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Set Your Mind on Divine Things

  • February 25, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for February 25, 2018 (Lent 2, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Genesis 17:1-7, 15-22; Psalm 22:22-30; Mark 8:31-38

Title:               Set Your Mind on Divine Things

But Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things’” (Mark 8:33).

I definitely feel bad for Peter in this situation. He most certainly gets the short end of the stick. After all, he is only trying to protect the Master! Is that such a bad thing? Is that just cause for him to be labeled as the embodiment of evil, to be named as “Satan” itself?

What does it mean to set one’s mind on divine things rather than human things?

Does it mean that you no longer think about what to make for dinner, or whether it’s time to refinance the mortgage, or about scheduling the oil change for your car?

Is it strictly a human thing to be obsessed with the Olympics and to spend time thinking about all the strategic moves involved in the great sport of curling? (Yes, I am super excited about the US Men’s Team gold medal victory!)

If not these things, then what does it mean? And why is it wrong to set your mind on human things?

And was not Abraham setting his mind on human things when he desperately prayed for an heir to continue his family line and to inherit the covenant?

Yet Abraham is blessed as he wants to save his life through the birth of a son, while Peter is cursed as he hopes to save the Lord’s life.

What does all of this mean? If the Lord desires that we set our minds on divine things, then how exactly are we to do this?

My friends, I wish that I could explain to you what all of this means – what Jesus means about not wanting to save our lives but rather losing them for the sake of the Gospel.

I do not know exactly what these things means for people like you and me, but I think I know it when I see it!

And we see this different kind of life in so many who we know today as saints, as those who embraced the call to take up their cross and follow the Master.

One of the perks of the Lent Madness project sponsored by Forward Movement is that we get to learn about some rather obscure saints. One of these we learned about on Thursday of last week is a woman known as Maria Skobtsova. Hers is both a tragic and heroic story.

She was born in Riga, Latvia in 1891 and christened as Elizaveta – the Ukranian form of Elizabeth. Her family was devoutly Orthodox Christian, but when she was fourteen, her father suddenly died.

So as a teenager, she lost her faith and became intrigued by the new revolutionary Marxist ideas swirling through Europe at that time. Elizaveta married impulsively at age 19, but this relationship was doomed from the start and ended in divorce.

With an extremely smart mind, Elizaveta studied philosophy and slowly was drawn back to the person Jesus – specifically to the idea of Christ as the Human One who had suffered along with humanity. She became the first woman to be admitted to study theology at the famous Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

But then the Russian Revolution exploded. Elizaveta fled Russia and ultimately landed in Paris in 1923, along with many other Russian refugees. During this period, she remarried and had two more children, while continuing her studies of theology.

In 1926, her youngest daughter died, and her marriage broke down. In the aftermath, Elizaveta threw herself into her work with a new vigor, opening a house for Russian refugees in the heart of Paris. In 1932, she took vows as a nun and changed her name to Maria Skobtsova. But she refused to be an ordinary sister who lived isolated from society. The house she rented in the center of Paris was her convent and it became a haven for the lost, the homeless, and refugees.

When the Nazis occupied Paris in the summer of 1940, Maria’s house also became a place where Jews could come in secret to receive fake baptismal certificates.

Many Jewish people were also allowed to hide in the house and were smuggled out to a safer location.

Eventually, the Gestapo uncovered all of this and raided the home. Maria, her mother Sophia, her son Yuri, and Fr. Dimitri – the Orthodox clergy who assisted her – were all sent to concentration camp and there they all died. Mother Maria was killed in a gas chamber on Holy Saturday, March 31, 1945, as the Nazis made a frantic push to exterminate all of their remaining prisoners in the final weeks before the war ended.

If you ever inclined to complain about your life, stop and consider what Maria Skobtsova lived through: her father’s early death, a failed marriage as a young woman, the violence of the Russian revolution, the life of a refugee with children in tow, witnessing the death of two of her children, the Great Depression, then life under Nazi occupation.

And yet, this woman understood that Jesus is the Son of Man – the Human One – who underwent great suffering, who took up his cross and gave his life. For us!

And in every situation, Maria Skobtsova saw the suffering of others around her and did whatever she could to help for the sake of the love of God, even when it was certain to cost her own life.

No, I cannot say exactly what it means for people like you and me to deny ourselves and take up our cross, and to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel.

But I think I see what it means in the stories of people like this Mother Maria who embodied a call to serve humanity in a way that is absolutely supernatural – far beyond the ordinary human way of most people.

And I know that there are times in life when you and I are faced with choices that will lead us on very divergent paths: one path that feeds our ego, our superficial desires, one that considers only the short term concerns and needs of life.

And another path which leads us on the path of God to help those who suffer, one that recognizes the reality that we need one another, that no one is a stranger to me.

Many centuries ago, the great Abba Antony of Egypt said that “Life and death depend on our neighbor; for if we win over our neighbor, we win over God, but if we offend our neighbor, we sin against Christ” (Antony 9, Apophthegmatum Patrum Alphabetical).

Life and death depend on our neighbor. Perhaps THIS is what it means to set our minds on divine things.

After the breaking of the consecrated bread at the Lord’s Table, we sing the ancient Angus Dei: O Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Not my sins or your sins. Not the sins of our community. Not the sins of our family alone. But taking away the sins of the world! Injecting healing and hope into the brokenness of every community.

Now, what would it mean for you to construct and frame your daily life on the foundational bedrock of this teaching: “Life and death depend on my neighbor”?

What would have to change? And what part of that do you resist?

Allow me to conclude with the prayer that is appointed for the remembrance of Maria Skobtsova. Please join me in prayer:

Loving God, soften our hearts and fill our minds with the desire to do your will. Kindle in us the longing to comfort those most in need of mercy, that like your servant Maria Skobtsova, we might open wide the doors of our hearts and homes to those in need of refuge and relief, not counting the cost to ourselves, but considering only the increase of your kingdom. We pray through Jesus your Son, our Redeemer and Advocate. Amen.

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