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"Memento Mori," by Zachary Helton

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to explain to the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and religious scholars, and that he must be killed… but that would not be the end. Peter took him aside and began to protest. “Never, Rabbi!” he said. “Please! This will never happen to you!” Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind on human fears rather than the things of God.” Then Jesus said to the disciples, “If you wish to follow me, you cannot run from suffering. You must let go of your selves, take up your cross and begin to follow in my footsteps. “If you would save your life, you will lose it; but if you would lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What profit would you show if you gained the whole world but lost sight of your true self? What can you offer in exchange for your truest self?”

This is one of our sacred stories. Thanks be to God.

Sermon

Memento Mori latin /məˈmenˌtō ˈmôrē/ “Remember, you will die.” Peter hated death. And why shouldn’t he? It crashes into our world with an iron fist and just takes whatever it wants. No matter how we distract ourselves or try to control things, it reminds us just how helpless we really are. Death had first trespassed into his life when he was only six years old, an innocent child with trusting eyes and a grubby tunic. Peter loved his grandmother. He spent hours on her knee hearing story after story, from God in the garden to Shadrach in the furnace. But then, she got sick. Near the end, he stood at her bedside, confused and helpless. She called him close. “Don’t be fooled, child,” she whispered to him. “Where could I go?” He didn’t know what that meant, because only days later, she was gone, and his world faded to gray. Peter hated death. Jesus, however, was never like most people. He didn’t seem capable of hate, not even towards death, which both surprised and often offended Peter. Jesus often acted with the boldness of one who somehow lived outside of death’s domain, the result of which was that Jesus called a new world into being around him wherever he was. Every healing touch and wise word was a let there be in the void, inviting forth a new creation of freedom and truth, one in which the lowly were lifted and the bonds of oppression thrown off. It was this authority that led Peter to abandon his fishing boat and some years later come to believe that this man may be the Messiah, God’s chosen, who Israel had waited for for so long. Peter felt dizzy with anticipation of what could happen when Jesus inevitably ascended to power. It was this assurance which would make that night so hard. When Peter approached Jesus, he was standing in the midst of their camp, just looking around at all the people busily preparing for the sun to set. James and John were also just walking up. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Jesus asked, looking at the people smiling and helping one another – a liberated people. “It’s beautiful what God has made.” “It is,” Peter said, a practical matter on his mind. “Before we settle in, I needed to ask you about…” “Shh,” Jesus shushed him, still looking around. “I just want to see it one last time.” At this, James, John, and Peter all looked at him, confused. “Pardon me, Rabbi?” John asked. “Come on,” Jesus gestured, inviting them to sit by the fire. “We need to talk.” Sitting, Jesus took a deep breath. “We have spent the last three years moving along the countryside with a lamp – testifying the truth. We expose lies that keep people in chains, lies of shame, lies of power… we set people free. It’s a beautiful thing God does through us.” Jesus sighed and smiled. “But the candle pays a price to be a source of light.” He looked up at his friends. “You know well there are those who profit greatly by staying in the darkness. In the darkness, they have control, they have a sense of self-righteousness. They protect a comfortable status quo, and this,” he gestured around him, “this threatens that status quo every moment it grows.” He paused and took a breath. “Soon, when we travel to Jerusalem, and we will so close to the source of it all that I believe the elders, the chief priests, and the Pharisees are going to panic, and I believe they’ll find a way to kill me.” “What?” James asked. Jesus nodded. “I imagine I’ll likely be stoned as a blasphemer or nailed to a cross as an insurrectionist.” Peter couldn’t wrap his mind around what he was hearing. John was shaking his head as if to clear it of cobwebs. “Rabbi… that can’t… that’s not…” he sputtered for a moment. “What are you saying? You’re saying you expect them to win?” “You’re… the Messiah,” Peter said. “Don’t… don’t talk like that, the people may hear you! If you’re having doubts, just look around at what you’ve accomplished! Think of what you’re capable of! Master, we’re following you because you are going to restore the Kingdom of God! We follow you because we believe you can win! If you die…” “If…” Jesus said, laughing. “Oh, friends, you have never understood. It is never an if. It is a when, and my when is fast approaching.” Peter didn’t like this. