Text: Matthew 16: 21-28
In the name of Christ who leads us from death into life. Amen.
You may recall that I spent the first week and a half of July in the San Francisco Bay Area at the Lutherans Concerned biennial assembly. Well, while I was there my cell phone broke – and not in a simple sort of way, but just absolutely died. I was in a bit of a quandary. Most, though not all of us, in this day and age carry cell phones and have come to rely on them. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that others have come to rely on us to carry them, because I was terrified at the idea that I might be at a conference and enjoying some vacation time and that people back home might not be able to get a hold of me. What’s wrong with that picture?
So, I immediately headed to the AT&T store near the campus of San Francisco State University to ask for help. They confirmed that my device was irretrievably damaged and, since my contract was about to run out and they didn’t want to risk losing a customer to one of their competitors, they offered to give me a great discount on an equipment upgrade. The result, I am now the proud owner of a Samsung BlackJack. If my phone had died a week later I could have been the proud owner of an iPod 3G – but that’s neither here nor there, just sour grapes.
My new phone has lots of fun features. It has ring tones that manage somehow to sound more organic – the chimes sound like real wind chimes, not fake synthesized bells. It checks my email for me and lets me watch streaming video from CNN or the Weather Channel. It keeps my appointments and gives me little alerts when it’s time to leave one meeting for the next. But the feature on this new phone that I get the most excited about is the GPS.
GPS – or global positioning system – is technology that uses a special antenna to send and receive a signal that allows my phone to identify where I am at any moment with amazing accuracy – within feet of my actual location. This allows my phone to not only tell me where I am, but – by combining that information with some mysterious data bank out on the internet – also how far I am from the nearest Starbucks or gas station or movie theater. It can even create a route for me to walk or drive that will steer me away from traffic jams or congested highways. AND, it will talk me through the trip saying things like, “in .3 miles, turn left and your destination is on the right.”
My GPS speaks to me in a firm, authoritative female voice that I have named “Eunice.” Eunice always sounds absolutely convinced that she knows what I should be doing and tells me when I am getting it wrong. Last night I went to see Donna Summer at Ravinia and asked Eunice to help me find the fastest route from the concert grounds to my friend’s home avoiding traffic. I don’t know if Eunice was still reveling in the final medley of “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance,” or if she was just testy because of the long lines trying to leave the parking lot at the same time, but she just could not find our location on her internal map. Still, she kept issuing reprimands to me at full volume for my friends to hear.
“You are off course! Recalculating…” and then, again, “you are off course!”
Eventually I had to turn her off. I have been to Ravinia plenty of times and I know how to get home, I just wanted to see if she knew something I didn’t – some quicker route.
Our lives are full of Eunices. Our lives are full of voices telling us how to get from one place to the next, or when we are off track. We listen to these voices and we assign them varying degrees of trustworthiness based on their history of usefulness. I, for example, rarely find FOX news to be a useful voice – so I have no trouble ignoring it. But I listen closely to my friends and family. They know me well, and when they tell me that I’m off course I listen.
Something along those lines happens in the gospel reading this morning. As we join the story Jesus and his followers are well into their ministry together. Long ago he called them to follow him and preached his inaugural sermon on the mount outlining the focus of his work. Since then Jesus has healed lepers, raised the dead, calmed the storm and restored sight to the blind. He commissioned the disciples to do the same and sent them out into the world. When they returned they were amazed by how God had used them to perform miracles and bring others to faith.
As they continued on their way Jesus was rejected in his own hometown, and shortly thereafter encountered the Caananite woman who opened his eyes and his heart to all those others who had been rejected by a narrow vision of God’s family. He gained a new sense of who he was, to whom he had been sent, and where he was going.
