- Parish House
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Matthew 16:21-28
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
I bet you’ve had the experience of opening your mouth and to your surprise, the voice of your mother or father comes out. Many of us in our youth swore we would be different than our parents in some way, or that we would do certain things differently. And then there’s that moment when it seems as if we are channeling them directly. For example, in times of duress my mother would always say, “You’ll feel better when you brush your teeth.” Kind of an Irish platitude, but strangely, she was right. And I never thought those words would come out of my mouth as often as they do.
It turns out that our conditioning goes much further back than the people who raised us. Maybe you had a great, great grandfather who was charming and witty and really good at pinochle, but he had a temper… and while you share his charm you might also be quick to anger. Things tend to run in families, because families are a kind of system, and systems prefer to maintain the status quo. That’s just the nature of a system. There are other kinds of systems, too, like organizations and governments. They are hard to change by virtue of being a system. We are witnessing right now that it’s difficult for local and federal disaster relief efforts to be more prepared for the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey than they were in the past. Changing a system is hard work.
The fancy name for all of this is systems theory. And it comes with an interesting bit of wisdom. The theory suggests that in any system, you can trace its character back to the founders. And in particular, you can trace both the genius and the pathology of a system back to its source. Systems inherit and perpetuate the original good and bad. In other words, you get your charm and your temper from a family ancestor. Companies work this way, too. Apple, for example, will always reflect some of Steve Jobs’ genius and the rougher sides of his temperament. And churches are systems, too. Their spirit can be traced to the original members. We have an early band of Episcopalians to thank for starting Christ Church back in 1839 – whatever they were like, we carry some of their spirit with us today, overwhelmingly to the good, I think.
For Christians, systems theory goes further back. We trace the church back to Jesus, of course. But also to Peter. And it is his genius and pathology that are playing out in back to back gospel lessons. Last week we heard Jesus refer to Peter as the rock, as the cornerstone on which he would build the church. That’s the good part, Peter’s solid foundation of faith in who Jesus was. And this week, when Peter rejects the suggestion that Jesus will be killed and rise again, Jesus calls him Satan and tells him that he’s a stumbling block. That’s a nice play on words, from cornerstone to stumbling block. But it’s also a revelation of both the genius and the shortcoming of the church, of faith and doubt, of strength and failure. Peter was a brave and brash disciple. He walked on water toward Jesus but started to sink when he doubted. He affirmed Jesus as the messiah but then resisted the news of where Jesus was headed. He loved Jesus, but he also denied him three times before the cock crowed the night before Jesus died.
If Peter is in fact the rock of the church, it makes you wonder how the church has been shaped by him all these years. It seems to me that we, like him, grasp the gospel and boldly live it out on our good days. And on other days, we stumble. We doubt, and we try to cling to the ways things are or what we’re comfortable with. Peter tried to hold on to his preconceived notion of a messiah, which was one that wouldn’t be crucified. He had Jesus and didn’t want to let him go. Perhaps we, too, sometimes cling to what we have and what we know, afraid to let go into an unknown future. This is true for us as individuals, and I think it’s just as true for the church.
But if one thing is clear, it’s that Jesus did not come to maintain the status quo. And he didn’t just come to comfort us, either. He came to set us free. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he said. He came to throw a wrench in the system, to set us free from its grip.
Jesus, you see, could have been the military messiah who fought against the occupation, the messiah Peter expected him to be. Instead he chose mercy over vengeance. True life is shaped by the cross, by love and forgiveness, by compassion and hope. The cross is where the horizontal meets the vertical, the crossroads of heaven and earth. The cross stands as a witness to a different, sacred order. Our lives can be shaped in powerful ways by that different order.
I think the challenge is whether we can imagine something different than the systems that we are in. Peter certainly struggled with that. But Jesus called him again and again to believe. He called for a leap in imagination. Take up your cross, he said, and follow me. Believe that systems can change, and that our own hearts can change. The two go hand in hand.
I find this gospel deeply hopeful. The same question facing Peter faces us – can we imagine something different (David Lose)? Maybe that question resonates in your own life right now. Or maybe it resonates for the larger systems we’re in – polarized politics, accelerating climate change, increasing poverty, the rise in intolerance and violence here and around the word, the list could go on. The world just seems more anxious lately, and those powerful systems will try to maintain their status quo. The gospel breaks in this morning and asks us, can we imagine something different? Will we shape our own lives not on the ways of the world but on the cross? Will we start with a pattern of love and forgiveness, of compassion and hope in our own lives and then tend from there to these larger forces? Systems don’t change when you fight them on their own terms. When we try, we’re just left with more of those terms. Systems change when we lose those ways and take up something different.
I give thanks for all the quirky relatives in my own family system. For good and ill, such folks inform who we are in this world. And today I give thanks for Peter, for our ancestor in the church who sometimes got it wrong and stumbled. But for all the times that he did, he also stuck it out until he truly understood the message of the cross and witnessed the resurrected Christ. That’s in our DNA, too. He went on to an important preaching career and major role in shaping the early church. He’s part of who we are in this place centuries later, sometimes doubtful but mostly strong in the radically different order of the cross. May we share the faith of Peter, and like him, come to imagine something different.