Matthew 16:21–28

In the name of Jesus, who brings us great joy and also calls us to
take up the cross.

The story behind today’s Gospel must begin, I think, not with Jesus
but with Peter. By the time Matthew and the other Gospel writers told
the story of Jesus, Peter was seen as the strongest, most devout of all
Christians. One can imagine Peter himself insisting that the stories
that showed his greatest weakness, his lack of faith, his lack of
understanding, that those stories be told. If he, Peter—the one Jesus
called “Satan”—could become a true and courageous follower in the Way,
then anyone could! Even us.

What was it exactly that Jesus said that caused Peter to rebuke him,
and Jesus in turn to call Peter “Satan”? Jesus was saying that, because
of his mission, actually because of his love for all people, the world
would not tolerate him, would not allow him to live. He would be
captured, tortured, and then crucified. Peter could not accept that.
“No, Jesus, that will not happen to you. You will be glorified
eventually right here during our lifetime as well as in heaven. People
will all learn to love and follow you in the foreseeable future. No,
Jesus, it is unthinkable that you will suffer and die.”

Most of us in today’s church do not want to talk about the
sacrificial nature of our faith any more that Peter wanted to think
about the sacrifice Jesus said he was going to make. And it’s not just
us church people. Who in our society—other than our brave military
personnel—who is willing to make to make any sacrifice, any real
sacrifice, even though we are involved in two wars as well as the
on-going war on terrorism?

Instead, of talking about Christian sacrifice, I like to talk about
how stepping out with Christ on his journey will bring you great joy, I
like to talk about this side of our faith, and of course I should. You
will find fulfillment as you become more and more the person God meant
you to be, created in the divine image of a generous spirited God, I
say. The Christian faith will bring out the best in you. (I love to
think of our faith that way, as bringing out the best in us.) It will
not beat you down in shame and dead-end guilt but raise you up with
forgiveness and joy.

As you move along on the Christian journey, I like to say, find a
group of fellow travelers in an authentic church to move with you.
Together you will, to use Paul’s words from today’s epistle, you will
rejoice with each other in your victories and you will stand with each
other in your grief. No other institution can bring you as much support
and love as the church can, the church that really is the church! I pray
that our emerging Cathedral congregation be such a church.

Moreover, I say, the Christian faith will help you find win-win
solutions to conflict, reconciliation with justice, not leaving you in
lose-lose situations. I have spent a lot of time in my work here as the
canon missioner these last three years trying to help people cross race
and class barriers, not just for the sake of justice, I say, but to
enhance everyone’s life. I like to quote the church founder Iraeneus
who said, “God’s glory in the world is men [and women] fully alive.”

I love to talk about the spontaneous joy Jesus must have felt, day by
day, as he taught, healed, called disciples and fed—fed the physically
hungry and the spiritually ravenous. I especially like to point out the
time when Jesus called the little children to him putting his arms
around them, pushing his cranky disciples out of the way, the time when
he said, “Do you want to know that the Kingdom of God is like? You don’t
have to look any further. It is like the children right here, eager to
receive all of the love I can give them. That is what the Kingdom of God
is like: people ready to receive all the love that God wants to give
us.” Imagine the joy Jesus felt when he said that.

I stand by all of those positive, life-affirming, life giving,
wonderful things I say about our Christian faith. But like Peter—and I
imagine like most Christians everywhere—I need to be reminded of the
other side of our faith…

Sometimes—thankfully not all of the time—sometimes our faith does
require sacrifice from us. Jesus in showing us the way said, as we heard
in today’s Gospel, that we must “take up the cross” to follow him.
Sometimes there is a real “cost to discipleship,” to use Deitrich
Bonhoeffer’s words.

It is not likely that many of us will have to make the supreme
sacrifice. But we are called to give sacrificially of our time, our
talent, and our treasure, so that we do our part to help all of God’s
children have a real chance at a good life. We are called to stand up
for the truth, for justice, even when it may cost us in the workplace,
the larger community, and, yes, even in our own churches. Sometimes, we
may have to split with our families over issues of faith and justice. As
much as anyone here, I have to be reminded of this side of our faith,
the call to take up our cross and to follow Jesus to his cross…

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, long a Christian pacifist, was arrested in Nazi
Germany for taking part in a plot to kill Hitler. You can imagine the
spiritual conflict he went through, this devoted pacifist deciding to
take part in the assassination of a great tyrant. Bonhoeffer spent many
months in prison before he was finally hanged. During that time he wrote
quite a few letters and papers that survived. On one occasion, he wrote
about the death of Jesus. (He was no doubt thinking of his own life and
the near-certain death that awaited him.)

Bonhoeffer wrote:

It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to
a human command than in the freedom of one’s own responsibility. It is
infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is
infinitely easier to suffer publicly and honorably than apart and in
disgrace. It is infinitely easier to suffer through staking one’s life
than to suffer spiritually. Christ suffered as a free man, alone, apart,
and in disgrace, in body and in spirit; and since then many Christians
have suffered with him.

Bonhoeffer was one of those Christians.

Sometimes, our wonderful faith, affirming and life-giving as it is, does
require sacrifice. Only very rarely does it require the ultimate
sacrifice of Jesus or a Bonhoeffer. My hope is that we think more, that
we talk more, about the cost of discipleship—that other side of the
faith—that together we learn to stand up for the truth, no matter what
the cost, no matter what the risk.

