Same Boat

a sermon for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21B/Lectionary 26]

Mark 9:38-50

“We’re all in the same boat.
Fishing in the same hole

Wondering where the time goes
We’re all in the same boat.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard that yet, but that’s the chorus of the new song by country music artists Zac Brown Band which is getting lots of play on the radio these days.  It has that familiar sound as if it might have been around a while, but actually it’s a song they wrote and released this year in response to the overwhelming divisiveness they feel has taken over culture and society. It is their appeal to unity and persevering with each other, not against one another. It continues later, “Spread a little love, gotta give back something. If the ship keeps rocking we’ll all go overboard.” The song seems to say that whether or not we realize it, we are bound together and our success is dependent on acknowledging our common goals of survival. It’s like what Jesus says to his disciples at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, a teaching that sums up a long string of lessons about being one of his followers. “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” You’re all in the same boat, fishing in the same hole.

Jesus finds it necessary to keep reminding his disciples of the common goal of his kingdom. They get off track, they aim for personal glory and power, they misunderstand that his mission involves suffering. They are to be the core community that gives the flavor of love and justice to the world. Through their ministry of mercy and forgiveness they will release people from the bondage of darkness. This is the work of salt. It brings out the best in the things it touches. The issue is that the disciples have run across another person who is doing the same kinds of things, being that same kind of salt and they don’t recognize him. It’s like copyright infringement for Jesus, and the disciples are suddenly patent attorneys. This person does not have an official license to cast out demons like they do, or so the disciples think. That’s when it gets interesting. To their surprise, Jesus says that person is in their same boat too, fishing in the same hole. This boat is bigger than the disciples realize. In fact, Jesus clarifies it even further: anyone who is not actively working against them in their Christlike work is actually in their boat too.

Don’t we often forget how big the boat is? No one person or group can claim, identify, or encapsulate the Spirit-driven work of Jesus. In fact, any basic act of compassion, like offering a cup of water to those who bear Christ’s name, is considered a work of the kingdom. If they find themselves on the receiving end of even a basic act of kindness, that, too, is part of God’s work in the world. That sounds like God may be using people for God’s work without their even being aware of it!

God’s kingdom is more expansive than we often realize. Being a good disciple means being aware of that—that as we have salt within ourselves and live peacefully with each other, we constantly remain open to others in the world who are also doing the kinds of things Christ does. And we are not just open to them, but grateful for them. We learn from them. We partner with them when possible. We adopt their wisdom and incorporate it as needed. This past week we had a meeting with the new batch of confirmation mentors to provide a type of orientation to the conversations they’ll be having with their confirmation students. One person offered up a book she had read as a resource, explaining how it had given her good insights on how to have healthy conversations with young people. After she spoke a little about it, she added a little disclaimer, saying, “You just need to know that the book and the author aren’t specifically Christian. And yet it contains such good wisdom about forming solid relationships.” The group of mentors rightly acknowledged that a book doesn’t have to be by a Lutheran author or a Bible scholar in order to impart godly wisdom. I know that listening to certain U2 songs in my angsty teenage years certainly helped cast out a lot of my own demons. They weren’t explicitly Christian songs, but I did encounter God’s care through them. Whoever is not against us is for us.

Then Jesus turns all the focus on them. The disciples are so worried about other people, about who is working against them or for them, about who should be stopped doing this or that. Jesus reminds us that when it comes to the work of his kingdom, the only person we really need to worry about stopping now and then is…ourselves. Isn’t that funny? So often Jesus’ followers get a reputation of calling other people out, organizing coalitions to protest something or censor something. I’m afraid we’re often known as the naysayers of others’ actions, of what we’re against. Yet with some of the most violent images in the New Testament Jesus explains that they need to take far more seriously their own behaviors. If push comes to shove, we need to be more concerned about pushing ourselves out of the boat of God’s forward mission, not other people.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And yet I’m not sure we grasp just how countercultural these teachings of Jesus are. At least I know I don’t. I get caught up in all this talk of hell and the unquenchable fire and undying worms and I miss the point of what Jesus is really saying to me. For example, cancel culture is huge issue these days. If one person makes a comment or gesture deemed to be politically incorrect or even offensive, they are lopped out of human society for good, lampooned on social media, ripped of dignity and honor. With hatchets in hand, we jump on the bandwagon of criticizing others’ lives.

