Saturday, March 14, 2009

Preconceived Notions

Lent 2 Year B
Mark 8:31-38
Preconceived Notions
By Rich Gamble

I had a conversation with a nice young man this past week about better utilizing this sanctuary to benefit the community. He had been a part of doing just that with a church in Fremont and hopes to write a case study about churches that have done such things.

He had some recommendations for what we might want to do: paint the outside of the church, change the entryway, pull the pews, change the flooring… Most of these are things that we have talked about. Some of the things he suggested hadn’t been part of my thinking about the church. He suggested getting rid of the crosses, the white one on the front of the church and this one in the sanctuary. With that he suggested that we change the name of the building. An off the top of his head suggestion was Keystone Place. He also suggested that we form a community board to administer the use of the space.

In other words, his suggestion was that if we wanted it to be of greater use to the community then we needed to purge its identity as a church.

I understand the logic of this. If we want the community to claim this space as theirs then we have to step back from our claim to it. If it is a church then some people will be turned off from coming because of their preset notions of what a church does. If we claim it as ours, then others will not invest the time and energy to making it a community center.

These are important things for us to consider but behind these concrete decisions sits a more fundamental question as to our identity. Who are we and what are we called to do?

Most of us and most of the world have a notion of what a church is and does. A church is a community gathered together to praise the God of Christ and to live lives in faithful response to the will of that God. Though we can’t argue with that general idea, it is in the specifics that such an idea takes shape. Crusaders riding around Palestine bashing non-believers over the head with swords believed they were living in a faithful response to the will of the God of Christ. Dominican monks torturing people during the Inquisition would claim the same thing. Deeds define words and symbols. Though we may share the same words and honor the same symbols as Crusaders and Inquisitors we stand in utter opposition to their deeds.

People who are put off by the presence of a cross on a building believe that they understand and disagree with the meaning of the symbol. But I doubt that they understand the meaning of the cross in the same way that we do. What they don’t like about church may well be the same things that we don’t like about the church. They may think that to oppose such things means they are against the church itself, we proclaim that to oppose such things is the work of our faith.

It is Mark’s belief that Jesus was the Messiah or in Greek: Christ. He says so in the first sentence of his Gospel. But in Mark’s day and in ours the term carries a lot of undesirable freight. The words Messiah and Christ both translate to “anointed.” That implies being chosen by God to be a leader of God’s people. Kings were anointed. Most of the people in Jesus’ day yearned for another King David to liberate them from the hands of their oppressors. They envisioned the Messiah to be one like David who would rise up and lead the people to war against and victory over the invading Romans and those who collaborated with the Romans.

Peter in his revelation which sits at the center of the Gospel of Mark, proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah. We know from the first line of the Gospel that Mark agrees that Jesus is the Messiah but not the Messiah that Peter hopes for, not the Messiah that the people wait for.

So when Peter gets it absolutely right here in the pivotal center of the Gospel, he is also completely wrong. And that is what leads to the argument between Peter and Jesus in our reading of the Gospel today which occurs after Peter has his breakthrough insight.

After Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus then goes on to say that he is going to suffer, be rejected and killed…and then rise again. Jesus even goes so far to distance himself from the popular notion of Messiah that he calls himself the “Human One” or in some translations “The Son of Man.” Imagine if President Obama had said in one of those overflowing pep rally gatherings before the election that he was going to win the presidency and then be arrested, tortured and murdered. That would have put a damper on the event. No, Presidents take power and run the country and make their agendas happen. And a Messiah was much more powerful in the minds of Peter and the people of his day than our notion of a president. No, the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah becomes a king even more powerful than Caesar. That’s what Peter believes, that is what the people want. So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, strong word rebuke, it is the same word that describes what Jesus does to demons.

But then Jesus turns and rebukes Peter and tells him "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Or as we say around here, Jesus told Peter that he was speaking the lie of the domination system and not the truth of God.

Satan, human things, the domination system are ways of talking about our common understanding of how things work. He who has the gold rules. Power comes from the top down it is enforced with violence and enhanced with greed. This is the way civilization has worked and the way Peter expects even the Messiah to work. The Messiah will be the Jewish version of Caesar.

But Jesus sees the role of Messiah completely opposed to the worldly, system of domination. He sees power as self giving love, coming not from forcing people to do your will but by empowering people to themselves practice self-giving love.

That is why Jesus goes from his suffering to the hard truth that if we want to be followers of him we too are called into this difficult and dangerous work of manifesting the power of love to bring about a revolution in power and principle.

He tells the disciples and the crowd "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”
Jesus didn’t come to suffer and die so that his followers wouldn’t have to, Jesus came to show us that creating a world of true peace and true justice requires us all to take on the costs of love. For if we seek to preserve our lives as defined by the domination system, if we seek to hang on to whatever status, what ever advantage, what ever security an unjust and violent system offers us, then we will preserve that system and prevent true life from happening for ourselves or others. But if we step away from the benefits of domination and risk our security for the sake of those we do not know and even for those we do know as enemies then we will gain in that moment the freedom that is true life.

If we allow ourselves to be defined and controlled by a system of death, greed violence and fear, then we are not truly living. But if we can step out of that system for even a moment, then we will know true life in that moment. And the knowing is in the doing. You can’t meditate yourself into this place of love, not if you see Jesus as your leader. You can and should meditate to clarify your direction but Jesus here calls on us to walk the walk. To deny ourselves, to place the needs of the most vulnerable over our own security, to take up the cross, to challenge the Powers that Be even when they threaten us with the worst forms of retribution and to follow Jesus.
Jesus was the Messiah but not on the terms of popular thought, and so he didn’t even use the title and he told his followers that he wasn’t going to do it for us, he was just going to show us how it is done. Its up to us.

So why not take the crosses down? They speak these days, more about the popular notion of Christ than what Jesus had in mind. As Jesus avoided the title of Messiah, so maybe we need to find another way of calling ourselves Christian, because we don’t follow the popular idea of Jesus as a human sacrifice for our sins. We don’t follow the popular idea of Christianity which says we are going to heaven and those who do not believe like us are going to hell. We are not trying to gain domination authority so that we can force others to behave the way we think they should.

We stand against torture whether it is practiced by an evil despot or a Christian soldier.

We stand against war whether it is to advance the tide of tyranny or proclaimed as a holy crusade against evil.

We stand against poverty and against the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few.

We stand against oppression, whether it is practiced by a powerful elite or a democratic majority.
We stand for the peace that comes from the presence of justice.

We stand for the love that breaks down barriers and borders.

We stand for a vision of a world where everyone has not only their basic needs met but also their higher needs to learn, create, and participate in the decisions that impact the world.

The cross should say all of that but no longer does. No symbol is to be trusted, no words alone can define. Words and symbols can be managed and manipulated. If we are not practicing love for stranger and enemy then we are not following Christ. If we are not using what little power and resources we have to stand up for the vulnerable we are not following Christ. No symbol hung around our necks or over our sanctuaries will do. No doctrine or dogma, no hymn sung or sermon endured will do. Christ is not a brand name we wear, Christ is path we walk. If we walk the path of justice then the walk is our proclamation. If we don’t, the cross around our necks or over our sanctuaries means nothing. Lent is the season in which this awareness sets in. The longed for savior did not save us with a past event or future promise but with an example for how we are to live in the present. The meaning we long for is not a gift but a choice: the path of popular reality or the path of self giving love. Only one offers true life. And that path of love, as difficult as it may seem, is the path of true life, and it is good news.

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