Kelly’s sermon preached on Sep. 19, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Sep 19, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep. 19, 2021

Are there any books or movies that you actually like to watch over and over again? At my house, as my three children have grown up we have weathered many seasons of our children’s favorites on repeat- The Cars movie, The Little Engine that Could, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse….anybody know that one?  It’s one of my favorites. But I will admit that I sometimes struggled to find the enthusiasm to read the same books…. as my children fearlessly asked for them again and again.  But they never seemed to get tired of them, and sometimes I envied their simple joy at hearing it one more time.

Similarly in the church, we tell and retell the stories of God’s people, of Jesus’s life and death, and the stories of the resurrection, and the early church finding their way.  We read them weekly in chunks, and celebrate them yearly through the liturgical cycle, and once every three years we start all over again and make our way through the same set of scriptures. On our best days, we are like children who can’t get enough of this story, and the ways it weaves into our own lives and stories.

As it turns out, today’s Gospel story from Mark is essentially a wash, rinse, repeat of last week’s story, which I will remind you began with Jesus and his followers hiking over to Cesarea Phillipi and Peter declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, took a turn when Jesus called Peter Satan, and resolved with Jesus reteaching his followers that suffering and death are part of the package in following him.

Today we enter into another everyday moment of misunderstanding between Jesus and his followers, this time on the road to Capernaum….a back-and-forth where the disciples hear Jesus saying his path is not towards worldly glory and praise. They hear it, but they still do not understand.  They are confused, and afraid of what Jesus might think of their confusion, while simultaneously posturing among themselves as the greatest to cover it up. Jesus observes their behavior and tries again, reteaching the lesson this time by drawing a child close, and declaring the child to be the greatest among them. 

So, the pattern of the lesson is the same, and the outcome is the same: Jesus speaks a hard truth, the disciples deny it, Jesus makes his point again.

Gosh, will these dense disciples ever get it? That’s a common concern when reading the Gospel of Mark. But what struck me in reading it this week was their recognition of their problem, and their fear of it.  “They were afraid to ask him,’ it says.  So in their fear, they puff themselves up and deny the questions. Nod and smile, they must be thinking.  I can relate to that, and I wonder if you can, too. 

Are there questions you are afraid to ask? 

Here’s one of mine: “Why, Jesus?  Why do you have to be handed over to the authorities to suffer and die for your mission?  And while I’m at it, why do we, your followers,  have to suffer? What is the meaning of all the suffering?

So far, in Mark’s gospel, we have met the Jesus who has come to heal all people, and declare that God’s kingdom is here, now.  But in chapter 9, Jesus starts to take a turn.  If you listen, over the next few weeks, Jesus will be approached as a “teacher” rather than a healer.  He hides from the masses, and pays particular attention to instructing his followers- including Pharisees, who long to understand what he is about. And you’ll find that Jesus doesn’t sell them the kingdom of God with smooth talk or platitudes or grand visions of glory.  He proclaims God’s presence in their everyday realities.  He enacts God’s love in the way he speaks and lives among powerless people.  He upends expectations about who matters, and why.

But he never promises anything more than God’s presence and love. 

The people are attracted to that message, despite the associated risks and its incompatibility with their previously held assumptions.  They are attracted to it, and their lives are changed by it, even though their circumstances are not changed at all. The Romans still have the upper hand.  The rich are still valued more than the poor. They still suffer. But now they know that suffering is not a punishment from God.  It cannot separate them from the love of God. Nothing can.

In the Gospel of Mark, those in power cannot tolerate that radical grace that Jesus embodies and shares with those around him.  It upends what they believe is great in the world they have created for themselves.  It is so undermining and intolerable that eventually they kill him.

We, the disciples of 2021 know the rest of the story, of course.  We’ve heard it before.  We heard Jesus explain it last week to Peter, and again this week to the disciples. We heard it three years ago in the lectionary, and we hear it every year during Lent.  We know Jesus rises again, and because of that, we believe that God enters in to human suffering, and sees it all the way through to the end.   But we would be wise to ask ourselves if we understand- if this is  good news to us. Or, if we have questions.

Maybe I could ask you this way: Why do you follow Jesus? What is it that you see in this message and this Christian way of life that makes it worth it to you, that keeps you coming back to take another step on this path?  

Is it the fearlessness of Jesus and his followers in the face of corrupt power, like Martin Luther King, Jr? Is their  tender and preferential care for the most marginalized, like Dorthy Day or Mother Teresa?  Is it Jesus’s seemingly unflappable understanding of the core meaning of the law and the scriptures that gives hope for a different pattern of living and being in this world, even now?

A group of people here at St. Michael’s are beginning to explore questions of faith in a 6 week study in preparation for our Bishop’s visit in November, and I’d like to invite you to pray for them as they do so. Pray for their courage to ask the hard questions.  Their inquiry and examination will lead us all into a deeper walk with Christ as a community, so pray, too, that we will be ready to receive their leadership and example as they take another step on their journey of faith.

Christianity may be the dominant religion in the United States, with churches dotting our cities and rural landscapes alike, but discipleship–truly following Jesus— is not an easy path to walk, and like the disciples, we need the practice and repetition  to really get it.

I heard a priest say recently, “we do our people a disservice by failing to acknowledge how hard it is to be a Christian.  Following Jesus is the single hardest thing I have ever done, and I have to choose to do it again every day.” 

Perhaps this is why our bishop often says as he preaches at confirmations, “there’s still time; you can still get out of this.”  It sounds like a joke, because what bishop or priest would truly want to talk someone out of affirming their faith in Christ, and saying yes to a life of grace and love in community?  Of course, the intent is to be as honest as possible about what this is really all about- proclaiming that God is here, in the midst of it all, even if the circumstances don’t change, and trusting that God’s love for all people cannot be killed by anyone.

 God does not run from suffering. God’s love cannot be conquered, or quelled. God is still here, still open to our requests, still offering  to show us the way. 

This is it- this is the good news that no one can ever get enough of.  It is so counter to the story of hustle and domination that the world tells us on repeat. So, we tell the stories of God’s grace over and over again to each other.  We read them to our children and we meditate on them, and we pray for the courage to follow Jesus and embody his grace, too.

And, when we are confused and afraid, we trust that God hears us as beloved children, welcomes us in, and responds to us again and again and again.

Amen.

© 2021 Kelly Moody. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.