The Church is a Messy Emergency Ward

The Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
March 8, 2009
Mark 8:31-38

In the name of Jesus, who underwent great suffering, who was rejected, and who was killed.  Amen.

I’m intrigued by the split between private and public in today’s Gospel reading . . .
The passage opens with Jesus describing what will happen to him –
    suffering,
    rejection by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
    and then his own death.
Not quite cheerful stuff.
Not quite “shout from the rooftops,” “Go tell it on the mountain” material.
And yet, for the unpleasant nature of this news,
    the Scripture tells us that Jesus says these things “quite openly.”
Peter, on the other hand,
    senses that Jesus has made a major breech of decorum,
    speaking openly about unseemly things . . .
        particularly in reference to the Messiah,
        who was expected by Peter and most devout Jews of that day
        to inaugurate a new era through triumphal military might,
            not through suffering, rejection, and death.
And so Peter, aghast at Jesus’ words about suffering, rejection, and death,
    takes Jesus aside.

Now, when you take someone aside – or when you are taken aside by someone else –
    it rarely is good.
We step aside for privacy, or for discretion, or to spare someone a public shame,
    away from the watchful eye or listening ear of others,
    to share words deemed not suitable for public consumption.
And here, it is no different.
Peter wants to rebuke Jesus . . . a rebuke is definitely one of those things that,
    according to most codes of decency and propriety, is best done privately.
But what’s more, is that Peter has the audacity to rebuke his mentor, his rabbi, his teacher,
    the man who, in the verses immediately prior to this passage,
    is revealed to be the Messiah.
Perhaps for Peter stepping aside was less an act of discretion
    and more an subtle acknowledgment that he’s walking on thin ice
    in attempting to rebuke his teacher, the man he just confessed to be the Messiah . . .
    perhaps Peter calculates that such a bold act is better done privately . . .
    for if he falls on his face it is easier to save face if no one else is watching.
But more. 
Even more than the bold – arrogant? –
    the presumptuously bold act of Peter’s rebuke of Jesus
    is the reason for the rebuking . . .
Peter hears Jesus talk quite openly about suffering, rejection, and death,
    and he doesn’t like it.
Such things aren’t to be addressed publicly, but privately, discretely, in hushed tones.
That’s the way it is, isnt’ it? 
Even today, nearly 2000 years after Peter pulled Jesus aside,
    we speak about suffering, rejection, and yes, death, just as Peter did:
    as if these are shameful things,
    best shared in the hushed tones of private whispers.

But what does Jesus do?
Jesus turns to the other disciples and rebukes Peter,
    and then turns to the wider crowd and speaks quite publicly
    about that which Peter would whisper: the cross,
    which, lest we forget with our beautiful and artistic crosses,
    was to Jesus and the occupied Jews of his day
        a tool of Roman terror, humiliation, and intimidation.
Jesus says that this cross – its terror, humiliation, intimidation, its suffering, rejection and death –
    belongs to him . . . and to his followers.
“If any want to become my followers,
    let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
And he says these things publicly.

Why?
Why does Jesus go to such an effort to speak publicly and openly
    about those things which Peter seems to find shameful,
    those things which Peter would keep quiet?
Because it is precisely to these situations of suffering, rejection, and death
    that Jesus speaks Good News.
Think of it for a minute . . .
    You may recall that in Mark chapter 2 Jesus says,
    “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Sometimes we forget, with our Sunday finery,
    that church is called to be more akin to a messy emergency ward than a pristine museum,
    a place to administer Good News in Word and Sacrament to the sick and broken,
        to those who, like Jesus, face suffering, rejection, and death.

Too often I have heard people who, having just suffered a great trauma –
    be it physical, emotional, spiritual –
    I have heard such people say with a deep sense of shame and regret,
        “Oh, I just can’t come to church yet.
        I’m not ready for church.
        I don’t have myself together yet. 
        I need more time to get back on my feet, to get my wits together,
            before I can come to church.”
This line of thinking breaks my heart . . .
I need more time to get back on my feet before I can come to church.
For it is precisely at church where we hear Jesus’ blessed command, filled with promise,
    where we feel his hand reaching out as he says to us,
    “Get up and walk.  Get up and walk.  Come to me. 
    This is my body.  Given for you.”
These are words spoken for us and for all people who suffer,
    who are rejected, who are dying in some shape or form.
The church is not a place for perfect people to present themselves for public displays of piety,
    but rather church is a place for people broken by sin and its many devious consequences
    to gather to hear and boldly expect to receive the promises of God.
And yet, too often we insist of ourselves – and expect the same of others –
    to have it all together before passing through those doors.
Oh how insidious the Devil is!
It’s like we are bound by the contorted cultural norms
    that label pain, suffering, rejection and dying as shameful, worthy only of whispers.
We who fall victim to such norms are the Peters of the church,
    sadly unprepared to look at and speak to suffering, rejection, death,
    choosing instead to simply step aside, and whisper.

For a while in my mid twenties I worshipped at a small,
    struggling, urban congregation known for its diversity and its brokenness.
The church is one of the few truly integrated congregations in the city –
        and indeed, in the whole Lutheran Church –
    where everything from the leadership to the worship style
    reflects an intentional effort to integrate both
    the European and African-American heritages
        that had been part of that community for so long.
But this church is also broken . . . terribly broken.
From the leaks in the roof to the boiler on the brink of bust
ing,
    to the worship leadership that was never quite coordinated correctly . . .
This St John’s By the Gas Station Lutheran Church has, what some affectionately call,
    “St John’s Moments” . . .
    times when the brokenness of that place seep to the surface
        and evidence itself . . . quite publicly –
    bulletins missing, choir and organist on quite different pages,
        an impromptu testimony . . .
At more refined churches such “St John’s Moments”
    wouldn’t be tolerated . . .
but at St John’s such moments are welcomed . . .
    and serve to welcome those who, like those moments, wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere:
    interracial couples,
    same gender couples,
        the underemployed, the unemployed, the unemployable . . .
Elsewhere in the synod and in society we would whisper about such things and such people,
    but at St John’s such situations and people are
        the people and situations to which Jesus speaks life quite openly.
And so it was in my mid-twenties that I arrived at St John’s
    where I brought some not insignificant personal pain and brokenness . . .
        and I seemed to fit right in.
It was at St John’s where I heard words of grace and healing and new life
    spoken to me by broken people in a broken congregation; and
    it was there that I was transformed by the one who suffered,
        who was rejected, who died . . .
The One who was so clearly present in the midst of St John’s moments and ministry.

Dear friends, our Lord Jesus Christ suffered, was rejected, and died . . .
Let us not step aside and whisper about such things,
    for Jesus’ Passion is no whispering thing.
But instead, let us follow Jesus and boldly face suffering, rejection, and death
    in any form that these may rear their ugly faces,
    and let us do this openly, publicly . . .

Jesus’ Good News is for us, yes,
    but it is also – and especially – for those who sit beyond these walls this morning,
    for those who are suffering this morning,
    those who are rejected this morning,
    those who are dying this morning.
For held within his suffering, his rejection, and his dying
    is the suffering, the rejection, and the dying of all.
And held within his resurrection is the end of suffering, rejection and dying of all . . .
This is good news . . . not to be whispered, but to be proclaimed openly, publicly . . .
    for all to hear.
Amen, and thanks be to God.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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