Questions in the Key of Rock

Matthew 16:13-20

What was it like for them I wonder?  What was it like for the disciples traveling from place to place with Jesus?  Did Simon the Zealot argue with Matthew the tax collector every step of the way?  Who assigned the chores when they camped somewhere?  Was Jesus responsible for all that or did he delegate that job to someone else?  How many of them were there?  Was it  just Jesus and the 12 when they were on the road or were there more?  At one point Jesus sends out 70 on a mission; were they all part of the touring company or did that larger group stay behind at Capernaum?  Luke’s gospel mentions a number of women; did they travel with Jesus, too?   

Have you ever been to a place that both frightened and fascinated you?  A place that filled you with both awe and maybe a little bit of dread?

About ten years ago I was backpacking in the Sierras above Sequoia when we came around the bend of the trail onto a broad, open space of bald granite like a great, slightly sloping observation platform.  The view was nothing short of stunning.  In front of us the cliff dropped away into a yawning canyon that opened into an expansive valley.  Off to the north we could see all the way to Half Dome in Yosemite.  It felt like we were standing quite literally on the edge of the world.

As I said, the view was stunning.  And part of me wanted to stay there as long as possible just to soak it all in and marvel at the beauty of it all.  But another part of me was mindful of the sloping granite beneath my feet, some of it loose and chipped and slippery beneath my boots.  I was a good safe distance from the edge where the granite curved over then plunged into the emptiness, but I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing that one might be able to grab onto if one happened to find oneself sliding toward trouble,  because, you know, life is uncertain.  Teenagers horse around.  People stumble.  And even geology hiccups from time to time.  A slight fear of heights makes you think about these things. 

So I was fascinated, but also a bit uneasy.

I imagine that’s how the disciples felt when they came to Caesarea Philippi.  

Fascinated but uneasy.

They’re in foreign territory, a little more than twenty-five miles from the Galilee.  They’ve walked there, of course.  And now here they are, good Jews, every one of them, standing on the hill overlooking the city, and the most dominant buildings they see are the temple to the god Pan and the temple to the emperor.  The divine Caesar.  

The temple to Pan was built around the entrance to a natural cave called Pan’s grotto.  It was also called the Gate to Hades.  Pan was regarded as a fertility god.  The pagans believed that the fertility gods slept through the winter in Hades then reemerged in the spring to bring new life to the world.  They believed that this grotto was Pan’s passageway to and from Hades, the realm of the dead.  Inside the grotto there was also a gushing spring—it was gushing in ancient times but now it’s barely a trickle—that was one of the sources for the Jordan river. 

What did the disciples think as they were looking at this assortment of temples to these other gods, these gods who were not their God, even a temple to the emperor—and the administrative buildings of the tetrarchy?   What did the disciples feel as they stood in this place confronted by the structures of religion and politics, but not their religion or their politics?

Did the ground feel, maybe, a little slippery under their feet?   Did they wonder if their nervousness might be the influence of Pan?  After all fear is Pan’s weapon; the word panic comes from Pan’s name.

And it’s here, confronted by strange powers—strange religion and strange government—that Jesus asks his first important question:  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Why would he ask that here?  Why now?  Why not back in Galilee where he’s been doing most of his teaching and working wonders?  Why now in this foreign place?  Is he trying to distract them from feeling so out of place?  Is he showing them what they’ll be up against later when they take the message of the kin-dom out into the wider world?  

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples make it clear that people are impressed with Jesus.  They identify him with the pillars of righteousness and prophetic justice in their tradition:  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.  They understand that Jesus is someone who is somehow extraordinary.  But how, exactly?

Who do people say that Jesus is?  It’s still an important question for us.  

If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus, a representative of Jesus, you need to know how the rest of the world sees and understands Jesus, how they describe him, because that’s where conversation begins.  Who do they say he is?  You need to know that before you can make a good case for who you say he is.  

I imagine that Jesus thought a moment about their answers to his first question before he asked the next question: “But who do you say that I am?”

“You,” said Simon Peter, “are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  

The Christ.  The Messiah.  The Anointed One.  I can’t help but wonder how Simon Peter understood his own words.

