WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, April 14, we hear another version of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers.  Jesus has to work hard to convince them that he is a flesh and blood savior and not a ghost.  So what does it mean for us to have a good news story, not a ghost story?  Join us in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary for worship:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGSQRmojaFM

February 25, 2024

I’ve been fascinated by improv comedy for a long time.  I’m amazed by these people who can think and act so quickly in response to what their fellow improvisers do and what audience members shout out as suggestions.  “Ice cream…koala bear…chewing gum!”  And then they make something hilarious out of that.

Long-time improviser Billy Merritt says there are three different types of improvisers.  He calls them pirates, robots, and ninjas.  Ninjas do small, subtle things to move the scene along.  Robots are the logical ones who often have to bring the scene back to some kind of reality.  The pirates are fearless and unpredictable, the ones who will go for broke to get a scene going, the ones who are willing to fail completely.  When we think about improv, we usually imagine the pirates.  Think about John Belushi, for example.  Or Chris Farley.

Pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana does improv workshops for church groups, and she’ll often ask, “Who was Jesus’ best pirate?”  Any guesses about whose name comes up most often?   Peter.  Peter of the big swings and the sometimes misses.  Consider that on Jesus’ last night with his disciples, when Jesus washes their feet, Peter at first refuses, but when Jesus chastises him, suddenly Peter says, “Well, OK, then, wash my whole body!”  It’s all or nothing with Peter. And who is it that jumps out of the boat and tries to walk on water when he sees Jesus doing it?  Yep.  That’s Peter.

Think back a couple of weeks to the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus is shining brightly up on the mountain, and Elijah and Moses are hanging out there, even though those two are supposed to be long-dead.  Peter offers to build dwellings so that Jesus, Elijah, and Moses can live on the mountaintop.  That’s a definite pirate move – bold, if misguided.

Today’s gospel happens just before the Transfiguration, and it’s the first time that Jesus has been clear with his disciples about where his journey is headed. He tells them “quite openly” that he will suffer, that he will be condemned by the religious and political leaders, and that he will be killed.  He also mentions that after three days he will rise again, but perhaps that detail was more than anyone could comprehend in the moment.

In response to this announcement from Jesus, Peter goes full-on pirate mode.  He refuses to accept that Jesus is telling the truth.  He rebukes Jesus, rejecting this version of the story completely.

And Jesus responds harshly.  He says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

That must have hurt.  Peter is understandably confused.  Among Jews of the first century, the prevailing view was that the messiah would come to assure military victory over the Roman empire and would restore the monarchy of King David, a time centuries earlier when things were more hopeful for the Jewish people.  It makes no sense to Peter that the messiah would face suffering, much less be put to death.

But Jesus is a different kind of messiah, one for whom suffering is part of the story.  And not just suffering on the cross, but suffering alongside anyone who is suffering – the hungry, the rejected, the sick, the grieving, the hopeless, and the scorned. Jesus knows that the difficult road he must travel is ultimately part of God’s plan to redeem the world.  Jesus will die, yes.  But he will also defeat death.

Peter is not alone in being baffled by the wildness of God’s vision for God’s family.  For another response of surprise in the face of God’s promises, we go back to the story of Abram/Abraham.  At the time that God promises Abram both a name change and a bajillion descendants, Abram has exactly one child.  The mother of that child is the slave woman Hagar, a circumstance that has produced all kinds of drama in his household.  So, as with Peter, we can sympathize with Abraham’s difficulty in believing God’s vision.  It seemed impossible that God would make Abraham the ancestor of multitudes, including kings.

Abraham laughs in response to this news, and who can blame him?  In addition to other obvious challenges, he’s 99 years old.  As Paul puts it so tactfully in his letter to the Romans, Abraham “was already as good as dead.” 

Neither Peter nor Abraham knows what to do with the strange truth of God’s story.  They are putting their minds on human things more than divine things.  Eventually they both figure it out.  Abraham faithfully carries out what God tells him, and he does become the ancestor of many nations.  And Peter becomes a rock on which the church is built, an important leader of the early church.  Their pathways of faith do not have to be perfect in order to prosper.

Your pathway of faith doesn’t have to be perfect either.  Lent is a good time for reckoning with how we focus on human things more than divine things.  That hearkens back to last week’s story of temptation.  What are those things for each of us that keep us distracted or discouraged or despairing – sometimes to the point that we forget about God altogether?

Jesus is clear that focusing on divine things is not always easy.  And yet he summons us to take up the cross, which means that he summons us to suffer alongside those who are suffering – the hungry, the rejected, the sick, the grieving, the hopeless, and the scorned.  To sit in those places can be hard.  It’s not our first impulse most of the time.  Like Abraham, we can sometimes choose awkward laughter instead.  Like Peter, we would prefer to look away from the suffering.

But we have a God who, in Paul’s words, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  God can do that.  God can create something about of nothing and can bring new life where there has been only death.  God can be that source of joy and hope and love.

To take up the cross does not mean that God wants us to suffer or that God causes us to suffer.  It doesn’t mean that God intends for us to be on the receiving end of abuse or to be martyrs to someone else’s brokenness.

To take up the cross does mean that we are willing to get close to pain – the pain of our families, the pain of our neighbors, the pain of the world.  It means we commit ourselves to doing all we can to relieve pain where it exists – and to interrupt whatever is causing that pain, even when that means making sacrifices.  And when there is no relief to be found, we are willing to sit in that pain with others to bear witness to its reality.

There’s an exchange in the musical Hamilton that gets at this a little bit.  George Washington says to the young, brash, itching-for-a-fight Alexander Hamilton:

It’s alright, you want to fight, you’ve got a hunger

I was just like you when I was younger

Head full of fantasies of dyin’ like a martyr?

Dyin’ is easy, young man.  Living is harder.

Dying is easy.  Living is harder. As we move through Lent, may we hold fast to the promises of the One who gives life to the dead.  May we focus on holy things more than human things.  May we deny ourselves and take up the cross.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

Sources

God, Improv, and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Chapter 14, “Be a Pirate, a Robot, or a Ninja,” pp. 89-95.

https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-28-lent-2b-mark-831-38
https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/2/20/cross-purposes-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-2

Diana Butler Bass’ “Sunday Musings” for February 25, 2024 on her Substack newsletter The Cottage

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