Struggle To Be - thrive UMC Official Blog

Struggle To Be


I have to tell all of you: I was a shocked to be told that God was at work in my life this past week. Apparently, divine activity had happened in my life, right before my eyes and I had failed to see it.  And it took someone else to point this out to me.  And when they did, I was just baffled. Of course, you might imagine that a guy like me –being a pastor and all- shouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that God is present and at work in the world –let alone in my very own backyard, so to speak. And ordinarily, I wouldn’t be.  Except what caught me totally off guard was that this news of revelation was brought to me by my insurance assessor, of all people.  Maybe some of you had God at work on your homes too, and just didn’t realize it.  But in our case, the revelation of God’s alleged work was pointed out to us in, literally, our backyard, in the presence of the huge branches that fell from our tall, gangly elm trees, upon our costly, newly-constructed playset. [Show image]

As Kristen recounted the tale to me, our friendly American Family Insurance assessor entered our rear yard, surveyed the tattered landscape, and suddenly invokes what’s called the “Act of God Clause.”  In other words, he took one look at our wind-mangled trees and dismembered playset and went: ‘oh, this, well…  According to our policy, God did it… [which means our company won’t pay for it].’  It’s like the Deus-ex-Machina of insurance policies: just when it looks like there’s no way to escape paying the piper, God shows up to save Insurance companies several thousand dollars in damage claims.

As if the insurance industry has its own local deity that periodically shows up to say: ‘Because this is my work of destruction, my children, thou shalt not make a corrective offering to be shared with the peasants.’ How convenient.

Unfortunately I wasn’t home when this unexpected, and undoubtedly brief, theological discourse took place; but had I been there, you can guarantee I would have had a thing or two to say about proper epistemological criteria for discerning what is and is not God’s work in the context of the intersection between disaster and ethical responsibility. But honestly, I just wanted to know if there were any atheist assessors out there that we could ask for a second opinion.

But isn’t that whole Act-of-God clause a strange thing –especially in 21st century America?  As if every time a huge storm rolls across the state, everybody in the insurance industry suddenly becomes Pentecostal or something –like they collectively start raising their pointed fingers at the darkening, debris-scattering winds and go: ‘that’s the Holy Spirit passing through.’  Then, after a moment of reverent silence, they disburse to spread their gospel: which is basically that they don’t have to do anything about all of that. (Point of clarification, they are reimbursing us for a new play-set, so don’t take this as any kind of knock on the insurance industry or the services they provide –beyond their reckless and violent theology.)

And the whole ordeal made me start to question: what do we think it’s supposed to look like when God acts?  Have you ever stopped to really think about that before?  What kinds of things, and in what places, do you stop and say ‘that looks like something God did?’ When you think back about your life, what were the moments that God seemed closest, and most real to you?  What was happening, and what helped you recognize the event as divine? Is that something you’ve ever stopped to give some serious attention?

Because, as you can probably tell, I just couldn’t get over the fact that this assessor was trained to look at disaster and call it God’s handiwork. For insurance assessors, the criteria are very clear: God was identifiable in our scenario because there was havoc and a bunch of stuff was broken –and there’s simply no one else around to blame it on.  In short, according to the Act of God Clause, if it’s bad and expensive, and it wasn’t directly caused by some specific people, that’s how we can tell God did it.  Which, as a pastor, I just wanted to yell at this guy who was already gone by the time I got home and go: “You can’t go around calling disasters miracles! God isn’t known first and foremost by acts of destruction, but by acts of creation! Your Act of God clause is blasphemy!”

But, of course, I didn’t.

Last week, in our Bible reading, we shared a strange story about a glowing Jesus on a mountaintop with some guys who were supposed to be long dead. It’s the first time the disciples get to see –for only a very brief, fleeting instant- that there’s more to Jesus than meets the eye.  There’s something supernatural about him.  And he’s somehow in mystical communion with Israel’s great liberators of the past –he’s somehow like them. But Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what they saw… yet.

