By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 15, 2020
Reading: Mark 8:31-37
I want to welcome today those who are going to be listening in different parts of the world. We know there are people watching through our live stream in the United Kingdom, Europe, Mexico, the United States, here in Toronto, and other parts of our country. Wherever you are, our hope and prayer is that this worship service will give you a sense that you are at home, and that through our words, our music, and our praise, you feel that God is with you.
I want to thank those within our leadership and our ushers this morning, who have ensured the safety of everybody, with their own presence today. We know that as a church, we must continue to act in a way that will bring the very best to our city and people. To that effect, next Sunday, we will have one service only at 11:00 AM, which will be live-streamed and broadcast on the radio. It will be a blended worship service with some contemporary and traditional music. We hope that you will join us for the live stream or on the radio.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, in difficult times you speak. You speak through your Word, you speak through the power of your Spirit. Lord, this day in these unprecedented times, may my words speak your truth to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Our text this morning could not be more timely. Although I confess, I prepared this sermon before the outbreak of COVID 19, and certainly before the extreme measures that have been taken, I could not have imagined that the words of our text today would be so pertinent. What we’re being invited to do by Jesus, is to do an audit of our lives to assess and examine what we possess and what we value most. We’re being asked to question what is most important.
I think if we’re honest, most of us would probably name something that we own as being valuable. The value of our own home, our own automobile, a particular piece of jewellery, something sentimental that touches the heart. Sort of like the old adage, if there was a fire, what is the first thing you would take out of your building? What do you value the most? Would you exchange it for something else? Is it so important that you’d give up other things for the sake of it?
The real reason I ask this is because I want to ask you another question and that is, what about your psukhe? The Greek word for soul or life. How valuable is your soul, and would you exchange anything for it? I don’t ask this hypothetically, because in our text from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is challenging His own disciples to think about that very thing. He says, “What profiteth a person if they gain the whole world, but loses their psukhe – their soul, their life?” What would you exchange for that soul, for that life?
Jesus, of course, was doing this in a way that goes right to the heart of the disciples, and everything that was being said about them at the time. Jesus had told Peter and the disciples that he was going to bear the cross, that he was going to die, and the disciples were being challenged to take up that cross themselves. Peter wanted to hear none of this, but Jesus says, “Get behind Me, Satan.” Then he said, “Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross.” Immediately following that, Jesus challenges them with the text of the day: “What profiteth a person if they gain the whole world, but lose their soul?”
Mark was writing to the very first believers after the events that are covered in Scripture. He is writing the gospel to early Christians who witnessed or heard about the events that were to follow, from the cross though to the resurrection. It’s known in Latin as vaticinium ex eventu, a prophecy after the events have taken place. Mark was writing his gospel to encourage the faithful who were facing persecution and challenges. He was writing to them at the point of their need, but of course, he’s reminding them of the words of Jesus to his disciples: “What profiteth a person if they gain the whole world, but lose their soul?” What would they possess that would be more important than their very being?
I think there is a precedent that speaks to us today. When we know that this terrible virus, that has the potential to take human life is at work in the world, we are also at a point where we need to ask ourselves, what is the most valuable thing that we possess? What in our society is the most important thing that we should consider? We know that Jesus telling his disciples that they were going to have to take up the cross. That things might not be the same, but “if you're going to follow me, then follow the things that make for life. Follow the things that preserve your soul.”
What did he have in mind when he used this word, “psucke”, soul, or life? He didn’t have in mind that there is, somewhere in the universe our infinite soul, a disembodied soul, that finds a place within our body at a certain point and then continues afterwards as if somehow our souls existed before we had life. That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That was a pagan concept, a Greek concept. No, he was a Jew, and in keeping with the biblical notion, he understood that our soul is our whole life. It is our life spiritual, our life embodied. It is our life of character, our life of reason, our life of being. It is not something that is amorphous. It is rooted and grounded in who we are, because as the Bible affirms over and over again, our soul, our life, our being, is a creation of God. It is God who made us, it is God who gave us life, it is God who sustains that life and maintains it.
