Put in Our Place, a sermon on Psalm:19:1-4a, Mark 8:27-34

Author E.B. White once said “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Our two Scriptures for today suggest that choice is not an either/or but a both/and. They tell us in fact that we can’t do one without the other.

Diana and I were in Colorado this summer for a family wedding. Our nephew acted as social director for the group before and after the wedding and one activity was a trip to a small observatory to do some star gazing. We were at 8000 feet so the air was clear (and cold), and we discovered that they have a lot more stars in Colorado than Ohio!

As we got amazing views through the telescopes of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons we learned some mind-blowing facts from the astronomers about how many billions of stars there are in the universe. They told us that our Milky Way galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter, a distance I can’t even imagine. But then they said that the observable universe is estimated to contain 200 billion to 2 trillion galaxies. At one point our nephew said to me, “I’m feeling really small.”

I’m guessing that kind of awe is what our psalmist was feeling we she or he wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” This author was having one of those mountain top experiences where we can’t help but savor the universe. Without any words the majesty and power of our creator goes forth and is proclaimed even to those who use different words or symbols to try and describe the sense of wonder and our own smallness in the infinity of God’s universe. In a different but similar way powerful storms like Hurricane Florence and Super Typhoon Mangkhut can also make us realize how powerless we humans really are in the universal scheme of things.

The mystery of creation shows us things in proper perspective and puts us in our place as a very tiny part of creation. And yet as small and insignificant as we feel the creator of the universe so loves every part of creation, including humankind, that God came to our little planet in human form to show us how to savor and save ourselves and the world.

The truth that Jesus lived it is that mountain top experiences are wonderful and necessary, regular worship and prayer feed our souls, but our daily lives still play out in the messy valleys where we know all too much pain and suffering. The trick is to remember to savor God’s majesty and power even when we can’t see or hear the heavens telling the glory of God. When the stuff of life hits the proverbial fan, then more than ever we need to be put in our place so we can keep life in perspective.

To be put in our place is to know who we are and whose we are. That’s the point of Jesus’ question to the disciples in our Gospel lesson for today. The familiar words in Mark 8 that followers of Jesus must take up their cross are so well-known to us that we may not take them seriously. In truth aren’t we more like Peter in this text who makes it clear he’s not really into the cross thing for himself or for Jesus. Mark says when Jesus “began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed… Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”

Most of us have a natural aversion to suffering; it’s just that Peter is bold enough to put those feelings into words. Peter’s response to Jesus’ teaching about his coming death and then Jesus’ reaction to Peter helps explain one of the curious things about Mark’s Gospel. Bible scholars call it the “Messianic Secret” because in Mark Jesus is continually telling people not to tell anyone who he is.

Doesn’t that seem curious? If Jesus is out to save the world, wouldn’t you think He’d want as much positive press as he can get? Maybe he just needed a better PR department? But the strength of Jesus’ angry response to Peter helps us understand the Messianic Secret in Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus doesn’t want the disciples spouting off yet because they still don’t really understand who he is. They know the right words to describe him; he’s the Messiah, but like students who just know how to feedback what the teachers want to hear on a test, the disciples don’t really get it. They aren’t ready for the final exam because the kind of Messiah they want Jesus to be is very different from the suffering servant Jesus came to be. The disciples are looking for a military savior like Rambo and they got Gandhi instead.

This Gospel story reminds me of Robert Frost’s great poem about the two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood.” Peter and the guys want to take the wide, easy road, the familiar popular path of least resistance. And Jesus has chosen the road less traveled. And this is not like the famous quote from Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This is a real choice. We can’t have it both ways, and the result is misunderstanding, conflict, anger, and some very harsh words. Yes, even within Jesus’ closest band of followers there is conflict. That should not surprise us, but it does. We often naively expect Christians to be immune to disagreement and conflict. But we aren’t.

When Bishop Judy Craig retired several years ago one of her colleagues described her as having a lover’s quarrel with the church, and I like that description. When I used to do pre-marital counseling and a couple would tell me they never argue all kinds of red flags went up for me. In any significant relationship where important matters are at stake there is bound to be disagreement and conflict. After all if two people are exactly alike and agree on everything, one of them is redundant.

