Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3 2017

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
September 3, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105 (selected vss); Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:1-28

Every time there is some dreadful disaster, you will hear the media report that this or that “Christian leader” is blaming it on the moral failings of the American people, in being open and affirming to LGBT persons or supportive of abortion rights or consenting to women speaking in church or some such.

It is frustrating to constantly hear this pronouncement described as the “Christian” message – when it certainly does not reflect the views of all Christians.  It is hurtful to the persons called out for their so-called apostasy.  It does not encourage the unchurched who are targeted by this … language … to heed any invitations we might make to come here.

This past week, when the flood waters rose and rose and rose along the Texas coastline, a group of churches in Nashville TN took time … to state the usual conservative views about marriage, chastity, sexuality, gender, and so on.  It’s all stuff we’ve heard before.  And, not surprisingly, I disagree with their statement.

But what I found even more distressing was the fact that they clearly said there is no room for any “agreement to disagree.” 

So, my friends, we are “anathema” – heretics – cursed by God simply because we raise the possibility that their interpretation is not the only possible interpretation of those clobber passages.  They have -closed their ears to any other voice.

So, there’s that.  It’s a given, in most of the discussions I’ve ever been involved in, that there is always room for disagreement – otherwise how can we ever learn anything new – about the world, about each other, or even about ourselves?  Questions – and other people’s questions – have high value in the systems in which I grew up.

So then I have to ask, why was Jesus so upset with Peter when Peter said, “God forbid that this should happen to you?”  But if I’m right and there is, as a general rule, always room for disagreement, why is Peter’s statement unacceptable?

And why would Moses question God’s word that he should be the one to free the Israelites?  Because, even though we didn’t read that part of their conversation, this was the very next issue Moses raised.

After all, if God says it, isn’t that enough?  Shouldn’t that be enough?

Apparently, it’s not, and God rarely loses God’s temper when questioned, either.  At least, there’s no “ZOT” of lightning from the heavens … usually.  Jonah was swallowed by a whale, though.  And Adam and Eve found themselves living outside the garden, until they might learn wisdom.

No the usual course is, God argues right back.

Remember old Abraham, who thought God might be unreasonable in destroying two large cities for the lack of 50 righteous persons; surely 45 would be enough, or 40, or 20, or 10? And God goes right along with this until they got down to 10, and then the discussion was over.  Fewer than 10 righteous persons, if they attached themselves to Lot, could be saved….

And Moses, in arguing against his call, still must follow it, but at least his brother Aaron will be there to help out, and Miriam also supported his efforts…

So what of Peter?  Jesus turns right around and calls him “Satan.”  Oops.  All this time, Jesus has been explaining things to people – the public at large, and now with the revelation of his identity as “Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” to the disciples alone.  And the first thing he says is, the Messiah must suffer and be killed and be raised on the third day.

I suspect Peter never heard that last bit.  I think as soon as he heard the word suffer, he balked, he stumbled, his ears stopped hearing.

Those of us who have been reading through the Book of Acts have just talked about Paul before Herod Agrippa – Paul was picked up by the centurion’s troops because some of the Jews stirred up a riot because of his connections with Gentiles and attacked him.  He remained in Roman custody for protection, for months and months.  Finally, a new governor offered him the chance to go up to Jerusalem from where he was being held in Caesarea to answer the charges against him, but Paul said no, I appeal to the Emperor.  So the governor eventually said he would refer the case to Herod Agrippa, because he didn’t know what to do.

So then Paul comes before Agrippa and tells him his story – how he was pursuing the “followers of the way” and had a vision of Jesus turning him onto another path.  He was so caught up in what he was saying to Agrippa, that the Roman governor said he was crazy, and Agrippa said, “Almost you persuade me,” but then got up and left.

Their ears were stopped.  If either one had accepted the truth of the Gospel that Paul was offering, they would have had to step down from their high positions, give up their power and authority; their worlds would be turned upside down. 

These were the people who were judging Paul, and if they believed his words and accepted his view of the world and God and everything, they could no longer do that; they would have no authority to do that.

Now last week, Jesus told Peter that he was the rock upon which Jesus would build his church and that whatever he bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven … in other words, he had authority to judge.

And Peter’s first judgment was to tell Jesus to avoid suffering, avoid death.  He stopped his ears because he had power and he wanted to use it as he saw fit.  He had good intentions, I am sure, but he didn’t know what – or, in important ways, whom – he as dealing with.  One lesson we can draw from this is that, given power, most people will choose to exercise it.  And they won’t want to give it up.

If we think we have the right to judge others, we will never, or almost never, stop to listen to them. 

Even Peter, who won so much praise last week, for correctly answering the question of who Jesus was. 

And this applies also even to us. Even we are too quick to judge, too quick to dismiss, too quick to stop listening to other voices.

I know, I know, I sure don’t want to hear what neo-Nazis might be saying, or white supremacists – I find their views unconscionable.  But I remember that the first rule of negotiating that I learned in the Foreign Service Institute was: know the needs – the deep needs, especially the unexpressed and unvoiced and unlisted needs – of the people you are negotiating with.  Because if you can identify those, and you can address those, you may well find there is room on the others.

And we know it’s possible, or we wouldn’t know about Darryl Davis, a blues musician who has “converted” over 200 KKK members away from their extremism – through friendship and listening.[1]  We know it’s possible, because if it weren’t there would be no Life-After-Hate group[2] dedicated to the same purpose.  But these things are true and these people do exist.

Judgment stops us from hearing the humanity of those with whom we disagree – and sometimes even those with whom we do. 

Jesus said the Messiah must suffer.  He also said that those who follow him must suffer – not simply in the sense of personal tribulation, but in the sense that turning the world upside down is dangerous work, and we may lose all, even our lives, if we follow him where he leads us – which, I would remind you, is TO THE CROSS.  For the sake of the WORLD.  We don’t get special protection, we don’t get rich, we don’t get power and authority; we get Jesus.  We get the Holy Spirit.  We get each other. 

Jesus turned his back on power, on riches, and on authority there in the desert after his baptism; and he has asked us to follow him and do the same.

Is our answer: “God, forbid it Lord”? or is it: “I will, with God’s help”?

  January 2018  
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