I wonder if any of you have ever had to live any part of your life lying about who you really are or what you really believe, in order to live without condemnation, verbal abuse, or threats to your well-being? I hope you haven’t, but there are and always have been, in places, those who have had to lie about their core, their essence, in order to survive.
The first thing that comes to my mind is the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy that existed many years, now rejected though not yet put fully into practice by the military as a whole, or even many parts of the military. Officially, though, it has been determined to be diminishing not only of the rights, but also of the human dignity, of many who have served and are presently serving our country--protecting us and our treasured rights. Perhaps there were and are plenty of gay and lesbian citizens of our country who are relieved not to have to live among others while having to pretend to be who they aren’t and can’t be. There are those, however, who want to demonstrate their patriotism by serving in the military--not all desiring to fight in wars, but plenty hoping to influence the military from within toward world peace.
Yet, many gays and lesbians--brave, selfless, heroines and heroes--have been tossed because of their sexuality, a fact of their birth, something over which they have no more control than the color of their skin. Those who have put their lives on the line for the rest of us, dishonorably discharged, benefits stripped away. medals reclaimed, humiliated to the best of the military’s ability to bring about. Why? Because of a secret discovered, sexuality in the darkness comes to light. Nothing more.
Now, how the military lasted for so long with “straight” personnel having gay flings I don’t know, but, while frowned upon, that was never taken to be the kind of offense as wrong as owning one’s sexuality, saying out loud for anyone who needed to know, “I am lesbian. I am gay.”
Gays and lesbians who never join the military often have much more painful and complicated battles to fight than their military counterparts. I’m talking about coming out to their families.
Add to my personal knowledge of the problems related to coming out, I watched, and I think our Wednesday even crew watched it too, a documentary titled, “For the Bible Tells Me So.” In this film, we meet five essentially fundamentalist families who have a homosexual child. We see the best and the worst ways religiously conservative families respond to a child’s daring to say, “I’m gay,” or, “I’m a lesbian.” The family of former Congressperson Richard Gephardt get all gold stars on their report card because of how much they love their daughter no matter what; they believe their conservative religion teaches them the predominant lesson of loving others, and if you loved others in general, wouldn’t those in your own home especially benefit from such love? That’s how the Gephardts did it. In contrast, one fundamentalist mother preached to her lesbian daughter, “You must repent in order to be the person God intends for you to be.” There was a rift in their relationship. They saw little of each other, and only exchanged an occasional letter. When the mother wrote, she always or almost always, put in her pitch for heterosexuality as a necessity for anyone who desired to be loved by God. One day, this mother got the news that her daughter had killed herself, at least in part, because she could never say who she was to her mother and have that be acceptable. Much too late, that was a wakeup call for this woman who, by then daughterless, became a great crusader for lesbians and gays trying to cope in theologically conservative churches and families. As you can imagine, she found herself unwelcome in the church where she had invested much of her life as well as many other churches where she tried to be a member with the attitudes she had; she wasn’t welcome in many places.
Today, as you leave, you will have another opportunity, if you haven’t yet and if you so choose, to sign a petition supporting marriage equality for all citizens of Delaware. I think the two issues are connected. In our culture, marriage is one way of saying, “This is who I am in relationship to the person I love, and I am not ashamed that our hearts are united.”
As a pastoral counselor in a church setting for many years, I’ve observed that there are three main reasons someone is inclined to lie about who she or he really is.
- I’m ashamed of who I am.
- I fear you will reject me or try to hurt me if I tell you who I am.
- I am afraid of who I am and owning who I am will make it seem more real and true than if I continue denying it.
1) I’m ashamed of who I am. There are all sorts of reasons that people feel shame, but we’ve learned from mental health professionals in the last few years that shame is one of the most destructive emotions anyone can carry around. Some people are ashamed of their background; they came up dirt poor. There is no moral flaw in being poor, but they dealt with the put downs to themselves and their parents and their siblings and felt hated or objectified just because they were poor. They hated being poor, and many of these folks carry a great deal of shame about that to the degree that they don’t want anyone to know.
One of my parishioners in another congregation came up like this, dirt poor, and he became so well to do that he really was ashamed he ever had been poor so he kept it to himself most of the time and only rarely would dare to discuss it with anyone. He once discussed it with me as he entertained me ironically at one of the most high class and expensive restaurants in the city where we went to church together. I haven’t been in his office in many years, but I’ll bet his huge framed poster is still there--the one that reads, “Poverty Sucks.”