But what Jesus is really saying is that we should really only apply cancel culture to ourselves. If something I am doing brings about temptation or sin, I should address it immediately. If something about me and my actions might be getting in the way of other people seeing and possibly knowing the grace of God, it’s better if I take myself out of the picture somehow. Do some self-examination. Receive forgiveness. Be transparent. Of course, Jesus is exaggerating with the methods. He doesn’t literally mean for your to drown yourself with a millstone or gouge your eye out or cut your limbs off. All middle eastern people of Jesus’ times spoke in hyperbole. He’s trying to stress just how serious of an issue these things are.

And it also should be noted that when he mentions hell here he isn’t talking about life in an eternal fire pit somewhere. He is talking about Gehenna, or the valley of Hinnom, the literal burning garbage dump and burial ground at the edge of Jerusalem that had been there since ancient times. It had even been a place of child sacrifice centuries before. The people of Jesus’ times considered it to be a godforsaken place where no one could imagine living. When it comes to human brokenness, our propensity to mess things up, it is important that we take its dangers seriously. A life lived only for ourselves and our own preservation, a spiritual life that focuses on cutting off other people’s hands and feet ultimately leads us all to Gehenna, desolate and sad.

modern photo approximating ancient location of Gehenna (Valley of Hinnom)

But as seriously as we may take our brokenness and sinfulness and our ability to be stumbling blocks to others’ faith, no one takes it more seriously than Jesus, himself. He goes to a godforsaken place for us. People take nails and hammers to his own hands and feet. They spit in his eyes. They cancel him bigtime. We cancel him. In a cold blooded effort to show him that we know how to row this boat ourselves, thank you very much, we tie a big millstone around his neck in the form of a cross and throw him overboard. And as he dies, we see that in Jesus, God present in everyone we attempt to cancel or destroy. In Jesus God is with in every person who is humiliated and shamed. In Jesus, God is sheltering anyone who has ever been mocked or abandoned.  In Jesus, God is beside everyone who is given just one cup of cold water to drink. In Jesus, God is with you and me whenever we are aware of our brokenness and because Jesus is risen we are set free and made whole again.

Jesus makes us whole, our arms and feet reassembled to go where he sends us and embrace the suffering of the world. Jesus makes us whole, our plucked-out eyes reattached and given new sight to see opportunities to grow and love. Jesus makes us whole, our hearts forgiven so that we may be salt for the earth. I think so often we tend to think of our discipleship in grandiose gestures of making a difference. We wait for God to send us that big mission or that big purpose that puts all the different parts of our lives together in one cohesive world-changing whole. But more often than not it’s the the seemingly small gestures of compassion among us that wind up as big gestures to those on the receiving end. I tried to think of one such example, but as I did, I came up with dozens that I’ve seen just among the people here. The Stephen Ministers who just take time to sit with someone in their darkness. The bag of school supplies given to Southampton Elementary School that allow a young student to feel like she belongs. The meal cooked in the middle of a busy afternoon and dropped off at the home where people are grieving their loved one. There are too many to name. And that’s not even counting the ones done by others in other congregations and those done by people in no congregation at all. These are the saltiest things, my friends, truth be told. Have faith! Jesus builds his kingdom among us one cup of water at a time with the hopes we do see, at long last, he is pulling us all, over and over, into the same boat.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Of Missions and Legacies

a sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19B/Lectionary 24]

Mark 8:27-38

As many of you know, the National Football League begins its season this weekend, which will make a lot of people, including some I live with, very happy. Thursday night saw the league opener pit the Dallas Cowboys against the reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and at some point today the remaining thirty teams will square off against each other. Over the course of the next four or so months, each team will play seventeen games, unless COVID interferes somehow. All in all, this will amount to around $12.2 billion in revenue, based on last season’s numbers. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge pro football fan, but I will say that the weekly games do provide for a nice distraction in the midst of all the fall busy-ness. After living for six football seasons in Pittsburgh, I can appreciate how much football brings people together.