In his Commentary on Matthew my professor, the late Robert H. Smith wrote: “As the reality of the Son overwhelms mind and senses, people try to get a handle on him by fitting him into some convenient slot like prophet.  However, the Christ or Messiah is not a prophet but the goal of prophecy, not another promiser but the inaugurator of the promised time.  As Son of the living God his is the bearer of the presence of God and acts in the place of God, not as a renewer of old traditions, but as agent of God’s fresh creative work, bringer of new heavens and a new earth.”[1]

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Do you call him the Christ, the Messiah?  Do you understand him to be not merely a prophet but the goal of prophecy?  The one who was prophesied? 

Is he for you the Son of the living God?  Does he bear the presence of God in your life?  Do you see him not as the renewer of old traditions, but as the agent of God’s fresh creative work, the bringer of new heavens and a new earth?

Or has he become for you the centerpiece of old traditions?  Do the titles of Christ and Son of God simply echo memorized lines from the creeds that get repeated without much thought? 

Jesus is asking us the same question he asked Peter, James, John and the others as they stood overlooking the monuments built to idols and government:  “Who do you say that I am?”

We hear that question as we stare out into a world devoted to those same distractions and others even more powerful:  “Who do you say that I am?”

And it’s oh, so tempting for us to leap straight to the answer we memorized, the answer we have heard all our lives, without really thinking about the question or what our answer means. 

If you, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then you are also acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of his church, the ekklesia established on the bedrock of that confession.  You are acknowledging that you have been called to participate in Christ’s fresh, creative work of making the kin-dom of heaven a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  You are acknowledging that you have been invited to be part of the beloved community and to live by the ethic of grace and generosity that guides that community. 

In 1989, President George Bush was entering St. John’s Episcopal Church to attend Sunday worship when he was stopped by a homeless man, William Wallace Brown, Jr. who simply asked the president to pray for him.  President Bush  replied, “No. Come inside with us and pray for yourself.”  From that day on William Wallace Brown, Jr. attended church faithfully. He would sit in the pews in his street-dirty clothes alongside the rich and powerful and always put a dollar in the offering plate even when that dollar was all he had.

William Wallace Brown had been invited to come in to the beloved community, to encounter Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And to him that meant everything.

This community, this church built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, is, in Robert Smith’s words, “well founded, not by human authority or ingenuity only, but by the exalted Jesus, Son of the living God.  This Jesus is not a figure of the past alone.  He is still present in the midst of the community, not as unseen observer only but with his authority and teaching.”[2]  

I would add that Jesus is still present with his love and compassion, and that these keys of the kin-dom will unlock the power in us to change the world.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Robert H. Smith, The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew, pp.198-199; Augsburg Publishing House, 1989

[2] Ibid, 202-203

A Nation Possessed

Last week was very difficult for me, as it was for a great many of us. I get up early on Sunday mornings, so the very first thing I saw when I turned on my computer at 4 a.m. was the news of the massacre in Orlando. It was still an unfolding story when I saw it; the body count was still being estimated. I confess that I was at a loss as to what to do with that horrible news at that early hour.

For a number of reasons I didn’t mention Orlando in worship that morning. The biggest reason was that I was pretty sure that few, if any, of the people attending would have heard the news yet and I didn’t want such horribly shocking news to cast a pall over worship and especially not over our farewell to two much-loved members who were moving across the country. Also, I needed time to process it before trying to deal with it pastorally and theologically.

By Monday morning Orlando was the stark lens through which I was seeing the whole world. I was filled with a deep sadness tinged by more than a little anger. In an effort to shift gears I clicked over to read a sermon written by my friend and colleague, Pastor Jennie Chrien who serves in Oxnard.   Her sermon was on the same lectionary text I had preached on the day before but she had taken a very different approach from mine. In addressing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-8:3), she had focused on the moment when Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee and says, “Do you see this woman?” From that simple question Jennie had built an eloquent, powerful and moving sermon.

That important question, “Do you see?” wouldn’t leave me alone, jangling up against the ragged wound of Orlando as I turned my attention to the Gospel text for the coming week, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the wild, demon-possessed Gerasene man running naked among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). I was also remembering anew the horror from almost exactly a year before when a crazy young white supremacist murdered 9 African Americans after sitting through Bible study with them.

Do you see? The question still hangs in the air.

