Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 3, 2017

2017.09.03 “What Does It Mean to Walk the Way of the Cross?” – Matthew 16: 21 – 28

Central United Methodist Church
What Does It Mean to Walk the Way of the Cross?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 16: 21 – 28
September 3rd, 2017

Get Behind Me Satan

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  – Matthew 16: 21 – 28, from The New Revised Standard Version


Today we come to a time of transition, Labor Day weekend. While we still have just short of three weeks left in meteor-logical summer (September 22), for most of us, summer is over: vacations are past, the kids are back in school, pools close tomorrow, our jobs call for attention.

In church, today is the last 8:30 am service, next Sunday we return to 10:30, and you will get to greet the separated brethren who have been attending the “other” service throughout the summer. While multiple service options are a good thing, it will also be good to be together again as a congregation.

As I watched the people of Texas struggle through the waters this week, I wondered if we are entering another time of transition. I wonder whether that time of dystopia that we have all worried about for so long, is upon us. Long pondered in the media, in movies like Mad Max and TV shows like The Walking Dead, with dystopian books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the top of the best seller list, has it begun to happen? Have we reached a time when the civilization we have known and enjoyed for so long, has begun to break apart? Maybe we should ask those people clinging to boats and standing on top of houses in Texas. (And by the way, it’s not just Texas: while we were concerned about our Texas neighbors, other places around the world such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sierra Leone in Africa have also been hit hard.

According to scientists – to whom too many in power refuse to listen – climate change and global warming are clearly on display in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters. With the warmer temperature, Hurricane Harvey absorbed more moisture, dumping the largest rainfall amounts ever on Texas, and now Louisiana. When public policy and planning fail to listen to the warning voices and to prepare for worst case scenarios (occurring more often), then we are left with the long-term consequences: disaster and dystopia: flooding, displacement, chemical pollution, loss of utilities, even food and water. Yes, millions of dollars are being donation, but the distribution is a logistical nightmare. Recovery from Harvey alone is expected to go for years and cost up over $100 billion.

Who and what is next? What if it is us? Can we imagine ourselves in the situation of those people in Texas? Even more frightening to think about, what will our children and their children face? I almost feel the need to warn them, definitely to protect them (if I only could), to tell them to prepare. This has begun to feel like a time of transition – when we know for sure certainty that everything has changed; in this case for the worst.

It is also a time of transition in today’s Gospel – a crossroads – for Jesus disciples, and for us. In her commentary on Working Preacher this week, Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary describes it this way:

-It is that “moment when you catch a glimpse of what life calling yourself a Christian really means – and makes you hesitate.”

  • It is “the moment when you are told that the life you thought you wanted, planned for, prayed for, was not the life God had in mind for you.”
  • It is “the moment when you might have to choose whether or not you are willing to have something else, or someone else, have more control over your life than you do.” (Karoline Lewis, “The Cross at a Crossroads,” Working Preacher, August 27, 2017)


For Jesus’ disciples, it was a shocking turn of events. Last week, we heard Jesus ask his disciples who they said he was, and St. Peter the Good won the prize, with the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” For that Jesus called him Rock, upon whom he would build his Church, and gave him the keys to the kingdom. So far so good.

But today – without even knowing it – St. Peter becomes St. Peter the Bad. Says Matthew, “From that time on, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and BE KILLED, and on the third day be raised (which after the “Be Killed” part,” I’m sure nobody heard). And Peter took him aside, put his arm around his shoulder, and said, “God forbid it! This will never happen to you.” The text doesn’t say it, but you almost have to wonder if Peter didn’t say, “Because you got me!”

Jesus flashed, turning around to get in Peter’s face: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.” And so Peter the Rock becomes the Stone of Stumbling, Peter the Confessor becomes a mouthpiece for the Devil.

