Monthly Archives: August 2014

“A Confession and A Commission” – Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 #ferguson #gaza #fightfor15 #borderchildren

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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20


I don’t know about for you, but this passage is quite familiar to me. I have heard it preached, studied it in Bible studies, or have heard it used as an example of how to confess who Jesus is numerous times throughout my life. And one of the most popular claims I’ve heard about it is that this text is about Peter’s faith and his great confession.

According to this interpretation, this passage is a turning point for Peter. After all, it was only a few chapters earlier when Jesus told Peter that he had little faith because he lacked trust in Jesus and was fearful of walking on water toward Jesus. Yet, here, in Matthew 16, Peter finally confesses who Jesus really is. When Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for the disciples and replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

So it seems to make sense that this passage is about Peter’s turning point and confession.

However, if we look at the passage that immediately follows this one, we might come to another conclusion. Starting in vs. 21, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he MUST journey to Jerusalem, suffer and die in the hands of the religious leaders, and be raised on the third day.

We would think that a disciple who truly understands who this Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is, would accept what Jesus has to say about his mission – even if this disciple does so with reluctance and sadness. However, to our surprise, Peter responds to this by rebuking Jesus and saying: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen!” And to our even greater surprise, Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan and saying he is a stumbling block for only setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.

And this isn’t the only time Peter doesn’t seem to get it. For we all know it is HE who denies Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So if this text is not about Peter’s confession? What is it about?

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To better understand, we need to consider what these titles given to Jesus in Peter’s “confession” meant to both Peter and Jesus.

According to one source, (the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary) the Messiah was an “anointed agent of God, appointed to a task affecting the lot.” However, the title “Messiah” did not always suggest a divine being. In Ancient Israel, this title referred to priests, anointed men who were kings of Israel, prophets, and even to the pagan king, Cyrus. It is not until the Babylonian Exile – where the Israelites were taken from their homeland and longed to return – when the Israelites began to write about a coming Messiah who would be their Savior in the midst of great suffering. And it is not until we read Paul’s letters when we begin to hear that Jesus, the Christ (which is the Greek translation for “Messiah”), is the one who fulfilled the Palestinian Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah.

The title “Son of God” is similar in that it was also used to allude to numerous persons and positions in Ancient Israel, including angels, monarchs when they were enthroned, and people who were considered to be righteous. According to one source, by the first century, this title referred to “a person or a people with a special relationship to God, often with a special role in salvation history.” (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary)

In order to better understand the importance of these titles, we might also consider the location in which Peter made this confession, Caesarea Phillipi. This city was the worldwide center of the Pagan religion that worshipped Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This religion involved lustful acts that followers would perform in order to worship Pan. In addition to this, the city represented the imperial power of the Roman Empire, which created a strong dominating hierarchy that uplifted the wealthy and the elite and oppressed the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. In fact, the city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power… And you can probably guess who it was named after: Caesar…and Phillip, himself.

Two temples stood in Caesarea Phillipi: one to honor and worship Caesar the great leader of the Empire and the other to honor and worship Pan. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there.

So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take his disciples to and ask them to confess whom he really is. We might think that the Temple or one of the synagogues would have been a better place.

And yet, it is quite intentional that Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi to reveal his identity to them. You see, in the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the empire and it’s leaders. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.”

What’s more is that in Caesarea Phillipi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the Gates of Hades, the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.

 *****

Now in our passage for today, Jesus goes on to tell Simon Peter that his name shall be Peter, which means rock. And it is upon this rock – or Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples – where Jesus will build his Church. And nothing – not even the Gates of Hades – the location where the pagan gods representing imperial, oppressive power and where the gods exit and enter Hades – not even these gates will prevail against this Church body.

You see, Caesarea Phillipi is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the one who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome or Jupiter or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against him!

And we see throughout Matthew, that it is this Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who begins to bring about a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom so polar opposite of the oppressive Roman Empire that dominated over the lower class folks.

A Kingdom that will even oppose, challenge, and tear down the hierarchical powers and forces of that Empire.

