From wrestling at a river to a voice in a burning bush, from walking on water to awkward moments of disappointment, from questions of identity to surprise revelations, God appears, speaks, and moves in many ways—always at work for good in our lives and in the world. Powerful and challenging stories from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament will be explored by different members of Foundry’s clergy team throughout the month. Join us for what is sure to be a rich and engaging journey as we reflect on our own encounters with God in scripture, community, and life.
“Not Today, Satan”
Offered by Will Ed Green for Foundry United Methodist Church
August 30th, 2020
Good morning, Friends! I’m so glad to be with you today as we conclude our sermon series “Close Encounters with the Living God.” If you’re just tuning in, you’ll find American Sign Language interpretation available at www.foundryumc.org/ASL. And you’ll find a number of links, including for today’s worship guide, checking in to let us know you’ve been able to join us, and giving to help financially support the mission and ministry of Foundry on our webpage at foundryumc.org.
Every time I log into Facebook, I inevitably see or read something that makes my blood boil. That raises my hackles. That offends my sensibilities. Then again, I’m sure that happens to you, too. And if you’re like me, in that moment you’re confronted with a choice, right? To block or not to block. To end any future connection you may have with the offending party, cut off conversation, and leave your Facebook feed a little cleaner for commentary which affirms your world view…and puppy pics.
The option to “cancel” someone is prevalent in the age of social media, where everything we say and post is preserved in semi-perpetuity for analysis and dissection. And it’s become quite the cultural phenomenon. Cancel culture, popularly defined, is the practice of canceling support for a person or organization through direct and repeated attacks on their reputation, though in practice it may simply be choosing to erase someone’s presence from your life. Politicians, T.V. personalities, rock stars and strangers captured in passing cell phone footage have all been canceled. Exorcised from their jobs, their families, and popular consciousness as quickly as they enter it.
At its best, cancel culture refuses to ignore unjust and harmful behavior by anyone hiding behind their power, position, or online posts. And goodness knows for our mental and spiritual health we sometimes need to cancel someone—whether a well-known hymnist or that crazy third cousin who found us on Facebook. But we must also acknowledge that cancel culture—by definition—fails to live into the fully inclusive, ever-evolving beloved community that we call the Kingdom of God. Because it ceases conversation. Denies opportunity for the transformation te Spirit is always cultivating in us and in others. And ultimately leaves our communities—in person and online—devoid of the differences that result in the hard, but beautiful, work of personal and spiritual growth.
A cursory review of today’s text, especially on the heels of Peter’s ascendancy in last week’s reading as the “rock upon which the church will be built”, may read like Peter’s being canceled. The rock is now a stumbling block. And long before RuPaul’s drag queens thought to say it, Jesus himself says to Peter “Not today, Satan.” The temptation to assign evil intent to Peter here is strong. And this passage has often been preached with pointed pastoral invectives about missing the point because we’re too busy trying to protect our own power, prestige, or preferences for the kin-dom as we will it to be. Many of us fall victim to placing blame on poor, bone-headed Peter who apparently is so selfish that he simply can’t see what Jesus is up to. And in doing so, we miss the point.
Any interpretation of this text must take into account three important elements in its construction. First, the passage begins the third and final phase of Jesus’ ministry, moving now that his Messianic identity is revealed toward the crucifixion and resurrection—as he makes plain to Peter’s great chagrin. Second, that this shift marks a moment in that ministry when Jesus actively begins to prepare the disciples for ministry together in which he will not be physically present, and begins to instruct them on what will be expected of them as they carry on that ministry as his disciples in the world. And third, this phase of ministry ends as it began in the fourth chapter of Matthew, with Jesus’ encountering—now personified in Peter— Satan. Here, as in chapter four, “Satan,” literally translated ‘the Adversary or Adversaries,’ represents anything opposed to the flourishing of God’s kin-dom vision, in this case the adversarial attitudes of human fear, discomfort with confronting our own crap, and preference for security. Peter was not possessed by some evil spirit but rather wrestling, as did Jesus before him and the Church does still, with the natural and human temptation to avoid the risks inherent in drawing close to God’s will for us and for the world. The desire to look away from suffering. The preference to pointedly look past the possibility of pain.
Make no mistake, Jesus is not canceling Peter. In fact, he does the opposite. Peter is still the rock, y’all. He’s still got the keys. And—spoiler alert—this ain’t the last time he’s going to drop the ball or miss the point. Instead, Jesus identifies for Peter the parts of his thinking that prevent his participation in what God is up to. Literally saying “Not today, Satan” to the small-minded, fear-based, suffering-averse attitudes standing between him and people receiving in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection the full measure of God’s love. This isn’t about Jesus canceling Peter. It’s about Jesus liberating Peter. It’s not about ending the conversation, cutting off contact, or shame-based motivation. It’s about an invitation beyond his misunderstanding—conscious or not—into a more faithful way of traveling the path of discipleship.
I’ve wondered, as I’ve considered Peter’s story anew this week, if God’s greatest gift to the Church in these moments, then, is not the power to push through pandemic preserving familiar institutions and attitudes, but is rather the image of Jesus, rocked back on his heels with a glint in his eye saying to us “Not today, Satan. Not. To. Day." Because all of us have been unwitting adversaries to the radical way of the backwater, brown-skinned rabbi to whom we have given our lives. Like Peter, we prefer the comfortable Christ of our own understanding, a no-longer-bloody, post-Easter Jesus who’s wounds are an afterthought, not a necessary part of God’s world-turning, empire-upending salvation. Of course, discipleship as adherence to a set of moral and ethical frameworks lived out in the context of complicated denominational structures is safer. Such belief is bounded by the walls of our own preference, demands only that which we’re willing to give, and creates a Christian cancel culture which grants us the ability to rebuke without remorse anything that challenges our preferred way of being. Like Peter we can easily reduce Jesus to a pocket savior we can pull out on demand, proudly “staking a claim for Jesus” in whatever pet project, personal mission, or political preference we fancy.