Jesus went on to say:

“Listen up! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

It wasn’t something they wanted to hear, and it isn’t something we want to hear. For them, it was shocking transition, the idea that following Jesus might involve suffering, carrying a cross, even death on a cross. It was a new notion, that to follow Jesus involves not just “I’m Saved; Your Saved Maybe,” but walking in the way of the cross, in the way of sacrificial service, to the point of losing your life. It gave Jesus’ first disciples pause, and it still gives us pause. We like the “happy ever after” part; not so much the “bearing the cross” part. As I have said in the past, if we put our finger on the text, there is no getting around the way of the cross, in being Christian, in following Jesus.

Some might say our resistance to this theology of the cross – especially here in America – was never on better display this week than in the public shaming heaped upon celebrity preacher Joel Osteen, for not initially opening his church to flood victims. (In the age of social media, you do not want to mess up; St. Peter lucked out on that one).  Some of the criticism was justified and some was not (he eventually did open his church), but it is Osteen himself who sets himself up for criticism. He is the Christian 1%; he and his glamorous co-pastor wife Victoria live in a $10.5 million house in an exclusive section of Houston, and are said to be worth some $50 million, not bad for a preacher without a seminary degree.

Osteen is the preacher of a particularly American strain of Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel. As Kate Bowler, professor at Duke Divinity School and author of the book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel put it in an article in the Washington Post, “Here’s Why People Hate Joel Osteen:”

“The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.” (Kate Bowler, “Here’s Why People Hate Joel Osteen,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017)

I believe Joel Osteen – and those who follow him – have the same problem Peter has in today’s Gospel: they have no place for the theology of the cross. The idea that, once you decide to follow Jesus, it may not make your life happier or healthier and especially not wealthier, but on the contrary, harder, because there will be a price to pay, as Jesus did, as Peter did, as Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, did, just a few weeks ago.

You know as well as I know, while there are some who don’t get and don’t like the theology of the cross – and are meanwhile getting rich in the process – across America, there are Christians who do. While Joel Osteen may get all the attention (and money), there are tens of thousands of pastors who will never be Joel Osteens, never realize “Their Best Life Now,” because they are too busy serving their congregations and communities, getting by on modest and – more often – inadequate salaries. They don’t write books because they don’t have the time, they are busy leading struggling congregations, writing and preaching heartfelt sermons, holding the hands of ailing parishioners, being active in their communities.

There are millions of committed church people, organizing dinners and yard sales, working in food pantries and homeless shelters, working as volunteers in hospitals and hospices, very few of whom are wearing Rolex watches, but who are following Jesus in the way of the cross. They are working in Texas this week. It has been my privilege to have worked with such people in all the congregations I have served, including this one. They are Christians who get it, who understand what it means to walk the way of the cross, to live lives in sacrificial service to God and others.

One of the best things we have done here at Central is to mentor students and candidates in ministry. I am so proud of them, out now serving in their own churches and ministries, though none of them serve or ever will serve anything like Lakewood Church, of which Joel Osteen is the pastor: Lizzie Weed, Kelly Van, Stuart Salvaterra, Heewon Kim, Sam Mutschelknaus, Taekhwan Lee, Tom Rawlinson, and Hope Reyes Chernich. At West Ridge UMC in Rogers Park, ast week Taekhwan led a vacation Bible school, and had 34 children in attendance from the neighborhood.

Hope Reyes Chernich and her team pastor, Lindsay Long Joyce are serving two churches, United Church of Rogers Park and Irving Park UMC, two buildings both in danger of falling down and in danger of closing, as they have been for about the last 50 years.

Irving Park UMC is surrounded by $1,000,000 homes, the house across the street from the church, a single family residence, is bigger than the church. Fallen from its glory, Irving Park has about 30 people in worship on any given Sunday. But Hope says there was a couple who visited, then they were gone for awhile, then they came back. They volunteered to start cleaning, to make the building a more attractive place. Now others have joined them; who knows whether it will be the spark to begin to turn things around. They will never be a Lakewood Church, but who knows what might happen when people understand what it means to walk the way of the cross and begin to do so;  to know – as Rev. Margaret Williams puts it – the “joy of service.”

“Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free?

No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.”

Reluctantly, humbly, gladly: we embrace it. Amen.


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