Mission: Perseverance

The breeze on Mars sounds remarkably similar to the wind as it blows here on Earth, but still, hearing it for the first time and knowing what I was hearing made me kind of shutter.  If you haven’t heard it yet it really is something worth checking out.

The sound of Martian wind was captured by the onboard microphones of the Perseverance Rover, which NASA launched into space this past summer and which landed on the crust of the fourth stone from the Sun this past week.  The rover sent back sounds of the winds of Mars blowing, as well as video of the vehicle’s own entry and decent, the deployment of the parachutes, and its safe landing on the Red Planet.

David Gruel, speaking for NASA’s propulsion lab said the expectations of both the audio and the visual they could get were actually very low. As if he’d been watching Daniel Tiger with his kids he said, “We get what we get and we don’t get upset,” but all went better than planned, and the information we received this past week was among the most spectacular in the history of space exploration.

NASA’s mission hopes to answer key questions about the potential for life on other worlds –

were there habitable conditions on Mars in the past? 

Are there signs of microbial life still present?

Are there possibilities for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere that would make the future of humans going to Mars more possible?  

All these questions may be answered from the findings and footage of the Perseverance mission, but already the images and sounds that NASA has collected have brought our understanding of the planet Mars into sharper focus.

Jesus, in our gospel text today, brings God’s mission into clearer focus as her begins to teach us that he must suffer, be rejected, be killed and be raised.

His Galilean ministry has brought him and his followers to the distant locale of Caesarea Philippi – almost like another planet in terms of its difference in culture; it was a place outside of Israel’s orbit, where the large part of society was devoted to a God named, “Pan,” and various other cults.

Here, Jesus asks his disciple who they say he is. 

And, having reflected on all Jesus has said and done, his healing and miracle-working along the way, Peter has come to understand that Jesus is the one for whom all Israel has waited. He confesses this faith, saying “Jesus, you are the Messiah!”

And it’s clear that Peter’s expectations are high and he probably supposed everything should just keep on going up:

more healings and more miracles on the way to Jesus filling the vacant throne of David, and crushing the power of the false gods all around them, and restoring God’s Kingdom to glory and power, as promised by the prophets of God.

But all is not going to go as planned for Peter and the others, because Jesus is a Messiah who will suffer and die – and he will be raised, yes – but my guess is that Peter, having heard about suffering and dying, may never have even heard the last part.

None of us like to suffer and so it may be that we can relate to Peter’s knee-jerk reaction. 

But Jesus is obedient to God and to God’s mission no matter who it sets him in opposition to – whether it’s the chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the Empire, or even if it brings him to clash his own disciples.

Maybe, from where we sit, Peter’s desire to tell Jesus what to do is laughable, or pitiable, but I think its also all-too-familiar for us who would like to tell God how to act in our lives, how to lead us, what we would have God do for us, to spare suffering for the glory. 

How often have we thought and prayed: O God, won’t you make everything right for us and won’t you make sure it’s easy for us as well!

But Jesus will not be patronized or told what to do and he responds to this idea by saying: get behind me Satan!

Contrary to Peter’s desire, and at times our desire, to control God and to have God bless our own already-chosen path, Jesus shows HE is the leader.

But do I wonder what Peter really wants.

Does Peter want to save Jesus from suffering and humiliation, or perhaps, does he want to save himself as one of Jesus’ followers from suffering and humiliation as well.

Whatever it is, Jesus calls it a Satanic idea – a contorted, wrong-spirited, and directionless hope, and demands that all who would become his disciples get behind his mission and let God set the course.

He has not come to be our own private God, to do for us just what we would have God do, but he has come to do God’s will and we are to follow him.

At the last ELCA national gathering for high school youth, our large group always had to be aware of the danger of getting lost in a sea of tens of thousands of other people, forces pushing us in every which way on the streets of Houston. 

And so, Sylas Parker carried a flag on a long pole up ahead of us.  The flag was emblazoned with the cross and to find our way, to stay together, to keep from being lost, we had to keep our eyes on the cross, and stay behind the cross that was leading the way.

We are people who follow the man of the cross,

and we become, therefore people of the cross. 

To be people of the cross means denying ourselves,

looking to God, and following Jesus.

We are called to suffer for others, to endure pain, voluntarily, for the sake of the other and for the sake of the world God loves.

This does not mean, as is sometimes popularly used idea: “that we all have a cross to bear” in the form of suffering that God condones or passes out. 

It does not mean that domestic abuse, or self-loathing and self-harm, or the scourge of disease or sickness are things that God lays upon us. 

God does not cause our suffering. 

