Sunday, September 27, 2009

One of Us--a sermon for Ordinary 26B

Rev. Teri Peterson
One of Us
Mark 9.38-50
27 September 2009, Ordinary 26B

John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

I love the disciples, don’t you?—so human, they make it a little easier to be a follower of Jesus even when I don’t understand. Can’t you just imagine their internal monologues?

Really, Jesus? Are you sure?
Do you really want to say these things so close together—they’ll create an incomprehensible reading for Sunday mornings. Couldn’t you be a little more coherent, a little more obvious, a little more helpful? We’re having trouble following your train of thought, and we’ve been hanging out with you for almost a year now. For all the scholars’ talk about keywords—water and fire—that link these three sayings together, we don’t get it. We don’t understand the salt thing—can salt lose its flavor? Is that even possible, does it happen? And cutting? really? you want to encourage cutting? I just don’t think that’s a good idea. Then there’s this whole business of copyright infringement—there’s another guy out there using your brand without permission and without paying any royalties, and you’re just going to let it go on? Worse, you’re going to let it go on AND mess up the phrase we all like so much, which we all know is supposed to say “whoever isn’t with us is against us.” What is this “whoever isn’t against us is with us” nonsense? You know you can’t just let those people talk about you without the right credentials—it’s important to have the framed seminary diploma on the wall before leading a Bible study or teaching a class or praying or preaching or helping people!

We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.

I mean, he’s a “them.” He’s not one of US…and no way is he qualified. He looks different, comes from outside Galilee, speaks with a funny accent, hasn’t finished school, and is taking our job! We tried to heal that boy yesterday…it didn’t really work out, of course…but then here’s this guy doing it with no problem? That doesn’t seem fair! Plus he’s not wearing the patented disciple sandals, and he’s using our logo without permission!

Whoever isn’t against us is with us.

Wait…does that mean you’re not going to stop him? Does that mean you’re going to allow the watering-down of the power we had in the brand name, the power of our name recognition, the power of our tight-knit group, the power of our elite education, the power of our status as your followers? You’re just going to let it spread like that, opening the boundaries and letting in anybody with gifts for ministry?

We tried to stop him, because he wasn’t one of us.

But you widened the circle and grace crept in, when we weren’t even looking. We were busy trying to preserve our power, our status, our prestige, while you were busy proclaiming the gospel.
We drew a circle that shut him out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But you and Love had the wit to win,
You drew a circle that took us all in.*

Well, that wasn’t what we were expecting. We thought we’d be commended for tightening the rules, for keeping the riff-raff out, for saving leadership for the ones we think are ready. We thought this was an exclusive club of followers, complete with matching t-shirts! And now you’re saying that’s not how it is? That anyone can get in, that those who are gifted by the Spirit can teach classes, give testimony, pray for healing, visit the sick, that people who look and act and talk different can still be a part of the body of Christ?

Well, Jesus, we may have to have a talk about this.

And then comes the most incomprehensible part of all—anyone who puts a stumbling block before a little one might as well drown, and any part of your body that causes stumbling should be cut off.

Umm, Jesus? This isn’t quite what we had in mind when we said we needed to talk. We were hoping you would be more clear and less, well, bloody. We just wanted to talk about the problem with the outsiders being let in, the clearly unfit and untested being given leadership roles, the “them” contaminating “us.”

Instead, we got a conversation about the body…it turns out we might not need any help contaminating “us." We know, we know, it’s part of our job as The Best Disciples Ever to help other along on their faith journeys, but we really do like to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in. We like for only the properly educated to teach us and we like the things we’ve always done to continue to be so—after all, we’ve been walking these dusty roads with you for months now! We like the feel, the ethos, the culture of our body, but it could be that sometimes parts of our body lead us down a wrong path, becoming barriers to our experience of grace and boundaries we won’t let grace cross.

