a sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 16:21-28 and Romans 12:9-21
My Facebook feed over the past couple of weeks has been littered with kids of every age standing on front porches or in entry hallways with shoulders squared and posing in new, fresh clothes, holding a sign with their new grade level on it. On Tuesday this week, most children in Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover Counties will join the fun. It’s the beginning of another school year. Behind each of those perfect, first-day photos will be the stories and experiences we don’t see: figuring out a new morning routine…the nervousness of stepping onto the first school bus…the crushing reality of that first homework assignment the tiredness as the kids come home the first day, hungry and exhausted, with rumpled clothes.
In order to make that first day go a little easier for our 17-month-old son, we brought our him to the nursery school this past week for a dry-run. To my surprise, he was a bit apprehensive at first, but he quickly caught sight of a ball on the floor unlatched himself from my leg and began to play.
All of this reminded me of a time I was serving back in Pittsburgh when I had to do a first day of school dry-run for a group of Burmese refugees our congregation had helped resettle to an area near downtown. I had received a panicked call from one of the parents two nights before school was supposed to start. No one had given the seven refugee high school students their list of bus transfers. In the Pittsburgh city school system, students often rode public transportation to get to school. These students barely knew any English, and they certainly didn’t know which bus lines to take to get to their assigned high school, which was on the other side of the city. So I was recruited to help chart that course for them. I got online and figured out which route they needed to take and reported the next morning—the day before school started—to practice it with them.
I was embarrassed to admit it at the time, but I had actually never ridden public transportation in the city. I had my own car and could go wherever I wanted. That morning I was foolish enough to think I could lead a group of non-English speakers through what turned out to be a very convoluted route. We walked 4 city blocks to the nearest bus stop in their neighborhood, which we rode to the main station downtown. There we got off the bus, walked another 2-3 blocks to the subway station. I accidentally herded them onto the wrong subway at first, but we figured it out and rode that 3 or 4 stops to another terminal where we got out, climbed the stairs, and waited for a shuttle bus to take us the quarter mile to the school. Of course, that morning was not a school morning, so there was no shuttle bus. We had to walk all the way to the school and have faith that the shuttle would actually be there for them the next morning.
That morning I was taught again a lesson about the bravery and resilience and resourcefulness of refugee families. Prior to going, I had a lot of reservations about the trip: how much would it cost? How would we get back? What happens if I mislead them? As the twists and turns of the trek unfolded, I kept thinking that I myself would never stand to take such a long and complicated route to school every morning. Those immigrant teenagers, on the other hand, signed on for the journey without hesitation and, more astoundingly, without complaining.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the path of following Jesus were to come with a nice list of bus transfers? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the life of discipleship was accompanied with its own detailed and escorted route telling us exactly what to do in each situation, lining up all the steps in advance, as if to say, “If you claim to be Christian, you’d make a left here, or a right on that stance over there?”
There is little doubt in my mind that is what Peter and the other disciples are thinking this morning on their first day of discipleship school. Granted, they’ve been with Jesus for a while now, venturing through the towns and villages of Galilee and the Gentile territory around it, but we get the sense that the lessons and the homework have really begun ever since they left Caesarea Philippi and Peter declared Jesus was the Messiah. It’s like for a moment there we saw Peter standing there on the front porch, in fresh, new clothes, grinning and clutching a sign with his new grade level on it: “Discipleship: Day 1.” Now he is lost, his clothes are all rumpled, and he’s failing his first homework assignment on the first step. That is because what Jesus shows them about how he is Messiah is difficult to follow mentally.
Jesus is Messiah, the one God himself has anointed to set the world to rights, but he is going to accomplish that by undergoing suffering himself. Jesus is the Son of the Living God, the one to whom all honor and glory is due, but he is going to display that honor and glory by being handed over to his enemies. Jesus is going to demonstrate what it means to be divine and offer that divine life to all, but he is going to do it in the utmost of human ways: he’s going to die. This is not a path we might expect from the Messiah, the Son of the very God who brought life into existence and has almighty power at his disposal, who could do divine things in a very divine way. Our human brokenness prevents us from grasping this.
