Sermon from Sunday 12 September

There is something about the human spirit, where God expresses himself in all of us, which brings us together in times of suffering.


Reading(s): Mark 8: 27-38. This sermon was given by Jonathan at St Denys.

“Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father….”

 Our Gospel reading from Mark 8 today, 12 September, describes an episode in which Jesus and his crew are hanging out in Caesarea Philippi and having some banter with the crowd.  But on first reading it seems a little strange that Jesus is asking his disciples; Who do people say I am? Is there an element of vanity in that question? It’s important to remember that in terms of the time that this episode was set, it was after a time as reported in Mark 6, when the name of Jesus and his fame throughout the land had caused King Herod Antipas to say that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, perhaps because Herod himself was troubled by having had John executed.  Of course that meant that others were saying the same, hence the answer; some say you are John the Baptist, but Jesus then asks “who do you say I am?".   What troubled me, was that, in the ensuing exchange with Peter, who tries to dissuade him from the idea of his suffering and death and a further exchange with the crowd, Mark reports that Jesus refers to “this adulterous and sinful generation”. 

This generation, was the generation when he was living and the time of his mission. What sort of world was that?  And what would he think of our generation?  We are often challenged by the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels, but sometimes I wonder whether the challenge is different today compared to how it was then.  We are challenged not to make Jesus ashamed of us, by not being ashamed of him, and to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow him.  But how do we do that today?  Come to church?  Contribute the Parish share? Pray? Pay tax?

Reflecting on the sort of world we live in today, in comparison to that adulterous and sinful generation of the time of Jesus' mission, it has been difficult, this week, to escape from the significance of today’s date of 12 September being the day after 11 September. All week we have been hearing and seeing reflections on the events of 9/11 which were 20 years ago yesterday. The search and rescue mission for the people trapped lasted until today 20 years ago. There have been various programmes on this week and I’m sure you’ve seen some of them. In our weekly Benefice email Sally referred to St Paul’s Chapel, which was in the shadow of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and survived the collapse of the towers to become a haven for rescue workers at Ground Zero. Something which really touched me this week was an interview on the Today programme with Chief Joseph Pfeifer of the New York Fire Department who has written a book about his 9/11 experience called “Ordinary Heroes”. He happened to be investigating a gas leak with his unit on the morning of 11 September 2001 and he had a film crew with him making a documentary about the fire department. The cameraman caught the only video footage of the first plane striking the North tower. Because of his proximity to the World Trade Centre Chief Pfeiffer was the First Chief in Command of the fire fighting and rescue mission. He recounts that among other things he called in the fire department units to the World Trade Centre including his brother, Kevin, who was also a firefighter in charge of a unit. He describes in the interview how he commanded his brother to take his unit into the North Tower to rescue those who were trapped and that was indeed the last time he saw his brother alive. There was also a harrowing account of how, whilst they were in the lobby area of the North Tower, they first heard a loud thud outside and then another and another because those who were trapped in the building jumped to their deaths in order to escape the fire.  Chief Pfeiffer got on the building public address system to tell people to stop because they were coming and they were trying to get to them.  The suffering must have been unimaginable.  Chief Pfeiffer also describes that he thinks that his brother made up it to the 30^th^ floor to evacuate people but then when he eventually gave the order for all to evacuate the building, he knows that his brother got the 9th floor where he stopped to redirect people from one stairwell to another where it would be easier to get out.  By 12 September it was clear that there were no more survivors and then began a search operation for the missing. He said that they found the body of his brother Kevin on 2 February 2002 nearly 5 months later.  What I found particularly poignant was Chief Pfeiffer’s reflection on both the events at the time and his thoughts for the future.  He was struck by the need of people to come together to reflect on the trauma and to make a connection with each other when reflecting on the disaster.  Indeed we have seen a lot of that this week.  There is something about the human spirit, where God expresses himself in all of us, which brings us together in times of suffering so that we can both honour those who suffered and share the suffering.  Chief Pfeifer also said that when they found his brother Kevin he felt a sense of peace and calm and reflected on the times, when he and Kevin were sailing together and had the memory and the feeling of warm wind on his face as they were sailing along in Summer.  Chief Pfeiffer also emphasised that he felt people were looking forward to the future to try to make a better world and in doing so that would enhance the present.

So in our reflections from this week we can see good, and we can see sacrifice and heroism that accompanied an event of great suffering. Jesus in the Gospel reading today was also referring to his own suffering and his sacrifice and death to come. He was the suffering servant of both God and humanity. He tells the crowd; those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for me, for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it. These are quite dark words, set in quite harsh terms but I think it’s important to reflect that the time when Mark’s gospel was written is thought to have been shortly after or during the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 when Christians were suffering great persecution as the city descended into chaos and turmoil, which was another great disaster. So when he said “lose life” that might have reflected a real possibility at the time the episode was written down. So we might say that, actually both that generation and this faced similar challenges.  We can see that generation also suffered disasters and there were hard times.  So perhaps we can think about how we can ask God to guide us in our lives so that we can serve him and bring about a better world both in this life and the life to come.