Year A Proper 17
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year A, Proper 17—Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c;
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
All I can say, after listening to today’s Gospel, is thank God for Peter! With so much of our religious heritage in the United States bound up in Puritanical prudishness, moralistic proficiency, and obsessed with perfection, it’s a refreshing reminder to see Peter—the Rock on whom the Kingdom is built, the one with the heavenly keyring jangling in his pocket—rebuked and exorcized by Jesus right on the heels of confessing Jesus as Lord a moment earlier. I thank God for St. Peter in the same way that I thank God for flawed St. Paul, mopey Moses, King David, and loony Jeremiah. I thank God that God so loves us, just as we are, that he is willing to work with us, warts and all, for the bringing about of the Kingdom. Today’s rebuke and exorcism of Peter by Jesus a healthy reminder of our human foibles, and of the fickle nature of what it looks like to make love manifest in the world. Sometimes, we heed the call—God’s invocation to justice, mercy, and welcome blossom in a vocation, and the Kingdom pokes through: ““Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Other times, however, that call goes unheard, or unheeded. We trade the safety and security of the settled and the already-known status quo with its built-in blindnesses, and unexamined exclusions for the risky adventure of loving-kindness: “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.”
We might think, after hearing these two opposing statements on successive Sundays, that we are dealing with a rather whimsical, quixotic, and capricious-minded Jesus. A Jesus subject to mood swings, fits of pique, and temper tantrums. A Jesus unfit for office. But it is not Jesus who is fickle—it’s us. The Gospel portraits of Peter’s life are nothing but a clear-sighted, and honest look at what it looks like for a fallible human being to stumble down the path of love after Jesus with its attendant hits and whiffs, home runs and foul balls. Yes, Peter walks on water, but upon realizing what he’s actually doing, sinks like the stone he is. Peter confesses Jesus as Lord and gets the keys to the Kingdom, but then he denies he even knows Jesus (“Who’s that now?”) to a humble serving girl as he warms himself in the courtyard.
Rather than being something to be embarrassed about, the messiness and contradictoriness of Peter’s life teaches us something essential to any authentic growth in the spiritual life—the giving up of what Fr. Richard Rohr OFM calls “the performance principle.” It’s a simple principle that each us will likely recognize instantly in our own lives—I’m good because I obey this commandment, because I do this kind of work, or because I belong to this group.” The trouble with the performance principle is that needs to come undone, or else it will corrode us from the inside out. When Paul says the “Law kills”—he means it. When our sense of ourselves derives from how well we perform, from how we are doing, we get trapped on a treadmill of trying to earn God’s love through our impressive acts of moral proficiency and imprisoned by a gnawing sense of never being enough, of being unlovable and unworthy. As long as we can keep up the charade, everything is fine. But inevitably, and like clockwork, we hit a bump in the road. We aren’t able to do what we think we have to do to earn God’s love and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Rohr writes,
This is the point when you don’t feel holy; you feel like a failure. You don’t feel worthy; you feel very unworthy because usually you’ve sinned. When this experience of the “noonday devil” shows itself, the ego’s normal temptation is to be even stricter about following the first half of life’s rules. You think more is better, when in fact, less is more. You go back to laws and rituals instead of the always-risky fall into the ocean of mercy.
Without the gift of the example of someone like Peter, the great risk is that we might actually succeed in our frantic efforts to get God to love us and make us feel worthy by our effort, our laws, our rituals, and our deeds. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter teaches us the death-dealing bankruptcy of any economy of earning God’s love through a system of rigorous, perfectionistic performances. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter wakes us up to the startling and grace-filled reality that it’s not about what we do for God, but what God has done for us. Instead of trying to love God through some exhausting effort of will that we have to cook up each morning before our feet hit the floor, we relax, and let ourselves be loved by the God who is love.
When Jesus says to Peter that he has his mind not on divine things but on human things, Jesus is critiquing Peter’s vision of messiahship as just another strongman warrior-king who would expel the Romans and set up a new fiefdom with Peter as CEO, James and John as Vice-Presidents, and the rest of the apostles as members of the Board of Directors. That’s not what messiahship looks like, of course. It’s about going out as a servant—as water to wash, oil to heal, and bread to feed—to the last, the lost, the least, and the left behind, not about gaining status and hoarding power. It’s about giving away and letting go, not storing up and holding on. It’s the way of the empty-hand, not the balled fist.
