Sermon: When Safety Brings No Safety

February 25, 2018
Mark 8:31-38

On Friday, a dear friend, the Rev. Leigh McCaffrey, who has known me longer than either of us would care to admit and who is one of the wisest souls I know, told me that she’s been following my social media posts with interest, watching to see what shape my ministry here with you was taking.

That was too good an opportunity, so I jumped on it. From my perspective, in the hurly burly of daily life and work, it looks pretty chaotic. This question, then that issue, then this person to visit, and that person to pray with, and this sermon to write, and that meeting to attend. Don’t misunderstand me, I love all those things that I do (well, maybe not some of the meetings), but in the middle of it, I don’t really see the shape of it. So I asked her what she sees.

“From here,” she said, “it looks like you’re supporting traditional structures while pushing to get them involved in edgier issues – gently.”

I suspect most of you already knew that. I apologize for being a little late to the party.

The word that leapt out at me was “gently,” and it fits. “Gently” suits me, or at least I want it to suit me. I aspire to being a gentle man, which is not the same thing as an upper-class gentleman. It’s not the easiest of my personal goals, because I do have a temper, and it’s taken a lot of work over the years to understand it, manage it, and deal with it (if not control it).

“Gentle.” That’s me, or at least the me I want to be.

“Gentle” doesn’t work for everyone, though. Some get impatient with the time it takes to listen to gentle phrases. Some see the crying and need and long to throw themselves into the gap ahead of those awaiting gentle encouragement. Some simply need to hear the summons assertively, to immediately recognize the power of the demand, rather than be persuaded of the power of the demand.

If you need “not gentle,” I offer you: Jesus.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”

Just a few minutes before, Simon Peter, who was usually first with the wrong answer, had jumped in with the right answer to answer Jesus’ famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter declared, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus then told his closest followers what that meant, and it blew their minds. They expected a royal crown, and he told them about suffering. They expected wide acclamation, and he told them he’d be rejected by those who knew the most about faith. They expected a great military victory over the occupying Romans and the usurping Herodian dynasty, and he told them about execution and death.

He also told them about resurrection, but it would surprise me a great deal if they were listening by then.

So Peter stood forth once more, and this time he was more in character, first with the wrong answer. He was gentle enough to take Jesus aside and tell him how wrong he was out of earshot of the other disciples.

Jesus wasn’t gentle, though. This moment was as harsh as he got, except for driving the money-changers out of the temple. “Get behind me, Satan!”

“Satan?” That’s a harsh thing to call a concerned friend, a student who’s trying to correct the misinformed teacher, a loyal supporter who only wants the best for his faith, his leader, and his country.

But for Jesus, it was accurate. A Messiahship of victory is a lot more appealing than a Messiahship of suffering. It’s tempting. It’s tempting.

Jesus knew, however, that the safety of worldly victory brings no safety for the human soul.

The safety of worldly victory brings no safety for the human soul.

Joseph D. Small writes (in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2), “This hinge in Mark’s Gospel points us to Luther’s contrast between what he called the ‘theology of glory’ (theologica gloriae) and the ‘theology of the cross’ (theologica crucis). The theology of glory is built on what appears to be self-evident about life and on assumptions about the way a god is expected to act in the world. The theology of the cross, however, is grounded in God’s self-revelation in the weakness and suffering of death. The theology of glory confirms what people want in a god; the theology of the cross contradicts everything that people imagine that God should be.”

Jesus chose the way of the cross, via crucis, over the way of victory, via victoria.

There’s nothing gentle about that.

Yesterday at the Church Leaders Event in Honolulu, Jeffrey Jones spoke about the shifts in the world around us, and about the decline of the Church in these days. It’s not just us who see declining membership and reduced financial support. It’s not just the United Church of Christ, or mainline Protestantism. Even with the growth of megachurches and new charismatic Christian movements, the truth is that membership in religious institutions has declined dramatically over the last half-century. In the United States and also in Hawai’i County in 2010, just over half of the population was listed on the rolls of a community of faith. Contrast that with 1960, when somewhere over 70% of the population was listed on the rolls of a Christian church.

Rev. Jones’ main point was that we’re not going back to the fifties and sixties. The questions we’re asking ourselves and answering to ourselves aren’t helping. “How do we bring people in?” isn’t bringing people in. “How do we survive?” isn’t helping us live deeply in faith.

Most of all, we’re not asking what God is doing among us, or around us, or apart from us. We’re looking into our own needs and desires rather than into what God is doing in our own hearts.

There’s our challenge for our meeting today. Can it be a first step for us to ask what God is doing. Not what God wants us to do – that’s a good question, but let’s ask first, what is God doing? Then, how can we join in? Then, how can we equip ourselves or equip and support others who are joining in?

What is God doing?

We can protect ourselves, our homes, our families, our church. We can strengthen ourselves, our homes, our families, our church. We can make ourselves safe. But friends, that safety brings no safety. It is a dome that shudders beneath the blowing winds of God.

If we want to be Jesus’ followers, the summons is urgent, un-gentle, and clear. Deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow. Cast ourselves onto the wind of the Holy Spirit. Set forth onto the road to the unknown. Take on a new name. Give birth to the strangely miraculous child.

When safety brings no safety, let us take up our cross and follow Christ.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Is the recorded sermon the same as the prepared text? Well, no. Not this week. Probably not ever.

The image is the painting “Get Behind Me, Satan,” painted by Ilya Repin in 1895.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on February 25, 2018

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