In Jesus, God is saying the world doesn’t have to attain my love—the world doesn’t have to come up to God’s high level or make the all the right decisions in life or have all the right beliefs. In Jesus, God is saying my love is coming to you, where you are, and suffering in the world as you often do. This is what we come to know in Jesus, and that act of love and grace is going to meet a rough road to get the job done. It’s going to have to suffer and eventually die.
Those who follow Jesus should therefore expect a similar road from time to time. And if there is a particular list of directions to take as one of his disciples, if there is a set of instructions about how to go about this, it simply involves this: die to yourself. Jesus dies to himself, and therefore we must, also, if we’re joined to him in baptism.
And this ends up being a particularly challenging thing to do in a culture that is all about self-assertion. If it was difficult for Peter and the others to deny themselves, to lose their life, it is certainly going to be hard in our day and age when we’re told at every twist and turn to claim your own identity, to make a name for ourselves, to get our fair share. We live in times that glorify the individual, that seduce us with the false claim that we can be our own god and set all our own rules. We live in times where it is so easy to place ourselves in positions of supposed moral authority relative to other, criticizing them for their mistakes, confessing other people’s sins (doing it publicly is even better), pointing out how we would have done very differently.
The life of baptism into Christ, by contrast, is a repeated shedding of the self. It is a life of self-denial, of pointing that finger inward—a life, for example, that teaches us to weep when others weep and rejoice when others rejoice. It is a way of associating with the lowly, as the apostle Paul says to the Romans, and not claiming to be wiser than we are. It is a road that always surprises us with the opportunities to forgive those who’ve wronged us, to think first of others’ needs and to respond to evil with good.
There are a lot of tough but important conversations happening these days in our culture along the lines of race and class and it seems to me that the most productive and healing conversations occur when people essentially present themselves in these conversations in a posture of self-denial. That is, when they approach the discussions in a willingness to really hear what the other side is saying and imagine themselves there rather than simply waiting for their turn to speak and get their point across. This is especially true for those who find themselves in positions of power or majority.
This road is hard, I won’t lie. It is grueling at times, but Jesus is always there to help us through it, to lift us up and to remind us that we gain our true life as we do it because he is risen. He lives—and has lived—through it all already for us.
The other images that have floated through our news media and social media feeds this week have been of the devastation from Hurricane Harvey in Texas. I’ve found it hard to wrap my brain around the level of flooding that has occurred. But I’ve also found it hard to wrap my brain around the level of heroism and community spirit that has occurred. There was the story of the woman whose 29-year-old son went off to a coastal community in the Houston area 3 months ago to help his dad, who had cancer. When the Hurricane hit, she became worried because, with cellphone towers down and whatnot, she wasn’t able to contact him. As a last-ditch effort she googled his name and found out he had become a hero, stepping up to steer efforts in an impromptu storm shelter that had no power and no water and that was filled with medically fragile adults. There was the tragic but heroic story of the 3-year-old who was pulled from the water still clinging to the body of his drowned mother who did literally everything she could to keep him safe as they got swept away by the current.
It seems that every case where there’s a hero, in Texas as in life, it involves someone who has denied him or herself. And by contrast, every case where there’s a villain it involves someone who has asserted him or herself in inappropriate and harmful ways.
There are no list of specific bus transfers in the life as one of Jesus’ followers, the life of self-denial and taking up the cross to suffer. The way forward is more a mindset that Jesus gives us, one where we learn to let go of ourselves and listen to the world. At some point we do have move forward, however. We have to step off that front porch and get on the bus. Jesus calls us to, and our baptism compels us to it. 20th century Lutheran theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote once, “Faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” That is to say, Jesus loves all and has died for all, regardless of who and where we are.
But it is in the act of following, in the act of losing our life over and over again for the sake of Jesus’ vision of a world restored…it is in the act of unlatching ourselves from the leg of what we think is safety and instead taking up the cross in the world where we will find the strength to walk the journey, and to get up and walk it again, and walk it again, and walk it some more, wherever it leads.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Touchstone Book, 1995, SCM Press 1959 p64