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The Road No One Wants To Travel

Sermons On The Gospel Readings
Series II, Cycle A
Some time ago, I was riding a train through central England and a man boarded at one of the stops. As he looked for a seat, he saw my face and beamed at me with great joy. "Hi, Will!" he said brightly, in a wonderful British accent.

Unfortunately, I'm not Will. When he sat next to me and I opened my mouth to protest his mistaken notion of who I was, my flat American English paved the way for his embarrassment. Obviously, I was not the person he expected. Nevertheless, we got along "brilliantly," as the British put it, and I am no longer either Will or a stranger to the man.

Mistaken identity is not all that uncommon, especially when there are only so many variations to our same facial features. After both Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein gained worldwide fame, and had their pictures printed in a variety of media, some mistook the former for the latter. Once Schweitzer was approached hesitantly by a mother and daughter duo who asked if he was the great scientist, Einstein. Rather than disappoint them, with more magnanimous grace than he felt, Schweitzer signed an autograph, "Albert Einstein, by way of his friend, Albert Schweitzer."

Or take the case of Queen Elizabeth II of England. She was stopped on one occasion in Norfolk as she entered a tea shop. Two women were exiting carrying baskets of cakes and breads. One commented to her that she looked remarkably similar to the queen. "How very reassuring," said the modest royal personage, and moved on. Her daughter, Princess Anne, had a similar encounter. At a sporting event, she was approached by a woman who said, "Has anyone ever told you that you look like Princess Anne?"

She replied, "I think I'm better looking than she is."

Mistaken identities may be commonplace, but on some occasions they are more serious than others. Certainly that is true in Matthew 16. Just before these verses Jesus had asked his disciples what people were saying about him. Did they get it right? Did they know who he was?

They gave back a variety of answers, and Jesus didn't seem too surprised. But to his disciples' chagrin, neither did he drop the matter there. Instead he pressed the query home in a very personal challenge. "Who do you say I am?" he demanded.

There was no room for fudging on this exam. Jesus had made it intense and immediate. No time to go back to the books for a night of cramming.

Fortunately for the others, Peter blurted out an answer: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Fortunately for Peter, he got it right. Jesus praised him on the spot.

Strange Reaction

And that only made this next scene so weird. First, Jesus changed the mood of the conversation too quickly. One moment they were grinning and enjoying that moment when friends reach a new level of insight, commitment, and trust; the next Jesus was rambling on about death and dying. It didn't fit. Peter, certainly, wanted to bask in his celebrity status for a while. After all, he had managed to give the right answer to the toughest, most embarrassing challenge Jesus could have thrown at them. It was like winning an Oscar and a Grammy all at once, and Peter wanted to spend more time at the podium receiving the accolades of both Jesus and the others.

But Jesus steps up to the microphone and starts recording his martyr's testimony. He is going to Jerusalem, he says. He knows his enemies are waiting for him there. He is certain they will arrest him and beat him and make him suffer. And he is confident that the outcome of their actions will result in his death.

There was clearly some kind of incongruity here. Peter had just voiced the great testimony that made Jesus seem invincible. Now, in the next breath, Jesus was breathing defeat and disaster. How do these match up? Where is the connection?

Stranger Response

And if that wasn't enough, things only took a more eerie turn. Peter knew he had to deal with this. After all, Jesus had just identified him as the leader among the twelve. Furthermore, he was still confident about knowing the right answers. So he pulled Jesus aside and started to talk him out of this morbid reflection. "Look here, man; you're scaring us. Do you hear what you're saying? You better get it together, Jesus. This is getting out of hand."

At that moment Jesus roughly pushed Peter away and started shouting at him. "Get away from me, Satan!" he yelled. "You're standing in my way! You're blocking my path! You're fighting against God!"

The disciples were in sudden shock, and Peter most of all. He was so taken aback that he didn't know what to do with himself. What could have caused this sudden tirade?

Everyone stood around for a bit, looking kind of dumb. Then Jesus broke the silence, but with a different demeanor. He poured out his heart. He gave them a sense of what was ahead for him, and for them. And in those moments of conversation Jesus spoke to them about the meaning of life. It is a strange and paradoxical word, but one of the truest things they would ever come to know, and we with them.

Don't Stop Here

For one thing, Jesus told them that life is a journey, not a destination. You see, when Peter made his testimony, his confession, his blubbering statement about who Jesus was, there was a sense of euphoria in the group.

You know how it is. Remember when you first said to someone that you loved her? Remember how those words changed everything? You didn't know if you should say it. You wanted to, but then again, you didn't want to.

