Becoming a community of encouragement...

NOTE: Well, I am back into the groove of weekly sermon preparation and here are my notes for Sunday, September 13 2009. Please feel free to join us if you are in town at 10:30 am.

For the last week or so I’ve found myself praying through the words and music of Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian artist who crafted a tune he calls “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” There is something powerful going on in this unique prayer/song that speaks to this moment in history: like today’s gospel, it invites each and all of us to consciously embrace both the cost and joy of discipleship. That is, to be lovers – women and men of compassion and justice – in a time filled with danger.

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin - this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste
When you're lovers in a dangerous time…



And then the final verse – after a gentle instrumental interlude – the song cuts to the chase of Christ’s challenge saying:

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime
But nothing worth having comes without a fight
Got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight
When you’re lovers… in a dangerous time


Can’t you just hear Jesus saying this to his disciples along the road to Caesarea Philippi? “Who do people say I am?” “Well… some say John the Baptizer," they said. "Others think you are Elijah and still others say one of the prophets." So Jesus pushed them and asked, "And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?" Without hesitation, Peter gave the answer: "You are the Christ, the Messiah."

So Jesus warned them to keep it quiet, not to breathe a word of it to anyone – what’s more he began to explain his ministry to them – saying: It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive." He said this simply and clearly so they couldn't miss his point: it is costly to follow the way of the Lord.

It is costly to follow the way of the Lord… To pick up your cross and make the way of Jesus your own – to live like lovers of the world in a dangerous time – to accept the cost and joy of discipleship so that we share both the passion and the victory of our Lord is tough going.

• In this morning’s story, Peter freaks out: one moment he has a partial vision that Jesus is truly the Christ – the long awaited Messiah of Israel – and the next he hears himself being called Satan by the one he loves.

• In fact, Jesus scolds his old friend – and many of us, too – saying: 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. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you in the process? What could you ever trade your soul for?

And that is the right question, don’t you think? What good would it do to get everything you want but lose the real you – the very image of God within you – in the process of living? What good would it be to discover at the end of your days that you wasted it all? Pissed it all away? Rolled over one morning only to realize that you had refused to be nourished by the inner meaning of real life – and now it was too late?

• There is an old saying: “Take from death before it takes from thee” and that is what we’re talking about.

• Choosing to learn from Jesus how to be lovers of the world in a dangerous time.

That is part of what Mark’s gospel is trying to communicate to us through the very way it tells this story. Do you remember where these events take place in today’s text? We’re told that Jesus and his disciples were walking along a country road in Caesarea Philippi. They are not in a religious building – synagogue or church – they are in the world, ok? And let’s be very clear about the significance of this place in the world, too. Biblical scholars tell us that Caesarea Philippi was…

• … once the locus of a shrine to the Greek and Roman god Pan – source of both beauty in nature and music as well as fear and confusion – hence the root of the word panic. Pan was known for evoking wild sexual passion and leading souls astray which is probably why medieval Christianity chose his image to give form to Satan.

• … it was also named after Cesar – a political place – one that intentionally blurred the distinctions between God and government.

So the first thing Mark wants us to wrestle with when we commit ourselves to being lovers in a dangerous time is our context in the world. It is relatively easy to confess the way of Jesus inside these walls. It is another challenge altogether to do it out in the world of politics and temptation and commerce and all the rest – and yet that’s where it counts the most – out there where we live most of our lives.

Did you see the President’s speech about health care reform the other night? After church council I went home and watched it – and the thing that hit me hardest was the boorish, racist insult hurled at Mr. Obama by Joe Wilson of South Carolina. Yes, I know that he was chagrined into an apology a short time later. But what his unprecedented outburst said to me is that he, like all too many others, had lost perspective. He became so caught up in the vicious, racist fear-mongering of our era that for a moment he dropped the mask of civility and publically exposed his inner disdain for a black man holding the office of president.

It was a startling but equally clarifying example of what it means to gain everything and lose your soul – to throw away your true self in pursuit of power and pleasure – to become lost in the chaos and fears of the real world of Caesarea Philippi or Washington, DC.

That is Mark’s first insight: we will be tested as lovers out there where it is dangerous and costly and hard. His second insight is equally demanding: what kind of Christ do we confess? Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am? What kind of Christ do you confess and serve?” And what does Peter say? “You are the Messiah – the Anointed One – come to save Israel.” And once again biblical scholars can be helpful in unpacking the significance of Peter’s words. Because, you see, until the time of Christ there was only one understanding of the Messiah.
• The Anointed One by God would come as a powerful king and warrior who would both physically annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and establish an everlasting earthly kingdom of God over all of creation.

