Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who are we? Who are we to become?

My sermon today is based on Mark 8:27-38.

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The scene may sound very familiar to us these days.

The candidate huddles with his top aides. They go over polling data and focus group results. They take the temperature of the voters, and the candidate asks: “What are they saying about me?”

“You are the messiah,” replies the chief campaign consultant, known in the business as “Rock.”

Shush, the candidate says. If you say that out loud, the voters will crucify me. Get thee behind me Satan!

One way of hearing this passage from the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is a candidate trying to gauge how his message is playing with the electorate. He knows the answers, but wants to hear if the voters – and his consultants – are catching on yet.

They aren’t quite yet.

So the candidate does something crazy. He goes rogue. He tells his consultants: to win this election, we will have to go to Jerusalem, the heartland of the opposition. For Peter, aka “Rock” the campaign consultant, this is not what he had in mind when he signed onto this candidate.

Are you nuts? There aren’t any votes in Jerusalem!

It is as if Mitt Romney were to say, let’s go to San Francisco, or Barack Obama were to say, let’s go to Salt Lake City.

Well, that’s one way of looking at this, as a test of his followers: the voters.

But what if this story is not about a campaign, or focus groups, or consultants or voters? What if this is not a test of the disciples at all? What if Jesus asks the question – “Who do people say that I am?” – because he really wants to know the answer. What if he is still trying to figure this out himself?

What if this story is a continuation of last week’s story when Jesus learns about himself.

Last week, we heard an extraordinary sermon from University of Virginia Professor Valerie Cooper.

She talked about how the gospel of Mark is a messy gospel, and it portrays Jesus at his most human – a human being who learns and grows as we do.

In the story last week, a Syrophoenician woman comes to Jesus because her daughter is sick. She is from a different country and has a different religion than Jesus. He rebukes her by calling her a dog.

But she says even the dogs get crumbs from the table. It is a messy story.

As Professor Cooper explained, the incident becomes a huge learning experience for Jesus. He discovers by her humility that his mission is not to single tribe or religion but to all people of every tribe and nation.

That story is a turning point for Jesus, and the daughter is healed, and then another man – a stranger – is healed. And then we get to this story.

I have been thinking all week about Professor Cooper’s sermon, and wondering if today’s story is a continuation of last week’s story.

Is Jesus still wondering what it means to be “messiah”?

When he asks his followers – what do people think? – maybe this messiah really needs his followers to help him with the answer.

By asking, by drawing us into the conversation, Jesus is redefining what it means to be “messiah.” He is human, able to learn, to grow, to be in relationship with people by being open to them – and sometimes it will take all his divinity to be that open. In this conversation, it dawns on him where this will go:

Ultimately this messiah will suffer as we suffer, and die as a human being, and point the way beyond the grave.

To be messiah is not to be a powerful dictator but a servant among us, especially in our hardest moments.

Peter wants Jesus to fix things, to use his God authority like a mighty Roman emperor or a Greek God like Zeus. Jesus can’t and won’t. Therein lies their conflict with Jesus and his followers.

To be messiah means giving up the idea of being a fixer, a rescuer, and instead become a healer, and the One who leads us to new life from the ashes.

Jesus discovers his true self is to walk into the night with those who hurt, to share in their wounds, and then walk with them toward healing and hope – to Resurrection itself.

There is an unavoidable paradox to the gospel story today. This idea of bringing healing and hope does not always lead to immediate tranquility for the healed or the healer.

And Peter sees exactly where this is going too, and he objects strenuously. Peter asks: Can’t we do something different?

But Jesus says we need to go where life is precarious, where life is treated as cheap. We need to confront the powers of the world that robs us of life; to confront evil itself. And in his day, that would be Jerusalem.

This week we got very painful remainder of the precariousness of life with the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, a courageous servant who had worked tirelessly to bring freedom and peace to that very troubled corner of our world.

He was one of the good guys.

Sometimes events far away strike close to home. Ambassador Stevens’ family are long-time members of my congregation in Sacramento, Trinity Cathedral, where Lori and I were for 18 years, and where I was ordained a priest and served as an associate.

I’d ask that you keep the Stevens family especially in your prayers.

Most of the wounds in our world don’t make headlines, but the people who are hurt and wounded are no less in pain.

As followers of Christ, we are called to be servants especially to the hurting, not out of regard for our worldly status, and not because we might get a reward, but because it is where Christ would have us go.

Jesus puts this squarely: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This is not about an intellectual set of precepts. It is about having the heart of servant – and that begins by being vulnerable to our own wounds. That is precisely what Jesus means by taking up your Cross.

But I stop myself right here and ask: Why would anyone do that? Sometimes I feel like Peter. Let’s go somewhere else. The Cross is not where I want to be.

It is a wonder that Jesus had any followers at all. This is a hard road to follow; it is much easier stay in our comfort zones.

Yet people all over the world do follow this way of the Cross; they open themselves to others and in so doing find their own heart of healing.

And it happens right here in this place.

Here in our parish, we have many who live as servants among us:

• Our highly trained Stephen Ministers who meet regularly with those who are lonely, hurting or ailing;

• Our volunteers at the Episcopal Thrift Shop on Rio Road;

• Our hospital visitors who go to the bedsides of the sick;

• Our University commission and those who befriend and serve dinners for our UVA students. 
• Our Martha’s Guild volunteers who extend hospitality to everyone;

• Our Eucharistic Visitors who bring Communion to the home-bound; our PACEM volunteers who assist the homeless; 
• Our Salvation Army volunteers who feed people living on the street;

• Our IMPACT social justice network volunteers who work across religious lines for change in our community so that maybe one day no one will be on the street or out of a job. 
• Our ushers, choir members, musicians, Eucharistic ministers, acolytes, readers, intercessors, Altar Guild, Flower Guild and all those who make our worship come alive. 
• Our annual giving team that makes all of this possible.

And there are more, many more servant ministries here at St. Paul’s.

Later this morning, you will get an opportunity to join one of these ministries. We are hosting our annual parish picnic outdoors, and you can enjoy fried chicken, and while you are there, signup for one or more of these ministries.

Each of these ministries brings transformation to our community and the world. But at least as important is how these ministries transform us by how we serve.

Jesus had a question for his followers – who do people say I am?

We could ask a similar question of ourselves: Who are we?

To find out, we must answer another question each day of our life: How will we share God’s love with the rest of our world? How will we take up our Cross not to die, but to live?

And when we do, who will we become?


Art by He Qi
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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