Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 31, 2014
In the Name of God, who made and knows us, Jesus, who redeems and befriends us, and the Holy Spirit who enlightens and sustains us. Amen.
One day a preacher came home and saw his wife in a brand new exotic red dress. He looked at her and said “didn’t I say that you weren’t supposed to get any more clothes?” Embarrassed the wife replied ” yes, but Satan tempted me and told me it looked good from the front!” The preacher was startled by what just came out of his wife’s mouth. “I told you to say “Get thee behind me, Satan, didn’t I?” His wife said “yes, you did, but he told me it looked good from back there too!”
Today we find Peter, who has previously taken a huge leap of faith and stepped out into the deep sea to meet Jesus, then made that profound statement of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, telling the Messiah that he should scrap his mission that will lead to the cross, death, and then resurrection.
Jesus responded with the harshest words ever directed toward one of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me!” A stumbling block to me. I wonder if the strong reaction Peter got from his reproach to Jesus had a lot to do with Jesus wanting to silence the “demons of negativity.” For they are, indeed, stumbling blocks.
We’ve all experienced them. We may recognize them in our personal life, our business endeavors, and they are especially present in the church. We are all at risk for being assaulted by them and clergy and church leaders have particular susceptibility. I’ve done my own battle with them. They are forces that sap our energy and distract us from the work that is really important.
I’ll bet that is what was going on with Jesus and Peter that day. Jesus knew that he could not let himself be sidetracked from the good work to which he was called by God. He could not let Peter’s negative outlook draw on his energy and obstruct his mission. He had to put Peter—and Satan—in their place.
One of our former seminarians was a member of All Saints Church in Chicago, a parish that had been in decline for several years and on diocesan radar for possible closure. Then in 1992 Bonnie Perry became their rector and in time everything turned around. There was a huge renaissance and this parish is now thriving.
Our seminarian once asked her rector what it was that made them turn the corner. Bonnie told her that at some point she made the decision not to fritter away her energy listening to negative voices. “I still loved those folks and served them as their priest,” she said, “and still I did not let all my attention go to their unconstructive messages nor did I let myself or our leaders obsess on their negativity and pessimism. I directed my energy to those who were affirming of our vision, had constructive observations, who were encouraging, optimistic, and upbeat.” Bonnie Perry stepped over and around the stumbling blocks of negativity. It was life giving. It made all the difference.
It does make a difference. It did for Jesus and it can for us if we can stand up to those devilish influences and pressures and simply say, “Get behind me! Get out of my way! I have good and important work to do and God – not Satan—is my partner in my calling.”
I want to say a few words about that directive to take up our cross and follow. The denomination in which I was raised interpreted this to mean whatever might add pain, suffering and misery to your life. Your cross was the job you hated or loved and lost, the abusive relationship in which you were stuck, a chronic illness, or one’s struggle with sexual identity, or any hardship that you were to bear patiently and graciously.
It was as if God zapped you by dealing you a really bad deck of cards and your only alternative was to grin and bear it. I think that is really bad theology. I can’t envision the God of such enormous and unconditional love conspiring to whack us by laying this huge, onerous plank of wood on our shoulders and making us bear it to test our faithfulness.
There are certain realities of life, some over which we have no control and others that can be the catalyst for renewal and growth. When Jesus tells us that we must take up the cross, he is challenging us to live life as disciples who do their best—sometimes even at risk, with some cost to ourselves and denial of our own whims—disciples who go out into the world to make it a better, more godly place even in small, seemingly insignificant ways.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Professor of Ethics and Mysticism in the 1970’s, once said: “The greatest task of our time is to help our fellow human beings out of the pit. God will return to us when we are willing to let God in – into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theatres. Only in God’s presence shall we learn that the glory of humankind is not in its will to power but in its power of compassion.”
How each of us might be called to do that is an individual thing. Writer Melanie Juneau tells of the time she was stranded in an airport with an East-German archeologist. He spoke of his work and Melanie shared funny stories. She did not preach. She just told funny stories about living with nine kids. Suddenly he asked, “What is it about you? You are the most powerful person I ever met.”
He shocked her. Yes, she had felt joy bubbling up in that conversation but she had not prayed for him or healed him. She simply made him laugh. And yet they were both aware of a power flowing around them even though he was an East German atheist. It was tangible.
That’s what happens when our energy is given up to the unquestionable, affirming, creative work of God and not to the devilish tensions of the negative voices that can intrude on it, distract us from it, and zap our energy. I wonder if taking up the cross is simply letting go and letting God; allowing no room for ego or pride. We simply relax and enjoy, recognizing that it is all about God, not us. And, indeed, we may even get a glimpse of the Son of Man coming into his kingdom.