Pentecost 16/Proper 19B (24)
Which One? sermon by Reverend Fred Kinsey
One of my passions growing up was tennis. I just happened to be from a family that played a lot of tennis; my parents and aunt & uncle taught me, my sister and brother, and three cousins, mostly outside in the summer, starting at an early age, way back when all they had were, wooden rackets! I was good enough to play doubles on the high school team. But after high school I never had that much time for it anymore – once or twice a year, maybe. So I started to get my tennis fix from watching the majors on TV, Australian, French, U.S. Open, and especially, Breakfast at Wimbledon. Nothing like getting the adrenaline flowing, and a vicarious thrill, almost as if you’re out there playing – all the while enjoying croissants and poached eggs, on the couch!
So, yesterday was the Women’s final at the U.S. Open. It was an all-Italian final, that nobody saw coming! Everyone expected #1 player and American Serena Williams to be there, it was her tournament to complete the grand slam, and sweep the majors. Instead, an unranked player, Roberta Vinci beat her in the semi’s, and Flavia Pennetta, a close friend from Rome, also advanced to the final. At ages 12 and 13, Vinci and Pennetta were room-mates at their first tennis camp. Now, 20 years later, no one could have predicted that they’d be together, here in Arthur Ashe Stadium! After two hard fought sets, Pennetta came out on top, and the two hugged and cried at the net afterward like they were sisters.
The only thing they’ve known, in their adult lives, is tennis, and this was a storybook match for both. But the real surprise came in the interview afterwards, in front of a packed stadium in New York. ‘I just want to say one more thing,’ Pennetta said to ABC Host Robin Wright – who was the MC. ‘One month ago I made a decision,’ she said, searching for the right words, ‘and I just want everyone to know. This is the way, this is the moment, that I’m leaving tennis, leaving the game.’ She didn’t use the word retire, but that’s what she meant. She had decided to retire at the U.S. Open, before the tournament had begun, but she had no idea she’d be holding the Women’s trophy, and collecting $3.3M when she announced it.
But, who would she be now? No longer, a professional tennis player. Though, no one could take away her championship, here at the U.S. Open, still if she didn’t need to wake up each day, and hit the practice court, or enter the next tournament, what would she do? Who would she be? Chrissie Evert asked her that very question, later on, and Pennetta said: ‘I have no idea! I’m going to have to work at becoming something else.’
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus has been all around Galilee, in the first half of Mark’s gospel, healing, teaching, preaching, calming storms on the Sea of Galilee, feeding 5,000 with five loaves of bread and 2 fish. He’s confronted the powers in authority, and sided with the poor and marginalized. ‘So, looking back at where we’ve been and what I’ve done, “Who do people say that I am?”’
There’s a seminary teacher, Micah Kiel, at St Ambrose, Davenport, IA, who tells of using his wife’s bible one day, when he couldn’t find his, in his office. He and his wife had gone to St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, where Micah says that she too was a very good student. There wasn’t a chapter in the gospel of Mark that she hadn’t highlighted, underlined, or had notes in the margins – except for one, chapter 8, from which we read today! Here in chapter eight, it was as if she became so mesmerized with the story, she seemed to drop her highlighter. But there was one little question which stood out, all by itself: “Which one is it?” she had written. Obviously referring to the many titles being bandied about, when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that I am?”
Some say John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; but there are still others who say he’s one of the other prophets – like Isaiah, or Amos, or Jeremiah, would be good guesses. We know that Herod thought, Jesus was the reincarnation of John the Baptist. Others no doubt were thinking Elijah, because many expected Elijah would return when the kingdom of heaven was to be restored.
And Jesus, no doubt, knew all this, about what the people were saying. So he asks his disciples, his closest allies, a second question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who answered, “You are the Messiah.” Apparently, Peter had been paying attention! For Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah, as we, the reader know, from all of Mark’s helpful commentary along the way.
But the real surprise is how Jesus interprets who the Messiah is! Not a king, like David; not a general, like Saul, or one of the daring insurgent Maccabees, but the Messiah, the Christ, is more like what Daniel called, the Son of Man, or Isaiah called the Suffering Servant, one who is renewing God’s covenant as a righteous leader, or a John the Baptist truth teller – who paid with his head, of course – one who is misunderstood and rejected, but who is unafraid of going to trial as an innocent person, recognizing the possible consequences; one who knowingly lays down his own life; trusting that God will raise him up in three days, alive again.
But in the story, the disciples didn’t see that coming at all. And so Peter pulls Jesus aside, to try and knock some sense into him, rebuking this characterization. That’s not what we were expecting out of our champion. Take it back! But Jesus rebukes Peter, accusing him of being on the side of the worst kind of human temptation, and failing to understand his connection to his divine motherly Father.
Which one is he? Who will Jesus be, if not the new king, enthroned in Jerusalem? And more to the point, how do we sometimes get in the way of what God wants us to be? How, and in what way, do we decide to follow Jesus? Do our expectations in life, sometimes mis-align with God’s? Do we expect that if we pray every day we will be blessed? Or if we do a kindness for a friend in need, we will receive a gift in return? Do we work hard to know how the world works, how to figure out right from wrong, expecting then, that people will treat us with respect, and do right by us because, after all, that’s the rational thing to do? But why then doesn’t it go our way? Why is there suffering in the world? Why am I hurting?
So, do you remember, in the original Star Wars trilogy, that the comic relief in the movies comes in the form of a robot, R2-D2, and his android buddy, C-3PO. And it’s this later one, the one who looks human, and has that, ever-worried demeanor, and who says in his “woe-is-me” British accent: “We [droids] seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” So, C-3PO’s kind of suffering is that he expects it, as his fate for who he is.
This is not the kind of suffering Jesus is talking about though, either for himself, or for us. Jesus suffers for the sake of the truth, and for standing up for, the outcast and poor, the sick and the excluded. His suffering and death are purposeful, and not just for his life, but for the sake of the world. Jesus asks us to take up our own crosses, leveraging the gravitas we have, not to bear suffering as if we had it coming, not to be martyrs or be taken advantage of, but to be followers of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, to take up the mission of revealing who God is, in the world God created; to open up the way to the freedom of the Promised Land, to release the prisoners, and give sight to the blind, to declare the day of the LORD.
If we believe God is active and alive in the world, then the question posed to us is not just whether we confess Jesus as the Messiah. That’s the relative easy part. We know what his title is. The question becomes, what does the title mean for us today? How can suffering for the sake of the truth set us free, and make our lives, and our church, our families and schools, our artists and writers, our government and elected leaders, our banks and businesses, more cruciform, more cross shaped, to reveal the possibilities of divine love in the world!?
We cannot let our human expectations get in the way, or foul up, the divine covenant. The question in the margin for us today is: Which one is he, for us? Who is Jesus? Which title for Jesus do we confess, not just with our lips, but with our hearts, and our whole lives?!