Sunday Sermon

17 Pentecost 2018

Proper 19, Year B, RCL

Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

The Collect

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

WISDOM WILL LAUGH

     We are accustomed to thinking of knowledge as having impact.  Today’s lessons emphasize that knowledge can be hard to hear and even harder to bear.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and St. Peter shuts him down.  All of us sitting here know that Jesus did suffer and die, so we hear as an event realized in time what St. Peter heard for the first time very differently.  He responds with fear, denying what is too much for him to bear.  

     The Proverbs lesson tells us that if we will not accept knowledge and choose Fear of the Lord, Wisdom will laugh at our calamity.  There is a very great deal at stake.  A storm is coming, and Jesus knew it.  Jesus told Peter that he had his mind set on human things.  Wisdom is a divine thing, and the knowledge she brings can be terrible. I believe that St. Peter’s denials now and at the time of Jesus’ trial have the same root that we heard in today’s reading.  He is afraid. St. Peter in the gospels very often shows us a natural response.  Of course, he doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die.  I had to learn as a hospital chaplain to just let people say what they were going to say without stopping them. Our instinct is to stop them from saying scary things.  When I chose to stay with them through the scary parts, I often heard the patient’s deepest concerns, so we could lift those up and deal with them.  St. Peter wants things to remain simple, like they have been.  The Proverbs lesson warns that waywardness kills the simple.  It is wayward to hear the truth and reject it out of hand. The Psalmist asks to be preserved from presumptuous sins and isn’t it presumptuous to call Jesus down for speaking what Wisdom has revealed to him?     

     I saw my physician this week at HIMG. We talked for at least a half hour about her fears for our children, for our society, for medical care in West Virginia.  She sends her children to a small Christian school, and some of the children there are cutting themselves.  When I mentioned this to Lea she reminded me that two of her high school friends tried to kill themselves. My physician is concerned that we have huge problems in WV and that no one has a comprehensive plan to help us deal with those problems.  I told her that the local churches are trying to help us understand the problem and start programs that will minister to it.  She is concerned that it will be too little, too late because she is seeing a real problem developing in her profession.  Health care workers are burning out and leaving WV because the problems caused by drug abuse are so acute.  The millions spent on reviving addicts is staggering.  Some health care workers live in other states and commute weekly.  This state has become a hard place for people from outside to live and work in comfortably.  Those of us who have lived here most of our lives have seen the problem slowly growing, but those who come here from outside see it with fresh eyes and are appalled. My physician is clearly a believer; she feels helpless and hopeless. She sees the problem clearly, does not deny it.  She has the beginning of Wisdom, but there is more to be learned.  Disciples must choose to Fear the Lord.  The Proverbs lesson tells us that it possible to withstand the storm.

     Jesus understands the problems of his time; his disciples don’t.  The Proverbs lesson tells us that Wisdom will laugh at us if we fail to understand the problem, don’t respond to it, and are victimized.  The disciples were good people.  They weren’t backward or slow.  Jesus knew a storm was coming, but they couldn’t see the signs or hear the winds. I got a call from Putnam county this week with a long “to do” list to help me prepare my home for the big storm that is coming into the Carolinas. Well, it was a clear, sunny day on Thursday.  I wasn’t ready to start the work of preparing for the storm.  I had other things to do.  At that time, they were forecasting winds up to 50 mph!!  Deborah! What does it take to get you moving? Jesus saw the handwriting on the wall.  Would it be kind to let them deny the coming storm?  “Oh, don’t tempt me!” I can hear him say it.  Satan is the tempter in Scripture, the one who tries us as he tried Job. I can imagine Jesus saying, “Don’t you think I want everything to be all right?”  The Proverbs lesson tells us that complacency leads to disaster.  Those who heed Wisdom will live at ease without dread of disaster because they choose to Fear the Lord. That is an extraordinary thing to say.  

     I have been steadily working away at the puzzle “Fear of the Lord”.  Many of the words used in Scripture have a depth of meaning that evades me, and it is taking me a long time to fill in my understanding.  This Proverbs reading showed me something new.  We choose to Fear the Lord.  When I hear bad news, my reaction is often fear, fear of what is coming, fear that I or that my community will not survive what is coming. Fear of the Lord is a response that I may choose to balance my human fear as my discipleship grows. The two fears live together in us.  Fear of the Lord helps us to face the storm that is coming rather than to deny it as St. Peter does in today’s lesson.  Jesus will teach his disciples to face their human fear with Fear of the Lord. If we Fear the Lord, we may hear with understanding very scary things, knowing that God’s commitment to us will carry us through to safety.     