When that happens—when negativity, exclusion, and pride are the defining characteristics—it’s time to cut them off. These things come from within, they are part of us, one of US…and these body parts hold us back from what God is calling us to be—salt.

Well, obviously. Salt.

Wait…what? Jesus…couldn’t we just have one thing go like we expect? Just one saying that makes sense, one teaching we can understand, one miracle we can explain?

Okay, we’ll work with you…this time. Salt—a wonderful flavoring and a good preservative. Too little and everything is bland—a little like a group of people who all look, talk, think, and act exactly the same. Too much and everything is bitter—a little like a group of people overcome with negativity, exclusivity, and pride. The right balance—peace within and without—is hard to find, but worth the effort.

And so the circle widens, encompassing ever more people with ever different gifts, bringing new flavors and new ideas and new energy to the body of Christ, until there is no “them”—only us.

May it be so.

*apologies to Edward Markam for some artistic license taken with his excellent poem.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

the business of church

I have been saying a lot lately that the Church is not a Business. Churches should not be run like businesses--there's a different mindset needed. And the business of the Church is not the same as the business of a Business. Corporations exist to sell stuff and make a profit. The church exists to proclaim good news, to (as John Buchanan put it at the beginning of A New Church for a New World) "keep alive the rumor that there is a God."
The problem, of course, is that most people (churched and unchurched, pastors and elders and deacons and lay people together) live in a world of corporations. We work for businesses, live/buy/sell in/from/to businesses--our whole lives in the West are centered around corporations. So for the church to be different is *really* hard. It's hard when we talk about money. It's hard when we talk about employees. It's hard when we talk about programming. It's hard when we talk about ethos/culture. It's just...well...difficult. To be people of grace, an organization of grace, in the midst of a world that is about producing and advancing and *earning* is hard. It takes a shift in mindset, in values, in vision...

The scripture we are working with for stewardship this year is a little obscure, but is obviously a part of my thinking these days. I think I'm only just beginning to open it, petal by petal..."For in Christ, every one of God's promises is a 'yes.'" (2 Corinthians 1.20a) And we are the body of Christ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I know

I know I'm a blog slacker. Sorry. Here's what I've been doing....

visiting Taliesin...

visiting the Modern Wing...

visiting Mo Rocca at Wait Wait Don't Tell Me...

Plus teaching Inquirer's Class, Confirmation Class, and Saving Jesus...getting Middle and High School Youth Groups running...preaching and leading worship...caring for people...going to meetings...watching Sicko and contemplating moving to either France or Norway...loving my local public library...petting my kitties...

it's been a busy month.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Out Loud--a sermon for Ordinary 24B

Rev. Teri Peterson
Out Loud
Mark 8.27-38
September 13 2009, Ordinary 24B

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.’

When Pastor Hani visited us this summer, I was reminded of something I learned while preaching in an Egyptian church a few years ago: In Egypt, “Christian” is just a label on a birth certificate, it doesn’t mean anything about who you really are. Protestant Christians in Egypt call themselves “believers” to distinguish from both the Coptic Orthodox and also from the Egyptian version of nominal cultural Christians, something like the “Christmas and Easter” type. Here it’s a vast percentage of Americans who say they “believe in God” but don’t participate in a community much.

In other words, lots of people say they’re Christians…but, like Peter, would prefer to keep that quiet.

Who do people say that Jesus is? Some say he’s a prophet, some say he’s a teacher, some say he’s a healer, some say he’s a good example.
But forget the gossip, the hearsay…who do YOU say that Jesus is?

It’s not an easy question in 21st century America. There’s a lot of temptation to use those other words—prophet, teacher, healer, example—and see our friends nod their heads in agreement, maybe even in relief that we haven’t turned out to be one of THOSE Christians. But Peter takes a stand, even as the other disciples are all doing the classic Presbyterian look-at-the-ground-avoid-eye-contact-at-all-costs move. Peter looks Jesus right in the eye, then comes out and says it: Jesus is the messiah, the one we have waited for. He makes a classic statement of faith, telling Jesus and all the world what he believes. Or, rather, he tells us what he thinks. He knows, in his mind, that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who is to come, the one who will save us.

