Sunday, January 11, 2015

SERMON: "Turning Our Backs on the Devil" (1.11.15)

A meditation on Mark 1:1-11


This morning we’ve read from the very first verses of Mark’s gospel, the very beginning of Mark’s story about Jesus.  It’s obviously the story of Jesus’ own baptism, his own ‘coming out’ if you will.  And the voice from heaven that showers him in love, grace and God’s delight. 

This is where the Christian story begins, ends and begins again: in love, grace and God’s delight.  Not just for Jesus, but for every one of us.  So maybe you sit here this morning at some kind of strange crossroads.  Maybe you sit here this morning at the end of something in your life, or the beginning of some new disorienting chapter.  Maybe you can’t tell the endings from the beginnings anymore. 

The Gospel says that you are chosen just as Jesus is chosen.  Whatever the crossroads may be.  The Gospel says that you are beloved just as Jesus is beloved.  Wherever the crossroads may be.  The Gospel says that God wants to work through you just as God wants to work through Jesus.  A voice from heaven showers you too in love.  “We are little people,” said Henri Nouwen years ago, “but if we believe that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken—to be given, then we can trust that our life will bear fruit.  It will multiply.” 

We are chosen, we are blessed, we are broken.  To be given.  And that’s where the Christian story begins, ends and begins again.  Jesus coming up out of the water, the heavens torn apart in joy and gladness, and a voice showering him and us and all creation in love. 


But I want to fast-forward now to the middle of Mark’s story, to what some even call its ‘epicenter,’ a critical exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  And, as I say, it happens at the very midpoint of Mark’s sixteen chapter gospel.  Chapter Eight.

You’ll remember that Jesus begins to teach the disciples about suffering and love, and all the ways love requires suffering and patience and humility.  And you’ll remember too that Peter speaks out for his friends and Peter just can’t fathom what Jesus is saying.  They’ve been on this magical ride: healing the sick and feeding the masses and challenging the powers that be.  And Peter’s happy to be on Jesus’ side, happy to be on the side of righteousness at last, happy to be with one so thoroughly good and right and chosen.  So the story says that Peter rebukes Jesus, that he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for all his talk about suffering and patience and humility. 

It’s a key moment in Mark’s gospel.  Because, you see, there’s a temptation, when we’re chosen, to believe we don’t have to hurt, we don’t have to suffer, we don’t also have to be broken.  There’s a temptation, when we’re chosen, to believe we have answers no one else will ever have, to believe that we get to say how the world works now.  And Peter falls, and falls kind of hard, for that temptation.  He’s happy at last to call himself ‘saved’ and tell off the soldiers of empire and captains of industry.  He’s proud to imagine a whole new world where the last are finally first and the first are forever last.  And he’s right there with Jesus calling all the shots.  Peter falls hard for that temptation. 

And Jesus wastes no time in calling Peter out.  And maybe you remember, at the ‘epicenter’ of Mark’s story, what Jesus says to his friend, to his disciple, to his champion.  Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Get behind me, Satan.  “For you’re setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”  It’s a stunning moment, really, in almost every way.  That Jesus identifies his closest ally with the greatest threat to his ministry, his faith, his vision.  Get behind me, Satan!  With all of your talk about righteousness and spiritual victory and vanquishing your foes.  Get behind me.  With all your talk about living forever and ruling forever and humbling the other guy.  Get behind me.

Mark 8
You see, as an idea, as a reality, as a force in our lives, Satan has nothing to do with red-footed creatures hiding in the shadows, lurking in the alleys, seizing the souls of our worst enemies.  The Devil has much more to do with our own temptations, with our own susceptibility to pride and hubris and a judgmental religiosity.  Jesus comes not to humiliate his foes, but to shine God’s light into the world.  He comes not to vanquish other belief systems, but to invite communion and celebration and suffering love among peoples.  Peter rebukes him for this talk of suffering love and brokenness, and humility as the way to the heart of God.  And Jesus wastes no time in calling Peter out.  He has to.  “Get behind me, Satan!”


With all that’s happened this week in Paris, and with all that continues to happen around the world in the name of religion,  I think we have to acknowledge (and even confess) that every tradition faces these same temptations.  Christians have faced them for centuries.  Jews surely face them.  Muslims are facing them now.  We’re all tempted to believe that our answers are the only answers, that our way is the best and one righteous way, that our faith qualifies us to determine the fate of others.  When Christians in Germany fell for Hitler’s racial theology of purity and blame, they fell hard for the temptation.  When others reject the role of women in church leadership or the amazing gifts and beauty of the queer community in Christian life, they too fall hard for the temptation.  And when Muslim extremists orchestrate a terrible attack and awful killing at a Paris news magazine office this week, as they try to impose a narrow version of their truth on Europe, they too fall hard for the temptation.

I’ve spent a good bit of the past week working through my notes and pictures from last fall’s visit in the Holy Land.  And one little video clip, one in particular, catches my attention again.  Toward the end of our trip, our delegation spent an hour with my good friend Ghassan Manasra.  A Muslim leader.  A Sufi sheikh.  And as warm and bright a spirit as you’ll ever meet.

