Pivoting, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – September 3, 2017

Proper 17

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45cl; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Prudence Crandall may sound like the name of a character in a Jane Austen novel, but she was a real-life force of nature in 19th century New England. Crandall started a boarding school for girls in Canterbury, Connecticut, impassioned to raise educated women. One day, she received an application from a young African American girl named Sarah Harris. Crandall admitted Harris, creating the first integrated classroom in the United States.

As Crandall accepted more and more students of color into her school, more and more white parents pulled their children out. Local merchants refused to do business with the African American students, and the townspeople ostracized them and plotted to pass laws that made their education difficult or impossible. Vandals even set the school on fire, which prompted Crandall to close, for fears that the children’s lives would be in danger. We remember Crandall in early September as one through whom God worked for the sake of bringing forth justice in our world.

We look on these moments in history with a sense of clarity—we believe that Crandall was inspired by God in her resolute will to teach girls of every color and race, and we believe that, if we were to find ourselves in her position, we would do the same thing. The problem with this line of thinking is that it often takes Crandall’s agency out of the mix and assumes that the path she took was the obvious one, that she had no internal conflict about what educating her girls might cost, and that perhaps a famous composer provided her a triumphant soundtrack to reassure her along the way. Most of us have discovered by now that life does not play out like a Hollywood film.

God does not often appear to us in burning bushes as She did with Moses—although Jesus comes close every now and then on pieces of toast, potato chips, and in cups of coffee.

When God appears to Moses, Moses has had quite a life. Born to a Hebrew woman, he was left in a river for his own protection, and the Pharaoh’s daughter found him and eventually took him as her son. As he grew, he became increasingly disturbed by the way the Egyptians treated the Hebrews. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Hebrews; Moses intervened and killed the Egyptian. For fear that he would be punished for what he had done on behalf of a Hebrew, he fled and found a new tribe, a new family.

One day Moses is going about his business, keeping his father-in-law’s flock of sheep, and the angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a flaming bush. Moses leaves the path he is walking to explore the phenomenon, and he finds himself on holy ground. He encounters God in this place off the path, and God reminds him of the people he left behind. “I have observed their misery,” God says. “I have heard their cry…indeed, I know their sufferings…and I have come to deliver them from the Egyptians.”

Until this moment, and for a while after this moment, Moses was not a radical. When he killed the Egyptian slave master, it was not a well-calculated, pre-meditated, politically-motivated demonstration. He was not protesting the pharaoh, as far as we know. Yet something stirred within Moses, even while his life was about blending in and surviving; the stirring within him led him to deviate from his path to go where God seemed to be calling him. God met Moses in the midst of his internal conflict and called him to follow a different pathway.

The disciples had a similar encounter with God in Jesus. At some point in their years together, Jesus starts to reveal that he expects to undergo some significant suffering at the hands of the powers that be. He shares that he expects to be killed. His disciples probably react in some of the ways you might expect, but it is Peter who pulls Jesus to the side and rejects these grim predictions. Immediately Jesus rejects Peter’s resistance to reality. “Get behind me, Satan!”

“Join the path on which I am walking,” Jesus seems to say. “Lose the preoccupation with the way you wanted or expected things to be, and get on board with reality!” Sometimes we need to hear the same message, and often it needs to feel like a slap across the face to be effective.

During the opening Eucharist of the 2017 Episcopal Youth Event (EYE) Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached a barn-burner. During the sermon, Bishop Curry bounced around the stage in his typical fashion, splashed water from the font all over a crowd of exuberant teenagers, and repeated a phrase that will forever be engraved on the minds of all 1,500 people in attendance: “If you want to change the world, follow Jesus.”

Indeed, following Jesus has, does, and will continue to lead us on a path of personal and communal transformation. It is not, however, we who change the world, but rather God in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who changes us.

God sneaks into our inner life and pivots our consciousness. God calls us out of our routines to notice the plight that weighs heavy on God’s heart, and the more we follow Jesus, the more we read the gospels, and the more we pray and meditate on Jesus’ life, the more we will encounter those in need. Not only that, the more we seek God, the more God will lead us to face our enemies, face our fears, and face the challenge of risking everything for Jesus’ sake.

This is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go to the place we would not normally go, to follow a path that leads to the outsider, and to seek an encounter with the Living God. When we follow that path, we often find ourselves in intimidating circumstances, but God is with us, and where we find ourselves is on holy ground.

