The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 4, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Sorry — I just could not resist this re-print from the last time we had this passage!

“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

How are we — human beings all too prone to wander from the path — to stay on the right way? It all depends on where we place our eyes. With God’s steadfast love fully filling our vision, it seems we are much more likely to live lives worthy of our calling.

Genesis 2:18-24

Awesome text, the basis for lots of discussion (at least in the USA) these days surrounding the idea of a “biblical marriage.” Not gonna wade into that one — and I wouldn’t advise any preacher to try to proclaim a theology of same in just one sermon!

The most captivating thought to me is that of the complementarity of the human beings in this passage. The word for “helper” here is actually a compound (and somewhat complex) construction in Hebrew. A “helper,” yes — but one who is both “in front of” (as in eyeball to eyeball, intimate) but also “opposite of” (as in toe to toe, opposing.) The two are definitely stronger together than either is apart and alone.

Psalm 8

What a vivid picture — considering the heavens, the moon, and the stars in order to comprehend something of God. Take a look at the video clip below, taken from NASA’s footage of the Andromeda Galaxy earlier this year. This gives me a sense of the wonder of the universe, and definitely hones in on the question, “What are we human beings that you even notice us, God?”

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

God never stops working!

The revelation of God’s plan of grace in the world began long ago, and has come in stages — according to the writer of Hebrews. Of course, God’s ultimate revelation of self has come in the form of Jesus, who is far superior to angels, sacrifices, priests, and all else. And yet, this One who is the heir of all things and the pioneer of our very salvation, has been perfected through suffering.

We seek to follow Jesus. Which sometimes will hurt.

Mark 10:2-16

Jesus rarely wants to diddle in trivial matters — not that divorce or other life-issues are trivial. He just doesn’t want to get too hung up in judging folks who have had to deal with difficult situations in their lives. “God knows it’s hard, guys; that’s why God has given you some space in these things.”

We are the ones who just can’t seem to let it go.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

If you’ve ever been through Chattanooga, TN, you know that Lookout Mountain looms over the city. Most mornings, as the sun comes up, a ring of fog hangs about halfway up the cliffs above the Tennessee River, with the sun shining brightly on the mountaintop above and the city below. On Nov. 24, 1863 one of the most interesting battles of the Civil War took place on that mountain. The Confederates had artillery on top of the mountain, preventing the Union from using the river for supply shipments and troop movements. The Federals were determined to silence those cannon. The fighting centered in the foggy area. Between the fog and the peculiar terrain and the general confusion of war, things were a mess. The story is told that a Confederate General happened upon a severely wounded private and ordered him to “get to the rear,” out of harm’s way. The private saluted and replied “Yes Sir.” A bit later, the general happened upon the private again, “Son, I thought I told you to get to the rear!” The private drew himself up, saluted, and said, “Begging the General’s pardon Sir, I been trying, but this here battle ain’t got no rear!”

We all know how he feels. Since 9/11, 14 years ago, it seems like there has been a continuous worsening of the state of the world and the human condition. War, terrorism, the economy, nasty politics, disease, basic human values ignored, a coarsening of our culture, families falling apart; we could go on and on about how bad things are.  Surely this is not what God intended for the world and for the children of God, the people of the world.. What went wrong? And what can we do about it? What must we, the followers and disciples of Jesus, do in response to a world that is dangerous and out of control? How did we get in this mess?

First lesson is one of the creation stories in Genesis. It is a charming little vignette about God trying to find a fit companion for Adam. It’s kind of funny as God acts like a shoe salesman trying to fit a finicky customer. God brings out animals big and small, sleek and furry, ferocious and tame, clean and nasty, everything in the store.  And Adam looks at them and says, “Well, it’s nice, it’s interesting, but, it’s, it’s . . .  it’s a raccoon. It’s just not what I’m looking for.” And God brings out another and Adam says, “Well, its , its, its BIG, very BIG, and shiny; very, very SHINY. It’s an, uh, an uh, Hippopotamus. But it’s just not for me.” And so it goes through all the animals, and still nothing seems to work. So God decides to do a custom job, just for Adam, to his particular specifications.

