Hi! I haven’t been posting here a lot lately (sorry), but I think most of you follow me on Facebook anyway (I’ve been good about posting there). But this week I’m truly honored that these are the words that came to me to preach. And I’d like to stare them with the world! Here is the link if you’d rather watch/listen. The text is Matthew 16:13-20.
I have a skillset that I don’t talk about often. It’s one that was taught to me early in life that I still have: I can read AND fold a map.
I love maps. As a human, I’ve always had a hard time with remembering which hand is my left and which my right. Even now, I have to look at my hands before being certain (I write with my right, is my go to memory tool).
If I tell you we should turn left or right, second guess me or ask me if I’m sure. But when I have a map in my hands, I know which way to go. This skill doesn’t really translate to GPS, unfortunately. It’s hard to figure out where I am or going when the app is trying to help. The problem with modern technology and skills based on older technology.
On thing that goes along with my understanding of how to read a map is that I really value geography. I like knowing where things are and the relative distance between things.
With ancient places, it can be really hard to know exactly where they are, and often, those places are either gone entirely or in remarkably different places. Sadly, when we don’t understand or know the exact locations of places, details get lost.
This is a common issue in Scripture. There are a lot of parts of Scripture where losing the understanding of some details really changes the entire meaning of the passage. We have one of those today, where the detail centers around geography. And the importance of a place.
Raise your hands if you know where Caesarea Philippi is? If you’re answer is Israel, put your hand down. You are actually not correct.
We actually know where Caesarea Philippi was, because it’s still there. It’s now located in the demilitarized zone between Israel and Lebanon, but is actually within the boundaries of Lebanon.
We also know that back in the ancient Roman days, Caesarea Philippi was on a major trade route between Tyre and Damascus. It has a spring that was one of the major feeders into the Jordan, and has a Temple built for the Roman God, Pan, the god of fertility. Several other Roman deities were worshiped and honored in the area as well.
So many deities, that in 70 CE, when the Roman army quelled an Israeli revolt and demolished the second Temple in retaliation, it was to Caesarea Philippi that the Roman army went to celebrate and rest.
Caesarea Philippi was an important place to the Romans. And to the Israelis, which is why they tried to take the region back from Lebanon in the 1970’s. That war and subsequent occupation is why Caesarea Philippi is now located in a demilitarized zone.
Why am I tell you all this? Great question.
Because, in this story, the where it is told is as important as what was said and to whom. We spend a lot of time talking about Simon Peter, who becomes known as just Peter, the modern word for Petros, which is the ancient Greek word for stone or rock.
Jesus wasn’t able to march into Rome to make this declaration, so he went to the heart of the Roman world that he could access, the central point of Roman wealth and power in the Ancient Near East, and essentially said “your power means nothing to me.”
Jesus went into the place that represented the power and authority of the occupying force and basically flipped them off.
This place, that represents Roman power and authority is where Jesus decided to carve into stone that He is the revelation of God, and that earthly power means nothing to him.
Sometimes in sermons we rush past things because we have a lot of points that we want to make. Or we’ll come back and hit on a thing over and over because we as preachers really want to make sure that we properly convey something.
I’ve been known to make the same point over and over in various sermons. I know I’ve said before that Jesus taught a message that turned its back on the traditionally accepted power systems. This story, of Jesus asserting his Divinity in Caesarea Philippi, is one of those places.
I come back to this point over and over because over the centuries, Christianity has moved from a persecuted religion to an accepted one, to the most powerful institution on earth, to the declining power we have today that still has it’s hands in the pots of most of the major world power systems. As Christianity has evolved within the systems of power, so to has this message.
This message that earthly power means nothing to God has gone from central to the Gospel, to all things that happen are God’s will which is why Christianity is so powerful.
It’s a major evolution.
And it negates so much of the message of Christ.
It’s perfectly reasonable that this happened. It’s hard to renounce power when it’s in your hands. It’s hard to preach a message that calls into question your own authority and power.
It’s even harder in a time like this, when the centrality of the power of the church is being consolidated as we figure out what the role of church is in a world where at any given moment, we could have to be separated for months or years.
But if Jesus were alive today, I have no doubts that he would put on a mask, walk into Rome, or Canterbury, or DC, or any place where political and religious power are centralized, and declare: “this is not power. You are not powerful. Your power means nothing to me.”
We have been taught for centuries that God gives and takes away. But that’s a made up way of claiming and maintaining power. It’s a lot easier for all of us to justify why things happen as being God’s will instead of power grabs by humans.
Manifest destiny was a power grab. Colonialism vaguely disguised as spreading the Gospel of Christ is a power grab. Monarchs claiming the divine right of kinds, is a power grab. The Crusades were a power grab. Holocaust, power grab claiming the blessing of Christianity. Slavery, a power grab claiming the blessing of Christianity. White Supremacy, is a choke-hold on power, given the blessing of Christianity by the very power system it created because that power system controls access to God.
I could go on and on with this, but you all are smart. You can do this for yourselves.
The thing to remember is that Jesus isn’t interested in how humans exercise power, other than to say you shouldn’t exercise power over, you should exercise power with.
You must care for yourself, and for one another. You must love. You must love your neighbors. If you have in abundance you must share that abundance with those in need.
That’s true power. That’s the power of love. That’s the power that God cares about.
That’s the message that’s chiseled into the corner stones of the lessons of Christ. The power isn’t in the systems, the power is in how we love and care for one another. How we care for the earth. How we see a need and address it. How we welcome those in need.
My best friend, Jack Jenkins, is a journalist for Religion New Service. Several years ago he spent time on the border. This was pre children in cages, but still in a major spike in attempted asylum seekers.
Jack met a rancher who lives on the border between Texas and Mexico. A legit cowboy, very conservative, what you think of as a true Texas guy.
And this man, every time an immigrant arrived on his ranch, fed them, gave them water, offered them a safe place to rest. Not because he believed in what they were doing, he didn’t like what they were doing nor did he agree. But he cared for them.
He told Jack he cared for them because it is what God COMMANDS him to do. He must care for and love people. Period.
Our jobs on earth are not to like every single person on the planet. For myself, there are people that I don’t like and I don’t agree with, people who intentionally hurt others in order to gain power or resources for themselves. I don’t have to like people or agree with their reasoning.
But I do have to help them if they need help. If they are thirsty, I’ll help find water. If they are hungry, I’ll make sure they’re fed. I will advocate for those who need help in the times that what they need is beyond what I can give and still be able to support myself and my family.
I actually have to do the work though. I can’t just say that I will. I have to actually do it. We have to actually do it.
We must work within the system to help those in need, and also, work to change or upend the system so that people are actually, consistently, being helped and have their needs met.
It’s what Jesus did. It’s why Jesus was murdered by the political and religious elites. He was a radical and a threat to power.
Jesus was a radical who would march directly into the seat of power and say “your ‘power’ means nothing to me.”
As a Church community, we at St. Andrew’s are partnering with ECM, Episcopal City Mission, to help advocate within the political system to help the most vulnerable among us. I would like you, all of you, to be part of this effort. We have a document that can tell you how. It’s easy. Emails or a phone call.
The cornerstone of this Church is helping one another and our neighbors. That is the type of power that Jesus really likes, the power of love and kindness.
I want this Church, in this town, to be a beacon of love into this world. I want 135 Lafayette St. to shine like a ray of light and love off on any map page. I want us to be known by our love and how we love other people.
It starts with us. It’s starts with how we love.
Let’s love one another rather than loving power and things.
Let love be the rock upon which we build our lives.