|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
September 12, 2021
One of the curious and unintended victims of the current pandemic is my Netflix DVD queue. See, I am one of those dinosaurs who still enjoys getting a DVD of a movie through the mail. But the ability to stream, well, everything, has meant that I have often had these DVDs sitting on the end table in the family room for weeks on end. At the end of the day, binge-watching Mythbusters on Amazon prime is just so much easier than blocking out two hours to watch a movie on DVD.
All of this to say that I finally got around to watching the movie First Reformed the other day, after it had sat on my coffee table for a good two months.
The film tells the story of Rev. Ernst Toller, the pastor of the First Reformed church in a small town somewhere in Albany County, New York. It is a dead church, with Sunday attendance in the single-digits, and is kept alive only because it is historic and is the beneficiary of a much larger megachurch operation that has adopted it to preserve its legacy. The church receives more tourists every week than it does worshipers.
After the tragic suicide of a congregant, the pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, becomes more and more attuned to the cause of protecting the environment, which was an issue that weighed heavily on his poor deceased congregant. “Will God forgive us for what we’re doing to his creation?”—a question that his late parishioner asked him during their last conversation—haunts him. And radicalizes him.
He wants the church to take leadership on this issue. He believes that caring for the creation is a high Christian calling. In his journal he quotes the Book of Revelation, writing:
The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”Revelation 11:18
And follows it with a quote from Ephesians:
Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.Ephesians 6:11–12
At one point, the lead pastor of Abundant Life Ministries—the prosperity gospel mega-church that supports First Reformed—calls Rev. Toller in to check up on him. He accuses Rev. Toller of not taking care of himself, of spending “too much time in the garden,” meaning the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ wept and despaired of his coming crucifixion. Now, part of the lead pastor’s concern is driven by the concerns of one of his major donors, an industrialist responsible for a good deal of pollution, who doesn’t want the church to be “political.” When Rev. Toller pushes back that caring for the creation is a high Christian calling, the lead pastor says, “Do you have any idea what it takes to run a ministry like this?” And goes on to talk about the staffing needs, the overhead, the building maintenance, the costs of their video production (in a studio named after the rich industrialist), and so on and so on.
I suppose it was a good thing that I waited so long to watch this DVD. For this conversation is a sadly familiar dynamic and one that has been on my mind of late. A church with its mind on divine things and a church with its mind on human things.
II. THE TEXT
We see this dynamic at work in today’s scripture lesson. Jesus has led the disciples into the region of Caesarea Philippi. This is near the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, before he transitions to the journey toward Jerusalem, which will lead to his eventual betrayal, crucifixion, and death.
He takes this moment to pause and ask his disciples what people are saying about him. “So, who do people say I am ?”
The disciples give a number of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the Prophets. But then Jesus says, “But you—who do you say I am?” It’s at this point that Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”
If the story ended here, we’d have a nice example of the star pupil once again distinguishing himself in front of the class. Good for you, Peter. Well done! In fact, that’s exactly what happens in Matthew’s gospel when Peter responds in this way. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” (Matthew 16:17) But that’s not what happens in our story here in Mark. The first thing Jesus does is tell the disciples not to say anything to anyone about him.
That in and of itself was no doubt strange to the disciples. Surely, if the Messiah had at long last arrived, wouldn’t he want everyone to know about it? But then it gets even stranger for the disciples:
Then he began to teach them that Humanity’s Son would have to suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, high priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise again after three days.
Jesus tells them that this story of his messiahship leads to his betrayal, suffering, and death. And then to make sure that he was not being cryptic or hard to understand, Mark tells us: “He said these things bluntly.”
And this is where if Peter had gotten the Star Pupil sticker, he would have immediately lost it. Peter takes Jesus aside and criticizes him. Can you imagine? “Look, Jesus, I didn’t want to say anything in front of the other guys, but you must be mistaken. Why would you say all those terrible things are going to happen? If you’re the messiah, then something else is clearly in store.”
Jesus’ response to Peter is to make this a teaching moment for all the disciples. He looks at all his disciples and says to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t have God’s things in mind, you have human things.”
From star pupil to Satan. Just like that.
But Jesus isn’t done with his teaching. He then calls the disciples and the crowd together and says:
“If someone wishes to be my follower, they must reject themselves and pick up their cross and follow me. Whoever would save their own being will lose it, but whoever loses their being, for my sake and the sake of the good news, will save it. What good does it do to for a person to gain the whole world and lose their being? What could a person give in exchange for their being?”Mark 8:34–37
If we’re paying attention, the “human things” would involve saving your own life and gaining the world. The “God things” would be rejecting yourself and taking up your cross and following, willing to lose one’s life for the good news of God.
III. HUMAN THINGS
I want to be fair to Peter and the disciples here. Saving your life is one of the most basic drives that a human being has. Or any animal, really. Self-preservation is hardwired into our genes. And with it is the instinct for survival and advancement. If I can have access to more resources, then I can live longer and my children will have an advantage, too. If I can have control over my surroundings, then I’ll be safe and will survive. If I can control other people, then I’ll at least be safe and will know that I’ll be able to survive. There’s an awful lot of human behavior and psychology that’s driven by the desire to preserve one’s own life. This is not going to be an easy thing to shake, even if you tell it to us “bluntly.”
