Living with Ambiguity

Mark 8:31-38
© Stacey Steck

“Get behind me Satan?” Really, Jesus? That’s harsh. How can you talk about life and death in the same breath? How can you offer hope and despair from the same glorious mouth? How can you call out your most faithful supporter as your worst enemy? These may have been some the thoughts of the chastened Peter as he stood there hearing perhaps the most challenging message Jesus ever offered: “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.”

Poor Peter becomes the object lesson of this great paradox of the Christian life simply because he has been listening and watching carefully. He has heard Jesus preach words of life, and even bring back from the dead a little girl with the words “Talitha cum,” and he has seen five thousand people, and then four thousand more, fed from what was just barely enough food for just the twelve disciples. He has seen the blind healed and the faith of unclean Gentiles affirmed. He has even answered correctly what he probably thinks is the hardest question on the final exam: “Who do you say that I am?” by affirming Jesus as the Messiah. And then, the next thing he knows, he is looking at the ground, his face flushed with shame, for Jesus has humiliated him in front of the rest of the kids in class for simply affirming everything he has just heard and seen. Mark tells us very specifically that Jesus “turned and looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter, saying ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ ” This was no private chiding to get with the program. It was an in-your-face, public kind of scolding that must have made Peter feel about six years old. If Jesus wanted him to receive the kingdom of God like a child, this was a rough way to go about it.

But that is all part of the paradox, isn’t it? To mature in the faith, we must be like children. To be great, we must be humbled. To gain everything, we must give everything away. And to live we must die. All these are sayings of this same paradoxical and contradictory Jesus. God never claimed to be 100% logical. Creating order from chaos? Sure. Bending the laws of nature? Sure. But logical, not necessarily. Perhaps the ancients were more comfortable with being tossed about intellectually by their gods, since they were not, as we are, products of the age of enlightenment where order and predictability are our gods’ most redeeming virtues. Perhaps truth has a different ring in the Internet age than in the stone age. But students are students, and learning that what you think you just learned well is wrong can be a little earth-shattering. And so our hearts go out to Peter as his beloved teacher lets him have it in some of the harshest words in all of the Gospels, and we hope not to hear similar such words when we come face to face with our Savior in the kingdom of heaven.

The last few weeks, I’ve been talking some about the vision God has given us, to be the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County. We mean to make that good news take a variety of forms. Good news like addicts in recovery, and jobs aplenty and cancer in remission. Good news of teachers paid well and farmers with good yields. Good news of families reconciled, and music made, and kids who love Jesus. It’s the same kind of good news in the Bible, like the year of jubilee when the blind see and the captives are set free and the hungry are fed. The meek shall inherit the earth, and those who mourn shall be comforted. The lion will lie down with the lamb, and there will not be a sword or spear to be found, but only plowshares and pruning hooks. That all good news, right? What a beautiful vision! Can I get an “Amen”?

Amen? Amen did you say? Hardly. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Not my words, but Jesus’ words. “If any of you 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.” That doesn’t sound like good news at all. That cross was heavy and painful and shameful. And so here we are, face to face once again with Peter’s paradox, as he too tried to reconcile Jesus’ message of life, with Jesus’ prophecy of death. How do we reconcile a vision of our community rejoicing in God’s good news with the call to lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel? How do we put together the Biblical stories of good news of Jubilee with the bad news of Holy Week? How do we proclaim life even as we march toward death again this Lent? And if our version of Good News is an image of suffering, of us hanging on the cross, or even just carrying it, why on earth would anyone want to join us?

Well, the easy way out of this paradox is to compartmentalize our life into the here and now, on the one hand, and our life in the hereafter, on the other. In our handful of years, we are called to endure the taunts, torture, persecution and even death that come with our faith, knowing that our true home, the “real” good news, awaits us for the rest of eternity. The image of being safely home in heaven makes our years of suffering bearable, and we can take some solace in knowing that our mortal bodies will not last forever, and that we will inherit an imperishable body in a place where things are not so brutal. That hope keeps people going, like a marathon runner who sees the finish line ahead. The only problem with this way of dealing with the paradox is that it doesn’t really mesh too well with a lot of the New Testament, where we do see Jesus healing and feeding, alleviating suffering, and bringing life. It doesn’t square very well with God’s call to justice from the prophets in the Old Testament, the Amoses and Isaiahs who called for the wicked to repent so that the poor might thrive and not just survive. No, I think the Bible is clear that the life God has given us is one to be enjoyed rather endured like some kind of divine entrance exam for the kingdom of heaven.

