Proper 20 – Pentecost 17
Delivered by: The Rev’d Kevin Corbin Smith
One would think that Jesus himself would’ve chosen more astute men to be his disciples. The women seem to have gotten what he was offering, but the guys were pretty dense. One might think Jesus would’ve found men on the order of Plato or Aristotle or Socrates or Rabbi Hillel or one of those big names who could comprehend his message.
But, Noooo! He finds simple fishermen who don’t seem too bright until after the Resurrection. And they seem to think that Jesus is the long expected Messiah– the one that will run the Romans out of town and restore the glory of the Kingdom of Israel to its former place in history – a former glory that lasted about a hundred years about seven hundred years before.
Apparently, there had been rumors floating around about who Jesus really was. You know how those things go: someone becomes famous and people start comparing him or her to someone from the past. In ancient times, it was common to believe that someone famous was the virtual reincarnation of someone previously famous. And the locals seem to have been indulging in such things. So, Jesus asks what the gossip really is. The locals seem to think that Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Isaiah. Jesus probably finds this all a bit worrisome since his message is quite different than those guys. So, he asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, never known to be the shy, retiring type, bursts out with, “You are the Messiah!” And Jesus tells him to shut up!
Then, Jesus goes on to tell them that the “Son of Man,” not the “Messiah,” must undergo great suffering and be executed and then rise from the dead. As I mentioned last Sunday, Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our military and sports teams onto victory, and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise. And Peter wanted a Messiah that was the messenger of this God. But that’s not what Jesus offers.
Instead, Jesus’ version of the Messiah points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. A God who meets us in those moments when we find ourselves in a handbasket and descending rapidly realizing that all for which we had worked, hoped and striven has fallen apart and that we are incapable of saving ourselves, desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are.
Jesus’ identity proves a God who shows up just where we least expect God to be. Which means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need. And Peter gets the Messiah he needs but not the one he’s been expecting.
Now, there are problems with this text that make scholars believe that the next portion of the Gospel of Mark is written through the rose-colored glasses tinted by the Resurrection. It’s highly questionable that the historical, human side of Jesus consciously understood that he would undergo such things. If he had, the disciples would’ve probably taken him off to Calvary and said, “Let’s get this show on the road!” But they didn’t. How could Jesus talk about taking up the cross long before the cross was in the picture? However, even with this biblical snafu, what does seem to be historical is Jesus’ insistence that his disciples deny themselves and follow him.
While the rest of the story may be a fictional method to introduce the material, the actual teaching is about who Jesus really is and what it means to follow him. As you can imagine, through the years I’ve been a member of Weight Watchers and I’ve noticed that when we have the conversation about taking up the cross, we approach it the same way as we do Weight Watchers: you know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian. It’s like someone combined Weight Watchers and Calvinism together to provide the most misery a Christian can experience.
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about at all. I think instead he’s suggesting that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t really life at all and that we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us. What Jesus is saying is that life isn’t like Weight Watchers. Life is not about giving up the good things. It’s about giving them away.
The Cross is a symbol of suffering, yes, but there’s more to it. The Cross is about giving ourselves for others, giving ourselves for a cause and the cause is the Gospel: the message of the unconditional love of God that we are to give away freely and with no strings attached. And giving it away doesn’t result in our having a deficit of love. Remember, this ISN’T Weight Watchers! There’s always more than enough to go around. To use a common metaphor, the glass isn’t half empty nor half full. It’s overflowing like an endless fountain.
Jesus challenges all of that by telling us that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away: like love and mercy and kindness and compassion. This is all fine and good from a sermon point of view. Talking about it is one thing. Living it is another. How do we as individuals and as members of this Parish Community take up the cross and follow Jesus into the rest of 2018 and into 2019? To answer this, three questions are helpful. And pay attention to the questions because we’ll have open mike after I sit down, though you don’t have to tackle all three.
The three questions are:
1. What would you say gives you the greatest joy in life?
2. What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose?
3. When you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?
The answers to these questions are guides to understanding how you and we are called to take up the Cross and follow Jesus. They’re not necessarily easy questions nor are they to be answered lightly. And the answer may change over time or become more honed into a certain point. However, I suspect that none of these answers involve what you have or what you’ve bought or what you’ve earned. Instead, I suspect that your answers will involve relationships, acts of kindness and service, the giving of yourself to others and shining light in dark places, in slathering love around wastefully and joyfully. This is what is meant by taking up the Cross and following Jesus. This is what it means to sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
In essence, Jesus is telling us that to take up the cross and follow him we need to give away our greatest joy knowing that in so doing we will receive even greater joy. Living our sense of purpose allows others to pursue their own sense of purpose. Being the person you believe God calls you to be results in your giving away your very best and supporting everybody else who is striving for the same thing. It’s only fair that if I’m asking you to speak to these questions that I also do the same.
So, here goes. Two things give me the greatest joy in life. They are equal so number 1 could also be number 2 and vice versa. The first thing that gives me the greatest joy that I’ll mention is being a husband. I’ve heard people say that marriage is hard. That’s not been my experience. Sometimes it seems like a rollercoaster, but it’s never hard. The second thing I’ll mention is administering the Body of Christ during Communion. There’s a joy about giving away the most important thing on earth to the most important people on earth; meeting their eyes and seeing their smiles or seeing their hurt and the hope that the Blessed Sacrament brings to them. It’s the connection between each one and me and God. And when I don’t do it on a regular basis, I get spiritually squirrelly.
The thing that gives me the greatest sense of purpose is caring for other people. I know that sounds cliché and a bit arrogant, but it’s not meant to be that way. Truth is that caring for other people isn’t something I ever set out to do. It’s something I got stuck with. I never intended to be the caregiver for my mother for the last six years of her life. Like I said last Sunday, it wasn’t in my plans. It was unexpected. And it wasn’t something I thought I could ever do. But I did it anyway and while there were rollercoasters there too, there was a lot of love we experienced together. The same holds true for my recent vacation. Well, it really wasn’t a vacation. It was looking after and caring for Ron while he was going through his chemotherapy and radiation of which this coming week is the last day! YAY!!! And what we both are experiencing is the love and care you all have for us…. for which we are outrageously thankful. The thing I’m learning about myself is that I can do things I never thought I could do. And we’re all that way. We don’t give ourselves the credit of having the strength and power that God gives us. And we don’t give ourselves the acknowledgement that we can be the hands and feet and heart of God to broken people in a broken world.
How I feel most alive, most true to the person I believe God created me to be is a hard question because I have to figure out who that person really is. It’s a life-long process of discernment of living in relationship with God and other human beings to figure out who God has intended us to be. But one of the places I feel most alive is sitting around a table with people. I love eating good food and talking and laughing. It feels like this is how life is supposed to be – not just for me but for everybody. And it makes me think that making that life possible for everybody is our mission in life. I realize that if the whole world were feasting and gabbing and laughing nothing would get done. But then, maybe that’s a better option than what we now experience.
Jesus calls us to sacrifice the illusions of this world – the illusions of success and wealth and power – in order for us to be the people God has created us to be. And this is much more difficult than the Weight Watcher’s idea of sacrifice. It’s about being vulnerable with each other, being open and the willingness to connect on a deep level – not just with those we value and like but also with those who pose to us the greatest relational challenges for they too are children of God.
So, I’ve yacked on a bit. Now it’s your turn. I’m going to sit down so you all express your wisdom.