And that story we met Peter again; and Peter is, in many ways, Jesus’s star pupil. Peter was selected as one of the three disciples who was deemed worthy –who was matureenough to go up that mountain to see that weird, glowing, ghostly moment.  In almost all of the gospels, when the names of the disciples are listed, Peter –a.k.a. the disciple formerly known as Simon- his name comes first.  He was among the first to be called by Jesus to become a student-follower, and in each of the four stories of Jesus in the Bible, he is the disciple we see acting and speaking the most.

And all of this attention on Peter has a very practical purpose.  The spotlight is put on Peter for really two reasons: 1.) First of all, it’s just too hard for a reader or an audience to keep track of 12 different characters in one story.  So a special focus was put on a very select few of the disciples, but mostly on Peter.  And 2.) Peter was chosen to receive this special attention in order to honor his life and his sacrifice.  You see, after Jesus died and rose, Peter did a lot of really great things to spread and maintain the legacy of Jesus’ ministry.  He is the one who is remembered for starting the first Jesus-community in Jerusalem, as well as a handful of other communities, or churches, around Judea.  And the early church also maintained that he helped to found the Jesus community in Rome, with the Apostle Paul, where he was later crucified for his service. And this was a crucial first step in changing the whole Roman Empire.

However, none of this means that Peter was a perfect guy. In fact, we almost never see or hear about Peter in any biblical account doing something great without first hearing about him doing something tremendously stupid.  And visa versa. He’s very consistently characterized as kind of a screw-up saint. In short, he’s a guy we’re intended to relate to.  And in the gospel stories, we’re invited to follow along with Peter, and witness his struggles so that we might persevere through our own. We’re called to learn from both his virtues and mistakes: so that, bit by bit, we might mature to become the kind of disciple that he was –where we too are empowered to blunder into our own blessings.  Therefore, may we be prepared to grow and evolve with him as we share a part of his story again today.

In this morning’s reading, we’re actually jumping back a chapter to catch a better look at one of several pivotal moments in Peter’s story.  If you’ll recall, he started out as a fisherman named Simon, which was not at all the traditional track for becoming a disciple or a rabbi.  But Jesus called and he answered.  And he went on to heal and cast out demons, in the same way Jesus did.  And today we see him as he bears witness to the things of God, and receives a new name.  We’re reading in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning in verse 13.  It says this:

13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One[a] is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18  I tell you that you are Peter.[b] And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it.19  I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day.22 Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” 23 But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27  For the Human One[c] is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28  I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One[d] coming in his kingdom.”


In case you missed it, our pal Pete went through quite the rollercoaster here.  He started out as a guy named Simon, before he nails the final-Jeopardy question and gets renamed “Peter.”  By the way, ‘Peter’ is a name derived from the Greek work for rock –and Jesus elaborates by identifying him as the stone that makes the foundation of what will become the Church.  But then, in practically the next moment, Jesus has renamed him yet again, only this time it’s ‘Satan.’  Here Peter becomes an enemy. And now he’s no longer the kind of stone that makes for a strong foundation; but he is, instead, a stumbling block –a thing to be tripped over. He is, in that moment, the kind of rock that hurts people.

Although this might not be immediately apparent, this shift in names has everything to do with how Peter sees Jesus and the events around him, from moment to moment.  Today we started with the question: what does the activity of God look like.  And Peter recognized God at work in the life of Jesus.  This is why, when Jesus asks the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is able respond: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” By that point, Simon-Peter already knew what God’s work looked like.  It looks like healing.  It looks like wisdom and compassion and power. It looked like all the things Jesus was doing.  And at the time, the whole of the Jewish people were waiting for this divinely favored human who was to be called the Christ.  They were waiting for a savior-king and prophet-priest to raise them up and set them free.  But it was Simon-Peter, of all people, who was the first to see and boldly proclaim it in this whole story thus far. We’re over half-way through the Book of Matthew and no one else has seen or realized this yet.

“Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you.” So Simon gets a new name and becomes Peter, because he had received and accepted a revelation; and in turn he’s given a greater power: the keys to the very kingdom of heaven.  “Then,” it says, Jesus “ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.”