And this new kingdom is one where Jesus, the only truly great ruler and king – rules not with a militaristic, exclusive, and dominating power over others, but rather rules with love and equality and lives with and uplifts – not the elite, wealthy and powerful – as the Empire did – but rather the poor and sick, the women and widows, the immigrants and ethnic minorities – those who were considered the last and least in society.

 *****

Now, we have come a long way since first century Rome. So it may seem very difficult for us to understand or even comprehend the repercussions of such a violent and oppressive Empire. And yet, we don’t have to walk too far from the front steps of Unity Lutheran Church or listen to the local, national, and international news too long before we start to realize that the United States is dangerously moving toward – if not already living into – a modern day Roman Empire.

Don’t we live in one of the most powerful and rich countries in the world, where wealth, status, and capitalism are often worshiped… Where some in our country make 1000s of dollars an hour while others are struggling to even make $8.50 to $9 an hour?  And as a result of this, those of us who are privileged often live well beyond our means, while millions of our neighbors lack opportunities and resources and even suffer from hunger and homelessness?

Don’t we live in a country with more resources than much of the rest of the world can even comprehend and with a fairly low population density and yet, when some 60,000 terrified unaccompanied children desperately try to cross the border in order to flee violence, we detain them and call out to send them back instead of providing them with care and assistance?

Don’t we live in a country that proclaims its moral superiority over many other violent nations and yet it is the sole country that funds the majority of military equipment that is creating over 200,000 Gazan refugees and killing more than 2000 of them, almost 500 of whom are children?

Don’t we live in a country where racial inequality is so prevalent that there is still an incredibly disproportionate amount of people of color who are unjustifiably being dehumanized, sentenced, imprisoned, or even killed by police, and when done so, such actions are “justified” or covered up – as we see in Ferguson and in the case of Marissa Alexander? And when people who choose to exercise their First Amendment Rights to peacefully and lawfully protest against such hate crimes, they are being met by tear gas, rubber bullets, and forceful arrests by a militant police force armed and dressed as if it were ready to declare war?

In our present-day oppressive Roman Empire, our worship of the Caesars and Pans – of consumerism, materialism, power, and wealth – not only push so many people in our own country into the margins of society, but our nationalism – our worship of our country – leads us to view other nations and people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as inferior to us and as less human than we are.

While it is okay and even important for us to recognize and be thankful for the many blessings and privileges we have in our lives, we must always remember that while we may sing “God bless America,” God does not bless American any more than any other nation. And, as followers of Jesus, we can never worship a nation, social status, wealth, capitalism, a particular racial or ethnic group, or any other Caesar or pagan god. Because it is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God – not Caesar or Pan, not the United States or any other nation, not our material possessions or our successful careers, not our military weapons, borders, politicians, or our powerful police forces. It is Jesus Christ and it is ONLY Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Saviour.

We hear this truth proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, and we particularly hear it preaching out of our text in Matthew today.

 *****

But our message does not end here with this confession of Peter about who Jesus is. As Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem and toward the cross, he tells Peter an important thing: that although Jesus will leave this earth, his ministry of challenging and breaking down the oppressive imperial walls/forces and spreading his good news of love and salvation from injustice to ALL people – is not over.

This ministry will continue. It will first continue through Peter and the disciples who will be the rock on which Jesus will begin to build the Church… But it will also continue through all of Jesus’ disciples – through all of Jesus’ followers.

No longer does it matter that Caesar holds the keys to an oppressive kingdom that excludes those on the margins of society, because now it is Peter and the entire Church body who hold the keys to a new Kingdom that is built on love, peace, equality, and justice.

*****

So we can see that our passage in Matthew begins with a confession and it ends with commission. A commission not just to Peter, not just to the other eleven disciples, but to all of us who truly proclaim that it is Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – and it is ONLY this Jesus – who is our Lord.

