Matthew 16:

traditional folktale of the three trees begins this gospel message of
the cross. It was through the hard wood of one tall tree that, as
folklore tells it, a wooden manger was crafted, and when Joseph, a
carpenter, was thinking of the tools in his shop with which to make a
lovely cradle for his newborn son Jesus, he settled for a beautifully
crafted object—a manger—that was being used for a more lowly
purpose—to feed animals. Although animals are God’s creatures as
well, few of us would want to set our newborn child or grandchild on
a dirty dinner plate or a used dog bowl. A manger was, in the words
of the hymn “a mean estate.” Yet the wood from that first tree
would foreshadow the way the world would treat this child. While he
live on earth, he had few belongings and nothing that was fit for a
king. But in eternity’s eyes, the manger actually held a
treasure—the Savior of the World. The second tree hoped to be made
into a fine sailing vessel that would carry a king across the waters.
What happened was the tree, as the story goes, was made into a small
sailing vessel and slipped into a lake known as the Sea of Galilee.
The small craft would just haul dead fish to shore. But one day, in a
storm perhaps not unlike the storm that hit our eastern seaboard this
week, a man in this fishing boat appeared to be a miracle man: he
commanded the wind to become still, and it became still. Perhaps the
second tree
had become
a sailing vessel for a king. It was the third tree that was cut into
beams and thrown into a lumber yard. That third tree, as the story
goes, had two beams from its towering height bound together to make a
device of death that, by the grace and power of God, became the cross
of Christ, and later the symbol of life beyond death. Even before he
faced the cross, Jesus knew what Romans did with them.

week in the earlier verses of Matthew 16, we heard Simon Peter
declare that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus affirmed it, and then went
in a strange direction: strange for them and strange for us; he told
them that the Messiah would die. Peter said “No!” and Jesus said
“Yes!” get out of the way of God’s plan! By further explanation
we got today’s lesson from Jesus about taking up our own crosses.
Such an act has been known through the years as “martyrdom,” that
is, suffering for others or with others without regard for one’s
own self. New Testament scholar Stanley Saunders says: “Martyrdom
is very hard to understand or embrace for people who live in a
culture where the self is the biggest truth, or the only truth, they
can imagine. Not many of us in North American culture will feel
called to suffered and die for the sake of Jesus Christ, in large
part because our experience of Christian faith has become so deeply
commingled with and compromised by the individualistic perspectives
and self-serving values of the larger society. Where the pursuit of
‘personal salvation’ replaces the community of discipleship, the
call to deny self, take up the cross, and lose one’s life for
Jesus’ sake will seem, at best, little more than an unpleasant
means to an ultimately self-serving end, or perhaps no more than an
abstract ideal” [Gospel of Matthew, Westminster/ John Knox Press,
2010, p. 166.] But can we not argue back a bit with Dr. Saunders as
we have heard of heroic deeds done over the years, and even over the
last week? Are not some of humanity’s best times when a firefighter
runs into a building to save another; or a famous actress like Kate
Winslet runs into a burning room to save the mother of her host? How
about soldiers who have fallen on a grenade to save those around
them; or a mother who gives a vital organ to save the life of
another; or a motorist who reaches into a car teetering on the edge
of a cliff to save the life of a person trapped inside: aren’t
these acts worth mentioning? Aren’t they worth noting and honoring?
Yet martyrdom is something beyond these; to do what Jesus asks of us
is not just heroism, it is to take a stand for a greater justice; it
is to suffer through unspeakable torture, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did
in World War II, in order to keep God as the one to receive his first
allegiance, even before the Furor named Hitler. He never would switch
the order as the Third Reich ordered and he died for it. Would people
do that today for God? In his letters from prison, listen to these
words that Bonhoeffer wrote: “Daring to do what is right, not what
fancy may tell you; valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly
doubting—freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts
taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the
action, trusting in God whose commandment you faithfully follow;

exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.” [LETTERS AND PAPERS
FROM PRISON, The Macmillan Company, 1967, p. 194-195] For one running
into rough surf or a burning building or a plane at a crash, such
action might be called heroic. But to take a stand for God in a way
that could change the course of human events is taking up your cross.
When Jesus went to the Roman Cross of death in the first century, it
wasn’t just one man dying; it was an event that changed the world
forever. Who are the Christians who have changed the world because of
their stand or their action? They took their place on symbolic
crosses through the ages. It was C.S. Lewis, for example, who gave
weekly Christian radio addresses during World War II that kept the
Allied spirits buoyed and gave them spiritual food for martyrdom
thought. But there are more examples than that.

