Friday, March 2, 2012

A Surprising Role Model (Lent 2, March 4 2012)

Homily:  Yr B Lent 2, March 4 2012, St. Albans
Readings:  Gen 17:1-7,15-16; Ps 22:23-30; Rom 4:13-25; Mk 8:31-38

A Surprising Role Model

Many of us here are too young to remember the Cold War, the period of conflict and confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies.  The height of the Cold War was in the early 60’s.  In 1956 the Hungarian revolution was crushed.  In 1962 there was the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built and the Soviets threatened to take control of West Berlin, a small Western enclave surrounded by the Soviet Empire.  In the early 60’s the atmosphere in Berlin was tense.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy went to Berlin, to the farthest frontier of Western Europe.  And standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, with a million people gathered in the streets, he made his famous statement “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  I am a Berliner.  And with those words he pledged the full might of the American military to protect the people of West Berlin against the aggression of the Soviet Union.  And the crowds cheered, because Kennedy had said what they hoped he would say, what they expected him to say, what they had been longing to hear.

In the year 33 AD, a man named Jesus went to Caesarea Philippi.  Caesarea Philippi was at the very northern frontier of the land of Israel, in what we now know as the Golan Heights.  It was a Roman city, built in honour of the Caesar, the Roman Emperor.  It had a gleaming white marble temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar, Son of God, Saviour of the World.  For a Jew in the year 33 AD, Caesarea Philippi was the symbol of everything that was wrong, everything that was evil in the world.  The Jewish people had been under Roman occupation since 63 BC, when Pompey had defeated them and had instituted a reign of violence and oppression that had brutalized them ever since.  The past century had been a time of festering resentment, violent protests, humiliation and shame.  Every Jew dreamed of the day that the Romans would be overthrown and defeated.

This was the context for Jesus decision to take his disciples and the crowds that followed them wherever they went on a long, tiring trek north from the sea of Galilee to the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi.  In that crowd were people whose mothers and fathers had been killed by Roman soldiers in the Galilean rebellions of the year 6 AD.  In that crowd were some who called themselves zealots, men who sought to expel Rome by force, who killed those who collaborated with Rome.  Whether they were terrorists or freedom fighters depended on your point of view.

And Jesus leads them all to the outskirts of that heathen town, with its blasphemous temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar, and its threatening military barracks housing the Roman Legion.  The crowd must have been nervous; they must have wondered why he was leading them to Caesarea Philippi.

And as they come within sight of the city walls, Jesus pulls his closest followers aside and asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And they answered him, “some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.”

And then Jesus asks them, “But you, who do you say I am?”

And I can imagine Peter, looking at Jesus, and then looking with loathing at the Roman city with its temple and soldiers, then back at Jesus.  I can imagine the events of the past few months running through Peter’s mind, the huge crowds that gathered wherever Jesus went, they way he has healed them and fed them, they way they follow him and hang on his every word, Jesus acts of power, the growing conflict with the authorities.

And all of a sudden he gets it.  Jesus is the one, the one sent by God, the one that all of Israel has been hoping for and dreaming of for hundreds of years, the one who will save his people.  And Peter says it.

“You are the Messiah.”

The Messiah.  The one the prophets had promised that God would send.  The one the Jewish people were expecting to lead them in a revolution, the one who would end their oppression, overthrow the Romans and reestablish Israel as a kingdom.

I’m sure Peter expected that at any moment Jesus would address the crowd in the fashion of a great military leader and announce his mission, declaring that anyone who wanted to join with him to overthrow Rome must be ready “to deny themselves, take up their sword, and follow me.”   And with that they would begin the long march to Jerusalem, gathering strength along the way.

In that moment it all made sense.  But that moment didn’t last very long for Peter.  Before he could even say another word, Jesus orders him to be silent.