I heard a wonderful lecture a month ago from Doctor Ellen Davis, who was teaching at Wycliffe College on Preaching Day. In it, this Old Testament scholar started talking about the word soul, which probably inspired this sermon. She said the word, “nephesh” in Hebrew, which literally means, “your throat”. Your soul is your throat, because through your throat comes all the things that make life possible; the liquid, the food, the things that sustain life. God has given us this nephesh to feed us and to sustain our lives. Our life, our soul, is a creation and a gift from God, but also one that God sustains and protects.
It is possible though to lose your soul. As Jesus said, “What profiteth a person if they gain the whole world” – and notice the kind of transactional language he uses – “gains the whole world, but loses their soul?” I think you can lose your soul. I don’t just mean it disappearing into the ether. I mean losing that sense of the God-given life that you have been given. I think this happened to people like Alexander the Great, Claudius, or Nero. Or in literature, the magnificent Faust, who made his deal with Mephistopheles that you can in fact sell your soul for other things that you think are more valuable than the very life and existence that you have. When you sell your soul and you profit on other things, then you lose who you are and your sense of being.
What does this choice look like for Jesus? It’s really between, I think, the immediate and the permanent – between the immediate and the permanent. We live in a world that wants immediate gratification, immediate responses to things, that is only interested in the here and now and does not think about the future or the ramifications of it. People tent to sell their souls when they think that their immediate need of what is important now, is more important that things that are permanent. There is a good reason to think about the here and now. We’re doing that by suspending worship and closing our building today, but we’re doing it because we care for the future souls and wellbeing of our society, of our polity. That is why we do it. We make sacrifices. You're making sacrifices right here and now, but for the sake of something better. Jesus, when talking to the disciples and telling them that they must deny things and follow him, was saying not to just be concerned about the immediate, about the here and now, but to look to the future.
Of course, had the disciples themselves decided to sell their souls to pleasure, safety, or to security right there and then, they'd have missed the biggest event in history, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. By being only concerned with their immediate needs, and not focusing on the future, is one of the great problems that happens. I think it doesn’t matter whether it is in corporate life, professional life, or ministerial life, you sometimes need to make decisions that are hard, but have the courage to make them for the sake of the future.
In a wonderful presentation at our prayer breakfast a few years ago, Brian Stewart, the CBC reporter, said that one of the biggest problems politicians face right now is the demand for them to make immediate decisions, which means that they do not reflect on the long-term. That the pressure they're under, is such that they often don’t have the time to think about what matters most. And that is dangerous. It’s dangerous politically, it’s dangerous spiritually, and it’s dangerous for life itself.
One of my great heroes is preacher Fred Craddock, God rest his soul. Fred Craddock says that in many cases Christians try to have a once in a lifetime buying of their soul from God. They think that once they’ve said, “God, I’ll follow You, I’ll do what You want,” sort of like somebody who goes to a bank and comes to God and says, “Here is a thousand dollar bill that I have withdrawn, here is my soul, this is how I value You, this is a one-time deal, I'm committed to You, and that’s it.”
Fred Craddock said, that’s short-term thinking, buying God now, where the Christian life is continually handing over not a thousand dollars, but twenty-five cents at a time, over time, still giving to God. In other words, it’s not just the now, it’s the future. When we think that we can be expedient in the now and that the now is the only thing that matters, without thinking of our soul long-term, we’re in danger of losing it.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've received a lot of notifications from people who are involved in Indy Car Ministry and Formula One, because of my involvement with both. I’ve been kept informed, not as a decision-maker, but someone who needs to know what’s happening. I recalled my racer days in Killarney, outside of Cape Town. There was a young racer there who decided that he wanted to make a big impression, particularly because there were people from the Dunlop Tyre Company present at the track. He wanted to show them that he is so good so they would support him financially.
He decided to show off. He got in his car unprepared, mechanically unprepared, and decided to go around the track as quickly as humanly possible. Well, you all know what happened, don’t you? Because he acted in that immediacy, wanting to make the big impression, wanting to get the money from Dunlop, he spun out on the fourth corner when one of his tyres blew. He rolled the car. Fortunately, he walked out safely, but he came back humbly, and the Dunlop people were not impressed. You see, he was trying to sell, in a sense, himself for the immediate, for the big impression, rather than doing the right thing and thinking about the long term.
