Sermon: February 25, 2018

butterfly_purpleSecond Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

The children’s TV show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” turned 50 years old this week. Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian pastor who used to host it said that when terrible events occurred his mother told him he should “Look for the helpers.” I’ve followed her suggestion this week, and have been awed and impressed by young people all over this country rallying people to explore sane gun restrictions and other safety measures. Scripture, too, can be a helper when times are tough. I’m enormously grateful for the thread of hope that weaves through all of this week’s texts: “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations,” God says of Sarai in Genesis 17. The psalmist sings, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied,” in Psalm 22. “Hoping against hope, he believed,” Paul writes of Abraham in Romans 4. Our God is a God of hope, and has always been so. When trouble comes, look to our book about God’s faithfulness, and you will find help.

Of course the Gospel reading from Mark is the most challenging—but possibly the most relevant—of the texts for today. Jesus is teaching his followers that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed. Jesus explains this to his disciples three different times in Mark’s Gospel, and they still seem surprised when things turn out the way Jesus foretold. And it seems they forgot entirely the important way Jesus finishes this prediction: “and after three days he will rise again.”

Though it seems likely that none of the disciples understood what he meant, it’s Peter who voices his concern out loud. Peter, who wants to be the helper Mrs. Rogers encouraged her son to see, seems totally overwhelmed by the first part of Jesus’ teaching and so fails to grasp the importance of the final bit about resurrection. Who can blame him? References to Jesus’ suffering, rejection, death, Peter hears, and wastes no time in pulling Jesus aside to correct him. “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the special chosen one of God! God blesses people who live good lives and keep God’s laws! You say and do all the right things, so you should be rewarded—not to mention popular and successful in all you do.”

Peter wants to persuade Jesus to take what he believes will be a more life-giving path. What he loses sight of is how Jesus defines life-giving. If having more stuff and more prestige, (and fewer messy interpersonal relationships), made life more complete and beautiful—if watching out for #1 could be the key to security and satisfaction—then Jesus is a terrible loser. We know that, just as he predicted, Jesus suffered and ultimately was killed—not in spite of his goodness and mercy—but BECAUSE of it.

Obviously Jesus is exasperated with the fact that Peter has lost track of Jesus’ mission, if he ever grasped it to begin with. Jesus rebukes Peter sharply, even harshly. Then he announces openly to the disciples and the surrounding crowd what he expects from his followers. No doubt Jesus would prefer Peter to be right—that people who are kind and clean and polite would be the ones who would change the world, and be recognized and celebrated for their contributions. But that is not how it works. All too often, change comes through the blood, sweat, and tears of people who are willing to give everything—even their lives—for the sake of their dreams.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he talks about saving our lives and losing them. Following Jesus and denying ourselves means not clinging to our nearsighted desires at the expense of seeking to know God’s desires for our this fragile world. Jesus doesn’t invite his followers to deliberately seek out trouble. He simply describes what change-makers of every time and place already know: that people with power rarely surrender their control willingly. As civil rights marchers, anti-Apartheid activists, abolitionists, suffragettes, and many other courageous, sacrificial leaders—including today’s teenagers who have been maligned and criticized for their attempts to speak truth to power.

These helpers find that when they give themselves over for a higher purpose they sometimes experience a spirit-lifting joy in standing for something bigger than ourselves and our families. Trouble happens when we are willing to take on the powers of this world. That’s simply a consequence that follows when people of faith are determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” and then live as if we believe it. God’s gonna trouble the waters.

But this is not just a warning: it is also a call to action. The hope Jesus brings to us asks something of us. Following Jesus comes with a cost. Throughout his life and teachings, Jesus always made clear that the hope he embodied, the hope he holds out to all of us, is not passive. With Jesus, hope is never an idle wish that things will get better. Jesus never extended “thoughts and prayers” to anyone without taking action afterward. Jesus’ kind of hope is vital and calls us to action. It asks us to align and ally ourselves with the God who is the source of hope, and who calls us to participate with God in working for the wholeness that God desires for us and for the world. To be a genuine, Jesus-following-helper is beautiful and powerful, but it is not without cost. As theologian Miroslav Wolf writes, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

At the heart of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter and the hard, hard lesson that follows in the days and weeks after this conversation, there is a message about what it means to hope—to “hope against hope,” as Paul writes of Abraham; to hope when there seems no cause for hope, to hope in the face of forces that work against hope. This is the message we need to pass on to today’s youth and anyone else who will listen.

We belong to a God who tells us, as Jesus tells his hearers, that what is torn down will be raised up, what is destroyed will live again. Because we belong to this God, hope lives even when we feel we have lost it, and cannot summon it up in ourselves. Christ offers the divine power that kicks in when hope is at an end.

Hope does not depend on us, and does not originate with us—it has its beginning and ending in God, who goes on providing it for us with an extravagant stubbornness. Hope comes among us as a gift and grace that we cannot manufacture. But this divinely-given hope is given to us so that we can be “the helpers” Mrs. Rogers encouraged her son to seek out. We are called to bear this blaze of light into places of hopelessness, to enter into the rhythms of dying and rising that come as we follow Christ and work with him for the healing of the world.

The Good News, my friends, is this: suffering and death are not the whole story. Our own inability to take up our crosses and follow Jesus by living the faith that we profess is not the end of the story. These are indeed part of the story, but they are not the whole thing. Jesus is always for us, no matter who is against us—even if it’s we ourselves! God works with us even when we try to direct God’s ways instead of following them. No matter what else happens, this Word is still THE Word: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten child, that whosoever believes in him should NOT perish, but have everlasting life. God did NOT come into the world to condemn the world, but so that through Jesus the world might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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