Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Readings for Proper 19 (24) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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Proper 19B/Ordinary 24B/Pentecost 17 September, 2006 Textweek

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We’ve got that lovely drama between Jesus and Peter in the gospel today and the readings that lead up to it give us an opportunity to watch that drama unfold. It’s quite important always to set the readings into a context whereby we can hear them – bring them into today’s world and into our world. I thought we might have a look at the unfolding drama as perceived by the marketing industry, those that provide us with junk mail. You see, marketing is quite an art and one of the ways that people involved in marketing seek to apply their art is to discover what is it that people want and then to create a message that meets that want. So this is what I received this week – you probably got one - this is the gospel of the world. It specifically addresses - it’s ‘especially for your household’ so I assume that’s either for me or perhaps even for the church. ‘Watch the drama unfold’ and then it proceeds to tell me: all I need to do to get started is to pay $36.95 - cheaper than forfeiting one’s life, anyway!

Now once I’ve got started, then I get this choice: ‘My Sport – watching sport doesn’t get any better than this’, or ‘My World’ – I can be informed, enlightened, and entertained, or I can go for ‘My Movies’ – this has got dedicated channels! Or I can choose the contemporary option, ‘My Escape’ – and in that one I can taste the good life with fabulous food shows; or, and this one probably appeals to me, I can select ‘My Playtime’ and fire up my imagination, plus – I don’t know what these are but they must be good – ‘plus live events for the ultimate playtime’! Now that’s not bad is it? That is stunningly tempting, stunningly tempting.

No wonder, no wonder ‘the voice cries out in the street’! No wonder we hear, ‘The voice cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city…’ The voice of wisdom cries out and my guess is there’s a part of each of us that aches with exactly the same cry – you know, you get those moments – moments, sometimes they’re decades – whereby you just want to tear your hair out because of the way that the world is around you. You read these, the false prophesies, and you just think, ‘just don’t want to be here, I want something different, I can feel deep within that there is something different.’
The delight and the power of being a people of free will is that we, alongside all of humanity, can choose our tomorrows. We can choose - which is why marketing people know that - we’re not forced into anything. Just get started and then choose your options, choose where the journey will take you. The delight of free will though, is a two edged sword. Verse 29 says ‘Because they did not choose the fear of the LORD, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own desires’.

We, each of us, are participants in the unfolding of tomorrow and the message that we hear in the readings today isn’t ‘you must do this’, it is ‘make a choice’: choose the direction in which you would move. If we were to do a quick poll, even here, and say ‘what is it that you fear, what is the fear here in our culture today’, we would come up with many answers. Terrorism would probably get a guernsey, an overwhelming influx of boat people would probably get a guernsey, interest rates would probably get one, petrol prices would probably get one; a finals defeat might even get one. I doubt fear of the Lord would even register; I doubt it would even register, and yet we are participants in the unfolding of tomorrow. It’s not going to occur without us, it’s not going to happen and then invite us to be a part of it, we will actually unfold it. The dawning of tomorrow is not caused by or created by John Howard, it is not caused by or created by a change of government, a papal encyclical, an archbishop’s back-flip or an academic conference. None of those create tomorrow. The dawning of a new day is shaped by that in which we invest our fear. That’s what shapes tomorrow.

The letter of James – it’s a short letter, it’s a worthwhile thing just to read it through in one sitting. It’s a sobering letter in some places but it’s also quite an affirming letter. Today’s excerpt is a good illustration of its depth: James talks about a rudder and how it steers a ship and then uses the analogy to speak about the tongue. ‘So also the tongue is a small member’ and when we read what James has got to say, there’s almost a warning there and on the first reading my thought was it’s actually a warning that we’ve got to be careful what we say, but it could equally be a warning that we should be aware of what it is that we listen to. Because we are guided by words and we use words to guide others; we are influenced by the messages we receive; we are shaped by that which we choose to listen to.

