Revised Common Lectionary reflection for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
September 3, 2017
Lessons: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Alternate: Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people accept Jesus’ invitation to get “crossways” with him, taking up our cross each day in a bold, countercultural and faithful way.
Key Scripture: From that time on, Jesus began 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Matthew 16:21-22
We all like to know the news – that is, when it’s good news, happy news, or at least palatable news. Everyone loves a winning team, and only die-hard fans cheer through losing season after losing season without complaint, grumbling or worse. An entourage of speech writers, consultants, advisors, and spin masters helps public officials and personalities share every move in carefully crafted ready-for-prime-time and social-media sound bites. Hold your head high, put your best foot forward, and spin the story in its best possible light. Right?
Not according to Jesus you don’t. Jesus is a truth teller even when the news isn’t popular, pretty, or even palatable. Jesus’ truth is a costly truth, and he is quick to set Peter straight for trying to spin the message. Following Jesus is about truth and focus and dying – to self and to the lures of the world. Our invitation is not to run with the in-crowd but rather to take up a cross (scandalous!) and become intimately acquainted with losers. For it is only in bearing and losing that we gain real life, a message that leaves spin doctors scratching their heads.
At its root, the challenge for Christian communities today is really no different than what Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand some 2000 years ago. All the catchy programs, caramel lattes, slick graphics, and accomplished worship bands in the world won’t spin or alter the truth about Jesus Christ. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and his call is one to participate in the healing of the world by putting not only some skin but our entire selves into the process. To put it another way, Jesus invites us to get “crossways” with him.
We are called into a way of life that runs counter to everything the world tells us is worth having and doing and being. We are invited into community, splashed with water and word, filled with Spirit breath, and gifted to give and give and give some more. Paul sums it up nicely in this week’s epistle lesson from Romans (12:9-21) where he outlines what it means to take up one’s cross and follow Jesus. It’s not all tough, awful stuff either. There is great joy and reward in the discipleship journey. When the beloved community is at its best, it is nothing short of amazing; when it’s not at its best, it’s still the best way to live.
Cross-bearing is not a mandatory activity. Jesus makes it clear to Peter, and by extension to us, that if we’re not going to keep our mind focused on God and discipleship, we need to get out of the way. But if we let go of our illusions, our fears, and our rationalizations, we will find our eyes opened to real life. We will find Jesus in so many ways, in so many people, and in completely unexpected places. Don’t worry about prettifying the good news; the truth is so very much better, but it’s something each disciple must experience: all or nothing. Are you in?
Hymn #798 in the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) is “Will You Come and Follow Me” by John L. Bell (Text © 1987 Iona Community, admin. GIA Publications, Inc.). This beautiful and easy to sing selection offers wonderful possibilities for interweaving with the sermon, finishing with the fifth verse as a prayer. Several versions of the song are available on YouTube. My personal favorite is found here. If you have a tech savvy parishioner, you could easily put together your own images that are suitable to your particular context.
Consider Paul’s instructions from Romans 12 as operating instructions for cross bearers. It’s one thing to say “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me” and another thing to live it day in and day out. We do it better in community, so looking at Paul’s writing provides a helpful framework for what this might look like. What if you took one verse every week and prepared a focus devotional for youth to use? You might consider using Facebook or Twitter to keep the youth conversing about these operating instructions. At the end of whatever time period you set, bring the youth back together to debrief about how the operating instructions helped or did not help. Another way to go is to use this passage as the theme for a weekend retreat.
The Greatest Weapon (based on the epistle for the week, Romans 12:9-21)
Pull some toy “weapons” out of a big bag, perhaps a plastic sword, a water gun, a sling shot, a Nerf gun, a pillow, and so forth. Also pull out a paper heart. Talk to the children about the various “weapons” and ask them which one would make the best weapon. Do not mention the paper heart. Allow time to hear and respond to their various answers. Finally, pick up the paper heart and tell them this is your pick for the best weapon because love is always stronger than any other weapon. Read verses 9-10 and 19-21. End with a prayer like this one:
Lord, your Son Jesus taught us that love is always the best weapon to combat hate and evil. Help us to beat our swords into tools for peace and to use the love in our hearts to restore good and light in this world. Thank you for showing us the way. Thank you for loving us always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Human nature is not naturally inclined toward denial of self. In fact, our culture teaches us to seek satisfaction and take care of our own needs first. Jesus preaches a different way, one that will most certainly include suffering, self-denial, AND full investment. In fact, Jesus calls us to get “crossways” with him by losing our lives for his sake. Doing so comes with the promise that we will find life.
Stewardship at Home
The Cross is a widespread symbol. People wear crosses, hang them on their walls, from the rearview mirrors of their cars, and tattoo them on their bodies. But who are the real “cross bearers”? Who in your congregation truly bears the cross of Christ, and what does that look like? Spend some time naming people of faith who were or are cross bearers. Maybe the list would include your third grade Sunday school teacher or your grandfather. It might include a beloved pastor of neighbor. Perhaps you would name more well-known cross-bearers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther. Now consider what it looks like for you to be cross bearers. What are the challenges and stumbling blocks? What might be counted as joys? Spend time this week praying about following Jesus by denying yourself and taking up your cross.
Photos: Tim Green used under Creative Commons License and Photo (c) 2007 by Mike Tolstoy, via BigStockPhoto.com. Thanks!
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