The Reverend Curtis Farr is the Associate Rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. Match strikes flint for Curtis in the pulpit, where he approaches Scripture playfully, seeking to inspire greater participation in God’s mission of reconciliation. Curtis is from the Pacific Northwest and loves hiking in the woods or kayaking on a secluded river. He can often be found impersonating Neil Diamond at your local karaoke bar.

Download the sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

The paradox of faith, 12 Pentecost, Proper 17 (A) – 2014

August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

[NOTE TO READER: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is pronounced “EH-hyah ah-SHARE EH-hyah”]

“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

These words from today’s reading from Matthew are Peter’s impulsive response to the devastating news that Jesus – his friend, healer and teacher, beloved and more than beloved, his divine Lord and savior – would suffer. Must suffer, be killed and be raised.

Peter, like most of us, reacts to the fact of suffering with fear and denial.

Jesus famously replies: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter has reacted out of fear of suffering and loss in the short term, in a human reckoning of time. He has focused on the fact that Jesus must suffer and be killed. Jesus continues:

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“It” refers to eternal life. A great and glorious future. Jesus instructs Peter to focus on divine things, the promise that his Lord will be raised and in the last day, we shall all be raised.

In fact, Peter knows this. Just prior to the conversation in today’s passage, in Matthew 16:16, in answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus has complimented him on his great faith and offered him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter has just demonstrated one of the paradoxes of being a faithful and human Christian. We believe that suffering will be vanquished for all time, “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.”

At the same time, we live in the world and are committed to alleviating suffering where and as we can. Indeed, Jesus is our model in the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, blessing the dying, loving God and our neighbor. It seems that we are to set our minds on both human and divine matters. Jesus is, after all, in his incarnation the point where the reality of God enters the reality of this world. Where human and divine purpose are united.

In today’s reading from Exodus we have another moment where Holy Mystery meets the reality of this world. God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks, going about his daily business. The reality of the world, suffering and hard work, is in the forefront.

By appearing in a bush that blazes but is not consumed, God reminds Moses of the Holy Mystery of the divine. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” he commands Moses. The first response of the human to the divine encounter must be reverence. As God makes clear in this passage, reverence is to be followed by action. Moses’ given task is to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage.

In the passage from Exodus there is a magnificent linguistic device that juxtaposes the imperative of the now, Moses’ task of leading his people away from suffering, with the great mystery of eternity. Moses asks God for a name, so that he can tell the Israelites who sent him. “I am who I am,” says God. The Hebrew Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is an impressively God-like answer, for in Hebrew grammar there is no verb tense. Rather the placement of the personal preposition indicates whether the action has concluded or not. Ehyeh asher Ehyeh can be interpreted as both “I am who I am” and “I shall be who I shall be.” God is now and God is eternal. By calling on God’s great name, we acknowledge that we live simultaneously in the moment and for all eternity.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. In today’s passage, Paul gives instructions to the community in Rome for living a faithful life. When Paul speaks of rejoicing in hope, he is speaking of a truly biblical hope for the awaited day when the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of God and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Be patient in suffering because on that day suffering will cease. Persevere in prayer because this is the reverent response to the divine. Prayer that leads always to action: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Serve the Lord with vigor, ardor and zeal. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

And do it now. Jesus reminds us that we do not have much time.

“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.”

In the early Christian communities to whom Matthew and Paul wrote, there was a strong sense that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. The familiar blessing paraphrased from the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frédéric Amiel synthesizes Jesus’ admonition and Paul’s advice: Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this journey with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind.

Jesus, in revealing that the messianic era is imminent, also explains how the disciples are to live in the intervening time: They are to live with the paradox of faith. One of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that the Messiah must suffer and die before he is raised to eternal life. This paradox makes a concrete statement of the Christological idea that Jesus is the embodiment of both the reality of the divine and the reality of this world. Jesus even issues his instructions to the disciples in the form of a paradox: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We are to live the way of the great “I Am” and the glorious “I shall be.” We are to live a life of reverent prayer and a life of faithful action. We are to live as if we have not much time and as if we have all the time in the world.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, as he faced suffering with great faith:

“What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”

This is the divine way. It is also the human way. This is the mystery and the paradox of faith.

 

— Susan Butterworth is a candidate for a Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she is working on a special competency in Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies.

