Sermon for September 16th, 17 Pentecost – Mark 8:27-38

Grace, peace and light are yours, from the Triune God who loves us.  Amen.

This gospel story from Mark captures the essence of what it means to follow Jesus.

It tells a story that could as well be happening in our time and place as in first-century Palestine.  The timelessness of Scripture never fails to amaze me.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples.  And they have a variety of responses, as would we.

Today, we might answer this question by reciting the line from the prophet Isaiah included in Handel’s Messiah: Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace.  We might say Messiah.  We might say Son of the God or the Most High.

We might say the Christ.  Or Savior.  Or friend, or brother.

We might say he’s been co-opted into the political realm.  Or we might say that some people claim Jesus was someone whose followers don’t resemble him very much.

We might say a number of things, were Jesus to show up and ask us.

But this question and these answers are what help us understand the context in which we live.  In Jesus’ time, the disciples’ answers reflected the yearning of the people of Israel for the long-awaited Messiah, particularly in the face of Roman occupation.

When we ponder who others say he is, we can keep a safe distance.  But when the question is asked of us – well, then, as they say – it gets personal.

And it is the central question of discipleship.

Who do you say that I am?

Sure, we can answer it with a memorized answer.  We can recite the party line or the Second Article of the Creed.  We can even get really fancy and include Luther’s Small Catechism comment on that Second Article.

But who do YOU say that Jesus is?  In plain language?  Better yet, in NON-CHURCH language?

I’m going to put you on the spot a bit, and ask you to turn to someone and answer this question to each other: who do you say that Jesus is?  I want to emphasize that there are no wrong answers.  This is not a confirmation test, but a way to hear beyond ourselves.  I’ll give you a couple of minutes because let’s not overthink this!  When we’re near two minutes I’ll gather us back together.

[two minutes later]

Thank you for entering this space!  After worship, I would love to hear some of what you heard from each other – and please share with others as you are comfortable.

Who do you say that I am? – this is a critical question from Jesus that then leads us to our own identity: who do we say that WE are?  And I would pose that question both individually and as a congregation, or synod, or the whole church.

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to have you answer that one!)

But it’s the question that when considered with who we say Jesus is, determines how we will live as his disciples.

And here’s where Peter’s answer makes things interesting.

He names Jesus as Messiah, yes; but I think Peter understands “Messiah” to mean Messiah as king – a great warrior who will drive the Romans out of Palestine and establish God’s kingdom, by force if necessary.

That’s not the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus has in mind.

When Jesus begins to clarify what HE means by “Messiah” Peter is dumbfounded.  Didn’t Jesus get the memo?  Doesn’t he remember all the Torah and all the teaching about Messiah?  What is he talking about??  And he starts haranguing Jesus, basically saying “you need to review the talking points here.  Don’t go off message.”

But Jesus will have none of it.  Not because he’s playing power games, but because he really wants Peter to understand what he means.

Peter is thinking of a Messiah as an all-powerful warrior, a kind of superhero.  Someone who swoops in and fixes everything.

But Jesus doesn’t operate like that.  That is a kingdom based on power and repression and even fear – all of which are NOT what Jesus is about.

It’s also a kingdom that keeps people down.  Doesn’t allow them to participate in kingdom activity, in all its dimensions.

Jesus instead invites us into full participation in the building of the kingdom of God.  Or maybe, more accurately, the peaceable realm of God.  For Jesus is not looking to imitate and then overthrow the Romans, but rather transform the world.

But that transformation comes at a cost.  And that is what Jesus describes as he continues.

Both Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that truly following Jesus, answering the call to discipleship, meant taking extraordinary risks.  But they also knew that NOT answering that call would lead to a life devoid of any ethics and therefore any real meaning.

Here is the critical thing to keep in mind, when Jesus is speaking to the disciples: they understand the cross only as a Roman instrument of torture.  To them, the cross means suffering and death and nothing more.  And so to take these words at face value can seem like a pretty lousy life, or it can lead us to a martyr complex.  Or worse, it can allow us to abuse others by telling THEM it’s their cross to bear.