And when we’re dealing with ultimate concerns and God stuff, it gets even harder because none of us have the final answers about God. The mystery of God is so vast and incomprehensible that one person said that talking about God is like trying to bite a wall. That’s why the Psalmist says, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

But we mortals still have to use our imperfect words to express our ideas and feelings; so conflict is inevitable. We know Jesus got angry—at the money changers in the temple, at the Pharisees, he called them a brood of vipers at one point, and in this text for today he is obviously angry at Peter. Anger and conflict are not bad things if they are handled in loving and respectful ways, but we can’t do that if we deny the feelings or go away mad.

The bottom line is that like Peter we don’t want to suffer. Buddhists have a basic law that says “Life is suffering.” That’s not a popular platform to run on, as Jesus found out with Peter. Oh, we like crosses, the little gold ones we can wear around our necks or on our lapels, but when it comes to big heavy ones with lots of splinters, we’re willing to let Jesus carry that one for us. That’s why the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is so popular. We let Jesus suffer for us and we reap the benefits. But when Jesus says we have to take up our own crosses too, we are tempted like Peter to argue or at least rationalize. “I’d like to help Jesus, but I just started a new job, I just got married, I have to take care of my aging parents, or I have a new baby to take care of.”

Jesus shows no patience with Peter, in fact he does a very un-Jesus like thing. Peter rebukes Jesus, and does Jesus turn the other cheek? Nope. He rebukes Peter right back. He does to Peter what Peter has done to him. That’s not the way the golden rule works is it? Jesus snaps at Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” That’s worse than an Ohio State fan calling someone a Wolverine!

But let’s look closer at what’s going on here between Jesus and Peter. We know Jesus doesn’t see Peter as an enemy because he tells Peter to get behind him. You want your enemies where you can keep an eye on them, not behind your back. Remember this is the same disciple that Jesus elsewhere says is the rock upon which he will build his church. Peter is the first great post-Pentecost evangelist. The Roman Catholics consider Peter the first Bishop of Rome and first Pope. And legend has it that this Peter who rebukes Jesus and refuses to take up his own cross is the same man who when he faces his own crucifixion years later does so with such courage and humility that he asks to be crucified upside down because he feels unworthy to be crucified as Jesus was.

So Peter is not Jesus’ enemy. This is a lover’s quarrel. And notice another thing about getting “behind” someone. Think about that phrase. When we say we’re getting behind someone we use that phrase to describe supporting that person, to have their back. Could it be that when Jesus says, “Get behind me” he is simply asking Peter for his support?

We know that choosing the road to Calvary was not an easy one for Jesus-it wouldn’t be for anyone. That last night in the Garden of Gethsemane we know Jesus prayed hard for God to deliver him from that horrible death. The temptation to chicken out must have been great; so to have one of your best friends add fuel to that fire and encourage Jesus to take easy way out would only add to the difficulty of staying the course.

All of these things may have been at work in this heated conversation, Jesus struggling with his future and asking for support in keeping this difficult commitment to God. But it seems to me there is another dynamic going on here too. Jesus sees this as a teachable moment. In the very next verse after the “Get behind me Satan” line, Jesus talks about what it takes to be one of his followers. Verse 34 says, “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The central question for us is what does it mean to follow someone? I was leading a group of 6 or 7 cars home from a youth retreat one time at Camp Wesley near Bellefontaine. We headed out from camp on a Sunday afternoon in a big caravan. We took a county road out to state route 68, and I turned north. That would have been fine except we needed to turn south to get back to route 33 and head home. I realized my mistake immediately and looked with horror in my rearview mirror to see that every one of the other six cars had followed me. No one seemed to be thinking for themselves. I don’t know if we qualified for a world record U turn, but when I made one a mile or so down the road, all of my followers did the same.

There are two things about being a follower – 1) you have to be behind someone to follow them, not out front leading your own parade. And 2) it pays to follow someone who knows where he or she is going.

