(Proper 17A) Matthew 16: 21-28
Good morning, and grace and peace to you on this late summer morning. Last Sunday of August. Although you can’t tell it from the service leaflet, which we managed to get reprinted yesterday afternoon, I am this morning something of a pinch hitter as a preacher—and in that sense we are today among those affected by Hurricane Irene. For some weeks now Mary Beth Campbell, who is a senior program administrator and Director of Major Gifts with our mission partner, Five Talents International, has been on the calendar to be our Guest Preacher today—and then to be a guest for a gathering of our Five Talents Prayer Circle later on this afternoon, and then to meet with representatives of our diocesan Social Justice Task Force I believe tomorrow morning. But her Saturday flight was cancelled, and so she made a reservation for the Greyhound, and then that was cancelled. As of course I think we all understand, as so many of our friends and family members are among the 65 million people who live in the path of the storm this weekend. I believe she was rescheduled for a flight later today, which may get her here in time for the Prayer Circle gathering or at least for her scheduled meetings tomorrow, but I don’t know actually just how certain that is anyway—and we can hold her but then continue to hold in prayer all those whose lives have been affected, whether in terms of travel and business and vacation plans, or more seriously in terms of threats to life and property.
I’m also not sure of course what Mary Beth would have included in her sermon for us. In addition to her work with Five Talents she is also very active in her parish, St. Columba’s in Washington, D.C., working within healing and outreach ministries, and in the Diocese of Washington, where she chairs the committee that works on Millennium Development Goals, and she is a part-time student at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington—so I’m sure she would have had a lot to share, and I know we’re talking already about rescheduling, and I will look forward to that when it works with all our various calendars. In the meantime I do know for sure that she would have included in her sermon a time to express appreciation for the ministry of our Five Talents Prayer Circle in our support for the work of Five Talents in Lima, Peru, and for our support for our missionaries in Lima, John and Susan Park. Five Talents has been really a beautiful mission partnership for us of St. Andrew’s, for a number of years now, involving not just our adults but also our children in raising awareness and in opening the door to participation in Christian ministry in another part of the world. If she had been here, she would thanked us, and we in turn would have thanked her and all the folks at Five Talents for the opportunity for prayer and service and outreach that they have provided for us.
Where she would have gone with the reading from Matthew this morning, I’m less sure about. But I’m confident she would have had something to say about the call we have heard and that we share together, the invitation to conform our lives to Christ, to walk with him and in his footsteps, even as that walk can and will sometimes be costly and painful, even as faithfulness to him may within the experience and values of our life in this world lead us not to comfort and success but to hardship and suffering. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
This passage really has to do with a fundamental reorientation in terms of values. And even more, a reorientation of identity, and purpose. Our parish Outreach Committee had on its brochure for many years the motto, “Putting the love of God into action,” and I think that’s a helpful phrase. And if that sounds like any easy thing to do—putting the love of God into action in our lives,” then we’re probably not thinking it through all the way. There is this tendency in our culture to organize different aspects of our lives into categories. A dynamic filing system. I have family, friends, work, career, hobbies—and in there somewhere a folder for “church” or “religion” or “spirituality.” But what Jesus is talking about here is something very different. A commitment and a way of living that goes beyond the compartmentalized pattern of our lives. A commitment and a way of living that crosses between the dividers in the notebook, that takes hold of us and lifts us into a new frame of reference altogether. All of us. Not just the Sunday morning part. Not just the places where we’ve written “Church” in our dayplanner. Where it’s not just about us, about who we are, about how he fits into our busy lives and schedules—but where instead we offer ourselves to him. Where he is no longer a part of our agenda, but where we allow ourselves to be a part of us.
It is all about dying, which gives us the vocabulary of the cross in this lesson. Sometimes literally, as we read and hear of the stories of saints and heroes and martyrs of every generation, including very much our own. And sometimes about a dying to self, or to one version of ourselves, one set of priorities, so that through that death we can be raised in Christ to become someone new.
There’s a wonderful line in the third chapter of St. John, when John the Baptist says in reference to the life and ministry of Jesus, “I must decrease, so that he may increase.” In some ways it has to do with an emptying, with letting go. When we clear out the space filled with so much of the clutter of our lives, our goals and ambitions, our obsessions even, there can be this openness, this space, for him to grow up in us. If our hands are already full, then there’s nothing more we can do. No gift that we can receive.
An invitation this morning. All of us on a journey in faith, in relationship to Christ, drawn to him but trying to find just how that relationship can be perfected in us. And it will look different and be different for each of us. But an invitation to let go of our fear—which is what Jesus is talking to Peter about at the beginning of the passage this morning. To let go of our fear, as best we can, our need to control. And that’s a process. Step by step. Three forward and two back. Hearing his voice, responding, walking in his way. An invitation as we reach out our hands to receive his presence and to share in his life in the Bread and Wine of this Holy Communion, that we would ask him to put his love into action in our lives, to make us the instruments of his peace. That as we would share in his journey all the way to the cross, so we would even now begin to share in his eternal life.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.