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “This is important… How can you be so calm talking about your own death for God’s sake?” Jesus nodded and thought for a moment. “Peter,” he said after a beat, “when you were on that fishing boat, you were surrounded by waves. Every day they’d rise and fall as you watched. Each wave rose and it had a form, it had dimension and speed. It had character. You knew it was a wave. But then it would crash on the bank, and it would be gone. Did you ever know a wave not to be impermanent? Now, a wave could wish it was otherwise, it could live its life in fear of it crashing… but what would happen if it accepted the truth? Embraced it?” “Embraced it?” Peter cried. “Why would a wave embrace its own death?” “Because, Peter,” Jesus said, “that’s the only way it would know it’s not just a wave, it’s the whole sea!” Peter furrowed his brows. He didn’t understand. Jesus continued, patiently. “Peter, you’re afraid. You’re resisting it because you’re setting your mind on my life as a wave, on your life as a wave. To you I’m Jesus, son of Mary and you’re Peter, son of Jonah, and that’s all you can see… but those things will cease to be. It is a fact. They are passing selves, false selves. You could spend your life fighting the fact, grasping at control, escaping through pleasure… you could. But then, when the wave crashes, all you’ll know is despair.” Jesus leaned in. “But what if you set your mind somewhere else? What if you set your mind, not on the waves, but on the water? On the sea? Peter, what would our lives look like if we saw our true self, as the Spirit of God, rising and falling in ever-changing arrangements of Eden’s dust?” Hesitating, but obedient, Peter did try to imagine it. He closed his eyes and strained his mind. “We would be…” he started. “We would be… free.” He opened his eyes, startled, and looked at Jesus. How many times had he looked into those eyes, eyes with nothing to protect or fear? Eyes that were free to love with reckless abandon? Is this what Jesus was? he wondered. A wave who had awoken to its nature as the sea? A man who had awoken to his true nature as God? “We would be like you,” Peter said, at last. James’ mind, however, was elsewhere. “So, what?” he cried. “You might just die? All we’ve worked for might just fall to dust? Be forgotten?” “Not might, James,” Jesus corrected, turning to meet his stare. “Will. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps many years from now, but either way, ‘Our lives are but a breath,’ he quoted the psalm, ‘our days are a passing shadow.’”[1] “Then… what are we doing here?” James asked, incredulous. “What have you been leading us towards if not the Kingdom of God?” “He’s not offering a way to escape death…” Peter realized, still searching Jesus’ face. “He’s offering us a way to… stop being afraid of it?” Jesus smiled. “Go on,” he said. “He’s been showing us what it is to die… now, before we die. We let it all go now, and get on with allowing God to live through us.” “That,” Jesus affirmed, “is how you enter the Kingdom of God. That is what it means to follow me.” He turned out to look at all of them. “If you really want to follow me, to become as I am, then you must let go of your false selves, of your wave selves, and pick up your cross. You must die to find what you, in fact, truly are. “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, but if you let it go, then you’ll find what’s real. You could conquer the whole world of passing forms, but what good would it really do you?” They sat in silence. Peter started to imagine a world without Jesus. Then he imagined a world without himself. He imagined, for a moment, watching his own bones be moved to a tomb and watched over time as they turned to dust. Returned to dust, rather. The longer he sat with it, the more open he felt. It felt as though windows were being opened in his soul, and as he let go, it felt spacious and free. He looked around at his friends, and he loved them. He loved them in all of their passing, imperfect, temporary beauty. It was all he could do. There was nothing to lose. Nothing to protect. There was enough. Looking to Jesus, he knew he would follow this man wherever he went, and if he died, he’d follow him still. Because you could not kill what he was. You could not kill the sea. Northminster, it is the great spiritual paradox that we must die in order to live, and we must let go in order to possess everything. In this moment, when death and doubt surround us on all sides, as our nation tears itself apart, as a virus threatens every corner of creation and we are so tempted to despair, to turn away or escape… memento mori. Look it in the eye, because it is only then that we are free. Amen.



Invitation to Respond

“Only by being prepared for your death can you ever truly live.” – Christopher Moore

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on the following questions:

  • How do you feel when faced with death, whether yours or someone else’s?

  • Who would you be if you practiced setting your mind on your nature as water rather than a wave?

  • Can you see any good, effective reason to hold on to your story about death?

[1] Psalm 144

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