Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Faithfulness

The Promise of Faithfulness
Mark 8:27-38
27Jesus 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?” 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”

34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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 text comes to us after a series of events in which Jesus has shown himself to be a man of remarkable power. In chapter 8, he has already fed the 4,000 with a meager serving of bread and fish, healed a blind man, and withstood the indignity of the Pharisees asking for a “sign” after they have witnessed these things first hand. When Jesus warns the Disciples about the “yeast” of the Pharisees, they misunderstand him and ask, “‘It is because we have no bread.’ 17And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-18). This question rings with hilarity after Jesus has done so many remarkable things in their presence.
            But, when Jesus asks the Disciples who people say that he is, he is inviting dialogue. This is not a test, as the Pharisees sought to test him. Rather, it is an earnest engagement with how the world receives his ministry. Jesus asks one of the best questions in the Gospels, posing it to his Disciples who are having an atypical moment of lucidity.  
            Jesus asks plainly, “’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.” This is Peter’s shining moment of insight. The time when his earnestness and wonder coincide to produce the right answer to a very difficult question. This is Peter’s confession of faith. “You are the Messiah,” he says. The one who has come to save us. The one who abides with us. You are God, with us.
In a sermon series on the topic of promises: this text could begin and end right here. It is this confession of Peter’s faith that underlies our own testimonies to why we show up here week after week. But, it’s the fact that he is correct that keeps us going. After all, we are not disciples of Peter. We are disciples of Christ, the Messiah. That means that even before Peter or you or I could recognize the gift of grace we receive through the life, death and resurrection we receive in Christ, that God had to decide to become one-with-us.  This is the promise of faithfulness we receive.
            So, let us ask our selves the same compelling question: Who do we say that Jesus is? This forces us to look clearly at our faith and own it for ourselves. If we say that Jesus is someone who taught us how to live well, then we must reflect whether or not we are. If we say that Jesus was a prophet, then we must observe the ways in which his words are becoming real. If we say that Jesus is the son of God, then we must consider how we are living out our lives as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the foundation of who we are as a faith community.
            But, as we read on, there is one line in our scripture today that has always given me trouble. Jesus says to the crowd and his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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.” Jesus spends some time speaking candidly with his disciples just prior to this about the events that are to unfold. He tells them about his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection after 3 days.  Peter famously rejects the notion that this is possible and necessary, and Jesus rebukes him. Even though Jesus is so clear with his disciples about these events, there is something about his use of the phrase “take up thy cross and follow me” that has plagued me for years. How could they know the depth of what this means? How could they possibly understand? We have the benefit of hindsight – we know the story and when we hear, “take up thy cross,” it means something particular to us. I always thought this was an outreach to us – the hearers through history. That we might know -  in a way the disciples never could -  that this call to discipleship has clear and noticeable ramifications for how we live our life.
            But, if we are to push a little harder, taking up the cross sounds like a mandate for us to receive a burden we don’t want to bear. I look back on the previous few months and the turmoil we’ve seen in so many communities. The fall was filled with conversation around the events in Ferguson, MO. We watched as our country took to conversations about race and reconciliation with the same passion that we saw during the height of the civil rights movement, and we listen to modern-day prophets sing for the hope of Glory. We have been praying for ways to help the homeless community in Laguna Beach and beyond; and, yesterday, in less than 8 hours, our leadership and missions committee drew up a plan for how we can open our doors to serve as an overflow shelter during the cold and rainy nights. We have been called to work for immigration reform and seek how to serve migrant children. Our congregation has seen an incredible response to our willingness to engage the topic of how the churchcan re-visit the texts that sought to exclude and oppress the LGBT community. Today, in Georgia, my clergy colleagues are fighting hard to save the life of a woman on death row who is to be executed tomorrow.
            Take up thy cross is hard to hear, because the cross is rarely something we would choose. But, let us look to Jesus. Part of the reason this language is so abrasive to us is because Jesus did nothing to deserve the cross himself. It’s offensive to us because this man – this son of God – doesn’t deserve the burden of the cross.
            But, here’s the thing: he did it anyway. He did it because the cross was never his. The cross was ours, and ours alone. And he took it up for us.
            So, when Jesus says, “Take up thy cross and follow me,” he doesn’t mean, bear your own burdens. He means, lift up the burdens of others that they might not be carried alone. He means that we are to do things, not because they benefit us, but maybe because they don’t. We are called to feed the hungry, not because we’re hungry, but because they are. We are called to advocate for those who are marginalized, not because we were once marginalized, but because they are. We are called to speak out for the voiceless, because people will listen to those with strength. We are called to open the doors, not because we want to grow our church, but because there are people hungering for a vibrant community in which to live out their lives of faith. The work we do, the ministry we share is not about us. We do not, can not do anything to earn God’s love or grace. We can only act out of our own conviction that if we take up the cross and follow Christ, then we widen the reach of those who will come to know God’s love. This is the true cost of discipleship – denying ourselves and our own self-interest that others may be considered. This is how we use our privilege. This is how we are the church.   
            We gather today, not only to hearken to a call of social justice and mission in the world, but to remind ourselves why it is that we do such things. Theologian Rebecca Chopp argues that “The church is not created for fellowship, continued support, spiritual nourishment, or even social service; rather, the church is called to give to the world news of emancipatory transformation.” That means when we “deny yourself and take up your cross,” we are invited into what the cross can also mean – “not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity (it is truly the symbol of God’s faithfulness to us). The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because we realize it’s not just about our own selves. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, the self that refuses community. The self that thinks it can survive on its own. The self that rejects the deep need of humanity -- belonging.”[1]  God promises to be faithful to us by being willing to do the very things God asks of us.
            Our call is to pray to see how we can live into a life of discipleship for its own sake, remembering that Christ took up the cross on our behalf, that we might take it up on behalf of others. Jesus is the embodiment of perfect love, absolute grace, and total acceptance. The cost of discipleship, then, has a reward beyond what we can imagine in heaven. The cost of discipleship yields the gift of community, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. When we deny ourselves, we give up the stronghold on all that keeps us from loving openly, that keeps us from becoming transformed into people who live into the promise of God’s faithfulness to us.
            So, let us be changed by the Good News that Christ comes to give. If we seek to serve only ourselves, then we are bound by our interpretation of Scripture, our history, our narrative, our expectations. But Christ comes and says: I am not bound by your expectations. I am the Son of God, the living Christ, and I have come to teach you how much God loves you, and how we are called to be in relationship with one another –not just with the people who are like us or nice to us or praiseworthy or acceptable. This Good News is for the people who have never had a good word spoken to them, and today – that doesn’t mean you. It means those who are outside freezing in the rain, unable to be cured, locked up in prison, marginalized because of their sexuality and silenced by the government. We are called to tend to them, heal them, listen to them, and remind them that THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor, so that they may be the ones to say, “MY eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” And we can, at last, gather together in worship and praise of the God who refuses to let any of us go, so that we can be transformed into a people of living into the promise of God’s faithfulness.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen and Amen.

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