Get Behind Me, Satan

Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2020 || Proper 17A || Matthew 16:21-28

“Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve always wondered how Jesus said these words. Peter has just named Jesus the Messiah. And Jesus has just said what will happen if he continues his mission on its current trajectory. He will undergo great suffering and be killed! (He mentions rising again on the third day, but Peter doesn’t key in on that part.) Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” That’s when Jesus says these famous words: “Get behind me, Satan.”


Did Jesus say them along with a frustrated sigh, like a geometry teacher trying to explain what a proof is? “Get behind me, Satan.

Or did he say them dismissively, with a flick of his hand, like one of the Fab 5 on Queer Eye, getting rid of a pile of cargo shorts: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Or did Jesus say them with a throaty, commanding tone, like Gandalf confronting the Balrog: “You cannot pass!”;* “Get behind me, Satan.”

No matter how Jesus said this iconic sentence, I don’t think he was addressing the command to Peter. Yes, Jesus is responding to Peter’s anxiety, but he’s not calling Peter Satan. Jesus is speaking directly to Satan. Jesus sees past the conversation he’s having with his disciples and confronts the insidious force of temptation that seeks only to unspool us from who we truly are.

(If that’s what’s happening with these words, then I’m liking the Gandalf version.)

Jesus cries out against Satan, the embodiment of temptation, because Peter’s words unwittingly tempt him. By saying, “This must never happen to you,” Peter gives Jesus an out. Jesus hasn’t been telling the disciples what he wants to happen, but what will happen if he remains on his mission of spiritual and communal awakening among his people. His death at the hands of the combined religious and secular authorities is all but assured based on the challenge Jesus’ way of life presents them. When Peter declares that God forbid Jesus from dying, Jesus knows the only way that he won’t die a horrible death is if he veers from his path.

But that would mean a fundamental shift in who Jesus is at his core – a person whose purpose is to bring people and communities fully alive within the love and the grace of God. Such a mission meant challenging unjust structures in his society. Such a mission meant transgressing boundaries of class, gender, religion, and ethnicity in order to show those boundaries should not exist. Such a mission meant living a life of radical welcome, risky love, and permanent vulnerability. That’s who Jesus was. To stray from that path meant a different kind of death – not a horrible physical death, but a spiritual death of the person whom Jesus had chosen to be, whom God had blessed him to be.

Satan, that insidious force of temptation, would revel in the unraveling of the beautiful identity that made Jesus who he was and is. But Jesus stands strong against the temptation, just like he did earlier in the wilderness. “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus will remain on his mission because his life is the mission. His very identity is Emmanuel – “God with us” – and each day of his life, he showed what that promise looked like.

One of the most miraculous things about Jesus was how he stayed true to himself in the midst of overwhelming adversity. Not only were the religious and secular authorities after him, not only did the Pharisees seek to entrap him, not only did he have no place to lay his head, but in our passage today even Peter entices him to give up. Again, I don’t think this was Peter’s intent, but I do think Jesus heard Peter’s words as a call to turn aside and become someone that he (Jesus) was not – someone who kept his head down and got along, never raising his voice against the oppressive society in which he lived.

With Jesus’ example before us, I wonder how you confront the insidious force of temptation that seeks to unravel us. Do you know what I mean when I talk about unraveling? It’s the only word I can find that comes close to describing the sensation I’m talking about. There’s a feeling you get in your gut, a few inches behind your navel. It feels like the thread of yourself is being pulled away, like a sweater caught on a splintered piece of wood. It feels like there is less of you than there was before.

This happens when we act in ways that run counter to the people God yearns for us to be. For example, I am tempted by a less than moral way of doing something. I know it’s technically wrong, but (come on) who’s it really hurting? So I cheat on the test. I plagiarize a little. I hop the turnstile. I download the album from a pirated file share instead of paying for it. None of these things seem all that bad, I convince myself, but each one unravels me just a little bit more.

The more I get used to living in an unraveled state, the easier it is to ignore when I fall farther and farther away from the person God yearns for me to be. I grow violent or reactionary or miserly. I lash out at loved ones. I hoard my possessions. I assume someone else’s gain must mean my loss. The more I unravel, the harder it becomes to see God’s image in myself, and that means there’s no way I’m going to be able to see God’s image in other people.