Peter’s setting his mind on human things is tied into a whole system of winning and losing, success and failure, worthiness and unworthiness. It’s that whole way of thinking that has to die, Jesus reminds Peter. That’s the life we, each of us, must lose. That’s the part of ourselves we must “deny”—the whole fear-based calculus of merits and graces. When we die to the whole idea of gains and loses and know God’s love for us from the inside out, then it really is like not tasting death. We are unburdened of the anxiety of having to prove ourselves or earn anything and there is just love within love within love. The story of our unworthiness fades away and we know ourselves to be accepted and loved just as we are.
As long as we are run by frantically trying to prove ourselves worthy to a God more akin to an American Idol celebrity judge than steadfast covenantal faithfulness and unconditional love, we are a “stumbling block,” a skadalon, not just for others, but for ourselves. We are in some way in the thrall of something “satanic,” which is to say something that thinks there are conditions on God’s love and mercy, or that we have to accumulate enough merit in order that God might love us. We live from never being enough and being unlovable with crippling, toxic results. Remember it’s not about us trying to love God—keeping our shoulder to the wheel, our nose to the grindstone, and our eye on the ball—but about letting ourselves be loved. We’re loved into loving. We’re loved into “genuine love,” as Paul calls it—a love that asks for nothing in return, and has no agenda, and serves everyone equally and according to their need.
While the humanness, messiness, and contradictoriness of Peter’s life tells about what it means to be human, they it also tells us something important, however, about how it is that God acts in the world. This is brought home in a powerful way in the beautiful story of Moses and the Burning Bush from Exodus. Moses—a tired shepherd, dusty and parched after days of minding his father-in-law’s sheep turns aside, takes off his shoes, and encounters the angel of the Lord in a bush that blazes, but is not consumed. A little later in the story when Moses asks the Lord whom he should say sent him, the Lord replies I AM WHO AM. Now rabbis, priests, scholars, philosophers, and theologians have all puzzled over this fascinating construction, but I want to highlight one reading that fits nicely with what we’ve been saying about Peter. The Hebrew ehyeh asher ehyeh can be translated as I AM WHO I AM, or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, or even (and this is one I really like) I AM WHO MAY BE.
What might that mean—God is the I AM WHO MAY BE? Well, it means that God exists as a possibility to be realized, as a promise to be fulfilled, a call to be answered: I am who may be if you continue to keep my word and struggle for the coming of justice. God is love and in love there is no coercion or imposition of will. God coaxes, cajoles, lures, and woos us off the beaten path and away from our mundane preoccupations (like Moses’ father-in-law’s sheep) into encounter with the fiery presence of God’s unquenchable love. But notice that Moses still has to utter the words, “Here I am.” God’s call requires response. Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Samuel, Mary, even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Let it be with me according to your will”)—all had to give their “yes” God’s invitation for the reality of God’s love to break into the world.
When our Psalm says, “Search for the Lord and his strength/continually seek his face”—it’s pointing to this same reality. Seeking God’s face is listening for the call and making that call a lived reality with the “Yes” of our lives. As we see with Peter, there are no guarantees that the invitation will be heeded, or that the invocation will take shape as a vocation—there are magnificent moments when the Kingdom breaks through and momentous miscues when we set our mind on human things. The GOD WHO MAY BE depends on our changeable human nature to make love manifest—that’s the risk God takes in creating free creatures. God, in God’s humility, depends on the sleepy-headed Peter “who didn’t know what he was saying” at the Transfiguration to bring about the Kingdom just as God depends on ordinary Peters and Petras like you and me to shepherd the Good Shepherd into the world.
This week, know yourself to be embraced, warts and all, by the God of Love. Leave behind that well-worn track of your unworthiness and open your eyes to the Good Lord’s voice speaking out the burning bush. Let your frantic efforts at earning God’s grace peter out and rest, just as you are, in God’s love for you. Let love love you into loving. And, when, in the silence of that loving embrace you hear that call, may your answer be “Here I am.”