Making Promises Again

Friday, August 26, 2011 — Week of Proper 16, Year One

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)

Psalms 16, 17 (morning) 22 (evening)

1 Kings 5:1 – 6:1, 7

Acts 28:1-16

Mark 14:27-42

I remember educator John Westerhoff saying something like this: The Christian life is nothing more than making promises, and breaking promises; and making promises again, and breaking promises; and making promises again, and so on. The important thing is to keep making promises again. He then pointed us to the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, which we make with good intention. Within those promises, we resolve to continue to get up and to try again each time we fail: “…whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”

Last night I was speaking to a friend who has just returned from Japan where he was helping untangle some of the legal issues that have occurred in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Wills and other legal documents have been lost; whole families drowned. How do you sort out the complicated property matters and other relational issues?

He described a town that lay on the coast, protected by a thirty foot sea wall. The city was settled along a coastal plain, spreading inland for a couple of miles to the foothills of some descending mountains. The Tsunami was more than twice as high as the sea wall, he said. The water simply overwhelmed it and swept the town away entirely. Complete destruction all the way to the hills. Near the seashore, on the beach there is a pole that has been established in the ground. It reads in Japanese: “Fall down seven times. Get up eight.”

“You will all become deserters,” Jesus tells his companions. Unthinkable. Impossible. Peter protests, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” But we can be broken. Despite our best efforts or strongest intentions, we sometimes fail. At the heart of the prayer Jesus taught us looms the threatening possibility — “Save us from the time of trial.”

Jesus prays earnestly to be delivered from the time of trial. It is not to be. Peter’s strong will and intention will be broken by that trial. He will betray the one he most loves. He will betray his deepest belief and commitment. He will be broken. He will fail.

You can feel it coming even before the fact. As Jesus prays in anguish, he asks his friends to stay with him just a bit. Stay awake. They don’t have to do anything. They don’t even have to pray for him, to carry his fight for him. Just stay awake. But they are tired. Exhausted. Drained. We get that way. How many days in the hospital has it been? How long have we kept going? We meet our limits. We fold.

“Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?” Jesus knows what is coming is more threatening and harder than just keeping awake when exhausted. He urges Peter to pray for himself. “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” If Peter is withering now, what will happen when the real threat comes? Peter means well. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

We sense what is coming. Peter will fail. At the most important moment of his life, he will shrink back. He will break. He will lie. He will deny his beloved friend. Three times.

Peter’s greatest triumph is his subsequent willingness to live with his failed self and to renew his confidence.

Judas, who failed similarly, was too proud to do so. Judas’ continued to insist on exercising full control of his life. Suicide is the ultimate act of control. Judas couldn’t live with himself — not a failed self.

But somehow Peter accepted his own miserable failure. He let himself be who he was. When Jesus rose from the dead to meet Peter, Peter willingly faced him and rejoiced, despite the shame.

I love the story on the beach, that concludes John’s gospel. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter reaffirms his love. It is a poignant reaffirmation. Three times he denied his friend. Now three times he confirms him. Peter is restored and empowered. “Feed my lambs. …Tend my sheep.”

If Judas had not been so willful, had not stayed in control and continued to take things into his own hands, he too could have been similarly restored.

Well… the day is here. Time to get to work. I’ve got promises to keep. And some to renew. I’ll never keep them all.

“Fall down seven times. Get up eight.”

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