Sunday, August 27, 2017

12 Pentecost

August 27, 2017

Matthew 16.13-20

+ At times, I occasionally mention someone during my sermons that I think you should know about. And what I love is that you actually follow up on occasion. I see you writing down those names on occasion. And you sometimes even engage me later.

Well, I have a new one for you today. Some of you might have heard of him.

His name is Matisyahu. Matisyahu is an American reggae singer. But, about ten years ago, when he first became popular, he was unique because he was a Hasidic Reggae singer. Yes, I did get that right.

I remember the first time I ever saw him. It was quite an experience. He appeared, in yarmulke, payot (the earlocks) and beard. And he sang like you wouldn’t believe.

I followed his career pretty closely over the years. And I am still a huge fan. Some of his songs about God are some of the most beautiful songs you will ever hear.  Matisyahu does
not look not like he did ten years ago, however. He doesn’t because he actually shaved his beard and separated himself from Hasidic practice.  Which was very controversial. Shaving his beard was looked down upon by many people. 

I just recently read a fascinating article about Matisyahu’s decision. He said he found himself separating himself from the more strict aspects of Judaism because all the rules actually got in the way of his relationship with God.  
 Religion, he said, got in the way of his relationship with God.  He’s still Jewish, mind you. And an Orthodox Jew too.

As I read the article, I had to relate.  At times, I realize, that being a priest often feels like I’m married. Married to the Church—capital C.  And like any marriage, there are good days, and there are not such good days. Well, that’s definitely the way it is with the Church—capital C.

I often wonder why God even called me to the Priesthood. I am not the typical person called. Now, I know this is a shock to all of you, but I do not like authority. I do not like being told what to do. I never have. And I probably never will. I respect authority. I will follow the rules. But, let me tell you, I don’t always like it.

There are days when I don’t like the Church—capital C, or the authority of the Church or the hypocrisy of the Church.  There are days when I really don’t like some bishops, or some fellow clergy, especially when Bishops act pompous and full of themselves and when clergy act like weasels.  There are days when I don’t like Church leaders—not just ordained ones—who coerce and manipulate the Church.

Probably most of us here would say we have felt the somewhat same way about the Church at times.  In fact, I know you have. Because that is why you are here at St. Stephen’s.

There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us.  There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity.  There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs.  And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.

Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder:  wait a minute.  The Church isn’t supposed to be like this.  The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion and Acceptance.   It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved.

Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgruntled.  And that’s all right.

I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church.  Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What we find ourselves turning away from and what we are often tempted to run away from is not God.  What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization.  We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.

In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter.  Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies,

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Yes! That’s definitely the right answer!  
But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise.

He responds by saying,

“I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words “Peter” and “rock.” In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.”

Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings.  If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradition Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Pope.

I don’t hold to that view, personally.  On this one, I’m a bit more Protestant or Reformed minded. For people like me, it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.

Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers.  And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is.

Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find.  Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water.  He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.

But…you know, Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit.  Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human.  

But who among us isn’t?

Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors?  

And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.

Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well to some extent.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning.  Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect.  And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect.

But that, even despite its imperfection, we still all struggle on. Together.

I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, sometimes even the ones who drive me crazy.  And I sometimes even love the ones with whom I do not agree or who lash out at me for their own personal issues.  Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  That is what it means to be the Church.

I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church.  I am here because the Church is my home.  It is my family.  It is made up of my friends and Jesus’ friends.

I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love.  I love those who are hard to love too.  I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people too.

Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well.  And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from the Church.

But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss.  As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right.

Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love.  The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves.

But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and of ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Jesus founded and left to us.  If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place.  We need to be the Church from which no one wants to leave.

So, let us be the Church we want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded.  Let us be the Church that Jesus commended to that imperfect human being, Peter.  In those moments when we find ourselves hating the Church, let’s not let hatred win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.

We are the Church.  We are the Church to those people in our lives.  We are the Church to everyone we encounter.  We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve alongside.

So let us be the Church, and if we are, we will find ourselves in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church.  And it will truly be an incredible place.  It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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