“Who do you say that I am?” + A Sermon about Who Jesus Is and Who We Are Called to Be

Standard

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale
16 September 2018 + Lectionary 24B (Pentecost 17)
Mark 8.27-38


“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”

For as long as the Christian church has been in existence, questions about the identity of Jesus have enticed the minds of historians and theologians. Even artists have taken up this debate, each offering their own distinct visual representation of Jesus. While of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, some of their representations are certainly closer to the truth than others.

It’s fair to say, too, that for as diverse as the visual answers to this question are, the theological ones are just as vast and varied. Turn on the TV to certain megachurch pastors, and the Jesus you’ll hear about often sounds more like a self-help book or a magic, wish-granting genie. Still other depictions of Jesus by the Christian Right and Left would seek to align him with one political party or another, with all the implications that entails.

So what about the Bible? Surely that will give us a more definitive answer to this question. So we might think — and yet we have four gospels with four very different portrayals of Jesus, plus the twenty-three additional books of the New Testament that each offer their own unique insights about this radical, first-century, itinerant Jewish rabbi-carpenter.

Maybe we just have to face the fact that there is no one simple answer. After all, even today’s gospel reading itself offers four different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, or the Messiah. And just as easily as Jesus poses the question, he moves even more quickly to shut down the conversation, sternly ordering his disciples to tell no one about him. Technically, Jesus never really even confirms or denies Peter’s answer.

“Who do you say that I am?” Maybe another way of posing the question, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis suggests, is this: “Who will you say that you are?” Indeed, Jesus’s identity is very much wrapped up in our own identity as followers of Jesus. Try as artists and theologians and historians might, we can never fully know what Jesus actually looked like or said or did. Sure, we have the witness of the four gospels and the other New Testament writings, and that paints a pretty good picture — but evidently not clear enough, for indeed, interpretations throughout centuries of Christian belief and practice have given way to innumerable divisions and denominations within the church.

Lewis continues: “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.” Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who we are, who we have decided to be, what we have decided to believe is who we claim Jesus to be, superimposing our own beliefs, for better or worse, on Jesus.

This is a dangerous game that has led to the church’s often exclusionary and harmful attitudes toward marginalized communities throughout the years. When the church answers Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” out of its own self-interests, it has historically resulted in some pretty convincing, albeit misguided, “biblical” arguments in support of slavery and segregation, against the leadership of women in our pulpits, and opposing the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, says it this way, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We can safely assume we’ve made Jesus into who we say Jesus is when suddenly he doesn’t seem all that different from us.

With that in mind, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is less a confession of faith or giving the right answer and more revealing of what Peter wants Jesus to be. Following the popular Jewish thought of his time, Peter yearned for a Messiah, a specially anointed king from the royal line of David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most respected king. Descended from David, this new king was expected to powerfully vanquish Israel’s oppressors, to free Israel from the occupation and foreign rule of the Roman Empire, and to restore Israel’s status as an independent and divinely chosen people.

But that’s far from the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and he sternly rebukes Peter, even calling out Peter’s proposal as satanic and evil. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but it certainly gets the point across.

The role of the Messiah that Jesus has in mind is much different. The Messiah that Jesus claims to be is a Messiah who takes up his cross, who undergoes great suffering, rejection, even death. This is Jesus’s answer to his own question. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the Messiah who suffers and gives up his life for the sake of others, who manifests God’s great love for God’s creation by offering his very self for our life.

This is also the answer to the flip side of the original question that Karoline Lewis poses: “Who will you say that you are?” ELCA pastor Elisabeth Johnson, who serves as a missionary in Cameroon, offers these words:

“Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.”

This passage is an invitation to discipleship, to following Jesus — but it doesn’t promise that the life of following Jesus will be easy or without challenges.

In the years before 2009, before the ELCA officially began ordaining and consecrating openly LGBTQ pastors and deacons, many Lutheran clergy who did not identify as straight either served closeted, withholding their identity from those with the power to defrock them, or were barred from serving entirely.

A few, however, chose to serve the church openly, at great risk. As an act of holy disobedience, the first three openly gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA — Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson — were ordained “extraordinarily” (outside the bounds of official church polity) in 1990, which promptly led the removal of the congregations that had called them from membership in the ELCA. In the years that followed, more and more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pastors and deacons were ordained and consecrated extraordinarily, served their congregations and ministry settings openly, and faced similar consequences — until the church finally started to catch up.

These early instigators of a movement toward full inclusion knew this life of discipleship well. They knew what it meant to take up their cross, to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, following the example of a Messiah who constantly reached out to the margins, toppling walls meant to keep “those people” out, and subverting boundaries every step of the way. These faithful instigators of the church knew what it meant to put Jesus’s priorities and the mission of the gospel ahead of even their own safety and the comfort and status quo of the institutional church.

