Sermon: Transforming Minds
September 3rd, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 16:21-28, Romans 12:2
There’s something I’ve always found confusing about the Labor Day holiday. It is a holiday to honor workers, to remember the efforts of the labor movement to bring greater justice for workers, greater recognition of the needs and rights of workers. But the holiday is actually a rest from labor (image on bulletin cover with idea or rest). So is Labor Day about working or about resting? Labor Day also marks the end of summer and the start of the school year, the end of summer holidays and getting back to the routines and rhythms of life. It is a good time to savor the memories of restful, summer fun and to anticipate the work that is coming. Work and rest are both satisfying and necessary in their own way. What some people call work, others may find restful or energizing.
There was a young girl who watched her parents mowing the lawn and longed more than anything else to be able to mow the grass, too. But each summer she was told that she was too young. Finally, the day came when her parents decided that she was old enough for the task. She eagerly took hold of the lawn mower and began the work. She did it with surprising skill and with great delight. After she finished, as stood back to admire her work, she glanced over at the neighbor’s lawn. It also needed cutting, and she looked at it with longing. The neighbor, seeing her interest, said, “Gail, would you like to mow my lawn?” The girl enthusiastically said, “Yes!” “Well,” said the neighbor, “how about $5 for mowing it?” The little girl’s face fell and she looked down sadly. “What’s the matter?” asked the neighbor. “I only have $3,” said the girl. (adapted from Brett Blair, www.eSermons.com)
There is misunderstanding in our scripture text today, too. Peter misunderstands Jesus. He misunderstands God’s plans and God’s thoughts. As we have been following Peter’s story, he has had waves of ups and downs. Last month we heard about the ups and downs of Peter as he had fears and doubts in a boat, in the night, in a storm. But then he had the faith to walk on the water out to Jesus, only to look again at the waves and begin to sink. Rescued and back in the boat, Peter joined the other disciples to worship Jesus with the words, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Here in chapter 16 of Matthew, Peter’s ups and downs continue. The passage we just heard is clearly a down, Peter rebukes Jesus and then in return gets called ‘Satan’, which means accuser or adversary or opponent. Peter has gotten in Jesus’ way and is blocking him.
But I also want you to hear what came immediately before this interaction of Jesus and Peter. Jesus has taken his disciples some distance north, away from where they had been engaging with the crowds near the Sea of Galilee. Starting in verse 13, Matthew writes: 13 When Jesus arrived in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “What are people saying about who the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some think he is John the Baptizer, some say Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” 15 He pressed them, “And how about you? Who do you say I am?” 16 Simon Peter said, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17-18 Jesus came back, “God bless you, Simon, son of Jonah! You didn’t get that answer out of books or from teachers. My Father in heaven, God himself, let you in on this secret of who I really am. And now I’m going to tell you who you are. You are Peter, a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church. Not even death will be able to overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; whatever you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.
That was a real high point! Peter makes a bold, inspired declaration of who Jesus is and is rewarded with a new name, a new identity and new responsibility for taking Jesus’ work forward into the future. He will be the foundation of the church. He will have heavenly power and authority in the world. Matthew continues right on to tell us that from that moment on Jesus began to tell the disciples plainly that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many terrible things, that he would be killed but after three days would be raised up to life. And as we already heard, things quickly go downhill for Peter.
It made me wonder, why does Peter have these extreme ups and downs, these highs and lows. And is it so different than us? In our lives of faith, don’t we have ups and downs, highs and lows? Moments of understanding and inspiration, followed by moments of misunderstanding and obstruction?
We see these ups and downs in the world around us – weekends when images of racial hate and violence fill our newsfeed, and then weekends when the stories of rescue workers and kind neighbors reaching out with care and compassion, regardless of differences, touch our hearts.
Jesus tells Peter exactly what the problem is: you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of human nature. You are thinking human thoughts, not God’s thoughts. In one moment Peter is led by divine understanding to confess Jesus as Christ; in the next moment he is second guessing God’s plan to save the world. Peter just couldn’t imagine how something good, something saving, could come from Jesus’ death. Peter wanted his Teacher to be embraced, not rejected. He wanted his Messiah to empowered, not weakened. He wanted his King to be crowned, not executed. In his human experience, freedom was won by force, by prophetic power. His human experiences and human concerns block his mind to how God might be working differently and as a result, Peter himself becomes a block.
