Who Do You Say I Am?

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September 16, 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say I am?

This question alone could keep us in thought and prayer for a long time. I have been confronted with this question, or similar ones, several times in the past few months.

Twenty years ago, as a non-church goer.  My answer would have been simplistic and secular. Of course, I knew who Jesus was as a person. I knew he was connected to God in some manner and I knew that he was the part of the reason that Easter and Christmas were celebrated. I believed in him as a historical person and I knew that he did not look anything like the famous Warner Sallman painting, which Trinity has a copy of hanging in the front entryway.

I connected the cross to Jesus and I knew that where there was a cross I would be able to connect with a community of Christians. The cross has been depicted in many ways as you can see around the sanctuary this morning. May of you are probably wearing a cross.

Who do you say I am?

Since joining the church, I have gotten to know Jesus Christ, and I am still striving to know him on an even deeper level. We can never fully know Jesus Christ until we are willing to carry our own cross and put up our own lives. This is a tall order and not easy. I have gotten to know Jesus Christ through a point of grace since the first time that I walked into a Lutheran Church. A grace that welcomes all people, saints and sinners alike.

While grace is abundant for all of God’s people, another challenging question was asked of me this past week, “When is it as a pastor, do you remind people of God’s grace and when do you remind them of Christ’s request that they die unto themselves?”

It is easy to go heavy on the grace and look completely past your own sins, and possibly even the sin of the neighbor or family members. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this same concern in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, when he talks about cheap grace. Do we take grace for granted, and think that we can do anything that we want and yet still be forgiven for it? Do we fully understand the measure of what Jesus means when he says, “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.”

We don’t like to suffer. We want to be as far from it as possible, whether it be health, finances, or temptations that pull us into a pit of despair. If I could give up my high-blood pressure medication I would jump at it. If I could find a way to pay of the church mortgage and ease some our financial stress, you bet I would in a heartbeat. To bear a cross is really the last thing any of us would want to do. Yet, that is where we find ourselves day in and day out as Jesus challenges us with the gospel.

Do not think for one minute that the disciples had any clue what they were doing either. Peter even begins to rebuke Jesus as he makes the first of his three predictions of his upcoming death on the cross. The death that Jesus speaks of is not something that they are expecting. It definitely is not something that they want to see happen.

When Jesus instructs them that they are going to have to take up their own cross, they are left slack-jawed. The cross that they know is a device of torture. It represents shame and death! The cross is nothing that they want to associate with. Like us, the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is saying at that moment. They have encountered a lot with Jesus as they have walked throughout the country and now it seems as Jesus is telling them to take it even one step farther and possibly give up their own lives.

Their image of Jesus coming to save them from the Roman Empire has been shattered. They were hoping for a conquering warrior to go against the Roman Empire, and now Jesus tells them that he is going to be killed. Yet, the second part of what Jesus tells them seems to fall on deaf ears. He will be raised in three days. Perhaps they looked over this, because they did not know what that means either.

While the cross represents torture and shame for the disciples, it will soon come to mean something even more. In the cross they will begin to understand what Jesus has been talking about. In the cross, they will find transformation and triumph. G.K. Chesterton says, “But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape.  Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. … The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”

It is here and, in his questions, that Jesus asks the disciples, that they begin to understand his true calling in the world. It is here in Jesus’ teaching that their formation as disciples is progressing.  While Jesus still shy’s away from wanting the rest of the countryside to know that he is the Messiah, he is beginning to open himself up to those that are following in his footsteps.

We can follow in those same footsteps that the disciples walked.

We do experience grace from a loving God. However, this grace would not have been possible without the cross to show us the way. Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez speaks of the cross in terms of spirituality when he says, “Christian spirituality begins with the cross; The cross of Jesus Christ, our own cross, and the crosses of our neighbors, especially the poor and the marginalized. The cross is encountered and embraced as a paradoxical sign of salvation. That which often seems bitter and fatal can be sweetness and life.”[1]

By taking up our own cross, we begin to die to ourselves. When we do so, we begin to let Jesus into the recesses of our heart. As we welcome Jesus into those places that we have a hard time letting others see, we can begin to answer the question, “Who do you say I am,” in a way that opens up the reign of God for us to experience in the present.

