As one season comes to an end…

Dear Xavier,

19 months…that is how long we have had this special relationship that only a mother and child can have.  19 months of middle of the night feedings, early mornings, and late night snacks.  19 months of snuggles, laughter, mixed with exhaustion, frustration and hard moments.  19 months of remembering those early weeks when I wanted to give up, but you challenged me to continue.  19 months of giving thanks that we have shared in this special time together.  19 months of you looking to me for nourishment, warmth, safety, and security in this special way.  19 months of nursing.

I never thought we would make it this far.  Those first few weeks were the hardest of my life.  We couldn’t quite get it right all the time, you cried, I cried, we were so tired, you were so hungry, I was just trying to provide for you.  But when we finally got the hang of this nursing thing, away we went- 2 peas in a pod, 2 dancers who finally learned the steps, mother and son sharing in what we were meant to do.  We looked forward to our special time whether 2 am or 2 pm, whether for 5 minutes or 2 hours.  And now that this season is coming to an end, I give thanks.  Looking back on it all, I wouldn’t have traded these countless hours for anything else in the world.

I feel sad, happy, accomplished, free, nostalgic, and a bit hesitant in knowing that we will have to learn and find new ways to bond-  all the while knowing that you may not remember all of those countless hours we spent together- but I believe that in the depth of your soul, you will remember what we shared, and together, we will carry this in our hearts and into the next season of our lives.  I love you, Xavier.

Love, Baba

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A Prayer for the End of Nursing: Rev. Rachel Wrenn

O Lord, you have searched me
and known me.

You knew the moment when that sweet baby skin
first touched my chest
when that sweet little mouth
gaped like a fish
when that shocking moment of connection was made:
Mother. Child. One.
You knew.

You knew the struggles, and the pain.
The mostly sleepless nights
The one- (two-) (three-) (three-thirty-) a.m. wake-up calls.
The disconcerting, disorientating, barely-functioning
delirium/delusion/hallucination/exasperation/rage…
And still
the sweet baby skin and the gaping little mouth
the instant peace and the murmuring suckling.
You knew.

You knew the feeling of miracle
that awesome moment of realization
that exactly what they need
is exactly what I have in me
and everything that is me
(milk, body, heart, arms)
is given freely to sustain and nurture their life
—and then that awe-full moment of recognition
of deeper appreciation
for the words “this is my body,
given for you.”
This is my body, given for them.
You knew.

You knew the rhythms and the hours
of nursing and pumping
of sleeping and snuggling
of crying and impatience and the frantic, shaky, waving tiny hands
as the shirt gets caught
or the store clerk goes too slow
or a hundred other impediments leap up
between the present moment and MILKRIGHTNOW!
You knew.

You knew the feeling of panic
the counting of bags in the freezer
of hours between pumpings
of ounces in the bottle
of months/weeks/days
until this all could be DONE
secretly knowing how hard it would be
for it all to end.
You knew.

You knew the feeling of gratitude
for those rosy lips, parted in sleep
for that instant smile when we’ve been apart
for the feeling of expansion
of my heart
of my life
of yet another way I will live out my vocation as your child
by stewarding and tending and nurturing my own child;
the awesomeness of being part of your Creation—
quite literally.
You knew.

You knew the twinge
the first twinge
that first moment when they start to pull away
when the solids that were rejected
or tasted and then used as hair gel
become interesting, delicious, good
and the sessions of sleepy suckling snuggling
start to lessen.
You knew.

And you know now
The feeling of wrenching
of tearing
of separateness
because it all is done.
The sadness, the mourning, the loss
interwoven with the relief, the joy, the pride
the cords of reassurance and the embroidery of gratitude
that we made it this far in the breastfeeding marathon
that I gave them this much
that this experience of oneness, of miracle, of struggle
of sleepy suckling snuggling
will live on in my body
as they once lived in my body:
nourished, cherished, cradled
in a safe place of sweet memory and thanksgiving
You know.

And so:
give me comfort
give me peace
give me reassurance
that though this type of sustenance is through
my hands, my body, my heart, my spirit will still be needed
to feed
to quench
to tend
to care
for them.

