Sunday, September 27, 2009

All That We Let In

Text: Mark 9:38-50

There are times when reading the gospel stories that I just want to grab hold of the disciples, give them a big hug and say “thank you.” Thank you for being so human, for being so slow to catch on. Thank you for failing at following Jesus perfectly because if you – who had him physically in your midst – couldn’t manage to be a perfect follower, then I’m not going to feel so bad about my own missteps.

This morning’s gospel story is one of those times.

After seeing Jesus eat with those who were outcasts, heal people no one would want to touch let alone help, and quite frankly, call them as his followers, they haven’t quite caught on that their teacher isn’t one for exclusive circles. And yet they treat being his follower as just that –limited circle.

Having just coming off a tour of ministry with the Gentiles, the disciples and Jesus come back to Galilee where they hear tale of a man – who, by the way, is not one of them – is casting out demons. In Jesus’ name! This man – who, ahem, is not one of them – has the audacity to call on the power of Jesus. He dares to cast out demons when the disciples – Jesus’ inner circle, the cream of the crop, failed at this same task not very long ago.

When the disciples via John bring this concern to Jesus, that this man –a man who hasn’t clocked in the field time with Jesus, hasn’t listened (and been confused by) his parables nightly by the fireside, hasn’t traveled with Jesus and seen all the amazing things him can do – this man is daring to act as though he has some place, some relationship, some sort of connection with Christ and is using it to caste out demons.

And what does Jesus have to say? Nothing the disciples are going to like – don’t try and stop him, even someone offering water to a person in my name is blessed, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

That was probably a little more inclusive than they were hoping. I can imagine one of the disciples even piping up saying, “um, Jesus, don’t you mean whoever isn’t for us is against us?” But no, Jesus is firm – have salt, goodness, in yourself and be at peace with one another.

The disciples are treating being a follower of Jesus like being a member of some club: a club that has its own logo, its own pledge, its own uniform. I remember joining a sorority in college and being told, when I asked why we had to memorize the founding members names, “you’re doing this because I did this and that’s what makes you “one of us.”

I know I’m not the only one with such an experience. I would imagine we’ve all run into groups we want to be a part of – be it social groups or perhaps the group called the bar association or certified teachers or real estate license holders – where we’ve had to prove that we’ve done the time, put in the effort, can say the oath of loyalty with the best, pass the exam even after we’ve gotten the degree, and then be considered in. There are markers to be met and handshakes to be learned.

The church has a history of making its membership something like a club. Remember a time when we used to excommunicate people for being different, or make people catechisms not as a way of teaching theology but as a test to see who was in and who was out? Or how about how when the church would bar people from membership for something like being divorced (which, by the way, some churches still do), or tell people they can’t serve because they happen to be girls (again, still happens). This is our history but my guess is if Jesus came down now to our present, he’d be able to point out a few ways we’re still excluding people, still making this a club to get into. Let’s just say I know I’m not the only one who has a “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite” mouse pad.

But being a follower of Christ isn’t about being in a club or any one’s favorite – it’s about being a part of a family. Even if we fall into the temptation of looking down on others who we know a lot about this kind of family. This family isn’t about where you were born or who are your parents or what traditions you celebrate – this isn’t about flesh and blood, it’s about Spirit. Christ’s Spirit.

If you’ve seen my family here at Christmas time you might have noticed that two of my three foster sisters – for lack of a better term – don’t quite look like the rest of us. My sisters Neli and Nymbezi are from Zambia. The story of how they came to be a part of our family is one that confirms for me this understanding of family being above and beyond flesh and blood.

About ten years ago I went over to Zambia as part of a mission trip with my church. There, at Justo Mali Theological College, I met the Moyo family and bonded rather instantly with the several teenage sisters – including Neli and Nyembi. A year later I heard that my church would be sponsoring Neli to come over to the States for college. Families would take turns hosting her for different holidays and we’d all make sure she felt welcome and looked after.

Well, Neli happened matriculate at the school where I was a senior and so it just made sense that the first free weekend we had at school, she’d come home with me. I remember driving the four hours to get home – trying to prepare her for my quirky family. We hit it off but we were relatively close in age and had similar tastes in music and tv.

My family, of course, welcomed her with open – though potentially overwhelming arms. Everyone was so excited to meet this girl I had talked about for a year – this girl grew up in another hemisphere! I remember everyone greeting her, helping her to her room, making her feel at home – and then, I remember the conversation started. It began with all of us, my brother and sister Beth, my mom and dad, Neli and me, but it quickly turned to world economics and just as quickly became a conversation between my dad and Neli only. The rest of us escaped from the living room to the family room and waited… and waited… and after a good while someone piped up that one of us really ought to go and rescue Neli from an intense conversation with our father.

I think it was my sister who volunteered, went into the other room, and then came back laughing saying, “I think Dad’s the one who needs rescuing!”