What is your cross you are called to take up? Or better yet, how are you called to follow Jesus in the world today? How do you choose to share the Gospel that is just as alive today as it was nearly 2000 years ago? How does it affect your relationships with others and are you as open as Jesus was?

May you begin to discern this for yourself as you meditate on the various crosses in the sanctuary. May you encounter life in the cross that once represented death.

Let us pray. God of Glory, you changed the meaning of the cross for all of us as Christians. May we continue to experience the change that you work in our hearts and lives daily as we come to the cross and in repentance and seek love. Amen.

 

[1] Cavazos-Gonzalez, Gilberto. Beyond Piety, The Christian Spiritual Life, Justice, and Liberation. pg 26.

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Being Opened

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September 9, 2018

Mark 7:24-37

Sometimes you just need a good smack upside the head! I don’t think there is an age limit when this option ends.

For me, one such time was while I was on internship as I was preparing to become a pastor. Every spring before my seminary sent out students to begin internship later that summer they would gather the students together and give them a handbook of requirements. This handbook placed in my hands was a very dangerous thing. I now knew what I had to do and when I had to have it done and surely it would help me coast through my year of internship.

About halfway through the year I had a visit from Pastor Jane, the Contextual Education Director at Trinity. We talked about how internship was going with my internship supervisor and what the focus of the rest of my time there should look like. This is when I received a smack upside the head. As I talked about my checklists and getting the requirements done, Jane asked me, “How are you learning to be a pastor?”

Hmm…what a great question. I had learned how to do, but I had just barely scraped the surface of what it meant to be. It was in that little question that I was opened up to a whole new experience.

This morning in our gospel lesson, we have two stories that are stacked upon each other. They are more connected than one may think at first glance. First, they are both stories of healing. Second, the people that are asking for the healing are not the ones that need the healing. The Syrophoenician woman asks for her daughter and the deaf man’s friends ask Jesus that he be healed. They are both outsiders. The Syrophoenician woman is a Gentile and we can’t say if the deaf man was, but he definitely was on the outside looking in as someone with a disability. In a culture that relies on oral tradition and few people being literate, not being able to hear or speak puts you at a major disadvantage.

What is Jesus supposed to do with these two that come to him seeking restoration and healing? The conversation that occurs between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is one that does not seem to highlight Jesus’ people skills very well. He is combative and the love that we have got to know Jesus through seems to be lacking. You could say that he even comes off as a jerk. We are left wondering what must be going on in his mind. Maybe he is tired and just needs to take a sabbath. Maybe he needs to get away and pray.

It is easy to get stuck in a rut and keep on doing what has always been done. When we do this, it is not uncommon to react negatively when we are challenged. When things do not go the way that we expect them.

To live in our own insular lives blocks others out that are different from us. The outsiders that we hear of in the gospels. The outsiders that usually get welcomed to have a seat at the table with Jesus to break bread and join in conversation. When we do this, we also close ourselves off to the possibilities that lay before us in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God that is unfolding before our very eyes. When we fail to welcome the outsider as Jesus does, we close ourselves off from the Spirit acting and moving in our lives to show us new ways to encounter Christ.

We first hear the promise in our reading from Isaiah this morning.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy (31:6).

There is one word that Jesus speaks this week that changes everything!

It is in Jesus’ natural tongue and it is, “Ephphatha!” Fortunately, for those of us that do not know Aramaic, it is translated for us within the text, “Be opened!” It is in this word that Jesus heals the deaf man so that he can hear once again and speak so that people can understand him. The man that was deaf and could not speak was now opened to the world around him. His ears were opened to hear the sounds all around him and his vocal cords were made alive so that he was able to fully communicate with friends and family.

When Jesus speaks “Ephphatha” to the deaf man, it is also reflective of the previous scene when he is approached by the Syrophoenician woman. In this encounter, it is Jesus that is opened up! His way of thinking and the way that he views the woman. While his words first come across as hard to hear, even hard to imagine they are coming from Jesus, the woman provides him with the smack upside the head that he seems to need at that moment. She opens him up to even healing Gentiles, and expanding his ministry to all of God’s creation, beyond the people of Israel. It is in her words that Jesus ears are opened and his compassion for others is expanded.

The call of Jesus for the deaf man’s ears to be opened is a call that speaks to us today. As we close ourselves off from others and stick to the things that need to be done, how are we being opened to encounter Christ and the Spirit that leads us?

