Monday, September 14, 2009

Follow the Leader

I gave this sermon at All Saints Church on September 13th. Audio of my sermons can be found at the All Saints website.

Jesus is on the road with his disciples and he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”
This is the set-up question, and all the answers he gets reflect the opinion that he is somebody else, recycled—John the Baptist, Elijah, maybe one of the other prophets. People are thinking big things about Jesus, but they’re not showing a lot of imagination. But then comes the real question, the zinger—“But who do you say that I am?”
And of course this is the question they’ve been asking themselves now for some time. They were crossing the stormy sea in a small boat at night and woke him up and he rebuked the wind and told the waves, “Be quiet!” And the storm stopped, and they were seized by a terrible awe and asked one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?”

“Who do you say that I am?” For us who profess to be Christians there really is no more important question. And Mark’s gospel this morning is telling us that as long as there have been Christians, there have been people who have thought they knew the answer.
Peter thinks he knows the answer: “You are the anointed one, (Messiah in Hebrew, Christos in Greek). You are the Christ.”

Now, no place here or later in Mark’s Gospel is it made clear exactly what Peter means by that. Nor can historians of religion look at other documents from that time and say with certainty exactly who someone like Peter would have thought the Messiah would be or what he would do. But we can make an educated guess that what Peter had in mind was probably another recycled character from the past, in this case an ideal king, a new David. And in one sense he wasn’t that far off the mark. Jesus is a leader sent by God to liberate his people, purify their institutions, and renew their vision of the holy purpose for which they have been chosen out of all the nations. But, as Jesus’ answer to Peter quickly makes plain, he is not going to do this according to the expected script. He is, in fact, carrying out a mission that is unique and original, and turns the very idea of Israel’s Messiah on its head.

“Who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question is critically important, and it’s not a question like “Who won the World Series in 1958?” or “What is the specific gravity of table salt?” It’s a question that takes you deeply into the mystery of how God is at work in the world, and what is the ultimate purpose of our existence. It is a question you answer with your life.

Jesus answers his own question by living in the nearness of God’s kingdom. That means going to where the people are, including the people that have been written off as too bad, too sick, or too crazy, and making community there. He shows them that they are worthy and loved, heals them and forgives their sins, gives them something to eat, and invites them to turn their lives toward God. But Jesus’ mission is not a social program for the disadvantaged. The kingdom he proclaimed is not just for the poor, but for everyone. The road he is walking with his disciples in this story is the road to Jerusalem, where he will carry his message to the rulers of the people, and his invitation to them will be just the same. But Jesus already knows the rulers’ attachment to the old scripts of power struggle and scapegoating violence. He knows how narrow is the path of total trust in God’s wisdom, and how slippery is the slope that begins, “I’ll just cut a few corners now, but when I’m in charge I’ll set things straight.” He can see what’s coming, and he also knows the subtlety of the temptation to lose his nerve and start playing by their game—“Get behind me, Satan!”

But we’re not following that kind of leader. We’ve got a leader who isn’t ashamed to be humiliated and abused. We’ve got a leader who is willing to die. The powers-that-be always tend to read the old scripts in a way that keeps them on top; they resist the natural desire of every creature to embody God’s gift of life in community by recycling the same old dramas of exclusion and domination. But our leader offers us the way to change the whole equation. It is the way of faith that is willing to suffer for the sake of the truth, the way of hope that is as humble and patient as God, the way of love that will never give up, even on an enemy. The New Testament is all about this way of transforming the world. But the point that is most salient in today’s Gospel is that we have to choose. If our answer to the question is really going to be “You are the Christ!” we have to do things Jesus’ way. It may not mean that we’re going to face the kind of horror that he did, (and by the way, please don’t go trying to recycle that script) but our leader is nothing if not honest—we’re going to carry a cross.

It may just be the cross of giving a gift that can never really be repaid. Yesterday I represented all of us at the 30th anniversary of the Big Sur Health Center. As some of you know, the Health Center building has been on the same property as our Santa Lucia campground and chapel for most of those thirty years and we have never asked for more than a dollar a year in rent. The first stop on my visit was to tour the Health Center where I enjoyed meeting the warm and dedicated staff and seeing their obvious pride in their small, bright, efficiency-apartment of a facility. Next I drove another mile or so to the party which was held under the redwoods at the Big Sur Grange. There I met the Health Center’s extended community of volunteers. It seems that half the residents of Big Sur have been on the board at one point or another. A local jazz singer and her trio were performing on the back of the Blaze Engineering flatbed, while members of the Volunteer Fire Brigade parked cars. Other volunteers served a barbeque lunch provided by the Ventana Inn, the Esalen Institute, and other local businesses. And everyone I talked to said the same thing, “We can’t thank All Saints enough for giving us a place to have our Health Center.”

What could I say except “we’re glad and proud that we can help?” We get an occasional benefit from the relationship—a couple of years ago the Health Center paid to put in a new water treatment system and we get to use the purified water at our campground. But the main reward we get is the health for our souls that comes from following our leader. I’ve never heard anyone at All Saints claim the Health Center as part of our mission, so it was interesting to talk to a former board president yesterday and hear her say, “Our mission is providing quality primary and urgent health care to all, regardless of their ability to pay—it’s really just like yours.”

“Who do you say that I am?” For us at All Saints the Big Sur Health Center is one part of living the answer to that question. When we extend ourselves for the sake of the mission of Jesus in the world, we get to see that he is already there. When we go off the script of self-concern and really engage with the need and suffering of the world we encounter the powerful and creative presence of love that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. In that nearness is the true reward of following Messiah—nothing less than life victorious over death.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.