But we – we read these words knowing the other part of the story – that the cross for us ultimately means resurrection.  Life over death.  That in suffering and even in death, there can be redemption, and LIFE.

This passage is so easily misunderstood.  So easily interpreted as related to an angry God who must be appeased by extracting that pound of flesh.  And nothing could be further from what Jesus means, or from the truth of the gospel.  Because grace demands no pound of flesh; rather, grace urges metanoia – turning in a new direction.

Jesus names three parts to discipleship, all of which are counter to the culture in which we find ourselves today:

  1. Deny ourselves;
  2. Take up our cross; and
  3. Follow Jesus.

“Deny ourselves” is usually assumed to mean some kind of ascetic living.  Live in a tiny home.  Fast several days out of the month.  Give away all your money.

Nothing is wrong with any of these things, but I’m not convinced they really are denying ourselves.  Those are denying things.  And we can easily become convinced that by denying things, we are following Jesus.

In the life that Jesus lives, denying oneself means putting the needs of others first, the majority of the time.  It’s being aware of what it means to be curved in on, or focused on, the self – and striving instead to live curved out to the world.  And it means self-care when necessary.

Putting others’ needs first and attending to self-care are critical to hold together in order to “take up one’s cross.”  And I don’t believe Jesus means that cross as a punishment.

“Taking up one’s cross” is not about bearing suffering or problems.  Those are universal; they happen to everyone.  As a professor of mine always said, “such is the nature of the human condition.”  Taking up your cross means living into what God has called us to do, in all its struggles and joys.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that when something has come to me after great struggle, it carries greater value.  The experience stays with me longer; it shapes and forms me.  Those who have stood by me as I have struggled, reminding me that we walk this road together, have been a part of that experience.

But the third part Jesus names is the one that gives this whole thing direction: follow me.

Because we could easily do the first two with no knowledge or understanding of Jesus whatsoever.  Many people do.  But as people of God, following Jesus is what changes everything.  Following Jesus is also called discernment.  Listening for God.  Watching for the indication of what path to follow, what words to say, what action to take.

This is the core of the call process in which I am now involved.  If both I and the potential congregation don’t discern, if we don’t listen, it’s as if we’ve traded our personal backpacks for ones that Jesus gives us, filled with all that we’ll need to fulfill our call – and then head off down the wrong roads, paying no attention to Jesus.

Jesus may mean for us to be on the same road.  He may not.  But if we pay no attention to him, then we’re not following him and his call to us goes unanswered.

Sometimes Jesus will say “go, head that way.”  Sometimes it will be a while before he speaks.  Sometimes he will say “take time and rest awhile.  Give me your backpack; I’ll be back with your new one soon.”

This is an understanding of the cross that embraces death and resurrection.  This is life lived in Christ.  It is difficult, and risky, and can get us in all kinds of trouble.

But Jesus calls us to life lived in God’s love and grace, and that means life lived with and for others and for the sake of the world God created.

My son and I chose the saying “he lived a full life” to be inscribed on my late husband’s headstone.  He died young, from cancer.  But he DID live a full life.  He focused on others, he answered his calling, and he sought to follow Jesus.  In those nearly 60 years, he lived into who God created him to be.

Jesus asks us, “who do you say that I am?”

How we answer that question, how we answer the question “who do I say that I am?” and how we answer Jesus’ call is what makes our lives worth living.

Not living a life of safety, but living a life.  For that is what God intends, and it is what God in Christ has freed us to do.

Thanks be to God.

Day 3 – Global Climate Action Summit Faith-Based Affiliate Event

Last evening I wrapped up the day by sitting in Grace Cathedral’s choir area (the area up front) for Evensong.  This Anglican tradition is beautifully sublime and peaceful.  Grace live-streams its Evensong services (as do many Episcopal cathedrals) and it can be a lovely ending to the day.  They are usually on Sunday evenings, but this was a special time of song and prayer for the Summit.