The real point of this Gospel text is that Jesus still needs followers to carry on his work. Rather than putting Peter down Jesus is putting Peter in his place, which is behind the leader so he can follow. Remember the children’s game Follow the Leader? For that game to work everyone has to get behind the leader and do what she/he does. Peter goes on to become a great leader in his own right, but he is not yet ready for that role, and Jesus knows that. Jesus knows he will not be around long to lead the church; so he is preparing followers to carry on.

Good leaders teach by example, not by dictating and laying down the law. That heavy-handed style robs students or followers of learning to be responsible decision makers. I know because I grew up in a law and order household. When my parents said “Jump!” I said “How high?” And for 12 or 14 years that was great. Being obedient kept me out of lots of trouble and gave me protection from peer pressure. I could always blame my parents for not letting me do things I either didn’t want to do or knew were a bad idea. But when I turned 16 and went off on my own in a car and did not have mommy or daddy there to make decisions for me I was lost and unprepared to take responsibility for myself.

Jesus is a never failing compass that won’t leave us lost and unprepared. His example of love and justice is the North Star to guide Christians in every ethical decision. His example is what informs us when we ask “What would Jesus do?” But that’s only the first question and the easy one. We know what Jesus does and would do. The more important question is “what will I do?”

Which road will I choose? The one near the cross or the other one? The hymn by that name says “Jesus keep me near the cross till my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.” Rest, oh yes rest sounds good to the tired and re-tired doesn’t it? So much better than taking up a cross, but what is that “Beyond the river” stuff? That sounds too much like buying the farm to me, but is it about life after death or life after birth? When Jesus says we must “lose our lives in order to save them” don’t’ take that too literally. He means we have to surrender our will, our great desire to call the shots and lead instead of follow. Followers of Christ need to say and really mean, “Not my will but your will be done.” The transforming river in that hymn is the river of baptism where we die to our sin and are reborn as followers of Jesus.

How our lives go, how we deal with conflict and change depends on whose will we choose to follow. Jesus’ path looks harder in the short run, but it’s the only road home. Are we willing to surrender our wills and let Jesus put us in our place, or do we want to lead our own little parade down the wide, smooth path of least resistance – the one Jesus warns us leads to destruction?

The decision to follow Jesus is one we have to make over and over again because we all continually take detours and try to go our own way. But here’s the good news—there is no where we can go that God can’t lead us back home if we choose to follow. The Holy Spirit is our spiritual GPS that keeps recalculating as many times as we get off track.

So when the burdens of life seem too heavy, let’s take time to look to the heavens and be inspired by the mystery and power of creation. We may feel small, but God isn’t. The heavens proclaim and declare the glory of God, and that’s our job too as followers of Jesus.

Robert Frost says, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and the choice makes all the difference.” To choose wisely we need to be put in our place – right behind Jesus.

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, September 16, 2018

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Dueling Psalms, 130 vs. 19


No, that 130-19 is not a lopsided NBA finals basketball score! It’s the score of my attitude adjustment a few days ago when I awoke in one of those woe-is-me moods and thought of the lament known as De Profundis in Psalm 130. That’s Latin for “O crap I have to face another day of aches and pains and bad news!” My arthritis was nagging at me, my chronic back trouble was moving up the pain scale, and the news was full of more terrorist attacks and hate crimes. Reading the newspaper over my morning coffee used to be one of my favorite times of the day. I still do it out of a sense of duty to be an informed citizen, but it has become an increasingly depressing task.

Psalm 130 begins “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” As tensions between our nation and others mount, as our president foolishly believes his own nationalistic rhetoric that we can shrug off our responsibility for climate change and go it alone, as fears of terror attacks increase, and partisan politics paralyze any attempt to address critical domestic and international issues responsibly, I often wonder if God or anyone is listening to the voice of my supplications.
Later that same morning I went out to work in our lawn and gardens still down in the depths. We are blessed to live on a beautiful property decorated with my wife’s gardening handiwork, a pond, trees and flowers. But the beauty requires hard work, especially this time of year when the grass and the weeds are being very fruitful and multiplying. It’s the work that prompts me at times to say that “yard work” is made up of two four-letter words. But the birds were in good humor that morning and serenaded me as I went forth to mow the lawn. And then I looked up at the blue sky dotted with huge languishing cotton ball clouds pictured above, a sight not seen nearly often enough in central Ohio, and my heart shifted gears from Psalm 130 to 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4).

