Sunday, March 4, 2012

Whose values?

Thanks this week to the writing of Marilyn Salmon, who pointed out the values clash in this week's Gospel reading. The closing prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. 

You know, Christianity is meant to be the solution. Too often, I think, we've made ourselves the problem. Either this needs to change... or we need to change our name.

Audio of the sermon:

Check this out on Chirbit

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Romans 4:13-25
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38
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.”

This is the World of the Lord.

Simon Peter’s head was reeling. There they were, traveling as usual, right now between villages in the region of Caesarea Phillipi when, out of the blue, Jesus had asked them what folks were saying about him. “Who do people say I am?”

They had covered the usual stuff, John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. They heard it all the time. But Peter’s heart began to race when Jesus asked them, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

He knew the answer. They all did; the word had been whispered between them countless times. They’d all heard his words, seen his miracles… Peter took a deep breath and dove in: “You are the Messiah.”

And when Jesus didn’t deny it, didn’t correct Peter’s statement, but told them all to keep quiet about it, Peter knew that the cat was out of the bag. At last, it was time to get things moving! Surely now, they’d start making plans for the overthrow of the Roman government, the purging of the idolaters from the Promised Land, setting the priesthood back where it should be, out of the hands of the collaborators and the power-hungry, and get Jesus where he was supposed to be, on the eternal Throne of David.

The amount of work ahead of them was staggering. With Jubilee already declared, there was the business of getting landholdings back into the right families, cancelling debts, maybe some program to bring back Jewish folks who were living in other parts of the Empire…

Instead, Jesus started talking about suffering and rejection. Instead of planning to set the elders, priests and scribes right, Jesus instead said these priests and elders and scribes would refuse him, kill him, and as far as Peter was concerned, the fact that he’d rise from the dead three days later was frankly beside the point!

Nobody had ever accused Peter of being the smartest man they’d ever met, but it didn’t take King Solomon to see that defeat and death was the way kingdoms were destroyed, not established. The crowds knew it too, Peter thought. They were getting understandably restless; no one liked all this negative talk. People wanted to side with winners, not losers, especially when losing meant getting nailed to a cross!

Well, since Peter had been the one to say the word “Messiah,” he guessed it was up to him to take Jesus aside and give him a quick lesson in marketing. I imagine it sounded something like this:

“Hey, Jesus, got a minute? Can I talk to you for a minute over here? Thanks. Hey, listen, um, me and the boys been talking, you know, and what with you being the Messiah and all, well, you know, you’ve got a reputation you gotta live up to, see, and, um, like, an image thing, right? And anyway, all this getting rejected and killed stuff, man, it’s, like, never going to work. How are we going to get enough people behind us to do this thing if all you ever talk about is defeat, man? We need to be planning our victory, you know? Just, you know, lighten up some, anyway, OK?”

It all made perfect sense to Peter, and from the relief he could see in the other disciples’ faces, he could tell it was the right move.

But Jesus had other ideas.

When we hear Jesus saying things like “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” and “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,” I wonder – how easily do we miss the naked, crushing gravity of what’s being said? It’s a spiritual truth played out in a spoken paradox, yes, but can we see, in this day and age, the utter outrageousness of what Jesus is saying?

I know we Christians talk a lot about “dying to self.” Lofty words, and it’s a phrase that gets preached on a lot, but as Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride,” “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Often, for today’s Christians, at least here in the West, the idea of “dying to self” means choosing not to listen to a particular kind of music or watch a particular television show. It means making moral choices in who we vote for, and perhaps in the kinds of friends we have. Perhaps it means giving up M&Ms for Lent. We often will say, of any hardship, real or imagined, that “it’s our cross to bear,” which isn’t what Jesus was talking about at all. But then, the cross itself has lost the meaning it had for Jesus and his contemporaries, hasn’t it? In our culture, crosses are jewelry, wall decorations. Crucifixes have become artistic expressions.

But in the first-century Roman province of Judea, the cross meant something quite different.

The cross was a reminder that whatever measure of freedom you felt you possessed was a lie. The cross symbolized the absolute power of foreign men in togas over your every thought, your every action. The cross meant that what you owned was not yours if the foreign men in the togas decided it was not. The cross was the ultimate terror, and the idea of “taking up your cross” made even the strongest quake in fear.

