“Better than Rock Band™… no Xbox® Required”
A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached August 24, 2014, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
I imagine many of you have at least heard of the hit video games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Some of us, I’m sure, have tried our hands at them ourselves, strumming away on those plastic pint-sized guitars. Others of us perhaps have looked on while our younger kids or our older siblings played. Perhaps some of you even just bought it for your grandkid for Christmas one year, not really even knowing what it was, just that it was on “the list.”
It’s actually been 9 years now since the original edition of Guitar Hero was released. It was a couple of years later, in 2007, that a second edition came out, as did a new competing game called Rock Band. For you among the uninitiated, the basic point of these games is to simulate playing along with various rock and pop songs. With Guitar Hero, you hook up something that looks rather like a guitar, but up where you’d normally have strings to press against frets, there are a series of color coded buttons, and down where you’d normally strum the guitar, it’s a little flipper thing you strum instead. On the video screen as you play, there’s a running track of colored dots that match with the different buttons on the guitar, and you “play” by pressing the right button and strumming. The challenge, of course, is to master the speed and rhythm with which the various buttons need to be pressed… trying as well as you can to “match” the original song. With the newer game Rock Band, this was expanded beyond just the guitar to include drums, keyboard, and even a microphone for singing—you’ve got to match the pitch and rhythm of the rock song’s original artist in order to do well at the game.
For a good couple of years, these games were all the rage. Millions of people all around the country—high schoolers, college students, and plenty of adults even—spent hours upon hours trying to be the best Jon Bon Jovi or Tommy Ramone or Pete Townshend from The Who, or Alex Kapranos from the band Franz Ferdinand. But the thing is, you see, when you’re playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero, you’re not actually Jon Bon Jovi or Pete Townshend.
You’re just doing your best impersonation of them, your best imitation. And for that matter, you’re not really imitating them, since they play on real guitars and drums, actually making real music. The irony of these video games’ popularity even while getting youth to take up real instruments can be so difficult, it was not lost even on the writers of the popular, albeit usually raunchy, animated series South Park. There was an episode back in 2007 where Stan’s father tries to bring out his real guitar that he had rocked away on as a youth, but Stan and Kyle and their friends want nothing to do with it—they just go back to trying to beat the all-time points record on Guitar Hero II.
I wonder, sometimes, whether that’s how we approach our faith—our relationship with God, our discipleship of Jesus, our ability to be Spirit-filled signs of grace and mercy and love and justice and new life in the world. Are we just imitating, impersonating, “playing at” it? Are we simply playing Rock Band: The Kingdom-of-Heaven Edition? Or are we laying down some real tracks pulsing with the beat of God’s heart for us and all the world?
In the reading we’ve heard this morning from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples that famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” They all know the various things that others have said about Jesus—“Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But Jesus wants to know what they, his disciples themselves, have to say about who Jesus is. As we have heard, Peter responds with a confession of faith, testifying that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus affirms that this testimony, this faith within Peter, is not of Peter’s own making—or at least not only of his own making—but rather is itself a gift from God.
Now, this very same question from Jesus, “Who do you say I am?”, could make for some good soul-searching on our own parts: What’s our confession of faith? Who do we say Jesus is, and why does that matter?
But that’s not actually what grabs me the most this morning as I hear this story. Sure, the story may confront us with the question of who we say Jesus is. But all the while, it also proclaims, it testifies, it witnesses to something else: who Jesus says we are.
Just this past Friday night, I spent a chunk of the evening sitting in a pew over at Faith Congregational Church in Hartford’s north end. Faith Congregational is one of our historically black churches in Hartford and among our Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. The Reverend Steve Camp, Faith’s senior pastor, had organized a community conversation on the topic of relations between community and police, not in response to what we’ve all heard about going on in Ferguson, Missouri, but also in the wake of an incident earlier this past week where a young black male was tasered by a Hartford police officer for what many believe to be no justifiable cause. If you saw the local news Friday night or yesterday morning, you may have seen coverage of this community conversation over at Faith Congregational, an event at which the governor spoke and one at which the mother of the young man who was tasered spoke out looking for justice.
Events like what has been happening in Ferguson and what happened in Hartford are provoking really important questions and conversations about police brutality and use of force, and even more importantly, about the continuing injustices of race relations in our country. For instance, how can we say the so-called justice system in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, is at all “just” when the data show something akin to 3 warrants per household issued last year and over $2.6 million dollars in revenue raised from fines and court fees in a city of only 21,000 residents…? And when black residents who get stopped by police are twice as likely as whites to be searched, even though searches of whites produce contraband 14% more of the time…?
What was interesting to me as I listened to the various members of the community who took the opportunity to speak out at this meeting in Hartford on Friday evening, was that the focus didn’t solely stay on policing and race. Sure, there was plenty of passion and emotion in the room about those issues—and that’s both understandable and way-more-than justified. But conversation also kept circling around to questions of who we are as a community. Where are the elders and community figures through which we hold ourselves accountable? Sure, we rise up in protest when there’s police brutality, but why don’t we do the same when there is violence and brutality between members of our own community? What can we do to work on education and hunger and poverty, since these are the factors that so much feed into the cycles of violence?
Those were the questions being asked alongside the other rightful questions about injustice. Who are we as a community? What is our power? And how do we actually capture the power we have among us to make for transformation?
I think those same sorts of questions haunt all of us, in our day-to-day lives, in our community life, and even in our spiritual life. Can I do it? Can we do it? Am I good enough, strong enough, talented enough? Or am I simply playing along with a simulated game?
But you see, my friends, the promise that Jesus offers Peter—and I believe offers all of us—is that we do indeed have the power. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus doesn’t just hand us a pretend guitar hooked up to a video game so that we can score points. He hands us a real guitar whose strings are perfectly tuned, and by God’s Spirit somehow we already know how to play it, rocking along with the heartbeat of the kingdom of heaven. The keys that Jesus hands us aren’t simply colorful plastic buttons, but the actual keys to unlock the things of heaven that are already breaking into this world. We don’t just get to impersonate, we get to be the real deal.
You see, we as Christians, as the church, as people seeking to be disciples, we are the ones who answer that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the son of the Living God. That’s the confession around which we gather. Even as full of doubts and questions as our confession of faith may be, it is nevertheless that testimony to who Jesus is that we center our life together around. And Jesus promises to the one who makes that confession—that confession that isn’t even our own, but is a gift of God itself—that we are already in alignment with what’s being bound and loosed, with what’s breaking forth of the kingdom of heaven. We have the power.
So, my friends, trusting in the one whose power broke even the grip of death itself, pick up those keys. Start unlocking the kingdom of heaven right here, right now, inside yourself, in this church, around this community, throughout the world. Because the truth is, you have the power. You aren’t just an impersonator, a game player. You are the real deal—that’s Jesus promise. Pick up those keys, play some music, bring about the kingdom. And find out that being a disciple is way better than playing Rock Band… and you don’t even have to own an Xbox.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 The episode, written and directed by South Park co-creator Trey Parker and entitled “Guitar Queer-O”, first aired 7 November 2007 on the network Comedy Central.
 Michael Daly, “Ferguson Feeds Off the Poor: Three Warrants a Year Per Household”, TheDailyBeast.com, 22 August 2014, accessed 23 August 2014 at http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/08/22/ferguson-s-shameful-legal-shakedown-three-warrants-a-year-per-household.html. Daly is citing data from a recently released report from the St. Louis area nonprofit lawyers group ArchCity Defenders.