Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon: B 16 Pentecost 19 Proper 16 September 2012

Prv 1:20-33; Wis 7:26-8.1; Jms 3: 1-12; MARK 8: 27-38

May it be your will, Holy and Eternal One, God of our forebears, that you renew for us a good and sweet year.

In every generation Wisdom enlighten holy souls, making them friends of God, making them prophets. For God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with Wisdom, (from today’s Canticle.) With such thinking, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” After a series of wild wrong and safe guesses, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Then Jesus orders them to tell no one. His order for secrecy is in Mark’s Gospel and is somewhat puzzling. If everyone were told Jesus was Messiah, it would have both made it difficult for Jesus to continue preaching, healing, and working to bring about God’s reign, as well as to deal with people who didn’t believe him and were trying to hinder, thwart, and otherwise stop him. Supporters and opponents would, each and both, have made Jesus’s work difficult to continue, so Mark says he urged those around him to secrecy. We’re used to reading and hearing Peter’s declaration of Jesus’s identity in Epiphany, Lent, and sometimes in late summer, but what Jesus goes on to say, inset into today’s readings, to teach, and declare are more the today’s focus.

“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 life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed what can they give in return for their life?” Doesn’t this echo the Wisdom thinking of beginning?

We’re now in the part of the liturgical year where we go towards its end. The liturgical year is cyclical and sketches a path towards end times before a new year begins. We’re there this morning. Our challenges to sort out will help us confront ourselves and our own life choices, before we’re offered the chance to recommit to a new life, our own reconsidered, renewed, redeemed life in Christ. The pattern of reconciliation and repentance at the beginning of a new venture, a new start, and a new year makes sense, and in our several religions we do that in different ways.

Christians prepare themselves for new beginnings twice, if not three times, a year. The readings towards the end of Pentecost become increasingly dire and threatening, so when finally we arrive at the Sunday before Advent, Christ the King, we’ll understand what the choices are: an increasingly harsh life, an ending and defeat by sin—or the new church year beginning and preparing to greet the baby, the Savior, the Messiah. We choose to wait with joy, curiosity, and hope, singing, “Come, thou long expected Jesus” imploring, “from our fears and sins release us.” We prepare by naming and regretting our fears and sins, and praying for release from them, longing “eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone.”

Again before Easter we go through a similar process of self-awareness, self-examination, repentance, and preparation. We want to be shriven of our sins so that we’ll be awake, alert, and as free of sin as possible to greet the Risen Lord. We want to make ourselves worthy of the promises of Christ so that we can share in his Resurrection. In a small way, when we make New Year’s resolutions, we’re doing a secular, but sometimes more intentional, specific process. Gyms are always most busy at the beginning of the school year and in early January. Those fresh starts, exercise resolutions, new courses and education, dieting, and other forms of doing more, different, other, better, take place at these obvious beginning times.

Judaism does the same thing but in a different order. Today, actually this evening, the Jewish New Year begins, Year 5773. Such events begin at sunset the night before, so that the preparation includes the dinner beforehand, a night’s sleep, and waking up into the New Year with a holiday service of thanksgiving. Interestingly the preparation for New Year begins on the Saturday, not right before the holiday date, to get ready. The generally observed preparation began not last night, but on a week ago’s Saturday. Then people change the liturgical color to white for the holiday to come. Judaism puts margins, or clear lines in time, on the calendar, to mark off preparation before an actual beginning. The Sabbath begins, not at dawn, but the sundown before, as do these holidays. Also interesting too, is that the dealing with one’s own sorting through errors, failures, disappointments, and outright sins happens after the New Year. Jews celebrate their fresh start and then realize that there’s leftover stuff to be coped with and managed. It’s as though the New Year can’t really begin until the soul’s scouring happens, and it doesn’t happen before the celebration but in recognition of that celebration. People acknowledge that they’ve been given a wonderful new start, a matchless gift of a blessed new beginning, and they’re not comfortable with it. They don’t, we don’t, feel we’ve earned it. We can’t really get engaged with the pace of the new year, its realities, expectations, opportunities, and work—its hope and curiosity—until, oops, we go back and wash up, clean up, and deal with the past.

In AA, Step 1 is to acknowledge being at the beginning, being powerless over alcohol. It is not however until Steps 4, 5, and 6 that the self-analysis happens, making a searching and fearless moral inventory, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, and being ready to have God remove these defects of character. It’s not until Step 12 than people begin to think about and practice evangelism on these principles in all people’s affairs. That occurs after both a considerable process and time period. AA models itself on spiritual and religious time and patterns. This order makes sense to me. Often the shiny New Year or other new opportunity can’t really be prepared for. It’s in beginning it, we recognize the need to go back and clean up first. Even when we clean up putting on fresh or new clothes, it’s wearing something shiny and new that we want to go back and make the rest of us newer, to live into and to honor the newness.

Jesus is talking about this process of reflection and repentance. He is not discoursing on: we should each find the savage instrument of ancient death by torture and public humiliation, his cross. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed what can they give in return for their life?” AA has adapted this process of self-evaluation. To save one’s life, is to lose it in AA language is a part of the process. Self-awareness, honesty, abandoning a self-serving, self-destructive pattern, one that has shaped a whole life, must be walked away from, to find new life. A person loses familiar life patterns, and gains new life-promoting ones. To lose one’s life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel and find a saved life is complex. We all resist change and new opportunities, because every newness take losing an oldness. We all prefer to cling to our familiar self-images and to go along, to get along. Jesus goes on to observe, “What can we give in return for our life?” Not much, not much indeed, but we are repeatedly offered redemption, forgiveness, and a chance to try again. Yet Jesus—or Mark—ends this exhortation, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” This seems out of line with ever-present promises of forgiveness and new beginnings. I believe that this is part of the margin or boundaries around important challenges, challenges, and statements. It’s dramatic, even harsh rhetoric, to emphasize the paradox of saving and losing life. It’s a thick line around that important concept to highlight it, to emphasize it, so we don’t miss the point.

For Jews, part of their beginning, is to give thanks to the Ruler of the Universe, who has granted life, sustained and enabled them to reach this occasion. They sing, “Our hope is not yet lost, the ancient hope to return to the land of our forebears, the city where David encamped.” Our hope is “to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved and free”, to arrive into the presence of Jesus our Risen Lord. For us it’s not “Next Year in Jerusalem,” but “eventually into Paradise with Jesus.” Either way, we begin processes to head to our ultimate goal, and realize we can’t go as we are. We pause to try to get right with God to begin our traveling towards that holy presence. Towards the end of Pentecost, we prefigure end-times, by trying to clean up our act. There is time; our hope is not yet lost, and we bless God for granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion, and anticipating our welcome with Jesus forever: Good News.

© Katharine C. Black 16 Sept 2012 St. John’s, Boston