As I read the Gospel for the week with all these things echoing in my heart, I realized that we, the good old US of A, we are the demon-possessed man. We are the man made crazy by fears and anxieties and bigotry and scapegoating. We are the man made crazy by blind rage and unreasoned hatreds.

We are the man with a hopelessly divided mind, made bipolar and schizophrenic by a cacophony of opposing inner voices—entrenched political parties with no common ground—conservatives vs. liberals and ne’er the twain shall meet on any common ground of common sense, putting our party identity or our ideology ahead of everything else that’s supposed to define us, making even our faith subservient to our chosen place on the ideological spectrum. We are so blinded by the ideological lenses we wear that we see only what we’ve decided in advance that we want to see. And since our biases rarely completely align with or truly resonate with the Gospel we hear and profess, our cognitive dissonance creates the first degree of our madness.

Do you see? Do you really see?

Oh, we have our moments of clarity but then the rage wells up in us and we explode in violence.

For most of us it’s just a violence of rhetoric and attitude, but it opens the door and for those who would turn it into a horribly tangible violence of death and destruction. Even among the most enlightened among us, our racism or our discomfort with sexualities that are different from our own our anxieties about those other religions—all these things creep out in unguarded words and give permission to the violence that is always waiting to happen. We breed the craziness.

Do you see?

We cloak our prejudices in our religions. We project our own craziness, our own fears and anxieties and hatred onto the most vulnerable and marginalized then drum up a sacred text or two to support our bigotry and give us permission to treat them horribly.We are so blinded by our own interpretation of our religions that we can’t see children of God standing right in front of us.

Do you see? Do you see that more than a little of our craziness comes from being caught in the middle of an epic struggle between love and hate?

Do you see that if you’re not actively and passionately on the side of love then you are at least passively on the side of hate? Do you see that if you are not generating light then you are opening the door to darkness?

Do you see that we are not just the crazy man among the tombs? Do you see that we are also the craven townspeople afraid of our own shadows. We recognize our own craziness and try to lock it up, to bind it with chains but we know, deep down that that’s not going to work.

Do you see that even when God works a miracle and restores one of us to our senses we respond with more anxiety because that is just so different from our usual experience?

Do you see a way out of all this?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Can you see the way Jesus sees? Can you put aside your politics, your ideology, your biases and prejudices, the less savory voices of your childhood, your inclination for self-protection, your fear of the “other,” your anxiety about a constantly changing world—can you put aside your own demons long enough to see the person in front of you?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a prostitute washing his feet but a woman beaten down by the world who has had to make horrible choices in order to survive? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a crazy man running amok among the tombs but a human being bedeviled and enslaved by the legion craziness of the world?

Do you see that in Christ we are all children of God through faith, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male or female, gay or straight or trans or bi, us or them?

Do you see that Jesus is our common ground even with our Muslim brothers and sisters? Yes, we understand Jesus very differently, but he is a central voice in both or our traditions and if we’re ever going to find peace with each other, Jesus, not Abraham, is our most likely common ground.

Do you see? Do you see that we are all going to have to learn to see differently?

No, we can’t afford to be stupid. No we can’t afford to be blind to real threats. But do you see that we are going to have to first recognize and deal with the real threats that arise from our own hearts and minds and souls?

Do you see that we’re going to have to stop listening to all the voices that divide us and pit us against each other? Do you see that we’re going to have to switch off the news channels and radio voices and web feeds and political voices that want to tell us how awful those “others” are, who want to tell us that “they” are not the real “us”?

Do you see that we’re going to have to really listen to Jesus—not the Old Testament—not even Paul, but Jesus—if we’re ever going to be freed from our own demons, our own contagious craziness?

Do you see that we are all of us, each of us, going to have to have at least one “come to Jesus” moment if we’re ever going to be freed from our demons?  Or to put it a more scriptural and Lutheran way, do you see that we are all, each of us, going to have to take off the lenses of our preconceptions and put down our guard long enough so that Jesus can come to us and cast our demons into the sea of God’s love?

Do you see? Can you see? Do you see that love—the love of Christ, the love exemplified and perpetually renewed by Jesus whether you know that’s where it comes from or not, is our only hope of ever being able to sit with each other calmly and in our right minds?

