God’s Story, Our Story, Proper 19 (B) – 2015

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

On October 1, 1996 a book called The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks made its debut. Almost ten years later, on June 25, 2004, the movie adaptation came out with the story coming to life through actors Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, and James Garner. The story is about an elderly couple that is dealing with the wife’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in an assisted care facility and her husband visits her regularly, always with a notebook in hand. What the story reveals, through a series of flashbacks to when they were young, is that the husband is reading, from his notebook, their love story over and over again, in hopes that his wife will remember some of it one day. It is a sweet, poignant story that those of us who have experienced loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia can certainly relate to.

The wife in the story does not remember who she is and so the husband reminds her over and over again. He tells her who she is and who they are together. Their story is important, not only to her, but to him. It is gives him meaning and purpose in the midst of tragic circumstances.

How often do we need to be reminded of our own stories? As we continue to grow and change as people faced with a variety of circumstances, we can lose sight of our true selves and need to be reminded. This happens in all aspects of our lives, including our faith.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts of his time. Then he will be killed and after three days, rise from the dead. Jesus knows his own story and he does not make excuses about it. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, knowledge of one’s own death was a sign of wisdom or of someone with great powers. Jesus is matter of fact about his story because he is focused on serving God. He is connected to our experience of human life and clearly sees the lay of the land, but it does not deter him from obedience to God and understanding his belonging in God’s story.

Later, he asks his disciples, the crowd, and ultimately us, two very important questions that the Common English Bible version puts this way, “Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?” Another way to understand it is from the Bible version called The Message, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Remarkable questions. Jesus wants to know our stories and the answers to these questions reveal who we truly are and what we believe about our stories.

Those answers also reveal who we believe Jesus is. Do we believe in the story that he tells—the Jesus that Peter says is the Messiah? Do we believe in the Jesus that will be rejected by so many and left to die on a cross, only to be resurrected? Do we believe all of these stories? Do we believe in the ministry of suffering and self-sacrifice? It’s a tough one. Either Jesus is crazy, a con man, or what he says is true.

In your own life, when Jesus looks at you and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” How do you respond? When a friend or neighbor or colleague asks, “Are you a Christian?” What story do you tell? When we “get around [our] fickle and unfocused friends,” as Jesus says in a Bible version called The Message, are we embarrassed of the way Jesus is leading us in our lives?

The Gospel today has an interesting interpretation in The Message. Jesus says, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.” This is clearly a different message than what we hear from the world around us and from our human nature that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. God is calling us into living a different way; to be part of a different story than the one the world is telling us.

The idea that suffering and self-sacrifice are incompatible with faith is a danger. There is nothing in the scriptures that says that God will remove all the trials of our lives if we pray hard enough. Instead of asking for the trials to be lifted, perhaps we need to recognize where God is present in them. In these instances it is about prayer being a conduit for opening ourselves to what God wills and not trying to force God to do our will. Even though our desires to turn God into a magic puppet come from a deep place of longing, if we’re honest, when has that ever been successful?

God is asking us to offer our whole selves—our time, our talents, our treasures, and especially those parts of us that are suffering—and to trust that we will be led into a more meaningful life than what we could come up with ourselves. That’s a big commitment, but we can choose to make it on a daily basis, so it isn’t as overwhelming. It is the little things that we do that create the tapestry of life that we look back on. They may not be noticed in the moment, but they are felt over a lifetime.

In the book The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor puts it this way:

Just being who you are
not justifying or apologizing
it sounds so easy
it’s a life work
not to get caught in
producing
performing
proving
keeping accounts of indebtedness
waiting for gratitude, reward
ambition
manipulation
staggering self-pity
but cultivating
the habit of being.

It is cultivating a habit of being that seeks God first for advice and not our friends. That prays first, then responds. That embraces silence, instead of trying to fill it. That opens the heart and notices God’s abiding. That tells God’s story, hearing it echo in our own.

