February 2, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE BIGGEST LOSERS: PETER
We’ve learned some interesting things about one another these last few weeks. Trenching machines driven up walls; a go-go dancer named Bambi who is like a mother to a homeless boy who’s heart has been broken; a well-dressed building supply customer who gets painted orange, glasses and all; antifreeze in the crankcase and everywhere else there is a cap to be removed. And these are just the stories we’ve been willing to share. We are concluding our biggest loser series today so we have just one more story to hear. Today the brave one is Jim Kusterer (Julie Vermillion at 11 am).
(sharing of story)
It was one of the biggest moments in Super Bowl history. For those of you who are into sports, all I have to do is give you the name and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Scott Norwood. For the rest of you, here’s what happened. It was 1991, Super Bowl XXV. It was the New York Giants against the Buffalo Bills. Everyone outside of New York City wanted the Bills to win. The Bills were trailing 20-19, but they had the ball, they had a chance. There was 2:16 left. They were on their own 10 yard line. Their quarterback, Jim Kelly had marched his team down the field as the clock was ticking down. They got inside the Giants 30 yard line with 8 seconds left. In came Scott Norwood. It would take a 47 yard field goal to win the game. He kicked it hard enough but not quite straight enough. It was “wide right”, as Al Michaels told America in his now famous call. Scott Norwood. The man who could have been one of the greatest heroes of Super Bowl history, but ended up being one of history’s all time biggest losers.
We love heroes and heroines. We all want to live heroic lives. But the truth is, sometimes we fail. Sometimes we’re sure we can do something wonderful, but we fall short. We’re “wide right”. Sometimes our egos writes checks that our bodies just can’t cash, to steal a line from the movie “Top Gun”.
In the Bible, God is the hero. We aren’t. We say that if we just try a little harder, prepare a little more thoroughly, have a little more confidence in ourselves, we will succeed. The Bible says that may be true for awhile but those who trust in themselves alone, always eventually end up in the losers column.
Today it’s Peter who makes a brave, bold claim that he cannot back up. I love Peter. Peter is the one disciple described in enough detail that we can get a fairly good picture of what he was like. He was a rough fisherman, a man’s man. I love his sincerity, his loyalty, his bravado, his self-confidence. And I love the Bible’s story of how Jesus took these qualities, this essential core of who Peter was, and transformed him into someone who could become one of the great leaders of the Church.
Our text comes right after the Last Supper. Right after the first communion. Jesus had told his disciples with the bread and the wine that his body would be broken and his blood would be spilled. They sang a hymn and then they left the Upper Room and went to the Mount of Olives. That’s when Jesus told them plainly what was about to happen. “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
Peter didn’t even hear all of that. He heard just part of it. We’ll come back to this later. But Peter took exception to what he did hear. He said, “Not me! I will die with you before I deny you!” And of course, we know now that this turned out to be bravado on which Peter could not deliver. Before the rooster crowed that next morning, he had denied his Lord three times, just as Jesus said that he would.
I want us to look more carefully at what Peter was really saying when he made that brave, bold promise that so soon was broken. In the first place, he was putting himself ahead of all the other disciples. He said, “Though they all fall away, I will never fall away.” He is different. He is better. He is the exception. It’s pure pride speaking. It’s his ego writing checks that aren’t any good. Because those checks are written on an inflated opinion of himself.
Some people get themselves in trouble by assuming that everyone else is better than they are. We call this an inferiority complex. But others are more like Peter. They get themselves in trouble by assuming that they are better than everyone else. It’s a superiority complex. We’ll see quite a bit of this on the football field this afternoon. It may get results for awhile, it may even win ball games, but the Bible is pretty clear on where it eventually takes us. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
Second, Peter is trusting in his own strength. He is the one who will summon the courage and the fortitude to withstand trials he knows nothing about. Twice he uses the word “never”. He will “never fall away”. He will “never disown [Jesus]”. It’s a good idea never to use the word never when speaking of our own abilities. Because we just don’t know what we can and cannot do.
It’s something children often hear from parents. Or students from teachers. It’s something so often repeated you would think it has to be true! “There is nothing you can’t accomplish if you put your mind to it.” We like to believe that. Positive thinking never hurts. But the truth is there are some things we can’t accomplish no matter how hard we try.
We’ve been sharing loser stories. It might take more courage to share our victory stories. Our stories of victory over some addiction that once held us in its grip. The first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable. Somehow just admitting that we are powerless is powerful! Once we stop trusting our own strength, we can start trusting in God who has the power to set us free.
The third thing we can say about Peter based just on this short passage is that he thinks he knows more than Jesus. Jesus had just said one thing — “You will all fall away”. Peter practically interrupts him to say the opposite — “Not me!” When Jesus says something it is a good idea to listen and to obey, not to argue.
This isn’t the first time Peter argued with Jesus. He had made it very clear he didn’t agree with the master plan. He didn’t like the way it ended, with Jesus dying. He wanted everyone else to die, not Jesus. All the bad guys. He wanted a Rambo Jesus. He and Jesus had gotten into it over this on an earlier occasion. It’s in Matthew 16. Jesus had told his disciples what was going to happen and Peter used that “never” word again. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Remember how Jesus responded? It was not a mild response. He said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:21-23).
Peter thinks he knows more than Jesus. He also thinks he is better than the other disciples. He also thinks his own strength is all he needs. That is some dangerous thinking! Peter has set himself up for a fall and it is a big one. It’s an embarrassing one. It, for once in his life, brings Peter to his knees.
