Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | August 30, 2020
Matthew 16: 21-28
One time we took a train to London. We had two seats reserved in the “quiet car.” The quiet car is one in which people are not supposed to talk on the phone or use electronic equipment to the annoyance of other passengers. The quiet car sounded to me like a great place to spend six hours. Float down to London in a cushion of serenity; watch the scenery pass by; read a book; engage in hushed conversation.
As we boarded the train it seemed that the quiet car would be nearly full up. Some people reserve a particular seat on the train. Some people find a seat where one is available. One wondered if all those finding their seats were aware of the nature of their surroundings. It seemed not to be the case. There was a section of the quiet car that seemed to be taken up with two or three families, of which young children comprised the major portion.
Young children are fine by me. I appreciate their exuberant approach to life. Most of the time. In the quiet car on the train to London one wishes for less exuberance. One girl of about 4 years had an electronic toy microwave oven along for the ride. It sounded in every way like the real thing, only annoyingly more so. When she pushed the button, it would whir for a few seconds and then ding.
Whir – ding!
Whir – ding!
Whir – ding!
This was definitely not going along with the charter of the quiet car. My traveling companion went over and pointed out to the girl’s mother that this was the “quiet car.” There were notices on many interior surfaces clearly defining what was not acceptable. These too were pointed out. One might have added, “Just because you don’t see a toy microwave oven with a banned symbol on it does not mean that it’s okay to use one here.” Though we heard no more from the toy microwave, we learned on that trip that the quiet car is more of an ideal than a reality.
Life itself is a journey from birth to death. Everyone has a beginning and an end. What’s different is the middle.
Some of us are born with advantages for the journey of life – our country of origin, race, creed, gender, economic status, mental condition or sexual orientation. These can be factors and in some cases, they can play a role in how we determine our sense of entitlement.
Jesus was a traveler, at least from around the age of 30. In one story one of the first questions someone asked him was, “Where are you staying?” He answered, “Come and see,” which tended to be, everywhere and nowhere, or somewhere along the way.
We like a sense of place in life because it gives us security. We might even aspire to own a place, but whose will it be in a hundred years or a thousand?
Ultimately life is not a fixed abode, because we leave it behind. So it is with faith, or the life of the soul, call it what you will. We refer to faith as “having it” or not, but faith is not really something we possess. Faith, or our sense of soul and spirit is transient. As soon as we arrive at doctrine, creed and dogma it’s like we give the soul a house; but we still venture out from that place.
For many folks religion is a matter of what one believes. Christianity has focused so much on what to believe that we sometimes miss the meaning of how to live.
The story today from Matthew’s version of the life of Jesus is all about the how of living. If it raises more questions than providing answers, then that will be a good thing. It’s all about the journey.
How do you travel?
The story of Jesus is a travelogue in that he is on a journey. In today’s episode the journey takes a twist. Jesus pauses for a conversation with his friends. He tries to expand their awareness of the journey from what it is, even where it’s leading to how they are getting there.
What it is – The realm of God in the here and now.
Where it’s leading – that depended on who was leading. The followers of Jesus thought the journey was leading to a kind of political victory. They would prevail and Jesus would be king; or “Messiah” a kind of political/religious figure.
Jesus began with the what. He asked his friends to tell him what people were saying about him. How they identified him said a lot about what their expectations were. They answered that people said different things.
Some people thought he was like Moses and so they expected him to lead them somewhere.
Some people thought he was like Elijah and so they expected him to topple the government.
Some people thought he was like John the Baptist and so they expected him to speak out on the issues.
When they asked his friends what they thought, one of them answered that he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It wasn’t as if Jesus was waiting for that to be the right answer to his question. It wasn’t as if believing that about him was enough.
He took all of their whats, their assumptions about the facts of the matter and he tried to change their thinking. He described how his journey would end in suffering, rejection and death. And then he would rise again.
Maybe his disciples thought that they would somehow change their religious culture. Maybe they thought that somehow the religious system would see the light of truth in Jesus and embrace him as their own. Jesus was simply telling them the truth about religious systems, or any system for that matter.
It is extremely difficult to change culture. Culture is deep-seated and entrenched. People from the outside aren’t going to change it. They will only be seen as a threat, as Jesus was. In the face of threat, the culture of an organization will act according to its values. For a religion based on laws that defined crime and punishment, the way to deal with Jesus was to kill him. They weren’t about to say, “You know, he’s right – let’s change.” Too much power was at stake.
Jesus created his own culture. It was a radical departure from what anyone expected. He didn’t try to change the culture of religion and politics as an insider. He could have joined their ranks if he had wanted to. He didn’t try to change the culture of religion and politics as an outsider. His aim was not to set up a protest movement.
What he did was to define an entirely different way of travelling through life: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
One of the challenges of travel is how much baggage to take with us.
On our first trip to Scotland in 2001 we were here for three weeks and we each brought just one small backpack. One way to go is with just what you can carry on your back. The reality is that’s how many people live every day of their lives.
And it’s not just our stuff, but our attitude. On that first Scotland trip, our first day in Edinburgh a beggar called out to us, “God bless America!” I wondered how he could tell just by looking at us.
Years later after living here for many years I was walking through Edinburgh on my way to a meeting when I heard someone say in a distinct American accent, “Just walk through my picture why don’t you!”
I said, “This is a working city.”
Sometimes we are the ones taking the picture, in which case we can be aware that wherever it is that we go, there are people who actually live and work there.
Sometimes we are the ones walking through the picture, in which case we can be aware that by how we move through our lives can have a profound impact on other people’s experience.
When Jesus said to pick up your cross and follow him, in order to get a hold on that cross we have to set aside our other stuff. Our baggage filled with any assumptions about our place and privilege. We are challenged to consider what it is we are willing to set aside.
Jesus described a way of travel that certainly did not seem like first class where he would be in the top tier getting the attention he deserved for his elite status. His way is the way of humility and self-denial. He didn’t expect anyone to carry his baggage. He didn’t expect anyone to carry his cross. Anyone who travels in Jesus class needs to lay down their baggage in order to carry their own cross.