The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Mark’s, Hope
August 28, 2011
Proper 17, Year A
It’s official. School has begun. Across the state of Arkansas teachers are welcoming new flocks of eager learners. Classrooms are clean and stocked with arts and crafts supplies. Bulletin boards are freshly decorated with wavy borders and brightly colored butcher paper backgrounds. Children are proudly sporting new uniforms, backpacks and lunchboxes. Just a couple of months ago these children admired, with great awe and wonder, the upperclassmen whose very desks they now occupy. They’re all “big kids” now, honorably graduated to the next grade, living out all of the rights and privileges matriculation entails.
So why is it that when I drop off my four-year-old at his new pre-K class, half of the children are clinging desperately to their parents’ legs looking as if they wish they could go back down the hall to last year’s classroom? What happened to being a big kid? My son is no exception. He’s been pretty clingy lately. All in all we’re very proud of the way the little guy has adapted, but his attempts at resistance in the mornings have become almost humorous. He has an excuse for not being able to do just about everything, from getting out of bed to putting on his shoes. I take comfort in the knowledge that other households are experiencing the same melodrama. And as a parent, I can sympathize. I’ve been there myself. It seems when change happens, even positive change, it can take awhile for us to catch up.
Take Peter and the disciples, for example. If you recall last Sunday’s gospel, Peter had correctly answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” “The messiah, the Son of the living God,” said Peter. Well done. Then in today’s gospel Jesus throws a curveball. Messiah that he is, Jesus explains that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter, the ever-eager student, has something to say about this as well. “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you!” You see, the traditional Jewish vision of the messiah had nothing to do with the messiah’s suffering and death. In fact, it was supposed to be the other way around. The messiah was supposed to inflict suffering and death on Israel’s enemies. For Peter, hearing his beloved teacher say this simply did not compute. Flash. Right before his eyes, “messiah” had been redefined. The dramatic and brutal reality of Jesus’ fate so conflicted with his mental image of the grand, victorious messiah, that Peter began to resist.
Jesus called this resistance a “stumbling block.” Something Satan would do. Just as Satan appeared to a hungry Jesus in the desert and tempted him to turn dry stones into bread, Satan temps again here. Peter is tempted to hold onto his own false vision of the messiah instead of letting God lead the way. After all, Peter’s vision is much more comfortable and satisfying. The good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. God’s way seems so unpredictable … so messy.
If you’re like me you’re probably thinking Jesus is being a little harsh on Peter. After all, who would want to witness their trusted teacher go down the path of martyrdom instead of sticking to the traditional messiah plan? Peter seems less like Satan and more like, well, you and me. As Jesus observed of Peter, we humans have become adept at setting our minds on human things. We think so much about our comfort, about our plans, about our interests, that we often lose focus on divine things, that is, where God might be leading us.
We can apply this line of thinking to communities as well. Just as an individual can be resistant to new situations and ideas, so can a group of individuals, like say, the Church. You’ve heard the joke: “How many church members does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change!? Change!? My grandmother paid for that light bulb!” It’s amazing how easily a church’s focus can become myopic, centered on self-preservation rather than on the Church’s larger purpose and mission. We all appreciate grandmother’s generous donation of the light bulb, don’t get me wrong, but how does focusing our energy on preserving that bulb “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” as we’re called to do?
I don’t mean to be too critical of the Church. After all, resistance is in our DNA. It is something we are destined to struggle with generation after generation. Peter is our founder, the rock upon which the Church is built. And in today’s gospel Jesus called him a stumbling block. It makes sense if you think about it. These walls, these pews, these beautiful things we have, even the relationships we have with one another can become stumbling blocks, drawing our energy inward as opposed to beyond our doors. The same conversation that happened those two thousand years ago between Jesus and Peter happens again and again today. Jesus reminds us individually and communally that his work has to do with messy, uncomfortable things. Suffering and even death is involved. And time and time again we waive him off either because we’re comfortable where we are or we flat out disagree with him. Yes, we are good at setting our minds on human things.
You know, I think the great tragedy in formal education is that it comes to an end. Kids make their way from pre-K to 12th grade, and many on to college and graduate school, but then it’s over and day-to-day work life sets in. Many feel like they have received their degree and completed their education. Instead of being challenged each year to move to the next classroom and sit in an upperclassman’s desk we stay right where we are because it’s more comfortable.
But it seems the gospel is calling us out of our comfort and urging us to take the more unsettled attitude of a life-long learner. What might it look like for us to follow Jesus on his walk to Jerusalem? How might we look beyond our doors and creatively invite others to join us on the journey? How might we challenge our church and each other to be paths towards resurrection rather than simply stumbling blocks along the way? We may have inherited the great skill of setting our minds on human things, but why not commit to learning how to hear more clearly the urgings of the divine?