PROPER 19, B
As he hiked one day alone along a little used trail, a man lost his footing and fell over cliff overhanging an enormous gorge, at the bottom of which lay a rushing river. Arms flung out wildly and feet kicking for any purchase as he plunged towards certain death, the man suddenly found himself grasping a scrubby tree growing against all odds from the sheer cliff face. He looked up and saw only the horizontal cliff face. He could not climb up. He looked down. The roaring river cascaded far below over sharp rocks. The cliff face was unbroken by other trees or outcroppings or handholds. It was a cool and windy day in the off-season. His voice would be lost to the winds if he yelled for help, and no-one would be near to hear it if it happened to carry. He knew he could not hold on much longer. To fall would be to die – crushed on the rocks below.
Then he had an idea, born of desperation. “God!” he yelled.
His own outcry reverberated around him and the wind echoed in his ears, but no other response greeted him.
He had no other options. He yelled again. “God, if you exist, then save me. Save me and I will believe in you, and I will teach others to believe in you.”
His hands began to slip, his arms to tire, and he almost lost his grip entirely when a voice boomed from the heavens, “That’s what they all say when they are in trouble.”
“No, no, God. I am different. Already, I believe in you. Just save me, and I will proclaim your name to the ends of the earth”
“All right. I will save you. Let go of the branch, and you will be saved.”
“Let go? Let go? You don’t understand. I’m too far up. There are no foot holds. Those boulders…”
Silence filled the canyon.
“Yeah. Um. Is there anybody ELSE up there, God?”
(Adapted from The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum and Taking Flight, Anthony De Mello)
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Really? Is there a plan B?
If television and social media bear any relation to the true inclination of society, if the bumper stickers and banners accurately reflect our desires, we cherish the notion of a Jesus that SAVES! Saves us from sin, saves us from death, saves us from our enemies, saves us from…, saves us from all manner of inconvenience. Deny myself? Lose my life? Is that really what I’m signing up for?
What is the point of having a messiah if He isn’t going to help you out now and again?
“Who do you say that I am?”
After a bit of hemming and hawing, Peter blurts it out. Lays in on the line. “You are the messiah.” We consider it now a great confession of faith. Maybe Peter did too, at the time. But he had no idea what he was talking about. You are the messiah. The Hebrew messiah simply means “anointed”. The Greek is Christos. You are the anointed, the messiah, the christ. To the Greeks and Romans of the time, the concept would mean essentially nothing. It was not part of their tradition. To the Jews, the word came laden with meaning. It could refer to an anointed priest – like Aaron, or to a warrior, a judge, a prophet, or a leader set to deliver God’s people from the yoke of oppression they labored beneath. But it could not, would not, under any stretch of any Jewish imagination, refer to someone destined to be murdered in shame and humiliation by the very source of that oppression. No wonder Peter objected. He said the right word – but it doesn’t yet have the meaning it does now in our post-Easter perspective.
As commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes, “Peter says that Jesus is the anointed one — but anointed to do what? Until we’re really clear about that — and I’ll argue that no vocabulary speaks as loudly as actions on this point — the “right” words will carry no meaning or a misleading one.”
She goes on, “It’s a problem we’ve still got as much or more in our world. I can say that Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God,” and if what I mean — and what my life testifies I mean — when I say “God” is “that very powerful being in the sky who’s itching to punish everyone I dislike or find threatening,” my supposedly orthodox confession of Jesus becomes empty at best and oppressive at worst. I can say that Jesus is “my Lord and Savior,” and if my life testifies that Jesus saves me from responsibility to care for my neighbors…and that Jesus’ lordship is a kind of lording it over those perceived as weak or dirty, my confession is a distraction at best”
Who do you say that I am? You are, we are, the Body of Christ. Who do our lives say that He is? We want to cling to the scrubby, unstable tree of security, avoid at all costs the bumps and bruises that come from leaping over the cliff that is life in Christ. Yet, Jesus is quite clear. I will undergo great suffering and humiliation and be killed. Follow me. It wouldn’t do well on a bumper sticker. It has been taken as a basis within Christianity for self-imposed suffering, or justifying or even for imposing the suffering of others.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Self-denial is never just a series of isolated acts of mortification or asceticism. … To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. Once more, all that self denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to him.”
“The necessity of the suffering comes from the way Jesus lives – a life that reaches out to those who are ostracized (Mark 5:1-20), unclean (Mark 5:21-43), or marginalized (Mark 7:24-30).” (Micah D. Kiel, Working Preacher.) Jesus does not offer us safe haven from life’s suffering. He did not take up His cross to ensure we did not have to bear our own. Rather, He took up His cross in order that we might be able to take up our own, that we might join Him in bringing about the Kingdom of God, that we might know goodness, and love, and life within ourselves.
As we journey together away from self, and toward life, I pray not that you walk in my shoes – nor I yours – but that together we walk so close to Rabbi Jesus that we are covered with dust from his sandals. (Neal Rylaarsdam). Amen.