The Call to Follow and to Leave Behind, Jay’s sermon from September 13

Mark 8:27-38

27 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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.” 34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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 I was in about first or second grade, I remember gathering around the TV one evening to watch the annual broadcast of the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Someone in my family—I’m not sure who—suggested that we adjust the color and tint settings on the television to make the display a little greener. If you remember the movie, it begins in black and white, but then when Dorothy and Toto are whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, everything changes to Technicolor, and we see the vibrant greens of Oz and especially the Emerald City. For my family, after monkeying with the TV, the greens were even more vibrant.

It wasn’t until just last a couple of weeks ago that I learned that what we had done was actually in keeping with the original story of Wizard of Oz. In that book, which is quite different than the movie, the Emerald City is in fact not any greener than any other city. Rather, in that story, when the Wizard first arrived in Oz from Omaha by way of hot air balloon, the first thing he did in Oz after ascending to power was to require all of the Emerald City’s residents to put on green tinted eye glasses. They were made to wear them all the time, so they eventually came to believe that the city was actually green. Even Dorothy and her friends were made to wear the glasses, so they assumed the pavement was made of blocks of green marble, joined together by rows of shining emeralds. They believed the streets were lined with houses of green marble, which had window panes of green glass. The Wizard changed how they saw that city. In effect, he turned the knob of their color setting.

While there are no wizards or green glasses in our Gospel reading today, I think there was a similar principle at play in that time and place. In Mark 8, Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea, you might guess, comes from the word Caesar, the name of the Roman emperor. Philip was the son of the evil tyrant, Herod, whom the Romans had placed in charge of the area. It is significant, I think, that they were in a place especially devoted to the Roman Empire, where imperial artwork and statues were everywhere around them, and the phrase “Son of God” might very commonly have been heard in describing Caesar, without anyone thinking twice about it. We could say that the Empire had a certain way of adjusting the tint for the people under its control. Their monuments and processions and demonstrations sought to convince the people that there was only one power that mattered and that the pathway to peace and prosperity could only come through military dominance and brutal violence. There was no arguing with Rome. In many ways, the Empire defined life for people—what power was, what good was, what the purpose of living was all about.

So it’s fitting that Jesus chose this region of Caesarea Philippi in which to invite his followers to remove the tinted spectacles of Empire. The disciples were starting to hear interpretations of Jesus from other people, suggesting things about who he was, relative to the powers that be. Peter rightly called him Messiah, but though he got the title right he was wrong in assuming it to mean something similar to the Roman way of dominance, that Jesus would successfully conquer the ruling forces. Instead, Jesus explained, they were on a path of service, vulnerability, and self-giving love. So Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” which, though quite harsh sounding, is another way of saying, “You’ve got blinders on, and you’re trying to cloud my own vision, too.” Perhaps Peter was filled with too much ambition. Perhaps he was blinded by the success Jesus had experienced so far. But in order to follow Jesus on his particular mission for the world, he and the rest of the disciples would need to let go of worldly concerns for self-promotion and competition. Jesus was inviting them into a very different journey of love and service. It was a difficult one, but it was a path toward a truer, more authentic understanding of themselves, the world, and God.

The American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote about his own spiritual life as a tension between competing “false selves.” We all have those selves, ideas about who we want to be or ought to be, the conditions we assume would make us happy and more complete. Maybe you’ve been tempted to think that your bank account reflected your identity, or your grades in school, or your family, or the things you have accomplished, or the ways in which you have failed. Maybe you’ve come to wrongly believe at times either that you are more important than others or that you are unworthy of others’ love. All of these things result from false selves and are distractions from the authentic self that God wants us to be, that we are created to be. Our true selves, Merton said, is the way we look through God’s eyes, free of worldly assumptions and personal illusions. Our true selves are found in God. Merton wrote:

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

Jesus invites his disciples on a path to finding their true selves.

