Filed under: Sermons | Tags: church, church success, postmodern, theology of cross
Monday mornings. Ugh. That’s the reaction many people have to them. Especially students. The freedom of the weekend, wearing pajamas all day, the choice between the two goods- watching morning cartoons or sleeping in- when Monday morning rolls around, it’s all over.
When I was a fourth grader, Monday mornings had even more reason to be dreaded. It was spelling pretest day. Ten new words, from Gasiorkiewicz G-A-S-I-O-R-K-I-E-W-I-C-Z during the stint of classmates’ last names, to principle and principal, P-L-E and P-A-L spelled in response to a sentence requiring the correct usage, would fill my neatly numbered lined paper.
My performance on Monday morning’s pretest would affect my entire week. Any words that were spelled correctly on Monday wouldn’t end up on the final quiz on Friday. Even if it was only a lucky guess, a correct answer on Monday proved my mastery of the word, and I wouldn’t have to be tested again. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to spend the entire week studying. Any missed would lead to my writing out the word or doing flashcards every day to ensure my success.
Once in a while, a Monday pretest would include words from weeks before. The idea was to see if the word had really been learned, if it had sunk into my brain, or if, after somehow scraping by with a correct spelling, I had let it pass out of my memory.
Our lessons and discoveries in life and in faith can be like those words. Sometimes known, sometimes learned, sometimes forgotten.
The disciple Peter seems to always be the student called upon. In last week’s lesson from Matthew, Peter pipes up with the correct answer: Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God. This week’s lesson has Jesus trying build on last’s- expounding what it means for him to be the messiah. Peter may have scraped by and passed the test last week (with some whispers across the desk from the Holy Spirit), but this week’s lesson is beyond Peter’s ability to grasp. He may have thought he had mastered the lesson with his confession: “you are the messiah,” but now that Jesus builds on that foundational word, “messiah,” Peter finds he doesn’t really know what it means.
Jesus explains that his being the messiah means that he is headed towards Jerusalem, the center of religious life, where instead of claiming power and glory, claiming his rightful place as leader, teacher, and God, he’ll be rejected by the religious authorities and the people, suffer, and die.
Peter’s success on the first test gives him some boldness, so out of his love for his teacher, he doesn’t even raise his hand, but blurts out, “God forbid it!”
Clearly, this is the incorrect answer. Jesus continues in his teaching, saying that not only is his path towards suffering and death, but that will also be the path of his faithful followers. For Jesus, what it means to be messiah is to enter into the suffering of the world, to give of himself, even to go so far as to give his life, in order to bring his presence and healing into all the world.
Our life as a faith community, a church, can sometimes find us stuck between pretest and final. We get caught, as Peter did, thinking we’ve mastered the whole lesson. Then we encounter Jesus teaching that there’s more to him than we’ve understood and assumed.
My school taught something they called “creative spelling.” When we were working on a writing assignment, we were supposed to spell our words the best we could, but not to get too hung up on being completely correct. We just needed to know what we were trying to say. We were supposed to focus on our goal, the task at hand: getting a story out, rather than spending all our time asking for the correct spelling of each word.
The church has been functioning for generations and hundreds of years with the “do what works” concept of creative spelling… and now it isn’t working any longer. Only 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection, the church’s task at hand started to shift from its original. Affiliation with the Christian church became advantageous. This continued into our recent generations. It’s why we tend to think that part of being a good person is going to church. Why we assume that people will naturally want to be a part of a church.
The Church’s goal became enmeshed with the goals of any institution: to grow, survive, and be successful in the eyes of the world. So, with that goal to be achieved, the work of the church morphed in some kind of group-think creative spelling towards forming good citizens, entertaining people for an hour- or shorter- on Sundays, and providing space for rituals at birth, marriage, and death. The end of the week test by which success has been measured has included membership trends (people in the pews), giving (money in the plate), and the church buildings (from cathedrals to campuses).
When those measures don’t lead to a good grade, congregations scramble to try to find a reason why. They feel like they’re failing, or maybe like God has failed them. They offer new programs, look for more exciting worship, and make sure everyone in the area knows when and where to be involved. Sometimes these actions make a difference – and sometimes they don’t.
The problem is that this goal and these measures of success, and the dependent “doing what works” doesn’t match Jesus’ plan. Certainly our church knows what it is to be hung up on getting each word spelled correctly and missing the larger story. We’ve been able to carry over the last week’s lesson, we confess with Peter that Jesus is the messiah, but we don’t follow Jesus in his further teaching on what that looks like.
