You Are Not the Exception (A Lenten Sermon)

**Originally preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church on March 8, 2015 as part of the “Were You There” Lenten sermon series. 

“What really offends us is not what the incarnation says about God, but what it says about us. To recognize the radical character of God’s presence with us can only mean that we are valued, precious, and loved by God. Such an idea is offensive because we do not think of ourselves as loveable. Grace, when you come right up against it, is very difficult to bear.” – Cynthia L. Rigby (bulletin cover quote)

Mark 14:28-38, 66-72

28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, “Abba,[h] Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[i] the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt.[k] Then the cock crowed.[l] 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

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It’s just so Peter.

“Listen. Jesus, I hear you. I know you’re saying that everyone is going to desert you, but trust me, you don’t have to worry about me. Even though you say all will deny you, I will not. Even if it kills me. I will be the exception. Just you wait and see.”

It really is just so Peter, isn’t it? Reading through this passage with a friend the other day, we found ourselves having identical reactions when we got to Peter’s bold declaration of ambitious loyalty. At the exact same moment, we rolled our eyes, shook our heads, and chuckled quietly under our breath. I said, “If ever there was a perfect facial expression to encapsulate Peter, that’s it.”

After all, this is hardly the only time in Jesus’ ministry that his first disciple finds himself caught up in his own enthusiasm. That’s just who he is. It is the picture painted of him throughout all the gospels. Peter, first to be called and first to drop his net and his whole life and follow Jesus. Peter who can’t resist jumping out of the boat to join the Son of God in walking on water. Peter who wants his Lord to wash not only his feet, but also his hands and his head. Peter who doesn’t waste a second in responding to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

There is something admirable about Peter’s zealous and optimistic pursuit of faith, but somehow he always seems to miss the mark. He sinks because he doubts, his answer is never the one Jesus is looking for. In fact, Peter’s spiritual clumsiness is so consistent, that any time he opens his mouth, we already know he’s in trouble. He sort of plays like the goofy luckless fall guy in a classic sitcom.

It’s easy to see Peter in this way—as an exaggerated archetype of what not to do. But the truth, I think, is that his story hits a little closer to home than we like to admit. After all he’s driven in his pursuit of faithfulness by a desire for success and achievement and a deeply rooted conviction that he can be the exception to the rules. He rejects the status quo. He wants to be not only the first disciple, but the best disciple. He wants to prove to Jesus that he can be perfect in faith—and even though he fails over and over again, he just keeps trying.

And so while Peter may seem like the perennial bungler of the gospel, his moxie would make him right at home in today’s world. After all, we live in a culture that values exceptionalism and ambition as some of its highest ideals. We look to those who have doggedly pursued achievement and proven against all odds that they are indeed the exception. We call them role models and innovators and heroes and we seek to follow their example. Our slogans and mottos make it clear:

Be the best you can be. Just do it. Have it your way. Go big or go home. If you will it, it is no dream.

The same desire to defy the odds and achieve the unimaginable that drives Peter is embedded in our own cultural story. It compelled Martin Luther and the other early Reformers to dream of a different church. It emboldened the first Americans to dream of a new country rooted in freedom. It’s what convinces us that we can thrive as a church even in an age when mainline Protestantism seems to be flagging. It’s what convinced me that I would be just fine in my first Chicago winter, even though I’d never lived above the Mason-Dixon line or seen more than a couple inches of snow.

Just yesterday, President Obama offered a speech in Selma, Alabama reflecting on the 50 years since Bloody Sunday. His words pointed over and over again to the power of the unique American spirit and the legacy it has created. “boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit” he called us. “Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be.” This is so much of our identity and our story.

So perhaps that’s why we can find something in Peter’s relentless enthusiasm to admire—it is precisely the kind of success-oriented thinking that we value. And perhaps we find it easy to distance ourselves from his inevitable failures because deep down we believe that we will succeed where he does not. Peter may not be the exception, but surely we can be.

Except, when it comes to faith—we’re not. And if we read this story of Peter’s desertion and denial as an instruction manual for what not to do or how to succeed at faith, we’re missing the point just as thoroughly as he misses it. What Peter’s story so painfully illustrates is that we all fall short of who God calls us to be. We all fall short of perfect faithfulness. We are all broken. And we all fail. Even the first disciple. Even the best disciple. There are no exceptions.

In our success-driven world, this is a terrifying idea. But buried deep within this realization is a seed of hope greater than any we could earn in our own pursuit of perfection. Because our Faith is not, ultimately about what we can do. It’s about what is done for us. And not just for the very best of us or the very best in us. Not just for the gold-star, odds defying, exceptional parts of ourselves, but for the very worst in us. For the parts of ourselves that deny and desert. For the broken parts we don’t want to think about, let alone show God.

This is what Peter misses over and over again as he attempts to build his tower of faith on his own bold confidence. It’s what he misses when he so proudly declares to Jesus that though all will deny, he will not. Jesus isn’t telling Peter “don’t deny me.” He’s telling Peter, “You will deny me, but I am still going to die for you. I love you so much, you messy broken human being.” That is Grace. And that is where our faith rests.

Peter doesn’t want to think about failure. He doesn’t want think about human weakness or imperfection. Neither do we. We all want to be the exception. But Jesus isn’t interested in the exceptions. In fact, he refuses to be one himself. God incarnate, with all the power in the world to be exempt from human frailty and finitude and struggle, chooses instead to take on every ounce of our humanness in order to be with us and love us and claim us in precisely those broken places we fear we are most unlovable and unworthy of being claimed.

