A profitable life?

Lessons for Sunday 16 September 2012
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19B (RCL)
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Too bad we get this part of Lady Wisdom’s speech in our lectionary, rather than her invitation to the meal. People are only too ready to (mis-)use this piece of her discourse when tragedy happens. In 1993, when the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers flooded in the midwest, people were happy to say it was because various governments had allowed riverboat gambling (I guess God doesn’t like gambling). When Hurricane Katrina damaged New Orleans, it was because our culture had gone soft on gays and lesbians. The difficulty is that Lady Wisdom doesn’t tell us what her reproof looks like. John Prine sings a song written by R. B. Morris, called, “That’s how every empire falls.” The last verse includes the lyrics, “If terror strikes without a warning, there must be something we don’t see.” So, how do we learn to look?

James seems to me like wisdom literature — instruction to people in positions of authority. His metaphoric treatment of the tongue is spectacular. We could all learn from that: think before you speak.

Mark’s account of Peter’s confession occupies an important place in the Gospel. It represents a real shift in the understanding of the early christian communities of who Jesus is. The answers given to the question, “Who do people say that I am” — Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the prophets — fit well within the wisdom tradition. Each wise person in each age is an incarnation or instantiation of Wisdom. Jesus, like those others named, is an instance of Wisdom. But when Jesus asks Peter (who speaks for the disciples) who they think he is, he answers, “The Christ.” We’ve switched from the realm of wisdom to the realm of politics. The Christ is the “magic bullet” who will set everything to rights, particularly every political thing.

So, when Jesus begins to speak about the Son of Man who must suffer and die, Peter rebukes him. That’s not who the Christ is. But Jesus in turn rebukes Peter — you are setting you mind not on divine things, but human things. You’re seeing things in human terms. So, Jesus calls together his disciples and the crowd and tells them that to follow him, all must take up their cross. Disciples, students, learn wisdom. Everyone can follow, and it sure doesn’t look like wisdom. No easy yoke or light burden here.

He says, “What would be owed a person if he profited the world, but squandered his soul? Or what could he pay for the return of his soul?” The only way through to “setting things to rights” is not the magic bullet, messianic approach, but getting the soul in order. Whoever wants to save the soul, to gather up everything from and individual perspective, will lose it. Whoever loses soul for Jesus sake, and the sake of the Gospel, will save it. In the 80s, there was a popular bumper sticker (usually on Jeeps with bike racks, or ski racks, or on expensive cars) that said, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I saw a bumper sticker that rejoined, “The one who dies with the most toys is still dead.” Raises the question, “Wins what?” If, however, we are ready to spend our energy, our lives on Jesus behalf and behalf of the Gospel, then we will discover we have gained our lives. What does the Gospel look like? What does Wisdom look like? James said it last week: “True religion is this, to keep one unstained for the world, and to care for widows and orphans.” Not the wisdom of the world. If we spend our energies building up the community, looking for the image of God in the world, participating with God’s purpose, we won’t have wasted our time.

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