Year B — Proper 22 (The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for October 7, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
“There once was a man down in Uz,
   who lived a good life, just because.
He never cursed God, though his wife sure did prod;
   A just man, he, if ever there was!”

Psalm 26
On most days, I don’t think I’m quite brave enough to pray v.2 from this psalm. 

Asking for God to test me, try me, and prove me (isn’t there an old gospel song that goes something like that?) sounds like a dangerous thing to do. Look where it got Job! (see above)

Haughty spirit aside, v.3 is a wonderful prayer thought to keep in front of us: “Your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you.”

I believe that’s the key: it is God’s faithfulness that we watch — and that we just keep heading toward.

Genesis 2:18-24
“No, I don’t think that’s gonna do it for me!”

Can you imagine the seemingly endless refrain, as God paraded one creature after another before the man in the garden, searching for a “helper as his partner.” (v.18)

Bird — no. Goat — no. Elephant — no. Baboon — definitely not!

But when God decided to whip up a woman — well, then God got the man’s attention! Now, I don’t want to get too patriarchal or sexist here, but there is something about this whole “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” thing that clearly brings a little snap, crackle, and pop to the man’s morning!

What a wonderful creation human love — in all its forms — truly is. Gift of God, grace upon grace. And behold, it was very good!

Psalm 8
Babies and bulwarks are among the images that I don’t get right away when I read the NRSV of v.2.

I admit I had to check the definition of “bulwark” just to be sure I had it straight. From dictionary.com

a wall of earth or other material built for defense; a rampart; any protection against external danger, injury, or annoyance; any person or thing giving strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt”

Okay, so I get that God is a bulwark, and builds bulwarks in our lives, and generally brings on the bulwark just when we need it most. But, what do the mouths of babes and infants have to do with God founding a bulwark in order to silence God’s enemies?

Unless it’s such a fundamentally obvious thing that God will protect us that even babes and infants know it down deep in their souls — which is why, perhaps, they’re never afraid to cry when they need a little help?

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

For the writer of Hebrews, Jesus is simply “above all.” 

There are no powers of heaven, nor is there anything on earth that even comes close to being what Jesus is and doing what Jesus does. 

Fine. Punto. 結束. Diwedd. The End. -30-

Mark 10:2-16
Men, women, divorce, adultery. It’s all a little mind-boggling trying to get at what Jesus really wants to say here.

I know the literalist arguments built from this text that have bound many a miserable marriage partner in difficult and untoward situations. I am also fully in favor of marriage partners doing everything they can to hang in there when times are tough.

But I have seen with my own eyes — and counseled from my very own pastoral couch — couples that simply needed to let it go, dissolve a marriage, and move on. It happens.

The best news is that the grace of God is present and available in even the most difficult situations. And I think it is no accident that we have another “child story” to salve the wounds of the marital dissolution discourse here.