Indeed, Jesus’ own words in this morning’s passage make that clear when we take a look at what they meant in Greek, and in context. When we hear Jesus say, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves,” we generally think sacrificing ourselves for others, for putting ourselves last, and thinking better of others than ourselves. The word humility comes to mind, and so like the stereotypical parent who sacrifices everything for the sake of his or her child, working night and day to make sure that child’s future is assured, we understand ourselves called to live for others at the expense of our own identities. Now, while serving others is indeed a Christian virtue, utter self-sacrifice is not exactly what Jesus had in mind when he called his followers to deny themselves. In fact, what he is doing is calling them to deny their family and culture for the sake of the Gospel rather than to deny themselves. Yes, he is calling them to put their earthly ties of kinship and citizenship second to their faith in God. What they must deny is the comfort of their roles and responsibilities, their daily routines, whatever privileges and benefits that may have accrued to them by virtue of birth or position in society. Peter is called Satan when he asks Jesus to turn his back on God’s purposes by remaining with the disciples, to continue as their earthly leader. Remember that Peter rebukes Jesus for saying he must die, something Peter cannot contemplate, an earthly thought, rather than a divine thought. And so a better way to translate that verse then is to say that “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must leave everything behind and commit themselves wholly to my purposes,” even to the point of the persecution and death represented by Jesus telling them to “take up their cross.” Unless our self-sacrifice is for God’s purposes, it is merely a waste of the life given to us by God. Unless our self-sacrifice is for God’s purposes, it is merely a waste of the life given to us by God.

I say this hoping you will not think I am saying that a parent’s sacrifice for a child, or a soldier’s for a nation, or a teacher’s for a student, is a waste of the life given to us by God. Far from it. What I am saying is that if these sacrifices are made at the expense of God’s purposes, to satisfy our own needs rather than God’s needs, or to serve a nation’s interests rather than God’s interests, then we will be in line to hear the rebuke Peter heard. What was it Jesus said when told his family was asking for him outside the house in which he was teaching? “Who are my mother and my brothers? And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ ” If it seems like I am picking on family, it is not to say that family is unimportant, but to point up something more important about both the kingdom, and the notion of good news, namely the paradoxical nature of God’s good news for us, that it may not in fact be in the form we expect it to be, but it’s still better than we could ever imagine it to be.

I’d like to conclude this morning with a prayer that I think captures something of the paradoxical nature of good news in the way Jesus defines it in our passage from Mark. It is called, “No Dying Today,” by John van de Laar, a white South African Methodist pastor, and it goes like this:

You keep talking about dying, Jesus;
About how life is found
not by white-knuckled clinging;
but by a prodigal losing.

We nod and smile, and ponder the deep significance of these words,
and then, with a slow sigh of relief,
we go back to our life-preservers;
our safe, protected worlds;
our well-sheltered, comfortable spirituality;
and we turn our eyes away from those who reach out to us,
those we could touch with Your life,
if only we would take the risk.

What were you thinking, Jesus?
Surely faith is about finding life,
not laying it down?
Surely we need to follow You in order to be sure
that life doesn’t end when we die?
There’ll be no dying today, Jesus – not if we can help it.
And if your promise is to be believed;                      
no dying at all – ever.

If only we could keep away the images of those others,
the different, the lonely, the misunderstood, and the forgotten,
the hungry, the abused, the least;
the ones in whose eyes we glimpse, in unguarded moments,
the outline of Your face;
the ones in whose silence we hear a sound,
not unlike Your voice,
inviting us to carry a cross.

May God help each to be bringers of Good News, no matter what form that Good News might take. Amen.

Where Seldom Is Heard...

Mark 1:21-28
© Stacey Steck

At wedding receptions you may have attended, the best man and the maid or matron of honor may have offered a toast, extolling the virtues of the couple or reminding the guests how they met, maybe sharing some borderline embarrassing memories of the bride or groom’s earlier life. For some, standing up and speaking in public is a form of torture, and they barely make it through their stumbling speech. For others, however, give them a microphone and watch out. You may never get to the cake. In this latter category of speechmakers, the majority are those who either try, and succeed, or try, and miserably fail, to be funny. Either way, they all want to be comedians, whether they have the gift or not. And then you have the inimitable Mary Dolan, the maid of honor at our wedding some nearly twenty-five years ago, who, perhaps encouraged by our own wedding guests, has decided to actually become a standup comedian. A mom with two young children, Mary has quit her job, and begun making the rounds of some of Washington D.C.’s comedy clubs where she is sharpening her act and gaining fans, at least on Facebook. Whether she makes it to the big time or not, at least her experiment gives Flora and I the opportunity to make the legitimate claim that we had a professional comedian perform at our wedding. Not that marriage is a laughing matter mind you, but did you hear the one about the guy whose wife told him to stop impersonating a flamingo? He had to put his foot down after that comment…and now we know why Mary’s the comedian and I’m the pastor.