My wonderful, quirky family had a new member – just like that. That very first night it was clear that Neli was a part of our family. Over the years, while interesting differences in experiences have come up, it’s only been made more and more clear - this young woman is a Summers-Minette, even though her last name is Moyo and we all still laugh that she’s clearly our father’s daughter. Neli never did make it to those other families for the holidays and when Nymebi came over for school, she eventually found herself part of the Summers-Minette clan too. While Nymebi and Dawn – my other foster sister – are family without a doubt, nothing was quite so powerful as that first night with Neli – where we just knew – she’s family. She just is.

That moment with Neli, that’s what I think of when I think of God’s family. We just are. It’s not about where we grew up or what languages we speak or our experiences. It’s not about our education or our income or our politics. We know this – it’s why we knit prayer shawls and deliver meals, offer rides and send cards—not because we’re all so alike but because we’re family. It’s why we ask each other for prayers, why we ask each other for help. Because we’re family – family made by God.

We travel the road of faith together, even though we may not agree on things, even when we might look at the passage being discussed in a bible study, listen to our neighbor’s understanding of said passage and wonder “are you reading what I’m reading?”

There’s this great quote attributed to Rudyard Kipling – the author who brought us the great story of Mowgli and his family the wolves, Baloo the bear, and Bagheera the panther in The Jungle Book. It says, “A family shares things like dreams, hopes, possessions, memories, smiles, frowns, and gladness... A family is a clan held together with the glue of love and the cement of mutual respect. A family is shelter from the storm, a friendly port when the waves of life become too wild. No person is ever alone who is a member of a family.”

This is the church family. This is who Christ has called us to be with one another and to glorify God. We’re to serve one another as we would serve Christ – offering each other glasses of water, companionship, and grace. We’re to respect one another – even if our ways and understandings differ. We’re to be family.

I really like that quote. Of course, I edited it in my first reading. Before talking about family sharing things, Kipling says “all of us are we—and everyone else is they.” Us against the world, us against them – as tempting as it might be to see family that way, we can’t. Not the family of God. This thought – one the disciples had, one many of us have – is what Jesus is encouraging us to get rid off – chop off as it were.

Being a part of the family of Christ means that there is no “they” – no us versus them. No Presbyterians versus Baptists or old hymn lovers versus new hymn lovers. And perhaps even no Christians versus non-believers - for all people are God’s children and Christ died for the whole world. Whether or not people are a part of our community of faith, they are part of God’s family and as such are to be treated with respect and love.

Jesus asks us to worry not about those people who are doing good in his name – or good even just to those who bear his name. Not to worry whether or not they’re “like us” because the “us” includes all. Worry about your own salt, your own goodness, and be at peace with one another.

You know, maybe that Kipling quote is right after all. All of us are we—and everyone else is they. Except there is no everyone else; there’s only us. For we are all a part of God’s family. Thanks be to this generous and loving God. Amen.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

It Don't Mean A Thing

Text: Mark 8:27-38

If you’ve been watching television over the past several years, you are probably familiar with those successful Mac vs PC commercials. The ones where two actors stand in as “Mac” and “PC.” The PC—a middle aged man dressed in a suit—tries to be hip, the computer that all the cool kids want to have, and yet it can’t. The laid-back Mac—the twenty-something jeans and a t-shirt guy—doesn’t have to try to be the best computer, he just is. Because, no matter what the PC may say, the Mac just performs better (or so claim the commercials).

Not long after these commercials began airing a parody was made by a church where instead of the PC vs Mac you had a Christian vs a Christ-follower. In this parody, the Christian – the middle aged man dressed in his Sunday best – is carrying lots of books—rule books, ethics books, morality plays, and his “trusty sword” as he calls the bible—an incredible Christian bumper stickers collection, and works hard to exhibit all these outer signs and symbols of his faith. The Christ-follower, on the other hand, is in his casual jeans an a t-shirt, doesn’t worry about bumper stickers or outward marks. When the Christian asks the Christ-follower, “so, what do you do to display your Christianity,” the Christ-follower responds “nothing, I guess, I just try to follow Christ with the way I live my life.”

The first time I saw this parody was not too long after I graduated from seminary – where I got to study rule books and theology books and Hebrew and Greek so I could understand the “trusty sword” in its original languages. Let’s just say, it hit a little too close to home.

Those of us who come from “mainline” traditions like Presbyterian or Methodist, Episcopalian or Lutheran – we are reasonably comfortable with the Sunday best, the rule books, the bible study. We know when to stand up and sit down in a church service, we can recite the Apostles’ Creed, we rules and we like to follow them decently and in order.

And this parody is suggesting that those signs, those creeds, those habits – they don’t make you a follower of Christ.

It’s a little like our gospel lesson this morning.

