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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 13, 2015

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

Comedian George Burns once said that the secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending; and to have the two as close together as possible.

This Gospel is one that prompts me to comply with George’s suggestion. There is a lot about it to make one uneasy and I’d really like to edit it. It’s one of those passages where I ask myself , “what will the folks who just walked through our radically welcoming doors think about this?” Well, to be honest, what would anyone think of this text?

For starters, talk about being put on the spot. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks. I guess it’s a fair question. People were very curious about this person called Jesus and there were even conspiracy theories afloat. Who wouldn’t be wondering who he was? He ran out demons, performed healings of all kinds, told lots of interesting stories, challenged the religious leaders of his time, and shocked them all with behaviors like touching diseased people and eating with unsavory characters.

Peter’s response to that loaded question signified a whole host of expectations for the Jews. Messiah comes from the Hebrew word that meant “anointed one,” a term that could be applied to kings and prophets. In the Hebrew scriptures, however, Messiah most frequently meant “deliverer.”

Peter and the Jews who followed Jesus saw in him the expected deliverer, the one who would rescue them from the oppression of Roman authority and the ritual-obsession of the Pharisees. They were looking for a successful, conquering messiah, one who would take charge by power and force. They were to be greatly disappointed.

That’s not in the cards. Jesus unfolds the real plan and it is totally unacceptable to Peter. They actually have a heated spat and Jesus calls him the devil. Certainly Peter had seen better days.

Expectations. What about ours? I read an interesting article this week written by a woman who worked on a church staff for years. She wonders about a congregation’s expectations.  She questions how healthy or realistic it is for the church structure to be geared toward meeting every need, developing everyone spiritually and organizing all inward and outward ministry.

“When a faith community is church-centralized,” she write “ the staff is expected to take full spiritual responsibility for people, which is well beyond their capacity.  Most churches have modest staffs that cannot handle such demands.”

“I wonder,” she adds “if a ‘Come to us and we will do it all, lead it all, organize it all, calendar it all, execute it all, innovate it all, care for it all and fund it all’ framework is even biblical? It sets leaders and followers up for failure, creating a church-centric paradigm in which discipleship is staff-led and program-driven.

“Ironically, the more responsibility people take for their spiritual development and their neighbor, the healthier they become — also, less resentful of the church, less dependent on programming and less reliant upon staff, especially the clergy. This frees up the staff for more reasonable roles, and the people to be good neighbors.”

I was struck by this wisdom because we are beginning a new program year this week and the calendar gets filled quickly with all kinds of activity facilitated by a small staff. And I was struck by its implications because this Gospel has to do with expectations: expectations of Jesus and the expectations Jesus may have of us.

I don’t know about you but I love the Gospels when Jesus is telling cool stories with lessons on human life. I get great comfort from all the episodes that have him healing the blind, the deaf, the lame, and every other malady that plagued the ancient world. It’s invigorating to hear him take on the self-righteous, pompous, arrogant religious leaders.

I am profoundly touched by his outreach to the disenfranchised, those living on the margins of life, and his enjoyment of their hospitality as he sits at table and eats with them. But this language about taking up the cross and denying myself presents a challenge for me and I suspect for most of us. Now we’re talking about Jesus’ expectations. And they are pretty intense.

What we get from Jesus here is the reminder that all of the wonderful, life-giving, affirming, amazing things he did and continues to do for us came with a price: his death on the Cross and that was not cheap. It cost.

Jesus wants Peter and anyone else who is listening to be clear about this: “Yes, I’ve come to be your deliver, but it’s not just the Roman Empire from whom you need delivering. It’s your determination to put God in a box and to say, ‘This is what I need God to be, so this must be who God is.  Expand your narrow understanding of God and know that God has the power to transform us and give us new hope, new meaning, and new resolve.”

In the end, I don’t really think Jesus is too concerned with how we answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” But I do think he is concerned about how we live our life and how we care for one another. I do think he is concerned about what the world says about Christianity based on the behavior of those who say they are his friends. What Jesus is asking for here is no less than any one of us asks from one another when we have established a serious relationship or made a covenant: commitment. Jesus is asking for a commitment.

The world does not make that an easy thing to do. The world says, “Mind your own business,” and Jesus says there is no such thing as your own business. The world says, “Be a success,” and Jesus tells us to deny ourselves. The world say, “Get all you can,” and Jesus says, “Give all you can.” In Listening to Your Life, Theologian Frederick Buechner  says, “In terms of the world’s sanity, Jesus is as crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks they can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.”

Anthony de Mello, writing in his book, More One Minute Nonsense, includes this piece:

“What’s so original about this man?” asked a visitor. “All he gives you is a hash of stories, proverbs, and sayings from the masters.” A woman disciple smiled. She once had a cook, she said, who made the most wonderful hash in the world. “How on earth do you make it my dear? You must give me the recipe.” The cook’s face glowed with pride. She said, “We’ll. Ma’am, I’ll tell yer: beef’s nothin’; pepper’s nothin’; onion’s nothin’; but when I throws myself into the hash—that’s what makes it what it is.”

This is a place where we do not make distinctions among ourselves. Everyone is an important part of the equation of experiencing and facilitating God’s grace. Sharing in that blessing, taking responsibility for the life and work of this faith community rather than expecting others to do that is the key to discipleship.

If you’ve just come through our doors for the first time today or if you’ve come through them hundreds of times, I truly hope you have been greeted and recognized as one of God’s own beloved.

Radical welcome—offering hospitality to anyone and everyone who enters our doors—must lead to radical invitation—an invitation to everyone take up the cross together and take on the sacred work that God calls us to as a community. There is a lot of good stuff happening here and a lot more to come. When you throws yourself into the hash—that’s what makes it what it is.

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