Just as you do for me.

You knit me together in my mother’s womb:
knit my heart together now.

Amen.

Posted in Clergy women, Parenthood | 2 Comments

What did the pastor do now? (Family Friendly Worship Space)

“But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” -Luke 18:16

When I started ministry at my current congregation last summer, the youth director and I had a dream- a space in the sanctuary where kids and families, along with the older people in the church, could gather in worship and spend time together.  On Easter Sunday, after removing (gasp!) a few pews, that dream became a reality: The Family Friendly Worship Space.

You may have seen different versions of this being done at churches- I’ve seen them called “Praygrounds,” among other things.  Well, this is our version.  Each week, our youth/children’s director puts out coloring and activity sheets that relate to the sermon I am preaching, along with the children’s bibles open to the scripture of the week.  We also have activity bags filled with a variety of things for the children to do during worship, and we have other toys and quiet activities around the space as well.  I think it has potential to evolve and include more in the future.

We have found that the kids and their families enjoy going to the space and are engaging in worship more because of it.  We still offer children’s church following the children’s sermon, but some still choose to stay in the family friendly space instead.  We have especially found that families with kids who are visiting family/parents for the weekend are excited to see that there is a place for their kids to go in the sanctuary where they feel comfortable and welcomed.  I even had someone tell me that this space “softens” the sanctuary and makes it more warm and inviting.  Success!

There has been some push back on this of course.  It’s near the front of the church, off to the side, and some say it’s distracting.  And it has to do with that scary word, CHANGE, again.  I get it.  But any church that wants more young families and children needs to be open to this kind of new way of thinking about how we invite children to worship.  We need to be okay with a little noise, perhaps a little chaos from time to time if we are serious about making church an intergenerational and welcoming community.  I think that the days of sending our kids off during the worship service may be nearing their end.  This is an alternative for those who want children to engage in worship and to be a part of the worshiping community.

For me, this little space is a glimpse of the Kingdom.  Would you try it at your church?

Family Friendly Worship Space Q & A

Where is the Family Friendly Worship Space?

-down by the piano in the sanctuary

What is there?

-tables for coloring, Bibles to read, and activities for children

-the Busy Bags

-toys for younger children

-places for children to sit with their parents

-other items for babies, moms and dads, and their needs

Who may use it?

-anyone from ages 0-100!

Why a family friendly worship space?

-We want children to be an active part of worship! This means that they will have the chance to read the Bible story that is being presented, do a coloring activity, and listen to the worship service, music, and preaching.

-We want to be welcoming to families with young children and give them a space of their own where parents and children can be in worship together

-We want to offer an alternative to children’s church, should the child not want to participate for any reason

-Would you rather our children color and reflect on a Bible story or play on their iPhone during church? This gives them a better alternative for our worship time together…

Won’t it be distracting?

-Maybe- but you may be surprised at how the children will learn and play quietly in church- they want to be active worship participants

-If you find yourself distracted, please feel free to sit somewhere else where you feel that you will not be!

-We say we are a church who wants young families and children- so we must adjust our mindset to welcome the sights and sounds of children in worship– Jesus says of the little children, “Let them come to me. Do not hinder them.”

We look forward to sharing the Family Friendly Worship space with you! Try it for yourself and invite children and families to participate!

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An Xavier Update

For those of you who have been following our saga of Xavier’s never-ending illnesses, here is an update for you. After countless trips to the doctor and one hospital stay, a few blood tests from Riley revealed that X has a low count of “mannose-binding lectin” in his blood. This means that he is more susceptible to illnesses, which explains why he was so sick for months at a time. Daycare kept hammering him with germs, and he caught them all…and he just couldn’t ever recover!

So we currently have him at home with a wonderful nanny who comes during the week, and he has been WELL since February! And he’s been almost a completely different kid. Much happier and much stronger. He is very chatty and learns new words every week, and we are working on his walking with First Steps physical therapy. We are moving to Indianapolis at the end of June, which means that Corey and I are able to co-parent better than we are able to at this time.