There is also the sense that we sometimes have a choice between following the tangible and the intangible, between what we know and can experience, and that which is more spiritual. For Jesus there was no question that our life is given to us by God, that we are not of our own making, none of us. That we are here by an act of grace by a Creator who loves us, and because we have that, because we are given that, our soul and our life is of infinite value. It is so valuable that there is nothing we should exchange for it.
In a magnificent parable Jesus tells the story of the pearl of great price, where the person should sell everything for the sake of the pearl. The pearl being the kingdom of God, life in God, life with God, life in the Spirit. That pearl is more valuable than anything else. Jesus Himself in his own life, experienced the very temptation to take over the tangible and the powerful when he faced his own temptations. The devil offered him the whole world and said, “Here it is, the whole world is yours if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said, “Get behind Me, Satan,” just like He said to Peter when Peter’s questioned him.
Why? Because our life in God is more valuable than anything else. It is the most valuable thing.
I saw an incredible painting that caught my imagination in a magazine a few days ago, by Carl Spitzweg, a very famous 19th century German painter. In it he has what is known as the famous Poor Poet painting. It’s a beautiful painting of a poor poet working on his poetry, when everything else around him in his room is collapsing. The floors aren’t good, his clothes are tatty, the chair that he’s sitting on is creaky, the bookshelves aren’t straight. He’s even holding up an umbrella over his head, because there’s a leak in his roof. But he considers his poetry more important than anything else. Your heart goes out to that poet. Your heart says, “Yes, yes, that’s right, there are some things that are so valuable that they transcend anything else.” Your soul, your life, that is what is valuable, and so are the souls and the lives of others.
It’s interesting, over the last few days, knowing my sermon title was, “soul” people started sending me videos. Our director of music sent me a humorous one. Other people have sent me videos of soul music, thinking I'm going to somehow preach on soul music. I might have grown up with soul music in Bermuda, and Africa. It’s part of my DNA, I have to confess. Soul music has its origins roots in the gospels that were sung by the slaves. True soul music came from those who were facing life and death, those who were being lynched, those who were being enchained, those who were being used for the sake of others. When they sang their songs, that soul music, that gospel came alive, because of their faith in God. They knew that they were still valued by God, even if they were seen as non-persons by the state. Their songs resonate with the sense that God is going to take us to the Promise Land. He’s going to take us from Babylon, he’s going to take us to a new world of freedom. The river in Judea, that’s where God is going to take us. And that is what Jesus is saying to the disciples: “Do not forfeit your soul for the sake of now, because God is with you.”
A couple of weeks ago, as many of you know, I was in Oxford in England. Amongst all the magnificent spires and steeples, the bells ringing, the beautiful gardens and daffodils growing, all the beauty of the Oxford quadrangles and the beautiful colleges, life still went on as normal on the ground and around it. I think I mentioned before in another sermon, that there are unfortunately still homeless people lying against the walls of some of these buildings. One Sunday morning, I observed a homeless man who I’d seen for days in the same place, lying on the ground with his eyes closed and his dog at his feet, simply lying there. On that Sunday morning, there were five young people sitting with him in a circle, talking to him, befriending him. They’d brought him coffee from a restaurant nearby, and they sat down with him and drank it with him. It was a beautiful sight. Marial was with me. We both commented. They had come from a church service.
What you saw in that man was a light in his eyes, a sense that he was a person, that he mattered, that he was important. He felt that because he was loved. He knew that someone cared for him. They’d even brought some treats for the dog. When I think of those young people and what they did, they epitomised, what God does for us. I think there are many of you who might, at this moment, feel isolated or frightened for yourself or a loved one. You might be concerned for the welfare of society and you're feeling lonely. But don’t be. You're not alone. That homeless man needed to know that he wasn’t alone, that someone cared for him. That is what we should be doing right now as a society. In a time of uncertainty and difficulty we understand the value of soul, the value of life and that it is precious. Let us not sell it for anything else, but let us see it as the value for what it is; A gift from Almighty God, our soul. Amen.