On Rocky Ground (First sermon at Pleasant Hill Pres)

Sunday August 24, 2008, Matthew 16:13-23

Last night I was looking at a website called JokesbyKids.com when I discovered a page of jokes about rocks. One in particular caught my attention. Submitted by a 13-year-old named Jose, it goes:

Q. What did the sedimentary rock tell his teacher during the test to become a metamorphic rock?
A: “This is too much pressure!”

Today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew focuses on rocks or more specifically- Peter the Rock. Now, I don’t know if Peter-whose name in the Greek is “Petros” and literally means “rock”-is supposed to represent a sedimentary rock or a metamorphic rock or any other type of rock. But one thing seems sure: Being the rock on which Jesus will build the church is too much pressure!

Peter the Rock quickly cracks under the pressure of his newfound calling when he learns that the Messiah, the son of the living God, “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Peter was just given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and now he’s being told that the Messiah, the son of the living God who made the kingdom of heaven is leaving, heading toward a gruesome death no less!

Peter figured he was being promoted to be the rabbi’s special assistant. He didn’t know his master was going away and leaving him in charge to carry on the work of ministry. Peter is so shaken by this news that he actually pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him!

And Jesus replies: “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.” In six verses-what may have been a matter of minutes at the time this event occurred-Peter is named by Jesus as a sturdy rock on which Jesus will build the church, and the stumbling rock to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven.

That imagery may initially seem jarring and hard to comprehend, but it’s actually a great description of Peter the disciple, as is evident in other portions of Matthew’s Gospel.

Peter is the sturdy rock-a strong and reliable foundation on which growth can occur. When Jesus appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Peter is the first to drop his fishing net and follow Jesus. When Jesus is walking on the water toward the disciples’ boat, Peter is the only one of the twelve who steps onto the water to meet Jesus. And when Jesus asks the disciples in the district of Caesarea Philipi, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the first to reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Throughout the gospel, it is often Peter who shows a great desire to be in conversation with Jesus about the ministry he is doing. Peter even vows that he will not desert or deny Jesus.

And Peter is the stumbling rock-a jagged and rough stone that can be a blockade to growth. When Peter steps onto the water to meet Jesus, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. After Jesus tells the disciples he must go to Jerusalem to be crucified, Peter refuses to believe his master’s words. And despite his admirable vow, Peter, following Jesus’ arrest by the Roman authorities, denies knowing his teacher three times.

Peter is both the sturdy rock for the building Christ’s church and the stumbling rock of the church that gets in the way of what Jesus is doing.

That is the legacy of the modern church, the rocky ground on which we stand. Ever since that day in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has built the church, the body of Christ, with people who are both sturdy and stumbling, strong and weak, in the practices of faith and love. Jesus has not chosen or called the most perfect people to be the church, but rather the most imperfect people-sinful, rocky folks who can simultaneously be firm foundations for and obstinate blockades to God’s just and loving purposes in the world:

* The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a prophetic voice of the Civil Rights movement whose daily fight against segregation changed laws and attitudes forever, had multiple extra-marital affairs and even plagiarized
portions of his doctoral dissertation.

* Mother Theresa who spent her entire life caring for the poor and sick children of Calcutta, India and was known as “The Messiah of Love,” wrote in letters to her superiors that she often felt Jesus had abandoned
her and that God wasn’t present in her life.

* Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken witness to human rights violations in El Salvador who was assassinated while serving communion, once admitted that he was often a pious obsessive compulsive perfectionist who was difficult to serve with in ministry.

* The Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist who served as a spiritual advisor and private pastor to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton, got mixed up in political games-even going so far as agreeing with Nixon in 1972 that the Jews who controlled the media were destroying the country.

Why does Jesus choose the imperfect to be the church? Why does Jesus call us to serve when we seem to spend more time being stumbling rocks instead of sturdy ones? Why does Jesus command us to follow him when we spend more time thinking about ourselves and what we’ll get out of the journey than setting our minds on God and the needs of God’s people?

Maybe it’s because Jesus doesn’t intend for us to forever remain stumbling rocks, as Alex Reineke, one of the youth members of Pleasant Hill, shared with me last evening as I struggled with this scripture passage and sermon:

“Jesus knows that we are stumbling blocks or sinners. Even in times when we do not act truley Christian, Jesus still loves us, and God has faith that we will do the right thing next time.”

Jesus is not pleased when we set our mind on human things-on being rough and obstinate stumbling rocks to those who seek to come into the doors of the church. Jesus is not pleased when we cause others who are different from us-male, female, young, old, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, white, black, gay, straight-to stumble on their journey to follow Jesus simply because we don’t want to be traveling with them.

Jesus is not pleased with how we become stumbling rocks to God’s just and loving work in the world anymore than he is pleased with Peter. And yet he loves Peter and us all the same. Never does Jesus take back his promise to Peter. He never says, “Sorry Pete, you are no longer the rock on which I will build my church…bzzzzzz, thanks for playing” And he never says that to us either. Even at our worst, Jesus still loves us. Jesus still wants us to be sturdy rocks, firm foundations that will allow his church to grow in mysteriously loving ways that we can’t even imagine.

Jesus knows that we struggle with being sturdy rocks who, at the same time, are also stumbling rocks. So he takes us for who we are and builds his love upon us anyway, and sends us out again and again to stand solid and firm as a church that witnesses God’s justice and love. And eventually one day we’ll cease being a mix of sturdy and stumbling rocks, of people who stand on rocky ground. One hopeful day, which is already and not yet, we will all stand forever on solid ground with Christ.
Amen.

(Photo of rocks courtesy of wikimedia.org)

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