Rather in the cross we see that God is with us in our suffering and has acted in a mission to journey to the depths of suffering, despair, loneliness, and death to FREE US from its power and IN OUR FREEDOM to make us a part of God’s mission to extend freedom, love and health to others.

I actually read one article this week that said that NASA, in preparation for their mission to Mars, in the early stages of planning, extended an invitation to anyone who wanted to participate, that you could send your name to them and they would place your name on a microchip which they would include inside the Perseverance Rover. 

In response to this invitation 10, 932,295 people sent in their names! Nearly 11 million people’s names are literally on Mars! They are literally a part of the mission!  And as part of that, they receive special emails, or communications of some kind that include updates about how the mission is going.

In baptism, our name is taken up into the mission of God.  We are claimed by a watery cross in God’s unconditional free gift of love, and we are actually, literally a part of God’s mission.

Thorough God’s word we receive updates on God’s activities in the world.

We are connected to Jesus’ mission of love and we are invited to take up the cross each day.

That is, we are invited, by God’s grace, to see other people enduring suffering and choose to enter into their pain to be with them, as Jesus Christ has done for us.

Carrying the cross looks high school student who sits down at the lunch table to eat with the person who is outcast by her peer, to be with her in friendship.

Carrying the cross looks like listening to a person who is in crisis,

Carrying the cross looks like forgiving the person from whom you are estranged,

Carrying the cross looks like choosing to use your resources to help alleviate the crisis in someone else’s life,

Carrying the cross looks like making your voice heard on behalf of those who are marginalized by virtue of their race, nationality, who they choose to love, or choices they have made. 

For most of our lives, all around us we hear the message that our life belongs to us.  That we can shape it and make into what we want it to be.  Celebrities and influencers build up their own name and their own brand.  Amazon’s popular titles are self-help books and titles to unlock your authentic self.

Jesus says that the meaning of life it to give it away. 

His paradoxical way is an invitation to find the answer to the key questions of life not by plumbing ourselves for the answers but to find them by learning who Jesus is and to emulate him in reaching out to others.

Perhaps, by God’s grace, in the moments when we reach out to others will be able to alleviate their suffering.  Sometimes we won’t be successful.  But the calling is to open ourselves to God’s desire for our life.

And we are invited to find our fulfillment in Jesus’ way of self-denial. 

That might mean that our life has to change.

To those of us who are overly-comfortable in life, we are called out of our comfort.

And to those of us who have made politics and power over others our central hope – we are called to look again to the power of God revealed in the weakness.

And to those of us who suffer and feel alone, in despair, and the cloud of depression, we are called to see and believe that in Jesus Christ, God has acted to bring even those who are bowed down in the earth to praise God, to stand in awe of the Lord, and to proclaim God’s deliverance.

How ironic that Peter wants to pull Jesus aside and keep him from his mission – because it is a mission that is undertaken out of love for Peter and his friends and God’s people.

Peter wants to hide Jesus away.

But the way of the cross is not to hide our faith. 

Our relationship with God is personal, but not private.  It is public. 

And to follow Jesus means to risk scorn and suffering from others.

When I visited my sister in Bet Sahour, Palestine, when she lived there several years ago, I met the Palestinian Christians who were here host family.  George and Shaddai and their children gave my sister a room in their home in which to live, invited her to their family table each day, and when Sarah and I visited invited us as well, and told us of their life and faith.

I found out that in Palestine today, Christians make up about 10% of the population, and as a minority, they are somewhat shunned and scorned by the rest of the population. 

After they shared this, I took note that George and Shaddai had iron gate around their property, as most families do in the town and that they had a large cross included on top of the iron gates.  I remarked to him my surprise that he would have the symbol on his home as a minority in a hostile environment. 

With confidence, George exclaimed: “This is who I am, my friend!!” 

Indeed, this is who we are, my friends.

We are people of the cross.

People who have been claimed and called to be a part of God’s mission to heal, help, save, suffer with and extend love to God’s beloved.

We are a people who are a part of God’s mission of Perseverance through death to life.

We are a people who tell the news that God will go anywhere for us.  Not just up to the heavens – but even down to the bottom of the pit of death.

In Jesus, God has plumbed our deepest pain and suffering, and he has gone all the way to the depths of the grave and he brings life and healing to that very place –

he brings life and healing to every crack and crevasses of the universe, to every planet and to every galaxy – and to all creation.

God can and does bring real life out of real death

and our names and identities are joined to his mission.

So take good courage to enter into the suffering of others knowing there is more than potential for life…new life is a promise from God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who was, and is, and is to come.

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