The Boundaries of Courage

Our scripture reading this Sunday, according to the lectionary, is from Mark chapter 8, verses 31-38. You’ll recall from two weeks ago that this text comes before Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up the mountain to the Transfiguration. I think to really understand this piece of scripture we again need a little context. But the context we need most is just the four verses that come directly before the start of our reading so I’m just going to read them too before we get into the bit written down in the bulletin. Let us now hear the Word of God:

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?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Humanity 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.  He said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  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.”

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.  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?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Humanity will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Parent with the holy angels.”

Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. AMEN.

In 2017, mom and dad both turned 70 – big milestone. And I thought, gee, average life expectancy in the US is 76 for men and 81 for women. Maybe this is a good time to sit down with mom and dad and have a conversation with them about their final wishes. I’m sure they’ve squared some things away, but there are probably some things my sister and I should be prepared for and know ahead of time about their preferences for end-of-life care. But that’s a hard conversation to have. It means I’m going to have to have an early encounter with my feelings about losing my mom and dad one day. That’s scary. And that’s no fun.

You want to know what is fun? Going to see Hamilton. So, that’s what my wife and my sister and I have been planning for my parents – a trip to New York City this spring, Hamilton tickets, a celebratory night on the town. And wills, funerals, and healthcare proxies are still not on the agenda yet. Because talking about the end is hard.

Even thinking about the end is hard. When I was working at First Church Somerville, our very beloved lead pastor left for another church and we had an interim lead pastor, Henry, come in during our search process. And on more than one occasion I would recommend that a congregant talk to Henry about a question or a problem or an interest they had that I thought Henry had real expertise in, and they would kind of be like, “Meeeh, I dunno.” I would say, “What? What’s goin’ on?” And they’d say, “Well, I don’t really want to get to know him too well because I know he’s leaving!” And it’s funny, but it makes complete sense. Of course that’s the way we feel. Just knowing that something good is going to end can ruin the moment. So, why would we want to think about it or talk about it at all?

When I was really little, maybe three and four-years old, and my mom and I were visiting at a friend’s house, and I’d be playing with my friend, my mom would always give me little warnings from the other room when it was getting close to time to leave, “Jeffrey, we’re going in 15 minutes, OK?” Remember these? I’d get another one at ten minutes. Another one at 5. I HATED THEM. Couldn’t I just have ve had 15 more minutes of pure, unadulterated joy without the specter of going home ruining it all? Why’d she do it?

Because she knew that leaving a place I was having fun at was going to be something that I needed to adjust to. And when I didn’t get those warnings and it was suddenly party’s over time to go – what happened? Total freakin’ meltdown, right? She did it because she needed to prepare me – for my sake and for hers.

We don’t like confronting the end before it comes, but the harder it will be to say goodbye, the more necessary it is to talk about the end before it arrives. It’s an investment in our future. We take on a little bit of the anxiety of the end NOW, and reduce the anxiety of the actual end by a lot. We take on a little bit of the anxiety NOW, and we build up a reservoir of courage to help us move forward to the end and beyond with eyes wide open.

I’m serious about the anxiety part. It doesn’t feel good. It’s real. Just look at what happens here in our gospel reading.

Peter is a good Jewish boy, a true believer. He believes in God’s promises. He believes in Jesus. And now to hear that Jesus is the one that they have been waiting for, the Messiah, the one that all their hope rests upon, Peter’s surely expecting a pretty spectacular ending. He’s probably expecting Jesus’ next words to sound something like God’s words in our first scripture lesson. Good news that actually sounds like good news. Nothing too over the top – but a long life, becoming numerous and powerful, kingship, and a nation. That’s what Peter expected this Messiah thing to look like – they grow in numbers, Jesus becomes king, they throw out the Romans, and take back control of their lands, their culture, and their traditions. Peter wants a win.

And when Jesus says, “Actually, I’m going to be crucified,” that doesn’t sound like winning to Peter. And death sounds like THE END, and rising again sounds crazy, and he gets anxious. And he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. And Jesus is feeling anxious so he raises his voice and rebukes Peter right back. He calls him Satan! Things are escalating. It’s not easy.

But it’s never is easy when you’re defining clearly stated boundaries, self-differentiating yourself from other people’s expectations of you, heading off tomorrow’s anxiety today. It’s not easy, but Jesus knows it’s necessary.

You know, Broadway, we have a lot in common, you and me. Your beloved pastor left you in December (well, actually, in 2017 you had TWO beloved pastors leave you) and I also just left my beloved church in December. We’re experiencing some similar grief, I think. I’ve spoken a lot about your grief and your process, but I haven’t really talked much from the pulpit about my own grief at having to say goodbye.

I loved my six years as a pastor at First Church Somerville. I don’t miss the work because I’ve got a new opportunity to serve God here with all of you, but I do miss the people and my relationships with them a lot. Even as I meeting all of you and growing to love you all, I still love those people up in Boston. I will always love them. But my relationship to them has changed. My relationship with them has ended. And I’m the one who ended it. And to get to that final Sunday, that final goodbye, took a lot of work, a lot of talking, a lot of boundary setting.

