The plan was for me to rush home after church, take an immediate nap, and get some work done this afternoon. I had gotten very little sleep — the sermon didn’t want to come together, it had been a very difficult week of homiletical wrestling. The sermon turned out all right (posted below the fold), but it wasn’t done till low-digit hours of morning that I hardly ever witness.
So after two services and a long Adult Ed classes, I was ready indeed for a nap, but I took a quick look at my online neighborhood where I noticed Shelley’s stark alert that Katrina — which had looked like a garden-variety Bad Hurricane when I had last checked Saturday night — had turned into The Worst Hurricane Ever, at least as far as New Orleans was concerned. My nap time disappeared into an afternoon spent catching up on the scale of Katrina, the vulnerability of New Orleans, and the magnitude of the possible catastrophe.
The dioceses of Louisiana and Mississippi have sent a lot of seminarians to Seabury over the last few years — people I’ve worked with, people I love, people who’ve gone back to a region they love to serve God and their neighbors. Mary, Richard, Jeff, Dave, A.J., Annie, Bill and Susan — and Andrew’s and Laura’s families — I don’t even know what to hope for, but I’m thinking of you all, and will want to know that you’re well and safe, as soon as I can.
Jer 15:15-21/Ps 26:1-8/Rom 12:1-8/Matt 16:21-28
August 28, 2005
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
In the Name of God Almighty, the Blessed Trinity on high – Amen.
Sisters and brothers, I’ve been very eager for this morning to come. We have something urgent to talk about – but I must apologize that I can’t get to it directly, that I’ll have to come at it the long way around. You see, I need to assure you first of all that I did not mean to avoid my high school reunion. Anyone who wants to find me can do so pretty easily, and in a moment of weakness I even signed onto one of those internet high school alumni services. I’m eminently Google-able. So when years five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty went by without so much as a peep from Taylor Allderdice High, I had no reason to expect that this week – out of the clear blue sky – I would wind up exchanging messages with three of my high school colleagues, all because somebody on the high school reunion committee listed my name under the heading for “missing” classmates.
I haven’t thought that much about high school for ages – not for more than thirty years. The one overwhelming impression that came back as I read down the names of the Class of 1975 was of time after time when I felt that dreadful awareness that although I was talking up a storm, I was not making any sense whatever, that I was making an arrant fool of myself, and yet not knowing what else I could do. The mere mention of my high school years brought that feeling back in a disorienting wave of retrospection – but the wave was amplified and intensified by the fact that this particular week I have been meditating on our brother Peter and his misplaced exuberance for the gospel.
Poor Peter hardly ever enters a gospel story without blundering. If there were crystal glasses in the gospel, he would break them. If there were just one key to the apostolic tour bus, he would drop it down a storm drain. When we read about the Transfiguration, Peter got sidetracked worrying about room arrangements. A couple of weeks ago, Peter plunged overboard and nearly drowned, as if he just had to prove how tenuous his faith was. And this morning, right after he finally puzzled out the right answer to the Jesus’ question, “Who do they say that I am?” Peter rushes ahead to explain to Jesus that that he had a much better idea about how they could spend their upcoming days in Jerusalem.
Jesus, meanwhile, evidently missed the day in teacher training class where they explain how to deal with obtuse students. If I were to speak to somebody – Ryan, perhaps – who gave a foolish answer to one of my questions, saying “Get behind me Satan!” I would have to expect appointments with the Academic Dean, the President, and perhaps even a Bishop or two. But Jesus’ words sting exactly because of how badly Peter had misconstrued the message. Like eager Christians gobbling down apocalyptic claptrap under the misapprehension that Left Behind bestsellers will unveil the secret of what Jesus really has in store for us, or like an inept high-school stumbler blurting out all the wrong words, Peter interrupts the man whom he has just identified as the Anointed One, the very Son of the Living God, and brother Peter cuts Jesus off and says, “Wait! I have a better idea!”
At that moment I imagine a silence. It doesn’t really matter how long the silence lasts, since for Peter, and for us, even a few seconds of that silence will have felt like a month. Even the briefest pause gives us more time than we need to bite our tongues, to wince and hear a syllable by syllable slow-motion instant replay of our painfully explicit folly. To paraphrase Jeremiah, we have uttered what was foolish, and not what was precious, and our Savior snaps back, “Get behind me, Tempter, Satan – you’re peddling human ideas, when what we need around here is God’s wisdom.” Ooops. I heard Peter’s ill-timed interjection, and recollected every stupid thing I said to every girl I wanted to go out with, every lame excuse I made to every teacher, every malformed attempt at wit, every feeble lie, every faltering effort just to get along and fit in. And Jesus’ voice carried over those years, too: “You are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.”
