Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Be Followers"

Sermon 9/13/09, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

Be Followers

This week, at the eighth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, like many people, I thought about where I was and what I was doing when I first heard word of what was unfolding in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. I was in my second year of seminary at the time, in Madison, NJ, and I had just started my internship at the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the ecumenical and interfaith agency of the United Methodist Church, which is located in Manhattan. I had worked just two days so far, and was feeling pretty brave for commuting into the city, making my way on the subway, and getting to the busy location of my workplace. Now, September 11th was not one of the days that I was in the city – but going back to my job afterwards – there was such a climate of fear and anxiety, I can’t even explain to you. Every time a subway car stopped on the tracks between stations, people were afraid. When we had a fire drill in the building where I worked, people were afraid. When the train back to NJ had an anthrax scare, people were afraid. For the first time in many people’s lives, there was a realization that perhaps we weren’t really safe. We feared, in a way we hadn’t before, for our safety. For our personal safety, our physical safety, but also for our sense of national safety, safety for our society, a way of life we’d gotten used to. We desire, hope for safety in our lives – safety in our homes, schools, communities, on our streets, in the air – aren’t we seeking after a world that is safe?

Thinking about these issues of safety, keeping those thoughts in your mind, we turn to our text from Mark’s gospel. It’s another text that appears more than once in the lectionary, and we usually associate this passage with the season of Lent – when Jesus talks about denying ourselves and taking up crosses – that’s imagery that fits in with giving up or taking up something for Lent. But here it is, at the edge of fall, and we find this passage again. Our scene opens Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answer truthfully that some speculate that Jesus is John the Baptist back from the dead, or that he is Elijah in his second coming, or at least one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks a more personal question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time that Jesus is so identified by the disciples in Mark’s gospel. Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, for the first time. Jesus wants to know: what do I mean to the people? Who am I to them? And who am I to you? And the people, the crowds, the religious leaders – they’re confused, questioning. They all misname Jesus, misidentify who he is and what he is about. But Peter, for once, gets the answer right - You are the Messiah, he tells Jesus. Peter's answer shows that he knows who Jesus is.

But just as soon as Peter makes this identification, we find ourselves in the second section of this scene – Jesus describes for the disciples the events that will happen in their coming time together – the Son of Man will undergo great suffering and eventual death, and then rise again. Mark notes that Jesus “said all this quite openly.” Peter wasn’t pleased, apparently, with such openness. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But Jesus turns the tables back on Peter, with blunt words. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Then Jesus calls the crowds and disciples together. “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Denial. Crosses. Saving and losing lives. Gain and forfeit. Jesus’ words are tongue twisting and circular and confusing. To save our life we must lose it, and if we lose it, we save it. What does it mean? For answers, perhaps we can look to the first part of this passage again, where Jesus has a rebuking showdown with Peter. What triggers Jesus’ reaction, I wonder? If someone you loved told you that all sorts of terrible things would happen to them, even if they thought those things were necessary, wouldn’t you want to stop these things from happening? Wouldn’t you insist that it wasn’t true, that they were just pessimists, with bad outlooks on the future? Isn’t Peter just trying to get Jesus out of this negative state of mind?

But then, on the other hand, I wonder: Are Peter’s motives really so selfless? Does he rebuke Jesus just because he does not want to hear about what his master will have to endure? Is he really just unable to bear hearing what Jesus will endure? If that’s the case, why does Jesus respond to him so harshly? Wouldn’t Jesus know Peter was speaking and reacting out of love? I wonder, then, if perhaps Peter was speaking out of fear – not for Jesus, but for himself. He has been following Jesus day to day, step to step. Now Jesus is talking about a path of suffering, rejection, and death. Won’t Peter have to follow Jesus on this path, too, to continue his discipleship? Perhaps Peter is not ready to give, or give up, what it takes to follow Jesus. Jesus is offering salvation – but perhaps Peter is looking for safety instead.

This is the crux of the passage. This is what I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been thinking about 9/11 this week. Are we looking for salvation? Or just safety? Because I think there is a big difference between being saved and being safe. Being safe means that we are protected from threats, protected from harm. But being saved – the word save is connected to the world salve, as in a healing balm. Being saved is something that brings wholeness, wellness, and life. But there’s no guarantee of safety. The thing about following Jesus is that he never promises that it will be safe to follow him. He’s very clear about that with Peter and his disciples in our text today. Following Jesus involves denying ourselves and taking up a cross, and actually following Jesus. There’s nothing safe about that at all. It’s risky, actually. But Jesus is taking about saving our lives, when we stop hanging onto our safety.

Are you looking to be safe? Or saved? If we think about the ways that we give – of ourselves, our money, our time, our possessions, our talents – we usually are willing to give so long as it doesn’t make us change our usual patterns and behaviors. I’ll give as long as I don’t have to give up something else. We serve, but within our comfort zones. We love, but with limits to protect ourselves. We risk, but not so much that we’re really be in trouble if things don’t work out. We, like Peter, fear being asked to give more than we’re able – to give our very selves. We can think of the motto, “Give until it hurts.” This sounds like an apt description of Jesus’ plan for us, doesn’t it? Laying down our lives? Taking up a cross?

But Jesus doesn’t see it this way. He turns our usual understandings upside down and inside out. To live you must get rid of your carefully constructed safety nets so that Jesus can actually save you. And to save, you must lose. After all, Jesus asks us, what can you give that equals the gift of your life? Not giving until it hurts. Giving until it gives you life. Unless we give up what we’re holding onto so tightly, unless we stop hanging on for dear life to our safety, we won’t be free to take up the cross that Jesus is offering to us. And we want to take that cross, though it seems hard to bear. Because if we don’t take up that cross, there is only so far we will be able to follow Jesus, only so far he can travel with us, before our paths must part. His path leads to the cross and beyond – to salvation – wholeness – life. His path may seem painful, but it is the path to the fullest kind of life we could desire. It is the path that will meet our deepest hopes. It is the path of abundant life. What can we give to walk such a path? Everything! “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus gives us the choice, as he gave to Peter and the disciples. Safe, or saved? Safe, but empty, unsatisfied? Or saved, risky, but whole, well? Your life, your real life is at risk. And saving it is worth giving everything. Amen.

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