Sermon for September 12th, 2021
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
When we hear Jesus rebuke Peter in this familiar passage from the gospel story, I think that we are often inclined to focus on the first thing that Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!” It is a stinging slap in the face. Peter makes a mistake by trying to tell Jesus that he is wrong. Now, as an aside, please don’t make the same mistake. If you disagree with the Son of God about something, it’s because you’re wrong, not him.
Anyways, at least Peter tries to correct Jesus privately, but Jesus responds by very publicly by saying “get behind me Satan.” I’m sure that Peter was a little shaken up by this. It would grab your attention too. But the real meat of what Jesus has to say is in the second part there. This isn’t just about name calling, Jesus has a point to make. “For you are setting your mind, not on divine things, but on human things.” That is what Satan does. He doesn’t run around with a pitchfork playing pranks on people, making children levitate and spit pea soup. That’s Hollywood. The real Satan is usually much more subtle, and all he needs to do is just refocus your attention. He sets out minds solely on human things. He doesn’t want us to stop and recognize that God is all around us. There are divine things all around us, only we often don’t see them because other things are taking up all our attention. Jesus needs to get Peter’s attention to make him see that.
Now we don’t need to pick on Peter too much here, because the truth is, he is just a human like any one of us. We all make the same mistakes every day. We can claim Jesus to be the Messiah and then turn right around and try to avoid actually following him, at least if we think it means we are going to have to suffer a little. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not terribly fond of suffering. I like to avoid it if I can. And you know what, it is also really, really easy to get completely distracted by human things. Air conditioners break, refrigerators break, maybe your boss is being a jerk, maybe you have screaming kids, bills to pay, the Long Island Railroad is late again, some relation of yours is saying something stupid on Facebook, this beloved child of God in the car in front of you is looking at their phone while the light has turned green…don’t get too mad at Peter for getting distracted from God, because it is something we all do, even the most devoted among us. All these human things scream for our attention. The media will do or say anything to get or keep your attention. Billions of dollars are spent by companies every year to get your attention, that is how much your attention is worth. Our attention it is one of the most precious things we have, and yet how often do we just give it away to things that aren’t worthy of it? How much time and energy do we spend focused on things that aren’t going to matter six months from now? The Son of God wants to get Peter’s attention, so he has to make it very clear to him just how distracting these human things can be, and he needs to make it clear who those distractions serve. Distractions don’t serve God.
We are beginning a new program year today; we are bringing back the choir; we are bringing back the Sunday School; we are having a party for the first time in almost two years. We are trying to move on with our communal life, despite the fact that we are still dealing with covid. So I have been reflecting on what our mission is here as a parish. All churches are called to spread the good news, to share the Gospel story of Jesus Christ, to worship God and to serve God’s people in their community, but not all churches and not all communities are the same. What do the people in this community need? Yes, there certainly are people in our community that need food or other assistance and we do try to address that, at least in a small way, through grocery store gift cards, or through the food that is donated to the Mary Brenan INN. We do that, and I thank all of you who generously give to support that, those outreaches are necessary, but I wouldn’t say that is the greatest need of this whole community. This isn’t an urban area or an area with great poverty. It exists here, but it isn’t the thing I see most when I look at the activity right outside our doors. Yes, there is physical poverty in our community, but the bigger issue that I see is spiritual poverty. Distraction.
How many people every day walk right past our doors? They couldn’t find time to pray this morning, but somehow managed to wait 20 minutes to get a coffee next door. On the train, off the train, on the train, off the train…day in, day out. Redecorate the house, try to get that promotion, or that car, maybe find some time to gather with friends at a local watering hole, but mostly just chasing after something, although they’re just not sure what. Distraction, distraction, distraction. Well to quote the great Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? Is that all there is to life? Just one never-ending stream of distractions and frustrations and acquisitions until you die?
Well, no. That is not all there is. In the midst of all these distractions, in the midst of all these human things, there is God. God’s kingdom is in this world too, only most people are just too distracted to see it. Even those of us who are prepared to call Jesus the Messiah, we are still prone to getting distracted too. We all need to have our attention redirected back to divine things. So what do the people in this community need? They need someone to get their attention and to show them that there is more to life than all of these distractions. How do we do that? Well frankly I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think standing on the corner with a big sign that reads: “Get behind me Satan!” would be very productive, so we may need to be a bit more subtle than that, but we can’t be so discrete that people walk by and wonder if this is some kind of private club or secret society. We know that that isn’t what we are, but not everyone else does. We are people that have a story to tell. We are people that believe in the power of love and forgiveness, and we are people that believe in the resurrection of the dead. We are people that believe that in a world full of distractions, God wants our attention too. So we have a mission, here on this street corner, and it may not be exactly the same mission as it would be for a church in the inner city, or for that matter a church on a hill out in the country, but it is still the same Jesus that we are called to follow. It is the same God that wants our attention. He does not promise us that this will be an easy path following him, but he does promise that the rewards are eternal.