Pastor Becky’s Sermon on Matthew 16: 21-27:Pill Bugs and Crosses

On Sunday 8/31 after our day and evening in Tampa with Miriam who needed her Pastors and friends, we were able to visit the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dunedin, Florida and once again experience Dean and Rector Becky Robbins Penniman’s wonderful ability to deliver a sermon. As I noted in an earlier blog,Pastor Becky, then an Episcopal Priest and Associate Pastor in the Lamb of God Lutheran-Episcopal Church  was my local priest mentor when I studied to be a Roman Catholic Woman Priest in 2007 and 2008. How blessed I was to reflect, share, experience and learn from this wonderful priest. I share this sermon with you as it is well worth reading, but seeing Pastor Becky curl up like the “pill bugs” she noticed when sweeping her porch, little black hard-backed bugs that curl up into a ball when in trouble, and stretch her arms out like a cross with the vertical lines (her long arms) able to embrace others, dramatized the meanings and was a real and rare treat for us. (I am only deleting the texts of the first two readings here).

August 31, 2014
Becky Robbins-Penniman
Church of the Good Shepherd, Dunedin, Florida
Collect of the Day:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of
your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of
good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 16:21–28
Jesus began to show his disciples 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. And
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to
you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “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.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 forfeit their
life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay
everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death
before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Why on earth did you come to church today?
When you think about it, there are lots of reasons not to go.
In some countries, it’s illegal to be a Christian,
and there aren’t any churches.
So folks can’t go.
In some communities, it’s dangerous to be outside your house.
Going to go to church is a major safety risk.
So folks are afraid to go.
In some cultures, it’s weird to go to church.
Going to church means others will think you are a clueless wonder,
which could affect your standing among your peers.
So folks are embarrassed to go.
In some contexts, it’s complicated to go to church.
Going to church means you can’t do other things,
from getting much-needed rest to being with friends
to working a second or third job to support your family.
So folks are too conflicted to go.
In some congregations, it’s the church that’s the problem.
Going to church is boring, or annoying, or depressing.
So folks simply choose not to go.
BUT – You are none of those, because, at least today, you are here.
The implications are enormous:
you are free, you are safe, you are accepted, you have free time,
and, I hope, it means you find Good Shepherd to be an OK place.
But, WHY are you here? To what purpose?
As you ponder that, I’d like turn the question in inside out,
because I think that’s the heart of the Peter was making with Jesus.
In Matthew 16:17, which we heard last week,
Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,
then Jesus tells Peter he’s the rock of the church.
Today, in Matthew 16: 21, Jesus tells Peter and the others
he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering.
Just 6 short verses after Peter says Jesus is the Son of God,
Peter basically asks Jesus what the heck he thinks he’s doing?
I’ve asked you why on earth you think you came to church today.
Peter wants to be clear about why Jesus thinks he came to earth.
Everyone knows: a Messiah doesn’t come from heaven to earth to suffer!
A Messiah comes from heaven to earth to fix things,
kick some serious tail and git ’r done.
But Jesus tells Peter he’s looking at things from a human angle,
while he, the Son of God, literally has a different mindset.
Jesus’ divine mindset is not to git ’r done, but to free captives,
to show people that no matter who we are, great or ordinary,
we have the almost unbearable freedom to choose
what mindset to use as we approach our lives, the human one or the divine one.
The human one is, it seems, to get things for ourselves and hold on tight,
rolling up like a pill bug to protect ourselves.
The divine one is to focus on God, then throw our arms open wide.
The divine mindset shapes our life like a cross.
Now, I’m hardly the first preacher to point this out, but a cross goes in two directions at once.
The first direction is vertical –
grounded on the earth, it stretches to the infinity of the heavens.
The second direction is horizontal,
and if you paid any attention at all in sophomore geometry class,
you know that a horizontal line is also infinite.
To take up the cross is to practice, as our collect puts it,true religion.
“Religion” does not mean rites and ceremonies and doctrines;
the word “religion” comes from the Latin word “ligare”
which means to bind together, to connect together;
the word “ligament” has the same root as the word “religion.”
To practice true religion is to have the cross shape our lives.
What is left out of a life shaped like a cross?
Who is the person left out of a life shaped like a cross?
Where is the place left out of a life shaped like a cross?
A cross-shaped life connects everything on earth with the will of God,
and the will of God is peace for all people and the earth, Shalom;
the will of God is the healing of the universe, Tikkun Olam. 4
Moses had true religion; he started out as a prince, became a murderer,
then, in exile beyond the wilderness, a humble shepherd.
Shepherds definitely have their feet on the ground.
One day, he lifted his head and noticed the living God in the world.
From a burning bush, God gave Moses a pretty daunting mission,
and at first Moses rolled up like a pill bug.
But God worked with him, encouraged him,
and Moses stretched himself out to both God and his people.
He marched right into Pharaoh’s throne room
and led thousands of slaves out of oppression.
Moses lived a cross-shaped life.
Paul had a true religion: He was a Pharisee grounded in the Torah,