We may wonder how on earth we are to respond to this commission. For some of us, it might start with listening to the voices around us who are being shut out and recognizing the Caesars and Pan gods we currently worship… and learning to give them up. For others of us, it might be figuring out how to tear down the imperial powers that oppress and push people to the margins in Chicago, in the U.S., and throughout the world by spreading the word about such injustice, signing petitions, and standing with others at marches that demand justice. For others it might be figuring out how to open the doors of this Kingdom of God to the people in our midst who are being excluded by our present-day Empire.

However we may do it, we – as followers of Jesus – are called to not just confess who Jesus Christ is, but we are also called to respond to his great commission. So let us not just leave this place and go back to our busy schedules forgetting what we have heard and confessed this morning. But let us boldly and loudly respond to Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the Son of the Living God, both in word and in deed.

Amen.


A Few Ways to Participate in Advocacy in your Area:

Ferguson:

HandsUpUnited (find a vigil or rally near you: several on Mon., Aug. 25 and Tues., Aug. 26)

– “By Their Strange Fruit” timeline and links to follow

– Follow on Twitter: @SideofLoveCampaign, @FergusonUnity, @BTSFblog

GAZA (End the Siege on Gaza):

– Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network

– Follow on Facebook and/or Twitter: @jvplive (Jewish Voice for Peace), @codepink, US Palestinian Community Network

Children at the Border: 

#ActsofLove Campaign

#TheyAreChildren Campaign

FastforFamilies (Campaign for Immigration Reform and Citizenship)

– Follow on Twitter: @SojoImmigration, @RI4A (Reform Immigration For America)

Fightfor15 (Campaign to raise minimum wage):

– FightFor15.org

– Why I Choose to Fightfor15

– Follow on Twitter: @SEIU, @Fightfor15

 

“All for One, and One for All” – Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

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(Preached on Sunday during the Mission/Service and Learning trip of Edgewater Youth Coalition at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dubuque, IA, our host church.)

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-29

It’s wonderful to be here this morning and this week. My youth, adult leaders, and I are very thankful for all you have done and are doing to help make this a wonderful mission and service and learning trip for our group.

While many of you know my face or have heard my name, you may not know what I do. I thought this morning, I’d share a little about myself and the group I am here with this week.

While I am a recently ordained pastor in the Chicago Presbytery, I serve as the pastor with youth, children, and households at three ELCA congregations and one American Baptist church in the neighborhood of Edgewater in the city of Chicago.

Some call me an ecumenical bricolage… Others call me crazy.

This week I joined Joe Morrow, the Youth Director at Edgewater Presbyterian Church in our neighborhood in bringing youth from all five of our congregations for a mission/service and learning trip. I hope you will get the chance to meet some of these wonderful youth today or sometime this week.

One of the things that began my passion to work with youth and children was my own desire as a kid to find a safe community of peers and adults where I found a sense of belonging and where I could be myself. This was mainly due to my own personal experiences of being bullied and excluded from the “in” crowd at school. In elementary and middle school, I was picked on by the popular kids for many reasons.  Sometimes it was because I didn’t live in a big house or my family didn’t own a new car. Other times it was because I was not very athletic or I did not wear a certain brand of clothes like the popular girls at my school.

But for whatever the reason: I was picked on because I was just a little different than the girls in the “in” crowd.

And in the midst of my own experiences of feeling like an outsider and being bullied, I witnessed many of my friends and classmates who were bullied and excluded because of their differences, as well: sometimes it was because they were new to the country, spoke a different language with their friends at school, lived in a different neighborhood than the cool kids, or because they couldn’t afford to wear new, trendy clothes and shoes.

*****

This issue of determining who is “in” or “out” – being included or excluded because of differences – was at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. For the earliest Jesus followers, this was not as much of a problem because most of the Jesus followers were Jewish, decided to join this Jesus movement within the synagogues, and therefore continued to worship and to observe the same customs and the Jewish Law as they always had before.

So for these Jewish Christians, things in the early church did not look much different from how things were in the Jewish community before Christ. However, as more and more Gentiles (or non-Jews) began to convert and join the movement, this new growing community had to begin to define what it believed and required of its new members. These Gentiles were different than the Jewish Christians: they were different ethnically and culturally. Many of them may have looked and dressed very differently than the Jewish Christians and possibly spoke dialects or with accents different from the Jews. They had different customs and world views, and they did not observe the Jewish Law – which defined the Jewish people as a faith community.

