Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Take up your cross!

Mark 8:27-38, 16th Sunday after Pentecost B, September 13, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Consider Ashley. Ashley comes from a wealthy household. She gets everything she wants and she flaunts it around her high school. To be honest, Ashley is a brat. No matter how many times she attended youth group with her clique, she did not understand what “taking up her cross” should look like. She figured that wearing her diamond studded cross necklace was enough. At school, she still put down her poorer friends. 

Next, look at Jerry. Jerry is a middle-aged white man. He has worked hard his entire life to earn his living. When Jerry hears people proclaim, “Black lives matter,” he doesn’t understand how his white privilege has helped him along the way. His church never talks about racism, so he figures that “taking up his cross” means to remain in a place of power while he helps others.

Finally, there is Anna. Anna is an older woman who honestly is tired. While raising her family, Anna dutifully brought her kids to church. After they left the house, she didn’t have much time before her husband fell ill. She cared for him until he died. Now, Anna is ready to be the one receiving care. She “took up her cross” when she was younger, yet now she has no energy to do so. Although only in her early seventies, Anna is “done.”

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him, he warns us that there will be consequences. Being Christian is not the popular thing to do. Following Christ is not the easy thing to do - or at least it isn’t when done right. Sometimes we forget how counter cultural Christ’s message was and is.

Just as Peter does in the gospel lesson, too often we set our minds on human things instead of divine things. We get caught up in wealth, or privilege, or our families so that our lives no longer focus on Christ. Even if we attend church every week, we don’t actually take up our crosses unless we bring Christ into the world.

Doing this isn’t always fun or easy, yet it is what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus calls us to reject the world and let the world reject us. Our Christian ethics will never be popular because Jesus tells us to value every human being as an equal, no matter if they are rich or poor, straight or gay, white or black. 

Jesus shows us how to love them - by eating with them, by healing them, by bringing them back into community. Jesus loved the least among us by showing them how great they really are. We can only do this when Christ is the center of our lives. We must let the ethics of the world pass away so that Christ’s love can shine through.

Jesus tells us that “those who lose their life for my sake…will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV) Essentially, Jesus is encouraging his followers to face persecution with bravery. Christians are not facing persecution in America. Some like Kim Davis may think that they can discriminate against others in the name of Jesus, but this is not so! For Jesus cared for all who were ostracized from the world. Discrimination is not the cross that we bear. 

Instead, we together as the ELCA stand up for those who are deemed “less” by our society. We stand with blacks, gays, and the poor. We advocate for them and with them. We learn who they truly are so that they no longer are the “other.” That is the cross that we bear. So how can we help our fellow Christians truly to take up their cross and follow Jesus?

We can approach youth like Ashley and show her how deeply her words can hurt others. We can help her understand how her poor classmates live and the struggles that they face. Maybe Ashley could be inspired to have a drive for jeans at her school. By donating of her wealth and time, Ashley could take up her cross.

We also can talk to people like Jerry. We can bring him into a nearby black community to listen. He can hear stories of how many extra roadblocks black men must surpass before they can be as successful as Jerry. By listening, Jerry can better understand. Then, he and his church could partner with a black church to ensure that their kids don’t grow up segregated. In that way, Jerry is taking up his cross. 

Finally, there are many “Annas” in this congregation and in every congregation. Those who tire of ministry at a young age may not realize that no age is too old to take up your cross. You are never too old to try something new or take a risk. What you do in this place and in the community may change, yet Christ always needs you to serve the church and each other. 

With such risks and challenges in place, why would we be so willing to take up our crosses? Because of who Jesus is. Peter accurately proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one. 
Jesus is more than just a prophet. Jesus most certainly is not John the Baptist or Elijah. They were special men, yet they were only human. Jesus is also fully God. Jesus is the savior of the world.

But Jesus was not the grand triumphant king that the Jews expected. Jesus was not some superhero flying in to save the day. Instead, Jesus was - and is - the suffering servant that we hear about in Isaiah. Jesus tells his disciples here that he would undergo suffering, be rejected by all Jewish authority, and then be killed. Jesus would experience physical pain, humiliation, and despair before finally giving up his life.

Then the Lord would bring Jesus back to life on the third day. And so, just as Jesus predicted, this is what happened. This is who Jesus is - our savior who gave up his own life and then rose again so that we can experience a resurrection just like his.

We see glimpses of this resurrection when Christ enables us to lift up the lowly, the downtrodden, and the rejected. This is the cross that Jesus calls us to take up. When we help others, we truly are following Jesus. Amen.

