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New Life after the Cross: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 12, 2021:
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

A little story from just a few weeks ago someone you might know — we’ll call him “Tom” — sent me home with a couple pots of beautiful yellow flowers (black eyed susans, or something along those lines). It took me a few days before I planted them in the ground, and by the time I did, one of the two had shrunk and shrivelled; I guess I hadn’t watered it enough. I kept an eye on it over the next couple of weeks, and it continued to deteriorate, until one day, I noticed that, while the original flowers had gone, new ones had sprouted, closer to the base of the stems. The death that changed the plant that I received was real, and lasting. But it wasn’t the end. It was part of a cycle that led to new life. And I’m told that they’re perennials, so they’ll be coming back (to be under-watered) each year, again and again.

Another story — I wrote about this in our diocesan paper a few years ago — about an Episcopalian church off the coast of Rhode Island, levelled by a storm about 70, 80 years ago. The wealthy Episcopalian community was understandably distressed. The church died, and laid fallow for some decades. Eventually, though, the Episcopalians realized that they could still gather together, and they did, for morning and evening prayer, for Bible study, and discussion. They grew and grew, to the extent that they were officially re-established, and, some of them would tell you that their practice of prayer and study came to suffer as they shifted their focus to more traditional committees and fundraising. (From “church as movement” to “church as institution.”)

And a third story, from a long, long time ago: Jesus and his group are in Caesarea Philippi. Named for “Caesar,” the Roman emperor (the king of the world, basically), and “Philip” the ruler of that part of the kingdom, and son of the evil king in the nativity stories. It’s here where Jesus asks his disciples (and, I think, us) “who do you say that I am?” And they respond, “the Messiah.” The promised one. The embodiment of hope. The one who represents God’s justice, God’s love. In today’s scene we see an initial skirmish, as the Kingdom of God stakes a claim in the territory of Caesar and Philip. And this road, Jesus insists (and something Peter won’t understand until after Easter) goes to the Cross. For God’s love and justice to be really, truly felt — and real — it needs to go to the place that’s farthest from love and justice. And in doing so, show us that nothing is out of God’s reach. St. Paul, in a passage we sometimes hear at funerals, writes “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

So that plant I mentioned, found new life, after letting go of the desiccated flowers. The church community off Rhode Island thought they were condemned along with their building. But it turned out that losing their building was a pathway to a new, more active and deep Christian life. And Jesus, in our gospel reading, speaks quite openly about the reality of death, but just as strongly about his rising again. And Peter’s (and our) avoidance of pain and grasping only at what’s known and comfortable, is a very human thing, isn’t it? But Jesus points us in a different direction. To the cross — not as suffering or obedience for their own sake, but as the doorway to something new that can only happen when we assent to working with God, and being open to the new thing that God wants to do in us and for the world.

So today we can ask: what is the cross in our own time? Not necessarily what’s arduous or dangerous or unfair, though it could be one of those things. But what is it that God’s put before you to bring about something new, and deeper, and better?

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter