Saturday, September 22, 2012

What if?

I am indebted to the writing of D. Mark Davis, Amy Oden (Gospel tab), Alyce McKenzie,and Delmer Chilton for their ideas and sermon paths.

Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 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." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

At this point in the Gospel, Jesus had gone with Peter, James and John on a mountaintop and had been transfigured before them. He had cast a demon from a child – mind you, the other disciples had not only tried to do this and failed, they’d gotten into a loud and bitter argument with some scribes over the matter to boot.

The point is that the disciples, either in smaller or larger groups, had seen plenty of who Jesus was and is, had heard him answer hard questions countless times, and this is by no means the first time he has told them in detail, about what awaits him at the end of this road: betrayal, suffering, death, and ultimately, resurrection.

But what they are hearing clashes with what they think they know. The Messiah is supposed to come in glory and crush his enemies, not be given over into their hands and killed! It is as if Jesus is suddenly speaking in another language, or stringing together words in a nonsense fashion. It isn’t connecting.

But they’re afraid to ask. No one wants to pipe up, no one wants to look stupid. After all, they’re The Twelve, right? They’re the big dogs, the inner circle, they’re supposed to have all of this figured out. They have a reputation to uphold.

Or maybe they remember the dressing-down Peter got when he took Jesus aside… forgetting, of course, that Peter hadn’t been asking anything, he’d been attempting to correct Jesus’ misconceptions about himself. And maybe they are frightened of the answer, fearing that the man they’d abandoned their former lives to follow was, in fact, not who they thought him to be. Perhaps what terrified them was that Jesus was who they thought him to be, and to have that confirmed once and for all was an overwhelming thought.

I wonder… what if they hadn’t been afraid? What if someone – Peter or James or John, maybe, who had seen him glorified and shining like the sun, or even Thomas, who had a quiet determination to follow no matter what, or Nathaniel, who doesn’t get very many good lines in the Gospel narrative – what if one of them had asked?

What would they have asked?

“Look, Jesus, all this death-and-resurrection talk doesn’t square with what we’ve been taught. Explain to us how God can die.”

“How will you come in your glory if you are humiliated on a cross, Jesus?”

“Jesus, we expect you to save us from the Romans. How is all of this really going to help us where we really need help?”

“Um, Jesus, ‘rise again?’ What does that mean, exactly?”

Whatever form it takes, the question that the disciples are afraid to ask is the question that propelled so many early Christian attempts to construct a logical, intelligible, and horribly misguided, theology of who Christ is. Maybe Jesus didn’t really suffer and die (that’s called Docetism). Maybe only the human part of Jesus suffered, and the divine part was untouched (that’s called Gnosticism). Early Christians struggled almost endlessly with this question: what sort of deity lets himself get pushed into a corner like that, and does it on purpose? The early Christians needed an almighty God who conquers enemies, not one who suffers and dies.

If only the disciples had asked, we could have known the answers to the basic questions of who Jesus is, and of the nature of God. Perhaps then the church could have avoided millennia of heresies, conflicts, schisms, and bloodshed.

Or maybe the church would have found other reasons to have heresies, conflicts, schisms and bloodshed.

We are human, after all, and like the disciples, we have our own questions we are afraid to ask. No one wants to look uninformed, confused, or clueless. We withhold our toughest questions, within ourselves, within own churches, and within Christian fellowship. We pretend we don't have hard questions. Yet, if we are honest, the deepest mysteries of life elude us. Why do good people suffer? Why are humans so brutal to one another? Why does evil succeed? If God's own Son is betrayed and killed, then is anyone safe? Why did God set up a world like this?

The disciples didn’t ask. They avoided the hard question, and instead – or, perhaps, as an unavoidable result of avoiding the hard question – started bickering over who was the greatest: who the head disciple was, who was going to occupy the throne closest to Jesus, and on and on.

And in response to all of this – yes, all of the arguing, but I wonder if it was also in response to their lack of comprehension, and fear of asking the hard questions? In any case, Jesus sits them down in a circle and puts a child right there in the middle of them.

A child.

What is it about a child here? I’ve read plenty of sermons about the importance of childlike faith, about how I should focus on my inward life, on becoming more pure, more innocent, more humble, more spontaneous, more trusting. More childlike in my faith.

And there is no question that, in other portions of the Gospel narrative, we as Christians are told that we must become like little children. That childlike faith is important.

But that childlike faith isn’t the point here.

You see, the disciples were arguing over who was the greatest specifically because they viewed “greatness” in exactly the same way every human does.

In order to win, you see, someone has to lose. In order to lead, someone has to follow. One is only greater if another is lesser. Our culture, our politics, our advertising, and, all too often, even popular Christian theology is predicated upon seeing one’s self as better than another. It is a common language, perfectly acceptable in polite society.

And in that one profound act, putting that child (probably a toddler) in the circle of disciples, and then embracing that child, Jesus is telling us one simple fact: We have it all wrong.

Let me tell you about the value of children in ancient society: In Rome, when a baby was born it was laid at the feet of its father. If the father picked the child up, it lived. If the father ignored it, it was taken out of the house and left to die.

Now, Jewish culture was not that harsh, and more value was given to children. A father was bound by Law and tradition to teach the firstborn the Torah, teach him a trade, and get a wife for him. But there was no provision for female children, and nothing stopping that father from offering his children for sale as slaves if times got tough, and it did happen, because when you got right down to it, children, like women, were property. And outside of the family structure, children were pretty much invisible.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Servant even of those who have no power, no position, no ability to help you get ahead in your life or career or ambitions. Servant even of those who cannot pay you back. Servant even to the invisible.

It is too easy to end this sermon talking about the invisible people in our society. We all know who they are: the homeless, the alien, the poor, the disenfranchised, those without equal civil rights, those who society as a whole treats as invisible. Obviously, at least in my eyes, we have a clear and compelling duty as followers of Christ to reach out to these individuals and groups and classes, to serve them as Christ served them.

It is much harder to end with a question: a question to all of us, yes, but especially to myself: who is invisible to me? Do I dare ask the hard question, in prayer, to have my eyes opened to the person, or people, I don’t see? To have my heart opened to the people I never notice?

How would history have changed for all of Christianity if the disciples had asked the questions, there on that road through Galilee, that they were afraid to ask?

And what if you and I had the courage to ask the questions we are afraid to ask… and what if we opened our eyes, and hearts, and lives, to the invisible people around us?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Crossroads...

I am deeply indebted to the writings of D. Mark Davis and Matt Skinner, who I quote in the body of the sermon. And yes, I know the hymn I quote in here is the title of a sermon from March. It's OK. I like the hymn.

Mark 8:27-38
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?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
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 Word of the Lord.

Jesus and his disciples are at a crossroads. No, I’m not speaking of the dusty road there in Caesarea Philippi, in the far reaches of the Judean province.

What we are eavesdropping on isn’t idle conversation between fellow travelers, you see. Through translation and millennia of cultural shifts, we’ve lost the passion, intensity and conflict swirling around that ragtag band of disciples kicking up the dust as they walked with Jesus that day.

Perhaps it starts mildly enough. Jesus asks his disciples what they’ve heard people saying about him – what identity are they giving him? The answers are safe and sensible enough. Much of what Jesus has said and done – calls to repentance, healings, meals served in the wilderness – readily calls to mind John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets.

It’s only when Jesus brings the question closer to home that things get really interesting - “But who do you say that I am?”

We’ve talked before about how the Jewish people in the first century were hoping for, praying for, seeking a Messiah, a Christ. And while today you and I readily identify Jesus of Nazareth as that long-awaited Messiah, Jesus hasn’t done anything that would look remotely like a Messiah to the people of his day. Jesus was a healer, a prophet, and someone who could do might signs and wonders, yes, but the expectation for the Messiah was that he would come to purify society, reestablish Israel's supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness.

So when Peter answers Jesus’ question, it’s not a declaration of what he, and the other disciples have seen, but of what they expect… and they’ve got it all wrong.

One of the commentators I read this week in preparation for this sermon suggests that the translators of the New Testament got it wrong, too, when they characterized Jesus’ response. Our reading says that Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

Funny thing is, in the original Greek, the word for “sternly ordered” is the same one for when Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him… so perhaps what Jesus did there was (and I am using Rev. Mark Davis’ translation of the Greed here) “rebuked them in order that they would say nothing about him.”

So if that’s so, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to keep who he really was (and is) a secret, but that he wanted to stop them from spreading wrong information! It isn’t that Jesus is not the Messiah, the Christ, it’s that how they define what those words mean is dangerously wrong!

