Sermon: 31 August 2014
Proper 17, Year A: 31 August 2014
Someone once accused the 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume, a noted agnostic, of being inconsistent because he regularly went to listen to a conservative Presbyterian preacher. Hume responded, “I don’t believe all that he says, but he does. And once a week I like to hear a man who believes what he says.” No doubt Hume had been hanging out with too many politicians. I read Hume as saying that he respected the other man’s integrity, that the message and the man were one and the same. I can appreciate that. Much of my life’s work as an adult has been about attempting to achieve that kind of internal and external consistency. It is the message of much of scripture as well: if we believe what we say, then we have a responsibility to embody it and act on it, to walk the talk in other words, no matter what difficulty may come. That is certainly the import of this morning’s readings. The collect sets the tone: first it states that God is the source and giver of all good things, then in an extended metaphor it likens God to a farmer or gardener: the fruit of good works is brought forth by the grace of God who plants, nourishes, and continues to care for us. If we are true to our maker, true to our best selves, we will be true in our actions. Then in Jeremiah, the prophet argues with God over how he feels he has been treated. He has done what God asked, he has been true to his calling, but all he has encountered has been affliction. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” Extraordinary passage! Jeremiah feels secure enough in having lived out his side of the bargain that he even takes God to task, accuses God of being unfaithful! “You promised to be there for me! Was it all a sham?” He wants to walk off the job, but God knows that the way has indeed been hard and recognizes that Jeremiah has been a man of his word throughout. So God makes a deal with Jeremiah: “It’s not going to get any easier; in fact, if you serve as my mouthpiece the people will rise up and fight against you. But I promise that I will support you; I am with you to save and protect you.” And that’s good enough for Jeremiah. Integrity in the face of challenge, living out who we are called to be, secure in the knowledge that God is in charge. This is the story of the psalmist as well, who once again lifts his voice in pretty intimate conversation with God, reminding God of a lifetime of faithful devotion and asking God for the reward due him. There is a certain degree of self-righteousness here that is not all that pleasant to take, but it is a fascinating conversation. The bottom line is that the speaker trusts God to be God; he knows the ground he stands on is firm. He will stake his life on this and in front of everyone he will give credit to the Lord. Then Paul picks up the theme in his letter to the Romans, continuing his theme of what Christian life looks like, from mutuality of feeling to compassion even for your enemies. Finally we come to the gospel. Paul has exhorted the Romans not to be tempted by the way of the world, but to live with integrity, in a manner consistent with their Christian identity. Now the evangelist shows us that even the very best of intentions may be such a temptation and may lead us astray. All Peter was trying to do was counsel a little caution, a little prudence. He didn’t want Jesus to die. But Jesus makes it clear that preaching the good news of the kingdom is what he came to do, no matter what resistance it may bring him; this is part of what makes him internally and externally consistent, and he rebukes Peter. Remember that Peter has just said that he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Now ol’ Rocky has moved from being a cornerstone to a stumbling-block, because he wants to deny the potential consequences of that identity, that statement. Jesus won’t let him, however. And the evangelist passes the question on to us. If we profess Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed of God and the one for whom we have been waiting, then how are we to live out our lives? What must we do in order to demonstrate that we believe what we say, hat we are people of integrity who can walk the talk. It is not enough just to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and then not to act on that statement, to act out of it. So what are we to do? According to today’s “good news,” we are to deny ourselves and follow Jesus. In other words, we are to live in the knowledge that Jesus has all the answers and that we need to trust that, to give our whole lives over to his care and service. It’s what we pledge in our baptismal covenant, but it’s not all that easy to do. Most of the time we are most of us more like Peter than we might care to admit. The words come to our lips easily enough, but if we came face to face with Jesus I’m afraid we too would be rebuked: “Get away from me, you adversaries! You’re getting in my way. Your minds are set on human things, not on the things of God.” Deny yourselves…forget about what you think matters— money, power, prestige, comfort, all the things that the world values— and pay attention to what really matters to God: justice, equality, human dignity. What good will it do you to succeed in the eyes of the world if in doing so you fail so miserably in the eyes of God? Those who live in this way—running after worldly success alone— cannot, at their heart’s deepest levels, really believe what they say; it seems to me that whether they know it or not, they must secretly be ashamed of Jesus and his teachings, ashamed to live in the world as true disciples of Christ. To them—to how many of us—Jesus in turn says, “I am saddened by your lack of integrity; I am ashamed of you.” The miracle is that it is not too late. We can repent, even now. We can turn our lives around and change our behaviors, rededicating ourselves to Christ and demonstrating our faith in every aspect of our lives. It will probably take a great deal of work; it will probably label us “losers” in the sight of the world, but oh! what we will gain in the end… as well as the satisfaction of knowing that our lives are consistent, that what we profess with our lips we show forth in our actions. Before I finish, a word about that cross we are supposed to pick up. This verse is, of course, a later interpolation by the followers of Jesus after his death. What Jesus is talking about, if he said it, means something entirely different than the traditional emphasis on undergoing hardship and sorrow for one’s faith. You have to know that Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, Tav is the last one; they are like the Alpha and Omega of the Greek Alphabet, the beginning and the end. Tav is written as a cross mark, a very ancient symbol, whose most basic meaning is the division of the universe into the four directions; by this it encloses the universe in its entirety. The Hebrews considered tav, being the last letter, being a cross in form, as a symbol of the perfection of creation: it is the summary of everything in everything, it is the mystery of God that reveals itself directly to the soul. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel we find an example of this. Ezekiel has vision in which the tav plays a role similar to the blood on the lintel and doorposts in the Passover story. In this vision, the angels of the Lord inscribe a tav, a cross, upon the foreheads of all those who commit themselves to God and are saved. This is the same cross Jesus calls his followers to embrace: absolute commitment to God and God’s kingdom ways. This is the same cross we trace on the forehead of every newly baptized person, sealing them in the Holy Spirit and marking them as Christ’s own for ever. It has nothing to do with accepting suffering and everything to do with accepting the fullness of life in God and Christ. So deny yourselves, take up the identity that gives you life, and follow Christ.