September 16, 2018 Sermon

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Proper 19, September 16, 2018 Lectionary B


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                               Scripture: Mark 8:27-38


Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30   


Can’t win for losing


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to seeing who we are and who we can be through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

It is an experience we all share.  Perhaps, we were reminded of it this past week.  Things seem to be going so well, when wham out of the blue this bad thing happens.  We had not expected someone to run into our car, a friend to suddenly die, or to hear that a child wasn’t doing so well in school.  Maybe we had been making considerable progress toward some goal when suddenly the premise failed or the finances were not there. We thought we were in control of our lives when along came this circumstance, this person, pulling the rug out from beneath us.  As the saying goes, “We can’t seem to win for losing”.                    

    All that time and effort spent on a certain project appears to have been for nothing.  It is depressing; it is confusing; and it is discouraging. If we did something wrong, well what the heck was it?  Sometimes the experience of not winning for losing can make us feel as if something or somebody were out to get us.  You know the feeling. Are we being paranoid? If we do get good news, we might even be suspicious of it. We have become gun-shy—a kind of PTSD. No matter how good the news, we just can’t believe it.  It is better just to keep one’s head down. Maybe then, that bad news bullet will miss us.                        

    Of course, the most glaring examples of not winning for losing are often heard when it comes to some couple winning one of those multimillion dollar lotteries.  It is a virtual rag to riches story, but then what happens? Their lives rather than getting better go from bad to worse. Surely, having all that money should have been enough to fix any problem and buy anything one wanted.  That’s not what happened though, is it?                            

    In today’s gospel from St. Mark we find Jesus and His disciples hoofing themselves through Caesarea of Philippi, an old pagan hangout where the god, Pan, used to be worshiped.  Perhaps by contrast or as suggested by where they found themselves, Jesus suddenly asked the twelve disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Notice that He first said people, not you.   Was Jesus looking for a public relations report?  “Well, boys, what are they saying about me in the media today?  Anyone check Facebook?”                              

       Of course, the question would soon come around to the disciples.  The “they” question might have been a warm-up question to get the disciples thinking.  Their answer to the “they” question appears to be somewhat evasive. Well, some say, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  Was there a certain awkwardness on the part of the disciples here?  Jesus’ question was getting close to home. Think of all that the disciples had seen Jesus do up until this point.  He had cast out demons, done all manner of healings, raised a girl from the dead, and feed the five thousand. Quite a resume!  Who indeed was this man, Jesus? Was the answer to His question really that difficult?                   

    Possibly we forget that there was eye contact between Jesus and the twelve.  They were standing as close as any of us when in conversation; maybe, they could even smell His breath.  Jesus looks into their eyes (the windows of the soul). We’ve all done that, trying to plump what is going on inside someone.  So here is God in Jesus peering deep into the disciples’ thoughts and hearts. Can we imagine the feeling? There is no hiding here, is there?  Do we look away or do we return Jesus’ gaze—Jesus who knows everything, I mean, everything about us?        

    Jesus now asks the disciples themselves, “But who do you say that I am?”  I get this image of St. Peter, jumping up and down, raising his hand, saying “I know, I know.  I know the answer.” This, however, was no classroom question about whether they had done their homework. This was the most serious question ever asked then, now, or in the future.  Who do we say that Jesus is? I could stop this sermon right now and we individually could reflect on that question for the next 15 minutes if not longer. Who do you and I say Jesus is?  As we heard, Peter answered in this way: “You are the Messiah,” but had he gotten the answer right?  Maybe, Jesus only gave him a grade of 75% or a C.                           

    If we look to Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say this about Peter’s response. “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. 19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”   With that, all the Romans Catholics began to jump up and down and shout, “Go, Pope.”  P-O-P-E. Pope.       