Thanks for your caring thoughts and prayers!

Jill, Corey, and X

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A Post-Election Thought and Prayer

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve blogged!  Since my last post, Corey and I have moved, I started a new pastoral appointment, Corey has started a new job, we are deep into this whole parenting an infant thing, and we’ve been doing a crazy balancing act ever since!  Please forgive me!  I did want to break my silence and share a letter that I will read to my congregation on Sunday morning in the post-election madness that our nation is feeling and experiencing.  I hope you will find it helpful and hopeful. Peace to you and yours.

Dear Friends of Asbury UMC,

As your pastor, I feel the need to address the divisions and uneasiness many feel as a result of the election this past week.  Regardless of your political views, there is no getting around the fact that this election has caused deep division and fear for many in our country.  Regardless of your political views, there is no getting around the fact that people of different colors, religions, sexual orientations, and genders are being taunted, bullied, and threatened, and feel unwelcome in their own country.  I have friends with black children who have been targets of racial threats.  I have seen stories of Muslim college students fearing for their lives.   I saw an article about a school where someone posted “whites only” and “colored only” signs above water fountains.  I have seen photos of graffiti in Bloomington, IN glorifying racism and white supremacy in the name of our president elect, complete with swastikas and KKK images.  In Columbus, Indiana, a Hispanic pastor’s children were told by other students to “go back home, and go build that wall.”  Because of the election result, some feel that they have been given a platform in which to treat others as “less than.”  Regardless of who your vote went to, I hope we can all agree that this is unacceptable, and it is not okay.  We can’t deny the fact that our culture has seen a shift over the past few months, and has worsened over the last week.    Therefore, we as Christians must speak out against bullying, injustice, racism, sexism, and xenophobia in all its forms.

This is not about politics.  This is about treating human beings with dignity and respect.  We, as followers of Christ, who loved and welcomed all, should not stand by and be silent.  We as United Methodist state in our Social Creed that:

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

As Christians, we are a people of hope and peace.  So as we move forward together, may we spread hope and peace, that we might be the healing hands of Jesus in the midst of this uncertain time in which we find ourselves.  Let us pray:  (prayer by Rev. Jessica Stenstrom and the UM Book of Worship #442)

Come and fill our hearts with your peace

You alone O God are holy

Come and fill our hearts with your peace

Alleuiah

If you celebrate this morning, I pray with you and for you

If you mourn this morning, I pray with you and for you

If you’re excited for the changes that’s coming, I pray with you and for you

If you’re filled with anxiety and fear over potential changes, I pray with you and for you

If you have felt harmed by the political rhetoric, by divisions among friends and family – I pray with you and for you hoping today begins healing.

Whether you are thrilled or devastated – the good news is this God is still God. Neither candidate would be the solution to all the problems, pain and division of our world. God is the only solution.

My prayer for us this morning is that we would be the people of God living out life in the ways Jesus modeled by feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and poor, offering hope to the broken-hearted.

Through our faith in God, we know that love has the power to overcome hate and division – light shines through pain and darkness. Let us choose love and choose light.

Almighty God, you rule all the peoples of the earth.

Inspire the minds of all women and men to whom you have committed the responsibility of government and leadership in the nations of the world.

Give to them the vision of truth and justice, that by their counsel all nations and peoples may work together.

Give to the people of our country zeal for justice and strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will.

Forgive our shortcomings as a nation; purify our hearts to see and love the truth.

We pray all these things through Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

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“Goodbye (God Be With You)”

Philippians 1:1-11: From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.
To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.
2 May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
3 I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4 I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5 I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. 6 I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. 7 I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8 God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
From Pastor Jill Howard, servant of Christ, appointed here by Bishop Mike Coyner in 2008- to the members and friends of Morgantown United Methodist Church, who are God’s people in Jesus Christ:

Dear Friends,

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in ministry of the gospel from the time I started here 4 years ago and until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to continue the jobs of ministry here- the jobs of worship, fellowship, prayer, learning, serving, reaching, and loving. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. My prayer for you is that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight as you continue on in this place. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what is truly important and what is petty enough to let go. I pray that you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness, patience, hope, peace, compassion, and joy, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

