Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 16

Pentecost 16, 2017
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, two explorers are walking through the jungle one afternoon, when they suddenly notice that a man-eating tiger is stalking them.  The one explorer turns to the other and says, “We’re going to die!  What can we do?”  As he is saying this, he notices that his companion is calmly putting on her running shoes, in the face of certain death.  Shocked in disbelief he asks, “What are you doing?  You can’t possibly outrun a Bengal tiger!”  She continues tying up her laces and says, “I don’t have to outrun the tiger; I only have to outrun you.”

And now you’re asking yourself, “What does this possibly have to do with the laborers in the vineyard?”  I’m glad you asked that, because the answer is “everything.”  To recap the story Jesus tells, the Kingdom of Heaven is like this:  a vineyard owner hires some workers for a fair wage and they start in the morning, assumedly content with what they are earning.  In a little while, they are joined by others, and later in the day some more workers arrive, and eventually—right about quitting time—even more workers arrive.  The owner pays the last to arrive first, working up to those who’ve been at it all day.  They all get the same amount . . . an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.

However, as you no doubt noticed, only the first half of that maxim holds true.  Everyone receives an honest day’s wage, sure.  But only the first group has performed an honest day’s work.  To which we all say, What is up with that?  This is a heck of a way to run a railroad, right?  The landowner’s actions go against everything we believe about making a living in this world.  Obviously, if this keeps up, everyone is going to be showing up for work at 4:55pm, just to collect their checks. Before you know it, the grapes are rotting in the fields, and the price of wine is going to skyrocket!  So, one thing is certain: the vineyard owner is a very bad business person.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  Huh.

But let’s set aside economics for a moment and look at the emotional side of this story.  As far as we can tell, the workers who are first to arrive are completely content with their honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  They’re looking for work, and the vineyard owner has hired them.  They do not envy the vineyard owner, even though they surely have less money than the boss.  They go out and work as agreed.  Similarly, those who show up later in the day seem satisfied to have some employment opportunity, and they enter the fields and work along-side the early risers.  Everything is fine until it’s time to get paid, and the boss seems to intentionally stir things up by starting with those who just arrived, giving them a full day’s pay for a full hour’s work.

For the all-day workers, seeing the late arrivals get full pay must have seemed too good to be true!  If those people are getting $100 for an hour’s work, a quick calculation would mean they are going to get like $1,000 for the day!  You can just picture them rocking back and forth, dreaming of how they’re going to spend their hard-earned cash.  And, of course, when the vineyard owner gets to the back of the line, they find their pay envelopes have the same as everyone else: 100 bucks.

And this is when they begin to grumble.  They say, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  And what is their complaint there?  Made them equal to us?  They are not angry because someone else has worked less.  They are not angry because the lawyer down the street makes more than they do.  No, they are grumbling because these late sleepers have been counted on the same level as the faithful workers.  This extravagance is what angers them.  They are mad because the vineyard owner has “made them equal to us.”  Made them equal to us.  They are upset because someone who SHOULD have less is getting the same thing they are.  They’re not mad because someone else has more; they’re mad because someone “inferior” has the same.  It’s one thing to be counted less than somebody else—we can’t all be equal, after all.  But it sends us around the bend to know that those who deserve less are getting the same thing we are.

We don’t care if there a hundred people ahead of us outrunning the tiger, as long as SOMEBODY is behind us.  As long as we can throw SOMEBODY under the bus.  It’s a slippery slope that we just can’t help but start down.  It is our natural response to be angry when the undeserving get what they don’t deserve.  And if you think about it, we’re even okay if the undeserving people are fabulously rich.  We might not get angry when a Designated Hitter makes $13 million a year for hitting homeruns—even when he doesn’t hit them.  (And he certainly can outrun us, even in our best track shoes.)  But if you start telling me that the person in the next cubicle is getting a raise, when I know darn well he takes 2-hour lunch breaks, shows up late, and leaves early . . . oh hand me down my running shoes!

And this is nothing new.  Did you hear that first reading today?  The one from Jonah?  We always think of Jonah’s story as having to do with a whale (or big fish), and that’s about it.  But, of course, there’s much more to his story.  In today’s little segment, God has decided to have mercy on the people of Nineveh, and not to smite them from the face of the earth, a cause for celebration for everyone.  And what is Jonah’s reaction?

“This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”  He asks God, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?  . . . I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful . . . and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah is saying, see, God?  I knew you were merciful to me.  What makes me mad is to see that you are merciful to OTHERS!  And I hope you can see how ridiculous this is.  Jonah is so upset, he wishes God would just kill him now, rather than live to see these sinners receive mercy.  So, God works up something of a children’s sermon for Jonah.  He provides a bush for shade, then lets the bush die, which makes Jonah even angrier.  And God asks, “Are you angry about the bush dying?”  Jonah says, “YES!”  And God asks, you mourn the death of the bush, but not all the people in Nineveh?  And I imagine Jonah saying, “But God, I’ve been working all day for you.  I’ve got my running shoes on; the people of Nineveh can’t be saved just because you change your mind!”

The sinful, poor, and lazy do not deserve God’s bountiful rewards of mercy, compassion, and salvation.  The sinful, rich, and hardworking don’t deserve them either, but it seems like we’re okay with that.  Remember the complaint from the all-day workers? “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  But, they don’t deserve to receive what I have received.  My hard work means that I should receive more than somebody else.  You see the problem don’t you?  What this is really all about?

We want to be loved, respected, rewarded.  We want to know that God is pleased by the good things we do.  That God sees our good works and will reward us for our good deeds . . . the money we give, the people we help, the kind words we speak.  And we desperately want to believe that we are not in bondage to sin.  We want to earn our way into God’s favor.

We secretly doubt that we have sinned against God and our neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  We want to be equal with all people . . . as long as those people are ahead of us, in our internal scale of deserving.  When someone we consider less than us receives mercy, or when someone who doesn’t work as hard gets rewarded equally, well . . . it exposes our secret assumption about ourselves: namely, that we can outrun the tiger only by sacrificing someone else.  If nobody is behind us, that means the tiger is coming for me and you!

And we can tell this system doesn’t work when we just flip it around.  Just think of a time when you were suffering and someone said to you, “Well others have it worse off than you do.”  If I cut my finger and a friend says, “I know a guy who got his hand cut off.”  Um . . . great.  Now let me think if that makes me feel better.  Nope.  Knowing someone else is hurting worse does not take away my suffering.  But thanks for trying.  There is no reassurance that comes from outrunning my neighbor rather than outrunning the tiger.  And the tiger, it seems, is coming for us all.

But the God of mercy appears and tells us, “Nobody has to die today; this day everyone lives.”  Rather than celebrate, we grumble that others receive the same grace that we have received.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this:  The vineyard owner chooses to give equally to all people, no matter when or why they show up.  We would love to think that it is by our own effort and strength that God reaches down and rescues us from the power of death, and for this we are thankful.  But when all the others are ALSO lifted up, well, it exposes us to the truth:  None of us is worthy of God’s grace, and yet we all freely receive it.

On his deathbed, Martin Luther said, “We are all beggars; that’s the truth!”  And it is as beggars that we approach this altar with outstretched hands, to receive the gift of reassurance that God’s love is more powerful—and God’s redemption is more certain—than any threat we face in this life.  Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven is like this.  No matter when we arrive, no matter what we are wearing on our feet, we cling to this hope, as do the saints who have gone before us:  God is big enough to save us all.  Nobody is beyond God’s love and redemption.  Nobody.  So come and receive the gifts of God, given for all the people of God.

Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 15

Pentecost 15, 2017
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are many Sundays when the lessons kind of speak for themselves.  We hear them read, one after the other, and they all kind of make us nod and say to ourselves, “That makes sense.  Sure.”  And in those cases, the best thing a preacher can do is just say, “You know what I mean?”  But, as usual, I have a bunch of stuff I want to say.  So, let’s jump in for a few minutes and take a closer look . . .

The reading from Exodus, you’ve all heard before.  It is a defining moment in the life of the Jewish people, and thus for Christians as well.  You know the whole setup . . . God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go; Pharaoh refuses, then relents, then sends his army to chase them.  They get to the Red Sea, Moses does his best Charlton Heston, and the Hebrews escape, unlike Pharaoh’s soldiers.

