Sunday, September 20th, 2015 – Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

A couple of weeks ago, our very own Jeff McLaughlin shared with council an encounter he had with a work colleague. During a conversation, his colleague said this:

Jeff, I was worried about working with you because you’d come from a Christian college.

“Really?” Jeff said.

Yeah, I figured you would have no sense of humor.

“Ha! I think I do.” Jeff said.

Yeah, you do. You’re also not so judge-y like I’d thought you’d be.

You’re also not so judge-y like I’d thought you’d be. That line stood out to Jeff. And he asked us, “Where have we gone wrong when that’s the first thing people think about when they hear the word ‘Christian’?” We’re getting a bad rep out their folks.

In fact, there is whole book out there right now, called UnChristian, which is about how most young people these days think Christians are un-Christian. That we are judgmental and hypocritical. And apparently, we have no sense of humor.

Is that what it means to be a Christian? Is that why you are a Christian?

So, why are you a Christian then?

Really. Why are you a Christian? I think it is a question that is worth asking ourselves.

In fact, that very question is at the heart of a conference that gathered this past weekend in the Twin Cities. A conference appropriately called WHY CHRISTIAN. It asked the question: when there are so many reasons not to be Christian – like centuries of corruption and scandal, hypocrisy, and crusades – why do we continue to follow Jesus?

I couldn’t attend, of course. Here at St. John’s we had the task of saying farewell to Kenneth Jennings as we entrusted him into God’s good care on Friday. And we had the task of saying hello to Gretchen Colby Rode as we welcomed her into the fold of ordained ministry on Saturday.

But thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I could get the highlights of the conference pretty easily. And some of the presenters’ answers stood out to me.

Why am I still a Christian? One said, “Because baptism gives me an identity that no one can take away: beloved child of God.” (Rachel Held Evans)

Why am I still a Christian? Another said, “I’m Christian because I need the gospel to see the world differently than I tend too. I need the gospel to see others differently than I tend to. And I need the gospel to see myself differently than I tend to.” (Paraphrase of three statements Nadia Bolz-Weber made).

So it got me asking the question –Why Christian? Why am I Christian?

And I think I found my answer. I can’t take credit for it because a friend said it, but it rings true for me too. Why am I a Christian? Because if there is a god – then I want a god who is like Jesus (Alan Storey). Not to get into Heaven. Not because I think it makes me a moral person. But I’m Christian because if there is a god (which tells you that sometime I wonder about that too), then I want a god who is like Jesus.

So what is Jesus like? That what I want to do with today’s gospel. I want to use it as a lens for us to see what Jesus is like…so that we might then see what god is like. Because there are some things that we learn about Jesus – and therefore about God – in this text that make me want to keep being a Christian.

The gospel began with this phrase, “They went on from there …” They went on. If you pay close attention in the gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples are constantly on the move. It reads almost like a travel log of all these places they’re going to and coming from. Jesus keeps his disciples always on the move. Which is to say that Jesus never lets the disciples get too comfortable where they are at. He never lets them settle down in one place.

And maybe that is a metaphor for us. Jesus will never let us get too comfortable. Jesus will not let us stand still. We don’t say that we are people who stand beside Jesus. No, we say we are followers of Jesus, which means Jesus is going somewhere. And he is taking us with him.

If that’s what Jesus is like, then that’s what God is like, and I want a god who will never let me get too comfortable.

So Jesus and his disciples, they’re on the road. The road of faith. And Jesus starts to teach them, and he says to them for the second time about himself, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

The first thing I notice is that it is human hands that kill Jesus. Human hands can kill God. And I have human hands. And so do you. Which reminds me that I have been entrusted by God with an incredible amount of power – power for good and power for great evil.

And notice that when Jesus speaks of his impending murder, he makes no mention of retaliation. In a kill or be killed kind of world, Jesus – therefore God – would rather be killed, than to kill.

