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Matthew 16: 21-28

August 28, 2011

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Preacher

The disciple Cephas has really scored. All the other disciples are high-fiving him. He got it right! He figured it out! Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! And to reward him, Jesus has renamed him “Peter,” which means “The Rock,” and Jesus has told Peter, right in front of everybody, that Peter will be the rock on which Jesus will build His church, and that he, Peter, will have the keys to heaven and hell! He’ll personally decide who is in and who is out!

Now all the other disciples want to bask in his glow. James and John are arguing over which one of them is Peter’s bestest friend ever. And Judas is over in the corner, sulking—but he always sulks. Life is good…what’s that? What’s that Jesus is saying? He has to go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests, and be killed, and on the third day be raised?

No, no, no—Jesus, you’re spoiling everything! What’s the point of being right about The Son of God if the Son of God is going to suffer and die? And what’s the fun of being on God’s side if it means that you have to deny yourself and take up a cross? What does it profit a man or a woman if you crow Jesus’ name from the rooftops and it DOESN’T gain you the whole world in return?

So Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord, that this should ever happen to you!” But what he really means is, “Keep quiet! You’re spoiling all the fun of being right!”

It’s one thing to know who the right God is. It’s political season, and lots of folks throw God’s name around. I’m on God’s side! Say some candidates. Or, my candidate is on God’s side. He or she may not speak the “God” language, but they’re on God’s side on the issues!

What they’re trying to assure you of is that Their Candidate is Right. She or he has got God all figured out. She or he is doing what God would want done. They want high-fiving and back-slapping and congratulations because if you are on Jesus’ side, you’re bound to win, right? And if my candidate gets elected, then that’s like Jesus getting elected!

But in order for that winning formula to work, we have to shut the real Jesus up. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose their soul? Or what will they give in return for their soul?”

The good news that Jesus is the messiah isn’t the good news we want–that we’re winners on the side with the winning Messiah. That’s the news Peter wanted to hear, but it wasn’t what Jesus was saying. This messiah is going to suffer and die and He calls on us to deny ourselves—doesn’t seem like much of a winning strategy.

But what God really wants of us is often just too hard to believe: God wants us to love others, and to love them to the point of self-denial. And that just never seems like a winning strategy.

The message of self-denial is never popular in the best of times, but it’s especially unpopular in an election season, and it’s especially unpopular in an economic downturn.  It is a natural reaction to want our candidates to promise what is best for me. That’s neither wrong nor selfish, in itself. Often what’s good for me is also what’s best for the country. In many ways, democracy is based on that very concept: the common good. If I need a job, other people need jobs, too, so maybe the country needs jobs. If my business would do better with less regulation, other businesses would do better with less regulation, so maybe the nation needs less regulation.

But the common good has been sorely undermined by harsh economic reality. I was shocked recently by statistics that indicate that the US now has a 14.5 to one income gap between the top-earning 20% of Americans and those who are living below the poverty line.

Today’s poor are not like you and me. The bad economy has been bad for all of us, but it’s been especially bad for the poor. The poor are like us, in that they’re worried about their retirement money: will there even be social security when we retire? They’re worried about whether they can afford to put a child through school. They’re worried about finding a job and paying their bills. But they are not like us in that their anxiety—and their need—could be up to 14 times worse than yours and mine.

As Christians, our natural tendency to think about what’s good for me is leavened by Christ’s directive is to deny ourselves. Right now, the challenge is for us Christians to remember that if these hard times have increased our needs, then how much more so for the poor, the least of these. And we aren’t doing God’s work if we aren’t figuring out how we, and society, meet those needs—even if it means some sacrifice on our parts.

We can’t count on our politicians to think about the needs of the poor if we don’t tell them to. Frankly, no single political leader has distinguished himself or herself in this regard. In fact, almost all of them, regardless of party, regardless of rhetoric, from the very top on down, have decided in the name of “pragmatism,” to throw the poor under the bus.

Why? Because the poor don’t vote. They don’t fund political campaigns. They don’t have a lobby.

They only have us. People of good will and generous spirit. People of faith. Us.

That’s why Scripture always emphasizes that believers have a special obligation to the poor. If believers don’t advocate for the poor, then their only advocate is God.

Of course, there’s a lot of so-called “Christian” rhetoric out there that actually attempts to convince us that God isn’t an advocate for the poor. Everyone here today knows God loves the poor and calls us to serve them. You prove it because so many of you come to Room in the Inn to serve homeless men; so many of you volunteer at Samaritan House; so many of you serve on boards or volunteer at important charities; so many of you volunteer to go on mission trips. And that’s good, because from beginning to end of the Bible, in over 2500 places, God tells us exactly whose needs must be addressed when we’re addressing the larger needs of society: The poor.  As my old preaching teacher James Forbes likes to say, “No one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

Often people will tell you that taking care of the poor is a Christian’s personal obligation, not a societal obligation. But that’s not biblical. As just one example, take Exodus 23: 10 and 11. At the very beginning of God’s first society, Israel, God makes it a Law that “in the seventh year you shall let your fields rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat.” In other words, everyone in ancient Israel was obligated to give one-seventh of their crops to the poor.

In fact, according to the prophets, it was the unkindness of God’s people to the poor as a whole society that most offended God and led to the exile of Israel and Judah from the Promised Land:  “What mean you to beat my people to pieces, and grind down the faces of the poor?…to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, to make widows your prey and rob the fatherless?” (Isaiah 3: 15 and 10: 2).

One of the most significant stories of Jesus, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats—you know, the one where Jesus tells us to take care of “the least of these”?—that very parable–isn’t about our personal obligation to the poor, but our national obligation to the poor.

In the parable, The Son of Man is sitting in judgment of the nations. Their eternal fate—whether a nation goes to heaven or to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”–depends on whether they feed the hungry, cloth the naked, house the homeless, and visit the sick and the imprisoned—as a nation.

Jesus says, “When you give a banquet or a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14: 12-14). But right now, in this time of tight budgets and concern about taxation, all the belt-tightening seems to be inside the belt-loops of the poor, who are only getting skinnier and skinnier. The banquet is meager. Our leaders have decided not to invite them. In order to save themselves from political risk, they’ve cut funding and services for the poor instead, because the poor can’t defend themselves.

 We need to change their minds.

The letter of James was purportedly written by Jesus’ half-brother who was the first leader of the church. James is adamant about our obligation to the poor: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2: 14-17).

This becomes the real biblical litmus test of our faith-professing politicians: You say you have faith. You go to church. You use God language and faith language and hope language. But do your works show that faith? Have you made supplying the real needs of “the least of these” your top priority, as we are told over and over to do by scripture?

Or when Jesus starts speaking those words, do the politicians just act like Peter, and say, “God forbid it, Lord!”?

No one party or one politician is better or worse on this. All parties and all politicians need to be called to account. And there’s no perfect solution either. This is a crisis. There’s a need for cutbacks. And anyway, even in the best of times there’s only so much money in the pot. As a society, we’ll never fully be able to meet all the needs of the least of these.

I know that people in this room will always be bending over backwards to fill in the gaps where federal and state money falter. Unlike Peter, you are well aware that Jesus expects us to make sacrifices for the sake of others.

Maybe what’s harder for us to believe sometimes is that this same Jesus who asks sacrifices for the sake of the poor is also the Lord of the universe—the Lord of the economy—the Lord of the nations—the Lord of this nation–and the Lord of US politics, too.

And what Jesus expects of any individual, he also expects of every nation.


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