“Stumbling into the Kingdom”
A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on September 3, 2017
Texts: Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
September 3, 2017—Proper 17A
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
I was chatting to someone the other day about the Gospel, and though it doesn’t really matter what the topic was, it happened to be Jesus and money, suggesting that if the J-Man had any modern economic philosophy, it would be closer to communism than capitalism. And their reaction was swift and succinct: “Then Eff Jesus!”
Completely inappropriate language, obviously. But the vehemence should make us stop and take note. Because what’s powerful and utterly appropriate about the reaction is how SERIOUSLY it takes what Jesus says. It faces into what Jesus asks of us—asks us to do, asks us to reject—and then makes a real choice. It recognizes that “This is my stumbling block.” This is what makes it impossible for me to follow Jesus.
Whereas many of us, if we are really, really honest, would rather let those things slide. They snag at us as they go by (when we hear them preached, when we read them in the scripture, when they ring little bells in our conscience in our daily lives), but we’re able to minimize that disconnect. We shrug them off, or ignore them. And yes, those who claim to be biblical literalists do this just as much as the rest of us! We all have stumbling blocks. We all have things in Jesus’ life and teaching that challenge or perplex or vex us.
The only question is whether we are as honest as my friend or as direct as Peter, and allow ourselves to exclaim, “Lord, forbid it!!!”
What is it for you? It’s worth asking: what is it that makes you say, “Lord, forbid it”? What sounds just too difficult, like going to the cross, like standing up to the powers of oppression and being mocked and scourged and humiliated and punished? No seriously, too incredibly difficult, like not repaying evil for evil, like figuring out how to love your enemies … or love yourself … or how to forgive someone way too many times … or believe that you too can be forgiven? No, I mean, what is it that is really, really hard, like letting go of your attachment to money and possessions … like cultivating humility … like letting go of the idea of self-interest, or a preference for your own family or community or nation over all the children of God?
What is it that pulls you up short? Maybe for you it’s the illogical things. Maybe it’s the insanely unfair system of Grace, in which those 11th hour workers are paid as much as the first, in which it’s never too late to turn your life around, in which nobody is beyond the hope of redemption? And okay, that last part maybe sounds kind of good, but seriously, it’s still no way to motivate people to work hard! It just won’t work.
What’s your stumbling block? What’s the part of Jesus’ message that, if you were ruthlessly honest, would make you say “Eff Jesus”? It’s okay. You can admit it. You can admit that you don’t want to be humbled, or can’t imagine yourself exalted when God’s kingdom comes to pass. You can say it out loud, even, if you dare. That’s what Peter does. And sure, Jesus pretty much calls him Satan. In fact, Peter goes from being named the Rock last week, to being called the pebble in a believer’s shoe this week. But you know what? Next thing that happens in the story? Peter gets to be one of the disciples chosen to go up the mountain and witness Jesus transfigured by the full glory of God.
So there it is. You don’t need to get it all right, all the time. But it still might help to admit the ways in which you are resistant. To admit the parts that stick a little, and consider what it is about them that gives you that pause. What is it that you are perhaps afraid to lose? What are you terrified to be asked to do? What don’t you want to give up? What is it that stretches your imagination a little too far? And who, I wonder, are you afraid to become?
What makes you want to cry, “Jesus, take it back!”?
We all have stumbling blocks. We all have things which trip us up, a little or a lot, on our walk with Jesus. Things that stand between us and a life of self-sacrifice and service.[i] And as we confront this fact, we would do well to remember two things: none of us is going to be perfect (just look at “the twelve” disciples if you doubt that one), so that’s reassuring … but at the same time: you’re gonna trip over that thing a whole lot less often if you actually admit that it’s there … maybe put a little spiritual reflective tape around it … that just might change things, over time.
It’s okay to admit it. Peter admitted it, and he still got to go up that mountain and see Moses and Elijah and Jesus all bright with the radiance of God. He still got to be the Rock, even if he was kind of a stumbling block too. Because that’s how it goes in the economy of God, in the kingdom of God: God can use us, with all our gifts and all our faults. God can use it all. And we still get to be part of it, and we still get to witness it.
Some of you, Jesus promises, will not taste death without seeing the Son of Man coming in glory. Some of you will see it, will lay eyes on the Kingdom of God as it breaks into this world. And that is an End of Time kind of promise that we can’t even begin to understand or explain, and it is also a Right Now thing that we simply need to recognize: that Christ breaks in, that the Kingdom can be visible to us, so bright that we almost need to look away. When we look at the flooding in Houston and there is so much devastation, but there is also so much bravery and compassion and generosity happening too: The Son of Man comes in glory! When we see a public radio reporter (AKA “an enemy of the people”) using his body to protect an alt-right protestor from Antifa activists, and it reminds us of a young black woman shielding a KKK member from similar attacks in Ann Arbor 20 years ago: the Son of Man comes in glory. When we see those who are willing to live in a smaller house, or give up one of their cars, or sacrifice in any number of ways in an effort to protect the life of this planet: the Son of Man comes in glory!
Some of you among us will see the Kingdom. Some of you do. Actually, I hope ALL of you do! And I hope it catches your breath, and fills you with wonder. And trust. And strength. And the will to do all within your power to see it again. To proclaim it from the rooftops. To live in its dream and be guided by its light.
What about you? I know that you stumble. We all do, so watch your step. But even as we stumble, we can also catch sight of the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Salvation of the world.
So how about you? Where have you seen it?
[i] Pulpit Fiction podcast 235 for Proper 17A/OT22, released 8/27/2017.