Ordinary 21A — August 24, 2014

You Gotta Serve Somebody

Matthew 16:13-20
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And 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. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Let us pray:  Holy God, open our ears to your word and our hearts to your truth.  If you are with us, nothing else matters.  If you are not with us, nothing else matters.  Bless our hearing and our speaking on this day.  Amen.
It is so good to be back with you today.  It feels like I’ve been away forever, which my husband always says is the sign of a good vacation. So it must have been a fantastic vacation.  I calculated that our family managed to travel more nearly 4,000 miles this summer on various trips to Boston, Montreal, Florida and South Carolina.  And all of those miles were by car.  That’s a lot of miles for one summer.   I wasn’t tempted to calculate how many sticks of gum were chewed or how many gallons of gas were pumped or how many times iPhones were recharged in the back seat by my bored kids.  But the Rothenbergs definitely covered some significant ground this summer.
As we were driving home on Thursday night, we talked about our summer experiences and the trips we took together and the places we saw on our travels.  And I remembered how we had passed by two towns this summer that were marked by violence that made big news and sparked significant controversy.  In July, we drove by the interstate exit for Sandy Hook/Newtown in Connecticut on our trip to Boston to move Rachel in to her new apartment.   And on our way from Florida to South Carolina, we passed an exit on Interstate 95 for Sanford, Florida, which will be associated with the names of Travon Martin and George Zimmerman for a long, long time.  I thought about another obscure little suburban town that has become suddenly famous in the worst possible way.  Ferguson, Missouri will also be long associated with the names Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, for a long time.