Like the couple in The Notebook, may we remind each other of God’s love story when we lose our way and may we have the courage to keep writing it, bit by bit, as we are transformed. AMEN.

 

Download the sermon for Proper 19B.

 

The Rev. Danáe Ashley has served parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota. She is currently the Associate Priest at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate.

Who is Jesus?, 16 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – 2012

September 16, 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (or Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-8); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus?

Have you ever been asked that question? Have you asked it of yourself? Or does this seem like nonsense? It would seem natural to think that after 2,000 years of Christian history, we should not have to pose such an inquiry. We might add that it’s obvious – Jesus is our Lord and Savior, the son of God, the second person of the Trinity to whom we pledge our faith through the creed every Sunday.

Still, the question presents itself to us today: Who is Jesus? St. Mark takes us back to the very heart of the gospel. It was a critical time in Jesus’ relationship with his closest followers, a moment when the truth of what God was doing in and through Jesus came into sharpest focus. It was an encounter that clarified once and for all the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

Certainly, for each of us – as for every generation of Christians – an understanding of who Jesus is cuts to the core of our personal faith. What Peter and the others experienced so long ago is what we go through again and again as we decide whether we are willing to match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.

Today we find Jesus with his disciples in a decisive moment of teaching and of a gut-wrenching reality check. Near the end of his public ministry, Jesus sought an evaluation of its effectiveness. And he needed his closest allies to understand, really understand, what God was doing in and through him, to know where it all led, for the sake of the world. He asked the disciples what people were saying about him. Who was he in their eyes? He received several answers: John the Baptist, Elijah come back to life again, or maybe a modern prophet.

But that was just the warm up. What Jesus really wanted to know was who his disciples thought he was. Peter, always quick to act, spoke boldly for them: “You are the Messiah.” Peter had come to understand him as the one who would fulfill God’s promises, the one whom God had sent to save the world.

So far so good, Jesus must have thought. But no doubt, he knew that they didn’t fully understand what he meant. Jesus knew that Peter and the others still interpreted the meaning of Messiah according to the old order. They saw him as the one who would usher in a climactic day of God’s deliverance as a mighty warrior. One capable of returning Israel to independence, free from Roman oppression.

The truly revolutionary nature of what Jesus was doing required him to continue to teach, and perhaps test them further – to tell them what it meant for him to be the Messiah, what it would take for the world to be saved. He revealed what would result in the events of Holy Week – his trial and death, before rising again.

Proving that he really didn’t get it, and with his usual impetuousness, Peter responded to this news by reprimanding Jesus for having said it. He didn’t like what he heard. It didn’t fit his view of how God would save the world. Imagine how much it must have troubled Jesus to experience such treatment from his most trusted follower. So challenging was this rebuke that Jesus had to take the strongest of measures to make sure he was not misunderstood. He called Peter “Satan,” and insisted that his view was one of human thinking and not of God.

Jesus might have expected this. It is probably why he told the disciples not to tell the people about their knowing him as the Messiah. The people would surely have more trouble understanding than the twelve. They had to know that the gift of God in him – the love, grace and forgiveness poured out through him – would come at a price, not only to Jesus but to his followers, as well. To follow Jesus, to walk the way of God, would require going against the most basic urges of human nature. It would require that they deny their own needs and desires and – speaking words they would only truly grasp after his death – they would have to take up crosses of their own, like the one he would bear on his way to die on the cross of Calvary. It would not work to focus on saving one’s life – that would be the surest way to lose it spiritually. Every value of the world, he said, pales in comparison to what one could have in living a life with God.

That is the nature of “who Jesus is.” That is what it means to know him as Savior. That is what it means to follow him in the way of God. That is how it becomes personal for us. That is how we match what we say we believe with how we follow Jesus in the actions of our lives.

