Proper 19  Year B                                                       Wisdom of Solomon 7: 26-8:10

13 September 2015                                                     Mark 8:27-38

Ashland United Church of Christ

The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett

 

In the name of the Holy One:  Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-Giver.  Amen.

 

I am so happy to be back with you again.  What a treat for me – to be asked to preach on your Welcome Back, Sunday.  The Christian liturgical year doesn’t make allowances for the turning of the seasons, so we need to honor those deep, natural cycles in ways that mark time in our lives.  Autumn is surely on her way – in spite of the unseasonal heat of this weekend!  For most of us, September is more of a New Year than January 1st can ever be.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters get it right.  At sundown this evening, their High Holy Days begin with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  For the next ten days, they will observe a season of personal and universal renewal, an opportunity to consciously begin again.  Makes all kind of sense, doesn’t it?  To begin again at this time of the year.

As a congregation, the months ahead will present you with a time to begin again as you move ahead into new ways of being this faithful and lively church under the leadership of a new pastor.  And offered to your imagination at this morning Ministry Faire in this season of renewal are new ministries, new opportunities to serve, new classes to take and books to read, perhaps you’re ready this year to learn a new way of praying or experience a different way to worship.  It’s a new year to intentionally grow in your faith, no matter how many Welcome Back, Sundays you may have lived through.

September is about thresholds, I think – the threshold from one season to another, the threshold of beginning again as persons and as the people of God in this place.  And as at any threshold, there is a necessary letting go of what has been, as well as a hope for what is beyond the present moment.  That bittersweet twinning together of loss and hope is the emotion of the natural season as well as what we feel whenever we cross thresholds. This is the season of a particular kind of yearning.

Do you know what I am trying to say?  This yearning in its essence is a homesickness.  A yearning to belong, to be accepted, to be loved.  A yearning to come Home.

Listen:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

 

Those words are, of course, from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” Did you know that in Celtic Christianity, the Holy Spirit was imaged not as a dove but as a wild goose?  Think of that, the next time you see the V-formation high in the September sky!

In good Hebraic tradition, the Holy Spirit comes to many of us in feminine form.  She is Sophia. The Shekinah. The Wisdom of God.  As we heard in the first reading, She is

…a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God…She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other and she orders all things well. 

 

“In every generation she passes into holy souls and makes us friends of God,” over and over announcing our place in the family of things, bringing us Home to God, if we will but follow Her lead.

Which brings me, belatedly but inevitably, to the Gospel reading for this Sunday.   All over Christendom this Gospel is being read and heard.  Christians everywhere today are being faced with perhaps the most haunting question of our faith: But who do you say that he is?

Here’s the context.  Jesus and his disciples were heading home again after their attempt to find some rest and quiet time in the Gentile territories north of Galilee.  They found little of either.  Instead, in the encounter with a foreign woman who would do anything to find healing for her child, Jesus had been confronted with the stunning realization that his ministry, his vocation, extended beyond the limits of his own Jewish people.

Now they were on their way home, passing through the raucous town of Caesarea Philippi that lay about 25 miles north of home.  The location is important.  The town’s name meant “Philip” – Philippi – is “Lord” – Caesar.  Couldn’t be clearer about who was in power.  The town was a favorite place for Roman soldiers to come for their R & R, so we can imagine what businesses might have sprung up to cater to the desires of off-duty soldiers far from home.  I’m told that on the road leading into town, there were niches carved into the stone walls lining the road, and in those niches were sculptures of pagan gods and goddesses.  Pan, that crafty trickster, was a favorite.  Are you getting a sense of this place?

Caesarea Philippi was a spiritual smorgasbord, a favorite destination of tourists, a town known for its liveliness.  Not unlike, I might suggest, our own town.  Think about it.

It was here, on foreign territory, that Jesus asked his followers, “What are people saying about me?  Who do they think I am?”  The answers came quick and easy.  “Well, some say you’re John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and some people think you’re a prophet.”