Meaningless or Important?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, 14th Sunday after Pentecost B, August 30, 2015

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

You have heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” My cousin D, who is in his mid thirties, learned this the hard way this week. While at a ball game, he ate two corn dogs, garlic fries, pork nachos, a hot dog, and a hot chocolate. The next morning, on Facebook he wrote, “it’s interesting: you eat a lot of [junk] food, and then you feel like [junk]. D learned that he can no longer eat like a teenager.
That is a sad reality that most people learn in their thirties. You are what you eat. When you eat healthy food, you feel good. When you eat unhealthy food, you feel bad. But the point of the matter is this: what you eat only impacts you. Well, if you ate a whole Magic Mountain, maybe the people around you might feel a bit uncomfortable too.
For the most part, personal decisions about food only impact the person eating the food. Jesus says, “There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” (Mark 7:15 NET)
He goes on to say that it is our evil words and deeds that do the most damage. I think a major reason for this is that your words and deeds impact others. You can make a person’s day by saying something nice, yet you can ruin a person’s day by saying something cruel. A corn dog might give you an upset stomach, yet a degrading comment can give someone else an upset heart. 
Here, Jesus is setting priorities. The Jews back then- and even some today - followed strict laws regarding food preparation and consumption. Many foods, like pork and shellfish, were off limits. Others, like dairy and meat, were not allowed to be eaten together. This is why a bacon cheeseburger is the ultimate dietary sin.
A young Jewish man named Moshe recently told his story of this on the Moth podcast. He describes his childhood in an ultra orthodox Jewish community as being like Amish but with electricity. He wasn’t able to read secular books, watch tv, or eat non-Kosher food. His rabbis threatened that the Lord would directly punish him if he disobeyed any of these rules. Because then he would know that the Lord is God. So everyday, Moshe would look over his shoulder wondering if the Lord would smite him.
When he was fifteen, he began to question his orthodox Jewish upbringing, and his parents were going through a rough divorce. So Moshe decided to leave the fold. He went to Long Island to spend some time with his aunt and his brother. But Moshe had only known his orthodox Jewish community, so he wasn’t ready quite yet to break all of his childhood habits. 
When it came time for dinner, Moshe wanted to eat Kosher food, but his aunt’s kitchen was filled with only secular food. So, they hopped into the car and drove around Long Island looking for Kosher restaurants, but they all were closed. Then Moshe suggested getting a Kosher frozen pizza, but even those weren’t available. 
Moshe secretly wanted something not Kosher, but he was too afraid to admit it. Then he came up with a solution: if he didn’t know that it wasn’t Kosher, then maybe he could eat it. So, his aunt went into a pizza place to get him a slice of mushroom pizza. Moshe stayed in the car. The entire time that she was in the pizza shop, Moshe was afraid that the Lord would smite her. He was afraid that his pizza slice would be cut with a knife that had touched pork. He was afraid that something would go wrong.
Then his aunt came out of the shop just fine. They went back to his aunt’s home, and he greatly enjoyed that slice of mushroom pizza. He wouldn’t admit it out loud because he was still afraid that the Lord would smite him.
Moshe never returned to the orthodox Jewish community. He learned that he could still be faithful without following every dietary law. Because he could love the Lord while eating a slice of pizza. 
These laws were created for many reasons, one of which was to separate the Jews from their foreign neighbors. During the exile, when the Jews were trying to find out how they could still worship the Lord in a foreign place, they turned to these dietary laws to set them apart from their Gentile neighbors.
In Jesus’ time, this separation from community was no longer necessary. From Jesus’ perspective, dietary restrictions including the washing of hands was adiaphora - or not relevant to salvation. There is nothing wrong with washing hands before a meal - in fact that is good hygiene! We wash our hands today not because God commands us to but because it is common sense.
The Pharisees questioning Jesus were following the letter of the law without considering the spirit of the law. Jews were blindly following dietary restrictions without having their hearts set on God. And that is where Jesus found the problem. What is the point of washing your hands before dinner if you are going to proceed to bully your dining companions?
Jesus reminds us that our words can hurt people more than they will ever share. Our offhand comments can cut deep. Our neglect of others can be the most dangerous. 
So, what can we do? We can help the people of Nepal through our noisy can offering. We can love our neighbors in word and deed. We can feed the hungry through the Salvation Army dinner. We can clothe the naked through donations. We can encourage Princeton’s firefighters and police this Rally Day. We can do the work of God. 
We can do this, not because Jesus commands us to but because Jesus enables us to. We can do this because Jesus gives us the inspiration, the strength, and the encouragement to do so. Thanks be to God! Amen.