“Rock Bottom”

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 2.10.09 PM
A news report on the vandalism at Masjid Al Salam mosque in Fort Smith, AK, from KNWA, a local news station out of Fayetteville.

Matthew 16:21-28

There’s a current Gatorade commercial that’s stuck with me lately.

It begins with a shot of a high school gymnasium, then pans to none other than Michael Jordan, basketball legend, sitting in the bleachers. Michael looks at the camera and says, “What is the secret to victory? Fail to make your high school basketball team.”

It then goes through a series of other athletes all giving their secret to victory:

J. J. Watt, Houston Texans defensive end says, “Start your career as a walk on.”

Peyton Manning, who holds NFL quarterback records in passing yards, touchdown passes, AP MVP awards, and Pro Bowl appearances offers his secret to victory: “Go 3-13 your rookie season.” His brother Eli, also among the NFL’s best QBs, adds, “Lead the league in interceptions.”

Other athletes chime in, including tennis legend Serena Williams saying, “Be on the wrong side of the biggest upset in your sport,” and Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs, who says, “Spend 108 years as a lovable loser.”

Finally, the scene pans to the inside of NRG Stadium in Houston, as the ticker tape falls at the end of last year’s Super Bowl. A dejected Matt Ryan, quarterback for the Falcons team that blew a huge lead, looks directly into the camera and says, “You really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.” And then he walks off the field, head down, and the commercial ends (1). 

Clearly Tom Brady wasn’t available for this one, because we all know that the GOAT started his NFL career as Pick #199, in the sixth round. Nobody expects too much of sixth round picks, and while we all know how his story led him to five rings (and counting), it’s important to remember where it started.

Though these defeat-to-victory stories are common, this commercial about defeat is quite a turn on the usual positive thinking that sports usually promotes. When I was an athlete, I would often get tired of the relentlessly chipper, positive thinking that kept telling me to focus on victory and ignore and shake off the negative.

I’ve most often subscribed to the sentiment described by rapper Drake: “Working with the negatives can make for better pictures.” (2)

If you haven’t failed, you’re not trying hard enough, and the number of times you fall doesn’t matter as long as the number of times you get up is one greater than the number of times you fell. All of that.

It’s easy to think about and gain motivation from it when it’s sports, when it doesn’t entail any kind of moral failure. But what about when we’re not talking about making the team or making errors or throwing interceptions during the big game? What about when we’re talking about addiction? Infidelity? Abusing someone else? Telling a big lie? Stealing from a loved one? What about when we’re talking about the worst thing you’ve ever done?

What happens when we move this motivating conversation from sports to life off the field?

Talking about failure gets a lot harder then.

We like to think of ourselves, after all, as good people. And as I often say, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from becoming better people. It excuses our faults and keeps us from improving on them. We are all saints, and we are all sinners. Thanks to Jesus, we are all good people — and thanks to our nature, we’re all terrible people. We all have an enormous capacity for good and an enormous capacity to be destructive to ourselves and others.  We all have the ability to be deeply selfish, prejudiced, and hurtful.

If we can get honest about that, then we can have a real conversation about failure and defeat. Only then can have a real conversation about sexism, racism, and homophobia, because when we do, these things become less about what “those bad people” do and more about overcoming our own subconscious prejudices and our own failures to be inclusive. We can’t control “those people,” after all, but we can control ourselves.

Like I said, thinking of ourselves as “good” people keeps us from being better people, and it keeps our world from becoming a better place.

What makes a good person, after all, is realizing that we aren’t perfect, but are loved in spite of our failures, and because of that, none of our failures is final. God is always redeeming us, breaking down our prejudices, showering us with grace, and making us better.

Last week, Simon Peter found himself in a kind of path of totality where he seemed to understand everything. He finally said out loud, the first among the disciples to do so, that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. It was a high point where he got his new name — Peter, which means Rock, and Jesus declared that he would build his church on this Rock, this belief, this sureness.

Then right after that, Peter sinks like the stone he is.

Now that they know and have talked about who Jesus is — that he is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God — Jesus starts to prepare them for what’s to come. We, of course, have the benefit of knowing the end of the story: that he’s crucified and raised again, as we say every Sunday.

Peter does not have the luxury of recounting that every single Sunday. He does not know the ending of the story he’s living any more than you know how your life will be in the future. Peter only knows that he loves his teacher and that he will not see him die like a criminal. So he lashes out: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Heckuva thing to say to someone you know is the Son of God. In response, Jesus jumps all over him and verbally mauls the guy. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me!”

Jesus’ Rock has become a stumbling block. We don’t say “stumbling block” anymore, but we do say, “You’re getting in my way.”

If I was Peter, I would forever remember this as the day that the Son of God called me Satan and told me I was in his way.

Peter was trying to protect him, but Jesus understood immediately that Peter was just trying to control him. It was, obviously, a big mistake. And Peter would go on to screw it up more later. While Jesus sat in Roman custody with his life on the line, Peter would deny three times that he even knew him because Peter was afraid.

Peter up until the resurrection is afraid: he wants to control things to make them less scary. He doesn’t want Jesus to die, and ultimately, even if Jesus dies, he doesn’t want to die himself. In today’s episode, Peter the Rock hasn’t hit rock bottom yet, but he’s headed there, and when he does, that will be the beginning of redemption.

It’ll be Peter that Jesus forgives welcomes back into the fold after his resurrection, giving him the charge as they walk along the beach: “feed my sheep” (cf. John 21). This is the beginning of ministry, the beginning of Church as we know it today. As Christina Williams, a pastor in Hadley, so succinctly put it: “Peter hits rock bottom, and from there, Christ builds the church.” (3)

Christ builds the Church on hope and redemption and second and third and fifth chances.

