Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost September 13, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Hiking to the summit of Mt. Monadnock last week was a wonderful experience. I didn’t even mind paying the five dollar entrance fee, since it got me thinking about what it takes to make it possible to make the hike, and make it safely. The entrance station attendant was friendly and knowledgeable, she made sure to ask if I had enough water, and was ready to tell me where I could buy some if I needed to. She gave me a good map with my receipt. Having a clear place to park off the highway was also very welcome, so even before I shut off the car I was grateful. And, now that I’ve mentioned the hike in a sermon, I can deduct the fee on my taxes.
The trail was immaculately maintained and well-marked — better than many of the roads I drove on to get there. The first part of the trail was a wide dirt road, gravel crunching underfoot as you breathe in the lush forest air and shoo the flies away. No blazes were necessary here. There were no junctions, just a dead end halfway up the mountain. But there, beyond a clearing, nature asserted itself, and so too did the blazes. The woods pressed in close on the narrow path. Without the white arrow blazes, you could easily follow a false lead and become lost. The terrain became steeper and steeper, finally becoming nothing but a series of boulders that looked more like obstacles than a way forward. I remember thinking, “This is the easiest trail to the summit?” Without the blazes, I never would have thought to go that way. I would have done the rational thing: I would have tried to find an easier route, and if I had, I certainly never would have made it to the summit. I would have wandered and quite possibly gotten lost. You could say the blazes are the trail at that point.
But I pressed on, with my map, my water, my boots, and my courage, and I reached the summit. Rather than a single point, it was an inviting and fascinating area, with a glorious view, and teeming with life, not just my fellow hikers, but pools of water surrounded by dragonflies, birds, and chipmunks. As a veteran hiker once told me, summiting is optional, but going home is mandatory. Being at the summit is like living well, finding joy and satisfaction in every facet of life. Not everyone makes it there, and those who do should recognize that while their effort was essential, it was not sufficient. Reaching the summit of your life also requires good conditions, good fortune, and the assistance of many others, most of whom have already come and gone.
Many people characterize religion as a path to salvation, but most religions are much more about how we live this life than what awaits us in the next. Including ours. The word religion itself refers to the practices that make up a way of life, not a set of ideas that must be assented to nor a set of rituals that must be practiced in order to convince a distant, skeptical god that we are worthy of a pleasant afterlife. Religions use ideas and rituals to help us live better. And so the very first name for Christianity was “The Way.” The Church has always taught that Jesus is God with us, our teacher, example, friend, and companion; the clear revelation of who God is; and the one who chose to die for us while we were still sinners so that our sins could no longer separate us from God. The Church teaches this because Jesus taught this, and because, from the first, Jesus’s closest followers could not accept this teaching.
Peter, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, a member of the inner circle’s inner circle, got it right before he got it so very wrong. Jesus must have been thrilled when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, that is, the Anointed One, the one sent by God to liberate the people of God. At last, he gets it! Now I can move on to the tough stuff, how difficult God’s plan will be for me. But oh, no, not so fast. Peter thinks he can come up with a better plan for salvation, one with a conventional triumph by a conventional king, and in saying that, he was implicitly declaring that he could come up with a better identity for Jesus himself. Jesus corrects Peter in the harshest possible terms because so much is at stake. Jesus knew that the world would try to make him into something he is not, and indeed that is exactly what has happened. So many people have made Jesus into a cruel and vindictive judge, a merciless taskmaster, and these lies hurt people. People try to silence the Gospel through all sorts of means, but none more dangerous than using the Most Holy Name of Jesus as a label for their own desires or insecurities. The only thing worse than erasing the blazes that guide us through the dense woods and boulder-paths of this life is painting false ones that lead unsuspecting travelers hopelessly astray.
Today we begin a series in the Adult Forum called Unbinding the Gospel, and I encourage you all to participate. [You can also join next week; you’ll need to read the first two chapters, but don’t worry, they’re short.] There’s a schedule conflict for the choir so we’ll offer the program again on a weeknight. But the heart of the program is recognizing Christ in our own life experiences and drawing closer to him, in order to understand the difference he makes in our lives, the ways in which he is The Way. Recognizing Jesus for who he really is then allows us share him with others so that they might not get lost in the world’s maze of false blazes, might not be harmed by lies that turn them away from the grace and joy God wants them to have. Together we will share the experience of walking in love, following Jesus to reach the abundant life he has always offered.