But, when Jesus begins to explain what that means…well, let’s just say Peter isn’t thrilled with this turn of events. It’s one thing for Jesus to teach crowds of people to be nice to each other, feed thousands of people with a miracle, heal the sick…it’s a totally different thing for him to go around saying, where people can HEAR, that his brand of lordship looks different than they expected. This is a lord who will be conquered, humiliated, killed, not one who will conquer and humiliate and kill others. This is a lord who will ask us to follow into the depths of despair, need, and pain so we can join him in bringing grace, peace, and love. This is a lord who calls us out of the darkness and into the light.

Lots of people say they’re Christians…but, like Peter, would prefer to keep quiet about what that means for our lives.

Jesus doesn’t keep many things on the down-low—he’s not afraid to say out loud things we would prefer to keep to ourselves. And the thing he says (loudly, I imagine!) to Peter is that saying it with your mouth or thinking it in your head are NOT the same thing as living it every day, in every action, every word, every thought, every relationship, every move.

Who do you say that I am? You are Son of God, Lamb of God, Word of God. King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace. Alpha and Omega, Immanuel, Rabbi. Savior, Messiah, Friend.

Okay, forget all the hearsay, all the gossip, all the words…who does your LIFE say that I am? who does your life say that YOU are?

This is a little harder…words are easy, as Peter discovered. We’ll confess with our mouths and believe in our minds and maybe even in our hearts, and yet we’ll walk past those who hunger; we’ll pollute the waters and not worry about those who are thirsty; we’ll ignore the stranger because they are just too different; we’ll think it’s a pity that some are cold but won’t offer our own coats; we’ll wish all could have health care but let complexity distract us from actually ourselves caring for the sick, we’ll stay away from prisons, not believing that those who have strayed can truly be redeemed…and we’ll try to forget what Jesus said in Matthew 25, that whatever we do to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely, we do to him.

We’re good at the words, at the belief part. But when it comes to putting that belief into action, living our faith, following Jesus wherever he’s leading us, we often have the same reaction as Peter. “Surely, you don’t mean that…and if you do, could you please be quiet about it? It’s very inconvenient, it gives the wrong impression, it isn’t fashionable.”

Many of us say we’re Christians…but, like Peter, we’d prefer to keep that in our heads, inside the church building, in our homes, in the book.

I think this is a little like what happens to Peter—he has all the right answers at first, but when push comes to shove and his lifestyle or his image is on the line, he gets defensive and wants to maintain his brand-name label. But when Jesus tells us what the life of a follower is like, it doesn’t seem to involve having the right answers, reading the right books, praying the right prayer, keeping up the right appearance, or even saying the right name. “follow me.” “stop worrying about what other people think of you.” “give everything away and come.” “take care of others.” “do justice, love kindness, be humble.” “take up your cross and follow me.”

Taking up the cross is not the same thing as wearing one on a silver chain around your neck. Following Jesus is not the same thing as reading about him. Being faithful is not the same as thinking the right things.

There is hard, but good, news for us here. The good news is that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can’t earn it and we can’t pay for it. That means we can follow freely, unencumbered by the world’s expectations, that we don’t have to know everything or be perfect…all we need to do is follow where Jesus is leading.
The hard news is that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from God, we can’t earn it and we can’t pay for it and we can’t hoard it for ourselves. Jesus may not be leading us where we thought we wanted to go, and what other people think really is important to many of us, so it’s easier to keep it all quiet, confined to an hour on Sunday and maybe a few words of thanks before dinner or before bed. If not joined with our lives, all our words and all our songs say nothing.

Our calling, as we enter a new year of worship, ministry, and mission together, is to sing it out loud with our lives, not only our words, to LIVE our faith every day, to follow, not only believe.

I believe we can live out loud together. May it be so.