Archive for August, 2008

Identity Crisis/Identity Opportunity

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

“Pick up your cross and follow me.”

Peter had seen what crucifixion was like. Sometimes you could walk along the roads of Israel and see the naked, tortured bodies of those suspended between heaven and earth. Because they had done something to cross Rome they ended up on a cross.

Sometimes it took people days to die. And you could hear the moans and the screams coming from those cross beams, and the anguish of the families and the loved ones who could only hope that death would finally come and bring an end of the soldiers’ taunts.

Rome was quick to hang people on crosses. And sometimes they did it by the dozens along the most traveled roads, so everybody knew what Rome was capable of. It’s kind of like Abu Grahib. You not only get to inflict torture on people you think are less than human, but you also get to terrorize a whole population.

It’s no wonder that Peter reacted the way he did. What kind of nonsense was Jesus talking about? The last place Jesus where Jesus needed to be going was Jerusalem. They all knew the religious authorities were out to get Jesus, and they would quickly trump up charges that would get Rome involved. And Rome already had more than its share of crucified ones.

And besides, just a couple of minutes ago Jesus had acknowledged what they all had started thinking; that Jesus just might be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. He more than acknowledged it. He said that what they were thinking had come to them straight from God.

So what was this business about going to Jerusalem and dying there? Everybody knew from their earliest days in Sunday School that the Messiah doesn’t die. The Messiah doesn’t fall victim to the empire. It’s the other way around. The Messiah raises an army of angels and the righteous and drives the occupiers, or what’s left of them, into the sea. Everybody knew that. It’s what the Bible says.

So Peter grabbed Jesus and said “Snap out of it. None of us are going to Jerusalem right now. Just get some rest and then we can start planning for when we are going into Jerusalem–on our own terms, and with an army of thousands. There are going to be people dying in Jerusalem, all right, but The Messiah is not going to be one of them.”

Now this story is just one of the several in this part of Matthew’s gospel where people are trying to figure out who Jesus is. Jesus is trying to figure out who he is. He’s been healing people. He has challenged the religious authorities. He has performed miracles like feeding the thousands in the desert. The things he has been teaching the people have left them breathless. But as I mentioned last week, these stories are not just about figuring out who Jesus is. They are also stories about his followers figuring out who they are.

Jesus responds to Peter’s attempts to block his way to Jerusalem with anger. “Get behind me Satan! You have no idea how God works.” And in the next breath he’s back working on the disciples, teaching them, not talking about himself, but them. “Jerusalem,” he says, “is not just a place where you go to go to die, but a place where resurrection happens. There is a cross waiting for me there. But it’s where we will find our lives, not lose them. It won’t be easy, but it’s the way to life.”

The disciples must have been stunned. Those men and women had never imagined The Messiah would end up on a cross. And now he was saying they would, too? And it wasn’t a sign of God’s abandonment, but God’s presence? They hadn’t signed on for this.

One of the problems was they hadn’t heard everything Jesus had said. They had been glorying in the fact that he might actually be The Messiah, the Promised One. It was such a jolt to hear him talking about crucifixion that they hadn’t heard the rest of it, that part about being raised on the third day. But that was not an insignificant detail for Jesus.

We don’t go walking down College Street or Main Street and see people hanging on crosses. Tappan Square and Wilder Bowl are pretty much crucifixion free zones. And we have completely separated crosses from what they are. For us they are jewelry, decorations for our homes and churches, signs of piety. For Jesus and the people of the first century they were gut wrenching testimonies to Rome’s cruelty and power and the evil of empire.

The first Christians didn’t wear crosses, or put them in their homes. It would be like us hanging up pictures of those prisoners in Abu Grahib and everyone admiring how beautiful they were, and asking where you got it.

The very first Christians didn’t know what to do about crosses. The symbol they used was a fish. We know even less about crosses. So what does it mean, then, when Jesus says we should “deny ourselves and pick up our cross and follow him?”

It may mean lots of things, but for me the thing that stands out is that it means taking a risk for resurrection. That ’s sure what Jesus was doing when he picked up his cross. We often talk about the crosses we bear, usually in terms of the illness we are struggling with, the child we are struggling with, or the in-law we are struggling with. And it’s always something that is fatalistic. It seems like the current cross we are bearing is the one that is finally going to do us in.

