Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sermon: "Jesus Christ, Superstar"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, NH
September 16, 2012
Exodus 3:9-15; Mark 8:27-38

“Jesus Christ, Superstar”

A name can be a powerful thing.
My father was christened Nicholas Augustus Frescott.
He was named after his father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather before him.
As the fourth generation first born male to be given the name Nicholas, my father had big shoes to fill, as he walked in the shadow of the hard-working, strong-willed men who came before him.
But my father never had the chance to be a Nicholas.

When he was a baby, his mother took to calling him “Bubby” – a nickname that sprung from her southern upbringing – and she and the rest of the family continued to call him “Bubby” for the first five years of his life.
And as fate would have it, when it came time to register my father for school my grandmother inadvertently reversed his first and middle names on the registration form.
So when his teachers called him by his middle name "Augustus" - and his friends started calling him "Gus" – my father didn't correct them because he didn't know that his given name was actually Nicholas. 
At home he had always been Bubby.
At five years old my father had been given a new identity.
And he was Gus for the rest of his life.

In many ways my father was spared the pressure of having to live up to his name. When he heard the name Nicholas spoken in his house there was no confusion as to whether it was he who was being referred to, or his father, or his grandfather, or his great grandfather.
As Augustus he was allowed to forge his own identity rather than have one thrust upon him.
In the end he did turn out to be a strong-willed, hard-working man just like his predecessors but he did it without having to drag the weight of his name behind him.

When my father had his first son, he continued the tradition and named him Nicholas, and my brother Nicky in turn named his first son Nicholas as well.
But my father will never be a Nicholas to me or to anyone who knew him, he’ll always be Gus, the WWII Navy vet who married Ruth, raised ten children and lived 79 happy years in this world.

A name can be a powerful thing.

A friend of mine told me a similar story of having been named Mary at birth but not realizing it until she entered school because her parents always called her by her middle name, Anne. She went through most of her life as Anne until one day as a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic she decided to reclaim the name Mary in an effort to create a new identity and leave her past behind.
But when she stood up in her AA meetings and introduced herself as Mary she said it didn’t feel right.
She said to me, “Anne had this rich history, but Mary did not.
At the AA meetings I couldn't introduce myself as Mary because Mary wasn't the alcoholic, Anne was.”

A name can be a powerful thing.

As Anne’s story demonstrates, “Names have memory, history, a story behind them” and it’s hard for us to peel off those layers once they’ve been applied.
Our names become a part of who we are.

God knows that names can be both revealing and limiting, which is why in our OT reading today, when Moses asked God, “Whom shall I say has sent me?” God did not respond to Moses with an identifiable name.
God instead answered with the cryptic, “I am who I am.”
God said to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors” – as if to say, ‘You will know me not by my name, but by the relationship I have had with your people, the relationship I have with you now, and the relationship I will continue to have with your descendents.’
We will know God through our experience with God, our relationship with God, because God cannot be hemmed in by a name.
But being the verbal creatures that we are, we have no choice but to use the language we have to attempt to name the God that we profess to believe in.

The Bible uses several names for God - Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim – as well as descriptive titles that we’ve come to use as names for God – Creator, Almighty, Father, and Lord.
But as we all know, language can be limiting.  
The image that appears in our head when we hear the word Almighty, Lord, or Father tells us something about God, but imagining God in one way can make it more difficult for us to imagine God in other ways.
Which is why in our desire expand our conception of God, we’ve moved away from using descriptive titles such as these, and instead default to the old standby of calling God,  “GOD”.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t continue to imagine God in the way that we’ve come to know God, and this image can’t help but be superimposed with the personal, familial, and cultural limitations, biases, and baggage that we carry with us.

Given this, it should not come as a surprise to us that a recent study done by Baylor University researchers discovered that Americans believe in four different and distinct Gods. The distinctions are drawn according to how we perceive God’s character, with some believing in an Authoritarian and Rigid God, others a Benevolent and Merciful God, others a Critical and Angry God, and others still a Distant and Impersonal God.             

I’m reminded of an Adult Ed discussion that I facilitated at a UCC congregation years ago. This was a congregation that was not accustomed to discussing issues of faith or personal beliefs in public. One woman, in her late 8o’s, shared that she believed in an all-powerful, perfect God, and this God would not lessen itself by sharing power, therefore she did not believe that the Holy Spirit or Jesus were a part of God. After sharing her thoughts, the woman sitting next here, also in her late 80’s said, “Edna, I’ve known you for 50 years, and we’ve been a part of this church together for 50 years, and I had no idea you were a Unitarian!”

