September 13, 2009
SERMON OF SEPTEMBER 13, 2009
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“All That You Have is Your Soul”
Psalm 19, Mark 8:27-38
This time of year, more than any other, I am aware that my life is a journey.
Part of this sense has to do with the change of seasons from summer to fall.
Part of this sense has to do with returning from vacation and beginning a new program year at the church.
Part of this sense also comes with the beginning of a new school year and the awareness that there is always more to learn on the journey of my life – the journey that is each of our lives.
And today’s text begins - “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way…”
Mark tells the story of Jesus as a journey. Matthew and Luke do so as well, but in Mark this is especially true. Mark’s Jesus is always on his way to somewhere else. “Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite words. Jesus does something and immediately continues on the journey.
In Mark the journey begins with Jesus calling four fishermen, who leave their boats and nets to follow him down the road, where they will learn to fish for people. Like the other disciples that joined them on the journey, they never knew exactly who Jesus was or where he was going. And yet they continued to follow him.
At the very end of his gospel, Mark says that the women arrived at the tomb early and were greeted by a “young man in white” who says, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry. You just missed him. He’s already out in Galilee. There you will find him. Go!”
From the beginning to the end of Mark’s gospel Jesus is leading people on a journey whose destination is not known, making the journey itself the adventure.
In effect, Jesus makes the journey of following him the destination. Or, as an old Taoist saying puts it, “The journey is the reward.”
Along this journey of following Jesus, both then and now, there are choices to be made.
During a visit this week with Bobbie Grimm she brought out an old paperback book that she’d read several times. It was a collection of spiritual writing by several different authors. Bobbie said that of all the books in her house she was somehow drawn to this one in the days following Bob’s death to whom she’d been married for 65 years.
The title of the book is The Choice is Always Ours.
On the journey of our own lives the choice is always ours!
On the way to Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
When they’d offered the opinions of others, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
They were about to enter a city named for Caesar Augustus, who claimed their complete allegiance not only as their Emperor but as their Lord.
They were about to enter a city populated with people who worshipped many different gods, with names like Zeus, Apollo and Pan.
By asking his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus was asking them where they saw him and his place in the pantheon of people and gods who would lay claim to their lives.
And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” – the Christ – the Anointed One of the God who made heaven and earth.
While I was on vacation I re-read a book by Paul Tillich, a prominent Protestant theologian in the last century. In Dynamics of Faith Tillich talks about faith as ultimate concern. Our faith is at the heart of who we are. It represents that which concerns us most – our deepest values – our ultimate concern.
Tillich argues that doubt is an inherent part of faith. He would agree with a more modern theologian who says that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty (Annie Lamott). You can’t have faith without doubt, according to Tillich. And he goes on to say that you can’t therefore have faith without courage and risk.
After Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah – the embodiment of his ultimate concern - he and the disciples are immediately reminded that the choice is always theirs – and that following Jesus can’t happen without courage and risk.
After Peter’s confession, Jesus acts as though it’s the first day of school. And in some sense, it is. For from this point on in Mark’s Gospel the journey of Jesus shifts from Galilee and moves toward Jerusalem.
“Then he began to teach them...” Mark tells us. He began teaching them something new about the One they were following.
“The Son of Man,” he said, referring to himself, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”
Then Peter, not wanting his Messiah to be like the one Jesus had just described, took him aside and began to rebuke him.
“But turning, and looking at his disciples (to make sure they knew he was talking to them and not just to Peter), Jesus rebuked Peter and said, `Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”
Peter had gotten the job title right, but he missed the mark on the job description.
He had pronounced the truth about Jesus, without really understanding what he’d said. He was like a lucky algebra student, who stumbled upon the right answer, without struggling through the difficult, painful equation.
And then, in case Peter and the other disciples still didn’t get it, Jesus continued his teaching, but expanded the size of his classroom.
“He 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. 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. For what does it profit them to gain their whole world and forfeit their life?’
“If any want to become my followers…” This isn’t one path among many when it comes to following Jesus.
It’s not as though Jesus is anticipating the wisdom of the great Yankee catcher who would one day say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Jesus is clear that there is only one way on the journey of our lives to follow him. And that’s they way of suffering, justice-seeking love.
When he says “take up your cross and follow me” he’s asking us to take hold of the life we were created to live by emptying ourselves of everything except that which defines our ultimate concern – allowing God to fill us with the courage and the compassion it takes to follow Jesus.
The choice is always ours!
