Thursday, September 17, 2015

Welcome to the Wild Kingdom

Sermon preached September 13, 2015

Texts: Psalm 19:1-4 (Common English Bible); Mark 8:27-38

Paul McCartney and Wings, “Live and Let Die”
So welcome and here’s your morning quiz.  Who sang that song?  [Paul McCartney and Wings]  It was for a movie, what kind of movie? [James Bond]  What drink is James Bond most famous for? [vodka martini – shaken not stirred]
So I looked up James Bond’s favorite drink.  You mix two parts vodka, with one part dry vermouth, perhaps with a dash of bitters, put it together with ice and shake it up.  Pour it into a cocktail glass and garnish with an olive.  By the way, The United Methodist Church does not promote the use of alcohol even though I’ve just given you a drink recipe.
Two distinct ingredients blended together.  It is a little like trying to deal with this morning’s Scripture readings.  The verses we read from Psalm 19 are effusive, splendid, filled with awe and wonder.  Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.  One day gushes the news to the next, one night informs another what needs to be known.  What is just as wondrous is that all this communicating is happening without words – a wordless sermon, so to speak.  Maybe I should give that a try sometime!  Of course, there’s no speech, no words – their voices can’t be heard – but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.
Take that ingredient and blend it with the more serious and austere words from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to say anything about their insight that he is the Messiah, the Christ.  He goes on to say that he will suffer and be killed and rise.  Peter tries to talk some sense into Jesus, and Jesus calls Peter Satan.  Then he tells disciples and crowd alike: 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?
So how do we mix these two readings together?  Together I think we have here an invitation from Jesus to a new way, to a wild kingdom.  While the language in Mark is serious and austere, there is in the flow of the conversation a certain wild element that would not be foreign to the Psalmist.  You see, what Peter expected in a Messiah seemed to be a straight road to power and glory.  Somehow God through Jesus was going to intervene, Rome would be tossed out of Palestine/Israel, and all would be right with the world.  The Jesus way was different, however – unexpected, wild, a challenging adventure.
It is interesting that soon after the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to talk about being a part of this work.  “You are the Messiah,” they say, and Jesus responds, “Here’s what it means to follow me.”  The kingdom Jesus is about is not just something that’s going to happen, we are invited to be a part of its happening.  The road won’t be straight and it won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure, a wild ride.  To say “no” means risking a life that is no life at all, a soulless existence.  The Greek word translated “life” can also be translated “soul.”  What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?
This new life in Jesus, this soul life, this participation in the wild kingdom of God where day gushes forth to day, takes everything we have, calls forth our best gifts and our deepest strengths, but it is a way of joy.  I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, Bonhoeffer the German Christian theologian who lost his life in the waning days of World War II for his opposition to the Nazi regime.  Where will the call of discipleship lead those who follow it?  What decisions and painful separations will it entail?  We must take this question to him alone who knows the answer.  Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead.  But we know it will be a path of mercy beyond measure.  Discipleship is joy. (Discipleship, 40)
If there is a wideness to God’s mercy, and an old hymn proclaims, there is also a wildness to God’s mercy, and invitation to adventure.  The United Methodist theologian and author Leonard Sweet encourages us to walk “on the wild side of life, where the winds from the God of Holy Surprises blow and sing” (quoted in 1995 Conference sermon, “Wildly Wise and Winged”).
What does that mean – the wildness of God’s grace, welcome to the wild kingdom?  Living in the wild kingdom of God has something to do with saying “yes” to another 46,000 pounds of potatoes one week after giving away 46,000 pounds.  It has something to do with gathering for worship on Sunday mornings when many of our friends and acquaintances consider Sunday morning little more than a few more hours of pre-game before kick-off.  Living in the wild kingdom of God is the wildness of a tenacious hope, when there are so many reasons to lose hope in our world – hope amidst the heartbreak of reading the daily news.  It is to be joyful, though we have considered all the facts, in a wonderful phrase of Wendell Berry.  Spiritual writer and Christian monk Henri Nouwen puts this well.  “Joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it” (quoted in “Wildly Wise and Winged”).  Living in the wild kingdom of God is loving even when it is hard work to love, being kind even when it is complicated.  Living in the wild kingdom of God is being generous in a world that often tells us what matters most is to have the most toys in the end.
