A sermon preached on March 4, 2012, based upon Mark 8:31 – 38, entitled “The Way of Jesus.”
A rather unremarkable comment made to me by another pastor nearly 30 years ago has stayed with me through the years. The pastor was maybe fifteen years older than I was, and he had been kind to me, offering himself as something of a mentor to me, but I found his comment troubling.
Like I did, he served a two point charge – that is, he had two churches he served at the same time. He was happy with the relationship he had with the larger church, the one at which he lived in town. There were more professional people in his congregation, and he felt they treated him with the sort of respect he felt he deserved.
But the smaller church that was out in the country was more troublesome to him. Apparently the little country church struggled to pay its bills, and to do so, they held a dinner each month, and he didn’t have much interest in those dinners.
The comment he made with obvious anger in his voice was this: “They want me to stand around at these dinners and serve coffee. I didn’t go to four years of college and three years of seminary just to stand around serving coffee.”
He saw their expectation as being demeaning to him, expressing a lack of appreciation and respect on the part of his parishioners for his status as a professional and the knowledge he had worked so hard to achieve.
From the perspective of the world, he certainly had a point. I mean, you put in all that time in school precisely so you won’t have to do menial work to make a living, right? Nobody asks lawyers or doctors to serve coffee, right?
The problem, of course, is this peculiar vocation he and I had chosen. Yes we had spent all those years in higher education, but ultimately the purpose of all that education was to get a clearer handle on Jesus the Messiah. His way was that of a servant — somebody who, if necessary, washes feet, and maybe serves coffee.
Now I have my own forms of arrogance and pride to grapple with – just ask my family — and usually it’s easier to see such things in others than in yourself. Nonetheless, it seemed clear to me way back then that my colleague’s comment was suggesting a direction in ministry I shouldn’t try to follow.
It is in this spirit that I have always made it a point in worship when I’m not actually leading worship to sit in the pews along with the rest of the congregation — and especially not to sit in one of those thrown-like chairs. In most churches, the pastor or priest sits on the altar on an elevated plane, suggesting that he or she is on some higher plane of existence.
But the truth is, we’re all in this together.
So accustomed to the way of the world, the disciples found it hard to grasp the way Jesus was leading them in.
In the passage immediately before this morning’s Gospel lesson, Peter has come up with the “right” answer when Jesus asked them, “who do you say that I am?”
He’d answered, “You’re the messiah.” It was the right answer, but strangely, Jesus tells them to tell no one. The world’s idea of the messiah was different from the kind of messiah that Jesus was called to be. The disciples assumed along with every else that the messiah would come with power and glory to set everything straight, barking a lot of others, vanquishing his enemies.
But as the conversation continued, Jesus starts talking about how at the center of his mission as the messiah is the trip he must make to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities.
Peter tries to set Jesus straight. He takes Jesus aside and “rebukes” him, telling Jesus he doesn’t have to suffer and die. And then Jesus explodes. He rebukes Peter in the presence of the other disciples, calling him nothing less than Satan, the tempter. He says Peter has his mind on people’s way, not God’s.
The way of people is to rise above other humans, to accumulate more status or money or power or recognition than the next guy. It’s to try and rise above the human condition, to be special, not like others.
But the way of God involves descending into the depths. We see this in Jesus over and over if we’re paying attention. He is born at the bottom in terms of social status — into a homeless family in the midst of violence. At John’s baptism, Jesus enters the waters as if he were just another slob on the bus trying to get home. (Which, if you remember, is the precise moment that God says to him, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” God gives the stamp of approval in regard to the direction Jesus is taking.)
Jesus went out into the wilderness to suffer hunger and temptation just like every other human being.
And now he tells the disciples that he will suffer being misunderstood and abandoned and even death itself, just like every other human being experiences in the course of their life.
But Peter wants his messiah to stay up on a pedestal. “You’re above all this, Jesus. Your God’s special child.” You don’t serve coffee at church dinners.
“No,” says Jesus. “You’re trying to pass off the human way as God’s way.” But God’s way is to enter the muck with the rest of us.
Peter says what he says because he cares about Jesus. But there’s more to it than that. He wants to be exempted from all that painful stuff as well. And it’s not hard to see that if the messiah he is following is headed to suffering and death, he’ll be headed there too.
And Jesus goes on to spell it out: “If you want to follow me,” he says, “you have to pick up your cross and follow me.”
