Friday, September 18, 2015

The Courage to Know Who You Are

September 13, 2015

Last year’s 8th graders are now Freshmen. We’re blessed with a Senior in the house now, and we see the signs of the empty nest that’s coming fast. The harvest of last spring’s Kindergarten classes are just beginning their 12-year journey of discovery that we hope every child will take toward adulthood. Even if you spend almost no time on Facebook, you’ve seen the back to school pictures. The pride of parents, the excitement of a new start, meeting new friends, falling in and out of love, and the constant care and attention of adults whose calling is among the highest: to equip the younger human beings in our care for life.

When Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, it’s not an academic question. It’s not a question to be addressed with doctrine, although doctrine has its place.

As Mark relates the stories of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ question is a pivotal point for them all. Until now, everyone’s been asking him questions. Spirits ask what he has to do with them. Beggars ask for healing. Religious leaders ask what authority he has and why he eats with sinners. On the sea, the disciples ask if he doesn’t care they are perishing. His neighbors at home ask just who Jesus thinks he is, this kid they’ve watched grow up. When confronted with a challenge, his followers again ask Jesus what to do, and he tells them to feed them, and they ask how.

It takes tremendous courage, I believe, to ask the disciples the question Jesus asked. Who do people say that I am? Because not many of us really want to know the answer to a question ke that. We think we want to know. Does he think I’m foolish? Will she like this tie? What if I ask him out and he says no?

Most of us at work grow accustomed to being evaluated on our performance. Each year when review time comes around, that meeting with the supervisor or boss shouldn’t contain any surprises, not if they’ve been managing the company well. But it still takes some courage to walk into the room and hear what someone else thinks of how you’re doing.

In school it happens all the time. Tests, quizzes, and for teachers course evaluations and online teacher rating sites. We live in a culture where we measure the formation by what we learn, how we perform, the results we attain. SAT, ACT, PSAT. the MInnesota Test of Academic Skills, the football team’s winning or losing record.

It takes courage to ask someone else, especially the people who are closest to you, who others say you are.

It also takes a willingness to let others be wrong. “John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Heady stuff. Counter-culture heroes. And keep in mind that he's asking this question in foreign land, the city of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city.

But it takes even more courage to ask, “Who you say that I am?” No hiding behind the anonymous mask of “Well, you know some people are saying…” or “It’s not my opinion, but here’s what I’ve heard in the parking lot…”

Jesus won’t let his disciples get away with what others say. he has the strength of heart to look them in the eyes and ask, “Who do YOU say that I AM?”

I suspect he’s looking for an honest response. One that digs down deep. One that gets past the educational, occupational and geographic. Go to a party and the surface questions have to do with where you’re from, who’s your family, where’d you go to school, what do you do for a living? What brought you here?

But Jesus doesn’t ask us a surface question. He confronts us with the question of identity. His and by extension ours.

What would we discover if we asked our neighbors who we are as a church? What would our Lakeville neighbors say? Our Burnsville neighbors? Not our own self-definitions, not the mission statement we tell ourselves. But who do they say we are?

Would some say, “Oh, you’re the ones who do the oil change?” You’re the ones who… what? Would they answer by describing the things they see us do? Would they know us by our welcome, by our love?

But JEsus didn’t ask his disciples what they saw him doing. He asked who they said he was. Who he is. Can we do that? Can we say, by our words and actions alike, who Jesus is? And if we believe that he is the human face of God, what can we say or do to reflect what we believe?

Because what we say or do will reflect who we believe Jesus to be.

When I was in Tanzania for a meeting of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Plenary Commission, I’d been working as part of a group on something called the Apostolic Faith Project. It was the culmination of 70 years of intentional work by Christian theologians from every tradition around the world to answer Jesus’ dying prayer that his followers would all be one.

The document I had helped prepare earlier the previous year in Bucharest, was a study guide on Sharing the One Faith. In Tanzania, representatives from the global church community debated and discussed the central affirmations and concerns that had to be addressed to overcome our divisions while maintaining and honoring the best of our individual and church identities. As a Disciple, I was able to bring the confidence that the one thing we all have in common is that we see what Peter saw: Jesus is the Christ. We don’t always agree on what that means, but it's the distinctive vision that Christians share.

The president of Tanzania addressed our meeting. And he introduced us to the African concept of Utu (human nature, humanity). It’s a word for extended family. It is a profound understanding of the shared bonds we have as human beings, and the shared responsibilities we have for each other. If you are my brother, if you are my sister, we are responsible for each other. That responsibility for each other is at the essence of who we are.

We find our identity in a relationship we didn’t originally choose, and have the privilege to honor each moment of every day as those who are made in the image of a God who in the essence of God’s own being is relational. Utu means we are one mutual sharing, a fellowship, a family. And how we treat each other, even our enemies, if we are to be authentically followers of Jesus Christ, reflects Utu.

