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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The one where the Syrophoenician woman finds a home.

Pastor Ingrid C. A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 6, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the seventh chapter:

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone. 31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

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I propose that we stay close to the Syrophoenician woman today.

Syrophoenician: It’s a designation that occurs only here in the seventh chapter of Mark. It suggests that the woman is half-Phoenician—that is, Lebanese—and half Syrian. She is an outsider, a Gentile. The gospel writer simply calls her Syrophoenician; that’s what first century men did. But, today, let’s dignify her with a name. Let’s call her Sarah.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this story all of my bible-reading life: An over-worked messiah named Jesus enters the room. Sarah approaches him and drops to her knees. She begs. Some really harsh words are exchanged. Eventually, healing comes, but we get the sense that it comes at great cost.

Sarah’s story is shocking. It appears without warning or context; one minute, it seems, Jesus is generously feeding the five thousand, the next minute he’s being super stingy with Sarah at his feet. And then, just as quickly as the story began, the writer of Mark’s gospel moves on to the next miracle, without offering any explanation of what becomes of Sarah and her healed baby girl.

In modern-day publishing, we might say that Sarah’s story verges on voyeurism—you know, the printing of sensational images for profit. Mark’s story makes me uncomfortable in much the same way that the magazines lining the grocery store check-out lane do. I find myself not wanting to look. Like the gospel writer, I, too, want to hurry along to the next story. I want to get my milk and eggs and get out of Tyre, so to speak.

I admit to having similar experiences this week as stories and images came flooding out of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. In the last four years of armed conflict in Syria, more than 200,000 people have died in what began as anti-government protests and later escalated into a full-scale civil war. More than 11 million people have been pushed out of their homes. That’s the largest forced migration since World War II.

The crisis has been largely ignored by American media outlets—that is, until a whole host of images of refugees surfaced this week. You saw them—grandmas crawling under fences, boys supporting their fathers, babies being carried on the long, long journey toward safety.

News organizations were forced to decide which pictures they would publish. One thoughtful journalist, Justin Peters, first took the side that the most devastating pictures should be avoided. He later changed his mind, saying, “There’s a difference between publishing explicit images in order to sell and publishing images to illustrate some broader point. Journalism is the act of uncovering stories that would otherwise remain private and showing them to the world,” he writes. “The best journalism…exposes hidden truths and then convinces people to face them. Syria is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that persists, in part, because the world pays it very little attention. [We], as human beings, ought to know about it.”

I wonder if Mark’s writer asked similar questions as he put pen to paper. Did he wonder if he should write about Sarah’s story or if he should let it find its home in the silent annals of history? Did he, in the end, make the decision to illustrate a broader point, so that his community could face the hidden truth together?

I think Mark is saying something about worth and dignity.

The President of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose, says that some interpreters have asserted that this woman believed in Jesus, but more importantly believed in her self-worth. He says that “[we] have no idea whether this woman believed herself worthy of God’s attention and Jesus’ time. But [we] do know that she believed her daughter was. That is, she was convinced that her precious, beloved daughter who was being oppressed by this [unwelcome] spirit was absolutely deserving of Jesus’ attention and so she was able to go to great lengths to help her, even to the point of arguing with this famous teacher and healer.”

In this way, Sarah’s not altogether different from other caretakers I know—the ones who react quickly when their children stumble on their way to the communion rail, the ones who keep watch over their child’s hospital bed, the ones who find their way into my office and say they’d do anything to feed their children a decent evening meal…and mean it. Sarah’s confidence lies in the worthiness of her child. We are staying close to the Sarah today because, in her, we see faith exercised on behalf of others. It’s a mama thing.

Or maybe it’s a follower of Jesus thing.

Maybe that’s exactly what we invite little Vincent into today—a belief in the belovedness of all people. Maybe when Pastor Jay dips his hand into that water and touches baby Vincent’s warm head, we’re saying that we are mysteriously being united with him, and that, from this moment on, we will support each other as our hearts are continually broken open in compassion for the sake of the whole world. Maybe when Vincent comes up from the font with wet hair, we see that together we are part of the unending life of Jesus that is poured on creation in abundance and joy. And maybe when Vincent is carried up and down the aisle and peers into our eyes, we are reminded that we are a people who don’t look away from doubt and pain. In fact, we look into it and we may even move toward it, because we know that we’ll find God’s grace, mercy, and healing already at work there—in corners usually reserved for Sarah and people like her. This is the life into which we’re baptized.

Just yesterday, after being turned away at every turn, 7,000 Syrian refugees were allowed to walk across the borders of Germany and Austria. It was reported that “they were met with wholly unexpected hospitality featuring free high-speed trains, seemingly bottomless boxes of supplies, and gauntlets of well-wishers offering trays of candy for everyone and cuddly toys for the tots in mothers’ arms.” Reporters said that “even adults absorbed the scenes of sudden welcome with a look of childlike wonderment as Germans and Austrians made clear that they had reached a land that just might become a home.”

Let’s stick close to Sarah and watch where she goes. I think she’ll lead us toward love. I think she’ll lead us toward home. I think she’ll lead us toward hope in a weary world.

AMEN.

Life in Community and the Bread of Life

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

4:25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

5:1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

John 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Judeans began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

This morning, a good friend of mine, also a pastor, is giving her first sermon in a new congregation. After serving in another location for many years, she is just starting this week in a new community. They are in that early stage of getting to know each other—she and the rest of the congregation—and they will hopefully be together for a long time.

