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Consider the Birds - The Rooster

Matthew 26: 30-35; 69-75
 
Wendy2012If you happened to be paying attention to the summer worship schedule and saw the Rooster on for this Sunday, I’m guessing you were able to figure out which Bible story you would find it in. There is only one. We’ve heard it read for us now this morning: the famous story of Peter’s betrayal. 
 
It is on the night of the Last Supper when Peter denies that he ever knew Jesus that the rooster enters the story. Have you ever thought much about that bird? I know I haven’t. It has just seems like part of the background information. But the rooster is the creature that announces Peter’s heartbreaking betrayal. Perhaps it is worth considering this bird to more fully understand the story.
 
So, the rooster, also known as the cock, is a pretty familiar bird. In our culture we associate it with a barnyard bird—one that struts around cock-a-doodle-dooing. It is also a fighter. Before preparing for this sermon I was vaguely aware that cockfighting was a thing. But I didn’t really know that roosters are innate fighters. 
 
On our vacation earlier this month we spent a night on the farm of some friends and they showed us around their farm. They are newish to farming, and are in the establishment phase - establishing a herd of goats, a flock of ducks, and two flocks of separate breeds of laying hens. In order to increase their flock size, they are taking fertilized eggs and incubating them and then tending to the little chicks until they can be taken out to the coop. They can’t easily tell the sex of the chicks until the roosters start learning how to crow somewhere between 3 - 6 months. Then they have to watch carefully, because they’ll need to get rid of all the male birds.
 
I knew male birds aren’t useful if you’re raising laying hens. But I didn’t realize they were hazardous to keep around because of how aggressive they get. But apparently, roosters possess an innate aggression toward all males of the same species. You literally can’t keep more than one rooster around or they may fight to the death. I guess that’s why cockfighting is said to be the oldest sport in the world. People kept hens for eggs and cocks for fighting - the bird provided both food and entertainment.
 
So, while the sport of cockfighting may be illegal in Canada and all states of the USA, it is still alive and well. Did you know that the last state to ban cockfighting was Louisiana? Does anyone want to guess how long ago? Ten years ago, in 2007. In April of 2016, the OPP arrested eleven men as part of cockfighting operation in North Stormont, Ontario. And on May 16th of this year, the Los Angeles Times published a story under the headline, “7000 birds seized in largest cockfighting bust in US history.” 
 
In countries where it is legal, it is often a major national pastime. But whenever, wherever, and however cockfighting is practiced, it is almost always an exclusively male activity. A good rooster does not show any weakness. It does not display any henlike (female) qualities. Winning cocks are said to display the markers of a ‘real’ man. They are assertive, courageous, tenacious, fierce, belligerent, virile, dominant, and strong.  The winning rooster stands on top of its dead opponent in the middle of the pit and crows its victory into the air.
 
Phew. What a bird. It’s connection to a very narrow, unhealthy association of manliness with violence and competition is ancient - certainly it goes back at least as far as the time of Jesus. Jesus, in his life on earth, may not have been the chicken who runs from conflict, but he certainly did not fight. Jesus’ power and fearlessness in taking on both the religious and political establishment did not come from cockiness, but from trust in God. Everything about Jesus is pretty much the antithesis of what the rooster represents.
 
Roman culture was macho, and it was a culture that Jesus challenges rather than endorses. Jesus teaches his disciples to die to self. That seems wildly and beautifully different than the approach to life aspired to in the cockfighting culture. I don’t want to leave you thinking, however, that only men are at risk of cocky behaviour. This is something we all need to think about. I’m not only preaching to the men!
 
Throughout Jesus’ teaching and ministry, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be delivered into the hands of his enemies (rather than, say, heroically defeat his enemies). He is going to be killed and he’s going to let them do it. He isn’t going to fight back. The disciples can’t comprehend what Jesus is saying. It is notable, and completely ironic, that after Jesus explains this to them, they immediately break out into a little cockfight. They start vying for a place of power, arguing over who among them is the greatest. 
 
They don’t get it. What Jesus is saying is just too far outside the realm of their understanding. They don’t get it, and they are probably afraid to ask for clarification. They don’t show compassion or extend words of comfort to Jesus for what he needs to go through. Instead they fight.
 
Jesus doesn’t reprimand them, but he tries again with different words. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” It is something he seems to need to constantly repeat. The God that Jesus reveals is not bent on manifesting power as we conceive of power. It is the opposite sort of power represented by the fighting, crowing rooster.
 
