Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 19, 2021

Texts: Jeremiah 11:18-20; James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
A week ago we arrived at the shores of Lake of the Woods in southern Oregon. It’s one of a handful of modestly sized mountain lakes at about five thousand feet elevation. They cluster about 30 miles due south of Crater Lake as the crow flies.
The landscape is pinewood forest interrupted by dark piles of volcanic rock from the catastrophic explosion that left Crater Lake as a slumbering witness to unimaginable power. In the warm summers, the lakes have long been a haven for people and creatures looking for relief from heat and cool water. It’s no wonder that Lake of the Woods is home to two scout camps and a YMCA camp, along with many small vintage cabins.
My mother Phyllis summered at the lake as a child in the 1930s, and described bright bonfires lighting up the perimeter of the lake in midsummer. She worked as a lifeguard at the Girl Scout Camp in the ‘40s. It was there we took the last portion of her ashes; to a place where she found great happiness. It’s lovely, yet all around are geological reminders that there is a terrible dormant power lying just beneath the surface.
The proximity of great and terrible forces to things that are peaceful and beautiful is difficult sometimes to acknowledge. We want to keep them separate, supposing that with enough skill, strength, or wisdom we can avoid undue hardship, and make for ourselves an existence that is protected and mostly comfortable.  Everyone would know and choose the good over the bad, right? And yet we find, in so many ways, that one is somehow always joined to the other.
The complexity of choosing the right and good has always been a human problem. What seems good to one is completely wrong to another. Our deliberations inform virtually everything we know. They affect our politics, our economics, our belief in the veracity of one new source over another, our trust in the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Indeed, we are sometimes more convicted of our differences than the common life we share. Certainly Jeremiah cried out when he encountered pushback for his prophetic message. He called on God to act with vengeance against his oppressors and bring him justice.
Jeremiah believed that God was on his side. After all, he was working for a godly cause, right? But we should remember that Jeremiah’s enemies were his own people, and children of God. It’s a discomforting thought that even a righteous prophet can end up desiring a terrible thing in the struggle for something good.
Jeremiah’s rant reminds us that right thinking and right action is not necessarily an outcome of our earnest commitment and faithfulness to God. And this seems to be the problem in the gospel today. As much as we want to think of the disciples as having a good relationship with Jesus, there’s an edge to his teaching that deserves closer examination. Certainly they have committed themselves to Jesus. But in those times of complexity they seem to forget what they have learned from their teacher.

The first clue that something unusual is going on in Galilee, is that Jesus does not want people to know that he’s in the area. As a popular teacher and spiritual leader, he brings large crowds where ever he goes. Now he seems to insist on a private teaching with his disciples. But why?
A typical interpretation is that Jesus is keeping his identity and destiny a secret from everyone except the disciples for the time being. But just before this, the gospel says that he spoke quite openly about being betrayed and killed, and then rising from death. Secrecy wasn’t the issue here.
Instead, it seems that Jesus needed to have a private word with his disciples because they were not taking his teaching to heart. Jesus was bringing the reign of God into the light of day. He was revealing a different kind of truth and hope to the world in his life and in his death. In turn, they are to live differently as witness to God’s reign; bearing grace in every circumstance.
Mark’s gospel tells us that the disciples, after following and learning from Jesus, still resisted what he was saying. If they wouldn’t entertain the inevitability of his betrayal and death, how would they ever understand the lesson of his resurrection? The fact that they were afraid to ask Jesus for clarification is evidence of their desire to avoid what is hard and terrible and celebrate only what is good and righteous. But what if they are inseparable?
Jesus was teaching them about his messianic mission. But there were two models for a messiah. One was God’s suffering servant, known best in the prophet Isaiah. Another was embedded in nationalistic hopes paired with deep faith – as in the image of King David, and also in the conquering hero coming down from the skies in glory portrayed in the book of Daniel.
The disciples seemed to believe that Jesus would unite the two roles, a hero of faith and servant teacher, bringing greatness upon his followers and the nation. So when Jesus persisted in speaking of betrayal, suffering, and death as necessary to his future glory, they hesitated. It seems to be the reason why they were arguing as they walked along.
Although the text is translated to say that they argued about which one of them was the greatest, there is another possibility. The disciples might instead have been arguing about whether a suffering messiah is greater than a conquering messiah. It’s understandable. We too want Jesus to be more the conqueror than the sufferer.  Easter is so much better than Advent and Lent.
James says that it takes real determination and discernment to follow the Way of Jesus. He cautions that there is the earthly wisdom that looks to achieve personal comfort by way of power, in which God is a distant observer, tacitly approving. Then there is wisdom from above that teaches a way of mercy, service, and gentleness to all, in which God is near, and active.  
The faith of Jesus is not glorious in any usual sense. Jesus invites us to be companions and coworkers, not fans. He calls us to participate with God as he did, offering ourselves in the midst of things that are hard and terrible, to serve all that is beautiful and right in our common life.
Which is very much like how Jesus embraced a child. He said that as we welcome the small and most ordinary ones here, we welcome God.  It’s the Jesus way of living God’s outlandish reign.

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