August 31, 2014
21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
- Matthew 16:21-28
Let Love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
– Romans 12:9
In 1969 Coca cola came up with a new slogan, “The Real Thing.” Pictures were spread across the country of happy, beautiful people drinking Coke & living life as if we could be persuaded that Coke is the key to our happiness. This advertising campaign must have been effective because now if you travel to some of the poorest countries in the world, places where safe water is scarce, you can buy a Coca-Cola or other soft drink for less money than you can purchase water. The Real Thing has had real consequences and now we are faced with the real mess that has come with it.
The media is constantly trying to convert us to believe that the products that pay for our tv programs are the key to our happiness, that they genuinely work, that they are the Real thing that will make our messy lives become sparkly and beautiful. And so, it makes sense that the younger generation has become skeptical and selective in what is genuine and what isn’t in the world.
I was riding in the car with someone the other day when she found the perfect parking spot and excitedly proclaimed, “I’m blessed!” I think because most people know I’m a pastor they tend to be a Christian-y as possible when I’m around and often pause after saying such things and look at me waiting for a compliment on their pious Christian attitude. Call me a skeptic but I just don’t know if Jesus died on the cross in order for you or me to find a really great parking space or for that matter for your favorite team to win the game or for your hairstylist to give you the perfect cut or so the designer blouse you’ve had your eye on can go on sale.
Last week I used a term that caught several people’s attention when I called something, “Baptist-y.” This week I’d like to clarify, in case I offended anyone, that there is a difference between being a Baptist & being Baptist-y. And there is a difference between being a Christian & being “Christian-y.” Really I probably should have used the term Christian-y last week instead of singling out one denomination because in my made up vocabulary they are basically the same thing.
I will offer an example. A Christian-y thing to say is, “I went to Starbucks today and ordered a triple venti mocha latte, extra hot and they gave me a caramel macchiato instead. I guess its just my cross to bear.” You know these sayings, I could go on & on, but the problem is when they go from being slightly superficial to vaguely offensive or worst of all, they put a person in danger.
One of the worst examples of all, has often been associated with this exact verse, in fact. For years, Christian women who lived in abusive marriages were warned about the danger of divorce and convinced that their physical abuse was just “their cross to bear.” Which is why, when many women hear this verse, they start to twinge a bit.
Why is it that minority groups have often been expected to disproportionally bear the heavy weight of suffering that surrounds our world?
Our faith, is supposed to be the lens through which we interpret events in our lives and events in the world around us. I believe that lens was intended to help us understand and interpret events more clearly, to know the truth in our lives and in the world more fully, through the lens of genuine love. Unfortunately, though, it has often happens that religious people use their faith as a blindfold, instead, denying what is really going in their personal lives or in the world around them. The problem with this blindfold is that not only does it hurt the world that needs our eyes to be open and our hands to be ready to help, but it also keeps the ones who wear it from really experiencing the love of God in the most transformative and life giving ways.
When we delve into the lectionary readings, we find two stories of God identifying with both blessing and suffering. Evidence that God shows up when good things happen and when people suffer. I wonder, if what it means to be faithful, is not centered on the concepts of persecution or blessing, but rather on understanding the world through what Romans describes as “genuine love.” The Real Thing. And Genuine Love, from a God of Love, never prescribes suffering, if you ask me.
I think that one of the top reasons that people have left the church is because they think we are not genuine. In a culture that bombards us with disingenuous messages about stuff that is claiming to be the real thing, young people have decided that they won’t take anything at face value. And I think that our Christian clichés we have distanced a lot of people from the genuine love that is possible when we tap into a life of faith.
We know that the media does not know the difference between being Christian and being Christian-y. If the topic of faith comes up, it is probably in the form of comedy or extremism, like eighteen or nineteen or I don’t know how many kids they are still counting because the parents don’t believe in birth control. So for many who have left the church, they think that we are in denial, and you see this is the worst offense of all. Let love be genuine, says Romans. Genuine love may not always have the answers, but it is at least willing to open its eyes to the truth and be present for someone else’s suffering.
To me, the story of Moses’ calling possesses some of the hinges of my faith. We worship a God who loves us, who calls us even when we think we aren’t qualified, a God who is present with us in our suffering and wants to see us thrive and grow and be blessed in the most real of ways. But to discover the land of milk and honey, sometimes means to acknowledge that not all of life can be wrapped up in pretty packaging.
To say yes to a life of faith, means to say no to a life of easy answers, of comfortable privilege, of blinding abundance.
So the thing that is so fascinating about when Jesus calls Peter a stumbling block is that the reason for the whole disagreement is because Peter has imagined a particular future & Jesus appears to be denying that future.” Peter believes that a Messiah is supposed to make everyone free from unrighteousness, and then here is Jesus right in the thick of suffering.
Genuine love means sometimes we are wrong. It means that as much as we want to proclaim the Good News we know, we must be life long learners, opening our minds to the mystery of God that we know in Jesus.
Being a Christian does not mean that our lives are always perfect, nor does it mean that we should be a doormat. When Jesus says to take up your cross and follow me, he says it for a particular purpose. Maybe the test of the sacrifices we make for our faith, should be the purpose they are trying to accomplish.
For instance, this church has a beautiful building. You have worked hard to create a space that will provide hospitality not only to church members, but to the community. But we have been asked to participate in a ministry a bit outside the box. We have been asked to partner with other churches in Bowling Green to offer a temporary homeless shelter, called Room at the Inn, in the coldest months of the year. Denise Lambrianou has volunteered to coordinate the cause and hopes that we might host 12 homeless every other Friday night from November to March. It requires not only serving them a meal, but sitting down and eating it with them. It asks two people to sleep on the floor on thin mattresses with them. It means that our youth will invite a very different community to share their space in the youth room, which was in fact, remodeled with the hope that homeless in the community could have a place to shower, do laundry, and check their email. It is a beautiful space and if we say yes to this ministry then it will probably be full of interesting smells and lively characters twice a month. It will require the financial commitment of us keeping the space warm and extra janitorial time. We will use more water and electricity. And it will demand that many of you deny yourself of a typical Friday night and instead create community with strangers.
You know, we never know exactly what Jesus meant in the scriptures, but it seems pretty genuine to me, that Jesus died and was resurrected, that God showed up in a burning bush, in order that we would stop what we are doing, unlock the doors, and spend the night with a group of homeless people creating genuine community.
Because I think genuine love smells like 12 homeless people who we hope will fill our youth room starting in November. Like the sound of someone who keeps telling you the same story for an hour because he just needs someone to listen. It looks like a mom with three children hanging on to her as she waits in line for our food bank. It feels like the chair at the hospital that is more like a torture device that you try to sleep in while staying with a loved one who is sick.
A life of faith asks us to make sacrifices, but ones that are working toward a greater purpose of building the kingdom of God. A life of faith is full of blessings, which are found in small and big events in our lives. But as we proclaim who we are as a people of faith, and as we invite others to participate in this profound way of being in the world, we should have the courage to be honest about who we are and about who God is. Life is messy. And sometimes there isn’t a way to explain the messes either we have created or that have by no good reason landed in our lives. What we know is that love is genuine. And genuine love is our call.
Genuine love means that no matter what you have done, there is forgiveness for even you. Genuine love says that even if society does not affirm who you are, God does. Genuine love looks out into this congregation and sees a bunch of people who have messy lives, but showed up today anyways to participate in this crazy and beautiful calling to be the church together. Genuine love does not see your failures, but sees who God called you to be. Genuine love forces us to forgive ourselves.
This, my friends, is the Real Thing. And we are called to share it. So tell the truth, about your life, about the world, and about the God we worship. Amen.