Christ builds the Church on grace.

Every morning, I listen to two podcasts while I eat breakfast and get dressed: NPR’s UpFirst, with the day’s headlines, and the New York Times’ The Daily, a deep dive on a story relevant to the day’s news. There was a story this week about Abraham, a young white man from Forth Smith, Arkansas. Abraham grew up in poverty, and he never felt like he’d amount to much. He always imagined that he’d end up in prison, like many before him. One night, he got drunk on cheap whiskey with his friends. Abraham drove, on the suggestion of his friend, to go vandalize a mosque. Abraham barely remembers the night that would change his life and terrorize a community.

While Abraham stood watch, his friend spray painted swastikas on the side of the building. He also wrote “Go Home” on the wooden front door, just above a babysitter-wanted sign. On another part of the facility was scrawled,  “We Don’t Want You Here U.S.A.” And on one of the front windows, among profanities about Islam and Allah, a phrase from the crusades: “Deus Vult,” Latin for “God wills it.”

In the weeks to come, Abraham was identified via security cameras. When he discovered that he’d been found out, he went first to explain what happened to his crying mother, then went to the police station and turned himself in. Not long after that, while Abraham sat in jail, the members of the mosque were gathered for Friday prayer when another young white man came in, took his shoes off – a sign of respect not often known to non-Muslims, which impressed them – and approached them. This was Noah, Abraham’s younger brother, and he was there to deliver a letter from Abraham.

“Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” Abraham wrote. “I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all, but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalising your mosque. It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you. I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it….You are much better people than I.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and that is honestly really scary. But I just wouldn’t want to keep going on without trying to make amends. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause. I used to walk by your mosque a lot [before I was arrested] and ask myself why I would do that. I don’t even hate Muslims. Or anyone for that matter.
“All in all,”
he concluded, “I just want to say I’m sorry.”

This impacted the members greatly. As Dr. Louay Nassri, a member of the mosque, said, “We did not want to destroy his life.” From that point on, the members of the mosque pleaded for leniency on Abraham’s behalf. Despite their pleading for mercy, Abraham was still charged with a felony and, much to the mosque and Abraham’s dismay, he was slapped with a restraining order keeping them from contacting one another.

After he got out of jail, Abraham wrote on Facebook, “Well, I’m home now. I just want to say thank you to all those who have been supporting me and a big thanks to the guys at the mosque who have been supportive and helpful and I pray blessings over them.”

The next day, he saw a response from Wasim, the son of one of the mosque’s leaders.

“Brother…we forgave you from the first time you apologized. Don’t let that mistake bring you down… I speak for the whole Muslim community of Fort Smith — we love you and want you to be the best example in life. We don’t hold grudges against anybody!”

God extends grace in many ways and through many people. What the members of the mosque knew is Gospel truth: none of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done.

In addition to the redemption of Abraham, one of the anecdotes from the story that most stuck with me was this: there was an outpouring of support for the mosque from the town and around the nation after the vandalism hit the news. One man called the mosque crying. “I’m so sorry this happened,” he said. Through tears, he sobbed, “And Christians! I can’t believe Christians would do this.”

The person answering the phone at the mosque responded, “I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same way every time ISIS carries out an attack.” (4)

None of us deserves to be defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done. No faith deserves to be defined by the worst acts committed in its name, either. The same goes for cities: Fort Smith, Arkansas deserves to be remembered for its response, not the vandalism.

In the same way, Houston should not be remembered as the most flooded city built in a precarious place, but for the outpouring of love and help that its citizens have extended to one another over the past week, even as they have faced unimaginable pain. Though their city is underwater, still they rise. They will not be defined by the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, either.

None of us deserves to be defined by our own versions of Rock Bottom, whether they were caused by us, by nature, or by other people, and by the grace of God, none of us will be.

Even if you do mess up bigtime.

Even if you mess up so bad that Jesus calls you Satan. Even if you deny that you even know the Son of God while his life hangs in the balance. There is grace. There is always grace, breaking through in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Just ask Peter. Or Abraham from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Redemption and resurrection are always a surprise: where what you thought was lost is somehow redeemed.

Neither death, nor failure, nor disaster, is the end. There is grace. There is redemption. There is hope.

Peter is not remembered today as a controlling or selfish figure who was afraid of dying. Peter’s Rock Bottom is the very foundation of the church’s legacy of grace.
And that legacy is ours.

So let us gather at the table of grace, where all are welcome, and all are fed. We bring our regrets, our sin, our defeat, our own versions of Rock Bottom, and in exchange, we receive the bread of life and the wine of grace.

Every. Single. Time.

In the words of Joseph R. Cooke, “Grace is the face that love wears when it meets our imperfection.” (5)

So you really want to know the secret to victory? Defeat.

It’s screwing up, over and over. It’s the Rock hitting rock bottom and having Christ build the Church on top of his failure.

The secret to victory is defeat. 

And it’s finding grace, one way or another, every single time we fall. Amen.

1. You can watch the whole commercial here.
2. That’s a line from “HYFR,” from the album Take Care (2011, Young Money Entertainment, Cash Money Records, Republic Records). (Lyrics besides the one quoted may not be suitable for all listeners.)
3. This quote comes from a sermon quoted by a colleague. The Rev. Christina Williams is the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hadley.
4. You can read the full story in much more detail here.
5. Joseph R. Cooke, Celebration of Grace: Living in Freedom, 1991. 

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