Leaks, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – August 27, 2017

Proper 16

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

 You promise you won’t tell anyone?” is usually the preface of a juicy story. It means someone trusts us, wants to confide in us, thinks we can keep a secret, or at least thinks we will only leak it out to one person at a time.

Secrets are hard to keep. Have you ever kept one for a year, two years, ten years, without telling anyone? Have you ever kept one for an hour? A really good one?

Secrets want to be told. They want to be disclosed and they usually come out eventually. Just watch any detective show and you’ll see that in the end, everybody talks to someone. Or you could just watch the news, as experts ponder “leaks” from government agencies and the meaning of such secrets.

Secrets are like beach balls being held underwater; they want to pop to the surface, they want to be leaked out.

Jesus, at the end of our Gospel lesson, tells the disciples to keep his identity a secret. His conversation with Peter about his identity as the Messiah is deep and profound. Peter’s confession is lauded as a monumental achievement and Peter is granted so, so much authority and power because of this.

And then Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah.

Do you really think they could keep this secret? Could you have kept this secret?

When the first disciples meet Jesus, this is the question on their minds: is he the Messiah? Is this the promised one, the anointed one, the one we have been looking for, generation after generation? They were really asking, “Is there anything to hope for?”

And Jesus showed them there was something to hope for. He showed them in miracle after miracle that he was the Messiah. And here, in Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by Roman and Greek gods, Jesus asks a pointed question.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Opinions abound, in their day and in ours, about who Jesus is. How one answers this question matters a great deal in this text—and we should consider carefully how we answer it. From this story, we can be sure that simply saying what we’ve heard other people say isn’t enough for Jesus. Jesus wants to know what we think; Jesus wants to know who we think he is.

Can we also be struck by the fact that Jesus wants to know what people say about him? He’s not too cool to ask this. Jesus has a real relationship with his disciples and like all good relationships, it’s mutual. There’s a back and forth, a sharing of life. Jesus isn’t polling the whole Judean countryside. He wants to know who his disciples think he is. Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

How does he know this? How do you know this?

Jesus says it’s an awareness, a knowledge that comes directly from God. And there’s power in knowing Jesus is the Messiah. It’s the power to withstand the gates of Hell, to hold the keys to the kingdom, to bind on earth and loose in heaven. In this one small moment of spiritual awakening, Peter gets all the tools he needs for his life’s work.

Maybe that’s all we need here today. Maybe we need the certain knowledge that Jesus is the anointed one, the promised one, and that we have hope. Maybe this will change the world.

So why did he tell his disciples to keep it a secret?

Well, we do know a couple things about how Jesus operated, especially before he went to Jerusalem. He told people to keep quiet his work and identity a number of times. Perhaps he was controlling the timing of his ministry, the timing of his death, and the timing of how he would redeem the world.

We also knows Jesus was not real big on public displays of faith, if a person’s heart was not right. The Pharisees cornered this market. Jesus hated their behavior and called them out on it.

And maybe Jesus is telling the disciples to keep this secret because he is like the Hebrew midwives who lie to Pharaoh, keeping the births of the Hebrew babies secret, so they can save the newborns. Jesus knows that his new and fledgling flock needs to grow stronger before he can depart. He wants to protect them; he protects them with his secrets.

Maybe Jesus is like Moses’ parents, who secretly put him in a basket and launch him out in the river with the faith that God would care for him. By hiding him in the basket, they kept the secret of his life so he could live.

The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship is to be guarded, kept, and only told to the few who can hear it. Jesus’ parables were meant to confuse and confound, to cloud the mind of the proud and disinterested and to give life to those who were seeking hope and life.

And if you’re bold, let’s take this secret just a bit further. Jesus’ pronouncement to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” has often been understood to relate to our Sacrament of Reconciliation. This power to forgive sins that Jesus exercises is scandalous, and he gives this power to his disciples, who carry it to the ends of the earth.

There are secrets disclosed and kept in the confessional. There is the secret sin that is confessed by the penitent. Maybe it’s not a secret, but it usually is. It has usually caused an infection in the soul and it needs to come out. And then there’s the secret of forgiveness. After the absolution, the priest or Christian you’ve confessed to never talks about it again. In fact, the priest never even talks about it with you again. Now that’s a secret.