You know the story. He has barely promised to never let Jesus down and he can’t even stay awake with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. That was all Jesus had asked. Not much. Peter couldn’t even do that. Then when Jesus is arrested he runs away before he can be arrested, too. Three times he is asked if he is one of the disciples. Three times he denies even knowing Jesus. And after the third denial he hears something. It is a rooster announcing the dawn of a new day. And he remembers what Jesus had said: “I tell you the truth. This very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
It was the lowest moment of Peter’s life. I have a question for you. Have you ever had a moment like that? Utter defeat and humiliation. “Epic fail”, as they say. It’s horrible. But it can also be wonderful. It can be the best thing that ever happened to you. Because once you have emptied yourself of yourself, then God can come in.
I read about a continuing education class for pastors. It was called “The Personal Life of the Minister”. It was about some of the not so pleasant things clergy sometimes face. Things like depression, anger, rejection, failure, divorce, burn-out, temptation, loss of faith. It was a list of some really tough stuff. The class was designed to give recent seminary graduates some insights to help them avoid crashing and burning. But the class was attended almost exclusively by pastors who had been in ministry for a long time. Where were the younger ones? They didn’t want to hear this stuff. They were going to conquer the world for Jesus. They were going to make it happen. They wanted a pep talk, not a dose of reality.
And that’s too bad. Because it’s not possible to conquer the world for Jesus unless and until you are broken, as Peter was broken. Unless and until you have emptied yourself of yourself.
I got some more help from Richard Pimentel this week. He has great ways of communicating concepts in simple ways. We were talking about this very subject and he asked me if I ever noticed that when you order coffee they always ask you if you want cream before they pour your coffee. I said, “No, I’ve never noticed that, because I never order coffee.” He said, “Stop being a smart ass.” He continued. Once they know you want cream, they know to leave room at the top of the cup for the cream to be added. Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to add cream to a cup of coffee that is completely filled with coffee.
Here’s the point. We need to empty ourselves of ourselves so there is room for God to come into our lives. If we are so full of ourselves that there is no room for anyone but ourselves, even God has a hard time coming in.
There is a classic children’s book. It was written about 150 years ago by a woman named Lucretia Hale. It is called The Lady Who Put Salt in Her Coffee. She didn’t mean to. She thought the salt was sugar. But now it was too late. The coffee was ruined. So what can she do? She brings in a chemist. The chemist adds various chemicals to counteract the effect of the salt. But the coffee still tasted terrible. Then she brings in someone who sold herbs. Various herbs were added and the taste of the coffee was improved a little. But not much. It was still not drinkable. Finally, in comes a wise woman from Philadelphia. She had a strange and novel idea. “Why don’t you just get a new cup of coffee??”
Sometimes we don’t like our cup of coffee. Sometimes we try everything to make it better. But it’s all our own efforts. Our own ingenuity. We can do it. We can do anything if we put our mind to it! Jesus comes along and says, “Let me help. Let me just give you a new cup of coffee.”
That’s what Jesus did for Peter. Biggest loser Peter. Braggadocios, bull-headed, full of himself Peter. We left him in the courtyard after his third denial. He has heard the rooster crow. He has remembered the words of Jesus. “And he went outside and wept bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). It was a bitter pill for Peter to swallow. It was a bitter cup of coffee. So Jesus gave him a new one.
In Galilee. Remember when Peter objected to strongly to what Jesus had said about how he would die and all his disciples would run away? Peter hadn’t even heard the rest of what Jesus had said. He hadn’t heard the word of hope. “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
We’re pretty good at selective listening. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear. But sometimes we hear what we don’t want to hear. We expect bad news so that’s all we hear. We don’t even hear the good news. We don’t even hear the word of hope.
After the resurrection Jesus does meet Peter at the Sea of Galilee. He renews Peter’s calling at the seashore. He takes Peter close to him and says, “Take care of my sheep.” He says it three times, once for each of Peter’s three denials (John 21:15-17). Peter’s new calling was to be a shepherd for God’s people. To take care of God’s sheep. It’s a simple calling and he accepts it. He is humble. He is grateful.
Here’s my question: Which Peter would you want to be your pastor? The pre-rooster Peter? Or the post-rooster Peter? The Peter who was full of himself? Or the Peter who was full of God?
There are two books in the Bible traditionally ascribed to Peter. I just want to read this from I Peter 1:6 and 7.
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
God turns losers into winners. God is really good at that. We all have our rooster crowing moments. We all have our moments of epic failure.
“Sports Illustrated” caught up with Scott Norwood 13 years after he missed the field goal that cost his team the Super Bowl. He was one of the top kickers in the league before that miss. He had been to the Pro Bowl. He was the Buffalo Bills all-time scoring leader, having passed O.J. Simpson. After that one miss, the Bills released him. No other team was interested in talking to him. So he retired from football. He was 30. He went home to Virginia where he sold insurance and real estate.
He came back to Buffalo once. He was given an award for his charitable work while he was on the team. I watched the news story on YouTube. And I read the comments. One said, “This guy should never be shown on Buffalo TV ever again.” Another one was just two words: “Scott Nogood.”
But the article said that Scott Norwood is doing just fine. In fact, much better than many professional athletes who end their careers as heroes. Scott Norwood has a great wife, Kim, and three adorable children, two of them twins, all born after that infamous Super Bowl.
Those kids would draw crayon pictures of their dad making that kick and their mom would sit them down and teach them a lesson we would all do well to learn. “It’s all right that your dad missed that kick. Your dad went out there and did his best — and sometimes, even when you do your best, things don’t work out. And you know what? That can be OK, too.”
Dear God, when we fail, when we fall, when we are broken, that’s when you can come in. Those cracks in our armor are your entry point. So help us to accept our failures, even to thank you for them. There is life, even for losers. Epic losers. There is new life, abundant life, in Jesus. Amen.