Welcome Back Sunday and Christian Witness

I, like many Americans abroad, have been carefully watching the situation concerning the bombing of the consulate in Benghazi and the ensuing protests around other embassies throughout the Middle East.  Not only because we have several members of the diplomatic community that attend our church, but due to the presence of 150-200 predominantly Muslim men who come into our refugee center each weekday, requesting assistance as they stuggle as political refugees.

As a relatively well educated Western Christian, I have a hard time understanding how a video (it is little more than that from my view) can somehow be raised up as representative of my country’s views on Islam.  My gut says that it is more an excuse for violence than the cause, and I suspect that those who would prefer a world of violence to one of peace are using it to their advantage.  More than anything this exposes the shadow side of our global communication networks and the rapid dissemation of information, even mis-information.

I do not condone such portrayals of Muslims or Mohammed (nor such poor use of blue screen tech!), but at the end of the day, freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of what it means to me to be American and to be free.  Even when it is abhorrent to me, or when something is done in poor taste, there is something about suppressing speech, especially under the threat of violence, that smells like fear and totalitarianism to me.  How many times have Jews had to deal with assasinations on their character or their faith tradition?  How many practicioners of Earth religions have been persecuted for their faith and practices? And let’s not even mention Christians, who daily have hordes of assaults from all sides.  Each religion of any import has had to deal, at one time or another, with mischaracterization and those who fundamentally disagree with them about their understanding of the world.  Do I like when angry atheists talk about Jesus’ followers being idiots who follow a “zombie Jesus?”  No.  But, I believe that their freedom to say that should be protected.  Where I draw the line is when that free speech calls for violence on the others, or the objects of their hate.  At this point the speech ceases to be the expression of an opinion and moves into the realm of marching orders or incitement.  Protecting free speech is important, but protecting the lives of those who fall victim to hate and intolerance is even more important to me.  As an extreme example, even the KKK should be protected from violence against its members, as misguided and abhorrent as their message is to me.  But if they rely on violence rather than merely the non-violent expression of their views, then police action is needed.

I admit the lines between what consitutes hate speech and free speech are fine indeed.  I am no constitutional scholar, but just a man of faith with an opinion on these matters.  I tend to lean toward a postive presentation of my position, rather than choosing to denigrate others to make my point.  I am Christian, and Episcopalian to be more specific, and I have good reasons why if you would like to hear them.  But I see as a requirement of my following Christ, a certain worldview that includes even those I disagree with, even those who would make themselves my enemy, as fellow children of the God I proclaim.  My energies are spent working to increase understanding of that “shared” heritage, rather than in promoting unhelpful division.  I often fail at doing that fully; I often fall short of being the person I am called to be.  But I am convinced that the only way we move closer to the ideal is by walking forward, falling, getting back up, and walking again.  It is a shared work within community, and yet one which happens personally within the very fiber of our individual beings.  I pray that as I get older I will improve, that my resistance to the insults of my enemies will grow stronger, and that the gospel of love and grace that I have experienced and known in Jesus will be translated to those I meet in greater ways.

And I give thanks for the freedom of speech that allows me to say so!

I am printing here the sermon I gave yesterday at St. Paul’s as a further meditation on this issue in the context of our worship yesterday.  Blessings to you all,


Mark 8:27-38

Proper 19 / Welcome Back Sunday

September 16, 2012

St. Paul’s Within the Walls

The Core of Christianity

It has been quite a week in the world.

This Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, new violence began to spread throughout the Middle East.

US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed in a rocket attack in Benghazi, Libya, and US embassies in several countries across the region were attacked by angry protestors.

It is hard to say what is the true root of the violence.  Many of the protestors have cited outrage over a third-rate film which depicts Mohammed and Muslims horribly, though the film is little more than a badly made home video.

Others suspect that the film is an excuse for violence and is being used to whip up fury by groups and organizations opposed to any Western involvement in the predominately Muslim region.

It is difficult to see where all this will lead, but as I’ve watched the situation unfold, read articles and comment streams, and I thought about how all this worldly violence and uncertainty affects those of us gathered here today, I found myself praying for a way out of such madness. And then I found I couldn’t help but weigh the words of our Gospel today with the angry words I read in those comments and the violence I saw in news clips.

