Follow Me

A Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19 – Year B – 13 September 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he 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.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”                                                                                                        –Mark 8:27-38


The Collect

O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide” is the opening line of a hymn[1] in The Hymnal 1940 of the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, it was eliminated in the 1982 hymnal revision because of its apparent gender bias and because the editors took the word “once” literally instead of figuratively. I guess they had never heard of “once upon a time.” No one telling a fairy tale or fable worries that the hearer would mistake the use of “once” as meaning a single time. Nevertheless, that was part of the rationale for deleting a hymn designed to inspire decisions of faith. The “moment to decide” is not a singular event. It regularly happens to those who are tuned-in to the challenges of life. Those moments are questions that call for a response. To decide is to choose, and in making hard choices we act on our belief.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” he was not just taking a straw poll before branding his ministry. Nor was he fishing for compliments to boost his ego. Jesus did not ask this question for his own benefit. His question was meant to challenge his disciples. Jesus wanted them to make a crucial choice – a decision to follow where he would lead them.

But, as usual, the disciples missed the point. They responded by reporting objectively what they had heard on the street. Each of the replies was true to public opinion; however, they merely expressed a “they-say” perspective. The disciples’ answers kept “the moment” at arm’s length. There was no sense of commitment in their words.

So Jesus took another tack. He made it personal, aiming the question of his identity directly at his followers. Jesus challenged them to own the question, saying, “But who do you say that I am?”  He wanted them to choose, to decide what kind of impact he was having on their life.

Peter took the lead, and immediately weighed in with a reply. He blurted out the confession of faith that would change the course of history. He said to his Teacher, “You are the Messiah.”

Now, Jesus may have been inwardly pleased with Peter’s deadly accurate answer, but he did not show it. According to Mark’s brief account, Jesus surprised Peter and the others by commanding them to keep this knowledge to themselves. The necessity for their silence would soon become painfully obvious. Jesus’ kind of Messiah ran counter to what the people wanted, namely a fulfiller of their dreams. Who he was and how he would act would strike virtually everyone as preposterous. Jesus’ way was the way of compassion, not the path to glory. His gift to them would be neither happiness, nor their hearts’ fondest desire; it would be the willingness to sacrifice his life for their sake. He said that the Son of Man must suffer, and be killed, and be raised from the dead in order to transform the life of the world.

This came as a shock to all of them, but once again Peter was the one who blustered in, confronting what he didn’t want to hear. He took Jesus aside and chastised him for saying such things. We do not know what Peter said, but it’s safe to assume that he told his Teacher to come to his senses. All they would have to do would be to keep a low profile, and continue their work in the countryside, avoiding conflict with the Romans and the religious authorities in the urban areas, especially Jerusalem. We can imagine him pleading, “Don’t do this, Lord. Stay with us. You can still be effective as a healer and a teacher. Walking straight into danger will be the end of you, and of us.”

Jesus could not let Peter’s protest go unchallenged. He wouldn’t just avoid taking risks. Remaining safe and unscathed was not his way.  For the Messiah to be untouched by pain would signify that he was detached rather than involved, and Jesus was not about to insulate himself from human travail.  He knew that putting his life on the line for others was precisely what was necessary. Therefore Jesus had to dismiss his friend’s caution, and sting him with the reproach, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The rebuke was harsh, and Jesus meant it to be. Peter must have been dumbfounded. The Messiah he had just identified was now on the fast track to a terrible death. It was clear that Jesus was convinced that the Messiah’s suffering and death were crucial to a higher purpose – one that was divine and not confined by mortal desires and limitations.

Jesus then turned to the people who gathered around his entourage and proclaimed God’s way of salvation. He made it plain that there is a cost of discipleship. Being a Christian is not an entitlement or a status, it is a matter of deciding to invest oneself in the service of others, of sacrificing advantage to help the disadvantaged, and of giving rather than receiving. And those who would imitate the Messiah would expect nothing in return for their service; it would all be for love’s sake and not for personal gain. He explained:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

For Jesus the way of the cross is the way of life. Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus the Messiah, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,”[2] we are invited to answer his call, to deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him. His promise is that in dying to the claims of the self, we shall truly and eternally live. The choice is crucial; the decision is ours to make.