My first workshop on Day 3 discussed the divide between progressive and conservative Christians (specifically, those who identify as “Evangelical”) and how we might have productive and respectful discussions around climate change.  One point that was made has really stuck with me from an ethical point of view: when someone says they “don’t believe” in climate change, it carries far less of a moral failure than to say they “don’t care” about climate change.

Climate change isn’t a belief system, but rather the conclusions of 97% of the scientists studying it around the world.  The workshop looked at both Scripture and science as we brainstormed ways to engage folks in exploring a faithful response to climate change.  I’m hoping to get the presenter’s PowerPoint slides; this would be really effective in a number of places.

After lunch I attended a session of “Religion’s Role in Addressing Climate Change” which gave us lots of pointers and ideas on forming alliances and partnerships to impact climate change policy.  It’s critical that we remember that churches definitely can have a place at the secular table – we don’t get to set the agenda, but we have a right to have our voice heard.  When we work with others to build a better world, it helps to deconstruct the assumptions and prejudices about who we are as people of faith.

There were other workshops I would have loved to attend – as well as sessions at the main gathering – but this was a great opportunity to drench myself in the good things happening at many levels.  I’ll be blogging next about how our worship and climate concerns intersect.

Day 2 – Global Climate Action Summit Faith-Based Affiliate Event

Yesterday, Day 2, was such an intense day that I had nothing left when I got back to my hotel – it was time for sleep!  So I’ll still keep the days separate; another blog post will follow this one.

Lots and lots of workshops on Day 2!  Amazing topics from people from all over the US.  My favorite workshop of the weekend was called “Waste Less Food in Your Congregation” – I attended because this topic has held me captive since I read that 40% – FORTY PERCENT – of edible food in the United States is thrown away.

I have grown my own food – both produce and meat.  I’m deeply aware of the problem of food insecurity and hunger in the US and around the world.  And I am the adopted child of parents who lived through the Depression.  In my house growing up, wasting food was only a forgivable sin because Jesus.

My parents weren’t socialists, per se, but they operated in a world in which considering the greater good and honorable behavior was automatic.  Don’t take more food than you can eat – that deprives others.  Leftovers are yummy.  Bring home the rest of your meal from the restaurant – not for the dog, for YOU!

At least four of us in the group admitted to “refrigerator obsession” – every time we open the fridge we are bothered anew about the food there.  We are making meals in our minds to make sure the food gets used before it goes bad.

One of the presenters remarked that we generally have “aspirational” relationships with food.  We’re going to eat better.  Buy at the farmer’s market.  Not throw out half the salad greens (again).

In the workshop we talked about these issues and more.  One of the presenters worked for the City of San Francisco and the food banks come under her purview.  She helped dispel some misunderstandings about trash v. compost v. recycling.  For example: I assumed that if I did have to throw out produce, that it could go in general trash if my community doesn’t have curbside composting.  This is indeed true – but because it will decompose without oxygen in a landfill, it will produce methane gas, which is the main greenhouse has contributing to global warming.  So what’s the solution?  Reduce the front end consumption – only buy what I can use.  We also heard about the domino effect that food waste has on the planet, from planting of seeds to dealing with landfills.  We can do better.

One really hopeful note in this workshop was the sharing by many present of the ways their communities re-route food that would otherwise be tossed.  San Francisco has a type of gleaning system, coordinated through the SF Food Bank, that received produce from many sources.  There is also a nonprofit called Food Runners, where volunteers pick up leftover food from restaurants and institutions that can then be served to other folks.  I experienced this at TACO in San Diego (Third Avenue Charitable Organization) – some items in the meals they offer are donations from places like Panera Bread, Starbucks, and the like.

One of the themes at this conference was that we need one another to lean on as we engage in this challenging and sometimes painful work.  Forming relationships and networks by this kind of sharing renders benefits for the all the places we serve.  And it reminds us that the people of God really ARE better together.