And it’s not just individuals that think this way, of course. Entire institutions do. Companies, corporations, hospitals, professional associations, churches, denominations, schools, universities, banks, insurance companies… They all too easily become obsessed with their own survival.
Now, let’s acknowledge that survival is important. Any good we’d do in the world is a lot harder to do if we’re, you know, not around to do it. But at the same time, we can see that this instinct, this tendency to survival first and foremost can corrupt us.
A. Institutional Evolution
There’s a well-noted phenomenon that happens with institutions—they don’t always start out as institutions. Indeed, many of them start out as movements. A bunch of people get together because of some common cause. They meet informally, they are loose with their structures of authority, but they are driven by a passion for their cause. Let’s imagine a bunch of neighbors in a community get together because they are outraged by the lack of opportunity in their community. At first they meet in homes, then maybe in church basements. They organize, they protest, they write letters. They have some initial success, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We’re going to be at this a while.
Well, not everyone can afford to take the time off to devote to this issue full time. We need someone who’ll do this and make it their work. And so they form a 501(c)(3). They write up some by-laws. They appoint a Board of Directors and rent office space, hire an executive director, who promptly begins fundraising and recruiting to support the mission of a new non-profit called Neighborhood Opportunity Coalition.
This is all good. As one commentator said, “If you don’t care enough about an idea to institutionalize it, perhaps the idea isn’t that important after all.”
But here’s where the peril comes in. Because you created an institution to advance the mission. But over time institutions can start to advance themselves. The executive director has an idea for a creative protest event and even points to things the earliest generation of the organization’s activists did as example. “Well, we can’t do that,” responds the Board. “That might damage our reputation in the community. That’s too much of a risk.”
It’s particularly painful when the church does that, precisely because the person we are called to follow risked everything. And would that we could say it was only Abundant Life Ministries in the movie First Reformed.
IV. GOD’S THINGS
One of the consistent themes in Mark’s gospel is that the disciples rarely understand what is truly required of them. They’re always seeking advantage and prestige. They want to sit at Jesus’ left and right hand and have positions of prominence in the Kingdom. And most of all, instead of reacting in faith, they react in fear.
And that’s what is really at the heart of all of our instincts for self-preservation, whether as individuals or as institutions. We’re afraid. We’re afraid of what people might think of us. We’re afraid that our stock value might go down. We’re afraid of alienating customers. We’re afraid of being seen with unsavory or disreputable types. We’re afraid of losing everything we’ve worked so hard for.
It’s easy to understand: when you’ve got a building to worry about and a staff of dozens who have benefits and vacation needs and then there are people who want to rent your building for extension courses and you’ve been asked to lend your parking lot for the community picnic, etc. etc.—it’s easy to let those considerations dominate.
But here’s the thing: it’s hard to be faithful to your mission when your faith has been overruled by your fear. What we see throughout Mark’s gospel is affirmation of people who are audacious in their faith: the woman with the hemorrhage, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the leader of the synagogue whose daughter was ill, the four friends who dug through Jesus’ roof to bring their friend for healing. Every single one of them risked rejection or rebuke, risked a loss of reputation in the community. But they were not afraid.
This, ultimately, is the heart of “God’s things”—rejection of fear.
There really are only two emotions: love and fear. All of the good things come from love—compassion, charity, grace, hope, mercy, restorative justice, radical hospitality. And all the bad things come from fear—greed, anger, hatred, vindictiveness, ignorance, violence…
If we would be a community that has its mind on God’s things rather than human things, then our calling is to avoid those things that distract from the mission. Now, I don’t mean that we need forever be a house church and never have staff or a building or anything like that. But that even were we to have those things, that we not succumb to the fear that distracts from mission. That we stay focused on the audacious, risk-taking, bold faith we are called to have, so that we might heed our master’s call to have “God’s things in mind” not “human things.”
So Jeshua and his disciples went into the villages around Caesarea Philippi. Along the way, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They said, “Johanan the Baptist. Others say Elijah. Still others that you’re one of the prophets.” Then he himself asked them, “But you—who do you say I am?” The Rock answered, “You are the Anointed One.” Jeshua impressed upon them the importance of not saying anything to anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that Humanity’s Son would have to suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, high priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise again after three days. He said these things bluntly. But the Rock took him aside and criticized him. Jeshua turned and, looking at his disciples, criticized the Rock, “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t have God’s things in mind, you have human things.”
He called the crowd and his disciples together and said, “If someone wishes to be my follower, they must reject themselves and pick up their cross and follow me. Whoever would save their own being will lose it, but whoever loses their being, for my sake and the sake of the good news, will save it. What good does it do to for a person to gain the whole world and lose their being? What could a person give in exchange for their being?”