To say that Jesus is our Savior is to follow him willingly into salvation. Today’s gospel reminds us that to do so is to deny ourselves – to lose self, to let go of the ego, to put ourselves aside for the sake of greater values. It is giving up ourselves for others, in the way of sacrifice and unselfishness. It is giving up particular interests or time or possessions when the purposes of God require it. It is letting the will of God take the place of our own will. It is putting God, not ourselves, at the center of life. It is, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, renouncing all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.

The figurative cross that we carry following Jesus represents the price we pay for our Christianity, the cost of discipleship, the way we remain connected with God, the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

Though the answer – the response of losing our selfishness for the sake of God – is highly personal, we do not act upon it alone. We are lucky to be able to carry crosses in the company of a faithful band of followers of Jesus. We stand beside one another as we meet Christ at the Eucharist where we relive Jesus’ sacrificial death. Together we gain sustenance for the difficult challenge Jesus sets before us as we eat and drink with him and of him. We take what he is into our bodies and our spirits as we become renewed and empowered by the spiritual energy that is Christ. So empowered, we go forth into our weekday, workday world as we act out the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?”

 

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

 

Jesus offered no easy religion, 15 Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – 2009

September 13, 2009

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33 and Psalm 19 or Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-8:1 (Track 2: Isaiah 50:4-9a and Psalm 116:1-8); James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

At least Jesus took poor Peter to one side! There are few things worse than being shamed in public. Yet the story of this stinging rebuke somehow leaked out. Indeed there is a school of thought that attributes much of Mark’s gospel to the words and memories of St. Peter. Perhaps in this account we are hearing his confession.

One may have enormous sympathy with Simon nicknamed Peter. He was one of the first to join Jesus and obviously loved him dearly. Peter was a bit of a “muscular Christian” prone to blurting out his thoughts and feelings, for better and for worse. Yet there is no deceit in him. What you see is what you get.

In the gospel today we see Peter at his most inspired and in his most protective mood. He wants his Lord to be so much more than a mere prophet, even a famous prophet. “You are the Chosen One: the Son of the Living God.” He wants the man he loves to be superhuman and to overcome everything easily.

The word Messiah meant much more than a religious leader. Devout Jews believed that their long suffering as an occupied nation would come to an end by God’s direct intervention. The God of Israel would save his people by sending one specially chosen from birth. To a believing first-century Jew that meant the Romans would be thrown out and a religious and political Israel would emerge restored and renewed.

Just as there were many in the occupied nations of Europe during World War II who dreamed of the day when the Nazis would be expelled, so first-century Jews dreamed of the day when the tramp of the Roman legions with their idolatrous eagle banner would no longer be heard.

When Peter blurted out this statement, Jesus gave him high honor. “You are the Rock.” Tradition suggests that Peter was a big strong man. “The Big Fisherman.” A rock is strong and hard and immovable. Peter must have stood tall. His faith was the rock on which Jesus’ gospel would be built.

But then Jesus begins to talk about what a Messiah-ministry would look like. Rather like Winston Churchill, who offered the British people nothing but “blood, sweat, toil, and tears” in the battle against Hitler’s Germany, Jesus tells a story of redemption and renewal founded in his own personal suffering and death: suffering brought on by rejection, abuse, defection, and death. Little did Peter know that he would play the coward when those dark moments arrived.

Jesus offered no easy religion to his disciples and he offers no easy religion to us. We don’t much like that. So often we think of faith as some sort of insurance policy against suffering, hurt, betrayal, sickness, and death itself. Like Peter, we don’t want a faith that goes there. We want a return for our investment. We want our rights. We want our freedom. The list of our wants go on and on. Like Peter, we don’t want Jesus to suffer, but is that in part because we don’t want to be caught up in his suffering?

It is easy to deal with the sufferings of others at a distance. We may support causes, write checks, travel to meetings in our nice cars, and utter revolutionary thoughts. We may be attacked by those who oppose our views. What a comfortable martyrdom. Yet always there, behind the altar, on the wall, however tasteful or ornate, is the Cross. “If any would follow me they must take up their cross.”

