13th Sunday after Pentecost
September 3, 2017
Matthew 16: 21-28 You can click on this link to read the text in Oremus Bible Browser
This has been a hard week. Watching the devastation in Houston has flipped me back to my post-Katrina days. I didn’t arrive until the following summer. But it was enough. All through the year after and into the next the causeways were still stacked up like kid’s blocks, the majestic oak trees that graced the avenue along the Gulf were still stripped bare and had shred of fabric waving from them. Most of the debris was cleared out, but there had not been time for repair, and churches and homes were still completely wrecked.
At the same time as Houston and Port Arthur, millions of people at the headwaters of the mighty rivers of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh have been overwhelmed with flooding more extreme than usual, and their whole lives have been uprooted. Then it feels as if the whole state of Oregon and Montana are aflame, my friend Charlotte is watching flames at the top of the hill behind her house in Southern California. Right here in our own little church community, health setbacks and family issues have wrecked our peace. It’s hard to know where to start to offer a commentary on this morning’s reading that can pull together all the extreme feelings I’m experiencing, and put them together into a word of hope. How to find God’s promises making any sense when there is so much drama and craziness in all our lives and the life of the world. If I could just sit on my patio with my flowers and a beer and ignore it all, I’d be there; trust me. But it doesn’t work like that, does it?
When we baptize, we make a cross on their forehead with scented oil and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” I get the Holy Spirit part – it is your guarantee that you are God’s own forever and that nothing you do, and nothing that is done to you can ever change that. You are signed, sealed, and delivered to God through Christ Jesus. But being marked with the cross of Christ? What does that mean? Is that the same taking up your cross?
The conversation we hear this morning between Jesus and Peter begins to answer that question. Peter has just nailed it – confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, the Holy One of God – the Hero we’ve been expecting. That means that Jesus is the One who will bring them the freedom from oppression by the Romans and restore the Kingdom of David. Then they will have earned the reward of their patience and suffering through all the years of occupation and subjugation. Their power will be restored and they will be able to stand again on the world stage, proud and confident. It had become a part of their religion, and everyone wants to be successful. But God’s power has always been shown in God’s steadfast love and forgiveness to people who forget about God’s love and try to build their own little kingdoms.
Indeed, Jesus has narrowly escaped death before in his life – as Herod killed a town full of toddlers to get rid of him, and Jesus’ father settled in the Galilee because Judea was dangerous while the Herods were still in charge. Jesus knows that challenging the systems of power that set the customs of the day is dangerous. Look what happened to John the Baptizer. When he called out the church for ignoring the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised they plotted to kill him. Justice means finding a place where all people are able to thrive, and those who work for justice find themselves at odds with those in power. Jesus knows that God’s way is the way of the least, those humiliated and erased by people who can kill you. If you walk the way of domination, you are always at risk that someone stronger will take you down. Instead, God’s way of peace and justice risks all, but it is the way of new life. Jesus’ death at the hands of his church and his government is not the end of the story. In the resurrection, God shows us that the real power is that of Love and that love always wins.
So what does it mean to be marked with the cross of Christ? It means your eyes will be open to injustice when people are exploited and denied a place of dignity. It means you will be willing to challenge your own comfort with the way things work if you see justice denied to another human being. It means you will contribute and pray for those who are able to put themselves in places of restoration and hope when tragedy strikes. It means you will see your own privilege and be grateful as you stand up for those not so privileged.
Being marked with the cross of Christ means you are redeemed, renewed, guaranteed life with God forever – life that begins the moment you recognize how much God loves you and chose you as God’s own. But it means that you will suffer when you see pain. It means you will sacrifice to do for others what Jesus would do for them. It means you will hang on for dear life to hope and trust in God’s way for you when your health fails, when your relationships fall apart, when your loved ones fail.
Our site director used to welcome each new group of people to Bethel Lutheran Church’s Post-Katrina ministry by promising that they would meet God in their work and that their lives would be changed forever. “At the darkest time is when God’s light shines the brightest,” she’d say. Marked with the cross? I know it’s true. How about you?