“Who do you say that I am?” If we profess the church to be the body of Christ, we need look no further than these early instigators and other faithful witnesses to the gospel of radical inclusivity and love and justice for all people. These are the body of Christ. These are the answer to who Jesus is because these are the followers of Jesus.

Following in their witness, following in the witness of Jesus, this is our invitation. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who will you say that you are?


Image Description: Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson join hands in prayer and blessing on the occasion of their “extraordinary” ordinations in 1990. (Credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

Advertisements

A Sermon about Rest

Standard

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
22 July 2018 + Lectionary 16B (Pentecost 9)
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56


What gives you rest?

Maybe it’s listening to your favorite radio station or podcast on your way home from work. Or coming home to a home-cooked meal (or having a pizza delivered!) and unwinding after a stressful or busy day. Or going for a run or long walk to take a deep breath of fresh air and gather your thoughts.

What gives you rest?

Whatever it is, we know: Rest is important.

Rest for our bodies is important.
Rest for our spirits is important.
Rest is important.

Jesus recognizes that.

So much has happened these past few weeks in Mark’s gospel. It’s been a turbulent, restless time for the disciples and for Jesus. Jesus’s teaching and healing have become wildly popular. People have been tracking him down and closing in on him from every side — physically. On his way to one place to visit a young girl near the point of death, we heard the story of a woman who approaches Jesus from behind, seemingly out of nowhere, to touch the fringe of his clothes in a desperate attempt to be healed.

From other stories these past few weeks, we also know that not all attention is good attention, either. Jesus’s family has already tried to restrain him, his religious community has accused him of being possessed by a demon, and he was even outright rejected in his hometown. All the while, Jesus commissions his disciples and gives them the authority to teach and heal and cast out demons — but he is also clear that they, too, will be rejected.

And then, last week, in a dramatic unfolding of events, Mark reports the gruesome and sudden death of John the Baptist, whose own message and ministry served as the forerunner to Jesus. Is Jesus next? Are we next? we might imagine the disciples asking.

These have been turbulent, restless times.

Now the apostles are gathered around Jesus, and they tell him all that they have been doing and teaching. Caught up in the excitement and commotion and busyness of everything, I imagine a cacophony of voices around Jesus, each one telling stories to everyone else. And in the midst of that, all of sudden, quiet: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

These are welcome words of rest in the midst of turbulent, restless times.

Rest is important, and Jesus recognizes that. For himself and for his friends.

Their work is important, to be sure — healing and proclaiming liberation and casting out the demons of injustice — but they’re no good to anybody, least of all themselves, if they get burned out and neglect to take care of themselves, physically and spiritually.

These past several weeks, I’ve been working at the ELCA Churchwide offices, coordinating a number of summer events. Just this past week, I emerged from the thick of one of orientation event, even as I was busy preparing for the next conference this coming week. With so many details to remember, materials to prepare, and emails to write, it wasn’t difficult to lose myself in a whirlwind of busyness — forgetting to tend to my own needs to rest and recharge, to eat, to have a cup of coffee, to have a conversation about not work with a colleague or a friend, to attend the Churchwide midweek chapel service, to breathe.

I suspect more than a few of you can relate. There is always so much, too much, to do. Never-ending emails and reports for work. An endless cycle of cleaning and housework when we know full well it’s just going to need to be done all over again soon enough. The anxiety of congregational life and programming, obsessing over every last detail before the events and programs we plan ever actually happen (maybe those of you who planned and helped with VBS this past week can relate?).

It’s in these moments we hear Jesus’s welcome words of promise: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.

Get up from your desk and take a walk. The work will still be there when you get back.

Sit down on the couch and have a glass of water. The dusting and dishes can wait a few more minutes.

Take a deep breath and dwell in God’s presence around this table, at this meal, today, right here, right now, in this moment.

Rest is important. Rest for our bodies. Rest for our spirits.

Taking time for rest does not mean that we are ignoring the work that needs to be done, and taking time to care for our bodies and our spirits does not mean that we have failed. Just the opposite: It means we are ensuring the care of ourselves, our very bodies that God has made and called very good, to make sure that we can keep doing the work of the gospel.

Rest for our spirits is important. The great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who himself never seemed to stop either, knew this when he included a stipulation for his co-workers in the cause of nonviolent resistance to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.”

Rest for our bodies is important. Jesus knew this too when he pulled his disciples aside at a time when they had had no time even to eat a meal.

Rest is important.

Take time for rest. You can start today, even here, at this table. Take, eat, drink, rest.

A Sermon about Healing, Subverting Boundaries, and the Promise of Restoration to Community

Standard

Edgebrook Lutheran Church, Chicago
1 July 2018 + Lectionary 13B (Pentecost 6)
Mark 5.21-43


“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” Those are, of course, Judy Garland’s, aka Dorothy Gale’s, famous words from The Wizard of Oz as she takes her first steps in Munchkinland. Those words have also become somewhat of a rallying cry for anyone who finds themselves all of a sudden in a strange and different place.

