Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 13 September 2015
(Isaiah 50:4-9a Psalm 116 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38)
“Beginning With God’s Love!”
David Brooks, writer, commentator and columnist for The New York Times, begins his recent book, entitled, “Building Character,” with a profound and soul-searching story. I want to re-capture it as best I can to begin my sermon this morning.
Brooks writes how, one evening when he was on his way home listening to NPR, the show, Command Performance, came on. This was a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode Brooks happened to hear was the broadcast from the day the War in the Pacific ended, on August 15, 1945. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history, and yet there was very little chest beating. There were lots of big celebrities entertaining, but Bing Crosby seemed to sum it up best when he said: “What can you say on a day like this? I guess all anybody can do is thank God the war is over.” Then he summarized the mood by saying, “Today, our deep-down feeling is one of humility.” Sure, there were raucous celebrations; there was five inches of confetti in NYC. But there was a modest tone in the way people spoke, almost a collective impulse, a felt resistance against pride and self-glorification.
Brooks concludes his story by writing that when he arrived home, he went inside and turned on a football game. He watched a quarterback throw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a meager two-yard gain. The defensive player then did what most professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishment. He did a self-puffing victory dance.
Brooks writes, “It occurred to me I had just watched more self-celebration after a two-yard gain than I had heard after the United States helped end World War II.”
I do not wish to make a moral judgment on what took place on the football field that day, but this morning I simply want us to notice, to recognize, and to name—that a shift has taken place in our culture, and I will use David Brooks’ words, we might call it, “a shift from a culture of self effacement to a culture of self promotion.” 1
So what I’d like to do this morning is admit the recognition of this shift in our culture, and place it next to the Gospel Good News we heard in today’s reading from Mark.
>>>>I also would like you to take out your pew Bibles. We haven’t done this for awhile, but since we are lifting up the Word, giving Bibles to our 4th graders at the 10:45 service, remembering the promise made by parents at Baptism, “…to place in their hands the Holy Scriptures….” what better time to put Bibles into our hands? [Pew Bibles, p.53]. We are at center of Mark’s Gospel. 25 pages long, one page short of the middle. We are at chapter 8 of 16 chapters. Keep your finger there in pages 52-53; turn back, you see lots of miracles—feeding 5000, healings, curings. Turn forward, the only healing from here to the end is that of the blind man Bartimaeus in chapter 10. Even in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 14], when Jesus is arrested and one of those close by cuts off the ear of the slave, Jesus doesn’t heal the ear.
My point being…..today we hear this transitional text, where everything changes in Mark. Up to this point we have been hearing about all those things that are oppressing to God’s kingdom—illness, hunger, demons, etc., and Jesus’ response is to heal, feed, cast out demons, etc.
Today Jesus arrives at the villages of Caesarea Philippi and Jesus asks his disciples: “who do people say that I am?” They have good answers, with comparisons to important biblical figures. Then He asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” With Peter’s flash of insight that this is no mere miracle worker, he responds, “You are the Messiah!”
We hear Jesus’ explanation of what a Messiah really is, and of course, no one—including Peter—can believe it! Because the Jews were looking for a powerful leader, and so they are deeply disappointed when Jesus says he will die.
We are no different. We still, more often than not, want our God to come in strength; and therefore, we often miss God coming to us in our suffering and weakness, the Jesus who walks with us through our pain and sickness.
Today I want to strongly suggest that the invitation to lose our lives, to follow Jesus, and to take up our cross, more than all else is the invitation to discover our identity as beloved children—right in the midst of our pain, even when we may not seem/feel very beloved by God.
There is a persistent warning from Martin Luther whenever we want to talk about the cross. His warning is to avoid simplistic answers to difficult, tragic, even horrifying situations. Luther repeats over and over again, that the world God loves is never abandoned. What Luther is saying is that whenever we speak of the cross, we must always begin with God’s love. One of Luther’s most profound insights is that as disciples called to “take up our cross” we are called to follow the crucified God into the very heart of the world’s darkness, and become the light that shines in the darkness.
That is a heightened message of hope at the end of a week where we’ve seen the images of 9-11 more than once; where horror stories of tired and forsaken refugees flood the news; where stories of bombs and death fill every corner of our lives, and also, where so many of you struggle with intense personal pain.
The conflict within Peter is the very same conflict we find within ourselves. We long for a Christ of power! We long for a God who will make the world right, punishing those who are evil and rescuing those who are good.
When burdens come crashing down upon us, when the voices of despair drown out all other voices, when it is one disappointment after another, all we want is a strong God to avenge our hurts, to put us back on top, to put us back in control of all these things.
So today, I want you to hear the Good News of the Gospel in a different way….I dare you to believe that the cross of Jesus is God’s claim to this world of a lover yearning to love and be loved, firmly committed to the life of this world.
So we hear it yet again: our Messiah employs a different set of rules, not of might, but of love; not by victory but of vulnerability, not of glory but by the cross.
Now is the time for us to be the Body of Christ at its very best—especially in a culture of self promotion. As followers of this Messiah, now is the time, not for self-puffing victory dances, but rather, the time to go deeper into the waters of our baptism, dying to self, dying to all that imprisons us one from another, dying to all that prevents us from believing that our God is a faithful God. Amen.
1The Road to Character. David Brooks. 2015. pp. 3-5
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 13 September 2015