Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 22, September 3, 2017
Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, one of the things he taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom might come to earth, and that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians around the world pray that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, regularly. At least once a week on Sunday, and a lot of people pray it at least once a day. I do; maybe some of you do, as well. But here’s the question I have, each and every time I read a Bible passage about God’s kingdom, or discipleship, or what it means to follow Jesus: do we really mean it? Do we really want to be disciples? Do we really want God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? Or are we like Peter, who, when he heard the cost, said “God forbid it, Lord!” Because there is a cost. And that cost is the cross.
It is important to remember that this life, this world, is NOT God’s kingdom yet. God’s will is NOT done here on earth the way it is in heaven … yet. When you’ve got a comfortable life, it can be easy to forget that. When you’ve got a nice house, a nice job, a nice family, a nice life, when you and the people you love are generally safe, it’s really easy to look around at the world and go, “yes, heaven must be pretty much like this—there are a few improvements that could be made, here and there, and oh, won’t it be nice when I can see my dead grandparents again, but on the whole, things are great.” It’s easy to get contented with the world as it is, instead of yearning for and working for God’s kingdom to come.
Even when our lives aren’t that great, when things go wrong one after the other, when no matter how hard we work, things just go wrong, it’s easy to get in a rut. To tell ourselves, “yeah, there’s a lot of problems with the world, but things could be worse, and anyway I’m too busy and there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” Particularly when we realize how much it can hurt to try to change things—when we see whistleblowers go to jail or lose friends and jobs for trying to do the right thing, when we see good people standing up for what’s right and getting attacked verbally and physically, when we see all the ways the world and our society work to break those who try to make a difference for the better, it’s easy to say, “you know, the world is what it is, and things could be worse, and trying to make a difference is awfully hard.” And so we just kind of accept things as they are, or see the problems but don’t actually do anything about them because we know how hard it is going to be.
Even Jesus was tempted not to act for God’s kingdom. Three times, he was temped. The devil came to him just after his baptism, offering him the world on a plate if he would just follow Satan instead of God. It would have been a heck of a lot easier to change things than dying on a cross. Then, here, Peter hears what’s coming, the suffering and death, and tries to convince Jesus not to go down that road. And Jesus says, “Get behind me, tempter!” That’s what “satan” means, by the way, “tempter.” If Jesus wasn’t tempted, if it didn’t look really good to just … not go down that road God set before him, he wouldn’t have had any reason to get upset here. But he does. Then, again, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays to God to ask him for some other way. Any other way. Even right up to the night before his death, Jesus felt that temptation to take the easy path. To walk away. Jesus knows how hard it’s going to be, he knows it’s going to be worth it in the end, and if there were an easier way to bring God’s kingdom here to earth he would have taken it in a heartbeat. Even knowing there is no other way, Jesus is tempted to turn aside. Because God’s kingdom is a wonderful, awesome, perfect, holy place … and the only way to transform the world into a place that God’s kingdom can come to involves a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice.
The problem is power. Who gets it, and who doesn’t. See, a lot of human beings love power, and wealth. We are always trying to tip the world in our own favor … even if that means cheating someone else. And once we’ve rigged the rules in our own favor, we don’t even see that we’ve done it. They’ve done this experiment where they have people play board games, and one player in each game will be randomly assigned to have different rules that only apply to them which make it easier to win. Nine times out of ten, by the end of the game, those randomly selected people will be explaining why it is good and fair and right that they get those special rules, and how their win was because of their skill and hard work and not the special rules, and why anyone who says otherwise is just a bad loser. And if you then take away that special rule favoring them, they’ll be absolutely sure that they have been cheated out of something they deserve, even when all that’s happened is that the playing field is now level. In real life, thousands of studies show that even today, black people in America get treated far worse than white people, on average. Yet there are a lot of white people who will point to any black person who manages to succeed anyway and say that they are proof that it’s black people who have the advantage. It’s the same with money. The more of it you have, the easier it is to get more … and the less likely you are to see how much of your success came from the fact that you had more to start with.
We take things that are fair and try to tilt them in our favor. Take Labor Day. It used to be that poor people worked sunup to sundown every day but Sunday—and a lot of them worked Sundays, too, with only enough time off to go to church. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the labor movement set up a day where everything would be closed so that the poorest Americans could relax and spend a day with their families. Yet today, a lot of stores and hotels and places are open on Labor Day, so that people can go on vacation. And who does most of the work on labor day? The janitors, hotel maids, and retail workers, the poorest laborers in America. The day that was set aside so that even they could take time off is now a day they almost always have to work, so that other people who are more likely to get vacations can enjoy another one. Our world is deeply unfair. Even here in America, where we work hard for freedom and equality, race and class and money rig the world so that some people have more resources and opportunity than other people will ever have.
And this has consequences. Who gets stuck in an abusive relationship because they don’t have the money to escape? Who goes to jail because they can’t afford bail, and who gets off with a slap on the wrist? Who dies from a preventable disease because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and who tries to make sure their taxes get lowered even if it means others die from lack of health care? Who gets hated because of their race, class, religion, or sexuality, and who uses that hate to get elected? These are all human things. The desire for power, the desire for wealth, the desire for popularity, the desire to be the king of the hill. The desire to gain the world. These are all human things, not divine things.
God sees the world very differently. God loves each and every one of us, of every class and tribe and race and religion and gender and sexuality. No matter what we do, no matter how we hurt ourselves and one another, God loves us. But God also sees through all of our self-justifications. We may hurt or marginalize others for the sake of our own gain and convince ourselves that we are right to do so, but God sees the truth. We may harden our hearts to the pain and suffering of others, but God does not. And in God’s kingdom, the only one who has power and glory and might is the one person guaranteed never to misuse that power: God himself. In God’s kingdom, there is no one who is rich at another’s expense, and there is no one who is poor. In God’s kingdom, the rules never favor one person over another, one class over another, one race over another, one gender over another. In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever exploited or abused. In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever hurt.
God’s kingdom is a wonderful place. But if God’s kingdom is going to come here, as Jesus taught us to pray that it will, the first thing that has to happen is that we have to put power where it belongs: with God. Not with governments, or Wall Street, or corporations, or groups of people, or even with churches. With God. For God’s kingdom to come, people are going to have to stand up wherever we see power being abused, wherever we see the playing field being tilted, wherever injustice or hate or fear or pain creep in, and say something about it.
This is why a lot of people didn’t like Jesus. He was a threat to the established religious order of things, but he was also a threat to the established social order of things, a threat to the established economic and political orders, too. Jesus welcomed everyone and ate with everyone and healed everyone and taught everyone—but he also pointed out every bit of hypocrisy and injustice he saw, especially in those with power. That made him a threat, and they killed him for it. And people haven’t gotten any fonder of that sort of thing now than they were in Jesus’ day.
That’s part of what following Jesus means. It’s part of what taking up your cross means. It means doing the things that aren’t fun or easy, the things that may get you into trouble, if that is what God calls you to do. It means pointing out the injustices in the world, the places where power and greed have warped things. May we pick up our crosses, and follow God’s call wherever it leads.