Even a hellish union can produce the marvelously grace-filled gift of a child. With God, nothing is impossible.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .”
Almost every Saturday afternoon, I listen to the opera on the Public Radio station. Don’t be so surprised. I like opera. Not as much as I like Lynard Skynard or ZZ Top, but I like Opera.
Well, okay, I don’t. 
Not really, but I like the idea of liking opera. Deep down inside, I feel like I ought to like opera, that a well-educated person should like opera, and so . . . on Saturday afternoon’s I listen to opera.
This is kind of like the theory my wife used in trying to feed our two sons liver and broccoli. She thought if she put it in front of them often enough eventually they would walk in the house one day and say, “Gee Mom, what’s for supper? I could sure go for some liver and broccoli right about now.”
Anyway, I listen to opera in the vague hope that someday, somehow, I’ll start to like it and then I can count myself as a genuinely educated and cultured person. Every once in a great while I find myself kind of liking a piece, nodding my head and humming along and I think,  “Gee, I’m starting to like this opera stuff after all.”
But then I realized that the opera pieces I like are the ones they used as soundtracks for the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons I watched as a child — and I’m back to square one. It’s not music appreciation; it’s just nostalgia for my childhood.  I’m still listening, and I’m still hoping, but I’m 58. I don’t think this plan is working.
“As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .”
Many people in our world today are seeking Spiritual Enlightenment. In recent public opinion polls, more people are willing to claim being “spiritual,” than are willing to say that they are “religious.” Some people go looking for “spirituality,” the way I have gone looking for “culture and sophistication,” and with about the same level of success.
People explore the latest prayer techniques and different churches and praise bands and labyrinth walks and Alpha Bible Studies and the Wild Women of the Bible Weekends and Seeking Your Inner Child Men’s Drum Circle Sweat Lodge and I don’t know what all.
And whatever it is they think they’re looking for, if it isn’t where they are, well, it must it over the hill or around the corner or in the next place they look or the next.
“As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .”
The author of the book of Hebrews is, in this text, dealing with the fact that while the biblical witness is that God is in charge of the world; when we look around us, it is difficult to see the evidence that God (or God’s angels, “them”) is actually in charge of much of anything.
As one of my unbelieving college professors put it, “If God is really in charge, he, she or it is doing a lousy job.” War, drugs, disease, natural disaster, economic collapse, starvation: need I go on? Does this look like “everything in subjection. . .” to God?
And let’s be honest with one another. The church, the place those of us gathered here have traditionally looked for hope and meaning is in a confused place right now. 
In almost all denominational families it is a time of change and uncertainty and discomfort.  Arguments about sexuality and theology and worship and decline fill all our churches. It is a time when people are searching for what a prayer in the Lutheran Funeral Service calls a “sure and certain hope.”
The little word “yet,” is vital to understanding not only this text, but also the promise of the Gospel to us at times like these. “As it is, we do not yet see . . .” As much as we yearn for and look for and yes, do battle for, certainty and security, the Bible constantly reminds us of what Luther referred to as the “hiddenness of God.” It is sometimes referred to as the “already-but-not-yet” Kingdom of God.
As we look around the world for God, God is often difficult to see, difficult to pin down. And sometimes, just when we think we have the holy in our hands, it slips away as we realize we were mistaken; as I was when I thought I liked opera but it turned out to be cartoons I liked.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are to look to Jesus to see what God is doing in the world. We are to look particularly at the fact that Jesus gave up his place at the right hand of God to become human like us. “Who for a little while became lower than the angels,” the text says. And that as a result of this coming into humanity with us, Jesus suffered and died and “tasted death for everyone.”
“….we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus. . . .” is the promise that in Jesus all we hope for and all we need is present.  
In the community of faith we see Jesus in the midst of a world where God is often heard to find.  We hear Christ’s voice in the readings and hymns and songs and liturgies and sermons. We see our Lord’s face in the faces around us; we feel the divine touch in the touch of another’s hand at the passing of the peace.  Most of all we see and feel and receive Christ in the meal, in the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus.  “We do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .”
And we are called to go out into the world and help it to see and hear and feel Jesus too.  There is a post-communion prayer from the United Methodist service of Holy Communion that goes something like this, “Just as this bread and cup have been Christ for us; send us out to be Christ for the world.” 
Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 21 (The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 30, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
I have always been partial to the phrase, “Hoist with his own petard.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv)

I never knew until recently that a petard was actually an explosive device used in medieval warfare for blowing up tunnels and gates and such. If an explosives engineer didn’t construct said petard correctly — and it went off unexpectedly while still in his possession — well, you get the idea. The poor gentleman was “hoist” (the older English past participle form of the verb for “to lift”) with his own device.

Certainly, Haman qualifies here in the story of Esther. His best-laid plans for the destruction of the Jews came back to haunt him in a bad, bad way. Famously, without ever mentioning the name of God directly, Esther’s story points us to the truth expounded by Joseph hundreds of years earlier: “You meant [your actions] for harm, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is coming to pass — the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

Psalm 124
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side….”

