Rev. Heather J. Blais Matthew 16:21-28
As we make our way through Matthew’s Gospel, we watch from the sidelines as Peter grapples with what it means to follow Jesus. One minute he is full of faith, trusting in God and walking on water towards Jesus. The next minute, he begins to sink in doubt. One minute he confesses Jesus is the Messiah, and is named the rock on which the church is to be built. The next minute he takes his newfound authority too far by rebuking Jesus. It’s a cycle we see over and over again with Peter. He has great faith, he makes a big mistake, he is forgiven and reconciled with Jesus...Great faith, big mistake, forgiven and reconciled...
It is this very cycle which makes Peter so relatable, so accessible, because he is just like each and everyone of us. When we look back on our journey with God, we can likely point out the moments when we had great faith, when we made big mistakes, and when we received forgiveness and were reconciled with God. Throughout our lives we will find ourselves at different points in the cycle, just like Peter. It’s all part of grappling with what it means to follow Jesus.
In today’s passage, Peter goes particularly astray when he rebukes Jesus for telling his disciples that when they arrive in Jerusalem Jesus will suffer, die, and rise again. As is so often true for us, this was not an intentional choice to disregard God. It was simply being caught up in Peter’s plan instead of God’s plan. Jesus startles Peter to attention when he says, “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.” He then tells 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.” Just like Peter, sometimes we unintentionally get caught up in trying to control the future; we end up focusing more on our plan then on God’s plan.
The path that led me into ordained ministry was not particularly straight, especially the final six months that led up to my ordination. The ordination process in the Episcopal Church has several steps, and every ordinand must complete those steps prior to ordination. In order to complete the process, between January and June of 2011, I would need to finish seminary, pass the General Ordination Exams, interview and hopefully receive approval from the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, and Bishop of Maine; interview for associate positions, prepare to move, be ordained and begin a new job, oh, and have our second child at the end of April. I naively thought this plan which had been carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully crafted, must surely also be God’s plan. But as you will frequently hear me say: life happens.
The plan evaporated in March after a series of events.
First, there was the General Ordination Exams that ordinands take in January. I failed a few of the exams. This was shamefully embarrassing, and led to a lot of sleepless nights full of doubt.
Second, early in the morning on March 15, my water broke six weeks early. I was supposed to be interviewing with the Commission on Ministry and the Bishop later that week to come up with a plan to prove my competency in spite of the exams that I failed. So as an ambulance drove me from our local hospital to Maine Medical in Portland, Jason was charged with calling the Bishop’s office to explain why I wouldn’t be able to make those meetings. In hindsight, this was a completely ridiculous thing to have asked my spouse to do in that moment! But it also goes to show how much my own mind was set on human things instead of divine things, just like my buddy Peter. Thanks be to God, Lucas was doing incredibly well in spite of arriving six weeks early. He spent the next three and half weeks in the NICU before being house bound for another month, after not passing the car seat test.
This led to the third event: In order to be with Lucas, I was unable to finish my last couple months of seminary. Would they still let me graduate? And the fourth event, we left the hospital with several thousands of dollars in medical bills that our insurance would not completely cover. At a time when I felt like I desperately needed to know I would have an income to pay my seminary loans and for our NICU stay, we were not sure I would even be able to proceed with a June ordination, let alone starting the job I had been offered.
In late April, I found myself with a completely busted plan and entirely unsure of how any of it was going to come together.And yet, I had these two beautiful children, an amazingly supportive spouse, and an entire network of friends and family that were there with us through it all. I was still ordained in June, but not by following the path I had prepared for. Like Peter, my mind had been set on human things not divine things. And it wasn’t until a little red head burst into this world that I was able to wake up to God’s plan. Great faith, big mistake, forgiven and reconciled.
Just like Peter, we are all going to get our priorities askew from time to time. We will naively think our plan is God’s plan when our mind becomes fixed on human things instead of divine things. I suspect that is particularly true for a community like ours that is still in the early days of being a merged church. For the folks that originated from Turners, there has been one change after another as you had to begin driving to a new building on Sundays, sit in a different pew, see a different worship space, adjust to new customs and traditions. For the folks that originated from Greenfield, change was subtle at first, as you continued to drive to the same church and sit in the same pew seeing a similar view. The reality of being merged may have actually taken longer to sink in, or might still be sinking in right now.
It would be very easy to fix our mind on human things at this hour in our merger, fussing over things we may not like: Maybe you don’t like how many people are on the altar, maybe you don’t want to discern a new name, maybe you don’t like that some of our customs and traditions are changing. Maybe you just are tired of change and would like to tell God (and the clergy leading our community) to quit it already.
Except, we are not called to focus on human things. We are called to do our best to be prayerfully open to divine things, denying our checklists, plans, and visions to follow God’s plan. We are called to grapple with what it means to follow Christ in a merged congregation in a world hungry for the love and nourishment only God can give us.We are called to have great faith, to admit we sometimes make big mistakes, to be forgiven and reconciled. In order to keep God ever before us, we must continue to be a prayerful people. Let us pray our prayer, written for us as we became the people of Saints James and Andrew:
A Prayer for Transition
O God, giver of every good gift:
we give you thanks for your constant presence. Through seasons of both constancy and change
you are with us –
calling us into deeper waters, calling us together
in a spirit of unity, calling us out of ourselves
into the world to serve others.
Look graciously on your whole church,
and so continue to guide Saints James and Andrew through this time of transition,
that we may grow in our commitment to you,
to one another,
and to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We need your wisdom,
that we might be receptive to change, conversion and growth.
We need your grace to direct our hearts so
we may be willing to offer ourselves
in loving service.
Instill in us a vision of the life
you intend for us to lead.
As we move forward together,
help us to do so with joyful and thankful hearts.
We ask this is the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.