    Peter might have felt pretty good about himself, seemingly having gotten the answer correct, though that is not what Jesus said.  Indeed, Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about Him. Note those two words, “sternly ordered”. This was serious business. Whatever jubilation they disciples might have felt about this revelation as to Jesus’ identity (their long hoped for messiah, deliverer had finally arrived) that jubilation was soon dashed to pieces.  They could not win for losing.                                  

       Jesus proceeds to tell them how bad things were going to get. “. . . the Son of Man (who is Jesus) must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”  Talk about negative attitude.  We know what it is like to be around people like that—always seeing the bad and never the good.  Party-poopers, are they not? Don’t talk that way we might say, or we just walk away. Who wants to spend time with such a person?  Keep smiling for heaven’s sake, right?                          

       Jesus had received the ultimate diagnosis.  “Your condition is terminal.” Peter would not have such talk.  Maybe he had gotten the big head, figured he had the inside scoop since he got the answer right about who Jesus is.  Beckoning with his hand and fingers, tilting his head to the left (over here, over here) for a two man huddle, Peter had the audacity to rebuke Jesus.  “What’s wrong with you Jesus? Have you lost your mind? You are the messiah, King David reborn, the great warrior king come to liberate us from the nasty, cruel Romans.”          

       Of course, we are not told what Peter said to Jesus or whether the other disciples heard it, but one thing is clear.  If Peter had really understood who Jesus is (that He was in fact God) would he still have rebuked Jesus? We might argue with God or get angry, but rebuke.  Telling God almighty that He is wrong was going too far.                                

     Seemingly one rebuke deserved another. “(Jesus) rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  Peter was tempting Jesus to take the easy way out.  Jesus knew that drill. He had been through that test before when the Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  He had not eaten for forty days when the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” In other words, why Jesus put yourself through all this pain and suffering.  Take the easy way out. You don’t have to be starving to death. Change that stone into bread which Jesus could have done.                                        

        Peter may have received an A on the exam, but that did not prevent him from being sent to the principal’s office for a whupping.  Poor Peter could not win for losing, and this would not be the last time. Jesus called Peter the devil after having just said to him, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church.”  Talk about being demonized.  Which is it? Is it any wonder that church gets all twisted and bent out of shape?  Notice, though, before Jesus rebuked Peter that the reading says, “But [Jesus] turning and looking at his disciples.”  What Jesus had to say to Peter, He also said to all the disciples.  Had the other disciples put Peter up to rebuking Jesus?                          

      What was now going in the hearts and minds of the disciples after Jesus’ rebuke of Peter?  They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here was this man, Jesus, whom they loved and to object to His dying was synonymous to being in league with the devil.  What kind of reasoning was that? What kind of kibosh does that put on anxiety and grief or feeling anything at all? Are we to be emotionless? We might also wonder whether it was on this occasion that Judas first got his idea of betraying Jesus except it would not be betrayal in Judas’ mind.  It would be accomplishing Jesus’ goal, His desire to be killed. And, if Judas could make a few bucks in the process, what would be the harm in that?                        

        After this dust-up between Jesus and Peter, Jesus gets down to some serious teaching—teaching that neither the disciples then nor we today want to hear.  It is a teaching about winning and losing where to win is to lose and to lose is to win. (Tell that to your football team). As we heard, “(Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Really, we hate denying ourselves.  It is un-American and not true to being one’s self, so we believe.) 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Splain that one to me, right?            

        Mark Gali, editor and chief of Christianity Today, recently wrote on September 7, 2018, an article, entitled “Be Yourself-Not Quite”.  Here is some of what he said. “I’ve been vaguely uncomfortable with the theme of many songs, usually from movies, that encourage listeners to “be yourself” or to “be true to yourself.” They are often set in a context in which one character, who is unique or unusual in some way, is shunned or even harassed by other characters—and one can hardly quarrel with that message in that context. Unfortunately, this message wants to break the boundaries of that context and pervade all of life. That is a serious problem for the Christian, who believes that the self needs not affirmation but saving.               