How many times can we as people of faith look back and feel the truth of the psalmist played out in our experience? If God hadn’t been present through some of the darkest days of our lives, how would we have made it? 

Life grinds us down, chews us up, spits us out. But, God is with us and we are saved. This is the proclamation that we are privileged to share. We remember it every time we speak in worship: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Manna? We don’t need no stinking manna!”

Okay, so it’s a bit of stretch to place the words from Treasure of the Sierra Madre*  in the mouths of the Hebrew children. But, they do appear to have been pretty tired of the miraculous “bread from heaven” that had become their nutritional mainstay in the wilderness.

Are we, as children who often exhibit a “restless discontent” with the provision of God, guilty of wanting meat when what we have is manna? Do we ever implicitly carry the attitude with us before the Lord, “Is this really the best that you can do, God?”

Perhaps the intended function of this passage is to support the idea that, when God places the Spirit on the lives of others who may “preach” or “proclaim” differently than we do — we may need to back off a bit and trust God’s working. There are, after all, different gifts but the same Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:4)

Jesus will have a word for his disciples on this matter in the gospel reading (below.)

* The “famous” line from the 1927 novel and its film adaptation in 1948 passed into the popular consciousness by means of comedic master Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974.) It has been widely misquoted and maladapted ever since, so we feel that we are on solid ground here at the Lab!

Psalm 19:7-14
Sometimes, you just have to sit back and realize about some passages in scripture: “It don’t get no better than this!”

Psalm 19’s description of the power of the law of the Lord is intended simply to wash over us, cleanse us, renew us. As I read vv. 7-10, I find myself responding over and over again, “Yes, Lord; make it so in me.”

James 5:13-20
Prayer is a mighty powerful thing!

How do we handle this in our own lives? How are we challenging our congregations to grasp the power of prayer? Are we ever afraid of “letting go” to the point that we might have to actually believe that “prayer changes things?”

Mark 9:38-50
What we do for Christ matters. And so, evidently, do the deeds of others — even if they aren’t “like us!” 

We can be a tad prone to territorialism in our churches and denominations. Those “other” Christians don’t do things like we do them. Are we sure we can trust them?

Heck, we even get suspicious of folks who DO do things the way we do them! There are few fights more bitter than those that pit Baptists against Baptists, Lutherans against Lutherans, Episcopalians against Episcopalians, etc. Even nuns are fighting the pope (or vice versa, I suppose, depending on your perspective) these days!

Verse 40 is what I would call a “chillax” verse; Jesus assures us that he is keeping an eye on things and that those other folk — the ones who don’t do things the same we do — they’re not really against us, after all. 

And, if they are…well, God’s going to take care of them. Worms not dying, fire going unquenched and all that. God is the Righteous Judge who will dole out any consequences that are needed. That’s not our job; we are to “be at peace with one another.” 

‘Nuff said, don’t you reckon?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I went to seminary, back when students used electric typewriters and libraries instead of laptops and the internet, we had courses in Practical Theology.  Now I think they call it Contextual Education or something like that.

I always liked the term “practical theology.”  It reminded me that our theology, our talk about God, really comes alive when we put it into practice. Our three scripture readings for today contain lessons in doing what we say we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit; about loving God and loving each other.  In particular, these readings teach us about inviting divine healing into our bodies, souls and communities.

In the first lesson in Numbers we read about a time when, in the midst of community dysfunction, the Israelites turned on their leader, Moses, who then proceeded to blame everything on God.

God responded with a plan that moved the community from an authoritarian, charismatic leader model to a “spirit dispersed on the people” style of decision making by bestowing the Spirit upon the seventy who had been selected by the people.  The community was able to bring a halt to the “blame the leader” syndrome and move into a healthier “share the responsibility” model of life together.

One of the interesting sidelights of this story is the bestowal of the Spirit on Eldad and Medad, who were not in the seventy picked by the people.  This seems to be a reminder that the wind of the Spirit still blows where it wills and, though structures are good for us, God’s activity in the world is not limited by them.

