Sunday, February 19, 2023

Sermon: “The Deal of a Lifetime”, Matthew 16:24-17:8 (February 19, 2023 - Transfiguration Sunday)


Although this week’s reading begins towards the end of Matthew 16, the full episode actually starts back in verse 13. You already know the story, though: Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, and Peter quickly (and correctly) responds, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!” Jesus praises Peter’s understanding and declares him the rock upon which the Church would be built. But not three verses later, Peter gets spooked by Jesus’ teachings about the Messiah’s suffering and crucifixion and tells him not to speak of such things. Jesus makes a 180 from calling Peter the rock upon which the Church would be built to the stone that could cause him to stumble. And that’s the point at which today’s reading begins.

Jesus realizes that perhaps the disciples don’t understand what they’ve gotten themselves into after all, so he stops what he’s doing to outline it clearly. “Here’s the deal,” he says. “The Human One (whoever THAT could be, wink wink) is about to come ‘with the majesty of his Father with his angels’. The Kindom of Heaven is almost here, and you already know how great that’ll be, right? But here’s the thing: in order to take part in that, you have to be willing to give up your life, to voluntarily take part in the very thing that will directly lead to your destruction. I promise that if you do this, it’ll be totally worth it, and you’ll ultimately get your life back. But first you have to lose it completely – and painfully. So what do you say; are you in?”

It’s almost like…well, have you ever seen the television show “Shark Tank”? Hear me out. So “Shark Tank” is a reality show where entrepreneurs go before a panel of investors (or “sharks”) to pitch their idea or product. If they’re convincing enough, one or more of the sharks will agree to invest in the entrepreneur’s vision. The sharks, like the disciples, are asked to give up something really big to support a worthy project, on the assumption (or the hope) that eventually, their investment will pay off and they’ll get it all back – and then some. (It seems like they’ll make ANYTHING into reality television these days, doesn’t it?)

Investment as entertainment may sound like a boring concept, but it’s actually pretty fun to watch. The entrepreneurs begin their pitch by saying exactly what kind of investment they’re looking for and what they’re willing to offer in exchange (for example, a stake in the company, a percentage of sales, etc.). After they describe and demonstrate their product and the sharks have had an opportunity to ask questions, they wait to see if any of the sharks will “bite”.

Sometimes, the sharks aren’t interested at all, and the entrepreneurs leave emptyhanded. Other times, they’ll haggle over the investment proposal, offering less money or requesting more of a payout. Still other times, the sharks will agree to the initial proposal of the entrepreneur, occasionally even fighting over who gets to invest. A lot of products that have become pretty well-known, like Bombas socks, the Squatty Potty, and the Scrub Daddy sponge, got their start on Shark Tank. All because at least one shark believed in them enough to make a large-scale investment in their success.

So here comes Jesus in our scripture reading with the deal of a lifetime, making his pitch to the disciples. If he’d been on Shark Tank, it probably would have sounded something like this: “Hi, Sharks; my name is Jesus, and I’m seeking a willingness to give up your life in exchange for a share in the Kindom of Heaven.” Peter, of course has already rejected Jesus’ terms even before hearing the full pitch, but Jesus isn’t quite ready to give up on him – Peter hasn’t really seen the “product” in action yet.

Jesus invites Peter and two other disciples up to the top of a very high mountain for a – let’s call it a demonstration. There, Jesus reveals his full glory to the men. He’s transfigured in a way that would only be possible for someone divine (Mark’s gospel goes so far as to say that his clothes become “brighter than anyone in the world could bleach them”). Jesus puts all his cards on the table and shows Peter, James, and John exactly what he’s offering them in exchange for their lives: complete transformation and a kindom where such as Moses, Elijah, and the Lord dwell alongside humanity. The investment may be huge, but the payoff is literally priceless.

Peter sees all this, takes it in, and…makes a counteroffer. “Okay, Jesus, this DOES sound pretty good, but how about this – we make three tents and just stay up here.” Basically, he wants to reap the dividends without making the investment. The absolute nerve, right? Peter still doesn’t get how this all works. He makes a terrible shark. But before he’s even able to finish his sentence, a voice descends from a bright cloud and says, “LISTEN TO MY BELOVED SON!” Needless to say, this sort of brings negotiations to a halt and leaves Peter, James, and John with a lot to think about, if not with a final offer. But in spite of all this, Peter STILL refuses to accept Jesus’ deal, culminating with his denial of Jesus to preserve his own life on Good Friday. It looks like Jesus has to walk away from the shark tank empty-handed.

Fortunately for Peter, Jesus’ pitch doesn’t have to be resolved within a ten-minute slot (plus commercials). In spite of Peter’s stubbornness, Jesus keeps his offer on the table until Peter is finally ready to accept it. It's easy for us, sitting in a place of relative safety, living in a country where Christianity is generally embraced if not outright endorsed, having protections and resources that the disciples did not, to shake our heads disdainfully and criticize these biblical sharks for taking so long to accept the literal deal of a lifetime.

But we’re not as ready to invest in the Heavenly Kindom as we might think (at least, not to the degree that Jesus asks). How often have you yourself been willing to speak the unpopular parts of the gospel out loud when you knew it would cost you something? I don’t mean in the echo chamber of social media or in your circle of like-minded friends; I mean among your family members on the other side of the political divide, at a public schoolboard meeting, or with those who hold authority over you or your livelihood. How often have you been prepared to give up your relationships, your privacy, or your career for Christ? Frankly, how often have any of us been willing to speak up on behalf of Christ at all? There’s a time and a place for compromise and restraint but proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t it.

Jesus calls us all to take up our cross and follow him, to be ready to give up our lives for the outrageous gospel of justice, mercy, and peace. This means standing up for the things that Jesus stood for, even when doing so would “kill the economy”, “kill certain industries”, or even “kill the Church”. It means laws that protect this planet that God has created. It means just compensation for employees. It means guaranteed parental leave for all people. It means making choices on behalf of the kindom instead of self-preservation. It means loving your neighbor – and your enemy – as yourself. It means acting justly, loving with abandon, and walking humbly with God. It means investing the most valuable thing you have – your life – and being willing to die in every way, just as Christ was willing to die, for the sake of the world that God so loves.

Accepting Jesus’ deal isn’t as easy as we like to pretend. We have to be willing to be the means of our own destruction – socially, politically, professionally, and even literally – on behalf of the Good News. The DISCIPLES weren’t even prepared to do that for a long time, even with first-hand knowledge of who Jesus is and the “proof” of the Transfiguration, so it’s not surprising that we struggle with the decision, too. But what Jesus is proposing here – the offer currently on the table – is the deal of a lifetime. There’s no doubt that the cost is high, but Jesus promises that we’ll be repaid what we’ve sacrificed, and then some. We just have to be willing to make the investment.

So, sharks, what do you say? Do you want to take part in the Kindom of Heaven? How much are you willing to invest? Your friendships? Your livelihood? Your life? The deal won’t expire, but the sooner we all get on board, the sooner we can see our investments grow into the heavenly kindom. You know who you’re getting into business with. You know that God keeps God’s promises. You can’t lose. This is the deal of a lifetime – so are you willing to bite? Amen.

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