Rocks Can Be Hard of Hearing

This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on February 25, 2018 (Year B Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38).

Immediately preceding the Gospel text we read today, we see Jesus challenging his students, asking “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter seems to get it right when he replies… “You are the Messiah.” An astute answer.

Jesus then begins to teach his students about what will happen to him, he speaks about rejection, suffering, death and resurrection. He shares how…

…he will not be recognized as a political leader by the established powers…

…he will not be heralded as the instigator of a new Jewish kingship…

…he has not come to take on the colonizing power of Rome…

…instead, he will be rejected, suffer, and die.

Simon Peter, who had just gotten so much right, pulls Jesus aside, to say, “Surely, not like this?”

“Surely, this isn’t what a Messiah does?”

You see, Simon Peter, like the rest of the disciples, has a lot on the line here. Jesus isn’t just some spiritual leader whose inspirational videos he likes to watch after work while he’s on the elliptical.

Jesus is the man that he left his family, his livelihood, and his hometown for. Jesus is the man who was supposed to fulfil all of his expectations of political liberation!

**

We first see Simon, in the Gospel of Mark, fishing with his brother Andrew. Jesus calls them, and they drop their nets to follow a man who tells them he’ll show them how to “fish for people”.

We then find Jesus at Simon’s house, where he witnesses, first hand, Jesus’ miraculous powers. Simon’s mother-in-law is sick and Jesus heals her.

If Simon has a mother-in-law we can also presume he has more family—a wife, maybe some children. He then leaves to travel with Jesus throughout Galilee—maybe he leaves his family behind, or maybe them come with him—we’re not sure.

But, leaving your hometown is no small feat, in a world where family ties were the social welfare system; where livelihood meant life or death—it was a serious thing to unanchor yourself from your kin, and Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, spends time unpacking what it means to find a chosen family in Christ.

As he follows Jesus throughout the Judean countryside, Simon, who is renamed Peter, watches Jesus teach scripture, tame demons, command the weather, heal the chronically ill, and multiple bread!

Then we arrive at our text for today. Jesus has just told Simon Peter that he is not going to be the liberator that Simon Peter was waiting for. Can we blame him for his bewilderment? For his anxiety? How could this man, who Simon Peter gave so much up to follow, not be what he was expecting?

Have you ever taken a big risk, only to find it wasn’t what you thought it was? Do you remember the clammy coldness that spreads throughout your body when you realize what you’d done? What you’ve given up?

This is how I envision Simon Peter.

Because, he had good reason to believe Jesus was the person he expected: Jesus had taken on the scribes and Pharisees in religious debates, he taught with authority, and preached a radical message. Sure, he wasn’t from a royal lineage, he was some Carpenter from Nazareth—Mary’s son. And, yes he kept inviting the wrong kind of people to dinner—tax collectors and sex workers—but Simon Peter was also the wrong kind of person. He was an uneducated fisherman from a backwater town.

Jesus was going to usher in a new political reality! The oppressed were going to liberated from their chains of bondage, and Rome was going to be pushed back! Jerusalem would be restored to its old glory!

But here he was, here Jesus was, the messiah—the anointed one, telling Simon Peter that he wasn’t there to usher in a new era of liberation for Israel—instead, he spoke of rejection, suffering and death.

Is it any wonder that Simon Peter, who had just gotten so much right, pulls Jesus aside, to say, “Surely, not like this?”

**

Jesus rebukes Simon, harshly. He calls him “Satan”, which means adversary—but adversary isn’t the only name Jesus gives him.

Simon, his given name, means “he has heard”, but earlier in the story Jesus renames him “rock”. He is the thick-headed disciple, who never seems to get it right. Peter, the too eager. Peter who falls asleep in the garden. Peter who denies his teacher. Peter, the one who doesn’t listen. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t go easy on him.

**

Our expectations can cloud us from seeing things as they are.

My mother used to like experimenting with recipes when I was little. And, I remember distinctly this bright orange soup she made us once. She explained that it was called Four Potato Soup. Obviously, it had carrots in it because it was pylon orange, and I tucked into a bowl, taking a big spoonful. …it was awful. It was really gross tasting, and I told her. She was very used to this because she was always concocting new foods.

“Mom, this is the worst carrot soup I’ve ever tasted!” …she looked at me, puzzled. “It’s potato soup…there’s no carrot.”

It took a few moments for the cogs to turn—for me to realize that it was orange because of the sweet potato! …I took another bite… it was really delicious potato soup.

Mark’s Peter is too preoccupied with how he thinks Jesus should be, to be able to see him fully as he is. He isn’t listening to the “Son of Man” statements in Mark, these are the statements where Jesus reveals who he is.

**

Now, it can be hard to read this story and not want to criticize Simon Peter—I believe the author has written him as a foil for us. But we’re watching it all unfold on the page, from a distant place. We have a different understanding of messiahship, crafted from two-thousand years of Christian reflection.