There’s a lot to be said about this story, but for this morning, I just want us to notice one important thing: The Jewish people did not manage this escape by their own effort and skill.  In fact, they seemed pretty certain they were done for just a few verses back.   In one of my favorite bible taunts, they ask Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?”  Such sarcasm!  And then God tells Moses to stretch out his hand, the sea parts, and it’s on to chapter 15.  But as I say, we should be sure to note that it is God who saves Moses and the people.   As far as they were concerned, “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Today’s Psalm is just a celebration of the first reading.  Well, and a little taunting of the earth for being no match for the hand of God.  And then we heard from Paul, writing to the Romans.  Paul’s main point is that none of us knows what wonder God is working in the lives of those around us.  What is mandatory to some is acceptable to others and forbidden by still others.  We are not to judge what God is doing in our neighbors’ hearts, but we are to welcome all people just as God has welcomed us.  And the main take-away from this section of Paul’s letter might be this: We should remember, when it comes to religious practices . . . some should . . . all may . . . none must.

Which then leads us to this gospel reading we just heard.  You’ll remember, Peter has come to Jesus, asking how many times he should forgive his neighbor.  And Peter really ramps it up, when you think about it.  Forgiving someone seven times is no small amount!  But Peter is, nonetheless, looking for a limit.  He’s trying to find the place in a relationship when it is time to choose justice over mercy.  He wants to know at what point it is okay to give up on his neighbor.  And I imagine Peter thinks he is being quite a merciful man when he suggests, “As many as seven times?”

But no, Jesus says.  Not seven times, Peter, 77 times, or some readings say 70x7, or 490.  But either way, the point remains: A LOT OF TIMES!  And, just in case people weren’t following his meaning, Jesus tells them a story, or a parable as we call them.

The slave is brought before the king for an unpaid debt, he pleads for mercy, and the king forgives him his debt.  As soon as the servant leaves, he runs into a guy who owes him some money, and has him thrown in jail.  The king hears about it, has him thrown into prison and tortured.  The end.  Cool story, right?  Well, maybe not a cool story.  But kind of an obvious one.  Or, at least, it seems obvious.  The danger is that we might be tempted to think the point is about conditional forgiveness.  That is, that God only forgives us when we also forgive our neighbor.  If we don’t forgive our neighbor, we will be tortured and burned in a fiery place of torment.

Let’s look at this story a little more carefully, though.  First, we need some specific translations of the money involved.  In Jesus’ day, a denarius was what a laborer earned for a day’s work.  One talent was equal to 80 pounds of silver, or 6,000 denarii, which is 20 years’ worth of work.  20 years of hard labor would earn you one talent.  The slave owes 10,000 talents . . . that means 200,000 YEARS of work!  In dollar terms, a talent is about a half a million dollars.  10,000 of them comes out to about $5 BILLION!  This is a slave who owes his king FIVE BILLION DOLLARS, and when he is brought before the king he says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”

Seriously?  200,000 years of work?  $5 billion?  He’s going to pay everything?  Nobody in their right mind is going to believe for one second that this guy is going to pay off this kind of debt.  No way, no how.  And justice?  Justice says the king should proceed as planned: sell the man and his family to someone else and just take what he can get.  “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  Riiiight.  The king knows that is never going to happen.  “But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”  The king says, essentially, this game of forcing people to pay debts they cannot pay is not going to work.  Consider the entire game cancelled.  The rules of justice no longer apply.  Mercy is the new game in town.  You are free to go.

Now this is where we need to hit the brakes hard and be sure we understand what just happened.  The slave was never going to pay his debt.  He and his family should have been sold.  A just king would send them away, collect what he could, and move on.  That’s justice.  That’s fairness.  That’s what we expect in our own society.  People pay their debts, one way or another.  “But out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

This slave is suddenly given a second chance.  More than that, the entire system has been cancelled.  His debt isn’t sort of reduced; he isn’t told to declare bankruptcy; he doesn’t even have to start working more overtime or take on a second job.  Because, “out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.”

I can’t emphasize this enough:  He didn’t get a second chance to try to stay in the game.  The game itself has been cancelled.  There is no debt to work off, or to unrealistically promise to work off.  The whole system of debt and debtors was declared invalid.  That’s it.  The king has declared that mercy will rule in the place of justice.

