So. That was awkward. One minute Peter is on fire, calling Jesus the Messiah, getting praised by the Son of God himself, even getting a new name, “You will be Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” You can only imagine how excited Peter is feeling. He’s on the rise! And then Jesus just pretty well blows it for him by going and talking about awkward things like suffering and death and persecution.
So Peter, you know, the rock, he’s ready to bring the awkward conversation to Jesus. He pulls Jesus aside to let him know that he’s making the guys uncomfortable and could he maybe lay off that stuff for a while, because he’s really bumming them all out. But Jesus just dials up the awkward! “Get behind me, Satan!” And he starts going on about the cross and how it’s not just for Jesus himself, but that the disciples will have a cross to carry, too, and this is all just really, you know, uncomfortable. Awkward.
But Jesus and the disciples are at a cross-roads in this story. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus mentions the cross, and from here on, everything kind of rolls into slow motion, as Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and takes step after painful step toward what now seems to be the inevitable ending of his story – the cross. So this is the cross-roads in this story of Jesus; and it is a crossroads for the disciples, because now they must make a choice. This is the moment when Peter and the rest of them realize that what they thought was going on here was not really what was going on. Last week, they were on such a high – here is the Messiah! here is the founding of a new church! here are the keys to the kingdom! this is so exciting!
And now, it turns out that whatever they thought Messiah meant, what it really means is going to Jerusalem to suffer and be cast out of society and be killed as a common criminal. To carry a cross, the mark of the most abhorrent of Rome’s death sentences – to ally themselves with outsiders and insurrectionists and thieves and bandits. To die.
And now they have to decide. Are they ready to follow through? Are they getting on this bus? Are they ready to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus? It makes for an awkward moment. An awkward conversation. It’s time to shift their thinking and to push forward with God’s plan instead of their own plan,
or to admit that they don’t really want to follow Jesus.
They’re at a crossroads. And crossroads are awkward. That moment when you have to make a decision about how things are going to go, to have the awkward conversations you’ve been putting off. Until something happens that forces the conversation, and you have to deal. You have to set aside the fear and anxiety and just talk.
We are in a season of awkward conversations. We are at a crossroads, as a culture. Over the past months and years, some old wounds have been opened, and some awful things have happened, and our country is at a crossroads. We are figuring out together what we want to be as a nation, what we can be as a nation; as a culture; as a people.
And that means that we are having awkward conversations. About race, privilege, white supremacy, sexuality, the environment, immigration – so many awkward conversations.
This week alone, I have been involved in awkward conversations
- about racial profiling and police violence as we wait for the verdict in the Jason Stockley case in St. Louis;
- about white supremacy and hate groups in Franklin County because there is talk of erecting a Confederate statue in Union;
- about responding to Charlottesville in a conversation led by the Diversity Awareness Partnership;
- about traveling while black in response to the NAACP’s travel advisory against Missouri;
- about how the church welcomes LGBTQ siblings in Christ, as a response to the Nashville Statement by conservative Christians condemning gay and trans lifestyles;
- about climate change as Houston suffers unprecedented flooding;
- about immigrants as the status of people brought into the US as children may change, and exchange program visas are threatened;
- about interfaith relationships as our Vacation Culture School was featured in the Living Lutheran magazine and word is spreading about that.
And that’s not even getting into the important personal conversations we all have or don’t have. Conversations like the one I haven’t had yet with my dad, about dying well and saying goodbye. We all have these conversations at some point, about who hurt who, and how the kids are doing in school, and how we are going to live without our friend, our spouse, our parent. Or the day-to-day awkward conversations we all have about which way the toilet paper should face and whose turn it is to do the dishes or take out the garbage.
So in the middle of this week of awkward conversations, I got an email from one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle. It was about the release of her book Love Warrior, which is, as she puts it, about “awkward conversations about love and sex and infidelity and divorce and leaving the church and finding the church and learning how to trust yourself and do the next right thing.” And in this email she went on to say, “I am starting to truly believe that the willingness to have awkward conversations –imperfectly and over and over again — is a key to healing our hearts, our families, our communities and our country.” She continued, “The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard. The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.”
So this week is brought to you by the word awkward. It usually evokes an image of physical blundering, someone who is ungainly or just not comfortable in their own body is called awkward.