The gospel - it’s as if all of that thought is now drawn together into the drama of Jesus and Peter and the crowd. And it’s all distilled into a very simple question: ‘who do you say that I am?’ And that question and similar questions like it – it’s not a one-off, they occur throughout the gospel - they’re not there to record a historical dialogue; it doesn’t appear in the gospel because ‘that’s what Jesus said and that’s what Peter said and they were both stunningly important people so we’ll record it’. The purpose of the dialogue between teacher and disciple is to engage us, to engage us, and to enable us to encounter that same dialogue. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It’s interesting: to know somebody else we must know ourselves. To engage a question we will either have or we will discover a desire and an orientation within that points toward an answer. When Jesus asks, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ he’s questioning our sense of being. He questions our becoming – he doesn’t want to know who he is, the question is actually for us.

If you see the gospel reading now as a drama and just break it down as if you were going to stage direct it, break down the parts of it, what we find is initially that question is asked generally: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ and the response to that is a range of possibilities – John the Baptist, Elijah. It’s a range of possibilities, it’s My Sport, My World, My Movies, My Escape, or My Playtime – that’s the general ask. Then the question is brought specifically down: ‘But who do you say, who do you say that I am?’ The response from Peter is one of wisdom, insight and truth: ‘You are the Messiah’.

Now one would expect in this drama – he’s got the right answer – you would expect an affirming, ‘Good on you Peter, yep, that’s right, I am the Messiah’. Instead what we have in verse 30, ‘he sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him’:
‘Who do you say that I am?’
‘You’re the Messiah.’
‘Ssh, shut up, don’t tell anybody. For God’s sake don’t start a church!’
That’s what he’s saying, it’s exactly what he’s saying. Why? Because the question is not about him, it’s about us. It is about us – ‘don’t go off now you’ve worked it out, I’m the Messiah. Don’t put a building up and tell everybody that you’ve got the answer.’ Because the question is not a question about Jesus, it’s a question about us – ‘who do you say that I am?’

He then teaches – now we’ve had the reading from James, which already tells us that not everyone can teach – but Jesus now teaches and he teaches the process of becoming, which will include suffering, it will include rejection by both the political and the religious leaders, it will include dying and it will include rising to new birth, to new life, to a new world order. You can glimpse dying and rising in a stunningly pain-free way – go away on holiday. When you go away on holiday you’re in a completely new place, new culture, new surroundings, you feel somewhat different. Now the reverse of that process works as well: if you can find that place whereby you are different within, then everything around you changes. You see, who we are and who we become are actually creative of the world around us. Peter hears the teaching, he hears it, he hears it very clearly, pulls Jesus off to one side and says, ‘This is too difficult. Nah.’ He clutches on to his junk mail and says, ‘Why do I want to go down the path of suffering, rejection, dying and rising, when … if I select My Playtime I can have live events for the ultimate playtime?’

In verse 34, all of that teaching is clarified once again, and it’s interesting because it begins with, ‘He called the crowd with his disciples’. We’ve had the dialogue with Peter - that is the dialogue that the divine has with each of us. There is a divine dialogue that is the same, and it is there spoken with and to all people everywhere, the crowds and the disciples, he calls together. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Indeed what can they give in return for their lives? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.’

He called the crowds with his disciples and said ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves’: it is an opportunity for us to create a tomorrow, a tomorrow that’s not based on escape, and it’s also not about watching tomorrow unfold in an electronic box. There’s an opportunity for us to participate in the creation of tomorrow.

It is our choice; we are actually called to know ourselves as Christ knows us. ‘Who do you say that I am’ is a question we could ask of each other, we can ask it of ourselves; within us there is a finding of the divine. It is a place without fear because it is a place always orientated towards life. We tend to choose other fears because our orientation is towards death - three score years and ten and if you’re good four score and if you’re in good health, five score. That’s our orientation - with that orientation, here’s the gospel [the junk mail]. The other orientation is to go beyond that, to seek life, and the only fear that we have then is a fear of the Lord. What a delightful thing to fear - fear of the Lord.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris