Sermon: “How Deep Is Your Love?”

223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 29, 2009

Scripture readings: Mark 12:29-30; John 21

 

Nancy Heishman

It was three-and-a-half years into our experience living in the Dominican Republic that we headed out on a hike up the side of a mountain, thinking we knew what we were getting ourselves into.  After several years of living in the Dominican Republic, we felt fairly comfortable setting out on new adventures, navigating the culture, growing through each experience as we went.  When friends came down to visit over Thanksgiving, we decided to explore the central mountainous region of the country.  Early Saturday afternoon we planned to hike to the famous Salto de Jimenoa Uno, a beautiful 40-foot waterfall cascading down the side of the mountain.  If you’ve seen the movie Jurassic Park, it’s the waterfall featured in the opening scene or so I’m told.

We expected to hike up by ourselves, but the local policeman insisted we take a local guide with us.  Reluctantly we agreed and started negotiating a price with him.   We were shocked when he proposed his asking price.  We weren’t hiking up Mount Everest after all.   It surely couldn’t be that strenuous a hike.  Even for a typical “gringo price” it seemed high.  After the customary negotiation to what we thought was a fairer price, we set out.  The hike began over a series of rickety, narrow suspension bridges, seemingly held together by string and duct tape.  This should have been our first warning!  But at that point we weren’t alarmed.  After all we were on flat ground and any fall couldn’t be that far down.  Soon, however, the guide led us off the marked path directly straight up the side of the deeply-forested mountain.  Where in the world were we headed, we wondered?

It was about at the point when we were a third of the way up the mountain that some of the more faint-hearted of us made the wise decision never to look down under any circumstances.  This decision came in quite handy especially when carefully stepping around 50-foot sheer drop-offs with no railings.  While jumping across cavernous canyons that any responsible adult would advise against, we made our way forward, literally pulling ourselves up muddy hillsides by means of grabbing onto tree roots and vines.

After what seemed like an eternity of climbing, we found ourselves faced with a massive field of boulders.  We could hear that just behind the boulders was a very impressive-sounding waterfall.  After one more hair-raising climb around a high pumping station just east of the falls (again with no railing) we reached the foot of the falls, with water crashing down so powerfully that the mist and spray reached you way before your arrival.  It was magnificent!

This was all well and good until we remembered that we had to return by the same treacherous route!  After briefly enjoying the freezing waters of the pool below the falls, we started down the slippery slope, across the same gaps and above the same ledges (with no railings) now on wobbly legs and with shredded sneakers held together with handy rubber bands.

When we finally reached the bottom, we gratefully paid the guide the full price and more for his troubles and patience with us.  We’re sure he had lots of stories to tell about the group of six crazy gringos he had hiked with.  For our part, we concluded together that we would never trade the chance to have climbed to those falls. But the grown-ups, at least, would also probably never do it again in our lives.

We had not had any idea whatsoever that the journey up the mountain would involve such a strenuous, poorly marked trail, fraught with difficulty and questionable risks. The tour books described it as a bit hair-raising but we thought surely we knew better.  The trail signs certainly didn’t warn us.  The guide didn’t seem fazed.  He’d taken the journey before. We started the climb with no idea of what would lie ahead.  It was only in the midst of the journey that we realized that this would be a hike like no other that we had attempted.  Only in the midst of the journey did it dawn on us that there would be discomfort, pain, great effort, and a bit of danger involved.

Could this be how we might describe the spiritual journey of the apostle Peter?  He started his journey quite naïve and self-satisfied, and only as Jesus worked a transformation in him did he begin to realize that the spiritual journey would involve a suffering kind of love.

Peter’s first step on the journey was when Jesus invited him to give up fish-fishing for people-fishing and he impulsively said, “Absolutely!  Count me in!”  Did he have any idea what he was in for at the beginning?  I would imagine not.  In fact for most of his life as a disciple of Jesus, he was not only impulsive but unprepared and a bit clueless about the real nature of this journey.

Peter takes a second step on the journey of transformation when Jesus tries to help him see that the journey would involve suffering.  There is the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17 where Peter, chosen with James and John to experience this holy moment, blurts out a plan to build monuments to the three dignitaries appearing on the mount.  Jesus is interested in the paradox of glory and suffering.  But to paraphrase T. S.  Eliot, “Peter had the experience but missed the meaning.”  Jesus was trying to tell Peter that glory and suffering go hand in hand.  Peter wanted the glory but not the suffering.

The third step on Peter’s journey of transformation is the story of Peter’s great confession of Jesus when he confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This story is followed closely by Jesus’ pronouncement of the inevitability of pain and suffering as part of the cost of discipleship. Matthew says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” How does Peter respond?  He is shocked and repulsed.  He rejects Jesus’ words about suffering.  “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you,” shouts Peter.  Jesus chastises him as a satanic stumbling block to the gospel with a mind clearly still focused on earthly matters.  Peter wanted to be associated with a powerful Messiah not a rejected, suffering one.