In addition to this, for centuries, the Jewish understanding was that the Jews were THE children of God. So now all of a sudden as Gentiles were joining this movement, the Jewish Christians had to begin to ask the question: what does it mean to be a Jewish-Jesus-follower worshipping alongside these very different NON-Jewish-Jesus followers? And what is required of those non-Jews in this growing faith community?

Many of the Gentiles were accepted into this new Jesus-movement community. However, there was a large group of Jewish-Christians who claimed that the Gentiles could only be included into this community and could only become children of God under one condition: they had to first convert to Judaism and observe the Jewish Law and customs. Among many things, abiding by this law included observing the dietary laws and the Sabbath and being circumcised – a practice that was considered very repulsive in the Hellenistic culture.

Many Gentiles were receptive to such teachings – including the Gentile-Christians in the Galatian church that Paul was writing to in our passage from today.

However, I imagine that this was not an easy decision or process for these Galatian Gentiles… I cannot imagine it would have been easy for them to buy into the fact that they had to give up their own heritage, their customs, and their identity and try to conform in order to ensure that they got into this community.

And I imagine that many of these Gentile Christians felt that they had no other choice if they wanted to become a child of God and be included into the faith community. We see that even when some of these Gentiles were included in this new Christian community without observing the Jewish Law, several of the more conservative Jewish Christians excluded them from the life of the faith community. We even see this right before our passage for today – in Galatians 2, where Paul explains that several of these conservative Jewish-Christians – including Peter – refused to eat with the Gentiles in Antioch… So I don’t think we can put too much blame on these Gentiles for trying to conform in order to be fully included.

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Doesn’t this sound sort of familiar to us today? Aren’t there many communities, groups, and even churches around us that exclude others who are different from the majority of those communities and groups?  Where too often those who are the “outsiders” are pressured to give up their identity and customs and conform to the majority in order to fit in and be included?

In the US, there is sort of an expected “American Dream” way of life – where your social status is determined by your worldly success, financial means, and material possessions.  Where your status is based on living in a particular type of home, owning a specific kind of car, and looking and talking in a particular kind of way.  And if you don’t, you are often deemed as the odd “outsiders.”

It will probably not take many of us here too long to think about who the individuals are around us who have been excluded and considered these outsiders or others.

They may be the kids at school or the people at work who just don’t fit into the “in crowd.” They may be people from not readily accepted groups based on age, ethnic background, or race. Those who speak a different native language, who grew up in a different neighborhood, whose family situation is not the same as ours, or who just haven’t had opportunities to receive a quality education. They may be the people we see walking into the Dubuque Rescue Mission to receive their daily free meal or the people we pass downtown who are sitting on the park bench shaking a cup and asking for change in order make enough to have a place to sleep for a night.

They may even be the new people who enter this service on Sunday morning for worship and who stand by themselves during fellowship hour. Or maybe even some us here today can identify with those Gentile Christians from the first century, trying to find a community in which we belong and are accepted – no matter who we are – and yet feeling the pressure of having to hide or give up parts of our true identity in order to be fully accepted and included.

We all love to be around our friends and people who look, act, and think like us. And yet, when we don’t reach out of our comfort zones – to others who may not believe the same things we do and who do not look, talk, and act like us – when we look at these individuals as less than ourselves or ignore and exclude them, we deny them the gift that is offered to them by God.  The gift that they – too – are children of God, as Paul put it, and we deny them full access into our faith community – where ALL in Christ are called to be one – no matter our differences.

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The good news is that Paul’s message to the Galatian church shows us that this is not the way God intended the world and the Church order to be. In response to the teachings of the several conservative Jewish-Christians that the Gentiles had to first convert to Judaism, be circumcised, and observe the Jewish Law, Paul explains in Galatians chapter 3 that it is not the Law that justifies, but rather, it is only the work done through Jesus Christ. He later explains that: “for in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts for anything is faith working in love.”