In basketball 19 doesn’t beat 130, but in the game of faithful living it does. God’s presence is all around us no matter how far down in the depths we are feeling. We just have to look for it with all our senses. No, the skies are not always breathtakingly beautiful, but the loving God of all creation is always surrounding us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Even the author of De Profundis knew that while in the depths, and Psalm 130 ends with this statement of faith and hope:

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.”

“HEARING THE HEAVENS AND DOING THE WORD,” PS. 19:1-14

The heavens are telling the glory of God – without words – can you hear it?   Early morning bird song, gentle waves lapping at the sides of a canoe adrift on a lake at sunrise or sunset (if you aren’t a morning person!).    Most of us have felt the indescribable presence of God in nature at some time in our lives – as Robert Browning describes it in his famous poem, “Pippa’s Song:”

 “The year’s at the spring, and day’s at the morn,

Morning’s at seven; the hillside is dew-pearled;

The lark is on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world!”

We cherish such moments of communion with nature and the God who created it all – in part because it is extra-ordinary.  Such beauty transcends the mundane and ugly parts of life that are too much with us.  Partly because we don’t take time to seek out those special times and place, partly because it is increasingly hard to find such places in our hectic, crowded lives, polluted by noise and light and smog that tarnish our view of the heavens.  Yesterday’s Columbus Dispatch ran a story about air pollution being so bad in Beijing that they scored in the 700’s on a scale that is only supposed to go to 500!  A month after the Newtown massacre we know all too well that life is anything but peaceful and serene for far too many of God’s children.

Who was this Psalmist and what planet did he live on?  Would he or she have written such glowing idyllic words if he lived in the 21st century?  In our century of suicide bombers and devastation from storms caused by undeniable global warming and climate change?  What about the stagnant economy and congressional gridlock or senseless slaughter in Syria, starving kids in Darfur and Detroit?   The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but heaven is a long way from our troubled planet – and some skeptics say you can’t get there from here!!!

Given all that doom and gloom, even when we gaze at the vast expanse of the universe on a clear night and pray to our God in heaven, don’t we sometimes find ourselves feeling insignificant and lonely and asking what God’s done for us lately?

I know I do.  I can throw a great pity party – and then some friend on God’s behalf  reminds me that suffering is written large in every chapter of human history – from the crusades to the black  plague, from Roman imperialism to Nazi Germany and the Russian gulag, from the dark ages to modern day war lords, slavery and genocide.  And they also remind me that in every one of those generations a faithful remnant has heard and seen the cosmic goodness of God’s creation and refused to surrender to the forces of darkness.  Voices like Browning and our Psalmist have dared to affirm the goodness of creation and life, not because of turmoil and trouble, but in spite of it.  Luther, Augustine, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Paul of tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth – just to name a few – too many voices of hope that have made too great an impact on the world to write them off as unrealistic optimists.

And that doesn’t even begin to address biblical history.  Like many parts of the Bible, we don’t know for sure who wrote this Psalm or when, but knowing what we know about the history of Israel, it doesn’t really matter.  To get a picture of Israel’s political and economic history – imagine a place like Ohio being an independent country and all of our neighbors – Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, even Canada and that state up north, all take turns overrunning the Buckeye state and taking over our government and economy.  At one point we Ohioans are driven by a famine to Kentucky in search for food, and end up being slaves there for several hundred years to the pharaoh of Lexington.   When we finally escape and cross the Ohio River again, other people have taken over our homeland, and we have to fight a bitter guerilla war to reclaim it.  A then a few centuries later Michigan invades Ohio and our leaders are carried off to exile in Ann. Arbor.