“I have a feeling we’re not in seminary anymore…” I’d like to imagine I said to myself, as I walked the halls of the Cleveland Clinic during one of my first overnight shifts as an intern hospital chaplain in between my first and second years of seminary. Suddenly, this was real life ministry. Suddenly, this whole being a pastor thing wasn’t some far-off idea I only read and studied and talked about in classes. Suddenly, I was doing it.

During my summer internship as a chaplain, it was not an infrequent occurrence to be on my way to one call to visit a patient when another page to visit someone else would come in. In a way, you might say I could relate a bit to Jesus in our gospel reading today, being on his way to see Jairus’s daughter on her death-bed, already stressful enough, as this other woman comes up to him suddenly, and all of this in the midst of a tremendous crowd that just won’t leave him alone. It’s like the chaplain’s pager just won’t stop beeping.

“Jesus, I have a feeling we’re not in the parables anymore…” Suddenly, this is real life in Jesus’s ministry — not some theoretical parable or abstract teaching, but an actual story with actual people with actual needs for healing — all pressing in on him at the same time. No wonder the disciples respond to him sarcastically: “Who touched you?! You’ve got to be kidding us! Literally everyone! Literally everyone wants in on this healing thing you’ve got going on, that you can’t even get to one person without another coming after you.”

Suddenly, we’re not in the “safe” world of parables and stories anymore — the “safe” world of abstract concepts and textbooks and seminary classroom and bible study discussions. These are real people, coming to Jesus with real problems, real brokenness, real needs for healing.

It’s easy to fall into the dangerous trap, when talking about healing stories in the gospels, of putting our focus on the physical healing. A trap because it’s not really the point, dangerous because it only leads us to question why healings like that don’t seem to happen anymore.

In this pair of healing stories, the emphasis is much more on what the healings mean. Jairus is deeply grieved over the very real possibility of losing his daughter, being separated from his family. The hemorrhaging woman is exasperated, having exhausted every attempt for medical treatment for a condition that has left her as an outcast, cut off from her own community. When Jesus offers healing to them, he restores them to community. That’s what healing in the gospel is all about: restoration to community.

Healing restores people to community.
Healing brings wholeness to a woman plagued with an alienating, debilitating illness.
Healing brings a little girl back to her family.
Healing brings life where life seems to have died.
Healing brings wholeness where there is brokenness.
Healing brings restoration to community.

Where life seems to have died… where there is brokenness… where there is community in need of restoration…

Healing on these terms is desperately needed if we just look around at our world:

An immigration policy that separates children from their parents.
An executive order that claims to stop family separation but only ensures that parents as well as their children can be detained indefinitely. (Oh, but it’s okay, at least they’re together, right?)
A Supreme Court decision that allows for our country to deny entry to people simply because of their religion.

We desperately need this life-giving, wholeness-seeking, community-restoring healing.

This is the healing that Jesus offers in the gospel. And just as important is where this healing happens. Time and again, Jesus stands on the cusp of boundaries. After the stormy sea adventure last week, Jesus crosses over into the land of the Gerasenes to heal a man possessed by demons. In our reading today, Jesus crosses back over to the other side of the lake. And on his way to one family, another woman approaches him in the in-between place from starting point to destination. Crossing over, on the way, in the midst of the journey — Jesus is perpetually found at these boundary places.

Boundaries, or borders, we might say, keep some people out and other people in. There’s a certain security about borders, an alluring sense of protection, but at what cost?

Borders separate.
Borders divide.
Borders exclude.
Borders alienate.

But Jesus chooses to subvert borders and boundaries. He crosses over to one side of the lake and back again. He doesn’t let one healing get in the way of another. Instead of letting borders and boundaries have the final say, Jesus stands in the midst of them and offers healing that unites, that restores community, that promotes inclusion.

One of my favorite religious icons shows Jesus as an immigrant, his hands holding on to a barbed wire fence. It’s a powerful image that promises Jesus’s presence with those who suffer, those who are separated from their loved ones by borders and boundaries of all kinds, those who are in need of community-restoring healing. But the most intriguing part of this image is the unknown: We don’t really know what side of the border Jesus is standing on. And that’s exactly how Jesus subverts boundaries, by dwelling in the midst of them, offering healing and wholeness and restoration to community, revealing the absurdity and insecurity of the ways we divide ourselves from each other.

In the midst of life drained of itself, in the midst of irreparable brokenness, in the midst of isolation and severed community, Jesus stands at the boundaries, and reaches across with healing, with wholeness, with life abundant, with the promise of community.

