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Weakness and Vulnerability: Divine Things (February 25, 2018)

Mark 8:31-38

Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I said last week that the author of Mark’s gospel writes in a pretty unique style. Direct, fast-paced, only including details that help make the point and leaving out anything else. And that this author invites us, the reader into the narrative–to finish the story, as it were.

This text today is Mark at his/her finest! It’s pretty hard to miss the point here, isn’t it? Disciples of Jesus are those that follow him even though he’s heading to his own death. To do anything else is to put human things ahead of divine things. And that, Jesus makes clear to Peter, is satanic.

Mark doesn’t leave us a lot of wiggle room. If you put yourself and your own life ahead of your neighbor’s, you are in essence losing your life. Real life only comes by giving yourself away for the sake of others—which is exactly what Jesus says he’s doing when he talks about his death.

Mark’s direct writing style on display. And, as the reader, we are invited into the story right alongside Peter. Human things or divine things? Follow Satan or follow Jesus? Serve ourselves or serve others? It’s that clear, that demanding, and should be that simple.

But here’s the thing. Like a lot of folks, I want to let myself off the hook just a bit, justify serving myself and choosing human things. And the Jesus in Mark makes it pretty clear where I stand when I do that.

I’m not alone there. So the one thing we all have in common is that the Jesus in Mark would say the same thing to each of us that he says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Because we want a God who doesn’t address our refusal to follow. We want a God whose only job is to forgive us for choosing the human things. Then, we can continue doing so feeling like God is backing our human choices.

Because just like Peter, we much prefer a God who is more human than divine. A God who meets our standard of power and might instead of one who is weak and easily killed. We want a God who is strong enough to take care of school shootings and gun violence for us, not one who invites us to follow him into the powerlessness of the victims.

Just like Peter, we expect strength in our Messiah, just as we desire strength in ourselves. That’s a human thing, not a divine thing.

Instead of striving to be powerful and strong, what would it be like if we followed Jesus into the divine thing. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who approached life from the position that they are always correct? Hard to be vulnerable and weak with them isn’t it? An encounter with someone like that is not usually an encounter with the divine, vulnerable Christ.

So, what if picking up our cross meant that we were as vulnerable as Jesus? We think the divine thing is power, when in fact it is the very human thing. Are we avoiding vulnerability in order to appear strong? Get behind me, Satan.

Jesus says very openly in this reading that the divine thing is to pick up our own cross and follow him. Because it’s in the vulnerability of the cross that God is most fully present with Jesus. Perhaps the cross we pick up is that same vulnerability. Because when we acknowledge our own vulnerability we are then walk with others in their vulnerability. Rather than avoiding weakness and brokenness which is the human thing, perhaps the divine thing to do is recognize God present in weakness. Both our own and others’. Rather than judge others in their vulnerability, rebuking them for a lack of Messianic strength, we join them in their brokenness, knowing that we are following the one who picked up the weakness of the cross. Instead of meeting power with more power, strength with more strength, force with more force, we seek to join the presence of Christ in the weak, the victimized, the wounded, the grieving.

That’s the divine thing to do. Because it’s only through the cross that there is resurrection. It’s only in weakness that there is strength. It’s only in vulnerability that there is life. Mark seems pretty clear about that.

There are a bunch of students from Parkland, FL who have experienced extreme vulnerability, and seen it in each other. They’ve decided to walk together in that vulnerability and in so doing have been resurrected to a new life, a new purpose. They’ve found a new voice in their collective weakness. And that voice just might change our culture of violence.

So we pick up this cross of weakness, of vulnerability, and we follow Christ. Not because of our certainty, but because that’s where we meet him. Because that’s where we discover resurrection and life. As we embrace others in their weakness too, walk alongside them in their vulnerability too, we recognize Christ present with us together. And together we experience new life.

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Faith: When We Actually Need God (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

 

One of the problems in this Corinthian congregation is that some of the people there are lifting themselves up as super-pastors who have all credentials and are super spiritual. They assert that their list of credentials make them trustworthy–superior to Paul.

Yet Paul has credentials of his own: a vision of Paradise, the third heaven; hearing and seeing things he can never speak of. If they want to get into a spiritual credentials battle, Paul can certainly compete. Since he is claiming to be an Apostle, shouldn’t his credentials be better than his opposition?

Paul writes of this vision, but says that as amazing as it was 14 years ago, that’s not what gives him credibility. What matters isn’t how many visions he’s had or how spiritual they’ve been; what matters is he sees God at work most clearly through his weaknesses—the things he can’t do.

“I will not boast, except of my weakness,” he writes. “Power is made perfect in weakness.” “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses.” “I am content with weaknesses.” “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Where does he get this stuff? Try going into a job interview and boasting about your weaknesses. See if you get called back. It’s one thing to acknowledge your weaknesses, to try to improve them. But to boast about them? To point them out publicly, putting them in the spotlight and saying, “take a look. This is what I’m proud of!”? Really? In a congregation where his authority is already questioned, how can he think this is a viable strategy?

Because weak is a good description of Jesus. Jesus was arrested without a struggle, wore a crown of thorns without a complaint, was crucified without one protest of his innocence. Jesus is the poster child for what we would call being weak.

A Jesus who is strong or powerful would be more like the movies: beating up everyone who comes to arrest him, spitting in the face of anyone who mocks him, and never allowing himself to be killed. A powerful Jesus would find a way out of that crucifixion situation. Look out, Roman oppressors. Look out, Pontius Pilate. Super Jesus is fighting back with the power of Almighty God! That’s the Jesus we want, but it isn’t reality.

No. Power isn’t the way of Christ. Therefore, power isn’t the way of God. Those things that we consider weak and frail are actually God’s ways. Unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness. Those are God’s strengths. Paul reminds us that these weak ways of Christ are more powerful than anything we would consider strengths.

So Paul boasts of his weaknesses. Not to give himself credibility, but to recognize Go at work. If the gospel is proclaimed through Paul’s credentials, Paul gets credit and Christ is ignored. But if the gospel of life is revealed in ways that Paul can’t take credit for, then it is the power of Christ that is known; the power of forgiveness, of love, of grace. God’s strengths.

Let’s make this personal. In my work I am often required to submit a brief biography.  I say something like, “The Rev. Dr. (gotta include the “Dr.”) Robert Moss, serving as Senior Pastor of a very innovative congregation in the ELCA, has previously served the ELCA as the Interim Director for Evangelical Mission for the Rocky Mountain Synod. He is a published author (they love that) and serves on the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Mission Strategy Table. He has had 20 consecutive years of congregational growth in members and finances, including eight consecutive years of double-digit percentage growth in his current congregation.” That kind of stuff. Credentials? I’ve got them.

Paul would say, “So what? That’s all about you. Christ isn’t revealed in any of that. There’s no love shown, no forgiveness there, no compassion.” The credentials are about me, not about Christ and the mission of God.

So Paul would have me write a new bio that would say something like, “Rob Moss is an aging, balding, nearsighted, hard-of-hearing person who deals with depression and self-doubt. He shares responsibility for a nine year numerical decline in the congregation he serves. Very introverted, Rob sometimes finds it hard to connect with people, and too often keeps to himself. Oh, and he doesn’t exercise enough.”

If, like Paul, I were to appeal to the Lord about these weaknesses, that I could be stronger, God would say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Trusting God means that where we are weak and cannot accomplish God’s mission, we believe that God can. It isn’t about our power, our credentials, or our personal strengths. It is about God’s love that has no strings attached, about reconciliation, about mercy, about forgiving those who hurt us. And when our credentials don’t include these things, we have faith in the power of Christ to do them anyway. Life is found not in our strength and our power, but in God’s love and mercy. Even if that is seen as weakness.

On this 4th of July weekend, we recognize the strengths of this country. The power we have in the world. The might of our military. The freedoms we have procured. And we celebrate all that, with good reason. We rejoice in that and are thankful every day for that.