That smack upside the head that I received in seminary was enough for me to be opened to more and to learn how to be. Of course, I do slip back into the doing probably more often than I would like, but the Spirit is powerful and pulls me back into being.

How have your eyes, ears, hearts, and hands been opened to the Spirit working in your life? How are we as a community opened up to serving one another and being available in times of need? I believe we have listened to God calling us to be open through many efforts as a community, including the Food Pantry at St. Augustine’s, the Good Samaritan Fund, and the Backpack Blessings program. We have also worked together for Kids Against Hunger that provides food not just locally, but throughout the world.

It is in these many ministries that we are open to the Spirit. Our denominations are called to be open as well, which is reflective in some of our taglines. The ELCA is called to serve with open hands as we realize it is God’s Work. Our Hands. The UCC encourages us to be open to hearing the Spirit guide us as we are reminded that God is Still Speaking. And the United Methodist Church could not be clearer as their tagline is Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

To witness God working in the Richmond Community is wonderful and when we are able to come together to worship and serve, the love of Christ is multiplied, and we are able to expand our voices and welcome people in to be open to a movement of the Spirit that changes lives. Together, we come to the cross and give our thanks to God for the love that was poured out for us and all of humanity through Jesus and the saving grace that we find in the waters of baptism and the meal that is served at the Lord’s table.

Let us pray. God of Community, you have knitted us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. May we walk with one another as you open up our ears, eyes, hearts, and hands to serve our neighbors and learn to love the stranger. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Review: True Inclusion by Brandan Robertson

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Are you serious about change?

I have heard time and time again from churches that they want to change and become more relevant. They wonder why they lose members and cannot attract the younger generation. The fact is, many churches are hypocritical to the message of inclusion that Jesus preaches and practices in the Bible. From the moment that the Christian way was co-opted by Constantine, the church has been ruled by the patriarchy. This has not changed much over the last thousand years and as Brandan Robertson states in his new book, True Inclusion, to become truly inclusive, we must move beyond the patriarchy to a point of egalitarianism. The first disciples practiced this extremely well and as humanity always seems to do, overtime, we lost track of what it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves.

While ordained in a denomination that puts up the image of being inclusive, there are still many of our congregations that are not! The ELCA is the least diverse of all denominations on any given Sunday. Unless we truly begin to embrace the inclusiveness that Jesus speaks of, I do not see how the ELCA or any given number of denominations will move into the future. The message of Jesus Christ has been abandoned and we must do what we can to once again proclaim that message for all to hear, not just a select few that think they are privileged.

The message that Brandan shares in his book is one that all congregations need to hear because as he says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical message ever heard across the face of the earth, not because of its moralistic or dogmatic claims, but because it subverts the very way that humans are programmed to think, to live, and to love.” This is the message that must be broadcast, and yet some people will still choose not to hear it. All we have to do is look at the political spectacle today to know this truth.

Brandan’s definition of inclusion is “about following others to live into their full, divinely created humanity, not degrading them, stripping them of their dignity and personhood.” How can we argue about this in the church? This should be what we strive for, yet we are quick to make exceptions. Jesus’ love, knows no exceptions.

The inclusion that is spoke of in this book will make many people uncomfortable. It will make them uncomfortable because it questions their power and places their fears right in front of them. Yet, how can we call ourselves the church when we do not uphold to this most basic teaching of Christ?

This book is a short quick read, yet it is an extremely powerful call to live into God’s creation. Within this call, he also addresses intersectional inclusion in which two paths must work together, such as the equality between races as well as inclusion of the LGBT+ community. We can help each other in the path towards inclusion because the groundwork has already started to be paved.

He admits that this call to inclusion will not be easy because it requires a change of theology. God is moving within our world and if we fail to heed to the movement of the Spirit, we neglect those that we should have been loving and at times could even exclude ourselves.

A wonderful chapter in the book is when he brings in a panel to ask questions and dig deeper into what true inclusion means. These varied voices add integrity to a book that is already teeming with a call to follow Christ as he called us to love one another. This book is well worth the investment and could be a helpful tool in helping your community embrace a true inclusion where the diversity of God’s creation is fully welcomed and loved beyond capacity.