The idea of sacrifice may be missing from the faith of too many of us
these days. But it hasn’t always been that way… Republicans and
Independents as well as Democrats have taken pride in the fact that an
African American has received the presidential nomination of a major
political party. Last Thursday in Denver [August 28], exactly forty-five
years after Dr. King’s speech before the Lincoln Memorial, at least some
of his wonderful dream became a reality—King’s dream that we be judged
not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

But back up 45, 50 years ago, and think of the huge sacrifice so many
made to help make last Thursday evening in Denver possible. I think
first of Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, who spoke here at the
Cathedral last March commemorating the life of Dr. King. John Lewis was
one of those who was ready to sacrifice everything in order to do the
right thing. Arrested many times, brutally beaten at the Edmund Pettus
Bridge at Selma, Lewis kept on keeping on. He wouldn’t let “nobody” turn
him around, turn him around, but he kept on walkin’, kept on talkin’,
marchin’ on to Freedom Land. Trained as a Christian minister, Lewis’s
conviction to promote both love and justice would never falter. When
Michelle Obama spoke last week in Denver, John Lewis, the old warhorse,
broke down in tears. And many wept with him.

But it wasn’t only black civil rights leaders who made a huge
sacrifice. Over those terribly painful years in the fifties, sixties,
and seventies, I saw up close many white as well as black folk make a
different kind of sacrifice. The people I knew may not have risked their
lives, but they risked losing the love and support of their families and
their friends; they risked losing their livelihood. Many lost their
jobs. Many had to move away from their severely segregated communities
that they still loved. Those who had the courage to remain in those
communities were often made to look like complete fools and, worse,
traitors.

I saw up close a lot of white and black folk in those days who, like
the great civil rights leaders, taught us a lot about sacrifice, the
other side of the faith. I think especially of my years as a young
minister with everything to learn—some would say I still have
everything to learn—in Conway, South Carolina, inland from Myrtle
Beach. The time was the late 1960s.

I think of Jimmy Burroughs who ran the family’s general store in
Conway and how he had hired black clerks in his store before any law
forced him to. “God doesn’t see the color of skin,” he would say to all
who would listen. I think of how Jimmy was the butt of many jokes, even
though he had an abiding love for Conway and even for the people who
ridiculed him.

I think of how, when he was dying, at only forty-six, he asked me to
make sure all of Conway, black and white, be invited to come to his
funeral and how everyone should be invited into the 19th century family
home for coffee and cookies after the service. “This will be the first
time in this town that white folk and black folk mix together socially,”
Jimmy told me with his characteristic wry smile. His funeral was all
that Jimmy could have hoped for—people coming together across race,
class, and denomination lines with a new understanding of what this man
had meant to all of Conway and, yes, coming together, defying custom and
mixing socially, for God’s sake.

I think of Cheryl, who was one of the first five black students to
integrate Conway High. For months hardly anyone spoke to her and when
they did, it was usually to call her a bad name, the N-word name. I
think of the courage of this 16 year old and of all of the 16 year olds
who were the ones who had to carry out the orders that came from on high
to integrate. John Lewis would say that their sacrifice was as great as
his.

But I think also of a white girl named Cindy, who after a couple of
months could take the put down of Cheryl no longer, and with tears in
her eyes, came to sit with Cheryl on the school bus one afternoon and
became a close friend after that. Cindy lost many friends, and of course
friends at that age mean everything. But Cindy’s friendship meant the
world to Cheryl and helped her stay at Conway High. I think of so many
Cindys and Cheryls in those days, the white and black teenagers who did
not bring integration about, but who were the ones who made it work when
it did work! We do not talk nearly enough about them and their
sacrifice. Many of you here today were those teenagers in the fifties,
the sixties, and the seventies. I know that.

And finally, I think of George Lovell, the preacher at the
well-attended First Baptist Church of Conway. I had in those days these
funny stereotypes of white Baptist preachers. They were supposed to be
the most conservative, dead-end, bone-headed fundamentalists in our
midst. Boy, was I wrong! George preached Sunday after Sunday of God’s
love for all people, and he made it clear what he meant by all people.
Folk said he alone drove the Klan out of Conway, and the Klan had been
strong there.

It was largely through George Lovell’s leadership that white Conway
gradually and grudgingly began to realize that the days of rigid
segregation were over and that the new day might just bring new life to
both whites and blacks. He served his church and his community well for
over twenty years. He talked with joy about his ministry, but I knew
George well, and I knew how painful it was for him to say what he said,
and to do what he did…

We have been given such a wonderful, life-giving, life-affirming
faith that does bring out the best in us. The one we follow—that
carpenter from Nazareth—was himself a bright spirit, a joy to be around;
I am convinced of that. But he showed us that sometimes we must risk
everything in order to do the right thing.

Since this is the Sunday following Senator Obama’s nomination, I have
been talking about the particular sacrifices that brought us all this
far in regard to race. Of course we still have a long way to go. The
challenges of the 21st century that we face as individuals, as churches,
as a nation may not be especially related to race, but the principle is
the same. There is (or can be), to use Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s words, a
cost to discipleship…

Sometimes, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel, sometimes we must
take up our cross and follow Jesus to his cross. That is the other side
of our faith.