Episcopalian preachers are constrained in the choice of preaching texts by the Lectionary’s three-year cycle of readings. We preach on one of the four texts –OT, Psalm, NT, or Gospel appointed for a particular Sunday. I often lament not having the authority to choose my own favorites. I think that’s probably a good thing? The congregation is spared my hobbyhorses and can be directly addressed by the Wisdom of God. Through the Lectionary cycle, the Wisdom of God invites us as a community into a particular conversation, one that God desires to have with us rather than the one we tend to have with ourselves. Through the sermon, the preacher’s task is to respond to God’s invitation, taking the broader transgenerational conversation of Scripture and contextualizing it within the here-and-now experience of this particular community.
This little summary of the theory of preaching is a way for me to segway into an admission that on Homecoming Sunday, a Sunday when the emphasis is on celebrating the start of a new program year and welcoming everyone back after the recreations of the summer, having been given the choice I would not have selected Mark 8 with its language of getting Satan behind us, self-denial, taking up our cross, and the terror of winning or losing one’s life – but hey? Before I get into the knotty task of contextualizing these challenging comments of Jesus reported by Mark, let me say welcome back! It’s good to see you. Let me tell you I am excited looking forward to where our new program year might take us!
Over the coming months – September – November, the transgenerational conversation that the Wisdom of God will be drawing us into, will be channeled through the Gospel of Mark. The good and bad thing about Mark is that he is a straight talker. The economy of his words, the direct immediacy of his syntax – note he has a preference for the continuous present form, communicating an immediacy that can often disquiet those of us who prefer a more polite distance from Jesus’ call to discipleship.
Recently in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has returned from a visit to the borderlands with a visit to the Gentile city of Tyre. Here, outside his exclusively Jewish context, Jesus is jolted into a larger vision for his mission, a graphic experience for Jesus of learning from experience, the upshot of which is that the message of grace and inclusion is no longer confined to the Children of Israel, but now startlingly open to the entire canine world. He then returns via a healing tour of the Decapolis, an autonomous cosmopolitan region where Jews and Gentiles live side-by-side, before arriving at Caesarea Philippi, where he addresses his disciples with the question: who do people say I am, and more specifically who do you say I am?
A question: do we know who Jesus is?
Homecoming Sunday and the call to discipleship
Each of us is on a spiritual journey. To an extent our spiritual journey and our life journey are parallel strands of experience not always well synced, yet designed to be coterminous, each arriving in the fullness of time, at the same destination. For most of us these parallel strands are in tension. At each turn of the way, the pressures of the life journey seek to overwhelm our awareness of being on a spiritual journey. The nature of our parish community is a communal reflection of our individual negotiation of the tension between the demands of life and our desire to anchor where the restlessness of our hearts find rest in the Wisdom of God. Synchronizing the life and spiritual journeys is a process of learning through consecutive stages of maturing. Thus, Christian communities comprise a series of concentric circles.
In the first concentric circle, we experience little of the tension between the life and spiritual journeys. As individuals we try to be good people in our lives and so association with church is simply, us as good people doing what good people do, connecting with an organization we see as fulfilling a good purpose in the world. Being Christian presents as another version of a desire for self-improvement, we want to be better than we are. For instance, as parents we want our children to have a Christian formation because we want them to grow as fully rounded people. Yet, at this stage of our spiritual awareness Sunday School and Sunday morning soccer are roughly equivalent, and we want our kids to have a bit of both.
The second concentric circle represents a heightening of spiritual awareness. Paradoxically, we experience a sharp increase in the tensions between the demands of life and our spiritual calling. The tension increases here because we’ve caught the whiff of relationship with Jesus, and this becomes something important to us. We seek something ineffable, something too big for us to be able to adequately express it in words. We know that no amount of self-improvement will bring us closer to that which we are compelled to seek. We become increasingly dependent on grace. Negotiating this tension requires of us some difficult choices. We continually revisit our priorities as we realize we can’t make all the choices open to us, equally – we have to choose. Choice opens some doors while closing others and this is often a difficult negotiation. As parents, we want to model to our children our growing sense of the importance of God in our own lives. Because we don’t always feel confident in doing this we seek the support of the Christian community to help us shape them in that experience. However, for our children to have more than a cursory experience of ‘church’ as part of their well-rounded education, they need to catch the spark of our own curiosity and excitement about God. Otherwise, church becomes like school, something they do when young.
The inner-most circle is where the tensions between our life and spiritual journeys settle out a little. The choices we make in the face of the demands in daily life are in greater alignment and harmony with our desire to know and experience being known by God. I am not suggesting there are no conflicts to negotiate and that such negotiation does not come without cost. It’s simply that our sense of spiritual priorities is more established and this becomes a real support in guiding us to the choices we now intentionally make. We have learned a little more about the nature of the difference between the life we seek to win and the life we can afford to let go of. Here, we don’t feel we are good people, associating with an organization for good. We feel inadequate to the central task, no longer one of asserting our own goodness, but of opening ourselves to God.
In this inner circle Jesus’ words about self-denial and cross-carrying, about winning and losing life take on special significance. Often this is the stage of the spiritual journey we reach only after our children have launched upon their own lives in the world. Experiencing a certain amount of new and often terrifying freedom from the constant demands of family life with children at home, we begin to look towards the next phase of our lives, which of necessity moves us closer to a sense that we don’t have a lot of time left. Nearer to death, the earlier urgency of love gives way to a broader perspective and greater clarity.
In a world where all the emphasis is on individual choice and our own ability to progress along a continuum of self-improvement, however defined, we are likely to hear Jesus’ invitation to self-denial and cross-bearing as a heavy and rather irksome personal demand. We mutter to ourselves: I am under enough pressure in life, I don’t need my religion increasing the level of impossible demands. Many of us remain in the outer circle of faith community life because we just simply don’t feel able to meet what we experience as God asking more than we can risk.
To be in the first concentric circle is perfectly acceptable to God because this stage in negotiating the tensions between the life and spiritual journeys is a fine place to begin. My concern is that many of us stay longer in this stage because we misunderstand what God is asking of us. Because we hear God’s call only in purely individualistic terms, we can’t move forward, and there is a danger that after a while this unsatisfying experience causes us to leave the church altogether.
From individuality to community
The call to self-denial and taking up our cross to follow Jesus is not primarily, a call to prove ourselves worthy of the task of achieving personal salvation. It’s an invitation to participate in the life of a community that is a self-denying and cross-carrying community, in other words, a community of the baptized. The most ancient strand of soteriology, i.e. the doctrine of salvation, emphasizes that it is as the people of God that we are saved. It is as a company of disciples that we follow Jesus.
I believe the conversation that the Wisdom of God is calling us into on this Homecoming Sunday is a conversation of welcome. God is saying come, be present, all I require is that you conscientiously seek to participate in the building up of my body in the world. The purpose of the church is not to be a haven for the good, but to witness to the saving actions of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All are welcome at all stages within a community that supports us as we struggle with negotiating the tensions between the demands of life and our spiritual calling.
As we journey … into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another. Matthew Skinner
 My pun on Jesus’ initial disparagement of the Syrophonician-gentile woman as ‘little bitch’, hence reiterating the Jewish disparagement of gentiles as dogs.