Satisfaction (August 31, 2014)

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Sermon for August 31, 2014: Satisfaction
Deborah White

Speak through me, Lord, that we may all attempt to better understand your will and walk in your ways, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

          My children actually like most of the music that I grew up with – the music that I call “rock” and they know as “classic” rock – but they are not big fans of the Rolling Stones.  Personally, I think this may have something to do with the fact that from the time they were infants whenever they fussed about not getting something they wanted, I told them that they can’t always get what they want.  And, just like Mick Jagger, they couldn’t get any “satisfaction” either – and they tried – and they tried – and they tried!

          That also seems to be the case for the people in today’s readings.  Moses, who has been talking to what is clearly a very powerful deity, can’t get a simple answer to the question, “Who are you”?  Paul can’t figure out why his community can’t just get along with each other.  Peter well, after giving a stellar performance in last week’s gospel, in which he identified Jesus as the Son of God – Peter gets called “Satan” just for saying that he doesn’t want his beloved rabbi to die!  And Jesus – well, every time he thinks his disciples have got it, they prove that they don’t.

          Which is pretty much how I feel.  Every time I think I have developed a tiny understanding about the ways of my God, I quickly find out that I have either gotten part – or all of it – completely wrong.  And just like Peter I cry out against my own wrong-ness.  “God forbid!”  God forbid I behave in opposition to God’s will.  God forbid I mislead others in their desire to be closer to God.  God forbid that I am part of the problem and not the solution.  Because for those of us who are here because we are seeking a deeper and more meaningful relationship with one another and with God, those brief, shining moments of insight are what we feed on – what we live for.  And the sense that we have slipped away from the truth of God – from the will of God – can be truly devastating.  When we lose our direction toward God, we are profoundly unsatisfied.

The question is, what would satisfy us?  How much do we need to understand – to believe – to follow –to sacrifice for our faith?  That’s the question that Jesus puts before the disciples in today’s gospel.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he tells them.  In other words, are you willing to bet everything you have – even your life – that what I am telling you is the truth?  Because at this point, questioning me when I tell you what has to happen means you are not only not part of the solution, it means you are part of the problem.  It means you are the bad guy.  It means you are the “Satan” in the story.

The name “Satan” has many different implications in our society.  It’s often used interchangeably with “Devil,” and is visually portrayed as a scary-looking red-skinned guy with horns and a pitchfork.  Usually he’s associated with a place called “hell,” which is filled with eternal fire and torment.  In Christian literature, Satan is often used as another name for “Lucifer,” who was reputably God’s brightest angel who fell to earth after rebelling against God.  In any case, for most people, “Satan” is synonymous with “evil.”

Except when Jesus called Peter “Satan,” he wasn’t saying he was evil.  We know this because all of the images and beliefs about “Satan” that I just described are not biblical.  We also know that the Hebrew word for “Satan” means “adversary,” and in Greek, the same word is defined as, “slanderer” or “accuser.”   So when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” he is identifying him as his opponent -he is accusing Peter of trying to argue with him.   By telling Peter not to be a stumbling block, Jesus is demonstrating his own apprehension about what lies ahead of him. He is asking the disciples not to disagree with him – not to question his knowledge of what he has to do – not to doubt his understanding about what the disciples might have to do – because by doing so they will only make things harder.  Jesus is pleading with them not to tempt him to turn away from his burden.  He is asking them to walk his hard road with him.

I would suspect that that was not what the disciples wanted to hear.  What they probably really wanted to hear was what Jesus told them next – that “the Son of Man” would come with angels in glory and everyone would be judged fairly – and that this would happen in their lifetime.  Except that it didn’t.  And it still hasn’t.  “The Son of Man” has not come in glory to judge the world.  God has not brought about what some Christians call “the rapture.”  Life is still hard and unfair.  What I wonder is whether or not it shook the disciple’s faith when they realized this.  And whether it should shake ours.

In order to answer those questions, we need to remember how different life was for the disciples.  They were tradespeople, farmers, and fishermen – and they lived life day by day.  They did not have “goals.”  They did not have “careers.”  They did not compete for achievements.  Their primary objective was to stay alive – and, perhaps, to pass their faith on to someone else.  That was their idea of satisfaction.

Which is quite a bit different than ours. For example, the other day I was listening to a news story about the economy.  The reporter outlined recent economic indicators, citing them as evidence that the economy has actually been improving over the last several years – despite the fact that many Americans say they don’t believe that’s true – so he interviewed some people to try to find out why their perceptions differed from the data.  In listening to people from different walks of life, what jumped out at me was how many people talked about the economy in terms of their expectations.  Several individuals confessed that they were disheartened because they felt that their lives – and those of their children – would not be what they had hoped for.  One man said he feared that his teenage daughter would never be able to “follow her dream” – to go to college and get a degree in a field of her interest and be able to get a job in a related profession.

That got me thinking about “dreams” – about the things we expect and whether those are different than the things we long for.  For immigrants in the 19th century, the American dream was simply to build some kind of a life in this country.  For my grandparents, it was to pave the way for their children to have a better life than them.  My parents wanted their children to go to college, so they would have more choices and earning potential when it came time to get a job.  The man in the radio story did not see any of those goals as being enough; he said he was not satisfied because his daughter wouldn’t be able to “follow her own dream.”

That man’s dissatisfaction is a far cry from the concerns of the people in our readings today.  Moses simply wanted to know the name of the God who was sending him on an impossible journey before he felt strong enough to attempt it.  St. Paul wanted his people to try to live according to Jesus’ teachings.  And Jesus – Jesus asked his disciples – Jesus asks us – to walk the hard road with him.  Is that what we, as Christians, should be longing for?  Should that be our dream – to be able to walk the hard road with Jesus?  Or is it okay to desire things for ourselves and our children that the disciples never thought of?  What should we be satisfied with?

St. Augustine answered this question clearly over a thousand years ago.  “God,” he said, “is the fountain of life. In his light is a light that shall never be darkened.  Long for this light…run to the fountain, long for the fountain…run with all your mightLong with all your might for [that] fountain.

Now, I don’t think this means it is wrong to think of earthly things or to have material concerns.  After all, Moses asked God to feed and shelter his people; Paul told his followers to help one another financially; and even on his cross Jesus saw to it that his mother’s physical needs would be taken care of after his death.  But I don’t believe that those are the things we should dream of.  I don’t think those things are what we should long for.  I don’t believe that that is what we should labor for.  I think that whether or not we achieve our worldly goals should have nothing to do with whether or not we are satisfied.  I believe that the only true satisfaction is God.

That doesn’t mean that in this world and in this lifetime we will, or can – or should – be completely satisfied with our own relationship with God.  Augustine did not tell us to find satisfaction.  He told us to long for it.  He told us to run toward God – to run with all of our might.  That is what Peter did.  He longed for his master to stay with him because he treasured the feelings of joy and satisfaction that the presence of Jesus brought him.  But Jesus told him that it was not Peter’s lot on this earth to be satisfied.  It was not his purpose to seek satisfaction.  It was his destiny to long for God and to run toward him without doubt and without fear – because the road to our final satisfaction in God is hard, and our longing for our Lord and Savior is deep and fierce, but the opportunity to know and love our God is satisfying indeed.  AMEN.

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