Pentecost XV – September 13, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Welcome back. Welcome home. It’s good to see so many of you here!
There are probably as many ways to read this morning’s scripture as there are those of you who are here. Some preachers will read this text and see in it more of Mark’s “Messianic Secret.”
Others will focus in on the high, noble calling of these famous words of Jesus: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Other fiery preachers will focus in on not being ashamed of the Gospel.
I am fascinated by how the words of the Epistle of James – which we don’t often hear in church – bring into focus the action of the Gospel. If you look beyond the words on the page, you will notice that Peter rebukes Jesus and then Jesus rebukes Peter right back in front of the other disciples.
The topic under discussion was the central identity of Jesus – was he or was he not the Messiah? And, what did that mean?
Jesus was very clear about his understanding of the suffering he would have to endure as the Messiah, which made Peter very uncomfortable. A disagreement broke out between the two men about this.
Please note, however, that the rebuking done by Peter and Jesus was done in private. It was done between the two of them and then, among the disciples. It was not done in public.
Which leads me to talk about ‘civility’. I suppose the words from the Epistle led me to see that theme in the Gospel, but I suspect it was not a difficult stretch, given what has been happening of late in our lives together in this post 9/11, post-modern culture.
I don’t know that I can say that civility is dead in this country, but if it isn’t, all life-support has been suspended, the DNR order has been signed and it is on Hospice Care.
Yes, in part, I’m talking about the shameful outburst by the Representative from the Great State of South Carolina who called the President of the United States a liar on national television during an historic Joint Session of Congress on the topic of Health Care Reform.
Yes, it has to do with that, but it has to do with much, much more.
No, I’m not talking about politics, and I’m not talking about Health Care Reform. I think we all agree, no matter our political persuasion, that our Health Care System needs to be reformed.
There are stories in this church from parishioners that would raise the hair on the back of your neck and lead you to be as outraged as I am.
What we may differ on is the (ahem) . . .“significant details”. . . of that reform, but there is not doubt, at least in the minds of those I know and respect, that our Health Care System in general and the Health Insurance and Pharmaceutical Industries in particular are in need of reform.
Yes, yes. The devil is in the details. Of that, there is no doubt. But, this is not a sermon on Health Care Reform, which, as Christians, is an issue about which we should all be concerned.
Bishop Beckwith leaves tomorrow to spend a week in Washington, DC with a group of other Episcopal Bishops known as “Bishops Working For a Just World” where they will lobby Congress about Health Care Reform.
I’m very proud of our bishop and hope that you keep him and this very important work in your prayers.
I’m not talking about politics and I’m not talking about particular political issues. I am talking about civility, which we seem to have lost in our public as well as our private discourse.
It’s not just about language, although I’m sure I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s now de rigueur to drop the “F-bomb” just about anywhere, any time, to anyone you wish.
Yes, in part, I’m talking about ‘shock-jocks’ and news commentators – in print, electronic and cyberspace – who make outrageous statements of opinion which masquerade as fact, and then encourage people to call in or write and comment as if their opinions were even worthy of discussion or comment.
I know the writers of the Epistle of James, at the time they were writing, could never have known about modern technology, but let me read that passage to you again:
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”Tell me if that doesn’t apply to some of the more notorious of the so-called “commentators” who fill the airways and clog cyberspace.
That’s an issue for another time. Mostly, I’m talking about you and me, the ‘little people’, and how we live our lives with at least a modicum of civility, and how it is we teach our children to behave in a civil manner.
There will always be conflict in community - as there is in every part of normal family. But, Jesus teaches us how it is we are to handle that conflict in community. In the 18th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a guideline of how we are to do that:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”That, I think, is the very definition of civility. It’s what we see Jesus do with Peter in Mark’s gospel. It is the way Christians are to behave. It is the way we ought to behave as adults and, as responsible adults, the way we ought to teach our children to behave.
Why am I so concerned about this?
I am concerned because of what St. James warns us: How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.
I am deeply concerned because the Southern Poverty Law Project has been warning us for months that the level of violent rhetoric is growing at an alarming rate. Not coincidentally, the build up of private arsenals by individuals known to be part of Hate Groups is also growing exponentially.
On a personal level, we know from studies in domestic violence that violent language always leads to acts of violence. Children will listen. Our children and grandchildren are listening.
They hear. They see. They know. And, they look to you. They look to their schools. They look to the church. They watch and listen very carefully to see if the words you say with your lips are reflected in the way you live your lives.
The White House understands this about children, which is why Presidents and First Ladies make a point about going to visit school children – reading to them, talking with them.
Except, of course, when the current Administration tries to talk to as many school children as possible, to give them a word of encouragement in these difficult times.
The resulting, appalling lack of civility by some parents taught our children an unintended but very strong lesson – one they are almost certain to rebel against in later years.
Children will listen.
"You have to be carefully taught."
When Peter disagreed with Jesus, he took him aside before he rebuked him. And Jesus, being a good Rabbi, took Peter aside with the disciples and rebuked him right back, BEFORE he turned to the crowd and said,
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”Civility in public discourse is a cross to bear. It requires discipline and, in many ways, involves a sacrifice of self for the greater good. For, if we do not hold civility as a value in our public life, what is to be gained if we score political points, but lose the soul of our community?
As we begin this new program year in the midst of increasing financial uncertainty, soaring unemployment rates, and public debate about Health Care Reform, and anxiety threatens to set our tongues ablaze, let us keep in mind the words of the Epistle of James and the model of Jesus with his disciples.
A little more self-denial and cross bearing might well lead us to the path of greater civility and, in the process, we just might become better Christians – better followers of Christ – as well as citizens of the universe.
From one generation to the next.