Before E. B. White moved to a farm in Maine where he wrote Charlotte’s Web and many other stories, he lived in New York City and wrote observations about city life, including one episode that occurred during the frantic shopping season before Christmas.
“Shopping in Woolworth’s, “ he writes, “in the turbulent days, we saw a little boy put his hand inquiringly on a ten-cent Christ child, part of a creche.
`What is it?’ he asked his mother, who had him by the hand.
`C’mon, c’mon,’ replied the harassed woman, ‘you don’t want that!’
She dragged him grimly away – a Woolworth Madonna, her mind dark with gift-thoughts, following a star of her own devising.”
“You don’t want that!” she said, meaning Jesus.
Do we? Do we really want Jesus? Do we really want to follow Jesus – even if we believe him to be the Christ – the Messiah – the one who represents our ultimate concern?
Do we really want to follow Jesus if we know he’s on his way to Jerusalem?
I believe that there is a part of each of us that longs for that smooth ride and that safe journey - the journey that puts us in the driver’s seat, giving us control over shaping our own future, which we intend to make as free of suffering as we possibly can.
I believe that there is a part of each of us that gets caught up in seeing Jesus as the one who confirms our convictions and continuously comforts us along the way, rather than confronting us with choices.
There is a part of each of us that is all too ready to settle for something less than acting on our ultimate concern.
And yet, there is also a part of each of us that longs for meaning more than material things.
A part of each of us that knows that having a purpose in life beyond ourselves is what we hunger for the most.
A part of us that knows the truth that Jesus spoke the truth when he said, “those who lose their life for my sake…will save it.”
A part of us whose deepest fear is gaining the whole world, but forfeiting our life.
The word in Greek translated life is psuche. It’s the root word for “psyche” and “psychology.” It means the essence of our “self” – our “soul” (Luke 12:19).
In the end, as Tracy Chapman’s mother understood, “all that we have is our soul.”
Chapman sings: (All that You Have Is Your Soul”)
My mama told me
'Cause she say she learned the hard way
Say she want to spare the children
She say don't give or sell your soul away
'Cause all that you have is your soul
Don't be tempted by the shiny apple
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
'Cause all that you have is your soul
On the journey of our own lives, all that we have is our soul. And the way to save our soul – to save our life is to lose it by giving ourselves to that which is most important – by giving ourselves to our ultimate concern.
In his novel Driftless David Rhodes describes life in a rural community in southwestern Wisconsin. Grahm and Cora Shotwell live on a dairy farm with their two young children - Seth and Grace.
A major snowstorm blew in quickly one winter afternoon and the schools closed early. When Seth and Grace got home it had already snowed nearly a foot. They each grabbed a flying saucer from the barn and went through the storm to a hill outback.
Their father got home from town and went to work in the barn, not realizing his children were already home and outside in the storm.
When Cora managed to get home it was already dark and the storm was now a fierce blizzard.
She and Grahm soon realized that their children had come home from school, but were not in the house or the barn. When they saw that their flying saucers were missing, they found a long rope and tied one end to the back of the barn so they could find their way back. They looped the other end around Cora’s waist and went out together into the howling storm, not being able to see more than a foot in front of them.
When the rope was fully extended they still hadn’t found their children. Rhodes writes: “And then what Grahm had been afraid would happen, happened. Cora fought with the cinch around her waist, pulled the loop of rope up over her head, and placed it in Grahm’s hands.
`No!’ he shouted, and she turned and walked into the snow. A moment later she was gone, replaced by blizzard.
Grahm was alone, with nothing but a frozen rope that attached him to his barn…to safety, and to everything he had known prior to this moment. His hands and feet were completely numb, In a clear, calm, and unified vision, he saw his past life – not only everything he had done but everything he had hoped to do...He saw everything he had ever known and ever hoped to know. He held his life in his hands, let the rope fall away, and rushed headlong into the blizzard.” (p.181-182)
In less dramatic, but no less significant ways the choice is always ours. Do we hang on to the rope that connects us to what is familiar and safe or do we risk letting go and giving ourselves to the One we love most by following him no matter what – knowing that the choice is always ours and knowing that all that we have is our soul!
As Mary Oliver says in her poem The Journey:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though the melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
The choice is always ours!
On the journey of our lives, along green pastures and still waters and in the valley of the shadow of death, may we make choices knowing that the only way to save our life is to lose it for the One whose love will never let us go – the One who reminds us, time and time again that all that we have is our soul!