I think that the second reading today from the book of Ephesians will be especially helpful for their new beginning together in worship today. It is a great passage for beginnings in Christian community. It would be an appropriate choice to read at baptisms or new member Sundays, whenever people first become a part of the church, because it describes some core values for what it means to be a community together that is centered in Christ. Of course, this is helpful to read on an ordinary Sunday, too—one such as today, when most of us have been church together for some time and will all hopefully continue to be church together for some time into the future. I know I am looking forward to the years ahead here at Holy Trinity. Well, Ephesians 4 offers a powerful list of reminders for both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of Christian community, for life together as followers of Jesus. Among them are these:

  • Speak the truth. More than just refraining from lies, truth-telling is a way of building trusting relationships. We need each other, after all, and we need to be able to trust each other. So say what is true for you, and trust that others will be able to hear it.
  • Be mindful of your anger. It makes sense, I suppose, that this follows truth-telling. You might get angry sometimes, and that’s okay. You don’t need to be afraid of strong emotion. In fact, there are times when in the face of injustice and violence it would be wrong not to get angry. But remember also that the kind of anger that festers or manipulates others or seeks only to tear down others will be seriously harmful to a community. So deal with your anger well, whether it’s about big things or small things. Be mindful of your anger.
  • Be aware of the needs of others. In your life and your work, don’t just keep your head down focused only on your own accomplishments and desires. Take a look around you, and be mindful of how you could help others. They might need some food or clothing; they might need a kind and gracious word from you, which is just as important. Help where you can.
  • Be kind and tenderhearted. Forgive one another. Forgiveness is perhaps the most important mark of Christian life together because none of us does life perfectly. I need your forgiveness often. We all need to ask for, receive, and offer forgiveness. Church is a great place for practicing this.

Again, while there are other things we could add, this is a helpful list for any Christian congregation, and I hope that it continues to describe who we are together. Beyond the church, this list in Ephesians could also inform and strengthen other relationships. It could serve friendships, marriages, relationships between parents and children, among siblings, in neighborhoods both small and large, maybe even a society. We would do well to study Ephesians 4 often for the sake of all our communities. But if you can’t remember all the details, it all seems to be summed up in that final phrase: “live in love, as Christ loved us.”

That sounds so simple when it’s put that way, doesn’t it? Live in love. It sounds trite, even. And yet there is a powerful promise here for our world—more than just the church, the whole world. What would it mean for us to live in love, as Christ loved us?

I often wonder if the world is becoming more loving or not. Have we learned anything from Ephesians and from countless spiritual teachers who have gone before us, or do we keep falling into the same traps of human nature over and over again? Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed optimism about this, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I want to believe that he is correct. I want to believe that in the 50 years this weekend since the signing of the Voting Rights Act our society has become more just and loving toward all people. But the death of Michael Brown and all the events of the past year have me wondering. I want to believe that in the 70 years this weekend since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki our world has become less violent and more creative and courageous in overcoming conflict. But the signs of endless war point to a different conclusion. I try to be optimistic, yet when my eyes are opened to the sorrows of our contemporary society, I must confess that it is not easy for me to trust in that bending arc of history.

A couple of weeks ago I watched an interview with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was on the Daily Show with now former host Jon Stewart. Coates, a scholar of racism in America, clearly disagreed with Dr. King’s optimism. Most of all, he said he doesn’t want us to lose sight of individual arcs. That is, when an individual’s life is ended due to hatred, when a life that a mother has built for her child is “all gone in one racist moment,” then we should not “try to make ourselves feel better about that” by talking about the universe’s arc. We need to sit with that pain. We need to recognize that an individual’s very important arc has come to an end.

I appreciate his honesty and his sense of urgency. He is willing to speak his own truth with clarity and passion. In listening to him, I felt an even greater need to respond now to this call from Ephesians to live in love, as Christ loved us. Our world is in desperate need of this love right now.

So I am grateful that Ephesians doesn’t just show us the need for love. It also shows us where that love comes from. Like other books of the Bible it proclaims a consistent trust that God is loving us. God is present and active in loving us in each moment, even in the worries and challenges that we face, even when it is hard to find reason for optimism or hope. I don’t know if things are getting better in our world day by day, but maybe the conviction that we gather around in our worship, the thing that draws us here week after week because we so desperately need it is the awareness that God is, in fact, loving us, and that love is what gives us strength to love others. Maybe that’s what believing Jesus—believing in Jesus—is all about. It is trusting that God will continue to love us—beyond every challenge and failure, beyond even death itself. That trust will renew us for life, no matter what we face.

Wendell Berry wrote a poem that could be a daily prayer for any of us who seeks to follow Christ in a troubled, complicated world. He said:

I know that I have life

only insofar as I have love.

I have no love

except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry

this candle against the wind.

There are times when circumstances in our world make it seem that “living in love” is an unattainable fantasy, or at best just a dimly burning wick in a windstorm. The good news is that the kind of love that can change communities and even societies is not a result just of our own understanding or determination. Through Christ, God will continue to feed us and strengthen us and give us what we need for the journey. You may be at an especially challenging point in your own journey this morning; there are certainly challenges in the world around us, and we cannot see where the journey will end. Still, God will be faithful along the way. In love, God will renew you for love. Amen.