Sermon Archives

"Unthinkable"

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Sep 03

Text: Matthew 16:13-28

Several times a week I find myself, as some of you probably do too, walking pass the cab stand in front of the hotel next door. I’ve taken to saying “Bonjour” to the Haitian cab drivers who are gathered there, waiting for a fare, and they usually smile and say “Bonjour” back. Then I continue on my way, and they continue their conversation.

Except for this one guy, this one very outgoing guy, who stops me on the sidewalk—just to talk. He is burning to talk. He reads a lot—Plato, Marx... and he observes the world… and he is convinced that everything is terrible. “Look around!” he says. So much suffering, and everyone is just out for their own interest. “Why bother with church?” he scolds. (He knows who I am.) “If God exists, it’s obvious he doesn’t care two cents for us.”

It takes me a while to get a word in. “I know,” I say—and I do. “I know. It’s true: There’s a lot that’s terrible. The world is full of pain and injustice. Yes,” I say— “but...”

“But look again. Surely there’s more—if we’re able to recognize it.”

There are the Black Lives Matter demonstrators who showed up downtown in Charlottesville on the morning of August 12 and solidly held their ground, peacefully, amid a sea of hate. That’s real too, isn’t it?
There are the few dozen clergy who spent 5 weeks being trained in nonviolence so they could put on their robes and stoles and go link arms in front of a line of supremacist militia with assault rifles. As hundreds of demonstrators marched by them wearing swastikas and KKK insignia, helmets and shields, carrying guns, carrying baseball bats, hurling insults, slurs, and hate, they knelt. They prayed. They sang, “Love Has Already Won” and “This Little Light of Mine,” not knowing whether they would even survive the day.

I think of what it was like to march through the streets of Boston a week later, 40,000 strong, peaceful, joyful even in the midst of grief, how beautiful the crowd was, and how diverse.

I think of the generosity and love that power the work we are doing together at the Friday Café, how it fills my heart each week when we gather (as we will again when we reopen on October 20).

And I think of a video posted from Houston a few days ago: a group of about 20 people, in water above their knees, forming a spontaneous chain as they realized that an elderly man was trapped in his car in rising water. Women and men hurried to join the end of the line, reaching for each other’s hands as the rescuers in front cautiously waded out to the driver’s-side door, pried it open, and lifted the driver out, guiding him to safety past those interlocked human hands. All that is real. It’s a part of our world too.

Yes, but. But so much water, so much devastation. Yes, but I did not expect to see torch-carrying white supremacists in the streets this summer.

If you had asked me to imagine either of these events beforehand, I would have said they were unthinkable. Meaning they must never, ever, ever be allowed to happen.

As I stand here today, I am holding both despair and hope. Despair that the evil of white supremacy will never lose its grip on the American psyche. Despair for what people have unleashed—rising seas, wild weather. Hope in the boundless power of God to bring life out of death, to overcome evil with good, and to call forth possibility from the most hopeless places. Can we hold both despair and hope? Is this even possible?

Our scripture this morning finds Jesus and his friends passing Caesarea Philippi in the far north of Israel, near Syria. As they walk, Jesus begins asking the disciples questions. So, what’s the buzz? he asks. Who do people say I am?

They tell him what they’ve heard. “Some say John the Baptist. Some say Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the prophets.” It’s a curious club they’re putting Jesus into. Think who’s not on this list. The great King David, for one. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses and Joshua. Missing from the list are all the heroes of Israel who lived long and died peacefully, loved and respected.

Instead they name prophets whose fame is that they showed up and spoke uncomfortable truths to the ruling powers, and paid the predictable price. John was executed. Jeremiah was tossed into a cistern. Elijah fled for his life into the wilderness.

Why are people looking at Jesus, at his ministry of healing and forgiving and reconciling and teaching, and recalling the suffering love of the prophets?

Jesus doesn’t comment. Instead, turning to his closest friends, he asks them point blank: But what do you say? Who do YOU say I am?

Why are we here? What is this all about?

And out of Peter tumbles that startling and famous declaration: “You are the anointed one, the Son of the living God!” It’s as if he’s been burning to say it, just waiting for a chance to speak it out loud. Jesus, for once, is overjoyed with him. “What a blessing you’ve been given!” he says. “God has told you this, and no other. And this, right here, is where I build my church”: on Peter’s dawning recognition of God alive and at work in Jesus to transform the world. Indeed, Peter is coming to see Jesus in a way that would have been unthinkable to his old, traditional self—an offense, a kind of blasphemy. For how can a flesh and blood human being be at the same time so one with the living God?