It’s a good story. And it’s an important story, for it reminds us of a couple of things. It reminds us that we, all of us, are God’s special and beloved creations. It also reminds us that we are all, male and female, equal partners in life, that the point of marriage is companionship and shared life journeys. That is God’s intention. Now, fast forward several thousand years to the time of Jesus and the story told in our Gospel lesson. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him into trouble with the King. King Herod had married his brother’s ex-wife. Worse than that, he had forced his brother into divorcing her so he could marry her. Worse than that, he had killed John the Baptist for preaching about it.  So they asked Jesus, in front of the crowds, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus turned it back on them, “What did Moses say?” “Well Moses allowed a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce.” And Jesus replied with what are the key words for us this morning. Verse 6, “Because of your hardness of heart.”  Another way to put it would; because of your inability to live in accordance with God’s plans and intentions.

At the time of Jesus, many men used the divorce laws as a way to escape familial responsibility. Without a husband, women were often in quite dire straits, and many men tossed aside wives for quite trivial reasons. The law said you could divorce your wife if you found anything “unseemly” in her. Most Rabbis interpreted that in terms of sexual immorality, but some said it could be anything the husband didn’t like, such as burning his dinner. For Jesus, tightening up the attitude toward divorce was a matter of justice for woman, and a call to taking God’s intentions for married life seriously. When Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her,” this is holding men accountable for their behavior in a very provocative way, for adultery was not a minor accusation and it carried with it the death penalty.

Now I know that Jesus’ strict words here are painful to persons who have been through divorce, and are difficult for many to hear. I have two siblings who are divorced and two who married divorced persons, so I am not insensitive to this. It is important to note that Jesus was very forgiving of divorced persons. I think particularly of the woman at the well, who had had many husbands and was living outside of marriage with another man. Jesus was not condemnatory toward her, but rather was pastoral and kind. It is not Jesus’ intent to condemn those who have suffered through a difficult marriage and decided to end it before causing more pain to themselves or others. His intent is to recall people to the purpose of committed relationships, which is the completion of our created humanity in companionship and partnership. His intent is to call us away from relationships which are hurtful and abusive and unequal.

God created human committed companionship as a good thing, but human hardness of heart turned good thing into a bent and ruptured and incomplete thing. In many other ways, humanity has taken the good things God made messed them up. That is the basic human story. Psalm 8 says that God made us little lower than the angels, and that he gave us mastery over the world. How have we done, taking care of things? Not very well, I’m afraid. And it is getting frighteningly worse, and as we are constantly reminded, that this here battle ain’t got no rear. There’s no place to hide. We must stand forth and be a part of the solution. If not, we must count ourselves as part of the problem.
What are we to do? How can we become a part of the solution? What is our calling today?

In Hebrews, the writer traces a scenario in which we are reminded that Jesus gave up privilege and power with God to come to earth as one of us, to suffer with us, and to show us what true humanity was intended to be. Jesus was God in our midst, in our presence, in our bodies and circumstances, God on our level, God with the same temptations and problems and hurts and wants and needs as any of us, and he suffered loss and rejection and fear just like we do. And he managed to stay the course of love and forgiveness to the end.

And we are called to do the same. We are called to raise our heads above the fog and confusion of daily life and look to the bright Sun of God’s love burning above us.  We are called to lift our hearts above our fear and to step forward with love and forgiveness for those who frighten us. In the end, it is the only way.

Amen and amen.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 27, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

Some might label this text, “What Goes Around Comes Around!” Certainly, the vengeance angle on the bent-for-evil Haman is interesting and in need of some unpacking. But, another angle suggests itself to me. Just what are we, as the Lord’s followers, to expect in terms of the world’s attitude toward us? Esther’s plea could be insightful: “For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.”

Psalm 124

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

Indeed! Why would we, as people of faith, ever want to depend on lesser means for our salvation and deliverance? Oh, but sadly, often we do.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

It would be easy to discount the “nay sayers” in this passage, right off the bat. After all, they are identified as “the rabble among” the children of Israel.