A Sermon about Casting Out Demons: Lectionary 10 / Pentecost 3

Standard

Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
10 June 2018 + Lectionary 10B (Pentecost 3)
Mark 3.20-35


Well, that escalated quickly. In one moment, Jesus and his disciples are about to sit down for a quiet meal at home. And then, all of a sudden, Jesus is confronted by an angry mob, made up of the religious scribes and his own family. He’s gone out of his mind! He’s possessed by a demon!

How did we get here? What happened, only three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark, to elicit such a strong reaction against him? When his family heard it… heard what? Maybe it’s helpful to back up a bit…

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’s disciples plucking grain to eat and Jesus himself healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath — actions that lead to a debate about what Sabbath is all about and, ultimately, to the beginning of the conspiracy to have Jesus destroyed. Then, Jesus retreats with his disciples, with a great multitude in tow, and Jesus continues to preach and teach, to cure and heal, to cast out demons and drive out unclean spirits. So overwhelmed by the response and all the people coming to him, Jesus starts recruiting followers, twelve of them to be exact, whom he appoints to proclaim the message of good news and continue the work of casting out demons that he began.

And then he comes home, to sit down and have a little rest and something to eat, which brings us to our passage at hand. When his family heard it… When his family heard about everything Jesus was doing — announcing the dawn of the reign of God, proclaiming the message of good news and liberation, casting out demons and driving out evil forces — they went out to restrain him…

“While confined here in the Birmingham city jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. begins his letter to his fellow clergy colleagues, “I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’” In the hard-fought struggle against segregation, the response among many in the church, and mostly the white church, if we’re being honest, was one of hesitancy: Wait! they said. It was to those who tried to restrain King and other civil rights leaders, who thought it was all too much, too quickly, whose words and actions (or lack thereof) suggested that those fighting injustice had gone out of their minds, it is to these people that King responds: Waiting doesn’t work because waiting almost always means never. Because freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.

Wait! those who try to restrain Jesus tell him. It’s too much, too quickly. Sure, there are people who are hungry, who are suffering, who are sick, who are possessed by demons, and someone should do something about that, eventually. But not now. It’s causing too much of a scene. Wait…

Speaking of demons: Mark seems to be a bit obsessed with them. Jesus gains popularity by casting out demons; his disciples have the authority to cast out demons themselves; and the scribes are convinced that Jesus himself is possessed by a demon. What are we supposed to make of that? Demons, in the supernatural sense, can seem like a foreign concept to our supposedly sophisticated, 21st-century minds, though it is also true that many of our Christian siblings around the globe even today are convinced of their existence. I honestly don’t know, and that question is for another sermon.

But I am convinced that evil is real: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, gun violence, lack of access to health care, immigrants separated from their families at the border,  the stigma of suicide and mental illness, gender-based violence and discrimination, ecological harm and destruction to our planet. Evil is real, and these are our demons.

Evil pervaded Jesus’s world as much as it plagues our own. The demons of injustice haven’t gone away in all these years and it seems they’re not going away anytime soon, and that makes the call to wait, the call to exercise restraint, all the more absurd.

Jesus sees the demons of injustice around him, and he is compelled to do something, to act: to resist oppression, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to proclaim liberation and abundant life for all.

We know this is the call of the church. We don’t always practice it, but we hear it all the time. Yet even at our best, sometimes it can feel like a losing battle. How long, O Lord? we cry, echoing the psalmist, exasperated and weary at seeing so much brokenness, so much evil, so much injustice, around us every day.

In the midst of that, the biblical witness also reminds us of our chosenness by God. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus announces that the reign of God is one where outsiders will become insiders, and he redraws the lines of family and belonging. Who are my mother and my brothers? Jesus isn’t exactly dismissing or forgetting his birth family, as if he needs to be reminded. But looking at those who sit around him, he says, Here are my mother and my brothers! These, all of them, all who are oppressed, cast down, marginalized, are my family!

In God’s reign of justice that Jesus has come to announce, all are included. When Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, he paints a picture of what the reign of God looks like: displacing a reign of evil and the demons of injustice with God’s reign of justice and equity, displacing a reign of exclusion with God’s message of inclusion, displacing a reign of hate with the gospel message of love.

In Mark, the beginning of Jesus’s ministry starts with his baptism, a sign of his chosenness by God: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And in our baptism, we too are chosen and beloved by God.

In Jesus’s family, water is thicker than blood. It is the waters of baptism that that make us siblings with and in Christ; it is these waters which unite us with God; and it is these waters which unite us with each other. In the waters of baptism, God chooses us and binds us together in God’s family.

It is these waters of baptism into which we are immersed and from which we rise daily, drowning evil, committed to resisting the demons of injustice, and striving for God’s reign of love.

Rooted in this baptismal covenant, our identity as God’s own children, named and claimed as God’s own beloved, an identity which no one and nothing can ever take away, we are given the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves — indeed, the freedom and power to cast out demons.