Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year B, Proper 20: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Listen to the sermon here.

How could they? How could they act like that?!!

This is the second time Jesus has openly and clearly told these guys what’s going to happen when they get to Jerusalem. He’s going to be arrested, tortured, and killed. There will be suffering that stretches and challenges everyone to the breaking point. But there will also be new life on the other side because Jesus will rise again on the third day.

It’s a difficult message to take in, no doubt about it. A suffering, dying Messiah challenges all of the preconceived ideas the disciples have about the Messiah being a warrior king who comes to town to wipe the floor with his enemies. But for the second time, Jesus has been clear about his mission and his fate.

So, after hearing this again, what do the disciples do? Like school boys showing off on the playground to try and impress the girls, they squabble with each other about who’s ‘Number 1.’ With the shadow of the cross and Jesus’ death looming larger and larger on the horizon, they’re bickering and sniping at each other about status, jockeying for positions of prestige and power, concerned with their image and what other people think of them and how important they are.

Mark’s observation is dead on: when they heard Jesus’ passion prediction, “they did not understand what he was saying” (Mk 9:32). Their actions prove it.

But why? Why don’t they understand? These are the people closest to Jesus, the people who have the privilege of knowing him, seeing his manner of life up close, hearing his teachings and seeing him put them into action. So why, of all people, do they lapse into the very “bitter envy and selfish ambition” we hear condemned in this morning’s epistle lesson (James 3:14)?

It’s not because they aren’t smart enough to get it. The problem goes deeper. For according to Mark, the disciples “were afraid to ask him” (Mk 9:32).

They were afraid. They were filled with fear. They heard something from Jesus that upset everything they thought they knew, everything that seemed so central and basic to their identity as God’s people. And so they were afraid to ask Jesus, “What are you talking about?” “What does this mean?” “You’re going to be killed and we’re your followers, so what’s going to happen to us?” “Are we going to be okay?” Rather than face their fears, they distance themselves from Jesus by asserting the importance of their individual agendas.

It’s easy to look down our noses at the disciples for this. How could they be so shallow and gutless? But ironically, we fall into the very same trap of vanity if we think we’re better than them. Instead, Mark invites us to see ourselves in the disciples, and thus to see how our own response to Jesus’ call to follow him all the way to Calvary’s cross can be governed by fear.

If we accept Mark’s invitation, we may discover that we’re really not all that different from the disciples. Don’t we also fear the unknown? Doesn’t the call to follow Jesus beyond the safety of our preconceived ideas, and beyond the doubts and questions that keep life-changing answers at arm’s length, stir up anxiety within us? Don’t we sometimes find ourselves recoiling at the very idea of giving ourselves over to something or someone other than ourselves, sacrificing our independence and autonomy, submitting our freedom to think and act as we please to a way of life that promises to change who we are, what we value, and what we live for? Don’t we sometimes fear what it might mean to completely turn our lives over to Jesus?

When I look at my own life, I have to say that there have been many times when the answer to those questions has been “yes.” I remember, for instance, when I began my graduate work in religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early 90s. I was a seriously lapsed Methodist at the time, and deeply skeptical and suspicious of the Church. I didn’t understand persons who actually took the faith of the Church seriously enough to regularly show up for worship. It all seemed too good to be true, this business of God actually becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth, much less rising from the dead.

But the deeper truth of my skepticism was that I was hiding behind my academic work. I was taking refuge in intellectualism as a defense against intimacy with God, a convenient way for me to get close enough to the faith (I could just study it as an intellectual exercise) without having to actually commit to anything or anyone. I was afraid of being seen as “one of those people,” as someone who might get labeled a “fundamentalist” to the alienation of my friends. I was afraid of having to change. And yet, behind the walls of my defenses, I was haunted by the echoes of a call I had heard since my childhood, a call that very simply said, “Follow me.”

Long story short, it was the Episcopal Church that started breaking down my defenses. When I found this Church, I found people who were willing to welcome me just as I was with all of my doubts and my fears, but who also were not content with letting me stay that way. I found a connection with God through the liturgy and the music, and particularly in the Eucharist. Over time, through participating in the week-in, week-out rhythms of Sunday worship according to The Book of Common Prayer, I found myself changing. I discovered new depths of meaning and treasures in places I never dreamed they could exist, including the words of a Creed hammered out over 1600 years ago, words which initially seemed cold and sometimes even intellectually odious, but which over time became a mystical opening into life-giving relationship with the Triune God. I discovered that one can embrace the faith of the Church articulated in scripture, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book and still be a thinking Christian. And, perhaps most important of all, I re-discovered Jesus as Lord and Savior.

As it turned out, my deepest fears came true. The Church and her faith were challenging and changing me. I found myself wanting to know Jesus and to make him known. I became willing – ever so slowly – to turn my heart, will, and mind over to God. And eventually, I found myself open to responding to a call to the priesthood that, in my skepticism and fear, I never would have conceived possible, much less desirable!

Even so, I still have a long way to go before I let go of all of my defense mechanisms against the divine. Too often, I reserve the right to be the Lord of my own life. And when I look at the promises in our Baptismal Covenant, I find that there is still so much within me that needs conversion.

But I’ll bet that’s probably true for all of us. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And so none of us are where God would like us to be. We all have a long way to go.

And so we continue to struggle with our questions, our doubts, and our fears. Like the first disciples, we sometimes resist the way of the cross, afraid that it will hurt us, that it will ask us to part company with beliefs, attitudes, and habits which we simply cannot imagine living without.

And yet, here we are, gathered for worship. Here we are, opening ourselves to a relationship with the One who calls us to follow him all the way to Calvary’s cross and into a way of life that asks us to die to ourselves – to let go of our narrow, self-interested agendas for the sake of embracing and serving a world filled with the poor, the suffering, the lonely, the sick, and the marginalized. Here we are, showing up in response to the message that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. And whether we consciously know it or not, here we are saying “yes” to the invitation to share that message with a world desperate for the Good News of God’s truth in Jesus Christ.

We can’t know for sure where that will take us, what it will ask of us, or how it may change us. So why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because, in our worship and in our fellowship, we come to know the healing power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We come to know the One before whom all our hearts are open and all our desires are known, the One who sees it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly – yet still loves, forgives, and embraces us. In coming to know and love the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, we come to know and love our true selves. And we discover that fulfillment of our lives comes from doing what Jesus did: giving ourselves away in love for God and our neighbor.

May we accept the embrace of God in Jesus Christ by opening our hearts and our minds to the life-giving, life-changing faith that has sustained and empowered followers of Jesus for almost 2000 years. And may we know the perfect love of God that dispels the darkness of our fears.

1 comment:

alston said...

Well said brother.