And finally the most important step on Peter’s journey of transformation culminates in the story that takes place the night before the crucifixion.  Peter is warming his hands around the fire, hoping no one will associate him with Jesus whose life hangs in the balance.  Three times he is accused of being a follower of Jesus.  Three times he denies having anything to do with the Teacher he loves, who is about to enter into unspeakable suffering.  He desperately wanted to be close to Jesus but not so close as to have to share in his sufferings.

All his life so far, Peter has tried to deny that suffering is part of the cost of following Jesus.  All his life as a disciple, he shows that he prefers the simple, quick, impulsive solution rather than the costly, painful, suffering one.  Who can blame him?  Who among us gladly chooses or welcomes suffering on behalf of others as an integral part of life?  Nothing in the culture around us encourages this choice.  How many advertisements do you see or hear daily trying to entice you to adopt a sacrificial, suffering existence for the good of others?

This kind of thinking is completely counter-cultural but that is exactly what Jesus is advertising… a life of such profound love that one is willing to make sacrifices and even to suffer for and with others if necessary.   Jesus modeled it for us.  Jesus sacrificed everything on the cross because he loved the world so much.

This is the Jesus who came to see Peter one more time.  This was the pivotal moment in Peter’s transformation.  We see Peter, the one who had denied Jesus three times around that fire in the courtyard.  We see Peter, the one who wanted to be close to Jesus but not so close as to have to share in his sufferings.

And so Jesus builds another fire.  He fries some fish on it and invites Peter, again, to choose a life of sacrificial love, even though loving God and others would cost him great suffering.  Peter had denied Jesus three times.  Peter had said no to suffering love three times.  Jesus now graciously and lovingly gives him yet another chance, three opportunities to say yes to love.

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these disciples?”  Simon, son of John, do you love me?  Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

This is the resurrected Jesus speaking, the one who had sacrificed everything on the cross.  His love was so powerful, so compelling.  Something deep and powerful finally clicked and came together within Peter.  He gave himself fully to Jesus, even accepting the life of suffering to come for the joy of being close to Jesus, for the joy of finding what it means to live a life of love for others.  This was THE pivotal moment in Peter’s transformation.

For each previous tragic “I don’t know the man” of Peter’s betrayal, Peter has the precious opportunity to say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

In the midst of Peter’s anguish at being pressed three times for an answer, he was really being graced with the chance to reaffirm his love for Jesus and to receive the commissioning words, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”  All doubt surrounding Peter’s acceptance into the leadership of the disciples was erased with this interchange.

What Jesus does next is to pull together all the threads of Peter’s struggle with the concept of suffering love.  In the next few moments Peter would be taken back in his memory to all the moments when he had been repulsed by the thought of suffering love, moments when he rejected outright any mention of the concept, when he felt outrage and horror at the thought that Jesus would choose suffering over victorious conquering.  All those feelings of rejection toward the idea of suffering would be gathered up in Jesus’ loving but clear warning:  “‘Peter:  When you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go.’  He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.”  Jesus is saying, to love is to choose the path that includes suffering.  There is no way to avoid it.  It is an integral part of following Me.  Loving others will lead to suffering with transformation on the way.

In his book Everything Belongs, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says, “The cross is not the price that Jesus had to pay to talk God into loving us.  It is simply where love will lead us.  Jesus names the agenda.  If we love, if we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world, it will crucify us.”    There is a profound cost involved in a love that suffers with others.

When we accepted the call to serve as mission coordinators in the Dominican Republic we had no idea that it would mean walking with a suffering church.  We had no idea it would mean paying the price of our own personal suffering.  We didn’t know it would mean standing alongside a church struggling to attain a higher level of integrity, struggling with matters of painful church discipline and sin.  We didn’t know there would be lessons in understanding what it means to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for such is the Kingdom of heaven. We hadn’t known we would be walking with Jesus on a journey of suffering love.

This was our experience several years ago as we began our 3rd term of service in the DR.  When we asked for routine financial reports from the top national church leaders who were in office at that time, we received a very negative, hostile reaction.  In fact, it eventually because clear that there was serious financial mismanagement of church funds. For this reason they did not want to give financial reports to the national board or to us.  Rather than admit to their impropriety, they eventually took out a lawsuit against us in the Dominican courts.  These leaders have since been removed from office by the Dominican church.

All this was a sobering experience that we hadn’t expected to be part of our journey.  It’s scary to stand before a judge falsely accused of a crime in a country not your own, trying to defend yourself in a language which is not your first.   A court translator’s feeble attempts at translating legalese in Spanish only made matters worse and more confusing.  It’s unsettling to face the prospect of jail time and substantial fines, separation from your children, public disgrace–when you know you have committed no crime.  It’s painful to have persons you worked with for years respond in ways that betray trust and deepen pain and hurt.

