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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Crosses We Bear - 09/03/2017

Peter had said out loud what everyone was really thinking in our Gospel reading last week: that this teacher and miracle worker they had been following all over the place, was the Messiah. Jesus was the Son of the Living God, the anointed one promised by God for generations, to conquer what oppresses the people and chase it off for good. Peter was sure of it.

Peter didn't come to this conclusion just because of the amazing things Jesus did, either. Although on their own, they were quite convincing – like feeding all those people who came to hear him. Peter had seen for himself there were only a few fishes and some loaves in those baskets. He saw Jesus walk on water too, and cast out frightening and powerful demons.

Peter and the others who had somehow found themselves in Jesus' closest circle now had quickly become like a family as they traveled. And all along the way, Jesus had been opening the scriptures to them. He reminded them of where they came from … a people who had to put all their trust in God when they came out of Egypt, and those times in exile too. And God provided. Jesus made them feel like they could do the same thing in the face of the Roman oppression they dealt with every day.

But there was even more that convinced Peter Jesus was the Messiah. It seemed like whenever it came to the prophets, Jesus himself seemed so obviously to be the fulfillment of what those people said was coming. Like when the Prophet Isaiah said “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped ... For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water...” (Isa 35:5-7 paraphrased)

And now here they were in Caesarea Philippi. It felt like they had stepped into the a world built right from those words of Isaiah. But now, Peter was feeling a like there was a fist of iron sitting in his stomach.

They had been traveling along and had stopped for a break at a cool spring. It was the headwaters of the Jordan River, the very river John the Baptist had been standing in when he told people the Messiah was coming. Behind the springs were enormous cliffs of bare rock face. There was an ancient temple and niches carved into the walls. People had been coming there for a long time. The spring and pools around them were supposed to be healing waters and drew people from all over. It was beautiful. Perhaps it was the beauty of the place and the refreshment of the water that lifted their spirits after long days walking through the dry wilderness. Jesus started teaching them again and then he asked Peter and the others “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?... Who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:13,15)

And that's when Peter said it. He knew it was what the others were thinking, even though prior to that moment, they,  like so many others, had only wondered aloud if Jesus was John the Baptist or Jeremiah. “You are the Messiah,” Peter said. “The Son of the Living God.” (Mt 16:16)

Jesus looked at him very seriously then. He gave the disciples the keys to the Kingdom and foretold of the church that would emerge when he was gone, founded in gathered assemblies of people and as solid as a rock.

And he told them they needed to keep quiet about this Messiah business. They did need to keep quiet about this, Peter realized. They were having this discussion in occupied Roman territory. Caesarea Philippi, after all, was where Herod had built a great marble temple in honor of the Roman god Pan and the Romans had discovered the relief of the healing waters here too. Peter became uncomfortable with his outburst about Jesus being the Messiah in this place, maybe even in earshot of one of the Roman soldiers.

And it got more uncomfortable. Jesus started talking about how the Messiah was going to suffer, and likely his followers too. He said he would be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes up at Jerusalem and killed. He said it so matter of factly and it was no joking matter … they were on their way to Jerusalem where all of this could very well take place. It frightened Peter and maybe angered him a bit that Jesus would say this at all, and in this place. The joyful and carefree mood he had been feeling only a few minutes before was spiraling into very deep and scary place.

Peter did not want to go there. He urged Jesus not to talk like this … not even to suggest such horrible things. Jesus snapped at him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Sensing perhaps that his reaction to Peter was a little jarring, Jesus continued to teach the disciples. He told them that this was not an easy choice to follow him. “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?” (Mt 16:24-26)

And then Jesus turned his face like flint toward to Jerusalem.

Why couldn't he just trust it, Peter must have wondered– as the prophet Isaiah did in the scrolls? Why couldn't he set his face like flint and know that he would not be put to shame, that God who vindicates him was near?

Sticking to what he knew in the very deepest part of himself was true, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, would be so hard … maybe impossible in the face of what he was beginning to understand was at the end of this journey to Jerusalem.

We live life forward, but we understand it backward … and then God comes in with promises to surprise us with something new and unexpected.

Up until this point, this sermon may sound familiar to you. That's because it's from a sermon I preached in 2015 just about a month after I came here to Eden. We were in the Gospel of Mark then, so I revised it a bit to reflect Matthew's version of the story.

I had totally forgotten about this sermon and when I listened to it again this week, I found I was actually preaching to myself. We live life forward, but we understand it backward … and then God comes in with promises to surprise us with something new and unexpected.”

I heard words of grace and courage that I really need to remember these days every time I watch or read the news and witness the light and the truth of the Gospel challenging so much of what I find there. I needed to be reminded of this human tendency to understand backwards even as we move forward COUPLED WITH this truth we hold to that God is conspiring for our greatest good at every turn.

And as I've thought about how I respond to that as your pastor, as the person who this community has called to preach and teach and make the sacraments accessible to God's people, I confess to you that I struggle and I'm still trying to figure a lot of things out – I suspect that may always be the case.

So how do I preach and teach and pastor into a world struggling and spiraling into the sin of racism, for instance? What do I say and how do I try to challenge myself and all of you when it comes to our inability, or even our outright refusal, as stewards of God's creation to take climate change seriously? How do speak into a faith community that a little more than two years ago, overwhelmingly expressed a desire for a pastor who would put a lot of energy into youth ministry AND at the same time is is a faith community mired in and beholden to the calendars and expectations of a culture that does not hold religious formation of our youth in very high esteem?

These are big questions for me, because, I tell you, the Gospel is a rich, rich source of preaching and teaching inspiration. I can pretty easily talk only about the glorious ways God has saved us through Jesus Christ, how we have endless forgiveness of our sins, how God comes to us where ever we are in the bread and wine and water and word because God has chosen Grace for us, not death … so don't worry about anything, because we are saved.

It would be far more comfortable, I would worry a lot less about upsetting people if I only talked about that glory and glossed over how we are called in this Grace-filled reality to behave differently out there. So I cannot in good conscience focus only on the glory of the resurrection. As followers of Jesus we are also called to pay close attention to the cross – the one Jesus died on for our sake and the ones we are called to carry in our lives as followers of Jesus– as uncomfortable, inconvenient and difficult as they may be. So in addition to God's glory revealed to us in Jesus ...

We must also talk and pray about and take action on ...

… how we are called in Christ to stand up to racism and prejudices against people of color, women, our LGBTQ siblings, people who practice different religions or no religion at all.

We must also talk and pray about and take action on ...

… how we are called to rise above petty political arguments over climate change and do the hard and sometimes unpopular work of protecting our waters, our air and so much of creation that lives at our mercy.

We must also talk and pray about and take action on ...

… how we encourage and equip parents and grandparents and guardians to nurture our youth in a world that really couldn't give two hoots about the covenant we make with God around that baptismal font? Listen again to what we promise the person baptized as we bring them to receive the gift of baptism:

to live with them among God’s faithful people,
bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in their hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture them in faith and prayer,
so that they may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.

And we must talk and pray about and act on … the reality that this is the cross we bear as a Christian community in a world that continues to try and convince us that the church is dying. It is as uncomfortable and risky for us to be a different voice as it was for Peter to stick with Jesus as he began to understand how this whole Messiah gig was going to play out in Jerusalem.

But we do know how it played out. And so we live freed as we move forward and often still understand things backward, we also live confident that God breaks in with promises to surprise us with something new and unexpected.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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