Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

Sept. 29, 2019

Lessons:

Amos 6:1a,4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

I was about 5 or 6 years old when I got my first pair of glasses. Everyone in my immediate family, my parents and my siblings, they all had perfect vision. So no one thought I might need some help seeing. Until, I think, in kindergarten or first grade the teacher reported to my parents that I seemed to be squinting a lot at the board, sometimes actually getting out of my chair and walking up to it to see what was written there. So my teacher told this to my parents and they hurried me off to the opthalmologist, I got my eyes tested, and about two weeks later I got my first pair of glasses.

And I do not really remember this experience but my mom did tell me about that first ride home from the eye doctor. She said she could hear my voice coming from the back seat, exclaiming in wonder and awe at the things I could now see in the world.

“Look! Look at the leaves on the tree!”

“Look, there is a dog walking down the sidewalk, not just some blob.”

“Look at the flowers and the birds….aren’t they beautiful?”

As a child I did not know that world looked that way until I got those glasses. And sometimes I have that same experience when I encounter certain passages of scripture, like the parable we hear Jesus sharing this morning.

Certain passages of scripture bring a clarity, a crispness to my vision of the world and help me see, perhaps, a glimpse of how God sees the world.

And we can see this even in the way this parable is written. There is a tremendous amount of detail in these few short lines. As a reminder this is one of a series of parables, of stories, that Jesus is telling the people that the writer of Luke/Acts describes as “Pharisees and sinners and tax collectors.”

And Jesus, I think, starts kind of gently with these parables. We get these lovely, sort of warm and fuzzy stories of lost sheep and lost coins. And then I think he starts to get a little more pointed as he goes along, we hear the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of where to sit at the wedding banquet, and then the dishonest manager.

And then we land on this parable, the only parable in the Gospels in which two of the characters are named.  And the details with which Jesus tells this story are very precise. He describes the clothes that the rich man is wearing, fine linen and a purple cloak. These clothes that, at the time Jesus would have been sharing this story, were reserved only for priests and kings. In fact there is a story in history that the emperor Caligula, a little bit after Jesus’ life, had a visiting foregn king (who was the grandson of Cleopatra and Marc Antony) murdered for having the temerity of wearing a purple cloak when he came to visit Rome.

And then we get this image of Lazarus at the gate, brought every day there by his friends, covered with sores, filthy and hungry, yearning for just a few crumbs. The only kindness he encounters is from the dogs who come and sit by his side.

There is such clarity of vision and detail in this story and I think the clarity parallels, perhaps, or gives us a sense of what Jesus is calling the people who were listening to him that day and calling us to hear in this story.

I’ll just say up front, my friends, that I do not think this is a parable that is meant to be a blueprint for us of what happens after we die, a sneak peek at the afterlife. Rather I think this is a blueprint of how we are called to live, a vision of how God sees the world.

And we see this in the sort of contrasting visions of what the world thinks is important and the way God thinks about the kingdom and how we are called to live.

We have the story of the rich man who builds a gate around his house so he does not have to see people like Lazarus near his windows. Building gates and doors to keep out people so he can enjoy the safety and comfort of his home away from the world. But in the context of this parable, in the context of the vision of God, that gate becomes a chasm, a chasm over which the rich man is looking and can barely glimpse God.  It becomes a chasm that separates him from the kingdom of heaven.

We have a vision of the feasts the rich man enjoys in this world, sumptuously eating with his friends. But in the vision of God that feast becomes meager food indeed when compared to the heavenly banquet that Lazarus enjoys with Abraham and all the saints.

And the frustrating thing about this parable is that the rich man still does not get it. Right? He’s in hell, he’s being tormented and still he’s trying to act in the way he acted in the world. He’s ordering Abraham around, asking him to send Lazarus down to serve him. The rich man can not lose that vision of the way the world has told him things are supposed to work and open himself up into the vision of the kingdom of God.

And I do not think this is unique to the first century, indeed I know it is not. When I was reading this parable I was reminded of sociological study I read about conducted by some scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. And in it they had subjects come in and play Monopoly. But the Monopoly game was rigged so that certain subjects, certain players, were given advantages in the game. They either collected double the money when they passed Go or they were given more properties to begin with. And the scientists observed how these players, who had the advantages, interacted with the players who were subject to the regular rules of the game.

