Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – September 16, 2018
People have been back in school learning and teaching for a few weeks already and here we are at the start of a new Program and Sunday School year at CLC! You all should know this by now, but I am one of those nerds who loves school. You may groan if you want. But I think that we are meant to learn our entire lives and we do that not only by asking questions, staying open, trying new things, and sitting at the feet of the masters, but also by teaching.
Everything about our life together comes back to learning. Being a follower of Jesus means being formed and shaped in our knowledge and love of God, as well as being formed in how we live our lives to reflect God’s character in the world. Think about this – every week in the liturgy we repeat certain words: responses to prayers, the creeds, the peace, the Lord’s Prayer… We even say, “and also with you” which can become so ingrained that we actually use it watching Star Wars: “The Force be with you…and also with you.” I digress. But the words we hear and say, as well as our actions, matter. As someone has said: “You remember what you say better than what you read, and you remember what you sing better than what you say.” What we see, hear, say, sing, and act out shapes who we are.
So who is our teacher? What are they teaching us and what are we learning? This past week, Jeff and I watched the recent Mr. Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” And it was clear that in spite of the low budget sets, puppets, and production quality, the Reverend Fred Rogers’ success came from his understanding of and passion about one essential thing: children are formed and shaped by what they see and experience. As he watched television programs develop and become popular using slapstick comedy, the belittling of others for laughs, and through commercials selling violent toys, he knew children were taking it all in. That’s why he felt it was his calling and ministry to help children navigate the barrage of images and sounds they experienced every day.
But this doesn’t just happen to children. We, too, are bombarded with all sorts of messages each and every day – on the TV, the radio, in stores, on our phones, through social media, and even from other people. What are we taking in?
In the passage from the prophet Isaiah we hear the voice of the “Suffering Servant,” which God’s people Israel understood to be speaking about the nation as a whole. They understood this to be pointing to their role as God’s chosen and anointed people charged with being a light to the nations. Later, Christians came to associate this reading with Jesus and his suffering. But it also has wisdom for us: “Morning by morning he … wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.”
Each morning we wake is a new day to listen and be taught by God. Or is it a day to be rebellious and turn backward? I hear in these words not only great promise that God opens our ears – that we are capable of learning and being changed – but also a prayer: “Help me know how to sustain the weary with a word. To listen as those who are taught. Open my ears!”
Peter gets it bang on when he names Jesus, his teacher, as the Messiah. But he doesn’t understand, or maybe more truthfully, doesn’t want to understand that the kind of Messiah Jesus is doesn’t just mean glory and power, but life that comes from great sacrifice and the relinquishment of power. We, too, are familiar with these words from Jesus: “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’”
I think maybe we immediately jump to thinking about taking up the cross as dying for our beliefs or becoming martyrs. Now, for many people around the world, this has been their horrific reality. But I don’t think that’s all Jesus was talking about. If we only think about this referring to martyrdom or allowing ourselves to be abused by others, what application does it have for our everyday lives? Maybe the challenge is to think about all those little every day deaths – dying to our selves, our selfishness, our self-centeredness, and putting others first. Maybe the difficulty lies in thinking about the cross in the mundane – in our relationships with others, how we act and how we speak.
And this is where learning comes in. The cross is our teacher. Andreas Andreopoulos writes: “The sign of the cross reminds us … that we are internalizing the life of Jesus, his incarnation, passion, and resurrection. … [it is] not meant so much as an act of ‘taking up’ the cross, as it is of ‘taking the cross inside.’” The cross – that symbol that we see all around and sometimes trace on us – is something that urges us to truly embrace what we have learned from and through Christ.
Some people don’t make the sign of the cross thinking it’s “too Catholic” or just too foreign. And I get it as I didn’t always cross myself. However, I started to when I found I needed reassurance. I made the sign of the cross to remind myself of Jesus. To remind myself that I was in God’s hands. And over time, I’ve discovered that how I cross myself has changed. When I make the sign of the cross now, I find my hand resting over my heart. It’s a prayer – wanting to be formed in the way of the cross – the way of Christ. It’s a movement showing a desire to adopt the ways of God.
Like Peter, we may find ourselves turning away from the cross because of how we view it. Because it symbolizes that we may have to let go of our deepest desires, face our fears, and risk saying “yes” to something we cannot see or understand fully. Being formed by the cross and the rhythms of dying and rising it symbolizes will radically shape our world. It means the growing pains of having our idols – all those things we cling to instead of God – stripped away. It means living counter-culturally. It means resisting being shaped by the meanness, striving, callousness, consumerism, and power struggles of the world. In means that our words and actions point to someone who has taught us how to really come alive in freedom, joy, and hope. How to gain life through surrender.
Let me be honest. At its core, this is a hard, hard message. Because it means death. But it also means real life. It might look like risking loving so deeply you may be hurt. It might look like letting go of what you thought was your goal in order to see the new possibilities God has in store. It might involve courage to confront injustice in the world around you or even in your own backyard. Each of these scenarios involves a change of heart and mind. And change is never easy.
So who is your teacher? Today, James’ words about the tongue being like wild horses, ships’ rudders, or like a fire capable of engulfing a huge forest make complete sense. Because how quickly do sound bytes, tweets, off the cuff remarks, and headlines stir us up, enflame our anxiety, and raise our hackles? We may feel captive to this, but when the world seems to be spinning out of control, take a moment to remember: “Jesus is my teacher. Morning by morning he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. I don’t have to be sucked in by all of these other voices.” This pilgrimage we are on involves lifelong learning. It involves saying “no” to those other things that might shape us and saying “yes” to the way of the cross each day. It’s hard and we are not always going to get it right. But this is the way to life we are invited into, just like the original imperfect disciples. The Holy Spirit guides and strengthens us as we discover what it means to love God and the world. So feel encouraged. And as we start this new school year, I just want to say, “welcome to the classroom!” Amen.