For Jesus, though, the cross was never the end of the story. Resurrection was. When Jesus headed out to Jerusalem he had resurrection on his mind, it was a part of his identity. “The Son of Man must be handed over to the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He knew that the cross belongs to Rome, but the empty tomb is God’s. And Jesus knew that was what his disciples would have to realize if they were going to discover their identity as his followers. Cross= Rome. Empty Tomb=God. It’s the empty tomb that is the equation for our lives.

Jesus and Jerusalem, for Jesus anyway, was not the story of a good man who met a bad end at the hand of the Romans. It was not the story of another good man who died young, who became a martyr for his principles and practices. Jerusalem was about resurrection and redemption, and a redemptive community. Us.

His life and ours, his identity and ours all comes in the same package. Do you see, like we were talking about last week, why the Apostle Paul calls us the Body of Christ? Jesus is in us and we are in him. The church has it’s identity in Jesus, and Jesus has his identity in the church. That is not an identity crisis, but an identity opportunity for the church and Jesus. And it all revolves around an empty tomb, not a cross.

How does it change our perspective when we realize for Jesus the meaning of the cross didn’t stop at death, but at resurrection? What does it enable us to risk?

That’s an amazing paradox Jesus was talking about. By losing our lives we find them. By risking faith in God, risking love for each other, risking hope for what we and this world can become we aren’t throwing our lives away, but finding them. And we think we have so many more important things to do than take the risk to be the church, the Body of Christ.

All summer long we have been talking about how impractical Jesus was. Love your enemies. Trust in God. Forgive. Don’t seek revenge. Make peace. Give up on violence. Cross those boundaries of nation, class, race, gender, sexuality, and economics and make new friends on the other side.

“Don’t go there, Jesus. Jerusalem doesn’t understand any of that. What they understand is power, an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth. We just have to give it harder to them than they do to us. The last one standing is the one who wins. You go in your way and they will crucify you, crucify us.”

“Yes, Peter, you’re right. But there is resurrection. The ways of God will prevail over the ways of this world even if we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. And it’s up to all of you to make it happen. Follow me to the cross and I promise you life. Stop before then and death will continue to swallow you up. You’ve got to take some risks Peter if you want to come alive. The God I believe in is a God of life. That’s why I’m trusting what’s going to happen in Jerusalem. God is not going to leave me dead, let death win. I really, really believe that Peter.”

Peter could not stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem. But to his credit and the others, he went there with him. And the worst of their fears didn’t come true. They didn’t all die there, just Jesus. But Jesus got resurrected there. And here’s the twist. Even though Jesus was the only one to die he shared his resurrection with everybody.

Now we may need to pick up our crosses in a thousand of little ways when we risk following Jesus and believing in the God he believed in. But there are a thousand little resurrections waiting for us.

I was talking with a returning student this week, and she told me I could tell you this story. Because she is from a denomination that has been hard for her to connect with in Oberlin, she didn’t get to church as much as she wanted to her first year here. But she was home this summer and working pretty hard. But she took the time out of her schedule to help out with Bible School at her home church. And what she realized was how much she had missed by being so disconnected from a local congregation last year. She took a little risk with her time and her schedule this summer, when many people might have argued there were more important things to do with her time, and had a little resurrection. She came back to life in a way she had been needing, and is looking at this year in a new way, a way that will lead her to find some kind of connection to a church.

If this business about picking up our crosses and following Jesus isn’t hard enough to grab hold of, for Peter, the disciples, for us, what Jesus says next is even harder. “For the Son of Humanity is to come with the angels in the glory of God, and then will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Humanity coming in the kingdom.”

What does that mean? Was it simply that Jesus was expecting for the end of the age to come shortly after his resurrection, and he just got it wrong? Was it the wishful thinking of the author of the Gospel because times were hard? Who knows what that was all exactly about?

But what if in coming alive with Jesus, the church finds its identity in the Risen Jesus, and we begin to sense what he was talking about all that time? What if picking up our cross helps us to see something of Jesus in all his glory as we find our identity in him?

And who says the judgment that Jesus is talking about is something we should worry over? What if the payback Jesus is talking about is on the positive side of the ledger, not the negative? The payback that comes when you pick up your cross and follow him to life?

It’s more about us than we thought

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

In Matthew 16 there is the story about the time Jesus was asking the disciples what everybody was saying about him. Well, he actually said what are they saying about the Son of Man? They said that basically folk seemed confused. “Some think you are John the Baptist or Elijah come back to life, or maybe Jeremiah or one of the prophets. They can’t figure you out.”

