Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon; Proper 17A; Matthew 16:21-28

Someone once said, “There are two rules to life:  1) Don't sweat the small stuff; and 2) it's all small stuff.”  And while this may seem like a good way to avoid undue stress, increased blood pressure and the development of ulcers, if you think about it, it really doesn't work.

Not sweating the small stuff is what forced Apollo 13 to Jerry-rig their spacecraft with square pegs in round holes.  Not sweating the small stuff caused another spacecraft to crash into Mars because one department used the metric system, while another used U.S. standard.  Not sweating the small stuff has led to the deaths of untold numbers of humans because the small stuff never got checked or worried about.  And when I talk to couples who want to get married, I tell them it's never the big argument – “Honey, I bought a boat” – that causes lasting problems, it's the build up of small stuff over time – squeezing the tube in the middle, leaving the lid up, putting the roll on backwards.  The small stuff can be hugely important.

Today is the second half of a big incident.  Last week Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And after getting responses of John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or a prophet, he asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

This is one of the times when Peter got it.  He got it when he identified Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  He got it when he walked on water.  And he got it last week when he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Today is the second half of this big incident.  This is the first Passion prediction in Matthew, and Jesus tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, die and be resurrected.  Last week Peter got it.  Now, like the time he wanted to stay on the mountain, or the time he sank, or the time he cut off someone's ear, he doesn't get it.  Now he pulls Jesus aside and says, “This must never happen!”

Jesus responds with the famous, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”

Jesus points out that Peter is thinking how the world thinks, not how God thinks.  Peter is thinking about what he wants.  John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet – these are all things we the people want Jesus to be.  And Peter, the mighty rock on whom Jesus will build his church, now becomes a small stone sticking up in the path that causes people to trip.  Jesus reminds Peter, the disciples and us, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

This is big stuff.  But then Jesus says something that I think points to all the small stuff.  He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.”

Let us deny ourselves if we want to follow Christ.

This verse, like so many others, has been misinterpreted and misused probably ever since going to press.  A common misinterpretation is to read this as advocating a form of self-flagellation.  There was Bernard of Clairvoux who denied himself sleep to spend more time reading and writing on Scripture.  There were the flagellants of the 1300's who whipped themselves bloody twice a day.  There are and were countless people whose life mantra seems to be, “Being miserable for Christ.”

This passage has been misused by church leaders attempting to control their parishioners, especially around the issues of money and obedience.  Guilting people into giving more money than they have, or promising pie-in-the-sky if you suffer for our cause on earth is more common than you might imagine.  And it has been used against people who question the authority of the church by telling them that they must deny themselves of evil thoughts and obey.

This probably comes as no surprise, but I do not think this passage was meant to be used this way.  Any passage used to justify self-abuse or blind obedience is being used incorrectly.  Any passage used to justify abuse and control of others is being used incorrectly.  So then, how do I think this passage should be used?

I think it has to do with the small stuff.  We are too easily controlled by our appetites and desires.  We are too easily swayed by advertising and the desire to live up to certain lifestyles that we wish to be accustomed.  We get used to always having certain things at our immediate disposal, whether that is snacks, coffee, clothes, books or any one of a number of small things that add up over time.

When we go shopping, do we shop for what we want or what we need?  Are we buying new clothes because we want to stay in style, or do we have an actual need?  Are we buying two or three of something when one or two will do?  And if we can get by on the one or two, do we have plans for the extras and leftovers?

Denying ourselves doesn't have to be painful, but it does have to be intentional.  The goal of denying ourselves is to learn to submit not to our appetites and desires, but to God.  Self-denial helps to remind us that we are children of God, and so are those whom our self-denial affects and/or helps.

Three months from now our gospel reading will be the separation of the sheep from the goats.  “When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked or alone?”  The answer is, “What you did for the least of these you did for me.”

For us to help or care for the hungry, thirsty, naked and alone requires us to deny ourselves.  It requires us to deny giving in to our appetites and desires and replace them with submission to God.  This does not have to be a major life change.  Nobody is asking you to sell your house, give the money to the church and live in a tent.  But Jesus is asking you to make small, incremental changes every day.

If everyone replaced one or two non-necessity items with one or two food or clothing items for a Ft. Vannoy child every time we went grocery shopping, we would have an everlasting supply of food and clothes going to the school.

Or we can look at our budget.  Pledge income for St. Luke's total $101,632 from 49 pledges.  Of that, 7 pledges total $44,540, and 42 pledges total $57,092.  Those 42 pledges average $113/month.  Obviously not everyone can afford to pledge large amounts, but can most of those 42 pledges afford an extra $10/month?  It's only a small amount, small stuff, but that small stuff adds up.

“If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves.”  Denying ourselves doesn't have to be self-abusive.  Denying ourselves doesn't have to push us into poverty.  But denying ourselves does have to be intentional.  Denying ourselves usually works best when we focus on the small stuff first.  Eventually, all that small stuff will add up, and then we will have done big things.



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