Four years ago, I was at my parsonage in Terre Haute one March evening eating a blizzard from Dairy Queen, when I got a phone call from the DS- THE phone call. We were moving to a little place called Morgantown, he said. Having known Pastor Roy, I knew of Morgantown, but not too much about it- just that it was a small town in south central Indiana. This came as a shock to me because the last news I heard about my new appointment was that I was being considered for another associate pastor position at a larger church. So Morgantown, IN was the last place on my radar! I asked the DS, “What part about ‘don’t send me to a rural congregation didn’t you all understand?’” He assured me that I would be well-accepted and told me some of the wonderful things about the congregation. I thought to myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And my mind was put at ease from the moment I met with the PPR committee on that first night 4 years ago. And the rest is history. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how fast 4 years have gone by, and how much ministry we have done together. Today I want to share with you some of the highlights of my time with you.

Learning. We have learned a lot from each other. You all have taught me the joys, quirks, and sometimes drawbacks of small town life. I have never lived in a small town, but you have shown me the ins and outs of what it’s about. I’ve driven some of the most rural little roads, and my Subaru has seen what the backwoods really look like. Corey and I survived hitting our first deer, and have dodged several more since then. We have also learned a lot about our faith together. My first small group study here was on the book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian. In this class we wrestled with everything from evolution to creation, to sexuality and how we read and understand the Bible. This class was followed by others such as Christianity and World Religions, Making Sense of the Bible, Becoming a Disciple, and the a study on the Apostle Paul. I fondly remember a Tuesday morning study for women during Advent where we learned together about the women of the Christmas stories in the Gospel of Luke. And I also have fond memories of our Wednesday morning Bible study at the Senior Center where we read through and studied the entire Gospel of Luke together. All 24 chapters of it!

One of my passions as a pastor is teaching and journeying with people as we explore our faith. I enjoy asking and hearing the tough questions and wrestling with them together. We had some eye opening discussions, lightbulb moments, and prayerful times of learning that will stay with me forever. I want to say thank you for these sacred moments.

2) Worship. We have worshiped well. We have heard and been a part of beautiful music together. Either from the choir, special music, or Brian and Debbie on the organ and piano, we have lifted our voices and thoughts to God through song. You’ve allowed me to share my passion of singing with you. You all have been supportive of the creative things I’ve tried, such as the Pentecost where we released red balloons throughout the sanctuary. I have never seen happier faces on people in worship than I did that morning! Or the times that I have invited you forward to kneel in front of the cross and reflect upon its paradoxical beauty and sadness. We have been a part of healing worship times, celebratory, challenging, prayerful, and Spirit filled. We have prayed for one another, and we have praised God together. May you always remember this sacred space as a place where we come to experience God, and expect that God will show up for worship, whether you are prepared to meet God or not!

3) Fellowship. This includes all of the good food we have had together! From ladies’ luncheons to pitch-in dinners, and the wonderful Christmas meal, you all sure know what it means to hang out and have fun together. There is a reason why Jesus shared meals with so many different kinds of people. As one of my seminary professors said, “Jesus loved meals so much that he became one.” Being at a table together over a meal is a good and sacred thing. It is where we are our true selves and experience the riches of life together. Fellowship at this church means that all are welcomed and all are loved. I’ve never seen a church who cherished their fellowship time after worship as much as you all do. I hope you keep that spirit alive for a long time to come, and invites others to be a part of it. Anyone who attends fellowship hour as a first time visitor usually comes back. Why? Because they have shared in conversation with you over some good food and fellowship. Jesus meets us at the table, and we are to extend that invitation to others to come as they are.

