Gospel: Mark 8:27-38
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”
On the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 we’ve heard the stories in the news all week. The stories of those who did not survive, and the stories of those who somehow did. I was in college, and that’s how I can believe that it’s been 20 years. 45 minutes south of Washington DC, and I was an RA with a floor full of freshman girls, and half their parents worked in our nation’s capital. It’s become one of those touch points for our culture, in the way my parents’ generation could tell you exactly where they were when President Kennedy was shot.
Think about all that has changed in our world in the last 20 years, and then think about just the last few. Does it seem like the rate of change is just increasing exponentially?
Who would have thought that most every congregation would end up putting their services online during a global pandemic? And now the way we reach our congregation is forever impacted, at least until the next innovation in tech communications.
Not only has the rate of change in our country sped up, here at CLC, there’s been just so much change in the last 5 years. To go from a stable pastorate with a beloved clergy couple for 25 years, and then have several interim, and two called pastors in the span of about 5 years. To have gained and built everything you see here, but to have lost much in the process, especially the loss and gain of staff members and congregation members. All these changes impact the body. Adjustments need to happen, whether it’s a sad change or a happy one.
The changes taking place in our country are this, on a larger scale. The crisis levels and anxiety levels just get higher and higher, at all levels. The late Peter Steinke, expert in congregational conflict, leadership and systems, calls this time, the Uproar. The title of his latest book, “a time of dislocation, everything is up in the air, societies regress in an atmosphere of anything goes…. We are sorting out our values and future courses as we face immense disruption, gnawing uncertainties, and new anxieties.” And this book literally came out right before a global pandemic took the foundation out from under us.
It’s no wonder that we are tired, and a bit afraid of what’s gonna happen next. And Jesus’ words today don’t seem to offer much comfort. But they do point to the truth and show us that we are still in that same boat with Peter arguing with Jesus about how much we’re really gonna have to give up to follow him. Our own anxiety, like Peters, causes us to throw up our hands, and grab whatever we can to protect ourselves against any perceived dangers, some grab guns, others use words as their weapon. James knows all about that, probably from a personal perspective. “He writes. “…. no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
We are not the first Christians to have anxieties, and not the first Christians to live through a global pandemic. We are not the first Christians to experience extreme racial conflict and tension or political upheaval. We are not the first Christians to live and have faith through anxious times, to ask big questions, and to feel like the church is maybe just one crisis away from death’s door. And we are not the first society where houses of worship are targeted with acts of violence. I guarantee you any clergy person ordained in the last twenty years has stood in their pulpit quietly sometime on a weekday and tried to figure out where their first move should be to save the most people in their care, in the case of an active shooter. Following Jesus has always led one way eventually, some societies just made it look nicer.
This is why I love the book of Revelation so much, and why I wanted to teach it first here. The book of Revelation is not a playbook for the end times, it’s a comfort object to those who are pretty convinced they are already living in the end times, and it looks like hell on earth. It’s not a book of judgment or wrath, it’s a series of visions that are pretty gruesome and yet relatable to the Christians who are being murdered, martyred and messed up by the powers that be. And throughout those visions, we are brought back time and time again to the throne room, brought into the presence of God, no matter what just happened, no matter the crisis, we end up in God’s presence. No matter what seeming security we put our faith in – they all fail.
That’s the point of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s not a harbinger of death, it’s a stripping away of all the things we think will make us safe and secure. All the things we put our trust in that are not God. The four horsemen are designed to shatter the illusion that people can find true security in borders of a nation or empire, in a good neighborhood, in a flourishing economy or in their own health. There is no security in those things and that’s the point for Christians. There is only returning to the presence of God.
The psalms are often overlooked, sandwiched between the readings, and lacking the narrative quality of the gospel. But our cantor sang it beautifully this morning and ended with the words. “For he has freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. And we responded…. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
Otherwise translated I will walk in the lord’s presence or serve the Lord – this psalm and others remind us that no matter what happens and whatever terrors afflict us, no matter how death tries to bind us and anxiety tries to overtake us – God is with us. No matter how we argue or justify or claim to know better, Christ is with us.
And that’s where Jesus’ harsh words bring me comfort. Life is not supposed to be a pleasant stroll or a trouble-free existence for Christians. This life is suffering when you follow Christ. You will suffer, both in yourself and in your compassion for others. You may not be asked to give up your whole life as a martyr, but you’ll have to give up some of it. You’ll be asked to set aside your wants and desires for God’s will and other’s needs. Troy, I’m sorry it’s true, but I’m not really sorry. A life lived for others, given up for others, a life where you put others needs ahead of your own in big ways and small ways.
Turn to Jesus, and trust him when he says to follow. Even when it’s hard, cause he’s already walked that path and he’s walking with you.