In contrast, I had another parishioner in that same congregation who had also grown up dirt poor and had lived in a housing project with a single mom and, I think, one sibling. He wasn’t ashamed of his background in the least, and he’d tell you how he grew up in a heartbeat. The energy that manifested itself as shame in the life of the first gentleman pushed the second gentleman in an entirely different direction. The second gent knew when he found loans and grants to support him in getting a college education exactly what he’d do with his opportunity; he would learn money management, economics, and urban geography toward the end that he would create environments where there would be fewer poor people; those who were poor would live in better, safer housing. He succeeded tremendously in his efforts, which weren’t hampered by a graduate degree in public administration from an Ivy League school and a spouse who was regarded as one of the most gifted architects on the east coast. The governor of the state in which we lived appointed him as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. I think he served alongside that governor for the governor’s two terms.
Two very different responses from two highly successful people. One, though could never get past the shame he felt from being poor as a child. There are many other reasons some people are ashamed to tell you who they are.
2) I fear you will reject me or try to hurt me if I tell you who I am. This a powerful reason to keep quiet about who we are. Supporting the wrong side in many of the civil wars going on in the world today, can cost you your life if you tell the wrong person who you are, but it doesn’t have to be as extreme as that. The whole bullying phenomenon is based on someone letting the wrong person know who she or he really is and having that confidential information shared around a campus or over the internet. No wonder, a high percentage of otherwise honest people use false identities when they’re communicating online.
3) I am afraid of who I am and owning who I am will make it seem more real and true than if I continue denying it. This is often how an alcoholic or a drug addict think before getting into treatment. Someone’s admitting that she or he is an alcoholic doesn’t make her or him an alcoholic or more of an alcoholic; yet, the person with the illness often see it that way so she or he will deny addiction or alcoholism ‘til the cows come home.
It’s easier to live in the modern world if we can be comfortable telling people we encounter the essentials of who we are. I’m not talking about covering your car with bumper stickers making identity statements for you.
We liberals in the Jesus Movement routinely interpret stories that are told about Jesus that make him more than just a remarkable person as icing with which the early church finished the cake. We say, and I certainly am among those think there is merit in recognizing this as we try to understand the process by which Jesus was remembered, that Jesus was, in effect, glamorized by those who wanted to tell his story as the legitimate foundation on which the Christian Church was built. To be blunt, many of us liberals and progressives believe that more was made of certain teachings and acts of Jesus than history or reason could justify. This is precisely what the brilliant, through much maligned Jesus Scholar, John Dominic Crossan, among many, means when he says that the central figure in the Christian faith whom we encounter in Christian scripture is clearly the Christ of faith and certainly not, or not so much, the Jesus of history. Another way interpreters of Christian scripture put this is by saying that the Jesus we get to know in the New Testament is very much the stained glass Jesus, and not the human being who really struggled, sweated, felt frustration, and who had to work to stay on point with the mission to which he was called.
The Jesus Seminar and first rate scholars from Albert Schweitzer to Elaine Pagels to Bart Ehrman have done and continue to provide us with an invaluable service in their efforts to help us see the Jesus behind his handlers. This way of interpreting Jesus didn’t apply across the board, however. By this I mean that Jesus doesn’t look so good in every story that was passed down about him such as in a few accounts where his own racial prejudice showed up early in his ministry. He would certainly leave this narrow-minded perspective behind him as he matured in his ministry, but it is surely there early on. This, then, leads me to say that the tradition Jesus and his earliest followers inherited by no means felt the need to tell the stories of their heroines and heroes only after those stories had been polished until the persons about whom the stories were told had their subjects polished to perfection. Rahab the prostitute, not Rabab the prophetess, hid some Hebrew spies and thereby saved their lives. We’re not told that Rahab gave up her life of harlotry after being touched by the faith of the Hebrew men who spent some time in her establishment. King David, widely regarded as Israel’s greatest king, was an adulterer and a murderer, and those life-facts are not removed from the stories that were told about him.
I want us to keep this in mind when we ponder today the stories about Peter and his lies about Jesus. Peter became the first head of the most influential expression of Christianity the world has ever known; Roman Catholics call him their first pope. This is the case even though Peter denied that he knew Jesus at all, and he left Jesus alone in Jesus’ darkest hour. Why not one of the other men or women in Jesus’ inner circle about whom no ugly stories could be told?