4) Love for the community. This is a congregation who is proud to be part of the community. We open our building for a number of different people and things, and we serve the community in many ways. We get involved in things like Col. Vawter Day and the Memorial Day parade, we have scouting troops that meet here, aerobics, and people who make sure the Food Pantry is a vital ministry and service for people in this town. Vacation Bible School reaches out to children and youth, and we can be proud of the fact that we are an open, affirming, and inclusive church. We have done mission projects that have helped youth, senior citizens, the homeless, the hungry, and even IGA shoppers. I hope that you will keep thinking of ways to reach out to the community and bring them the light of Jesus Christ. And not just that, but that you will invite people in this community to experience what it means to have a relationship with Christ and his followers in a wonderful place such as this. We need Jesus both inside the church and outside of it. The world is our parish. Let’s make it so.

5) You have allowed me to be a part of your lives. I have shared joyous occasions with you from birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, positive medical test results, and births of children or grandchildren. I have sat beside you in hospitals or prayed with you before a surgery. I have helped plan funerals for your loved ones. I have prayed with you for a variety of reasons. I’ve had intimate conversations with many of you, wrestling over life’s challenges or difficult questions about faith. We’ve explored next steps together in life’s journey. You have let me into your lives, and for that I will be forever grateful. One of the most rewarding things about being a pastor is that I get to experience the many seasons of life with people, from the baptism of a baby, weddings, and when life is coming to an end. Pastors are invited into those sacred spaces and times, and it is a holy opportunity and calling. I have been privileged to share these times and spaces with each of you.

6) And finally, I have loved the unique oasis that makes this church special in so many ways. I hope you realize how rare it is to find a small town church such as this with a range of theological and political views such as this, and how much you love each other and do ministry together anyway. I love that you have welcomed people into this congregation who have not been able to find a warm welcome in other churches in this area, and I love that some of you disagree with each other, and probably even me, yet this is the place you come to learn about and experience a relationship with Jesus Christ. You have been able to keep your focus on a shaping a loving community and staying the course in disciple making. Keep on making the main thing the main thing. Create space for people who are different from you and who do not think like you do. Keep working on ways to invite a wide range and variety of persons into the fold, and be creative in how you might reach out to youth and families, too. There are rich possibilities here for multi-generational ministries and sacred spaces for children and families. Take advantage of those possibilities!

Many years ago when I was leaving my youth ministry position at St. Luke’s in Indianapolis and heading off to seminary in Atlanta, my dear friend and colleague said to me, “We are saying goodbye, but goodbye really means, ‘God be with you.’” And I have never forgotten this. So today, as we say goodbye, we are really saying, “God be with you,” and I will add, “till we meet again.” “God be with you till we meet again.” The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians with affection, prayers, and thanksgiving long ago. He said to them, I know these wonderful things about you are true (and will continue to be true) because I keep you in my heart. And these words are words that I know are true today. I keep you, the people of Morgantown United Methodist, in my heart. And may his prayer to the Philippians long ago be my prayer for you this day:
That your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight as you continue on in this place. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what is truly important and what is petty enough to let go. I pray that you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness, patience, hope, peace, and joy, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

God be with you. And blessings on the journey.

In Christ,
Pastor Jill

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“Leaving the Nest” Syndrome

The other day in conversation, Corey pointed out to me that I have been in ministry of some form or another for almost 15 years.  15 years!  I started out as a youth ministry intern/staff for St. Luke’s UMC while I was in college.  I also interned as a chaplain for Wishard Hospital during that time.  I was 19-20 years old.  I then served as a student pastor in seminary, followed by more chaplain work.  And after seminary, I started serving churches as a pastor full-time.  Now, almost 34, I look back at how far I have come, and also how much more ministry I have ahead of me.  I have TONS of sermons, Bible studies, pastoral care visits, weddings, funerals, mission projects, and I’m sure LOTS of church meals awaiting me in the years to come.  I look forward to continuing to live out my calling.

I am now about to enter into my third full-time appointment as an ordained elder.  And here’s what I wonder as a young clergy woman: when, instead of leaving a congregation that says, “We’ve seen you grow so much while you’ve been here and we feel like we’ve helped get you to the next phase,” will I hear these words instead: “We’ve done good ministry together and you have led us well.  Blessings on the journey.”  In my past 2 appointments, I have left feeling as if people see me as “leaving the nest.”  I also know good and well that people believe that good ministry and discipleship has taken place, and I do not discredit that at all.  But I do, however, feel an overwhelming sense that I am still seen as a little bird who is still waiting to take flight, and that’s not how I see myself living out my ministry calling at this point.  I have a lot of years ahead of me, but I also have a lot of years behind me.  I hope one day for people to see beyond the “leaving the nest syndrome” when they consider my ministry and leadership.

