Proper 17a, September 3, 2017

September 5, 2017

Do What?!!

Matthew 16:21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “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.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 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? 27 “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. 28 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.”


One thing I do that I feel pretty good about is giving blood. It’s not on the level of a heroic thing, but I’m pretty committed to it. I go in about as often as I can and give a pint. I’ve got what one of the Red Cross nurses once described as big juicy veins. It’s easy for them to tap into me and I hardly feel it. It doesn’t take much time, but you’re a captive audience for a while, and some of the phlebotomists like to talk while they’re doing their work. I prefer the quiet ones, but I don’t ignore the talkative ones – you don’t want to annoy the person who’s putting a needle in your arm.


I dropped by the Red Cross Blood Center in Jonesboro late one afternoon not too long ago to donate, and after going through all the preliminaries you have to go through I was laying there on the table with the needle in my arm and my blood flowing in to the bag. That’s the quickest part of the process, and it’s sort of like down time for the technicians. This nurse wasn’t particularly talkative, but to pass the time she asked me if I was getting off work for the day. I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer her. Sometimes I know when I’m working or not, but I’m often in sort of a gray area in regard to being at work. I think I said my work day was about over, and then she asked me what I did.


That’s a question that makes me a little nervous to answer in a situation like that because you can’t get away if need be. As we all know, there are some people with powerful religious convictions about one thing or another, and I like to be able to extract myself from conversations that clearly aren’t going to go well. I was stuck, but I told her I was the pastor of the Newport First United Methodist Church and she responded by telling me that I didn’t look like a minister. It sort of surprised me that she shared her opinion so freely, but I assured her it was true. She wasn’t being critical, and I didn’t take any offense, but I thought it was sort of interesting comment.


I’m not exactly sure what she saw that didn’t look very ministerial. It’s not unusual to see a preacher wearing blue jeans these days, but there was something about the way I looked that didn’t fit her preacher profile. And in all honesty – I’m not sure what a preacher is supposed to look like. Or act like for that matter. Sometimes I think I know, but often I’m sure I don’t know. And in my opinion, anybody that thinks following Jesus is an obvious undertaking isn’t really paying attention. I’m not sure how she could tell by looking at me that I’m not perfectly clear about everything, and that I don’t offer easy answers to what I consider to be a complex undertaking, but she could see something about me that wasn’t normal for a preacher.


Unlike me, I think you could probably tell by looking at Peter that he was a preacher. Peter was a rock solid outspoken advocate. Jesus recognized that about Peter, and Jesus knew that Peter had love for God in his heart. Jesus had just announced that Peter was the keeper of the keys of God’s kingdom on earth. Peter was ready and willing to serve in that position, and he immediately blew it.


The first thing Peter did after Jesus endorsed him as the one the church was to follow was to pull Jesus aside and to tell Jesus that he was wrong about what he intended to do. Peter had a powerful presence. He was the kind of person people would look to and follow, and he also had the capacity to go barreling off in the wrong direction. Jesus told him he was a stumbling block and a spokesman for satan. The rock that was to be the foundation of the church immediately became a stumbling block.


And this is a story that makes me feel better about not being immediately recognizable as a preacher. I’m not saying that it’s best not to be an obvious advocate of Jesus Christ, but I am saying that following Jesus isn’t a sprint – it’s a marathon. You don’t get points for winning the first half of a game – it’s the score at the end that counts. This business of following Jesus isn’t as easy or as obvious as we want it to be. It’s the undertaking of a lifetime.


Jesus didn’t soft-peddle the difficulty of living as his disciple. Jesus was painfully clear about the cost of following him. Although I really don’t think Peter was put off by the sacrifice that discipleship would entail. Peter wasn’t a timid man. I don’t think it was the potential for pain that put him off, I just don’t think Peter trusted the strategy. I believe it was unfathomable to Peter that Jesus was going to save the world by walking in to the hands of his enemies. Peter would easily have gone in to battle for Jesus, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Jesus being killed by his enemies.


And I think we all understand this. The power of brute force is so much easier for us to understand than the power of love. We understand a show of force – we aren’t so quick to understand the power of love.