Welles Crowther was brought up by two loving parents in Nyack, New York, just north of Manhattan. He was a loving boy, a people person who had a big heart. When he was a little fellow his father advised him to carry a red bandana in his pocket just in case he needed to deal with a sneeze or the sniffles. To Welles, though, that bandana became more than that. It became his trademark. Welles wore one or kept one in his pocket every day of his life. As he participated in ice hockey or lacrosse, he tied the red bandana as a head kerchief under his helmet. And, as he signed up to be a junior fireman in Nyack, he sported one as he donned his gear.

That trademark made him stand out, but his fervent wish was always to be a team player, without fanfare for himself. In his high school yearbook, Welles chose as his senior quote: “There is no ‘I’ in team.” That’s the way he lived his life: working for the common good, and for the sake of others.

After graduating from Boston College, where he continued on his outward bound path, Welles got a job as an equities trader for a large New York firm. His office was in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He excelled at his work, but he always felt the tug of another calling – that of becoming a New York fireman, and answer the alarms of those in need.

On September 11, 2001, Welles became who he was called to be. When the Al Quaeda terrorists struck the South Tower with one of the hijacked airliners, Welles felt the impact in his office. He called his mother to say that he was okay, and then went into action. Reports of his work came to light in the aftermath of the destruction of the towers, as survivors began to tell their stories.

This past Friday, September 11, a post on Facebook told Welles’ story. It was a short film entitled, “Man in the Red Bandana.”[3]

Ling Young, a survivor of the South Tower collapse, described the scene on the 78th floor just after the plane hit the building. She said that she was thrown through the building and at first could not see because blood covered her face and eyeglasses. Once she recovered her sight, Ling beheld a scene of mayhem and death. More than 200 people were packed together in the elevator lobby waiting for a door to open, offering a way to evacuate. In that chaos, Ling said, a young man approached her and proclaimed, “I’ve found the stairs. Follow me.” She trusted him and followed, and so did others. The man led the evacuees to the 61st floor where the elevators were still working. Young said, “He could have gone with us to safety, but he turned and went back up the stairs to help others.”

Another survivor from the 78th floor recalled seeing a man and began putting out fires, assisting the wounded, and leading her and anyone who was ambulatory to the stairway. He kept at it, doing triage with the wounded and assisting those who could be saved. On the way to the hospital by ambulance, the survivor told her husband that it was a man in a red bandana that had mysteriously shown up to save them.

Meanwhile both of Welles’ parents witnessed the implosion of the South Tower, and were gripped by the strong feeling that their son was gone. It was only after published reports of the man in the red bandana surfaced that they learned of the decision that he had made. When his mother showed a photo of her son to survivors, they confirmed that Welles was the one who had rescued them. The Crowthers can now cherish an image of their loving son: he is wearing his red bandana as a sign of pure compassion as he gives his life to help those who would otherwise have perished.

Welles’ body was eventually recovered from the wreckage of the twin towers and laid to rest. The New York Fire Department posthumously named him a member of their community.

“He who seeks to save his life will lose it,” said Jesus, “but he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” That is the way, the truth, and the life. Welles lost his temporal life but found eternal life. That was his choice. It was his moment to decide to take the path of compassion rather than the one to safety. If any are tempted to wonder whether it was worth it, Welles’ parents, and Ling Young, and others are witnesses to his godly choice.

In the Name of God, may that kind of love be our guide as well. Amen.

[1] “Once to every man and nation,” Hymn 519 in The Hymnal 1940, was written by James Russell Lowell in 1845. It was set to the tune, Ebenezer, by Thomas John Williams in 1890.

[2] Hebrews 12:2.

[3] “Man in the Red Bandana, ESPN Film,