It’s wonderful to be gathered with you today on this official kick-off to our Program Year. This has been a long-awaited day ever since COVID derailed much of our community’s life and plans 18 months ago. But finally, we’re back: Acolytes are guiding us in, the choirs are leading us in song, our children have childcare and church school, our adults have a forum to attend, and worship is in full swing.
But it would be disingenuous of me to act like everything is normal. Yes, it’s good to be together and resuming many of the activities that define our community. But it’s not normal. We’re masked. We can’t touch each other. Our services are now being livestreamed for those who, for whatever reason, can’t be here in person. There’s no wine shared at communion. And no coffee hour. I mean if we’re honest…it’s not exactly what we hoped for. It’s definitely not what we expected even back in the spring as we began to plan for it. As this fall has approached, with the whole world trying to get back to some semblance of normalcy, I keep thinking of this question: “How do we begin again when we have no idea where we’re going?”
As I prepared for today, I turned to our appointed Scripture, hoping that Jesus would offer a comforting word of guidance for us. That did not happen. But as I studied our Gospel for today, I came to see its relevance for us. This passage sits at a hinge moment in the arc of the story of Jesus and his disciples. Up until now, Mark’s Gospel has primarily detailed the stories of Jesus’s healing in and around Galilee. From this point on, Jesus and his followers will make a turn towards Jerusalem, setting in play an unavoidable set of actions that will lead to his crucifixion and then resurrection.
This is exactly what Jesus lays out for them, which leads Peter to try and correct him: “Surely that’s not actually your plan, Jesus?” To which Jesus responds with the still shocking: “Get behind me, Satan!”
We can begin to relate to the passage as we sit in our own hinge-moment, sitting on the threshold of a new program and new school year, Unsure and wary of the future, Eager for clarity and a prediction of a future we’re excited about.
As we sit with the discomfort of this passage, we begin to see that a primary misunderstanding happened around expectations. Peter expected Jesus to be a kind of leader that he wasn’t. By answering Jesus’s question of “Who do you say that I am?” with the title “Messiah,” We can see that Peter thought Jesus was the kind of leader who’d come with power and might to rescue people (this is what that term communicated at that time.) But instead, Jesus defies expectations and calls himself the “Son of Man,” Which is a far more ambiguous term, meaning something like “the human one,” Instead of “Christ” or “Anointed one” like Messiah means. Son of Man had apocalyptic connotations and brought up associations of persecution rather than victory. It just wasn’t what the disciples were expecting.
We can certainly relate to expectations not being met. This isn’t the kick-off we expected. It’s not the fall we’d hoped for. Not the Gospel we’d wished for to start anew as a community. Often, Jesus doesn’t offer us the opportunities we expected or even thought we deserved. That makes his rebuke of Peter sting even more when he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” How often we do the same, basing our expectations on human, rather than divine things.
If we stay with Jesus through this difficult passage, we see that he continues to challenge our hopes and expectations of how he might behave. At the end of this passage, the audience shifts from just the disciples to the crowd that had gathered with him on his way to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus lays out a vision for what it will mean to follow him: “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.”
These perpetually challenging words hang in the air for us as we embark on a new program year. What might they mean for us as we begin again? I heard these words anew this year as I read them alongside the work of the church consultant and leader Susan Beaumont in her new book How to Lead When you Don’t Know Where You’re Going. Beaumont’s book outlines how church leaders can navigate liminal seasons, When the old way of doing things has not yet died, But the new way has not yet fully emerged. One of her chapters focuses on shifting from a posture of “striving to surrender.”
“The striving self,” she said “likes to power through barriers and get things resolved. The striving self is a false self. It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. It can’t see what might be possible if we let go of the negative attachments and faulty goals…The striving self needs to look good, feel competent, and appear successful.”  Alternatively, when we move through liminal and challenging periods, we might instead be called to surrender. “To surrender is to yield, to submit to the powerful reality of what is, to take a long loving look at what is real, to welcome the situation in front of you. Surrender means accepting the past for what it was, embracing the present reality, yielding to the mystery of the future and the mystery of God in that future.”
To illustrate her point, she talked about her sister-in-law’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Beaumont described how various family members responded to the diagnosis with a striving mentality – fiercely intent on battling and beating the disease. Others, the sister-in-law and brother included, responded with surrender: “‘We did not choose to have this disease, it chose us,’ her brother said. ‘But I choose it back,’ he went on to say. ‘I choose this experience for everything it can teach me about myself and my future.’ This statement is the essence of a surrendering stance and of the generativity that lies on the other side of surrender.”
Perhaps this is one of the things Jesus meant when he told his followers that they must “lose their life to save it.” Instead of striving to secure our own vision and ideals of the future, upholding our expectations of how things ought to be, Perhaps the more life-giving, generative response is to surrender. To loosen our clenched fists on what we think is right, to let our expectations change, and to surrender ourselves to what God is doing in this present moment, even if it’s not what we’d initially chosen.
So as this new program and school year begins, may we surrender ourselves to it. Knowing it won’t be what we imagined, and it might not be what we hoped for.
But knowing that God is present in it, In all its glory and all its disappointment.
More than present, God is leading us.
With this knowledge, we can find the courage to start again, even though we don’t quite know where we’re going. Amen.
 1 Beaumont, Susan. How to Lead When you Don’t Know Where You’re Going, 43