Yes, I still have a lot to learn and a lot of growth ahead of me.  But I look forward to the day that I am not seen as the young clergy woman who is “earning her wings” and “is leaving the nest.”  I am genuinely curious if this is a gender thing, an age thing, or something else.  Does anyone else experience this, and in other vocations, too?  Maybe I should take it as a compliment, and be glad that evidence of my growth is authentic and real.  But I am also taking it as a statement that perhaps younger clergy are still seen in a certain light that is difficult to escape.

Am I alone in this?  What do you think?  Has it happened to you?

 

 

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Close Encounters: Peter

John 21:15-19

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.”19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

This week, we will wrap up our series on Close Encounters of the Risen Christ as we explore the complex and compassionate relationship between Jesus and Peter.  In this encounter, Peter has the conversation of a lifetime with the Risen Christ over a fire and breakfast.  Last week, we left Peter on the shores of the sea after he had jumped into the waters to swim ashore to see Christ for himself.  For whatever reason (I think it’s funny), the text tells us that Peter was naked on the boat, but put on clothes to jump into the water.  I always thought this was more than a random and intriguing detail.  I think this moment is when Peter is most vulnerable to Jesus.  He is living in the in between- between his past failure of betrayal and the hope of restoration and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer.

Once on the shores of the sea, Peter encounters the Risen Christ by the fire, which mentally takes him right back to the fire that warmed Peter as he denied Jesus three times.  Scent is connected to memory.  There have been times when I have been walking somewhere and have caught a scent of my grandmother’s perfume, and it takes me right back to memories of when she was alive and would hug me so tight that I thought she would never let go.  The scent also reminds me of my teenage years when, admittedly, I wasn’t so nice to her, and I find myself feeling guilty that maybe I didn’t apologize to her enough in my adult life.  Scent can bring back parts of our lives that either bring us joy or that we no longer wish to remember.  As the scent of the fire takes Peter back to his betrayal and failure, the risen Jesus meets him in the midst of his shame, and offers both compassion and a challenge to turn it all around.

And it all begins with a question (or three!) from the Risen Christ: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  What is Jesus referring to here?  What are the “these”?  Perhaps his question is really, “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these other disciples do?” Peter responds the first two times, with “Yes, Lord you know I love you.”  What kind of love is being referred to here?  There are three types of love discussed and used in the Greek language.  Eros usually refers to an intimate or romantic kind of love.  Philos is friendship or family love, and a love shared between equals.  Agape love expresses a love between God and humanity, and the kind of love we show when we are charitable to others.  As Thomas Aquinas put it, agape love is to “will the good of another.”

The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus uses agape love, and Peter answers with philos love.  But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the wording, asking Peter, “do you love me?” using philos love.  Peter answers for the third time, “yes, Lord, you know everything, and you know that I love you (using philo love again).  In this we are reminded of Jesus words to the disciples when he tells them, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends” (15:15).  Jesus calls Peter not just to love, but to love others and love them to the end, even to the point of laying down his life for his friends.  Sound familiar?

This kind of love, whether it is called philos or agape love, expects to be shown in action.  This kind of love is not about just feeling- it is about doing.  Love is as love does.  This kind of love personifies courage, risk, and unwavering commitment, regardless of what we are being asked to do.  In these three repetitive questions, the Risen Christ calls Peter (and us) to follow him, even to the places where we may not wish to go.  Echoing Peter’s three denials, Jesus then gives him three opportunities to make it right.

