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There is in New York City and maybe in a place near you people who gather at stop lights with squeegees or towels to wash your window hoping for some spare change. As I came up to a stoplight near Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx a few years ago and noticed one of the so-called "squeegee patrol" waiting for me, he began to wash my window when he looked inside my car and saw that I was wearing a white, plastic, clerical collar identifying me as a pastor. He smiled and went to the side of my window and told me to roll it down and I did. "Jesus, Father," he said, "I ought to be giving you money!" I smiled and said, "Yes." He washed my window again. Then he took out a fresh rag and wiped it spotless and then he came over to the side of the car again, looked at me, and smiled, and said, "Father, the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. God bless you, Father."
Well, I pulled over to the side and got out of the car. "Tell me about yourself," I said, and he did. An all too common story of a young black male sinking under the brutality of inner-city life. And also under some of the choices that he has made. It was a story of drugs, then prison, and now homelessness. "What gives you hope?" I asked him and he smiled. And he told me about a river in North Carolina where his grandmother had taken him to be baptized.
It was astonishing to me that all that has happened in this young man's life had not extinguished the Jesus-space in his heart placed there by the people who loved him, nurtured in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Jesus-space sprang up in hope and gratitude at a small sign of the church: a piece of plastic around my neck.
It struck me as well that there is a Jesus-space dormant or with flaming embers, that there is a spiritual space in every human being waiting to be called forth and waiting to confess the faith. Even though we live in world in which people don't seem to go to church as much, in which organized religion seems to be relentlessly under attack, there is no less spiritual hunger than there has ever been. That is what this young man had done on a street corner in the South Bronx by Yankee Stadium. He had confessed his faith to me and I took heart and the Jesus-space in me leapt up in gratitude.
Confessing the faith, especially from below and at the margins, propels our Gospel story for today. Today we hear in Matthew chapter 16 these words: "From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised." Now for the first time the Cross comes into view. For the first time in the Gospel of Matthew. But it is propelled by what happened just before it in the Gospel of Matthew.
We are at a place, Caesarea Philippi. This is the high noon story of the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the climax of the Galilean ministry of Jesus in his home region with many healings and teachings and also growing tension. Everything is now coming to a head. He draws his disciples aside; they've seen him teach and heal and contend with the religious authorities. He asks, "Who am I?" And it was Peter, just like a young man in the South Bronx who confesses his faith. Peter says, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." It is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus' identity has been believed and accepted and it is this confession of faith that enables Jesus to let the cat out of the bag and talk about his passionate death. In the words of Matthew, "From that time on, Jesus showed his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and die."
The Cross comes into view, and it is the confession of faith by Peter that is tied directly to Jesus' talking about what it means to believe in him. It means that the death and resurrection of Jesus will be the centerpiece of human history. It means that God's great dream of reconciliation of all creation and all humanity is cruciform.
Well, of course, Peter doesn't want to see his friend die. Who does? And we too don't want to go where the Cross will lead us. We confess the faith like Peter. Each Lord's Day when the Church gathers for worship, it confesses the faith. We confess the faith when we get out of bed in the morning to offer a bit of our time, counter-cultural these days in a world that is spiritually hungry but indifferent to the practice of religion. We confess the faith when we show up with God's people to worship. We confess the faith formally when we say the Creed, we confess the faith when we listen to the proclamation of the Gospel, when we share the faith with each other, when we receive bread and wine, when we leave after church, when we hear the words, "Go in peace and serve the Lord," and we hit that Monday morning world confessing the faith. We believe in God, the Father who created all things in Jesus Christ the Son of God who died for all and who rose again. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us the gift of faith and new life in Christ. We do confess the faith like Peter. But what about the Cross? They are tied together in the Gospel of Matthew? Right after the Caesarea event there is a direct connection between confessing the faith and the Cross of Jesus Christ. When we confess the faith, the Cross follows; that is, we follow Jesus laying down our lives, giving them away so that God may reclaim them through his death and resurrection. If any would follow me, let them pick up their Cross and follow. Confession is a matter of keeping the Cross in view.
We had a nursery school in each of the parishes in which I served. Opening day of the nursery school was always something else. For the three-year olds, the first few days at our parish school were heartbreak city. They're being abandoned by their loved ones in this strange new environment. We always had plenty of Kleenex around, not only for the little runny noses but also for the parents lurking in the hallways. My job was to make sure that none of the little ones were able to run away. I was to capture them before they got away and hit the street. So the first day I walked into a room of screaming little children and I picked up a wailing little fellow--his name was Eddie. He was so distraught that he was chewing on his arm, he was just screaming, "I want my Mommy! I want my Mommy!" I walked him around the room and showed him pictures on the wall, then all of a sudden he was quiet. I heard his excited little whisper, "Jesus, Jesus." He was staring at a Cross on the wall. "Jesus," he whispered again. Now, I would like to say that a miracle happened here and all the children crying and screaming gazed at a image of Jesus on the Cross and were quiet like the snake Moses held up in the wilderness. Forget it! Eddie rejoined the chorus later. But for an instant an image of Jesus connected with a young child's heart and gave him comfort. Somewhere in his short history--just like my friend on a street corner with a squeegee--this child's family and his church had planted a Jesus-space in his heart. That is confessing the faith too. Sharing the Jesus-space in the next generation.
