13th Sunday after Pentecost: "Lean in to Death"

13th Sunday after Pentecost: "Lean in to Death"

August 30, 2020 | Ryan Arnold

Passage: Matthew 16:21-28

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    Death, death, death. It seems that’s all we talk about these days.

    Our grand pandemic has claimed the lives of over 183,000 Americans as of this morning. While the US has 4% of the world’s population, we represent 22% of pandemic deaths globally. We’re #1, no other country has more COVID deaths. And we’re left to wonder why.

    Issues with police brutality and white supremacy don’t seem to be going away any time soon. Months after George Floyd’s pleas of I can’t breathe went unheeded, another black man, 29-year old father of three Jacob Blake, was shot in Kenosha Wisconsin. Shot seven times, partially paralyzing him. All while his children watched from the family car.

    Two days later protests in Kenosha over the shooting devolved when a self-described member of the white militia, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, shot thee protestors, killing two.

    How long Lord? How long must this cycle of violence endure? Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.

    And then a few days ago there was Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 miles per hour, zipping through Louisiana and Texas. It cut power for hundreds of thousands, destroyed homes and businesses with flooding and felled trees, killing sixteen along the way.

    After experiencing our own hurricane-like derecho earlier this month, we Iowans know well the impact of winds this speed can have over such a large swath of land. And it’s no fun.

    Earlier this week, local resident Cristy Guitierres, her boyfriend, and son, age 11 died in a car crash. Christy is the beloved waitress at the Grove Café in downtown Ames, where she worked for the past twenty-two years. She was a beloved member of the community. And she was wonderful.

    Death, death, death. Seemingly everywhere.

    It’s enough to make you want to:
    – look the other way
    – deny the suffering of so many
    – sit, safely in a self-defined bubble

    Away from it all.

    Here I must confess my own desire to, at times, look the other way when headlines get dark. Our family gave up watching the nightly news years ago; it’s just too depressing. My news sources of late tend to be newspapers – albeit in digital form – typically the New York Times and Washington Post for national news, the Ames Tribune for local scoop, with a side of BBC for some international flair.

    Even so, our dreary news cycle of late, at times, seems too much to bear. Perhaps unplugging or isolating from the world around really is the way to go. Because protecting you and your loved ones matters, more than anything else. Right? Maybe?

    God Forbid
    The narrative from Matthew 16 contains similar challenges. In it we get a glimpse into human nature, and how we too sometimes respond to unwanted news.

    In this text we get a good, concise glimpse of the passion story. “I must go to Jerusalem,” Jesus explains. “And undergo great suffering,” he continues. “And be killed. And on the third day be raised.”

    Peter wishes to have nothing to do with this unwanted news. “God forbid, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

    Perhaps hearing this dark prediction was enough to make Peter want to:
    – look the other way
    – deny the suffering of one so loved
    – sit, safely in a self-defined bubble, where nothing much changed

    Peter, of course, had plenty to protect. Sure the Pharisees kept running their crew out of towns, but oh the miracles! And the preaching! And the healing! And the crowd sizes that kept growing! Peter knew he walked alongside the Son of God.

    And now Jesus suggested that the gig, soon, would be up. That Christ would be killed. That their travels, together, would be no more.

    Death, death, death.

    Can’t say I blame Peter for his reply.

    Jesus had a rather, shall we say direct response to that for Peter. I mean really, who wants to be told, “Get behind me Satan,” by the savior of the world?

    Yet Christ spoke not to Peter, but to:
    – the fear,
    – the uncertainty,
    – the disruption to the status quo,
    which dwelled within Peter.

    None of which Peter wanted. Nor knew how to deal with.

    Christ also knew that Peter didn’t fully understand what had been said.

    Yes, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death. But there was *more* to this story. Because on the third day Jesus would be raised. And offer new life to all who desired it.

    Peter wanted, of course, to protect his loved ones. That included Jesus, and the twelve. Jesus too wanted to protect his loved ones. But that circle is a bit wider.

    He’s got the whole world, in his hands
    He’s got the whole wild world, in his hands,
    He’s got the whole wild world in his hands,
    He’s got the whole world in his hands

    He’s got you and me brother, in his hands,
    He’s got you and me sister, in his hands,
    He’s got the whole world in his hands.

    And yet, for Christ to do that, to care for us all, to keep us in his hands, it would take suffering. And a cross. And death. And resurrection. This revelation was a transitional moment for Jesus and the twelve.

    Death, death, death. It seems that’s all we talk about these days.

    It’s enough to make you want to:
    – put your head in the sand. To look away for a while, and wait for the year, or this season to be over already.
    – ignore the suffering of those all around. Hoping it isn’t real. Or at least poof, just goes away.
    – deny truth. Even when it stands before you, clear as day.

    Yet that is not the way of Christ.

    For if we are to be Christ-followers, we are to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and walk in his path. It’s a path where we too are called to heal, to care, to seek justice, to accompany.

    To do that we have to get out of our bubble, of one, or two, or four. Or in the case of the disciples, the twelve. We’re called to care for those Christ cares for. And that’s a really, really wide net.

    It’s a path that can lead us towards, and close to, suffering. And close to, at times, death.

    The path of Christ leads us to respond during times of plague. Christians throughout history have been on the front lines in these moments, using the best medical practices available at the time to help others and keep their communities safe. Martin Luther, way back in 1527, during a time of plague almost 500 years ago, said this:

    I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.

    Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

    I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed, in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others.

    Today, we can do similar. We can mask up in public. In this way we love our neighbor as ourselves, protecting them during a time of pandemic as best we’re able. We can make calls, send cards, and pray for those infected, even from a distance.

    The path of Christ leads us to respond when police brutality and white supremacy pop up. When lives are harmed or lost because of it, we can get involved. We can advocate for the least of these, giving voice to those often without. We can speak up. We can march. We can support. We can have tough, crucial conversations about making our society safer for all.

    In the 60s it was marches, in response to loss of life, and police brutality, that led to the passage of civil rights legislation that transformed an era. Perhaps now is the time to join the response to this needless suffering and death, transforming this era for the next generation, once again.

    The path of Christ leads us to respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters. In our own derecho cleanup you can help your neighbor clean up debris; I love seeing stories about all that helping. For the hurricanes of Louisiana and Texas, you can give through the ELCA’s Lutheran disaster response fund too.

    The path of Christ leads us to care about the tragic loss of local waitress Cristy Guitierres and her family. We can help, by supporting a GoFundMe campaign to cover funeral expenses and provide medical care for her injured six-year-old daughter Isabella. She could certainly use our help.

    Death, death, death. It’s no fun. We grieve, of course, we grieve. We may be tempted to look away, to simply protect our own. Yet we’re called to care in these moments, in so many ways, as we are able.

    With a –

    Opened wallet,


    For we know that death is not the final story.

    For when we reach out, to help our neighbor, no matter how far away they may be, no matter how unlike us they may be, we model Christ. And in that moment, we offer salve to wounds of the flesh, salve to wounds of the heart. For in that moment, with Christ’s help, we offer nothing less than life. Amen.