17 September 2009

Proper 24 B - Festival of Flowers

Mark 8: 27-38

St. Luke’s, Burlington

13 September 2009

By Stuart Pike

It is always a problem when the lectionary gives what might be considered negatively-toned readings, particularly when, in the life of the parish, it is an exceedingly positive time. Such as now – when we are celebrating this beautiful Festival of Flowers for our 175th anniversary – and the Gospel reading gives us Jesus telling his disciples that he must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and be killed. It’s a little bit of a downer in such a beautiful setting as this.

I imagine that must have been how Peter felt on that day. Jesus has just asked his disciples what people are saying about him. Some say that he is the spirit of Elijah who has returned, and some say the spirit of John the Baptist or one of the prophets. And Jesus asks – But who do you say that I am?

Of course it is Peter who immediately answers. Peter is the brash and impetuous one. He is the enthusiastic bull in the china shop who exuberantly charges through while the rest stand back nervously to survey the damage and learn from his mistakes.

But in this case, Peter gets it right. How was it that he was able to understand this truth about Jesus: “You are the Messiah.” Imagine how puffed up and proud Peter would be. The Messiah, in Jewish prophecy, would be the one sent by God to save Israel. In their immediate political situation, the people would understand this to mean being freed from the oppressive rule of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus would be the victor, the powerful one. Imagine what it would be like to be one of his disciples.

But then Jesus, as usual, turns things upside down and tells them what the title, Messiah, really means. It will mean suffering and rejection and death – before rising again.

Peter, still floating on his high, has his hopes and expectations dashed by Jesus’ words and Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. But Jesus, of course, rebukes Peter in turn, saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan!”

How could Peter, who got it all so right just moments ago, now be so wrong? Peter aced the quiz, but he really flunked the exam!

Peter, like most of us, just wanted to know about the glory, without understanding the cost. Peter dreamed about the beautiful life, but Jesus was telling them about the ugly road to get there.

The beauty that Peter was thinking about, reminds me of the beauty of this Church today. It looks simply idyllic! It helps that the Church structure in itself is so beautiful – the wonderful old wood – the marvelous stained glass – the perfect shape of each article which comes together in such a lovely overall design. And then added to the structure of the Church are the dozens of floral arrangements, accentuating and adorning the beauty of this place. Each arrangement has been individually designed to fit its situation and yet create an overall wholeness which is just so right.

I overheard some admirers who saw the Church yesterday and said – this is so beautiful; we should have it this way all the time! They were just kidding, because they could understand that it really involved a lot of work to get this place so beautiful.

I can tell you that it has been a beehive of activity for days – even weeks to produce such beauty. Like it does for me, I suspect that seeing this beauty somehow changes you, that is the whole purpose for it. Somehow, seeing it brings me to a place beyond this physical place. Like a sacrament, it gives my spirit a glimpse of what heaven is. I think that this essential truth is why artists, like the members of the Garden club of Burlington, do their work.

Yesterday, when Elizabeth Crozier started her amazing floral artistry before her audience in our Great Hall, she said, “A good floral arranger discovers something in nature and presents it, through the arrangement, in such a way that others see it too.”

I think that what the artist discovers, and must present to others, is a glimpse of heaven.

But it costs. I can’t simply walk into this beautiful Church and have my heavenly moment without others having worked and made a sacrifice to allow me to see it. The sacrifice of our forebears built this beautiful Church. The sacrifice of dozens of volunteers decorated it so beautifully. I know that following Jesus means sacrifice for me too, and for all Christians.

Our sacrifice is needed to bring others to a place which is beyond their ordinary experience, so that what we have discovered in our journey of faith can be presented so that others see it too.

But then the next, even deeper truth about sacrifice is that it will give us amazing joy in our lives: not only in arriving at the heavenly destination, but in living the sacrifice itself. It doesn’t make much sense. It shouldn’t be so according to the logic of the world, but that is the way it is. Peter and the other disciples would learn this later in their lives, and that’s why they gave themselves so totally to their mission.

There is an apocryphal story about Mother Teresa.

A plump businessman, dripping with gold and diamonds, came one day to visit Mother Teresa, fell at her feet, and proclaimed, "Oh my God, you are the holiest of the Holy! You are the super-holy one! You have given up everything! I cannot even give up one samosa for breakfast! Not one single chapati for lunch can I give up!" Mother Teresa started to laugh so hard her attendant nuns were concerned. She was in her mid-80s and frail from two recent heart attacks.

Eventually, she stopped laughing and, wiping her eyes with one hand, she leaned forward to help her adorer to his feet. "So you say I have given up everything?" she said quietly.

The businessman nodded enthusiastically. Mother Teresa smiled. "Oh, my dear man," she said, "you are so wrong. It isn't I who have given up everything; it is you. You have given up the supreme sacred joy of life, the source of all lasting happiness, the joy of giving your life away to other beings, to serve the Divine in them with compassion. It is you who is the great renunciate!"

To the businessman's total bewilderment, Mother Teresa got down on her knees and bowed to him. Flinging up his hands, he ran out of the room.

Giving yourself, so that others can know the truth that is beyond themselves, so that others’ spirits can have a glimpse of heaven too, is a sacrificial, journey of faith that will bring you joy. Amen.

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