And the scientists observed that about 15 minutes into the game, the people who had been given the advantage in the system began to behave differently. They began to move their pieces around the board very aggressively. The began to eat more pretzels. In fact one player who was given advantages in the game was observed telling the other player all the great skill he had brought to the game and that was why he was winning.

The system, the way the world works, the way the world tells us we are to find safety in wealth and privilege, in success, that way of the world is in direct opposition to the vision that God has for the kingdom.

And it hard to strip away the world tells us to see and see with the eyes of God, but I think my friends, that in this place we are sometimes given a glimpse of the way God sees the world.

My first full Holy Week was spent in this place. I participated in catechumenate with Mother Esme, with a few folks who are here now. And I remember that as a group we were encouraged to come to all three services of the Triduum during Holy Week. And we came and ate an agape meal that I think Yetunde cooked and we came and washed each others feet and we had our feet washed.

And I remember coming to my first Good Friday service ever here in this sanctuary. And I was moved and I was stunned and I was confused by what I saw. And I remember leaving and it was dark outside and I got home and I did not really have a sense of what was happening. And there were so many feelings and ideas running through my head and I just kind of collapsed into bed.

And then I woke up the next morning and I looked across the room at the clock and for the very first time in my life I could read the clock. And for about 30 seconds I was overwhelmed by this idea and I thought “Oh my God, what I experienced as healed me, God has healed me! And I can see! I no longer have this astigmatism and I can see without my glasses.” And then I realized, no I had gone to sleep with my contact lenses in.

But my friends, I think what might not have been literally true that morning was metaphorically and spiritually true for me. My experience in this place, my experience of encountering God in those ancient stories told, the stories of Moses and the prophets that Jesus talks about in today’s parable, those stories shifted something in me. And I no longer saw the world in the same way.

And I think that is something we are given the opportunity to encounter every time we come together in this place.

When we look through the lens of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become a feast of unending life, a heavenly banquet where all are welcomed.

When we look through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection we can see that death is no longer the end but the beginning of new and unending life in God.

And when we look through the lens of love we can see perhaps the kingdom, the world, perhaps as God sees it. Everyone, everything, infused with the Holy Spirit and beloved of God.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 9, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10-17
Mark 7:24-37

A couple of minutes ago we listened to part of a letter written by James, an epistle that today might be most famous for reputedly really annoying Martin Luther.

Those of you who know a little bit about Lutheran theology, who have hung out with Lutherans even briefly, will likely have heard about Luther’s vigorous objection to what he and other theologians called works righteousness. Works righteousness is the notion that I can buy my way into heaven, in this case not with money, but with good deeds. So, when I serve at the Friday Feast or engage in some other act of generosity or compassion, I am paying into a cosmic bank account – or, if you are into roleplaying games – I am accumulating the experience points that eventually will allow me to level up into salvation.

Luther – following in the example of Jesus – did the important work of reminding us that works righteousness isn’t and never was the Gospel. You cannot buy your way into God’s good books. Not with cash, cheques, credits cards, or bitcoins: remember from history class that the thing that got Luther into so much trouble with the institutional church was his critique of indulgences, with his insistence that you cannot pay off God. And not with good behaviour: God is not Santa Claus, God is not watching to see whether you are naughty or nice and deciding whether to reward or punish you accordingly.

The story goes that, because Luther was so on guard against works righteousness, because searching out works righteousness was a huge part of the lens that he looked through when he read the Bible or a theological commentary, when Luther got to James and this line about faith without works being dead, steam started to come out of his ears. No, no, no! Luther said (or the German 16th-Century equivalent thereof). He pounded the table and said, James is making it sound like faith and everything good and holy that flows out of it is contingent on something that human beings do. But that’s not true. It’s not about human beings. It’s about God!

In the first introduction that Luther wrote to own translation of the New Testament, he declared that James is a “really strawy epistle,” and that “it has nothing of the Gospel about it.”

What I’d like to suggest this morning is that Luther was write about the Gospel, right about Jesus – indeed, you cannot buy your way into heaven – but wrong about James. When James says that faith without works is dead, he means something different and harder and better and more freeing.