Unraveling happens when we act in ways that run counter to the image of God within. And unraveling also happens when we don’t act in ways that honor the image of God inside ourselves. For example, I am tempted to sit idly by while the great sins of the world run amok. I convince myself that since I seem to benefit from the way the world is, I might as well let it be. Or I convince myself that it’s someone else’s problem to fix. Or I convince myself that I’m just one person: what can I do? So I scroll by the news story of Jacob Blake, who last week was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police while his children were right there. I might muster a sigh or a shake of the head before moving on to other things.

And while I am looking away from this latest gruesome example of death-dealing injustice, I will unravel a bit more. But I won’t notice because I am getting good at not noticing things. I give in to the temptation not to notice so often that I become a cog in the banal machinery of evil. And in my cog-hood, I don’t recognize the empty shell I’ve become. What happened to the person God yearned for me to be?

This is the temptation Jesus faces down when he says, “Get behind me, Satan.” It is the temptation to live a life other than the one God invites us to live. That other life often seems easier, but only if we don’t take into account what it does to our souls.

This week, I pray that you may take stock of how you are being tempted to unravel. In what ways is God beckoning you to become the person who you truly are? How are you living into that image? And how are you not? If you feel yourself unraveling, bring the feeling to God in your prayer. Ask for eyes to see the difference between who you are now and who you are in God’s dream for you. The good news is that, while our threads may unravel, they are never cut from the spool. And our God is the great Weaver of Creation. No matter how far we are from ourselves, God can knit us back together so that we can participate in God’s weaving movement in this world.


* I know Gandalf says, “You shall not pass” in the movie, but in the book he says, “You cannot pass,” and I had to go with the book.

The Meaning in Stories

Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2020 || Proper 6A || Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

Today, I’d like to share a few stories and talk about how we use them to make meaning. The lessons and meanings of our own stories, our communal stories, and our biblical stories dwell inside us, and we can use what we learn from these stories to make sense of the story we currently find ourselves in. Today, I’m going to tell two and a half stories: first a personal one, then a biblical one. The half story at the end is the story of now, which isn’t finished being written yet.

First, the personal story. Twelve years ago today, I knelt in front of the bishop of West Virginia. He and a dozen or so priests laid their hands on my head, back, and shoulders. And they prayed for God to make me a priest in God’s church. The day of my ordination was a blur, but I remember the next day much more, the day I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time. I was so nervous on the day of my first Eucharist as a priest. I was convinced I was going to knock over the chalice because I had to make specific gestures while clothed beneath a baggy piece of outerwear. 

Continue reading “The Meaning in Stories”

Be My Witnesses

Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2020 || Easter 7A || Acts 1:6-14

Early on a Wednesday morning last June, I stood in line at a checkpoint leading to the Western Wall below the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. Turning around, I watched the sun rise over the Mount of Olives, turning the distant tower of the Church of the Ascension into a dark silhouette against the thin clouds. And for a brief moment, my heart rose with the sun, and I was transported back to that spot 2,000 years ago. I watched with the disciples as Jesus was taken up into heaven. I gazed up at the sky and felt his final words settle in my gut: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Continue reading “Be My Witnesses”

Transactions and Relationships

Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20

This sermon is about the love of God, but it’s going to take me a few minutes to get there. First I need to talk about chores. When I was young, I had certain chores that I did because my parents paid me to do them and other chores I did simply because I was a member of the family and members of the family do the dishes when it’s their turn. Do the dishes, pick up after yourself, clean your room, wash your laundry – these chores came with no financial incentive. These chores lived within the relational currency of my family. I did them because to be a member of my family meant I had to do my part. But mowing the lawn – they paid me to do that. There is no way I would have mowed the lawn without the promise of gas money when I was done. 