Maybe the secret of Jesus’ identity is more training in how to exercise the power of binding and loosing, through secrecy, not mass marketing. This secrecy of his anointing is what gives him authenticity.

And this is how we evangelize. We internalize the secret of Jesus’ Messiahship, who he is and what he came to do, to the point where it just comes out like a secret we can’t keep to ourselves. There is an old saying that what we hide, we become. If we hide and conceal evil, we become evil. If we hide good things, especially the good things we do, we become good.

It is worthwhile to ponder this secret, even if we cannot figure out the riddle completely. It is clear from this story that Jesus wants us to contemplate who he is. I wish I knew the answer, but that’s the problem with a secret, don’t you know.

Or, maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows his disciples can’t keep a secret and that they are going to leak his identity all over the Judean hillsides, and fishing villages, and synagogues, and dinner tables. Maybe he knows this about them and this is his strategy for getting his message out, one whisper at a time.

Maybe this is his strategy for us today. Maybe he wants us to leak it out too, one whisper at a time. I dare you to try to keep this secret.

The Rev. Dr. David W. Peters serves as a chaplain in the Army Reserve and as the Associate Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Tex. He is the founder of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship, the author of two books, the father of three sons, and is married to Sarah Bancroft.

 

Download the sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Can you keep a secret?, 11 Pentecost, Proper 16 (A) – 2014

August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138)Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20

Ask a group of people to keep a secret, and you’re looking for trouble. More than likely, somebody will let it out. Especially if the secret is astonishing.

Simon Peter is the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the first to discover that this man he knows so well is the one anointed by God, the Messiah sent to deliver Israel from bondage. Peter says as much when Jesus asks him, point blank, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s answer marks him as the star student, and he receives his reward. Jesus promises to build his church upon the rock foundation of his faith. He gives Peter executive authority; promises to support him. Here Peter stands for the whole church. Jesus entrusts his mission to all who recognize him as the Messiah.

What a glorious development! Now should be the time to call in the media, get out the word, let everybody know that the Messiah has come and is setting up his organization. But it’s not time for press releases, for photo opportunities, for sound bites. Far from it.

Did you notice the ending of today’s gospel? Here it is again: Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Nobody. Not a one. Mum’s the word. Can the publicity. Keep the secret.

Why is Jesus intent on keeping his being the Messiah a secret? Why not let it out? And now that he has admitted who he is, and the disciples all know it, does he really think that this secret can be kept? Won’t it travel from mouth to ear with the speed of novelty? The voices that ask, “Have you heard?” will multiply rapidly across the land.

It’s not just this once that Jesus wants his identity to stay a secret. Repeatedly, throughout the gospels he tries to keep from becoming the talk of whatever town he’s in. Yet when he performs such deeds as healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, when he fulfills the messianic job description, how are people expected to keep his identity to themselves? And why should they? What he does in one community after another is a publicist’s dream. The guy’s got the makings of a star. He’s going to be big, really big.

There’s a name for everything Jesus does in an effort to pass unrecognized for who he is. Students of the Bible call this the Messianic Secret. What’s behind it?

The most convincing explanation is that he does not want to be acknowledged as the Messiah outside his death and resurrection. Only in the light of those events can people begin to recognize what his being the Messiah really means.

If they hear he is the Messiah before he even gets to the cross, they are sure to misunderstand him.

Rather than being a messiah of sacrifice and triumph, they will see him as someone who has come to solve their problems, a Mr. Fix-It from on high.

Rather than recognize him as the one who calls them to their own death and resurrection, the crowds are likely to view him as a messiah sent to pamper their egos, to make their lives comfortable.

Jesus does not want his ministry to be seen in the wrong light. For this reason, he prefers that only his immediate circle know that he is the one God has sent. The opportunity will come later for them to announce that he is the Messiah. That opportunity will come once the crucifixion takes place and he returns from death.

The Messianic Secret helps us understand what goes on in the gospel story, why Jesus sometimes behaves in a way that seems incomprehensible. But the Messianic Secret is more than that, for it has a contemporary application.

People in his own time were ready to misunderstand Jesus because they wanted, indeed expected, a messiah of a different kind to be sent to them from God.