If we have such varied and distinct images of God, even though God defies our attempts to name God, then it stands to reason that we would also carry with us a multitude of images and understandings of Jesus.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus invites the disciples to answer the question,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Because then, just as now, people were just not sure what to make of him.

How would you respond to Jesus question?
Who is Jesus to you?
Is he a prophet, a great teacher or leader, a miraculous healer, a political revolutionary, the Prince of Peace, The Son of God, the Savior of all humankind, all of the above?

The gospels give us a glimpse into the life of Jesus but the four writers of the gospels project four different images of Jesus, each with their own unique shading and detailing. This is understandable, given that the gospels were written many years apart by men with different backgrounds and different agendas to audiences with different understandings of who this man named Jesus actually was.

This is what do know about Jesus:
He was a carpenter’s son from a tiny backwater town called Nazareth.
His family and friends knew him as Jeshua, a fairly common Hebrew name which means “God saves.”

The Nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary and Joseph were given divine instructions to call their son Jeshua, for he was destined to save the people of the world from sin.
The gospel of Matthew also tells us that in accordance with the prophet Isaiah, Jesus would also be known as Immanuel – meaning “God with us.”

Once again, a name can be a powerful thing.

The Gospel of John is full of proclamations made by Jesus himself in reference to his identity.  “I am the light of the world”, “I am the truth and the way”, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
And it is John’s gospel that we hear John the Baptist boldly declare,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the Son of God

But while the disciples in John’s gospel seem to have a front and center seat to the arrival of the one, true Messiah, the divine savior and liberator of the world, the disciples as portrayed in Mark’s gospel appear to be wandering in the dark.
Which is understandable, given that Mark’s gospel was written some 30-50 years before John’s, to a community that was still trying to make sense of this itinerate prophet, this great teacher, healer, and leader who rose to fame and then inexplicably got caught up in a spiral of political infighting and betrayal that ultimately led to his death.
It wasn’t supposed to end that way.

So Mark wrote his gospel in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am” …to tell his readers that yes, it was supposed to end that way.

Mark’s readers, like the disciples in his gospel, were expecting a different kind of Messiah - the one foretold in the ancient Jewish texts.
They were expecting a powerful King, or a political revolutionary, or a cosmic warrior to rise up from among them and to overthrow the regime of their oppressors, and Jesus seemed to fit the profile.

He was working with the poor, the sick, the widowed, and the orphaned, all the folks who held no power in society, and he was speaking out against those who did hold the power. He said things like, “the meek shall inherit the earth” and “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” – these are the things that a messiah would say!

When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded with the right words. He said, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one who has come to save us” …but Peter didn’t yet understand that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah he had imagined.
Jesus was the kind of Messiah who was destined to save through sacrifice, he was destined to lead through service, he was destined to give life to others by losing his own life.

That just didn’t make sense to those expecting an invincible Savior.
It didn’t make sense to Mark’s audience.
It barely makes sense to us.

It makes some sense to us because we have Passion Plays and Easter Sunday services and gold and silver crosses that we hang around our necks.
We know how the story is supposed to end because it’s the only version of the story that we know.
But to Jesus’ disciples who saw the cross as a device of unspeakable torture and death, and who longed to lift themselves up out of the mud and to laud power over others for a change, the idea of following a suffering servant who was destined to die was not the revolution they had signed up for.

It’s not one that many of us sign up for either.
We follow Jesus’ teachings and we do our best to walk in this world as he walked in his, but few of us are willing to follow him to the cross, to lose our life to gain life.
 Few of us truly understand what it means to actually do that – we don’t understand what it means to lose our life, to give up all that we’ve known, to live in this world in a different way.
But that’s okay.
Because this is not a competition to see who can be the best disciple in the shortest amount of time.
This is a life long journey of small changes and radical leaps that inch by inch and mile by mile move us closer to Jesus, and closer to being the person, and the community, that God has called us to be.

Whoever Jesus is to you – a great prophet or teacher, a political revolutionary or miracle worker, the Son of God or the Son of Man, human or divine – it doesn’t matter what brought you through the door, it only matters that you came.
You responded to something that this man named Jesus said or did, because it tugged at some longing inside your heart.
And this morning you got up, got dressed, and came here, rather than do the thousand other things that you could be doing, because you felt a need or a desire to discover what that longing is, and to do it in community.

