February 25 Sermon

“Mismatched Expectations”                                                         Psalm 22:21-31
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL            Mark 8:31-38
Second Sunday of Lent
Rev. Sean Weston

The date was April 3, 1968. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was helping lead a strike of sanitation workers in Memphis. The day after this speech, he was killed.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”

I don’t know about you, but I get chills when I watch that speech, when I watch Reverend King declare “I’m happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man!” knowing that his death – his martyrdom – would come the next day.

Rev. King is one of a long line of martyrs who have died for their insistence that God’s word is more important than any human words, no matter how powerful the speaker. “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?”

You may be familiar with an older translation: “what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?”

Mark Twain once said “ ‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The problem with today’s passage from scripture is not that it’s difficult to understand. Rather, the problem is that it’s difficult to live. Jesus is speaking quite clearly, and at least speaking for myself, I don’t necessarily like what he has to say.

If, like me, you’d rather find a way to sidestep these words, we’re in good company. Jesus’ disciples didn’t much like them either. And for good reason. After all, Peter had just declared Jesus to be the Messiah. For the first time in Mark’s gospel, we learn that Jesus is more than a teacher and healer, he is very the source of new life for God’s people, the one they have been waiting for, hoping for, dreaming for.

The Jewish people – remember, Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish – had suffered for centuries under the domination of one powerful empire after another. Sometimes they were tolerated and those were the good times. The bad times were bad, and by the time we get to Jesus and his disciples they were getting worse and worse. Rome did not hesitate to control the people with heavy violence and extreme taxation: the emperor dominated every part of their lives.

Over those hard centuries they had developed the idea of a Messiah who would save Israel. There were a lot of different ideas about what that Messiah would be like, as biblical scholar William Placher explains: “Some Jews did not think very much about a messiah at all. Some hoped for a military leader to drive out the Romans, some for a new high priest who would restore the Law. Some expected an ordinary human being accomplishing things in an ordinary human way; others imagined that the messiah would have all sorts of God-given powers. Some thought there would be more than one messiah.”

So, he notes, we don’t really know what Peter meant when he said to Jesus: “you are the Messiah.” But we know it at least meant this: “ ‘You are God’s anointed, who will somehow make things better than they are now, better than they have been for a long time.’”[1]

So we have Peter making the discovery of a lifetime: the Messiah is here. “Things are going to be better than they have been in my lifetime, even in the lifetime of my parents and grandparents.”

When Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, he brings with him all sorts of expectations about what that means. But by no means does he expect what will come next: Jesus’ teaching that he must suffer greatly, be rejected by Jerusalem’s leaders, be killed, then after three days rise again.

Imagine Peter’s shock at hearing this. Nobody had heard of a suffering messiah. Peter and his people were already doing plenty of suffering! They wanted the suffering to end. This was not what he expected. So Peter pulled Jesus aside and started to light into him, only to be sternly rebuked: “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

This Messiah was nothing like what they expected. And it would only get worse, as Jesus told them that they would need to take up their cross and follow.

I’m deeply sympathetic to Peter. In my own life, my expectations of God have sometimes been – to say the least – a bit off. At times I have had big, grandiose expectations of myself. I’ve been driven toward outward and material success: the ivy league seminary, the big full fancy church, a voice people listen to. And I think I’ve often had a bad sense of what God expects from me. I found it easy enough to tell myself that what God wanted my material success.

But in reality what God expects from you and I is to follow in the way of Jesus. To take up a cross behind him. Now, this text has been badly distorted over the centuries. Abused women, children, and slaves have been told “this is your cross to bear” by people who would never get near their own cross. But the cross was not some random punishment – it was the worst possible punishment Rome had to offer, meted out to rebels and troublemakers who challenged the status quo. To take up the cross behind Jesus is to join a moral movement in an immoral society, one that shamelessly worships violence and wealth while grinding the faces of the poor, exploiting the environment, and failing to protect children.

God doesn’t expect us to be successful, not in the terms of the world. God expects us to be faithful, and accept the consequences. If we expect God to reward us for our faithfulness either by making us more popular, wealthy, or powerful, we will – as Peter was – be sorely disappointed. True faithfulness is its own reward. 1700 years ago St. Augustine commented on this text, saying that what God expects is not actually hard or grievous because God gives us what we need, to do what we are called to do. He compared it to being in love: people do all kinds of difficult things for those they love, and yet find joy in doing so, can’t imagine anything else. True faithfulness follows Jesus to experience a good life, a whole and healthy life, not an easy life. True faithfulness follows Jesus not for a reward but out of love for God. God expects us to stand up for what is right, even when we don’t know where it will lead.

 

As I was writing this sermon I got an email from the Village of La Grange. It was about at Lyons Township High School. A student overheard something and reported it. An investigation found that no threat was made. The district has reported that police presence will be increased around the school but they believe it to be safe for the students.

I read the statement from the school leaders and I found myself growing enraged. Not at the school leaders – they’re doing the best they can in an extraordinarily challenging environment, without enough support. No, I found myself enraged because we live in a nation where our children must go to school in fear of a mass shooting. Right here, right in this zip code. And yet they are still expected to be there, to learn, to treat each other well, to go through the usual difficulties of childhood and adolescence. I went through high school not all that long ago and this wasn’t even my experience. I can’t even imagine. And so my heart broke as I grew angry. We are not doing right by our children.

I wondered as I wrote the sermon and I wonder now, what God expects of me given all this, given the suffering taking place even in our zip code; I’m wondering what God expects of us as people trying to be faithful together in a place and time where adults are failing to protect children from harm and politicians are to scared to do what it takes to fix anything.

I’m still working that out, to be honest. But I believe with my whole heart that we will only find wholeness and health when we stop expecting God to swoop in and fix everything. People wanted that from Jesus, too, in his day – but found themselves disappointed. In Jesus, God has shown us the path, and we’re expected to walk with God on that hard journey. God expects each of us not to seek material success, but to stand for what is right, regardless of the consequences, because that is what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.

It was for that deep love of God that Rev. King was able to stand up fearlessly, the day before he was killed, and say “I just want to do God’s will.” It was for God’s deep love of King that he found the strength to do so, following after Jesus and so many others, drawing God’s reign nearer through great sacrifice.

I believe that our churches will only be truly healthy when stop expecting to be rewarded for faithfulness, whether by butts in pews, dollars in plates, or prestige among the powerful. In relationship, whether with God or one another, faithfulness is its own reward. As we seek to be faithful, as we seek to grow in our love for God, we can expect God to be with us, to support us, to hold us up, to never forsake us, and to give us a peace and joy that the world cannot give.

That is an expectation we can stake our lives to. Thanks be to God, and Amen.

[1] William C. Placher, Mark, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 120.

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