Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series. To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein. For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work. If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me.
On August 24, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 26.
What’s the one thing that everyone knows about roosters? They crow when the sun comes up, right? That’s what roosters do.
Right. Sort of. I had my first rooster encounter in the summer of 1993, when the mission team I led to Mexico spent a week in a small village where everyone raised chickens. I learned there that roosters crow at daybreak. They also crow half an hour before daybreak. And at noon. And as dusk settles. They crow when the Steelers win and when the Browns get the first round draft choice. One would be correct to say that roosters crow at sunrise. One would be more correct to say that roosters just don’t stop crowing. After living in that village for a week, and having sleep disturbed for six days, I never saw a group of people tear into a chicken dinner the way that team dove at the barbeque on the Friday night of that mission trip…
Roosters don’t crow to tell you the time. Roosters crow because they want you – and the hens – to notice them. They crow because they can. They crow because they want to mate. They crow because they want other roosters to know they’re around, and who’s the at the top of the pecking order.
Five years later, while living for the summer in Africa, I discovered how violent these birds can be. Every now and then, we’d go to a worship service and be presented with a live chicken for our troubles. Most times, we’d bring the hen home and put it with the others and all would be well.
One day, though, we received a beautiful cock. I mean, he was fierce and proud looking and decked out with just about every color of the rainbow. I brought him home and threw him in with the other chickens. About an hour later, I heard a tremendous disturbance. I went to the chicken coop and saw the new bird attacking the resident rooster. There was blood everywhere, and both birds were pretty beat up. We had to choose one rooster to keep and one to eat, or they’d both be dead.
The Cock Fight (1885), Winslow Homer
Cock fighting is perhaps the world’s oldest spectator sport, and dates back at least 6000 years. Although it’s illegal in all fifty states, there are many places around the world where specially-trained birds enter a ring and attack each other until one of them dies. From Indonesia to Central America to parts of Europe, men (and it’s almost always men) crowd around and place bets on these birds as they seek to destroy each other. A winning cock will often stand upon its dead opponent and crow loudly. For millennia, the cock has been a symbol of power, arrogance, machismo, strength, and dominance.
In fact, when we say that someone is acting “cocky”, we are communicating our opinion that someone is a little too proud of him or herself; that he or she is overbold, overconfident, overly proud.
In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue points out that there is a lot of cockiness written all over the Last Supper. For some time, Jesus has been telling his friends that he is marching towards his own death. The kingdom that he announces is in such conflict with both the political and religious establishment that they will have no choice but to kill him – and he wants everyone to know that he is laying his life down of his own free will.
The Last Supper (detail) (c. 1530) Joos van Cleve
The disciples, however, won’t have any of this. They can’t figure out what is wrong with Jesus, and when given half a chance, they engage in remarkably cocky behavior. While he is telling them the most important things in the world, they are arguing about which of them is the greatest. After they share the Eucharist, Jesus leads them out to the Mount of Olives where he predicts that they will be scattered as he faces his death, and Peter just won’t shut up. “No, Lord, not me! The rest of these losers? Well, I can’t make any promises about them, but I’m your man! I’ve got your back! We can take these guys, Jesus!”
And Jesus says, famously, “Peter, before the cock crows tonight, you’ll deny me not once, but three times.” In other words, you will crumble in no time, my friend.
But Peter just preens and struts a little more: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you’re a nice guy, but you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You and me, Jesus. I’m here for you, man. I’ve got this, Jesus.” It is a defining moment in his life!
Let me ask the women in the congregation this morning: how many of you have ever, even once, heard a man announce a plan of action that made you cringe and say, “What are you thinking? Are you sure?”, only to be met with the response, “It’s OK, honey. I’ve got this.”
What is it about the male of our species that leads us to place such undeserved trust in our own abilities? From “Look, Ma, no hands!” to rewiring the house by ourselves to driving down the street holding the mattress on the car roof with one piece of twine and our bare hands, we are fools, are we not?
And while I’ve had a little fun at the expense of the men, I won’t call out the women on this one but simply say that pride and arrogance are not gender-specific, are they?
Where did that pride, that arrogance, that cockiness get Peter?