I remember writing the email to the congregation announcing my departure and just thinking, “This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.” That Sunday I made my in-person announcement at worship. And then I went on vacation! The feelings were pretty raw on all sides. And I knew that the congregation needed some time to process the hard feelings without me being around. And I’d be back once we were safely out of the public Satan-calling, rebuking stage of grief.

I don’t think that Peter intended to cause any trouble any more than Jesus intended to cause trouble. But inertia and resistance and projection and disappointment are real and messy emotional processes. Getting ready for change is just a process. You can’t just bring it up once. There’s an old marketing adage called the Rule of Seven that says people need to hear you say something seven times before it will actually sink in in a way that they’ll take action. So, on the way to Jerusalem Jesus will talk about his death a few more times in big and small ways to make sure it’s really sinking in. And each time there’s confusion and trouble, but Jesus hangs in there. What choice does he have? He is going to the cross.

After a month or so, the reality that I was in fact leaving was sinking in for all of us at First Church Somerville. It had gone pretty smoothly up to this point. People were emotional but contained. And so I knew I needed to bring it up again. I didn’t want to, but I sent another communication to the congregation – this one about what to expect when I left the church. I told them explicitly that I would no longer be their pastor and I laid out everything that meant – that I couldn’t lead or advise the church in any way, that I couldn’t perform or be present for any of the big personal events that they thought I would be there for – their wedding, their baptism, their funeral; and that I couldn’t come back to celebrate big events in the life of the church.

I told them that the intimacy and closeness of our relationships would not continue on as friendships either – that I had been for those six years their pastor and not their friend and that our pastoral relationship and our whole relationship was ending. I told them that they shouldn’t count on definitely seeing me or speaking to me again and that we needed to say our goodbyes now. I told them that I would be enforcing a one-year no contact policy – even on social media, and that I would be unfollowing them on Facebook and the like, and I encouraged them to do the same to me.

I felt like I was rubbing salt in the wounds – their wounds and my wounds – and I remember thinking, “No, this is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.” Every Sunday I began counting down the number of weeks I had left with them from the pulpit – not because I was excited to leave, but because I knew that otherwise the end would sneak up on us. And we needed to be ready.

Despite his best efforts, I’m not sure how well it worked out for Jesus. I think the gospels make clear that the disciples – the male disciples anyway – were not really ready for the end. They wanted to hold Jesus back from this ending that they didn’t like – for his sake and for theirs. And the way that turned out was that Jesus went to the cross betrayed, denied, and abandoned by all the male disciples. I imagine that part of the reason Jesus kept bringing the end up was because he didn’t want to have to face it all alone.

I get a sense of some of that anxiety in the second part of today’s gospel reading – all that stuff about taking up the cross, denying yourself, losing and saving your life, being ashamed. Instead of hearing them as God’s instruction manual, listen to these words as the words of a person going to his death who’s afraid he’s going to be abandoned by his friends and maybe even by God:

“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?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Humanity will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Parent with the holy angels.”

They sound different now. What sounded like cold authority begins to sound like anxiousness and pleading.

In fact that word “ashamed” which carries a lot of baggage for us, when traced back to the Hebrew and Aramaic word that Jesus was likely speaking was more closely related to the idea of paleness rather than blushing – so it was more like fear than embarrassment. I imagine this could be something like that “sinking feeling” you get when you realize that you’ve been let down.

For a couple of weeks after I made my big boundaries announcement, worship attendance dropped a little. A few regulars disappeared for a bit. Some people I had talked to all the time stepped away to take a deep breath. And I was a little worried.

And then I made myself available with open and extended office hours throughout my closing weeks to meet with people and to say personal goodbyes. And I hoped that they would show up and that I wouldn’t be left there all by myself – sitting and waiting and let down.

And they did show up, thank God. And I had a lot of really hard conversations with people I really love. There was rebuking. And there were tears. And there was gratitude, and memories of good and bad times, and laughter, and forgiveness, and goodbye.

I was really lucky. All of those intense one-on-one conversations – even if it was a hard ending, a tough goodbye – sitting there with the other person I felt like I wasn’t alone – that we were in this goodbye together.

And, we’re not alone either, are we? We can stay with Jesus through Lent and into Holy Week, can’t we? And you have one another, the other people in your church, to talk to about your endings and your future here. And you have me and I have you – pastor and congregation – for a little while. We already know that the end is coming sometime in 2019, but if we can be in this together – from beginning to end – really in it together – there’s a lot we can accomplish together. There’s a lot that we can do today to begin to define who we are and who we want to be for one another as a church. That conversation will make us feel a little anxious today, but will reduce our future anxiety, and build up our courage for being the church tomorrow and beyond.