any want to follow me, let them deny themselves” Jesus said. I
think in Volusia County of people like Momma and Pappa Duval, in
Glenwood, who had a child with special needs, and in an act of
sacrifice, opened their doors to others who had children or adults
with special needs when families could not care for them alone. It is
a Christian home. I think of people like Rose Marie Bryon in Daytona
Beach who sacrificially setup a children’s home and school with a
Christian environment where she could save and guide youngsters who
were surrounded with godless crime and violence. I think of
Christian missionaries in Thailand and Taiwan, in Iraq and Iran, in
Honduras and Haiti, giving up comfort, means, and safety to bring
medicine, hope, and Christian action to those in harm’s way. Those
are people who have taken up their cross. Some do it in a literal
way; I have seen, even going through our town twice in the last
twenty years, a man who got media attention by carrying a large cross
behind him, dragging it on the ground as he wore a muslin robe and
leather sandals. Is that carrying his cross? What are the ways that
you can bring Christ to even a corner of the world? It is sacrificial
in nature. A child may share a lunch with another child who has
little; a mom may open her home to be a safe place of Christian play
for one or two other children who seem unattended by neighboring
parents. Any one of us may choose to—when we buy a can of soup, or
a box of macaroni and cheese, or a jar of peanut butter—buy a
second one to put in our Halifax Urban Ministries boxes.

of you will remember the tragic and senseless shooting of many
students at Colombine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999. An
East Tennessee University student several years ago, Leslie Boughers,
wrote about Cassie Bernall, the one who lost her life when she
answered “yes” to the question asked of her by one of the
gunmen.did Leslie wrote:

stayed underneath her table and continued to pray as she heard the
gunshot that killed Kyle Velasquez. She looked up and saw [the
shooters] set their bags down and reload their guns. Many thoughts
were running through Cassie’s head. She was hoping they would
leave, hoping and praying her life would be spared. She was probably
thinking of the passage she underlined just weeks earlier in the book
“Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind” that she had
been reading, “All of us should live life so as to be able to face
eternity at any time.”

She looked up and saw
[one gunman kneel] down right in front of her.

you believe in God?” he said.

paused for just a second, just long enough for her to realize that
this was her chance to stand up for what she so strongly believed in.
Although she was scared, her voice remained strong.

was all she said. [His 12-guage shotgun killed her instantly.]

lives are filled with times of decision: guns, war, storms, fires,
domestic violence, and lost children all give us a choice, maybe not
today, but who knows? Maybe not tomorrow, but who knows? Today, “this
your time” as
Michael W. Smith put it in his song that honored Cassie Bernall. This
your time when you
can consider what you may do, or what you may say, when confronted
with the question: “Will I take up my Christian cross and make my
Christian witness today?” Or will I leave my cross at church, or
tucked away in my backpack, or in my purse, or my briefcase? If Jesus
says that to follow him means to take up your cross, when and how
will you honor God with your actions?

A. Sumner
August 28, 2011



Matthew 16:

single man decided life would be more fun if he had a pet. He went to
a local pet store and told the store owner that he wanted to buy an
unusual one. After some discussion, he finally bought a talking
centipede. The centipede came with a little white box to use for his
house. He took the box back home, found a good spot for it, and
decided he would start off by taking his new pet to church! So he
asked his new friend: “Would you like to go to church with me
today? We will have a good time!” There was no answer. This
bothered him a bit, but he waited a few minutes and asked again: “How
about going to church with me? There are many blessing to attending!”
Again there was no answer from his new friend. A bit concerned and a
bit annoyed, he waited just a brief time more and finally, put his
face up to the front of the centipede’s little white house and said
in a much louder voice: “Hey in there! Would you like to go to
church with me and learn about God?” This time he received this
”I heard you the first time! I’m puttin’ my shoes

