Nobody Puts Jesus in a Corner – Mark 8:27-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 16, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 8:27-38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”

[sermon begins]

Thump-thump-thump-thump.  Sounds of jumping away in a corner are a vivid memory from from Mrs. Gaines 4th grade class.  Mrs. Gaines cut a tall, elegant, utterly intimidating figure with her long, elegant hair flowing down just so and dressed to the nines in her long, elegant skirts.  She kept an eagle eye out for misdeeds and that eye seemed to be in the back of her head.  Her dreaded eye would fall on one of us attempting to get away with something. (Or, in my case simply talking too much with my desk neighbors.)  And, just like that [snap], the thumping began as 4th grade bodies did penance in the corner. Some of our more foolishly courageous classmates would try to thwart the system by not jumping. They’d use one leg to pound the floor without jumping.  I don’t remember anyone ever actually getting away with it though.  It’s this memory, this sound, of jumping in a corner that popped into my head when I read today’s Bible reading.

In my mind’s eye, I first saw Peter jumping in the corner.  He pulls a typical Peter-y move and clearly annoys Jesus. That isn’t a deep insight. You just know it’s bad when the name-calling starts with “Satan.”  Peter’s busted. There’s a simple problem unfolding here.  Jesus has a hard thing to do and he doesn’t need anyone taking him aside and chewing him out.  If Peter was anything like Mrs. Gaines, he would’ve had Jesus jumping in a corner.  And, nobody puts Jesus in a corner.

I’ve been thinking about how we do this very thing; how we pull Jesus aside and try to contain his wild talk about suffering, death, and new life.  The Bible reading gives us some help when Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?”  The people around Jesus give various answers about the word on the street in Caesarea Philippi – John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  Most of these answers would require a resurrection of someone who died for them to be true. So there is an accidental parallel between their answers and Jesus’ claims about the Son of Man rising again. Jesus then asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets closer than the current street gossip with his answer about the Messiah.  This variety of answers about Jesus’ identity is like a snapshot of the Bible’s New Testament.[1]

The 27 books in the New Testament are a conversation much like Jesus’ conversation with his disciples.  Even in the 13 letters attributed to the apostle Paul there are various angles on the Jesus question.  Between the four Gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – each writer forms part of the conversation about Jesus’ question and sometimes the writers disagree with each other or even contradict themselves in the same book! The First Century church apparently wasn’t much different than our own in that regard.  When you talk to people who have spent some time in the New Testament, you’ll hear people claim a favorite Gospel book  (mine is John) or tell you whether or not they like the Apostle Paul (I do but I wish there were things he’d kept to himself).  Along this line, Pastor Ann begins a three-week Adult Sunday School class today called the “Bible for Busy People.”  If you miss this week, come next week.  This class is for you whether you’re a seasoned reader or just starting to get to know the Bible.  It can be tough with Sunday readings like today’s to figure out where they fit in the overall story that the Bible tries to tell much less just the four Gospels. The opinions that we have about our favorite Gospel or the Apostle Paul are connected to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus’ question about who people say he is has a flip-side.  When we say who Jesus is, we also say who we are.  Answering the question of Jesus identity means also having to give voice to our own identity.

Here’s a small example of one way we do this together.  Our worship regularly begins with Confession and Forgiveness.  Before we sing a hymn, before we hear scripture, before a drop of wine is shared, we confess that we’re flawed, that we don’t get things right even when we’re trying, that sometimes we don’t even try, and that we could really use some help loving ourselves and our neighbors – God’s help in particular.  The act of confessing is subversive in a culture that demands best self at the cost of real self.  And it’s pretty powerful to be told that you’re real.  Even in Peter’s tough moment with Jesus, Jesus is telling Peter what’s real.

Real doesn’t mean easy. Real doesn’t pretty things up.  Real means crosses.  Crosses sometimes enter in our lives from the outside in the form of trauma, ill health, death, or disaster.  And crosses sometimes come from the inside in the form of pride, self-sabotage, or addiction – ways we sabotage the good that God has created in us. There are crosses aplenty in our lives without borrowing trouble from other people. It’s also important to say that we may not necessarily be asked by Jesus to go out and suffer some more.