But, we do carry our own expectations of who Jesus is—expectations that filter how we see him. We privilege some stories over others. It’s pretty easy to ignore the parts we don’t like—the things we’re not comfortable with.

Things like…

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I don’t want to hear that, that’s hard, that’s uncomfortable. I want to skip the rejection, suffering and death, and move right on to resurrection!

But, we are in the season of Lent, and in Lent we make space to focus on the uncomfortable parts—it is when we reflect the most on rejection, suffering, and death.

It is easy to become like Simon Peter, whose last words in this gospel account are “I do not know this [Jesus] you are talking about”. It is easy to ignore the parts we don’t like, that don’t match up with who we see Jesus as—instead of wrestling to hear him in the text.

We miss hearing him say that to follow him is also to be rejected, to suffer, and to die—but that new life is found there—an unexpected liberation is found there.

Can you hear these words being read aloud in an early house church, where believers were experiencing persecution and death at the hands of Rome?

Can you hear the words now, as Jesus proclaims that we can be made whole by exchanging the expectations of this world, for those of our creator?

My hope is that throughout this Lenten season, your ears will be attuned to the difficult things—but that by wrestling with them, you will experience more fully the liberation of Easter. Amen.

Light in the Darkness

This sermon was prepared for the Wesley United community for Sunday, March 26th, 2017, on Lent 4.

Spring, in so many ways, is the waking up of life.

And, even though it doesn’t feel like spring just yet—we’re seeing timid animals making their appearances, and hear that even the bears have started to wake up. We also feel our days getting longer, with the dark of the evening getting slowly pushed back. And the days, recently, have been filled with brilliant sunshine.

Sunlight has an incredible power over us, which may be why so much poetry and art is dedicated to it. It may be why humans have worshipped the sun for millennium—with its life-giving rays. It affects us in ways we would call physical and emotional—though we are learning more and more about how our physical and emotional selves are one and the same.

We all have some idea of light and darkness. There are sights, feelings, smells, and memories connected with these words. And, if I asked you to close your eyes and breathe in deeply, I am sure they would come to you.

The author of Ephesians gives us a dramatic image that connects with our senses: “Once you were darkness” but now you’re in the light (or other translations offer, one you were darkness and that now you are the light).

This letter, overall, is very concerned with what the author perceived to be the dual-nature of the world. In 1st century Greco-Roman thought dualism was a popular idea—that the world had two parts, first the physical world we touch and see, and then an invisible second world, which you could call the spiritual world.

When the author talks about “darkness”, he is bringing his reader back to his earlier idea that we were all born into a world of sin. He uses the term “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3; children born into a world of chaos and evil.

All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (Eph. 2:3-5 NRSV)

This world of flesh, and sinful nature was the “physical” world, which feels like a very Puritan theology. And, with this worldview his urgent call for us to abandon the sinfulness of this physical world and turn our eyes toward the spiritual, where Christ reigns, makes a lot of sense. However, you and I live in a different time, with a different worldview.

Just as we do not believe that every physical illness is a result of inner wickedness, as was discussed in our Gospel passage; we recognize the complexity of our humanity. We know that our brains aren’t some abstract entity floating in space, but made up of tissue and electricity that connects with all of our being.

We know that this physical world is filled with the good gifts of its creator. And, as created beings, we know goodness can also be found in us.

Our world is not cleanly separated into visible and invisible/physical and spiritual. Just like our humanity, is a big complicated mess—a lot of wonderful gray—abundant divine mystery.

Sin, then, is also a more complicated thing for us. In our Song of Faith, a core document of the United Church, we sing that:

Made in the image of God,

we yearn for the fulfillment that is life in God.

Yet we choose to turn away from God.

We surrender ourselves to sin,

a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.

Becoming bound and complacent

in a web of false desires and wrong choices,

we bring harm to ourselves and others.

This brokenness in human life and community

is an outcome of sin.

Sin is not only personal

but accumulates

to become habitual and systemic forms

of injustice, violence, and hatred.

As a church, we recognize that the “darkness” which the author of Ephesians alludes to looks like many different things. “Bondage” is unique to each of us, and yet such a universal human experience.

When you think about the darkness in your own life, the things that paralyze you or prevent you from being the person you believe God calls you to be, what comes to mind?

Darkness reminds me of standing on my gravel driveway, as a kid, with dad, staring up at the sky, searching for patterns in the stars. It’s an enjoyable memory, but also of anxiety—thinking back to the secrets I would share with my dad as we tried to pinpoint Orion’s belt.

It’s amazing what kind of secrets we’ll whisper to one another in the dark—there’s something that makes us feel safe, hidden away. It makes being vulnerable with one another, just a little bit easier.