It is often the case the communities need to rediscover their true selves as well. I think our own city is doing that in certain ways. While we have generally assumed ourselves to be progressive and “Minnesota nice,” some Minneapolitans have called this city’s attention to the institutional racism that exists and has existed for a long time. I believe our tinted glasses are slowly coming off in this and other cities. It can be a difficult process, but I hope that we are discovering more the kind of community we are meant to be

This congregation is on a journey of self-discovery, too, as every congregation is. For us, we are learning more what it means to build community where all are truly welcome into this congregation’s life and ministry, where we can be vulnerable with one another by admitting that sometimes life is really hard, where we can share our lives in relationship, and share our authentic experiences of faith with each other. We are growing in ministry for children and youth and learning to be ministered to by them as well. We continue to seek justice in our neighborhood and world, but we are opening ourselves even more to listening deeply to our neighbors so that we can build community together. Again, turning our focus from ourselves to others is a path toward authentic and abundant life.

Finding our true selves in this way—as individuals or as communities—can be difficult. It requires change and often traveling against the flow of the culture. While it may not involve literally picking up of a cross, it is a call to suffering. There is a cost. Now, in this country we do not suffer religious persecution as some Christians in other places of the world do, though it seems we’ve been hearing this claim a lot lately. We are in fact afforded privileges daily because of our identification with the Christian religion. But still there are times that following Jesus might cause us to feel that we are stepping out alone into unfamiliar territory, where we are asked to trust even when it feels that everything we have known is getting left behind. We are called to remove the tinted spectacles while everyone around us might seem to be going about life as if their vision is the correct way of seeing. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. It’s just that the transition into living our real, authentic lives can be uncomfortable. That’s understating it. It can feel like death, leaving an old self behind. But on this journey, Christ is present with resurrection love.

And it is a journey. The early Christians were called People of the Way. It wasn’t that they had everything figured out, but they were doing their best to follow and to learn more as they went. That’s why we need a community of followers to help us. At the beginning of our worship, when we say, “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,” we mean it. Because we are all on our journey of following Christ better and of letting go of false assumptions about ourselves, the world, and God. Clarity about this doesn’t snap into focus all at once. The culturally shaped lenses don’t fall immediately from our eyes. It takes practice. False selves take time to get developed, after all, so letting go of them does, too. But we return again and again here in our worship to the place where our journeys begin: the strong promise of God spoken to each one of us clearly and without qualification: “You are my beloved child. What matters to me is not your successes and failures. What matters to me is that I love you and you are mine.”

What could we possibly allow to get in the way of following such love?

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Jay’s sermon from July 26 on bread in the wilderness and the ELCA Youth Gathering

John 6:1-21

1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

A thought occurred to me as I was driving the church van back the 700 miles from Detroit to Minneapolis last week following the ELCA Youth Gathering. It was a question, really: What are we going to do with these kids?

Let me be clear: that question was not borne out of any kind of exasperation by their behavior during the week. Not at all. While others might wonder, “What’s the matter with kids today?” my question, to the contrary, is what are we going to do with the kindness, thoughtfulness, good energy, and faith possessed by the youth of today? And further, how do we hang on to the experience of last week and sustain it into the future?

As I said to the Church Council on Monday evening, if you are ever feeling cynical or discouraged about current affairs of the world, then I recommend you spend a week with 30,000 Lutheran youth. You will be filled with hope.

And you don’t have to be Lutheran to see the treasure that they are. Detroit newspapers last week described our mob of Gathering participants as friendly, humble, hard-working, enthusiastic, and joyful.  Detroit saw their willingness to pitch in and work. Even though each group had just one service day, together they cleared 3200 vacant lots of debris, boarded up 319 vacant homes, distributed 1,425 backpacks, painted 1,847 mural boards, installed 36 urban gardens, built 99 picnic tables, filled 26 dumpsters, and served 600 distinct neighborhoods. Oh, and they also provided 1 million diapers to be shared with Detroit families.

It’s astonishing—this abundance of service. And still, it is only one part of the story. Detroit witnessed thousands of youth who enjoyed both learning about each other and also learning about the city in which they gathered. And we did learn. We learned that there is life in abundance in that city. We learned that there is life in Christ’s church.

This was a unique week: filled with faith and hope and joy. So my question is what now are we going to do with these kids? What will the church do with these youth so that they will continue to experience faith, hope, and joy through their participation in the church?

