Connecting with the Cross

August 31, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Proper 17 – RCL Year A
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

For three of the last four weeks, the gospel lesson has featured Peter in a significant way. Peter is one of those guys in the Bible that seems especially real to me. He’s a fisherman. A man’s man, if you will. He’s willing to take risks, like stepping out of a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, to walk toward Jesus. But he also gets scared.

When he finds himself doing something he didn’t think he could do, like walk on water, a strong wind distracts and scares him and he starts to sink. Even though he surely knows how to swim, he shows his humanity by crying out for help in a moment of panic, “Jesus, save me!” And immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand to help Peter back into the boat.IMG_4235

This is a story I wish I could see on YouTube. Not for the walking on water part, although that would be really cool, but to see the expression on Jesus’ face as he helps Peter into the boat. My hope is that there’s a playful gleam in his eye as he teases Peter, saying “you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Like the smile and shrug we give a close friend whose exuberance for life always gets them into things a little over their head.

And last week we see Peter in a different light. Jesus is asking the disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and then he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, once again the eager one, steps up and proclaims, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” There’s no hesitation; just pure confidence.

Even so, Jesus points out that Peter has been blessed with this revelation from the Father in heaven. This insight of who Jesus is would only be possible through a revelation from God, not by human deduction. Peter allowed himself to see beyond human limitations, to let the divine in, and was open to embrace Jesus as the Messiah.

Yet this week, we see a different situation. When Jesus starts explaining that he will be going to Jerusalem, he will suffer at the hands of the scribes and elders, he will even be put to death and be raised on the third day, Peter’s human instinct takes over. He’s scared again, and confused.

This isn’t the picture of the Messiah he had imagined. Peter’s Messiah is the one who would deliver the Jewish people from oppression under Roman rule. This suffering and dying thing isn’t what Messiah’s do. The Messiah delivers and saves us!

So Peter, the rock, the foundation of the church, is now telling Jesus that he can’t talk this way. This plan must be a mistake. So, now, this Rock has become a stumbling block to Jesus. Peter stopped discerning God’s will and let human instinct and fear take over. He no longer stilled himself to let God’s revelation in, but in his haste to make things safe and easy, he tried to change the direction of things – tried to make it fit his plan, not God’s.

Now, instead of a playful, “you of little faith” from Jesus, we hear Jesus rebuke Peter, saying, “Get behind me Satan!” And then we hear the familiar passage “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Photo by: Jody Greenwood

Photo by: Jody Greenwood

Take up your cross and follow Jesus.

To be willing to let ourselves be open to a new understanding of what a Messiah can be. Not one who wages war, but one who dies for peace; not one who accumulates things in this life, but one who offers all that he has to help others in need.

What’s more, Jesus is asking us to give our lives over to these divine things, too.

This isn’t just directed to folks who are called to ordained ministry. Not just those of us in fancy vestments and white plastic collars around our necks. All of us, at our Baptism are ordained for Christian ministry.

Our Outline of Faith, also called the Catechism, in the back of the Prayer Book (page 855 for those who what to see for themselves) says that the mission of the church is to be carried out by all its members. And when listing who the ministers of the Church are, it may surprise you to learn that lay persons are the highest order of minister, not the lowest.

We are all commissioned to share the special gifts that we have been given – to use those gifts in stewardship of God’s church and of this world.

We are all expected to say “Here I am” to God.

Here I am. A simple phrase; just three little words; yet they speak volumes.

It’s a declarative statement of one’s presence.

Here –  I –  am.

We see it time and again in the scriptures as God calls people into relationship and needs them to act – and God receives this declarative response.

In Genesis at a moment of testing, God calls out, “Abraham, Abraham!” and he responds, “Here I am.” (Gen 22:11). And in a dream, God called out “Jacob, Jacob” and he replied, “Here I am!” (Gen 46:3)

In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. Moses was willing to keep looking toward the bush, in curiosity, seeing that it was ablaze but not being consumed. And God, seeing Moses’ openness to this new thing, this mystery, called out, “Moses, Moses” and he responded, “Here I am.” (Gen. 3:2-4). Moses’ instruction was to go and help free the Israelites from the oppressive hand of the Egyptians.

Many others in scripture were called as well, even a poor, un-wed, Jewish girl in Galilee – the most unlikely person of all – was called by God to give birth to a son and to call him Jesus. And Mary, not having a clue what she was getting herself into, but trusting God, said “Here I am.”

And as each fisherman, including Peter, dropped his net and followed Jesus, they, too, were saying with their actions, “Here I am.”

There are countless people throughout history who are not named in the Bible, some known, and millions more completely unknown, who have responded to God’s call to them. The act of saying “Here I am” is the act of taking up the cross.

It plays out in tangible ways – in those moments when we respond in kindness instead of criticism; when we lead with compassion instead of judgment. When we say the hard thing to someone who needs to hear it, instead of just saying what will make them happy. It also includes an obligation to stand up against hatred and oppression, and use whatever voice and influence we have to work for changes in structures and systems that marginalize others.

Silence and inaction are the opposite of “Here I am.” One reason I like Peter in the gospels is that he was rarely silent. He might not get it right all the time, but man, he’s trying!

And, like Peter, we won’t always get it right either. We may be a rock one day and a stumbling-block the next. The challenge, I think, is to find a way to be mindful of the “Here I am” moments in our life. To find time to quiet ourselves in the midst of a strong wind, and instead of sinking in fear, trust that God is there to help us back into the boat.

In the gospels, we often hear that Jesus goes off by himself to pray – easy for him! He didn’t have an iPhone with texts and e-mails and people expecting immediate responses to their every need.

In the busy and full days that so many of us face, when we feel pulled in all directions, with the endless demands of an active family, kids going in every direction, how can we be expected to find time each day, even each week, for this kind of prayer or connection with God?

It may seem impossible, but I hope you will try. The time you spend doesn’t have to be long. You’d be surprised what just a few moments of quiet prayer or simply some long deep breathes can do to prepare you for an unexpected stress-moment that may happen later that day.

For some, having a mantra to say may be just what you need to steady yourself when you become anxious – perhaps a verse from a Psalm, or a line from a familiar prayer. I like the prayer of St. Francis. By simply saying “God, make me an instrument of your peace” I bring to mind the calming and empowering elements of that prayer, and also remind myself of the type of person I can be in the world – an instrument of peace.

Photo by: Jody Greenwood

Photo by: Jody Greenwood

And one more thing, don’t forget that today’s familiar passage doesn’t say “take up your cross and best of luck to you.” It says “take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus is right there with you and with me, on this journey of life-giving love. In spite of the inadequacy and fear we may feel, Jesus’ hand is immediately in ours, helping us, strengthening us, on the journey of change.

So, with that in mind, I invite you to seek out the “Here I am” in your life right now by taking the time to discern what God is calling you to. Ask yourself: What cross does God need me to carry this day; this week; this year?

Then say, Here I am.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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