Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Get Behind Me, Satan" (Reflections on Pentecost 12)

From that time on, 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘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? ‘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. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ (Matthew 16:21-28)


When we last left our heroes Jesus and Peter last Sunday, Jesus was being pretty complimentary to Peter for figuring out (with the aid of the Holy Spirit since Pete's not swift enough to come up with this on his own) that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of the Living God. This Sunday, however, our gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary has Peter totally misreading the situation and coming in for a royal butt-chewing from Jesus. If you're anything like me, you'll have to admit that Jesus is the very last person you'd ever want to give you a dressing down—even though every last one of us deserves one (and if you don't think you do you're kidding yourself!).

Peter just doesn't quite get what it means to be the Chosen One of God. It's not about power, fame, prestige, wealth, or any of those earthly things. Jesus tells his disciples to carry their cross. That is, they are to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the gospel. I've heard it said that the cross we're called to carry might not always be our own. This is no injunction to suffer in silence for those who are being crushed beneath the weight of poverty, loneliness, violence, or other oppressions. Just as Simon of Cyrene picked up Jesus' cross when the Lord could bear it no longer, so we in the Church are constantly called to shoulder the cross of others' suffering. But lots of times there are things which get in the way.

Yeah, I agree it might sound a little harsh for Jesus to call Peter “Satan.” To us, this title conjures up images of a nasty little red dude with a forked tail and horns. Very unflattering, don't you think? However, in Jesus' time, “Satan” might have meant just the same as it did in the book of Job. A “Satan” was an inhibitor. In Job, Satan does God's will by blocking Job's prosperity. Although I'm certain he believed in the medieval notion of a demonic creature, Martin Luther located evil not only in the devil, but in the culture and in our own selfish nature (see explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord's Prayer in The Small Catechism).

Perhaps dear Peter is falling victim to a culture which only values power, wealth, and prestige? Doesn't our own world inhibit us from our purpose of cross-carrying at times? Some months ago I wrote a post about the Canadian actress Ellen Page when she spoke at a Human Rights Campaign's “Time to Thrive” event. I applauded Miss Page for speaking out against the expectations of the culture which draw young people away from their true selves. It seems that Miss Page had been advised to hide the fact that she is gay from her public for fear that such a disclosure would jeopardize her film career. Nevertheless, she made the bold decision to introduce herself for who she really is, a decision which doubtless gave courage to countless other young people. Similarly, she warned her audience about a culture which preaches the virtues of being beautiful, thin, wealthy, and perpetually young (and probably in possession of the fanciest new electronic device as well!).

The values of the world, coupled with our own insecurity about being worthy, are stones in the road of our true purpose. Sometimes I wonder if, as the Church, we value huge worship attendance, sumptuous sanctuaries, doctrinal purity, and community prominence more than we value mission to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This gospel reading calls us to cast ourselves in the role of Peter and ask what Satans are keeping us from God's purpose. What lie are we chasing which keeps us from being authentically alive in our relationship with God? How do our own expectations or desires stand in the way of what God wants for us and for the world?

I don't know about you, but I catch myself being a stumbling block all the time. Sometimes I need a lesson like this reading to remind me that all of the earthly glories—praise, authority, prestige, possessions—will all cease to be of value when I'm dead. I'll only find my eternal value in the cross of Jesus.

Thanks for reading, my friends!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Spinning Plates (Reflections on Pentecost 9)

Sometimes I feel like that juggler dude who used to be on the Ed Sullivan show back in the sixties. You know the guy I mean? The one who used to spin plates on a stick..? He'd put these dinner plates on the tops of really thin dowels and spin them like Frisbees and they'd keep spinning, except that he'd have to keep running back and forth from plate to plate to keep them all up in the air at the same time. Is your life ever like that?

Summers in a small urban church are pretty sleepy, and there's not always a lot of work for a pastor to do. I visit the homebound, of course, but I don't have to prepare for special services, supervise projects, or do lesson plans for confirmation classes. Even the volume of neighborhood funerals seemed to be slowing down a bit and then...WHAM! Suddenly all the plates start spinning at the same time and I have to keep them all in the air. I'm trying to plan a vacation, but family members start having health problems which need pretty earnest attention. There are doctors' visits to be scheduled and procedures to be undergone and days to be re-arranged. Then a long-time member of the congregation decides it's time to find herself hospitalized in an end-of-life situation, and her family needs the pastor to discuss terminating care. I find myself spending two mornings with the anxious relatives at the local hospital. Now a funeral service must be hastily arranged around medical appointments and vacation time. The bereaved family must be visited, the congregation notified, the homily written, and a worship bulletin prepared. Of course it's at this time that my car needs to go into the shop and the dog needs a trip to the vet. Suddenly it's the congregation's turn to host two displaced families in the church basement in partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network, and volunteers must be cajoled, schedules made, and re-made, and changed again as three church committees decide they must have meetings which the pastor must attend during the same week while the church newsletter deadline is moved up to accommodate the vacation and the phone begins to ring off the hook as a thousand things suddenly demand all of my attention and my wife wonders why I spend so much time at work.

My brain has been a strangely noisy place lately.

That's why I so love the lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 9. In the Hebrew scripture lesson from 1 Kings (1Kngs 19:9-18) we find the prophet Elijah living in a cave on Mt. Horeb. He's pissed off with God and Israel and feeling at the end of his rope. He's just defeated 450 prophets of Baal, and it hasn't made a dent in the political situation. He's on the run and in a pretty bad mood. So God tells him to get out of the cave and just wait. Then there's a hurricane. Then an earthquake. Then a forest fire. Then nothing.

And in the nothing, God.

Elijah's just like us. There's chaos and weirdness all around him. But that's not where God is. God is found in the stillness—the stillness that's in the very midst of the hullabaloo.

For someone like me, it's pretty hard to find the stillness, to listen to the sound of the silence, and to remember that it's all about God and not about me. But I think I can do it. I can find Jesus walking in the middle of the swirling tempest, and know that he's come here for me. If I keep my focus on him, I won't sink.

Find some quiet time, my dears. Breath. I assure you, it will all be alright.