• It was a grand military vision that was one part Terminator a la Arnold Schwarzenegger, one part Colin Powell at his best and one part Martin Luther King, Jr.


But that is not the Messiah that Jesus describes, is it? He tells his disciples – then as well as today – that his way involves sharing the suffering of the earth: It is necessary that the Son of Man proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests, and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days rise up alive." He said this simply and clearly so they couldn't miss his point: it is costly to follow the way of the Lord.

“Who am I?” he asks: “I am the man for others – I am a lover in a dangerous time – I am 180 degrees from any idea of Messiah you have ever considered and you can’t figure this out all by yourselves because I am too wildly outside the mold.” So, the text goes on to say, he taught them – he nourished this new insight – he trained them with care and clarity saying:

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. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Peter is often hard headed – a real block head sometimes – but not here because Jesus is offering up something radically new. Something we can’t comprehend all by ourselves. Something that requires discipleship. And that’s the third insight: first, we’re told that we will be tested as lovers in this dangerous time; second it is made clear that our love will involve radical compassion and solidarity with the world; and third we are told that we can only learn about this together in community.

Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?

We call this church – a faith community gathered to learn and practice the radical compassion of Christ – together – with encouragement. So that when we go out there into the world of politics or teaching or business where we’ll be tested, we can challenge the fear and hatred of the status quo with the very spirit of Christ alive within us.

• We can’t do this automatically – especially after being raised in Caesarea Philippi – with all of its influences. No, we have to practice becoming lovers for a dangerous time.

• And that means our understanding of church may have to change: too many people think of church as a museum – a place or a building to maintain and preserve – some even treat it like their own personal burial society.

But Jesus is mostly out on the road – in the world – trying to train every day people to be lovers for this dangerous time. In her book, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn describes that challenge of being the church like this. She was visiting the 1987 Vancouver World’s Fair.

In the Christian pavilion (there was a) presentation that utilized glitzy double-reversed photography and flashing lasers. When I tried to explain my qualms about the production to an attendant who had asked me how I liked their "show," she protested that it had saved many people. I asked, "Saved by what kind of Christ?" If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes?

Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation?

This year, my friends, I sense that we are being called into a ministry of encouragement – a commitment to help one another become lovers in a dangerous time – so that we are part of the healing of the world.

• We don’t need any more Joe Wilsons spewing hate and fear.

We don’t need any more talk radio demagogues either.

• And God knows we don’t need any more religious snake oil sales people offering their glitz and promises of power and glory in return for your personal check.

No, we need lovers – lovers trained for a dangerous time – how did the prophetic poet, Isaiah put it? “The Master, the Lord my God, has given me a well-taught tongue so that I might know how to encourage tired people. God wakes me up in the morning, wakes me up, opens my ears to listen as one ready to take orders.”

We are being called into something new – not a burial society or a museum – but a community of encouragement. So let those who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

Now...would those who are able please stand and join me in our affirmation? In the midst of hunger and war,
We celebrate the promise of plenty and peace.
In the midst of oppression and injustice,
We celebrate the promise of service and freedom.
In the midst of doubt and despair,
We celebrate the promise of faith and hope.
In the midst of fear and betrayal,
We celebrate the promise of joy and loyalty.
In the midst of hatred and death,
We celebrate the promise of love and life.
In the midst of sin and decay,
We celebrate the promise of salvation and renewal.
In the midst of chaos on every side,
We celebrate the presence of the Living Christ within and among us.
For we have gathered together in community – with God and each other – to worship and reflect on our Christian faith,
And then to go into the world to do justice and share compassion. Lord may it be so among us. Amen.

(Adapted from the Community of Iona Abbey Worship Book)

credits: icarus @henri matisse art of the day; chris cook, "jesus is tempted" @ http://dwellingintheword.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/304-matthew-41-25; georgia o'keefe, "black cross" @artknowledgenews.com; o'keefe, "black cross stars and blue" www.thecityreview.com/s01camp.html; arthur dove, "nature symbolized #2" @angellier.biblio.univ-lille3.fr/etudes_recher...; james whistler, "nocturne in black and gold" @angellier.biblio.univ-lille3.fr/etudes_recher...; o'keefe, "grey cross with blue," @www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa93.htm

Comments

Black Pete said…
For some reason, part of your text reminded me of the MadTV "terminator" parody of the synoptic Gospels narrative. With apologies, I share it here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v
=Qnq7N6X4x84

Actually, on reflection, maybe it does address the kind of Christ question you posed in your piece.
RJ said…
no apologies needed, my man... this is GREAT and pretty spot on, too. thanks.

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