And here is the crossroads I am talking about. The disciples are expecting a glorious earthly kingdom, a re-established and even more powerful Israel, the beacon of righteousness and Godly purity on earth, farther-reaching and even more powerful than the Roman Empire, which of course would cease to exist when the throne of David was restored with Jesus on it

But the road that Jesus walks goes in a different direction – straight to Jerusalem, and straight to a cross.

Jesus and Peter are on different roads, going different directions. In this sense, Peter and the others are not really followers of Jesus, not yet. They are followers of their own fantasies – fantasies of justice, peace, and the glory of God, to be sure, but when balanced against the hard reality of Jesus’ path – where the Kingdom is gained not through conquest and subjugation, but through the obedience and suffering and the death of its very King.

That’s why Peter argues – rebukes – Jesus, because in Peter’s eyes, Jesus has it all wrong, and the idea that a triumphant, conquering king, someone destined to sit on David’s throne, would do something as vile and embarrassing and permanent as dying on a cross was ludicrous! Dude, get your facts straight! You’re gonna be King, man, you’re gonna re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, baby, Israel 2.0, bigger better and badder than anything ever!

Peter’s road is attractive, even to Jesus – that is why Jesus calls him Satan, because wasn’t that one of the temptations Jesus endured in the wilderness? Matthew four, eight through ten: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.All this I will give you’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’

“Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’

Peter’s road is attractive, bright and shiny, but that’s just glitter. It rubs off, and the road leads nowhere. Peter’s road, as glorious as it seems, is one where the self is ultimately glorified: that throne of David, with Jesus on it, has just slightly smaller thrones right next to it, you see… that’s why so many times in the Gospels we see the disciples locked in arguments over who will be the greatest in that coming kingdom, because proximity is power, and to the self, things like power and influence, along with safety and comfort, are of supreme importance. So yes, Jesus can be king, but he better make doggone sure that I am right there next to him to advise him, y’see. I can be the assistant king… yeah, I like that.

But earthly thrones, no matter who establishes them, no matter how large an empire they rest upon, eventually topple and are replaced, because unlike things like love and grace, power is a commodity, and there’s only so much of it to go around… and there is always someone else wanting it. The Roman Empire fell, just so many empires and kingdoms before it and since.
Peter’s road leads nowhere.

It is Jesus, not Peter, which the disciples – and we – must follow. The formula sounds very simple, especially when taken out of its context. We hear it all the time: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Taken out of the fullness of its context, denial of self is nothing more than another way to walk Peter’s road: self-glorification. People can do this kind of denying themselves even without Jesus, and we do it all the time: deciding to forego an enjoyable meal or a new shirt in order to put some money in savings, diet and exercise… even at extremes like vows of poverty, one doesn’t necessarily need God in order to have very good reasons to do them, you see? And even if Peter’s road has a concept of Godliness at the end, it is a Godliness achieved with no actual help or direction from God; rather it is a godliness we attain under our own power.

The denial of self that Jesus speaks of is deeper – it extends well beyond mere self-discipline. Quoting Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary here, “…[I]ndeed, it calls every would-be follower no longer to live on one’s own behalf and to forsake that which would promise security for oneself… [T]he self-denial that Jesus proclaims involves the renunciation of any obligation to oneself. In Eduard Schweizer’s words, “It indicates a freedom in which one no longer wills to recognize his own ‘I.’… A life of self-denial transcends merely advertising one’s posture as an obnoxious boast. More profoundly, one who follows Jesus continually enacts self-denial through living without regard for the security and priorities that people naturally cling to and that our society actively promotes as paramount. This enactment is not a matter of private piety but of public testimony, for the refusal of a certain way of living directly impinges upon one’s political identity and possibilities.

The denial of self, the taking up of the cross – our own cross, and to the first-century person who heard or read these words, there was no confusion about what that meant – well, were it not for the call to follow Jesus, we would be talking about nothing less than self-annihilation.

But we are called to follow Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that, in this and subsequent passages, as Jesus reveals more about who he is, he at the same time describes what it means to participate with him?

Do you want to know who Jesus is? Follow him. Remember, it’s a way that is open to anyone. What’s the proper response to the truth that Jesus is God’s Anointed? Following him. And remember that we do not follow Jesus by ourselves. Part and parcel of the self-denial that Jesus calls for means that we are defined by our community, the Body of Christ, the now-and-coming Kingdom of Heaven.

Peter’s road is beautiful, but Peter’s road leads nowhere.

Jesus’ road is the Way of the Cross… but, to quote the old hymn, the Way of the Cross leads home.