For all of their faults, you see, the Roman Empire was very good at many things, among them making war and (for a while, at least) keeping the conquered, conquered. One of their tools for accomplishing the latter was to instill mortal fear in the populace by developing, over the centuries, the single most inhuman, barbaric, monstrous, sadistic, vulgar form of torture and death ever conceived: the cross.

It is to this – the utter surrender, the conscious abdication and active destruction of human values in favor of God’s values – that Jesus was called, and that Jesus in turned called the crowd, the disciples, and each of us.

Think of it. In that light, when Jesus talks about losing your life to find it, he’s not talking about an allegorical death.

As much as I make light of how we view taking up your cross, dying to self, and wearing crucifixes as jewelry these days, we have an advantage that those first-century crowds, those faithful disciples did not have.

Because of Jesus Christ, we see the cross not as the end of the story, not as the death of hope and the destruction of freedom and the symbol of the absolute power of earthly kings over their subjects, but as the ultimate symbol of the triumph of hope, of the power of life, of the pervasiveness true freedom, of God’s bountiful and boundless love, of the eternal truth of the resurrection.

In the cross we know, we know that God is for us.

The Gospels make a point to tell us that, even though Jesus spoke about his death and resurrection repeatedly, the disciples never understood. They never got it. And from this side of the cross, it’s easy for us to smirk at them for being thick-headed, for not seeing the obvious outcome, for not comprehending everything that their Lord was telling them.

I want to suggest to you this morning that we should not laugh at those “poor, dumb” disciples. Rather, we should be in awe of them. Imagine listening to Jesus that day, and not knowing that in him the cross would become a symbol of ultimate, eternal victory. Imagine hearing those words and feeling your guts burn in fear at the thought of such a lingering, torturous death. Imagine listening to Jesus and seeing only the ultimate triumph of those brutish foreigners with their togas and their legions.

And imagine continuing to follow Jesus anyway.

Despite their lack of understanding, in direct opposition to their continuing need to know what was in it for them, and the continuous assurance that their return on investment for giving up everything they had and knew to follow Christ would be persecution, torture and death, these disciples, almost to a man, continued to follow Jesus.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In the Epistle to the Colossians, Paul wrote, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Do we really believe that today?

Christians today are identified more by the people and the things they hate than by the thing that Jesus himself said we would be known by: our love. More and more people who follow the risen Savior of all creation have to say, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not like that,” because Christianity has come to be identified not as a group of individuals united by a common belief in an eternal and loving Savior, but as a political party with certain intransigent standards, often angrily – and sometimes violently – promoted within the status quo, the existing cultural structure. Far too many Christians practice, consciously or unconsciously, Dominionism, seeking influence or control over secular civil government through political action, with the express goal of either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed exclusively by a particular interpretation of Biblical law.

The clear problem with such a view is that it is founded on human values – who has the power, who wields ultimate authority, who is in control.

By contrast, Jesus repeatedly rejected the idea of establishing any kind of earthly empire, in favor of an eternal Kingdom of God. This Kingdom flies in the face of what we are used to. Rather than power being the reward for aggression or consensus-building, the most powerful in the Kingdom of God are the least. The mark of citizenship in God’s Kingdom is first, foremost, and exclusively love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Jesus represents God's values, best summed up by the willingness to risk one's own life for the sake of others. Jesus does not encourage suffering for the sake of suffering, nor does he recommend acceptance of forced servitude. When Jesus talks about saving your life by losing it, he specifies losing it for the cause of Christ and “for the sake of the gospel” and in this Jesus is the exemplary model. Jesus invites his disciples, and us, to follow his example, to be willing to risk our lives for the sake of others.

With all of this in mind, the challenge facing Christianity today is this: can we take back our name? Can Christians become known not for who and what we hate, who we oppress and marginalize, what political team we root for… but for our unconditional, Christlike, ebullient and egregious love? Can we shift the paradigm from a quest for dominion to a quest for relationship? Can we lay down our lives to the point that what we own and where we live, what we drive and who our friends are, are less important than who and how we help, the ways we strive to offer support, the lengths we will go to in order to provide encouragement, how quickly we bring relief, how deeply we personify love?

In the earliest days of the Church, believers earned the name “Christian” from those outside the faith, who intended to make fun of them for running around, acting like “little Christs.” That’s what that word, “Christian,” means. “Little Christ.”

My prayer is that we who follow Christ find a way to earn that name again.

Let us pray.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

No comments:

Post a Comment