First Congregational Church
February 28, 2021
Second Sunday in Lent
“Not What We Were Expecting”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A woman was at her hairdresser's getting her hair styled for a trip to Rome with her husband. She mentioned the trip to her hairdresser, who responded: "Rome? Why would you want to go there? It's crowded and dirty. So, how are you getting there?” "We're taking United," was the reply. "We got a great rate!"
“United", exclaimed the hairdresser? "That's a terrible airline. Their planes are old, their flight attendants are lazy, and they're always late. So, where are you staying in Rome?” "We'll be at this exclusive little place over on Rome’s Tiber River called Teste." "Don't go any further. I know that place. Everybody thinks it’s going to be something special and exclusive, but it's really a dump."
"We're going to go to see the Vatican and maybe get to see the Pope.” "That's rich," laughed the hairdresser… "You and a million other people will be trying to see him. He'll look the size of an ant." "Boy, good luck on this trip of yours. You're going to need it."
A month later, the woman again came in to get her hair styled. The hairdresser asked her about her trip to Rome. "It was wonderful," explained the woman, "not only were we on time in one of United's brand new planes, but it was overbooked, and they bumped us up to first class. The food and wine were wonderful, and I had a handsome 28-year-old steward who waited on me hand and foot. And the hotel was great! They'd just finished a $5 million remodeling job, and now it's a jewel, the finest hotel in the city. They, too, were overbooked, so they apologized and gave us their owner's suite at no extra charge!"
"Well," muttered the hairdresser, "that's all well and good, but I know you didn't get to see the Pope.” "Actually, we were quite lucky, because as we toured the Vatican, a Swiss Guard tapped me on the shoulder, and explained that the Pope likes to meet some of the visitors, and if I'd be so kind as to step into his private room and wait, the Pope would personally greet me. Sure enough, five minutes later, the Pope walked through the door and shook my hand! I knelt down and he spoke a few words to me.” "Oh, really! What'd he say?” He said: "Who screwed up your hair?”
Within the book of Mark, the first half of the book is spent detailing Jesus’ identity by what he did - organizing, healing, teaching, etc. The second half is spent with Jesus pressing his claim that he is the Christ - so it’s more about what he says. This morning’s passage is the first in this shift from doing to claiming as the path is turning away from the outlying villages and farming communities - toward Jerusalem.
To give everyone a little jump on the passage, I will suggest that you think of yourself as Jesus and Peter as your best, most truthful friend - the one who will tell you the truth, even if it hurts.
Scripture Mark 8:31-38
Jesus Predicts His Death
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
The Way of the Cross
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Thank you, Jennie. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think I’ve always managed to hear this passage as a very tense exchange between Peter and Jesus. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was Peter pulling him aside, lowering his voice and beginning his “rebuke” with, “Jesus, are you okay, man? You eat any of those bad mushrooms they sell in the market, cuz this just isn’t like you!” After all, from all observances, it sure looked like Jesus was on his way to taking over the political heavyweights to bring about a more fair way of life. And now he’s talking about his end.
“But when Jesus turned and looked at the disciples….” Did Jesus whip around, or was it a slow pivot before looking back to Peter, evaluating the temperature of the onlookers? Because just moments before, Peter was the FOD: Follower of the Day. If only there were cell phone cameras back then!
In my previous, more narrow view of this passage, I think Jesus telling Peter - Satan - to get behind him was more, “Get out of my way!” It wasn’t until this year’s reading that it occurred to me that Jesus’s retort could have different meanings. (In fact, if we were able to do some poling among everyone listening, I’d bet that we’d get third and fourth meanings. But Scott Hoezee put the first two options so succinctly: The question is whether you’ll be back there so you can go where Jesus goes or whether you’ll be back there to be left behind. Whatever Jesus meant, there’s no avoiding the words that followed his admonishment.
If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to go behind. If you want life, you have to die. Great options, Jesus. Except that they are true words, much as we might like them to be different.
I tried to think about things that have happened to our human race that may have been something like what Jesus was saying here. It may have been few and far between, but there have been people thinking about landing on the moon - or Mars - for a long time. Except that didn’t make sense. How could people “land” in any place other than earth? Ships land, but there is no river to the moon. It was a long time before humanity imagined the kind of ship that actually beached itself on the shore of the moon. Maybe losing our life to follow Christ isn’t what was imagined back then - at least to most folks. Maybe it’s more of a surprise.
