For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.” John 6:64
14B Pentecost – August 26, 2018
Much as I love our little chapel here by Singing Beach, Emmanuel Church is not the church that most people associate with Manchester-by-the-Sea. Let’s admit it, the oldest and most prominent church in town is that of our Congregational brothers and sisters, First Parish Church. A classically beautiful “small town New England” church, First Parish has a commanding presence in the heart of Manchester, overlooking the harbor and right next to Town Hall. Easily the tallest building within miles, its soaring white steeple draws our eyes to the heavens. And it’s not just the sight of First Parish that attracts our attention, but its sounds too. The rhythm of our days are punctuated by the tolling of its bells on the hour, and every now and again its bell tower treats us to gorgeous hymns to the praise of God. A living monument to our Puritan heritage, the church is a wonderful presence in our community and has been since its founding in 1716.
What I did not notice until very recently, though, is what sits atop the First Parish steeple. Have you ever noticed? Above the bell tower, above the clocks, at the pinnacle of the steeple, where many churches might have a cross, instead sits a golden rooster. It is, of course, a weathervane; technically a ‘weathercock.’ And we see them on lots of buildings, especially churches, throughout New England and beyond. And to be honest, I always thought these weathercocks were just a quaint bit of Americana, more decoration than anything else.
But in fact, far from being merely ornamental, the rooster was put there by the good people of First Parish in 1809 to send a message. Among the most ancient of Christian symbols, the rooster recalls St. Peter’s denial of Christ before his Passion. You remember the story, told in all four gospels. Before his final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death at the hands of a betrayer, and more than that, he tells his disciples that all of them will in fact abandon Jesus in his time of crisis. Upon hearing this, Peter is stunned, telling Jesus, “Though everyone else may abandon you, I will never fall away.” Jesus says to Peter, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter protests: “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!”
And then, of course, as Jesus is arrested, and the Romans begin to turn up the heat, the disciples scatter, just as Jesus predicted, and we see Peter cowering in the courtyard outside the Temple. A servant girl comes up to him and says, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But Peter denies it, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And then another servant girl passes by and says to the crowd, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again Peter denies it: “I do not know the man.” And then finally a third girl confronts him, saying: “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” But Peter shouts angrily, “I do not know the man.” And as soon as he does, the rooster crows, convicting Peter of his betrayal.
Today’s gospel reading – which is the concluding section of John’s long “bread of life” discourse – is also all about human betrayal, and ever so subtly foreshadows Peter’s ultimate denial of Christ. As you remember from last week, Jesus has been teaching his disciples that he is ‘the bread of life’ sent from heaven, and that his body will be broken and his blood spilled for the sake of all humanity; but we hear today that the crowd finds this teaching too difficult to believe. Jesus sees that there are many who doubt. And so he turns to the Twelve, and asks them point blank: “Will you too fall away?” Then Peter, ever eager to please, but naïve about the true costs of discipleship, tries to assure Jesus: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One.”
Peter wants to be faithful; but, of course, we know what happens when the going gets tough, as the rooster reminds us. It is one thing to say you believe; quite another to live it, especially when the stakes are high.
This is the human predicament. We aspire to be one thing; but we consistently fall short of our ideals, sometimes miserably and tragically so.
Just look at the papers. Our Catholic brothers and sisters again find themselves embroiled in the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse of innocent children. Priests and bishops, called to be champions of the vulnerable, instead use their power to exploit the innocent, and then go to great lengths to cover up their misdeeds. We thought we knew the extent of the mess, but it turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg.
Our politicians are no better. Sordid tales of corruption fill our newsfeeds. A plea deal here, a conviction there, investigations ongoing seemingly everywhere. Republicans and Democrats alike are so busy pointing fingers at each other that no one seems to remember their shared duty to uphold the Constitution, speak the truth, model integrity, create opportunity, pursue justice, and leave this world a better place than we found it.
Instead, we betray the trust of our children and grandchildren. We betray the poor. We betray the elderly. We betray the veterans. We betray the earth. I could go on, as could you.
As the Bible teaches us time and again, this is what happens when we chase after the false idols of power, money, ambition, self-promotion, and the reckless indulgence of appetite, rather than keeping the love of God at the center of our lives. Our Old Testament lesson, which comes from the end of the Book of Joshua, frames the existential dilemma this way: After Joshua has led God’s people from the wilderness into the Promised Land, the question Joshua poses to the gathered elders is this: how are you going to live your lives now that we have arrived? Will you remember our history, and how God has guided and protected and led us to this place, such that you will continue to trust Him above all others? Or will you take your blessings for granted, and allow yourselves to be captivated by the false gods of this world? “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua cries.
Like Peter reassuring Jesus, the Hebrew people answer Joshua by saying they will always choose God and remain faithful to his promises. And yet, as we know from the long history of the prophetic literature that follows the Book of Joshua, the Israelites were no better at keeping their promises than Peter, betraying their God time and again.
Human beings seem to be hopelessly broken. Like Sisyphus trying to push the boulder up the hill, only and always to have it roll right back down, we seem stuck in a dynamic back-and-forth between who we want to be, on the one hand, and who we are, on the other. And were we reliant solely on our own merit, we would indeed be hopelessly stuck.
But here’s the good news: God does not leave us to our own devices. We’re not in this alone. As we hear in our gospel this morning, Jesus is constantly drawing us back to himself, inviting us to trust not in our power, but in his weakness; not in our own cleverness and guile, but in his innocence and purity; not in the pursuit of our own selves, but in the gift of his selfless sacrifice; not in the bread of this world, but in the bread of His broken body. Paradoxically, the key is surrender. To believe not in ourselves, but in Him.
The great fourteenth century Persian poet, Hafez, put it this way in a poem entitled “Tripping Over Joy”:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Holy One
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.”
We betray God every time we think we can save ourselves without His help.
One of the older prayers in our Prayer Book is the Prayer of Humble Access from our Rite I Eucharistic Prayer, and it is said immediately after the priest breaks the consecrated bread at the altar and before it is shared with the people. The prayer – which perhaps we should say more often – captures perfectly the core of today’s gospel lesson. It goes like this: “We do not presume to come to this thy Holy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.”
The first step in faith, it turns out, is to admit our weakness. It is in humble surrender that we are saved. And that’s why the rooster is such a perfect symbol to be perched atop our little town church. Perhaps Pope Gregory the Great was correct when he wrote in the sixth century that “the rooster, rather than the cross, is the most suitable symbol of our faith for his crow reminds us of just how prone we are to betray the One who loves us most, and to trust in ourselves rather than in the pure grace of our God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” So, next time you’re in town, cast your eyes heavenward, and take a look at our little golden rooster, and then say a prayer of quiet and grateful surrender.