As she gets her act together, Mary will need to learn the ins and outs of the trade: how to work with club managers, how to use the sound equipment, how to select material appropriate to her audience. All of that stuff is somewhat predictable, but there is one more, very unpredictable, thing she will also have to learn how to handle: the heckler, that annoying member of the audience who will try to disrupt her act, and make her flub a punch line, and get flustered, and want to give up. You’ve seen these people I’m sure. They yell out something rude from the back of the room in a vain attempt to draw attention to themselves. They try to draw the performer into a back and forth verbal tug of war, largely aimed at getting themselves some laughs at the expense of the performer who is getting paid to get the laughs. Hecklers are nothing new, and they are inevitable, and the accomplished performer, of any type, is the one who at once silences the heckler, and also absorbs the disruption into the act in such a way that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the success of the performance.

Maybe you recognized the heckler in this morning’s story. Not that Jesus is your run of the mill comedian, although he is at times very funny, but here is Jesus teaching in the synagogue, performing, if you will, the crowd eating out of his hand, a buzz beginning to rumble through the pews about his teaching, maybe he’s even coming up to the key point he is trying to make about the kingdom of God…and up pops a heckler who tries to do what hecklers through the centuries have always tried to do. “Hey, you! Yeah, wise guy, you, Jesus of Nazareth. What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And of course, all eyes turn from Jesus to this new voice, to see who is doing this heckling, who is offering this challenge from the cheap seats. Now, of course we don’t have a transcript of the occasion, and maybe there was some back and forth for a bit, but it seems that Jesus doesn’t miss a beat, and does what accomplished performers are able to do: to at once silence the heckler, and also absorb the disruption into the act in such a way that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the success of the performance. “ ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. The crowd was amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the hecklers, I mean unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ ” Mission accomplished, Jesus. Excellent work. Would you like to come back for a return engagement at the Apollo? You see, “At once, his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” And all he had to do was call out a heckler and put him in his place.

OK, so maybe it was a little more serious than that, but there are some interesting lessons to be learned from this story of how Jesus deals with the demon-possessed heckler, because this guy was neither the last heckler Jesus encountered, nor the last one to try to disrupt our lives, our performances, if you will. You see, that same voice of challenge, that same voice of doubt and discouragement, of attention-seeking, that voice is never fully and finally silenced, no matter how adept we are. That voice that rings out shrilly in the world, or in our own heads, it won’t go away until that day of the Lord we are all waiting for, when Christ returns and puts an end to heckling once and for all. And so, in the meantime, like our friend Mary Dolan, it is worth our time learning how to prepare for the hecklers we will encounter as try to become the Good News Capital of Western Rowan County, as we take to heart these authoritative teachings of Jesus and try to live them out in our homes and workplaces, as we do our best to be faithful disciples, parents, grandparents, friends, spouses, because those hecklers will always be there, in every venue, taking every opportunity to get under our skin, to disrupt our act, and make us flub a punch line, and get flustered, and want to give up. Have you ever felt that way? Like just when you were about get that really big laugh, close that really important deal, teach that crucial lesson, share that Good News of the Gospel, someone stood up and stole your thunder? You see, that’s exactly what the demons wanted to do that day to Jesus, to take his authority right out from under him, on the opening night of his act, in front of his most attentive audience, and to turn all eyes in the room on themselves. And they’ll do it to you too, if you let them.