It would be as if we were asked that question:  Who do people say Jesus is?  And we could easily answer, “Well, Marcus Borg thinks he was Jewish peasant who was a mystic, and Jack Spong thinks he was a healer, and others think he might have been a political insurrectionary, and many think he was a remarkable spiritual teacher who spoke in Zen-like koans.”  Then one of us, maybe me, might ask for the question to be clarified:  “Are you asking what people are saying about the historical Jesus of Nazareth or about the Cosmic Christ?”

But then, way back all those years in Caesarea Philippi – and in my mind, it had to be September when this happened with achingly clear blue skies overhead and the leaves beginning to turn – but then Jesus looked at his followers and asked:  “But who do you say that I am?”

Who do you say that he is?

And we fall silent.

Peter, bless his heart, spoke for all of us when he got it right and got it wrong.  “You are the Messiah,” he blurted out, meaning the One Sent by God, the Anointed One, the One We’ve Been Waiting For, the One who will restore to us what we lost so long ago.

Jesus immediately began to dismantle their illusions about what “Messiah” really meant.  It didn’t mean restoration of power; it meant vulnerability and loss of who you thought you were, and an undercutting of the cultural values of self-reliance and status and security.  To be a follower of this Messiah means one’s heart will break over and over and over again in suffering love.  There’s no other way around it.

This morning’s Gospel takes us right up to that same threshold with Jesus and his disciples.  From now on in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus will set his course away from his homeland in the Galilee and head straight into the dark heart of Jerusalem, and the Cross that awaits him there.

On every threshold, there is loss.  Every time we begin again –knowing what we are leaving behind and daring to hope for what lies ahead – every time we begin again — we better be wondering, Who does we say that he is?  Who is God?  And Where is God?  Where is God present in my life, in our life together, in our community, in our broken world?  Is God still speaking?  Is the Spirit leading me?  Leading us?

What questions are you being asked, here at the threshold of this new year?  What illusions need to be dispelled?  What truths, personal and public, do we need to face and to accept?  How will you move from “talk about God” to “here’s what I believe”?

In our time, many of us are rightly sensitive to the dangers of Christian exclusivity.  We may hesitate to claim Jesus as our own Wild Goose, The One Whom We Follow, for fear of adding to the arrogance of those who claim there is no other way Home except by Him. I would like to address that fear – which may keep us stuck — by quoting James Finley who was blessed to have Thomas Merton as his teacher and spiritual director.  Finley writes:

I looked on Thomas Merton as the living embodiment of the mystical, contemplative heritage of my own Christian tradition. … This ancient tradition is not simply about believing in Jesus, nor is it simply to live as Jesus lived – a life of love for God and for others.  Beyond that, the Christian way is also a life in which we are called to follow Jesus in a process of self-emptying by which we come to realize that ultimately there is nothing real in us that is less or other than God’s infinite love, which is our life. 

 

Let me repeat that.  The Christian way of life is also

by a process of self-emptying [that is, losing our life as we have known it][by which] we come to realize that ultimately there is nothing real in us that less or other than God’s infinite love, which is our life…. 

 

Which means,

…when we seek what is truest in our own tradition, we discover we are one with those who seek what is truest in their tradition.  There is a point of convergence where we met each other…and what is truest is that we are called to recognize, surrender to, and ultimately be identified with the mystery of God utterly beyond all concepts, all words, all designations whatsoever… What’s more, we are realize that this boundless, birthless, deathless mystery of God is manifesting itself and giving itself to us completely in every breath and heartbeat…We’d all experience God loving us into our chair, loving us into the present moment, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat.  And we would then bear witness to that realization by the way we treat ourselves, the way we treat others, the way we treat all living things.  This is the way, this is the great way….

 

Well.  That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?  But for me, this is the understanding of how we can cross the threshold into a deeper and yes, even more demanding growth in our lives of faith, where we dare to answer for ourselves the haunting question that Christ Jesus asks of us.

And so, my dear friends, blessings on this next new year of being “church.”  Know that this church is a blessing to the wider community.  Blessings on each one of you as you cross your personal thresholds into new ways of being faithful.  Blessings be on your minds as you study, your hearts as you pray, your hands as you serve.  May you follow the Way of the Wild Goose as She leads you Home.

Amen.