Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (16 September 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
They live in a big old house facing the sea, in a small coastal Carolina town smack dab in the path of Hurricane Florence’s fury.
Shortly before the storm surge arrived Friday morning, an interviewer asked why she and her family had ignored the mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the hurricane. She said, “We wanted to see what it would be like to be here in a big storm.”
The Weather Channel reporter, exhausted and irritated, then asked, “And if things go badly for you, if the storm hits your house, you know that someone will have to come out into the storm to rescue you, someone will have to risk their life to save yours.”
The woman said, “I hadn’t thought about that until just now.”
I can imagine a circumstance in which evacuation would be difficult—if someone in the home were sick or disabled; if there was livestock to tend or a business that had to stay open, or if you had critical skills. But to stay only to satisfy curiosity? Really?
In fact, within hours of the hurricane’s landfall, emergency teams near Wilmington had received more than 500 distress calls from families just like hers, who imagined their amusement was worth more than someone else’s life. Who are these people?
Danger can escalate quickly in any storm—Mother Nature isn’t obligated to play fair. So, I pray that all those in the storm’s path are safe. But, to be honest, a cold dark corner of my heart hopes that this family might have experienced just a moment of panic before being plucked from their roof. They needed to learn a lesson. A lesson about the value of a life. Someone else’s.
Hurricanes are not the only thing that can take sudden turns, escalating quickly into something unexpected and unmanageable.
Conversations can go that way, too. Especially if Jesus is your conversation partner and a cross-shaped storm is brewing on the horizon.
Last week Jesus performed two miracles—banishing a demon from a little girl, and opening the ears of a hearing-impaired man. They were impressive, two more jaw-dropping events in an already breath-taking career.
Whether Jesus was in need of a pat on the back, or worried that his disciples weren’t sufficiently impressed, he queried them, “Who do people say that I am?” He was hoping they might say, “Bono” or “Pope Francis” or “Jack Ryan.”
Instead they said, “Well, we’ve heard rumors that you might be Elijah returned from death, or John the Baptizer reunited with his head.” Question mark? Their uncertainty hung in the air.
Exhausted and irritated, Jesus pressed, “Then who do you say that I am?”
The silence was deafening. Finally, Peter cleared his throat and said, “The Messiah?”
Something about that spot-on answer, Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity opened the floodgates, and Jesus poured out a secret he’d been keeping for months, if not years.
“Friends, this will not end well. There are those who seek my life—some whom you know. I will be shunned. I will be tortured. I will be killed. And,” pausing for emphasis, “Then I will live.”
Peter didn’t hesitate this time. “No! It can’t happen! Not to you!”
Like a storm surge in a hurricane, Jesus unleashed a Category 5 rant.
“There is life. And there is life. There is death. And there is death.
Calling Peter names and shouting to the crowds, “The life you want—security, certainty, a comfortable retirement, reasonable answers—is not the life I offer. You’ve got to die to that life if you’re going to live into mine.”
And what does that life look like, the life Jesus offers, the death he requires? That life values the life of another more than your own. That life thinks about the needs of the other before your own. It is a life lived in the shadow of a cross—evidence of Jesus’ selfless love for us.
I have not known Kevin and Kara, whose daughter Hattie is baptized today, all that long, but I know something about them without having to ask. I know that if their daughters were in any danger—speeding train, rabid wolf, raging disease, mean girl—they would step in front of the danger for their girls without having to think about it for a second. I know, without asking them, that their love for Hattie and Landon is deep, selfless, endless. I know that they would die for their daughters if need be.
I know this because it is the way faithful parents love, thinking always of the welfare and happiness of the other. Knowing that the other’s happiness, the other’s joy brings happiness and joy to them, too.
And I know that, in bringing Hattie to us for baptism, they desire that life for her, as well. They desire that she will, like them and her grandparents and her baptismal sponsors, live always for the sake of the other, especially if that “other” is a small or frightened or alone. As much as they love her, they know that God loves her more, that God has plans for her. A plan that involves service and kindness and generosity. And fearless love.
Please know, there is a great chasm between the life Jesus desires for us, this baptized life into which Hattie enters, and going through life as a doormat, a tool, an amusement, whatever someone else wants. The life Jesus asks us to live is a life we choose, not one that is thrust upon us by another whose motives may be suspect. As I said to my girls often when they were just beginning to date, “Anyone who says, ‘If you love me, you’ll do . . . , doesn’t love you. Run away.”
Disciples choose the way we love; no one tells us. No one but Jesus.
Meanwhile, people wise and foolish, generous and selfish are being pummeled by Hurricane Florence, a storm that does not distinguish among its victims. And none of us can know how we would respond under similar unexpected, threatening circumstances. So, rather than being catty, as I have been, about those who tempt Florence by staying behind, it is incumbent upon me and you, and all who have already waded in the waters of baptism, to protect these small, frightened, isolated children of God from the unwelcome waters that rise around them.
There is life and there is life.
There is death and there is death.
Jesus asks us to choose life that really is life, even if it means a little bit of what we had imagined has to die.
Today we choose Jesus’ life—for us, for Hattie, for all who must weather life’s storms.