[Insert series reference here]

I’d like to invite you to sit in that space of silence again. Here we have a profound revelation from God, revealed in scripture: that Jesus was and is the Christ.  God’s anointed.  The one through whom God’s people are set free.  For Simon-Peter, this recognition was enough to turn him into a new man.  And along with the revelation, he received a great power.  And all of you too are invited to receive and share in this powerful gift as well.  The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are yours –like a parent’s car-keys extended to their child on the morning of their 16th birthday. A whole new world of possibility awaits.  But before you tell anyone –before you go about wielding this tremendous power to ‘fasten’ and to ‘loosen’ –I want to ask again: what do you imagine that looks like?  How do you conceive of your own participation and sharing in this heavenly gift that’s been offered to you?

A detail about this story I find fascinating is that the name Simon, in Hebrew, means ‘to listen.’  And I would imagine that being able to listen is a great quality to have in a disciple, which may have been why two of Jesus’s twelve disciples were named Simon.  But one of those listeners became Peter, a rock –the stone upon which the Church would be built. He goes from being a somewhat passive observer to a participant –an active player.  And this is an honor. But perhaps Simon-Peter leaves his listening ears behind too quickly because as soon as Jesus reveals what’s coming next, Jesus calls him something else.  He goes from Simon the disciple, to Peter the founder, and right on to… that’s right, Satan.  Which, by the way, doesn’t mean he sprouted horns and turned red; it just means he became an adversary to Jesus (it’s incredible how powerful images can be, isn’t it?).  He moved from being a strong foundational stone for the church, to a stumbling block, in the space of just two words: “God forbid.”

“God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you!”  The suffering and the death: no!  You gave me the keys, so I’m gonna go ahead and lock that one up right now!  Not suffering and death, but victory and fame!  That’s what God’s work looks like! That’s the kind of salvation and liberation God brings: not a cross, but a throne.  Not persecution, but victory!

Peter had an imagination problem.  He had the right words, and when it came to Jesus he had the right title.  But his vision for what it would look like and how it was all supposed to work were all wrong.  The Christ was supposed to look like King David of old –or maybe a new Moses.  That’s what Peter thought.  He thought liberation had to involve a new nation of Israel.

But the picture Jesus had was different.  He calls Peter Satan and a personal stumbling block because his thoughts –his imagination- is still shackled by mere human preoccupations.  And he lacked the kind of imagination that God has.

Then again, Jesus teaches with these words, “All who want to come after me must say not to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?”

Brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us as his followers to re-envision how we imagine God, and how we witness our connections and all of our relationships. All of our preconceptions and expectations about how our lives are supposed to go are called into question.  Do you imagine that God is going to create a good and rich life for you?  You might be right, but I bet, like Peter, your picture of a good life is way too small.  If you imagine a good life looks like a whole lot of money in a mansion, where you never have to work when you don’t want to, then your picture’s too small.  If you imagine a good life looks like always being chosen for the best team and winning all the time, and everyone loving you, then you’re suffering from a stifled vision.  If you imagine a God that blesses with only happiness and good feelings, then you’re worshipping an idol –a god that doesn’t exist.

Instead, the picture of the good and righteous and faithful life that we have from Jesus requires that we say ‘no’ to ourselves.  Real living looks like dying on a cross.  Progress looks like letting go.  It’s a paradox, for sure; but if you live with it, I bet you’ll find that it’s true.

Just think: when was the last time you really felt you made progress as a human being?  What time or moment can you recall when you felt like you moved on to a whole new stage in the evolution of you? Maybe it was graduating from school. Maybe it was getting a particular job, or getting married or becoming a parent. Maybe it was getting a divorce, or losing someone you loved.  Each of those stages demanded that you give something up so that you can live into the bigger truth –moving on always requires a sacrifice.  Of personal freedom, or convenience, or even security.  And at every turn there’s room for failure.

But this is our good news brothers and sisters: that if we put ourselves out there, God will provide.  That’s where the miracle comes from –not from the work or paying a sacrificial price; but from the simple offering.  This is our good news: that, just like Simon Peter, we can grow to become new people. Only in this way will be have our hands free and open so that we can receive the new gift that God has for us, in this new time and in this new life.  But that also means we have to let go of who we were in the past, with our past dreams and imaginations. So we’re called instead to be courageous.  To take the risk.  To make the sacrifices. To be there to make the connections. And in that way we’ll be transformed.

Let’s pray.