13 Pentecost, Proper 17 – September 3, 2017
Matthew 16:21-28

Last Sunday we heard Jesus saying to Peter, you’re “the rock on which I will build my church” and this Sunday he’s calling him “a stumbling block.” That’s not just great word play – from cornerstone to stumbling block – but such a reversal of relational fortune that it had to be incredibly painful for Peter. Can you imagine?

And perhaps that’s the difficulty. Peter couldn’t imagine. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus had come not just to comfort people but to free them. You see, comforting isn’t really that hard – just give them a little more of what they already had and tell them it will be alright. But freedom is different. Freedom requires that you see that what you have isn’t life-giving in the first place. Let me say that again – freedom requires that we see that what we have isn’t life-giving in the first place.
The common assumption is that when Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he had in mind a warrior-king like David, one who would drive out the Romans and liberate the Israelites. When you stop to think about it, that’s a pretty understandable, even reasonable hope. The Romans were foreign occupiers, not only imposing Roman law but taxing the people to support their occupation and backing up their occupation, order, and taxation by violence. The problem with Peter’s expectation is not that it’s unreasonable, but that it doesn’t change anything. Rome is there in force and by violence. Jesus, as a warrior-king, would use greater force and violence to drive them out. Eventually, someone with even more force or willing to do greater violence takes over yet again. Who’s in charge may change, but the wheel of force and violence keeps revolving.

And Jesus knows this. He knows that by introducing a different logic – one that runs by forgiveness, mercy, and love rather than retribution, violence, and hate – he is challenging the powers that be. And Jesus knows that the wheel of force and violence will not tolerate his obstruction but will run him over. And this Peter just couldn’t imagine.
Like Peter, what we most often want is a little more of what the world already offers – be it force or security or wealth or status or popularity or whatever. But Jesus didn’t come to comfort us with a little more, but instead to free us. And freedom first means realizing that we’ve settled for something that isn’t life giving, so that we can hear God’s promise of not just more of the same but something different. So that we can hear God’s promise of life, a promise that means something only after what we’d previously accepted as life dies.

That’s what Jesus tells us – that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” Jesus came to free us. Before the cross became equated with salvation and a symbol for a religion, it denoted something too often overlooked. It marked a moment when the paths of life were not fixed, when the direction for how to be in the world was less than certain, when God seemed to be rerouting the future. We have forgotten how wonderfully unstable the cross first was. Before the cross was something in which to believe, it was a moment in time, a moment in the life of the first disciples, when they learned how to believe.

The exchange between Peter and Jesus follows Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Caesarea Philippi is a critical moment for the disciples, for Peter, for discipleship in general. Before the cross was the symbol it came to be, it was a reminder of this very moment. A Kairos moment. Deep Time.

The moment when you catch a glimpse of what life calling yourself a Christian really means — and makes you hesitate. 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. 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.

Which reminds me of Richard Rohr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Priest, author of many books on the spiritual life and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. I recently listened to an On Being, Krista Trippett, podcast with Richard Rohr where he answers questions about the contemplative life and dualistic thinking. Contemplative prayer, contemplative life, is an antidote to dualistic thinking. All or nothing thinking. He says dualistic thinking, first of all, is not bad in and of itself.

He explains, “So the normal way to get us through the day — I just drove over here from my house about 10 minutes away, and to turn right or left, I needed a good dualistic mind to even find the address. So to get through the day, to be an engineer or a mechanic, a medical professional, you better have a good dualistic mind. But then you hit a ceiling, and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. Think about Moses and the burning bush.

But non-dual is where you move into both/and, where you don’t look for all-or-nothing thinking. And we’re seeing it in our political debates today. It’s almost the only form of conversation left is all-or-nothing thinking. And it’s amazing to me that we could have this many universities in this country and could have this many churches and synagogues and mosques and have so many people still at such a low level of consciousness that they read everything in terms of either/or. And that’s why all of the world religions, not just Christianity, discovered that you needed a different kind of software to deal with mysterious things, holy things. And that software is contemplation, the contemplative mind.

It’s like putting on a different head, where you let the moment, the event, the person, the new idea come toward you as it is, without labeling it, analyzing it up or down, in or out, for me or against me. It just is what it is what it is what it is, without my label. At this point in history, you have to teach people how to do that because none of us are taught how to do that. And that, for me, says that religion has not been doing its job for several hundred years because that’s what we were supposed to evolve people to, a higher level of consciousness that would allow them to do things like love their enemies, overlook offenses”.

And that is non-dualistic thinking for you right there, love your enemies. The whole Sermon on the Mount of Jesus implies non-dual thinking.

Richard Rohr asks a question: “What if changing our perception of God has the potential to change everything?” A sense of God is all wrapped up with what it means to be human. The Latin poet Terence is supposed to have said, “Nothing truly human is abhorrent to me.” I think the truly human is always experienced in vulnerability, in mutuality, in reciprocity. When human beings try to deny their own vulnerability, even from themselves, when they cannot admit weakness, neediness, hurt, pain, suffering, sadness, they become very unhuman and not very attractive. They don’t change you; they don’t invite you. So that’s why I’m anxious to present the vulnerable God, which, for a Christian, was supposed to have been imaged on the cross. But again, we made it into a transaction. Transaction isn’t vulnerability anymore, really. Vulnerability transforms you. You can’t be in the presence of a truly vulnerable, honestly vulnerable person and not be affected. I think that’s the way we are meant to be in the presence of one another.”

Deep time. Think about the cross as a point in time where we have a choice. A crossroad. A time and place when you wear a cross not just to show the world who you are, but to remind yourself of who the world needs you to be. Rohr shares a question to help us move into deep time when we are at a crossroad. The question is “In the light of eternity.” In the light of eternity, this thing that you’re so worried about right now, so angry about, so sure about — is it really going to mean anything on your deathbed? “In the light of eternity”.

So, back to the question “Can you imagine?” Can you imagine a different way of being in the world? Can you imagine that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine that this congregation has something of value to offer our community? Can you imagine that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened, heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, even though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate, God is with you? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order and introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God wants for us not just comfort but freedom? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead? Amen.