August 27 Sermon What’s with all the rocks?

icon of Jesus and Adam and Eve







August 27, 2017

Matthew 16:13-20


Allow me to begin with thanks for my sabbatical, three months of release from pastoral responsibilities from late May to late August, after seven years as pastor here.  I have many stories to share, rich, funny, and tragic: travelogues from being abroad for eight weeks.  I gained deeper connections to our companion synod, the ELCJHL, as I spent four weeks in Jerusalem, Jordan, and the West Bank, thanks in large part to a synod sabbatical grant.  I spent wonderful time visiting and traveling with each of our children, Gabu in northern Spain (Galicia) and Bethany in Norway and Sweden. Kari was able to participate in the Spain portion while keeping home and her own campus ministry going. And cheering me on.


I am deeply grateful for Bethesda’s leadership, for its staff, for Paul Strike and Pastor Angelika Zollfrank who were mainstays on Sunday mornings along with Lars, and Paul throughout the week.


I return to the idea of the time as a gift, after leaving in May and returning now, mindful of the root of the word sabbatical being Sabbath.  I’ve been sharing these words this week with staff and leaders as a framework for reentering ministry together, words by Dorothy Bass in her helpful book called Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time:


God intends for us to have time for rest as well as for work. We perceive that even heavy and painful time—forty rainy nights on an ark, forty years of wandering in a wilderness, three days when our dearest friend lies in a tomb—can prepare the way for new life.  We get a lesson in how God’s gracious arithmetic upsets the ways of the world, as the laborers who work in the vineyard for only one hour receive the same reward as the ones who work all day long. While the culture is counting time, we are also seeing it fulfilled: an exiled people return home, a promised child is born.


We can find our way into this kind of time. It is there awaiting our notice.

Dorothy C. Bass (San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, ©2000), p. 4.


God bless our time together and apart.  May God renew the time we have together, that it may be fulfilled in promise and renewal.


It’s good to be back with you, in this community, dear Bethesda, which means “pool of healing water,” or “house of mercy.”


One advantage of eight trips to the Middle East in eleven years is that it stokes the imagination.  You can’t pretend to know exactly what the Biblical backdrop really is, or at least, with myriads of interpretation and millennia of time removed you shouldn’t pretend to know exactly what you see really means vis a viz holy writ.  But you can most surely imagine it.  If you’ve been there, then you have something in your body’s memory , a visceral experience and memory of the land itself as St. Jerome called Holy Land itself the fifth gospel.”


When you’re there, you can’t miss the rocks.  Jerusalem stone, vast quantities of limestone that serve as the primary building material in contrast with yours and my house’s wood frame, with—boring!—vinyl siding. 


You can’t miss the rocks, terraced stone delineating olive groves, enabling the precious rain and irrigation to trickle down hills which are everywhere, steep inclines, and rocks everywhere.


You can’t miss the rocks there, cobbled together to line the quarters of the Old City, worn smooth by so much foot traffic, and within the ancient stone walls rebuilt by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.


There is so much attention to stone in that land and the city named for peace, even where there is no peace—The Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount over what was Jupiter’s Wall adjoining the remains of the Western Wall within spitting distance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (yes, there’s stone there, too), three holy sites for three major world faiths.  You’d think the center of the universe was there, which in fact is part of the lore, which could be true, that it is the origin of the earth’s creation.  There has been so much fighting over the centuries for that rocky spot, when most good people, Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, simply want to pray there, share Jerusalem, and be rooted in their journey of faith.


Now at Caesarea Philippi, the setting for today’s gospel, is north. It takes about two hours to drive from Jerusalem to Galilee, and Caesarea Philippi is another twenty some odd miles from Galilee.  It is near the Golan Heights, which borders Syria.  It is also known as Banias, from the god Pan, but was renamed for Herod’s brother Philip and to mark it as another Caeasarea, not the one on Mediterranean. There was probably a statue to Philip there when Jesus asked the question about who he was, and maybe one to Pan, like highways cluttered with billboards vying for attention, like the internet cluttered with ads, like networks interpreting the news.


After all this time with Jesus, the twelve disciples, models for the early Christian community, are asked the nagging question, who do people say that I am?  And Peter interprets the prevailing winds—John the Baptism, forerunner to Jesus; Jeremiah, the conscience of Israel during its exile, Elijah, at the same time bold advocate for Yahweh and the one holed away in the cave escaping Queen Jezebel.  All these were reports from the field, like a survey of the human landscape in its experience of the rabbi/healer/teacher.


But then the gaze turns directly at Peter, like the teacher receiving a report from the student about all her research, presenting data, representing thorough scholarship, the homework dutifully done.  And the even more nagging question: But what do YOU think


And in Matthew’s gospel, the only gospel to actually use the word church, the one which is overtly claiming to build the new community on Jesus, the question reverberates to all who are hearing the gospel over and over and over, who do you say that Jesus is?


Who is Jesus to you?


What words could you muster up when asked directly, research or no research, with no time left for preparation?


How long have you been coming to church?


How long have you been rubbing shoulders with the community of the baptized?


How much longer do you need to respond to Jesus?


I did glance at some of the sermons preached in my absence.  Paul Strike mentioned the painting in the narthex, with Peter sinking in the water and being grabbed by Jesus.


Jesus named him the rock, which is a strong appellation, unless you are thrown into water.  Peter sometimes is strong and sometimes is lily-livered.  But here in this moment, with plenty of choices for his allegiances visible in the north, he delivers what becomes a creedal statement for the church—You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.


And to that Jesus offers to Peter a beatitude, a blessing, and not for his academic prowess or cleverness, but that the holy one has revealed this to him.  And so he is Rocky, and on that rock the community will be built, and Hades, the ancient place of the dead, will not be a threat.


My favorite icons of Jesus’ resurrection in Orthodox churches throughout the Holy Land include the risen Christ yanking Adam and Eve from the rocky place down below, giving the world—the earth and its inhabitants a new start.


With Peter and the twelve, with the early Christians charged to make disciples, baptize, and teach, we are called blessed, given a new start, yanked from the rocks, and yanking others from their tombs to join the beloved community. 


And then there are those keys.  The keys to bind and to loose.  The keys of formation by God’s Word and the community in fellowship, to include and welcome, to admonish and to forgive, to speak truth to power, to set one another on the path to God’s good news.


Like a kid getting the car keys after getting their license, we are entrusted with shaping God’s world through Jesus’ teachings, and through his baptism into death and rising to new life.


Rocks form the landscape in the Holy Land and stoke our own imagination.  They are strong, solid, long lasting.  Like the journey of faith they often present a most an obstacle, and at least a plan to navigate around or over. 


Let’s cling to the rock that is Christ, and allow the place where we live and worship to pave the way through hostility and hate, destruction and violence, so that build justice and peace with one another, giving and receiving blessing, at work and at rest.  It’s good to be back.

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