Posts Tagged ‘ Following Jesus ’

Breaking Boxes

Sermon for 4 Epiphany, Year C 2013
RCL Readings here.

tumblr_m9f7mwS6tG1rf06ano1_1280This week’s Gospel story picks up where we left off last week.  Jesus has returned to his hometown in Nazareth of the Galilee and is in his home church, the temple he grew up in, and he has just made a bold and brazen claim.  After reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says to them that this prophecy has been fulfilled in him, that he is the anointed one, the christos, the meschiah they have been waiting for.

And the people gathered and listening to him have this momentary swelling of pride at this remarkable boy who is their own – bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, one of ours.

They remember him at seventeen, they remember him at twelve, they remember teaching him in Hebrew school when he was six.  And now he’s returned home.  And now he’s teaching them. But they are so caught up in their nostalgia and pride in him, it’s like they miss the significance of what he has just said.  “Oh sweet little Jesus, come back home…Joseph and Mary’s son…he’s grown up so much.”

Can you relate to Jesus here – do you have people back home that treat you like this?  That still think of you as a child?

Perhaps, dare I say it, even your parents?

Are there people that tell stories about you to other people in front of you that start with,
“I remember when she was a little girl…”
It’s almost like they seem to be stuck in that time period, still thinking you belong at the kids’ table.

I know this still happens to me, even at 33 years old.
About a year ago, I went to an ordination service in my hometown – I grew up about 160 miles south of here in Victoria, Texas, spending most of my Sundays with the community at St. Francis Episcopal Church and that congregation truly helped raise me, shape me, form me from my earliest moments. They were the village that it took to raise this child.
So when I returned there not so long ago for this ordination, I got to reminisce with some of the St. Francis folk, all of whom were curious about how my ministry was going.

One woman, who has been a member of St. Francis for all of its 52 years as a parish and who I’m quite certain must have taught me in Sunday School at some point, tapped on my collar and said, “The priests around here get younger and younger.”  Then she noticed my goatee, and pulled on it a little bit, and with a laugh asked, “What’s this for?  Are you trying to look older?”

Several Christmases ago, I even got to preach a sermon in the pulpit of that church that I grew up in. After the service, another one of the ladies who a youth group sponsor when I was in middle school came and gave me a hug.  “That was a good sermon, dear.” She said.  “Did you write it?”

Do you know that Cross Canadian Ragweed song, “You’re always seventeen in your hometown…?”

Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Jesus, going through this infuriating experience that most of us have had, doesn’t just get fed up and leave.  In fact, he keeps teaching…and, as he continues teaching, things get really hairy, really quickly.

He re-tells them stories about their famous prophets, Elijah and Elisha…specific stories about how God ministered through them, first by feeding a widow in the land of Sidon even though there were many Israelite widows who were starving from a famine at the time, and how God healed a Syrian leper, even though there were many Israelite lepers who were not healed. Jesus is intentionally challenging them, provoking them even, by telling these stories of God’s presence NOT with the Jewish folk, not with those in the synagogue, not with the ones who went to church and were involved in the diocesan summer camp…but with outsiders, with people who didn’t believe the same things they believed, even with people they considered to be unclean heathen.

In no uncertain terms, Jesus is condemning the exclusivity of those who had known him since his birth, rebuking the self-righteousness of those who were most invested in how their church and culture operated.

“The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me,” he says.  “I am the Anointed One and I haven’t come only for you. I don’t belong to you.  I’m here for the very people you love to hate, your enemies, everyone you have ever excluded because they didn’t look like you, or think like you or didn’t worship like you.  God is present in me for them.”

As you can imagine, the people are no longer beaming with pride in Jesus.
Jesus has surprised them, has not acted in the ways they raised him to act, and it pisses them off.

“What are you saying? We are the faithful people of God, the chosen ones, we live our lives in relationship with God and you come into our church, telling us that God is with you and has come for those people?  Who do you think you are?”

As their anger builds, they kick him out of the synagogue, drive him out of his own town and are ready to throw him over the cliffs and kill him.

I know we can all relate with Jesus, the misunderstood boy in his hometown.

But I’m afraid, truth be told, that you and I are actually more often like these people in the synagogue. 

Like them, most of us have spent a good deal of time with Jesus.
Like them, we are the ones who go to church, who value the scriptures, who try to live our lives in relationship with God. We have seen Jesus, experienced him at work – in our lives, in our friends’ lives. We know him personally, we know him communally. We’ve felt his presence at camp, at a Happening or a Vocare, have known he was near when we’ve worshiped with just a few others, like here tonight, or with thousands of others at something like Breakaway.

And all of those experiences are valid, are important, are life-giving.

But sometimes, like those hometown faithful, we allow our experiences to become expectations.

Sometimes we let our previous experiences of God become a box that we try to fit God into.
“I know how God works.  I have experienced him in this way.
I know who this Jesus is. I have felt him in that way.”

Trouble is, when we can’t recreate those same exact experiences, we can feel like God is less present than He was back then, back at camp, during that retreat, in that really amazing time. Or, even worse, when we see or hear of others who are experiencing Jesus in ways that are very different, we think, “well, that’s not the same Jesus I know.”

If we keep trying to squeeze God into the same boxes we’ve grown up with, if we only look for God to move in ways that we’re familiar and comfortable with, then, like those in the synagogue, we are in danger of missing what Jesus is saying and doing right here in our midst.

Those in his hometown certainly weren’t expecting God to be alive in the 5 foot 4 carpenter they helped raise.  But that’s exactly what God was doing. That’s the incarnational nature of our God who surprises us constantly by showing up in places we don’t expect him.