There are different kinds of secrets. There are secrets that are private or special—treasured things we bring out to share with trusted loved ones.

Other secrets we hide away inside ourselves, building up walls of shame, anxiety, and fear. And, what a terrifying proposition it is to pull them out and show them to someone else. This is an especially paralyzing type of bondage, that can build into an overwhelming web that seems impossible to break free from.

Now, the author of Ephesians’ solution to this? So simple… “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” The author of Ephesians is calling for a radical change in our nature.

Instead of hiding, allowing themselves to be bound by fear and shame, he presents the church in Ephesus—and us today—with an invitation. An invitation to take that terrifying step into a community where we can name our struggles and anxieties.

To bear witness for one another. To participate together in dismantling destructive lies, behaviors, fears and anxieties. To relinquish the power of darkness over us.

Bon Hoeffer writes in Life Together that, “In confession occurs the breakthrough of the Cross. […] Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…In the deep mental and physical pain of humiliation before a brother – which means, before God – we experience the Cross of Jesus as our rescue and salvation.”

I believe Bon Hoeffer sees humiliation as that horrid moment when the light is first shines on our weakness, our fear, our shame. That the intention is not to humiliate one another, but to come to a place where we affirm that we are not able to do this alone. That our attempts have failed. It is an expression of our upmost vulnerability.

A call to confession is a call to self-reflection, and an awakening. It is a Lenten call, a call to prepare us for Easter. But, what are we awakening to?

The author of Ephesians calls us to awaken to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, to awaken and join with the other disciples of Jesus in forging a new life for ourselves—free from the bondage of sin—free from the power of darkness—of anxiety, fear and shame.

The Good News is that we believe in grace and that there is abundant life in it.

And, our song is not done. As a church we continue to sing:

Yet evil does not—cannot—

undermine or overcome the love of God.

God forgives,

and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings

with honesty and humility.

God reconciles,

and calls us to repent the part we have played

in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.

God transforms,

and calls us to protect the vulnerable,

to pray for deliverance from evil,

to work with God for the healing of the world,

that all might have abundant life.

We sing of grace.

Amen.

Love, an attitude of justice – A Reflection on Luke 13:31-35

This article first appeared Feb. 18th, 2016 on the KAIROS Canada Blog as part of a Lenten series. All verses quoted in the New Revised Standard Version.

Reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Luke 13:31-35, I was struck by the image of the pilgrimaging Christ standing on the road towards Jerusalem. In this chapter of Luke, we meet Jesus in the midst of his travels, begun in Luke 9, as he is warned by a group of Pharisees about the danger he is moving towards. The Roman sponsored King, Herod, was issuing threats against Jesus, threats which most would take seriously considering his recent beheading of Jesus’ friend and colleague John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9). Yet, this gruff roaming rabbi greets the threat of violence with this response: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” (v. 32)

This statement tells us Jesus has no intention of halting his travels because of a threat by the governing powers, a threat of violence, a threat that has been channeled into action in the past. He emphasizes his words by assuring his listeners the work he is doing will be done today, and then the next, and the day after that—alluding, in our minds, to his greatest work demonstrating redemption in his crucifixion and resurrection. He then repeats himself, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (v. 33)

He goes on to say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (v. 34) This story of Christ, journeying forward despite the great danger he is walking towards is always juxtaposed, in my mind, by the story of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah who did not want to go, who had no love for the people he was sent to, who spoke God’s words of grace but received the Ninevites’ repentance with indifference. Jonah who wanted wrath, and violence; Jonah who was controlled by fear (fleeing his mission) and inclusivity (his rejection of God’s call to extend grace to the Ninevites).

As justice seekers, in our contemporary context, I often wonder whom we are most like. Are we the angry Prophet who heads towards danger controlled by fear and seeking vengeance? Or, are we like Christ, spurred by love, which fuels courage in the face of fear; a love that renders violence powerless, and refuses to heed the threats of the “powerful”.

My constant hope, and prayer, is that I am journeying towards Jerusalem, a heart full of compassion that will not waver in the midst of violence and injustice. And yet, pilgrimaging is hard, and our small acts of justice will not always bear the fruit we want to see. Jesus’ ministry and death did not immediately change the political and social systems he was fighting against. He tells Jerusalem in Luke 13:35: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Christ knew that hearts and minds, and destructive systems are not changed overnight. Although, I like to believe he understood the righteous impatience many of us feel—bred from a sacred desire for the world to be righted.

In this Lenten season we journey as a faith community along that road to Jerusalem, walking beside Christ, reflecting on his actions. We have seen him rebuke evil in the desert already, and now we see him walking towards forces of violence and oppression in the city. As we journey with him, taking time to examine our own hearts, I would ask you to reflect on the attitude you are seeking justice with.

May love inspire in you courage to overcome fear, to seek justice from a wellspring of compassion. Amen.