the beginning of the organized church, people have been inviting
others to church, or to a Christian revival, or up for an altar call,
or to other rallies or services so that they might accept Jesus
Christ as Lord. Some did it with great zeal. And some got famous for
doing it. We heard a lot about Ames, Iowa last week, but on November
18, 1862, the news from Ames was that William Ashley Sunday was born.
When he was old enough, he played professional baseball with the team
then known as the Chicago Whitestockings. Athletics dominated his
life until he “found another calling under the preaching of Henry
Monroe of the Pacific Garden Mission. In 1886, he became a
Christian.” [Actually, a Presbyterian Christian.]
conversion altered his entire life. He gave up drinking, swearing,
gambling, and going to theatres, and he refused to play baseball
again on Sundays. He began delivering sermons as a lay preacher. He
resigned his $5000 a year salary as a baseball player and took a job
for $83.33 a month with the Y.M.C.A.” [TWENTY CENTURIES OF GREAT
PREACHING, Clyde E. Fant, Jr. and William M. Pinson, Jr. Editors.
Word Books, 1971, Vol. Seven, p. 218.] Billy Sunday (appropriately
named, as it turns out) began to fashion his evangelism style after
the most flamboyant people he had seen. As he preached he drew larger
and larger crowds, finally being ordained as a minister. But his goal
was the key: it was for those in the crowd to accept Jesus Christ as
their Savior. He was an arch conservative, and a showman, but God
called him to rescue the perishing, and rescue them he did, through
his convincing words and the conviction of God’s Spirit.

famous evangelist is alive even today; he was another one who urged
people to connect with a church after, or as, they accepted Christ.
William Franklin Graham was born in Charlotte North Carolina.
Although at one point a Presbyterian, most of the churches where he
preached were Southern Baptist as people were drawn to Christ through
him. When he was younger and felt called to preach, Billy Graham
“wrote his father and mother [saying] that God had called him to
preach. But he lacked confidence. In order to improve his delivery,
he went into the nearby swamps and preached to the stumps,
alligators, and darkness. When he began receiving invitations to
preach to
people, he
did it with fervent fluency.” [ Fant, Vol. Twelve, p. 283] Whether
was Billy Sunday, or Billy Graham, or evangelists by other names, by
definition they bring people to Christ. Perhaps the first evangelist
had the showmanship of Billy Sunday and the fervency of Billy Graham.
His name was John, sometimes called “The Baptist.” He was
fervent, he was self-neglecting, he was unpredictable, and he
expected people to believe what he preached. One day as he was
walking, he saw Jesus and said to the crowd that followed him
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This
is he of whom I said ‘after me comes a man who ranks before me, for
was before me.’”
(John 1: 29-30) John was calling people to follow Jesus, not just
because he was a good man—for there were then, and have been—other
good men and women through the centuries. Nor was it just because
Jesus was a good teacher—rabbi they called him—for certainly
there are other good teachers through the centuries. No; this
evangelism sermon was different: it was for lost, oppressed, and
searching people to be, for the first time, connected to the only
mortal to be called by this title: “The Lamb of God.”