Often there are connections between our Sunday scripture message and the stories we are looking at in the Bible study groups. On a Wednesday morning, recently, we heard the story of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, when he was living in the city of Sodom. There was so much evil in Sodom, so many who had cried out to God in prayer against the injustices done there, that God was going to destroy Sodom. But God also heard Abraham’s prayer to save Lot and Lot’s family, so he sent 2 angels that appeared as 2 men. The evil of the city became clear when the people of the town demanded that Lot give them these men, these angels, to be raped and violated. What is so disconcerting about the story is that Lot had been so influenced by the evil around them that he offers his daughters, in place of the angels, to be violated instead. Then, when the angels try to rescue Lot and his family, they drag their feet, they hesitate, they make excuses not to go. Lot’s wife looks back longingly at the city as the angels pull them to safety. While they clearly knew things were wrong, they don’t seem to recognize how the culture they had been living in had affected their thoughts. They try to hold on to what is familiar, knowing it’s unhealthy, but unable to imagine something more life-giving.
There have been a few stories from Hurricane Harvey of people resisting rescue, waiting too long as flood waters rise. I read about a woman who had taken her 2 children to safety at a relative’s house, but then lost her life because she went back home to try to gather a few more belongings. Our thoughts are on human things, on trying to cling to the familiar, to what we think, from our human perspective, will give life.
From the stories out of Houston I have also been saddened by the negative perception of Christians that has come out of one megachurch not opening its doors to serve as a shelter, while at the same time bakeries and bowling alleys, furniture stores and boat owners were doing whatever they could despite personal losses. The shifting explanations for why the church doors were closed raise questions about how human thoughts, human justifications for the lack of welcome may have been the obstacle. Has that created a stumbling block for those who do not know Jesus and look to that church as representatives of the Christian faith?
The situation in south Texas mirrors what has been happening in many parts of the world with multiple refugee crises. People fleeing the rising tides of water or violence or starvation or poverty. Getting into boats to cross streets, or to cross seas; riding in trucks across bridges, or across borders. Looking for hope and for new life in other neighborhoods, or other nations. What kind of welcome are they receiving? Open arms and generous hearts, or fearful resistance and self-centered reluctance?
Peter seems to get into his low spots, being a stumbling block to Jesus and adversary of God’s kingdom work, when he is thinking human thoughts rather than being open to, and guided by, God’s thoughts. That is the same for us. As Paul teaches in Romans 12:2, we must not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. When our minds, our thoughts, are transformed by God, and we are inspired by the Spirit, we can be partners with Christ in bringing the Kingdom on earth.
But how does that happen? I mean in practical ways – what do I need to do to make sure that my mind is more like the mind of Peter when he declares Jesus to be the Messiah, rather than like the mind of Peter when he rebukes Jesus for the foolish plan of the cross? It’s easy to say, “transform your minds!”, but what specific steps can we take?
Jesus doesn’t just scold Peter in this passage, he goes right on to give Peter and the disciples three steps: forget yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. The first step in transforming our minds, to thinking God’s thoughts rather than our own thoughts, is to get our thoughts off of ourselves. It is very common for people to spend their time in conversations thinking more about what they are going to say next, rather than listening to what the other person is actually saying. Have you had that experience? So focused on what you want to say, your next come-back or defending your position, that you aren’t really paying attention to the other person? The best way to forget yourself is to truly listen to others. The best way to fill our minds with God’s thoughts is to truly listen to God. Listening prayer is taking the time to be silent, to quiet our own thoughts and just be still before God. Listening to others is taking the time to really hear and try to understand the experiences and perspectives of another.
Then, having stepped outside yourselves by listening, step 2 is to take up your cross. This begins with resisting that impulse to play-it-safe, the impulse of self-preservation, and being willing to take risks on behalf of others. It is being willing to speak up when someone is being treated unfairly or unkindly, rather than keeping your mouth shut out of fear that you might lose your job or become the next target of harassment. It is being supportive and encouraging when a loved one is considering a bold, sacrificial, risky mission or ministry, rather than just giving warnings and listing all the things that could go wrong. It is being more concerned about the desperate situation of another human being, rather than trying to preserve one’s own privileges and one’s own comfort. Again, so many stories of just this kind of selflessness have warmed our hearts in the midst of the Hurricane Harvey disaster.
Then, step 3, follow Jesus. Follow Jesus’ teachings to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to give witness to the presence of God. Follow Jesus’ example of loving the outcast and of humble obedience to God’s plans. Follow Jesus by inviting Him to be your Savior and participating in His death to find true Life. We have that opportunity in a few minutes as we share the bread and cup of communion, as we partake of Christ’s body and blood in order to become part of His Body at work in the world today.
Our lives of faith are a journey, a road of ups and downs, that with God’s help will enable us to get better and better at keeping our minds on God’s thoughts rather than on our human, worldly thoughts. To try to see, and hear, and understand with God’s heart rather than our own selfish hearts. We will have highs and lows, just like Peter, but that does not disqualify us from the work of the church and of discipleship. We repent, we rest, we recommit ourselves, we get back to work.
Closing Song: “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” # 584