While the reading from James is about physical and spiritual healing, it is less about the charismatic gift of healing (which I have witnessed and do not deny) than it is about our call to take care of each other.

This passage is about community and compassion, especially as it moves into language about the reconciliation of sinners.  James is reminding us that healing is both physical and emotional; it’s not only about our bodies, it’s also about our souls and our relationships.

The first part of the reading from Mark brings to mind the Numbers episode about Eldad and Medad, and the bestowal of the Spirit on those outside the camp.  Then it moves quickly into  really scary language about drowning one’s self and cutting off body parts and tearing eyes out of their sockets.

Of course, this is all hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, designed to bring us up short and get us to pay attention to the fact that this cross-bearing, following Jesus, stuff is serious business.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, “What do I need to cut out of my life?  What am I doing that is keeping me from being the complete and whole person God made me to be and means for me to be?”

My late mother-in-law was always on a diet.  And she was always cheating on it, eating things she knew she shouldn’t.  When daughter or her husband would find a wrapper from a drive-thru breakfast hidden in her purse, she would sigh and say, in her soft, sweet, eastern North Carolina accent, “Ah, biscuits, them’s my downfall.”

An empty package of cookies in the trash?   “Ah Oreos, them’s my downfall!”

A takeout plate from Wilber’s Barbecue under the car seat?  “Ah ribs, them’s my downfall!”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, what’s your downfall?

We all have good intentions of living a life close to God.  We all want to be better people than we are.  We all want our churches to be communities that are full of love and compassion, capable of healing and transforming one another and the world.

What’s stopping us?  What is our downfall?

Again, all three of these lessons turn on questions of practice: “What does it take to heal us, to make us whole, to turn us into the people God made us to be, wants us to be, calls us to be?”

And the answers all have to do with doing things God’s way in the holy community instead of stubbornly clinging to our own individual way.

In community we are called to let go of power and embrace the spirit of God speaking in the community; even sometimes speaking to us through voices outside the community. (Numbers)

In community, we are called to heal and be healed by reaching out to one another in humility and compassion, loving the community and trusting the community to love us back. (James)

In community we are called to take the welfare of others, their faith and their life, so seriously that we are willing to sacrifice things that are good for us rather than injure or harm them. (Mark)

In the Christian faith, the way forward is always through the cross, putting aside our yearnings for power and control to follow Jesus along the way of sacrifice, death to self and rebirth in the image of Christ.

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 20 (the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 23, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Proverbs 31:10-31
This text, so often proclaimed as “The Worth of a Noble Woman,” may sound a little patronizing to some ears. Should a woman’s value only be found in her ability to raise the reputation of her husband? Is her joy dependent merely on rearing a happy, healthy brood?

No, though the “utterance of King Lemuel” goes to the deep value of relationships and reflects on just what it is that has lasting value in a lifetime. Men, women, children, youth — we could all do with a healthy dose of this way to happiness and blessing. (v. 28)

Psalm 1
Ah, more of the “way of happiness!”

Psalm 1 presents the Hebrew Bible’s classic “two choices” — the way of the sinner, and the way of the righteous. Straightforward and no-nonsense, the choice is up to each of us.

The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind. (v. 4)

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22
One might wish to take a moment and consider one’s course when “lying in wait for a righteous” person. There are many plans that roll around in our heads that sound awfully good when we first conceive them. Later — well, not so much!

The human capacity to outthink ourselves is legendary; thanks to sin, we are, indeed, sometimes blinded by wickedness. Better to trust the “secret purposes of God.”

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Does God still reveal God’s will to individuals and congregations? Jeremiah claims that, “the Lord made it known to me, and I knew.”

There you have it. Perhaps easier said than done, to be sure; but, somehow God must direct those who have committed their cause to the Lord.

Psalm 54
The psalmist does not proclaim, “For the Lord has delivered me from some of my troubles.” Nope, it’s every trouble!

