Canon R. Carter Echols
Today’s lessons are hard.
For don’t we often pray to God (or come to church) hoping to find comfort? Seeking acceptance and care? Looking for a safe place? And maybe even to escape from the messiness of the world and our lives?
But this morning, the lectionary gave us three passages about the price of faithfulness to God.
We heard how the prophet Jeremiah complained to God that he had been ostracized and rejected by the people of Jerusalem and Judah.
God replied by saying, in essence, “get back to work.” “If you utter what is precious and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouththey will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you” (Jeremiah 15:19, 20).
Then, in the Gospel Jesus told the disciples hard truths like “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:25)
Unfortunately, over the years, people seeking power that belongs to God alone have all too often abused these passages. So since, as we have just heard, discipleship has a cost, we must be clear this morning about the nature of suffering and self-denial for God.
Suffering for the sake of the Gospel is not suffering for the sake of suffering. It is not romanticizing the suffering of people in Turkey whose buildings collapsed due to shoddy workmanship. Nor is it spiritualizing pain of people who are the victims of hate crimes and active discrimination. An abusive spouse is not “the cross” that Jesus invites anyone to bear.
Instead, Jesus knew his disciples must suffer because of the dissonance between the world as it existed then and does now and the world as God would have it be. This tension reached a breaking point with Christ’s crucifixion 2 centuries ago, but it continues each time any of us takes a stand against the powers of our world in Christ’s name. We may suffer for standing with someone who we believe is right, but who challenges the state or our employer. Or we may suffer for refusing to laugh at jokes when the “humor” depends on making fun of someone’s ethnicity.
The cross that Jesus would have us bear emerges from the call to follow Him in a world that worships money, prestige and personal power. Our cross results from the choices we make that are faithful to the gospel, but put us at odds with the world.
God’s kingdom has not yet come, so the tension remains for us today. And we respond like Peter.
Last week we heard how Peter’s faithful declaration of Jesus’ messiah-ship resulted in Jesus calling Peter the “the rock” on which the church would be built. But this morning, only five verses later in the Gospel according to Matthew, Peter’s aversion to suffering leads Jesus to tell his “rock”, “you are a stumbling block to me”.
We want it both ways. We want to be loved, successful and pain free in this world, but also to be doing God’s will. We want faith to mean that death has no more sting; we want to make the church into a place that is successful by worldly standards.
To which Jesus replies, “you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things”. (Matthew 16:23) And then he says, “If you would be my disciples, deny yourselves.”
Throughout history, would be oppressors in our world have twisted this last phrase to mean lessen yourself before others. Women especially have been encouraged to believe that their dreams and goals are less important than men’s.
But Jesus was not telling his disciples to deny the unique wonderful selves that God had created them to be. Rather, Jesus was saying, deny your worldly goals. Focus instead on God’s goals for you.
The same Jesus who had invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to lay aside their income producing fishing nets in order to follow him, was now saying again, following me means trading in your own agenda for God’s agenda.
And not only that, but God’s agenda will put you in conflict with the world in which you want so much to succeed, because living as God would have you live means resisting or changing the current systems that perpetuate divisions and injustices in this world.
For example, those of us who live in the Washington metropolitan area bear the cross of improving our community to assure that a child born in Anacostia has as much chance for a successful future as a child born in this neighborhood or in a nearby suburb. One small aspect of that enormous challenge entails encouraging corporations to increase the number of grocery stores in economically poorer neighborhoods. Parents and parents-to-be here in our part of Ward 3 of the District of Columbia can easily walk to their choice of Safeway, Giant, Fresh Fields or Sutton Place. But there are not any grocery stores in all of Ward 8 East of the Anacostia River. In those poorer neighborhoods, parents who are less likely to have a car must work harder and pay more simply to feed their children.
But this is not just a Washington problem. Every community in our nation knows ways it falls short of how God would want us to live. And each of us knows the smaller, but no less important, challenges of resisting corporate America’s encouragement to buy more than we need and of raising children in such a violent society.
And so the work of our faith is a cross. It may not result in death as it did for Jesus. But it will lead us, as it led Jesus, to challenge the powers of this world.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “be not conformed to this world, but be transformedso that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2)
In return, Jesus promises us real life, that which really matters. And He asks, “what will it profit them if they gain the whole world, but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26)
In the context of eternity, our years spent on this earth are insignificant.
We live with hope because we know that the resurrection that Jesus predicted in today’s Gospel, revealed God’s plan for all the world.
And so in the end, today’s passages offer us comfort and courage to stand up for what we know is right, whether it is having our children read instead of play Nintendo, advocating for just employment practices in our workplaces, or enforcing effective building codes.
And along the way we get glimpses of God’s reign:
in sunlight streaming through stained glass,
in exquisite musical passages and
in the twinkle in the eyes of someone who cares for us.
Those glimpses sustain us in the work to be done in God’s name.
For the son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.