The Repentance of Peter (Carl Bloch, 1834-1890)
You know what happened. It is one of the most tragic stories in the Bible. The same night that he professes his ultimate allegiance and undying loyalty to Jesus, he denies him not once, not twice, but three times. In one of the saddest moments of the gospels, Peter turns his back on the one that he loves.
Look, say what you want to about Peter. He’s a hot-headed racist and sexist who can’t keep his mouth shut…but he loves Jesus. He’s clueless and arrogant and full of himself… but he loves Jesus. And here, on the worst night of his life, he publicly declares that he’s never met, never even heard of Jesus.
And just as he finishes his final lie, the cock crows and he remembers the words of his friend. Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve heard all morning?
The last time that Peter is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew is this scene, where the strong, virile, cocky fisherman is huddled, bawling like a baby, as dead as the loser in a cockfight, while pride and masculinity and power crow out their victory over top of his slumping form.
At this moment, Peter is lost. He is bereft. He is alone. He is nothing. His pride has cost him everything.
Do you know how that feels? Can you imagine it? In recent months, I have had the opportunity and responsibility of walking with a few people who have been publicly disgraced. These are men whose worst acts and most ill-considered decisions have become public knowledge. Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone knew the worst thing about you?
What is the opposite of pride? It seems to me that it is shame. Pride feels good. When we tell our children to “stand up and make us proud!”, we want them to feel strong, to be energized, to have a sense of control in their lives.
And shame? Shame is demoralizing. It makes you weak and impotent. You are embarrassed and paralyzed and afraid. Shame will kill you if you let it.
And sometimes, when we are considering a polarity like this, with Pride over here and Shame over there, we say, “Well, heck! If pride feels good and shame feels bad, if pride makes me strong and shame makes me weak, then give me some of that there pride!”
And so we move towards pride and esteem and, well, cockiness. We strutt our stuff. We want people to notice us and to like what they see. We want to be the best we can be, and to be recognized as such.
But here’s the secret: pride kills too. Shame will, as I’ve said, kill you if you let it. But pride will kill you every time. Every time.
What are we to do, then? If we’re stuck between two poles, each of which will kill us, how can we move?
We can follow Jesus. Jesus lays out a third way for us. The author of the book of Hebrews describes an action plan in this way:
…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Heb. 12:1-2)
Jesus refused to serve pride and did not fear shame. He walked in humility and confidence the path that God had set out for him.
I know that some will hear me use the word “humility” and think of “humiliation”, which sounds an awful lot like “shame” to us. That’s not what I mean. I understand “humility” to mean a realistic assessment of yourself, gathered with the input of God, your community, and your own observations.
Sometimes in our world, being humble means walking around saying, “Aw, shucks, it’s nothing, really…” Which, of course, prompts people to say, “No, wow, that’s amazing! You really are great!”, which, of course, pumps you up, so that at the end of the day, you feel…PROUD. That’s not humility.
In essence, being humble is recognizing that you are who you are. You are probably reasonably good at a couple of things, and you struggle mightily with others. You are strong in a few places, and ridiculously close to your breaking point in others. You know those things about yourself and while you work to improve, you accept yourself. You even love that self.
A humble person knows all those things about her or himself and treats other people as though those things are true of them, too. You can accept and love those people, too.
Debbie Blue says this about Peter:
At the end of the Gospel stories, Peter is not strutting like a cock. He weeps…we glimpse a different side of Peter than the one he has tried to project. He is not made as fierce as possible as a disciple of Jesus. He is not trained to put on a good show in the ring. Jesus is not this kind of trainer. He does not impress us with his ability to do violence to others. He lays down his life, his sword – he walks out of the ring, so that we may likewise be free to do so. Imagine the space that might open up outside the sphere of competition, what might grow outside the confines of the ring.
Listen: every day, the world does its level best to convince you that life is a cockfight. It tries to make you believe that your only choices are to be violent, arrogant, vindictive, and proud or weak, powerless, impotent, and ashamed.
The God we have gathered to worship this day taps you on the shoulder and invites you to consider an alternative reality – to wake up, if you will, in a new day. A way of living wherein we are gentle with ourselves and with others; a place where we are glad to see beauty where it exists and in whom it is present; a lifestyle in which we are quick to forgive and willing to believe the best about ourselves and each other; a community in which when brokenness is revealed we are able to point to the healing that comes from the cross.
May we call ourselves and each other to this way, today and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013) pp. 167-168.