Pretty ugly, right?  Well that’s Israel’s history – Israel isn’t a great agricultural country – they don’t have lots of natural resources or wealth; but what they had, especially in Bible times was location, location, location.   Remember your geography and Israel’s location in that narrow strip of arable land along the Mediterranean coast.  It’s called the Fertile Crescent because everything for hundreds of miles to the west is desert.  So that narrow strip of land was the only trade route between the great political and economic super powers of the day.  The only safe way between Greece, Assyria, Babylon and Rome on the north and Egypt on the south went right through Israel; so everyone wanted to control it, and took turns doing so.  My point is that no matter when this 19th Psalm was written, it could not have been describing some utopian era when “all was right with the world” because no such time to this day has ever existed in Israeli history.  The Jews are fully acquainted with grief – to the point where Tevye in that great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” at one point asks God, “couldn’t you choose someone else once in awhile?”

And yet in this Psalm and throughout the calamities of slavery, exile, wars and rumors of wars, God’s people appreciate and witness to the glory of God.  They heard the heavens proclaiming the glory of God – do we?

Maybe the Hebrews were closer to the earth and creation than we are in our urbanized technological world, but that’s no excuse.  God is still speaking and the cosmos is as magnificent and awesome as ever if we take time to listen to its power and assurance.  As the epistle James (1:17) puts it, “Every generous act is from above, from God, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”   God and the universe don’t change, no matter how badly we humans mess things up – that’s the good news.

The temptation for some, even many of us, may be to withdraw into the beauty of nature and tune out the cacophony of human conflict.  When I hear the shouting matches going on in federal and local legislatures over fiscal reform or hear the litany of senseless violence and tragedy on the nightly news, I can see value in high tailing it to Walden Pond or a remote mountain somewhere and communing with nature forever.  But we know better.   It’s not enough to hear the heavens proclaim the glory of God; we are expected to put that heavenly assurance into action.  From Micah’s admonition to “do justice” (6:8) to James urging us to “be doers of God’s word, and not hearers only” (1:22), the biblical message is clear.  We need faith and hope and strength from God in any form we can get it – but it’s not there to hoard for a rainy day.  Love is only love if you give it away, or as James puts it even more forcefully later in this letter – “faith without works is dead” (2:26).

Talk can be cheap, and we know actions speak louder than words.  So what does doing God’s word look like for us as Jesus followers today?  To be doers of the word we need to surrender control and allow the ways of Christ to inform every decision we make–about vocations and vacations, how we spend our time and money, how we share our resources and care for mother earth.  And beyond acts of charity and kindness, to prayerfully examine how doers of God’s word can make positive contributions to public policies that shape and influence the lives of everyone in society, not just our own.

We could say, “I have health care and my family is taken care of, so let’s leave the system the way it is, it works for me!!!”   Or, “there’s enough money in social security to last my life time, global warming won’t get serious till after I’m gone; so let someone else worry about those complicated issues.”

No, what the heavens proclaim from our cosmic God requires bigger thinking and responsibility from us, and by the grace of God we are capable of bold, creative action, even if fair and equitable solutions to health care and other social justice issues seem currently impossible to achieve.

Yes, the heavens proclaim God’s glory, but we still know that all is not right with the world; and guess whose job it is to fix it?  When we think about the beauty of God’s creation, we need to remind ourselves that the Bible doesn’t begin with Genesis chapter 3, which is where Adam and Eve get booted out of the garden.  The Bible begins with Genesis, chapter 1 – where humans are created in the very image of God and entrusted to be God’s agents and stewards in the world.

Let’s be very clear that to be God’s agents and doers of the word is not advocating for some kind of works righteousness.  We aren’t called to be doers of God’s word to earn brownie points with God.  None of us can do enough good deeds to earn our salvation – that’s a gift of grace for those who repent and surrender to God’s word.  Faith produces good works, not vice versa.  People of faith can’t not do acts of justice and compassion, because once we truly hear the heavenly voice of God we know we are connected to each other – we are brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who don’t yet know we’re all kin.

Above the clamor and racket of modern life, the heavens are still telling the glory of God today.  Stop, look and listen for it – hear the power and the majesty – the power and the majesty beyond words, beyond human comprehension, beyond human suffering and injustice!

Stop, listen, hear the heavenly voices, and then go from the places of cosmic beauty renewed, refreshed and inspired to be doers of justice and compassion and hope for those who most need to hear what the heavens are proclaiming.