All this would have been an overwhelming experience for us if it not been for outstanding supervisory and staff support and the presence of Dominican Brethren who were loyal, committed, and doggedly faithful.  Their caring presence was unflagging.  We were never left to appear at a hearing alone.  Not once.  They surrounded us with their presence and prayers.  The judge’s decision was ultimately positive and it was possible to walk out of the courtroom free.

The church and we have since moved on.  God has brought tremendous growth and healing, deep wisdom, and transformation through that experience.  We have walked together through this experience of suffering love, understanding more clearly what kind of commitment Jesus was asking of Peter in that conversation around the fire.

During one of the most somber moments of the process though, our defense lawyer surprised us with the comment, “It’s good you are here.”  We looked at her in astonishment, wondering what she could possibly mean.  She said, “Anyone who speaks the truth in this country will be persecuted.  Count it an honor.”

Really more than the “so-called” honor of persecution for speaking the truth, I count it the greatest of honors to have had brothers and sisters standing beside me, never leaving my side.  In their presence I felt the powerful presence of Christ.  And we have gladly returned the favor to them.  In their presence I saw what it means to follow Jesus, to be led where one may never want to go, to love in ways that demand total commitment to Jesus.

Together we have shared what was maybe a teeny bit of the sufferings of Christ.  In their presence I saw that they understood what Jesus meant in his conversation to Peter:  “Do you love me?  Then tend and feed my sheep.  Some day, you will be led somewhere where you do not want to go.  But what is it to you?  As for you, ‘Follow me.’”  Follow Me wherever I lead you. Follow Me whatever the cost, but follow me.  And be transformed along the journey.

I believe that God is deeply committed to the transformation of all creation, including and by means of the church.  It is there in the figurative Body of Christ where God invests concentrated energy to build a transformed and transformational community.  God does this not just for the sake of the faith community itself.  No, God invests the energy of transformation for the sake of a lost and hurting world that God loves so much.  And God invites us, as members of Christ’s Body, to accompany one another and others through intense struggles, sometimes with matters of sin, other times with matters of integrity, of persecution, of pain and suffering.

Jesus invites us to say yes to follow Him.  To say yes to a kind of love for others that is willing to suffer with them.   Willing to be transformed in the process of loving.  Jesus invites us to walk with others even when we cannot prevent their pain, cannot resolve the suffering, cannot spare them distress.  Sometimes, by the grace of God, there are the longed-for opportunities to act with God and others to bring the justice God desires.  Sometimes the only thing that can be done is to suffer with, to wait, and to love.  The transformational process is agonizing at times; it demands all the patience and perseverance we can muster.

In many ways we are like Peter at a critical, pivotal moment in our life as a denomination.  Just as Peter and Jesus faced each other around the fire at that most significant, profound moment in Peter’s life, we too stand facing Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus asks us anew this evening, “Do you love me more than these?”  “Do you love me?”  “Do you love me?”

Which fire are we each at personally?  Are we still at the fire by the courtyard, fearfully and nervously warming our hands, hoping no one will notice us and associate us with Jesus?  At that fire, we, like Peter, long to be close to Jesus but we’re holding back.  We’re still so afraid of the cost that Jesus is asking of us.  We want to follow but we’re still not yet willing to give our all for Jesus.  We’re not yet willing to pay the price of giving our lives to Christ and to others in suffering love.  We’re close to Jesus but not as close as we could be and like it was for Peter, for us, too, the distance is painful.

Or are we at the fire by the Sea of Tiberias with the frying fish and breakfast waiting?  Here we’ve seen how much Jesus was willing to suffer for us and we are overwhelmed and compelled and transformed by his love.  Here we’re ready to say yes to Jesus and to give our all.  YES!   We know it’s a costly choice that will require everything we’ve got to give and more.  But we love Jesus with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength.  We don’t want to hold back and keep any distance between us and him.  We’re ready to give our all for him as he gave his all for us.

And we want to love others too as we were loved.  We know if we’re going to love others fully it will involve suffering.   It will require sacrificing for others.  It will ask us to surrender our will to the will of Christ for the sake of the world around us.  But we know that suffering love is a joyful gift to give.  It’s an enormous privilege.  It’s a price we can gladly pay with the grace of God.

And so we respond as Peter did, “Of course we love you, Jesus.  We will stand with the best of our 300-year history, with those eight brothers and sisters who also counted the cost at the edge of the Eder River.  We will continue to care for your sheep and tend your flocks.  Like our spiritual ancestors, we will surrender ourselves to the deep, deep love of God revealed to us in Jesus and we will rejoice.”

I invite you now to listen to a story of love and transformation as told by Pastor Felix Arias Mateo, this year’s moderator of the Dominican Church of the Brethren…..

–Nancy Heishman is co-coordinator of the Church of the Brethren’s mission in the Dominican Republic.

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The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact
cobnews@brethren.org.