I must admit that I had some reticence about even addressing the issue, noting that on the first of our two Welcome Back Sundays, in which we are celebrating and encouraging both new and old members to engage in ministry here at St. Paul’s, it may seem heavy to talk about international politics. I mean, look at this amazing physical space in which we worship!  Listen to our choir!

Just as we are surrounded by hardship and horror in the world, so are we also are surrounded by beauty and glory. It is indeed tempting for me to focus solely on the beautiful and leave the difficult for another time and another day.

However, if we are to be Christians… If we want to claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, then there is no running away from the consequences of God’s kingdom made known to us in Christ. To be Christian is to face the challenges of our day and age directly, relying on guidance from Scripture and Sacrament, reason and tradition, and above all following the lead of our Savior.

My friends, my brothers and sisters, I want to take this opportunity to reflect together on what I see as the core message of Christianity, that comes to us in this Gospel passage in Mark today.

That message is this: We Christians proclaim the reign of God in Jesus Christ, combatting fear and its effects with radical love, and follow Jesus in faith to the cross and beyond to resurrection and new life. This message informs how we respond to violence, to insults, and to a world of principalities and powers… a world of competing kingdoms and kings.

It is not an easy message, or a popular message, but it IS Christ’s message.

So let us turn our atte ntion to it.

The first part of Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus asking a question:  “Who do people say that I am?”

Jesus has been going about the land, healing, casting out demons, and feeding large amounts of people.  It only seems right that he’d be interested in what kind of effect this ministry was having on the masses.

The disciples, Jesus’ closest advisors respond:

“Well, Jesus, they are mentioning you among the greatest that we’ve ever known.  Some say John the Baptist–you know, your cousin? who was executed by Herod recently? –they think you may be a reincarnation of him.

“Others say Elijah, that greatest of the prophets during the time of the kings.  Our ancestors say he ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot and the people think you may be him, since you are doing God’s deeds of power as he once did.”

In hearing this exchange, I couldn’t help but think of how much we humans care about what others say about us, sometimes especially those who only know us from afar. In fact, despite of the complexities of the situation straining US and Middle Eastern relations this week, in some regard, part of the problem is that we humans are all too willing to believe and act upon what others “are saying” about us. Positive or negative, what others “out there” say about us, whether it be from abroad or from the virtual distance of cyberspace, is rarely the real story. The violence engulfing the embassies today seems to stem from this kind of incomplete information, whether it be gathered from anecdote or from an obscure but suddenly internationally “important” film.

Secondhand sources, whether offering uncritical praise or simply damaging, false gossip, give us but partial pictures of our identity. This is why Jesus follows up that first question with a question of greater import.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

It is quite a different matter to ask this question of a friend, from a trusted source, from one who has seen you at both your best and worst moments and who can look you in the eye and tell you the truth.

Peter, of course, replies–“the Messiah,” God’s anointed or, in Greek, the Christ. Even though I imagine that this was more a hopeful anticipation than an assured statement on Peter’s part (more ‘The Messiah?’ than ‘The Messiah!’), it remains the foundation of our proclamation about who we Christians believe Jesus to be.

As we celebrate this first welcome back Sunday here at St. Paul’s, I want each of you to know that our proclamation about Jesus, who we say that he is, remains important in this day and age.

We are called to announce Jesus as the Christ, and as Episcopalians, doing so boldly is not always in our comfort zone. But we must confess Jesus as Lord even yet, though we may have a different understanding of what it means to do so than our brother and sister Christians in other denominations. Who do we say Jesus is really? Do we proclaim him to be the Christ to the best of our abilities?

We here at St. Paul’s strive to be a community in which this proclamation is supported, encouraged, and experienced.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves, but rather friends,” because as he says, friends know more than servants do about what is really going on with their fellow friends. Peter is first a friend of Jesus, and it is from this proximity and intimacy in which his proclamation comes forth.

The ministries and programs you will hear about in the garden later are just some of the ways in which we attempt to proclaim Christ’s messiah-ship in this city and the world, and to provide a structure for our friendship with each other, and with Christ, to grow.

But as I’m sure you must be thinking or feeling, saying the words alone is not the ultimate point of our proclamation.

We are people of meaning… searchers seeking to understand what it means to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and what consequence those words have on the way we live our lives, both individually and communally.