“Hey, that’s not me! I’m not rabble — I don’t have any rousing to do!” Oh, really? Are you and I so sure that we can’t be counted among this number in our complaining to others — and to the Lord?

Be sure to check out this week’s edition of The Lectionary Lab Live for a pretty extensive discussion of this awesome text.

Psalm 19:7-14

Excellent description of the numerous ways that God’s word is of benefit to us. My personal favorite is in finding the “hidden ways” that I have been less than faithful to God. (v. 12) That convicting power and purpose of the word is so very needed.

James 5:13-20

Short version of the sermon: prayer works! There is much else to dig into here, especially the power of confession between members of a community that care deeply and are unconditionally committed to one another. When we know we need help, and when we are open to those who can help us clear away the infection in our own spirits, a pathway to God’s healing is opened.

Mark 9:38-50

“Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We have lots of trouble with that sometimes; we want others not only to be for us, we often want them to be like us. But that’s not what Jesus says here…so, maybe we have some adjusting of our attitudes to work on?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In the spring of 1980 Mount Saint Helens erupted.  In the early spring of that year the volcanic mountain in Washington State had been showing all the signs.  One expert had even gone on record as saying the chances of an eruption were 100% – it was certain to happen.  While others weren’t that sure, they were sure enough to warn everyone anywhere on or around the mountain to get off and stay off, to get away and stay away.

And almost everybody listened.  Except Harry Randall Truman.  Truman lived at the south end of Spirit Lake at the foot of the mountain.  His house was in the most probable path of the flow of lava. If he stayed in his house he was certainly going to die.  Government officials sternly warned him to leave, friends told him staying was suicidal, family members cried and begged; all to no avail.

When Mount Saint Helens erupted,the lava flowed right over the house with him in it.  Harry Randall Truman died because he could not let go of his home. (Thom Rainer – “Autopsy of a Deceased Church, p.21)

“I your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot cause you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,”  (Mark 9:43-47) If your house, or car, or land, or boat, or , or, or; you fill in the blank, causes you to stumble, cut it out; for it is better to enter God’s presence without it than to lose out on eternal life because of it.

Today’s Gospel lesson is one that no one, well, almost no one takes literally.  Seriously, if anyone took it literally and were totally and completely honest in that literalness, the world would be full of one-eyed people on crutches eating with their left hand.  No, this is a text which must be taken seriously, but not at all literally.

When Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggeration it is like verbal highlighting; he really wants people to listen and think about what he is saying. We are in the midst of what is sometimes referred to as the “Markan pivot.” This is a turn in Mark’s story where he turns from showing Jesus as building up a following while preaching around in the north to showing us Jesus explaining to his followers the very serious consequences of following after him.  This is both a “pivot,” a “turn” in how the story is told and a pivot in the story itself as Jesus turns south and heads toward Jerusalem and the cross.

In the last few weeks we have considered Gospel lessons in which Jesus repeatedly reminds his disciples that just as he himself will face rejection, suffering and death – so will they. To be a part of the kingdom, they must deny themselves, take up their cross of suffering for others, and follow in Christ’s footsteps – wherever those footsteps might lead.  And the disciples have consistently failed to get it – as do we.

In part we all fail to get it because this is just difficult to get one’s mind around mentally, rationally, intellectually – but it’s more than that – for them and for us.  We also shy away from it spiritually.  We resist it emotionally. We push it away because it calls for sacrifices we are not always willing to make.  Like Harry Randall Truman, unwilling to walk away from his house in the face of certain death; we are often unwilling to part with those parts of our lives that are keeping us away from the fullness of life with God.

One of the reasons Jesus makes a list here; hand, foot, eye, etc. is that everybody’s different.  That which is of value to one means nothing to another.  The point is not the thing itself; the point is whether or not that thing becomes more important to you than God.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther commented on the First Commandment “you shall have no other gods,” by saying that the thing that we value and serve above all others is truly our God. That thing may be a good thing, an important thing; but if it is more important to us that God in Christ – then it is an idol and needs to be cut out of our lives for the sake of our souls. It could family, it could be a political or social cause, it could be the church; it could be, for clergy, one’s career in the church.  It doesn’t matter if it is an objective good in itself – if it gets in the way of our relationship with God in Christ it must be removed.

