Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Sep. 3, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Sep 3, 2023 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 14th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep. 3, 2023

Anyone ever tell you to just be more positive, look on the bright side, and all will be well? It’s pretty common of late, and it’s not true. It can even shut down that honest communication we might need to have. As if we’re only interested in the happy stuff in our or each other’s life. True, sometimes reality bites. But is the response to decide to wear red, or is it to deal with the bleeding?

I hear Peter applying that ‘positivity principle’ himself in today’s reading, and in doing so, Jesus calls him a stumbling block. Pushing away the possibility of Jesus’ impending suffering and death also means pushing away his resurrection.

The image of Peter (formerly Simon) as a stumbling block to Jesus is marvelously heightened by Jesus having just given him the nickname of Petros, meaning “Rock,” saying “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It shows us how easily and without intention or guile we can be either a rock of faith or a stumbling block, as can be other people or entities in our lives. Peter was an enthusiastic follower of Jesus and things are exciting! Crowds, teachings, miracles, healings, even being part of the inner circle. So when Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” it so horrifies Peter that he says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” 

To Peter such an end would be the antithesis of all he is coming to know and hope for from Jesus, to chart his life with. The Messiah is a victor to overrun the Romans and do great things for his people, he cannot possibly be the object of betrayal, sacrifice, torture and death. Peter has thus far been listening with an enthusiastic ‘here and now’ human focus. Notice that today Jesus doesn’t tell them or preach to them—Matthew says he shows them! The word means to show to one’s eyes, give evidence, to render visible as with a vision. No wonder it scared Peter! 

Jesus has imbued it with great importance and Peter reacts as many would; he wants to deny death will come to Jesus, especially not one so cruel and immediate. Peter is fixed on his death, while Jesus is trying to show him the way to the resurrection. All of which he says must happen. Peter’s denial is a stumbling block.

Sometimes it’s easier to see someone else’s stumbling blocks than our own. Whom do you love that you see tripping again and again over the same obstacle while trying to find their way? Mine feel custom made. Procrastination is frequently one I fall over, and the personal kick is that if I did things sooner I’d get to do more of what I most care about. 

So what, or who, are your stumbling blocks? Naming it means we can enlist God’s presence in dealing with it. Those fears and struggles don’t go away, but we can live with them in faithful realistic ways. The ‘positivity mantra’ itself is often a well-disguised stumbling block. Jesus practically points it out to them—it won’t be fun or pretty to share his path to Jerusalem, to “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” But it is all of one piece. If any want to come with me, let them disregard their own self and lift 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. [My translation, KLS+] 

Jesus does the impossibly hard work first, culminating not in his death but in his resurrection. We follow, drawing on his strength and assurance. We will all die, denying it is pointless — and lacks faith. Even for the most devout Christian life won’t always make sense, crisis will be unearned and disaster undeserved. Jesus said God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Both pain and joy come to all of us, and God’s love comes to us through each other. It is why we say one cannot be a Christian all by ourselves. How do we respond and what path do we follow? That of Jesus’ love and sacrifice or the path of self-absorption? Odd as it sounds, following him is the greatest gift we can give ourselves—not the easiest, only the greatest.

He offers them no half way, they are either with him or not. As Peter’s faith life shows us again and again it doesn’t happen all at once. It is a series of steps and stumbles, dropping our cross and picking it up again. Yes, Peter missed the really big point Jesus was making because he was stuck in what he didn’t want to hear. He missed Jesus say he’d rise on the third day. Ultimately his perseverance, his trying and failing, and trying again, mattered more than perfecting early adoption here. We know there is no escaping the end of this earthly life. Jesus points us beyond that to a triumph over death, and invites us to come with him. For his disciples and for us, Jesus’ self-giving meant, (as John Donne famously put it), “death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” 

We can’t try it before you buy it like with Amazon, and Christian life defies a good ad campaign; it’s inconvenient and often difficult, lonely, exhausting, and at times feels inadequate. At times we scarcely want to face the news for all of the dire scenes, let alone know the right response to constantly changing complexities of our world. Our faith means we come together in love and support, and side by side seek Christly illumination in these challenges. Peter wasn’t alone! Here we are with others who also make this wonderfully bizarre choice to do our best to give up the relentless isolating self-focus and those ‘get-it-by-tomorrow’ promises of fleeting happiness, and instead open ourselves to a faith made exquisite in Christ’s promise. Can we open ourselves to follow him daily, sometimes hourly? To grow in faith and share it, as our Eucharistic prayer says, “that we might live in him and he in us.” Live in him. 

Our souls transcend our mortality, and Jesus has opened the way, walking it first. He refused to let Peter get away with his skin-deep focus on himself, on avoiding pain and death. Jesus called him out and called him to follow. He has called us too, and so we know ourselves as a resurrection people. 


© 2023 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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