The second half of the Gospel today gives us a glimpse of the answer, although the answer is not an easy one.  We current followers have the benefit of knowing how the gospel ends, while Peter and the other disciples have to listen to Jesus’ words in the rest of the passage, words about “losing our lives to save them,” and trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

Peter had perhaps envisioned a Messiah or Christ as a political savior, or a conquering king in the King David sense. Commentator Matt Skinner puts it this way, “By calling Jesus ‘the Christ,’ at this point in the story, Peter declares, ‘I think you’re the one who will purify our society, reestablish Israel’s supremacy among the nations, and usher in a new era of peace and holiness. I’m expecting big things from you.’”

But Jesus turns that idea of Messiah on its head and asks us to embrace a counter-intuitive gospel.

When Jesus says, “”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” they aren’t just words.

We know that he is going to show us exactly what this means through his own trial, cross, and resurrection. It is no accident that from this point on in the gospel, Jesus has his face set toward Jerusalem, where his words will become action, where promise will become actuality.

At times we forget just how radical the call to follow Jesus is. Following Jesus is, as my daughter mentioned this week, “like following the leader,” but the kingdom he proclaims is so unlike any other that we know in the world.

Other kingdoms tell us that our power is found in our associations and our wealth: who we know, which family we were born into, and what we have accumulated. Jesus asks us to “Deny ourselves and follow him” and he sends his disciples out with nothing extra so that they will not be defined by anything other than the proclamation of God’s kingdom and the love that binds them.

Other kings lead their followers into battle against their enemies, conquering their foes and showing the greatness of their culture and kingdom. Jesus exposes the violence of our earthly kingdoms as utterly meaningless by going to the cross, and asks his disciples to “turn the other cheek” rather than be swept away in the never-ending cycle of tit for tat, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.

He tells us to love our enemies and shows us what that means through his passion.

Jesus’ form of Christ-hood, is not easy or attractive by the world’s usual standards. But it is the road that leads to life if we have but the courage, the tenacity, and the communal strength to follow it to the end.

When I read the comment streams on those articles that had to do with the current political unrest, I read a lot of hateful speech. I read posts that called for the death of all Muslims, or the death of all Westerners, and in the midst of it, I heard the voice of Jesus beckoning us to proclaim a kingdom in which all God’s children could be one, as Jesus and the Father are one. Not through assent to an emperor, but through the grace of another type of king.

I wonder how different our proclamation of Jesus’ lordship would be if we made sure our actions and our words were concentrated on following the example of Jesus in the way of the cross.

We certainly do not condone violence, nor do we accept the violence that issues forth from incomplete understandings of people, prophets, or proclamations.

We mourn for those who have died unjustly, and we mourn for the division that still exists in our world.

But the only way the world will be different is if we have to courage to follow Christ and live out the counter-intuitive logic of the cross in our own lives.

We may not be able to stop the misunderstandings, we may not be able to stop the elements that encourage hatred and violence, but we can respond as a community of Christians, and face the fire together.

And though following Christ inevitably leads us to the cross, though denying ourselves brings about a kind of death, we also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cross is not the end of the road, but just the beginning.

Resurrection, new life: these await us in the end, and are yet present to us as we follow Jesus in the way.

In the doing, in the following…the signs of the already, and not yet nature of the kingdom become evident to us. By proclaiming and being faithful followers, we help sow the seeds of the new creation in the midst of a world of death and discord.

As we embark upon this new year, I ask each of you to reinvest in following Jesus Christ as Lord.

I ask you to till the soil of your hearts and sow a seed of faith that we can help nurture together with God’s help. But I don’t want you to just say the words.

I want you to commit to following in the way of the cross, with this community as your support structure, as fellow pilgrims and friends in the journey. It is not an easy journey, but I can assure you, it is rewarding.

Pray about it this week.  If you need guidance talk to me, or another one of your fellow pilgrims upon the road.

I pray we will commit to doing what we can to build up the body, and to share the good news with each other, among friends who are close and enemies who may yet be far off. Let us discern together more fully what following Christ means and what the implications are for our daily lives. As your rector, I pledge to you that I will do my best to follow Jesus as well, and to make his saving reign known through my word and actions.

Will you pledge to follow Christ and to proclaim his reign through both word and example, even when the way is hard, the road seems hopeless, and the darkness of the cross looms in the distance?

Who do you say that Jesus is?

A violent, confused world is awaiting our response.

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