The story on which we focus today takes place shortly before Jesus’ execution. He would soon be arrested, beaten, and abused while some of the few Jews who hated him, and there were truly very few of them, figured out some charge they could concoct about him that would cause Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor assigned by the Emperor to keep the Jews in check, to send Jesus to his death. Just ahead of all this, there is a pivotal, damning conversation that Jesus had with the man who would get the prime leadership position in the Jesus Movement after Jesus was executed.
When they [that is, Jesus and his closest followers] had sung the hymn [following what we have come to call the Last Supper], they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But Peter said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
“All of them said the same.” Some of them meant it; Peter was one among them who absolutely did not mean it. It sounded nice. It sounded brave. It sounded valiant, even. Maybe on the surface Peter believed that of himself, but when the going got tough it was clear that Peter wasn’t about to suffer anything too dreadful just because he was a follower of Jesus. To save his hide, he would lie. He would lie three times in a matter of a few hours to try to convince accusers and nosy folk that he had no connection to Jesus whatsoever. How he got to be the head guy in the church with this on his record is beyond me, but he did; and it at least proves that the church at its best has never played, “Let’s pretend that the people we want to honor were or are perfect in every way.”
Still, Peter’s denial of Jesus was more than a little slip up. Remember what Jesus had said to all of his closest followers out on the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper: “You will all become deserters. You will all desert me and the cause for which we have worked together.” It must have broken Jesus’ heart to have verbalized what he felt in his heart was absolutely the case.
They all protested, but Peter protested the loudest. “If I have to die showing my love and support for you, Jesus, then I will have lived my life for the greatest of causes, and I will have no regrets. Dying because I’m closely connected to you will be an honor, a gift. These other so called followers of yours may be all talk, but you will see, Jesus, nothing could make me deny or desert you. Nothing in the world.”
Jesus said to Peter, “I love you, but you will not risk sharing my fate with me; you’re strong, but you don’t have that kind of strength. I’ll bet you that before the cock crows twice tonight, you will have denied me three times.” Peter’s heart was ripped apart, but somewhere down deep he knew that Jesus understood human behavior to a tee and would not likely be wrong although Peter wanted to prove him wrong.
So did he or didn’t he? Well, let’s see what the oldest of the four Gospels has to say about this tense situation.
Oh, wait. Before we get back to the biblical account, I need to tell you that middle eastern roosters in Jesus’ day were more vocal than modern American roosters who generally crow only once a day--at day break. According to a very highly respected Christian scripture scholar, Dr. William Lane, the ancient middle eastern roosters crowed about midnight, and then about an hour after midnight, and, finally, at daybreak. I have no idea what this is true. I don’t know what kinds of lighting patterns showed up in the sky, but I know that William Lane with whom many of my friends in Southern Seminary studied beyond their study with our own faculty; and he was a grade A scholar so if he says cocks crowed three times in any evening in the ancient middle east he must have some reliable source.
I have never come across a book in original Greek or translated into English that deals with the habits of barnyard animals in the time of Jesus. No doubt, such a book would be a great asset for us. We might have more knowledge of the animals that were in the barn the night Jesus was born in a barn. We might know something more of the little donkey he rode into Jerusalem for his final Passover celebration. Most importantly, we might find out why ancient middle eastern roosters crowed three times in a typical evening when most American and Canadian and British roosters today generally crow only at day break. Finally, the most pressing question of all, “Do the descendants of those thrice-crowing middle eastern cocks still crow three times in any evening as did their forebears and so dependably that Jesus could use the three expected crowings to provide the time frame within which Peter would show his true colors?”
One of the people Jesus’ small band of enemies tried to get involved in getting Jesus’ death sentence rolling was the high priest. Most of them had to know better than that, but I guess they were determined to pursue every possible avenue to get Rome to call for his crucifixion. While Jesus was taken before the Jewish high priest, Peter waited in a courtyard below where the high priest would have heard concerns in his residence in the wee hours. While he was pacing around down there, a servant girl who worked in the residence of the high priest saw Peter standing near a fire trying to stay warm, and she dared to walk up to him--which women did not routinely do with men. She stared at him for a few minutes, and finally said, “I know where I’ve seen you. You were with Jesus when the Roman guard brought him here to the High Priest’s residence. I saw you. We all know that birds of a feather flock together so whatever he is you are also.”
