preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
24, 2014; 11 Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A, Track 2
Revised Common Lectionary
(Matthew 16:13-20) 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.
Recently I've been reading a couple
of wonderful little books by Martin Laird, a contemplative theologian. He says that when he feels "pummeled by
too many thoughts" that leave him with the "punch-drunk feeling of
lifelessness," he likes to go on a long walk. His normal path leads him
along some open fields, and he often would see a man who walked four Kerry blue
terriers in those fields. Laird says, "These were amazing dogs. Bounding
energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open
fields. It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom
race along. Three of the four dogs did this, I should say. The fourth stayed
behind and, off to the side of its owner, ran in tight circles. I could never
understand why it did this; it had all the room in the world to leap and bound.
One day I was bold enough to ask the owner, 'Why does your dog do that? Why
does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?' He explained
that before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a
cage and could only exercise by running in circles. For this dog, to run meant
to run in tight circles. So instead of bounding through the open fields that
surrounded it, it ran in circles."[i]
Last Tuesday night I waited in line outside
the doors of the City Council meeting room as the line of speakers was too long
to fit into the chambers. If you've kept up with the news, the Council was
debating whether or not Fayetteville would become the first Arkansas city to
adopt a civil rights ordinance protecting LGBT residents from discrimination in
employment, housing and public accommodations. Very good people come to
different opinions about the ordinance, and the whole range of opinions was
presented to the Council. I love the passion with which Fayetteville residents
care about our common life and how respectfully we can engage in civil
Outside, in the hall, a gentleman,
seeing me in my clerical collar came up to me and asked, "Do you in your
church marry deviants?"
"Why, no!" I answered. "Absolutely
not! Everyone who is married or blessed in my church is a loving person and is committed
to faithful, steadfast love."
He seemed to like that answer and
relaxed into friendly conversation with me. He gave me his testimony about
being saved in Vietnam when a colleague shared with him the gospel of the
saving grace of Jesus Christ – all have sinned and come short of the glory of
God; the wages of sin is eternal death; Jesus died on the cross for our sins;
if you accept him as your Lord and confess him with your lips you will be
saved. He accepted Jesus Christ that day and was saved. I could tell from his
glowing demeanor how important that was to him. I told him I thought that was
wonderful, and I was glad for him.
We probably would have continued to
get along just fine, but my friend started to speak in a one-to-one
conspiratorial way about some of these others down at City Hall that night,
these unrighteous who don't know Jesus. He began to go on about unrighteousness
and the wrath and the judgment of God, intended, he was certain, for many of
our neighbors around us.
But think about Jesus, I said. Jesus
loved everyone. He reached out to the tax collectors and sinners, the
prostitutes and lepers. Jesus loved them and accepted them and welcomed them to
his table and to his fellowship. Jesus wants us to be like him and to love everyone.
To love our neighbor as ourselves.
Well yes, he said, I can love them,
but I can't endorse what they are doing. I know the scriptures; I've studied
the scriptures. "Be not deceived: he that doeth righteousness is
righteous, even as God is righteous." (1 John 3:7)
Can you let go of the righteousness a
little bit and embrace love? I asked. You know the scriptures. Galatians 5, the
fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. Let go of the righteousness a little
and let yourself open to love, to all the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace…
He began to shake his head. No, no.
That would not do. God is a perfect God, a God of righteousness. Unless your
righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees… And he continued like that on and
on into the night, to my mind, running tightly round and round a little circle
of sin, judgment and the salvation of the righteous few.
"Who do you say that I am?"
Jesus asked. Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living
God." …"Blessed are you, Simon…! For flesh and blood has not revealed
this to you, but my Father in heaven." And Jesus empowered Peter with
power to bind and to loose. Yet just four verses later, Peter is unable to
imagine a suffering Messiah, and Jesus rebukes Peter with the stinging words,
"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." (Mt. 16:23)
Now Peter knew his scripture. He knew
the Biblical expectation of a messiah who would restore Israel, expelling the
military occupiers and raising the nation to pre-eminence, creating Jerusalem
as the political and religious center of the world where all nations will come
to offer obeisance, as peace and prosperity reigns eternally. No room in that
vision for a love that suffers unto death. Peter's dog just couldn't run that
wide. And since that day, Peter's descendents in the church have often bound
more than they've loosed. The church often runs in tight circles.
But Jesus' love knows no bounds. He
took into himself the whole human experience, including our evil and our death,
and Jesus opened his arms in suffering love, forgiving all. Then he raised our
whole humanity into the heart of God and returned to be one with us in the
Spirit. God has honored his prayer, "May they all be one, just as, Father,
you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us." We are all
one with God. The field we run in our human life is infinite and eternal.
Paul puts it this way: "I have
been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but
Christ living in me." (Gal. 2:19)
Paul looks within himself, and what
does he see? He sees not himself, but Christ. "I live now, not I, but
Christ lives in me." He has a sense of immediate union with the divine. He
has an awareness of that union. Paul has burst out of the cage of legalism and
righteousness he once lived in.
Paul also knows Christ is the
universal ground of total reconciliation of all humanity. "As in Adam, all
die; so also in Christ, all are made alive." He knows that in Christ all
of the cages of separation are broken down: "there is no longer Jew or
Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Paul is aware of that full
unitive reality at the core of his own being.
That is the unbounded truth of the
infinite love of God, given to every human being and to all humanity. God is
one with you. You are one with God, and thus united to all humanity. Unbounded.
Uncaged. Released to run freely across the infinite field of divine love.
All we have to do us open our eyes
and realize there are no cages anymore. No cages of division, condemnation, and
separation, but an open field of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance energized by the Spirit of
God. Stretch. Look. Love. And run!
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and
mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
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Martin Laird, O.S.A. Into the Silent Land
Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 19-20.