Sunday, February 25, 2024

Change is Hard

 I've had a week. So has the world. 

Wars in Gaza and Ukraine drag on and our Congress is of no help to anyone with the Republicans preferring to kowtow to a disgraced presidential candidate than to actually work on the issues facing our country and the rest of the world. 

The Alabama Supreme Court...under the control of a Dominionist Chief Justice...has decided that frozen embryos in an IVF clinic are "children." 

And a non-binary high school sophomore in Oklahoma...Nex Benedict...died a day after a brutal beating in the girl's bathroom at their high school. Oklahoma is one of the many states that has been making the transgender community the target of hateful legislation. 

Meanwhile...I've had to deal with putting out many metaphorical fires in my own sphere. 

As I read the Gospel, I thought about all that's swirling around me. I reached the conclusion that in every case, what is tripping us up is the fear of things that are changing...and the people who are hell-bent on trying to keep the status quo alive...even if it's futile.

With that set is my sermon. See what you think.

Text: Mark 8:31-38


Our Gospel reading this morning should give us pause.

Because what Jesus is proposing is something that many of us try to avoid at all cost: change.

Real change.

A real shift in how we are to live and move and have our being.

A movement out of our comfort zones.

And his imagery…that “taking up your cross”…is one that Mark’s initial audience…Jews living with the aftermath of a brutal and destructive war that left them like a rudderless boat in the middle of the ocean…would have put a lump in their throats.

They know what the cross represented.

The cross was an instrument of torture.

As commentators like Ched Myers note…it was to keep the lower classes…and anyone who challenged the law and order of the Roman Empire…in line.

It was used as a means of letting the powerless know who was in charge.

And now Jesus…ever the relentless rebellious upstart in Mark’s saying to his followers….saying to us…be ready to challenge the status quo…and die.

But the death we are called to is not a death on a cross.

And even in this speech…there is a metaphorical message that is the one we must heed.

So let’s first back up and figure out how we got to this point of Jesus making this statement.

In the verses before our Gospel…Jesus is with his disciples.

They are “on the way” through Caesarea Philippi.

Whenever Jesus and the disciples are “on the way”…that’s about this journey toward a showdown coming in Jerusalem.

That they are in this particular region…means that they are in a largely Gentile region.

In fact…this whole scene…according to Biblical scholars…happened outside a cave with a shrine to the pagan God Pan.

Pan is a nature God…associated with shepherds…and goats and sheep.

His name also has given us the word “panic” as one story says he helped a friend escape a vicious battle by letting out a terrible screeching sound that sent the enemy fleeing.

This seems a perfect spot then for the conversation that takes place.

This is where Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And after a few rounds of lots of different ideas…Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?”

And Peter…the Rock…announces, “You are the Messiah!”

You gotta love Peter!

As we talked about as the cast when we were preparing for the staged reading of this Gospel, Peter represents us…all humans.

He nails this one…naming Jesus the Messiah…the Christ…the anointed one of God.

But Peter and all the disciples had a particular understanding about what it meant to have a Messiah.

Their vision of the Messiah was like a knight in shining armor who was going to ride in and be a warrior king…with sword and a head full of steam…leading an army in a glorious if bloody battle to drive out the Roman Empire once and for all.

Instead…Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet about this Messiah business.

Jesus switches the title from Messiah…this warrior…to Son of Man…or in other translations “the Human One.”

The Messiah that Jesus depicts is not fearsome warrior.

He is one of the dissidents.

He is part of the disinherited.

He is one with those who are suffering.

He will not come on a war horse and lead an army against Rome.

He’s plotting to ride into town on a donkey.

And as we heard…Peter doesn’t like any of this.

He really doesn’t like Jesus talking about getting killed. That’s not the script that Peter knows…nor the one that any of us would want to believe if we were Peter.

When we think of a leader…we often look for someone strong.

A person who will kick butt and take names.

And Jesus calls Peter “Satan.”

Not because he thinks Peter is a bad guy.

But just as Satan tested Jesus out in the wilderness…and at least in Matthew and Luke’s accounts kept trying to get him to give into egocentric desires for power… Jesus sees Peter’s rebuke as focusing on the wrong thing.

This is where Peter, the disciples, the crowd…and us…face the uncomfortable…difficult challenge from Jesus: we must change.

We must put away our ideas and identities built on the conventional wisdom of what “Messiah” means…what “strength” looks like.

We must lose our old ideas of what it means to be powerful.

And probably the toughest thing Jesus says in this Gospel: he tells the crowd…and us…we must die to self…die to our ego-driven ways… in order to gain our lives.

Such directives can cause panic.

We don’t want to die…even if the thing we’re killing off is something that needs to go.

When I read through this… I thought about what happens to so many of us when we go through a major event in our lives…some life-altering moment that forces us to face ourselves and our image of ourselves.

It’s what happens to people when they retire…or resign…or otherwise lose a job.

In our society….so much of who we are is tied up in our jobs and what we do for a living.

The most common questions we ask each other when we first meet: What’s your name and what do you do…meaning what do you do for a living?

Or if it’s a younger person…where do you go to school? What grade are you in?

I’ll never forget the night that I woke up sweating and in a panic.

It was about three weeks before the date that I had planned to quit working for Florida Public Rado.

I knew what I was doing was the right thing.

But I also had the fear…the panic…that if I was no longer a public radio reporter…if I no longer was identified with that role…then who was I?

Jesus asked the question: Who do you say that I am…and then answered Peter’s identity with a redefinition of what it means to be the Messiah.

And in Jesus’s words…there is a sense that even though he will undergo suffering…a new identity…a new thing… a new way will come.

Something better…something stronger…something that will not die.

That thing is Love.

The invitation before us then is:

what do we have to let go of?

What must die in order for us to fully live?

What in ourselves are we afraid to give up because it might mean we have to radically rethink who we are…and how we relate to one another?

What privileged status must we let go of?

What righteous anger keeps us from being able to live into and receive the Love of God that is around us?

What words of resentment spoken in whispers have caused more harm?

We’re living in a time when there is so much bitterness.

Our political leaders are stoking fires of tribalism.

They’re behavior is trickling down into the way we see and interact with each other.  

We need the grace of God to get us to turn away from the powerful pull of pettiness…hatred and hardness of heart and embrace the life of mercy, forgiveness, and love.

Jesus is challenging us to not let our egos separate us from the reconciling love of God.

I recently heard a prayer offered by the late Rev. Jean Dalby Clift…an Episcopal priest and psychologist...that I think gives us something to consider as we guard against those things that draw us away from God and each other:

O God of grace, give us your grace that we may not savor the evil in others in order to disguise the evil in ourselves.   

In the name of God…F/S/HS.


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