Before I go any further, I am going to ‘fess up to some of my own theology. I believe that God’s love is relentless, that God is continually seeking out our hearts, that God never gives up on inviting us to freely choose to reciprocate and to live into the love that God has for us. And I believe that God’s pursuit of our hearts does not end when we die. You will sometimes hear folks argue that if you haven’t confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord before your dying breath, you are out of luck: it’s straight to hell for you.

I have more confidence in God than that, more faith in God than that. I don’t believe that God’s power is that small or that limited, I do not believe that God is constrained by death. My guess, my faith, is that even after death, God keeps on showing us the towering, infinite goodness and love that is the Trinity. And that when we encounter that love, we will eventually choose to say yes to it. I believe that the theologians got it more or less right when they wrote that the Christian is required to believe that there is a hell – but that they are not required to believe that anyone is there.

Now, let me acknowledge that the theology I just shared has two significant problems. First, it’s kind of unfair. And second, it obligates us to ask the question: if we’re all getting into heaven anyway, then what’s the point of going to church, what’s the point of being good?

Let’s look at each for a moment. First, is everybody getting into heaven totally unfair? Yes it is. Jesus is actually quiet clear about the unfairness of God. Remember the parable about the day labourers working in the vineyard? The master (whom, I am going to venture, Jesus intends for us to understand as God) goes out and finds folks and brings them into the vineyard to work. She says to the labourers, harvest my grapes and prune my vines and rake the ground, and I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. And the labourers say, Okay.

Some of the labourers start at 8am. Some of the master doesn’t find until noon. And some of them she doesn’t find until quitting time. The 5pmers have no sooner walked into the vineyard than she says, The day’s over! Time to go home!

Everybody lines up to get paid. The last are the first in line. They get a hundred and fifty bucks. And when they see this, the labourers who started work at 8am begin rubbing their hands together. There is going to be some serious overtime! But then the labourers who started at noon also get a hundred and fifty bucks. And furrows start to appear on the brows of the 8amers. When it is their turn and the master gives them the promised fee, the flip out at the master. You hosed me! they say. I was here all day, picking your stupid grapes under the stupid sun! And now, this!

And the master says: But I gave you exactly what I promised you.

The 8amers are doing something totally human and totally understandable here. They are saying: I can’t enjoy the thing promised to me unless those who are less deserving than me get less. It’s not fair.

I can’t enjoy heaven unless those who lived in a way I don’t like are kept out. It’s not fair.

And what does the master say to our It’s not fair?

She says: You’re right. Here’s your hundred and fifty bucks.

It is exasperating when God behaves like this. This is either the worst news or the best news that there is. I’m not sure which.

Here’s the second problem: If the 5pmers are getting a hundred and fifty bucks, if the adulterer and the murderer and the most selfish rich person in the world are getting into heaven – if works righteousness doesn’t work – then what’s the point of all of my efforts? Why am I in church right now? I could be reading the New York Times or sleeping or eating eggs benedict. Why should I be generous or kind or loving when, like the Prodigal Son, God is going to welcome me home no matter what?

Let’s stop for a second and do a thought experiment. Imagine the most loving person whom you have ever known. That might be the person sitting beside you right now, it might be someone far away, it might be someone whom you knew long ago, someone who is now in heaven. You receive a card telling you that this person’s birthday is coming up and that you are invited to their party. You have an opportunity to attend and to give them a present.

Now imagine that I run into you while you are looking for that person’s present. You tell me what you are doing. And so I ask you a question:

If this person is as loving as you say, then they are going to love you no matter what. So why are you bothering to get them a present, why are you wasting your time going to their party when they are going to love you even if you don’t?

Friends, I think we all know that question is absurd. I don’t give the one I love a present or spend time with them in the hopes of buying something from them. This is not a transaction. I give them a gift because the gift is a symbol, it is an outward and visible sign of the love between us, because giving them a gift brings me joy, because it somehow transforms me.

When we freely choose to say yes to discipleship, we don’t show up in church because God needs us to show up in church, we don’t give glory to God because God needs our glory, we don’t serve the Lord because the Lord needs our service. We do these things – and we are at or beyond the limits of language here – because it’s what deep freedom looks like. Remember the vision in Revelation. Heaven looks like everyone gathered around the throne of the lamb, freely and joyously offering their praise.

