16 September 2012

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost - "Inside-Out Christ"

Mark 8:27-38
27Jesus 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?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”
Welcome to the homestretch of the presidential election of 2012.  It’s a season of big questions and big answers, none, apparently, more important than this:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We will spend billions upon billions of dollars on politics this fall.  Estimates suggest this will be the most expensive election in history (at least until we do it all over again in 2016).  You can’t turn on the TV or even watch a video on YouTube without sitting through commercials telling you how wrong Candidate A is, and why you should vote for Candidate B.  Meanwhile, Candidate B spends his time reminding you what makes America great, why he’s a good example of those American values, and why you should vote for him instead of Candidate A. 
            Now, I know who has my vote in November, and maybe you do, too.  Imagine, though, that you’ve been waiting all your life for your chosen candidate to come around.  And your parents and grandparents died without ever seeing the candidate they hoped they would see.  Imagine that instead of a system of free government, you’re trapped under the thumb of foreign rulers, and you have been for almost a thousand years.  Finally, you think the person you’ve been expecting for generations has arrived – and best of all, you’re in early, before the Iowa primary.  And one afternoon, your candidate turns to you and says, “Here’s the deal:  I’m a dead man.  Sooner or later, I’m going to die at the hands of the people I’m working so hard to save.  You’re going to abandon me, one of you will hand me over to the powers that be, and they’re going to make a public spectacle of my death.  The same thing will happen to you if you stick with me – and I hope with all my heart you’ll stick with me.”  Who wouldn’t want to vote for a candidate like that?
            In the Gospel of Mark, these verses we read this week mark a major turning point.  It’s the first time the word “Messiah” or “Christ” has been used since the very beginning of the gospel.  And it is a LOADED term for Peter and any Jew who believed such a thing about Jesus.  God’s “anointed One” was almost universally assumed to be a figure of great political and cultural power.  God’s victory through the “Messiah” would be marked by the triumphant rise of a free people who would no longer be prisoners to tyranny.  So when the one Peter identifies as “Messiah / Christ / Anointed One” starts talking about betrayal, abuse and crucifixion, the reaction of his disciples is what you’d expect:  they don’t like it one bit.  Put it in our modern context, and there’s one phrase that might sum it up in three words:  “That’s not Presidential.”
This is who we are – and this is the delusion we have about both our Messiah and our presidential candidates.  We want the person we vote for to lift us out of the doldrums we largely created for ourselves, and we want Jesus to be a King or a modern-day President:  powerful, dignified, but most of all, dedicated to changing the world for us.  But no president can save us from ourselves, and Jesus did not come to change the world through power exerted from the outside in.
There’s a Latin phrase we learn in seminary to describe what it is to be human and sinful:  incurvatus in se.  It means “the self turned in upon itself.”  It was first coined by St. Augustine but was expanded on by Luther, then later theologians like Karl Barth worked with it as well.  The basic image is this:  in sinfulness, we turn in upon ourselves, thinking only of our protection and our own needs and desires, turning away from the world around us and hiding from the people around us.  It drives almost every impulse we have as humans and, unfortunately, as members of a church.  Incurvatus in se drives us to resist any challenge to the reality we have constructed for ourselves in our homes, our schools and our communities. Incurvatus in se drives us to base our political decisions on whether or not we’ve got more money in our pockets and who we think is to blame if we don’t.  Incurvatus in se drives us to look for churches the way we look for health clubs:  offer programs we like, help us get a good workout now and then, keep the place clean, and we’ll be happy – even if we only come once a month. Incurvatus in se drives us to bind ourselves up with policies and constitutions so we can protect the institution that is the church.  Incurvatus in se is what makes us think that God is out to change the world into something that more closely resembles what we think it should be.  Incurvatus in se is wrong, wrong, wrong about all of these things, but most importantly about the last few.  The Gospel of Mark teaches us that God is indeed out to change the world, but not from the outside in.  Jesus says he has come to change us for the world – an inside-out change marked by death, humility, vulnerability and a self turned open to the world.  Jesus has come to open us up so that we might make the world better than it was four years ago.  Our Messiah, our Anointed One, the candidate we’ve expected for so long, will work from the inside out.  And he will start with the cross – for all of us. 
The best interpretation of what Jesus says here, in my mind, comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “[The cross] is laid on every Christian. …The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life.  It stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.  [Every call of Christ leads into death.][1]  Whether we, like the first disciples, must leave house and vocation to follow him, or whether, with Luther, we leave the monastery for a secular vocation, in both cases the same death awaits us, namely, death in Jesus Christ, the death of our old self caused by the call of Jesus.”[2]  This is how it works to be a Christian.  Jesus never says, “Vote for me and I’ll put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”  Jesus does say, “Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.”  In other words, stop worrying about whether you’re better off than you were four years ago, because you’re not.  You’re the same sinner you were then, and the same sinner you will be four years from now.  I didn’t come to make you better – I came to make you mine
            Do you know why we gather here this morning?  Do you know why we sing, why we pray, why we read and listen and speak?  Because our captivity to sin makes us turn in on ourselves without being regularly opened up by Jesus.  We live in a world that operates under the question of “What have you done for me lately?”  In a world like this, we need opening up.  We need a Messiah who changes us from the inside out.  We need to be reminded the cross is how God claims us and how we follow.  Dr. Don Juel said “Taking up your cross should be seen less as a project than as the character of discipleship.  We follow because we trust that God will complete what [God] has begun at our baptism…and if our vocation is to care for the neighbor, Luther insisted, we will not need to seek out suffering.  It will come routinely, as any parent will attest…Following Jesus will not involve a cross of our choosing – and it promises deliverance that is likewise not the result of any grand project.”
            We gather to be opened up together because this way of following Jesus is hard on our own.  We gather together to confess, together, that we’re sinners in need of forgiveness.  We gather together because, on our own, we turn in on ourselves and forget there’s other people under the cross with us, doing our best to follow Jesus. 
            In this homestretch of election season, it’s easy to get swept up thinking your candidate is the one who can make things better than they were.  Maybe there’s some truth to it, but only in a limited sense and only for a limited time.  As the psalmist reminded us last week, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.”  That goes for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.  That goes for Ron Paul and Hillary Clinton.  That goes for Terry Branstad and Chet Culver, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, Christie Vilsack and Steve King and every candidate of every party in every state that has ever existed.  Their work is important - laudable - inspirational, but it has its limits.  Not a one of them is going to save the world – that contest has already taken place. God’s “anointed One” was a figure of great political and cultural power – and Jesus continues to challenge culture and politics even after his crucifixion and resurrection.  God’s victory through the “Messiah” was and continues to be marked by the triumphant rise of a free people who are no longer prisoners to tyranny – Jesus defeated the tyranny of our sinfulness, not the tyranny of governments.  And our Lord, who emerged victorious from that battle, is still at work, changing the world from the inside out through sinners like you and me.  Take up your cross, citizens of God’s kingdom.  Be opened to the world around you, and make it a better place.  God be with you all.  Amen.

[1] This is an alternate translation offered in the footnotes of this text.  The original German text reads “Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod.”
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Discipleship. © XXXX by Augsburg Fortress Press.  p. XX
[3] Juel, Donald.  Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994.  © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  p. 354

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