Generosity.  Today we are embarking on a capital campaign: People, Place, Purpose – A Promise for the Future.  After nearly fifty years on the skyline, there are some things that need doing, or doing again.  We are not our building.  We are our people and the work we do together, the love we share, the encouragement we provide, the work we do together for God’s wild kingdom.  Our building helps many things happen.  It is a great place for 90K plus pounds of potatoes to be given away in two weeks, for instance.  I trust as you hear more about this campaign you will be prayerful and thoughtful about how participating in it can be part of your wider participation in the wild adventure of God in Jesus.
Yet Jesus’ invitation to the soulful life, to God’s wild kingdom is broader, richer, deeper than the capital campaign.  It is an invitation to the adventure of new life.
Twenty five years ago my family and I were living in Dallas, Texas.  Our family was smaller then.  Our daughter Sarah is not yet twenty-five.  I was working on my Ph.D. and working as a youth pastor at a United Methodist Church, and Julie was teaching school.  Twenty five years ago, PBS broadcast a new documentary by Ken Burns, “The Civil War.”  I tried to watch some of it as I could then, and was quite taken by it.  This week PBS has re-broadcast the series, and I have tried to watch some of it again, and still find it fascinating.
One of the significant voices in the series is the poet Walt Whitman.  Whitman had published his first and second editions of his work Leaves of Grass before the outbreak of the Civil War.  In 1865, following the war, he published Drum Taps, a small volume of poems touching on the themes of the war and on the death of Abraham Lincoln.  During part of the war, Whitman has served as nurse in hospital in Washington, D.C. where he had seen some of the horror of the battles.  In his book of poems, Drum Taps, Whitman writes a poem about life in the face of “plodding and sordid crowds,” of “the empty and useless years.”  He poses a question.  “What good amid these, O me, O life?”  It is a powerful question following a devastating war and the tragedy of a presidential assassination.
Here’s Whitman’s response in the 1865 poem.  That you are here – that life exists and identity;/That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.  Whitman is saying that even after the devastation, the powerful play of life goes on, and you will contribute to it.
But Whitman revised his work over time, and ended up incorporating many of the poems of Drum Taps into future editions of Leaves of Grass.  What fascinates me is how he changes this poem, “O Me, O Life” from 1865 to its final version in 1892.  That you are here – that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
In that change in Whitman’s poem I hear an echo of the choice Jesus offers us.  There is no question that each of us in our lives, contributes some verse to the ongoing poem or song of life.  We are here and exist.  We touch other lives and the world.  What we have a choice about is the character of the verse we offer to the on-going play of life.  We will contribute a verse, but we may make it a song of hope, joy, love, kindness, and generosity, a song that sings of a new life, a soulful life, an adventure in a wild kingdom, a song that gushes from day to day and sings from night to night, a song that praises God.
A final thought.  Adventure is what we are made for: plunging into new territories, daring to open up to Beauty’s rich intelligence and fascinating insights.  So writes Patricia Adams Farmer in her lovely book Embracing a Beautiful God (46).  She goes on, we need fellow travelers for this journey into the adventure of ideas (46).
Welcome to the wild kingdom, where we live a new kind of life in Jesus, letting somethings in our lives die because they are not soulful.  We are on this adventurous journey together, and that is a source of great joy.  I am proud to be your pastor.  I am proud to be your pastor not because we have an architecturally significant building in one of the best locations in the city, a place that most people can find if you just say “Coppertop.”  That’s nice and it matters and we want to care for this building, and I really appreciate the view from my office.  I am proud to be your pastor because of what we do together here.  We worship in this space.  We give space to others.  We welcome people here to stretch their food budget every month, and into this space.  We work with others in the community to feed the hungry and help the hurting.  We gently and lovingly invite others to journey with Jesus and journey with us.  We hold each other in our hearts in times of great joy and times of deep sadness.

It is a joy to be on this wild kingdom adventure with you.  Amen.

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