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Pentecost 13A Sermon
Matthew 16: 21-28
September 3, 2017


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

When last we saw Jesus and his disciples, they were in Caesarea-Philippi talking about who Jesus is. Simon called Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus called Simon, “Petra – Peter… The Rock … upon which he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against them.

Today’s Gospel reading is the continuation of that same conversation, as Jesus talks about just what it means that he is the messiah – that he will undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Evidently Simon believes Messiahship and Crucifixion to be mutually exclusive, because he protests, rebuking Jesus with the words, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Jesus then replies by calling Simon, “Satan” – a name that means, “the adversary.” More than being a red devil with horns and a pitchfork, he is the one who opposes God and seeks to obstruct God’s love at every turn. Jesus then expounds upon that thought by calling him a stumbling block. Interesting isn’t it, that having just been called a Rock in a positive way – as the foundation for the church – Simon is now called a Rock in a negative way – like a big ugly stone in the middle of a path that causes people to trip and fall. The same rock can be a fortress against hate and can be an obstruction, keeping us from the true essence of God. When you think about the church, you can say that can be true in both ways. Some people think about their own experiences with the church as an obstruction to their faith while others count the church as the foundation upon which their faith exists. It can be a thin line to walk.

Right now the collective conscience of our nation is with the folks in the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. Trillions of gallons of rain have fallen in that area flooding roads and homes, businesses and whole neighborhoods. One of the places where the ELCA Youth Gathering will take place next year, the NRG Center, is housing thousands of people who are stranded from their homes. The pictures that we see have finally changed from heavy rain and swift moving waters, to recovery and rescue of people and pets. And we mourn as we know that the number of dead found in their homes will certainly rise in the days to come.

As is always the case, ELCA Lutherans have been on the ground since the trouble started, and as was the case with many natural disasters in the past, we will be on the ground long after the cameras have been turned off. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with Christians of other denominations in this important work. The stone upon which our church has been built is standing mightily against the gates of Hades in this effort right now!
A story that has come out of this disaster is the response of the mega Lakewood Church, led by Pastor Joel Osteen, located in downtown Houston. They were hit by initial accusations that they refused to open the doors of their building so that displaced people from the flooding could take sanctuary there. Their building is an arena which used to house the Houston Rockets Basketball Team, and holds 16,000 people. Since Pastor Osteen and the church combine to be worth somewhere in the area of $50 million, you can imagine that the backlash on social media was vicious – people claiming that Osteen was only interested in building his empire and was not concerned about the people who were part of his congregation, let alone the city in which it is located. And other churches start to get seen as guilty by association just because we are Christians.

Now, I am not a fan of Joel Osteen; the prosperity gospel that he preaches goes totally against the message that Jesus came to share … the message that is encapsulated in the second half of our Gospel lesson where Jesus says that if any want to become his followers, we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. We must lose our lives to save them, and it does not profit anyone to gain the whole world but lose our lives. To be Jesus’ disciple is not only to understand that he had to go to the cross for us, but to be willing to go to that same cross ourselves … or the cross will be inflicted upon us, either way. I have heard Osteen speak, and the gist of his message is that if we think positively enough and pray hard enough, good things will come our way. There is no room for losing our lives in that message, or in sacrificing ourselves so that others can experience the love of Christ in the midst of their own pain. There is no room for being an innocent victim of a flood, or of cancer, or of any number of things that can happen to good Christian people. His message is a stumbling block to people understanding who Jesus is, and how we are supposed to live in relationship to him.
Having said that, I do think that Osteen might not have gotten the fair shake that he could have. There are logistics to be considered when a building of any size opens their doors to people in trouble. Volunteers are needed; safety needs to be assured; Food and water procured. Lakewood was, after all, experiencing some flooding of its own, and they were not sure it was a safe building. Imagine bringing thousands of people into a building which starts to crumble! Osteen also claims that the city never asked him to be part of their relocation plan, and that if they had, he would have gladly opened their doors.

Now, a person can say that the city shouldn’t have to ask them to be part of the relocation plan for them to open their doors. A person can say that there was plenty of time before the storm hit to put a plan into place. A person can say that the church with a loving heart should lead with love and worry about the logistics later. It is an issue that will never be resolved. Those who have something against the church will continue to find a reason to stumble over the rock, and those who are Christians will continue to celebrate the rock as the foundation for our lives.
But the ones who receive the love are the ones who we should worry about. Paul says that we are to let our love be genuine. Genuine love is that which doesn’t count the cost, but reaches out to those who are in need, just like a person whose home is completely under water. Those on the Gulf coast are truly victims in every sense of the word – they did nothing to deserve or to bring about the disaster which has torn their world apart. Because of that, our churches are called to rely upon the rock of our foundation so that the gates of Hades will not prevail against us! If the Lakewood church is now housing and helping people in Houston even though they were drug into it without their own initiative, who are we to judge? It is a church living out the call to love genuinely.
The question we are to ask is, “How are we – the church and individually Christians of it – going to respond with genuine love? Are we going down there to rescue or rebuild? Are we donating to LDR, to the Gulf Coast Synod, Red Cross or other reputable sources? Are we willing to house folks up here for a time, until things dry out?” Genuine love is a lot like the rock – it can be good and bad! When John talks about the people who have loved darkness rather than light, he uses the same word, “agape” to describe them. People can love and commit to darkness, greed, selfishness, individualism and the pursuit of pleasure just as easily (and sometimes even more so) than committing to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Before we judge others, let us judge ourselves for showing genuine love to those in need. As Jesus says in verse 27, “For the Son of Man is to come with the angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” We all face some sort of judgement … but we do so knowing that we have a loving God. God has set the parameters – the way to defeat evil is not with evil … the way to defeat evil is with love; genuine love. Now, church, are we going to love darkness, or light? Are we going to be a strong foundation or a stumbling block. By the grace of God, may we lose our own lives so that Jesus will gain the whole world. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.