Then Jesus asked them the big question. “Who do you think I am?” It says he had to keep pressing the question, because they weren’t evidently willing to offer any thoughts or speculations. “Come on,” Jesus says, “if everybody else is trying to figure out who I am, you’ve got to be, too.”

So Peter steps up and says, “Well, we’ve been thinking that you just might be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Now they had spent enough time with Jesus to have put a foot or two in their mouths on several occasions. So they were probably bracing for any kind of response from Jesus.

Jesus looks straight at Peter and says, “You’ve got it. God has let you in on the secret. You surely didn’t figure it out from any of the so called preachers and theologians who are a dime a dozen around here. This stuff is straight from God.”

Then Jesus does something that seems odd to me. He’s been pushing them about who they think he is. And when they acknowledge he is the Christ, the Messiah, the One sent from God, instead of talking about what all that means, here is what he says, “Now I am going to tell you who you are. You are the church. You are going to take who I am and what I am and what I have shown you about God and make it come real in this world. And not even the gates of Hell with all its death dealing ways is going to stop you. The Kingdom of God is not only yours to find, but you are going to make it happen.”

As we begin worship this morning, take a look at everyone in the room today and think about others in rooms like it you have been in. Think about what these folk and so many others have brought to your life, what they show you about Jesus, how they have helped you follow him. Offer you own silent prayer of thanksgiving for all of those who have helped you find The Way.

Now look inside yourself. Think about what you have brought into the lives of those past and present in this room and rooms like it. Think about how you have shown them Jesus, and how you have helped them follow him. Offer you own silent prayer of thanksgiving for how you have helped all those others find The Way.

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This summer we have been taking a closer look at The Sermon on the Mount and some of those other stories in the gospels where Jesus seems to ask the impossible of us. Love your enemies. Do good to those who do badly to you. Trust God with every bit of who you are. Don’t seek revenge, but forgive. Don’t put your hope and trust in money, but in God.

We talked about how our response to those kinds of passages we read in the Gospels is often something like, “Well maybe Jesus could live that way, but he can’t expect us to.” Or “that’s just not realistic.”

Well it does seem that Jesus really did expect us to live the way he lived, and didn’t think it was all that unrealistic. It’s not easy, but neither is it impossible. After all, the same Spirit that was in Jesus is in us. The God Jesus believed in is the same God we believe in.

Evidently, the Apostle Paul believed that Jesus was serious about all of this, too. That’s what this passage we read today in Romans 12 is about. Paul is talking about lives that are transformed from the inside out by the grace that has come to us in Jesus Christ.

Paul agrees with Jesus that we don’t have to live by the assumptions of this culture that says violence and revenge and greed and militarism and patriarchy and racial and ethnic purity are what we need to make this world run. That’s the realistic way of living, but it’s the gates of Hell.

We are followers of Jesus, Paul says. We live by another way. And here’s something else that is very important to Paul and Jesus; we live that way with each other.

We learned in that story we read from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of today’s service, that what was important to Jesus was not who he was but who we are, who we are together.

As many complaints as we can come up with about the Apostle Paul, he had some brilliant and life giving insights along the way. One of them is this understanding that the church, the followers of Jesus who gather together in these communities of faith, are the Body of Christ. It’s a great metaphor of what Jesus was telling Peter that day when he said the church is going to take what he had done and make it real.

So Paul writes about the Body of Christ, saying this is how we make Jesus real. We become the living presence of Jesus in this world. When people see the church, they see Jesus. And he said that the only way we are the Body of Christ is together.

Now that is another hard saying for 21st century citizens of the United States. A part of the DNA of this nation is individualism. And that bleeds into the church where we have this me and Jesus mentality. Jesus saved me. God loves me. On one level it is important to let that sink into our souls. There is something very profound about the fact that the creator of the universe loves each and every one of us.

It is also just as profound that this thing is not simply about Jesus and me, but about Jesus and us. Together we are the Body of Christ, together we make Jesus known in this world. Together we make Jesus real. It can’t be done without each other.

Paul is trying to figure out how we really do live the way Jesus said we can live. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows it’s not going to happen without each other.

We often look at this passage about the Body of Christ and use it to remind people that they can’t disregard what others bring to the Body of Christ. The eye can’t say I really don’t need the lungs. Nor the foot say, I don’t really need the heart. There is a good lesson in humility there.