But then you remember, as the slave leaves, he runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii . . . which is about $2,000.  (May I remind you the other number we were working with was $5 billion.)  Now, under the old system of justice, the slave had every right to throw this man into prison until he could pay the $2,000.  Justice decreed that this was a legitimate method of dealing with a debtor.  Throw him into prison until he can work off the debt, which of course he can never do, because he’s in prison.

But listen carefully to this again:  His fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  Right before that, we heard this: The slave fell on his knees before the king, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  The king chose mercy.  The fellow slave chose justice.  And under the rules of justice, well . . . In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  (That is, never.)

The amazing thing about this story is that it is in the slave’s hands to decide which set of rules will be in force.  He can choose mercy and have those rules apply.  (And, in practical terms, getting $5 billion for a $2,000 investment seems pretty okay.)  Or he can choose justice, as he did with his fellow slave, and have those rules apply.  (Which, we might note, has now been elevated to include torture, rather than just being sold.)

Justice is our right.  And mercy is our privilege.  We can choose daily which system we want to live under.  Which street we want to live on.  And part of God’s plan of mercy means your debt is cancelled.  All your own promises to straighten up and fly right, to pay your own $5 billion debt . . . that is all set aside as well.  Because there is a new king in town; a king whose nature is to show mercy.  May God give us the grace to choose mercy over justice, and forgiveness over retribution, and to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.

Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 14

Pentecost 14, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As we gather here this morning, the people of Florida are experiencing a life-threatening hurricane.  We will of course be thinking about them, and praying for them, and once the storm has passed, we will figure out the best way to be helpful to them, as well as the people of Texas who just went through this last week.  Hurricanes are terrifying things, and people’s lives will be upended for some time to come.

Now as Irma was barreling over Barbuda and St. Martin toward Cuba last week, I saw someone on the east coast of Florida write, “Please pray that the hurricane moves to the west coast, rather than over me.”  Which should make us all ask, “Wait . . . what about the people living on the west coast of Florida?”  In our modern parlance, we call this, “Throwing them under the bus,” right?  As long as it turns out okay for me and my people, then the other people are just collateral damage and numbers of dead and wounded.  This kind of thinking should trouble us, to say the least.  But it also leads us to take a closer look at today’s first reading, from the 12th chapter of Exodus.

I hope you recognized that story when you heard it.  We call this the Passover, and it sets the scene for every Passover meal that our Jewish neighbors observe each year.  If you’ve ever attended a Seder meal, you know they can be fun and celebratory, and they bind families and communities together.  And all those Seder meals commemorate this event from Exodus, when God passed over the homes of the enslaved Hebrew people and struck down the first-born of all the Egyptians.  We focus on the part we like: The Jewish children were saved.  Their parents’ anguish was avoided.  Pharaoh set them all free.  And then we get centuries of happy Passover meals.

But there is the other side of this story too.  There’s the part we don’t like to think about.  Because sleeping peacefully in their beds that night were all those innocent Egyptian children, who had done nothing wrong.  And all their grief-stricken parents who most likely had nothing to do with the fact that God’s people were living in harsh slavery.  Well . . . what about the Egyptians?

Now I don’t want to get into the disturbing picture this all paints of the merciful God we worship.  We will have to let that go for now, because we would have to spend hours discussing the historicity of the Old Testament writings, so we leave that for another time.  But suffice it to say that it is important for us to remember the others in this story, not just the ones we know.  Every time “our side” wins, it means there are people who suffered for that victory.  They are still people; they are still created in the image of God.

It is the height of self-centeredness to ignore the pain of others and remain comfortable and at ease because it is not our pain.  When we rejoice in the suffering of others we are putting ourselves on the opposite side of God.  How do we know this?  Because of Jesus.  Rather than ignoring the pain of others, Jesus takes it upon himself.  Jesus takes on people’s pain; Jesus takes on your pain.  Right up until the end, while hanging on the cross, when Jesus pleads to God to have mercy on the very people who put him on that cross!  Jesus does not fight a battle based on strength, but rather on mercy.  Jesus does not use the power of might, but rather the power of forgiveness.