And having a grown up faith in this God, rather than one that’s still relegated to the kids’ table, begins with taking a hard look at what expectations your faith is resting on. It is maybe the most difficult part of growing in our faith, of going deeper in our discipleship – naming and dismantling the boxes that we have created for God.

But if we can do that, if we can let go of God instead of trying to hold on to Him, if we can turn God loose instead of acting as if we own Him, if we can look for God incarnate in people and places and ways we don’t expect, then we become free to truly follow Jesus.


Jesus is not safe.

Below is the homily I preached at Church of Reconciliation this past Sunday with a nod of thanks to Scott Bader-Saye.

For the sake of Stewardship themes, we switched the gospel readings with the coming Sunday, so here is the Gospel text used for this sermon.


I’ve been reading a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, written by the Ethics professor at the seminary in Austin, Scott Bader-Saye.  In the final chapter of the book, “The Risk of Generosity,” Scott writes:

we [Americans] have become habituated to an ethic of safety.  That is, we have begun to think about safety as the goal we should pursue above all others.  I was recently reading about a report by the Council of Europe, the human rights arm of the EU, on the U.S. practice  of “extraordinary rendition,” sending prisoners  to other countries  for interrogation practices that would be illegal under U.S. law.  Whether, or to what extent, the United States does this is under dispute, but what was most interesting about the article was not its actual content.  Rather, what caught my attention was a comment posted by a [reader and] visitor to the BBC website in response to this story: “Whatever it takes to keep our world safe.”

Scott shares this disturbing comment in the context of writing about how we have in many ways made safety and security our primary goals, and much of his book is spent contrasting those desires with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God as it is described in our sacred texts.

I think we can use this lens of safety and security to interpret the odd discussion between the Zebedee boys, James and John, and Jesus in this morning’s verses from Mark’s Gospel.  Jesus has shared with his closest students and friends now, at least three times, that they are headed toward Jerusalem and that there he will be handed over to the authorities and that they will kill him. Now maybe for James and John, like the rest of the disciples, this hasn’t sunk in, they don’t get what Jesus is really saying, but I think they do.  I think the brothers have realized that Jesus is serious about this being killed stuff and I think it scares them. I think this news unnerves them and makes them concerned about their own safety.  Like toddlers testing the limits with a parent, they even try to trick Jesus into answering their question before they’ve asked:

“So, Jesus…um…John and I would like to ask you something.  Would you promise to do what we ask of you?  We’d, uh….well, um….when you come into the glorious kingdom, can we, you know…can you promise us that we will be the ones sitting closest to you…what I mean is, from that point on and forever thereafter, James wants to be at your left side and I want to be at your right.”

In other words, “can you promise us that in the end, not matter what, the two of us will be safe, dialed in, right next to you so that we are secure from any harm?”  Now you’ve got to give them credit for having great trust, great belief, that Jesus has the power to keep them safe if they simply stay beside him. On the other hand, pun intended, in making safety and security their desire, their primary goal for themselves, they’ve completely missed the mark on what the coming of the kingdom – Jesus’ glory – really brings.
And I’m afraid it’s mistake that you and I too often make: that being with Jesus means no harm will come to us.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite parts of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.  (And I’m paraphrasing here…)Lucy has arrived in Narnia and has begun making friends with the Beavers.  She’s heard already of the Great Aslan but for the first time she’s realized that he’s not a person, but a lion. A bit startled at this revelation, she asks, “But he’s quite safe, isn’t he?”

And Mrs. Beaver answers with a litany of Aslans attributes and what he’s done in the realm of Narnia, which Lucy thinks has not answered her question. “Yes, but is he quite safe?” she asks again, a bit desperate.

“Dear Girl,” shouts Mr. Beaver, “Haven’t you been listening to anything Mrs. Beaver has been saying? No, Aslan isn’t safe.  He’s a lion!  He isn’t safe at all! But he is good…”

Following Jesus isn’t safe.
It never has been.  Just ask those first disciples.  Ask James and John.
Jesus pretty much rebukes, even more harshly than Mr. Beaver rebukes Lucy.
“Jesus, Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left.”
And his answer is, “You don’t know what you’re asking me.”

And they don’t.  The only other time in the entire Gospel of Mark that the phrase “one at the right and one at the left,” is used is in describing the two criminals crucified with Jesus.  James and John’s very words are the words used a few stories later to describe the cruciform geography of Golgatha.  This is no accident.  Mark is a better writer than that, and he knows how the story ends.
The Gospel writer is showing his audience is showing us, that following Jesus isn’t safe at all.
That being a disciple means going all the way to the cross.  And not just to Jesus’ cross.
To our own crosses as well.

Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if you would my disciple be;
deny yourself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me.

Jesus doesn’t promise safety.  He never did.
In fact, he promises that following him will lead to your death…to many deaths…to your dying to many things.  Because his way isn’t about self preservation.

And so, his promise to James and John isn’t the one they ask for, and it’s a promise not only for the two of them, but for all his followers, even you and even me.

At the end of this morning’s gospel Jesus promises that in his realm,
masters become masters not because they lord it over others like a tyrant, but because they serve.

In his realm, those of us who have more than enough stop worrying about needing more – we cease tucking away and keeping our wealth and blessings to ourselves, and instead practice pouring out what we have, out of God’s own abundance in our lives.

In his realm, our motivations shift away from giving or sharing with our brother or sister because of the blessings we receive when we do that sacred work, until our sole motivation for giving becomes the upholding of our end of the covenant which is blessing others.

In his realm, we do things like letting go of all pretense, letting go of what we are comfortable with, so that we can get on our hands and knees to wash someone’s feet.

And so, you see, if you, with James and John are looking for security and safety, you’re looking in the wrong place.

This Jesus, he’s a lion!  He isn’t safe at all!  But he’s good.  He’s good.