By The Rev. Sherry Deets
16 Pentecost, Proper 19, Year B – September 16, 2012
This week’s gospel reading is, in almost every way possible, the center of Mark’s Gospel. It stands, quite literally, near the dead center of Mark’s work. It also marks the major transition in the story from Jesus’ ministry of opposing all that oppresses God’s people (by healing, feeding, casting out demons and the rest) to Jesus’ journey to the cross. But perhaps most importantly, it vividly and succinctly summarizes the essence of the kingdom of God and why it is so hard for us to accept it.
We know this story well enough to skim the details. Jesus and his disciples have been all over Galilee and now are on the outskirts of the Roman town Caesarea Philippi when he asks them two important questions: who do people say that I am? And, more to the point, in light of all this, who do you say that I am? They answer both, the first with comparisons to important biblical figures, the second with Peter’s flash of insight that this is no mere miracle worker or prophet but is indeed God’s anointed One, the Messiah.
And then comes the turning point: Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah and no one – including Peter – can believe it. Why? Because they were looking for a powerful leader, perhaps a military king like David, and so were disappointed with Jesus’ pronouncement. And let’s face it: absent 20/20 hindsight, would we have reacted any differently? Probably not, because more often than not we also look for God to come in strength and therefore often miss God’s coming to meet us in our weakness.
Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me” – “those who lose their lives for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it”. He is focusing on the cross – the cross in our lives. He is lifting high the cross. This should give us pause because it means we are actually lifting up failure and defeat and shame. Are we sure we want to do that? I’m not so certain.
By focusing on the cross and its place in our lives (rather than its place in Jesus’ life), we are reminded in stark relief that an integral part of the life to which Jesus calls us includes disappointment and defeat and suffering and death. This does not immediately sound like good news, I’ll admit, but it is the truth.
Most of us, if we are pressed, far prefer the triumph of Easter to the confusion and loss and pain of Good Friday. We are, after all, Easter people, as Augustine reminds us, and alleluia is our song. But we are also a pilgrim people, people who are prone to wander and get lost and mess up, and that means our song is a little out of tune most of the time. God created us for life, but in a fallen world, we do not get to the life that God now offers us without walking the path of suffering and sorrow. You know this. This is not news. But it is a truth that most of us prefer to avoid.
Jesus is unflinching in teaching his disciples–and that includes us–that following him means taking up those crosses and resolutely walking the path to the place of exposure and vulnerability. Jesus promises us that we, like him, will be raised to new life, but it is new life which demands that we be killed, that we die. (Those that lose their life for my sake…) It is life that insists that our illusions and hopes and dreams and fantasies be named for what they are and nailed to the cross. It’s grim, sober business. Most of us would rather put such things off as long as possible, thank you very much! Most of us, as W.H. Auden says so well, “would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and see our illusions die.”
This happens, in part, I think, because we, particularly in privileged North America , are inclined to “make nice” with God. We are disposed to making deals, striking bargains that will insulate us–we hope–from the harsher realities of life, from the “crosses of the moment.”
So we gamble with God. We play the part of the shrewd dealer. At it’s crudest, the mental game goes something like this: I tell you what, God, I will live a good life (whatever that is) and go to church and do good things and not be too bad (whatever that is) or sin too much, and in exchange, you protect me and mine and the people I particularly like, from anything bad happening. Keep me and mine from getting sick or hurt or killed. Please. Thank you.
Now most of us are not quite so bald in our reasoning, but if we were to pull apart some of our prayers, I think we would find something quite similar as the substructure. Most of us, regardless of how good our relationship with God is, make, or try to make, similar bargains. I know this is true in my life, and I’ve listened to enough people to know that while most of us are glad for a sense of God’s presence in our lives, while most of us are grateful for the call to follow, we are quite startled by what it actually entails, what it actually means. In his novel, Lying Awake , Mark Salzman recounts a conversation between two Carmelite nuns in which one says, “It doesn’t matter how many times we hear the gospel where Jesus talks about the cost of discipleship, we are still surprised when he presents the bill.”
Those of us who have responded to the call of Jesus to follow him know that the more we do, the more we realize that doing so has not been what we expected. Yes, we may have anticipated some loss–Jesus said there would be–but we expected to have a little more control over the when and the where and the how much. We expected that when suffering came (if it in fact did), it would be manageable, it would somehow be a little less painful, a little less embarrassing. Certainly, we would not suffer humiliation, at least not publicly, and our reputations would never be damaged, let alone ruined. We expected that we would still be able to realize our dreams. We expected that our fondest hopes would not be taken from us. But that’s not what Jesus says in the gospels. Ever. Anywhere. Jesus promises us many things–but not that.
Br. Kevin Hackett, whose ideas for this sermon I have been leaning on heavily, had this reflection: the fact that when the birth of Jesus was announced to Joseph and to Mary, the angel gave them two different names: the name given to Mary, Jesus, means savior. The name given to Joseph, Immanuel, means God-with-us. This pairing is important because it signals a reversal of our typical understanding of the cross and the saving grace that it offers. We don’t usually think of salvation as having God with us. Not really. We would rather think of it as our being with God, as being saved from how life is. But God has revealed Jesus as Savior-Immanuel, which means that salvation is not our ascent out of the hard, pain-filled, and compromised conditions of our lives and this world. Rather, salvation is God’s descent among us and with us in the difficult and frightening and confusing mess and muck that most of us have as our lives.
Following Jesus does not save us from or spare us from a blessed thing on this earth, and that’s really the crux of the matter. Discipleship is not an insurance policy against grief or heart-ache or injustice. It is not a buffer to sorrow and disappointment. It is, in fact, something better–an assurance that God has entered fully into the suffering of this world and our lives and is there with us and for us. It is a guarantee that nothing, not powers, not principalities, not height nor depth, not things that have been or are to come, not depression, not loneliness, not anxiety, not unemployment, not divorce, not destitution, not fear, not failure, not disease, not even death can separate us from the love of God, which has been made known to us in Christ Jesus.
That is worth lifting up. That is worth lifting high. That is the good news of the cross. It’s God’s shorthand. It’s God’s word in language as plain as it gets. It’s God’s best bit of graffiti writ large. It’s God’s way of saying, “I love you no matter what. I will be with you no matter what. When your life is at odds, and you’re splayed on crossbeams, don’t worry because I am already there holding you up. I asked you to follow me, and I’m right here waiting for you. I’m right here, right now. That is worth lifting up. Amen.
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