Well, like Jesus, I have been exaggerating a little bit. These things do no not so much need to be cut out as put in their appropriate place.  Family and church and career and social causes are all good and glorious things, but the issue is whether or not they bring us closer to God or drive us away from God.  If they are driving us away from God something needs to change, to be realigned in our lives.

It’s about our saltiness.  Jesus’ concluding image is an interesting one: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it.” (Mark 9:50)  Salt preserves, salt gives flavor, salt gives live.  The salt of the Christian life is drawn from one’s relationship with God in Christ.  If something is getting in the way of that relationship, if something is causing us to “stumble.” in our walk along the Christian way; we will begin to lose that which makes us God’s people in the world, we will stop being the beacon of hope and love and holy fire that God made and intends us to be.

What is it that is getting in your way?  What is more important to you than following Jesus? What is causing you to trip and stagger, to stumble and occasionally fall?

What is getting in our way as a community of faith, as an assembly of those both called together around word and sacrament and sent out into the world to do the good works God has prepared for us to do?  What is causing us to lose our saltiness?  And do we have the will and the courage to cut it out, to put it in its place? Or will we, like Harry Randall Truman, sit in our house, stubbornly unwilling to give up some “thing” in exchange for everything?

Amen and amen.

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 20, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Proverbs 31:10-31

I’ve always scratched my head just a bit when dealing with the “good wife” passage of Proverbs 31. Not because of the characteristics ascribed here, mind you! It’s the translation of the woman we are talking about. No English translation seems to capture the meaning exactly. The King James Version has us considering the “virtuous woman;” here, in the NRSV and other places, she is a “capable wife.” She has also been called a “wife of quality” or “wife of noble character.” Sometimes, she is “excellent” (from the Bill and Ted translation?) and at other times, as in the Orthodox Jewish translation, she is a “woman of valor.”

Perhaps my favorite, though — for it’s direct approach and just all around down-to-earth language — is Eugene Peterson’s Message translation: “A good woman is hard to find!” Hmmm…well, there you go!

Psalm 1

Hard to say it any plainer than Psalm 1 says it. You can go two ways in life — the way of the LORD, which results in happiness (satisfaction, wholeness, peace/shalom — symbolized by the luscious fruit trees that bear year-round) or the way of the wicked, which results in getting blown away like chaff (dry, scaly seed coverings — a byproduct of wheat production that produces no value for human consumption.)


Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22

A pretty grim image here, too. The ungodly, in the end, have only one friend: Death.

Jeremiah 11:18-20

The prophet here highlights the fact that serving God is not always what we might have thought we were signing up for! Like lambs to the slaughter…wow! They don’t print that on the bottom of your seminary degree or your baptismal certificate, do they?

Psalm 54

A great prayer to keep handy for those troublesome times (see above.) God is the “upholder” of our lives. Any repayment of evil — or sustaining of God’s servants — is totally and completely up to God. Our part is to trust, and to do so willingly and freely.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

“Any wise guys here?” James is good at asking the leading question, isn’t he? This is actually a great passage delineating the results of the “gentle wisdom” that comes from God. A good life, good works, peaceableness, gentleness, mercy — these come from God. When we rely on our own wisdom, we are much more likely to reap the fruits of envy, bitterness, selfish ambition, disorder, and wickedness.

I’m loving v.8 as a good old-fashioned memory verse: “Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.”

Mark 9:30-37

We don’t like the hard stuff — at least, not when it comes to the depths of discipleship.

The fellows following Jesus were having a hard time wrapping their minds around the whole killed-and-buried-and-rising-again-in-three-days thing. They didn’t really get it, and they were too embarrassed to ask Jesus what he meant. They are in good company, aren’t they? We often don’t get it when it comes to the things of God.

Also, like the disciple/puppies who were trailing along behind the Master, we tend to spend a lot of time pushing and shoving to get to the front, so we’ll be sure to get the best seats, the best blessings, and the approbation of God. Being great in the God’s kingdom sounds like a great idea.