My guess is that Luther tripped so hard over James because he accidentally read James’ intention backwards. When James says Faith without works is dead, he doesn’t mean, Do the works and then you’ll have faith. He means, When you have faith, you will automatically choose to do works, joyfully and freely. To put that another way, James is not saying:

You do good things: therefore you know that God loves you.

James is saying:

You know that God loves you: therefore you do good things.

He means that a living faith cannot help but invite us into loving service.

We are reading James on the very day that we are welcoming new members into the church. Avril Johnson would say that is not a coincidence. Here is James’ admonition against being excited and super welcoming when one of those members looks rich. And kind of indifferent when they don’t. James’ letter is almost 2000 years old but it could have been written last week.

This is real.

I am part of the team that administrates the budget at Grace, part of the team that is responsible for keeping then lights on and the rain out. And it is a terrible temptation to look at a new member and say:

That person looks like a solid pledger – I better make sure we do a good job of welcoming them. Unlike that other person.

James says: Don’t you do that. James says: Share the love of God with the same abandon that it has been shared with you. Share the unfair love of God, the love that is not and never was a transaction, with everyone, even if they can’t pay you back, maybe especially if they can’t pay you back.

I am not saying that pledging doesn’t matter. It does. What I am saying is that we pledge not in the hopes of making God love us but because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We go to church not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We serve the Lord – however imperfectly – not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy.

Maybe we could flip James’ statement around. Maybe Martin Luther would like it that way better. Instead of saying Faith without works is dead, maybe we could say:

When you have a living faith, you will do works that are full of joy, full of freedom, full of love, hull of justice, full of the Kingdom of God.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

 

On Friday morning, I flew to Spokane to officiate at the wedding of our friends Lisa and Peter. Lisa is a young university professor, Peter a young doctor. And they share a deep enthusiasm for life, for friends, for family. It is a joy to be around them.

One of the privileges of officiating at a wedding is that you tend to get invited to the rehearsal dinner, to an event that is geared towards the closest of friends and family. Peter and Lisa’s rehearsal dinner took place on the rooftop patio of a restaurant downtown. A guitarist whom they know from a local farmer’s market was playing. And the sunset was a spectacular medley of reds and pinks, the sort of sky that would push the limits of credulity if you saw it in a painting. It was perfect. Or it was perfect until a raft of ominous dark clouds rolled in and it began to rain. Spokane rarely drizzles for hours on end the way that Portland does: it rains – hard – and then it gets it over with. So we had the choice of getting inside or getting soaked.

We got inside, sheltering in a tiny conference room beside the rooftop. And there a different kind of perfection happened. Because Peter and Lisa asked for our attention. And then they began to tell all of their gathered friends, one by one, what each of them had taught them about love. It was a moment that probably wouldn’t have worked in the spaciousness of the patio outside. The cramped, awkward hiding-from-the-rainedness of, well, that upper room somehow allowed for intimacy, for truth-telling. Peter and Lisa went around speaking to and of each person: you taught me of persistence in love; you taught me that love is never complete, that it is an ongoing project; you taught me about loving by being fully present.

The moment was nothing like what they had planned. And it was perfect.

There were more than a few tears.

Today we encounter Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. And as happens more and more often the great city draws nearer, Jesus is being followed by a crowd.

Jesus turns to the crowd. And it’s pretty clear that, much as in modern English, the Gospel of Luke is using “turn” in two overlapping senses.  The first is the literal or the descriptive: Jesus stops going the direction that he is walking and pivots one hundred and eighty degrees in order to speak. And the second is the figurative: Jesus turns on the crowd the way that certain breeds of dogs can turn on you, so that you are suddenly standing on a table while a snarling animal tries to tear at your ankles.

Jesus’ words are startling, both in their harshness and also in what we might call their scattered rapidity: he leaps from metaphor to aphorism to mini-parable, so that he is now talking about towers and now talking about armies and now talking about hating your family and, yes, even life itself. It’s not hard to imagine him red in the face and shouting, perhaps even crying, as he berates the crowd.

There are at least two well-worn strategies available to the Christian when Jesus talks like this. The first, and perhaps most common, is to simply ignore him: I don’t like Angry Jesus, so let’s just move on to something more positive. My guess is that, in all of the years that people have rendered a favourite scriptural passage in calligraphy or in needlework or, these days, in tattoos, almost no one has chosen to preserve the words, “Unless you hate life itself, you cannot be my disciple.”