himself was less of a showman than Billy Sunday; but he was a greater
preacher than even Billy Graham in his own way, and he was not as
uncivilized as his John had become. One day Jesus decided to have a
retreat of sorts with his closest disciples. From the area of Galilee
–which was where he grew up but was also where Herod Antipas sought
to silence him—Jesus took his disciples north-northeast, into the
area where Herod Philip ruled: a man much more accepting of a
cosmopolitan culture. There in Caesarea Philippi, he most likely
stopped at a place which superstitious persons, and even religious
persons, would usually avoid: a cavern of sorts that went deep into
the ground. On occasion water, fire, or steam would spew from the
entrance and the locals called it the “Gates of Hades.” It was
thought to be the entrance to the underworld. It was there that
Jesus, with that cave perhaps just over his shoulder, preached his
brief sermon that along with the cross, was one of the cornerstone
events of Christianity. He began his sermon with a question: “Who
do people say that the Son of Man is?” Of course he is referring to
himself but he famously uses this third person title. “Who do they
say I am?” Almost like a person saying that a theologian is as
good as John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or John Wesley or Martin
Luther King, people through the ages have compared others to their
favorite leaders. Likewise, in the holy huddle at Caesarea Philippi,
Jesus’ disciples named some of the leaders who influenced them most
too. One said Elijah, one said John the Baptist, one said Jeremiah,
and others lifted up other names. This was a perfect set up for the
Master. Perhaps he didn’t move a muscle, as his usually kind eyes
turned into a piercing gaze:
“And who do you
say that I am?” That’s it; the fulcrum of the faith; either you
believe Jesus is the Christ—the Messiah—or he’s something else
to you. You cannot be lukewarm, you cannot follow him because of his
charisma or his lessons or his miracles. He can only be the Lamb of
God-an image of substitutionary sacrifice-if you call him Christ. So
he asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Was there a hush in the crowd? Did grown men shuffle their feet and
look down? Or did Simon Peter just blurt out his famous answer: “You
are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God!” Wow; he added
more information than Jesus even asked! Then Jesus calls him by his
given name, like we do in a baptism: “Blessed are you Simon bar
(son of) Jonah!” But he is quick to credit Simon not with being
perfect or holy or better than the others.
credits him with being
The Father in heaven wanted that to be
known, and one man-Simon- perhaps in his prayers the night before,
heard what God wanted him to hear. And that day was the time to
proclaim it. It was a big deal. Jesus gave him a nickname Peter, or
Cephas, both of which mean something like “Rock.” Then with his
play on words he says, “I will call you ‘Rock’ because it is on
that ‘rock’ that I will build my church.” Certainly Roman
Catholics think the “rock” is Peter so they treat him as the
first Pope and named their mother church St. Peter’s. Certainly
Protestants think Jesus meant that he would build his church on the
confession that Peter proclaimed more than on Peter himself—a man
who was headstrong, mistake-ridden, and destined to try his master’s
soul the night before the cross. You decide what you believe. But
then Jesus said he would give Peter
the keys
to the kingdom.
Pastor Jin S. Kim has an
interesting perspective on this passage saying: “Many of us are
nervous when our children are first given keys to drive a vehicle
capable of going 100 mph at the age of sixteen. Do they have the
maturity to handle the responsibility? We might ask the same about
Jesus giving Peter the keys to the kingdom. If we look at Peter’s
track record prior to and after this event … he is constantly
missing the point and often talks before he thinks…. How does one
give the keys to the kingdom of heaven and build the church upon
someone so unstable? Clearly Peter’s authority is not based on his
rightness or righteousness.” [FEASTING ON THE WORD, WJK, Year A,
Vol. 3, p. 381-382.]

have concluded that the keys are given because Simon Peter was the
first to say and believe what Jesus hoped the other 11 would say and
believe eventually. I imagine that Jesus also hoped others in Galilee
would begin to believe it and that people through the ages would
believe it, and eventually, that you and I would believe it. Why?
Because it saves us.
That is his purpose, and
his urgency: to get others to see whom his Father had sent, and to
see him for whom he is.

through the ages, this has been the point of church invitations, and
altar calls, and endless verses of “Just as I am” and “Amazing
Grace.” It has been a time for people with remorse to lay aside the
world’s vices, as Billy Sunday did, and to move God from the edge
of their lives to the center of it; and to believe that there is no
way that just being smart, or good, or kind is enough for the Father
to drop keys into your hand. To get the keys to life abundant, the
scales will need to fall from our eyes and you will know that you
need Christ. Such a step can make a cold heart come to life again.
Who do
you say that he
is? People who have said yes to Christ know the urgency of spreading
the good news to others. With the yawning gates of Hades behind him,
Jesus gave his disciples a choice. One got the kingdom keys because
of his choice. Today he’s asking you. What will
get with yours choice?

Let us

Jesus: today it is as if you are with another group of people you
love. This time some are already believers, some are seekers, and
some are just bystanders. You point to places in the world, and say
to us: “the gates of hell.” Then you ask us to choose; or to
choose again. To those who choose you, they find the gates of
instead. What will people choose? Whom will
people choose? Now is the time for decision and devotion. Hear the
words of our hearts, O Lord, either blurted out, or whispered softly.
We are glad for your presence. Hear our prayer, dear Jesus. Amen.