But there is another side to this coin about the Body of Christ. It’s not simply allowing others to have their place in the Body of Christ and treasuring what they bring, but it’s also offering our place in the Body of Christ and treasuring what we bring.

We need others, but others need us, as well. It is just as dysfunctional to not let others bring their gifts to the Body of Christ as it is for us to hold back our gifts ourselves. Remember what Paul is saying. Together we are the Body of Christ. And that together includes each one of us. Whether others exclude us, or we exclude ourselves, the result it still the same. The Body of Christ suffers. We are less able to live the way Jesus showed us we can live, because the help we need from others is being held back by someone else or themselves.

What’s always so fascinating about what Jesus said that day to Peter being the foundation of the church is that they were seemingly so incapable of such a task. Do you know what happens in the very next story? Jesus gets into Peter’s face because Peter says the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God does not go to Jerusalem to die. “That’s just nonsense,” Peter says. Jesus response is “Peter, get out of my way. You are Satan himself so get lost. You have no idea how God works.” “On this foundation I will build my church?”

But this is what Jesus knew. Peter and the others would figure out how God works. It wouldn’t come in one big revelation. They wouldn’t just one day get it. But together they would keep following Jesus and together they would figure out what this was all about. Or, at least, some of it.

And it’s the same way with us. The only way we are going to get it, or at least some of it, is with each other. And we will receive as much help from each other as we are willing to offer to each other. The church, the Body of Christ is this place, will be what we all bring to it, nothing more nor nothing less.

Paul closes out Romans 12 with the same kind of crazy talk Jesus did. Let’s read that together, it’s in the bulletin.

We just finished our study of the Book of Acts this week. It started off with Jesus telling that not very promising group of men and women who had been his followers that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the world. By the end of the book that had happened.

They were his witnesses by becoming the Body of Christ with each other. And they had to overcome all kinds of obstacles to make that happen, including the centuries long animosity that Jews and Gentiles had toward each other. But through all the struggle they became the church together, the Body of Christ together. Jew and Gentile. Slave owner and slave. Men and women. They believed that Jesus was not only alive, but he was alive in them together. And they helped each other live the way Jesus said we could live.

To be a part of the church, the Body of Christ, is to put ourselves on the line by accepting what others have to offer, and offering ourselves to them so we can be the Body of Christ with each other. Jesus knew that his whole mission was dependent on the churches we commit ourselves to building with each other. That may be a much greater challenge for us than any of the rest of what Jesus said. But if we start getting this, we can start getting the rest.

The Long Arc of Peacemaking

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

For me, the pivotal experiences of life at this church the past few months have rotated around the losses of Clara Welder and Jere Bruner. Each left a unique imprint on the soul of this community. The gifts and graces of both their lives continue to impact who we are and who we have become.

The other day, someone asked me, “What does your church stand for? What is it about?” and I quickly returned to our name—Peace Community Church. This is what we are about—bringing God’s healing shalom, or peace, wherever we are; building community that seeks to reflect the light and life of Jesus; and being church together–the fingers, the hands, the vital organs, the feet of the body of Christ–offering our gifts freely to one another and to the world.

It’s a big order, a tall order, but a profoundly beautiful calling. Eight years ago, we as a community discerned that such a name would become a calling “to live up to and into.” We’re not there yet—we haven’t arrived—but we are in motion. And staying in motion is where God wants us to be, even when at rest. I always tell my piano students that the rests in the music are music themselves–they are not stopping points, but a change in the pace and texture of the sound we are creating. So it is, too, with us. The winds of the Spirit blow wildly and wonderfully upon us, and we cannot help but stay in motion.

I’m deeply thankful for the peacemaking that occurred amid the losses of Clara and Jere–peacemaking that came through gentleness and caring, in discernment and patience, through loving and letting go. Peacemaking happened during fruit salad and sandwich fixings downstairs in the Community Room. Peacemaking broke out in storytelling and laughter over lunch at Quick & Delicious Restaurant.

Another opportunity for peacemaking came after four Mexican immigrants and one Honduran working at the local Casa Fiesta Restaurant were detained by immigration authorities and subsequently deported. We had the opportunity to bear public witness to the fact that, in God’s eyes, these five were our neighbors, not the aliens the media would make them out to be.