People today are also ready to misunderstand Jesus. We want, we expect, a messiah different from the one sent to us. We expect someone who saves us easily and asks from us nothing much at all. We want a Jesus who doesn’t die, or at least doesn’t expect us to follow him in doing so. While we hope for something easy, what the gospel offers us is a scandal.

What does this scandal involve?

First, we can know God best through this one human being, a single life where the Word becomes flesh. But this particularity is only the start of the scandal.

The gospel goes on to insist that we know him most completely not through the notable events of his life, but by his gruesome dying and his incomprehensible resurrection.

The scandal becomes even greater. His cross and triumph do not adequately reveal him until we become participants in them and accept them as our own. With Jesus, we must die and rise if he is to be our Messiah.

In our time, the Messianic Secret has changed. Once it meant not announcing Jesus as the promised one until his death and resurrection revealed him completely. Now it means not announcing Jesus without the cross and the empty tomb, not announcing him unless we are ready to die and rise together with him.

There are plenty of versions of Jesus abroad in the world today. Once again he has become a star; he is big, really big. Some of these versions are authentic; many of them are not.

What makes a version authentic is not a denominational or cultural label or any other marking likely to set us at ease. What makes a version of Jesus the real thing and not human fantasy is whether it invariably returns us to what is most important, what reveals divine love completely. We can welcome no Jesus without the cross. We can welcome no Jesus who remains dead. We will accept no easy messiah whose hands remain unwounded.

If we are to call ourselves Christians, members of his church, then we will accept the Messiah crucified and risen not only 2,000 years ago, but crucified and risen inside our own life as well. Then, and only then, are we dealing with the real Jesus.

Moreover, we will not keep the Messiah a secret. The world, the one where we spend our days, still waits for him. That world is dying to meet him – through us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

God’s Mission has a Church, Pentecost 10, Proper 16 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Psalm 124 (or Isaiah 51:1-6 and Psalm 138); Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

It is not that God’s Church has a Mission, but that God’s Mission has a Church.

It is Peter’s day – the day he is renamed by Jesus. No longer Simon, but Peter. Which in the New Testament Greek makes for a kind of pun – for the word for “rock” is petra, while Peter is PetrosPetros is petra – the rock, the foundation upon which Jesus builds his church.

We say “builds” because we know His church is still under construction in so many ways. The church is always growing, changing, under construction, searching for new, more nimble, more creative, more flexible ways of being God’s people. Each time a new member is added to our rolls, each time a person is baptized, we must be prepared to be called to new and different ways to “do all in our power to support one another in our life in Christ.”

A life which Saint Paul asserts is quite different than that of the world around us. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul does not envision a people focused only on our own lives. We are those people who trust that being in the right places at the right times – the places where God promises to be – God will transform. Our hope is not that our resolve will hold, but that God’s resolve will hold.

Consider the book The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages by Joan Chittester, of the Order of Saint Benedict. Benedict lived a long time ago – just some 400 years or so after God in Christ walked this earth as Jesus. He tried to get away from the world – a world of Empire marked by power, wealth, violence, aggression. He tried to live in a cave, but others heard of his special gifts in finding a way to live with God so that he was coerced to join and lead a community of like-minded followers of Jesus. Benedict encouraged a disciplined approach to community life, work, study, and prayer. Some thought his methods too difficult and tried to poison his wine. Benedict was onto it, made the sign of the cross over the jug of wine, smashed it on the ground, forgave them for what they had done, and moved on to found a number of monasteries.

Benedict eventually put his ideas about how to know God down on paper, The Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with the words, “Listen carefully, my child, to my instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” After just a few moments of reading Benedict’s Rule and Sister Joan’s reflections upon The Rule one feels that she or he had time-traveled back to that cave on the cliffs overlooking Anio to listen to the voice of a fellow traveler whose wisdom draws one closer to a place where God can have at us and transform us.

It is like bird watching – although bird “watching” is something of a misnomer. Watching and looking is not the primary skill necessary for seeing birds; but rather, listening is what leads the eyes to see that solitary magnolia warbler or indigo bunting. Bird watching is an apt metaphor for the spiritual life as Benedict imagines it: listen carefully with the ear of your heart, and God stands ready to show you the way.

