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The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens The Rev. Dr. Wiley Stephens

The Rev. Dr. B. Wiley Stephens is senior minister of Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Dunwoody, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Dunwoody United Methodist Church, Dunwoody, GA


Read the Fine Print

Mark 8:27-38

15th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19)

September 14, 2003

Have you ever found yourself excited about something only to find all of your hopes dashed when you got to the fine print that defined exactly what you were about to receive or purchase or commit yourself to--the disclosure printed in tiny mouse print at the bottom of the ad or read very quickly by an announcer at the end of the commercials.

We all know too well many times life is like the sign at the entrance of an African game reserve: "Advance and be bitten."

Jesus wondered how he was being perceived by the people. Was he being seen as a sideshow or a revolutionary or a preacher or merely a curiosity? He asked the disciples, "When you're out there, when you're going for supplies or drawing water at the wells or checking into the inns, asking directions, doing the advance work, what are they saying? Who do people say I am?"

The disciples began to answer in human categories -- familiar terms that people were used to. Some said he was John the Baptist, for many would have heard of the baptizer, but they had no idea what he looked like. Or maybe Elijah, the hope whispered for many generations, the sign of God's return of Israel to its glory. Or for lack of a better idea, simply a prophet.

When we run into something that we have never seen or heard before, in trying to categorize the experience, we might use a known image, such as first the railroad was called the "iron horse," the automobile a "horseless carriage," or of a national leader, we might say he's their "George Washington."

But Jesus would not fit into any of the slots.

So he challenges the disciples to say who they thought he was, for the real question is not what they believe, but what do you believe?

The big print of just who Jesus was was obvious to Simon Peter in our Gospel today--Jesus was the Messiah--he was starting to really believe that when he dropped his nets, his only way of making a living, left his family and the security of home and had followed Jesus--he had indeed found the Messiah. And as he followed Jesus with the others, he began to see the signs of the in-breaking of the kingdom--the sick being healed, the lepers being cleansed, the crippled walking, a tax collector becoming a disciple, the wind and sea being calm, 5,000 being fed, Jesus walking on water, the blind seeing. So when pressed for who Jesus was, he exclaimed, "You are the Messiah!"

But how easily we get off track in our enthusiasm (such as with Peter switching from hero to goat). He had the right answer but he didn't understand the meaning--like when children innocently repeat what their parents have said without knowing the meaning--the impact of what it was to be the Messiah, the anointed one, or to be one of his followers had not yet sunk in for Peter. He still lived in the tradition of the return of a David-like king, of a mighty, conquering hero.

There is grave danger in making Christ over in our own image. Take tithing for example, when the state, as in the case of Germany, attempts to enforce it, some would simply quit the church.

Here we have Peter telling Jesus what he should be. Before we are too critical of Peter, listen to your own prayers, the deals you try to make with God. Much of our commitment is based on the idea of doing what we should be doing if God will do certain things for us.

Jesus is not your therapist; he has come to be your Savior, the Messiah, not to soothe some of your pain.

A few years ago, a large department store tried marketing a doll in the form of the baby Jesus. The advertisements described it as being "washable, cuddly, and unbreakable," and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. To complete the package, the manufacturer added biblical text appropriate to the baby Jesus. To the department store executives, it looked like a sure-fire winner, a real moneymaker. But they were wrong. It didn't sell. In a last-ditch effort to get rid of these dolls, one of the store managers placed a huge sign in one of the store windows. It read:

Jesus Christ
Marked down 50%
Get him while you can.

Before we're too critical of the markdown, let's think of how we ask people to get involved in the church.
* It doesn't demand much of you.
* It doesn't take much time

The ways we are afraid to ask:
* for gifts,
* for presence,
* for service.

There is danger in approaching Christ with the wrong expectations.

Someone observed that people come to church as consumers, picking and choosing their spirituality; the church becomes for them a supermarket of desire. And when there is no external source of authority, nothing to stand against the ego, there is no check against our tendencies toward deceit and self-deception.

Listen, there are reasons we follow a crucified Christ. Bishop Kenneth Carter of the United Methodist Church proclaimed, "Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of reality is One who enters into suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Only the suffering God can help."

I did a funeral for a little 11-year-old the other day, and perhaps the greatest word of comfort to the parents was that God knew how they felt, for he too had lost his child.