And it’s easy to get there, according to Jesus. Just learn to be the servant of all. Oh, and take care of the kids. That helps, too!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” James 3:16

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

“But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”  Mark 9:30-37

Over twenty years ago I was driving down an avenue in a large southern city when I saw a church sign that almost made me run off the road I was laughing so hard.  “Free for All Baptist Church.”  I know the intended meaning of the church’s name was a good one.  It meant God’s love is “free, for all.”  God’s grace is “free, for all.”  God’s salvation is “free, for all.”  But, all I could think about was the other meaning of “free-for-all” – a group fight, a melee, a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out, last-one-standing-turn-out-the-lights, spill-out-into-the-streets fracas.

So, whenever I think about “Free For All Baptist Church,” I envision rotund and graying deacons in their Sunday best, wrestling around on the floor, punching one another with the Broadman hymnal and calling each other names like, “Pre-tribulation, post-millennial heretic!” or “Doubtfully baptized Methodist convert!”  Far-fetched, I admit, but it amuses me.

The truth of the matter is – the people of God have always been and probably always will be a contentious lot, given to occasional eruptions of disagreement, argumentation, and theological free-for-alls. This is not always a bad thing.  I once heard retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon say that it at least shows that we care.  We, generally speaking, don’t often fight about things we don’t care about.

The trouble comes when the church not only fights, but fights dirty, and over the wrong things; when we find ourselves scheming behind others’ backs, plotting and conniving over things that are not ministry but are rather about prestige and position and ego.

There are two types of conflict that the Biblical writes describe using the word “agon.” It is the word from which we get the English words “agony” and “agonize.”  One use is to describe the disputes and conflicts between human beings – everything from a lover’s quarrel all the way up to World War II is an “agon.” The second use is internal to the individual.  It is the personal struggle to overcome temptation, to control ones negative emotions or rein in one’s harmful behaviors.  To have an internal conflict is to have an “agon.”

James teaches us that conflicts between us are most often the result of conflicts within us. Most of the time when we are fighting with each other, the real battle is an internal one that we have lost and taken outside ourselves.

“These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James 4:1

Thus, sometimes in church life, disagreements about spending plans and missional priorities and who should have made the coffee are escalated out of proportion by our individual failure to deal with our own internal struggles with envy or ambition or one of the other seven deadly sins.

For example – in our Gospel lesson for today, there is a dispute among the disciples about “who is the greatest.”  This argument follows on yet another attempt by Jesus to teach the disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah – betrayal, death, and resurrection.  And, they still don’t get it.  Verse 33 is, to me, one of the truest and yet oddly funny lines in the Bible, “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  (That pretty much summarizes my whole first semester in Modern Poetry 301 with Dr. Morton at Guilford College.)  And, as if to prove that they don’t understand, in the very teeth of Jesus’ attempt to explain it to them, they start arguing about greatness.  At least they have the grace and good sense to be ashamed of themselves and fall silent when Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about?”

Jesus knew, yes, he knew.  He also knew what his beloved but somewhat behind disciples needed to work on. The real conflict here is not between the disciples, it is within each disciple. They fight because of their ambition and ego and status needs; their selfish wants and desires.  Jesus turns all this on its head when he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child into his lap and adds, “This, this child, is the most important person in the world.  Look no further for “the greatest,” for here it is right in front of you. For if you welcome the child, you welcome me; and if you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me, who is God.”

But the disciples still don’t get it.  And all too often, we don’t get it. That’s a pretty grim diagnosis of our all too human condition.  What’s the cure? How do we dig ourselves out of this predicament?  How do we quit being so centered on self and become lovingly centered on others?  What must we do to be saved?

Well we must go back to the beginning, to the part the disciples didn’t understand; the part most of us never fully understand either.  The answer is in what the Eucharistic Prayer has traditionally called the mystery of faith: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 109) Or in the words of Jesus “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.” Mark 9:31

Because it is a great mystery, it is okay that we don’t totally get it.  It’s not the sort of thing you understand only, or mostly in your brain.  It is the sort of thing you understand with your life, in your living, in your day-today experiences within family, your community, and your church.  Jesus has modeled it for us, shown us the way; and we are invited to follow his lead.  We are invited to die a little to self each day, we are invited to become a little less centered on our self every time we do something truly generous for someone else.