Ghassan was talking that afternoon about blame and bitter violence and how this divides races and faith communities across the Holy Land.  His own fatigue, his own despair showed in his eyes, more than I’d seen in previous visits.  More than I’d seen just a few months before, when I’d stayed in his home for a week.  But I watched my friend reach deep that afternoon, deep inside his soul, deep into his convictions, for something he could share, something hopeful, with us.  And as tired as he was, he didn’t disappoint.

And what I’m going to share with you now is as close to word-for-word as I can get.  Because in light of this week’s violence in Paris, in light of the tension that cries out for wisdom, Ghassan offers something precious.  Not just to Muslim believers, but to all of us.

“In Islam,” he said in November, “we have a very important oral tradition.  If you know yourself, you will know your God.”

“I heard this first from my teacher, my sheikh,” he said.  “So I said, I will go.  I will go to know myself.  And I went to know myself.”  And at this point, Ghassan paused in his teaching and smiled around our circle.  Into just about every one of our faces.  “But there’s no way to know yourself,” he smiled.  “No way.  No way.  It’s very, very far.  You need to enter the journey and search very hard and you need to discover and learn and even to swim in the vastness of things sometimes.  But there’s no easy way to know yourself.”

“But,” he said and he paused again with a huge smile.  “But, if you go to know the other, then you can know yourself.  And when you know yourself you can know your God.  Then, you see, you are my way to God.”

Sheikh Gassan Manasra
On my little video, this last part zips quickly by.  So I rewind and replay.  And I rewind and replay again.  “If you go to know the other,” Ghassan says again, “then you can know yourself.  And when you know yourself (in this way) you can know your God.”  And then he finishes with the point of the whole teaching, the wise Sufi’s words for Americans from far away.  “Then, you see, you are my way to God.”  Then, you see, you are my way to God.

These are Ghassan’s words, the words of a Muslim wise man, a Sufi sheikh.  But they might just as well be Moses’ words, or Ruth’s words, or Naomi’s words, or Amos’ words, or Jesus’ words or Paul’s words or Martin Luther King’s words.

If you go to the other, if you take the other seriously, if you come to know the other as a brother, as a sister, then and only then do you really and truly know yourself.  And when you know yourself in that way, in just that way, then you know God.   Because the Muslim sheikh is my way to God.  And the Jewish mystic is my way to God.  And the African American kid at Santa Cruz High is my way to God.  And the transgender seminarian at Divinity School is my way to God.  And you get it.  We all get it, right?  Ghassan is right.  You are my way to God.  And I am yours.

“But the problem today,” Ghassan continued that afternoon in November, “the big part of Muslims in Iraq and Syria, they don’t know this verse in the Koran.”

“And there is another verse in the Koran,” he said.  “It’s very important.  And we forget it so easily.  God said ‘If I want to make you one nation, I can.  But I want instead to make you many nations, many tribes and clans.’    This is very important for me,” Ghassan said. “God makes us many nations, many tribes, so that we can know and explore and work hard understanding one another.  Because you are my way to God.  I can only know God if I know you and what makes us different and what makes us similar and how to live with you.  To know, to explore: this is our religious duty.”


I love this last part.  I love all the things Ghassan said that day, but I really do love this last part.  “To know, to explore: this is our religious duty.”  Because otherwise, we fall for the temptation, just as Peter does in Mark’s story and just as we humans have done since the beginning of time.  But if we explore one another’s traditions, one another’s hungers, one another’s thinking and ways of being, then we come to know God not in an abstract and strictly doctrinal way, but in the way God wants most to be known.  We come to know God as we know and love and suffer with others.  And that’s really what this whole thing is all about.  Religion.  Gospel.  Faith.  Life.  We come to know God as we know and love and suffer with others.

To this day most Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox liturgies include, and some Presbyterian and Lutheran baptisms too, a vow that seems a little outdated to us.  “We renounce Satan,” goes the Orthodox version, “and all his evil works.”

Obviously that kind of language and imagery has been manipulated and distorted hugely over the years.  And we’ve come in many ways to identify Satan with the other guy, with the other tradition, with the things that are wrong in everybody else’s way of being.

But I wonder now if the point isn’t what Jesus’ point was with Peter and the disciples he truly loved.  Be vigilant, he says.  Be vigilant for the pride that creeps in on religious faith, on all religious faith.  Be vigilant for the judgmental spirit that judges some lives and some traditions as more worthy, more human, more intelligent than others.  And be vigilant, in our own traditions especially, for the spirit that claims to speak for God without hesitation, without awareness, without humility.

Our own story, the Christian story, begins this morning in love, grace and God’s delight.  It begins with a young man going out to the wilderness and diving into a muddy river.  It begins with the heavens splitting in wonder and showering him with love. 

We choose that love every day.  We choose that love in resisting pride and hubris and all the easy answers we come with as a matter of course.  We choose that love in meeting others and listening closely to their stories and recognizing in them our way to God.  Because God makes us many nations, many tribes, many clans.  And these indeed are our way, every one of them is our way to love.