Trailblazer

Sermon for Sunday, August 24, 2014 || Proper 16A || Matthew 16:13-20

(A problem with our sound system rendered the audio for this sermon unusable.)

TrailblazerFor as long as I can remember, my father has worn a cross beneath his clothing, resting on his skin close to his heart. So when my parents gave me a cross of my own to wear when I was in my early teen years, I was thrilled. I was going to be just like Dad, wearing my cross all the time, even in the shower! The trouble was I kept losing it. I couldn’t wear the cross all the time because I played soccer, and there was a “no jewelry” rule. So it would get lost in the depths of my soccer bag (which was not a place for the faint of heart). The chain broke once, but I managed to find the cross beneath the seat of my car. Then during my freshman year of college the chain broke again, and I lost the cross for good.

At that time, I was just beginning to glimpse the edge of the expanse of the life God was calling me into, so I was quite upset at losing my cross. I’m not naturally a superstitious person, but I took it as a bad omen. So two weeks before I turned nineteen, I went to a local tattoo parlor and emerged a few hours later with a Celtic cross indelibly inked on my back. It was my way of telling myself that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus, that if push came to shove there was no way to deny my identity. At baptism I was marked with oil as “Christ’s own forever,” but now I was visibly marked as Christ’s own.

And yet, walking out of the tattoo parlor on that fine January day, I don’t think I could have told you what it meant to me to be a follower of Jesus. I think I could do a bit better job today, but such meaning-making will take the rest of my lifetime to unfold, so check back with me again sometime. What’s telling is that – in my tattoo experience – I identified as “follower.” Since I put myself in the position of “follower,” for me Jesus took on the identity of “guide.”

As my guide, or better yet my “trailblazer,” I envisioned Jesus walking ahead of me, as if we were tramping through a marsh and he knew where it was safe to place one’s feet. Because he was my trailblazer and I his follower, I attempted to step where he stepped and to stay on the path he showed me. When people learned I was in the process to become an ordained minister, they asked if I was following in my father’s footsteps. I responded, “No,” because in my mind, we were both following in Jesus’ footsteps. Thus, in my language and in my imagination – two of the most potent vehicles for meaning-making – I identified as the follower of a trailblazer.

But the trailblazer-follower relationship is only one of myriad possibilities. And this is why today’s story from the Gospel according to Matthew is so important for us today. You see, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s really asking them, “What kind of relationship do you want to have with me?”

This powerful secondary question hovers just beneath the primary one because no matter what the disciples say, they set up the presumption of a relationship. Let’s take Simon Peter’s answer, for instance. I imagine his words rushing from Peter’s mouth all at once, as if an unseen force reached into his heart and yanked them out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

So if Peter names Jesus “Messiah,” what title would Peter use for himself to relate to this identity? Would it surprise you if I said soldier? The title of “Messiah” was something of a political identity at this time in Israel. The Jewish Messiah was supposed to be a warrior like the great King David, who swept away the forces occupying Israel with his martial prowess. It’s not a coincidence at all that Matthew sets this exchange in the city of Ceasarea Phillipi, a city named for the Roman Emperor. Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah tacitly sets Jesus against the power of occupying Rome. That Peter identifies as a soldier in the Messiah’s army is made clear both in his use of a sword when Jesus is arrested and in the very next passage after ours today. We’ll read it next week, but here’s a spoiler. Jesus reveals to the disciples what is going to happen to him – namely something basically the opposite of kicking the Romans out of Israel – and Peter is stunned to hear the Messiah will die. Another set of words rips itself from Peter: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

It takes the rest of the Gospel, and indeed the rest of Peter’s life, to fathom Jesus’ understanding of “Messiah.” Peter’s journey takes him from confession to denial to redemption to proclamation as he struggles with his relationship to Jesus in light of calling him Messiah. By the end of his time in the book of Acts, Peter has moved from soldier to something of a herald of Jesus’ understanding of Messiah-ship.

So Peter undergoes a long transformation of his identity in the light of calling Jesus Messiah. I still think of Jesus as my trailblazer, and I try to follow his steps. But what of you? When Jesus puts this question to you, who do you say that he is? And what does that say about the kind of relationship you want to have with him?

Perhaps you answer that Jesus is “Lord,” which makes you his “subject.” If so, this means you cede your sovereignty over to him. You surrender your will to his. You are a vassal and he is your liege. We might not want to give up our autonomy to a higher power, knowing as we do how badly that turns out most of the time here on earth. But Jesus is a Lord who is trustworthy and true, and giving up our wills for his leads not to enslavement but to freedom.

Perhaps you answer not Lord but “Teacher.” This makes you Jesus’ “student.” If so, you desire to learn all you can from him, both by searching the scriptures and listening for his instruction as you pray. We have so much to learn from Jesus our teacher, and we will never graduate from his class, not until we “know fully, even as we are fully known.”

Perhaps you answer not Lord or Teacher, but “Savior.” Thus, you relate to Jesus as someone who needs saving. He is the knight in shining armor and you are in distress in the dragon’s lair. As our savior, Jesus accomplished the great work set before him between the cross and the empty tomb. But if we let him, his presence in our lives continues to save us from all the small, yet debilitating, ways we drift towards annihilation.

And if not Lord or Teacher or Savior, how about “Friend?” If Jesus is your friend, then you are his. This is not blasphemy, for Jesus calls his disciples friends in the upper room on the night of his arrest. As a friend, a companion, Jesus is not walking ahead of us blazing the path. Rather, he is walking with us, hand in hand, as we discover the way together.

Of course, these ways of answering Jesus’ question are not mutually exclusive. Jesus is trailblazer and Messiah and Lord and teacher and savior and friend. And that is just a small sampling. Answering his question – “Who do you say that I am?” – does not limit our relationships with him, but it does define them. Discerning how we relate to Jesus at any given time or in any given situation will only serve to strengthen our relationships with him. And the more we follow our trailblazer and proclaim our Messiah and serve our Lord and learn from our teacher and reach out to our Savior and walk with our friend Jesus Christ, the better and fuller and deeper will we answer his call in our lives.

Art: Detail from “Handing Over the Keys” by Raphael (1515)

To be that follower

(Sermon for August 31, 2008 || Proper 17, Year A RCL || Matthew 16:21-28)

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, thinking back on that day spoken of in this morning’s Gospel. *

The coals in the cooking fire still smoldered hours after the last log was cast on them. I awoke in the pre-dawn chill and warmed my fingers over the scant heat. Mine was the night’s last watch, and I muttered to myself about the senselessness of posting a sentry. But our resident Zealot,** the other Simon, had spoken persuasively about the need for vigilance, especially as Jesus’ words reached more important and more vindictive ears. As the foggy, half-light of dawn crept through our camp, I saw movement coming through the scrub from the foothills. I was about to wake the Zealot when I heard the tune of a psalm carried on the breeze, and then Jesus himself stepped out of the mist. Under one arm, he had a load of sticks and twigs, which he deposited on the coals. Blowing gently on the embers, he rekindled the fire and sat down next to me.

“Lord, you shouldn’t go off alone like that. It isn’t safe.” Apparently, I said this louder than I had meant to because our companions began to stir.

“You’re right,” he said, “It probably isn’t safe.” He turned to look at me and smiled. “But I wasn’t alone, Peter. No. None of us is ever alone.” He paused, held his breath. Then he exhaled slowly, and his cold breath mingled with the smoke from the damp twigs on the fire. He called out to those still sleeping. “Gather around, everyone. I have something to tell you.”

Once the rest of our group was seated at the fire, Jesus lifted his head and greeted us each by name. “My friends,” he said, “Yesterday, I asked you to keep my identity a secret. I asked you not to tell anyone that I am the Messiah. I know I can trust all of you, and this morning I have more to entrust to your confidence. Peter has just cautioned me about the danger of going off alone. Simon has you all standing guard through the night. I thank them both for their devotion to our safety. However, my friends, this morning I must tell you where our story is going, where my path is leading. Soon, I will abandon the safety of these hills and go to Jerusalem. Once there, I will ask you not to protect me. Men from the elders and the chief priests and the scribes will come, and they will arrest me, and they will beat me, and they will kill me. And three days later I will be raised from the dead.”

