"A stumbling block"-Sermon for Proper 17, Matthew 16:21-28
So, my wife, two daughters, and I tend to have a family TV show going most of the time. We don’t get to watch every night…but when we can it’s a fun way to wind down the day…to share together something funny or interesting or inspiring or just entertaining before prayers and settling into a good book and sleep. To this end, I love to exchange film, tv, book, recipe and poetry suggestions…so let’s do it some time. And right now, we are watching “The World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji” on Amazon Prime. It’s part reality TV in the Survivor and Amazing Race vein and part athletic competition. It is hosted by survival guru, Bear Grylls, who, like us, is an Anglican and has said that his faith is the backbone of his life…and he has a pretty strong backbone! The show is made up of teams of men and women from all over the world, really world class athletes, who race across the rugged and beautiful Island Nation of Fiji over 11 sleepless days and nights…fording rivers, climbing mountains, swimming through bone chilling water, paddling across the sea, and the like to conquer the world’s toughest race course. Most teams are competing to just finish and many do not. To that end, I will offer a warning for those with very little ones at home, it has some pretty intense moments…but that’s also what makes the show so enthralling. It’s not made up. It’s a real sport called adventure racing, and these people are risking life and limb to accomplish something huge…something they will remember for a life-time…something that will test their mental and physical limits.
And, in doing so…in taking on the world’s toughest race, they are given the opportunity to learn something about themselves…about the strength that lives within them…about the purpose and blessing of being prepared…about the value of many hours of practice...about living a disciplined sort of life…about the power of team work…and about their ability to inspire others to overcome great obstacles. Though I am speaking in superlatives here, the TV show, and more so the people featured in it, is not really about competition…but a story about human’s searching for meaning and purpose. And this sort of quest surely requires discipline and practice…but, also, great courage and great support…for no one can truly accomplish great feats, and I am speaking of things that transcend physical competition here, without the love, care, empathy and help that comes from our own teammates and our own cheering sections…those people that carry us when we can no longer walk…those who help light the way when we feel lost in the darkness…those who encourage us when we need to be reminded of how breathtakingly beautiful and capable we really are.
And, I share this all with you in the context of our gospel reading from Matthew this morning. For in it, Jesus shares with his support system, his friends and followers, his teammates…his own sort of “world’s toughest race”…the climax of which…the most challenging stage of which…still lies ahead of him…on his own quest, which is nothing less than to save the world from the power of sin and death. Matthew writes, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus is, in a sense, telling his friends that he is putting it all on the line…life and limb…whatever it takes to live into his holy purpose…which, again, really is nothing less than accomplishing God’s own loving purpose in and for the world and everyone and everything that exists in it.
And, if we take step back, just a bit, from the text, we find that Jesus’ conversation with his friends in our gospel lesson today is really happening in the middle of his race…his long journey to Jerusalem, enduring his own sleepless nights and long days on the road, all the while offering an ever-present love, words of encouragement, life-altering wisdom, and gifts of healing to all the people he meets along the way. Giving his all to meet the real needs, the broken hearts and lives, of all of God’s children without distinction…holding nothing back. And then…after all of that…he is willing to take the ultimate step…take on the final, most grueling stage of his journey…stretching out his own arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that all that is, even you, even me, might be surrounded for all time by God’s own loving and eternal embrace…a tough race indeed.
And, I think understanding the profound challenge that Jesus is already engage in…the pain that he will indeed endure for the life of the world…the true intensity of what is still to come in his own purposeful journey…gives us some perspective on where Jesus’ strong reaction to Peter, with which our lesson begins, really comes from. For just speaking for myself, I have always found Jesus’ rebuke of Peter to be, simply said, harsh. As we heard in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, Peter has just correctly declared Jesus as the Messiah, God’s own Anointed One, who has come to set the world free from its bondage to sin and death. It was a declaration of love and hope and worshipfulness. Peter is the first disciple to really express in words who this person they have fallen in love with and pledge their lives to really is. And Jesus blesses Peter for his words and wisdom. And yet, here we are, just moments later, with Jesus referring to Peter as Satan…ouch! But I don’t think it is really Peter to whom Jesus is referring…but his sentiment…his response. But, even his sentiment, though wrong-headed, seems to me to come from a place of love. Jesus has, again, just told Peter and the other disciples that he must suffer and die, and, I think quite reasonably, Peter’s response is there is no way that this can happen…that Jesus could let this happen…no way that the story of God’s love incarnate on earth, God’s Messiah, could end in suffering and death…that’s unthinkable…unimaginable. And, again, at least to me, it seems this sentiment…Peter’s visceral response…is reasonable and comes from a place of loving Jesus.
But, here’s the thing. Even if it comes from a place that we might describe as loving, it’s not the sort of empathetic response that Jesus needs from his teammates…his friends and support system…if he is to complete his race and fulfil his purpose. Instead, what I think Jesus is looking for from Peter and his other loved ones, is not this can’t happen…but, instead, words like…if this is where your journey is taking you…we will go with you. We will not leave you alone. We will carry you when you need to be carried. We will help you find your way when you are lost in the darkness. We will encourage you when you need to be reminded of how breathtakingly beautiful and capable you are…Jesus. If you are going to the cross, we go to. I think that’s what Jesus wanted and needed to hear, as he, for the first time, vulnerably shared with those closest to him the great burden he was carrying…the arch of his own race…his own journey.
One of Satan’s titles, that is evil incarnate, is the Father of all Lies…or the great deceiver…and I think what Jesus is suggesting to Peter…again…more so than naming him as such…is that living into our purpose…living into God’s loving purpose for our lives…and, further, being willing to give it our all…life and limb…is the very thing we should embrace, not avoid or dismiss. To think otherwise, to give up believing that we can ever discover or live into our purpose…is to be deceived…to believe we don’t have the strength within us to really care for and offer healing to the broken and broken hearted…is to be deceived…to believe that God cannot resurrect our glorious failures into something wondrous and life-giving, when we fail in the name of love…is to be deceived. For as Jesus goes on to say, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And, I hope from this vulnerable moment that we glimpse between Jesus and his friends, sojourners and teammates, we can take, at least, these two things away. The first is…that we might create space to really consider what it means to be a good teammate to those with whom we are blessed to run the race of life. That we might stand with one another…alongside one another…rather than in the way of one another. That we might seek to find within ourselves those empathetic words that honor each other’s purposeful journey, acknowledge the good that God is doing through them, and remind them that our support is unwavering…in the light and in the dark…when they need us to help carry them along…or just use our words to remind them who they really are…God’s own beloved...beautiful and capable.
And second…that we, meaning within our own selves, souls and bodies, that we might never give up in the pursuit of seeking and living into our own purpose…which is nothing less than God’s loving purpose for our own one wild and precious life…believing that the suffering we might endure, as we bear our own crosses, will not crush us but remind us of our strength…what we are truly capable of…how uniquely gifted we really are….believing that God will be with us on our own amazing race…resurrecting us when we need it most…bringing triumph even out of failure…that we might inspire others…that our life…our journey…our struggles…our victories…our living…and our dying, like Jesus, might, in some small way, contribute to God’s loving purposes, God’s work of salvation for life of the world. Amen.