You Are, But You Are To Be....
a sermon delivered from inside a prison
Good morning! Below is my latest sermon. Enjoy!
(Tomorrow I will be posting an essay about the women’s prison as well as a conversation thread about this sermon for the community of supporters in The Corners. If you’d like to join the conversation and support my work, subscribe below)
A sermon preached at the New Beginnings Community inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed) He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter) (John 1: 41-43)
A few years ago, I was hanging out in a hallway with a group of other pastors - all of whom were also skipping out of a lecture we were supposed to be in – but to be honest, I usually get a lot more out of the conversations I have in the hallway at a conference than I do from the lectures I am supposed to listen to at a conference.
Anyhow, I can’t remember why the question was asked, but someone said, I know! let’s go around the circle and say the adjective that, if someone used it to describe you, would be the worst thing you could think of. The first person to answer, bravely said “stupid” and I though, yeah – that would suck. Then the next guy said “boring” and I though, yeah – ouch. But when it came to be my turn, I did not hesitate. I knew exactly what it was and I quietly said the word “needy”.
I’d much rather have someone think of me as stupid or boring than have anyone say they think I am needy.
It feels too risky to need anything from anyone - so I’ve tried my whole life to give off as much strength as possible so that people would think I was powerful, that way no one could hurt me. I learned very early on to wear psychic armor. The pain of my girlhood, which is less acute than some, and more acute than others, led me to see the world in a very particular way and the story I believed for so long was that I had to protect myself at all times and at any cost.
Ok, I mention all of this because the Gospel text we just heard is the one where we are introduced to Peter for the first time. You know Peter, right? He was always like the teacher’s pet in the Gospels – always kissing up to Jesus and raising his hand first in class. His good boy earnestness makes me suspect that maybe I wouldn't have like him very much. But anyhow….we meet him for the first time in this reading and I just really love how Jesus addresses him.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You areSimon son of John. You are to becalled Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
He calls him the name his family called him, his boyhood name, and the son of his father - both things that he did not choose –– and then he said, and yet - you are to be something else.
You are your past you are your family. And You are to be something else.
It reminded me of the thing WC Fields said, which is “It’s not what they call you. It’s what you answer to”
That sounds like redemption to me.
I mean we may want to escape, or try and make up for who we were in the past – we may want to never again be called our girlhood name. We may want to completely detach from all of it.
But we can’t – not really. She is who we are. Our girlhood is a part of us. And even so – as Jesus said to Simon, we are to be something else.
To me, the very most beautiful thing about this story is how it unfolds from there.
I mean who knows what Peter was like before this day, back when he was still called Simon. That is lost to history. But we do know what he was like in the gospels. We know that at the last supper – remember when Jesus went to wash Peter’s feet and Peter was like, “you’ll never washmyfeet” and then Jesus was like, “um, if you don't let me do this, it means you just don't get what this is about” - and then Peter totally over-does it and is like, “I mean yes wash my feet but also my hands and my face Lord!”…and I imagine the other more normal disciples, like, rolling their eyes at that point. And earlier when Jesus said he was to be killed in Jerusalem it was Peter who was like “then I will die WITH you, Lord”. And then when Jesus was arrested in the garden, it was Peter who defended him by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of some poor guy named Malchus.
So this week I started to wonder some things about Peter, like, what word, if used to describe him, would be to Peter the very worst? Given what we know, I wonder if maybe the word would be “disloyal”. Like, if he ever overheard his friends describe him as disloyal, it would destroy him.
I mean he did put a lot of energy into being the guy at the head of his class of disciples, the best soldier in Jesus’ army, the gold star follower who would never let Jesus down.
And yet in the end, heartbreakingly, he did, didn’t he? After all, it was Peter who denied Jesus three times.
It’s not what they call you, Simon.
It’s what you answer to, Peter.
I bet Peter thought he might die if people knew he truly struggled with loyalty. And yet his dark secret came out in such a public way – like poor dude – you think social media is problematic for when you make a mistake? – Peter’s worst moments are written in a book that people are stillreading and talking about 2,000 years later.
The guy who was so brag-y about his loyalty – who was the gold star disciple - was the guy who denied Jesus 3 times the night he was arrested.
And then what does Jesus do when the truth about Peter, that he was actually a disloyal guy - the truth he tried so hard to hide - was finally revealed? Did Jesus do what Peter feared? Did Jesus reject him? abandon him?
No. Jesus saw him in the purest form of the word. He saw that he was both Simon andPeter and also a name only known to God.
You are Simon, son of John and you will be Peter. I don’t think Jesus was shocked by what Peter did. I actually think Jesus saw his disloyalty from the beginning, like none of Peter’s strategies for pretending he was something else ever worked on Jesus and Jesus kept him around anyhow. Because Jesus is just like that, I guess.
By the way, he kept Peter around afterhe denied him, too. There’s a very sweet scene in which after the resurrection, Jesus comes to Peter when Peter had gone back to fishing, depressed as hell, I imagine - and totally filled with shame for his failure - and 3 times Jesus asks him, “Peter do you love me?”. He gives Peter one chance for each denial to say what is really really true. That he doeslove him. He struggles with loyality. AND he loves Jesus.
I just think that the sweet moment from today’s Gospel where Jesus first meets Simon and says you are who you were, and you will be someone else is so loving. Like, it makes me feel like maybe I am so known by God that I can relax.
It makes me know that you too are who you were and also who you will be and that means that there is room in the heart of God for our whole beings, our whole stories.
As for me, it ends up that the reason the very last thing I would ever want people to say about me is that I am needy is because – well, I’m needy. It’s taken most of my life to make friends with this idea. But I need a lot of things that I can only get from other people. And ironically, it ends up that I am actually most powerful when I am vulnerable, not when I pretending that I’m not.
Part of me is grateful that I moved through so much of my life wearing emotional riot gear and giving off as much strength as possible – because on some level it was the thing that protected me – but it could never be the thing that actually healed me. That came through allowing myself to be seen by God and by another person who loved my whole self – good, bad and even needy.
I guess what I am trying to say is that God knows the thing in your life that you are trying desperately to make up for – the thing you hope no one will see, - the word that if used to describe you, would feel the very worst and God loves even that part of you. I really think that’s true.
I believe God knows who we were, where we came from, what we are trying to hide, and also what we will be and God says, I choose you. You. The whole package.
Because God knows, it’s not what they call you. It’s what you answer to. And child of God is our only true –eternally true - name.