In this morning’s reading Jesus tells his disciples for the first time that he is headed to Jerusalem, which will mean death. He will notify them of this destination three more times before he finally arrives and they will never get used to the idea of it. Today we hear the first rebuttal coming from Simon, whom Jesus has just named Peter and called the rock on which the church will be built. Scriptures say that shortly after his own rejection, and his encounter with the rejected Canaanite woman, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Surely we can understand why his disciples had trouble accepting this. They had been with Jesus from the beginning. They’d seen him perform signs and wonders. They’d even seen him raise the dead! If anyone had power to avoid the pain and humiliation of the cross – the symbol of empire’s deadly force – it was this man, their hero, their teacher, their friend. He was their great hope, and he loved them, so it must have been difficult when Peter said to Jesus in a voice as firm and authoritative as my own Eunice’s, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” You know what he’s saying, right? Come on and say it with me if you think you know: “You are off course!”
But Jesus turns and says 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.”
All sorts of geography lessons wrapped up in that little rebuke, “get behind me…you are a stumbling block.” Lots has been made of the fact that Peter the rock has now become a stumbling block. A nice play on words, though from what I can tell of the Greek it’s only a pun in English, not in the original Greek. Don’t quote me on that though, I’m no Greek scholar. But the word we’re translating as “stumbling block” isn’t referring to a block of stone as much as it’s conjuring up the image of a road block, like a tree that gets blown into your path or a landslide that blocks the road. Peter is called a stumbling block in the sense that Jesus is going somewhere and Peter is trying to get in the way. So Jesus tell Peter, “get behind me, Satan!”
This is really hard to hear, and I imagine even more so for Peter – whom Jesus had just praised so highly as the cornerstone of the church. But, since we are a local manifestation of that universal church, let’s go ahead and put ourselves in Peter’s sandals. Let’s imagine that Jesus has issued his rebuke to us, “get behind me, Satan!”
In Matthew’s gospel Satan isn’t simply a bad name you call someone, Satan is a character in the story. The devil showed up back in chapter four, before the disciples had even been called and had tempted Jesus with offers of comfort and power and elevation above the needs of the earth’s lowly people. Here Jesus recognizes that in the voice of his closest friends Satan has returned to tempt him again, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you…”
On the way home from Ravinia I had to turn my phone off. Eunice just could not figure out how to help me get hom
e! As I drove down the Edens, she kept trying to find me on her map, but she could never quite place me, so she kept giving me awful directions. I’m speeding down the interstate and she’s telling me, “in 300 feet turn right, and then immediately turn right again…” and all the while she’s using the same authoritative voice. So I turned her off. I didn’t throw her out the window, or under the wheels of a passing semi. I just turned her off, let her reboot, then gave her the right destination. She can only give useful directions if she can acknowledge where I’m going.
The same holds true for us. Whether it is in your own life that you feel lost – following a painful breakup, or a thankless career, or a child who is not easy to raise, or a parent whose health is declining. Whether it is our life as a congregation – with so many signs pointing toward reemergence in the middle of neighborhood filled with anxieties and uncertainties. Whether it is our life together as a nation – as we discern who can lead us into the next decade and build community between our nation and the nations of the world. Wherever you are, wherever we are, there are voices telling us that we are off course.
But how do they know, unless they know where we are trying to go? How do we know, unless we know where we are trying to go?
Jesus doesn’t not send Peter away. Jesus says, “get behind me.” He provides a different set of directions, and tells those who would be his disciples to follow. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Now, we could go off in another whole direction with conversations about self-denial and self-esteem and redemptive suffering and the meaning of the cross, and we will – but not today. For today it is enough to suggest that in the middle of this worshipping assembly the cross provides all the GPS we need for these moments of shared life. It has been processed into our midst at the beginning of worship as a sign that we are in the presence of Jesus – the one who was rejected, the one who lived and died for the sake of the people living closest to the ground. We will come forward to share a meal served from this table where the cross reminds us that we are eating with all the peoples of the earth. And when we are done, the cross will lead us outside this room, out beyond our doors. We will get behind it and travel along roads that lead to homeless children at Belmont & Halsted, and devastated homes and hearts in New Orleans this morning, and voting booths, and Darfur. All the suffering places of the world where God dwells with heaven’s angels. These are the most trustworthy directions we can hope to find.