Thursday, February 9, 2012

Extremely Lord and Incredibly Close

Sermon preached February 5, 2012

Texts: Colossians 1:15-20; Mark 1:29-39

Why are you a Christian? There are all kinds of ways to answer that question. Many of us become acquainted with the church through our families. We live in a country where the principle religion is Christianity. We might speak about some individual experience or set of experiences where we really claimed Christian faith. If we all pushed far enough back, however, we would have to agree that we would not be Christian were it not for Jesus. Were it not for Jesus, none of us would be Christian.
There is a story about a pastor who was telling children a story during worship. “What is gray, likes to climb trees, collects nuts and has a big bushy tail?” The children were silent. “Surely someone knows what I am trying to describe?” Finally one boy piped up. “Pastor, it sounds an awful lot like a squirrel to me, but this being church the answer is probably Jesus.”
Without Jesus, no Christians. This is the third in a series of sermons on basic themes in Christian faith. At the end of last week’s sermon, which was on the theme – “God is love” I said, “And how do we know that God is love, and how do we know what it means to love as God loves? For Christians it is as simple and as complex as one word – Jesus.” Without Jesus, no Christians. Progressive theologian Marcus Borg writes that at the heart of Christianity is “the utter centrality of Jesus” (The Heart of Christianity, 80). Religion scholar, and son of Methodist missionaries to China, Huston Smith, has been asked about “the minimum requirement to be a Christian.” His response: If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you can consider yourself a Christian (Tales of Wonder, 109). To be a Christian is to claim Jesus.
Yet claiming Jesus is not always easy, and this has little to do with Jesus, I think. It has to do with a lot that has been done in the name of Jesus. Crusades have been launched in the name of Jesus. Slavery has been advocated in the name of Jesus. Indigenous people have had their culture suppressed in the name of Jesus. People’s lives have been taken in the name of Jesus. Korans have been burned in the name of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, people are told that if they don’t believe in Jesus God will torture them forever in hell. Claiming Jesus is not necessarily easy.
Yet to be Christian is to claim Jesus, and be claimed by Jesus. How do we know that God is love, and how do we know what it means to love as God loves? For Christians it is as simple and as complex as one word – Jesus. To be Christian is to claim Jesus is special, in his own category of specialness. That does not mean God’s grace doesn’t find its way into other religious traditions – but that is another topic for another day. To be Christian is to see “the revelation of God primarily in a person” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 80). We say that in Jesus, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19), that he “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). We also believe that we see what full human life is like in Jesus. If the glory of God is a human being fully alive (Irenaeus, quoted in Gerald May The Dark Night of the Soul, 181), we also believe that Jesus was that fully alive human being in whom the glory of God shined most brightly.
A shorthand way of saying all this is to say that Jesus is Lord. To be Christian is to be able to say that Jesus is Lord. But what kind of lord is he – that’s the question. If Jesus as Lord is central to our Christian understanding of the nature of God and the nature of humanity, then it makes a great deal of difference what we mean when we say that Jesus is Lord.
In Jesus time there was someone else who was called “lord.” It was Caesar, the emperor – powerful, the originator of law, the definer of justice. If that is our model of lord, then lords would be autocratic, authoritarian, perhaps capricious. And sometimes Christians have been confused about Jesus as Lord, even in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation is great for its images of Jesus as Lord fashioned in many ways as Caesar, with his triumphant armies. When we try to make Jesus as Lord in the image of Caesar as lord, we get Jesus wrong.
To be Christian is to claim that Jesus is Lord, but it is also to understand that he is a very different kind of lord. He breaks the mold of being lord. He is extremely lord, and extremely different from Caesar as lord.
Lords have great feasts for themselves and their friends. Jesus seems always interested in seeing that others get fed. Mark, the shortest of the four New Testament gospels which share the story of Jesus’ life, has sixteen chapters. There are significant feeding stories in two of those chapters. In chapter six, five thousand are fed from five loaves and two fish. In chapter eight, Jesus was said to have compassion on a crowd, and noticed their hunger. There were only seven loaves, and a few fish, but again all were fed. In other places, Jesus eating practices are criticized – he didn’t fast enough (Mark 2:18), he didn’t wash right (Mark 7:5), he ate with the wrong kind of people (Mark 2:16). Jesus as lord feeds, and his feeding isn’t limited to caring for the physical well-being of others. Teaching is another kind of feeding – feeding hearts, minds, souls and he taught in ways that amazed his listeners. And we regularly remember Jesus in a symbolic meal.
Lords are often worried about their own well-being and their legacy. They erect statues to themselves, build self-promoting monuments. Jesus cared about the well-being of others. He was always about the work of healing. “He cured many who were sick, with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” You cannot read the gospels without encountering large numbers of stories of healing and freeing.
Lords divide and conquer. Jesus breaks down divisions and includes. The story we read last week about Jesus encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) is illustrative of the kind of inclusivity of Jesus. In that story Jesus broke with his traditions in speaking to a woman and a Samaritan. In Mark 2, Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners” – and is criticized for it. There is this wonderful phrase in Ephesians, chapter 2 (v. 14), that Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall” between people. We remember that by welcoming all to the table of Jesus.
Lords pretend to need nothing. They don’t want to appear weak. Jesus is unafraid to learn and grow. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” When Jesus encounters a Syrophonecian woman who bests him in an argument, he acknowledges it and there is healing (Mark 7:24-30).
Jesus is Lord – a central claim of Christian faith. Yet Jesus is lord in a unique way – he feeds, heals, includes, grows. And there is one other thing we believe about this Jesus as lord. He is a living lord. There is something about him that we know and experience in our lives now. We trust that Jesus is, in the words of Marcus Borg, “the side of God turned toward us, the face of God” (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, 137). As the face of God for us, Jesus is a close, living presence. Jesus is extremely lord and incredibly close.
Jesus as lord is a presence in our lives that heals, frees, feeds, welcomes and invites us to grow into the fully alive human that is the glory of God. In Jesus as lord we know a God who does not avoid beautiful people in a pickle, human beings who have the capacity to mess up their lives and the world. In Jesus, God is always drawing near to feed and heal and welcome and invite growth.
Jesus is extremely lord and incredibly close. Jesus is lord of the dance, the dance of healing, freedom, beauty, joy, justice, compassion, caring love – and in joining the dance with Jesus we find life.
And where do we Christians believe we should most clearly hear the tune of Jesus, lord of the dance? A place called church. Stay tuned. Amen.

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