“Who do you say that I am?”      
Pay attention to how you respond to this, because a name can be a powerful thing.
I invite you to linger on this question after worship and in the days to come, and to ask yourself, “Who is Jesus to me?”, and ask each other, “Who is Jesus to you?”
You just might be surprised at some of the answers that you hear.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon: "The Hypocritical Oath"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
September 2, 2012

“The Hypocritical Oath”

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 ~ James 1:17-27

I invite you to take a moment and look at your hands.
Think about all the things that your hands do in the course of one day.
Pulling back the bed covers, rubbing the sleep from your eyes, turning on the faucet, preparing food for yourself or your family, wiping off the countertop, opening doors, grasping steering wheels, typing on computer keyboards, digging in soil, tinkering with machinery, lifting up children, wiping away tears.

There are thousands of actions that our hands perform over the course of one day.
Most of those actions are innocuous – simple tasks that help us to navigate our world and accomplish our work.
But our hands are also capable of performing acts of great evil and great good.
We use our hands to inflict pain on others and to cause harm, to push others out of our way, to take what does not belong to us, and to hold tightly to what we don’t want others to have.
We also use our hands to comfort, to heal, and to connect with others; to build, create, and play; to lift up those who have fallen, and to help carry the burdens of those who don’t have the strength to do it on their own.

Here in the church we often say that we are called to serve as God’s hands in the world.
Because it’s all well and good to read the Bible, to raise our voices in prayer and song, and to listen for the ways that God speaks to us in our lives, but it takes a set of human hands to put God’s WORD into action.

It can be said that our hands are sacred.
Our hands perform the sacred acts of God and for that reason it is sacrilegious to use our hands to perform acts that separate us from God.

In Jesus’ time, hands were considered to be sacred.
Not just for the Temple priests and the scribes who performed sacred rituals and handled the sacred text, but for the general population as well.
Purity laws called for ritual hand washing before worship, before eating, and before gathering with one’s neighbors because it was considered respectful to keep one’s hands clean when handling sacred items, when sharing food, and when greeting each other through touch.

There were practical reasons for ritual hand washing as well – it was a way to get folks to practice good hygiene.
Those of us in the modern, developed world may take it for granted that we’re never far from a source of clean, running water, but in the nomadic desert culture of first century Palestine, water was not freely accessible, just as it isn’t in many parts of the world today.
If you think of all the messy things your hands get into during the course of the day, and then think about not having a convenient way to clean them, sometimes for days, then it’s easy to understand why every synagogue and every household was encouraged to have a bowl of water present for hand washing before eating meals and participating in acts of worship.

Then, as now, part of living in community involved following rules that are put in place for the benefit of everyone in the community.

So why did Jesus raise such a fuss when the religious leaders of his day criticized him for not enforcing ritual hand washing amongst his disciples?
Why did he let his followers sit down at a communal meal where their hands were all over everything as they passed bread and plates of food to each other, and not have them first wash off whatever mess they’d gotten themselves into beforehand?

Before we address this question, let me first give you this disclaimer.
This passage from Mark is one of several that pits Jesus against his primary nemesis – the Pharisees and the scribes – the apparent keepers of the faith who seemed to take offense at Jesus’ very presence in their community. They were always quick to point out when Jesus had broken the Jewish law. 
In reality, the presentation of the Pharisees that we see in the gospels is a caricature and is not representative of the Jewish people as a whole. In many ways the glimpse we get into Jewish life when we read the gospels is like walking in on a family argument without having much knowledge of the context or the content. Put simply, there was a traditional way of doing things and Jesus was pushing back against that tradition, and that made some folks very uncomfortable.  Just as many of us feel uncomfortable in the face of change, today.

Unfortunately these texts have been used to reinforce the belief that Christianity is superior to Judaism because its followers are not required to adhere to an antiquated set of laws.
Moreover, sermons on these texts often portray the Pharisees and the Jewish people as a whole as a legalistic bunch of fussbudgets who follow the letter of the law but ignore the spirit of the law.  We’re told that as Christians we’ve been set free from the law, and need only follow Jesus’ commandment to love God and one another as we love ourselves. 

The problem with this interpretation is that it leaves us with a distorted impression of Judaism and the time in which Jesus was living…
and it can cause us to be blind to the ways in which we as Christians are just as tempted to idolatrize the written word of God without embracing the spirit of the word. 

We may not eat Kosher, keep the Sabbath, or say ritualistic prayers after every action we perform during the day, but in 2000 years of Christianity we’ve managed to build our own intricate structure of laws and rituals that some believe must be followed in order to be considered a true Christian, or to be a member of a particular church.
But just as there are whole slew of rules and practices that some Christians follow and others do not, the same can be said of Judaism.

