Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beyond Bailouts - Mark 8:27-38

27Jesus 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.
31Then 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.”
34He 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.”

I know that many of you have looked at the title of today’s sermon, and are wondering if there are politically-charged ramifications to my sermon today. If the politics of this congregation are like most United Methodist Churches, depending on what I would say with a political tone, about half of you would be very pleased with what I say, and about half of you would be very displeased.

Not to worry. While I certainly have political opinions, I will never air them from the sacred space of this pulpit, nor in my role as your pastor, because last time I checked, the will of God is still greater than the will of any political party, any government, or any human institution.

But if you want politics, you still don’t have to look any further than what was going on in today’s text. In the 8th Chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, things around Jesus have gotten very political indeed. By the time we meet up with him in this reading, things have gotten interesting. He’s been healing people of their diseases left and right, miraculously feeding thousands of people out of one very special Long John Silver’s combo meal, teaching with such great authority that a great revival is breaking out through the land, and accumulating a very large following.

Right in the middle of the excitement, the disciples are riding high. They are, after all, part of the inner circle. When the band pulls into town, they are in the penthouse suite hanging out with everyone who is anyone. Jesus has become quite the celebrity, and with him, the disciples are feeling pretty great, too. Before they get too comfortable, however, Jesus is going to give greatness a whole new definition. May we pray.

Do you remember what you were going to be when you grew up? Back when you still had an imagination, when you still believed anything was possible, before the sobering reality of maturity sunk around you and made you deal in the world of probable instead of possible?

We were all going to be great. Every time we played baseball with four people in our front yard and hit the grand slam that got all our ghost runners home, we imagined rounding third place and heading for home in front of great cheering crowds at Fenway or Camden Yards or Turner Field. We were all going to be heroes – brave firefighters, skilled surgeons, wise judges.

I was going to be president. I announced my candidacy in Miss Stelianou’s second grade classroom. No sooner had I started my candidacy than all my friends came to me seeking important cabinet positions in my new administration. I found myself creating brand new government agencies just so I would have something for everyone to do, and everyone seemed happy to be in the presence of one so great. Now that I look back on it, we were all a bunch of dorks.

Yet, something within us wants to be associated with greatness. If we can clearly establish a link with someone who is perceived to be great by others, then perhaps they’ll think that we’re great, too, which brings us back to Jesus and his disciples.
Jesus was at the top of his game. It was the week before primaries, and Jesus had just taken a sharp lead in the polls. The tide of public opinion was firmly behind him, and success followed him like a lost puppy. In the middle of it, the disciples were there, answering questions, talking with the media, meeting the girls, pouring the champagne, planning the party.

It was the day the poll numbers had come out, and Jesus and his disciples were gathered together at dinner. He looked around the table and asked a question: “Who do you say that I am?” It was low-hanging fruit. The disciples knew he just wanted someone to say what they were all thinking.

One by one around the table, they began to name some of the great leaders of history. “Some say you are Elijah.” “Others say you’re Moses.” “Some think you’re John the Baptist.” But Peter remained silent. Peter, ever the wise politician, ever thinking of what he could do to come just a little closer into Jesus’ favor, held his answer for a brief pause from the others. “You are the Messiah. The Christ. The Anointed One of God. You are one who redeem your people. You are already the next leader.”

A hush fell around the table. They had all thought the things Peter had spoken, but he had dared to give voice to them. They looked at Jesus, waiting for a response. He never corrected Peter. He never said that Peter was wrong. He simply ordered them not to tell anyone.

We all know the danger in calling an election too soon. Many of us can remember election night of 2000, when late into the night we still didn’t know who the president was. We remember the confusion caused when competing news outlets began to give conflicting reports about which candidate seemed to have won the election. Scott Ferebee and I have been hearing different mayoral candidates speak at our Rotary club, and this week John Lassiter was careful to talk about the challenges that face “the next mayor of Charlotte,” never presuming himself to be that person, always talking about what he would do “if” he’s elected mayor, not “when.”

But in Jesus’ bid for Messiah, it’s not like it was even a close race. No one else was even running. There had been false prophets before, but they all knew Jesus was the real deal. There was going to be no campaign finance scandal – the guy didn’t even own a house! It’s not like anyone was going to call for his resignation because of inappropriate travel – the guy walked everywhere he went!

Jesus still doesn’t correct Peter. Clearly, he really does believe he’s the Messiah. But he lets the air out of the balloons about as quickly as they fall from the ceiling. He begins to teach that the Messiah will go through great suffering, rejection from all the religious leaders, be killed, and raised up again. Even at his own party, Jesus turns out to be a wet blanket who suffocates the expectations of everyone at the table.

Peter gets upset. Without even thinking, he yells out, “You lie!” It’s poor etiquette, but do you see Peter’s point? From the time of King David, a Messiah has been promised. And for about as long, the people of Israel have undergone great suffering. They have endured war, captivity, and economic embargo. They are the laughing stock of all the neighboring countries, and they have spent more time under occupation by outsiders than they have as independent. Finally, the Messiah – the great hope, the liberator, the new king – is here, and it’s about time. Peter and the rest of the disciples couldn’t be happier. Israel has drawn the short straw enough times, it’s been on the bottom too many times, now it’s time for Israel to be on top. Now it’s time for Israel to turn the tables and get some just desserts and do to everyone what’s been done to them. And how could they not succeed? The guy’s biggest backer is God.