As Brother Jerry Clower was wont to say, “Ain’t God good!”

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
For James, wisdom and understanding are not a matter of “book learning” or cerebral intelligence. These traits issue forth in good deeds that are done with gentleness.

In other words, if you say you believe it — then do it!

Mark 9:30-37
Busted!

I don’t know that this gospel story requires a Jesus that can hear every word we utter in secret or not; most likely, the disciples weren’t that stealthy as they walked along the road back to Capernaum, jostling over who was going to get the choicest assignments in God’s kingdom come.

At any rate, Jesus brings the party to a screeching halt with his question — “What were you arguing about?”

“Umm, not much Jesus. Why do you ask?”

“Last is first, service is greatness. Are you guys ever going to get this into your heads?”

Sermon 
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton


I am a big fan of church signs. Traveling as much as I have over the past ten years, I see a lot of them. Across from Tennessee State University in Nashville there is a congregation that has the longest name I’ve ever seen on a church sign:

The House of the Lord, Which is the Church of the Living God, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Without Controversy, Incorporated.

Without controversy! Whoever heard of a church without controversy?

A church sign I saw in Decatur Georgia seems more accurate to me. This church said it was “Free For All Baptist Church” When I saw that sign I imagined elderly deacons in their Sunday suits engaged in an ecclesiastical version of a bar fight; throwing down their Bibles and wrestling each other to the floor in front of the altar.

The truth of the matter is, the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to fussing with each other about all sorts of things, some of which matter and most of which don’t.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus finds his disciples arguing about one of those things that do not matter, not in the family of God, anyway. They have been fussing and fighting over which one is the greatest.

It is particularly ironic and disappointing that they are arguing about this right after Jesus has told them that as the messiah he will have to suffer and die for the world, and that as his followers they will need to “deny self and take up a cross” as well. He presents them with a model of complete helplessness and weakness and they respond by contending for positions of power and influence. In other words, they don’t get it.

In his commentary on Mark, N.T. Wright points out that not all Jews of the time believed that God would send a messiah and among those who did believe a messiah was coming; no one believed that the messiah would have to suffer, much less to die. Most believed that “the one” would come in power and might and strength. They believed the messiah would come as a military leader, smiting the Romans and their evil, pagan allies, conquering the world in the name of Truth, Justice and YHWH.

So Jesus disciples just didn’t get it when Jesus said in verse 31, “The son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” If they heard his words, they certainly didn’t hear his meaning. They had figured out he was the messiah so they were trying to sort out their positions of importance in the new regime.

Jesus overheard their arguing and called them on it, asking them “what were you talking about?” And the text says they were silent. They couldn’t answer him.  Could it be that in trying to formulate an answer to that question, it began to dawn on them just how wrong they were; just how far they had strayed from the path Jesus had called them to follow?

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath, sighing and with a somewhat forced smile, saying, “Come here y’all, sit down, let’s talk. Let me see if I can find a better way to explain this to you.”
He proceeded to talk about how whoever wants to be first must be last and a servant of everyone. This “great reversal” is consistent with things Jesus says over and over throughout the Gospels about how in the Kingdom of God things are almost the mirror opposite of how they are in the world.

Then, Jesus did a monumentally important thing in the history of the church. There, on the spot, he invented the children’s sermon, complete with an actual child as the object in the object lesson.

Jesus and the disciples were in the ground floor room of a house, it had open windows and doorways, and a crowd had gathered to listen to him teach his disciples. Jesus reached into the crowd and pulled a child, probably a toddler, into the room. Then he said,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.”

With these words, Jesus proclaims his ultimate great reversal. In the ancient world, children were symbols of powerlessness. Outside of normal parental affection, children were, almost literally, nothing. Lutheran pastor Peter Marty, in the Lectionary Commentary, says that “in the Greco-Roman world a father could punish, sell, pawn off or even kill his own child.”