and thought this meant he should kill Christians to honor God.
He heard a voice from the heavens and at first rolled up like a pill bug,
but soon he opened his mind to Jesus.
Paul stretched himself toward God and perfect strangers,
marching all over the Roman Empire to tell people Good News:
God had come to earth as Jesus the Christ,
who conquered evil with divine, agape love, a tireless, rugged love
that does what is best for the other, even if it costs us dearly,
or, as in the case of Jesus and so many others who live cross-shaped lives,
even if it costs them everything.
Paul says the only way to overcome evil is to love like Christ did,
to stretch out and embody goodness, harmony, rejoicing,
inclusion, and hospitality to everyone – even enemies.
Paul practiced what he preached, and lived a cross-shaped life.
Jesus, of course, had the truest religion of all.
The cross is Christ’s commitment to his Father and to us;
the price he was willing to pay to do the Father’s will on earth,
to bring hope and healing to his sisters and brothers,
to assure each of us that we are more than our sins,
and tell us that the only way we would ever find
real peace, real joy, real meaning on this side of the grave
was to make exactly the same kind of commitment.
Most of us, of course, won’t be executed, like Jesus and Paul,
because we choose to practice true religion – but some of us will.
People like James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIL,
was a committed Roman Catholic who talked openly of praying,
and who reached out to the world to expose
the suffering of the Syrian people and the horrors of war1
When he was captured, he didn’t roll up like a pill bug to protect himself,
he kept praying and encouraging other captives,
and even in his last words refused to denigrate his captors.
His was a cross-shaped life.; 1
see also
A life of divine love is not kittens and lollipops and rainbows,
nor is it pie in the sky after you die.
It is not easy, but a cross-shaped life is the only way –
according to Jesus and Paul – to live a life of meaning and purpose.
God will repay us for this work, according to both Paul and Jesus.
Those who live with their minds set on divine things, on shalom and tikkun and grace,
will be repaid by getting their heart’s desire: more of all that. Cool.
God will also repay those who set their minds on human things,
who grabbed whatever they could for themselves,
clutched it close and rolled up like a pill bug,
closing their eyes to the suffering of others.
What will that repayment look like?
A lot of people in the church say that God will repay evil
by heaping hot coals on them, torturing them in fire forever and ever.
But the verse Paul quotes about God’s vengeance is Proverbs 25:21-22, which says
“If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the Lord will reward you.”
It goes full circle: if you are compassionate to your enemies, this will please God.
Now, if it pleases God when you are compassionate to your enemies,
how does it make any sense for God to turn around and torture them for ever and ever?
Those burning coals are not the coals of hellfire and brimstone,
but the burning face of shame when our ugliness and evil.
are met with grace and beauty and forgiveness.
Setting our minds on divine things changes the world.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Corrie ten Boom
a young woman who, with her family, hid Jews in their home
when Germany occupied the Netherlands during WWII.
A Dutch collaborator – someone who cooperated with the Nazis –
ratted them out to the Gestapo, and the family was imprisoned.
Corrie was sent to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
She suffered immensely there until she was liberated.
A few years after the war ended, she was approached by one of the camp guards
who had been one of the cruelest. He asked for forgiveness.
Appalled, Corrie prayed that she would be able to. She wrote:
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands,
the former guard and the former prisoner.
I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.
Later, she ran a shelter for both Holocaust survivors
AND Dutch collaborators, who could not get jobs after the war.
Remember, it was a collaborator who turned her family into the Gestapo.
She watched them, and noted that, among victims of Nazi brutality,
those who were able to forgive were best able to rebuild their lives.
Corrie practiced true religion and lived a cross-shaped life.
Corrie ten Boom is famous, great woman; how about someone ordinary?
How about Tim Lee, a veteran from Texas
who lost both legs to a land mine while was in the Army in Viet Nam.
From the wheelchair he has been in for 37 years, Lee leads other veterans
back to the hills and rice paddies of Southeast Asia
to heal and be healed, to forgive and be forgiven.
Lee is a man connected with God, and he said that
if he found the Viet Cong soldier who set the land mine,
he would tell him he loves him.3
Lee practices true religion and lives a cross-shaped life.
Why on earth do you come to church?
I come because I’ve seen what happens when people set their minds on human things.
We shoot our young men, and our young men,
having learned how things work, shoot others.
We hate first and refuse to hear the cries of the poor.
We swallow the message that we are primarily consumers,
that our value is measured by what’s in our wallets.
We trade our God-given freedom for the captivity of fear.
We roll up like pill bugs.
But here in church, in the presence of the cross, I’ve seen what happens
when people sets their minds on divine things.
I’ve seen you practice true religion, embodying divine love,
sharing your God-given gifts with strangers and even enemies.
I’ve seen you listen carefully to each other,
even though you have very different beliefs and opinions.
I’ve seen you give your last dollar to those with even less.
I’ve seen you banish your fear and burst out of prison.
When I’ve seen you do these things, practicing true religion, living cross-shaped lives,
I know what I’ve actually witnessed, right here and right now,
is the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
And that is why I come to church. 3
See also – though it’s not a specifically Christian piece. 

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