Sermon: “Gracious to All Who Have Gone Astray” (March 1, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Gracious to All Who Have Gone Astray” (Mark 8:31-33)
March 1, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel lesson Mark records Jesus talking with his disciples about his impending suffering, and Peter does not like what he is hearing:

“Then (Jesus) began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (8:31-33).

This is the first of three times Mark records Jesus prophesying about his impending passion to his disciples (see also 9:31 and 10:33-34). In the episode immediately preceding this Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” had correctly responded, “You are the Messiah.”

But the kind of messiah Peter, and the other disciples, and indeed all Israel, was expecting was a mighty military leader who would lead Israel in a revolt to overthrow the hated Romans, not someone who would “undergo great suffering” and “be rejected.” And so Peter “took (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him,” and of course was, in front of the disciples, rebuked in turn by Jesus in the sternest way imaginable, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why? Did Jesus have it out for Peter? Was Jesus trying to put Peter in his place? No. Rather because, as Jesus said, Peter, like all of us, had his mind set on human things, not divine things.

And the specific divine thing on which Jesus had his mind set was not just the salvation of first century Israel from the oppression of the Romans, but the salvation of the whole world for all time from the oppression of sin and death—and this work of salvation would involve not great military might, but great suffering and rejection at the very hands of those he came to save.

In the collect for today we get a glimpse of this divine thing as we prayed, “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray” (The Book of Common Prayer 218).

Jesus demonstrates his graciousness “to all who have gone astray” in that he pursues us when we go astray, no matter what, and brings us home.

In the gripping 2008 film Taken Liam Neeson plays former CIA operative Bryan Mills. His teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) is planning on visiting Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy). Before the trip Bryan warns his daughter while they are talking in the car, “There are certain areas in Paris you should avoid. I’ve written them down.” Kim replies, Dad, we’re going to be spending like ninety percent of our time in museums. You don’t have to worry. “That’s like telling water not be wet, sweetie,” Bryan smiles. Kim is a little annoyed, Mom says your job made you paranoid. Bryan responds, “My job made me aware.”

Sure enough, after arriving in Paris Kim and Amanda are tricked by an apparently kind Frenchman named Peter into sharing a taxi to where they’re staying. It turns out he is part of an underground human-trafficking trade. A little while later Kim is on the phone with her dad and sees strangers enter the house and grab her friend. Dad, there’s someone here….they got Amanda! “What are you talking about? “ Bryan asks, “Kimmy?” Dad, they took her! Kim hides under a bed.

“Alright, listen to me,” Bryan says, “The next part is very important. They’re going to take you.” Kim starts crying quietly, and stops as the men enter the room. “They’re there, I can hear them,” Bryan continues. The men are speaking to one another. “Put the phone closer so I can hear.” He listens. Then Kim thinks they’ve left the room. They’re leaving, I think they’re… and suddenly Kim is dragged by her feet from under the bed and, leaving her phone on the ground, begins to shriek in fear as she is taken. Her father listens to all of this happen.

Of course Bryan goes to Paris and finds Kim, who is on a yacht, having just been purchased as a bride by the highest bidder. Bryan takes out all the bad guys and finally it is just him and his daughter standing together. Kim cannot believe her being rescued is real. Daddy? Her exhausted father nods, “Kim.” You came for me? Kim asks as she begins sobbing with relief, You came for me? Her father takes her into his arms and replies softly, “I told you I would.”

When Kim went astray her loving father (loving to her anyway…the bad guys, not so much) was gracious to her, pursued her no matter what, and brought her home.

In the classic 1942 children’s book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown we see this same theme of being gracious to those who have gone astray, but this time from the perspective of a loving mother:

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away, so he said to his mother, “I am running away.” If you run away, said his mother, I will run after you, for you are my little one.

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.” If you become a fish in a trout stream, said his mother, I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on a mountain high above you.” If you become a rock on a mountain high above me, said his mother, I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb for you.

“If you become a mountain climber,” said the little bunny, “I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.” If you become a crocus in a hidden garden, said his mother, I will be a gardener, and I will find you.

“If you are a gardener and find me,” said the little bunny, “I will be a bird and fly away from you.” If you become a bird and fly away from me, said his mother, I will be a tree that you come home to.

“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny, “I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you.” If you become a sailboat and sail away from me, said his mother, I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.

“If you become the wind,” said the little bunny, “I will join the circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.” If you go flying on a flying trapeze, said his mother, I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.

“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,” said the little bunny, “I will become a little boy and run into a house.” If you become a little boy and run into a house, said the mother bunny, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.

“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” And so he did. Have a carrot, said the mother bunny.

No matter what plan the little bunny devised to go astray from his mother, the mother bunny assured him that she would be gracious to him, pursue him, and bring him home.

The bad news is that you and I are often like Kim or the little bunny—we refuse to heed the warnings about the areas we should avoid, areas our Heavenly Father has written down in Scripture, we devise new plans to go astray, and we realize one day that we are utterly lost—or as Bruce Springsteen sings, “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going” (from the song “Hungry Heart” on his 1980 album The River).

In his moving poem The Hound of Heaven, published in 1893, the English poet Francis Thompson vividly describes how each of us goes astray from God:

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after
But with unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’”

But the good news is that we serve a God “whose glory it is always to have mercy,” a God who is “gracious to all who have gone astray.”

The good news is that as Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

And in the final stanza of The Hound of Heaven Francis Thompson reveals what God, who pursued him no matter what, said to him when they were standing side by side:

‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!…
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’

The good news of the gospel is that the same love that drove Bryan to pursue and bring his daughter home, the same love that drove the mother bunny to pursue the little bunny no matter what, the same love that drove the Hound of Heaven to pursue Francis Thompson as he fled and fled and fled…is the same love that drove Jesus to suffer and be rejected, to be taken by sinners and nailed to a cross.

And that cross was the divine thing upon which Jesus had set his mind, upon which he indeed saved the world—and that cross is a tree that you can come home to.

And at the Second Coming Jesus will again come for you, just like he said he would, and he will catch you in his arms and hug you.