It is interesting to note that the Greek words for child and servant have the same root and that Jesus used both of these images; child and servant, as symbols of who the messiah is and who we, the followers of Jesus, are called to be in the world. Children and servants, powerless and defenseless ones, that’s us.

Our modern world, gives highest honor and respect to those with power and authority and importance. People in our world seek positions of strength from which they can control and manage others.

And the call of the Gospel to us today is the same as it was to those to whom Jesus spoke personally. It may be that way in the world, but it must not be that way among you my followers.

It may not be possible for the church to be the church and also be, as the sign said, “without controversy.” On the other hand, just because we have controversy, it is not necessary that we be a “free for all” either.

Through his teaching about the great reversal, the call to child-like-ness, to servant-hood, to powerlessness and humility, most of all though his own humiliation and death on the cross, Jesus has shown us the way forward though our disagreements and controversies.

Rather than aspiring to power and influence and control within the world and within the community of the faithful; our calling is seek to be servants of one another, actively loving each other in the name of the one who first loved us.

Amen and amen.

Year B — Proper 19 (The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for September 16, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Proverbs 1:20-33
So, just how long are you willing to stay the way you are?

When we are hurting, we often must choose to move toward healing; when we are angry, we must choose to move toward peace. Here, Wisdom asks, “How long will the simple love being simple?” There’s knowledge for those who would rather be well-informed.

In John’s gospel, Jesus once asked a man, “Do you want to be made whole?” (John 5:5-7) The man was initially too busy complaining and citing his list of infirmities to receive the healing offered by the Christ. 

Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of being willing to receive what God freely offers.

Psalm 19
My friend and colleague, Dr. Bubba #1, prays the concluding verse of this psalm each week after finishing the reading of the gospel and before commencing on to the sermon. I like it; it’s a good prayer.

I wish sometime that I could employ the “speech” of the heavens as they tell the glory of God. No words, no voice — just mute-yet-powerful testimony. 

“Let the words of my mouth be shut up long enough to allow your glory to shine forth, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 – 8:1
A great piece of bumper sticker theology: “God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.” 

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Filling the pulpit week after week is both immensely satisfying and incredibly burdensome. None of us “preachers” is really up to the task without the word that God places on our tongues.

I am convinced that it is often we who are “weary” as we come each week; and it is God who sustains us with merely a word.

Psalm 116:1-9
“If loving the Lord is wrong, I don’t wanna’ be right!” 

So says the good Reverend Brown — played by Arsenio Hall — in Coming to America. (13 second clip here)

Cheesy as the good reverend’s character may be, that’s pretty good advice. The psalmist urges us to remember why we love the Lord. Not the least of the reasons: God bends down and listens; the ear of God is close when we need to pray.

James 3:1-12
“Nobody’s perfect.”

Well, duh. Like many modern admonitions, this one actually has a long history and a strong biblical basis. James was keen to remind us that “all of us make many mistakes.” 

We live and die, bless and curse, by the words we use. They should be administered very carefully!

Mark 8:27-38
I don’t think Jesus was being paranoid here, nor was he looking for an ego boost. Getting the disciples out and away from their normal stomping grounds around Capernaum gave all of them — Jesus included — a chance for a fresh perspective on just exactly what was going on. 

It is, after all, an important question for each of us to answer. Not so much, “what does everybody else think about Jesus?”, but rather, “what do you think about Jesus?”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a, James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Cary Grant was walking down the street in New York one afternoon.  He was spotted by someone who excitedly did the whole stop, stare, double-take, stare, stammer thing.

“You’re, you’re, you’re . . . Rock Hudson.  No, that’s not right.  You’re, you’re, you’re uh, uh, Gary Cooper.  No, that’s not it, you’re, you’re Burt Lancaster, no, uh . . . ‘

Seeking to help, Grant helpfully suggested, “Cary Grant?”

Man shook his head and muttered, “No, that’s not it.”