What’s the opposite of awkward? Graceful.
Awkwardness and grace stand in opposition to one another in our language. But in my experience, awkwardness and grace are actually beautifully intended for one another.
Physical awkwardness can be beautiful, like a newborn colt finding its legs and taking its first tentative steps. There is grace even in that awkward movement.
Social awkwardness is me speaking when I should listen, or getting worked up into a lather about something and I make every else uncomfortable. But even in that, there is grace, as others make room for my passion and my soapboxing, and go ahead and love me anyway.
This week, this month, this year, this life, has left me with this certainty: awkwardness demands grace. Every life encounters awkwardness, in larger and smaller degrees. And awkwardness demands grace, demands that we act in the name of compassion and grace even when we are confronted with hard truths and crossroads decisions, and what we really want to do is to retreat into the comfort of complacency, return to the way things have always been, so that we don’t have to make any hard choices, and we don’t have to face any of the painful realities. It’s easier to stay the same, even if the same is painful, than it is to have the awkward conversations that come with pain and growth and healing.
Peter did not want to have an awkward conversation with Jesus about suffering and dying, because it meant suffering for himself, too. It meant changing his own understanding of what a Messiah meant, for himself and for his nation. Taking up a cross and following Jesus meant, means, taking risks for the sake of grace, and then trusting in grace to guide us as we risk. It means leaning heavily on grace, because the more awkward the conversation, the more grace is needed.
That’s why Moses didn’t want to go when the burning bush sent him to Pharaoh to set the people free. He was being sent into some seriously awkward conversations. In fact, one of Moses’ main objections was “O my LORD, I have never been eloquent, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, I hate having awkward conversations! I’m no good at it! To which God responded, “I will be with you and teach you what you are to speak.” In other words, God will be with you in the awkwardness. If that’s not the definition of grace, I don’t know what is. God will be with you. Emmanuel. Grace.
This is the grace that we have to rely on to have these awkward conversations. The promise that God is with us. Even, maybe especially, in the hardest, most awkward conversations. Conversations about race and privilege and sexuality and climate and even grief and death and shame. These are all hard things to talk about. And God is not just willing, not just able, to join us in them. God is willing to be the heart of these conversations. God is prepared to put God’s own self on the line, to become the ground on which these conversations are held.
You know from your own experience how fear can overwhelm a conversation. How fear and pain, guilt, defensiveness can quickly derail what started out as a well-intentioned discussion between friends. We quickly find ourselves at a crossroads, especially when things get painful, especially when we are forced to think about our privilege, or our failure, or our own pain. And at this crossroads, I get anxious – about my past, about my future, about my security, about my ambitions, about my stuff. Anxiety about me, about myself, quickly moves to the center of my attention. Embarrassment and shame begin to rear their heads, and begin to feed me. They become the basis of my crossroads decision. Will I turn toward the other person? Will I accept their story as true? Will I acknowledge their pain and walk with them in it? Or will I turn back, turn in on myself, shore up my own defenses and pretend that my pain, my grief, my experience is the only one that matters? At the crossroads, I have to decide, What will become the grounding, the rock on which I build? Will I feed myself with fear? Will I let my shame and my defensiveness and my pain define me?
Or will I trust in grace? Will I place the grace and love of Jesus Christ at the center, and have the hard, awkward conversations anyway?
The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard.
The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.
The really good news is, we don’t do hard things alone.
Because we have been named and claimed by the God of grace. We are fed and watered by grace, not by fear. You have received grace upon grace. You have been bathed in grace in the waters of baptism, and you are fed each week at this table with the body and blood of grace, God with us, Emmanuel. Grace.
This is not a simple platitude. This is real. This is the Messiah that Peter did not expect. But this is the Messiah that we got. The Messiah who gives all that he is, for you. He is not (only) a Messiah for easy, comfortable times. He is the Son of the Living God, the God who came into this world to be with us in the most painful, difficult, awkward places. To stand with us at the crossroads and ask us which way we intend to go. To have the hard conversations, and to be the grounding of grace and love when those conversations get painful, and to be the hope of reconciliation and resurrection when those conversations go wrong. We can do hard things. But we do not do them alone. Thanks be to God.