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Following is the text for the sermon:
The Rev. Sarah Buteux
‘Blessed Are You!’
a sermon for good people with no good answers
Matthew 16:13-23, Proper 16 Year A
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
Those are the words of Maya Angelou and they are timely words for us as we continue to wrestle with issues of racial justice… especially timely for white people as we learn more and more about what it is like to live as a person of color in this country.
I think there are more and more of us everyday who are earnestly doing the best we can until we know better. And when we know better, we are trying to do better.
But Angelou’s words are also timely for us in terms of this pandemic. As we have learned more and more about the corona virus – how it spreads, mutates, and effects the human body – recommendations have changed, treatments have expanded, and the best laid plans of cities, schools, hospitals, businesses, and churches have been arranged and re-arranged over and over again.
Most of us are doing the best we can until we know better. And when we know better, we’re trying to do better.
The trouble right now is that there is still so much we don’t know. We have tough questions and no good answers. We’re living through hard times with no good options. Whether we’re talking about re-opening schools or how we will vote, parent, visit loved ones, or save the economy, we find ourselves stuck between a rock and Corona.
There’s no way forward that doesn’t involve sacrificing the safety or security of people we love. At least not yet. The choices before us aren’t just hard or heartbreaking, at this point they’re impossible. How can you choose between your present or your future, your job or your kids, loving your people or being with them?
We’re all doing our best with what we know. I just wish, everyday, that we knew better so we could do better.
In the meantime, I’m trying to be patient and have compassion for everyone – myself included – and I’m finding hope where I can, including – believe it or not -in scriptures like this one.
Now I admit that my first reaction, when I heard Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” was, and I quote: “Who cares?”
There may have even been a little profanity laced in there. It’s been that kind of week. But in all seriousness, with everything going on right now, who cares? The theological particularities of Jesus’ messiahship, the paradox of how he could be at once fully human and divine, the soteriological importance of right belief in or about Jesus… just doesn’t feel particularly relevant to me right now.
“Who?” is not a pressing question in my mind at the moment, about Jesus or anyone else. “When!?” yes. “How?!”” sure. “What?!” absolutely. As in: When will there be a vaccine? How will we vote. What will school look like this year? Those are the questions on my mind. Those are the answers I need.
I want us to know better so we can do better.
But one thing Jesus’ question highlights so beautifully is how little we ever really know about anything and how much God loves us through all of it no matter what.
It may not seem like it at first, but when you think about it, there was no good answer to Jesus’ question either. When he asks what people are saying about him the disciples are more than happy to pass on the words of others.
“Some say you’re John the Baptist…
some say Elijah…
somebody actually suggested Jeremiah – which was weird – but whatever.”
Seems everyone thought Jesus was some sort of prophet, and even though prophets were known for stirring up trouble, there wasn’t anything all that threatening about such conjecture.
But then Jesus ups the ante and asks – “Who do you say that I am?” – and all of the sudden things get real.
It’s one thing to gossip about what other people are saying. It’s a whole other thing to speak up for yourself, put your money where your mouth is, especially when the truth is so dangerous it could get you killed.
You see, the answer to Jesus’ question wasn’t just theological or spiritual, it was pointedly political.
Allow me to explain.
The disciples have been with Jesus long enough to know that even if he is a prophet, he’s no ordinary prophet. They’ve seen him calm storms, multiply loaves, and heal the sick. He is wise beyond his years and more powerful than anyone they could ever have imagined. So there is no way that they don’t all suspect what only Peter has the courage to say: “you are the messiah, the Son of the living God.”
They’re just loathe to admit it our loud – in the middle of Caesarea Philippi of all places – because messiah means “King,” and there is already a king on the throne named Herod Antipas. His son, Herod Philip, actually named Caesarea Philippi after himself and the emperor, Caesar Augustus, who – not incidentally – included “Son of God” among his many titles.
All of which means that the honorifics Peter offers up here – “messiah, Son of the living God” – are already taken, and if Jesus wants them, he’s not going to get them without a fight. Peter’s admission, therefore, is treasonous, seditious, insurrectionist…. the punishment for which is -wait for it – crucifixion.
So you can understand why the rest of the disciples might want to play all this a little closer to the vest and why Jesus himself orders them to keep quiet about it.
But Jesus is also pleased. So pleased that he blesses Peter right there on the spot. “You are my rock,” he says. “Upon you, I will build my church and death itself will not stand against you. 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.”
