United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Divine Things”

 February 25th, 2024

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore


        Divine Things.  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  That’s what leapt out at me this week as I began to think about this sermon.  Divine things—what exactly are they Jesus?  I mean, he was talking to Simon Peter, the one who had just finally had the courage to speak up and say what they all had been thinking.  When Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” that was easy—everyone chimes in.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  One of the prophets.

        But then Jesus turns and looks them in the eye and says, “But who do YOU say that I am?”  I bet there was a little bit of silence.  Remember they haven’t seen Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop yet—that will come in the next chapter.  They have been watching as Jesus has fed the fed the five thousand, walked on water, did healings and exorcisms galore.  This was someone special, but how would he react to what they were thinking.  Peter is the one to pipe up.  “You are the Messiah.”  And Jesus, as Jesus often does in the gospel of Mark, says “Shhhhhh!  Don’t tell anyone.”

        But Jesus knows what they are thinking.  “We’ve got ourselves attached to THE guy—we’ve got it made.”  Jesus knows their minds are wandering to: “what job will I have in his administration?”  “Won’t my friends think better of me when they see ME sitting at the right hand, or the left hand, of the Anointed One of God?”  “We’ll be rich.”  “We’ll be powerful.”  “We’ll finally be winners—we’ll throw those nasty Romans out of our land.  We can’t lose because we have God on our side!”  “Life is going to be so easy now that we have hitched ourselves to the right star.”

        I mean, the Messiah is the one who will help bring in God’s kingdom.  The Messiah is the one they have been waiting for, praying for, wishing for, hoping for, forever.  He will fix everything—the crooked paths straight and the rough places plain.  He will speak to peoples hearts and they will live as God intended.  A new age will appear.  One where the lion can lie down with the kid, and a child can put its hand over an adder’s den—no harm will come to all on the holy mountain, on all the earth.  For the “earth will be covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

        They were as high as a kite.  They had their minds set on great things.  And then Jesus bursts their bubble with that stupid mantra of his.  About suffering.  About death.  About His death.  And Peter, nudged by the looks of the other disciples I’m sure, tries to gently get him off topic.  “Jesus, I mean no disrespect, but you are bumming us out.  What are you doing talking about how bad things are going to turn out?  I mean that’s not what Torah says about the Messiah.  That’s not what we have been waiting for—suffering, death, your death, God forbid!”

        And Jesus turned and looked at them all but addressed Peter.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  I can only imagine Peter’s stomach dropping 15 floors.  Satan?  Jesus thinks I’m the evil one?  What did I say?  What did I do to deserve that?  And I thought we were talking about divine things—you know, the Holy one of God.  The One who would bring about what suffering, dying Jews have always wanted.  God’s Reign here on earth.  An end to the suffering and dying.  How could saying that be part of evil’s plan?  “How low can you go?”

        I always think of Peter as being our representative.  Peter, who can have flashes of brilliance, but can also just be a thick as a stone—thick as a rock.  Peter, who follows Jesus, even close to his prison, but isn’t willing to admit who he follows to a stranger who asks.  If Peter can’t get it, what chance do we have?

        Even Jesus sees Peter as “everyman.”  If Peter is thinking it, then so are others.  And he gathers the disciples, and not just the disciples but the crowd, all those who are hanging on his every word.  And talks about denying themselves, and taking up their cross.  About losing their life—that is how you save it.  About how if they are ashamed of him and his words, if they don’t want to hear what he has to say, even the difficult parts, the Son of Man (another vision of God’s Holy One from their Scriptures) will be ashamed of them when he comes in glory.  (A more poetic, and maybe more devastating way of saying—Get behind me Satan!).  I bet a lot of people now felt like Peter.  Two inches tall.

        No wonder the writer of the gospel of Mark has to take an intermission after this and get Peter and James and John up the mountain for some awe-inspiring visions of Jesus.

        But let’s back up.  I’m still caught on divine things versus human things, earthly things.  Are thoughts of God’s reign coming true on earth an earthly thing?  Or was it just that with thinking about God’s reign we also think about what it will mean for us—is that the earthly thing?  Are suffering and pain and death divine things?  And how do we distinguish what our cross is in this world?

        I remember a day in seminary when we as a small class were discussing this passage.  One of my classmates, an older female student (meaning older than me then, but not as old as I am now), shared that she had been carrying a cross—suffering spousal abuse.  I was shocked, I know that.  But I have no memory of how we as a class reacted to that.  Did we disagree or ask how she could think that?  Did a professor or TA reach out to her and make sure she was safe?  Did anyone say, “God does not intend for you to be disrespected, or beaten, or tortured”?  Am I now thinking in earthly terms or divine terms?      