Way way back in 2016 when I first interviewed with the Call Committee, I made it very clear that I would never preach politics from the pulpit, and I maintain that.  But I need to say this about the recent fights over DACA Act or the Dreamers as they’re called:  I’m not saying the recent decisions are good or bad.  There are well-meaning people on both sides of that conversation.  However, I am saying that it is totally inappropriate to say “it doesn’t matter because those are not my kids.”  They’re somebody’s kids.  And somebody’s kids live on the west coast of Florida, and somebody’s kids lived in Egypt when the angel of death did not pass over their homes.

So, all that said, I want us to take a look at the Baptismal Covenant this morning.  You can open a nearby Prayer Book to page 305, or I can just read it to you.  But every time we have a baptism here, we renew our Baptismal Covenant.  It starts with the Apostles Creed, and then the priest asks you five questions.  And the fourth of those questions is this:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And the answer you give is, I will, with God’s help.  I’ve heard you make that promise.  More than once, in fact.  With God’s help, you have committed to seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

Our Baptismal promises and our passing through the waters of Baptism are what makes us God’s children.  We cannot say that others are not our family, because the same God created them, and the same God has redeemed them.  One family, for whom Jesus Christ died and was raised to new life.

Now, lest you think I forgot about grace, I refer us back to Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I mean the part we just heard a few minutes ago.  He writes, “The commandments . . . are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Which is the second half of that question from the Baptismal Covenant:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  I will with God’s help, right?

But, now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “In just a few minutes, I am going to kneel and confess that I have not loved my neighbor as myself.”  And yes, that is true (particularly in Rite II).  BUT, you will hear immediately after that confession that God’s mercy is upon you, and that God will strengthen you in all goodness by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to do this thing, and then we admit that we don’t do this thing, and then we hear that God will strengthen us to do this thing.  It seems like an endless circle, doesn’t it?  Week after week.  As though we’re not getting anywhere.  We make promises we can’t seem to keep, even with God’s help!

And that’s where the important word is “we.”  Because in today’s Gospel, Jesus promises us that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here among us.  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  And we hear of God’s mercy upon us.  And we ask for God’s help as we strive to live as we have promised.  We do this together.  All of it.  There is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.  God is the God of all.

We make promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And we break those promises.  But thanks be to God that Jesus does not break his promises to us.  Promises like, where 2 or 3 are gathered, I am among them.  And, this is my body broken for you, whenever you do this in remembrance of me.  And, I am with you, even to the end of the age.  And, I will raise you up on the last day.

May God give us the grace to trust in the promises of Jesus.  And may God give us the strength to love and serve our neighbors as we have promised . . . with God’s help.

Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Oh poor, poor Peter.  There he goes again, thinking he’s doing the right thing, when he’s doing exactly the wrong thing.  It’s kind of predictable in some ways, that whatever Peter’s answer is, you should assume the opposite is true.  Like when I’m trying to remember someone’s name, it’s a safe bet that my first guess is going to be the one name that is NOT that person’s name.  Or, when I’m driving somewhere around town, if my instinct is to turn left, I know that means I should turn right.  Some people are just not good at certain things, and Peter ought to have caught on by the 16th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, don’t you think?

Ah, but then there was last week.  Remember last week?  The Confession of Peter?  That was when Jesus asked, “But what about you?” Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  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.”  In that case, just a few verses ago, Simon got it so right he even got his new name, “Peter” out of the deal.  In that case, against all odds, Peter had the exact right answer, surprising though that might be.  Flying high in verse 17.  Trampled under foot in verse 23.

A couple weeks before that, he was walking on the water with Jesus, only to sink into the sea moments later.  And if we flash forward in the story, to Holy Week, you’ll recall that Peter is the one who says he will never deny Jesus, and then a few hours later denies him three times.

There is one reliable thing you can say about Peter: he is unreliable.
In the world of employment and human resources, that is one solid reason for letting someone go.  Unreliability.  If you can’t count on a person, you probably need to fire them.  Even though someone’s performance is consistently lackluster, you can count on their being lackluster.  It’s the unreliability that makes someone a risk in a corporation.  One day they outshine their bosses.  The next day they can’t sharpen a pencil.  Wall Street thrives on predictability, and that need for dependability trickles all the way down to flipping burgers.  Better to have someone who is constantly mediocre than someone who alternately excels and fails, week to week.

