Second Sunday in Lent 2015, Year B

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 1, 2015 (II Lent, Year B)

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you probably don’t reflect with great fondness upon the Bobby Valentine era. When Terry Francona was unceremoniously pushed out as manager after leading the team to two World Championships, Bobby Valentine was brought in to restore order following the fried chicken and beer flavored collapse of 2011. In his one and only season as skipper of the Sox, Valentine managed the team to a last place finish and their worst record in 50 years.

valI’m bringing this up because one of the things Valentine did early on in his tenure was alienate veteran 3rd baseman Kevin Youkalis by publicly questioning his motivation and ability. The whole scenario backfired with Dustin Pedroia coming to Youkalis’ defense and saying about Valentine’s approach, “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Well, it only got worse for Valentine and the Red Sox and the season quickly spiraled out of control.

In his defense, Bobby Valentine was probably just trying to light a fire under Youk who’d gotten off to a slow start. As a motivational technique, going public is risky business when dealing with the big yet often fragile egos of sports superstars. The big contracts can’t hide the human emotions that lurk below the surface. One size of motivation doesn’t fit all.

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus also goes public. Not through the media, of course, but by publicly calling Peter out for his behavior. I admit I’d never really noticed the public nature of this encounter. Well, I mean besides the fact that it’s in the Bible — the most popular, translated, purchased, visible, and, yes, shoplifted book in the entire world.

Jesus had just offered his disciples what Biblical scholars refer to as a passion prediction — foretelling his impending suffering, rejection, and death along with a veiled, incomprehensible reference to his resurrection. And immediately after this, we hear that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” So Peter was doing with Jesus precisely what Bobby Valentine did not do with Kevin Youkalis: Peter pulled Jesus aside to have a private conversation about the issue at hand. In other words, he kept this little chat inside the locker room rather than airing out his grievances on SportsCenter.

And for Peter, the issue was clear: don’t say such things about your suffering and death because a) I don’t want to hear it — the thought alone is terrifying and what will become of all of us and b) It’s not only dispiriting for those of us already in your camp, but also makes a lousy recruiting tool for those who are not.

But here’s what I never noticed before about this story. I’ve always focused on the private conversation between Peter and Jesus but you could argue that Jesus turns it right back into a public moment. Mark writes, “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.”

I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus said this loudly enough for the other disciples to hear. Most people wouldn’t whisper, “Get behind me satan!” It would be said forcefully and with great intention and conviction. And if that’s the case, why would Jesus seemingly publicly shame Peter? Why would Jesus pull a Bobby Valentine (which is a sentence, I assure you, I never dreamed I’d utter from a pulpit).

Well, for one thing, people already knew about Peter’s special relationship with Jesus. His name itself came from Jesus when he said about Simon-Peter “Upon this rock I will build my church.” And I think it’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t actually calling Peter “satan” here but rather making his point with maximum emphasis and even shock value.

Jesus often used hyperbole to make important points and nothing could be more important than changing people’s expectations about how the divine plan would all unfold. Were used to hearing the story of Jesus’ crucifixion – we know how it ends. But imagine if you didn’t have a copy of that bestseller — the one that tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry? Imagine being drawn to this unique teacher and healer who simply said “follow me” and you had dropped everything to do just that.

Suddenly you’re part of a movement unlike anything anyone had ever seen or experienced. You see first-hand the miracles and the enthusiastic crowds and the charismatic personality that draws them. You’re filled with hope that this new savior would finally lead your people in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors who had kept your community under foot for so many years, trampling you down economically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually.

And just as events begin to move towards a great crescendo of expectation and fervor, this leader in whom you have placed all your hope and longing announces that he will suffer and be murdered. As everyone else stood around in shock, Peter alone was courageous enough to say to Jesus, “Stop! Don’t say such things.” There’s almost a superstitious quality here — that if you don’t say something negative out loud, it won’t come to pass and if you do, it will. So just keep a lid on it, boss.

And the response is loud and clear: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s not a private message meant just for Peter but a public message meant for everyone — for the disciples, yes, but just as much for you and me. True discipleship is not all sunshine and unicorns, it is often a tough road; one that requires all of us at various points to pick up our respective crosses to follow Jesus.

We will all be crucified in some sense. Hopefully not in the literal sense — though this still happens in the world. Christians are even today being persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. Just this week we heard reports that ISIS had kidnapped and is threatening to kill hundreds of Assyrian Christians. And last month over 20 Coptic Christians in Egypt were slaughtered by the same group.

For us, the crucifixion can be of our own selfish desires; of our inability or unwillingness to fully follow Jesus with our whole heart and mind and soul; of our self-centeredness and inward focus; of our setting our mind not on divine things but on human things.

To deny ourselves and pick up our crosses doesn’t mean groveling or engaging in false humility or living into a martyr complex. It is about living our lives in harmony with Jesus’ message of love — love of God and love of one another. That’s the point. Jesus wants us to know the cost of discipleship and he makes the point to Peter and the disciples in no uncertain terms.

It’s worth remembering, I guess, that the Red Sox did win the World Series the year after Bobby Valentine was fired. They literally went from worst to first. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I can’t in good conscience use this as a resurrection analogy. But abundant life does await all who accept Jesus’ invitation to self denial and discipleship. There is joy and a victory parade of fruitful relationship with God not just on the other side, but right here, right now. And I invite you all to embrace it during this most holy season.

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