Yet even at the gate of death we cry Alleluia. So speaks the language of our Prayer Book. If our faith isn’t an escape from hurt, isn’t a faith about a Messiah who comes to do it all for us, it is a faith that brings us extraordinary joy in walking the way of the cross through death into life. Peter was crucified, legend tells us, upside down because he was not worthy to suffer as his Lord did. Poor Peter. He couldn’t prevent his friend’s death, and he suffered the same fate.

If Mark repeats Peter’s own testimony in this passage, he demonstrates an honesty we would wish to emulate. Yes, we believe. Yes, we seek to avoid suffering: keep Easter but not Good Friday. Yes, we want to liberate those who suffer just as long as we don’t suffer ourselves. Yes, we want our rights and fail in our duty. But just as Jesus used the fallible St. Peter as the rock on which he built his Church, so he uses the smaller, often split rocks of our uncertain faith to spread the gospel to a needy world.
— Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery.

What Would Jesus Do?, Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 19 (B) – September 17, 2006

(RCL) Proverbs 1:20-33 or Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 19 or Wis of Sol 7:26-8:1 or Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38 

You have seen them everywhere: bracelets, key rings, and just about anything that can be marked with the logo, WWJD: “What Would Jesus Do?”

It’s daunting to wear one of those bracelets because in most situations, how would we be qualified to answer that question? How could we ever presume to know what Jesus would think or do in today’s world? Jesus was always doing the most surprising things! He was arguably one of the most unpredictable persons in all of recorded history.

If the gospels are any indication, it appears that when he was pressed by others for advice on what to do, he would (a) ask them another question; (b) tell a story or a parable; or (c) say that only God knows.

A couple of years ago, when the WWJD bracelet rage really started to catch on, people came up with some alternative bracelets:

WWDD for football coaches: “What Would Ditka do?” Or DYWFWT for McDonald’s employees: “Do You Want Fries With That?” For elderly Christians there’s WDIPOTB: “Why Did I Put On This Bracelet?” And for today’s teens, simply W: “Whatever” or “Whatsup,” take your pick.

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes his own suggestion for a bracelet slogan: WDYSTIA?

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Again, if the New Testament is any indication, the people around Jesus had a surprising number of answers for that one: the Son of God, Son of Man, King, Lord, Son of David, teacher, rabbi, king of the Jews, Son of the Living God, master, and gardener. In today’s lesson and its parallels, he is compared to one of the prophets, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jeremiah. He was also called a blasphemer, a glutton, a drunkard, and an imposter.

It is important to recognize that Jesus invites us all to answer the question “Who do you say that I am?” for ourselves. And equally important for us to consider is that the New Testament offers all of these answers and more, not limiting us to any single idea or label for Jesus.

This morning we hear Saint Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ.” Jesus responds by urging them to tell no one. Well, so much for that. Mark has spilled the beans. The evangelists Mark, Luke, and Matthew do not honor what Jesus asks the disciples to do.

The next time we are tempted to say, “The Bible says” or “Jesus says” we might ponder our inability to honor one of the few direct requests he makes to all of us who are his disciples: not to tell anyone he is the Christ.

Especially if we are not at all clear ourselves just what we mean by “Christ.” It is a Greek word meaning, “anointed” or “anointed one” – which is a translation of a Hebrew word we know as “messiah,” which also means “anointed one.”

Now what is interesting is that even in Hebrew scriptures and Jewish tradition there is not a lot of agreement as to what this word signifies. Or it is more accurate to say that it is a word freighted with many meanings. Because it can refer to individuals like Aaron, the priest who was anointed with oil and by God to be a priest in the Temple. Or it can be used metaphorically to refer to someone like Cyrus of Persia who delivered the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon. It can even refer to the entire people of Israel as anointed by God to be a light to the nations.

