the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit on his right and left hands when he came into his power. These are pretty regular guys, these apostles. Maybe they would be miners or millworkers in our time. They didn’t feel a lot of power in their life circumstances, and part of the attraction Jesus held for them, no doubt, was the power that was in him. But, he didn’t use that power to advance himself but to minister to the hurting people who were his constituency.

And he wanted his closest friends to do the same after he had gone, as he told them again and again. Unlike him, they were into advancing their own causes. It took the discipline and freedom of the Holy Spirit of God, which they experienced a first taste of in last Sunday’s gospel when he breathed on them, before they began to understand.

Jesus’s unfathomable depths of understanding of the human condition that immediately forgives the repentant heart is probably most characteristic of him. “And the Word became flesh,” and because it did, because he did, he knows how it is with us and for us. Instead of hatching our little plots, as we humans do, we could actually take seriously Jesus’ commission to his apostles when he washed their feet, to go and do likewise.

I don’t know if God’s patience wears thin. I expect it doesn’t. God both waits and pursues simultaneously, like the best lover, giving the beloved a chance to see himself or herself as God sees that one, and then to change a behavior or two or three that will help the soul to line up with the beautiful vision of us individually that indeed God has.

Think about it: someone who matters more than anyone truly sees us as we are, and loves us. Isn’t that good news? Not just good news: that’s the best news. If we were confined to the image others may hold of us or even we of ourselves on a bad day, what a bummer that would be. But no, we can know that our Creator is looking at us right now with complete joy in who we are, a love that is energetic enough to spare and share the vision of who we are with us so that we can aspire to be patient with ourselves and others. To wait in love with encouragement for another to become himself, herself. Not to be precipitous in deciding who someone is, but to wash that other’s feet in service and love for the sake of community, for the sake of God, who was born, died and raised up in the flesh of Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

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