Paul then goes on to say in our passage that before there was faith in Christ, the law was a disciplinarian.  It was a temporary guide that helped the people of God discern how to live, interact with one another, and be reconciled to God. However, now that Christ has come, proclaimed the good news of God’s love to all, died on the cross for the world, and has risen from the dead, all who have faith in Christ are no longer subject to this Law. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I think what Paul is talking about here is the kind of love of neighbor that the Musketeers – the men who swore to serve and protect the French king – had for each another.

If you have ever read or seen any of the versions of the Three Musketeers, you probably know what I’m talking about. At the end of the story, D’Artagnon, the newest member of the Musketeers – has a personal duel he has to attend to. And when he tells his new friends – the Three musketeers – that he will take care of the matter himself, the three musketeers interrupt him, saying: “we Musketeers not only protect the king, but we also protect each other.” The story ends with D’Artagnon shouting out: “All for one,” and the rest of the musketeers answering together, “and one for all.”

We can learn from this kind of unity and loyalty of the Musketeers. As followers of Jesus Christ, not only do we strive to serve, protect, and love God, but we are ALSO called to serve, protect and love our neighbor – and ALL who are in Christ.

You see, for Paul, ALL who are in Christ Jesus are children of God through faith – no matter who they are, no matter where they live, no matter how they dress, and no matter what their background. And ALL should be invited to and included – without any conditions – into this community through faith and cared for with love.

But for Paul, this does not stop here… In our passage for today Paul goes on to describe an even more radical reversal that has taken place through Christ.

And as he describes what it means now to be IN CHRIST – to be and to live as the Christian faith community – he
addresses the issue of hierarchy and classicism.

You see, within the Jewish community before Christ, there were several strong divisions and class distinctions between particular groups of people. An ancient Jewish daily prayer explains it well, saying: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has created me a human and not beast, 
a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

This prayer describes three major divisions and hierarchies: based on gender, social and economic status, and ethnicity.

Every morning Jewish men would have prayed this prayer, and Paul – who before he was converted to the Jesus movement was a Jewish Pharisee – would have been very familiar with it as he, himself, would have prayed it every morning, as well.

And yet here in Galatians, Paul takes this prayer and he reverses it, saying to the Galatian Church: “There is now no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, Christ has brought an end to these unjust societal and cultural divisions. And so now all who are “in Christ” are one. Differences no longer matter.  Whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, young or old, powerful or outcast, native or immigrant.  All are God’s children, all are equal, all are united as One.

*****

This message to the Galatian Church would have been good news to the Gentiles. But it is also good news for each one of us today. It reminds us that ALL in Christ are equally united as one body and as children of God – no matter our differences. And it calls each one of us to reach out in love to include and care for all of God’s children.

And to those of us who identify with those first century Galatian Gentiles – those of us who have been excluded and bullied for our differences, those of us who are longing to find a place of belonging, where we will be accepted for who we truly are: Galatians 3 speaks to us, as well. Paul’s message reminds us that we ARE God’s children – no matter what we look like, no matter where we live, and no matter where we come from. And it reminds us that we can and SHOULD hold onto our heritage, to our customs, and to our true identities: which only make us unique and beautiful individuals with a lot to give and share with the church and with the world.

This week, our group will be talking about holy ground: that we are always standing on holy ground – in God’s presence – and that we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, taking care of God’s earth as well as all of God’s creatures and all of God’s children.

Since our youth are coming from five different churches, who are in different grades, go to different schools, many who come from different countries, and some who live in different neighborhoods, we will be talking a lot about how we can be good stewards of God’s creation by recognizing the similarities we all have in our differences and by affirming all of our equality as children of God in Christ.

So I’d like to leave you all this morning with a poem called “Human Family” by Maya Angelou, which speaks to my youth and to all of us here this morning as we reflect this week on what it means to be one in Christ.  A poem that if Paul were writing to the Galatians today, I can’t help but think he might include it in his letter.

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

WE are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.