A clip from a recent movie is seared in my brain. After ecological catastrophe has overtaken the United States, the last scene is a stream of U.S. refugees at the Mexican border, bags in hand, children in tow. The fact that the scene feels unthinkable, indeed, belies its unmistakable power. Can I put myself in that long stream of desperate U.S. citizens, hanging on the mercy of Mexican officials? What might I risk for my family? Do we even know?

The long arc of peacemaking confronts lies and speaks the truth, thus unveiling the promise and possibility of shalom. The story of Joseph in the Hebrew scriptures offers a compelling example of this long arc of peacemaking. Joseph is thrown in a cistern, almost left for dead, then instead sold to some Ishmaelites passing by–all this by his half-brothers. Many factors play into their hatred of Joseph—the complexities of polygamous marriage don’t help. Joseph is their father’s favorite by his favorite wife, Rachel, who for years has trouble conceiving. He is also the recipient of dreams that seem egotistical to his brothers, but in the long arc of family history turn out to be prophetic. There is jealousy; there is resentment; there is sibling rivalry; there is parental favoritism. All of this becomes a recipe for trouble.

After their sordid deed, the brothers mask their betrayal with lies, concealing their crime by killing a goat and smearing its blood on their Joseph’s coat. Returning home, they mislead their father into thinking that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. He never stops mourning his loss. Carefully and collectively, the siblings maintain their family secrets. To betray them is to unveil the truth of their own sin.

Years pass. During that time, Joseph experiences both blessings and trials—all of which eventually catapult him into the role of governor of Egypt. Dreams, which he is able to interpret so well, play a key role in his rise to power. Joseph governs during seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. He carefully stockpiles food during the time of plenty. There is thus enough to spare during the years of famine.

Finally, Joseph’s half-brothers (minus his youngest brother, Benjamin), go to Egypt in search for food. After a series of clever ruses, the moment comes when all the brothers are present before the governor–even Benjamin. Joseph can no longer hold himself together. Sobs racking his body, he unveils his true identity.

The actions that follow reveal three important things about Joseph. First, he now interprets his family story as redemptive rather than tragic. Joseph tells his brothers, “Now do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me here. It was really God who sent me ahead of you to save peoples’ lives” (Genesis 45:5). What a powerful acknowledgment of the presence and sovereignty of God throughout the trials and challenges of Joseph’s life! He has had plenty of time to reflect on the deeds of his brothers over the years, plenty of time to nurse feelings of anger and bitterness. Instead, Joseph interprets their evil deeds in a redemptive way. He has found a way to wrest good out of their evil intentions.

Secondly, Joseph has found a way to forgive his brothers and welcome them back into his life. Forgiving is one thing, hard enough. Welcoming the offenders is something else. It is a sign that one is willing to take another chance, to attempt to rebuild broken relationships and battered trust. This is a transforming initiative on Joseph’s part.

Finally, Joseph offers to rescue his entire family in spite of the fact that his half-brothers once did not rescue him. He is in a position of power whereby he can truly let his half-brothers and their families go hungry. He can throw his siblings in prison as retribution for their sins. He can leave his family in the ruinous, dysfunctional state where it has been for decades. Instead, he feeds them. This is another transforming initiative.

Joseph turns the tables on betrayal, regret, mistrust, anger, hatred, and a host of other expected responses. He carves out a better way. These stark moments of truth-telling force the lies of the years to crumble and fall away in the face of Joseph’s integrity and love. His loss is profound and deep, but greater in him is his yearning for reconciliation and healing. Greater, indeed, is the power of redemption. Greater, indeed, is the beauty of shalom.

Every time I see shalom in action, whether in the Hebrew scriptures, in family gatherings around a death, or in a vigil thrown together in four days, I’m humbled and awestruck at the power of God to offer life in the midst of death, to bring healing out of injury, to call forth order out of disarray, to make strength out of weakness.

Today, I invite you to think about the ways that your life embodies the shalom of God, the opportunities you have on a daily basis to be an emissary of that shalom, and the places in your life where shalom is desperately needed, whether that be among family, friends, neighbors, or even enemies. Pray for your ministry as a peacemaker, as a maker of shalom. If you do, I assure you that God will use you.

Peace Community Church. What do we stand for? Imperfect though we are, we seek to offer ourselves to Jesus as a sweet-smelling fragrance, a gift which delights his heart. In his presence, indeed, we discover life. There, indeed, we become people of shalom.