Let my people go, Pentecost 11 – Proper 17 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c (or Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Psalm 26:1-8); Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

It is a hard job being religious. Perhaps we feel this the more when we compare our lives with those of the saints. Of course we have our excuses. The world was less complicated in their days. People had time to pray seven times a day, like the psalmist. We move from that excuse to a second: saints are people who don’t struggle with our temptations. A saint hears God say “go,” and she goes. Perhaps, we think, even today there are special people who just seem to find the Christian Life natural. They get excited about church, and even sermons! They attend Bible study and spirituality groups, work in the kitchen when the poor are fed, and subscribe to worthy causes.

These understandings or misunderstandings sell short our capacity to serve God. They limit us. So we come to church fairly often, put in a pledge, mutter a few familiar night-time prayers, and only occasionally feel a tug of conscience that perhaps God wants more of us. Like someone who never gets further than “Chopsticks” on the piano because there are pianists who bring an audience to its feet; like someone who doesn’t catch very well and so gives up because of the athletes seen at the ball game, we largely give up. And after all, clergy have been telling us for years that God gives unconditional love. So perhaps when we die we will be in the school for backward believers, but after all, that’s where we have always been.

The lessons today bring us face to face with two saints, Moses and Peter. Both were called to lead the church in the worst of circumstances and both succeeded. There we go again! How can we compare with these giants? But look more closely.

Moses is on the run and has found a home in the tent of a wandering shepherd, a Bedouin, and after being brought up in the King of Egypt’s palace, waited on hand and foot, he is now reduced to the role of assistant shepherd. He has killed an abusive Egyptian official and is on the run. How about that for downward mobility? What was his self esteem like?

Suddenly a bush seems to burst into flames, and Moses hears a voice, the voice of the God of his tribe, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great Patriarchs. The voice tells Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue the Jewish people, the Old Testament church. Well, you may be thinking, Moses did just that. He was special, different, unlike me. Look more closely. Moses argues with the Voice. In the portion of the story we heard today, Moses basically said that he had no talent or authority to rescue the Jewish people. “Who shall I say sent me?” he asks. God then reveals to Moses his true nature. The Voice said, “I am.” The Voice didn’t say I was, or I will be, but ever present in the “now” of every life and every generation. That Holy Name, which no devout Jew may utter, Yahweh, says to Moses, “Get on with it. This isn’t going to depend on your abilities or talents. It is going to depend on your keeping trust with me, because I am always ever present with you.” And so Moses obeys and goes back into danger, danger of being arrested and executed.

Now let’s look at the gospel. Jesus asks his friends what the gossip is about him. Who do people think he is or what do they think he is? Peter, whose tongue was always ahead of his courage, blurts out, “You are the anointed King, the Son of the Living God.” The story continues today, as you have just heard. Jesus says that Peter is right and that the way forward now is to Jerusalem, to danger and death. Peter argues with Jesus. “God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.” Jesus calls his friend “Satan,” the deceiver, because poor Peter is thinking in human terms, thinking about danger and death rather than trusting in God, whose Son, according to Peter, Jesus is.

Jesus then turns his eyes to us, for this account by Matthew was first heard by a group of Jewish converts to Christianity, disowned by their former friends and persecuted as Jews and Christians by the Romans. Matthew talks to the church, in whatever state it finds itself. He lets his listeners hear Jesus’ voice: Listen.

“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.”

The church, you and me, is offered no easy path to success. Doing right by God doesn’t depend on any special spiritual talent. Cross-bearing levels everyone, whatever their education, class, economic status, or religiosity. And God through Jesus is saying to us through these lessons, “Let my people go.” Moses rescued the people through God’s covenant, or agreement. Peter rescued the infant church through the new Covenant of the Cross. Jesus tells us that we are called to be outside our buildings, called into danger, even if that danger is no more than the mockery of friends. We are called to walk through the Cross into a new life, one to be shared, one sustainable despite our arguments with God, because God is “I am,” the ever present help at all times and in all places. We were not meant to attempt the life of religion alone. Religion in us becomes possible when we trust God and trust each other enough to be the church. God wants to do great things through the cross-bearing church. He wants us to see that being holy is all about freeing ourselves and freeing others from sin, oppression, and death. Do you trust him enough to be that?

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Father Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

Unless, Pentecost 16, Proper 17 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; or Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Last Sunday’s gospel was really fun – Peter’s answering for the disciples that Jesus is much more than people were saying he was – that he was the Messiah. Fun because Jesus affirmed them and even told Peter he was a rock on which he would build the church. Fun for us, because we can hear that story and also feel affirmed as part of that church that exists as the very body of Christ.

