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Fugitives, Fools, and Failures

Sep 03, 2017

Passage: Matthew 16:21-28

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Season after Pentecost, Year A, 2017

Category: God's love, Grace


Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17, Year A
September 3rd, 2017
St. Anne’s, Conway (Lackey Chapel at Coastal Carolina) 

Exodus 3:1-15            Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28


Fugitives, Fools, and Failures

I love the church! I love being IN the church. I love the church for what it stands for - proclaiming the message of God’s love for each and every one of us. I love the church for what it does when we are at its best: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick and dying, embracing the outcast, and seeking out the lost. I love the church when it is a quiet place of refuge, and I love the church when it shakes us out of our places of comfort. I love the church when we come together in harmony, and I even love the church when we disagree with one another. I love the church because it is the home of the saints. But most of all, I love the church because it is the home of fugitives, fools, and failures.  

Moses is a perfect example. In the reading from Exodus that we have for this morning, we find Moses tending the flock of his father in law, Jethro, in Midian, when he comes across the burning bush. Most of us know the story of God speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, but if you recall the first part of the story, the reason he got to Midian in the first place was because he was a fugitive. As the scripture tells us, he was born and raised in Egypt in the pharaoh’s household, and one day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. He intervened and killed the Egyptian, and when his crime was found out, he ran away and ended up settling in Midian. In other words, Moses was on the run from the law. So when God spoke to him out of the burning bush and told him that he, Moses, would be the one to lead God’s people out of Egypt, we’re left with the conclusion that God chose a criminal to bring about God’s purposes. Great prophet that he was, Moses was nonetheless guilty of murder!  

Some of you may remember that we participated in a production of “God’s Trombones” back in March. That performance, which is essentially a re-telling of our sacred story, was produced by Donald Gaillard. And Donald Gaillard was once on death row. And Donald will openly talk about being on death row and how he was converted by hearing the story of God’s people. When he was released from prison, he made it his goal to share the same story that transformed his life, working with churches to help share that story. And because of his work, many other lives have been transformed. Once again, God’s purpose was carried out by a criminal. 

Or how about St. Paul? St. Paul, that great champion of the early church. The man who gives us the advice to “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor,” is the same man who once made it his purpose to root out and destroy the early followers of Jesus. We’re told in the book of Acts that St. Paul approved of the killing of Stephen, the church’s first martyr, and that he was on his way to Damascus to arrest Jesus’ followers when he was converted. You might think that only a fool would go from being hostile to the gospel to being one of its greatest advocates. And sure enough, Paul admits that he is a “fool for Christ.” Yet because of this fool, the gospel message spread and the church grew. 

I love the church! I love the church because it is a place where imperfect and even deeply flawed people can encounter the living God and be transformed into more than they thought they could ever be. It is a place where even the darkness and ugliness and sin of our lives meets the grace of God and is redeemed. It’s a place where we can hear both, “You are beloved,” and “You are mistaken,” and know that the two need not be contradictory. 

Look at St. Peter. He confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus tells him that he is blessed for realizing it. And then in the next breath, after Peter says that Jesus should not be rejected and killed, Jesus turns around and calls him “Satan.” In just a few seconds, Peter goes from being a hero to a total failure. And things only get worse for poor Peter. You all know how the story goes: when Jesus is brought before the chief priests, Peter denies three times that he even knows Jesus. And when the cock crows, Peter realizes that, once again, he has failed. 

Yet that failure was the rock upon which Jesus would build the church. And as I’ve said before, Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing because he knew the church would be full of such failures. He knew the church would be full of fugitives and fools, too. But he also knew the power of God and the way in which God’s grace overshadows even the worst of our failings. He knew this because he himself embraced the ultimate failure of human life. 

When he told his disciples that the true mission of the Messiah was to suffer and die, they could only hear him say that his mission was destined for failure. And by worldly standards, Jesus’ death meant that he had failed. But it was through that failure that God was able to show that our normal standards of judgment have no meaning.    

And Jesus’ message to his followers is to go and fail likewise. Giving up everything to follow Jesus is, by the worldly standards of acquisition and gaining power, to fail. And that’s why following Jesus is so hard for us: because nobody wants to fail. Nobody wants to be a fool. Nobody wants to be a fugitive. But the reality is that, at some point in our lives, we are going to know failure. We are going to look like fools. We are going to feel like fugitives. And God says that’s ok. There is nothing beyond redemption. There is nothing we can do which can separate us from the love of God.

And that’s why I love the church.    

Yes, the church can be a frustrating place to be. Yes, the church can be full of difficult people who can’t seem to agree on anything. Yes, the church can be a place where human failure seems to be more apparent than human goodness. But I’ll share with you a story I once heard about Reginald Weller, the Bishop of Fond du Lac. On top of the normal trials of being a bishop, Weller was bishop during the time when the Episcopal Church was crafting the 1928 Prayer Book. It may come as a surprise to you, but the 1928 Prayer Book was considered by many at the time to be a radical revision, and a lot of people thought that the Episcopal Church would fall apart because of the arguments the church had over it. Weller had to deal with many in his diocese who were enraged at the thought of prayer book revision. Several of his priests left the church. And even after the adoption of the 1928 Prayer Book, there were some in the diocese who refused to use it. On his deathbed in 1935, Weller had not been able to communicate for several days. When his chaplain came in to administer last rites, he leaned over the bishop and asked if Weller had any last words before he went to be with Jesus. Weller opened his eyes, and said, “The Episcopal Church would have been a terrible thing to have missed.” 

Don’t you just love the church?