Now I know we’ve been talking and preaching about Jesus for more than 2000 years now. As much as we talk about Jesus and as popular as the Christian faith has become you would think that the power of love would be all we ever look to, but I think it remains as foreign to us as it was to Peter. We’re still looking to those more tangible forms of power to change our world and to establish God’s kingdom on earth. I’m not surprised that I don’t know what a preacher is supposed to look like – following Jesus often requires us to let go of the very things we think we need and of going in directions that make no sense. If I actually looked like a preacher who fully represented what it means to follow Jesus I would probably look a lot more like John the Baptist than a guy who could blend in anywhere on a casual dress Friday. Following Jesus isn’t a normal thing for average citizens. To follow Jesus is to go down an entirely different path than the one we would normally choose.


Jesus came to offer us the greatest opportunity – this opportunity to abide in the company of God – now and forever! And all we have to do to get it is to be willing to let of everything we’ve ever been inclined to think we need. Or as Jesus put it, 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.


This following Jesus business is tough. It’s a delicate balance. We are to love life, and we are to be willing to let it go. It might be easier if we were to live without any regard for family or community ties, but I don’t believe expected us to disregard our family and community responsibilities. I believe Jesus expected us to be fully engaged in this world – to love this world and all the people that we are fortunate enough to have in our lives – and to love God even more.


It’s not easy to live in this world and have our minds set on divine things, but this is our calling. As surely as Jesus needed to go to Jerusalem, there are times in our lives when we discern between the demands of human things and the path of divine things, but I don’t think this is an instruction for us to engage in a blind form of self-sacrifice. I think Jesus was very clear on why he went to Jerusalem. He didn’t go to Jerusalem because he was tired of dealing with the hassles of this world and he was ready to get it over with. He didn’t go because he had been outwitted by his opponents. He didn’t go because he didn’t want anyone else to get hurt. It seems to me that he went to Jerusalem because the opportunity had arisen for him to fully reveal the extent of God’s love for us, and that is what he came to do. He came to reveal the power of the love of God in the most powerful way possible. This is what he did and we’ve been trying to get our minds around this ever since.


Our calling isn’t to live miserable lives, but to find the richest form of happiness. Jesus’ instruction was for us to be more concerned with our souls than our bodies. Our souls are currently attached to our bodies, and while I don’t think Jesus wanted us to despise any part of this arrangement, I think he wanted us to see that there’s not much life in a body without a nourished soul.


It’s interesting to think about the way in which the recent flooding will affect the lives of the people who have lost so much. I’m guessing there are many people who will come to define their lives by the way they lived before the flood and the way they lived after the flood. Clearly this has been a devastating experience for literally millions of people, but I dare say the loss of so much stuff will result in a whole lot of spiritual gain. I’m guessing this will be an experience that will put a lot of people in touch with what’s truly important. I’m not saying that this flood is a good thing, but I am certain that some good things will come from it. There are some people who are going to find true life because their false lives got washed away.


This isn’t the kind of wisdom that we generally value. We don’t generally make our plans around finding opportunities to give ourselves away, but Jesus wanted us to understand the divine wisdom of sacrifice. One of the recent news accounts I saw on television accounts was of a man who was about to launch his new looking ski boat off a flooded road to go search for people who needed were stranded in their homes. I don’t know how it went for him, but it was touching to see someone who was willing to get their nice new boat all dinged up in order to help somebody. I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t turn out to be the best day he ever spent in that boat.


Of course Jesus doesn’t just want us to look like we know how to serve him. Jesus wants us to actually know what we need to do to find true life and to have the courage to follow him there. It can be frightening to seek the kind of abundant life that Jesus offers, but it’s good to remember that Jesus didn’t just go to Jerusalem to die – he went there because he knew what it means to truly live.


It doesn’t matter what we look like, but it makes a tremendous difference what we act like when opportunities arise for us to reject the petty demands of godless agendas and to give ourselves to those situations that offer abundant life. We don’t always have the wisdom to step in to those spiritually rich situations, but sometimes fifty inches of rain falls in two days, and we find ourselves waist deep in spiritual opportunity. You never know how the path to true life will present itself, but if we will learn to be suspicious of the wisdom of the world and to seek the wisdom of God we will find our way to the highest ground there is.


Thanks be to God.



2 Responses to “Proper 17a, September 3, 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    Thompson, We certainly enjoyed worship and lunch with you. I meant to mention this to you after the service. The thesis of your message reminded me of an old sayin, “what you give, what you keep you lose”.

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