Another book offers further insights into a life with God: Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love. It is a book that also has its origins in Italy, and it takes a look at how the architecture of a particular church, Saint Agnes’ Outside the Wall, expresses the very essence of what it means to join with Peter and say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It examines every detail of what makes a church, a church – a living expression of God’s will – what is good, what is acceptable, what is perfect. Visser explores how the center aisle invites one to understand the Christian faith as a journey, a pilgrim journey from the world outside in to the sanctuary of the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. We move closer and closer to the Tabernacle of the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus, God incarnate.

And she writes of how it is a church, not just a pile of rocks by the side of the road, but a living reminder returning us to those times and places where we met God along the way – those mystical, privileged experiences of the Holy. She is careful to distinguish that a church is not so much meant to induce such moments of epiphany as to acknowledge the experiences its visitors have had. It is a collective memory of such spiritual insights and mystical moments.

And with the obvious signs of the cross, crucifix, and Stations of the Cross, we are reminded that in order to live, we must die to self – choose the transcendent over the immediate present. The call to follow the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a call to look outward toward others and toward God. Only then can we know what it means to be fully alive. It is not that God’s Church has a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. And we are that Church, the Body of Christ.

The church in bricks and stone and wood and glass tells this story and invites all who would be Christians to continue this story, so at the end of the day we are sent away: Ite missa est – “Go, you are sent!” From which we get the word “mass”: to turn our lives toward others and toward God. To complete the work we begin in here, in actual fact we must return to the world beyond our doors. We are to live with other people and love them, just as we are to live with God and be loved by God. God’s Mission has a Church.

In another time and another place, Charles Moody wrote a song, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” that seems, due to recent events, to be more relevant today than ever:

Out on the perilous deep
Where danger silently creeps
And storms so violently sweep
You’re drifting too far from the shore

Drifting too far from the shore
You’re drifting too far from the peaceful shore
Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way
You’re drifting too far from the shore

It is all meant – Benedict’s Order, Paul’s Letters, this church, the gospels, Moody’s song – to make us ask ourselves: Are we willing to continue God’s story, be transformed by that story, and so become active participants in God’s transformation of the world in Christ Jesus?

Or have we drifted too far from the shore?

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and he may be reached at kkub@aol.com.

We are a people, Pentecost 15, Proper 16 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

At various points in our lives we need to “step up to the plate.” As scary as some of these times have been, they usually have been moments that have initiated some transitions in our lives and offered us the opportunity to drawn upon the memories of our early years.

The lessons for today lead us to renewed discoveries: the importance of stepping up to the plate; the persistence of God in furthering God’s intentions and mission; and the incredible opportunity that even you and I might have to touch, carry, and share that which is very sacred.

In ancient Egypt, the Hebrew population was flourishing even as they were struggling under oppression. The Pharaoh wanted their numbers to decrease, so he tried to kill off young Hebrew males by drowning them in the Nile River. Moses was set in a basket (the same name used for Noah’s ark) by his mother and cared for in the early journey by his older sister. Eventually he was discovered by the daughter of the Pharaoh, and we know the rest of the story.

Out of the most unlikely beginnings, a small vessel of God’s grace was saved to do God’s bidding. The women of the story – the mother and sister of Moses, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the midwives who earlier refused to participate in Pharaoh’s terrible scheme – all become for us beacons. They are carriers of the sacred, and people who stepped up to the plate to make possible an emergence of a scared story that was to define Old Testament history and the foundations of our Hebrew scriptures. It was part of larger pivotal event in the life of the Hebrew people and in our religious heritage.

In Matthew, we hear again Peter’s confession, which became for him and for the disciples an invitation to carry an awesome responsibility of furthering God’s mission of reconciliation. Peter’s confession is preceded by a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Answers come readily. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” It is easy to say what we have heard others say.

But another question appears: “But who do you say that I am?” The disciples are asked to step up to the plate. And so are you and I.

In Romans, we encounter familiar words: all have been given differing gifts through God’s grace that are to be used for the welfare of the entire community. No one can claim that his or her gifts are more important. All are important for wholeness and holiness.

So what do we do with these stories? In what ways do they affect us? Are they only part of our lore or are they alive in some new ways in our hearing? Which ones stand out to us? Which ones especially challenge us? Do we see ourselves as ones who stand for the little ones of life, or are we drawn to step forward to proclaim new life and possibilities? Is ours the quiet loving care of a sibling or the incredible angst of a mother who wants desperately to hold on to her child and yet let that child go? Do we believe that we have gifts? And are those gifts available for others? Do we as a parish community help one another discover our giftedness and welcome them when discovered? When asked the question asked of the disciples – “Who do you say that I am?” – what will we say?