And then, Jesus begins to teach them that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the authorities, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And when Jesus addresses the crowd, there is no talk of taking up the sword.  Instead they are told to take up their cross.  The cross.  The instrument of Roman terror, torture and execution.  The cross, that burden, which as a final act of humiliation, the Romans would make a convicted rebel to carry to his own execution.  It was a final, shameful act of forced collaboration with the oppressors which made plain for all to see the weakness and brokenness of the one who had defied Rome.

How would you expect Peter to react?

At first he tries to convince Jesus that he’s got it all wrong.  He protests.  He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  And Jesus in turn lets Peter have it, right in front of all the others.  There is to be no misunderstanding on this.  Jesus will not be the Messiah they are expecting.  He will not subscribe to their human agenda, but only to what God wants.

And with this, Peter’s hopes and dreams, his expectations are crushed.  He is angry, he is embarrassed, he doesn’t understand, but most of all he is profoundly disappointed.

Like Peter, sometimes we don’t get the God we want.  What do you do when God doesn’t meet your expectations?  When God disappoints us?

I was told a story recently of a small rural congregation in which one of the woman became very ill. 

This congregation rallied together.  They held prayer vigils for the woman who was ill, they visited and provided support, and they had a tremendous faith that God would heal the woman.  They expected God to restore her to health.

Sadly, after some time, after many prayer services, the woman died.  And the congregation was devastated.  They experienced doubt.  The God they had hoped for, that they had expected, didn’t show up.  And they were profoundly disappointed.

Somewhere along our journey, something of the same sort will happen to us.  We talked about the wilderness parts of our journey last week.  There will be times in life when things are hard, when we are lonely, when there is sadness or illness or brokenness.  There will be times when the God we want and expect doesn’t show up.  What do we do when God disappoints us?

You know, the first time I read today’s Gospel earlier this week, I came at it with the assumption that Jesus was my role model.  That I am to try to be like Jesus.  That this Jesus who teaches that he will suffer and be put to death, that this Jesus who teaches us to deny ourselves and take up the cross like he did, he’s to be my role model.  That’s what I’m supposed to be like. 

But as I read the gospel over again, that started to worry me. I don’t know if I can be like that.  Honestly, I don’t think I can ever live up to that standard.  I don’t know if I even understand what it means to take up my cross and follow Jesus.  This gospel became more and more disconcerting to me.  I started to have doubts.

It’s not that I don’t accept Jesus teaching.  I do.  When I read about someone like Fawzia Koofi in yesterday’s Citizen, a woman who is running for president of Afghanistan to try to preserve the gains that women have made there in the last decade, who knows full well that she is much more likely to be assassinated than to win the presidency, I am awestruck and full of admiration.  It’s just that I’m not sure that I’m up to that sort of thing, in fact I’m pretty sure I’m not.

And that’s when I discovered that there’s another role model for me in the gospel story, a better role model if I can dare say that.  And that’s Peter.  Peter.  The one who gets it wrong.  The one who gets chewed out.  The one who doesn’t understand, the one who is profoundly disappointed.  Because you know what Peter does?  He continues to follow Jesus.  He doesn’t know why Jesus is doing what he’s doing.  He is full of doubts and fears.  He doesn’t understand.  But somehow, in spite of all that, he has faith.  In John’s Gospel, as the crowds start to disappear, Jesus asks Peter if he too wants to go away.  Peter answer is this, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Somehow Peter realizes that even though Jesus may not be what he wants, and Jesus may not be what he expects, Jesus is the one in whom he can put his trust.  And so at a time when most of the crowd turns away from Jesus, Peter follows.  Peter walks the journey of faith, dogged by doubt and fear and misunderstanding and missteps along the way.  It won’t be until Easter morning, three days after Jesus prediction of his own death has come true, that Peter will finally get to look into an empty tomb, and start, just start, to understand.

Our journey is like that.  We don’t have to have it altogether.  We don’t need to understand everything.  We’re more focused on our stuff than God’s stuff.  We will be disappointed, we will have doubts along the way.  We will be tempted to turn back.  But all these things are part of the journey of faith.  Just ask Peter.   And keep going.  And get ready for Easter.


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