Faith-Based Affiliate Events at Global Climate Action Summit – Day 1

Today I participated with people from all over the world in a Talanoa dialogue about what it means for people of faith to achieve a “Just Transition” to a more climate-conscious world.

Talanoa is a word used in the Pacific Islander nations (the region called Oceania) to describe a process of determination wherein all voices are welcomed at the table and encouraged to share their stories as we collectively work to an outcome.

It was a fascinating process.  The main points our work group determined over the day (a 6-hour meeting!) were organized into three sections: our present reality, where we’d like to be, and how we might get there.

Where We Are:

*There is devastation of creation as an impact of climate change

*Climate change brings environmental justice and social justice together

*A “Just Transition” is an incredibly complex process that can be intimidating

*Facilitating a “Just Transition” requires learning the skills of deep listening to the most possible voices

*Faith communities bring a different “bottom line” to the discussion.  We have an intrinsic understanding of sacrifice.  We bring social teachings to the table that serve as an ethic.  We also bring a message of hope that is desperately needed.

Where We Want To Go:

*We would like to be able to say, at the end of our lives, “we did well on that”

*Lower emissions are critical, but lowering poverty is just as critical

*Transitioning to a new economy that is equitable, participatory, and sustainable

*Humanity fulfilling the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

How Will We Get There?

*Privilege must make space for the marginalized, particularly in leadership

*Recognize that available faith-based resources are present and numerous

*Re-interpret our long-standing traditions and practices – there is value in these

*Be involved with change on all levels – not only lifestyle, but also corporate/institutional, public policy, and worldview

*Enable training for faith communities interested in engaging with the issue of systemic change

*Improve communications in as many ways as possible, through relationships and deep listening between ALL parties as the primary way

*View all of our work through a three-sided lens: economic equality, racial equality, and sustainability

We were also reminded that to “love God” or “love neighbor” in the abstract, detached manner is not love, but simply an abstract concept.  Engagement with the issues of climate change is at its heart engagement with one another, because climate change impacts us all, and our interrelatedness means that “love” is a very active and engaged verb.

Our collective work will be crafted into a submission for consideration by the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  This event was co-sponsored and coordinated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – my national church body.  It is deeply satisfying to know that my church is very much a part of living our faith in such critical ways.

It is midnight in the Bay Area – a very long day!  But a good one.  More tomorrow.  May you be blessed.

Forming a Faithful Response to Climate Change

I’ll be blogging for the next few days from the Faith-Based Affiliate track of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.  Our events are being held at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, one of SF’s most iconic churches.

From their website:

“The Global Climate Action Summit will bring leaders and people together from around the world to “Take Ambition to the Next Level.” It will be a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action.

“It will also be a launchpad for deeper worldwide commitments and accelerated action from countries—supported by all sectors of society—that can put the globe on track to prevent dangerous climate change and realize the historic Paris Agreement.”

For the Summit to be happening as a Category 4 hurricane bears down on the southeastern US is both ironic and deeply pertinent.  An El Niño weather pattern is developing in the Pacific Ocean – a warming of ocean currents – and it has the potential to bring weather extremes to many areas of the globe.  In Southern California it tends to manifest in higher precipitation; however, in Central America, it manifests in extreme drought.  Signs of that drought are already beginning to emerge.  In these countries where the political situation is already tense, adding the impact of climate change on food sources (among other things) can lead to further destabilization.

So what does this have to do with worship?

When we gather in worship, we gather as one part of the body of Christ, but not forgetting the rest of the Body.  We remember those in need throughout the liturgy, and are sent out from worship to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

My diaconal project looked at how worship forms us and shapes us for our diakonia, our service, in the world.  I’ll be looking at that dimension this week from more of an outside-looking-in perspective, seeking ways that as people of faith we can be a voice for care and stewardship of creation by responding to the climate needs voiced by the world community.

For more info on the Summit itself:

For a list of the workshops happening at the Faith-Based Affiliate Event: