Mark 8:27-38                          What Matters Most?                                       Susan J. Barnes

September 13, 2015                                                                           St. John’s, Minneapolis

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

 

“What matters most?”   That’s Atul Gawande’s question in Being Mortal: a great, readable book addressed to people who are at the end of life.   Gawande, an M.D., urges the elderly and the terminally ill to know what matters most to them and to let those priorities guide their decisions and directives.

Why wait until the end of life? I decided to take on the question of “what matters most” in some Sunday sermons and Saturday conversations this fall. Your other preachers may choose to as well.

Our feelings about what matters most will vary in part with our changing roles and responsibilities.

Impending death will put “what matters” into focus.   My sister Polly’s terminal-cancer diagnosis did that for her and all who were close to her.   During those precious months, time with Polly mattered more than anything ever had to me: it was easy to drop less important things to be with her.

Polly let secondary things fall away, too, to tend to final affairs and be graciously present to those she loved. We all seized the “gift of time” and made the most of it.   We had joyful family gatherings we will never forget and the privilege of being together when she died in peace.

Looking back in wonder on my clarity of purpose then, I realized that it flowed from my identity in relationship to Polly. My love for my sister structured my priorities in an instant.   Some of you have had that, too, in a crisis–whether it lasts hours, months, or years.

But what about in an ordinary life bursting with distractions, delights and demands?     What lies at the core of my identity and yours that transcends time and space, that lasts to the end of life, yes; and can guide our choices and priorities in the meanwhile?

Knowing what really matters can enable me to say “no” to things that really don’t.   It can help me to be a better steward of my time, energy, my commitment of heart and soul–which are God’s most precious gifts.

Identity is key to that knowing.   Today’s gospel goes right to the point. Jesus challenges his disciples to recognize his identity–and their own.

“Who do you say that I am?”   Until now, Jesus’ disciples have seen him go from triumph to triumph: he has stilled storms, driven out demons, miraculously fed thousands. From the outset, lepers and other outsiders have known who Jesus is.   Unclean spirits have called him “the Holy one of God,” “the Son of God”.   But his closest followers have been blind to the truth.

Now it seems their fog has lifted.   “You are the Messiah,” Peter declares.   Alas, he’s only partly right. Peter has gotten the title, but not the job description: he imagines a military hero like King David. So Jesus quickly sets him straight. He lays out what truly is ahead for THIS Messiah: no insurrection; no routing the Roman army; neither power nor glory in this world at all.   Instead, the glory is on the other side of suffering and death.   The glory is victory over death: the resurrection for Jesus and for us.

Jesus has embraced his destiny because he knows who he is, and he knows WHOSE he is.   Jesus has surrendered his will, his life, his being to God. He makes it clear that he will literally pick up the cross to play his part, trusting in God’s presence and promise.

When he gathers the crowd and invites anyone and everyone to follow him, Jesus lets them know what’s at stake.   The cross meant excruciating death.

It was a fair warning. Death and persecution were real threats to Mark’s original audience and for Jesus’ followers until the early 4th century.   After that, Christians often became the persecutors–from the Crusades to the Inquisition to the Holocaust.   Those were abuses of the gospel, and of power itself.   Today, sadly, Christians are again persecuted–in more countries than any other faith now, according to the Pew Research Center.

Jesus died for opposing the structures of power, oppression and injustice. What has it meant to follow Jesus in modern-day America?   The Civil Rights movement was a Christian movement. Jesus was the leaders’ model. In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of people–black and white–were ready to lay down their lives for the cause.   As another 1960s activist, Father Daniel Berrigan said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood!”

Amelia Boynton Robinson was one of those leaders.   On March 6, 1965, she was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers and left for dead on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.   Ms. Boynton (as she was then) may well have been targeted. Active in voter education and registration for nearly thirty years in Selma, she was the leader of the Civil Rights movement there.   It was her idea to make a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. She persuaded her friend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLS to join it.

In that first, aborted march, Amelia Boynton knew that her life was stake. She was prepared to die for the sake of the gospel–for justice, freedom and peace. She stood at the head of the group that day.   She knew clearly what mattered most to her.   She knew who she was and whose she was.

“I depended on the guidance of God, who I felt had groomed me for this struggle” she wrote in her riveting memoir, Bridge Across Jordan.

The photo of Amelia Boynton’s seemingly lifeless body, cradled by a weeping fellow activist, hauntingly recalls images of the dead Christ lying in the lap of his grieving mother Mary.

But God wasn’t finished with Amelia Boynton yet. In two days she was back at another demonstration; later that month she made the famous march with Dr. King.   In August she was President Johnson’s special guest when he signed the Voting Rights Act–the first of many, many honors.   She returned to Selma and persisted for decades in seeing that Civil Rights became practice as well as law.   She died only last month at 104, after being celebrated in the film Selma, and at the 50th anniversary of the March, with President Obama beside her there.

Amelia Boynton’s clarity, her courage, her commitment to justice were grounded in her life-long Christian faith, in her certainty about who she was, who God created her to be, and what God called her to do.   Following Jesus meant surrendering her will to God’s, no matter the cost, and living according to God’s law of love and forgiveness   Among other things, that love took her to the funeral of Sheriff Jim Cox, who had led the state troopers in attacking her and who had refused to call for medical help, saying “Let the vultures get them.”

What matters most?   As followers of Jesus we can look to the gospels for the values that define us.   As Episcopalians we also have the Baptismal Covenant, which we will say today in honor of the baptism of the infant Amelia Jean Curl. When we do, listen carefully to the vows you make.   They have shaped the social justice identity of the Episcopal church. They are shaping your identity and mine.

What does it mean to follow Jesus here and now?   This summer the Charleston Nine laid down their lives.   Their survivors laid down hate and vengeance and choose, instead, to offer God’s love and forgiveness to the assassin. Those good people knew who they were and whose they were.

What will our identity as followers of Jesus ask–even demand–of us in the future?   Might we be called to great sacrifice?   Whatever comes to each of us, let us pray we will be up to the task with God’s help.

In the coming weeks, I hope you’ll share with me and others your thoughts on who you are and what matters to you.

For me, the path lies in knowing Jesus.   I’ve gotten a late start on that life-long journey, but I’m grateful for the chance.   I want to be like Amelia Boynton Robinson, the Charleston Nine and their survivors. I want for Jesus’ “identity to shape” my own.**

**with thanks to Professor Alyce M. McKenzie for her 2009 commentary on workingpreacher.org from 2009.