Proper 19, Year B
The Rev. Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 12, 2021
I’ve been reminded this week of the long history of our parish, and specifically, this building. We are under construction! From the flood in the parish hall and the upcoming construction to make things as they were, to the 41 bags of pigeon carcasses and droppings that have been removed from the tower, it has been a busy two weeks. The tower has been sealed up to prevent future avian infestations, all the organ pipes in the tower and many of them behind the reredos have been removed for refurbishment, over 100 years’ worth of redundant or failed organ equipment has been deposed of in the blue dumpster in the parking lot, the small organ has been hoisted into its permanent location in the northwest gallery, and the sanctuary lamp has been reinstalled in its place.
There is plenty of lore to go around at St. Mary’s, including the story of the origins of the sanctuary lamp the very same sanctuary lamp. It is said that this piece was part of Catherine of Aragon’s dowry given in exchange for her nuptials with a certain Henry VIII, and that it was brought to this land by Christopher Columbus on the Mayflower.
One of the stories more likely to be true that has become part of our history was told to me shortly after I arrived by Deacon Gerry, and you may have heard me tell this story before. Shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he preached his first sermon from this very pulpit. After the service, he stood in the back to greet people, and an older woman walked up to him and said, quite firmly, “You can go straight to hell.” She continued, “Who are you to ask me to change? Who do you think you are? I don’t need to change, I’m fine just the way I am. Maybe you’re the one who needs to change.”
This woman may have been rude and unseemly, but I empathize with her. Many come to church to feel good, not to be told that they need to change. We humans surround ourselves with people who are positive and affirm the beliefs and attitudes that they affirm. I’ve often heard people say, “I stopped going to such-and-such church because I wasn’t getting anything out of the preacher’s sermons.” Or, when someone moves to a new city and starts looking for a church, they may say, “I am looking for a place that feeds my soul and makes me feel good.” In other words, “What’s in it for me?”
We often approach Jesus in this way too. There are cultural ideas about Jesus that we learn from movies and art and even verbally from our parents. If you were taught you that Jesus is always meek and mild and kind, it might be unsettling to hear him say what he said to his friend Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
When Jesus asked him, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter responded, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus was apparently fine with this response. But he proceeded to describe a very different Messiah than Peter had in mind. Peter, along with the bulk of first-century Jews, assumed the Messiah would be a monarch – a king who would come with great power and ultimately overthrow the Emperor, free the Israelites from Roman oppression and domination, and “make Israel great again” in the sight of the other nations. Jesus turns Peter’s preconceived ideas of what the Messiah will be upside down, and says that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering...and be killed.
This was so upsetting to Peter that he began to rebuke his Lord. For what Jesus said was scandalous. The gospel of Jesus Christ is in and of itself scandalous because it offers the startling and inexplicable claim that this person Jesus of Nazareth is both a real human being and God incarnate. But the specific scandal we heard about today is the claim that the Messiah must suffer humiliation, torture, and death rather than overthrow the government and wear royal robes. Jesus says, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed.” This is scandalous because it means that God experiences suffering and pain and even death, just like we do. This doesn’t fit with many of our notions about the Divine. The scandal doesn’t stop there. Jesus not only up-ends Peter and the other disciples’ notions about God and the Messiah, he tells them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences for following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort and security. It means daily struggling to reorient our entire value system to put the values and priorities of Jesus’s kingdom ahead of the values of this world. It means being willing to lose our lives by living for others -- using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.
This radical re-ordering of values and priorities doesn’t just happen the moment we’re baptized. It takes a conscious effort – an intentional putting on of our baptism – day in and day out, until the day we breathe our last breath. The woman who commented about Deacon Gerry’s sermon honestly didn’t grasp that in order to follow Jesus Christ, she would have to change.
It is only in losing our life that we save it. Following Christ means that we choose – day after day – to follow Jesus all the way to the cross with its suffering and shame. But just as Jesus’s story didn’t end with the Good Friday, neither does ours. Jesus rose victoriously over sin and death when he rose from the grave, and we too rise up from our baptism with the grace we need to resist temptation and to reorient our value system from the values of this world to the values of God’s kingdom.
Well, I’m not sure what I’m more likely to hear after the service. “Nice sermon, Father” or “You can go straight to hell.” Either way, the call to you and me this morning, to quote our closing hymn, is this: “Take up your cross, then, in his strength, and calmly every danger brave: it guides you to abundant life and leads to victory o’er the grave.” Amen.
 Verse 33.
 Verse 31.
 Much of this paragraph comes from David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B ed., vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 68-69.
 The Hymnal 1982, hymn 675.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!