The church is at a crucial point in our world right now where we cannot afford to waste our time with “we have never done it that way before,” or trying to get back to how things used to be.  Instead, we need to be listening for this very question from Jesus himself, “Do you love me?” and be willing to respond over and over again, “Yes, Lord, I love you.”  But that’s not the end of the story.  If we love Jesus, really love Jesus, then we are to show it through the way that we are brought to life through him.  If we don’t do this, then our words are empty and meaningless.  We must be willing, as Jesus commands Peter, to take care of, feed, and tend to all persons as those who belong to God- the sheep of the Great Shepherd.

But in order for Peter to be equipped for this great cause, he must be willing to face his failures and open himself up to the restoration and healing that comes with confessing what has been and moving forward.  After all, Peter, in spite of his deep betrayal and failure, swims to Jesus and meets him by the fire, perhaps with the hope that he could move on from his failure.  In order to do this, he would need to depend on the grace and compassion of Jesus.  So it must be with us.  Before we can minister for Jesus, we must allow him to minister to us (Bradford).

Peter has been living with great shame, but it is here at the fire that Jesus forgives, heals, and restores him.  And he does this in a way that Peter is not condemned or that he remains in his failure, but in a way that he is healed.  Author Brennan Manning once wrote, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion.”  Peter had to learn this lesson in order to move forward and become the rock of the church.  He had to become a “forgiven failure,” and that is enough for God to take him and use him.

We live in a society today where success is the driving force behind everything.  To fail is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to us as individuals.  Failure has become synonymous with shame.  We have forgotten just how broken we are, and that there is beauty in recognizing that despite our brokenness, we are loved unconditionally by God.  That is the heart of this story of Jesus and Peter.  In this we remember that Jesus himself was willing to “fail” and lose his very life in order that he might gain it again and show us a better way.  There is a quote that says, “Never trust a leader without a limp.”  Peter would walk with a “limp” for the rest of his life, and it would actually add to his strength in loyalty and leadership for the cause of Christ.

What if instead of pushing our failures aside and hiding in our shame, we bring them to the surface and are honest about who we really are, despite our failures and brokenness?  What if we were to pray each day for daily humiliation or for at least one thing that doesn’t go our way in order to remain humbled and honest with ourselves and who we truly are?  I have found that as a mother, I have a whole new definition of success and failure.  There are moments each day when I feel as if I have failed my son, either because I feel that I am not doing enough or not doing something right, or because I can’t seem to figure out why he is crying or unhappy.  The perfectionist in me wants to fix everything in every moment, and with a baby, that’s just not possible.

Just earlier this week, Xavier and I took a trip to Indianapolis to see my best friend and her new baby.  On the way home that afternoon, we ran into rush hour traffic, and on top of that severe thunderstorms and heavy rain.  By the time we finally reached Greenwood, Xavier was in the back seat screaming bloody murder.  I had to pull over twice to calm him.  Let me tell you, you haven’t lived as a mother until you find yourself climbing in the back seat of your car in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in the pouring rain to hold your screaming child and pray just to make it home.  I called Corey in tears twice before it was all said and done.  To make matters worse, state road 135 was closed at Whiteland Road, and I had to take a detour to get to our house.  What should have been an hour long car ride took us 2.5 hours!  I began to feel as if I had failed as a mom and wondered if it was a mistake to bring him along for the day because he was tired, fussy, and hungry.  The trip home was full of unplanned scenarios and detours and hardships.  But I was humbled by the fact that I did everything that I could have done.  And you know what?  It was success that we made it home safely.  What I perceived as failure made me rearrange the way I saw my day of motherhood, and I was able to move forward in order to get us home safe and sound.

Every day I have to shift my perspective of success and ask, “Is he fed?  Does he have clean clothes?  Is he warm enough?  Is he safe?”  When I answer yes to these questions, I know we have succeeded, even in the midst of moments when I question if we have failed.  The worst words for me to hear are, “I am disappointed in you,” and I try to avoid hearing those words at all costs.  But perhaps it is good for us to realize from time to time that we are not perfect and not to be ashamed of our imperfections.  It is good for us to realize that we stand in need of grace and compassion from others, and especially from God.

