March 8, 2009 II Lent (RCL B) Mark 8: 31-38
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
The words of the old spiritual . . . and we slide ahead quickly now—last week the Baptism at the Jordan and Jesus in the Wilderness, and now quickly forward, two-thirds of the way into St. Mark, and the dark clouds overhead. Premonitions. Conflicts intensifying, controversy swirling, and you don’t need an Accuweather forecast to see the storm clouds rolling in. Out of the bright sunshine, and into the shadow of the Cross.
For Jesus first. He “began to tell his disciples what would happen to him.” But to think it would or could stop there is really not an option either. “You must take up your cross, and follow me.” You. Me. All of us. Just to let this moment embrace us this morning of our Lenten journey.
As we were preparing the service leaflet this week I asked Melanie to vary a bit from our usual pattern, as we generally take the printed texts from the New Revised Standard Version—and this morning I asked her print out for us for this reading from Mark another translation, also an excellent one, and one I sometimes use in our Bible Study conversations on Wednesday morning, the Contemporary English Version. And all simply because in the various nuances of translation from Greek to English I was struck by the phrase used by the CEV translators in verse 34 of Mark 8: “Jesus then told the crowd and the disciples to come closer . . . .”
And that’s the phrase I’d like to highlight and offer for our reflection and meditation on this Sunday morning, and if we might carry it out into the day and the week ahead. Jesus told them to come closer.
My mother used to joke about our North Dakota-Norwegian family, “people who cross the street so that they don’t have to speak to their best friend.” Profound introverts—perhaps a matter of survival when you live in close quarters for winters that last six or seven months. Not just Norwegians, of course. I remember back in the early 1970’s, when we were first passing around those old paperbacks, the Green Book, the Zebra Book, and so on, in preparation for the introduction of the Proposed Book of Common Prayer, how the most controversial and often the most difficult part of that transition was not the changing of the lectionary or the renewed focus on the centrality of the Eucharist to Sunday worship or the assortment of various traditional and contemporary language services, but it was the direction of the exchange of the Peace: “the Ministers and People greet one another.” People actually left the church for a while over that. “I didn’t come to church to shake hands with some stranger.”
And all that calls to mind another scene I remember in the church from about that time: a young woman whom I didn’t recognize in the congregation at St. Mark’s in Berkeley on a Sunday morning , at one of our magnificent choral services, I think still using the 1928 Book. This young woman seems to have come from a different background. A little bit of the Pentecostal in her, as during the service she would say out loud an “amen,” and in the hymns lift her hands up in the air, and then when she came back down from communion in her pew just standing and swaying and singing in Tongues by herself, and as I remember it I think kind of crying softly to herself. Not really disruptively at all. But noticeably.
But what sticks in my mind was one I’m sure well-meaning lady of the congregation I overheard talking quietly about this stranger at coffee hour. She used a phrase which I’ll probably get wrong, but something like: Didn’t that poor girl realize where she was?
I guess as though someone had worn evening dress at the grocery store, or come to formal wedding in gym sweats. “Didn’t she realize where she was?” And I remember thinking to myself, “well, where would be the right place to be swept up in the power of the Holy Spirit? Of course, I really didn't know what was going on in her life. But: to be broken in joy and to weep for the love of God in Christ Jesus? Is Church really the wrong place for that?”
But anyway—this just all to circle around this text for this morning, and what it might mean for us. Jesus told the crowd and his disciples to come closer.
I don’t know and can’t know of course how this might happen in your life, or how or when or if it might happen in mine, or for any of us at any particular time or place or season or year. I think sometimes we have defenses around our defenses around our defenses, and they work really well. Sometimes in our families and in our relationships one with another, colleagues and coworkers, neighbors and friends.
Back in 1961 David Riesman wrote this book which I remember I read in a sociology class in college, The Lonely Crowd. The phenomenon of our modern urban western life experience, that there are more people, living in these dense environments, but that we know fewer of them, that relationships of family and community are diminished, not enhanced, even as we live more and more of us closer together.
And as it can be as well as we would go to church Sunday by Sunday and year in and year out and perhaps also to Bible Studies and Adult classes and read books and engage in all kinds of robust intellectual and social encounters around issues of religion and faith and spirituality, and yet in the midst of that, to be strangers to one another, and even to him, distant, to be lonely even in the family of faith. Even in the presence of God.
The Cross casting its shadow, just as we begin this second week in Lent, the story racing to a conclusion now. And Jesus looks to us this morning, in this day of our lives, and asks us to come closer. To come closer. Not simply to study and observe and opine, but to feel his warmth. To allow ourselves to rest fully in his presence. Fully in his presence. Don’t stand so far away.
Remember the 15th verse of the 15th chapter of St. John: I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. This is what this time might be about, these weeks, this season.
At least feeling a kind of longing to move in this direction. To get out from behind the protective walls of our inner lives, and to come close to him, to Jesus himself, not the thought about him, the painting on the wall, the word on the page, but he himself. This Lent. He said, come closer. In your heart, your mind, your imagination, your daily experience of life. Word and sacrament. Living presence. Come closer.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.