And this, friends is where the urgent element comes in. There’s nothing very urgent about my high school years, they’re old business, and everyone involved has gotten over them. But the vitally urgent part comes with the advice that Paul gives to the Romans and to us as well: While the world around us displays many pretty vistas, and surrounds us with charming people, God’s creation crowned with the children of God – if we try to fit into the world on the world’s terms, we invest our energies, our very lives, in an effort that will inevitably will come to a dead end. We are set as perishing creatures in a perishing world; indeed, I may say that the world we see is an adolescent world, full of the strength and beauty and waywardness and folly and sometimes even the cruelty of those high school years. God loves those years, but God calls us onward, out of our adolescence.
The awkward, impulsive Peter who steps on Jesus’ lines, who promises to follow Jesus all the way to the grave and who then denies three times that he even knows the guy, the Peter who’s drowning in his eagerness to prove that he’s the disciple Jesus called him to be – we see the same guy in the Book of Acts, calmly leading the first generation of Christians as a statesman and orator. Where did that come from? No one reports Peter taking time out for a Dale Carnegie Course; the New Testament doesn’t show us a Peter who willed himself into being a calmer, wiser man, any more than back in high school I could have willed myself more mature. That’s not how it works. In fact, the more furiously we resolve to conform ourselves to a given set of characteristics, the deeper we embed ourselves in the limits that constrain us. We know that at St Luke’s; we’ve walked that road, we’ve felt the trap of good intentions snare us into re-enacting the same mistakes we were trying so hard to avoid.
And therein lies the urgency of hearing Paul, of hearing Jesus, who promise us that if we let go of the thin-lipped, teeth-clenched determination to fix ourselves, if we allow God to work on our lives in the plenitude of ways that the Holy Spirit can operate on us and with us, that grace will indeed transform us. Our anxious need to fix the world, to “reinvent ourselves,” to improve on a beauty that’s already God’s gift to us, our fears and our determination hinder the grace that already has begun its work, if we can look on it with the eyes of patience and possibility.
Patience and possibility, sisters and brothers, not passivity; the effervescent vitality of grace brooks no idleness. Grace got you this far, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps doubtfully, but grace will bring you all the way home if you make room for the Spirit, if you be not conformed to the world of fear and perishing, but allow grace to transform your imagination into a vessel for hope and trust. Grace will bring you home to Jerusalem, even as we know that people may insult and reject and resist you. Grace will open your senses to the loveliness of a world a-borning, not yet in full bloom, and once you’ve savored that captivating glory, everything else fades to unreality. If ever we knew beauty before, it was but a dream of grace, when now we awake to a luminous Truth that we can’t rush, we can’t coerce, we can’t force; and we attain that Truth only by relinquishing control, by giving away, by loving, by trusting, by offering our selves as a living sacrifice, not consumed but devoted to grace.
In offering our lives to a way and a power that transcend targets and projects, we open ourselves to Grace’s perfect transformation of our understanding. That grace has drawn out a little more of the sober judgment and discernment even in me; and although I’m no beauty myself, grace has entwined my life with a beautiful family, with this wonderful congregation, with dear students – and maybe when next I meet some of my high school cronies, they’ll perceive that transformation beginning to work in me. Grace transformed Peter from the embarrassingly hasty disciple to the deliberate chief apostle. Grace is transforming St. Luke’s with hopefulness and patience, and grace encourages us to wait for still more wonderful transformations to come.
And as we wait, as we give, as we bestir ourselves to share the joy that pulses strong, stronger as we patiently learn its unique rhythm, we more readily detect grace’s beauty sparking, kindling in our surroundings. There, the fire in her fingertips as she coaxes from silent paint and canvas a crescendo of line and color; there, as he wins from wood and metal and rose-voiced tongues the very songs of angels; here, if mists of your doubt part for just one second, and you sense even a flicker of the thought that you might be able to trust, to love a God who need not brow-beat or arm-twist to elicit thankful praise from free hearts; here, as by God’s perfectly distilled grace all the world, all creation, joins us in this room and we are one, transformed, setting our minds on divine things, the sublime harmony that draws us here seals us in one Body, in one perfect reunion from which not my name nor yours shall be missing.