A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 12 September 2021, 10:30, The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
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‘The tongue is a small member,’ says the letter of James, ‘yet it boasts of great exploits.’ When it comes to other people’s exploits, though, it can get tied. Last night I heard at least two commentators say they were struggling for words as they tried to do justice to Emma Raducanu’s astonishing capture of the US Open title. When the tongue finds the words, though, it is memorable, and not just in sporting commentary.
In Parliament there are occasional moments which – whether you agree with the speaker or not – make you salute their passion and eloquence: Teresa May on overseas aid, or Hilary Benn in the 2016 Syria debate. And some just bring the house down, like Vince Cable’s almost diffident voice saying this about the then Premier, Gordon Brown: ‘Mr Speaker, the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the last few weeks from Stalin to Mr Bean.’ Whether Vince convinced you or not, it was comedy genius.
Today, Mark’s gospel brings a Cable moment. No-one knows what to make of Jesus. Who is he? The prophet Elijah returned, say some; or perhaps John the Baptist brought back to life. But no-one knows, no-one except Peter, who gets it right: ‘You are the Messiah,’ that is, the one anointed by God to be God’s presence and purpose on earth and to do what God wants done.
But when Jesus describes what it means to be Messiah – arrest, suffering, death – Peter ‘rebukes’ Jesus (his master!) and Jesus ‘rebukes’ Peter back. He really tears into him in quite unparliamentary language: ‘Get behind me Satan!’ Peter the Rock (that’s what his name means) is now the stumbling block. A moment ago he was speaking God’s truth; now he’s a gormless mouthpiece for the father of lies. It is a remarkable transformation in four verses from Pope Francis to Father Dougal.
The question, to be fair to him, is not an easy one. Who do you say that I am? I see two strands to this, perception and relationship.
First, perception. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is another way of asking, ‘What do you think is really going on here?’ Look at what’s happening. Is this another of God’s prophets at work? Or is this stuff Jesus is doing something new? Is God doing something decisive in him? Look at what’s happening – we can all do that, but to perceive, to see what is really going on – that takes wisdom, and we badly need that at the moment.
I was struck yesterday by two faces of New York. You could name that great city yesterday the capital of mourning, as ceremonies remembered those murdered in the Twin Towers twenty years earlier to the day. Later on, however, ten miles across the city the name of the game was delight: a tennis match for the ages between two people who were not even born on that terrible day in 2001.
The delight is as real as the mourning, but the mournfulness will last longer, as will the questions it brings (sharpened by the exit from Afghanistan). What name do we give to those two decades just passed? What was really going on? We need to answer these questions because it won’t be long before there is another country, another crisis or outrage, and more calls to Do Something. We must pray for wisdom for our leaders, and for ourselves, the people they seek to lead.
On another tack, look around you, as Threads through Creation enters its last fortnight. What’s happening? Jacqui Parkinson’s twelve gorgeous panels are telling the Genesis story of God’s creation. What’s really going on? They show that God’s creative act is itself one of delight, but the place those first humans inhabit is threatened from the start – the snake that lures them into destructive behaviour is already there in the garden of delight.
Destructive behaviour? Last week, Pete our preacher quoted scientist Gus Speth about what is really going in the creation which God calls us to care for.
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.
What is really going on? What name do you give it? When Jesus asks his question, though, it is not explicitly about a state of affairs but about himself. And the people he asks are not bystanders but followers and friends – Who do you say that I am?
The answer you or I might give to that question will say a lot about what we think is really going on here. When the gospel is read, what do you hear? The words of a character in literature? Or of one who walked this earth? The words of a great human teacher – even people of no faith love bits of the sermon on the mount – or the voice of the Word of God made flesh?
This is not a test, by the way, thank God. If it were, in the story Peter would be failed and expelled. But he isn’t, and neither am I, and nor are you. That is not Jesus’ way. A big theme of Mark’s gospel is the cluelessness of the disciples. If he feels tempted to portray these founder members of the church as giants of faith, he resists it very well. In his gospel Jesus keeps asking the disciples, ‘Don’t you understand?’ but, though they exasperate him, his relationship with them remains the same.
It is these blockheads who will be the building blocks of his church; or, to take a metaphor from this Olympic and Paralympic year, they will run the first leg in the race, and hand on faith, like a baton, to others – eventually, to us.
As with his first disciples, so with us. Though we cannot touch and see Jesus in the flesh as they did, nevertheless Jesus offers us relationship. He wants us to know him. So here, as he did at the Last Supper, he eats with us and invites us to feed on his real presence. And here he helps us to mark, learn and inwardly digest what it will mean to take up the baton of faith – and pass it on – in our time and this place.
Or, as he puts it, to take up your cross and follow him.