I have a friend and colleague who struggles with the mental illnesses of anxiety and depression.  The other day, she posted on facebook that she usually enjoys sharing photos and thoughts about the good things in her life and about her accomplishments- the things that make her proud.  However, this particular day, she shared that she was battling with her disease once again and shared her thought process that happens to her: a downward spiral of thought and self-hatred.  Yes, she is on medication and seeks medical attention.  But I admired her bravery for sharing her struggle in such a real and raw way for people to see and get a glimpse into mental illness and the effect it has on a person.  She even posted a photo as a real look into her struggle.  It was met with many people who commented that she was a courageous young woman for opening up and sharing such emotion and struggle, because so often we just want to share the good parts about our lives and we often do not show who we really are and name our imperfections.  This was a good reminder to me that as Christians, we are called not to hide in our shame, but to name it in community and draw strength from a God who takes us as we are, even when we are struggling or failing. For my friend, sometimes success is simply getting through the day.

Peter, in the midst of his failure, had to find a new definition of success.  Not as a fisherman, but as someone who is radically beloved by God, and to live into that identity by feeding Jesus’ sheep.  In his encounter with the Risen Christ, Peter walks away with 2 things: freedom from his failure, and a future ahead of him.  Peter’s restoration to renewed relationship with Christ is also a restoration to a new kind of leadership and a call to true discipleship- the kind that brings us to the point of discomfort as we name our need for God and are sent out into the world to bring others to him.  As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading a chapter in the book, Encountering the Risen Christ by Mark Bradford, and this particular quote nearly took my breath away.  Mark writes, “the trouble is that, without a sense of the true cost of discipleship, so many of us never truly hand over our lives to Jesus in the first place.  Christianity is all too often for us a ‘lifestyle accessory’ rather than a dying and rising in the path of our Master.  When the going gets tough, we sometimes try to save the very life that we are called to lose, and we still cling on to the world, at the cost of our souls.”

This really struck me because it was a hard truth to swallow.  I had to ask myself, “have I never truly handed my life over the Christ?  Do I tend to see my Christian faith as nothing but a lifestyle accessory rather than the way I live my life?  Am I so concerned with what people think of me on the outside that I’ve neglected to show my true self as an imperfect person in need of the same kind of grace that was extended to Peter?

Jesus stands before us asking us over and over, “Do you love me?”  How will we answer him?  Will our words echo what is in our hearts and our hands and the way we will serve?  Will our brokenness, our mistakes, or our pasts stand in our way of loving and being loved by the Risen Christ?  I certainly hope not.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu says, “True forgiveness deals with the past, all of the past, to make the future possible.”  The past he refers to deals with the horrors of the apartheid in South Africa where those of darker skin color were labeled as less than those with white skin, and violence, torture, and death came upon those who were different.  Following the end of the apartheid, Tutu headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job was to hear the stories from victims and perpetrators alike about the atrocities of the apartheid.  The hope was that instead of more violence and retaliation, healing and forgiveness would occur in order for the country to move forward.  The realization was that the past does not simply go away, either on a political stage or in personal lives.  Wounds that are pushed down deeper are bound to resurface at some point.  So we must allow the truth about ourselves to be told and to live with it.  As a people, we struggle to tell our difficult stories or show our scars and imperfections, all because we feel that success is the only thing that should be shown to the world.

There were some beautiful things that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mainly that people were able to share their stories and the truth was heard.  It was thought to be a success overall, despite a few flaws.  Those who shared their stories were given the gift of freedom from the past and a hopeful move toward the future.

Peter was given freedom and a future as he sat with the Risen Christ by the fire that morning in Galiliee.  He had to become a “forgiven failure” in order to move forward and begin his mission to change the world.  So, too, Jesus calls to us to come sit with him by the fire awhile, or to the communion table, to ask us this very question until we really get it: Do you love me?  To love Jesus means that we come forward as broken people in need of forgiveness and compassion, and then to follow, feed, tend, and even lead out of our failures.

The Christian life is one of humility, admitting our failures, and standing in need of a God who loves us anyway and calls us to restoration.  It was at this low point that Peter came to find his place and identity in the love and forgiveness of Jesus.  Maybe this is where we need to encounter the Risen Christ for ourselves, too (Bradford).  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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