Wednesday, October 3, 2012

16 Pentecost, Year B, 16 September 2012

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Who are your “wisdom people?” The people you know, and who know you even better than you know yourself, to whom you turn when you need to get a grip on reality. We’ve all got such people in our lives. The ones who are intimately in touch with the way things are at the roots, deep down in the heart of the universe. Perhaps a parent, or a grandparent. Perhaps someone who is, for you, what the early Celtic Christians called an anamchara—a friend of the soul.

Our first lesson this morning describes the character and actions of Wisdom in its most perfect form. Wisdom is portrayed as the personification (and mouthpiece) of God’s power and intelligence. She (and note that it is “she”, sometimes called “Lady Wisdom” in the biblical commentaries) represents God’s spirit and presence in the world and human activity, and she is held as an example for all people who are themselves wise enough to know their own limitations. “Wisdom” is not intellect as such, nor cleverness, nor formal education—but something else altogether. We all have “wisdom people” who are in touch with the way things are, deep down at the roots.

And we all have folks who are quite the opposite of wisdom people in our lives. The letter of James gives an indirect description of such a person in this morning’s passage about the power of the tongue. We see this power all around us, especially now as the November elections approach, with seemingly endless talking, regardless of the truth of the statements made, regardless of the chaos and ill-will and misery that such statements may create. The author of James pleads with his hearers to be distinctly different in their lives, and in their speech. He invites them to silence, or at least to think before opening their mouths. A humorous bumper sticker prayer I saw years ago said it well: Dear God, let my words this day be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.

When I worked for Retriever Payment Systems in Houston, a good friend of mine shared an office with a woman—let’s call her Kate—who was the opposite of a wisdom person. She was loud and brash and self-absorbed, and from my cubicle I could frequently hear her talking all the way down the hall. On such occasions I would send my friend an email: “Tell her to put a sock in it!” Eventually this got shortened to a one-word note: “Sock!” I once left a clean white gym sock in a ball on my friend’s desk, and a few minutes later heard her unmistakable guffaw when she found it, followed by a barrage of “Oh GROSS! What is that nasty sock doing on your desk?”

Once I walked into the lunchroom and found Kate rattling on about something her husband had done, or failed to do, concluding with the statement: “I don’t know why I have this terrible temper, God just gave me this terrible temper, but hell hath no fury like a woman. That’s in the Bible, you know.” (It’s not, by the way…but you knew that already.)

I wanted to ask her: Do you even want to be less angry? Less agitated every single day when you come to work? You can, you know. There are other ways to live—but you’ll have to let go of some old ways. You’ll have to let those ways and habits of yours die.

Jesus and the disciples are on the road, near Caesarea Philippi.

1) Jesus asks them: Who do people say I am? They reply: Some say this one, some say that one, and some say someone else…finally Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” the Christ, the chosen messenger of God. Immediately Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about this (Which is a guarantee that it’s gonna get told!)

2) Jesus responds to their reply: Guess what friends? Following the Messiah isn’t going to mean what you think—it’s not gonna be a ticker-tape parade down Broad Street with a brass band playing Seventy-Six Trombones! It will take everything you’ve got and have ever thought you knew, and turn it inside out and upside down—life as you have known it gets redefined, right now.

(Back in seminary, Professor Charlie Cook used to tell us, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free; but first it will make you strange!”)

3) Continuation of (2), Jesus speaks to the crowds who are following him around…the shadow of the cross is falling chronologically “backward” into this narrative, though Jerusalem is still some distance away. But of course the hearers/readers were hearing the story well after the fact, and perhaps experiencing some kind of persecution, or struggle, in “carrying their own cross” as well. “Those who lose their life will save it; those who try to hold on to their life will lose it.”

This paradoxical statement signals that we’re dealing with more than just bumper-sticker feel-good pop spirituality. But understand also, that what Jesus is saying is not a dreary call to an endless succession of Good Fridays either. This is the Gospel, after all, which means “good news.”

Here’s the news, here’s the paradox: In the dominion of God, in the Kingdom of heaven to which Jesus is always directing his followers, the distinction is about the attitude and behavior of holding on. Clinging tightly to “the things that make for life”—whatever we think those may be—versus refusing to cling, but holding rather lightly.

When we remain open and trusting, in ways that lay us open to mistreatment and abuse, we are not playing it safe. This is a vulnerable posture, to be sure. Chest and belly exposed, arms extended and hands open—it looks just like the cross. It looks just like Jesus, whose hands on the cross were not balled into fists to strike out against his abusers, but who opened his hands and prayed, and continues to pray, for them and for us: Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

To go about in the world, to live lives marked by refusing to seize power or status or possessions, refusing to cling, refusing to meet abuse and violence with the same abuse and violence, but praying also for forgiveness for enemies, to manifest love and joy and peace, patience and kindness and goodness, control of the tongue and control of the emotions—this is to be very STRANGE indeed. It is a rejection of the ways of the world around us, to say (in word and deed) that we belong to another sort of world.

The early Christians thought of themselves not only as part of the Body of Christ, the brothers and sisters of Jesus himself, but citizens of God’s kingdom even now. They lived in Rome and Antioch and Athens, and Canterbury and London and Edinburgh, and Savannah and Atlanta and even Augusta and Grovetown, but they knew that their true citizenship, their true identity, was not limited to earthly geography. They were citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, on a journey, a pilgrimage, to their true and eternal home.

This was the wisdom that gave them courage, and strength, and joy, and the peace that passes all understanding and human comprehension. They did not have to ask “Who do people say that we are?” They knew who they were, and whose they were—and no earthly power system could shake their confidence in that wisdom and knowledge.

May it be so for us as well. May it be so among us today.

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