But I wonder if our emphasis on national power and strength prevents us from recognizing God’s real power of forgiveness, of loving our enemies, of doing good to those who hurt us. I wonder on this weekend when we say “God bless America,” if that’s really what we mean. Are we asking God to affirm our power, or are we asking God for the real power of unconditional love and forgiveness?

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2015 in Sermon

 

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A God for Weaklings

Luke 4:1-13

Have you ever bargained with God? Have you ever been in one of those situations where you  say, “Get me out of this just this one time, God, and I promise I’ll never eat anything left out overnight again”? “Just do this one thing, God, and I swear I’ll go to the gym every day from now on.” You ever done that?

Yes, you have. . . Have you ever followed through with it? Those of you who say you have followed through, have you ever lied about anything else?

We’ve all tried to bargain with God. We’ve all tried to persuade God to show mercy, to use divine power, to perform a miracle, persuade someone to see things our way, to rescue us from this situation where we feel incredibly vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes it’s as trivial as a speeding ticket (just get me a warning and I’ll never speed again!); sometimes as agonizing as the death of someone you love. But we’ve all experienced that helplessness, that vulnerability, where there’s nothing else we can do but hope God or someone intervenes. Because whatever it is, is beyond what we have any control or power over.

When we are that powerless, that weak, that helpless, that alone, it’s like we’ll grasp at any straw to change it. When we are so overwhelmed with the situation, we’ll say anything, do anything, just to get through it.

I gotta think that’s where Jesus is in this gospel text. Absolutely overwhelmed, helpless, vulnerable. He’s just been baptized by John and his mission as Savior of all creation has just been declared from the Father. He heads out into the wilderness to regroup, think this through. And at the height of his vulnerability, the text says that’s when the devil came to visit him. Of course that’s when that would happen! If Jesus is feeling all pumped up and strong, excited about what’s coming, nothing could tempt him away from that. But when we’re weak and confused and desperate and defenseless, we all know how quickly we’re tempted to cave in and cry out.

Here’s what I’m noticing in this gospel reading, though. Look at the first six words. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.” Before he ever went into the wilderness. Before he began his 40-day fast. Before the devil came to him. Before there was any temptation. Before any of it, he was full of the Holy Spirit. Fresh from the baptismal waters of the Jordan River, he was Spirit-filled, and ready for the wilderness.

The point here isn’t that Jesus resisted temptation, therefore you really ought to try harder. It’s that when facing temptation because we are in a situation where we are weak and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit is there and we are filled.

The point is not that if you were stronger you wouldn’t cave in. It’s that at those times when we cannot try harder, the Holy Spirit sustains us.

The point is not that weak people should feel guilty. It’s that because we are weak, the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness.

The point isn’t that you better resist temptation in order to be closer to God. It’s that because we cannot always resist temptation, God comes closer to us.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God. She is the love of God with you. She fills you with forgiveness, comfort, and hope. Not because you are strong enough to resist temptation, but because you are not.

When you are in a situation where you are powerless and vulnerable, the Holy Spirit has filled you up—with God’s love, with God’s tender mercy, with God’s forgiveness.

When you are overwhelmed and helpless, the Holy Spirit is present with you—bringing grace and compassion.

When you cave in, when you are confused, when you are too weak to resist, the Holy Spirit is there for you—in hope and with a new start.

This isn’t a “become more like Jesus” text. It’s a “know the comfort of the Holy Spirit” text. It’s a “receive God’s forgiveness” text. The Holy Spirit fills you with mercy and forgiveness, not because you are as strong as Jesus, but because you are not.

So guess what? Next time we’re in a situation where we find ourselves bargaining with God, where we are helpless to change our circumstances, the Holy Spirit is, at that moment, already filling you to overflowing with the forgiveness and mercy of a loving God. Not because we are free from brokenness, but precisely because we are not.

Know the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Live in the forgiveness of the Holy Spirit. For you are filled with the mercy of the Holy Spirit. When you resist temptation, and especially when you do not.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Sermon

 

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