Peter, in short, is a risk.  And Jesus ought to dismiss him.  And this week, he does.  Back of the line, right?  Goes so far as to call him Satan, so that Peter knows he means business.  “Empty out your desk, turn in your keys, and get back to the mailroom Peter.  Or should I say, ‘Simon’?”

And some commentators want to connect this rebuke to Jesus’ rebuke of Satan back in the early chapters of Matthew.  Remember that?  Satan is dragging Jesus around town, showing him rocks and cliffs and the Temple and all that.  And, when Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if he will but bow down and worship him, Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan!”  And the Devil departs from him.  Sounds a lot like what he said to Peter, right?  Go away.  Get behind me, Satan?

But here’s a funny thing about the words Matthew chooses in these two scenarios.  And this is where you can all say to yourselves, “Oh no—here comes the Greek again.”  But it’s just two words we need to look at.  Promise.  Back at the Temptation of Jesus, the word Jesus uses is hupage, which means “go away.”  He says to the devil, “Go away, Satan.”  And Satan does.

The word Jesus uses when he calls Simon Peter "Satan" is, opiso.  Which means, “after me.”  Jesus says to Peter, “Follow after me, Satan,” which is very different from saying “Go away,” I think you’ll agree.  And, in case you’re not sure about that, in the next verse in today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  That word there, “follow,” is the same word Jesus uses to tell Simon Peter Satan to get behind him: opiso.

Follow me, Satan.  And if anyone else wants to follow me alongside Peter, you also must take up your cross.  Jesus is NOT sending Peter away.  It’s not even a criticism of Peter, except for the “Satan” part.  Jesus does not want Peter to go away, like he wanted the devil to go away after the temptation in the wilderness.  No, Jesus is telling Peter to stay, right behind him, where all the other disciples are supposed to be.

In fact, this same word, opiso, is the word Jesus uses when he first calls Simon and Andrew away from the fishing nets.  He says to them, opiso, or “Follow me.”  And they drop their nets, and follow him.  It is not a condemnation; it is an invitation.  Get behind me.  Follow me.  Walk with me.

So, why does Jesus call Simon Peter Satan?  Good question.  Here’s my guess:  Jesus has just announced to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed and then raised again to new life.  He has laid out the plan, painful as it must be to hear it.  Since the disciples instinctively carry the Jewish notion of the Messiah (one who takes names and kicks . . . Romans), this dying thing is not part of the plan, see?  The Messiah is supposed to come riding in on a white horse brandishing a sword, with the religious leaders cheering him on against Rome; the Messiah is not supposed to be put to death by the Romans, with the religious leaders cheering them on.

Jesus apparently has the wrong script, and so Peter says to him, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  Which puts Peter on the opposite side of God’s plan.  And, lest we forget, the one whom we know to be on the opposite side of God’s plan is Satan—the one who tempted Jesus in the wilderness when this whole Gospel of Matthew was just getting started.  Satan wants to divert Jesus from his path toward saving people.  He wants Jesus to turn his back on people.  To send them away when they mess up, and to give up on them and choose what is easy, rather than what is good.  In short, Peter is trying to tempt Jesus into giving up and saving his own life.  Just like Satan did!

Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Get behind me, Satan.  Follow me, Peter.  Take up your cross and go with me to find life.  It’s an invitation, not a condemnation.

And you, people of St. Timothy’s, you are invited, just as Peter was invited.  We all have our reasons why we think God’s plan will not work.  We all have our inner dialog of doubts as to whether God can really save us, really bring life out of death.  We all have our protestations that Jesus cannot save us, all these objections that Jesus might call “Satan.”

But here’s the thing: Jesus does not tell you to first banish those thoughts and then follow him.  Jesus did not tell Peter to get his doctrine straight before following him.  No, Jesus says, “follow me, Peter, and bring your Satan with you.”  Get behind me with all your doubts and fears and misunderstandings, and I will lead you to eternal life.  You do not have to understand how Jesus meets you, you just have to trust that he does.  And on the days when you can’t do even that, you are still welcome by God at this altar.  Follow Jesus . . . to the table, and be fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Amen.