Well, that is what Jesus was doing with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. He was planting a Jesus-space in their hearts, telling them that when they confessed his identity as the Son of God that the Cross would always be before their eyes. The next time we find Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, it will be on the Mountain of Transfiguration. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew can be considered as going from mountain top to mountain top to mountain top. In the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, there is the Sermon on the Mount--Jesus sharing the new law, the new Torah, the great teachings of the people of Israel. And he shared with them as the one with all of God's authority. Then he went down the mountain and showed them what that teaching looked like in real life. He touched people and healed them. He dazzled the poor. He stood with lepers and the untouchables, those that the world was crowding in on, closing in on. And so he goes down the mountain to the next mountain.
Right after Caesarea Philippi, they go to the Mountain of Transfiguration and there in splendor and glory, the disciples see that the one who says he is going to the Cross is the one who goes with God's power. "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased," said the voice. And from that mountain, he goes to the next mountain on which are planted three crosses, Calvary, where, finally, all will see, as any three-year old and you and me, the one on the Cross who shows us that in giving his life away and on the third day rising again that God is with us ALL the way, even to death.
What remains for us is our own confession of faith and our own carrying of the Cross. In worship, in the Word, in the world of heartbreak and hope, in the nurturing of the Jesus-space in hearts of the next generation and encouraging the Jesus-space in one another in the life of faith, and, finally, at the end, the Cross coming into view, and we, again, confessing the faith that will carry us home.
Listen, listen to how I was privileged to hear the faith confessed and see the Cross come into view at the end of the life of a child of God. Her father is a large, well-dressed man with a friendly smile and a formal dignity. His voice was warm and his handshake firm. "She asked to see you," he said in a deep voice while holding my hand. "But I don't know if she will recognize you now. I can't get her to eat or to open her eyes. Pastor, I'm afraid my baby is dying." I looked down at the bed at the familiar, pretty brown face of a woman of about 33, her frame now so thin with her long battle with AIDS transmitted through her husband's intravenous drug use. Her breathing was ragged, her eyes closed. She was a leader of her congregation. She was a Jesus-space nurturer. She was one of those few people who hold struggling, inner-city faith communities together. There is someone like that in your church. She sang in the choir, led the Sunday School, taught Bible classes, visited the sick, chaired the Board of Directors, but she didn't control. She was always giving the ministry away. She was also an earthy, fun-loving person with a natural piety. Her love of her Lord was infectious and touched those all around her. Ramona's struggle with her illness was also a struggle of faith and she had shared much of it with me, her pastor. She echoed Peter, "I don't want to die, I don't want to see the Cross."
Her father and I tried to wake her but we could not. So I recited some Bible passages and in his deep, strong voice he recited them with me. My dear friends in Christ, it is good to know pieces of the Jesus' story by heart. Then, he cried, walked over to a chair, sat down, and then she woke up. She was too weak to speak, but she smiled at both of us. She kept nodding her head towards something behind me, and then I noticed she was gesturing towards my communion set, a black box with bread and wine. I communed her with the tiniest bit of wafer in which Sacrament she was again embraced by her gracious God. I gave her a blessing, then a kiss, telling her that her Savior loved her and was waiting. I whispered my own love and sat down holding her hand. "I would like to give you a gift," her father said from his chair in the corner. He told me that he memorized inspirational poems and certain parts of the Bible and then gave dramatic renditions of them. He said that he would share a poem with me if I liked. His daughter tried to sit up to listen. He rose to his full height, and in deep voice, he gave an emotional rendition of a poem entitled, "Heaven's Grocery Store." He gestured, his voice rising and falling dramatically. Consumed by his poem and oblivious to the curious ones in the hall who stopped by the door to listen, the poem in a simple way described the spiritual gifts of faith, prayer, grace, and salvation. When he was finished, he wiped his brow, sat down, and smiled at us.
Well, it was certainly a gift he had given me. An unforgettable gift from the heart, a thank-you for caring about his daughter. It was also a father's way of telling his daughter that death was not the end and that the Cross of Jesus Christ in that Cross heaven awaited her. With a nod of her head toward a black box with bread and wine, a dying child of God confessed her faith as surely as Peter at Caesarea Philippi or a three-year old whispering, "Jesus," or a homeless man with a squeegee in his hand and a psalm on his lips. With a rendition of a poem, a heartsick father laid down his life, picked up his cross, and followed Jesus as surely as did those twelve who heard Jesus predict his passion.
Both of them, in a room of eminent death, echoed the apostolic faith of the ages and confessed that faith. In a hospital room in New Jersey, two children of God made a church's confession their own. They had nothing in this world except Christ and trust in his promises. Just like those twelve at Caesarea Philippi. "For what will have profited them if they gained the whole world but forfeited their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father."
Together each week we are a part of the faithful community which speaks its confession. Thus anchored in the faith of the ages, we are prepared to confess the faith and follow the Cross in many ways large and small until finally we see what we have believed. And the Jesus-space in us blossoms to life everlasting. Amen.
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