A sermon offered on Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B, Track 1, RCL), September 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
So here’s a thing that happened this week . . . . We prepared the bulletins for today; both the church secretary and I reviewed them and proof-read them and only after they’d been copied and folded that I saw something out of order with today’s Psalm (as printed in the bulletin). It’s Verse 10….
There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the verse number, you see, is larger than the numbers of all the other verses. We set the type size for the verse numbers at 10 pt, but that one verse number didn’t get set that way . . . it’s 14 pt; stands out like a sore thumb, calls attention to the verse: “More to be desired are they [the statutes and judgments of God] than gold, more than much fine gold . . . . ” I took that as a sign that I should talk about gold this morning, that I should talk about money, and that seemed like a good idea because next week you will be receiving the annual pledge campaign flier.
On the other hand, I’d rather talk about today’s gospel in which Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say that I am?” to which they give a variety of answers, but then he really puts them on the spot with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, of course, comes up with a correct answer, but this is a question which is never completely answered, is it?
It’s funny, but when I read this particular story I can’t help thinking of The Logical Song by the rock group Supertramp. The refrain of the song goes:
There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am.
Now I know that the pleading, lost, confused, and rebellious attitude of the singer of the song is not the attitude of Jesus in his conversation with the disciples, but the lyric is right that this is a question that runs deep, as absurd as it may sound. Jesus asks us this question on a regular basis: “Tell me what you’ve learned. Tell me who I am to you.”
Jesus first asks the twelve, “What have you learned? What’s public saying about me?” But he doesn’t stop with asking about public opinion. He asks them for a personal position: “Who do you say that I am?”
We live in a pluralistic society; we live in a time in which there are many religious choices, and we have much to learn from the many others, different sorts of Christians as well as those of other faiths and those of none, all the variety of persons among whom we live and with whom we interact. In this pluralistic milieu we also have much to share with these others and we need to be able to give an account of our own religious choice. We have chosen to follow Christ. We have chosen to follow Christ in a particular way. Why? Who is Jesus to us?
Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, insists that he is the model of our spiritual maturity, the gauge (if you will) of our spiritual development: it is our calling, Paul insists, to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Mark’s way of making this same point is to quote Jesus as saying to us, as he said to Peter and the other disciples, “Deny [your]selves and take up [your] 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.”
Jesus’ question is really not about his identity, at all. It’s really about ours. When each of us answers his question, what we respond says more about our self than it can ever say about Jesus. Who are we becoming as we follow him, as we come “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?” is a question about our identities and our priorities.
It is often said if you want to know your real priorities, look at two things: your appointment book and your checkbook. These days you might look at your Google calendar and your online bank account statement, or the calendar app on your smartphone and your credit card statement. Whatever. The point is that your priorities are always going to be reflected in the way you spend your resources: your time, your talents and abilities, your money, your energy. Jesus said it plainly: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk 12:34). Where your gold is, there are your priorities.
Jesus says, “These are the priorities: Deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.”
A theology of the cross or a theology of self-denial does not mean a contrived humility or a self-sacrificing martyrdom; we do not follow Jesus, we do not take up our cross, we do not grow into the full stature of Christ by demeaning ourselves. A true theology of the cross, a true denial of self means that we are called to selflessness, to an unselfishness in which we do the very best we can with the treasure, the talents, the abilities, and the energy God gives us. To “deny oneself” and take up one’s cross means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mk 12:28-31).
The commandment[s] of the Lord [are] clear
and give light to the eyes.
The judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold . . . .
So, I guess I ended up talking about money after all, and that probably is a good idea because this next week you will be receiving your annual pledge card for 2016.
Late at night, when all the world’s asleep,
And the questions run so deep
When you fill out next year’s card.
Won’t you please, please tell us what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Tell Jesus who he is; tell him who you are.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.