The second strategy for dealing with words like these from Jesus to assume that he is speaking hyperbolically, that he is exaggerating for effect. And this strategy is more intellectually and theologically defensible, it takes scripture more seriously than ignoring it. Hyperbole is absolutely part of Jesus’ toolkit (remember when he tells us to pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands if they offend us – that is full-on hyperbole). This strategy says that we should understand “hating” and “taking up the cross” using the same sort of lens that we use when someone tells us that his friend was so upset that he “just exploded.” We generally don’t say, “That’s terrible. How did they clean up all of your friend’s pieces?”

Today, however, I would like to neither ignore nor to assume hyperbole. Rather, I’d like to assume with you that Jesus is quite serious when he speaks of hating father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, yes, and even life itself. And I’d like to do that by zooming out and then zooming in on this passage. In other words, I’d like to look at where this passage sits within the wider Gospel of Luke – zooming out – and I’d like to focus on its final sentence – zooming in.

Zooming out. This tumultuous interaction with the crowd comes directly after the reading that we heard last week, in which Jesus’ tells his rich host that, next time he throws a party, he is to invite the poor and the marginalised instead of people who have the wealth and the social capital to reciprocate his invitation. As we talked about last Sunday, Jesus at the party is teaching about hospitality and humility, about radical welcome, about opening your heart.

What comes next in the Gospel of Luke (although we won’t hear it in church next week – the architects of this passage chose to save this jewel for Lent) is one of the most beloved and famous stories in all of scripture, it is the one that we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus’ harsh admonition to the crowd on the road, in other words, comes sandwiched within the context of two passages in which Jesus calls us to transform and grow our relationship to our neighbour, in which Jesus calls us to transform and grow our understanding of the bonds between family members, in which Jesus calls to transform and grow our understanding of love.

It is within the context of these stories of amazing, wondrous, impossibly generous, topsy-turvey, almost reckless love that Jesus teaches the crowd about hate.

Zooming in. Jesus’ final sentence begins with the word “therefore.” And we reasonably deduce that the words which follow represent a summation of what he has just said. Even though it comes at the end, this final sentence is what your Grade 10 English teacher would call your thesis statement: it is the sentence that explains what your overarching argument looks like.

Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.

Paul Nuechterlein argues that, when moving this passage from Greek into English, there is equally defensible way of translating this sentence, one that substitutes verb for noun. Nuechterlein suggests that Jesus might be saying:

Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessing.

Suddenly, this statement is not limited to the realm of “stuff,” of possessions, of things. Following Jesus is not simply a matter of giving up your flat screen TV and your car and your bank account (actually I probably shouldn’t be using the modifier “simply”: for most of us, there would be nothing simple about the idea of ceasing to have belongings). Following Jesus is about giving up a possessive way of being in the world. It is about loving in a fashion that in no way resembles a contract; about loving – like the Dad in the Prodigal Son – in spite of unfairness, in spite of betrayal, in spite of being hurt; about loving – like the banquet host who invites people who can’t invite him back – without any guarantee of getting anything in return; about loving while renouncing the possibility that you own what you love.

I’ve heard it said that there are certain aboriginal people who, when speaking of those of us who live in the privilege of the First World, call us People of Closed Hands. We are people who clutch onto our possessions, onto our friends, onto our very lives. I suspect that this closed-handedness is what Jesus is getting at when he uses this startling word hate. When he says hate your Mom and Dad and Brother and Sister and Wife and Child, I suspect that what he means is let them go, stop trying to own them, stop your possessing, so that they are free to love you if they want to. I suspect he means the same thing about hating your life. He means releasing our grip on our lives, stop acting like they a possession that we can own and control.

I began with a story from my trip to Spokane, a story about open-handed love. And I think that is where I shall end as well. During my visit, I stayed with my friend Jenny. Jenny, who is the wake of a big loss: her beloved friend, Pam, died way too young. And Jenny is trying to reconcile herself to this loss, to figure out what life will look like now. In the time since Pam’s death, Jenny has connected with a number of other people who also had close relationships with Pam. And in doing so, Jenny has learned that Pam loved, and was loved by, way more people than she had ever guessed.