Continue reading “Transactions and Relationships”

New Year’s Intentions

Sermon for Sunday, January 5, 2020 || Christmas 2

A few years ago, I read something my sister Melinda wrote on her website at the beginning of a new year. Melinda is something of a mystic: a writer and yoga teacher, who spends her days working at the YMCA to make sure as many kids as possible can benefit from the Y’s programs. Now, I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, so I was glad to see she had put a different spin on the concept. As she looks at the horizon of a new year, Melinda discerns not a resolution, but an intention. Here’s what she wrote two years ago:

“In years past, I’ve written about and set an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga we call this a sankalpa – a word or small phrase in the present tense that represents where we want to go or what we want to cultivate.” She continues: “I hadn’t planned on designating a new sankulpa for this year either, but as I was lying down for a little rest the world community sprung to my awareness… I don’t know what community is asking of me, but I do know enough to let it be, and open to what this energy wants to create through me.”

Continue reading “New Year’s Intentions”

Play Your Game, Not Theirs

Sermon for Sunday, November 3, 2019 || All Saints’ Sunday || Luke 6:20-31

The only person you can change is yourself. 

Recently, I began a practice of silent meditation every morning. For twenty minutes, I sit cross-legged on the center cushion of my couch, and I breathe the prayer-word “Maranatha,” which means “Come, Lord Jesus.” I decided to build this practice into my spiritual life because I felt myself changing for the worse. The culture of immediacy had captured me with its constant need for updating feeds. The tough subjects I was (and am) tackling in my person study didn’t have a space to go inside me because I was too cluttered with other, incompatible ideas. I talked about God so much that I had forgotten simply to dwell with God. 

And most perniciously, with the rising tide of negativity, hate, indignity, and disrespect in our society, I could feel these evil chemicals starting to build up in my system. In silence, God and I can purge them together, and I can feel the treatment beginning to gain ground on the disease.

Continue reading “Play Your Game, Not Theirs”

Walk in Love

Sermon for Sunday, September 29, 2019 || Proper 21C || Luke 16:19-31

This sermon is about walking in love. But before I go there, I need to talk about Jesus the radical. Jesus shares a lot of radical stories in the Gospel. We might not realize how radical they are because they appear in the Bible. And the Bible over time has become such an established collection of writings that we don’t necessarily expect them to be radical. We hear the same stories over and over again, so their shocking nature is dulled both by repetition and the long march of history.

Continue reading “Walk in Love”

On the Basis of Love

Sermon for Sunday, September 8, 2019 || Proper 18C || Philemon 1-21

I guarantee you that the Apostle Paul has no idea he was writing scripture. This fact lends a certain authenticity to his words because he was never trying to add to the Bible. Rather, his letters flow from his close relationships with people all over the Mediterranean, people he has met while planting house churches. Today, we heard most of Paul’s shortest surviving letter, his letter to Philemon. We know Paul isn’t aware this letter will become Holy Scripture because his words are so personal, so timely. “One more thing,” he says (after the verses we read this morning), “Prepare a guest room for me.” That’s like me emailing an old college buddy and seeing if I can crash on his couch for a few days. Such a normal, everyday request gives this short letter a down-to-earth quality, a glimpse into Paul’s extraordinary (and yet still very human) life.

Continue reading “On the Basis of Love”

Thoughts and Prayers

Sermon for Sunday, August 11, 2019 || Proper 14C || Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

It is so good to be standing here behind this lectern again. I haven’t preached a sermon since Easter Sunday, so I hope I remember how to do it. I have so many things I want to share with you from my time on sabbatical. Many I will share during the adult forum hour throughout the upcoming school year. Some things will surely influence my sermons. But today is not the day to begin that sharing. A week ago two more mass shootings, both perhaps spurred by the scourge of white nationalist terrorism, devastated the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The events were still breaking at the time of last week’s Sunday services, so there was no time to formulate more than just an anguished response – a prayer of lamentation: “How many more, O Lord?”

Continue reading “Thoughts and Prayers”

The House of the Lord

Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2019 || Lent 2C || PSALM 27; LUKE 13:31-35

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” These words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are the only adequate ones I can find to say this morning in the wake of the white supremacist terrorist attack on two Muslim mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. After writing that sentence yesterday morning, I stared at my computer screen for a long, long time because I had no adequate words of my own to add. All I have left are the inadequate ones, written through the fog of my own tears.

Continue reading “The House of the Lord”