September 3, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah gives us the iconic lines: “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” He complained that because of his prophecy he became the object of mockery. He expressed anger that he felt compelled to speak God’s truth and was ridiculed for it, and his anger was directed at God. Our Gospel picks up where last week’s Gospel ended. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer, be put to death, and raise from the dead. Peter then announced that he would not allow this to happen. Jesus then turned and said: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” Jesus then told his disciples that they need to “take up his cross and follow me.” For “anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

My study of the Bible gives me an appreciation and empathy for numerous people. I count Jeremiah and Peter among them.

Last week Jesus made Peter’s day. When Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you think I am?” Peter gave the right answer and was immediately raised to the leader of Jesus’ disciples. And “on this rock I will build my Church.” You have to think that Peter was feeling pretty good about himself and his future. I’m pretty certain we can all look over our lives and remember times like this: we’ve been given a promotion, or an opportunity, or great praise. And I think it’s fair to say that Peter intended to enjoy his new promotion.

But the next passage (and today’s Gospel) shows that it won’t be that easy. From Jesus’ perspective, now that he has chosen his successor as the leader of his disciples, it’s now time to warn them of the road ahead. Theologians over the past 2,000 years argued over how much Jesus knew about his journey through Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but here we can agree that Jesus knew his path would not be easy. I also think we can safely agree that Jesus appointed Peter to a leadership position to ensure an easy transition of leadership.

But God bless Peter. No sooner is he appointed to be the Rock than he steps in it. I’ve often spoken of Peter as having more gas pedal than steering wheel and we see an excellent example here. When Jesus predicted his passion, death, and resurrection, Peter then elevated himself to Jesus’ personal bodyguard.

Now if you think Jesus’ reaction was harsh, you’re not alone. At first blush it appears Jesus is calling Peter Satan. But I don’t think he is: I think Jesus is addressing Satan. Anyone who foresees the path that Jesus walked would have to dread it, and when Peter promised to protect him, I suggest that this appealed to Jesus, even for a moment. This doesn’t entirely take Peter off the hook though. Jesus does tell him that he isn’t thinking like God but like humanity. If Peter thought his promotion was the result of his intelligence or wisdom, it didn’t last long.

And so too with our friend Jeremiah in the first reading. We generally don’t know why God chose his prophets, but we can assume he wasn’t terribly intelligent. If he was, he’d have kept his mouth shut. Ten weeks ago (June 25th if you’re keeping track) I suggested that Jeremiah was one of those people who just can’t help himself and has to point out injustice. In today’s reading he turned his anger on God: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced.” Other translations of the Bible use words like “deceived,” “tricked,” or “enticed.” Whatever word we use, Jeremiah recognized that God was using him because he (Jeremiah) could do no other. Jeremiah wasn’t chosen for his intelligence or wisdom, but because he couldn’t help himself.

Both readings point out that discipleship doesn’t make our lives easier, in fact we can make the case that discipleship makes our lives harder. But the fact that we revere these two flawed man thousands of years later shows us that discipleship gives our lives purpose and direction.

Jeremiah openly questioned God’s choice of him. We have to think that Peter wondered why he was chosen, particularly when Peter was horrified after denying Jesus three times. Many of us feel called to places that we didn’t expect and sometimes question God’s wisdom in choosing us. Perhaps instead of wondering why we were called, we should instead ask how we can best fulfill this call.

Rather than questioning God’s wisdom, perhaps we can enjoy exploring what to do with God’s choice of us. Nearly 20 years ago I attended my high school graduation. When I was in high school I had a clear path for my life: a college degree in political science, University of Virginia law school, and spend my life as an attorney. When I showed up at the reunion as a hospice chaplain I got a number of surprised looks. But I explained that I didn’t want a job that stuck me in an office all day, I wanted a job that allowed me to meet people, and I was never afraid to talk with people about their pain. I didn’t know much about hospice, and I certainly didn’t know they had chaplains. To be honest, I have no idea why I was called to this ministry, but frankly it’s none of my business. This is what I was called to do, and while it certainly make my life easier, but it has given it purpose.

And while I’ve never expressed anger at God for this path, I have on many occasions questioned God’s wisdom. I hope as I grow older I’ll stop this question and instead look toward asking how I can best fulfill this call.