In light of this new knowledge, Jenny realised that she was faced with a choice. She could be angry about Pam’s many friendships, she could say, “But I thought that she was my special friend. But it turns out she was friends with everyone.” She could understand the breadth of Pam’s love as a betrayal. But Jenny chose – is choosing – to do something different. She is choosing to see Pam’s many friendships as evidence that her friend was even more extraordinary than she thought, even more generous and kind than she thought. She is choosing to receive this knowledge of her departed friend as a gift.

Stop all of your possessing. Let go. Let go, Jesus tells us, of the grip that we have on our stuff on our friends on our family and the world and our lives. Let go and discover, that just maybe, when we hold our hands open, God will place in them freedom and joy beyond our imagining.

The Surprise Truth + Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm 19

James 3:1-12

Mark 8:27-38

 

I’ve been watching a number of performances lately by the magicians Penn and Teller. I was fan of theirs back when I was in high school and, thanks to YouTube, I am rediscovering them now. I suppose that I am drawn to Penn and Teller because of the way that beauty and mystery suffuse their work (beauty and mystery are a huge part of the reason that I am an Episcopalian). And I am drawn to this duo as well because of their abiding commitment to telling the truth and, indeed, to pushing the limits how much truth they can safely tell onstage.

A number of years ago, for instance, the two of them did that famous and somewhat gruesome trick in which a person (in this case, Teller) steps into a tall box and then the other magician slice apart the big box into smaller boxes, the box with the head being placed over here, the box with the hands over here, and so on. Periodically, Penn, standing on the outside, would open the door on the front of a given box and reveal Teller’s waving hands or his feet wiggling or his head will smiling and nodding. The variable that Penn and Teller introduced was to do the trick a second time, this time with all of the doors taken off their hinges and the front wall of the stage removed, so that the audience could see how Teller moved from one box to another, how he created the illusion of being cut apart.[i]

More recently, Penn and Teller created a trick with a nail gun – one of those highly useful and entirely terrifying devices used to frame houses, a device that can deposit a nail into a post with a single alarming, ka-chunk. Penn began the trick by explaining that he had removed some of the nails from the belt that feeds the gun and that he had memorised the entirely random order in which he had done so. And then he proceeded to take turns driving nails into the table before him – ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk – and then shooting blanks – click, click – into his hand. Penn kept this up for quite a while, allowing the squeamish horror in the audience to build – ka-chunk, click, click, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, click, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk – before he let them off the hook. He told them that he and Teller believe that actually doing dangerous things on stage is immoral. He reminded the audience that they were watching a trick, an illusion.

He told them the truth.[ii]

Here’s the extraordinary thing: these moments of truth-telling – the doors off the boxes, the admission that there is actually no danger that Penn will drive a nail through his hand – they don’t wreck the act. To the contrary, in a way that I can’t entirely name, the unexpected appearance of the truth actually intensifies the beauty and the mystery of what we are witnessing.

These past few weeks, as I have watched Penn and Teller surprise their audience with the truth in such a way as to both throw them off balance and also to invite them ever deeper them into wonder, I thought to myself: Wait a minute, that’s what Jesus does. He is constantly startling us with the truth. He is constantly revealing the unexpected truth with the goal of inviting us into joy and freedom and wonder and possibility.

We are right at the middle of the Gospel of Mark, at what we might call its hinge point. The first half of Mark is devoted to introducing us to Jesus and his friends: in Mark’s first seven chapters, we learn that Jesus has authority, that he is the bearer of the Kingdom of God, and then we watch and listen as he imparts wisdom to his disciples, as he trains them.[iii] The second half, beginning with Chapter Eight, beginning right now, focuses on Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and towards the cross.

Up until this moment in Mark, Jesus has taught his friends through parables and through what we might call parabolic actions. The Feeding of the 5,000, for instance, is a parabolic action, it is both a meal and a symbol: like the Eucharist, the two fish and the five loaves are something that you eat and they are also a symbol that points towards God’s Kingdom. Via these stories and actions, Jesus has invited us to wonder with him about the God whom he calls Father.

Jesus’ parables and parabolic actions carry deep and profound truth. But – and if you have ever found yourself flummoxed by a parable, you will know this – Jesus also structures them in such a way as to make them into pretty hard work for his students, for you and for me. Parables and parabolic actions are glorious, but they are rarely easy. They are multi-layered and beautiful and confusing. In their surprise endings, they have a remarkable amount in common with magic tricks.