A. Sumner August 21,


 This story about Jesus and the
Canaanite Woman is one that used to really bother me, but has become
one of my favorite stories in the New Testament. It starts out just
like so many other miracle stories in the Gospels, somebody needs
help, and comes to Jesus. Now, ordinarily, we expect Jesus to
respond, to demonstrate God’s great love for us, by healing the
person or providing for their needs. Isn’t that what he usually
does? But this time, he doesn’t. First, he ignores this woman, and
when she persists, he tells her he can’t help her. When she still
persists, Jesus makes a very denigrating remark about her ethnicity.
Is this the Jesus we know? The One who came to show us God’s love?
What’s going on here?

This story is unique in the way it
shows both the humanity of Christ, and the ways we can approach God.
And to do this it uses a woman – an undesirable of the times, a
woman whose undoubtedly shady past must surely have caused the
demonic possession in the family; a woman brazen enough to initiate
conversation with a man.

Jesus is silent in the face of her.
The disciples, however, have their prayer shawls in a knot: Get rid
of her, they urge, “Do what she wants, so she’ll get out of
our hair.”

But Jesus responds, “No; I wasn’t sent
for her.” Then, this “dog” who is satisfied just to be
under the table proceeds to change his heart. She is not beholden to
the “official rules” or even to Jesus’ understanding of his
own vocation, but insists that she and her daughter have a right to
healing. And then Christ insults her, pointing out that he is here
for the Jews, God’s chosen people, not her. “It is not fair to
take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

have to admit that my first reaction when I read this part is one of
anger. Now,  such a reaction would probably never have occurred
to a woman in her day, in that world. But it still astounds me how
well she takes Jesus’ insult.

But on reflection, I’m glad
that the woman doesn’t respond to hostility with more hostility.
That doesn’t solve anything. It just creates a cycle of anger and
hurt, violence and more violence. It’s not going to do her any
good, and it’s not going to heal her daughter. No, this woman is
wiser than I. Even after having that insult thrown at her, she is not

Maybe this is why she was so persistent. She had
faith in Jesus as the Lord. She allows Jesus the freedom to speak and
act as the Lord. Maybe because of this she is not offended, like I
am, when he calls her as a dog. Maybe she decides that before the
Lord of the Universe we all are dogs, and that we are all dependent
on free scraps from the table. She has the faith to fire back at
Jesus. This is the kind of faith that seems to move Jesus to give a
second look.

I imagine she gets up, and dusts off her skirt a
bit. And she answers him, not with anger, but in a respectful tone,
with dignity, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall
from their master’s table.” She’s debating with him now, in
true rabbinical fashion. With wit and ingenuity she catches him in
his own words. “O.K.,” she says, “if you want to call me a dog,
call me a dog, but the dog can be fed without taking away what
belongs to the children.”

She is reminding Jesus of the
truth that he knows. The gifts of God’s Kingdom are limitless!
There is enough bread for everyone at God’s table. Healing,
forgiveness, peace, joy, love: these aren’t precious, limited
commodities that we need to hoard. NO! God’s love is boundless, the
more we share, the more there is. Isn’t this what Jesus taught us
when he multiplied the loaves and the fishes? The bread of God’s
kingdom is an unlimited resource, spread it around! Feed it to the
children, the men, the women, the young, the old! Throw it to the
dogs! Throw it in the air to feed the birds! Give it to

And Jesus answers her joyfully! “Woman, great is
your faith. He recognizes her as a member of God’s family, welcome
at God’s table. And her daughter is healed. That’s why Matthew
tells this story. His community is in conflict over the whole concept
of a mission to the Gentiles. How can they take this precious Gospel
and give it to unclean people? Matthew says, Jesus struggled with
this, too, and here is the answer. The gifts of the Kingdom are for
all! Spread them around, share the bread! All who come to Christ with
honesty and trust are welcomed at the table!