And so we learn that the way of discipleship, the way of following Jesus, is one that bends towards non-violence. And I need to be reminded of that. Especially when I want to kill with my words. Like the James reading from last week warned, too often, we use our words to “curse those who are made in the image of God,” which is everyone, by the way.

There is no mention of retaliation, just simply that Jesus will rise again. Which goes to show that you cannot kill that kind of love Jesus has for this world.

So Jesus warned the disciples that following him is dangerous, it leads to the cross. And they didn’t understand. Again.

And what we learn from that is that Jesus spends his time with people who don’t understand him. And if God is like Jesus, than God spends time with people who don’t understand God. Thank God! So if you don’t know if you understand this whole faith/church/Jesus thing, you’re in good company. You’re in the company of Jesus. Because Jesus hangs out with those who don’t understand.

So, the disciples don’t get it, but they continue on. But while on the way, the disciples start arguing about who is the greatest.

Now, we’ve always been taught to hear that as if the disciples are arguing for themselves as the greatest. I’m the greatest! No, I’m the greatest! No, no, no, please, I’m the greatest! But what if that’s not how it went? I mean, what if these disciples were from Minnesota, where we tend to be nicer about things. You’re the greatest! No, you’re the greatest!

You never know. It could have happened that way.

But here is the thing, if I ever think I’m the greatest it’s never because I actually think I’m the greatest. It’s usually more that I think I’m the worst or not good enough. And it’s because of that that I try to convince myself who I’m better than. I don’t know about you but I spend more time thinking that people are better than me than I do thinking I’m better than someone else. I’m more likely to think lowly of myself than I am to think highly of myself.

So, who knows how the disciples were arguing about it. Either way, they were wrong in trying to divide themselves into who was the best and who wasn’t. And they knew it.

But then the text says that Jesus sat down and he gathers these arrogant and insecure disciples around. And sitting in that culture is the traditional position of teaching. He’s already taught them and they got wrong. So he teaches them again. And again. And again.

What we learn from this is that when we get it wrong, Jesus will spend time to teach us how to do it right. Again and again and again. A good teacher is always willing to keep teaching. On the way of faith and life, God will continue to teach you, even when you get it wrong.

And so what does Jesus teach them? He says that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Jesus reminds them, and us, that the way of life is not to be first. But it is to be last. To serve.

And then he takes a child in his arms. And what we too often forget is that back then a child was the lowest of the low. They were nobodies. They were expendable. Even the text reflect this. It says, “Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them.” It. He put it among them as if this child is a thing and not a human being. That’s how they were viewed back then. But then Jesus does this radical thing – he takes the child in his arms and close to his chest and declares that whoever welcomes such a lowly being as a child, welcomes him. And whoever welcomes him, welcomes God.

So what we learn is that to be a follower of Jesus is to welcome the lowly. Even if it is our selves that we think are lowly. And when we welcome that one – the last person on earth we would want to welcome – then we’ve welcomed God. We learn that Jesus is always trying to stretch our boundaries of who is in and who is out so that no one is ever out.

In just these 7 verses, I’ve learned that Jesus will never let me get too comfortable where I’m at in life. But rather, he will continue to push and nudge me to see and live into a grace and love that is wider than I can imagine. I learned that Jesus would rather be killed by those made in the image of God, then retaliate against those made in the image of God. I learned that Jesus stays with those who don’t understand him. And he continues to teach them, even when they get it wrong. And Jesus turns this world on its head when he tells his followers to be last instead of first, and to welcome the lowest of the low.

If there is a god, than I want a god who is like that Jesus.

So there you go. That’s why I am a Christian. Because I believe that God is like Jesus. And to quote another speaker from this weekend, I’m willing to risk being wrong about that. I’m willing to spend my life being wrong about that. (Rachel Held Evans) Not because it means I get to spend my life in a cloud of false hope, but because it means I get to view the world as a place that is profoundly loved and never abandoned and never without hope. And that, I think, is worth being wrong about. Amen.