Today’s Gospel lesson turns on a question of identity – exactly who is Jesus?  Well, it’s pretty clear that the author of Mark wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed on of God, the Savior, the Christ.

And he wants us to know that Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Messiah, has implications for Jesus that the disciples did not want to hear.  “Suffer?!  Die?! No! That can’t be right.” Peter took Jesus aside to tell him, “Now, listen here Jesus, that’s not who you are.

It’s like the movie fan and Cary Grant.  Peter presumes to know better than Jesus who Jesus is.
And Jesus’ response to Peter carries us deeper into the mysteries of identity, of suffering and death, denial and the cross.  This question of identity isn’t just about Jesus; it’s also about us.

If Jesus is the Christ, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean for us to say week after week in the creed that Jesus is the Christ?

Well, for some this text is an invitation to believe the right things about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” is seen by many as the essential question of the faith, as if our eternal salvation will be determined by what we “thought” about Jesus, that our relationship with God depends upon our thinking and believing the right things.

And the next part of the text, the part about Jesus predicting his own suffering and Peter’s unwillingness to accept it, and Jesus crying out, “Get behind me Satan,” are reminders of Jesus’ own suffering for us on the cross.

In the midst of all this, many still see this text as being about what Jesus did for us and almost never about what we are called to do with Jesus for the world.

Often times “deny self” is interpreted as something like: “Quit your meanness and get back to church.”

“To take up one’s cross,” is “Put up with whatever less than ideal conditions you find yourself in, it may be bad but it’s not as bad as what Jesus went through to save your sorry self from Hell, so quit complaining.”

And “following Jesus” apparently consists of being in church a lot and giving enough so that the church can meet its bills.

When I was in college I went to a weeklong missionary conference of evangelical college students.  (I went with the purest of motives, there was this girl . . .)

There was this big rally and the Rev. Dr. Somebody Famous preached on this text and said that the focus of this story needed to be moved from salvation to service. This text was a challenge to us to consider what God was calling us to do with our lives.

And, apparently, the answer to “deny self, take up a cross and follow Jesus” was to give ourselves to something called “full time Christian service,” and, while I pondered as to how there could be anything else but “full-time” Christian service, (I mean being a part-time Christian just doesn’t seem to make much logical sense; either you are or you aren’t) it was further explained that the preferred full-time Christian service was outside the United States among people who would never hear the Gospel if we assembled here in this hall don’t carry it to them.

And again, is that really what “deny self, take up a cross, follow Jesus” means?

I recently read something by Fred Craddock that makes the most sense to me.  (Craddock taught preaching at Vanderbilt and Emory Universities.)

Craddock said that most of us think that this call to denial will come in a startling moment of moral and existential clarity, that we will have a Damascus Road experience that causes us to shed our old life in order to totally and completely embrace another life for the sake of the Gospel.

And the truth is, for most of us, most of the time, it doesn’t happen that way.  Craddock’s analogy is that we think we have a million dollars and we have to spend it all at once on something big.

The reality is that we give away the million dollars a quarter at a time, all day long, every day of our lives.  We give it away in little acts of sacrifice and kindness to others and devotion to God.

We listen to the neighbor kid’s problems, we go to a boring but necessary committee meeting, we spend a night at the homeless shelter, we provide a meal at the battered women’s shelter, we give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home, we call the pastor and tell her that her sermon helped us this week, we; treat the teen-ager at the drive through with respect whether they deserve it or not, the list goes on.

Usually, giving our lives to Christ is neither glorious nor spectacular.  It’s done in little acts of love, twenty-five cents at a time; living the Christian life little by little, day after day, over the long haul. (Fred Craddock – Cherry Log Sermons)

I think of it this way, we go through life shedding little pieces of our old self, tiny bits at a time.  And we pick up little splinters and pieces of our cross along the way as we attempt to follow a Christ who is just out of sight over the horizon, until, near the end of our journey, we look back and realize we are no longer who we once were and the change in us is all because we followed him.

Amen and amen.