Jesus engages
her in argument and Jesus gives in. He loses the argument. He changes
course at this woman’s word, and commends her for challenging what he
said. “Great is your faith!” Everyone else has heard “Oh you of
little faith. But not this one. This woman hears “Great is your

I’ve heard people say that Jesus
didn’t really mean what he said in this story, that he knew precisely
what he was doing, and he was testing the woman’s faith to see
whether she was worthy of the miraculous healing she requested for
her daughter. But I have trouble with this idea for a couple of
reasons. First this isn’t how the crowd who witnessed the historical
evidence would have interpreted it any more than Matthew’s readers
would have. They would have instead seen Jesus put the woman in her
rightful place before changing his mind and healing her. Second I
have trouble believing that Jesus would play mind games with a woman
desperately seeking a cure for her daughter that she goes out of her
way, breaks several taboos and cries out in pain. And for what?  To
make a point so obscure that nobody in his culture was likely to pick
up on what he was doing.

I think we’re on more solid ground
in thinking that Jesus was changed in that encounter. Jesus chose to
listen to someone whom others would have ignored, engaging in
argument with her. And Jesus chose to act in compassion in a
situation in which no one would have faulted him for moving on. His
choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind when doing so
would cost him honor in the sight of others, demonstrated for us how
a true leader discerns mission.

In a sense, it is Jesus’
own awakening, one that takes him far beyond first-century
Palestine’s “honor culture.” Jesus does not save face.
The woman challenges him on his own terms—by her living, pushy
faith—to make room for outcast and alien. It’s a profound
conversion for him: continue reading in this gospel, and watch how
his encounters have a shifted nuance, his stories a new and
pronounced bias for the poor and the outsider. There is an insight
threading its way through the rest of Matthew that traces back to the
argument of a Canaanite “dog.”

Being a faithful
people is all about changing the table rules and getting changed
yourself! It’s about who gets to be at the table, and who will be
at the table in spite of us; and thereby about the social
implications for relations between poor and non-poor, genders,
orientations, abilities, pedigrees. It is about a banquet for

We have a lot to learn from how this woman appealed to
the Lord. Too often we come before God demanding. Asking for things
and expecting God will give them to us because we asked. We often
come with lists of requests that we expect to have answered, as if we
were going grocery shopping. We sometimes think we deserve special
treatment ahead of others and demand it. Is that any way to come
before our Savior?

And too often we come before the Lord with
shame and fear in our hearts. Knowing all we have done and knowing
that we are so far below what the Lord should love and help. Have you
ever had a time when you were ashamed to pray?  Yes, we have
sinned. Yes, we are separated from God and in need of healing for
ourselves and our human family. But that does not give us an excuse
to look on ourselves as worthless. Christ did not come to live with
us and die for us because we are worthless. We are called to be God’s
people, to love and to serve God, but please note that there is a
difference between serving and being servile. Sometimes
self-sacrifice is necessary, but that’s not possible if you don’t
have a self to give.

There is a third way. The way the
Cananite woman took. We can come in hope and in trust, seeking a
relationship where we can come to Christ with our whole selves, our
minds and our hopes, our dreams of wholeness. “Come, let us reason
together,’ says our God. God made us beings with free minds and
free hearts, because God wants to be with us in a relationship of
love. Who knows better than God that love can’t be compelled? And
so, God made us free, knowing the risk of sin and brokenness. And
when we fell, God came to us in Jesus Christ, who came to show us our
true place as women and men.

That place is in mutual fellowship
with Christ and one another, learning and growing together. And
together, we will heal our broken relationships, our broken families,
and our broken world. The Canaanite does not order God around, yet
she still asks for the crumbs from her master’s table. She still
asks for healing for her child, as what her child deserves.

This unnamed woman gives us a
wonderful example of how to approach God with both humility and
confidence, deference and boldness, a grounded trust in God’s grace
despite all the human obstacles that stand in the way of
relationship. We have a lot to learn from the Canaanite woman’s
relationship with the Lord.

The grace of God is for all. The proud
and the lowly. The outcast and the ones sitting in the pews. It isn’t
a question of what we deserve, or what they deserve. No, there is
grace enough for all, deserved or not. We are called to live as
Christ lived, sharing with those who don’t belong and allowing our
hearts to change by another’s plea. May God grant us all the
courage to follow him. Amen.

Rev. Cara Gee

August 14, 2011