Peter responded in the hearing of all others gathered there that fateful night, “You stupid girl, your vision must be so good you can see in the dark. Why don’t you shut up your ramblings. I can’t even understand what else you’re babbling on about, but no, I definitely was not with Jesus when the guards brought him to the high priests; otherwise, I’d be on trial too.” As Peter walked away from her and those curiosity seekers her accusations had gathered, he heard a cock crow; it was either midnight or about 1 a.m., and Peter’s stomach went into knots.
This servant girl wasn’t going to be blown off by some big, boisterous fisherman. She saw him again, and he she made the charge again in front of several bystanders, “This man is absolutely one of the followers of Jesus. I saw them together just a few hours ago. Who else would be walking with Jesus as the guards were bringing him to a hearing if not one of his associates. There’s no doubt that this is the man I saw with Jesus.”
Peter denied it. “Look, you little busy body. I already told you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m here to see the high priest on personal business in the morning; I’m not going to disturb him at this late hour, but I’ll be one of the first in line to see him in the morning. Again, butt out, and stop talking about matters you know nothing about.”
Evidently, Peter was able to silence the servant girl, but by the time he was able to do that some of the others waiting to see the high priest in the morning said to Peter, “You know, the girl makes sense. Jesus spent some time in Galilee, and your dialect tells us that you are a Galilean. You just happen to be here at the high priest’s residence while Jesus is inside for a hearing. Who are you trying to fool?”
This pushed Peter over the edge. He began cussing like a sailor at those who accused him; oh, he was a sailor. In the midst of the angry curse words, he had those nosy people to know that he was not one of Jesus’ associates and, in fact, didn’t know Jesus at all. He’d heard of him as some of them had, and that was that. Now unless they wanted a little something physical to help them believe his story, they’d better get the hades away from him and shut up.”
Peter had barely finished his diatribe when some cock crowed. It was the second crowing of the evening, so it was an hour after midnight or daybreak.
Peter stomped away from the residence of the high priest, but as he did Jesus’ simple prediction branded itself in his brain, “Before the cock crows twice, you will have denied me thrice.” And burley Peter broke down and cried like a baby. He had the man he loved and admired more than any other. He was petrified of finding himself sentenced to death as Jesus was almost certain to be so he lied about his relationship to Jesus even though he’d sworn to Jesus that he’d rather die than deny him. It didn’t work out that way. He cried because for the rest of his life he’d have to say he denied his true identity at his most crucial opportunity to speak up and say who he truly was. We can’t make up for lost moments like those. Peter didn’t have the opportunity to gather up those who had heard him deny his affiliation with Jesus and see that they understood the truth. “You know, folks, I lied earlier because I was afraid. I have spent nearly every moment with Jesus since he first asked me to join him in his ministry three years ago. His message is the message of life, and I can’t deny that I love him or that my life has been transformed through his take on what our Hebrew ancestors left in writing for us. Therefore, if you want to put me on trial too, it’s only fair.” Peter had lost his only chance to say who he really was in the hearing of most of those people.
King Henry II appointed his pal, Thomas A Beckett, to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, assuming as in nearly all political appointments that the appointee continues to serve at the whim of the appointer. Strange thing happened, though. While doing his job, while performing his ministry, he came to believe that God, not any king, was the head of the church, and he told Henry he could no longer live by the demands of the monarchy. His allegiance would have to be to God and church. Soon thereafter, Henry had Thomas put to death at the altar of the Canterbury Cathedral. Thomas knew what awaited him, but he prayed and waited; he would not run and pretend to be someone he was not.
Joan of Arc, as you well know, was burnt at stake for refusing to recant her calling from God and the presence of God she claimed guided her through what she did for faith and country.
The so called Oxford Protestant Martyrs, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake in 1555 at Oxford for refusing to embrace Roman Catholic faith of Queen Mary I.
In North Korea, the Communist government takes Christianity to be one of the dominant threats to its authority and has instructed law enforcement personnel to arrest not only the suspected dissident but also the three previous generations of her family to root out the bad influence. Still, many of those in the Jesus’ Movement refuse to deny who they are in terms of their faith commitments, and they and their relatives die as a result of their telling the truth.
Angeles Arrien said: “Something definitely changes when we finally summon the courage to risk telling the truth about who we are and are not.”