Sermon for 13th Sunday after Pentecost – Series A, August 29, 2020

Sergio Rodriguez, Pastoral Intern

Matthew 16:24b:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I found myself sitting in Dr. MacKenzie’s History of the Reformation class, pondering whether or not to leave the Missouri-Synod, my mind fell to these words of Jesus; let them deny themselves and take up their cross. Was I to stay in the Missouri-Synod or finally leave them for good. Of course up until that point, when I heard the phrase, Let them deny themselves, I knew what that meant for me as a gay Latino man in the Lutheran church. It meant that my body, with all its talents, joys, pains and traumas, could not fully abide within such spaces. To deny myself meant to take upon myself the characteristics of my white, heterosexual conservative colleagues as a way of following Jesus. To take up my cross meant that I was to live entirely in the closest, potentially alone, or perhaps married should I take the necessary counseling for my condition. Discipleship was, in a world, a process of being colonized, of being refashioned not into the image of our suffering savior but into a stumbling block for people like myself. People who needed to hear that we are disciples all the same and that we are all in need of healing according to our needs.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus announces for the first time that he is going to be handed over to the religious and political authorities to die and then rise on the third day. What an inconceivable proposition, Jesus. In last week’s reading, Jesus declared that Peter would be the rock with an unshakable foundation. Such an unshakable foundation was due to his confession of Jesus as the Messiah. So, how was it that Jesus was going to succumb to the might of the Roman colonizers? So the same Peter, being Peter, confronted Jesus and rebuked him. Jesus could not let himself be overcome by the evil of the Roman empire. Rather, he had to overcome evil with the power of God and the disciples as Jesus’ militia. What I wonder what image of Jesus, Peter carried in his heart when he rebuked Jesus? I wonder if there could be something more painful, traumatic behind his rebuke.

When Jesus said to Peter, “you are a stumbling block to me,” Jesus held a mirror to Peter’s heart, a heart weighed down with fear and pain. Peter could not believe that Jesus would die and with him all the hopes for the Messianic kingdom. He could not accept this loss for in this loss, his discipleship would have been all for not. Peter and his Jewish sibling endured much shame and disgrace at the hands of Roman occupiers. They had endured much under other gentile occupiers; the destruction of the temple, the profaning of the altars with unclean sacrifices, and early martyrs under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. In Peter’s body, he held the pain of collective trauma passed from one generation to the next. When Jesus said to Peter, “you are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus made it clear that Peter was stuck in own hopes for Messiahship; he adopted the colonizers’ mindset. Peter hoped that as the Messiah Jesus would exact retributive justice against the Roman occupiers. Being stuck in such a mindset, weighed down by fear and pain, Peter could not understand why Jesus was to be handed over to die and be raised again. He didn’t understand that Jesus was to bring these divine things, healing, forgiveness and justice, through his own body; wounded by the shame and trauma of crucifixion.

The trauma at the heart of our life together here in this part of the world has again been reactivated by the events of this stumbling block of a week. Hurricane Laura reactivated for many people in this part of Texas and Louisiana, the trauma of Harvey and Katrina. While the flooding does not seem to be as severe, the body itself carries memories of such great losses with visceral responses. As well this week, reports from Kenosha, Wisconsin and Montrose here in Houston of the death of two young black men by the police bring back centuries of the disgraceful memory of slavery, Jim Crow and other such injustices. The body itself is worn out by so much injustice and loss. Rest in power, Jacob Blake and Julius Kehyei. Let us not forget the Pandemic that is still raging on around us. The bodies of first responders, medical professionals, communities of color carry with them the sheer weight of injustice and death that seems too hard to carry on our own. When Jesus says to peter that he is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things, Jesus is speaking to us this day to set our mind on these divine realities; human bodies in pain and worn out, looking for healing and justice.
Then Jesus speaks to his disciples these words that have been misunderstood when it comes to healing and need, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus does not say that if anyone wants to follow him, they have to deny their own pain, deny their own bodily needs, deny their own talents and gifts, deny their own ethnicity or race, deny their own sexuality or gender expression, take up their cross and follow him. Jesus knows the hurt and pain of the disciples’ heart and knows the traumatic power of the Roman Empire. Rather, Jesus is saying, if you want to follow me, heal each other (rather the whole world) by bear each other’s pain (each others crosses) and follow him along this path of healing. Howard Thurman eloquently described this form of discipleship as awareness of your life and my life. He said this, “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs.” In a way, healing occurs when God transforms our hearts to have the hear of compassion. The same compassion that Jesus had for the poor, the oppressed, the wounded, the demon possessed. We become that compassion for others. We are Christ to our neighbors bowed down with trauma and pain during this time of pandemic pandemonium.

I have been thinking much about my transformation that winter afternoon in Dr. MacKenzie’s room.