The following sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin, on September 3, 2017, is built around the readings for Proper 17 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
This sermon was preached from the center aisle without notes. The following transcript is a slightly edited version of this recording:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
This is one of those terrifying moments for preachers, one of those days when at 3 o’clock in the morning your eyes slam open and you realize you’ve been writing the wrong sermon all week. So this may be a little rough, but I hope that you’ll be willing to dance with me a little bit today as we work this through.
Just last Sunday in our Gospel reading, in fact it’s just the verses immediately preceding the verses we read from Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter finally says it. “You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.” And Jesus says to him you are the rock upon which I will build my church. Today Jesus says to Peter “Get behind me Satan you are a stumbling block to me.”
From rock to stumbling block, that’s quite a fall from grace. We know that Peter wasn’t expecting a Messiah who would die on the cross and so Jesus’s words have shocked him, and upset him deeply. I’ll tell you that I spent most of this week trying to figure out how to exonerate Peter in some way for his response. It wasn’t until 3 o’clock this morning that it started to fall into place for me.
Peter was a person trapped by his own context, by the narrative in which he lived, and moved, and had his being. In that narrative your armies come and conqueror mine, and then come and enslave and deport my people. You oppress my religious liberties. You tax me to the point of starvation. And I suffer under this oppressive rule until somehow, I can raise a stronger army than yours, and can fight back and inflict upon you the same damage that you have inflicted on me. It is what biblical scholar Charles Hefling refers to as the Cycle of Retributive Violence and Peter was locked into that narrative, that mentality. He was expecting the Messiah to come as a warrior king who would defeat the armies of Rome, chase them from his homeland, and reestablish the people of Israel in their rightful place, there in the land that God had promised them.
So when Jesus, the person whom Peter has now confessed to be the Messiah, exhibits this vulnerability, what Peter sees to be weakness, and says that he is about to die on the cross, Peter has no frame of reference to help him understand or interpret those words. He doesn’t, he can’t even begin to conceive of how this might work out.
Some 20 years later Paul is writing his letter to the Romans and he gives us some explication of Jesus’s statement that he is about to be crucified and raised, and that we, we must take up his cross and follow him. Paul says, “If your enemies are hungry feed them. If they are thirsty give them something to drink. For by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
By allowing himself to be crucified at our hands Jesus steps into that cycle of retributive violence, refusing to repay evil for evil, but repaying evil only with good, and breaks the never-ending cycle that keeps us bound to conflict, pain, and suffering.
So Jesus is, in this moment, asking us to step outside of the narrative that defines us, to expand and broaden our imagination, and to see something bigger than what we are prone to see.
And I do mean prone to see. It doesn’t take much to find that that narrative of retributive violence is still prevalent maybe even at times the dominant narrative in our culture and society. For me to win you have to lose. And for me to win I am entitled to diminish, demonize, and destroy you. If you disagree with me then you’re not just wrong, but there’s something wrong with you. And if I am to get what I want and need then I must take it from you. That narrative still rings loudly in our ears.
Paul is working some 20 years after Jesus’s resurrection to help blow open that narrative and get us to think and imagine in another way, and in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus, Jesus stands there telling us he will die on our behalf to rescue us from this cycle of violence, and begging us to heed his example and walk with him.
Paul says by feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink when they are thirsty we will be “heaping burning coals on their heads,” and I have to tell you that line always makes me giggle just a little bit. It’s like he’s stepping outside of the narrative he’s trying to teach and succumbing to that other narrative for just a moment.
But I think what’s really happening here is telling us that if we can change that narrative others will be changed by us. If we can love our enemies, if we can show them compassion and kindness, then it will work its grace upon them and they will be changed as well. And this I think points to another shortcoming in Peter’s imagination and his ability to find a different narrative. You see Peter thought that the Messiah would come to liberate, to rescue, to save the people of Israel. And in his imagination, and in the narrative in which he operated, that meant that the people of Rome would have to be enslaved or defeated or beaten down. What Peter couldn’t imagine was that the Messiah was coming to liberate, to save, all people. All people.
And so as long as there are winners and losers, as long as there is us and them, as long as it’s a zero-sum game, that old narrative is still in control.
I didn’t read the collect that’s appointed for this Sunday this morning I read instead the collect for Labor Day and I think it really works in our context this morning. “O God you have so bound us one to another, that all we do affects for good or ill, all other people. We are one body. And when any member of that body hurts or suffers… we all heard or suffer, even if we are inclined to think of that member as “them” or as “other.”
Jesus uses very extreme language when he’s talking to his disciples this morning, talking to us. He says if you want to save your life you must lose it. And those who want to keep their life will have it taken from them. Jesus is the only one who has to die on the cross to break this cycle of retributive violence, to shift to the narrative in a way that is life-giving instead of life stealing. But I think these words point to the difficulty in following this other narrative. Because sometimes the retribution we seek, the restitution that we seek, seems just. It seems due us. It would seem to us, by our way of thinking, that it is right to take vengeance upon those who have hurt us.
Jesus tells us pretty clearly this morning that that’s not ours to take; that we are to love our enemies, to feed them, to give them water when they are thirsty; by our love to urge their conversion, and their stepping out of that narrative that binds us all to pain and suffering.
So here’s the question that we need to confront this morning. Why is it that that old narrative is still so prevalent still so dominant? Is it because we have been shy about proclaiming the narrative that has Jesus incarnate, living among us, crucified and resurrected as its core. Have we been reluctant to name the truth that we know, and that is that we are all one people. Or is it that we are afraid? Because to follow in Jesus’s path requires vulnerability. It requires a willingness to feel pain. It requires a willingness to let go of some things that we believe might be ours or due us so that others might share in them, and have them for their own.
Jesus stands here this morning telling us that he is prepared to die to set us free. And he asks in turn what we are willing to give up, to let go, and to do, so that we all my experience that same joy and freedom.