And eventually, we will know, deep within, that God’s love really is “free, for all.”  Free for me, free for you, free for everyone, free for all people, for all time, for all needs.  Yes it’s free.  But it’s not cheap.  It cost Jesus’ his very life.  And it will and does cost us ours.  We are invited today to die to envy and selfish ambition, to pride and privilege.  We are invited today to become great by becoming small, to become a leader by becoming a servant, to grow into the fullness of Christ by becoming as a little child.

Amen and amen.

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 13, 2015)

Click here for today’s texts
Click here for the Lectionary Lab Live podcast

Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Proverbs 1:20-33

What a perfect word for our time! Notice where it is that Wisdom cries out for our attention — “in the street, at the busiest corner” of our lives. We are in danger of missing wisdom from the Lord when our lives are so busy that we simply miss what God has to say!

Psalm 19

Speaking of listening for the wisdom and word of God — “the heavens are telling!” Without any speech, we have the presence of God displayed before us. What we need to learn, we most often can by simply stopping and looking up (and around.) Now there’s a thought!

Wisdom of Solomon 7:26 – 8:1

Another text reflecting on the wisdom of God (ironically — or, perhaps not so ironically! — portrayed in the feminine.) True wisdom “spotlessly” reflects the working of God. I love the promise, “Against wisdom, evil does not prevail.”

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Making a firm determination to follow the ways of God is often tantamount to “asking for trouble” in the world. There will be contention, there will be opposition. But, with God for us — who can be against us, eh?

Psalm 116:1-9

There is a temptation to “praise God” when we get an answer to prayer that we like. When we have cried to the Lord for help, and have received deliverance — it’s all good! But, what about those for whom the answer was not so redemptive? Are we committed to trust in the goodness and mercy of God — in advance — no matter the outcome?

James 3:1-12

Truer words have ne’er been spoken: “We all make many mistakes.” For those who speak the words of the Lord — who represent Christ — few mistakes are as onerous as those we make with our words. I learned to sing in the preschool department of my church’s Sunday School : “Oh, be careful little mouth what you say…for the Father up above is looking down in love…so be careful little mouth what you say!” Still a helpful little ditty, I think.

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus is making a firm commitment to follow the will of God to Jerusalem and all that the Holy City holds for him. This passage is a “gut check” for the disciples who claim that they will follow him, wherever he leads them. It’s going to get pretty tough. Taking up crosses is no picnic. Time for deep meditation on Jesus’ words: “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.”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When I read our gospel lesson, many sermons from my childhood came to mind. In them, the question from the first part of the story, “Who do you say that I am?” was used as an evangelistic tool.  We were taught that our eternal salvation was dependent on what we “said” about Jesus, Where we would spend eternity, heaven or hell, depended on our thinking, on our believing, on our confessing the right things. And I never “got saved” because, apparently, I never thought the right things about Jesus, so I never felt him come into my heart.

In many of those same sermons, the next part of this text; the part where Jesus predicts his own suffering and Peter is unwilling to accept it, leading Jesus to yell at him,  “Get behind me Satan,” was used to talk about how much Jesus suffered for us. These descriptions were pretty vivid and made it crystal clear that the perfect, sinless, Son of God had to die because of the hormone driven, naughtiness of a twelve year old boy – namely me; it was all my fault – at least that’s the way I heard it.

Interestingly, I never heard anyone talk about how Peter failed to understand Jesus when he turned the image of being the Messiah upside down; from one of kingship to kinship, from sovereignty to servanthood.  Nor did they talk about how Jesus must have been genuinely tempted to turn away from the path of suffering; otherwise he would not have used the term “Satan” with Peter – Jesus was shouting at himself as much as he was shouting at Peter.

And, in my remembrance, the whole “Deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” mandate was really trivialized. The denial of self was equated to “Deny yourself basic human enjoyment of life and join the church.” Take up a cross became “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 consisted of being in church twice on Sunday and also on Wednesday night and giving enough to the church to raise the preacher’s salary. If that’s not what this text means – then what does it mean?  What is Mark trying to tell us by putting this story together in this way?

