September 23, 2018
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
Last Wednesday, while I was setting up for our Examen Happy Hour out by the labyrinth, I noticed the first falling leaves. Their slow dance to the grown made it feel real that it has been a year since I moved to Baltimore. That evening, while I was walking the winding path of the Labyrinth, watching the sunset, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, I was full of gratitude. I found myself thinking of Pat Cornman, as I often do when I’m walking around our property. For those of you who didn’t know Pat, she was a major force in the life of Baltimore County’s environmental management, and a huge force at MPC with our environmental stewardship efforts. A few months before she died, we had a conversation about the trees here at the church. I shared with her that it was looking like some of our trees were going to need to be cut down, for the health of the other trees, and because some of them are getting ready to fall. She got a serious look on her face, and I got a little worried. Pat didn’t suffer fools willingly, and I was ready for her to put me in my place if this wasn’t a wise ecological choice. She looked me dead in the eye, and reminded me that sometimes trees have to come down. She repeated something she told me often in the few months I got to spend with her; “I’ll never stand in the way of something needing to change if it’s for the best. I’m not one of those environmentalists, David, who will get upset about a tree being cut down. Sometimes things need to change.”
Pat was right, that sometimes things need to change. But it is also true that there are parts of a community that give shape to who we are. When I first preached at MPC a year ago, I mentioned the odd tradition in my home church of the Birthday Chicken. Does anyone remember that story? On your birthday, you would put in the number of cents for the years you are young, and the money would be donated to provide chickens for rural farmers through the Heifer Project. The congregation sings happy birthday and you are blessed. And when my Pastor Ken arrived, he learned that this tradition, it was what is known as a Schelling Point; a place, a ritual, a tradition where people know that they belong, and are bound to each other. For the adults in that congregation, this was a celebration of their birthday, a reminder that God loved them, and that there were people who knew who they were.
There are Schelling points in all of our lives, and they are powerful experiences. When they are threatened, there’s always more at stake than first meets the eye. These are those situations where it’s never about what it’s about; it’s about something much, much deeper.
From our Methodist friends, there’s a story that young clergy are often told when they are assigned to their first parish. There was a young Methodist pastor who wasn’t very aware of the Schelling points in his community. He arrived at his country church, and he was a little taken aback at how poorly the congregation had taken care of the space. They had let a tree grow right in the way of their front doors. When people came on Sundays, they had to squeeze by this tree to get into the sanctuary. Well, this industrious, revitalizing pastor, he realized that this was in the way of folks who were visiting for the first time; who wants to have to squeeze by a tree to get in the doors? So during the week, he got an axe out, and cut the tree down. It was harder than he thought it would be, but it would be worth it on Sunday morning when folks would be thrilled to be able to get in the church.
It’s his first week, he’s got his sermon ready, but when he arrives on Sunday, the church is having a meeting to fire him. In his excitement, he hadn’t bothered to learn the story of his Church. Turns out, John Wesley himself, the founder of Methodism, had come and preached at this little country church, and had planted a tree at its entrance, the very same tree the new Pastor had cut down. He didn’t realize that squeezing into the space was a Schelling point, a connection to a history, a sense of belonging to something much larger.
It seems to me, as a revitalizing congregation, this is the tension we find ourselves in; sometimes, we’re going to feel like Pat: there’s new life that’s waiting to spring forth in our midst, if only we will make the space it needs to grow. At other times, there are going to be Schelling points, places where we find a deep sense of belonging and identity. And it can be hard to tell the difference. Sometimes a tree just looks like a tree, when in reality it’s about so much more than a tree.
This is the kind of situation I think Peter finds himself in our text this morning. Boy does he have a whirlwind day with Jesus! He is able to see that in and through this Rabbi, God is doing something new and incredible. Peter is ready to make space in his life, and the life of the community for God to do something. And then he hears of a threat to the Messiah, hears an idea that could bring the whole thing down. He’s a little confused why Jesus is talking about this honestly, but not wanting to cause a scene he pulls Jesus off to the side. We can’t lose you Jesus! This isn’t how this is going to work. And like that, Peter has found himself getting called out in front of everyone.
Friends, when we talk about growth and change, the reality is, it’s hard. It’s painful. Following Jesus, it usually involves loss; giving up the lives we thought we would have, to discover something much greater. Loss, or the possibility of loss, can lead us to shut out God’s possibilities and dreams for us. Our fear can turn us against God’s work in the world.
Our community, our life together, we’re experiencing growth. We have twelve people in our New Member’s Cohort, there are children in worship, our choir and music ministry tried something scary and hard last week and did an amazing job, and there’s a buzz in this place. We’ve been listening and responding to the needs of our community in some first small steps that are having some real impact, especially with the Woodbourne-McCabe Partnership, and I’m thrilled to see what the future holds. We’re making strides working with Kate from the Center to move forward engaging with our context more relationally and more deeply, and we have an exciting year ahead of us.
And this is to be celebrated, and embraced. But for all of my dreaming, all of my hopes for the future, I am also a realist. There’s a time coming when we’re going to be disappointed. I’m sure there are small ways in which I have already disappointed you, where changes have left you with a feeling of loss. As hard as myself and the Session try, as much as we listen, there is going to come a time when something changes in this community, in our life together, and it’s going to feel like a loss, like this place is a little less your spiritual home. There are going to be times where a voice rises up within that feels jealous of the attention new folks get, when you’ve been holding down the fort. And that voice can surprise us! Wasn’t this my dream for this church? What’s going on with my feelings?
There’s going to come a time when we try something as a community, when we reach out to our wider community and it doesn’t work, where we fail. Part of the task of being a disciple, is to recognize that trying and failing, and feeling grief over change, it hurts, and it’s also part of being human. There is a powerful bias to keep doing the same things, to try the same strategies, not because they are working, but because the fear of failure of trying something new can become so great. But what I love about this place is that you are a people of good courage. You’ve been bold and innovative since our founding in the Church House Library right over there. It seems worth acknowledging that at some point we’re going to be disappointed. It’s worth noting that sometimes we’re going to feel left out, even though we absolutely have a place in this community. When we fail at something, when we have to give something up to have space and energy and people to do something we are called to, it will be really tempting to rebuke Jesus’ leading us to new life.
The hard truth is that sometimes, we have to lose something to get involved with the reign of God. Being a disciple, sometimes we have to give up our idea of how God is going to work in the world to be a part of the in-breaking revolution of God’s love. Peter learns that lesson the hard way, but I think it’s possible to have these conversations with a little bit more grace than we see in our story this morning!
I’ve told you this past year that I will remind you over and over again that I love you. I also want to share with you that when we experience change, when we face the realities that we may have to give some things up, to follow God’s call into our future, we’re going to talk it through. For folks who have been here a long time, this community will continue to be your spiritual home as new folks join. I know you know that intellectually, I also know that our felt experience will be different. Anytime new people join a community, it changes and is not the same. And that’s exciting, but we can also experience grief. Instead of ignoring those feelings, we can talk about them, and realize that the future so many of us dream of for this place, while we don’t know exactly what it will look like, will inevitably involve loss. That’s how Resurection works.
What I love about our scripture story about Peter and Jesus is that they both stick it out. Both of these men challenge each other, they both get emotional and heated, but they stay together. Friends, with the honeymoon ending, while we’re still filled with the joy of Homecoming Sunday last week, it seems like a good time to acknowledge that there are going to be times when we get anxious and want to play it safe. Those are the moments where I’m going to ask you to dig deep. Those are the moments where it’s going to be important to be honest and share that we’re afraid of what it might cost, while acknowledging that those are probably the exact times we are called to experience Resurrection and New Life. Those are moments when I’d encourage you to reach out to me, so we can meet up and pray together. I am never too busy to pray with you, because I love you, and that’s what we do as a family of faith. Thanks be to God that we get to do this together, in the presence of the Lord, and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit.