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There’s an old American cliché that I’m sure most of you have heard in some form. “Go out on a limb.” It dates back to at least the 19th Century, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what it means just by hearing it. Like the best clichés, it evokes a physical image.

Imagine if you will, a cat stuck in a tree. I don’t know if cats actually get stuck in trees as often as Hollywood and the mainstream media and the children’s literature industry would have us believe, but I’m sure it does happen. Now this cat, in all of its feline wisdom, has found itself in a serious predicament. It doesn’t know how to come down; it’s never gotten this far before. It’s going to starve, or fall. It needs help. So you climb up the tree, working your way slowly up to the limb in question. And here’s where things get tricky, because tree limbs tend to get smaller as you go out farther from the trunk.

You clamber up onto the limb and wrap your legs around it. You hear the fabric of your jeans catch on the small ribs of the bark. You put your weight down on your hands, palms-down on the limb, and begin to ease your way forward. It’s hot up here. Sweat trickles down the side of your face; a drop stings the corner of your eye. You can feel more sweat gathering in the small of your back. Your shirt begins to stick to you. Small pieces of bark come loose as you pass over them, and they tumble wildly to the ground that’s just a little too far below you.

As the tree limb starts to narrow, you glance down and your stomach does a flip. It did not look this far up when you were standing on the ground. You grasp a small branch for support and snap! You lose your balance, leaves fall from your hand. Hitchcock zoom as the ground seems to move toward you and farther away at the same time. The birds, the insects, the Hollywood soundtrack all go silent as you hang there between life and an emergency room bill. You regain your balance, more slowly than you would like, and look back up at the end of the limb. There’s the cat, sitting there confused and helpless. And the closer you get to it the more the bough sags. You can’t help but remember “Rockabye Baby” and just how dark that particular lullaby gets at the end. You are putting yourself in a difficult position to lend a helping hand.

You are going out on a limb.

In short, going out on a limb means putting oneself in an isolated or disadvantaged position in one's support of someone or something. Maybe it’s a cat, or an object of value, or a person. Maybe it’s an ideal.

This past week, we’ve been hearing and seeing the effects of Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast, where it battered communities in and around Texas and Louisiana. We’ve heard about the terrible situations people have found themselves in, and we have heard about the heroes. People going out on a limb for others.

We see pictures from Houston of a human chain of neighbors braving running water more than waist-deep to rescue an elderly man from a half-submerged car. We hear other accounts of a mother swept away by the rising current who used all her strength to keep her child above water until a boat of rescue workers found them. We see the owner of a mattress store risking his property and livelihood to open his doors to house and feed hundreds of people the storm has displaced.

Sometimes doing the right thing takes going out on a limb. Sometimes it’s taking a risk, putting yourself in danger or on the line because it’s the only way you can see to help.

Or, sometimes doing the right thing puts you in a vulnerable position, leaving yourself out there to be judged by people who don’t understand your choice.

And sometimes doing the right thing is uncomfortable. Something that rubs you the wrong way, that pushes back against the way you’re used to operating, or that is completely outside your experience or expectation.

Taking a risk, making yourself vulnerable, violating your own comfort… these are three ways we “go out on a limb.” Because doing good isn’t always pleasant, and it isn’t always easy. Not even for the best of us.

In our Scripture reading today, we hear Jesus utter what became another cliché: “Get behind me, Satan.” Pretty harsh words from the Messiah, comparing one of his own followers—Peter—with the biggest obstacle between humans and God. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew we see the figure of Satan being shown as a “stumbling block” on the path to righteousness and the divine. Whatever Peter said to set Jesus off like this must have been pretty serious, doubly so because Jesus had just finished saying how proud he was of Peter, and that Peter’s faith would stand as the foundation of his church.

From our reading today: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Now I don’t blame Peter for his instincts here. Jesus had just revealed that he was the Messiah, the one sent to save us and show us a better way—by Peter’s own words the Son of God. And then, he went on to say that his efforts here among us will put him at great personal risk. He expects to face suffering, systemic humiliation, and even death. The Messiah—this person who has done so much good, who has shared words of such great beauty with Peter and the rest, and who has so much good left to do—this truly holy person is going out on a limb for all of us, knowing full well that limb is not going to hold him.

Peter didn’t want to believe him. No one that good, that heroic, that godly deserves to suffer. He didn’t even want to hear it.

But Jesus stood firm. He told them that doing the right thing, doing good for others, it isn’t always butterflies and sunshine and roses. Doing the right thing often means going out on a limb, taking a risk, making yourself vulnerable, abandoning what’s comfortable.

Things might go well for the kind Catholic mattress store owner, or he might go bankrupt with his inventory ruined and his savings fed to starving evacuees. Someone in the human chain could have gotten swept away by the current while trying to save the man in the car. And… the woman who kept her child above water, who saved her child’s life? She didn’t make it.

But they did it anyway. They went out on a limb to help others. To do the right thing. Even though it was scary, even though it was risky.

Hurricane Harvey has been full of examples of true, dramatic heroism that illustrate my point. But I’m not saying that in order to be righteous we must all pack up, drive down to a disaster area, and risk life and limb throwing ourselves at the problems of the world. Those are just obvious examples. We each have our own crosses to take up, our own limbs to climb out on, and one size does not fit all.

But to be faithful Christians, to follow in the way of Jesus, we are called to take risks for others, to work for good even if it makes us vulnerable or really uncomfortable. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, maybe someone here is deathly afraid of needles and has never given blood before… and maybe that person is being called by God right now to fight through the fear, discomfort, and pain to donate blood for those suffering in hospitals along the Gulf Coast.

We as a church are called to do good in our community. To reach out with unconditional love to those who are suffering, and those who are oppressed or marginalized because of their class or background or sexuality or because of some messed-up social construct. Jesus calls us to be neighbors to people who dress and act differently than you, to drug addicts, to people of different races, different religions, to Democrats or Republicans, to criminals, to people who play country with the windows down and the radio up on one side, and to metalheads wearing t-shirts for bands with names like Goatwhore and Anthrax on the other.

Doing good can be uncomfortable. Standing up for what’s right can leave you pretty darn vulnerable to eyes that might judge you. Following the way of Jesus is sometimes a risk.

But what good is our comfort, if it gets in the way of the work of God? Peter didn’t want Jesus to go out on a limb. He didn’t think Christ should have to risk to be righteous.

As we walk the path of Jesus, our instincts will align with Peter’s. First Parish shouldn’t try this thing because it’s too risky. We shouldn’t come down on that issue because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. We shouldn’t consider those undertakings because they might cost money, or social capital, or reputation. We shouldn’t have them on our property because we don’t understand their religion. We shouldn’t give that a shot because this is the way we’ve always done it.

And when those instincts arise, and they set us on the defensive… let’s remember what Jesus said. “Get behind me, Satan!” Maybe that thing we’re worried about… maybe it’s worth putting our comfort on the line.

Maybe God is calling us to go out on a limb.

How is God calling you today?

Amen.