It is a hard job being religious. Perhaps we feel this the more when we compare our lives with those of the saints. Of course we have our excuses. The world was less complicated in their days. People had time to pray seven times a day, like the psalmist. We move from that excuse to a second: saints are people who don’t struggle with our temptations. A saint hears God say “go,” and she goes. Perhaps, we think, even today there are special people who just seem to find the Christian Life natural. They get excited about church, and even sermons! They attend Bible study and spirituality groups, work in the kitchen when the poor are fed, and subscribe to worthy causes.
These understandings or misunderstandings sell short our capacity to serve God. They limit us. So we come to church fairly often, put in a pledge, mutter a few familiar night-time prayers, and only occasionally feel a tug of conscience that perhaps God wants more of us. Like someone who never gets further than “Chopsticks” on the piano because there are pianists who bring an audience to its feet; like someone who doesn’t catch very well and so gives up because of the athletes seen at the ball game, we largely give up. And after all, clergy have been telling us for years that God gives unconditional love. So perhaps when we die we will be in the school for backward believers, but after all, that’s where we have always been.
The lessons today bring us face to face with two saints, Moses and Peter. Both were called to lead the church in the worst of circumstances and both succeeded. There we go again! How can we compare with these giants? But look more closely.
Moses is on the run and has found a home in the tent of a wandering shepherd, a Bedouin, and after being brought up in the King of Egypt’s palace, waited on hand and foot, he is now reduced to the role of assistant shepherd. He has killed an abusive Egyptian official and is on the run. How about that for downward mobility? What was his self esteem like?
Suddenly a bush seems to burst into flames, and Moses hears a voice, the voice of the God of his tribe, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the great Patriarchs. The voice tells Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue the Jewish people, the Old Testament church. Well, you may be thinking, Moses did just that. He was special, different, unlike me. Look more closely. Moses argues with the Voice. In the portion of the story we heard today, Moses basically said that he had no talent or authority to rescue the Jewish people. “Who shall I say sent me?” he asks. God then reveals to Moses his true nature. The Voice said, “I am.” The Voice didn’t say I was, or I will be, but ever present in the “now” of every life and every generation. That Holy Name, which no devout Jew may utter, Yahweh, says to Moses, “Get on with it. This isn’t going to depend on your abilities or talents. It is going to depend on your keeping trust with me, because I am always ever present with you.” And so Moses obeys and goes back into danger, danger of being arrested and executed.
Now let’s look at the gospel. Jesus asks his friends what the gossip is about him. Who do people think he is or what do they think he is? Peter, whose tongue was always ahead of his courage, blurts out, “You are the anointed King, the Son of the Living God.” The story continues today, as you have just heard. Jesus says that Peter is right and that the way forward now is to Jerusalem, to danger and death. Peter argues with Jesus. “God forbid it Lord. This must never happen to you.” Jesus calls his friend “Satan,” the deceiver, because poor Peter is thinking in human terms, thinking about danger and death rather than trusting in God, whose Son, according to Peter, Jesus is.
Jesus then turns his eyes to us, for this account by Matthew was first heard by a group of Jewish converts to Christianity, disowned by their former friends and persecuted as Jews and Christians by the Romans. Matthew talks to the church, in whatever state it finds itself. He lets his listeners hear Jesus’ voice: Listen.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The church, you and me, is offered no easy path to success. Doing right by God doesn’t depend on any special spiritual talent. Cross-bearing levels everyone, whatever their education, class, economic status, or religiosity. And God through Jesus is saying to us through these lessons, “Let my people go.” Moses rescued the people through God’s covenant, or agreement. Peter rescued the infant church through the new Covenant of the Cross. Jesus tells us that we are called to be outside our buildings, called into danger, even if that danger is no more than the mockery of friends. We are called to walk through the Cross into a new life, one to be shared, one sustainable despite our arguments with God, because God is “I am,” the ever present help at all times and in all places. We were not meant to attempt the life of religion alone. Religion in us becomes possible when we trust God and trust each other enough to be the church. God wants to do great things through the cross-bearing church. He wants us to see that being holy is all about freeing ourselves and freeing others from sin, oppression, and death. Do you trust him enough to be that?