Today’s lessons begin with a horrific history, the slaying of young children, and a sacred, nurturing history of the caring for a little baby; and today’s lessons end by asking adults to answer important questions and to take responsibility. As such, the lessons imitate life as we know it. There can be no greater work than the care of young children. We know that by the age of six, children have formed many aspects of their personalities and have a history of either being loved or not being loved, experiencing security or insecurity, feeling treasured as sacred vessels or feeling abused as ones of little worth. And they will deal with all of these feelings for the rest of their lives.

A priest in Pennsylvania and team from his parish regularly went into Graterford Prison for over 10 years, and what they discovered were men who were in the main abused as children and who had often abused others, continuing the circle of violence. Our work in the midst of the abuse and neglect of children today is to be a people who care, nourish, and protect them. There is no greater work. We start out with our own families and as community who gathers here at this congregation. Our future is determined in part by how we welcome and treasure the young ones in our midst.

Today’s lessons end by asking the rest of us, the adults, to step up to the plate of taking responsibility for living out the answer to the question: “But who do you say that I am?”

This is not easy to answer, for behind our responses we have our own histories, our own working through all of those messages from our own childhood, our own disappointments and failures, our own physical and emotional pains, our own experiences of loneliness or feeling of little worth. We come to this place from the contexts of our living, a place one might call “tall grass.” In this tall grass, we are buffeted by many things, some which we cannot see. Life is complex and full. Sometimes the tall grass becomes a haven where we can hide out. Sometimes it is a maize where we don’t know where we are going or who is around us. At other times we like to smell its uniqueness and at other times we feel choked by its overbearing sameness. Life is full in all of its complexities, and we bring all those complexities here at this moment in this place.

So we are a people of the context.

We are also a people of the gathering.

We are here together. And in our gatherings we have a sense of who is around us, and in this reality we have a choice: do we circle the wagons or do we create circles of trust? Our work as a parish community, without being intrusive in others’ lives, can be a place where we can start again and feel that here is a community that values me as a treasured earthen vessel of worth and significance. This can make all the difference in people’s lives. It can be a place where we can be loved in healthy, life-giving ways, and where we are fed not only by bread and wine but also by a people, who, sharing our human journeys and our human condition, are willing to not just to talk the talk but walk the walk with us in our journeys in daily living.

We are a people of the table.

To engage in this most special walk, we present ourselves, at God’s invitation, before the holy table to receive what the world might see as a small gift – a morsel of bread and a drop of wine – but which we know is the gift of life. It, too, is a reminder that doing something that may seem small and insignificant can make all the difference. Who would have known that putting that baby in a basket and setting him upon the water under the watchful eye of his sister would change the course of history? It is from the table – holy table, tables of conversation, tables where other meals are shared, tables/platforms where other interactions take place– that we know most fully that our journeys are inextricably connected to others’ journeys.

We are a people of the dismissal.

We are called from the table to return to the complexities of life, to the tall grass. This is where most of our life is lived in all of its fullness, struggle, sorrow, and celebration. It is from the tall grass that a basket was made for a baby that changed the course of history. It is the tall grass that the disciples were beckoned from the Mount of Transfiguration. It is where death and resurrection happens most frequently.

So what are we to do or say when we hear the words “But who do you say that I am?”

In the midst of our fears and hesitation, it is the stepping out in faith and being alive and present to ourselves and to others, the world around us, and to God’s reconciling love breaking into the world in often small, seemingly insignificant ways that is the source of our future hope and promise. So with courage and hopefulness, with our pain and struggles, with our joys and celebrations, we dare come again to the holy table and to a special presence with each other in prayer.

Who would know that as a result of our coming here we and the world around us will never be quite the same again? Be on the alert, for God’s spirit is dwelling in our midst!

Written by the Rev. Bud Holland
As the program officer for Ordained Leadership and Ministry Development at the Episcopal Church Center, the Rev. Melford “Bud” Holland is involved in a number of initiatives related to education, lifelong learning, leadership, and ministry development. He has also previously served in congregations and other diocesan positions. E-mail: bholland@episcopalchurch.org.