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Sermon for 31 August 2014

FIRST READING Jeremiah 15:15–21

15 O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult. 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. 17 I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. 18 Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail. 19 Therefore thus says the LORD:
If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. 20 And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the LORD. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.

PSALM Psalm 26:1–12

1 Give judgment for me, O LORD, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the LORD and | have not faltered. 2 Test me, O LORD, and try me; examine my heart and my mind. 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you. 4 I have not sat with the worthless, nor do I consort with the deceitful. 5 I have hated the company of evildoers; I will not sit down with the wicked.
6 I will wash my hands in innocence, O LORD, that I may go in procession round your altar, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds. 8 LORD, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides. 9 Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with those who thirst for blood, 10 whose hands are full of evil plots, and their right hands full of bribes. 11 As for me, I will live with integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me. 12 I take my stand on level ground; in the full assembly I will bless the LORD.
SECOND READING Romans 12:9–21

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


GOSPEL 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.”


In our contemporary society, where self-fulfillment, accomplishment, personal enrichment, and enjoyment are the goals sought by the majority, it seems inconceivable that people would willingly sacrifice, suffer, and be humiliated so that others would benefit. Yet, in the twentieth century alone there were many people whose unselfish example and willingness to subjugate self, for the needs of the whole, transformed individuals and nations. With that being said, let me ask a couple of questions.
First, do you see yourself as a person who feels burdened with many afflictions, difficulties such as those experienced by folks who lived in Hell’s Kitchen at the turn of the 20th century, or by the poor of the Great Depression, or those plagued with injustice in Central America? Are you one who seeks the assistance of the Lord in carrying your burdens, or do you have sufficient strength and courage to be the one who takes on the burdens of others, as did Walter Rauschenbusch, the proponents of the Catholic Worker, and Oscar Romero? Today’s Gospel lesson contrasts those two questions in its challenge that while we may be burdened, we nevertheless are asked to help others with the crosses of their lives.
Our Gospel passage for today immediately follows the reading we heard last week. And as we did a week ago, we hear of an encounter with Jesus and Peter. Peter had just professed his belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord; he has demonstrated his faith through his ability to see beyond the obvious human characteristics of Jesus. Now, however, we observe the other side of Peter, the counter side of all humanity. We see the side of Peter which refuses to accept God’s plan. He refuses to accept the fact that Jesus has come to suffer and die. He doesn’t want to accept the crosses of loneliness and fear which Jesus’ departure will bring. This is the cross that Jesus Himself will shoulder, but Peter cannot bear to face it.
Peter doesn’t appear to be ready to accept God’s plan, which brings with it a cross for him and for every human person. Unlike the poor in New York and the destitute in El Salvador, who bore their suffering, their cross, without complaint and were rewarded by courageous Christians who shouldered their burden for them, Peter runs away from the challenge he faces. Jesus, on the other hand, is the Rauschenbusch, Day and Maurin, and Romero of contemporary society who accepts his role. But not everyone who follows Jesus is called to this kind of service, but we are all still called to take up the cross of Christ. It’s a command that asked us to commit to something beyond our desires.
To be a true disciple of Christ, a person has to be committed. We don’t have to be the most brilliant or the most talented to serve Christ. We don’t have to be in a high profile position. We simply need to make a stand from time to time. And in standing we never know what God will do through us.
From 1870 to 1920, also known as the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) and Progressive Era (1890 – 1920), were periods of massive immigration to the United States. Most immigrants initially found themselves in the urban squalor of an ethnic ghetto. New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, for example, was one such place. An environment of poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and a general sense of hopelessness was the common lot of thousands of immigrants who resided in the district. While most Americans either ignored or refused to listen to the cries of the immigrant masses, there was one man who heard their pleas and acted to change the social order. Walter Rauschenbusch was a Baptist minister who had been raised and initially educated in Rochester, New York.
As pastor of a small church in Hell’s Kitchen, Rauschenbusch took on the pain and suffering of his people. He lived through their daily struggles and worked to alleviate their pain. Later, as a renowned theologian, Rauschenbusch wrote that society could be transformed if people were willing to apply the gospel message, despite its challenges and difficulties, to contemporary problems. Rauschenbusch was a man who took Jesus’ injunction seriously, to bear the cross and follow in His footsteps.
While many consider the most recent economic downturn as a difficult time for them economically, statistically speaking, the Great Depression was the worst economic disaster in American history. And while historians recognize the efforts of President Roosevelt and his New Deal to right America’s economic ship, few recall or even know of the work of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and the Catholic Worker movement which they founded. Maurin, a French peasant who had immigrated to the United States via Canada, possessed many ideas for the social transformation of society, but he had no way to publicize his views. Dorothy Day, a journalist who had formerly associated with radicals and Communists in Greenwich Village and recently had converted to Catholicism, was a woman looking for her vocation.
