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“It’s about rocks, Josh.”

This week marks the beginning of school at NAU, so my students have returned.  Hooray!  I can tell this is the case, because they have been dropping by my office, tagging me on Twitter and Facebook, and convincing me to hike with them into the depths of lava caves (a perk of living on top of an active volcano.)

And because I am gifted with particularly hardy and brave students, two of them even accompanied me to Sedona on Sunday for Canterbury Sunday at the Episcopal church in Sedona.  (It is possible they were promised coffee–we did leave at 6:30am, after all.) When I go to these churches, explaining about college ministry, and its importance, and how the church needs to welcome and uphold people of all ages, it helps to point to actual young people and say, “Look!  19 year olds who can recite Eucharistic Prayer C from memory!  Don’t you want to give them power/money/an all access-pass to the annals of the church?”  Otherwise I have the sneaking suspicion that sometimes people don’t fully believe me when I describe my experiences working with Gen X/Millennials.  Despite being one myself.

Anyway, the day went extremely well.  Aside from my students, who are awesome, the president of my board is from that church, and one of his strengths is asking for financial support.  Oh, that I could clone him.  All in all, not a shabby way to spend the 28th anniversary of my baptism.  🙂

And here’s what I said in the sermon.

August 28, 2011

Ordinary Time, Proper 17

Romans 12: 9-21,

Matthew 16:21-28

Today is the forty-eighth anniversary of the March on Washington, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. And today, in DC, they were going to dedicate a new memorial to Rev. King—a giant statue memorializing his work and his life right on the National Mall, by the Tidal Basin. Then, a giant hurricane named Irene decided to strike the East Coast, because after an earthquake, a super-sized hurricane is just what they needed.

The memorial is a thirty-foot tall statue of the man, standing forward, carved out of granite, flanked behind the forward statue on either side by towering mounds of rock. The design is inspired by a line in the speech— From the mountain of despair, we will carve a stone of hope. So you walk forward into the monument through the towering walls of stone, etched with quotes from his sermons and writings, until you come up to the pillar of Dr. King, hewn from the same stone. Pretty awesome.It’s the first memorial on the mall for a non-president. And the first of an African-American.

But the monument is creating all sorts of controversy. Listening to the NPR story on this the other day, callers were complaining—he looks so angry! Why is he so big! Why are his arms crossed? Why isn’t he smiling? Why does he look so upset? He looks like an African strongman! Said one guy (that one probably takes the ‘bet you wish you had chosen a different phrase to say into a microphone, huh?’ prize).

I found it intriguing: here was a man who was unrelenting in his pursuit of justice and dignity for his people. He pursued it despite insults, threats to his mental, spiritual, and physical safety and an entire system of laws built around his subjugation. He was attacked by dogs, hit with sticks, bottles, rocks and fists, sent bomb threats, arrested repeatedly, stabbed, and finally shot and killed.

That sort of a life? That’s not a smiley life. You’ve got to have your brow furrowed to walk straight on into a firehose shooting at you. And yet, in popular imagination, Dr. King is so associated with love—love of neighbor, love of everyone, and we associate love with mildness and fuzziness, that the sight of the towering granite figure really confuses us. Because we think love should be happy!

So we’re a bit with Peter, in today’s gospel. Poor Peter, who was on such a roll last week! Jesus asks the disciples who he is and Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Yes, great job, Peter. He had it all together, which was so rare for him, and he’s getting a new name, and getting the keys to the kingdom, and getting the power to bind and loose, and whatnot. So good!

And just as soon as he has it all figured out, he entirely blows it. Jesus has confirmed that he’s the Christ, and now he starts to break the second part of the news—he’s going to have to die. And Peter implodes. Nope, nope, nope, not gonna happen. And just as quickly he got it right, it goes south. Get behind me, Satan.

These two stories are the same story in Matthew—together they are the high point, the turning point in Matthew’s narrative. From here on, it’s a straight shot towards Jerusalem. No stopping, no passing go—to understand who Jesus is-truly- is to understand what that implies–that he’s going to die. The two are inseparable.

When I write sermons now, I like to pretend that my younger brother is reading over my shoulder. My brother has a habit of listening to every pronouncement I make and saying “So what?” “God loves you” “So what?” “Jesus died for you” “So what?”

It’s annoying when I have writer’s block, but in terms of writing an effective sermon, it’s useful.

This is not, however, a question that Peter asks. He arrives at the first right answer—Jesus is the Christ. He never asks, “So what?”

He is so content to stay with the glory of being right, of getting the answer right, that he doesn’t move on to what this means, either for Jesus, or for himself.

Jesus is the Christ, so what should the Christ do? Jesus is the Christ, so what should Peter do?

And when Jesus answers that question, Peter doesn’t enjoy the outcome. Jesus is the Christ, and living like the Christ is called to live, is going to end up somewhere Peter doesn’t want to be. It’s going to end inexorably in death. Living like the Christ is called to live, living out this kind of all encompassing love, in this world, will end in one way. Live out that kind of love; live out the implication of Jesus is Lord, and you will be living outside of what the world expects of you.

The world, as it is now, in its brokenness is not constructed for this sort of life: the world around us asks us to strive for smaller loyalties, smaller goals. It asks us to pay attention to ourselves, first and foremost, tells us that we are all islands, complete with trusty bootstraps that can be

pulled around and up, and the loyalties we should honor are the ones that come easy– all those people who look/think/feel/talk like us.

But Paul lays it out for us in Romans like a manifesto: love what is good, hate what is evil. So far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone. Do good to those who persecute you. If your enemy is hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

Nothing on that list that Paul gives us is passive. Nothing on that list is weak, or small. Living in the footsteps of Christ places us, necessarily, a step or two out of sync with the world as it is. Living out the depths of the love of Jesus means that we walk a bit off pace with the rest of the world. Because, we confess Jesus as Lord, and we owe our allegiance to God, and not to nations, or tribes, or money, or any other smaller loyalty or deity.

That’s the so what. That’s what it is right there– and that’s what’s so hard for Peter. Confess Jesus as Lord, and you have to pick up your cross, cross your arms to smaller gods, and walk to a whole new rhythm from now on.

That’s the life we are called to: that’s the love we are called to, we who confess Christ. We aren’t just called to words that we recite, we are called to a way of life. And though it means daily picking up our cross, and

following, it’s only this kind of life, and this kind of love that can wear down the mountains.


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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