        It is very confusing, this “divine things.”  Love, peace, justice, hope, joy, walking humbly with God.  How does this become suffering, death, carrying our own cross?  I don’t know that I have the answer to this very heavy question.  But here are some of my thoughts.

        Alexei Anatolievich Navalny.  A brave man—not staying where it was safe.  Trying to be the voice of a people crying out for freedom, for a different way.  Willing to put himself in the way of a cruel and ruthless leader—so others would see that they too could stand up to Putin.  Is the loss of his life the saving of many, someday?  We don’t yet know, but certainly it was a life lived standing on divine things (like the worth of every human being) not afraid of where that might lead.

        All the courageous people we have been lifting up during our month of focus on Black History (aware of so many we do not even know).  People willing to do the hard work of forcing a country to confront its injustice by sitting down on a bus, or going to school all by yourself for a year; by modeling for others what leadership looks like (no matter the color of your skin) and breaking barriers in all kinds of institutions; by daring to risk your own life to pilot people to freedom and having the audacity to plan such a thing.  I don’t think one of these people went looking for suffering or pain or death.  But those earthly things found them anyway.

        Is there an interconnection between suffering and pain in this world and the divine things Jesus was talking about?  Is it that those who have been tempted and given in so despise, so fear, those who are thinking of divine things that they will do anything to crush them?  Is it that those in power try to squash those who threaten the way they want the world to work?  Is it that following Jesus, trying to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God, puts us on the front lines of the very real war between good things and evil things—and Jesus didn’t want us to be taken by surprise?

        Here’s another way of going at it.  Savannah Gutherie (yes, the Today show host) has written a book of essays about her faith.  It’s called “Mostly What God Does: Reflections on Seeking and Finding His Love Everywhere.”  She doesn’t pretend to be a biblical scholar or to have faith all figured out.  She is just sharing “the God I know.”  And in her first musing named “All My Love,” she talks about how she was struck by Eugene Peterson’s “translation” of Ephesians 5:1-2 found in The Message.  It says, “Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents.  Mostly what God does is love you.”  As Gutherie continues: “All I know is it took me a long time, a lifetime of church and no church, faith and not much faith, seeking and failing, hoping and falling, to understand this basic precept: mostly what God does is love us.”

        As I thought about today’s scripture reading and divine things, I wondered—what if divine things and earthly things are not specific things, but whose version of things we are talking about.  Because isn’t love something that could be earthly or divine?  What makes the difference?  Maybe it is our frame of reference—where the camera is shooting from, or maybe even who is filming our lives anyway.

        Does it change things if we try to look at something from a different perspective?  Savannah tries this:

        “Where is God and what is [God] up to?

               Mostly what God does is love you.

        How does God feel about me?

               Mostly what God does is love you.

        What job should I take?  Where should I live?  Whom should I marry?  Do I forgive that person?  Do I deserve forgiveness?  Am I shallow?  Am I selfish?  Am I unworthy of love?  Have I broken my life?  What does God think about the choices I’ve made?

                       Most what God does is love you.”

        You see what she is doing.  All those questions, all those doubts and fears, are on one side of the equation.  But the mantra, the divine thing (dare we say), is on the other side.  God’s words that we long to hear, “Mostly what I, God, do is love you.”

        What might happen to our lives if we understood that Jesus wasn’t just talking about our side of the equation of life—Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  No, Jesus was saying, love God, love neighbor, love self, because God first loved you.  God continues to love you, no matter what.  In God’s love, we can look at our world and dream divine things.  In God’s love, we can find the courage, and the strength, and the patience, and the intelligence, to work towards a better world.  In God’s love, sheltered in God’s outstretched hands, we can face the earthly things that can happen to those who live believing in divine things.

        I know that this is a hard time to be living in an earthly world.  There are such horrible things happening.  There is a split in this country that threatens to destroy what most of us hold so dear.  We are trying to find our way out of a “time away” from one another, and from all the habits that used to structure our lives.  We are having to figure out the balance of face-to-face interactions and virtual ones.  Institutions we have always counted on are changing.  Our planet is groaning under the weight of our inept stewardship of this beautiful gift of God.  We may be living in a generation that will require more of us than we are sure we can give.  But as we hear in the book of Esther, maybe we were born, “for such a time as this.”

        I invite all of us, as we face the future, our lives that can seem so little, and the bigger picture, our country, the nations, the earth—we not get mired in the earthly things—but remember the divine things, most especially the divine thing that Scripture bares witness to: that God so loved, God so loved us.  And God loves us still.  “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

        In that love, we pray, May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.