Sunday, August 28, 2005

Confession II (Proper 17A)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
August 28, 2005 (Proper 17A)
at Church of the Mediator, Chicago, IL

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

As I mentioned last week, the story in our gospel lesson has been divided up into two halves. Considered from one perspective, that’s great, because it lets us spend a little longer with a very rich story. But looked at in another way, it’s too bad because we might miss connections between the two halves.

Last week we heard Peter confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And he was right, but he couldn’t know all that that would mean, because Jesus is a surprising savior.

This week, Jesus continues to meet with his disciples on the down low in a remote place, and he explains his mission to them. As the details unfold, I imagine that the disciples may have felt rather like Alice through the Looking-Glass, having fallen into a world where everything seems absurd.

They expected a messiah who would triumph militarily, who would kick out the Roman oppressors and who would restore God’s presence to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was the kind of savior you could get behind and really root for as he cleaned house. But Jesus explains that wasn’t how it was going to go down. Instead, he would go up to Jerusalem where he will suffer at the hands of his countrymen, and be killed by the Romans, and on the third day be raised. As Alice said, “Curiouser and curiouser.”

Suddenly the world seemed upside down to the disciples. This is the Messiah? He’ll be hated by those he is meant to deliver? He’ll be killed by those he is supposed to vanquish? And what’s this about being raised on the third day? Just how far down does this rabbit hole go, anyway?

We can understand the disciples’ perplexity, I think. So much of our world is oriented towards conventional success: money, fame, power over others. It’s hard to imagine the world any differently. For example if a Fortune 500 company is looking for a CEO, they would probably not take seriously an application from someone despised by his peers, who appeared to fail at the task set before him, and who gave a vague promise about “being raised.” On conventional lines, Jesus would be drummed out of the business world as a failure.

I don’t mean to single out the business world, here. We haven’t done much better in the church, and we of all people ought to know better. If you survey the scene right now, it becomes clear that we believe that bigger is better, as more and more big box worship centers are raised alongside highways, awash in a sea of parking. These places boast about the number of people who attend, the number of services they have throughout the week, the size of their budgets, and how quickly their trained traffic squad can empty their parking lots at peak hours. But these are conventional boasts of conventional success. They’re not, at bottom, any different from Amway, AARP, or any other number of organizations which are worthwhile and sometimes important and not to be confused with the Kingdom of God.

By calling these marks of success into question, I don’t mean that we endorse futility. In the Kingdom we have different standards by which we success and failure, and they’re not the conventional marks of success.

And why would they be? After all, Jesus is unconventional, and so is his Kingdom—so much so that it might seem quite opposed to our usual way of doing business. For example, Peter in his usual exuberance rebukes Jesus: “No, wait, Jesus – if you’re the Messiah, it doesn’t happen like that!” In response to this Jesus rebukes Peter even more harshly. But where in our society we would expect Jesus to echo the words of Donald Trump “Peter, you’re fired!”, Jesus says no such thing. Peter is set right; he remains a disciple; and Jesus doesn’t rescind the promises he made to Peter because of his failure. Peter, the other disciples – and even we ourselves – are included in this kingdom not because we’ve somehow got it all together and are prime specimens of our species. No, it’s because of God’s grace, and the depths of God’s love.

And where we see God’s love and grace most clearly, and where we see the nature of power in Jesus’ unconventional kingdom, is in the cross. There, we believe that God suffered the worst that we could do, so that through Christ we might become the best that we might be. It’s there that Jesus willingly suffered and embraced what seemed like failure for the good of the world.

As it turns out, in Jesus’ teaching, cross-bearing isn’t a spectator sport, it’s participatory. He says that his followers, like him, pick up their crosses. Some have taken this to mean that suffering and pain are good things and we ought to welcome them, but I think that’s mistaken. It’s not a matter of hurting enough, but of single-mindedly pursuing the salvation, the health, the good for the world around us, so much so that we end up denying ourselves, and maybe even suffering when we run up against those who like the status quo.

Clarence Jordan knew about this. You might not recognize the name, but he was brilliant: he had two Ph.D.s, one in Agriculture and another for good measure in Classical Languages. He was so gifted it was said he could have done whatever he chose: he chose to serve the poor. “ In the 1940s, he founded a farm in Americus, Georgia, and called it Koinonia Farm. It was a community for poor whites and poor blacks. As you might guess, such an idea did not go over well in the Deep South of the '40s…. The town people tried everything to stop Clarence. They tried boycotting him, and slashing workers' tires when they came to town. Over and over, for fourteen years, they tried to stop him.”

Eventually, the Klan had enough of him and came out with guns and torches to put an end to it all. They burned every building to the ground except for his house, which they riddled with bullets.

One of the members of the Klan there that night was a local newspaper reporter, who came out the next day to write a story. He was surprised to find Clarence out in the field, hoeing and planting.

"I heard the awful news," he called to Clarence, "and I came out to do a story on the tragedy of your farm closing." Clarence just kept on hoeing and planting. The reporter kept prodding, kept poking, trying to get a rise from this quietly determined man who seemed to be planting instead of packing his bags. So, finally, the reporter said in a haughty voice, "Well, Dr. Jordan, you got two of them Ph.D.s and you've put fourteen years into this farm, and there's nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you've been?"

Clarence stopped hoeing, turned toward the reporter with his penetrating blue eyes, and said quietly but firmly, "About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don't think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We're staying. Good day." Beginning that day, Clarence and his companions rebuilt Koinonia. The farm is still going strong today. Clarence Jordan knew well what it meant to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

And we all do, to some extent. But I know it can be hard, too. And not every story has a neat, scripted ending. When we feel we see the handwriting on the wall, we are tempted to scramble around and do whatever we can just to survive. That’s when we’re most likely to batten the hatches and just try to hold on and maintain what we’ve got, if we can even do that. It’s just as easy when you feel at the end of your rope to buy into the conventional measures of success and failure as when you are at the top.

But embracing the cross gives us a different standard, and challenges us to realign our thinking. The question for us is not how big or small are we? The question is not are we going to live or die – friends, everything dies, eventually. The question is what difference does it make to the world around us that we are here, now? How do we reflect to those around us the deep love and transforming grace of the triune God, in whatever time we’ve got? How are we living faithful to the upside-down kingdom of the unconventional savior Jesus? Because the secret is this: this upside-down kingdom isn’t Alice’s fictional Wonderland at all – but the very real world that we all live in and that God loves. Amen.

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Blogger nope said...


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