Sunday, August 31, 2014

We Can't Afford to Buy Cheap

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 31, 2014

Year A: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:19-21
Matthew 16:21-28

We Can’t Afford to Buy Cheap
            “Only a rich man can afford to buy cheap.”
            That’s one of my favorite expressions. I first heard it from a friend who told me that his grandfather liked to say it.
            We can update it to “Only a rich person can afford to buy cheap.”
            And it’s true isn’t it? We’ve all bought cheap to save ourselves a couple of bucks only to end up paying even more when our cheap air conditioner conks out or our cheap shoes give us expensive foot problems or cheap food gives us pricey health issues.
            I was reminded of that expression when I reflected on today’s gospel passage. Once again, Peter is at center stage.
            Oh, Peter, Peter, Peter…
            Things had been going so well.
            In last week’s gospel passage we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
            And the disciples reported back, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
            And then Jesus asked them another question – THE question: “But who do you say that I am?”
            And, of all people, it was Peter who gives the right answer:
            “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
            The other disciples might have been surprised that Peter answered correctly. But, I bet they were even more surprised when Jesus announced that Peter was to be the rock upon which he would build the church.
            It was a really good day for Peter!
            Now today we pick up right where we left off last week – but what a difference a week, or a few bible verses, can make.
            Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem.
            The tone is now very different.
            The Evangelist Matthew signals this change in tone, writing: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must undergo great suffering…” Jesus begins to show and explain that he will be arrested, be killed, and on the third day would be raised.
            So far, the disciples have been on a wonderful adventure with this amazing Jesus.
            They’ve traveled around with him and tried to figure out the meaning of his parables.
            They’ve looked on in wonder when just a few loaves and a couple of fish somehow feed thousands of people, with plenty of leftovers.
            They’ve been frightened when they saw Jesus walking towards them on the water – and maybe even chuckled as Peter doubted and began to sink into the depths.
            The disciples have come to understand – at least a little - Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, as the Son of God.
            Now, all along the disciples have paid a price for following Jesus. I’m sure there was disapproval from family, friends and neighbors as they went off following this strange teacher from Galilee who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near.
            But now…now things are about to get serious. And costly.
            Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die – and to rise again.
            This time Peter doesn’t do so well. He doesn’t react well to Jesus’ revelation. He seems to only hear the first part, the part about Jesus’ death.
            We’re told that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him – that’s a strong word, rebuke, isn’t it?
            Peter rebukes the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
            And then Jesus does some of his own rebuking, hurling some strong language at Peter the rock: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
            The faithfulness of Jesus is going to cost him his life.
            And, Jesus says, our faithfulness to Jesus is going to cost us, too.
            It’s going to cost us to deny ourselves and take up our cross.
            But, Jesus says, the reward is finding true life.
            This is one of those situations when even a rich person can’t afford to buy cheap.
            So, the question for us is: are we willing to pay the cost of following Jesus?
            Certainly Christians around the world are paying the cost aren’t they?
            Just in recent weeks the barbaric terrorist group called ISIS (“The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq”) has been on the warpath slaughtering – sometimes crucifying - Christians and members of other religious minorities who refuse to convert to Islam.
            I’ve been moved and inspired by the courage of Canon Andrew White, Vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, called “The Vicar of Baghdad,” an Englishman who for years has chosen to stay in Iraq, ministering to people of all faiths in that shattered land.
            A few weeks ago Canon White emotionally told the story of how ISIS had brutally killed an infant that he had baptized – a child who had been named Andrew in his honor – a child killed because he was Christian.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            The videotaped beheading of the American photojournalist James Foley horrified our country and much of the world. What you might not have heard was that Foley was a committed Christian, a Roman Catholic educated at Marquette University, a Jesuit college in Milwaukee.
            Growing up in the church and especially at Marquette he learned that being a Christian means living a life of service and not counting the cost.
            It was his faith that led him to become a photojournalist.  James Foley believed that he could help the suffering people in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq, by bringing their stories to the world.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            And far away from news cameras, every day Christians bravely live out their faith and worship in underground churches in some of the least hospitable countries – places like Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea. Every time they gather just to pray they risk arrest… and worse.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            So, what about us? We don’t face the same kinds of dangers as Christians in the Middle East or China, but, do we try to buy our discipleship on the cheap?
            Like Peter do we try to deny that our faith is going to cost us?
            Well, of course, we can only answer that for ourselves.
            But, I see signs of more and more of us willing to pay more of the cost of our faith.
            I see it in more people dragging themselves out of bed to come to church on Sunday.
            I see it in the increased – the truly sacrificial - giving to our church.
            But, I think for most of us, the greatest cost is not getting up early on Sunday or even giving more of our limited resources.
            No, the greatest cost is a living bit more like those Christians in inhospitable lands. The greatest cost is living our faith out there – outside of these beautiful old walls – being Christians out there in the world.
            That takes courage doesn’t it?
            But, as Jesus understood and taught, the rewards are so worth it.
            One example.
            On Friday evening some of us gathered at Journal Square for our third “Church to Go” service. I’ll be honest that I’ve been a little grumpy before these services. I appreciate their value but they are a lot of work to put together. It’s kind of a pain to drag all of our church stuff to some street corner. And there’s the wind and the noise from cars and buses and people. And there’s the danger of bird poop.
            But, most of all, you just never know who you’ll have to deal with. Will there be people hurling insults, mocking us, or, maybe worst of all, simply ignoring us?
            Well, at Friday’s service a number of the local homeless people came over to check us out.
            Sure enough, one guy gravitated over to me.
            And, I’ll admit, I thought, “Here we go…”
            I could smell the booze on his breath and see his unfocused eyes.
            He tried talking to me throughout the service.
            I tried to find the right balance between being kind to him, but not letting him distract me or others.
            At one point he asked me for a Bible. When I told him I didn’t have one with me he was disappointed, saying, “The Bible is our light.”
            And then it came time for communion.
            Rev. Laurie distributed the bread and I offered the glass of consecrated grape juice.
            When I got to him, he was standing reverently, holding up his little wedge of pita bread…with tears streaming down his face.
            Nothing needed to be said.
            As Jesus understood, and as Peter and the other disciples came to understand, as Christians throughout the ages and today around the world understood, there’s a cost to faithfulness – a cost to following the way of Jesus.
            But, the rewards…
            This is one time that none of us can afford to buy cheap.