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.

40,000 Words

Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2020 || Proper 14A || Matthew 14:22-33

Before I jump into my sermon, I’d like to say I was hoping that at least some of us would be gathering in person outside this morning. Our reopening team decided that we would wait until I was back from vacation to begin our in person experimentation. But that was all predicated on Connecticut being in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Our prudent and cautious officials have kept us in Phase 2 as much of the rest of the country experiences a huge upsurge in their cases. We will have in person outdoor services during Phase 3, and we will be bringing back Holy Communion during Phase 4. For now, patience, perseverance, and continued compassionate sacrifice mark us citizens of both the state of Connecticut and the Kingdom of God. We don’t know when we will move to Phase 3, but I am very much looking forward to seeing you all when the state reaches that goal.

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Breathing on Statues (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, April 19, 2020 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, talking to a friend about the day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in the locked house.

I wish I could tell you that seeing the empty tomb was enough. I went inside the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there and the cloth that had covered his face folded up in a corner. Thinking back now, surely grave robbers wouldn’t’ve folded his burial garments while stealing his body. But in the semi-darkness of that early morning, I wasn’t thinking rationally. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was numb on the outside. I couldn’t see the sliver of hope the empty tomb brought.

Continue reading “Breathing on Statues (updated)”

Old Life, New Life

Sermon for Sunday, January 26, 2020 || Epiphany 3A || Matthew 4:12-23

This past summer, I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The pebbled beach crunched beneath my feet. The windswept waves gurgled in and out. The fresh air filled my lungs just like it did for those first disciples of Jesus, who knelt on the same shore two thousand years ago repairing their fishing nets. The sea felt holy, filled with the memory of fishing boats plying the waves, delivering Jesus the Christ to various destinations on the coast; filled too with the energy of those ancient calls, brought to the present to strengthen and renew my own call to follow Jesus.

Imagine yourselves on that shore. The Sea of Galilee, really a large lake, stretches out before you, its dark blue waters lightening with the dawn under a clear sky, where the last of the brightest stars is disappearing. The Golan Heights and other points of elevation rise on the far side of the sea, gold and green and hazy in the distance. The sun is just rising over the hills across the water, and you’re squatting on the ground with threads of twine between your fingers. You need to repair the net soon so you can get in the water during the best fishing. Simon and Andrew already pushed off and they’re…

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I Will Give You Words

Sermon for Sunday, November 17, 2019 || Proper 28C || Luke 21:5-19

Imagine with me the words of the Apostle Peter, spoken to his young cellmate on the eve of Peter’s death in the city of Rome around the year 64 A.D.

I heard about the great fire that swept through Rome, and I knew immediately that the authorities would blame us Christians. That’s why I came here – to support the community I knew would face persecution. And now here I am, arrested for arson – this is my fourth arrest, by the way – and I wasn’t even here at the time of the blaze. But facts don’t matter to those in power. Only keeping their power matters to them. 

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Both Miner and the Vein of Gold

Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019 || Easter Day C || JOHN 20:1-18

Here we are at long last: Easter Sunday, a long wait this year, two-thirds of the way through the month of April. But it could have been longer. April 25th is the latest Easter can be, but that hasn’t happened since 1943 and won’t happen again until 2038, which coincidentally is the year I’ll be eligible to retire. Unlike most holidays, which are fixed on a particular date or day of the month, the date of Easter (and the Jewish Passover) springs from something much grander – the motion of celestial bodies. We start with the vernal equinox, the day in March when the earth is tilted just so in relation to the sun to make day and night the same exact length. Then we find the next full moon, and the Sunday following is this day of Resurrection.

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The True Messiah

Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2018 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38

Imagine with me today’s Gospel story as told me the perspective of the disciple Peter.

The coals in the cooking fire still smolder hours after the last log is cast on them. I awake in the pre-dawn chill and warm my fingers over the scant heat. Mine is the night’s last watch, and I mutter to myself about the pointlessness of posting a sentry. But our resident Zealot, the other Simon, has convinced the others about the need for vigilance. The foggy, half-light of dawn creeps through our camp, and I see movement coming through the scrub from the foothills. I’m about to wake the Zealot when I hear the tune of a psalm carried on the breeze, and then Jesus himself steps out of the mist. Under one arm, he has a load of sticks and twigs. Blowing gently on the embers, he rekindles the fire and sits down next to me. Continue reading “The True Messiah”

You Will be Found

Sermon for Sunday, August 26, 2018 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69

Sometimes ordinary conversations spur the deepest of thoughts. This past Monday, I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes while listening to the kids talking to each other at the kitchen table. At their recent birthday party, they had decorated small terra cotta pots with glitter glue and stickers. Inside the pots they planted seeds that hopefully will grow into tiny spruce trees by Christmas. So there they sat at the kitchen table, and then they started listing off all the people they wanted to invite over to see their Christmas trees when they’re done growing.

They began with close family friends who had helped bake their birthday cake. Then they listed all their family members – Nana and Papa, Amma and Abba, their aunts and uncles and cousins. Then they moved onto friends who attended their party and their parents; then to other friends from school; then to people from church. They kept naming people they know, people with whom they have some level of relationship. And for a pair of four-year-olds, they had a pretty extensive list. Continue reading “You Will be Found”

I Am. I Am Not.

Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John

Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying,  “I Am.”

These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman. Continue reading “I Am. I Am Not.”

Spiritual Topography

Sermon for Sunday, February 11, 2018 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9

Our spiritual lives are topographically interesting. Two of the most enduring images of walking with God are the mountain and the valley, the high place and the low. You’ve heard of the proverbial “mountain top experience,” which can spark faith for the first time or renew the well-trodden paths of faith. And you’ve prayed the immortal words of Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…thou art with me.” The mountain and the valley: these are the peaks of our spiritual lives and the troughs. Continue reading “Spiritual Topography”