Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Security or Stumbling Block?

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Photo by USGS on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.


“From this moment on …”

This phrase has richer meaning for some of your listeners these days. It’s been a long year for us all. Every aspect of our lives has been displaced, deteriorated, or disrupted. What we thought—what we hoped—we would be doing now seems more like a stolen legacy than a lost scenario. Opportunities have not been missed but replaced. Whoever is writing this script missed a scene. Or is that the blunder of the reader?

The lectionary reading tumbles onto the gospel stage to throttle us back from the breakneck pace of the preceding material:

  • After the hypocrisy described by Isaiah is revealed;
  • After explaining that what dishonors God is not poorly performed rituals but behavior that disenfranchises members of the community;
  • After the demonstration of a Canaanite woman’s faith;
  • After the bruised are comforted, the maimed are healed, and the amazed crowds praise God;
  • After Jesus asks the disciples to have compassion for a hungry crowd gathered before them;
  • After the focus is moved from signs to salvation;
  • After the false teachers are exposed;
  • After the confession is made that Jesus is the one who makes the difference in the world;
  • After it is explained that the people of God who gather in Jesus name have power and influence on earth that has eternal ramifications;

Starting now, Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).

Now pause. Breathe. Give Peter space.

According to Matthew’s rehearsal, something bigger than the governmental authority of Rome and the violations of the law reported by the religious leaders is distracting these followers of Jesus from understanding the long-revealed plan for reconciling creation to her creator. After repeating what others are saying and then rightly disclosing Jesus as the promised Messiah, Peter (and I think his shared thoughts are representative of the unspoken thoughts of the whole here) has his own little time with Jesus to say: Not like this Lord.

Maybe this is exactly what is needed to capture our attention? Maybe the dismantling (another word for judgement?) is the only way to separate the broken pieces from the working pieces that need to be put back together again. Maybe the disruption is the only way we will pay attention to how comfortable we have all become with the status quo. Maybe being out of place is the only way we will recognize the place we should be in.

There is a swiftness to Jesus’ response that seems lacking from our pulpits today. Not the inability to articulate what others are saying—inside or outside of our circle of friends. Not the absence of a plan for dealing with the crisis. Not a loss of confidence in Jesus to solve the problem. What Jesus quickly announces as lacking is a recognition of God’s way of dealing with the situation.

Isn’t it just like Matthew to discount the provision of bread as the means to an end in favor of what has been revealed through the prophets as a suffering servant who sits not among the merry makers but as a sacrificial lamb? Isn’t it just like Matthew to point to the letter of the law as a stumbling block if the result of keeping the law overcomes good by evil? Isn’t it just like Matthew to name it as evil when we place our short-sighted hopes and expectations above God’s eternal promises?

I know this is the text this week, so before I go on, let me caution you. Jesus has been with these disciples a minute. There has been a demonstration of his capacity for compassion and his single-mindedness of purpose. These reports are being read and understood in light of the resurrection. So before we clobber Peter, let’s acknowledge how difficult it is to distance ourselves from the platforms of security and stability and sanctity that our modern context offers. Let’s be gracious to affirm the right confession (verses 17-19) even as we note the needed correction to an overzealous, misguided plan.

It’s an interesting example Jesus offers here, and one worth encouraging your listeners to emulate. We can disagree without disbanding. Or more inviting, you can actually have turned to a devilish plan which doesn’t result in an immediate revocation of God’s call in and on your life. (That is why a murderer can become a liberating law-giver! [Exodus 3].)

So breathe. Seriously, breathe!

Now hear the rest of what Jesus says. It may not be a rebuke. It may actually be an invitation. Trust God. Trust Jesus. If you hold too tightly to the things God has provided you—trusting the gift and not the giver—you could lose everything. But God is faithful. And so even if you find you have lost everything, trust God. Trust Jesus. If you search for God’s light in the darkness there will be a flicker of hope. The scenario may not as we planned. The legacy may be found to be flawed. But the promise is trustworthy; so there is no need to conspire with evil-doers. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer (Romans 12:12).

It is not just your listeners who will benefit from a gracious exploration of this rebuke this week. If they begin to live before others the grace they have received, maybe one less twitter storm will erupt; one less Facebook friend deleted. Maybe, instead, having been given a hearing, they might listen to someone they once silenced.

And that might enable one listening to you this week to be a glimpse of the presence of God for someone whose last-place opportunity is being replaced with first-place accommodations.

Joy

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