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Sunday, September 13th, 2015 – Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

Mark 8:27-38

27 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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.” 34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”

During a typical week, on Thursday’s, Pastor Pam, Nathan, and I meet for about an hour to talk about the upcoming Sundays and what we have planned for worship. A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about this particular Sunday, and I knew that I was preaching, but I hadn’t read the gospel text yet. So I asked, “Well, what is the reading for that Sunday.” And Pastor Pam said, “You know, the one about Jesus calling Peter Satan and saying, ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’”

And as soon as she said those few words, I thought to myself, “Oh yep, I got it. I know that one.”

It’s a pretty well-known text. It occurs in 3 out of the 4 gospels. It comes up multiple times in the lectionary. It has that famous line – 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.

Plus, I’d preached on this text before. So I thought, “Yep. Got it. I know this one.”

And therein lies the danger. When you think you know a text. And you start to assume what it says and what it means.

Now, I’m going to confess to you here for just a moment. There have been times where I have written a sermon without fully reading the Scripture text for that day. Because I just assume that I know it well enough. Our sure – feeding of the 5,000. Got it. Sure – parable of the prodigal son. I know that one. But then when I got up to preach on Sunday and I read the gospel, suddenly I wished I had read through the whole thing before writing the sermon. Because there was a line or a phrase or a detail that I didn’t notice before. Or if it was really bad, that line or detail suddenly made it really hard to preach the sermon I’d written.

And that same thing almost happened for today. Because I thought I knew this text. I figured I would preach a sermon about how it’s risky to be a follower of Jesus because he asks us to give up our life – to love the unloveable, to forgive those whom we don’t want to forgive, to share of our resources when we don’t want to share. That was the sermon I was going to preach.

But by the grace of God, I thought to read the whole text first.

Did you hear that last line?

Jesus says – “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.”

Those who are ashamed of me, I will be ashamed of them, Jesus says. I’d never noticed that before. Or at least I’d forgotten it. My first thought was, “Whoa. What does it mean for Jesus to be ashamed of us?” My second thought was…that’s not gonna fit very well with the sermon I’m writing. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I want to preach about. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus who loves the unloveable. And then because I didn’t like that text, and because it didn’t sound nice and loving… my immediate reaction was to protect you from that verse. Or else I wanted to clean it up a bit and not make it sound so bad, or say that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said.

I wanted to sanitize that verse in the Bible, in order to protect you from it. In fact a friend of mine, who is preaching on this text today – he just scratched that line out of the reading. He just decided to ignore it completely and not even read it.

And he’s not alone in that. Out of the many commentaries that I read on this text, only 1…only 1 even spoke of that hard verse. So I would’ve been pretty justified in just ignoring it and protecting you from it. But then my wife, Lauren, sent me an article that had nothing to do with church, but it changed my entire perspective on this gospel reading.

It was an article about a mom who had had a really bad fight with her 15-year-old daughter. In fact, it’s the kind of fight a parent never wants to have. They were arguing over a relationship that daughter was in. Things got out of hand – the daughter called her mom some names and then finished off the fight with those three gut-wrenching words – I hate you. It was the first time she’d ever said that to her mom. And her mom was stunned and didn’t know what to do.

The two kept to themselves for the rest of the evening.

But then, the mother got an idea. She wanted to make light of this painful situation. She wanted to stir up some humor in the midst of a hard argument. The next morning she went to the bakery and ordered an “I hate you” cake. The bakery could hardly believe what she was asking for, but they made it for her. And she gave it to her daughter that afternoon. A cake with her daughter’s words captured in delicious blue icing. And together they laughed and ate cake. It was incredibly healing.

But here’s the point. In the article, the mom said this, “Going to bed that night, I decided I wanted to make certain that my daughter knew that no matter what happened between us — no matter what she said — that our relationship could not be so easily shattered. I wanted it clearly stated that nothing as small as an argument and some heated words — even angry words like, “I hate you” — could damage us.”[1]

She wanted her daughter to know that their relationship could not be so easily shattered. And that made me wonder – why do I assume that our relationship with God is so fragile that it could be shattered by just one uneasy verse?