The names that we give to places and people always have meaning, and sometimes those names become synonymous with characteristics and events that change the meaning forever.  Sometimes the names of places become famous – or infamous — in ways that no one would choose.  I’m sure people who live in Newtown, Ct. or Sanford, Fl. or Ferguson, Missouri wish they could go back to being ordinary towns with ordinary interstate exits that people whiz by at 70 miles an hour without even noticing. 
It’s easy when we’re reading scripture to also whiz right by the names of places and people.  In today’s text, we are dealing with not one but three names.  The names of Jesus and Peter, certainly.  But also the name of the town where Jesus has taken the disciples. 
I’m speaking about the setting of today’s scene from the gospel of Matthew: Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was the site of an ancient sacred spring flowing out from the mouth of a cave at which a shrine to the god Pan had been established.  Herod the Great and then his son, Herod Philip, as was their family custom, built an impressive complex of buildings there designed to showcase Rome’s wealth and power.  The city itself was named in honor of the Roman emperor, as well as Herod and his son.  If ever there were a name associated with political, Caesarea Philippi was it.
In a recent blog post, my former pastor Mary Louise McCullough said: “To say this city didn’t represent the political weight of Rome bearing down upon the people of Galilee would be like saying that Washington D.C. being named after George Washington had little or nothing to do with what went on there. That Jesus took the guys to this place and asked them questions about who he was signaled that it was time to confront the political overtones of his ministry, overtones which would soon become clanging cymbals. The disciples were in for a shock.”[1]  The shock of course would be that Jesus hadn’t come to overthrow the political and religious establishment, at least not in the way the disciples expected.  Very soon, Jesus will tell them that he will die at the hands of that establishment. 
But all of that is still in the future. Here in this starkly political setting, in the dark shadow of Roman rule, Jesus decides to do some focus group work with his disciples.  Time for a few probing questions.  What are people saying about Jesus?  Who do people think Jesus is?  Well, that that’s a pretty easy question for the disciples.  In fact, it’s a total softball question because they don’t have to come up with the right answer on their own.  The disciples need only give reports about opinions of people they’ve heard out in the field.  And clearly, there’s been lots of speculation about who Jesus is.  Some say he’s Elijah, John the Baptist., Jeremiah or maybe even another prophet! 
And if Jesus were to ask us that same question, we could easily quote any number of creeds or theologians.  Here’s what Nicea says!  Here’s Calvin’s opinion!  Here’s what my 3rd grade Sunday school teacher taught!  A fellow pastor says that when she was in seminary, one of her professors took this verse from Matthews gospel and told the class he would give them the correct answer to Jesus’ question.  From what she can remember, his answer went something like this: Jesus is the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God.” Did you get that? “The proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God.” Well, to be fair, the guy was teaching a systematic theology class.  And I am sure I’ve memorized other peoples’ opinions about Jesus is over the years without really knowing their meaning, and I bet you have, too.
But then Jesus goes deeper.  He asks the tougher question of “Who do you say I am?”  He’s not asking what your pastor says.  Not what your tradition says.  Not even what you were taught in Sunday school or communicants’ class or seminary.  It’s time for you to dig deep and tell Jesus what YOU think.  Who is this man?   Who is he in all of your experiences, your disappointments, your successes and failures?  After a lifetime in which you’ve seen the best and the worst of what people can do, and done your best and your worst right along with them– what do yousay about Jesus?  What does Jesus mean to you on an ordinary day when you are simply trying to get through it?  And who is Jesus – on vacation, in our community, or even in Ferguson, Missouri right now?
It’s a “Come to Jesus” moment for the disciples.  After all they’ve witnessed.  After all Jesus has taught them.  Jesus wants to take a moment to see if any of this has gotten through to his followers.  Has anything he’s done or said made a difference to them?  It’s not just a “Come to Jesus” moment.  It’s a “You Gotta Serve Somebody” moment for the disciples.  Like the old Bob Dylan tune:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Who do the disciples think they are serving?  Who do we think we are following? 
I do not think it is by coincidence that Jesus brings his disciples to Caesarea Philippi at this point in his ministry.  It matters that Jesus will ask this question in a place with a name that represents the powers and principalities of the disciples’ known world.  Because Jesus knows that the time going to come – not just for the disciples – but for all the disciples of every time and place to answer the question when the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Who are you going to serve?  What will you stand up for? What’s important? When do you say what you need to, want to, have to? Or when will you choose to be silent or hide?
Peter gets the answer right, not because he is any smarter or more faithful than the other disciples.  If anything, Peter gets it right because Peter is never afraid to put himself out there for better or worse.   And Jesus says it himself – Peter gets it right because he is not afraid to say out loud what God has revealed to him.   Those are the kinds of people Jesus chooses to build the church that will come after him – the ones foolish and fearless enough to proclaim the truth about Jesus.  Even in a place like Caesarea Philippi where talking the way Peter is talking could get you in a lot of trouble.
Who are you going to serve?  You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
This has been a crazy hard couple of weeks, despite the fact that I was on vacation.  I tried to look away as much as possible, but I couldn’t.  Robin Williams. Michael Brown. The death of a celebrity tormented by depression and the onslaught of Parkinson’s. The death of a black teenager that seems senseless and suspect. To some extent these cases are not at all related and at the same time, so connected, so real. 
Because they ask us to make a decision.  How will you respond?  Who are you going to serve?
Are we going to end the stigma that still exists about mental illness in this country, not to mention this congregation?  Are we going to spend the money to ensure that people have access to good mental health care in this country, not to mention this community?  Are we going to stop whispering about depression and schizophrenia behind closed doors, and start talking about it in the same way we talk about diabetes or cancer.  Can we talk about mental illness as an affliction that makes no distinction between celebrities and ordinary people?
Are we going to stand up for the unarmed and the unprotected?
Are we going to stand up for the hungry and the rejected?
Are we going to give in to our fears and prejudices, or stay silent when we hear the voices of hatred?
Who are you going to serve?  Jesus – who showed us the forgiving, gracious heart of God?  Who told a story about a Samaritan who stumbles upon a traveler, possibly a Jew, laying in a ditch, and doesn’t ask if the man deserved what happened to him?  Or will you serve the one who loves nothing more than dividing us and making us suspicious of people who do not look like us or think like us?
Who are you going to serve?  Jesus – who took on the form of a servant, humbling himself, emptying himself, giving everything he had for the love of God’s people?  Or will you serve the one who rejoices every time we hoard and hold back or try to tell ourselves that what happens to thugs or homeless people is none of our business?
Who are we going to serve? Jesus – who washed feet and embraced the unclean and the unwanted, and never once turned anybody away? Or will you serve the one who gleefully watches our wars and our conflicts and our reflexive exclusion of those we find unworthy of our time and concern?
Jesus is not about our safety and our comfort.  If he wanted the disciples to stay safe, he wouldn’t have dragged the disciples to Caesarea Philippi instead of a secluded mountain far away from the listening ears of the Romans.  Because what Peter says about Jesus could very well get him killed. But it is the only Truth that matters.  And it is a truth that changes everything for Peter.  What does that Truth change us?
Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail.  Which is hard to believe isn’t it?  It is for me sometimes when I think that the gates of hell seem to be all around us.  In the outrage of Ferguson.  In the violence of  Gaza and Israel.  In the horrific images of a public beheading of a journalist doing his job.  In the heartbreaking photos of people suffering from Ebola and the healthcare workers risking their own lives to care for them.  
But we know the end of the story, just as Peter does although it will take time for him to understand fully what he has uttered out loud at the gate of hell to which Jesus led them.  Do not trust your eyes or even your educated mind on this one.  Be bold enough to say it out loud along with Peter:  Love will win.  Forgiveness will win.  Peace will win.  In the end, what is evil doesn’t stand a chance because Jesus handed over the keys to one of us, representing all of us.  We are the people whom God trusts to sort through the wreckage we inflict upon one another and embrace a suffering world.
I invite you to take some time this week to think about the question.  Imagine Jesus here among us, saying:  “Who do you say I am?”  Because how you answer that question has everything to do with who you are willing to be.  Who you are choosing to serve.  And how much you are willing to risk. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

[1] http://2pcnashville.com/2014/08/22/posts-from-our-pastor-looking-toward-sunday-20/