Sermon for 2nd Lent -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Have you ever heard the sound of a heart breaking? Do you remember what it sounds like?
Maybe it was your son or daughter's heart breaking when they graduated from high school or college only to find the job market had disappeared, taking with it any chance for the future they'd dreamt about. Or maybe it was your sister's heart breaking when the doctor called to say the cancer was back and she had to face the fact that she wouldn't see her children grow up. Maybe it was your friend's heart breaking when he called to say that his marriage was over. Or maybe it was your own heart breaking when your house went into foreclosure and so many of the dreams you'd held seemed to vanish into thin air.
Have you ever heard the sound of a heart breaking? Do you remember what it sounds like?
Scholar David Lose asks these questions in a sermon on this same text. And, with Lose, I think we can hear the sound of a heart breaking in today's gospel reading. It might be hard to detect at first; but if you listen closely, you can actually hear a human heart first tremble under the stress of an uncertain future and then actually fracture amid severe disappointment and shame.
This all happens just outside of Caesarea Philippi, a village 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. In the verses just preceding today’s Gospel lesson, beginning with verse 27, Jesus is walking with his disciples when he asks them what the people are saying about him. It is an interesting question, because by this time in Mark's story the disciples have been with Jesus for some time and have seen him cure the sick and lame, cast out demons, feed literally thousands of people, and even restore life to a young girl. Thus, Jesus’ question is not surprising. Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him. And the disciples do not disappoint, reporting that the crowds indeed recognize that Jesus is clearly a prophet, a holy man of God.
Then Jesus gets to what seems to be his real question, asking the disciples themselves, directly, "But who do you say that I am?" And, again, the disciples come through, one disciple in particular, as Peter declares that Jesus is not just a prophet but is actually the long-awaited Messiah, the one anointed by God to save all of Israel.
Now we will never know whether that confession had been brewing in Peter for some time and only needed Jesus' question to bring it forth or whether it came to him in the flash of divinely guided insight. But it is not hard to imagine that making that confession had to be one of the best moments in Peter's life. For there is something indescribably wonderful about recognizing and participating in a truth bigger than yourself, about naming truth in a way that somehow makes it more true in your own experience. It's like saying "I love you" for the first time to a beloved and in saying it realizing just how true it is, even truer than it was just a moment before. That's what happens with Peter just outside of Caesarea Philippi, as with that confession his heart, brimming over with insight and faith, begins to sing.
And then, in today’s Gospel text which happened just moments later, Peter’s heart breaks.
Okay, it is easy to imagine Peter’s heart breaking with Jesus’ rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Who, after all, could endure such words from the Lord?
But that is not when Peter’s heart breaks. I suspect it happened just a moment earlier. Let's listen carefully to Mark's story once again from those verses right before today’s Gospel lesson:
Jesus asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then in today’s Gospel text, Jesus 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.
There - did you hear it? First it's faint, just a little heart tremor – Peter has made a great confession that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. And how does Jesus respond? Does he smile and congratulate Peter and tell him that yes, indeed, he is the long-awaited Messiah? No, Jesusneither affirms or congratulates Peter. Instead, Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone. Well, that is strange, isn’t it? This is the greatest news in the world and Jesus does not want his disciples to share it with anyone? We can just imagine Peter and the disciples thinking, “Are you kidding, Jesus?”
Then the heart tremor gets more painful, as Jesus' words etch tiny fissures into the depths of Peter's heart and hopes, fissures that spread like cracks in a windshield. "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" – heart break - "and be rejected by the elders" – heart break - "the chief priests" - heart break - "and the scribes" - heart break - until at last comes the final blow, "and be killed.” And there it goes, Peter's heart has now been fractured into a thousand shards of disappointment. And so disappointed is Peter that he probably misses Jesus' final promise, that Jesus will “be raised on the third day."
And it is no wonder Peter rebukes Jesus. This sounds like blasphemy. The savior of the world, suffer? God's messiah, die? Are you mad, Jesus?
Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God. Like so many of his day, he is looking for a descendant of mighty king David to come and overthrow Roman rule and restore Israel to its rightful place among the nations. Jesus has to be that person. After all, he has already brought relief, comfort, healing, and life. So what's all this talk about suffering and death?
Peter wants a strong God. And who can blame him? We are no different. When the crushing weight of hardship bears down upon us, when the voices of despair drown out all others, when it is one disappointment after another, we are like Peter - we also want a strong God to avenge our hurts, to right all wrongs, and to put us back on top of things.
Except...except that it is precisely when we, you and I, are down and out, when life's setbacks and disappointments have conspired to make us feel like we are nothing, that we wonder, well, at least I wonder, what a God of might, strength, and justice-- the God of winners, that is, what that God has to say to me, to us, all of us who are just ordinary, everyday folks, people who often feel far closer to defeat than to victory.
I think this is what Jesus means in his rebuke to Peter by contrasting divine things and earthly ones. By our human reckoning, strength is everything, might makes right, and, as the popular cliché goes, “the one who dies with the most toys wins.”
But we have a God who employs a different calculus, a God who measures strength not in terms of might but in terms of love, not by victory but by vulnerability, not in possessions but in sacrifice, not by glory but by the cross.
Jesus knows this; but Peter does not, at least not yet. For this is not the last time Peter's heart will break. Twice more, if we listen carefully, we will hear Peter’s heart break.
The next comes much later in Mark's story, this time not in response to what Jesus says but in response to what Peter himself says, as with his own lips Peter denies his Lord three times and then must watch Jesus beaten, nailed to a cross, and die...alone.
Then, no longer strong, but desolate, no longer thirsting for victory, but desperate for a measure of relief from the pain, Peter will take his twice-broken heart and hide, hoping against hope that his despair will some day pass. Until, on the third day, the rumor begins to circulate that Jesus has been raised. And soon enough Peter will hear that the messenger who heralded these tidings said, in fact, not just to tell the disciples, but to tell the disciples and Peter - yes, Peter, who denied and fled, Peter, who is now broken and defeated - to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus would meet them in Galilee, just as he promised.
And at that moment Peter's heart breaks yet a third time, this time in a most positive way. This time Peter’s heart is broken open wide by a mercy Peter could not formerly comprehend and knows he does not deserve; Peter’s heart is split apart with sudden insight into a divine vulnerability that transcends human measures of strength. It is cracked wide open to the possibility that mercy, grace, forgiveness, and life surpass our earthly categories and for this reason can promise and grant new and eternal life.
Peter's heart breaks in today's reading because he does not get the God he wants. And then it breaks again at the end of the story when Peter realizes that instead of getting the God he wants, he gets the God he needs.
So it will also be with us, as we recognize that the God we worship, our God, comes not for the victorious but for the vanquished, our God seeks out not the mighty but the down trodden. Our God comes, as Scripture bear witness, to feed the hungry, to heal the lame, to free the bound and to bind up the broken-heartened. Our God comes, that is, for us.
And so we pray: Come, Lord Jesus, break open our hearts that we might perceive your profound love for us and all people and receive your mercy and grace.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon for 2nd Lent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Wednesday, February 28 / March 1, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica