Matthew 16: 21-28; Romans 12: 9-21
Congregational Church of ******
August 31, 2008
My youngest daughter Olivia, when she was about five years old, had already gained a piece of wisdom that we adults sometimes have difficulty with: do what you like least first and save the best for last. She came to this conclusion when having several things to eat on her plate. She chose to save the food she liked the most for last so she could end her meal with joy rather than with disgust at having to eat something she didn’t like. Now if we could just get her to apply this wisdom to cleaning her room…
It’s that age-old problem: if we did only what we felt like doing, not much would get done. Perhaps you’ve heard the one about the husband who came home from work to find the front door ajar, with dirty handprints all over it. As he entered the house the smells of burnt food and dog excrement assaulted his nose. Toys, games and puzzles were strewn about the living room. One child was making a finger painting on the refrigerator with baby food. Another child was covered in mud making mud pies on the kitchen floor, a bucket of wet dirt beside him. The contents of a box of cereal were scattered on and below the dining room table. The sink was full of dirty dishes and there was no dinner in sight.
The husband began to look for his wife with great anxiety, worried that something had happened to her. As he went upstairs the floor was carpeted with dirty laundry. In one of the bedrooms the third child was watching TV with her eyes glazed over. He opened the door to the master bedroom to find his wife on the bed, reading a magazine and eating chocolates, with the dog stretched lazily on the other side, his head on the husband’s pillow. By this point the husband had abandoned anxiety for anger. He sputtered at his wife, “What in the world happened here today?!” The wife replied, “You know when you ask me what did I do today? Well, today I didn’t do it.”
Do you ever wonder what would the church look like if we did not follow Jesus and his example, if we did only what we felt like doing and let the rest slide?
In a Newsweek/Beliefnet poll that asked the question “why do you practice religion”, 39% responded “to forge a personal relationship with God”. 30% replied “to help you be a better person and live a moral life”. Only 10% responded “to connect with something larger than yourself”. 8% said “to give your life structure and meaning”. And only 3% answered with “to be part of a community”.
It seems that in our country, or at least the people who answered the poll, folks are more concerned with having a personal experience of God rather than on how that experience could be gained by serving others, by putting aside one’s life for the sake of another so that someone else could also experience God in a way that would transform their life.
In 1983 the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that both “personal experience and the common faith of the church” are important, “[but] a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind”. Seeking a personal experience of God as the main goal of faith, outside of community and the demands it places on us is a feel-good faith, one that when tested by trial and suffering will not sustain us.
In this morning’s gospel lesson we see the flipside of Peter’s confession of faith. In the verses before Jesus has just declared that he will build the church upon Peter’s humble conviction. Can you imagine Peter’s state of mind? Talk about a personal experience of God; you can’t get a more personal high than Jesus, God’s own son, slapping you on the back for the right answer which could only come from God, and guess what? You win the grand prize: head honcho of the fledgling, soon-to-be main God game in town!
Then right after this Jesus begins to tell the disciples that before it gets worse, it’s going to get worse. There will be no righteous Davidic king upon Jerusalem’s throne. There will be no just war against the Roman occupation. He tells them that he must suffer at the hands of the leaders of his own people, his brothers really, that he will be killed, and on the third day be raised. This was not exactly the kind of messiah the people of Israel were waiting for. Not only this, but Jesus was going to do this of his own volition. Peter thinks Jesus must be out of his mind to volunteer for such a suicide mission, to allow himself to be killed for no rational reason. Perhaps Peter is also thinking that Jesus’ death might lead to his own funeral. As one commentary put it, Peter and Jesus then get into a shouting match, out of which comes one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings.
“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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Who are we when push comes to shove? Jesus is asking his disciples and us, who are you in relation to the gospel? What exactly are you willing to give your life for, that life that has not been the same since Christ walked into it? Taking up our cross does not necessarily mean that we will be required to die for our faith but we will be asked to die to ourselves, to loosen our grip on the way we prefer things, what we desire, what we’re comfortable with, for the sake of the community of Christ. Henri Nouwen defined community as “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” Jesus is calling us out of ourselves that the common good would flourish, shaped by grace and the inspiration of Christ.
If it’s one thing we know about Jesus it’s that he’s always leading us to places we’d rather not go and teaching us about doing things we’d rather not do. Paul in his letter to the Romans exhorts his readers that because they are saved by grace their behavior should be changed in ways that are radically different from the ways of the world. “Outdo one another in showing honor.” “Bless those who persecute you.” “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” “Live peaceably with all.” In other words, do not do what comes naturally; rather do the thing that comes the most difficult to you.
Deirdre Sullivan, a freelance attorney in Brooklyn, NY, in her essay for the NPR series “This I Believe”, put it this way:
“‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only an inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing. …In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.”
As Christians who live in community with one another we find ourselves fighting the same battle: doing good versus doing nothing. The good that we do need not be some grand heroic gesture nor a small inconvenience but indeed an extravagant outpouring of ourselves. We do this not for ourselves but for the other, even the one that can appear to us to be an enemy, that they may come to know the saving love of Christ and know themselves as beloved sisters and brothers.
Paul then ends his exhortation with a quote from the book of Proverbs when he says “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Burning coals is a metaphor for purification; when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet, one of God’s servants touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that he could then speak God’s truth with clean lips. When we offer the stranger, the outcast, the enemy the extravagant outpouring of ourselves, the burning coals we heap upon heads is the help of removing the barriers between them and God’s grace and by doing so, between us and God’s grace.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love called it a “double victory”. In his quest for equal rights for black Americans he was not satisfied with pressuring white Americans into giving in; he wanted more than mere retribution. He wrote,
“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave half dead, and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”
Who are you, Congregational Church of ******, in relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ? When push comes to shove, as it inevitably does in the Church, what are you willing to risk your life together for? For what or for whom are you willing to suffer? In what ways is God calling you to give an extravagant outpouring of yourselves? Who would be the person or people that would be difficult for you to see as beloved sisters and brothers in Christ? What moments come to your mind when you think of members of your church loving from the center of who they are, and discovering beauty in everyone?
We exist, we live not only that we may experience the living God but so that others may also be drawn to know God by the way we live our lives, by the truth that we proclaim: that in order to find our lives we must first lose them, that evil is not overcome by evil but overcome with good. Our ability to love in this radical way is not born out of our solitary life but in community; community that treats an enemy like a friend, that seeks to live not in agreement but peaceably, in harmony with all, community that is shaped by Christ and our participation in the cross and the resurrection. Amen.