But that’s not who Christ called us to be, is it?
"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.”
The way of Christ demands both living and dying, suffering and healing, to establish the relational economy of love laid out for us so plainly in Roman 12. Christian discipleship, then, is the Messiah’s invitation to turn toward suffering and look upon its face—whether that of Jesus or Breonna Taylor or Jacob Black or —and to turn away from, literally repent of, our tendency to excuse our complicity in it, to control the narrative about it, or pretend as if its not our problem. This is why we say their names, this is why the Gospel can’t be condensed to a personal relationship with Jesus or a comfortable, navel-gazing ethic concerned mostly about canceling anything or anyone with whom it disagrees. Because the face of the Crucified Christ we are called to turn toward is the face of every black and brown body broken on the wheel of state-sanctioned violence, is the face of every LGBTQIA+ person of color denied agency in their own stories by the privilege of white queer folks like me, is the face of every child cowering behind cages at our nations borders. And it’s Peter’s face too. The one who stood in the crowd who cried “crucify” and said nothing. The one so scorned in today’s passage who yet kept trying anyway. The one who was both the rock and the stumbling block, and in who’s journey we see how powerful the redemptive the love of God can be.
Jesus’ rebuke in today’s passage is the first step, and one to which we must often return, in the journey of discipleship. We still need Christ to say “Not today, Satan” when we’ll protest state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people and extend compassion for their suffering…but only if they didn’t have a criminal record or a warrant for their arrest or have the appropriate immigration paperwork.
We still need Christ to say “Not today, Satan” to the genteel racism and implicit bias fueling our dis-ease when people call out the white Jesus’ hung on church parlor walls and affixed at the fronts of our sanctuaries, preferring to turn away from the stereotypes they perpetuate and bad theology they embody, let alone the fact that—surprise—Jesus wasn’t white.
We still need Christ to say “Not today, Satan” to our denominational statements and congregational commitments and advocacy efforts that leave un-interrogated our participation in unjust economic systems. Because if we can protest and say “Black Lives Matter” on Monday, and then not considering the profound economic inequality Black business owners face in this country, shop at black-owned businesses on Tuesday, we’ve missed the point.
We need Christ to say “Not today, Satan” to the voices of our fear, anxiety, self-saboting doubt, and self-loathing that undermine our worth as God’s beloved . “Not today” when all we can do is think we’re not enough. “Not today” when we refuse to give ourselves space to grieve, or rest, or play, or be. “Not today” when we fail to grant ourselves or others the same margin of grace with which Christ says both to Peter “not today, Satan” and “you are the rock.”
You know, it wasn’t until I read this passage again that I realized immediately after rebuking Peter, Jesus re-invites all of his disciples into the work that lay ahead…Peter included. And that, friends, may be the most powerful Good News in today’s text. That this rebuke, “Not today, Satan,” isn’t about us not being enough, or incapable, or unworthy, but is instead a reminder of, a re-invitation into the kin-dom vision to which we’re called. If in the rebuke we are made to acknowledge the places where we’ve fallen short, to release the tired and death-dealing attitudes weigh us down, then in the release we find once more Christ on the other side of it—standing ready to journey with us a little deeper into the work, a little closer to the kin-dom, a little more able than we were before to be the Body of Christ.
Saying “Not today, Satan” isn’t cancellation. It’s sanctification—that daily truth that by God’s grace we are able to be a little better, do a little better, each day—precisely because it’s followed by invitation. And it’s a reminder that the journey to which we’re called isn’t about a singular encounter with the living God, but an ongoing conversation between us and that God through which, by God’s grace we are able both to confront the adversarial attitudes a and orientations of our own lives, to trust that in rebuking them God will neither leave nor forsake us, and that in releasing them we will find ourselves unburdened and able to rise with hearts ready for whatever may come next.
And Peter? Well, I can think of no better companion to have ended this sermon series with. Because Peter, whether walking on water or sinking beneath the waves, whether the rock or a stumbling block, shows us what a “Close Encounter with the Living God” is really all about. Peter, for all his perfect imperfections, draws close, screws it up, falls away, and draws close again. Engage. Rebuke. Release. Repeat.
That’s what a close encounter with the living God is all about. Not just the high of having witnessed the miraculous, the comforting knowledge that God is with us, or the rebuke of that which is broken or imperfect either in us or in the world. But the life-long, intentional journey we make with God in which each day we are transformed, even if just a little, in a more perfect witness of God’s love in the world.
This is why we do the work! Not because we’re always going to get it right, but because we trust that when we don’t Jesus will be waiting on the other side of that mistake ready to help us try again. This is why we show up, even when it’s hard and messy and we’re tired. Because we know that Christ goes with us. This is why we confront the truth—whether through the challenge of things like our Journey to Racial Justice or the fractured history between John Wesley AME Zion, Asbury UMC, and Foundry—because we know that we confront, rather than turn away from, the pain and discomfort and dis-ease God is faithful to bringing life out of death and hope out of sorrow.
We do it because the closest encounter the vast majority of people on the face of the earth will have with God is not going to be in a burning bush or skies rent asunder by angel choir, but in the ways that you and I actively continue to put ourselves in the way of the Christ who will both hand us the keys to the kin-dom unabashedly call us out when we fail to put them to good use. And because we know that when we fail, falter, or forget—even then—what awaits us is not a Messianic cancellation, but an invitation to try again, and again, and again.
I”LL WRITE A CONCLUDING PRAYER HERE.