I stood up and looked down at Jesus. I didn’t know what to say. Twenty minutes ago he was rekindling the fire, and now he was talking about his own fire being snuffed out. I looked around at my companions—stunned into silence every one, even Bartholomew who always had some joke or jest on his lips. I started walking away. I needed to get away.

I thought I had everything figured out. I thought I knew what was to come. I saw him do amazing things: I saw him make the blind see and the lame walk. I saw him cleanse the leper’s skin. I saw him feed five thousand with enough to feed five. I saw him cry out in the storm and calm the waves. The words of the prophet were coming to life before my very eyes. The day before, Jesus had asked us who we thought he was. “You’re the Messiah,” I had said, and something inside me that was not myself told me I had spoken the truth.

But what kind of Messiah lets himself be led like some silent sheep to the slaughter? What kind of Messiah allows himself to be killed? The Messiah is the heir to David’s throne, the king who brings victory over our oppressors, the warrior who will sweep our enemies from our land and make us free once again. Not one who surrenders. Not a victim. Not a dead man.

These maddening thoughts crashed into me, and I dropped to one knee, my chest heaving, my cheeks moist with tears. I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. Jesus was there, looking down at me. “Why, Lord?” I snarled from my kneeling position. Then I stood up and shouted in his face: “Why? I trusted you. I called you Messiah and you did not deny it. I gave you my life, and for what? So that I might dig your grave?” I turned around and put my hands on my head, squeezing as if the pressure would keep my mind from flying apart. “Heavens preserve you, Lord. This must never happen to you.”

Jesus turned and looked at me or into me. When he spoke, his voice was calm, but commanding. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on godly things, but on human things.”

Then he walked back to camp, leaving me alone in the morning fog. “None of us is ever alone,” I heard him say, as in a distant memory. I followed him back to the fire, my thoughts as thick as the fog. Yesterday, I was Rock. Today, I am stumbling block? Yesterday, the father in heaven was revealing things to me. Today, my mind is set on human things. What happened? What changed?

I had been clinging so tightly to my own image of the Messiah that I failed to see this new, brilliant vision of the Christ in my midst. Where was his army marshalling to cast out the Romans? Where were his generals and siege towers and chariots? Of course, there were none. Instead of soldiers there were blind men with new eyes. Instead of swords and shields there were loaves and fishes. Instead of slaughter and death there was healing and life for all. I realized in that moment that I was the blind one: I missed what was there because I was looking for what was not. I was the deaf one: I had never heard Jesus properly because I was always filtering him through my own preconceptions. I vowed then and there to listen with new ears and see with new eyes.

As I reached the camp, I heard him say to our companions, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I wanted to be that follower. But I couldn’t make it happen that cold morning. There were too many changes happening and just too much new information to process. And I couldn’t make it happen later that year. Instead of denying myself, I denied Jesus. Three times in one night. He took up his cross and I fled to save my life. But three days later, he rose from the dead, and I saw him, and that voice inside me remembered that he said he would do this. But was I his follower yet, even then?

The years bring clarity, and now I know that I was his follower even on that cold morning and on that terrifying night before his death. You see, being his follower had very little to do with how much I understood. I didn’t understand the kind of Messiah he was and yet he still welcomed me back, still loved me, no matter how much I shouted at him. Being his follower also had very little to do with how good I was at it. I denied him and yet he still welcomed me back, still loved me.

Yes, the years do bring clarity, and many things are clear to me now. Jesus never said that those who lose their life for his sake will save their life. The saving is Jesus’ job and his alone. No. He said that those who lose their life for his sake will find their life. You don’t find something without searching for it. The search gave me the space to let go of my preconceptions, to lose all those things I was holding onto so tightly—my own vision of the Messiah, my own need for Jesus to be exactly who I needed him to be. As I let go of those things, the search offered me the license to believe in Jesus without understanding everything he said or did. As my own death approaches, I see that the losing, the searching, and the finding are all somehow wrapped into one. The One I seek has already found me. The One I seek is bearing his cross with me. The One I seek is walking before me as I try to follow him.

None of us is ever alone. No matter how much or how little I think I understand, I hear Jesus’ voice inside of me saying, “Understanding will come…in time. For now, lift up that cross and follow me.”