To this vision of Jesus’ proposed kingdom, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” In other words, stop and consider for a moment that you have just described the way the kingdoms of the world operate. But Jesus’ kingdom is not like the kingdoms of the world. Jesus’ kingdom does not have the same values or priorities, and the rules that govern it couldn’t be any different than what Peter hopes for. Jesus represents a kingdom that’s a brand new thing, a brand new people marked by a brand new way. Peter’s hope for a militant Messiah misses the mark because the kingdom of God is bigger and broader than the kingdoms of the world. With a whole new kind of kingdom come a whole new set of priorities. Jesus’ kingdom comes with a whole new way of doing things, and he reminds us that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re gonna keep getting what you’ve always got. This is how the world tends to solve its problems. War got us into this mess, so more war will get us out. Greed got us into this problem, so let’s throw more money at the situation and hope that makes things better. Policies of hate and fear got us here, let’s be increasingly hateful and fearful others and hope that it goes away. From either side of the aisle, across the spectrum from left to right, top to bottom, and front to back, there is enough blame to go around.

Peter was looking for a bailout. He was looking for a one-time magic wand to be swept over the situation and erase all the bad stuff that had ever happened.
But Jesus provides a solution that is well beyond bailouts. Jesus is forming a whole new people, with a whole new set of values, and who turn the definition of greatness on its head. In the middle of that strategic planning meeting, Jesus yells out, “Do you want to be great?” The disciples shouted, “Yes!” He asked, “Do you want to follow me?” “Yes!” “Here’s how: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”

I'm with Peter. Should not religious faith protect us from suffering, make us acceptable, give us victory over what threatens us? This is no way to win the world and gain followers! Promised suffering, bearing crosses, losing one's life ~ that will not sell. Only the emotionally warped masochists could find such an invitation appealing. Isolation from suffering, avoiding the cross, that is what we want and expect from God, is it not?

Why would anyone follow a Christ who is to be crucified? We have enough suffering and rejection without this! Peter's objection is as contemporary and personal as our own instinct for self-preservation, our own longing for security and prominence and health and life.

Mark knows, however, that only those who follow Jesus all the way to the cross will really know who he is. If we stop before Calvary, we will misunderstand him. We will assume that he is just another miracle worker, or another exorcist, or a wise and compelling teacher. If Peter and the other disciples proclaim him Messiah based on what they have seen thus far, they will have proclaimed a false Messiah. His identity can only truly be known at the cross. There, even an unenlightened Roman soldier will be able to recognize him: "Truly this is the son of God."

Why follow a crucified Christ? Because only a crucified Messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God.

Such an image of God is as objectionable and foreign to us as it was to Peter. We want an invincible God, a Super God, who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship ~ invincible, self-sufficient, controlling, an all powerful one who shares divine power with us. "Immortal, invincible, God only wise" that is the God we consider worthy of worship, “A Mighty Fortress,” that is a God worthy of emulation. One who promises “Your Best Life Now” is a God worth praising. But strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross ~ that still seems foolishness to those who measure strength by Gross National Product and megaton bombs, those devoted to finishing first and those who thrive on power as prominence.

This is God! Only those who follow all the way to the cross know the depth of this God's love, the expanse of this God's presence, the power of this God's purpose! The message is profound. There is One who has moved into our vulnerability, our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death. God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as potential means of healing.
By following a crucified Christ, we can come clean with our own vulnerability. No longer do we have to hide behind a mask of stoic control nor wear the protective armor of vulnerability. We can face our weaknesses, and even share with Paul the assurance that "when I am weak then I am strong." We can take up a cross with the full assurance that One has gone before us and now shares its weight and pain.

We follow, however, as people of hope. We live on the other side of the cross from Peter. The Crucified One is the Risen One. We know who won! The future belongs to the one who went to the cross and left it empty. Those who follow him all the way know the future does not belong to the triumph of suffering, sin and death. It belongs to the reign of Christ over all creation. A new heaven and a new earth are on the way to completion.

When it looks as though sin and suffering and death have the last word, those who follow a crucified Christ know better. They were there on that terrible day when darkness covered the earth. All the evil within us was there. Greed was there. Envy was there. Hate was there. Violence was there. Political expediency was there. Religious bigotry and arrogance was there. Can't you just hear them say as the one without sin bowed his head in death, "Now we got him. We have won." Those who stick around and listen carefully hear another message. "He is risen. He is not here.”
Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

When faced with overwhelming odds -- or just with our own limitations, those who take up their cross and follow Jesus do not lose heart -- because we know that there is a power beyond our limitations, our helplessness our weakness.

It is the power of God to bring life from death, to bring healing from disease, to bring wholeness from our brokenness.

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