Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 30, 2020
There is a house my dad helped build in Council Grove, Kansas. I have seen it with my own eyes. My dad helped build it when he was just a teenager, and the hardest part was probably working with his father. I come from a long line of carpenters and plumbers. My dad was the first in his family to go to college. What little I know about building things comes from woodshop, which I took for six whole years in school.
And I wasn’t very good at it, but I did learn a few things. Mostly, I learned what I need to know to make small repairs around the house—or to put together an occasional piece of furniture from Wal-Mart. Along with basic tool safety, one of the most important lessons I learned was doing quality work that’s built to last. And, for this purpose, flawless lumber and square joints are essential.
That reminds me of the title of a book. It’s by a political philosopher named Isaiah Berlin. It’s called The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and I'll confess that I’ve never read it. But I’ve always imagined what that title might mean. Berlin stole the phrase from Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the German Enlightenment: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” Kant once wrote, “no straight thing has ever been made.”
It’s a phrase I often turn to when I’m preaching about Simon Peter. Like many other people, Peter isn’t always the greatest material for God to use. Flesh and blood human beings, with sins and weaknesses—that’s who we are. That’s the “crooked timber of humanity.”
Today, Jesus shows Peter and the other disciples the hard truth about what it means for him to be the Messiah. Jesus is starting to share with them about his Cross. But, for his part, Peter doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die. And so, he takes him aside, and he says to him: “God forbid it, Lord…God forbid that this should ever happen to you.”
And then, Jesus answers him with a stern rebuke. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. For, unlike Jesus, who never strays from his mission, Peter is failing to put God first in his life. Peter’s mind is on earthly things, Jesus tells us, not the heavenly ones. And Jesus uses this opportunity to show us the real costs of being his disciple. Unless we deny ourselves, he says, and take up our cross, we cannot be his disciples.
Through the Holy Spirit of love, Jesus is building us into God’s Temple. We are meant to be a Temple for the Lord, made of living stones—a Temple in which the Holy Spirit lives and does his holy work. And Jesus is building us into that Temple. He is building a Temple for the Spirit of love out of the very people who so often deny him or betray him (even put him to death). He is our Savior. (He is the Savior of the world.) And yet, we are the crooked timber that he has to work with. He is able to redeem us. He is able to redeem even the most desperate and confused and God-forsaken corners of our lives.
He is able to redeem us when we hurt each other. We are, in fact, enslaved to our most selfish and self-destructive desires. Too often, we are driven around by our anger, our greed, and our other intemperate desires. Far too often, we choose the ways of sin and death. And we give in to the isolation and division that are tearing the human family apart.
Not only do we fail to treat each other with civility and respect, we actually go far lower than that. We wallow in contempt for our neighbors. In spite of our God-given need for each other, we choose (we actually choose) the awful mixture of hatred and disgust that we name contempt. That’s what contempt is: hatred mixed with disgust. The roots of it lie in Cain’s murder of Abel. It’s the first time we break fellowship with our neighbor in that violent way that we call “murder.” And it is our contempt for each other where that legacy asserts itself today. It’s not our differences of opinion, but our contempt for our neighbor, that is tearing our country apart.
If we bother to seek community at all, we seek pseudo-communities for the like-minded, or the self-righteous. We seek out only those people who agree with our prejudices. Thus, we deny what we know as Christians—that we are all in it together. And we harm our neighbors in the process. This is harming every nation, not just ours. (It is the human condition. It is the fact of our sin.) And it is harming every nation, every city, every person. It is also harming many, many families and churches today.
Everywhere on earth, we are failing to listen to each other. We are ignoring the evidence and the testimony of others, especially when it’s inconvenient for us. Sometimes, we even fail to listen for God. We read the Scriptures, but we assume we already know what God is trying to tell us there. And we invoke him in prayer only when we suppose that he will support what we’ve already decided to do. We talk to God and we tell him what to do—but we seldom ever listen.
“Get behind me, Satan!” says Jesus to Peter. (He’s also saying it to us.) “Get behind me. Follow me. For your hearts are set on your own ways, rather than the ways of God.” That’s what I hear Jesus saying to me.
Peter will turn back to what Jesus has already called him to be. He will become the Rock on whom the Church is built. His confession of faith will be an inspiration to generation after generation. But first he needs to “get behind” Jesus—and follow him. And so do we.
Jesus is the one who brings us together as brothers and sisters. He brings us to the Cross, where the crooked timbers of humanity meet and come together. Like a master carpenter, he joins us together as a living, breathing Temple for the Lord. Jesus brings us here, to the Cross, to restore our lost humanity. Here, he squares us and levels us out, to the standard of his own true love for God and neighbor. We are, in fact, stooped over by the weight of our sin. And, if we weren’t so self-absorbed, we would realize how deadly it all is—and then turn to God for help.
Here, on the Cross, God calls us to die to our sinful desires. Here, on the Cross, God calls us to die to our contempt for each other—and our need for control. Here, Jesus is pulled apart and broken for our salvation, so we can draw near to God, without any defense or plea. Here, on the Cross, Jesus is making all things new and renewing us in the Spirit of love, so that we might claim our destiny as God’s beloved children. Here, he gives us hearts of flesh, and turns us back to each other. “Then Jesus told his disciples,” we read in the Holy Gospel. He told them: “‘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.’”
Jesus is the sum total of the Gospel. He himself is the Gospel we preach. We are called to follow him wherever he leads us. And to leave behind us the ways of death. Through the Cross, he gives us life. Here, he joins us. He joins us to his Father. He joins us to each other.
He makes us one. He makes us whole.