Wandering Heart: Praise the Mount

Wandering Heart: Praise the Mount

About this sermon series

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do
people say that the Son of Man is?”  And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others
Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Oh Lord. Uphold me that I might uplift thee.

“Everyone hates surveys. The only people who fill them out are bored or grumpy, so why
do you want to base your decisions on them?” I remember someone saying this at my table after a Presbytery meeting when he was, ironically, filling out the survey. I asked the guy, “Well, what are you going to say?” He looked at me… at this point not grumpy or bored, something in between tender and snarky… “I am telling that as a good Presbyterian I have come to expect suffering in this life.” I was not sure whether to laugh or be concerned. “Just kidding. I am saying thank you.”

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus passed out this survey to his disciples while they
were walking through villages near Caesarea Philippi, a Roman settlement in the shadow of
Mount Hermon. Today, we’d call it the Golan Heights, the northeast corner of Israel that borders Syria and Lebanon. Jesus passed out his survey in a place that was far, far away from where they have been. They were 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee and 100 miles from Jerusalem. Jesus asks what scholars believe to be the most important question in all of Christianity, “Who do you say that I am?” and he asks it… from the margins… from the contested place… from a mountainous borderland…not from the warm glow of stained glass… but as far from the institutional synagogue as he would ever go.

“People are saying.” Now, that is often a pastor’s least favorite phrase. It usually means,
“Here’s what I think though I am not ready to own it yet.” But here Jesus asks sincerely what people are saying and lets the disciples talk about the buzz surrounding them, the whispers they’ve heard in town and maybe in their own thoughts. The disciples answer.

People are saying you are a rabble rouser like Elijah.

People are saying you’re an old school agitator like the prophets.

People are saying you might be the ghost of our dead friend John the Baptist.

I imagine Jesus asking this question to us today. Who do people say I am? What are you
hearing? What’s the lay of the land now? We might say, well, Jesus, many people think of you as a gentle nice guy who has no negative opinions of anyone. Others speak about you like you’re some kind of cosmic bellhop who helps people who are having a hard time. Others speak of you fondly …like a childhood friend with whom they have kind of lost
touch. And some seem to speak of you as a kind of Sacred Santa, who tosses out health and
wealth to those who name it and claim it. And still others, from what we are seeing on the news, are speaking of you like you are a kind of John Wayne, rough and tough and ready to take over this country by force if you have to.

Jesus, we are embarrassed to tell you that people have made you into the malleable,
militant, or mild mascot of their preferred cause. And that’s when Jesus looks Peter in the eye, crumples up the survey, and asks the only question that matters. “But you… who do you say that I am?” Scholars consider this moment the hinge of the Gospels. The moment when Peter becomes leader and spokesperson for the disciples. “You are the Messiah, son of the living God.” It is a mountaintop moment for Peter. What he says about Jesus also says something about him. He is convinced. He understands this moment in history even as he doesn’t fully understand, which we’ll talk about next week. But even so, something had changed about him to the extend that Jesus blessed his old name, Simon son of Jonah, and then gave him a new one. You are Peter. The rock. On this rock I will be build my church. He will one day be portrayed like this [show slide of St. Peter holding the keys at the Vatican], a man in marble holding the keys of the kingdom. But to me, this moment in Scripture feels like this [play video]

This is the original Rocky, and at this moment, his training montage is complete.

This is the moment when the survey is over and a sermon begins, one that would define
the rest of Peter’s life. This is his profession in the truest sense of the word. I don’t know if he yelled it or whispered it or gulped it down. As the saying goes, “the two most important days of a person’s life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

Many of us spend our lives in survey mode. We figure out what these people think and
what those people think. We watch the polls. We assume if we just ask the right person the right question, then we’ll know what they believe and maybe what we believe too. Then we’ll know what we should do. Then we’ll know who we are. But every person has a sermon inside them.
Now maybe to you the word sermon has connotations of something dry or irrelevant or too long. I suspect that’s because many preachers you know also stay in survey mode… offering up only what they thought you wanted to hear, or a survey course of history and Bible, mixed with a survey of public opinion. But at its core, a sermon is the tenderest words about who Jesus is and what that leads us to believe and do.

Amelia and Matt in their youth Sunday sermons did that last week. In essence, they said,
With Jesus, I can be brave in the storms of an unknown future. With Jesus, I can trust other
people despite my initial instincts.

Church officers share faith statements every year. They make me cry every time. I remember Betty who said “Without Jesus, there is no way I could have forgiven my ex-
husband.” Or, Sherrie who said “The Holy Spirit is the music that accompanied me through the most beautiful and most painful seasons of my life.” Or, Tom who said “In my line of work, you have to have faith or you lose hope. But with faith, you start to see miracles in the most hopeless places.”

1 Ernest T. Campbell, Riverside Church. [Attribution to Mark Twain appears to be apocryphal.]

Last week, one guest at the hypothermia shelter was doing a survey of sorts, finding out
why people were without homes. Main three reasons, he said, an injury, substance abuse, mental illness. Then, another guest, Glen, who seemed like a leader of the group, said, “Jesus is the only home I’ve known. And no way could I have stopped drinking much less faced what made me drink without him.”

So, my simple and challenging invitation for you today is this. Let your life speak your
faith. Don’t just be a survey. Don’t just be a mirror ball reflecting off the expectations of other people. When you move from survey to sermon, you let your unique Christ light shine. No one can shine it for you.

Let your life proclaim the conspiracy of the Holy Spirit in the darkest valleys and rock
bottom places where hope is starving. Whether that is among folding tables of the hypothermia shelter or working for people in Gaza.

Let your life proclaim the grace of Christ when people have turned their backs on each
other. Whether that is in the cafeteria at school or the painful situation in your family.

Let your life proclaim the faithfulness of God when everyone is starting to give up, as
John O’Donohue says, “may you know the springtime edge of the bleak question.”

Your life is a sermon, whether long or short, loud or quiet, closely edited or full of glaring
errors, long haul highway or windy as a prayer labyrinth. Your life is how you show the love of God to a world that desperately needs it.

Rarely will you have the courtesy of a bulletin to tell you when it is your turn to speak,
but you’ll know because you’ll feel the weight of the moment. It often starts with a question
from your own child in the car when you are far away from your routines and pat answers. Or that voice in your heart that asks “What’s the point of all this?” May you hear a voice rise from the quiet sanctum of your spirit, “then sings my soul my savior God to thee… how great thou art. How great thou art.”

Let your life speak or sing or serve, so that when all is said and done, when the papers are
collected and the chairs are pushed in and this life is over, God finds our page on the table, all we’ve said and done and thought and worked for, and it simply says, “Thank you.”