(Proper 16A) Matthew 16: 13-20
Grace and peace this morning, and wonderful to see you today as we continue through this summer season. I do pray that it continues to be a good season for you, with an abundance of rest and refreshment along the way.
As you may know, Susy and I were in California last weekend, partly to visit family, especially my mom and my sister and her family, as I try to do every year or so, but timed this year to coincide with the 40th Year reunion of my high school class—which was a very rich experience in many ways: not just for the event itself, although it was very fun and enjoyable to be in that group, some friends I’ve known and to some degree or another have stayed in touch with over all these years, and then actually quite a few whom I haven’t seen since grad night 1971 (although we’ve lately been chatting on our new Facebook page!). But a rich experience because it really triggered for me a time of reflection about my own life story, thinking about my childhood and teenager years, reconnecting with those years in some ways, reflecting on how in good ways and sometimes in challenging ways those years really continue to shape and inform who I am, the direction and trajectory of my life—and helping me to reflect on the lives of some of my friends as well. Learning and re-learning the stories of our lives. So a lot to think about.
While I was in L.A., Phil Wainwright was here last Sunday, and as I read his sermon and the story of the Canaanite Woman and her encounter with Jesus, I found his reflections on that text really helpful. Jesus saying to her, in Matthew 15:28, “O woman, great is your faith.” That standing in contrast to the readings of the weeks before, in Matthew 14, also having to do with faith, and really problems with faith for the disciples.
If the woman from Lebanon had “great faith,” what to say about the disciples as they saw the gathering hungry crowds and wondered what could be done. Jesus says to them basically, “don’t you trust me to take care of this?” And then the miraculous feeding. And then later in chapter 14, Peter excitedly jumping over the side of the boat to rush to Jesus, and then looking down, losing his focus, and slipping into the waves. “O man of little faith,” Jesus says, “why did you doubt?” What to say about the faith of the disciples—and what to say about my faith?
But then today, Matthew 16, and this critical moment outside of Caesarea Philippi, the Confession of Peter. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus, “Blessed are you.” Peter, the solid rock, whose faith will be the bulwark against all the powers of the enemy, in whom for the whole church will be vested the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
And so once again this question about faith. What it looks like. Where it comes from. We know it’s not natural to Peter, anyway. The story of his “Walking on Water” here, of course, and then, a few chapters later, in the Courtyard of the High Priest, and he’s all about fear, denial, betrayal. The epitome not of hope but of hopelessness. What does that have to say about what it means to have faith? Not the solid Rock, but quicksand. And Jesus then is clear about that too, as he responds to Peter’s remarkable affirmation. “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
It’s a gift. That’s the point of what Jesus has to say here. Not something Peter has particularly earned or shown himself worthy of. Actually quite the contrary. He is the least likely in some ways.
I know when I in various aspects of my work and ministry find myself in the process of identifying and even appointing people to positions of leadership, there are some particular characteristics I look for. Committees, commissions, vestries, boards, and even now as in the diocese we are in the process that will lead to the election of our next bishop. And one of the things I look for is what I sometimes call “steadiness,” or even “calmness.” People who know how to measure twice and cut once. Who can enter into a process with some sense of deliberation, weighing different sides of a question without leaping to conclusions. People who aren’t about knee-jerk reactions. People with emotions and passions and loyalties and convictions, yes, but also and maybe first of all with minds, and sympathetic imaginations, with the ability to see things from the other guy’s perspective. My friend George Werner once spoke about how so many church leaders have the motto, “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Which always has made me nervous, and should make us all nervous. Especially when the rules of engagement are “shoot first, ask questions later.”
And Peter makes me nervous. I mean I love him for his strengths, his passions, his loyalties. But as the “Rock,” maybe not so much. I doubt if I’d appoint him senior warden. And even if he was the first Bishop of Rome, I’m not sure I’d feel all that comfortable with somebody like him as the 8th Bishop of Pittsburgh.
So it’s a supernatural discernment. Must be. Would need to be, for me.”For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
It’s interesting how so many religious and philosophical traditions really have to do with what I guess we might call the “formation of spiritual character.” The formational practice of meditation, perhaps, leading over years and decades to a state of enlightenment. Or the formational practice of obedience to a set of external practices, inwardly directed and outwardly directed. Wear this kind of clothing, not that kind. Eat this, not that. Perform these good works. Tithe. Serve the downtrodden. Lots of heavy lifting. Often mistranslated as: earn points, avoid demerits, come out on the plus side on the day of judgment.
For Peter, though, it’s just a gift. Not because he gets anything particularly right, and not because of his spiritual or moral preparation. He would fail on every count. But because Jesus has loved him, and in that love a door has been opened and a new life has begun.
The point here not to say that there is no value to prayer and contemplation and spiritual practice and growth, nor that we might not desire for all kinds of reasons to give our lives in some way or other to the accomplish of good works, making a difference for others and the world around us. As Christian people those spiritual and moral and social actions are things that we are as it were almost naturally drawn to.
But it is gift. Who we are, what happens in us in our relationship with Christ Jesus. That’s the thing about love. All gift. The Canaanite woman is a marginal character, an outsider. Peter probably the one person among the 12, of course not counting Judas Iscariot, whom you wouldn’t want to have as Senior Warden. But God seems to see things differently.
Even the unlovable, even people like us. The Glendale High School Class of 1971. The people of St. Andrew’s Church. Even us. With generosity and grace and affection and an abundance of divine tenderness and mercy, vast as every ocean, beyond our imagining, the gift is for us. Falling like summer rain on a hillside. All free. To begin to understand that, even to catch a glimpse of it, is to begin to unfold the deepest meaning of the Manger on Christmas Eve, and of the Cross on that Friday afternoon. God acting to heal and restore, to forgive and make new. As we open our brokenness to him, and as we turn to him, it is all gift. All blessing.