God Forbid.

This is a sermon preached August 28, 2011 based on Matthew 16:21-28.
Posted because someone asked me to.

Oh, there is just so much heart-ache in this morning’s Gospel reading.
The heartache of Peter’s great mistake; last week he said exactly the right thing: “you are the messiah, the son of the living God”. And now, he has followed it up by saying exactly the wrong thing- revealing that while he can use that word, “Messiah”, he has no understanding of what it means. No. Jesus? Didn’t you hear me, I said “you’re the Messiah”. You don’t die. You can’t die. We need you.

And the heartache of Jesus’ great disappointment- to have his dear friend Peter come so close to the mark, and yet miss by so very much. How much pain is behind those terrible words “get behind me, Satan”?

And the heartache of Jesus’ teaching- that he is on his way to Jerusalem, to die. The heartache of the cross itself.

Can you blame Peter, really?

“You? Die? God forbid it!”
Here was this man, this charismatic teacher who didn’t just talk about hope and life and compassion and love- he LIVED it. He embodied it. He incarnated it.
How could he die?
Can you blame Peter? Really?

For wanting this incredible presence- this Emmanuel, God with us, to last forever. To keep teaching and healing and laughing and walking and breaking bread… to just keep being and doing-
until they would go to Jerusalem together, at the head of an army of followers, who would oust the occupiers and return Israel to her glory, and the greatest and least would sit down together, and break bread together, and they would all live happily ever after.

Can you blame Peter for preferring that fantasy to the cross?

But, Jesus tells him.
Get behind me.
Get in line.
And follow.

Because there is no getting around the very central, fundamental, well… crucial… place that the death of Jesus plays in our understanding of who we might be, we who would follow him.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”.

And so here we are: Following.

In each generation, and each life, and each week, and each moment, figuring out anew what it means for us to take up a cross. Figuring out what it means to be disciples of this Jesus.

We often want to read passages like this on an individual level. What it says to me, and my experience. And it is a glorious thing that each of us can read this text, and because it is a living word, we can find in it something that speaks to us, to our individual experiences and our lives. But this one is, I think, a particularly important lesson to consider as a community, a family, a Parish, a Church.

One of the most revelatory things I ever learned about how to be the Church, how to grow the Church, how to assure a future for the Church, was rooted in this Gospel passage:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

And I struggle for words to tell you how honoured I am to be a part of this community, this Parish that heard those words, and gave up so much in order to get to this place. Who let go of buildings; so that you could focus your energy, together, on people. Who let go of traditions; so that you could discover new ways of being together in community. Who let go of the Church you had been; to embrace the Church you could become.

Wow. Just. Wow.

Faith. Hope. Courage. Creativity. Tradition. A spirit of Unity and Co-operation.
This combined Parish is filled with so much of what the Church needs. So much of what the worlds needs.

But, I don’t have to tell you that. You knew that.

And I wonder, sometimes, about where everybody else is. Everybody else who wants more faith, more hope, more courage, more creativity, more beauty, more dignity, more music, more peace… everybody who wants more in their life of what we have here… where are they? Don’t they know what they’re missing?

Starting this week, there are some materials at the back of the Church about “back to Church” Sunday. It began as a single week at the end of September, when Churches would make a particular effort to invite their members “back” to Church. It is easy to identify the folks to whom we might extend that invitation to return- that vast list of people who used to take an active part of the life of the Church, but who… don’t… any more. They got hurt. They got angry. They got busy. they got older. They got out of the habit. Whatever the reason we hadn’t seen them for a while, we would invite them back.

It was supposed to be a great tool to grow the Church.

Which makes me nervous.
Let me tell you why.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I’m nervous about any endeavor, any initiative, any program or project or idea, whose purpose is to “grow” the Church. Even though we have this sense that if we don’t grow the Church, then the church will fade and die. Perhaps especially because we have this sense that if we don’t grow the Church, then the church will fade and die.

God Forbid!

But. Our purpose is not to grow the Church.
(There is your selection committee, all thinking “Oh, dear God, what have we DONE?!”)
Our purpose is not even to maintain the Church.

Our purpose is to be the Church. To follow. To know that following matters more than the possibility of dying. To know that the God we follow is, in fact, a God of abundant life. That in the hands of this God, even death isn’t what we think it is.

And it isn’t that inviting people to Church is a bad thing. I love inviting people to Church. It’s just…
It’s just, that invitation can’t be rooted in fear.

Peter speaks out of fear, “you can’t die”. Judas betrays him out of fear. The Pharisees kill him out of fear. Peter denies him out of fear. In these stories that we turn to, to discover who we are as God’s people, very little good ever comes from acting out of fear.

And confronted by Peter’s fear-filled words, Jesus says, “get behind me”. Follow me. And if we are to follow, then Jesus’ path is a path of peace. Of hope. Of truth. Of joy. And fear has no place on it.

I heard a speaker last year, the Rev. Rob Voyles.
He said that there’s this biological, neurochemical thing that happens when we look too long at our problems; when we are afraid.

We, the collective, human, we… we lose our capacity for creative thought, for lateral thinking, for synthesis. In short- the more afraid we are of our problems, the less capacity we have to solve them.

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

So how do we let go of fear?
It’s funny. But you know we can’t? The human mind- it doesn’t deal well with negatives.
We cannot conceive of less something. We can only imagine more. Of something else.

So. Let me ask you. If there is no fear. Then what is there?
No. Really. If not fear, then what?

[Trust, they said. Peace. Confidence. Hope. Love. Faith.]

Okay. So.
How can we have more Trust? More peace, confidence, hope, love, faith.
What choices, what decisions, what actions lead to more trust? more peace? confidence, hope, love, faith?
Do you know anybody else, in the rest of your life away from here, who wants more Trust in their life, more peace, more confidence, more hope, more love, more faith?
And do you think you might invite them to be part of a trust- peace- confidence- hope- love- faith-seeking community, such as this one.

Because that community- that community that strives to find more trust, more peace, more confidence, more hope, more love, more faith, more joy, more calm, more beauty…

That community that knows that, even if the path leads through death, we are following a God of abundant life. That in the hands of this God, even death isn’t the ending we think it is.

That community that doesn’t just talk about hope and life and compassion and love- but that LIVES it; embodies it; incarnates it.

That community has nothing to fear.
Thanks be to God.

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3 Responses

  1. Wow.
    Just.
    Wow!!!
    That sermon needs WIDE distribution…..
    thanks

  2. Thanks for this!

    e.

  3. you’re so awesome… I wish I’d been there. xxoo

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