Not Bad! Peter has gotten it right, and Jesus blesses him with both power and authority. Peter knows better and he is ready to do better. He actually knows the right answer for once!
…He just, unfortunately, has no idea what he’s talking about. Because no sooner does Jesus tell them to keep his true identity a secret than he shares with them what he plans to do as the “messiah,” and it’s not what any of them expected at all.
Jesus explains that he is on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die. His plan is to hand himself over to be killed. He hasn’t come to fight fire with fire, but to show people there is a way forward that doesn’t involve fighting at all.
“For Jesus,” explain the good people at SALT Project, “messiahship doesn’t mean out- Caesar-ing Caesar; it means reversing Caesar’s way of arrogance, violence, and oppression, (in order to establish a new kind of kingdom based on) humility, restoration, justice, and grace.1”
But Peter can’t hear this. He wants to ride in Jesus’ wake all the way to Rome. He’s ready to crown a new king. He’s just been granted the keys to the kingdom – to power and might, safety and security – and he means to take it.
When Jesus offers him a road full of sacrifice instead, Peter wants none of it.
He’s so appalled that he rebukes Jesus.
“God forbid it…” he says.
And Jesus turns on him as fast as he had blessed him. “Get behind me Satan!,” he cries, and you can feel the denunciation as surely as Peter did, like a kick in the gut.
Peter gets demoted from foundation stone to stumbling block in 4 short verses; a reversal that knocks the wind right out of you. It’s a rough exchange.
Turns out that the road to Jerusalem will lead to hard times with no good options. The question of who Jesus is, turns out to be a tough one with no good answers.
And I have to say that I feel for Peter and the disciples as surely as I feel for us right now. Sometimes there is no way forward that will not cost you. Sometimes doing your best with what you know, isn’t good enough – at least not good enough to get you through unscathed – because sometimes life is just that humiliating or humbling or hard.
But here is where I find hope in this story, for Peter and for us.
As his story progresses, Peter keeps thinking he knows better, but the truth is, it takes Peter a life time to figure it all out. And I think that will be true for all of us. He keeps trying to do better, but he fails as often as not. So what a blessing it is to know that Peter is the one with the keys to the kingdom. What a blessing to see that Jesus gave him, of all people, the power of binding and loosing.
Now I didn’t really know what that meant and you probably don’t either, so give me a second to explain. Binding and loosing was a rabbinical term, an ancient way of granting someone the authority to re-interpret the laws and traditions of faith, the authority to change our minds, change the way we do things.
You may remember that when Jesus taught in the temple the people were amazed because he taught them as one having authority. That’s because Jesus wasn’t just spouting the “right” answers and telling people to do what they’d always done. Jesus was innovating, re-imagining, and reinterpreting old texts to help his people meet their present moment. He was opening their eyes to see what the living God was up to in their very midst.
When he passed that authority on to Peter, he gave the church permission to do the same. He gave us permission to listen for the voice of a still speaking God. He gave us permission to keep learning and adapting in the face of changing circumstance. He gave us the authority to forgive one another, discern new ways forward together, repent, and recalibrate, admit when the old ways aren’t working and bind them up, the better to let more and more people loose to do good.
Think of Peter declaring all foods clean in the house of Cornelius so he could eat with his new siblings in Christ. Think of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch after just one conversation. Think of Paul declaring that there is now no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, for in Christ we are all a new creation. Jesus gave us the permission to evolve so we could grow and invite more and new and different people into this perfectly imperfect body we call the church.
He gave Peter the keys to unlock the doors and let all of us in, not because we get it or deserve it, but because God desires it.
And like Peter, we won’t always get it right. But what I see in Peter’s story and in my own is the good news that even when we fall, our failure is not the end of the story.
I love the idea that the keys to the kingdom are not held by the perfect disciple who never messed up, (I’m looking at you John) but by the one who knew what it was try and try and try again, “to get up one more time than he fell,” the one who knew what it was to be loved and forgiven and loved even still 2.
I like the idea that the one binding and loosing is the sort of man who knows what it is to do the best with what you know, do better when you know better, and trust God to make up the difference when even your best isn’t good enough.
It fills me with hope to think that it’s Peter standing at the gates of heaven, because I think having received so much grace, Peter will know more than anyone else how to extend it.
And I that’s what you and I are going to need going forward in a world with no good answers and no safe options.
Grace upon grace,
grace from God,
grace for ourselves,
and grace for one another. Amen.
I borrowed this phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor. p 74 “God’s Rock” in “Seeds of Heaven: sermons on the gospel of Matthew”