But let's be honest. Confronted with the necessity of suffering, most people will react exactly like Peter did. We live in a pain-killer culture.

Jesus showed in his miracles that God does not delight in human suffering, but we must be open to life. To follow Jesus is not to relieve us of pain but to allow God to deal with us in our pain and us to deal with others in pain.

This Gospel today, when Peter thought he was so right in confronting Jesus, confronts us with those times when we think we're so right.

Baxter Black, a veterinarian of large animals and a commentator on National Public Radio, told of an experience that occurred to his cousin Hank. Hank is a farmer who lives in a rural, central Minnesota village. One of his city relatives invited him to come for a visit in St. Paul the weekend of Thanksgiving, so Hank decided to ride the commuter train that passed by his community. At the first stop, the conductor announced that everyone would be able to get off at the station for a short stop. Hank wandered into the station and found the vending machines where he purchased a carton of milk and six-pack of Oreo cookies. He then sat down at a small table in the waiting room next to a gentleman who was obviously not from the country--nice suit, overcoat, some of those half-glasses to read with, and he was reading The Wall Street Journal. Hank thought to himself, "This fellow looks like Ward Cleaver." Hank opened the Oreos and took a cookie. As he put it into his mouth, he noticed that Ward Cleaver reached over and took an Oreo for himself and continued reading! Now Hank knew that no one in his little town would just reach over and take an Oreo without saying anything. This was different from the country! After a moment, Hank took a swig of milk to wash his cookie down, and Ward reached over for a second Oreo! Hank took his second cookie, and not knowing what the stranger would do, he took a third Oreo at the same time and began to eat them quickly. Lo and behold, Ward Cleaver grabbed the last cookie, got up and folded his paper in a huff and walked off! City folks, thought Hank, were strange indeed. He finished his milk and got up to get back on the train. As he did, he reached into his pocket for his ticket, and he found his pack of Oreos.

We don't always know everything we think we know about what's going on. We can be so wrong when we think we're so right!

There is good news in what Jesus is willing to work with. Simon Peter was a man who could be so right and so wrong. Jesus does not expect us to be perfect. After all, Peter went from the head of the class to being the devil himself in just a moment. Peter had a dream of what the Messiah meant and he couldn't let go. What is being challenged is how we can let go and follow.

There is danger in trying to hold on to what cannot be held. There is joy in finding the greater way when we do let go.

Jimmy Stewart in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" plays George, who is ambitious, decisive, energetic, and who spends so much of his life not worrying about himself that he comes to a point where he thinks he has lost his life. He discovers to his amazement that he has had the richest life of anybody in town. Things we cannot hold onto but only invest: time, energy, others, love.

I have a question for you. God has invested his Son's life for you. Have you made any interest?

Henri Nouwen spoke about his dilemma when he said, "Everything in me wants to move upward. Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I'm a part."

To bear one's cross does not mean to deal with what life hands you but to take up what life hands another. There is great power in what faith and love can motivate.

Two correspondents were in an area where the wounded of a battle were being treated. A nurse was dressing a soldier's wound. Recoiling, the correspondent looked at his companion and said, "I wouldn't do that for a million dollars." The nurse overheard and looked up with steady eyes, and said, "Neither would I."

To bear the cross is to measure a world beyond self and comfort and what we want. Rudyard Kipling, giving an address to the graduating medical class of McGill University, said, "You'll go out from here and very likely you'll make a lot of money. One day you'll meet someone for whom that means very little, and then you'll know how poor you are."

The greatness in your life is what God can do when the bar is raised--when we're willing to get beyond self to take up our cross.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "There is sufficient for the world's need but not for the world's greed."

But to all like Peter, who are frightened by cost, there is danger of trying to escape instead of following.

A young pastor was being challenged to deal with an issue in his sermon that he knew would be controversial, but he felt led by the Spirit to take a stand. An older minister told him, "You're working for a tough boss. Yours is a living God! And sometimes that means going against the grain, speaking out when it would be so much easier to be quiet. Are there any other questions?"

Someone has well challenged us when they said, "But conversion without immersion in the life of Jesus is a perversion of the Gospel."

Still through the ages echoes the challenge to all who would be Christian:

Take up thy cross and follow me.

Let us pray.

O Father, how many times we're guilty of wanting the easy way instead of the challenging way. How many times do we want to set the agenda instead of following? Let each of us have the love of Christ, take up our crosses, and follow him. Amen.


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