But suddenly the words blustered out and smashed into the open space between you. They took over. They stopped the conversation. There was nothing more to be said. You just sat there and looked at one another. It was like time stood still. This is the moment! Make this moment last!

That is what Peter and the others were feeling when he blurted the words for the first time. "We think the world of you, Jesus! You're the Son of God! We love you! We didn't know who we were until you came along!"

When they talk that way, they want to sit around for a while and just smile at each other. The moment was intense and it begged to consume all those in it.

Rabbi Harold Kushner remembered a scene from a television program that he saw years ago. He said it showed a young man and a young woman leaning together against the railing of a ship at sea. The winds tousled at their hair. The sprays showered them now and again. But they didn't notice any of it, because their eyes were glued on each other. The world disappeared around them as they murmured their love.

"If I should die tomorrow," he said softly to her, "I'd have lived an eternity in your love."

She nodded her head in bashful intimacy and leaned over to kiss him. Their lips lingered and they became one as the bustle around them faded. Finally, they slipped away, arm in arm in the waltz of passionate lovers.

Behind them, in the void left as they shuffled, the slow two-step to the left, the camera caught a life preserver hanging on the galley wall. It carried the name of the ship: Titanic.

Maybe, in our soap-operish television viewing, that is enough for them: one night of romantic passion. That is the stuff of legends and fairy tales, where everything is compressed to the great hour of heroism or the night of intense love. Prince Charming kisses Sleeping Beauty and everything else gets summarized in a single line: "... and they lived happily ever after." Or the heir to the kingdom finds Cinderella and the rest of the story is just one sentence: "... and they lived happily ever after."

That is often the way we want it, in our books and movies and television programs. We want to linger in the critical moment. We want to feel the emotional high of the kiss in slow motion. We want to sit in the experience of the warm fuzzies and then go get a burger.

But Jesus says, "No." Jesus says that life isn't found in the moment, not even if it is a moment of insight or love or passion. Life is a journey, not a destination.

It is always tempting to settle down into that special moment, though, and try to make it last. When Phil Donahue wrote his autobiography, he told of something that had happened to him decades before, in his early years of broadcasting. He was a reporter for CBS at the time, and they sent him to Holden, West Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Holden was a coal town where everybody worked the mines. News media were gathering that day because a mine shaft had collapsed trapping 38 men underground.

Rescue teams rushed down as the clock ticked out the anxious limits of human survival. The weather turned bitterly cold. It took three days to clear the passageways and get within striking distance of the ensnared men. Finally, at 2 a.m. on the morning of the fourth day, the first of the desperate miners cleared the surface and stumbled out of the mine entrance.

Families gathered tightly to hug each new survivor. Snow fell over them in the circle of temporary lights as the local pastor called them to huddle around a little fire. He led them in a prayer of thanks for the rescue. Then they held hands and sang "What A Friend We Have In Jesus."

Donahue said it gave him goose bumps. It was so beautiful. He told the cameramen to roll the film. But the sub-zero temperatures had frozen the mechanism and they were not able to record anything.

Phil Donahue is not a man to let a golden opportunity to slide by, so he grabbed the pastor aside and asked him to do it all again -- the prayer, the song, the spiritual passion. Donahue wanted to make the feelings happen all over again. "We've got 206 television stations across the country," Donahue told him. "Just let us get another camera and you can share this moment of faith with millions."

What happened next astounded the fledgling reporter. The pastor shook his head and said, "Son, I can't do that. We've already prayed to God. We can't do it again. It wouldn't be right."

But that's what Peter wanted, wasn't it? That's what the other disciples desired as well. With Phil Donahue they wished the moment of truth to linger. They craved for the passion to last. They wanted to hold hands and speak kind words and sing those songs of love. They begged for the cameras to roll, and then they hoped to play the video over and over and over again. That's when Jesus reminded them that life is journey, not a destination.

That can be frightening for us because we get used to a moment of great beauty and then want to hold on to that moment. We try again and again to recapture it in some way, and relive it as if it were more real than the rest of our humdrum hours.

It is for that reason that traditions latch onto us. They can become for us reminders of a moment in the past when things seemed so right in our world: a Currier & Ives Christmas, for instance, or an illuminated Thomas Kinkade painting glowing with just the right moment of sunset perfection outside and the warmth of faith and family shining through the windows of a still life home. G. K. Chesterton called tradition "the democracy of the dead." He said that when we fell in love with tradition we handed the current moment over to voices and times from the past. Let them tell us what to do. Let's try to relive the good old days. "The democracy of the dead."