Do you see?

The Penalty For Neglect

Thoughts Along the Way…

For the past 2 years our congregation has been enjoying a Sunday morning Adult Ed class called Occupy the Gospels. It has been an enlightening and stimulating study and discussion that has taken all of us who participated into a deeper level of understanding of why each gospel is so different from the others and just what each of the gospels is all about. We’ve done a close reading of each gospel examining such questions as who was it originally written for, what kinds of stresses and pressures were they dealing with in that community, why does Jesus say things one way in this gospel but differently in another gospel, and so on.

If you’re going to call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, an apprentice of Jesus, it’s important to be deeply familiar with what Jesus said and did. In his tract How Christians Should Regard Moses, Martin Luther suggested that we are not really properly equipped to understand the rest of the Bible unless we first come to a clear understanding of the gospels.

One advantage of doing a close reading together in a group is that very often others will spot things you haven’t seen before or ask questions that hadn’t occurred to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been through the gospels, but in our class together I was frequently seeing new things or seeing them from a different perspective than I had before. And sometimes that new little thing I saw would sit with me for weeks and make me rethink a lot of other things about my faith and my understanding of my faith.

Here’s a case in point. The 25th chapter of Matthew has always been important to me. I’ve even sometimes called myself a “Matthew 25” Christian. This chapter is the only place in the gospels where Jesus, himself, describes the final judgment, where the “sheep” are separated from the “goats,” and the criteria are not at all what a lot of people expect. He doesn’t say a word about what you believe or don’t believe. There is no mention of whether or not you accepted him as your personal Lord and Savior or invited him into your heart or any of those other popular ideas that some people think are the doorway to being “saved.” Nope. Nothing like that at all. No statement of creed. No tally of church attendance. Not a bit of it. Instead, the final exam is all about one thing and one thing only: how well did you take care of people who were in need?

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

A few years ago I realized that the “sheep” in this text, the people who did these good things and are being rewarded and inheriting the kingdom, are quite surprised to find that they are, in fact, the Grand Prize Winners! They didn’t know that by taking care of those in need they were also taking care of Jesus, himself. They just did it because it was the right thing to do.

Rereading this text in our class a few weeks ago, though, I was suddenly hit between the eyes by yet another little epiphany. Words I had read maybe hundreds of times before suddenly hit me in a way I just had not thought of before. And this time it was the flip side of the coin. This time it was the “goats,” who got my attention– you know, the ones who did not feed the hungry or visit the sick or give a drink to the thirsty, the ones who ignored those in need, or worse, went out of their way to do nothing for them.

41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink…

These are the words that hit me like a ton of bricks: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” I confess, I’m not real big on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment. I like to think that God’s grace trumps everything in the end. On the other hand, the punishment motif crops up several times in the Gospel of Matthew, so in this gospel, at least, it is kind of unavoidable. But seeing that the “goats” get punished wasn’t the thing that arrested me. It was that they were being consigned to a punishment prepared for the devil and his angels. In other words, the failure to take care of those in need is not merely a “failure” or sin of oversight. It is something far worse. It is evil. If the punishment is the measure of its severity as a sin, then the failure to care for those in need is demonic.

I think the ramifications of this are huge. Jesus, as I read it here, is saying that any actions on our part that deprive those in need of food, water, clothing, shelter or medical care, actions that deprive the imprisoned of hope and comfort, actions that alienate the stranger– such actions are evil, even demonic; the punishment is the measure of the crime.

At our little congregation, the little church with a big heart, we have much to be proud of in the ways we have fulfilled the positive side of this equation. We have been wonderfully generous in feeding, clothing and providing for those in need. Our benevolence is extraordinary, and I am so proud, as their pastor, of this congregation’s generosity in spirit and in practice. I know and trust that we will keep up the good work that leads us into God’s presence.

But think about those “goats.” As you read the headlines or watch the news, as you watch what our elected officials are voting for or against, what they are funding or not funding, remembering that they do all this in our name as our representatives, think about those “goats.” Think about the final exam as Jesus describes it. Think about how Jesus sees it. Are we on the road to inherit the Kingdom? Or are we stumbling toward that place prepared for the devil and his angels?

Pro Gloria Dei

Pastor Steve