Today, though, it’s not so fun. Today we hear Jesus telling Peter and the disciples the sacrificial cost of what he must do to carry out God’s will for all people – and the sacrificial cost of what they must do as the body of Christ.

Jesus said, “You are right in saying I am the Messiah, but since I am, I must go up to Jerusalem where I will suffer much and be rejected by the religious leaders. There I will be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Typically, Peter took the initiative again, speaking for the disciples: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

In a sense Peter is boasting, “We will protect you. We will see that you are accepted and not rejected. We will never let you die.” Peter did not want for his leader to experience pain, unpleasantness, suffering, rejection, death. This did not fit the disciples’ idea of what it meant for their leader to be the Messiah.

Hearing this, Jesus became so angry that he took Peter to task and said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” Frustrated, Jesus was saying, “Peter, once more you do not understand what is going on. You are the one I am most counting on to provide leadership when I am gone. I need for you, above all, to understand, and you still don’t know what God truly intends for his Christ and for you.”

Though Peter replied, “Oh, no, Lord, not you,” perhaps he was also saying, “Oh, no, Lord, not me!” It is easy for us to imagine that Peter knew that Jesus’ rebuke meant the same thing for himself and that he did not want to experience pain, unpleasantness, rejection, suffering, death.

We can imagine that it was natural for Peter to feel this way because we also tend to say “Oh, no, Lord, not me!” We do not want to experience pain, unpleasantness, rejection, suffering, death.

Wouldn’t we rather forget what Jesus had to go through? Wouldn’t we rather remember Christmas and Easter and forget Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Wouldn’t we rather focus only on the pleasant side of the story?

With God, though, it had to be the other way. For through his life, suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection, Jesus saves us by showing us the way to a life of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace – given with no conditions, no strings attached. God provides for us the chance to live a life with a full range of the possibilities potentially present in everyone.

Jesus saves us by his death, by overcoming once and for all the power of sin. Sin no longer can have a death grip over us because Christ makes it clear that God will forgive the sin that we confess and from which we repent in the sincere desire to renew our lives. And because Christ makes us realize that we are the most precious in creation – even worth dying for.

Christ’s death and resurrection give us the hope and purpose to go on in life despite the difficulties or tragedies that may befall us. Jesus laid this out to Peter in telling him, “Let me do what I must do.” He did this by calling all his followers together to tell them once more in the clearest possible terms what was at stake for the world and what he was calling them to do. To truly follow him, they had to follow him all the way to Jerusalem. They had to deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow him.

This is Christ’s call to us, as well. To deny ourselves is to put aside thoughts of our own needs, forgetting ourselves, so that we may remember and care for others. Taking up our crosses is to be ready to endure the worst that may happen to us for being true to God and the values of God.

The Good News of today’s gospel is that being a Christian is not always easy, but it is always life-giving and meaningful. The Good News of today’s gospel is that we have the resources to give up or take on whatever we must for the sake of God. We can make the necessary sacrifices – the offering and giving of ourselves so that God’s work may be done.

The Good News of today’s gospel is that we have the resources to take up our own crosses. We can give ourselves away, not hording our resources, knowing that God gave us life not to keep it but to spend for the sake of God and God’s children. We can take up our crosses to follow Jesus by giving our time, our talents, and our treasure for God’s uses.

The Good News of today’s gospel is being truly faithful to traveling our own hills of Calvary, following Jesus’ steps, doing our utmost to live in his example, striving everyday to do what he would do in our particular situation.

The Good News of today’s gospel is also what Jesus tells us about the result of all this. He asks us to consider the reality that “those who want to save their life will lose it.” What profit is there in having worldly riches but lose spiritual life? But he adds, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It does not get much plainer than that.

We may sacrifice honor and honesty for profit and self. We may sacrifice principle and Christian values for popularity. We may sacrifice the values of God for the riches of the world. We may do all these things, but today Jesus makes us consider what such behavior will ultimately gain us. His assurance and his example make it clear that all it gains us in the end is a self-imposed exile from the greatest possible thing in life: God himself and God’s realm.

Unless. Unless we sacrifice ourselves to advance God’s purposes. Unless we seek to be one with Christ. Unless we first deny our selfishness and pick up the particular crosses God calls us to bear. Unless we follow Jesus on his journey, surrounded by God. Unless we join the faithful members of the body of Christ in heeding the Good News that is today’s gospel.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.