One thing that I think adds to football’s popularity, even if your team doesn’t have a mascot yet or catchy name, is the clear purpose to every season. Every player, every coach, every fan knows exactly where they hope today’s game will eventually lead. The purpose and point to every minute of every game, every snap, every touchdown is to reach and then win the Super Bowl. To take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The team I’m bound by marriage to pull for, the Steelers, have been given a 0.8% chance of winning the Super Bowl this year, but that will not stop them from plotting and planning to overcome those odds. When the going gets tough, when the mission seems to go off course, the coaches and captains will remind everyone what their goal is.

If only Jesus’ mission were always so clear and well-defined to us! Today in Mark’s gospel we reach what many Bible scholars call a turning point in Jesus’ journey with his disciples. It is a turning point because he is needing to re-focus and re-clarify just what he and his purpose are all about. He is sensing that things may have gotten a bit off track and it is time to huddle together and remind them what exactly is at stake.

The place where he huddles them, Caesarea Philippi, is pretty significant. It’s a good place to talk about mission and identity. Caesarea Philippi sat atop a big cliff and had recently been expanded with shiny new buildings and memorials to the emperor by the local ruler Herod Philip. It was the kind of grand, gleaming place that made you think about permanence and legacy and the mark you might leave on the world. We can imagine Jesus having this conversation in Richmond, standing somewhere down along Monument Avenue as the Lee statue was being removed. He’d look up at the big Confederate General being taken down, sawn in two, and would say to his own followers, “What is the point of my mission, after all? What will I be remembered as? What do people say I’m fighting for?” Those were some of the questions swirling in our own town over the past year as the statues were removed and carted away. Jesus wonders them now about himself.

all that is left now of Caesarea Philippi’s gleaming buildings

And to answer those questions, Jesus must consider his identity. He has to get his disciples to answer questions about his who he is. At his baptism he was proclaimed as God’s beloved Son. Mark, the gospel writer, calls him the Christ right at the beginning, in the first line, which is to say that is who we need to come to know him as. “Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah, which is a Hebrew term that means “God’s chosen anointed One.” So much has already happened between Jesus and his disciples as he’s taught and healed through the villages of Galilee and even outside Jewish territory, but do they really know who they’re working with? Is his identity clear? He speaks about all of this openly, just so there’s no air of secrecy or chance to get the basics confused.

This is an excellent question for each of us to ponder about Jesus all the time. Who do we say Jesus is? A guy who listens to us and answers our prayers? A leader who calms our spirits when we’re troubled? A personal teacher who helps us understand wisdom? Jesus is all of these things throughout the gospels, but here in Caesarea Philippi he points us to the true mission as Messiah. To know him as he truly is to realize he loves us to the point of his own death. The Super Bowl of this mission, of the Messiah’s mission, is not hoisting a shiny trophy to the roar of adoring crowds. It is not just giving us words to live by. It is not even physically healing us and our loved ones. It is not to be remembered with a statue or monument. His mission is to suffer and die. A cross is involved. Rejection and self-sacrifice are the name of the game.

As the great preacher Fred Craddock once quipped, “it’s possible to get an A in Bible and still flunk Christianity.” That’s what happens to Peter here. Peter doesn’t like hearing Jesus’ true mission. He gets an A in explaining Jesus’ title, but he misses the mark on the suffering and dying. Let’s be honest: none of us really likes hearing these things either. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t particularly like making sacrifices. And we only need to look at the struggles over mask wearing and getting vaccinated over the past year to remind us of that. We are so quick to talk about our individual rights and claiming our personal authority. And yet Jesus is clear: to follow him involves self-denial, not self-assertion. To be on his team will require losing our lives, over and over again in acts of humility and kindness and gentleness.