I wonder if Peter might have seen this—might have had the chance to know it deep in his bones, if he hadn’t fallen asleep that night in the garden with the other disciples. I can imagine him, all worked up and exhausted from the endless efforts to be perfectly faithful in increasingly difficult circumstances and he’s so tired and Jesus is acting weird and maybe he could just rest his eyes for a minute and then before he knows it—Jesus is yelling to wake him up and clearly he’s screwed it up again.

But what he missed in that stolen hour of anxiety-ridden sleep was a glimpse at the humanness of Christ. If only he had been awake to sit with Jesus and as he cried and begged and doubted and feared like we all do, might he have been able to see that Jesus is also with him in his doubts and fears and struggles—with all us? Maybe Peter would have realized in that dark hour in the garden that grace and faith are not about our achieving perfection, but about the perfect love of God: the kind of love that would compel God—in Christ—to enter so fully into human experience that in the face of death he could only ask in a trembling voice for the comfort of friendly company as he sat crying and praying in fear.

Peter sleeps through that moment, and soon after finds himself trapped in a courtyard, confronted by strangers and the deepest depths of his own brokenness. He denies knowing Jesus, again and again. And when he breaks down and weeps, I wonder if what he’s realized is not only his own foretold failure, but the grain of truth within his denial. Because he hadn’t really known Christ—not fully. He had been so focused on his own quest for success, that he failed to fully understand what Jesus was all about: why he came, who he was, and why he would die and rise again.

We run the same risk. When we approach our faith through the lens of achievement and exceptionalism, we’re driven away from the parts of ourselves that feel too human, too flawed, too imperfect. But in so doing, we distance ourselves too from the truth of Christ’s all-encompassing love. And only when we confront and know that that love reaches into the darkest parts of our brokenness can we begin to understand what a tremendously unfathomable gift Grace is.

This past week, faith leaders and Christians from all over the country rallied together to protest the execution of a Georgia woman named Kelly Gissendaner. Kelly was convicted of conspiring with her boyfriend to murder her husband in 1998 and was sentenced to death. In prison, confronted with the very worst of her own brokenness, Kelly found God. She began taking theology courses and became penpals with Jurgen Moltmann—one of the most prominent theologians alive today. In 30 letters over a period of 4 years, they talked about sin and suffering and faith and doubt. Kelly became a spiritual leader among her fellow prisoners, providing guidance and love and comfort.

The temptation for us in hearing Kelly’s story is the same temptation we face in our own stories. We want to make her the exception. Certainly much of the protest against her execution has been rooted in the spectacular conversion experience she had and all the good it has yielded since. And it is a powerful story. But the truth is that many people find God in prison and many people have powerful, heartwrenching stories that go unheard or unappreciated because of their race, or sexual or gender identity, or simply because our system is just as broken as we are.

Kelly Gissendaner should live not because she is such an exceptional Christian, but because she is a child of God. And the real power of her story isn’t the uniqueness of her faith experience, but the universality of the Divine love to which it witnesses. A love which is never done with us and never lets us go, which fills every jail cell and holds every prisoner’s heart—whether held captive by bars or chains or fear or their own brokenness.

Kelly knows that she’s not an exception. Her faith is rooted in something much deeper—grace. She says, “There is only one who can bring a clean thing out of something unclean, or turn a tragedy into a triumph, and a loser into a winner. When this miracle occurs, and only through Divine grace, our life is not wasted. When blind eyes are opened, then we all will see the greater purpose.”

Kelly’s story and Peter’s story remind us not only of our capacity for brokenness, but also of the immensity of the grace that embraces us. Kelly’s friend Jurgen Moltmann says it this way, “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness… God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

Understanding the depth and breadth of Grace does call upon us to recognize that faith is not about our achievements or perfection. It calls upon us to accept and acknowledge that we do fail and fall short. But it doesn’t ask us to surrender ourselves to our own brokenness. Rather, it asks us to surrender ourselves to a hope bigger than anything we could ever imagine or achieve.

It is only once we have recognized the full meaning of Grace that we can dare to allow our faith to accompany us through the hard and heartbreaking parts of life where we can only manage to be our worst selves. And only once we have grasped the full depth of Grace and let it light our hearts can we summon the courage to go to all the difficult and terrifying places to which faith calls us: to the cross and through it and finally, to the kindom on the other side.

Perhaps this is what Peter discovered, when the dust settled from that courtyard betrayal and Jesus died and rose again and Peter’s tears finally dried up. Perhaps then he understood, finally, what grace really is. And went out in hope to live as the rock upon which Christ would indeed build his church.

Once we’ve felt the promise of Grace and understood how it binds us up with God and one another, we cannot be at peace with a world that is at odds with that Grace. Moltmann says, “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

Empowered by grace we strive not for our own achievement, but to be a part of what God is achieving in making all things new. A world loosed from the bonds of injustice and oppression, where all captives are set free and all inequalities abolished.

President Obama’s speech did talk about American exceptionalism. But it also named our call as citizens to be dissatisfied with an imperfect present and to claim our part in something beyond our individual selves. He said, “the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.”

Whether or not this is true of our call as Americans, it is certainly true of our story of faith. A story which is, at its core, the story of the sovereign God of all things choosing, in love, to be a “we” with us—all of us and all of who we are, no exceptions. You are not the exception. I am not the exception. We are not the exception. Not the exception to human fallibility or brokenness. And not the exception to the unfailing love and all-encompassing Grace of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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One thought on “You Are Not the Exception (A Lenten Sermon)

  1. Dang, Layton! This is a sermon You were worried about? You off your game is equal if not better than my ‘on fire’ days! You rock!

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