Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Yr A Proper 17 August 30 2020
Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
There is so much suffering going on just now, isn’t there. Our siblings in Christ are suffering with hurricanes in Louisiana and Texas, again. They are suffering with wildfires in California, again. We are witnessing the rise and fall of unrest in our cities. There is so much suffering going on, whether related to COVID, racial injustice, economic hardship, emotional despair, our own loved one’s deaths, or more. Not to make light of our situation, but It feels like that carnival game, whack a mole, ya just keep whacking and as soon as one gets hit another one pops up.
But in all of this Matthew reminds us, in all these things, not just Christ’s cross is present, but Christ himself – holding us, lamenting with us, encouraging us, and promising us the strength to endure and, having endured, to flourish and, flourishing, to help others do the same. In Matthew's gospel we hear, "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life."
Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Jesus is charged with sedition, and is sentenced to death on a cross. In the eyes of the culture, then and now, death, and especially death on a cross - was not only terminal but counted as failure as well. We know that Jesus' mortal life ends on a cross, hung between two thieves. But the reality of this story, this story of life and death and resurrection, is that what the world counts as loss, what seems like failure, what looks to the world as death, is really something else altogether, something amazing, something astounding, something completely new. When a new doorway is opened, another doorway is closed. When a seed is planted in the ground, it comes up looking nothing like it did when it went into the ground. When a branch is pruned, it makes way, it leaves space for completely new growth. For every new thing, something dies, and is born again in an unimagined way.
And the reality is that this life takes a lot of death. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It is usually painful, but it's most definitely not failure. It just is. The world shifts under our feet, what happens is not exactly what we expect. The shifting is literal, earthquakes and hurricanes and floods. The shifting is violent, wars and shootings, protests and counter protests. The shifting is heart-wrenching, broken hearts and broken lives, and the shifting is decisive, as when we experience the death of our loved ones.
And that, you see, that is what Peter is railing against. Even to Peter, Jesus' impending ordeal and death looks like failure. What a disappointment this must have been, what a baffling shift in expectations. Not unlike our shifting expectations, our redefinition of normal. Clearly, this is not what Peter had imagined. Peter says something like, "listen, Jesus, this cannot be what God intends for you. There must be a different way. This is not what our deliverer ought to do. Suffering and dying is what we have all endured, prophet and ordinary person alike. You are supposed to be different. You are supposed to save us from all our enemies!"
Peter himself is wondering what it looks like to follow the Messiah, the anointed of God. We wonder what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. That path is lined with crosses and paved with Jesus’ passion. This is a matter of life and death for Jesus’ followers as much as it is for Jesus. It is about making space for the new thing that will grow, that must grow.
And there are things that we must let die, things that demand our time and attention that pull us away from true relationship, things that cause us to judge others, things that disconnect us and fragment our beings, these are the things that pull us away from mercy and compassion, love and justice. These are the things that harden our hearts and keep us from forgiveness and healing. These are the things that grip our hearts and minds so tightly, we cannot see beyond them. These are the things that cause us to judge, ridicule, and oppress. These things are seductive, like all things that divert our attention from the one who loves us. They are not intrinsically bad things, they may in fact seem like good things, but their false claim is so strong that we cannot pay attention to that which has the ultimate claim on our lives and our souls, which is Love. The Love of the creator for all of creation, the Love of the creator who is willing to show us how it's done, the Love of the creator who gives up all power to show us the way of the cross, to show us the way of Love, and mercy, and compassion, and reconciliation, and healing.
That is what is happening in this passage from Matthew. Peter and the disciples, and you and me, are witnessing this powerful thing that God is doing in our lives and in our world, then and now and in the age to come. As followers of Jesus we are called to lay down that which is killing us, and to pick up the new life that Jesus offers. It is not really easy. And yet we learn that suffering and death, each and every death that is part of this life, this cruciform existence, is not all that there will be. The Son of Man will return and bring justice in this world. Such justice is not merely the paying off of old debts or the settling of bitter scores. Instead, this justice is a promise of deliverance.
The cross will appear to span finality. The cross will appear to be the end of the story for us all. But the promise Jesus makes here and the promises God has made from the beginning assure a future, a future in which justice blooms, a future in which the hungry are fed and the imprisoned are comforted. And that future is not a long way off.
Can you imagine it? Can you imagine that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine that this congregation has something of value to offer our community? Can you imagine that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate God is with you? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order and introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God wants for us not just comfort but freedom? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead?
We stand at a crossroads, a cross really, in our lives today. We stand at this place where we must choose the way of Jesus, the place that to some, the mighty and powerful, looks like failure, but that is a lie. The very hard truth of the cross is that we are so very much like Peter, believing that Jesus can deliver us from this life that is so very hard sometimes, believing that Jesus can deliver wealth and prosperity to us if only we are good enough and pray hard enough and go to the right church. The truth of the cross is love. The truth of the cross is that Jesus embraces all of creation, not just some or a part of creation. We must imagine the way forward with God who raises Jesus from the dead. Amen, Alleluia!