Well first of all, he’s trying to clarify for his readers who this preacher/teacher/healer/miracle worker named Jesus was.  Remember, Mark is writing after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  He is writing primarily to the members of the early church who have already heard most of the stories he is writing about.  They are the “oral tradition” of the church.  They show up in sermons, in letters, in dinner table conversation among disciples; “Hey, remember the time we were down in Capernaum?  What was it he said to that old man?  Are you sure – I didn’t hear it that way?”  Or “Now boys, break it up! Be nice to your brother.  Remember Elder John said that Jesus said we should love one another.”

Mark has taken this material and arranged it in something like chronological order – beginning with the John the Baptist and ending with the trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.  The in between material is arranged in such a way as to make it clear who this Jesus you’re heard so much about was.

In the first half of Mark, Jesus is baptized, he gathers followers, he preaches, he teaches, he heals, he casts out demons, he becomes somewhat well known.  We have reached the midpoint of Mark’s material.  A turning point.

It is time for Jesus to make it clear to his disciples exactly what it is they have signed up for.  And in telling this story, Mark is making it clear to the members of the early church what it is they have become a part of in deciding to follow Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Resurrected One.

Mark lays the story out in the form of three brief episodes that are connected by Peter’s Confession and Peter’s Protest.  First Jesus engages in a bit of questioning dialogue with his disciples.  This is a standard teacher technique, to force the learners into thinking more deeply than they would have if he just told them the answer.  And after a little hemming and hawing about Elijah and John the Baptist, Peter blurts out the right answer “Messiah!”

Jesus rewards him with a smile and says, “Right you are, Peter,” and then moves on to explain to them what being the Messiah really looks like. “Suffering, rejection, killed, rise again after three days.”  I’m guessing Peter heard everything but the “rise again after three days.”  And if he heard it, he had no way of understanding it.  All he knew was that this picture of what it meant to be the Messiah was upside down and backwards from what he, and everyone else he knew, thought a Messiah was supposed to look like.  It wasn’t just the suffering and rejection and death – it was also the lack of subjecting the oppressors, the Romans and their minions, to a bit of “suffering, death, and rejection,” themselves.  The Messiah was supposed to come in and kick some serious Roman behind – what is all this about “suffering and rejection and death?’

So Peter injects himself a second time, “Whoa, whoa, whoa – that’s not right! That’s not how this works. That’s not what happens to you!”  And though Peter “took him aside,” Jesus makes this a teachable moment, making sure everyone hears him when he rebukes Peter, for he knows that Peter is just saying what everybody else is thinking. Jesus isn’t really calling him Satan, instead in Peter’s words Jesus recognizes the very temptations to power, the temptations to avoid the necessary suffering, the temptations to do this another way besides God’s way that he suffered in the wilderness after his baptism.  And so Jesus yells – he yells at Satan, at Peter, at himself.

Then he lays it out for everyone – Peter, the disciples, the crowd.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  No sugar coating, no “follow me and get your emotional and spiritual needs met.” No “follow me and you will be highly respected in the community.” No “follow me and all your career and economic plans will work out.”  No!  It’s a simple, straight-forward “follow me by denying yourself and taking up your cross.”

Simple – but not easy.  Our mission is clear and at times it feels a bit like Mission Impossible.  We don’t want to suffer.  We crave recognition, not rejection.  We spend billions and billions of dollars staving off death through medical care and, from the proliferation of handguns and assault weapons in this country, it appears there are many causes for which we are willing to kill and very few for which we are willing to die.

And yet, that is the invitation.  As Bonhoeffer said “When Christ calls (someone) He bids (them) come and die.” Jesus makes it plain.  To follow the Way he is going is to turn aside from serving self and turn toward serving others.  To follow the Way he is going is to put down all the possessions and honors and expectations we have for ourselves so that our hands are free to take up the cross of suffering for, and meeting the needs of, others.  To follow the Way he is going is to not let the fear of death stop us from doing the right thing – because on the other side of that death is rising again.

Amen and amen.