It’s striking that this conversation takes place where it does, about as far from the centers of power in Jerusalem as you could go without leaving the country. Yet from that time, Matthew tells us, Jesus begins teaching that he must go to Jerusalem, that he must suffer at the hands of the authorities, and be killed, and on the third day, be raised. Peter is horrified.

God forbid! That must never, ever, ever happen to you!

And Jesus turns. In Matthew’s telling, the previous scene is replayed, but in a mirror. Peter, in his heartfelt distress, is no longer speaking for God but for the evil one. His divinely granted sight has become, in the blink of an eye, the blindness of human flesh and blood again. And instead of the rock on which Jesus will build his church, the disciple whose nickname, Petros, Peter, literally means “Rock” in Greek, has become a stumbling block—a rock that someone would put in the path of a blind person to trip them up. It’s as if the clock has struck midnight, and his carriage has turned back into a pumpkin, and he’s standing there in his old rags again. All because he wants to keep Jesus safe. He can’t imagine that God would choose to take that route, to chart that kind of way through history. It is completely unthinkable.

Can both of these be the same Peter? Dawning faith and fearful resistance? Bold hope and safe retreat? Can you really build a church on such partial vision?

But that’s the point, right? No generation has ever been able to see fully what God is doing, or where the road will lead. Peter is the church, and we are Peter, trying to be faithful when there is so much we don’t yet understand, so much we can’t see or even imagine yet. How could we? If we knew the way, we would go there. But we depend on the God of our salvation to lead us out of the mess we are in together as human beings. And since the mess is real and deadly, the way through will likely take us places we would rather not go.

Perhaps all this has something to do with why Jesus made people think of John the Baptist or the prophets rather than David the warrior-king. Because he put himself so much at the mercy of the forces of the world, trusting in God to lead the way.

But Jesus is also different from the prophets. Jesus is not a loner, crying out in the marketplace. He’s a community-gatherer, a healer, a teacher—a church builder. He’s not going to Jerusalem alone. They are all going together.

The day before the Boston march last month, I attended a training at a church downtown—a last-minute teach-in to help marchers prepare, practically and spiritually. The training was organized by the faith-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network, the same group that’s been helping us with our sanctuary work here in Harvard Square, and the trainer was a photographer activist, Heather Wilson, who had just come from Charlottesville.

Heather has been in some pretty intense places in her work—Ferguson; Flint, MI; Standing Rock. But she said none of them prepared her for what she was to encounter in Virginia. She was in the congregation on Friday night when hundreds of chanting, torch-bearing supremacists surrounded the church where people were praying, shutting them in for a long, terrifying hour.

When those who were planning to be part of the counter-demonstration gathered for prayer early the next morning, leaders reminded them that if they went, they must be prepared for the cost—arrest, injury, perhaps death.

Meditating in her hotel room after the service, Heather told us, she felt such deep fear in her body that she didn’t know whether she would be physically able to get up and walk outside. But she thought about the colleagues she loved—people of color who would be at the demonstration taking pictures. If they were going to be there, she said, she couldn’t not be. Her love for her friends got her up and out the door.

And she coached us: Where do we come from? We answered: Deep, abiding love.

What are we about? Confronting evil systems, not people.

Friends, what is faith but the ongoing, evolving struggle to stand up for love in the midst of the mess? Although Christians have far too often stayed home and played it safe, our scripture this morning reminds us that following Jesus is not about safety. It’s about a love that goes where it is needed and creates community there, in the very places of pain and sadness and injustice.

Each time we break bread together, we prepare. We return to Jerusalem to be with Jesus, telling the story of how, on the night he was betrayed… We remember that, whatever happens, he is with us, and we are with him. Somehow, we know, God is at the heart of this story, guiding us out of death and into life.

Arms linked… hands reaching out to grasp hands… from that time to this, across geographic boundaries, across differences and disagreements, this community of imperfect love and shaky courage has managed to endure. It may not seem like the most robust response to the problem of suffering, but maybe that’s because there is so much we can’t yet see.
Anyway, it gives me something to say to my friend the cab driver when he tells me that people are selfish and the world is terrible. As I turn to go, I point next door, where workers are busy constructing a beautiful, broad new walkway between this house of faith and the world outside, the better for love to come and go. Smiling, I look him in the eyes and say,
“Come to church.”