But life is a journey, says Jesus. "If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

That means traditions alone cannot keep our faith strong. It means that life and society and the church will always be changing. It can be frightening to us. How often I have had conversations with people who wished to turn back the clock, to put the pages back on the calendar, to relive the past once again. Then everything would be right and good and true and noble.

But it cannot happen. Søren Kierkegaard put it straight when he wrote that if we are really honest, we experience fear when we read these words of Jesus. "Follow me!" he calls. But where? And how? And in what way?

Why can't we just stay in the little huddle, feeling good about ourselves? Why do we have to hit the road with him?

Kierkegaard said that we should really collect up all our New Testaments and bring them out to an open place high on some mountaintop. There we should pile them high and kneel to pray, "God, take this book back again! We can't handle it! It frightens us! And Jesus, go to some other people! Leave us alone!"

Still Jesus stands next to us, sandals on his feet, staff in his hand, and says to us, "Time to go, folks." Life is journey, not a destination, and we know he is right.

Journey With Purpose

There is something more, as well. Jesus tells us that life is a pilgrimage, not a tour.

You know what a tour is, don't you? It's where you let someone else do all the planning. They take care of your luggage. They put you on a big, air-conditioned bus and ferry you around to all the right sights. They pay the entrance fees for your tickets so you don't have to stand in the heat or the sun by the booth. You can stay safe and comfortable and dry, while others do the sweating for you. That's a tour.

When I studied for a semester in Israel, we watched tour groups come through in regular fifteen-minute intervals. We were studying history and archaeology and biblical geography, so we walked and hiked and followed paths that weren't paved. But the tour busses swept by with tourists who saw Palestine from their windows and never breathed the air or felt the wind or sneezed the dust. Clean in, clean out.

A true pilgrimage, however, isn't like that. A pilgrimage is always personal, always firsthand, always something you have to do yourself. That is what Jesus says to his disciples. With Peter they want him to watch God's plans work themselves out from a safe distance. They wish for him to rest with them on the sidelines, to take the tour on the big love boat instead of swimming with sharks.

But Jesus says, "No." Life is a personal journey. He cannot avoid it. He cannot have someone else stand in for him. He has to make the pilgrimage himself.

Walter Wangerin Jr. put it powerfully in his allegory of Jesus as the Ragman. Wangerin pictures himself in a city on a Friday morning. A handsome young man comes to town, dragging behind him a cart made of wood. The cart is piled high with new, clean clothes, bright and shiny and freshly pressed.

Wandering through the streets the trader marches, crying out his strange deal: "Rags! New rags for old! Give me your old rags, your tired rags, your torn, and soiled rags!"

He sees a woman on the back porch of a house. She is old and tired and weary of living. She has a dirty handkerchief pressed to her nose, and she is crying 1,000 tears, sobbing over the pains of her life.

The Ragman takes a clean linen handkerchief from his wagon and brings it to the woman. He lays it across her arm. She blinks at him, wondering what he is up to. Gently the young man opens her fingers and releases the old, dirty, soaking handkerchief from her knotted fist.

Then comes the wonder. The Ragman touches the old rag to his own eyes and begins to weep her tears. Meanwhile, behind him on her porch stands the old woman, tears gone, eyes full of peace.

It happens again. "New rags for old!" he cries, and he comes to a young girl wearing a bloody bandage on her head. He takes the caked and soiled wrap away and gives her a new bonnet from his cart. Then he wraps the old rags around his head. As he does this, the girl's cuts disappear and her skin turns rosy. She dances away with laughter and returns to her friends to play. But the Ragman begins to moan, and from her rags on his head the blood spills down.

He next meets a man. "Do you have a job?" the Ragman asks. With a sneer the man replies, "Are you kidding?" and holds up his shirtsleeve. There is no arm in it. He cannot work. He is disabled.

But the Ragman says, "Give me your shirt. I'll give you mine."

The man's shirt hangs limp as he takes it off, but the Ragman's shirt hangs firm and full because one of the Ragman's arms is still in the sleeve. It goes with the shirt. When the man puts it on, he has a new arm. But the Ragman walks away with one sleeve dangling.

It happens over and over again. The Ragman takes the clothes from the tired, the hurting, the lost, and the lonely. He gathers them to his own body, and takes the pains into his own heart. Then he gives new clothes to new lives with new purpose and new joy.

Finally, around midday, the Ragman finds himself at the center of the city where nothing remains but a stinking garbage heap. It is the accumulated refuse of a society lost to anxiety and torture. On Friday afternoon, the Ragman climbs the hill, stumbling as he drags his cart behind him. He is tired and sore and pained and bleeding. He falls on the wooden beams of the cart, alone and dying from the disease and disaster he has garnered from others.

Wangerin wonders at the sight. In exhaustion and uncertainty he falls asleep. He lies dreaming nightmares through all of Saturday, until he is shaken from his fitful slumbers early on Sunday morning. The ground quakes. Wangerin looks up. In surprise he sees the Ragman stand up. He is alive! The sores are gone, though the scars remain. But the Ragman's clothes are new and clean. Death has been swallowed up and transformed by Life!

Still worn and troubled in his spirit, Wangerin cries up to the Ragman, "Dress me, Ragman! Give me your clothes to wear! Make me new!"

We know the picture. It is the one that Jesus described to the disciples that day on the road. It is an allegory of the pilgrimage he is on, the journey that is always personal, the path that cannot be watched from a distance. Jesus is the Ragman who has to touch lives, who must heal wounds, who is bound by necessity to bring relief. This is the pilgrimage of the Ragman to the center of the city, to the garbage heap of society, to the hill called Golgotha -- the Skull! The Place of Death! The Mountain of the Crucifixion! There he must go -- personally.

No Spectator Sport

But so, too, those who are with him. Religion is no spectator sport. Harry Emerson Fosdick remembered a storm off the Atlantic coast. A ship foundered on the rocks and the Coast Guard was called out. The captain ordered the lifeboat to be launched, but one of the crew members protested. "Sir," he said in fear, "the wind is offshore and the tide is running out! We can launch the boat, but we'll never get back!"

The captain looked at him with a father's eyes, and then said, "Launch the boat, men. We have to go out. That is our duty. But we don't have to come back."

So it is, in one of the strangest things about life that Jesus tells us here. The one who wants to protect himself, the one who wants to hide herself, the one who wishes to guard himself carefully, will never find the meaning of life. "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25 NIV).

That is why Jesus was so angry with Peter. Peter wanted Jesus to take the easy way out. He wanted Jesus to save his own life, to guard his own safety, to keep his body intact. But how could the Ragman not be the Ragman? How could the Son of God not be the Son of God? How could Jesus not do what only he could do?

Do you know what the early church leaders said about Peter? They had a legend about him, and something that happened in his later years. They said that at the time of the great persecution under Nero, the Christians of Rome told Peter to leave. "You're too valuable," they said. "Get out of town! Find your safety! Go to another place and preach the gospel."

According to the legends, Peter is supposed to have gone from the city. Yet only a few days later, Nero had Peter in custody. Soon afterward, he was sent out to die. When the soldiers took Peter to the site of execution, Peter begged of them one last request. He asked that he might be crucified upside down. He said he wasn't worthy to die in the same way as his Lord. So they nailed him to his cross inverted.

Then, according to the stories, the crowds of Christians gathered round. They wanted to be with their beloved leader as he died. "Why," they asked him as he hung there upside down on the cross, "why did you come back, Father Peter? Why did you return to Rome? Why didn't you flee into the hills?"

This is what Peter is supposed to have said. "When you told me to leave the city, I made my escape. But as I was going down the road, I met our Lord Jesus. He was walking back toward Rome, so I asked him, 'Master, where are you going?' He said to me, 'I am going to the city to be crucified.' 'But Lord,' I responded, 'were you not crucified once for all?' And he said to me, 'I saw you fleeing from death and now I wish to be crucified instead of you.' Then I knew what I must do. 'Go, Lord!' I told him. 'I will finish my pilgrimage.' And he said to me, 'Fear not, for I am with you.' "

That is the end of the story for us today. Peter's great confession, Peter's great denial, and Jesus taking both into his great heart, turning them into great grace. Life is a journey, he tells us, not a destination. We cannot sit down at one spot, however lovely it might be, and hug ourselves into some "... happily ever after."

Moreover, life is a pilgrimage, Jesus tells us, not a tour. It is lived in the footsteps of the Master. It is pursued in the purposes of the Ragman and his associates. It is carried out in the mission of the church.

Here is the road no one wants to travel. Yet, if you choose not to walk it, you will never find yourself.

What does this mean for you personally? I don't know. I can't know for you and you can't know for me. But this I do know: I know that you will know what it means for you if Jesus has spoken to you today. Amen.
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