Maybe as I’m speaking, you are remembering when it’s happened to you, or you are hearing those comments, those questions, start to roll around in your head. “You’re not good enough, smart enough, fast enough, beautiful enough.” “You don’t have what it takes, you’ll never succeed.” “Who would want to hear what you have to say?” “How can you betray your family like that?” “What kind of friend are you, anyway?” “Do you have enough money saved for your retirement?” “Is that the biggest diamond you can afford to give her, you loser?” Or the worst: “No one will ever love you.” It would be nice if the comments and criticisms that burrow deep within us, that undermine our ability to speak with authority, it would be nice if they came from as clearly visible a place as a guy acting crazy in church. But usually they come from our most trusted sources, and our innermost places. That is not to say that the people in our lives who may make these contributions are necessarily possessed with unclean spirits, although I have thought that at times about some members of my family. But it is to say that the heckling our family and friends and bosses and media outlets do takes its inspiration from the same demonic source as our story tonight. Jesus received his heckling from someone from his own religious community, or at least someone posing as someone who belonged there. At the very least, someone let him in the door. In other stories in the Gospels, Jesus gets it from the people of his hometown, his family who think he is the nutty one, that great collection of the Chief priests, Scribes and Pharisees, even his own disciples and followers, all of them people more or less close to him. Each of them take their turn offering up words of discouragement that he must turn back to remain faithful to the call God has given him. And so must we.

It is easier said than done, of course, especially when Jesus makes it look so easy, but it is not impossible. And I think we can collect some tips both from Jesus himself, but also from the performers of our own time who are successful at deflecting what would bring them down and using it to raise the spirit of themselves and their audiences. First and foremost among these tips is to cling ever so tightly to the message Jesus was proclaiming in the synagogue in the first place: that God loves you, and that you have value in God’s eyes that no demon can undermine; that God loves the world and wants it to be a habitable and humane place where hecklers have no place, and where words of discouragement fall on deaf ears. As we hear that those in the synagogue that day were astounded at his teaching, I think it was the authenticity of his words, his ability to distill into his own being the very grace of God which is at the center of the whole Biblical story, that people were responding to, and which that man with the unclean spirit wanted to deny. “What have you to do with us?” he asks. “Have you come to destroy us?” he asks, and the plural, the “us” may refer to multiple demons inside him, but maybe it is referring to the “us” of the people gathered for worship, and the unclean spirit is trying to call Jesus into question not only in his own mind, but also in the mind of the crowd that is beginning to warm to that message of divine love that is breaking into their world in a new way. Are you going to ruin it for the rest of us, Jesus? Are you going to bring the wrath of Rome down on our heads? Those are the kinds of comments that make you question yourself. But holding on to God’s grace, remembering why we are up there on stage in the first place – to bring joy into people’s lives – that is the best way to maintain poise when responding to whatever form the hecklers in our lives may take. With the knowledge that God truly loves you, with those words of grace as the soundtrack inside your head, the world’s words of discouragement will find no place to hang their hat.

If you listen to the comedians and magicians and jugglers of the world talk about hecklers, you’ll hear both some interesting insights about the hecklers themselves, and also some tips on how to deal with them. One of their most interesting observations is that generally, the reason they heckle is not because they don’t like or don’t admire the performer, but precisely the opposite, that in fact they are attracted to the performer, and are maybe even envious of their skill or ability to work the crowd. And so their heckling takes the form of a kind of verbal tugging of the performer’s short sleeve, a “pay attention to me” kind of plea designed to draw them closer to the object of their affection. Of course, they are sometimes just nasty drunks, but often the heckler can be turned into an enthusiastic fan by making them a positive, if brief, part of the show rather than simply ignoring them or insulting them in an attempt to get them to shut up.

In a sense, this is what Jesus did with the man with the unclean spirit. Instead of telling him to go away and leave him to teach in peace, or moving to another synagogue, or engaging in a destructive verbal battle, he took advantage of the opportunity to use the man to put an exclamation point on the teaching he was already doing. It is as if he invited the man up on stage, and won over the rest of the audience by doing so. Where the hecklers in our lives are concerned, what this may mean is to resist the urge to fight or run away, and instead find a new way, a good news way, of interacting with the discouraging voices, which probably really only want to be closer to us in the first place. If you play the game the hecklers want you to play, you’ll always lose. But if you invite the heckler to play the game on the Gospel’s terms, an enemy becomes a friend, and the good news is shared more widely.

There is a sense in which the better we are at performing the roles God has given us, the more likely we are to attract hecklers. You see, people are attracted to holiness, whether their behavior suggests it or not. Some people come to the synagogue to listen and learn. Others come to heckle. But all come because there is something there that calls them, tugs them, amazes and astounds them. Not everyone will be able to negotiate that attraction in appropriate ways, but that should not, cannot, keep us from being the best performers we can be with the gifts God has given us. And part of that performance is taking the criticism and doubt that comes our way and transforming it into yet another experience of grace to share with the world. May God help each of us to learn the art of fending off the hecklers of the world that we may speak with the authority and authenticity Jesus showed in the synagogue that day. Amen.