Proper 17A Matthew 16: 21-28 (with a bit of Hopkins at the end)
I want to apologize right now if you feel like you’ve been sold a bill of goods. Like one of those Labor Day Weekend Furniture Sales that don’t actually seem to have saved you any money when you finally get home and review your credit card statement. You discover you’ve fallen into a kind of low-level bait-and-switch transaction. One of those glossy advertisements, all sunshine and sea-shore, brilliant colors and breathless text. Didn’t even notice the small print--just a gray smudge at the bottom of the page. Have to take out a magnifying glass to read it.
The sign out front on Hampton Street says, “You are Welcome Here.” Come as you are! The spirit of hospitality—with room for everybody!
Almost miss the warning on the back of the label. The side-effects list. You know the ones I’m talking about. On the television commercials. Medication to treat even relatively minor complaints, then with a terrifying list of potential consequences rolling along in the background. The cure so often begins to sound far more dangerous than the disease.
I mean, it says on the website (and we have a new website launching even as we speak--check it out later this week!) that we’re a bunch of friendly folks who enjoy a spirit of generous hospitality. And so we are. You come in, take a leaflet from a smiling member of the Pews and Sittings Committee, listen to a lovely bit of organ prelude, share a smile with the family across the aisle.
And then: a word from the Founder and Director of our organization--who looks us dead-on this morning without so much as a smile, and now that we’re more or less stuck here for the rest of the hour anyway he gives us the straight scoop. Plain and simple: nobody gets out of here alive.
I mean, look: of course there’s no coercion. It’s a free country. The doors aren’t bolted. But I guess if we thought we were in one of those realms where “the customer is always right,” we have another think coming. People have been heading for the hills after they meet Jesus for 2000 years, so no need for any of us to be shy about hightailing it out of here. In fact my guess is that there aren’t too many of us in the building this morning who haven’t bailed on him at least once or twice. Sometimes once or twice per week . . . .
Remembering what John Mitchell said about his wife Martha back in the Watergate scandal. “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” Even if we don’t literally run, we are usually pretty good at hiding. At self-medication. Skimming over the hard parts. Jesus says to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” and we all experience that moment of self-recognition. Just keep thinking about the comfortable parts, and maybe the nasty bits will just go away on their own.
In the “Church Bulletin Bloopers” department, some years ago when I was at St. Paul’s in Bloomsburg our church secretary absent-mindedly typed in the first line of a communion hymn, #707, “Take my life and let me be.” And I suppose who hasn’t offered that prayer with all sincerity? Not “take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.” But, “let me be.” I want to be close to you Jesus, but only if you promise not to change me in any way. Just “let me be . . . .”
In the background we see fleeting images. Tax Collectors leaving their offices and going to the bank and emptying their savings accounts of a life-time of profits. A Young Ruler, discouraged at the word to sell all he has. The woman caught with a man not her husband, told to change her ways. Fishermen who leave their father and their families and all their situations and plans of life behind, as he invites them to follow him. Bonhoeffer famously talks about “costly discipleship.” As if there ever could be any other kind.
Yet strangely, we keep coming back. Kind of counter-intuitive. The marketers are always saying, “if you want a lot more people to come to church, the first thing you need to do is to make it easier.” We are reminded, as we have all been invited to the celebration of the baptism of Jackson Tobias Young, our Church Secretary Michelle’s son, this afternoon here at 3 p.m., that this is an organization whose ritual of initiation is a symbolic drowning. St. Paul says we’re “buried” in the waters of the font. And as my old friend Harold Lewis used to like to say, there is no luggage rack in a coffin.
So the baptismal point is that there’s going to be a lot that needs to be left behind in that water if we’re going to make it back to the surface.
We may have come of age in the roaring ‘60’s, when Psychologist Eric Bourne’s best-seller was printed as a banner over a generation. “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.” But looking up through the clear water from the bottom of the pool, we know that’s simply not the case. If we had been o.k., we never would have gotten ourselves into this situation in the first place.
It’s the sick people who need a doctor. Or as the poet Jude Simpson says in the poem that I send around every Advent, Jesus didn’t come for those who have their act together.
For those who want to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The gospel tells us that many of Jesus’ early followers began to drift away when he started talking like this. Which makes sense. The whole thing is actually quite offensive. Certainly hearing that in Peter’s response to what Jesus is saying. “Don’t talk like that, Jesus.” Don’t talk like that . . . .
So we don’t kid ourselves this morning. Coming through the Great Doors on Hampton Street. Lining up in the aisle to approach the communion rail. The stakes are actually higher than we first thought. Gain and loss. Life and death. Beginning to wrestle, each of us in our own way, with the challenge of change. Not just a bit of tidying up around the edges. But transformation. We’re calling next Sunday “Renaissance Sunday,” and it sounds like a lot of fun. It will be a lot of fun. But real “renaissance” is a messier business. Remembering Nicodmus. “How can a man be born again?” Too much mileage on the vehicle, Jesus. It’s hopeless. You just can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Our Centering Prayer Group is reading Richard Rohrer’s book, “Immortal Diamond.” I haven’t finished the book yet, but I love the title. Just to hear those two words this morning. “Immortal Diamond.” About what comes up out of the water, after the old has been washed away. About what gets found, revealed, created new as the Old Adam is stripped away like a rag suit. Rohrer’s title is from the poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins. What Jesus sees in us, underneath the layers of distortion and disguise. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Meaningless to those who are well, I guess. To those who have their act together. But for the rest of us, good news. If you know Hopkins you know that his poetry isn’t the easiest to read aloud, but to try it hear, the last few lines of this magnificent work, “That Nature is a Heracletian Fire, and the Comfort of the Resurrection.” That’s the title. Purging fire, then comfort. It’s a poem we could have a whole year of Adult Education groups unpacking I think, but here is the end of the poem:
Is immortal diamond.