September 3: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Rich Weyls served as a supply priest for St. Hilda St. Patrick. He is the former rector for St. Andrews, Seattle and is currently the Manager for Spiritual Health for the Providence/Swedish health care system. The sermon for September 3, 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 16:21-28 based on the manuscript below.

Bearing something that is unbearable. I hope you don’t have to experience that but some of us will. As a chaplain, my entire career has been about being with suffering people in crisis. Many of them will tell me that they are bearing something unbearable. Here are some snippets from my past week at work. A young widow is left with three children to raise alone because her husband was declared brain dead after a motorcycle accident. He was an organ donor, so the hospital staff did an “Honor Walk” for him as his body was taken to surgery to harvest his organs. Six mothers came to the hospital to deliver their babies, only to discover that the babies had died. “Fetal demise” we call them. An elderly mentally ill woman is discharged to the streets because she refused to be placed in an Adult Family Home. “I was abused in one of those places,” she said. “I’m safer on the streets.” A young woman driving to her first year of college, dies in a car accident – hit by a drunk driver. All these people, or their survivors, told me, in so many words, that they were bearing the unbearable. Sometimes it is enough just to scroll through the news on your phone: the media thrive on unbearably immediate images of global famine or terrorist attacks. Sooner or later, bearing the unbearable, we realize how little control we have over so much that damages our society and ourselves. Grief, rage, anger, and fear flash to the surface of consciousness. What sort of conversation can we possibly have with God when we are like this? Or better yet, the chaplain question, where do you find God in this unbearable suffering?
Today’s readings begin with an example of what Hebrew Bible scholars call a lament, but I would like to call it a rage-song. Yes, a rage song. In a tradition of rage-songs that can be traced back to Moses, and forward to the book of Job, the prophet Jeremiah gives voice to unbearable pain, anger, and misery at unspeakable horrors and uncontrollable events that surround him in his life as a prophet of God’s Word. His relationship with God has ceased to be a joy and delight (15:16) and has become an unceasing pain and incurable wound (15:18). He is full of rage at his fellow human beings who torment him, and asks God to bring down retribution on his persecutors (15:15). He is equally hostile towards God when he says, “you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” (15:18). Wow. His anger is palpable. Have you ever been angry with God?
Jeremiah is bearing something unbearable, and all he wants is for the misery to stop. But even the Word of God that comes to him, in response to his outburst of rage, is disquieting: the misery is not going to stop or go away; there is to be no respite from his torments and horrors. God simply assures Jeremiah of his presence, to strengthen him to withstand more misery. (15:20-21)
Psalm 26 is another example of a lament or rage-song. The singer begins by announcing that he has lived with integrity, trusted in the Lord and not faltered, and ends on the same note: “As for me, I will live with integrity, in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.” (vv. 11-12) Now, these sentiments would sound intolerably self-righteous if we did not recognize from the verses in between (vv.2-10) that the singer has a lively awareness of encounters with people who are out to get him: worthless, deceitful evildoers who thirst for blood, are full of plots, lies and bribes. To me, there is a jarring difference between the raw, candid outburst of Jeremiah in his radically disorienting misery, and the composition of the psalm-singer for a liturgical occasion. Jeremiah has no rhetorical moves with which to hide the depths of his despair and rage. Yet each in his own way is a rage-singer, and both remain faithful to the conversation with God because they each know the conversation is central to their being. In the midst of their profound suffering, they keep talking to God. The conversation goes on.
Now we can turn to today’s Gospel and register the impact of Jesus’ exchange of words with Peter. We pick up in Matthew’s Gospel right after last week’s scene, in which Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. In that scene, Jesus called Peter a rock, and said,”on this rock I will build my church.” Today we hear Jesus explain to his friends that he 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. This is Jesus’ first prediction of his passion. Suddenly, Peter the Rock becomes a “Satan” and stumbling block. The rock is no longer a foundation for future building. He is an impediment to Jesus’ mission. Yet all Peter had said was, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (16:22). Can you blame Peter? What would you say if your best friend just predicted their horrible demise? Wouldn’t you deny it, too?
Peter’s objection sounds to us so innocuous at first: how could anyone have known or understood the workings of God in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection? Remember, Matthew the Gospel writer, recorded this story many years after the Christ event. Years later, he has both known and understood the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. This is his point. When we are bearing the unbearable, we need a God who has suffered the depths of rage and despair as we ourselves do. No other God can be trusted, and this is the Good News of God in Christ. We worship a God who lived our life and died our death. God isn’t just a companion in our suffering. God has been there, too. Whatever the unbearable suffering, whatever the uncontrollable events that afflict and grieve us to the core of our being, God has seen it, known it, lived it, and taken it into God’s own life in Jesus who was crucified, who died, descended into hell, and was raised on the third day. Often, our suffering is senseless. We can’t explain it. But God is there. This is why we cannot take suffering, death, and resurrection out of the Jesus story. We can’t say that God has obliterated or removed everything that is unbearable in human misery, not that God has taken away all cause for rage and anger in human life, not even that God controls all things, but that God is the one who bears the misery and the rage with us and for us. By bearing the unbearable, God overcomes it and faithfully keeps the conversation open for life.
These readings today let us know that we cannot take the cross out of Jesus’ life and death because the cross is the place for every human experience of hell on earth. God knows this; God has been there, and as a consequence we know this God can be trusted. The rage singers and the psalm singers were absolutely faithful in their perception that no other channel of communication is open to us when we find ourselves bearing the unbearable amid things that we cannot control. And Peter was absolutely wrong to imagine a God who could remain in conversation with his people without bearing the unbearable himself.

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