In this passage, Jesus speaks with startling directness. Jesus tears the doors of the boxes, he removes the covering from the front of the stage. He shows us the absolute, unvarnished truth. He says to his disciples:

I must be rejected, and suffer, and be killed.

And Peter responds: Lord! Stop talking like that!

Now, there is a temptation for me, and maybe for you as well, to roll our eyes at Peter at moments such as this. Much like the time when Peter wants to build the tents after the transfiguration, much like the time when he denies Jesus three times, here is one of those occasions when Peter just doesn’t get it. Jesus gives Peter the uncommon gift of stripping away the veneer that is covering the truth. And Peter shuts him down, he wants to cover the truth up again, he wants to put the veneer back in place. Peter, well, just doesn’t understand what Jesus’ mission looks like, he just doesn’t understand what the Gospel looks like.

I hope that we resist the temptation to think of Peter that way. Because I’d like to suggest that Peter’s instinct to look away from a hard truth, to prefer in its place an easy and well-intentioned lie, is something that exists within all of us. When a loved one wants to talk about her will or her funeral and we shut her down by saying, “Oh Mom, you’ll outlive all of us,” we’re behaving like Peter. When our spouse our partner wants to talk about his pain and his longings and we deflect his words with jokes or arguments or silence, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to minimise a big loss or big injustice or big hurt by racing to find silver linings, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to bury grief by insisting on finding closure, we’re behaving like Peter. When we try to the Gospel into an exercise in prosperity and relentless optimism, so that following Jesus is about hopping from one success to another to another, we’re behaving like Peter.

We all behave like Peter.

The irony of our behaviour is that, while we engage in this truth avoidance in order to spare ourselves and our loved ones hurt, our avoidance costs us way more than the truth does, it hurts so much more than the truth does. There are few scenes harder to watch than the one in the hospice room in which no one has ever named out loud the reality that the person lying in the bed is dying. That person is left with the disorienting sense that her reality is unnamed and unheard, her loved ones are deprived of the privilege of saying thank you and goodbye and I love you. The conversation is trapped in the realm of the trivial. And when death does come, it comes to the survivors as a devastating surprise. Our refusal to name the truth vastly magnifies our loss and it vastly magnifies our grief.

I wonder. I wonder if one of the reasons that Jesus responds speaks of his dying so directly, and one of the reasons that he responds to Peter with such intensity when Peter tries to stop him from talking – Get behind me, Satan! – is that Jesus realises that needs to shock Peter into paying attention. Good teachers don’t reach for this tactic often, but they recognise that it is sometimes necessary, they recognise that once in a blue moon you need to yell out truth. If wonder if Jesus yells in order to snap Peter out of his reverie, to snap us out our of our reverie, to confront us with reality, to tear away veneer, to name the truth.

The hard truth is that the Son of Man, indeed, must die. We can debate about whether or not there is a theological reason that he must die, and a lot of ink has been spilled doing just that. But there is no question that there is an anthropological reason that he must die. To confront and defy and mock empire, as Jesus is doing: well, that is to follow your conscience towards the cross. Two thousand years ago and now, empire will not tolerate confrontation and defiance and mockery. It will respond to these things with the most brutal kind of violence that it can muster.

Naming a hard truth doesn’t make that truth stop being sad. It doesn’t make that truth stop being awful. But it does allow say and do the things that we need to, it allows us to wrestle with the truth, it does allow us to engage with that truth in a deliberate way, a way that sometimes leads to transformation. It allows the possibility that the road to the cross might also be the road to Easter.

So, next you have the opportunity – and some of you will have the opportunity on this very day – Go. Go back to the hospice room and say what you are called to say. Go back to your partner and name the hurt that hangs between you. Go back to your grief and weep, weep until your chest heaves. Go back to Jesus and remember that, notwithstanding all of the joy that comes with being in his presence, following him always leads to the cross.

Go back. And maybe, maybe be surprised that, in the midst of all of this hurt, the truth leads you into beauty and mystery, the truth leads you into joy, the truth leads you beyond the cross and into resurrection.

 

[i] Evidently I should check YouTube before referring to a given trick! The boxes are not doorless – but they are transparent.

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVfbn3Go-M8

[iii] This structure for the first seven chapters of Mark is taken from Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson’s Introduction to the New Testament.