I think sometimes I trip over the word “deny” in this passage, as if to deny myself means to harm myself or ignore my needs, like some kind of self-flagellation. The Greek word that Jesus uses for “deny” in this prediction of his death means “to act in a selfless way and to give up one’s place as the center of things.” It is what Jesus models for us as he turns around from Caesarea Philippi and heads back to Jerusalem where he will die. He physically turns away from those impressive monuments and statues of the city on the hill and goes toward the cross at the edge of town. Getting an A in Bible is knowing that the Messiah, God’s chosen One, is the leader and the Savior of the world. But getting an A in Christianity means realizing that Jesus becomes Messiah by handing himself over, by letting himself be crucified, by placing us at the center of God’s love.

So if this turning point has to do with understanding Jesus’ true identity, who he truly is, so will our identities and our lives turn on the discovery of who and whose we truly are: God’s people. Because Jesus, the Messiah who loves us by offering us his place, has invited us to join him, so we will go about loving others by offering them our gifts, our time, and treasure. That is taking up the cross. We lose ourselves in the suffering of the world. And in that we will find life.

I heard the story once about a very successful 18th century American merchant named John Woolman. You can look him up. He’s on Wikipedia. He lived a very comfortable and satisfying life until God convicted him one day of the problem of owning slaves, which he did. After that moment, Woolman gave up his prosperous business and used his money to buy people out of slavery. He even started wearing undyed wool suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. One philosopher historian, Elton Trueblood, reflecting on the life of John Woolman several years ago remarked, “Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and intensity of problems.”

And that’s probably the really hard thing to swallow, and what Peter bumps up against. The path of Jesus is not about solving our problems, of winning our games, because Jesus didn’t come to win his, and he doesn’t seem to be worried about his own problems. The way of discipleship, then, is about taking up the cross and solving others’ problems, of seeing our faith as inextricably bound to the suffering of the world and going there with our love. Discipleship looks at Afghan refugees plopped in our midst and not so much arguing about how and why they’re here but realizing they need basic life necessities to make it through each day and then sticking with them over the next several months so they get on their feet in a new country. Discipleship looks like the actions of one of our young people a couple of years ago who was announced as the winner of a big school-wide competition in an assembly and was handed the grand prize. As soon as the prize was handed to her, a large stuffed golden eagle, she turned around and gave it to another student, a friend of hers, who had not had the same chance of competing. Discipleship is sticking our necks out for our neighbor because we find a funny thing happens. When we stick our necks out our eyesight for seeing divine things automatically gets better. And that’s how Jesus wants us to see.

210822-N-OX321-1412 NAVAL AIR STATION SIGONELLA, Italy (Aug. 22, 2021) Naval Air Station Sigonella Command Master Chief Anna Wood assists an evacuee disembarking a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender Aug. 22, 2021. NAS Sigonella is currently supporting the Department of Defense mission to facilitate the safe departure and relocation of U.S. citizens, Special Immigration Visa recipients, and vulnerable Afghan populations from Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay)

And discipleship is remembering, above all, that last part of Jesus’ mission in Jerusalem. After the great suffering and the rejection, after the killing and dying, Jesus says he will rise. After three days he will rise again. 100% chance. That is the trophy that comes at the end of it all. And on that day we have faith that all our stories will be told in truth, all our present sufferings will make sense, all our sorrows will wash away, and all our connectedness to others will be clear and beautiful to see. We will see that everything we worked so hard to grasp and hoard is worth nothing, and that everything we let go to others made us rich. We will realize that every monument raised to human glory will eventually come down, but every gesture done in the manner of the cross will live on. Lifting high the cross, we will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living, winners…winners not because we earned it or because we deserve it, but winners of all because God has won the prize and handed it to us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.