“Along the Way” Nancy Rottman, Seminarian
Preached on 31 August 2014 at First Congregational Church of Harwich, MA
Preaching Text: “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘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.” Matthew 16:24-25
My friend Connie and her sister Ruth go for a drive on Sunday afternoons and intentionally get lost. They set out along the road and at each intersection they make a decision on which way to go. While their starting and final ending points are the same each week, Ruth’s home, they take different roads all the time and see where they end up. It is an adventure, and they have found their way to some pretty interesting places that they never would have seen if they had stuck to familiar routes and frequented landmarks. I admire this about them. I, too, have had similar experiences but with altogether different motivation. You see, I was blessed with a great sense of direction. It is rare for me to get lost, even on unfamiliar roads. My husband Mike even refers to me as a “human GPS.” I can find my way, most of the time, and therefore, rarely get lost. While my sense of direction was a gift, I believe that I honed that gift out of a sense of fear rather than adventure. It took me 40+ years of careful living to get to this time of my life that is characterized by adventure, risk taking, and joy!
While I was studying the passage we read today from Matthew’s gospel, I came across a comment about discipleship that shouted out to me and in fact, became the title of this sermon. “Along the Way.” You see, the disciples and Jesus have just had the conversation in Caesarea Philippi in which Simon was given the name Peter, or Rock. He was blessed and confirmed by Jesus as the foundation stone of the counter-cultural community that Jesus is creating. And then, in the next moment, Jesus makes the first prediction of his own passion. He tells the disciples exactly what they don’t want to hear; that he must suffer and be crucified by the powers that be and on the third day be raised. Peter is aghast, and speaks for all of us when he says, “No way Jesus! This is NOT going to happen this way.” From foundation stone to stumbling block in a moment. Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” He compares Peter to the tempter in the wilderness, the deceiver who tries to lure him to claim a messiah-ship of power from above rather than be the one who saves from a position of solidarity with the people at the bottom.
Along the way. According to this story in Matthew’s gospel, Simon and the others have been disciples for a while. They were called by Jesus and have been with him throughout his ministry of healing, feeding, caring for those on the margins of society. Only now, after having been Jesus’ closest companions for some time; only now, after having witnessed Jesus ministry as an example; only now, after Jesus showing them the kind of community he is trying to create; only now do the disciples begin to learn the cost of discipleship! They are learning the meaning and cost of discipleship along the way. Jesus reminds them that God’s way is not our way and that Peter, in rebuking him, has chosen to focus on human things and not divine things. Perhaps Peter was so instantly stung by the thought of Jesus’ suffering and death that he missed the part about his being raised on the third day. Perhaps he heard it and because it didn’t find resonance in his own experience, he skipped right over it. I’m guessing it is only with deep love and affection for the person Jesus, the human Jesus, that he insists it can’t be like this. So Jesus takes this moment to illuminate discipleship for them, and for us. Jesus’ followers must deny themselves and pick up their cross and follow him. Those who lose their life for his sake will find it.
Losing our life for Jesus’ sake; Jesus’ call to us as individual disciples, and as a community of disciples, the church. The passage from Romans that we read today as our litany gives us some ideas about what losing our life for Christ’s sake looks like, both for us as individuals and as the church. New Testament scholar Christopher Hutson suggests turning the first phrase around and reading it as: Genuine (or un-hypocritical love) is: abhorring the evil; clinging to the good. Being affectionate to one another in brotherly love. Outdoing one another in honor. Not lagging in diligence. Being afire in the Spirit. Serving the Lord. Rejoicing in hope, persevering in affliction. Being devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, pursuing hospitality. And the clincher…loving our enemies and leaving judgment to God.
This is not sweet, easy love. This is risky, scary, self-less love that can be hard, hard, hard. This is “love your neighbor as yourself love.” No, not the nice neighbor next door who is also a dear friend. This is the neighbor across the street who appears to have no respect at all for anyone else in the neighborhood. This is “love that person in the other pew whose political views are 180° from mine.” This is “love the homeless person who calls out to you every single time you pass by on the street.” This is the love of congregations who stand with their neighbors in the face of violence and persecution. This love sometimes feels more like a burden than a joy. This is love that is hard to get right some of the time, let alone all of the time.
But here’s the thing. The goal of discipleship is not perfection. After all, it would be typically human of us to think we can define perfection. Instead we have to remember that we are not to set our mind on human things but instead on divine things. That makes the goal of our discipleship the pursuit of love, practicing love in all we do, with Jesus’ love as our barometer and our companion. We learn the cost and joy of discipleship as we practice love along the way. Sometimes we are foundation stone, living stones, for one another. Sometimes, we are stumbling blocks, falling down, tripping others, failing to love selflessly. Always, we are on the road.
Public Theologian and Author Brian McLaren has a new book out called We Make the Road by Walking. It is a 52 week guide for Christian Spiritual Formation that I’m mentioning here because the title speaks to our understanding of discipleship! The title of the book may have come from these lines from Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again.”
This couldn’t be truer for the disciples. They made the road by walking. Despite the fear and anxiety they must have felt, they went to Jerusalem with Jesus. Were they perfect? Of course not. But that did not prevent them from learning about and living as Christ’s disciples along the way. And each person’s journey is their own. Glancing behind one sees the path that will never be trod again. Try as we might, we cannot ever know how each will pay the cost or live the joy of discipleship. Try as we might, we cannot follow another individual’s path, walk in another’s shoes. But we can journey together as a community of disciples, nurturing each other with God’s gifts to us of word and sacrament. We have Jesus’ life to teach us. We have his Great Commandment to follow, to use as our compass, or GPS along the way. And those of us with a great sense of direction and a need to know what the destination is, need to live a little more dangerously and selflessly, and let go. It might just be that when we get lost, we actually find something of value: new treasures, new relationships, new adventures. It might be that emptying ourselves of anxiety and fear allows space for hope and joy and wonder. And on the other side we have those who always feel lost. They need to realize that the power is theirs always to choose life, choose love, to choose which way to go.
Four years ago I went to Israel with my mom. My only goal for that trip was that mom have the amazing experience she was hoping for in the Holy Land. I let go of expectation, of planning every detail, of being in control. In that letting go, in ridding myself of own self-concern, I found the greatest adventure of my life that has brought me here to you today. I allowed God’s claim on my life to be felt in every cell of my being, in every corner of my soul. I stopped trying to control and contain discipleship, make it small enough to feel I could be “good at it.” Instead, I allowed God’s spirit to blow the doors of my life wide open and just see where the road of discipleship would take me, learning all along the way. We all have these stories of the ups and downs, ins and outs of our journey as Christ’s disciples. I can only hope that we all remember that it is a journey of love in which we are accompanied by all other disciples across time and beyond time, and that Christ himself journeys with us, is himself, bread and cup, is himself the Word, to nourish us along the way.
Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. In her poem “The Last Shall Be First,” poet Ann Weems sums up the journey of discipleship beautifully:
Along the way the pilgrims heard
that a group of people
had set out for Jerusalem
without a map.
Since each of us owned
our own map
and read it daily
and even then
had difficulty knowing
which way to turn,
we were amazed
that they would set out
on their own . . .
amazed and alarmed.
Many a day we had
prayed and consulted
in the road.
This news presented
a greater dilemma:
Which of us would go
in the rescue party?
Whoever went would
not get to Jerusalem
Then it was we realized
that the ones who went
in search of the lost
would be the first
to arrive in Jerusalem.