Out of all the people – the crowds, the disciples – Peter seems to get “it.” He gets that Jesus isn’t some old prophet come back from the great beyond, he gets that this guy they’ve been following is the one – the Messiah. A bunch of other may claim to be the Messiah, but they aren’t – Jesus of Nazareth is.

Peter has clued into the Messianic secret – he understands what those demons Jesus cast out of people seemed to already know – this is the one everyone’s been waiting for. The Messiah.

What a wonderful moment of faith for Peter. He can smile and take pride that out of all of Jesus’ followers, he’s the real deal just like Jesus is – because he’s the one that makes the first confession of faith. “You are the Messiah.”

And moments later, he’s the one that gets rebuked.

We don’t know what exactly Peter rebuked Jesus for when he turned to the crowd and spoke to them of death and resurrection. Perhaps it was because the Son of Man- the Messiah – couldn’t die. That wasn’t how isn’t how things were supposed to go. Or perhaps it was because Jesus was sharing this with all. Perhaps Peter thought this Messiah was for only those in the know. After all, Jesus has just told him to keep quiet about the whole Messiah thing – why is he now speaking so openly about the Son of Man?

Whether he didn’t like what Jesus was saying or didn’t like that Jesus was letting all hear his words, Peter rebukes Jesus. And Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter. Peter—who just moments before seemed to have “gotten” it—is rebuked in front of his fellow disciples and then hears Jesus speak to the whole crowd how to follow him.

“Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.”

Jesus doesn’t command confession – he commands action. It is one thing to say, Lord, Lord, and another to live as though Jesus is your Lord.

Jesus isn’t as concerned about the right words as he is about the right way to live. He doesn’t condemn those who call him Elijah or another prophet nor does he reward Peter who knows him as Messiah. The confessions are important but not complete. Not without the life that seeks to answer Jesus’ question. We—who will stand up and affirm our faith in Jesus Christ God’s only son, our Lord—too called not to say the right words, but to live the right way.

And we, like the crowd, like Peter, we don’t. We may say the right words but we don’t live as Jesus tells us to. Here and now, we fit right into the gospel story.

“Who do people say that I am?”

Oh, say the disciples, well, Jesus, these other people, they call you Elijah and John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. They see you as someone who has come before. An ancient prophet that has arisen. Someone they already know.

This is what the crowds confess, the crowds that will celebrate his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then shout crucify him less than a week later.

“Who do you say that I am?”

The disciples remain quiet. All, except Peter. “You are the Messiah,” he says, “son of the living God.”

This is what Peter confesses, Peter who will soon rebuke and be rebuked by Jesus, Peter who will deny him three times.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Oh, say we. Who do we say that you are? Okay, we say you are Son of God. And Lamb of God. Oh, and Word of God. And Emmanuel, Rabbi, Beloved, Bread of Life. King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace. Alpha and Omega. Savior, Messiah.

This is what we say, what we confess, and yet we will walk past those who are hunger, we will keep polluting the waters and not worry that some have nothing to drink, we will have nothing to do with the stranger for they are just too different, we will think it’s a pity that some have no protection against the elements but not offer our cloak and our other garments too, we will wish all could have health care but let the difficulty of solutions distract us from actually caring for the sick, we will stay away from the prisons for we will not believe that those who have strayed can truly be rehabilitated.

We, like Peter, can confess the right thing, make the appropriate statement of faith, and then leave it to that – words and only words. We, like Peter, can turn against Jesus when he asks us to believe something we don’t want to, when he asks us to follow him where we don’t want to go, when he asks us to live and die – for him, through him, and in him.

Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, really is a lot harder than reading your bible or knowing the right words. As a friend of mine recently reminded me, wearing a cross is not the same thing is taking up the cross.

We, like the crowd, like Peter, we don’t get it. We don’t always walk the walk, we don’t always confess Christ with our lives as well as our lips.

And yet, we, like the crowd, like Peter, we keep trying. And we, like the crowd, like the disciples, like Peter, we have seen and believed that Christ forgives us and works with us and through us and yeah, in spite of us. We may deny him, may crucify him, but we come back, we want to follow him. We may stray, but we know he’ll lead us back. And he does. Jesus always has and always will bring us back and with willing and open hearts, we will follow him into some scary, and wonderful, places. And in moments that may last seconds or years, we do feed the hungry, give water to thirsty, welcome the stranger. We do build houses for those without shelter, serve at the food pantry, offer compassion and justice for those who are in need, visit and have relationship with those whom society would rather forget.

Even if we don’t quite understand who Jesus is, even if we don’t always live as Jesus commands, our Messiah does not give up on us. The proof of God’s amazing love us this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us. And it is we sinners Christ calls out to, speaking of love and forgiveness, telling us to take up our cross and follow him. And it is we sinners who long to answer, who can answer, with our lives as well as our lips: yes, Lord, yes Savior, yes Son of God, yes Messiah, yes. Amen.