Thursday, September 20, 2012

Fearless losers

Psalm 116: 1-9; Mark 8: 27-38
First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
Sept. 16, 2012

“Who Is Jesus?

“And Jesus said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

“They replied, ‘You are he who heals our ambiguities and overcomes the split of angst and existential estrangement; you are he who speaks of the theonomous viewpoint of the analogia entis, the analogy of our being and the ground of all possibilities. You are the impossible possibility who brings to us, your children of light and children of darkness, the overwhelming roughness in the midst of our fraught condition of separation and brokenness, in the contiguity and existential anxieties of our ontological relationships. You are my Oppressed One, my soul’s shalom, the One who was, who is and who shall be, who has never left us alone in the struggle, the event of liberation in the lives of the oppressed struggling for freedom.’

“And Jesus replied, ‘Huh?’”
Listen to all those expectations.  Over the centuries we have heaped upon Jesus all our hopes, our desires, our deepest needs and all our fears.  We have simultaneously made him into Superman, Savior and the Suffering Servant, our greatest hope and the hope of the world; thus, he also has the potential to become the world’s biggest disappointment and ours. 

Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Messiah—the Anointed One”, but he didn’t know that meant suffering, rejection and death.  When we follow him we run the risk of becoming one of the world’s biggest losers.
(reveal front of t-shirt  - “Loser”)      

Sometimes when we heap hope and fear together, we often end up with more fear than hope.  And then it’s the fear that winds our clock, plays the old negative tapes in our heads, holds our focus, and creates the tension we think is a result of living our lives.

Fear is a prison.  It numbs us to joy and gratitude and the possibility that things could be different.  Fear permeates our dreams, the way we think, our emotions, moods, attitudes, motives.  Fear pollutes friendships, relationships and the bonds of community.  Often we are unaware of its hold on us.  It has the power to influence our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, digestion, eating and sleep habits.

Fear can be the source of perfectionism, wanting to please others and gain their good opinion.  Fear is the source of stress that tells us we have to have it done yesterday.  Fear is the source of scarcity, of not enough, of withholding.  Fear is the source of addiction, that bottomless void we try to fill with behaviors and substances that only leave us feeling even emptier.  Fear is often what is hiding behind our anger.  Fear has the power to take us out of the present and hold us captive.  But fear also tells us that we have something worth losing.

Fear is what blocks our ability to be energized, loving, creative, trusting, giving and forgiving.  We all have it in varying degrees and in a multitude of disguises.  And our fears reveal what we value but in the inverse.  We love people’s good opinion but we fear losing it.  We love our family and friends but we fear losing them and our life as we now know it.  We like to be secure and have enough to enjoy and to share but we fear losing that feeling of security.  We want to move into the future but we fear losing the familiar comfort of the past. 
At our most basic level we fear change.  We haven’t quite figured out how to love change, how to embrace it. When a change is coming, we can become deeply troubled because we are feeling fear.  We’re afraid we might have to change.  We’re anxious that our world as we know it will fall apart because of this change; that all of this is resting squarely on our shoulders or on the shoulders of our leaders, like a cross.

In other gospel versions of this morning’s story from Mark, we get to hear Peter’s rebuke:  “God forbid it, Lord!  This (this death, this tragedy, this failure) must never happen to you.”   We hear Peter’s fear of losing that which he loves most—this Messiah, this Anointed One, who made a community out of poor fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot and other outsiders.

My favorite quote about church is this:  “The gift of community is to be absolved of the burden to be complete.”  We have nothing to lose but our fear when we surrender to community, when we allow the community and God working through it to be what we aren’t capable of at the moment.  Trouble is, we’re not very practiced in communicating our fears, our honest fears, to one another, because we’re afraid of how we might appear to others—weak, incapable, incomplete, imperfect. 