The reality is that in Jesus’ time some Jews followed the purity laws, but many did not.
Life was too arduous and too unpredictable for most folks to be overly concerned with whether they washed the apple they bought in the market before eating it, or washed their hands before sitting down to dinner…and there is nothing in the Torah that commands that Jews must do this.
It was just one of those practices that arose over time because it made sense and it encouraged people to take a moment to set their focus on God before rushing into the Temple or digging into a meal.

Jesus was a devout Jew himself, and he may very well have practiced ritualistic cleansing when he entered the synagogue or people’s homes.
But even if he didn’t, ignoring purity laws wasn’t as radical or as disruptive an act as many of us think it was.

The Pharisees that Jesus and his disciples encountered in Mark’s gospel did have a problem with such infractions and voiced their objection, but in his response Jesus never said the law itself was ridiculous or no longer necessary, rather he objected to the fact that his disciples were being judged solely on the cleanliness of what they put into their mouths rather than on the pureness of what came out of their hearts.

Jesus knew his disciples had much grander things to grapple with than whether or not to scrub their hands before dinner.
In the few months since they’d been following Jesus, they watched him wipe sweaty and bloody brows, touch diseased skin, and rub spit and dirt into a man’s eyes to help him to see.
They watched Jesus put his hands in the muck of life and dig right in, without concern for cleanliness.

If you think about it, Jesus’ hands must have been quite a sight.
I imagine that they were rough and dry from a lifetime spent in the desert sun. His cuticles were probably split and his palms scarred from years of working with wood as a carpenter.
Surely there was dirt under his fingernails and dirt ground into the swirls of his fingertips.
But it wasn’t so much the condition of Jesus’ hands that irked his detractors, but rather it was what he did with his hands.
In their eyes, Jesus was defiling himself by associating with those who were considered to BE defiled, not just in body, but in spirit.

In Mark’s text, Jesus responded to the objections raised by the Pharisees by calling them hypocrites.
And I imagine that hearing this accusation stung just as hard then as it does now.

The word hypocrite is one that we toss around frequently today.
Politicians, religious leaders, and entire religious institutions have been accused of hypocrisy on a grand scale.
Whenever a person or organization espouses a belief that is contradicted by their actions then we feel justified in fitting them with the label of hypocrite.
A recent survey of adults who don’t attend church found that 72 percent think the church ‘is full of hypocrites’ and therefore is not something that they want to be a part of.

A church harboring hypocrites. Imagine that.

A prime example of this apparent hypocrisy is the recent news headline that read: 
         “Church Closes Food Bank Because It Attracts Poor People.”

Apparently, the neighbors and many of the congregants objected to having “vagrants” milling around their historic building, and were worried that it was discouraging the “right” kind of people from coming to their church.

We may shake our heads in disgust, but the reality is that we are all hypocrites....
and we all come through these doors seeking to be better.

We say the prayers and make the promise that we will serve God and act and speak out of love rather than fear….and we all fall short.
None of us is the model Christian, because it is impossible for us to be perfect and refrain from anger, selfishness, and judgment, 100% of the time. Our hearts are never pure, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Church is not a place for perfect people who act on every pious word that is professed in faith. Church is a place for people who are willing to try.

Jesus calls us to be better than we are.
To step outside the temptations of our culture and our world and to align the work of our hands with the God inspired goodness of our hearts.
To resist the temptation to use our hands to cover our eyes and our ears to injustice in the world.
To resist the temptation keep our hands occupied with busywork rather than reach out to those in need.
To resist the temptation to handle money as if were the most precious object we own, doling it out to others reluctantly and only when necessary.

To instead allow our hearts to guide our hands in acts of compassion and humble service, and to pull apart the chains that hold others in captivity.
To take what we learn in here, and put it into practice out there.
That’s what it means to be church in the world.

As James wrote in his epistle:
“We’re called to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22)

That doesn’t mean we’re always going to get it right.
That doesn’t mean we’re never going to be accused of being a hypocrite.
But the oath we take as baptized Christians is the promise to do no harm in this world, to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

So in the remaining time that we have here in worship this morning,
as you use your hands to open hymnals, write out prayer concerns, and receive Communion, I invite you to continue to reflect on all the ways that you can use your hands to do good in this world.

What can you do with your hands today that will serve others and serve God?
Perhaps prepare a meal for someone who is ill.
Hold a hand that longs to be touched.
Tend a garden to celebrate God’s gift of creation.

Build. Play. Create. Comfort. Embrace.
It’s amazing what we can do with our hands in the course of one day, and in the course of a lifetime.

 It’s amazing what we can do when we allow ourselves to serve as conduits for God’s love in this world.