Losing my religion

16 September 2018
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19B (RCL)

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

I am writing this as Hurricane Florence is barrelling toward the Carolina coastlines. It is not particularly comforting to hear Wisdom say, “Because you ignored my reproof, I will laugh at your calamity.” As Wisdom literature, Proverbs is likely addressed to young men making their way in the court; but it like all biblical literature, it is probably also address to Israel as a collective. Certainly, if a young man ignores the advise of Wisdom, we expect calamity. But what does it mean for a nation to ignore the counsel of Wisdom? What is that counsel?

We can certainly expect to hear any number of tv preachers tell us in the aftermath that this hurricane is God’s punishment for any number of wicked things we do as a nation. I’d be much more inclined to see the mess of the recovery as an indictment of our inability to provide for one another. I suspect that would be Wisdom’s reproof.

In the Gospel reading, we hear Peter’s confession of the Christ, followed immediately by the first passion prediction. I find it interesting that Jesus predicts the passion in the third person. He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer. Or it could be translated “the human being.” Again, I think the ambiguity is intentional, just as in the case of the audience of Proverbs. It could be Jesus; it could be anybody. Peter scolds Jesus – this is not appropriate for the Christ, and it is not something that any of us want; to be tried and rejected and put to death.

Jesus then tells us that any who want to follow him must deny themselves, take up their cross and come behind him. I would translate the last piece of this teaching as, “For what is owed a person if s/he gains the whole cosmos by profit, but suffers the loss of his/her soul. Indeed, what can one give to buy back one’s soul?” The language is the vocabulary of trade — profit and loss. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he tells Peter, you are setting your mind on earthly things, not heavenly ones.

Peter is thinking of the Christ in terms of earthly power; in Mark’s Gospel only the demons and the centurion at the cross call Jesus the Son of God. The high priest asks him if he is the Christ, the son of the Blessed One. Jesus never uses the title of himself. The centurion doesn’t use the article before God, so it would best be translated “son of the divine,” or in Latin ‘divi filius’, the title for Caesar. Peter is expecting a Christ of power. Only the demons and centurions recognize Jesus’ true power, which is paradoxical.

When we respond to the world in fear, when we are afraid of the immigrant or the street person, we are seeking to occupy a place of power, protecting ourselves. If we build those walls high enough, we will lose our souls, and can’t buy them back. If we move away from those positions of imaginary power, we will discover in fact a richer life. Here is the paradox of those who have faced a devastating diagnosis, who say they have never been more alive. In my own experience, stepping out into the hospitality of the despised other has expanded my sense of belonging in the world. For many of us, having to face white privilege can elicit Peter’s response – this shall not be. But once begun, we learn to see more and more how we can live in the world with joy.

All three lessons use the language of the philosophical schools. Losing one’s life is not (always) a one-time thing, but a process of learning to stand in another place, see from another perspective, surrender what is wrongly held as dear, and in the process discovering a fuller life.

As this hurricane bears down on us, I hope we can learn to see how the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed experience our power, and the fear which drives us to cling to it.

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