When thoughts start racing, when we begin the cycle of worry and dread, when we project into the future in a negative way—that is when we need to stop and realize that we are setting on minds not on divine things but on human things.  Fear is the source of that horrid feeling in the pit of our stomachs, and that source is not the Source of All That Is, that Ground of All Being in which all of us are found. 

Author Anne Lamott wrote that it would be nice if when grace arrived, it would be announced by a ringing bell.  I wish the same thing were true about fear, when it begins its crazymaking cycle, because often we don’t recognize it until we’re well into it.  One of fear’s weaknesses is that it can be distracted by doing something positive.  It’s a way of rebelling against the fear within us.  The idea is to do something creative, like try a new recipe for dinner or sing a song.  Or go to a peaceful place in our minds.  Or remember something good that we’re looking forward to.  Or pray or meditate or simply pay attention to our breathing.  Or call a friend.  Or give away $100 with no strings attached.  Or remember to be thankful for whatever it is we’re anxious about or fearful of, because usually it’s connected to something we don’t want to lose, something that is of great value to us.

I could be wrong but I am going to out on a limb and venture that you, this church family, did not take enough time to grieve your former pastor.  After a long pastorate, even a very positive one, it is not uncommon for parishioners to feel anxious, fearful, sad, angry—all those emotions that come with grief.  And grief—no matter its cause—has its stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I have personal experience with this, from the church I grew up in, when our charismatic, compassionate, energizing pastor of 19 years left for another church.  It took that church a number of difficult, painful years and interim pastors before they could let go of the past and embrace new possibilities.

After a pastor leaves, it is a time of the mysterious unknown; to all appearances, a dry spell on the journey of faith.  How the story of a church is going to proceed is a mystery.  How will it resolve, we wonder.  Who is this Jesus and where is he leading us?  We can hear this same question in Peter’s rebuke.  And just like the disciples it can be tempting to attach our fears to this mysterious unknown, placing our focus on our anxiety and on the pain we can experience when we realize we are not in control of the outcome.

There are very few people on this planet who have mastered their fear and are solely focused on love.  But that’s the transformation we’re headed for.  That’s our salvation.  And that’s why we need Jesus, the one whose deep love transforms our fear into a creative force.  If we’re going to master our fear, we need a faithful, loyal Friend, especially one who has been through the fire.  And remember, he did say he would rise again.

Denying ourselves and picking up our cross can mean different things to each one of us.  What would it mean for this church to deny itself, pick up its cross and follow Jesus?  Ultimately, it is about leaving behind fear and shouldering the weight of love and trust and compassion.  The cross is the way of transformation, the way of becoming something altogether beautiful and new, the way of joy, the way of becoming something like Jesus.
And who is this Jesus?  Who do we say that he is?  Who does this church say that Jesus is?  That’s up to each of us and all of you to answer.  The key then is to follow that Jesus wherever he leads, even if it looks like we might lose the life we now have, that we might gain the life of the gospel, the life of the good news of transformation. 

(reveal back of t-shirt)     
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What are your deepest fears about being in community, in this faith community?  Right now, in your heart and mind, I invite you to transform them into your greatest hope and let that hope be your prayer.  By admitting your fear, its grip has been loosened and it has become a part of the past.  Now, from this day forward, may you be filled with hope. 
We are children of God.
God has made us and we belong to God.
We are disciples and truth-tellers,
Jesters and fools for one whose death set us free.
The Way of Jesus is a blessing we accept.
Our daring blesses others.
Christ is known in our love for each other
and for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.
By accepting hope, our fear is transformed.
By trusting each other, our faith is strengthened.
By loving when it is most difficult, we see the Christ.
By listening, we witness the Spirit’s unfolding in our lives.
We are the Church, the Body of Christ, that creative force
That dares to lose its life for the sake of finding the gospel.   Amen.

(If you're interested in this t-shirt and other 'one word' shirts like it, click here)

[1] Bob Kaylor, Senior Writer at HomileticsOnline and Senior Minister of the Park City United Methodist Church in Park City, Utah.

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