Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus 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?”
And they answered him,
“John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then 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.
He said all this quite openly.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But 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.”
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 will it profit them to gain the whole world
and forfeit their life?
Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Those 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.”
A good friend was widowed, unexpectedly, in her mid-forties; her spouse felled suddenly by a rare, vicious cancer. It was weeks before the first tears fell—she was so stunned, her eyes forgot how to cry. That was many years ago, and she has since remarried and has learned to put one foot in front of the other. But her love for her first husband and the trauma of his death remain.
She and I talked not long ago about why this second year of the pandemic seems so much harder than the first. Last September, with some dangerously uninformed exceptions, we “were in this together.” We wore masks. We practiced social distancing. We supported local businesses. We learned to zoom. We cheered on the production and distribution of vaccines. We were patient with one another because we were all suffering. We promised each other an end to the crisis.
But this September? I shudder to open my email or the morning newspaper. National leaders tell laughable lies with a straight face. The preventable healthcare crisis filling our hospitals is met with a heartless shrug. Violence falls in every country, every city, every home.
What happened to the comradery and “we can do this” of last fall? I fear it has gone down the same hole as the comradery and “we can do this” that accompanied the events of 9/11 twenty years ago. When the enemy—virus or terrorist—is elusive, we turn on one another.
“What happened? Why are we all so angry?” I asked my widowed friend.
She reflected on her own experience in the second year of her widowhood. She remembered that, after she swept up the shards of her life and tried to glue them together, she had survived that first year better than anyone expected. She had steeled herself for the first birthday without her husband, the first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first everything. And she thought that, having survived that first year, she might begin to heal.
But the second year of widowhood knocked her flat. “I let my guard down,” she said. “I thought the worst was over. So when I had to endure the second birthday, wedding anniversary, Christmas, second-everything I had to admit he was really gone. I had never understood the word ‘suffering’ until then. The second year was so much worse than the first.”
Maybe that’s what happening to us now. After a unified first year of pandemic patience, a naïve imagining that soon this would all be over, we have to admit our lives are nowhere near normal. And that they might never be. Maybe that’s why this second year is so much worse than the first.
The gospel reading appointed for this Sunday could not be more appropriate. How did Mark know, 2000 years ago, that we would need him today? Following Jesus as he healed, preached, fed and offended, Mark reflected on the core of Jesus’ message, the guiding principle. And Mark realized it wasn’t the healing, preaching, feeding or offending that drove Jesus to work like a maniac. It was Jesus’ self-understanding of his purpose.
And what was it that drove him, that purpose? Authentic, lasting life for all those in need—that was the engine that propelled Jesus. He didn’t need to be in charge. He didn’t need to be right. He didn’t need to be famous. He needed to give life, to be life for those who knew only death. And to be life, to give life, meant he would also suffer.
That’s why he poured himself out for those starving for both food and forgiveness. He humiliated himself in order to lift up the humiliated. He spoke truth to lies, kindness to hatred, hope to despair. He scattered life the way a farmer scatters seed.
And for Jesus, that kind of “living” was inextricably intertwined with dying. Dying to self. Dying for the other. Dying to this life before entering a new one.
When, eight chapters into the gospel, Jesus finally confided to his disciples that his ministry would lead not to a coronation but a cross, they came unglued. And Jesus responded in kind.
“What did you think I was doing?” he shouted back. “Running for office? Padding my 401(k)? I’m dying out here. And if you want to follow me, you will die, too.”
He wasn’t inviting them to step in front of a bus, jump off a bridge, or leap into the line of fire. It wasn’t this physical life, this “flesh” life that concerned him.
It was this one.
The Greek word Mark used in this text for Jesus’ “life” is most closely translated in English as “psyche.” A word familiar to any of us who have therapists. It was this interior life, this “heart” life, this “soul” life, this “who we are at our core” life that mattered to him. It was that life, that life force that he poured out, and that we are invited to pour out, as well.
Life lived for the other. Life given up for the other. Life concerned not with my own life, but the deep soul-health, heart-health, eternal health of the other. And if that means we suffer, we suffer. Gladly, if that’s possible.
Those who care only for their own lives are already dead, according to Jesus. But when we die for the other, that’s when we truly live.
For the first time in two years we are delighted to witness a baptism in person. Of course, we baptized during the pandemic, washing our children in the garden fountain and here in the sanctuary. But cautiously. Quietly. Privately. Almost frightened that that much proximity might be dangerous.
Today, in the light of day, amid this cloud of (masked) witnesses, we welcome little Zachary to the waters of baptism. I hear that for some, baptism is an obligation, a page to be filled out in the baby book, a way to appease grandparents. But that’s not what’s happening here today. Mark and Rose bring Zachary to us for baptism because they want to commit his life to the life they have already chosen for themselves.
Lives of service. Of selflessness. Of faith. Sometimes, of suffering.
In baptizing Zachary here today, they are not baptizing him into membership in our congregation, or branding him “Lutheran.” Today Zachary is baptized into Jesus’ life, Jesus’ death. A life and death that know no denominational affiliation, national boundaries, or political ideology. They baptize him as we baptize all our children: immersed in love greater even than their own; invited into a life that is expansive and generous; taught to witness to the goodness and power of God, ready to receive whatever God’s future holds.
And that life, that baptized life for Zachary, means that from this moment on, we speak also of his death. Death to self. Death to pride. Death to fear. So that he and all whom he encounters will live.
It will be easy when he is little. But as with the second year of grief or of a pandemic, the ongoing experience of baptism will grow more and more difficult. Like the disciples who imagined following Jesus would come with a badge or a company car, we imagine baptism will protect us from the world’s dangers.
But Mark, Rose and Zachary, and all the baptized, emerge from these waters filled with a single purpose. To live. So that others might live, as well. It’s a tough road. Ask anyone who has already been walking it.
I was surprised that my widowed friend could so quickly call to mind the suffering of those first years of grief. Though decades have passed, the tears felt fresh.
I have been surprised at how quickly we, who are otherwise kind, generous, helpful, can be sparked to anger, to judgement. Though we have all endured many sorrows—the pandemic is not the first—the anger, the fear, feels fresh.
Today, Jesus invites us to follow him. He’s not interested in how we think the world ought to be run, or who we deem worthy to join us. We follow, unable to see the path ahead, because he is on it.
Today, Zachary and Rose and Mark follow.
Today, my widowed friend chooses to follow.
Today, we choose to follow. And if the path ahead is pocked with suffering, we will receive it. As gain. As life.