When the two met in December 1932 it was a good match of theory and practice. As founders of the Catholic Worker movement, which sponsored roundtable discussions of contemporary issues and established houses of hospitality and farm communes for the poor, Maurin and Day offered another solution to the Great Depression, namely personal involvement with the lives of the poor. They voluntarily lived simply so others could simply live. They too took up the challenge of the cross.
In 1970 Oscar Romero was a quiet, but well-known, priest pastor, radio preacher, and newspaper editor in El Salvador. That year he was appointed auxiliary to the archbishop of San Salvador; four years later he was given his own diocese, Santiago de Maria, in a rural section of the country. Romero quickly became involved as an advocate of land reform; he became a vocal champion of the rights of the poor in his diocese.
In 1977 he was elevated to the position of archbishop in San Salvador at the urging of local political leaders who believed that he would be “safe” and not meddle in the affairs of state. But Oscar Romero’s recent experience in Santiago de Maria convinced him that injustice of any nature was wrong, but especially wrong were actions against the defenseless and those with no voice in society. He continued as the principal organ for the poor, playing loudly and constantly. He took on the cause of righteousness which had been so long ignored by church and state alike. Romero paid the ultimate price for his stand when he was assassinated in March, 1980, most probably by a death squad working for the very government officials who had originally championed his cause.
Freely and without hesitation Jesus carries the cross, which is the burden of human sinfulness. Rauschenbusch, the Catholic Workers, and Romero bore the pain, indignity, and suffering of those they encountered. Jesus also bore the pain of the world in the weight of His cross, but He wasn’t afraid to profess its necessity and power in His life. The Lord challenges Peter and all of us to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow in His footsteps. No one looks for the cross and the various forms of pain it brings, but Christians must not run away from the reality of life and our necessity to walk the road with Jesus. It’s a message that runs counter to our modern way of thinking.
Contemporary conventional wisdom says it’s foolish to give one’s life away. We are bombarded with advertisements and slogans in multiple media forms which tell us life is here and now. We must “go for the gusto,” live today, and secure the great “treasures” of power, wealth, and prestige. As the commercial says, “Who says you can’t have it all?” Jesus, however, leaves no doubt that if we seek to save our life today we will lose the gift of eternal life tomorrow. If we, however, like those courageous Christians of the past and present, take up the cross, shoulder the burden, and lose our life now, then we will experience eternal life when God calls us home.
As the stories of Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and Oscar Romero pose the question, “Where do we find ourselves — shouldering the cross or having it lifted?” so the gospel challenges us to move beyond ourselves, and accept the cross when it comes, but always with the certain knowledge that Jesus is ready to aid us if we will only ask for assistance. Jesus’ message to us today is a call to discipleship; one that requires complete commitment. The call to discipleship isn’t a call to sit on the sidelines as a spectator; one who looks for the reward but refuses to accept the burden of responsibility. It’s a call to give up on our desires and look to God to show us His. But not everyone is willing to accept the challenges that go with being a disciple of Jesus.
For those of you who have attended college or a university, I’m sure you’re familiar with the opportunity to audit a class, rather than enroll. For those not familiar with this practice, auditing a class is a way to obtain graduate or post-graduate level information, but not have the requirement to study or take quizzes and tests. You simply attend, take notes, if you wish, and leave when the class is completed. Attendance isn’t even mandatory. Of course there is a down side; there is no credit given and you can’t obtain a diploma no matter how many classes you audit.
One particular pastor says his wife has, for years, audited classes at a local Seminary. She attends classes faithfully receiving the information but doesn’t have to spend hours studying for examinations. From her attendance she has gained a good deal of information that can be useful if needed and used. However, this pastor goes on to say, “Many Christians come to church on Sunday mornings and audit the sermon. They go to class, have textbook in hand, sit in their regular seat, and listen to the professor. But all they want to do is audit the class. They don’t want to be expected to do any homework. They don’t want to pass any tests that God sends their way to check their understanding. These Christians will pay the money to take the class, but they don’t want to have to meet any requirements. They also don’t expect to receive a degree and diploma from the school.”
This pastor goes on to say, “As long as my wife audits her seminary class, she will have no credit on her transcript. There will be no graduation ceremony and nobody will ever hand her a degree. As long as you audit your Christian life, there will be no passing grades, there will be no divine recognition, and there will be no experience of your calling.” From that perspective, auditing our Christian life is selfish. You have, or have been given, the information someone else might need, but you’re unwilling to expend the effort needed to share it. With that thought before us, one could say that our text for the day is addressed to anyone who might be auditing the class called “Christian Faith.”
Our reading from Matthew is a continuation of last week’s text in which Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Recall, if you will, that it was Simon Peter who spoke up and answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” When Simon said this, Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”
Jesus then goes on to say, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then He did something strange, He ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah (Matthew 16:18-20). And today’s lesson follows that one immediately.
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” It’s a passage we’ve read many times and it comes as no surprise that Simon Peter took Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him. When you stop and consider the entire scene, it really isn’t a shock that Peter would do this. After all, Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the God of all creation, who has the power to grant and take life. So, for Peter, Jesus’ statement doesn’t quite add up.
So Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to scold Him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Of course, Peter was well-meaning. He loved Jesus and didn’t want Him to suffer and die. To this Jesus, I’m sure, shocks everyone listening by saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, He spoke words that need to be heard by everyone who thinks that following Jesus is a course that can be audited: “Whoever wants to be my disciple, must deny themselves and take up your cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
I suppose there are few ideas in this world that have been misconstrued so badly as that of carrying a cross. Someone has a lazy husband. Not somebody in our church, of course, but at the church around the corner, a woman has a lazy husband and says to a friend, “Well, this is just my cross to bear.” Or someone has a painful case of arthritis and they say with a sigh: “It’s just my cross to bear.” Somebody’s favorite television program is canceled, “Well, I guess this is my cross to bear.” It seems that anything negative that comes our way, we see it as a cross to bear. But is that what Jesus is really asking here?
Many of us can feel for a person with a lazy spouse or any kind of painful disease or whose television show was canceled. But this isn’t what it means to take up your cross and follow Christ. Neither does it mean wearing a cross as a piece of jewelry. Being a Christian means that by taking up your cross and following Christ, we’re willing to live the Christ-like life regardless of the costs. Those costs might include financial sacrifice, rejection by your peers and a host of other major and minor deprivations. Being a disciple of Jesus means making a commitment to accept whatever God call us to do and to do the best we can with God’s help.
Sadly, we live in a time in which people are reluctant to make serious commitments whether to their marriage, their family, their employer or any of their relationships. One guy said his secretary liked to yammer on the phone with friends. One day he was about to interrupt her chat to tell her to get back to work, when she looked up at the clock and put an end to the conversation. “Sorry, I have to hang up now,” she said. “It’s time for my break.” It seems that we’re rapidly becoming a generation that finds making a commitment difficult.
A famous Japanese statesman, of the World War II generation, once was describing the loyalty of the Japanese people to their Emperor during those years. “We do not worship our Emperor,” he said. “We love him completely.” One day a Japanese commander at Port Arthur called for volunteers to cut barbed wire entanglements which were posing an obstacle to advancement by the Japanese army. The commander said, “You will never come back, nor can you carry a gun. You will take your place and cut one or two wires and then fall dead. Another will take your place and cut one or two wires more. But you will know that upon your dead body the armies of your Emperor will march to victory.”
It’s a rather foreign concept to the American mind, yet for the Japanese of WW II, total regiments volunteered for these sure death parties. This statesman added, “If you Christians loved your God as we Japanese love our Emperor, you would have long ago taken the world for Him.” It’s a tough statement, but who can deny the truth in it? With that kind of commitment, any objective is attainable. But it seems that such commitment is rare in today’s world.
The missionary movement gave earlier generations of Christians role models of the kind of devotion that Christ is talking about when He said we are to take up a cross. Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary physician, told about his decision to leave family and friends behind and go serve in Africa. Schweitzer was a brilliant pianist and scholar, and had a promising career in front of him in Germany. Life was good. But one morning he woke up and realized he felt compelled to give something back to the world.
Schweitzer finally decided what he was called to do to be a missionary doctor. His friends thought he was crazy. In his autobiography he describes the battles he fought over this, how family and friends reproached him and tormented him for the folly of his enterprise. They came to the conclusion that he was not quite right in his head and treated him with what he called “affectionate ridicule.” Yet Schweitzer as a missionary doctor became one of the most highly respected figures of his day.
We don’t have many role models today of that kind of radical discipleship. Author Max DePree tells about a friend of his. He says his friend is great at running the “ninety-five-yard dash.” Think about that for a moment. Normally runners are good at the 100-yard dash. But this guy was good at the “ninety-five-yard dash.” “That’s a distinction I can do without,” says Max DePree. “Lacking the last five yards makes the first ninety-five pointless.” Christ needs disciples who will run those final five yards. Consider those people you know who make a difference.
Jesus’ message is clear — we must carry the cross! To reject the reality of life, which at times comes with obstacles, pain, and uncertainty, is not the road of discipleship. Discipleship means taking up the cross of Christ and carrying it wherever God’s leads us. But we don’t do this alone. God not only assists us with the burden, He gives us the tools and strength we need to fulfill the mission He sends us to accomplish. Discipleship doesn’t mean we get to audit the course. True discipleship means we accept the burden of the study and tests that come with the Christian life.
Our heavenly Father wants to do great things through us but God can only do those things if we’re willing to give Him our all. Some unknown author once put it like this: Isn’t it strange that princes and kings, And clowns that caper in sawdust rings, And common people like you and me, Are builders for eternity? Each is given a bag of tools, A shapeless mass, a book of rules; And each must make ’ere life is flown, A stumbling block or a stepping-stone.
What are we doing with the tools God has given us? It all depends on how invested we are in this thing called discipleship. Discipleship is a call to take up our cross and follow no matter where God leads us. The question is, are we simply auditing the course, or are we willing to accept the burden of taking up our cross daily and following Jesus?

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