Thanks to Chalice Press for a copy of this book to review

Doing Out of Grace

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September 2, 2018

James 1:17-27

Title: Doing Out of Grace

Tomorrow is a day to be intentional in our resting. For a society that is always so much on the go, it is wonderful to be able to take a day off and simply be. Of course, we know that this is not true, because there are still many places that are still open on Labor Day and many retailers even having special sales. I can only imagine what the marketing team thinks up: Hey! It is a holiday, let’s see how much money we can make off from running special sales. The intention of Labor Day seems to be lost on our current economy.

For those of you that do not know, Labor Day was established in the late nineteenth century at the encouragement of labor unions that were attempting to protect the right of their members. There were constant protests in response to child labor, 12-hour workdays, and 7-day workweeks just to name a few. The establishment of Labor Day was a step toward recognizing individuals for their contributions to their employers and the economy. It is similar to the commandment of God to take a day of sabbath. In this rest, God calls us into action through the word of Jesus. The words Jesus say matter and part of his commission for us is to go out and proclaim the good news. One way to live into this calling is through our actions.

I will admit, that we could think of it as ironic that in the midst of the Labor Day weekend we receive an epistle from James that tells us to be doers. It seems to speak counter-intuitively to the entire reason for being able to take a day of rest. Martin Luther was not very receptive to the letter of James. At one point he even called it the “epistle of straw,” which was not worth anything. He believed that it spoke opposite to the letters Paul wrote, to which Martin discovered that nothing was required of us and that we are justified by faith alone. James’ words can seem like he his laying out rules of morality and how one should act and behave.

Despite this, there is value to be found in the words of James. There are many jumping off points from today’s lesson. One is his comparison of being a hearer versus a doer of God’s word. He compares those that hear the word to those that look in a mirror and look away and immediately forgot what they had just seen. James concern is that those that only choose to hear the word and not act on it are only deceiving themselves.

How easy is it to deceive ourselves when we choose to only hear what we want to hear. This is not only true when we choose to just hear, but when we choose to not do anything about it. We deceive ourselves when we choose to only listen to one side of an argument and turn our back on those that we disagree. We deceive ourselves when we selectively tune in to only those things that we agree with. We deceive ourselves when we take everything we hear for granted and do not choose to question it.

Let’s admit it, it is easy to just listen and sit back and not do anything. When there are no expectations of us, why should we stick our nose into things that don’t affect us? It is easy to be apathetic to those things happening around us when they do not personally affect us. This apathy is the path that many have fallen into today. We are so focused on our own well-being that we forget to look beyond where there may be help needed. When we choose to hear only those things that we agree with, then our lives become one-dimensional.

I believe this is part of the fear that resides in James. He wants the hearers of his letter to be moved into action. The action that he is calling them to will add value to the Word of God. The Word that has been with creation from the beginning of time. This action that he is calling them to is not for their own merit. They are not going to get gold stars for going out and helping their neighbor weed. They will, however, begin to build a stronger relationship with their neighbors and ultimately with God through the connections that are made.

James does not discount the power of hearing. He says, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” There is power in learning how to be still and listening to God. There is power in learning how to be still and listening to their neighbors. This does not come out of their own doing though. James reminds them that they are given these gifts from God. “Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights.” The language James uses brings us back to the creation story and reminds us that all creation has come into being through God.

Through our hearing, we are called to ministries that we may have never contemplated on our own. This past week the mission and outreach team met and did a brief brainstorming session on where God may be calling us to be in this community.

While James called his listeners to be doers of the word, we too can take his words to heart today. It is extremely important for us to be hearers of the word. We can read and contemplate on the word of God and listen to where it may be calling us in our lives. Out of this time of hearing, we shall also be compelled to go out and share that word with others through our actions. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar, has attempted to find this balance in his ministry through the Center for Action and Contemplation. Not only can we contemplate on the word of God, but through the grace and love of God, we can share that same love and grace with those that are in need through our actions.

The Message translation has the reading from the epistle end today as James writes, “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” One of the core principles of the Center for Action and Contemplation connects with this on a personal level as it states, “True religion leads us to an experience of our True Self and undermines my false self.”

Through the gift of grace and love that comes to us from God through Jesus Christ, we may be propelled to go out and be doers of the word. It is in this action that we can begin to understand our true self. The self that is created in the image of God.

Let us pray. Gracious God, we give thanks for your Word that has come and dwelled among us. The Word that we have opened up our ears to and a Word that is reverberated through our love for others in reaching out in service. Amen.