       Matt Schneider at Mockingbird, a ministry that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways, highlights this issue with reference to many recent films, like The Greatest Showman, Frozen, Prince of Egypt, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Color Purple.  Matt appreciates the positive messages of such movies (i.e., prejudice should be shunned) while recognizing this truth.”                     

       He writes, ‘I’m convinced this theme of being true to ourselves is not just misleading but crushing because we’re actually broken and in need of restoration. Sorry, but I’m not who I’m meant to be. In the face of the God of glory, I do make apologies. And you better believe I apologize for who I am to my wife and kids every single day. Yeah, I’m here, but I’m a mess. I’m certainly bruised, but I’m not brave. When I tap into the right frequency, the universe tells me not to have faith in myself because I’m weak and afraid. I really wish I were more like who I was meant to be, but I’m not. At least, not yet.’                     

       The Christian message sits in opposition to these themes on two fronts. First, we are not basically good people but sinners. Certainly, we’re made in the image of God, but we’re unfortunately still sinners. Second, we find freedom and healing not by looking inside of ourselves, but by looking outside of ourselves at someone else, namely Jesus Christ.’ “The most truthful message then is: Be the self you were redeemed to be—and keep repenting when you are not.”                                           

        What we hear Jesus saying in today’s gospel sits in in opposition to all that our culture says, what we have been taught, and what we are teaching our children.  Again, Jesus tells us that: “. . . those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”                              

       This is a tough one for us.  It defies common logic. Aren’t we supposed to take care of ourselves?  If we don’t, then who will? We have spent most of our lives trying to save ourselves from one thing or another.  There are bad drivers. Somebody might want to break into our homes and steal stuff. What about the terrorist who are trying to kill us and the myriad of diseases that we might catch merely from breathing the air or drinking the water.  There are people who will abuse us if we are not careful, and people we don’t even know who call to sell us warranties for our houses or our cars, so that they can take our money. It just plain isn’t safe out there. Not only are their people who wish to do us harm, but there are people who wish to do our children and our families harm.   Is Jesus telling us not to save our lives from these various, possible threats? Is that what He means? Listen again at what He says. “. . . let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”   

      Deny ourselves.  Is Jesus telling us to change?  Am I supposed to go on a diet or start exercising?  What is He talking about? What is this self? Could it be that part of me who over eats, drinks, or some other appetite?  Is He talking about the way I treat my spouse, my children, or the guy who almost ran me off the road? What about my private times and what I watch, think, or do?  Is that the self, which Jesus is telling us to deny?                  

       Some of us maybe think, “Well, you know Jesus.  I am just too old to change. You know, Jesus, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  This is just the way I was made. I was born this way. Hey, didn’t you make me in the first place.  So, why, Jesus, are you complaining? Besides, I am just being true to myself—that self that puts itself above and before all else. Wait. Is that the self you mean-the “me first self”, the self who believes it is the ultimate authority, the self that is unwilling to see itself for what it is?  You mean that self who realizes like Matt Schneider at Mockingbird that I do mess up, I do hurt peoples’ feelings, I don’t always feeling loving, and sometimes I cheat in various way like taxes or relationships.  And, you know, Jesus, I really don’t feel too good about myself then. I have tried to change, but it is hard and it is easier to rationalize and justify myself, my motives, my desires, my appetites, and the way I treat others.”                                           

       “Oh, the cross, you say.  Take up my cross and follow You.  Is that the key to this self of mine that gives me so much trouble?  Oh, I see it is not my cross that is the key, but following you.  Following you will save my life. I think I know this Jesus. My appetites, my personality, none of my “my’s” can save me.  I really do know this, Jesus, I’ve tried them. They may have calmed my nerves for a moment or given me pleasure, but then they were quickly gone and I, I was left emptied handed.  Foolishly I had thought I was saving myself, but only you can do that, Jesus.    Only you can save me, Jesus. With You when I lose then I will win.  I guess St. Paul must have had it right.  ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose’” (Romans 8:28).         

    In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.