Footnotes

* This narrative type of sermon has its roots in the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash, in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth.

** The Zealots were a sect that favored violent encounter to achieve political ends. If they were around today, they’d be one man’s freedom fighters and another man’s terrorists. I try not to mix the accounts of the Gospel, but in this case, I borrow a bit from Luke, who assigns the category of Zealot to the other Simon. Matthew does not.

Expect to be surprised (Bible study #4)

I wasn’t planning to write about this particular aspect of Bible study for a while yet, but a few days ago I broke the very direction I’m about to relate to you. Before I tell you what this direction is, I must say that failing to observe my own guidelines is an odd and humbling experience. You might say, “Adam, you made them up; you can get rid of them just as easily.” Well, I’ve never liked when presidents dump their own executive orders when they get inconvenient. So I better stick to my guidelines and remember that God’s greatest gift to me is slapping me upside the head with humility.

Incidentally, I wonder if police officers experience any humility or remorse when they speed by with nary a siren or light turned on. I doubt it. Anyways, back to the Bible. So, I was beginning my sermon prep and reading through this Sunday’s lessons in a book that has all three of them conveniently grouped together. I finished the short passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my eyes wandered down to the Gospel reading. “Matthew 16:13-20” said the bold headline. Right, I thought, that’s Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Messiah, keys to the kingdom and all that. Then I closed the book.

Yep, I closed the book. I closed the book WITHOUT READING THE GOSPEL LESSON. Take 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid before continuing to read this post………..right, let’s press on.

The next morning in the shower (I do all my best thinking in the shower), I was thinking about my sermon and realized I couldn’t remember what the Gospel text was for Sunday. I could, however, remember shutting the book after reading Romans. I took 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid. When I got to church, I pulled out my Bible, opened up to Matthew 16, and read it. And read it again. And read it again.

And I surprised myself so much that I threw my head back and laughed a manly laugh of triumph. Actually, I had an uncontrollable fit of giggles, but if Cameron Crowe ever makes my biopic, I hope he inaccurately portrays me so I seem less like a 12-year-old girl.

I giggled because I noticed something in the text I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read Matthew 16 a few dozen times over the years, but until Tuesday morning, I never saw that Jesus asks his disciples two different questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” I always saw the “those people/you disciples” distinction, but never the “Son of Man is/I am” one. My sermon is still percolating somewhere in the region of my belly, so I don’t know if this distinction will influence what I say on Sunday. But, the important thing is this: the text surprised me–this text that I thought I knew so well that I didn’t even need to read it to write a sermon about it surprised me with something new and exciting.

The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron. If you’re expecting to be surprised, then will there really be a surprise? With birthday parties, No. With reading the Bible and living your life in God’s grace, Yes. God can and surely does surprise us when we are least expecting it. But we can also foster the faithful expectation that God’s sleeves are full of never-ending pocket handkerchiefs and affixed to God’s lapel is one of those flowers that squirts water and in God’s loving embrace await ever deeper and more beautiful surprises.*

When you read the Bible, practice expecting to be surprised, especially when you are studying the most familiar passages. And I do mean practice. Every reading will not yield some surprising event, but every expectant reading will cultivate an openness to the Holy Spirit, whose whole game plan is about surprising us with God’s grace and joy.

Here’s one exercise I find helpful. Read the passage twice, with a few minutes of silence in between. The first time, read as critically as you can, with all your past experience and knowledge of the historical context and history of tradition and understanding of ancient biblical languages and your kitchen sink. The second time, let all the baggage recede into your mind’s Green Room and read with the lightness of a holy naivete. Finally, have a conversation with yourself about how your two readings compared. What was the same/different? What was confusing/clear? What sprung from the page? As your intellect, curiosity, and hunger mingle with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you will find something new and exciting. And you might just giggle like a 12-year-old girl.

Footnotes

*After the first comment on this post, I think I’ll qualify my clown imagery. I was going for the surprising things clowns do. If you’ve ever met me, you know clowns really freak me out, but it’s the painted smiles, not the gags. The clown therapy people who frequented the hospital at which I worked one summer wore white lab coats like doctors. It was weird.