It is this question that I bring most of all to my reading of the Gospel passage this week. So as I read through John chapter 6, I found that my attention kept returning to that boy. Did you notice that small role in today’s drama? While this “feeding of the multitude” story is one of the few that occurs in all four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—only John’s story includes the boy. John writes that when the disciples were wondering about how in the world they could ever possibly feed the crowd of people who came to see Jesus, Andrew found a boy who had packed a lunch of five loaves and two fish. Now, in pointing it out, the disciples also asked an appropriate question: “But what are they among so many people?” It was nothing more than a truly meager amount of food for such a large crowd. When I’ve read this story before, I’ve taken it to mean that Jesus can do so much with so little. Give Jesus the meager talent and faith you have and watch him multiply it. That may be part of the message. But this week, probably because of my experience in Detroit, I got to wondering, “What was that boy doing with so much food?” Sure, it may not be sufficient to feed 5,000, but it’s a huge amount of food for just one boy to carry.

I suppose it’s possible that the five loaves and two fish were meant for the child’s whole family and that he was serving as a kind of pack mule for them. It’s just odd that there is no mention of his family in the Gospel. Or, it could be that he had foolishly spent his week’s allowance at the convenience store when the crowd stopped for a restroom break a few miles back. That kind of thing does happen, I can say. But then again, maybe this youth’s appearance in John’s Gospel is meant most of all as a reminder to us that the abundance of God’s grace may often be found in the last place we are likely to look. The abundance of grace may surprise us.

How often are we like the disciples who become overwhelmed by the need and assume it is all up to us and forget to expect God’s grace? Jesus didn’t lose sight of that. While others worried about scarcity, he imagined abundance. While others expected death, he envisioned life. And at the end of the day, all were fed with as much as they wanted, and leftovers were collected for later.

I don’t know how literally to take this story. Did the fish and loaves really keep multiplying again and again as they were distributed? Or rather, were people simply moved by the generosity of the boy to share more and more of what they had with them whenever the baskets were passed in their direction? I find that explanation attractive. But before we completely explain away the miracle, we need to recognize that no matter how it happened, God was at work in that crowd before anyone noticed it. There was abundance already, even when everyone assumed scarcity.

So this week, reading about the feeding of the 5,000 with the ELCA Youth Gathering fresh in my memory, one thing I have decided that the question, “What are we going to do with the youth of this church?” is the wrong question for us to ask. The main point of this passage, as I take it, is that God is the one who sustains us for life—especially in places of wilderness, especially in times of storms, whenever the way forward is uncertain or accompanied by fear. So if the church of Christ now finds itself in a place of uncertainty about what to do with its young people, then the question for us to ask in faith is “what is God already now doing among the youth?” Even more, what is God doing for and through all of us, regardless of our age? We can trust that God is with us right now as our shepherd through the wilderness and as bread of life to sustain and renew us. We are not just the ones with the responsibility of feeding others. Sure, we have something to offer. But before everything else, we are all—young and old—children of God, equally dependent upon God’s nourishing grace. We all need God’s generosity, justice, and forgiveness in a world where such things seem so scarce. It’s been said before that there is not a single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not hunger for God’s liberating love.* And God promises to meet us in our hunger, regardless of what we do or don’t do.

I am convinced that what the youth need of the church is what we all need: a place to acknowledge that we are at once amazingly and abundantly gifted and also completely dependent upon God’s grace. We need that kind of church—together.

So let’s ask ourselves some new questions. Instead of starting with, “What should we do?” let’s start with, How is God feeding you? What hungers do you need God to satisfy for you, for your neighbor? When has God surprised you by giving you what you need before you even knew you needed it? How is God nudging you beyond your wants and needs? When has God come to meet you in a time of fear or uncertainty?

When Jesus took that boy’s loaves, gave thanks and gave them to be distributed among the multitude, it was much more than just a miracle with bread.  It was a glimpse into the deep love of God that will never abandon us and yet always seems to surprise us.

Note:

*I was grateful to hear Walter Brueggeman’s sermon for the Festival of Homiletics in May, 2014, at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. In his sermon he described quite concisely his understanding of the gospel, the treasure of the Church. That treasure that we hold in clay jars, he said, is:

forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;

generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;

hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;

justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.

“It is the old, old story,” he said, “of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!…This is the truth about the treasure: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one!”