Get this: The strongest rebuke that Jesus ever gave to an individual person – calling the person no less than “Satan” – is given to the man who is destined to become the first pope – the first clergy person. Perhaps the point here is that the Church will always be tempted to head the wrong way.
In Mark’s Gospel there will be two more times when Jesus will tell his disciples that he must suffer and die. On both occasions, the disciples clearly don’t get it, or don’t want to get it. After the second time, Mark tells us that the disciples promptly engage in an argument regarding which of them was the greatest – which of them had ascended to higher status than the others. Jesus tries to get them to understand what he is talking about by placing a little child in the middle of them. In those days, children were at the absolute low end of the social ladder. Welcome a child like this, he said, and you’re welcoming me.
The third time Jesus talked about his suffering and death, James and John show how they just don’t get it by coming to Jesus and asking for special status in the kingdom they’re still expecting to be established when they get to Jerusalem.
But the way of Jesus isn’t the way of the world, and it can take a life time to get that.
In Mark’s day, taking up your cross and following Jesus could easily have meant literally getting nailed to a cross just like Jesus. Emperor Nero was killing all the Christians he could find. There’s a Christian in Iran who has been sentenced to death for his faith. Thankfully, that’s not likely to happen to any of us.
What, then does a cross-life look like for us?
Well first of all, it means repeatedly reminding ourselves that we’re in this thing called life with every other single person on this planet. . It means trying to rid ourselves of the patronizing attitudes that so easily can creep into our language. We are no better than anybody else. When we see someone who has fallen, we resist the seduction of the pride that tells ourselves we didn’t similarly fall because we’re better than they are. Instead, we remind ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
It means a willingness to open our hearts to compassion. To share in, and feel the pain others experiences.
It means paying attention. The most basic form love is paying attention. If you love someone, you will make an effort to pay attention in such a way so as to gain some understanding of what life feels like for them.
That was part of the problem with the pastor’s comment. We are called to be next to people wherever they find themselves, to be shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with them, and maybe that means serving coffee, or digging ditches – whatever it is they do in order to get a better feel for what their life feels like.
You may have heard this story: The professor at a medical school surprised her students with the final question they found on their exam. The question was this: What is the name of the woman who cleans the bathrooms we use in this building?
At first the students thought this was a joke. But the professor was quite serious. All of them could not have helped but to noticed this woman who cleaned up their messes. She was there everyday in their building. Had they taken the time to, at the very least, learn her name?
This was a particularly powerful lesson for students making their way to the prestige that comes from being called doctor. There is a special kind of arrogance that can come to doctors — MDs, or “Medical Deities” as the letters sometimes are said to refer, who have risen high above the people they would condescend to help, never to be questioned or second guessed.
Recently a politician who is very public about his Christian faith questioned whether President Obama is truly a Christian, as he claims to be. This, I think, is dangerous water for any Christian to be treading. Only God can make these judgments, and to set ourselves up as the judge of what’s in the heart of another is to imagine ourselves to be lifted up high above others.
This same politician later criticized President Obama because he issued an apology to the Moslem world after some American soldiers had thoughtlessly destroyed some Korans. The impression this very public Christian gave was that being Christian means you don’t need to apologize, especially to Moslems.
Walking the cross walk means walking humbly — apologizing when necessary, and recognizing our own sins before we condemn the sins of others. It means caring enough about other people – all other people – to pay attention to what matters to them. For instance, to recognize that if you burn their holy book you will be offending them deeply.
Many American soldiers have gone out of their way to truly be in Iraq and Afghanistan with a desire to pay attention to the people who live in these lands, and sensitively help build a lasting peace. These soldiers have been servants following in Jesus’ way.
But the soldiers who burned the Korans hadn’t bothered to pay attention. If they had, they would have known how precious the Koran is to Moslems, and following the golden rule, wouldn’t have so thoughtlessly burned the Korans.
In a few moments we will be celebrating Holy Communion. In doing so, we remember the act of self-sacrificial love upon we are all called to aspire to in our lives.
In order to participate in Holy Communion, it is not necessary to have our beliefs all neat and tidy. Hardly. It is important, however, to share in the spirit of humility and solidarity that is at the heart of this sacrament.
Another distressing news item: a priest in Maryland refused to serve communion to a grieving woman at her own mother’s funeral, because the woman had lived with another woman for 20 years in a committed Lesbian love relationship.
That priest just didn’t get it. When we share the Lord’s Supper, we remember that we’re all in this thing called human life together. That, at our core, we are all vulnerable and in need. We become as beggars side by side to receive the life-giving bread we all need.