I wanted to have us to look away from that text, to avoid it because I was afraid our relationship with God was too fragile. But you know what – it isn’t that easily broken. Yes, maybe you feel as though your relationship with God is fragile, but God’s relationship with you isn’t. It is secure. It is built on a rock. Therefore I don’t have to protect you from any verse in the Bible.

In fact, I think we can look at straight on.

Jesus says – “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.”

Maybe it means exactly what it says. Maybe Jesus is ashamed of those who are ashamed of him.

And maybe that’s okay.

In her new book, Accidental Saints, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber lays bear a sin that weighed heavy on her. She tells a story about her congregation member Larry, whom (she admits) she didn’t like very much. And for no good reason. But he loved her as his pastor and he loved their church. But Nadia kept him at arms length, never getting to know him, never helping him get connected to the community.

And then when it came time to send out the mass e-mail to all congregation members, reminding them to register for the spring congregation retreat – she intentionally left Larry email off. Because she simply didn’t want him to be there.

And not long after that, Larry got a brain tumor and a few months later, he died.

And Nadia felt horrible.

“Who does a thing like that?[2] Nadia asks.

And you know, what? I’m willing to bet that Nadia would say that of course Jesus was ashamed of her in that moment! Of course Jesus was embarrassed by her actions. Nadia was clearly ashamed of Jesus’ and Jesus’ words of welcoming all people, even the one’s you don’t like. So of course Jesus was ashamed of her. Geez, Nadia, you’re a pastor in my church and this is how you treat my people?

And if we can be honest with ourselves, of course Jesus is embarrassed by some of our actions too. I don’t have to protect you from the truth of that. You probably already know it.

But too often what we don’t know or what we forget…is that the story doesn’t end with Jesus being ashamed of you. The story ends with Jesus redeeming you and making all things new.

The story didn’t end with Jesus being ashamed of Nadia. Nadia knew this when she confessed this sin to her friend, who then proclaimed God’s forgiveness upon her.

In our gospel reading, remember how Jesus said that he must undergo suffering and rejection and death? And how Peter rebuked him because he didn’t want a god who would suffer and die, but Jesus rebuked him back and called him Satan? Well, I imagine that Jesus was a little ashamed of Peter in that moment. His closest disciple, who still doesn’t get it.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus being ashamed of Peter. Just two verses after our gospel reading, it says this:

Six days later, Jesus took with him… Peter… and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them.

Jesus rebuked Peter, called him Satan, was likely ashamed by his actions, but the story doesn’t end with Jesus being ashamed of Peter. Jesus did not abandon him. But rather Jesus chose him to come alongside him as a witness to Jesus’ transfiguration.

We all have and will do things that Jesus is ashamed of. But the story doesn’t end there. The story ends with Jesus redeeming you and making all things new. Because as Nadia says, “there is nothing we have done that God cannot redeem.”[3] Nothing.

This past week, a pastor took his own life because his name was leaked and linked with the Ashley Madison cheating website. If only he could have known in a real, real way that the shame isn’t where the story ends with Jesus.

I’m not sure how you deny Jesus in your every day life. I’m not sure of the thing that Jesus might be ashamed of in your life. But you do. And today, Jesus calls us to give that life away. To lose it. To give up those things that we are ashamed of so that Jesus can take them, and give us something new in return. Which is exactly what our sacrament of Communion is for. For you to come forward with that which weighs on you and burdens, and you can just leave it up here. And in its place, receive the body and blood of Christ that is given for you, to take into your body, and make you new again.

May that promise give us the courage to trust that God’s love for us is strong and built on a rock and not easily shattered. Amen.

[1] http://www.xojane.com/family/first-time-daughter-i-hate-you

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints, pg. 15.

[3] Ibid., pg. 18.