Sunday, September 13, 2009

Proper 19

Mark 8
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 34 He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? – Mark 8:36

Is it possible that sermons during the film festival can simply write themselves? If we were part of a tradition that opposed modern culture we could have a field day with TIFF. Surely the red carpet is Satan’s own pathway. Surely someone in a sheer dress gets the label “whore of Babylon.” Surely someone as handsome and talented as George Clooney has exchanged his soul for fame and perpetual good looks?

And just when our conservative brothers and sisters are set to condemn the glitterati to the outer darkness where there is weeping through Chanel mascara and gnashing of perfectly whitened teeth – they go and do socially useful things like rebuild New Orleans (Brad Pitt), promote peace (Clooney), and create a global network of angels (Oprah). How can you condemn someone with a global network of angels?

So we can love the stars after all. But love them, of course, in an appropriate, non-obsessive, Angelina-can-I-give-you-my-baby kind of way. I actually think that it’s good to have all the stars here in town all at once: it brings them down to earth. Instead of being distant stars from a far off place called “Planet Hollywood” they are just people, stuck in a shabby room at the Four Seasons, calling home to their kids, and worried where they are going to find maple syrup before they head home.

What surprises me about the question, “what will it profit them?” is the distance between the idea of gaining the whole and the actual lives of Jesus and the disciples. The twelve were mostly peasant labourers, part of a subsistence-class that would have some difficulty visualizing a really good meal let alone “gaining the whole world.” Even Jesus, a peasant with some woodworking skill, and half a rung up the social latter, had little in the way of first hand knowledge when it came to wealth.

No, this is Hollywood worthy time-travel, ancient near-eastern style. Jesus is speaking past the disciples, through the writer-evangelists, over the centuries and directly to us. He knew that this religion of the “least and the last” would be domesticated, made acceptable, and become the refuge of those who could at least visualize gaining the whole world. So maybe we are the original audience, and Jesus travels through the ages like the hero of some sci-fi flick to offer us advice and guidance.

Jesus, however, being post-modern in outlook, would want us first to look at the context. Mark 8 is the culmination of miracles and deeds of power. The early part of Mark’s Gospel has been some character development but mostly action. And like all good films, the audience needs a slower moment to relax a bit and regroup before the action starts again. So they have a conversation.

‘Who do people say that I am?’ is one of the most famous questions in scripture, allowing the readers to feel a little smug (we’re the ones shouting “son of the Most High!”) while the disciples try to piece all of this together. Jesus allows Peter the correct answer—you are the Messiah—and then goes on to describe a Messiah Peter has never imagined, let alone ever wanted. Peter wants violent political change, and all Jesus can talk about is his own suffering.

So Jesus gathers his disciples to himself (the Bible’s equivalent of “Now listen carefully”) and says:

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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.’

In other words, we are to walk in the way of Jesus, the way of suffering and loss.

Now before I explain what that means, I’m going to begin by explaining what it does not mean. Following in the way of Jesus does not mean looking for your own version of crucifixion or willfully seeking out suffering. It does not mean accepting suffering when you have a choice not to. For too long people (mostly women) were told that “take up your cross” meant accepting your situation in life. It does not.

So in order to understand how to “take up his cross” we need to understand the way of Jesus, as explained by Jesus. First, he is clear to Peter that there is no easy shortcut around the difficult life we live. For Peter and his friends, it was poverty and oppression caused by foreign occupation. And while Jesus was giving them tools to overcome the might of Rome, he wasn’t going to make it go away in an instant.

Suffering and loss. I will get to the uplifting part in a moment, but at the very root, the way of Jesus is suffering and loss. Let me explain. Jesus knew, and we should too, that everything about human life is about loss and the suffering we experience in the face of loss. The sun rises in the east and we enjoy a new day and then the sun sets in the west and we experience a sense of loss.

Maybe a more concrete example: This week my son started university and everyone is excited and pleased. The boy who perfected the “C minus” pulled up his socks and got into university. But his Dad (allow me to speak in the third person for a moment) experienced only mixed emotions, somewhat excited but feeling mostly loss that the boy commonly called “the wee lad” isn’t so wee anymore. So we enter new territory, things change, and some suffer the sting of loss.

And I’m not alone. Last night I watched 30 minutes of Weston’s finest young people on CKVR, circa 1975, singing and moving to the beat. I saw entirely too much hair on many, clothing that is now sold as vintage, and faces of people that I will tease for weeks to come (mostly Terry). And while the video played, through the laughter and the clapping, there was a real sense of loss. Loss not just for the Chancellors now sadly departed, but for the loss of youth and the dreams altered, relationships broken and an era come to an end.

Joy mixed with sorrow, laughter with longing, all the things Jesus tried to explain to his friends that day on the way. He tried to explain to them that there is not a straight path from the best plan to the best outcome, there is no “Messiah moment” where everything works out quickly and painlessly, but only the Way of Jesus.

The Way of Jesus involves walking the human path of loss and suffering with companions on the journey. The Way of Jesus is looking around us to see who is burdened by the weight of injustice and hardship and lightening their load. The Way of Jesus involves shouldering a cross beside the one who first shouldered a cross so that we might know new life in him.

So the uplifting part is not the end of loss but having companions in the way. It is not that suffering will cease, but the knowledge that God suffers too and sent a son to walk beside us. It is not arriving suddenly at some destination but knowing that God will guide us on every journey we take. Thanks be to God, amen.


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