In Luke’s gospel only, Jesus is shown to be reading from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which is the Jubilee year of Leviticus. He then announces that this scripture is fulfilled, suggesting to some that he is claiming to be anointed, messiah, christos.

And at the time of Jesus, the idea of a Messiah coming to restore the kingdom was in the air. But there were many different interpretations of what that meant. He would be a warrior, a judge, a king, a prophet. None of which included the idea of being executed by the Roman government.

So what does Peter mean by “christos”? What does Mark understand it to mean? What do we mean by calling Jesus the Christ?

Decades of Jewish-Christian dialogue reveals that few Jews actually deny that Jesus could have been the messiah. What they do not see is any evidence that he is. For in Jewish terms, the world would be a much better place if he were. There would be justice and peace for all people. The dignity of every human being would be respected. And Christians, at least, would seek Christ in all people and serve the Christ that we believe is already in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

What we see instead are Christians killing Christians in places like Ireland, or unable to share bread and wine together in church, or trying to force one interpretation of who Jesus is on each other and everyone we meet, and on it goes.

The evangelist Mark reports, “And he charged them to tell no one about him,” and yet we continue to prattle on with our own ideas of who he is, missing altogether what he goes on to say: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

At the end of the day, Jews say, “Messiah is coming,” and Christians say, “Jesus/Messiah is coming again.” And most Jewish people say that when Messiah comes, if it turns out to be Jesus, they will have no problem with that. Surprise for sure, but no problem.

This causes one to wonder, however, if it is not Jesus, how will we respond?

Contemplating what that future point in history might look like inspired the great Jewish thinker and writer Martin Buber to say that if he is present when Messiah comes, and people are all asking if it is or is not Jesus, he would hope to have the courage to step forward and whisper in Messiah’s ear, “For the love of heaven, please do not answer.”

The witness of Christian scripture is that even if it is Jesus he would probably answer back with a new question, a story, or say, “Only God knows for sure.”

Six years ago a statement issued by over 170 Jewish rabbis and scholars titled Dabru Eme was made public. Dabru Emet is a call to the American and worldwide Jewish communities to reexamine how they think about and relate to Christians.

Here is, in part, what Dabru Emet had to say:

“The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture. Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition. Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition. That difference will not be settled by one community insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other; nor by exercising power over the other. Jews can respect Christians’ faithfulness to their revelation just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our revelation. Neither Jew nor Christian should be pressed into affirming the teaching of the other community.”

Sounds a lot like Paul in his letter to the church in Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

Dabru Emet concludes with what we can do together:

“Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace. Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery. Although justice and peace are finally God’s, our joint efforts, together with those of other faith communities, will help bring the kingdom of God for which we hope and long. Separately and together, we must work to bring justice and peace to our world.”

In the end, the only thing we know that everyone can agree on about Jesus is that he worked alongside anyone who would join him to bring justice and peace to the world. He rarely, if ever, asked them to believe anything, least of all about him. He wrote no creeds or confessional statements. Instead, he always calls us to follow him.

We promise in our Baptism that we will be those people who strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not a lot of people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every, not some, not a few, not the ones like us, but every human being.

WDYSTIA? Who do you say that I am? Jesus wants to have that conversation with each of us, and is not overly insistent that we all have the same answer.

His only concern is that, whoever we say Jesus is, he can be seen in the way we pick up our crosses and follow him. The people he chooses to spend time with are not the people we always find ourselves drawn to be with on a day-to-day basis: tax collectors, sinners, the lame, the sick, prostitutes, and so on. That is the real challenge in our Baptismal promise: to follow him.

What Jesus did in any given situation was always surprising and unpredictable. Which is why it’s hard to presume to know what he would do today or tomorrow, and why it’s hard to adopt the kind of hubris it would take to wear a WWJD bracelet.

It might be easier, however, to wear one that says WDYSTIA, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” That way we can continue to have conversation with him as we strive to follow him in his mission to bring Jubilee, justice, and peace to all people while respecting the dignity of every human being.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.