     Wisdom brings the knowledge of God’s love that grounds Fear of the Lord.  Wisdom brings knowledge about the character and commitments of God that we can use to face our human fear and plan for the storm that is coming.  When we hear a warning like the one Jesus delivered today, wisdom would advise us to take necessary precautions.  

     My Dad taught us how to prepare the house and yard for a hurricane.  Living on the Gulf coast, we had them every few years, big ones every 5 or so years.  We would work hard once we knew the storm was coming in near us.  When it finally roared up, we were exhausted but ready.  We had done all we could do. I remember peacefully watching hurricane Carla’s 120mph winds bend full grown trees in half.  I had no idea they could do that without breaking.  Once the storm arrived, my Dad was moving around the house making sure the pressures caused by the storm were equalized by opening strategic windows and doors.  Because he did this no windows were broken, not even the slider.  He worked the storm.  I felt safe even though the weather was truly awful.  Not only had we prepared for the storm, but my Dad was on patrol to make sure we stayed safe.  He listened for tornadoes, warning us of the sound they make, and made sure we knew the strongest rooms in the house where we should take shelter.  Jesus has that role in the gathering of his disciples then and now.  He helps us get ready and then stands with us as we work the storm.

     Jesus did not let the physical response of fear stop him.  He faced right into it Fearing God rather than events, bringing along a group of disciples who learned how to weather storms.  He himself guided them through the storm caused by his suffering and death. I believe the resurrection appearances helped his disciples to understand the commitment of God to us that stabilizes us as we face our human fear.  1John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love casts out fear.” As we understand the love of God and return that love fear loses some of its grip on us.  Jesus’ presence for and with us has never faltered.              

      The letter of James tells us that the tongue will show us the disposition of the whole body.  When we use it to build up we show what we are made of, just as we do when we use the tongue to tear down.  When I am particularly discouraged by rising expenses and fear of loss, I remember that we must continue, so that Jesus can guide us.  Do not be discouraged by negative voices anywhere—not in your own mind, in your family, in your community or your neighborhood.  Wisdom always leads us to understanding and fresh perspective.  

     As we gather in this place to serve others, we prepare for the differences that our neighbors will bring.  I have been told that one of our best early strategies for our Thanksgiving gathering is to listen to one another’s stories.  Quiet, compassionate listening is best.  Let those stories touch you, but do not feel sorry for the ones who tell them.  Feeling sorry introduces an awkwardness we can avoid.  Do not try to solve their problems.  When Jesus said the poor will always be with us, I believe he meant that there will always be people hurt by life.  Our job is to show them the love we know because God loves us.  

     Hurricane Carla went right over our house.  It was every bit as terrible as predicted and then some. The storm that we are living in now is just as terrible and dangerous.   It needs to be faced with the same resolve that we need to weather any storm.  Do not measure what you can and cannot do.  Do your best and let God sort it.  I never focus on success and failure.  God can use all things for good.  When you work hand in hand with God there is no reason to be afraid.

     Disciples can learn to work the storm.  We begin by believing in the love of God and freeing ourselves from whatever haunts us with the help of that love.  We work the storm by showing the love and commitment that God has for us in our families, churches, neighborhoods.  The ministries we do here give us a way to carry that love out our doors to our neighbors.  It is as much about working the storm as it is about feeding hungry people.  I think of the ministry as a vehicle; I want to keep those wheels turning.  Through our ministries Jesus touches us in our time.  It is so important not to be discouraged by the size or effectiveness of what we can do now.  The Lord loves all God’s children and will prosper our ministry. There are so many times when I have been tired and discouraged.  Whatever I do always seems so little when compared with the great need in our neighborhood alone.  It has sometimes been hard to turn off those voices and just rest. With St. Peter I want to hide from knowledge, deny Wisdom and go my merry way.  

     But I do believe in the love of God.  I want to leave the world a better place, so I rest awhile and take up ministry again.  I used to think St. Paul was exaggerating when he said that we have taken up battle against principalities and powers.  There are so many naysaying, discouraging voices that it might be easier to give in.  Jesus knew that.  Wisdom and love would not allow him to ignore the need around him, not allow him to give into fear, not even to fear of spinning his wheels and wasting his time.  Fear of the Lord guided him and led him home.  His disciples still had much to learn but God gave Jesus more time with them after the miracle of the resurrection made him available to believers for all time.  God did that because God loves us enough to take the time it takes to enlist our aid. We choose how we will spend our time, and I choose to be here with you for as long as I can do the work.  While I am here I will ask you to take the love of God outside these doors and into the neighborhood.  We are not just feeding and clothing those who need that, we are bringing them the love that we know.  I don’t have anything more important than that to do.      

Sermon for 17 Pentecost 2018 by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin