This week was at a new (for me) church, in Holbrook. Holbrook is located about 90 mi east of Flagstaff, on the border of Navajoland, and is home of not a whole lot. (Holbrook, in case you ever visit, is further out on I-40 than is Winslow, of Eagles-song-fame. All Winslow has going for it is the song, but bless their hearts, they have The Corner, with a Ford truck, and a wooden cut-out of a man standing there, and that song, playing on a loop. You, too, can come stand there and Take It Easy!)
Notably, however, there are two churches there–an Episcopal one and an ELCA one. The Lutheran one called a few weeks ago, and asked if I would come supply. I asked for directions, and he said that I had to remember to turn at the Burger King. Okay.
Sure enough, there was a Burger King, whereupon I should turn. And there was a gravel road and there was the church. I took a picture, so y’all can see.
It’s a teeny place, but the people are wonderful, and extremely kind. And I conquered a new setting in the Cranberry Book! (Btw, I am again amazed at how calmly everyone seems to have taken to the liturgy change in the ELCA. No riots, no shouting, no nothing.)
Anyway, here’s what I said come sermon time.
Ordinary Time, Proper 16 Matthew 16: 13-20
The church in the town where I went to college lacked electricity. Built in the mid- 1600s, it was lit at night by wax candles, and staffed by clergy who learned quickly how talk really loudly. We had a pipe organ, but we also had a harpsichord which got not-infrequent use The joke among the college students was “How many Parishioners does it take to change a light bulb?”. “none! Heaven forbid! Why would we ever want those newfangled things in here?!”
For all the church attempted to remain faithful to its historic roots, it never quite managed it completely. And I really enjoyed leading the noonday prayer service with the visiting tourists– like a walking, talking, head on collision between 1774 and the early 21st century. Only since 1965, after all, could women read in church.
Because despite our grievous lack of light bulbs, in fact, we had changed.
The gospel story for today finds Jesus and the disciples at a crossroads, both literally, and figuratively. They’ve come to Caesara Phillippi, this city up way north, where the Jordan river starts, and Jesus says, What are people saying about me? Who do people say that I am?
Now, it’s sort of a throwaway line, in the text, isn’t it, where they are when this happens. But Caesara Philippi is an important place for the Roman Empire. It was the center of worship for a lot of different gods and goddesses and had been for generations back– think of it like a smaller, pagan Jerusalem. Tons of temples, all devoted to a different Roman god or goddess.
So when Jesus is saying this to the disciples, he’s not just randomly picking a topic out of the air– he is saying this in the midst of the idols of the glory of Rome. “you see all this? Now who do you say that I am?”. Is more the question here.
And up steps Peter. Good old, stick your foot in your mouth Peter. ” you are the messiah, the christ, the son of the living God.”he says.
Yay! You almost want to throw Peter a parade, because it’s so rare that any of the disciples stumble across a right answer or seem to really know
what’s going on much of the time, bless their hearts. But here we go, good on you Peter. Son of the living God, indeed.
It’s a blinding flash of insight, because that one phrase is so true,….and so very different from the culture that surrounds them.
Jesus is the Son of the living God, Jesus is alive, and dynamic, not fixed in stone and wood like the gods and goddesses of Caesarea Philippi. Peter’s relationship with Jesus is living and growing, and not static, and fixed forever.
Jesus is the living God.
Which is precisely why Peter is the one who understands what is going on. Because let’s think about this for a moment. In the story so far– has Peter acted like someone who is fixed, and unchanging? Has Peter been ‘a rock’? Has Peter been the steady, solid, dependable one?
This is the guy, after all, who charged off after Jesus, and abandoned his fishing business. This is the guy who saw Jesus through the storm on the Sea of Galilee and volunteered to stride across the surface of the water in a lightning storm! to meet him– a gutsy move, to be sure, but not a really practical, pragmatic one. Not something you’re going to tell your kids to do.
This is the guy, who– in the coming chapters, will chop off the ear of the high priest’s slave, and lie to save his own neck, and cry with remorse, and basically run the gauntlet from one emotional extreme to another. Not always getting it right, but definitely trying.with all he’s got.
Calm and steady, he may not quite be, but alive and engaged, Peter certainly, certainly is.
And it’s on this sort of alive rock, that Christ builds his church. Not the cold, dead stone of idols, that stands fixed and unmoving through the centuries. Not unresponsive stone that protects itself first, but living rock that lets itself be shaped and affected by the world around it.
We, as the church, have to resist the urge to harden ourselves against all winds of change. While some forces of change aren’t particularly helpful, many of them are winds of the Spirit, and when we harden ourselves to them, we risk closing ourselves to the living God.
The church is here to serve the world, to give ourselves to the people around us in self sacrificial offering and we can’t do that if we are concerned only with our own protection and our own well-being. We need
to be a little bit impulsive. A little bit rash. A bit emotional and engaged, and little bit like Peter.
Our history is wonderful; our traditions are wonderful, but we are called to follow a living God, and not them; and they can’t be our idols.
Our job is to be flexible, to be alive. Not to be trapped by the old ways but be free to meet the needs of the people we are called to serve here and now.
We don’t always get it right– who knows, but that the next generations will hang their heads and sigh in annoyance about all the things that we managed to mess up–but that’s the beauty of following a living God. God never gives up,and God never stops calling us on. So we need to keep journeying onwards. Amen.