Whenever I hear the gospel passage we read today, I just want to ask, Peter, what were you thinking? Just a day or two earlier you aced the exam and got a gold star on top of it because you realized who Jesus was, that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. And now you had to go and spoil all that because Jesus decided to make clear what being the Messiah really meant. Rather than keeping quiet and thinking about what Jesus had said about being rejected and undergoing suffering and ultimately being put to death and then rising again, you had to open your mouth and let loose. Did you think somehow this would change things? That Jesus would come to his senses after you set him straight? Did you expect him to say, “My bad. I take it all back. Peter here is right. Now who’s got the weapons so we can sack the Romans?” Or did you just not think at all and start rambling on with your heart running out ahead of your brain?
For some of us, the season of Lent offers not consolation but guilt. We come face to face with ourselves, and we imagine God looks us over and finds us lacking. We’d rather not spend time coming to terms with who we really are and where we are on our spiritual journeys because, perhaps, we wish we were someplace different.
I want to begin at the end this morning. Not the end the way it’s printed in your bulletin insert, but the verse that follows. In our gospel lesson, as Peter, James, and John were coming down the mountain we read that Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” But there’s one more verse that I think is key. Mark writes, “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” They didn’t know what he meant by rising from the dead, what it would entail, or why he even mentioned it. But we know all of it—as did the first hearers of Mark’s gospel—and it makes all the difference. Because this story is a resurrection story. And resurrections can only come about through death.
For the past few months I’ve been meeting with a small group of parishioners each week to talk about preaching through a program from the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. Together we’ve studied some of the ways in which sermons get put together, we’ve looked at how to study and interpret scripture, and we’ve spent time exploring the importance of a particular context both in the biblical time frame and for us today. “What might these lessons be saying to us here at St. Mark’s?” is a question we consider each week. At first glance, lessons about false prophets, meat offered to idols, and a man possessed by an unclean spirit might seem a bit far removed from our parish life now, and in particular on an Annual Meeting Sunday.
In March 2020 during the early part of the pandemic lockdown, actor and Boston native Jon Krasinski began a a short run Youtube series titled “Some Good News.” SGN focused on stories that would lift people up during a difficult stretch. Opening the first episode he said, “We are all going through an incredibly trying time, but, through all the anxiety, through all the confusion, all the isolation, and all the “Tiger King,” somehow the human spirit found a way to break through and blow us all away.” He had loads of special guests like the entire cast of “Hamilton” who preformed on Zoom for a nine-year-old girl who missed out on a chance to see the production due to COVID. He interviewed a 15 year old cancer survivor, and hosted a virtual prom for the thousands of high schoolers. In the midst of a harrowing season in our world, good news arrived and blew us away.
One of my seminary professors once remarked that the preacher’s selection process for choosing a sermon focus from the assigned lectionary texts each week was similar to a horserace. The gospel text, as you might imagine, always begins as the clear favorite. After that, if there is to be a sleeper from the other three readings, it has to be interesting, or perhaps a lesson with familiar language or a well-known story for the preacher to dive in to it with gusto. Some weeks that horserace is tight—when multiple texts look appealing for a sermon. Others, well, not so much. In looking at this week’s scripture lessons with a focus on call, I’d have to say that 1 Corinthians would certainly not be in the running. When Paul says, “Shun fornication!” the only thing the preacher is thinking is to shun sermons about fornication. While I’ve preached some 7 or 8 times on the Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany in Year B over the years, I can assure you I’ve never even considered the 1 Corinthians text.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…. God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” And so it began a long, long, long time ago. (Please don’t think for even one minute that what’s accounted in Genesis is the scientific way it happened. The Bible is a book of theology, our understanding of God, and not a science textbook. Never mind that the very next chapter of Genesis has a very different creation account written by a different person which doesn’t align with this one.) The creation begins with a separation of light and dark, and it was good.
One of my favorite Christmas movies is “The Bishop’s Wife.” It’s the story of an Episcopal bishop named Henry Brougham who’s trying desperately hard to raise money for a new cathedral, and he prays to God for guidance. God sends an angel named Dudley to him, played by none other than Cary Grant. The guidance that Dudley brings is not how to fund the cathedral, but how to help the good bishop pay attention to his wife Julia and their daughter and to help meet the real needs of the community.
Back in the time of Isaiah, something fantastic had happened. King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonians. The Babylonians had a generation earlier conquered the Israelites and destroyed Jerusalem, taking many of the people into exile. A few people were deemed as inconsequential and were left behind. These ones guarded over the ruins as best they could since the walls around the city had been utterly destroyed; they intended to keep out those who might further pillage the remnants of the temple.
The headlines this year read, “Christmas is Cancelled in Bethlehem.” The city of David in our day and age lies within the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the Palestinian Christian leaders there unanimously decided a month ago to forgo any public celebrations due to the ongoing war in Gaza, a mere 46 miles away. According to NPR, “There’s no Christmas tree or sparkling lights in Manger Square or along the cobble-stone streets that should be bustling with foreign tourists this time of year. There will be no Christmas parade with musicians weaving through the old city’s labyrinth walkways, no Santas on street corners doling out joy to children. Instead, the main square is a simple parking lot, without a hint of holiday decoration to be seen.” As a friend of mine put it, there is plenty of room at the inn.