The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at All Angels by the Sea. Longboat Key, FL
It’s always good to be at All Angels by the Sea. There is a lovely warmth and joy here.
I have been preaching each Sunday in August, at St. Hilary’s in Fort Myers, at St. Margaret of Scotland in Sarasota, and here today. So the themes of the Epistles and Gospels have been very present in my thinking.
A brief word about Jeremiah.
He is the prophet who has been called by G-d to speak the unspeakable. He’s had to tell his nation that it faces military defeat in the face of an expansionist Babylonian Empire, and that there is nothing they can do about it. It would be an unpopular message to any peoples today, as indeed it was in Jeremiah’s time.
“Give up”. “Surrender” This is what Jeremiah had to say.
He received no thanks for this message. In the face of violent criticism, Jeremiah gets on the pity pot, and complains to G-d. G-d, be believes has deceived him. “Truly” he says “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail”.
If we take nothing else from Jeremiah we might take this. It’s perfectly acceptable, and indeed desirable to whine and complain to Go-d. G-d is not very interested in polite piety.
G-d longs to hear our truthful prayers.
In the Gospels, the disciples and Jesus have been on a steep learning curve.
Jesus has fed the multitudes when the disciples would have sent them home.
He’s encouraged Peter to take a risk and get out of the boat.
He has, like Jeremiah, courted controversy by condemning some of the religious leaders of his day.
He’s learned a thing or two from the Canaanite woman who took him on. This is the woman in the district of Tyre and Sidon who refused to take no for an answer.
Last week Jesus heard the briefest nominating speech ever. It’s delivered by Peter. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”.
The campaigning begins in this week’s Gospel.
The balloon of success is quickly burst by Jesus. “My campaign will lead to the cross”.
Peter responds to this news as if it were a lead balloon. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Jesus, as realistic in his time as Jeremiah had been centuries before, knows one certain thing.
It is that when truth confronts power, power will always win.
Power loves power.
Power loves secrets.
Power will do all that it can to keep power.
Power will do all it can to save its secrets.
Jesus has taken on the ruling powers of his day: Rome and the religious oligarchy. He knows that there will be a price to pay.
With this abrupt change in tone, Jesus tells the disciples that there is a cross for them as well as for him.
We sometimes say when stricken with, for example, illness; or the loss of a job; or the loss of a partner by death or infidelity: “well, I suppose this is the cross I am called to bear”.
I do not minimise the sadness and confusion which overtakes us in the face of such events. They leave us reeling. But they are not the cross.
For the cross is something we “take up”, not something which is imposed upon us. To take up the cross is to follow the way of Jesus. And it is a hard way.
I give you an example from my own life.
Back in 1990 and something I went to bat for the Jewish population in Pittsfield, MA in the face of some stupid anti-Semitism. And I paid a price. I was pilloried in the press, and I received a death threat. I cannot say that I was filled with courage; the truth is that I was sh-t scared. But I did so, and would do so again, because I claim to be a follower of a Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth.
Taking up a cross is foolhardy. Taking up a cross is a crazy way to live.
It is to adopt Jesus’ manner of life - as St. Paul puts it, it is to:
13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
Paul’s words point to the Jesus way of life, in which we take up the Cross. It’s not a way which comes naturally. We do not naturally bless those who persecute us. At least in our minds we repay evil with evil.
Taking up a cross is foolhardy. Taking up a cross is a crazy way to live.
Paul does say one strange thing: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads”. About this I quote the renowned theologian of an older generation, Charles Hodge. He wrote, “To heap fires of coal on anyone is a punishment which no one can bear; he must yield to it. Kindness is no less effectual; the most malignant enemy cannot always withstand it.”
In other words, our enemies, if we should dare to treat them with kindness and not with revenge, will be overcome by the relentless nature of kindness. That’s the example of our Lord, given as he spoke to the thief on the Cross.
It is indeed always very hard. I have a neighbour who formerly lived in a suburb of Hades.
She is one of the most difficult people I have ever known. And I must admit that my heart is rarely filled with kindness towards her.
I fail in the mission of overwhelming her with kindness. Oft times my heart is filled with anger, and with thoughts of revenge.
Then I remember that “vengeance is mine” says the Lord.
I am not able to kill her with kindness. The best that I can do is to “keep my lips zipped”, and not to lash out at her.
But it is all very hard.
In the face of the difficulties we face when we decide to follow Jesus, it is right and proper for us to lament as Jeremiah did.
When we have made this lament we shall be ready to prepare ourselves to be:
“Rejoicing with those who rejoice.
Weeping with those who weep.
Living in harmony with one another.
Not being haughty.
Associating with the lowly.
Not claiming to be wiser than we are.”
All this goes against the grain.
But to do so is to discover, as the Holy Week Collect puts it:
“That the way of the Cross is the way of life and peace”.
15O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult. 16Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. 17I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. 18Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail. 19Therefore thus says the LORD: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. 20And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, qsays the LORD. 21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
21From 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. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”