Maybe it more like the signs that some churches put up. “Lonely? Anxious? Come to our church, and we’ll fix that.” We could put out a sign: “Looking for more pain, anxiety, suffering, and stress in your life? You’ve come to the right place. Join us in our journey with Jesus.” Except that we know it’s not really like that, either.
Retired Methodist pastor, William H. Willimon, was talking about a tv program where a doctor was talking about brain plasticity, which means that while our brains mature and do what they can to protect us from stress, our brains also tell us to take the easy way to a problem, rather than one that requires more thought and effort. The doctor’s recommendation was to push one’s brain to work harder than they would like to work. (Great! said the overworked and overwhelmed listeners!)
The absolutely profound pastor over there at Frankfort Congregational thinks this is true of our hearts and souls, too, and that we ought not cut ourselves off from the season of Lent and the questions with which it confronts us. (Isn’t she brilliant?!)
Willimon also said, “The going is going to get even rougher as we journey through the next Sundays of Lent. Jesus’s prediction that he will be rejected, suffer, and die will be fulfilled. He will not only go to the cross, but we will be graced to feel some of the weight of the cross on our shoulders as well.” Graced to feel some of the rejection, suffering and dying. Great.
I have a confession, in that while I was reading this passage and doing my homework for it, I had the thought, “why bother?” What would make “losing our life” - whatever that really means - worth doing so? I wish Willimon would have included the pastor’s name when he wrote, “As one pastor said, “we follow Jesus not just to be saved or to go to heaven; we follow Jesus because it’s worth it.” This pastor asks, “How so?”
At the very least there’s Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth-century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician and physicist who came up with a simple chart for believing in God.
If God exists and you believe in God, then eternal happiness awaits you. If God exists and you do not believe in God, eternal misery awaits you. If God does not exist but you believe in God, then nothing awaits you. If God does not exist and you do not believe in God, then nothing also awaits you. The bottom line is that it is better to live your life as if God exists, believing in God, than any of the other options. That is the most simplistic, base reason for following Christ being worth it.
I’ve been reflecting on the spectrum of Zoom meetings as of late, and almost without an exception, while waiting for everyone to get on together, there is talk about whether you’ve received your vaccine yet - or not - and side effects, if any. Then we get to weather and anything else exciting we may have recently done. I think part of there reason for this covid question rising so quickly - aside from it being “fresh meat” for discussion, is that it’s nice to know that you are not alone, and that there are others who haven’t received it like you, have received one of two - like you, or received both - like you.
Jesus quotes Psalm 22 when he’s hanging on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In those (hopefully rare) moments when we feel as if God has forsaken us, it’s good to know that we are not alone in that feeling, because Jesus felt that way, too. Even though Jesus knew God had not forsaken him, the feeling of that abandonment was so huge at the moment, that he couldn’t stop himself from blurting it out.
In those incredibly dark and fearful moments, I’m guessing that a good many of us don’t feel all that comfortable airing those fears to anyone else, and if for no other reason, going with Christ on his way to the cross reminds us of a truthful comfort that is perhaps most profound at some of our lowest moments.
Is it worth it, to follow Christ to the cross and resurrection? It is the thought for the week, to mull over what your life would be without that journey, in all its ramifications, and to once again lean into the cross as you follow behind the One who leads us as we pray.
Holy God, Parent, Brother, Spirit, you know well how sometimes life gets heavy, causing our head to lower, and our eyes along with it, and we end up loosing sight of you and your path to life. You know well how tantalizing it is to look away from the opportunities that come before us, our humanity always wanting to take the easy way. You also know well how much we want to be all that you see us to be, because therein lies good pride of accomplishment. Forgive us, as we open our hearts to you, that you would heal them and strengthen them and make them as full as they can humanly be. Encourage us to take the roads that may look to have hard going, that in reality, have much greater views and life along them. And thank you for giving us new opportunities to live into what we’ve not been expecting. For all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
| God exists | God doesn't exist
Believe in God | Eternal happiness | Nothing
Do not believe | Eternal misery | Nothing
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.