So on the night in question, the night when Jesus is betrayed by Peter, the night when Jesus hosts a meal, it is sad that yet again, the disciples break into a cockfight in the room on the second floor. Jesus has served his disciples the bread and the wine, and then says, “even now, the hand of my betrayer is with me at this table. As it has been determined, the Son of man must be betrayed, but how pitiful it will be fore the person who betrays him.” (Luke 22:21-22) It is when Jesus says this that the disciples begin to question one another as to which of them would betray Jesus. This argument escalates into a dispute as to which one of them was the greatest. Right there, during the Last Supper, they break out into what is basically a cockfight!
 
I wonder what that argument sounded like. Who was the strongest, the smartest, the biggest, the most well-liked? It seems like lunacy, but I think we all do it. We all get caught up in worrying about where we fit in some imaginary hierarchy. I know I do it. I compare myself to others in silly, unnecessary ways.
 
In doing this, I, and perhaps all of us?, resist the direction that Jesus leads. We want to be the greatest and hang out with the greatest. We don’t want to be counted among the least. We want to be winners. We want to come out on top. 
 
We live in a culture that believes in competition. This is evident in both the commercial and political spheres. Companies compete for our dollars and for our loyalty. Many countries compete and jostle with each other, generally not to be the most generous, compassionate, or environmentally friendly nations, but to be as powerful and wealthy as possible. Politicians often compete for votes rather than taking the long view for the greater good. 
 
If we consider the recent news coming out of Charlottesville we see competition and scarcity mindsets driving the white supremacists. Like roosters, they are out to show who is boss. They are cocky and arrogant and determined to maintain power and control. It is their fear of losing top spot that drives them to extremism. Their chant, “We will not be replaced,” belies their competitive attitude and need for dominance.
 
I wonder if perhaps the more cocky we are, the more self assured, the more challenging it is to stay true or faithful to Jesus’ teaching and message. Debbie Blue argues that Peter is actually rather cocky himself. He thinks he can walk on water. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, he wants to build something. When Jesus says he is going to die, Peter says, “Never!” At the Last Supper, Peter insists that even though others may fall away, he will not. This all could be seen as bravado. Peter overestimates himself. He says he will never, ever deny Jesus no matter what, and in the next moment he is doing it again and again. He abandons Jesus in Jesus’ most painful and needful moment.
 
Peter’s denial is heartbreaking. Peter betrays the one he professes to love. When the cock crows the second time, it is not a signal of victory. Peter breaks down and weeps. His bravado is gone. He is broken. 
 
This is Peter, the rock on which the church is built. Broken. This is crucial to the gospel message. There is something shattering about the gospel. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves and follow him. In doing so, he is inviting us to be a different kind of person - less cocky, self assured and competitive - a person that is formed by the love of God, mercy, mutuality, and empathy. 
 
There is something freeing about accepting or admitting our brokenness. If you think about it, at some point along the way, the disciples were able to admit their brokenness. They are the ones who passed down the oral stories that eventually became scripture. They did not edit out the parts where they don’t look very good - where they look foolish fighting like roosters in the ring. They don’t look very faithful when they abandon Jesus. They look like people in need of mercy. Maybe they were okay looking like that because they finally came to know that mercy is what the world most needs. This is the opposite of cockiness. 
 
The church is not being a very good witness if it doesn’t take to heart its brokenness and confess it, individually and collectively. The church is built on Peter, the rock that was broken. Peter lays down his cockiness and walks out of the ring, free to follow Jesus’ upside-down kingdom. May we also be freed to follow Jesus not in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. For it is when we are able to let go of pride and perfection (which is what cockiness can sometimes look like) that we are able to begin to open up to new possibilities and new life in Jesus.
 
I would like to wrap this up with a prayer of confession, taken in part from a prayer written this week in response to the events in Charlottesville by Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  As a church it is important for us to aknowledge and confess ways we are complicit in the larger sins and shortcomings of our society. In this case, at this point in history, it is the sin of white privilege that we are growing in awareness of, and will confess in prayer as a way of naming some of our brokenness and need of healing. Let’s pray:
 
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
●We, your disciples of peace, lament the horror and hate that exploded in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend. We grieve for all those targeted by vile speech, vicious attacks and racism, even here in our own country.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. 
●We confess that those of us who are white have overlooked, ignored or been ignorant of the ways we have benefited from the systemic oppression and marginalization of people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews and others whom we fear.
●We confess that we let fear, pride and ignorance prevent us from doing all we can to live into the beauty, goodness and shalom that God intends for all people.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
●We give thanks for all those who courageously showed up to nonviolently resist racist bigotry, and especially for clergy and faith leaders who linked arms in prayer and solidarity to boldly offer encouragement and compassion in the name of Christ.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us courage.
●Grant us courage to ask: Where does it hurt? How can we be present to each other’s grief, fear and brokenness while holding one another within the healing mercies of God?
●Grant us courage to “sing the Lord’s song” in this strange land and passionately recount our faith stories in these profoundly disorienting times.
Lord God, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, deliver us from evil, for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.