Year B, Pentecost 16
A couple of years ago, I remember seeing various media outlets proclaiming that Christmas was under attack. They referenced things like nativity scenes being removed from public places and people feeling the need to say, “Happy Holidays!” instead of Merry Christmas. I see the point. Stores are open on Christmas and fewer and fewer people have the luxury of taking that day off. Many churches no longer have services on Christmas Day because so few people attend on Christmas Day. As a priest, I do not relish looking through Christmas cards to find that less than half of them have any explicit Christian message. But to say it is under attack seems a bit of an exaggeration especially when you consider that Christians in other parts of the world are being beheaded for their faith. They are being physically attacked. Christianity is under attack in our world. Christians in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and the Sudan…those Christians are under attack. In parts of Iraq Christians are given three options. They can renounce their faith in Jesus Christ, pay a large tax or be killed. No one in America gets killed for saying Merry Christmas.
The readings for today are not easy readings. They don’t go along well with Dixieland music, nor the positive emotion that we are trying to start the program year with. Proverbs reprimands us for being foolish and not listening to wisdom. James reminds us of how destructive our words can be. In Mark, Jesus says, “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.” I have seen a lot of Bible quotations on bumper stickers, greeting cards, signs, etc, but I am pretty sure that I have never seen that one.
It’s not even one of those quotes that softens when contextualized. Jesus said these words after he explained to the disciples that he would have to suffer and die. When Peter challenged him on this, Jesus decided that they needed a little more teaching. While they had acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ, they didn’t really understand. That might be why Jesus told them not to tell anyone. They still did not get it and Jesus did not want them sharing things that they did not understand. It wasn’t just that they did not understand, they willfully misunderstood. They were ready to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, but not the kind of Christ who suffered and died. That was not the messiah they agreed to follow. They still had much to learn and in some ways, they didn’t comprehend it until Jesus died and was resurrected.
When it became clear to Jesus that they could not accept the truth that he would have to suffer and die, he provided them with very clear directions to become a disciple. It is three phases: Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. It was after those instructions when he told them, “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.” Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me. They were already following him, but they hadn’t quite gotten on board with the first two phases. Jesus knew that. He also knew that until they were ready for the first two phases, they would not truly be able to follow them. We know the ending of Mark, we know that they did not follow him to his death. They did not help him carry the cross. They were not there when he died. They had abandoned him.
We cannot blame them for that. We know now what they did not know, the end of the story. We know that Jesus’ death was not the end. We know that Jesus conquered death and was resurrected. They did not know that. They thought the story was over. So they did not follow him to the cross. But after they witnessed the resurrection, it all clicked. They understood and they denied themselves, picked up the cross and followed him. Most of the disciples were killed because of it, but not before they spread Jesus’ message far and wide, not before they built the Christian Church.
One of the things I love about southern Virginia and particularly Hampton is that the church is supported. It’s true, not nearly as many people come to church today as they did 30 years ago. Business are open on Sundays. There are sports that conflict with Sunday morning. But…we can still pray in public. When I was asked to pray for the pirate festival, I asked for some clarification as that was one of the big gaps in my seminary education…pirate prayers. I asked if it was ok if I include Jesus in my prayers. The response was, “of course.” This would not be true in most places. In fact, I don’t think most pirate festivals begin with prayer at all. In addition, the churches here are still included in community events. The public schools actively reach out to faith communities to be part of the schools. There are many communities that are not like this. In other communities, churches are no longer part of the prevailing culture. People don’t necessarily deride church goers, but they don’t encourage it either. While I love the fact that this community is still open to faith, that comfort also creates complacency. We don’t know what it is to suffer for our faith and because of that we get irritated when we are in any way inconvenienced because of our faith. Suffering and being inconvenienced are two very different things.
In February the world was stunned when 21 Coptic Christians were killed on video. They died proclaiming Jesus. I wonder…I really wonder if I would have the strength to do that. The actual definition of martyr is a witness. It is someone who witnesses their faith. We don’t have to die to be martyrs…very few in America do. Yet we still fall short of what it is to be disciples and witnesses. Every time we let something take priority over God, every time we put self over God, we fall short. Every time we let go of an opportunity to share the love of Christ, we fall short. I know I do. I do every day. But there is good news in all of this. Our faith is a faith that allows for…no demands new beginnings. When we fall, we get up. When we sin, we confess and we are reconciled. When die, we rise. We owe it to Jesus, but also to those Christians who cannot speak up, who cannot attend a church, who cannot look upon the cross—we owe it to them to speak, to be witnesses.
In the beginning of this sermon I lamented the fact that these readings didn’t really go with upbeat Dixieland. But I decided to do some research on the song “When the Saints go Marching in” which is what this band will conclude with.
In New Orleans, the song is traditionally used as a funeral march at jazz funerals. When the band walks with the funeral procession on the way to the cemetery, the tune is actually dirge like. But after committing the body to the ground (ashes to ashes, dust to dust), the band switches to the upbeat Dixieland style. This is very true to our faith. Funerals are both a time of sorrow and a time of rejoicing. As Christians when we fall, we get up. When we sin, we confess and we are reconciled. When die, we rise. We celebrate that resurrection at funerals. As long as we live our life following Jesus Christ, the dirge will never have the last word, or the last note. Jesus Christ conquered death to ensure that the last word will always be Alleluia.