In a world where forces of greed and selfishness lead us into smaller and smaller circles, Utu reminds us to stretch the circle wide enough to include not only neighbors, not only enemies, not only the whole human race, but all of creation as well.

The biblical word for this is koinonia. And I believe it takes courage. To answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah,” the anointed, the Christ, the human face of God, we are led to ask the question of ourselves. Who do our neighbors say we are? Will they see in us the oneness, the compassion, the love of God working through us to reform unjust social structures and respect each person’s dignity?

Courage, by the way, is rooted in the word cor, heart. May our hearts be one.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Getting the Best of Jesus Getting the Best of You

September 6, 2015
Mark 7.24-37

It’s hard this week not to have seen the the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old boy who was fleeing the war in Syria with his family on a smuggler’s boat. They were trying to reach Sweden by way of Greece after their asylum request to Canada was denied. Aylan’s father and mother were trying to get the boys to safety. Their northern Syrian city of Kobani, which is a little smaller than Apple Valley, has been in the news for two years as Kurds and ISIL have been taking it back and forth from each other during one of the most violent civil wars of modern history.

It’s even harder to have seen the photo of Aylan. When the tiny, overcrowded boat was abandoned by the smugglers in rough water and capsized, Aylan, his 5 year-old brother, and his parents were thrown into the water. His brother drowned first, then his mother, and despite his father’s best efforts, so did Aylan. The boy’s body was discovered Wednesday morning washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey, his shoes still on his feet (did his dad tie them that morning?), his head gently cradled in a pillow of sand at the edge of the Mediterranean. His funeral was on Friday.

The United States has accepted fewer than 1,500 refugees from Syria since the fighting began. 350,000 have reached the border of the EU this year. The UK announced yesterday it will accept 20,000. Australia has accepted 13,000 refugees worldwide this year and just announced they will accept more. Hungary has recorded 135,000 asylum seekers this year. Austria and Germany are sending buses to bring asylum seekers to their countries, and Germany in particular has announced they will take 100,000 refugees, spending an estimated $16 billion dollars, as German business owners make the case that it’s good for the German economy. “Angela Merkel insisted Berlin could still balance it budget while fulfilling its ‘duty’ to offer asylum to refugees.”

It’s an extraordinary moment.

When Jesus crossed into what is now Syria, he came in from the south. He was a foreigner, not necessarily a refugee, but moving on rather quickly after conflicts with his own people. We tend to spiritualize these stories too quickly, turning them into theological narratives with Aesop-like morals. But the gospel writers preserve the human particulars of these stories for a reason. There may be universal truth in the things Jesus did, but there is universal truth in everything we do, too, if we look carefully enough. To see it, you need the particulars. It's how incarnation works.

Jesus came to Syria. He wanted to stay hidden. But he couldn’t hide. A woman of the region came to him and asked for healing for her daughter. We think of Jesus as kind and gentle. But here he acts abruptly, even rudely. She asks for healing. He tells her dogs don’t deserve what’s meant for the children. Calling a woman a bitch didn’t mean something different back then than it does today. It wasn’t a term of endearment. 

But she persists and reminds him that the dogs still rely on what falls from the children’s table. And Jesus has a comeuppance. His own "come to Jesus moment." She gets the best of him. It’s a transformative moment in his ministry. And he realizes he’s not only being rude but that she sees his mission more clearly than he himself has seen it. She can tell God’s love and wholeness are for all. Not just people like his own.

The reason the second story is told right after the first is, at least in my mind, because it shows that Jesus learned his lesson. He travels north further into Syria, then turns south again through the Roman region called the Ten Cities or Decapolis. On this trip he encounters a man foreign to himself, one who can neither hear nor speak. (It’s hard to speak properly when you can’t hear. Or when you don’t listen.)

But Jesus had listened to the woman back in the coastal Syrian town. Now he pulls the man aside and opens his ears and mouth. And the man’s friends hear of it and speak out. Jesus gets the best out of them.

Are there Syrians we will listen to and learn from? Who are already showing us our own mission in the mirror of their persistence and faith? Will we let them get the best from us? How does Jesus get the best out of us? Opening our ears, our mouths? What voices will we listen to? Whose voices? And what will we say in response? 

Week of Compassion is working with Church World Service to resettle Syrian refugees. Some may come to Minneapolis. The Minnesota Council of Churches is accepting donations to help these families resettle.

We know a thing or two about being displaced. It took Jesus getting away from his homeland to hear the full measure of his calling. It changed the way he did ministry. I pray we never forget that we were strangers once in a strange land. 

May our ears be opened, you and I, by Jesus whose own ears were opened when his deep gladness met one woman's deepest need. May he get the best of us.