Sermon – September 3, 2017

Homily: Matthew 16:22-28, Exodus 3:1-5, Romans 12:9-21

Thursday afternoons I’m on grandpa duty with Fiona and Maja.

Hanging out with four and six year olds can really open these old jaded eyes to see things as they see them. They ask lots of questions about the things they see. Difficult questions!

We were down in Mt Vernon with some time to kill before their dad would fetch them. This crusty old homeless man who hit me up for some money would be a rare sight out in leafy Ellicott City. “Why did you give him money? Why don’t they have a house? How come somebody doesn’t bring him home with them?”

Hard questions I did my best to answer, but really I would rather to dodge this invitation to initiate my granddaughters to the cruelty of the world. And seeing the nearby Walters Gallery’s open doors, I thought maybe I’ll distract them with a little cultural exposure.

Out of the summer glare into the cool marble vestibule, we are first greeted by two large naked and amply endowed Greek gods. Fiona and Maja thought this was uproarious good fun and it took some work to settle them down. I herded them down the nearest passage into what turned out to be section of medieval art.

“What’s that? Why is he nailed up like that? Why would they do that to him?” Here was a 18’ painting of Jesus crucified writhing in agony and gore. So much for my attempt to distract and amuse and dodge difficult questions!

The dark side of humanity is so numbingly pervasive we stop really seeing it. We become cynical and hardened, accepting the injustice and cruelties of the status quo as “reality”.

We have heard this passage from Matthew’s gospel so many times we scarcely take in just how jarringly shocking are Jesus’ words: “deny self and take up a cross”, “lose your life to save it”. Imagine how shocking is a young child’s glance at a picture of a crucifixion. How can they bear the excruciating pain and cruelty of it all? Jesus’ listeners knew well what crucifixion entailed and it was no tame metaphor for accepting life’s troubles patiently; Rome made sure that subject peoples had frequent reminders of what was in store for those who challenge their brutal power.

So Jesus intimates to his disciples that he knows well his fate. Jesus stares without blinking into the heart of human darkness. Peter protests.

Can we blame him? We don’t want to know and see that maelstrom of human cruelty that will condemn the innocent Jesus, not just then and there, but again and again and again down through the centuries. With tediously predictable cruelty the wheels of history grind down and grind up the powerless, the scapegoat, the outcast – in every age, in every place.

Little Fiona and Maja can’t understand that we are content to let some people sleep on the streets. Their innocence challenges are unthinking disavowal or habitual looking the other way. How would we explain to them the terrifying ugliness of recent events in Charlottesville?

Peter wants Jesus to avoid the fate he predicts. He wants Jesus to want what Peter wants and what we all want: power, recognition, prestige and the security that he imagines comes with it. Who wants to be powerless and vulnerable? But scripture tells us over and over that God is with the vulnerable and powerless. Jesus tells us that our only hope is to desire God alone and God’s purposes for humanity.

We all shrink from knowing and seeing clearly this very evident human reality. We are all like Peter, and Jesus’s rebuke is sharp and clear. “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block! You are setting your mind not on the things of God, but the things of humans.” We don’t’ get it, and everything depends on our getting it. We sorely need an upgrade on our consciousness. We need to see things as God sees them. Indeed as Jesus reminds us – we would do well to see things as young children do.

Today we hear of Moses tending his sheep in Midian – Moses doing his own thing, far away from all that unpleasantness in Egypt, far away from his own people, forgetting their enslavement and their oppression, not knowing, not seeing their terrible suffering.

Almost a distraction in his peripheral vision he sees a strange sight, a bush burning and not burning. That’s curious?!?

Moses hardly expects to encounter the living God in that bush.

But God is there and God makes it clear that he is God and a God who is very much aligned with humanity and history. This is not a metaphysical god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God who hears the cries of powerless enslaved people being ground down. The flaming heart of God is joined to his suffering people.

And God has a big job for our reluctant recalcitrant friend Moses, work Moses would rather not do, a job he would much prefer to pass up. Like most of us most of the time, Moses would prefer to stay with his sheep, and stay fat, dumb and happy in our illusory routines. That’s not God’s way. God wants our eyes, minds and hearts open, alive and responsive to the painful realities of this broken world. Human suffering is God’s suffering and must truly be our own.

There are times when we gets a glimpse of what humanity can be, what human beings were meant to be, and in God’s good time will be.

All week TV’s glared with images of terrible flooding in Texas, thousands of poor people stranded in attics and rooftops seeking refuge from rising waters. But also witness the other side of our flawed humanity. Contrasted with the ugly tribalism of Charlottesville, there is the unselfconscious generosity, the self-emptying heroism of ordinary decent people coming to help their fellow humans in terrible circumstances. Thousands of people arriving with boats and trucks to help rescue stranded folks, ordinary people of modest means taking time off, and sacrificing freely their resources to help other humans in trouble, and making no distinction of race or ethnicity or creed or class. That is taking up the cross –loving as God loves, embracing the poor and dispossessed because ultimately we are all in the same boat, and we are all brothers and sisters and children of the same God.

Echoing the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, St. Paul says, “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Bless those who persecute you… rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

The great paradox is that the more human we become the more like God we become.

Theologian Walter Wink wrote: “And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN… It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness – which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, Just Jesus, My Struggle to be Human, p.102)

May it be so. Amen.