The Heart of the Matter

Sunday, September 3, 2017 – Pentecost +13

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

The Heart of the Matter

Jesus and his disciples have just entered Caesarea Philippi – not quite a Labor Day vacation, but some intentional time with his disciples, as Jesus begins to prepare them for what is coming. All that is about to happen to him, and to them; for us and the world.

As they say on TV, “previously in Matthew’s Gospel:”

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” with the follow up question, “But who do you say that I am?” To which Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

This morning we have the follow up piece in the Gospel text we have before us, as Jesus explains what it will mean that he is the Messiah – the cost of that. To him and to the disciples as well. What it means to follow.

So we go rather quickly from Jesus as Son of God, and Peter as the Rock (upon which Jesus will build his church); to Jesus as the suffering Son of Man, and Peter as a Stumbling Block (or worse, Satan). I am often struck by how difficult it must have been for the disciples to follow Jesus, how out of their depth they are most of the time. No matter how hard they try, they are so heart-achingly far behind most of the time. And how hard Jesus pushes them to keep up.

But the intensity of this exchange reflects how important it is to Jesus that Peter really understand. Peter, to whom Jesus will give the power of binding and loosing, must learn to let Jesus go. Poet and theologian Rev. Jan Richardson’s writes:

Jesus is concerned not only that Peter and his companions let him go but also that they learn to release their hold on their own selves. Turning toward the rest of the disciples, Jesus tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life,” he says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Self-denial is a tricky practice, and the Christian tradition hasn’t always done a good job of teaching it. … Self-denial doesn’t mean giving up who we are at our core, the self that God created us to be.
Rather, Jesus’ words here call us to recognize and release whatever hinders us from full relationship with God and one another.

… challenging us to know the stumbling blocks within our own selves.. to open ourselves to the one who is the source and creator of our deepest self. And to ask ourselves, “What are the actions, what is the way of being, that will leave the greatest amount of room for God’s love, grace, and compassion to move in and through me?”
The answer to that question won’t be the same for everyone, and that’s another thing that has made self-denial so tricky in the Christian tradition. A single form of self-denial won’t fit for all, and one of the greatest ways we can harm ourselves and others is to follow a path that’s not meant for us.
(Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook blog, “To Have Without Holding”)

Jesus tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Our path, as we follow Jesus, our discipleship, is particular to us. We can relax a little, the path is wide- this way of Christ, there is room as we walk alongside one another. But our steps, the best steps for us, may be slightly different from the people walking nearby.

So we are free to worry less about everyone else, and to focus more on ourselves for a moment. “To recognize and release whatever hinders us from full relationship with God and one another,” and act upon it. Let go of the habits, prejudices, and burdens, that weigh us down. The busy-ness that consumes and overwhelms, and draws us from our core selves and God, taking up our days and our time – but giving us nothing of substance in return.

And bind ourselves instead to what really matters, to the relationships that really matter. To God’s self, and those we are given to love, to focus on those patterns which allow us to be the people we were created to be, as we build up one another, creating life abundant for all God’s people.

That’s all that really matters. If you have any doubt, ask the people who stood on their rooftops waving white towels, hoping to be rescued by helicopter during Hurricane Harvey. Ask them what they needed to have with them, really needed. What they were most concerned about as the waters rose. They will tell you – the people they love.

And when rescuers came, you had better believe they weren’t concerned about the person’s race, immigration status, religion, sexual orientation or gender. All that mattered was that they were there and holding out a hand, offering help when help was needed. Everything else, all the pettiness, all the divisions we create to divide us, all of that falls away when we are in real need of one another, when it really gets down to it. What people who have just experienced the life and death crisis of Harvey would tell us is that at the heart of the matter, when it’s all on the line – you are faced with a choice: there’s what you hold on to, and what you let go of, and it’s pretty clear in that moment. What really matters is all that really matters. The people you love, you hold onto them as tightly as you can (even if you argue over the dinner table every time you get together); and those who need you – neighbors, strangers – you reach out your hand to help them with all the strength you have. Because it is what you can do in the face of incredible odds, and it is what makes us fully human.


And the rest of the nonsense that seemed so important before: the pettiness of this life, it’s not worth hanging on to. There’s no time, energy, or room for that. A few examples:

The hundreds of stories of neighbors who got into their boats, or floated whatever they had to go door to door to rescue people because someone had to, and the rescue services were completely maxed to capacity.

The Mayor of Houston pleaded with people to seek help regardless of their immigration status. Going on record to say that if they are detained because of seeking help, he will represent them personally. In the current political culture, that’s letting go of what’s NOT important, and holding on to what really matters – getting people to safety because their lives are of value. They have always been of value.

And “Mack” McIngvale, Mattress King of Houston, who invited anyone in need of shelter to use his stores for safety, food and a warm place to sleep. And sent his trucks out to help with the rescue efforts. As McIngvale said, “If we can do that and make their lives a little easier as they try and get things back together, then maybe we’ve done something right in our lives,”. Since last Sunday, they estimate that 800 people have sought shelter at their stores. When he was asked about the merchandise, McIngvale said he’s not concerned at all, and still plans to sell it after the storm. “We’ll have a Harvey floor model sale, or something. I’ll come up with some shtick,” he said with a laugh. “These people are nice. They’re taking care of the furniture. Furniture’s made to be sat on, slept on, laid on, whatever. It’s just a product.”

People staying in his stores have been treated to bread donated by El Bolillo Bakery. Which had bread to donate because three of their bakers were stuck at the Wayside location for two days during the worst of the storm. So they spent their time baking bread for the people who would need it. When their boss was finally able to get to them, he found three very tired but relieved bakers, and a store overflowing with bread – to be donated to shelters and anyone in need.

It’s only been a few weeks since Charlottesville, and our nation’s wounds are still raw and weeping, then we have this moment when it feels like our humanity hung in the balance, and thankfully, people remembered themselves, at their core. To rise to their better selves – and to remind us of what really matters. To show us in action what we hear Jesus trying to teach Peter and the disciples and us.

That it’s important to know how to let go. To clear away everything that gets in the way of our being our best selves – so we can be in true relationship with God and one another.

And from that place of honest discipleship, at our best, we can be given the power to bind and loose, the power to help one another hold on to what matters and to let the rest go. May we be our best selves: agents of God’s love, grace, and compassion, as we bring in the Kingdom together, for everyone. Amen.