In our confession at the beginning of worship, we tell the truth about our shadows, our pain, and our sin; about where we fall short because we are lost and we’ve forgotten how to care about it. We tell the truth about our crosses that hem us in much like being in a corner and not being about to turn ourselves toward the way out.  Peter makes this kind of move. He pulls Jesus to the side and rebukes him.  We make similar moves all the time – justifying our actions and disguising it as rational thought.

Jesus turns toward the crowd and disciples and calls to them. Bringing more people into the situation and leading Peter out.  Where Peter would isolate, Jesus turns toward other people and shows Peter the way out of the corner he just tried to put Jesus in.  Jesus does the same with us.  Jesus is in the corner with us doing what Jesus came to do which is shine a light into that corner where we disguise our misdeeds as rational thought and ending up hurting ourselves or other people.  In the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we don’t only confess how we’re cornered.  We are told the corresponding truth that Jesus is with us, naming the power of sin, taking its power away, and naming what is real and true and good about who God made us to be and who God calls us to be.  God is not in the sin accounting business. God is in the new life business.  Not a business of best self but rather a recognition of what is real – as much flawed and fragile as we are created good.  Jesus turns to us, calls us by the gospel, shattering the illusion of best life someday while drawing us into real life now.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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[1] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  On Mark 8:27-28 for “Dear Working Preacher.”  September 11, 2018.  www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220

For Les Woodward – A Celebration of Life

Caitlin Trussell on September 14, 2018

You know the kind of laugh that makes you laugh along with it? Even if you missed the joke?! Laughter is contagious. Les’ laugh particularly so.  It’s one of the main things many of you talk about when describing him. Last week at the hospital, soon after Les died, Marianne was telling a story about Les and she said, “Oh, the pen…” She went over to her purse, grabbed the pen, and held it up to push its top. She looked around at all of us, asking if it was too soon, and was immediately assured it wasn’t.  She clicked the pen and out came Les’ laugh.

His laugh was talked about over and over again in a video made by his law firm. In the same video he was quoted answering a question about his greatest accomplishment.  He was most proud of his many decades of marriage with Marianne. They were partners who loved each other’s company, who made each other’s lives of service possible, and often fell asleep laughing at the end of the day. Les’ joy and their joy together is why Marianne chose the readings from the Bible books of Galatians and Psalms.

Listening to Les himself over the last few years and also to his family over the last few weeks included story after story about Les’ joy of life and his service to others even through some significant health challenges – asthma since he was three years old, losing a clavicle bone to cancer in his teen years, and a couple more cancer surgeries as an adult.  The stories also share a common theme about time. As much as Les laughed, he was utterly serious about time.

Being present in the time he had with each person and most especially in the time spent with his family – never missing dinner even if his work continued later at the kitchen table. He also shared the gift of over 40 years of time with the hundreds of acolytes in this church; youth who lit candles, carried Bibles, and lifted the cross in worship.  He called the youth acolytes every Saturday night to remind them of their worship commitment the next day no matter where he was in the world.  Perhaps this focus on time was in part because Les was not expected to live past his 50s.  Every day was truly a gift.

There’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good.  But if Jesus’ death on a cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, or what Les did, it is all about what Jesus does for us.

In the gospel reading, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?  And really, how might God go about getting our attention?  God, at some point, needs to grab us in ways that we might have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms, through people.

In a very real way, God did this through Les. Les lived his life in service to everyone around him, laying his life down day after day in service to others.  When I pray out loud with people, I often say a prayer of thanksgiving for the way God shows God’s love for us through other people.  Les was one such person through whom we experienced a small fraction of the love that God has for us.

And also, in a very real way, God did this through Jesus, who literally laid his life down on a cross in self-sacrifice.  The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross.

Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things.  (If I listed them all, Les might wonder if I was taking your time seriously.)  So here’s just one thing the cross means, it means God knows suffering and grief. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer and grieve.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and now catches death up into God, drawing Les into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Les. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!

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Scripture selections by Les’ family:

John 15:12-13  ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Galatians 5:22-23 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Psalm 16:7-8, 11

7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me. 
8 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

11 You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.