The goal of the Church is to follow Jesus. Congregations should be places where we are each made more ready to pick up our cross and follow Jesus in our daily lives. As a community of faith, our doing and working should be shaped by Jesus. Our final test would be measured by service, hospitality to strangers, love shown to enemies, and the complete giving away of our control, our time and assets.
Our ability to continue what’s always been before, to maintain a building, and fill a worship space isn’t as important as our continual formation into people whose actions match Jesus’. The truth is, we don’t need many of the things our typical measures of success would lead us to believe we need. Even with as few as five people gathered together, we can still share God’s love with each other and work together to feed the hungry, welcome the foreigner, and turn away from self-centered living. We don’t even need a building in which to gather!
The disciples had the opportunity to learn and know what it means to follow Jesus because they really physically got to follow Jesus. If they forgot those lessons, there was always the next day to relearn directly from the teacher. When Jesus ascended, the church was formed. From then until now, it is the place and the people from whom we learn and know how to follow Jesus. When we forget, it’s where we struggle together to rediscover that truth.
Hearing all that the church should be, and still clinging to our old measures of success, might fill us with Monday as well as Friday morning dread. We might be failing that final test, no matter what standards we’re asked to uphold.
Jesus has one more surprising lesson for Peter, and for us. The final test, the one that matters to God, has already been taken and graded. Jesus took that test for us. Jesus was faithful to his path as the messiah. Jesus took up his cross, and lost his life. In losing his life, he found his, and ours. God chose to take Jesus’ perfect score and apply it to our grades.
Knowing that Jesus’ faithfulness is really what counts in my relationship with God gives me such relief. It’s not only Mondays and Fridays when I feel tested by the world, sometimes it can feel like every day offers multiple tests and opportunities for failure. To know that I’m seen as a success before God because Jesus chooses to share his victory with me is amazing.
Most teachers would never give out such a freebie. It happened to me once, in my 21 years of school. My classmates and I studied hard for our final biology test before Christmas break. When we came to class, and received our tests, all it asked for was our name, and below that line, said, “happy holidays, enjoy your break.” Pretty awesome. But the difference between that and Jesus’ work for us is that we already know that Jesus has won our salvation for us. Us biology students didn’t know we wouldn’t be tested, our teacher wanted us to study and work hard. She thought we wouldn’t study if we knew there wouldn’t be a test. Which is probably true. But God wants us to know that Jesus has already aced the test for us. That makes me want to follow Jesus all the more. That’s why this past ELCA Churchwide Assembly and some of our study documents declare “Freed to Serve” as a central theme in our Lutheran theology, life, and work.
We don’t have to work to be freed from sin and death, Jesus has already freed us. We don’t have to be tested again, Jesus has proved mastery in love and faithfulness. But somehow, that doesn’t make me want to lounge around in my pjs. I find that Jesus’ action for me inspires and excites me. I want to respond out of my love for Jesus. I hope that you might also have that same joyful passion. Jesus welcomes all who wish to follow him, calling us to take up our cross, and join in his way.
Filed under: Sermons
It was a dark and stormy night. The hard day’s work was over, and it should have been time to rest. But by three am, the chaotic power of wind and water had woken everyone up. Some tried to do what little they could be prevent any damage. Others did their best to ensure their own safety. But everyone knew they really had no power over the forces swirling destruction around them.
It could be Monday morning, when the recent storm uprooted trees and blew others onto roads and homes. It could be thousands of years ago, as the disciples, just having witnessed the feeding of the 5000, are being tossed in their little boat on the sea.
It’s a dangerous world out there! Forces beyond our understanding and control create danger and damage. They bring us proof of the limitations of our own power. We might look many places for safety and guidance to see us through the storms: weather forecasts, sturdy basements, and fresh batteries for flashlights. But these only help us weather the storms, they don’t have any control over them.
The disciples, living some 2000 years ago, had a better sense than we do of how little they could control the power of dangerous weather, especially as they travelled on the Sea. For them, the sea represented the forces of chaos and destruction. On this day, they witness another power over the sea, conquering it underfoot.
The disciples peer out of their boat and see a frightening sight: through the storm, a human figure out on the surface of the sea. They think it is a ghost, walking on the rough waves. But then, Jesus calls out a greeting: “it is I!”
