It is said that every sermon preached is really a sermon that the preacher herself needs to hear. Today is no different. I am very good at stuffing down my feelings. I’ve been trained all my life do so. Perhaps you have, too. I pretend so well that I avoid the facts with which I need to contend. I confess to you that I block out images of my grandmother undergoing chemo. I confess to you that I fuss at my three-year-old rather than deal with my own stress. I confess that as much as I want to call myself an advocate for justice, I am afraid to be a bold witness to the Gospel I hold in such high esteem. I confess to you that I shy away and shy away and shy away because it feels like a load I cannot carry. Such sufferings do not fit in my schedule, in my time, in my heart. My arms not strong enough to bear it. My mind too full to consider it. My bandwidth not wide enough to withstand it. Or at least that’s what I tell myself…
Do you ever feel this way? I’ve found the British poet and performer Kate Tempest’s words helpful in describing the ways I box out the messiness of life: Go ahead, keep it in ’til it withers you/Move fast, don’t stop, you got things to do/Tell yourself, it’s them man it isn’t you/Nod your head and believe that until it’s true/You can tell it not to show its face/When you are trying to hold your space/But it’s in you deep in your sinews/And it comes out on the coldest days.1 Collectively, we are very, very good and very, very practiced at putting suffering and pain and difficulty aside. We tuck it away, shove it in a closet, sweep it under the rug. We say, “Choose Joy!”, because the alternative is all too dangerous or messy or vulnerable. We smile; we move on.
But then, every week, we also come here and are asked to choose another way – to choose it all. Do you know why we confess our sins at the beginning of the service? We gather and we sing, we call ourselves to attention at the foot of the throne of God. And then, before we get to the Word, before we get to the sacraments of baptism and communion, before we get to prayers for others, we confess and contend with what is deep in our sinews. The confessional movement of our service acts as an invitation to deal with what we’ve avoided all week or to deal with what hangs over us like a heavy cloud. We confess our sins, receive pardon, and then, we get to the Word Christ speaks to us. This order is intentional and is meant to move us on a path. We cannot receive the word in fullness if we do not choose to remove the speck that is in our eyes and hearts.
Jesus is trying to teach his disciples, particularly Peter, this important choice in today’s reading. Last week, Betty told us about how Peter was the rock on which Christ would build his church, a claim Jesus made after Peter boldly and faithfully declared Jesus as the Messiah. Immediately after Jesus deems Peter fit for this foundational role, Peter goes and screws it up. He lets his fear and his doubt creep in. He lets his issues, legion in number, become a stumbling block in his path of discipleship.
Let us remember: Jesus begins to tell the disciples what being the Messiah means, what this will look like in the coming days so he turns his attention to Jerusalem. He’s also turning his disciples attention to what is to come. Matthew recounts that “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.”
Peter felt this was too much, too hard, too messy and so he took Jesus aside and rebuked him. This baffles me but then again, I think I’d do the same. Peter had enough chutzpah to take the Messiah aside and wag his finger at him, saying, “No! No, no, no. This is not how it is supposed to go, Lord.” Or said another way, Peter had enough fear, enough doubt, enough of his own issues and he chose to let those lead him. Jesus turns to Peter, turns to Peter’s heart and harshly says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Ouch. From rock to Satan so quickly.
When Peter rebuked him for declaring what must happen in Jerusalem, I wonder if Jesus almost put his palm to his head in grave disappointment as if to say, “Really?! Really?! I thought I had prepared you for all that was to come, my disciples. I thought I’d shown you that you had the capacity and the strength and the depth to contend with all that will happen.” While Jesus is pivoting his body and his mind toward the path of his coming trials, Peter’s feet and feelings seem to be stuck. He can’t make that turn, that pivot. Peter wants to go one way – the way that looks like a bowling alley in which the gutters are covered by bumpers: straight, flat, no way of falling off; while Jesus intends to take him another way – the way of a life that chooses to contend with all that may come.
I feel for Peter in this story; I feel for Peter because I feel like I’ve been there, too. One minute, Jesus is my Savior, Messiah, Redeemer, Friend and the next minute, I am saying “But only if it looks like this or is easy or is positive.” We live in a world where phrases like “stay positive!” or “don’t worry, be happy” or “keep calm and carry on” are splashed across stickers and t-shirts and water bottles and pilfered out like gelcap pills that we can easily swallow so we can just. keep. moving. on. We place stipulations around our discipleship, like Peter does. I will follow you, Jesus, but only so far – not to this place of despair or pain or witness. I will take the fun Jesus, the Jesus who welcomes the little children and pats their sweet heads. The Jesus who feeds the 5000 and heals the sick and blind and lame. The Jesus who is nestled in a manger and the Jesus who saves the disciples from the stormy waters. But the Jesus who will hang upon a cross and suffer unto death? Eh – no. “That’s too much,” Peter says. “I can’t do that, Jesus. I don’t want that, Jesus. I don’t want that for you, Jesus. Let’s choose joy, Jesus, Peter says. Let’s get back to that part where I’m the rock and you’re the Messiah and we’re walking this really lovely, flat, easy path.The one where lessons are about mustard seeds, not about judgment and justice.” We’ve all been there, right? All been there with Peter saying, “Not right now, Jesus. Not this messy, difficult, painful stuff. Let’s get back to the light and positive vibes and the joy. That’s the good stuff. That’s where I want to be.”
Choosing it all – choosing the joy and the sorrow, the sickness and the health, the plenty and the want, the life and the death – is a difficult choice. It is the choice that Jesus is asking Peter to make and that Jesus asks every disciple henceforth to make. Do we stay stuck on the road outside of Jerusalem, not ready to walk in and contend with all that will come? Or do we keep walking, keep listening and watching and widening our hearts and minds and souls to receive what is to come, even if it hurts?
A friend of mine grew up in Charlottesville. His family is one of deep faith and witness, so much so that he and his father went to the protest a few weeks ago. Paul reflected on his experience and I share his story with permission. I also share his story with a great pit in my stomach because it speaks to that which is deep in my sinews, that stumbling block that I, too, create again and again in my path to discipleship. Hear his words: “On Saturday, my father and I were with the clergy you’ve seen in pictures in my hometown. We sang about freedom, love, light, and faith in the face of assault rifles, threats, hatred, and racism. The group of clergy there expected to be hurt. I, personally, was unprepared to be on the line with our clergy, so we stood behind them. I was not ready to widow my wife if I were to be killed. I was not ready to miss the 3rd graders walking into my classroom next week. I was not ready to hold the discipline and be a reliable ally on that line.” Paul goes on to write of what a privilege this is – a privilege as a white, middle class, heterosexual Protestant man – as someone who has the ability to leave the protest and therefore, leave the threat of violence behind him – as someone who can walk away, who can always walk away. At the end of his post, Paul charges all those with this profound, inherited privilege to step outside of their fear, away from the stumbling blocks: “We must choose to face retribution, criticism, and whatever keeps us from standing up or speaking out. We must choose every day.”2
There are so many choices we make every day. What to wear, what to eat, what to do. The majority of these choices are laced with privilege, with the simple fact that our choices come as legion, as a buffet, as a cornucopia – choose your analogy. We have an abundance of options within our choices. I wonder what it would look like if we stopped this nonsense about only choosing joy, choosing the positive, choosing the easy way. Stopped shaking our finger at Jesus and saying, “No – not now. Not this. Not here” and instead said, “Yes, I will walk with you to Jerusalem, to that place that will force me to deal with all those things I’ve let fester inside, that I’ve avoided with such practiced grace.”
Every week, we come here and we confess to God all the things we’ve done and all the things we’ve left undone. I pray that today – let’s just try one day – we contend with the things we’ve left undone. Maybe you need to reconnect with a friend. Maybe you need to apologize for things you’ve said. Maybe you need to hug someone you’ve hurt. Maybe you need to stand up and speak out in a time when so many are made to sit down and remain silent.
Maybe the choice is that you – maybe we – need to listen to all that Jesus said in our passage this morning. Maybe we, like Peter, blocked out the fullness of what Jesus said – that he will suffer, die, and then rise again. Rise. Jesus comes to us as the Messiah who endures the pain of the cross and yet – and yet – still rises to life. Such light does not come without darkness. Such morning does not come without the weeping of the nights before. Such glory does not come without pain. Jesus chooses it all. Chooses it for you and me.
So, let’s choose it all, too. The things we pretend don’t exist. The things we’ve buried deep in our sinews. The things we have left undone. Let us choose it all and in choosing, choose life in our Messiah who was crucified, buried, and rose again that we might have life and have it abundantly. Amen.
2. From a post by Paul Gwynn Garrity, August 2017.