Jesus’ greeting reminds us of God’s conversation with Moses at the burning bush, when God names Godself, “I am.” In Greek, Jesus’ words are the same: ego eimi. But that’s not all: Jesus’ sacred identity as Immanuel, God-with-us, is made most clear by his miraculous action. His walking on the waves signifies his power over these forces of chaos that endanger the disciples in their boat. Only God has this type of power!
The disciples’ experience of Jesus led them to tell this story to one of the very first communities of Christians. The Church grew after Jesus’ resurrection, but continued to struggle. It struggled to be faithful to God’s mission, shown to them in Jesus Christ. It struggled because the forces of the world seemed to conspire towards its destruction. The disciples shared this story of their experience of Jesus as God, with power over wind and water, chaos and destruction, with the early Church, so that all would look to Jesus in the midst of their dangerous situations.
The early Christians would hear themselves in this story. They understood the boat as a symbol of the Church. Even today, some of our churches remind us of boats- we can sort of see it here at Redeemer, in the shape and beams of the ceiling, it looks like we’re in an upside-down boat.
The Church- at its beginning and including us here now- finds itself tossed about on the changeable sea- one moment calm, the next broiling with turmoil, doubt, and rejection. The early Church faced a hostile world, in which Jesus was largely unknown and the good news about Jesus being God here on earth sounded like blasphemy. The hostility we face takes the form more often of apathy, in which Jesus doesn’t matter, where other things on the planner take precedence over gathering and working as a community of faith. We’re tossed by the waves of difficult finances and dwindling participation. We don’t know when it might be that we capsize.
That little boat on the sea is the Church in the midst of danger. Looking out from the boat, we see plenty of reason to fear for ourselves and our future. As the disciples looked out, they saw more than just the waves. They saw the one who has power over all danger, power to give us calm in the midst of our fear. Coming to us is Jesus, who calls, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Dangers buffet us, as a congregation, and as individuals. On that little boat buffeted by waves in the sea is the disciple Peter. Peter, in whom we see all the questions and reactions we might have blurted out-loud! When Jesus declares it is he who walks on the waves, Peter responds, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Seeing Jesus walking on water isn’t enough, Peter wants to be more actively involved in the miracle before he believes the one revealed in it.
In Peter’s reaction, I see the typical prayer of, “God, if you’re there, please do this…” – be it: heal my sister’s illness, get me through this test, make this hailstorm avoid my fields… “God, if you’re really there, show me a sign… and I’ll believe.”
It’s a pretty natural request, but not exactly the most faithful! Even so, Jesus allows Peter to test him, and commands him, “come.” For a while, Peter is able to walk towards Jesus. But then reality sets in. Only God has power over the dangers of the world. Waves come crashing towards him, and Peter sinks. As he’s sinking, he calls out to Jesus. Finally he recognizes that Jesus alone has power over the dangers around them! Instead of trying to test Jesus, he simply cries out to him in the desperate plea of the faithful. He recognizes that Jesus is the only one who can save him. There is nothing in himself that will save him from waves, fear, or any other danger of the world.
Immediately, Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter. Together, they return to the boat. With Jesus on board, the boat is safe, the sea is stilled. The boat continues on to land, where Jesus and the disciples continue in their ministry: healing the crowds.
In times of fear and danger, sometimes, like Peter, we want proof. We find ourselves asking – if you’re really God, then keep me safe, or heal my loved one. But we don’t always receive the response we’d hope for. God doesn’t always prove God’s presence in that way. Peter was immediately lifted out of the waves. But sometimes our loved ones die, our church has to close, and our jobs are lost. That’s what makes me think it’s important to look at this scene as a whole. Instead of focusing on Peter’s impetuousness and Jesus’ response to him, step back and see the central witness: Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus is the only one who has power over the destructive forces in our world, and he chooses to come to us in both times of calm and of storm.
When the next storm swirls in around you, remember that you are not alone. Jesus stands with you. No storm is too strong or too dangerous. Jesus is ready and willing to walk with you through it all. Jesus willingly entered hell to show us that he will come to us, wherever we are. Even there, he had power over death. Whatever storms beset you, our congregation, or our church, Jesus, God, comes to be with us. Even if we’ve stirred up the storm ourselves, or jumped out into the middle of the sea, Jesus reaches out his hand and grasps us firmly. Jesus will not let us face the storms alone. The One who has power over all that threatens to overwhelm us will not let the waves cover our heads. United with Jesus, united with our church, we will continue on in our journey of discipleship. Our clothes may be wet and our boat battered, but Jesus accompanies us through the storms towards lives shaped by his love and presence. “Take heart… do not be afraid” Jesus Christ is here, with you.