Lent 2B, Sermons

Who you calling Christian?

(A sermon for Lent 2B–March 4, 2012–Mark 8:31-38)

Edward, 4, with my mother. He was a nice boy, really.

I had just come in from a church meeting. The babysitter looked concerned. She was a high school Junior, a nice girl. “I need to talk to you about something,” she said. “It’s just that Edward is using some bad language.”

“He is?” I was surprised.

“Yes. He said, ‘Jesus Christ!’ And not the nice way.”

Edward was 2 years old.

It became pretty clear that the babysitter blamed me. I wanted to shift it to his father, but of course I didn’t do that in front of her. I knew *I* never used those words the wrong way. (Never, never, never.) I wracked my brain. Where might he have heard it? He clearly knew better than to say it in front of me, and that was mysterious. How did he both know it and know when not to say it?

Furthermore, I was embarrassed. I wonder what that young lady thought of us? Did she wonder if we were really “good” Christians?

I talked to Edward about it, found a new babysitter and hoped my rep as a Christian would be less damaged in the future.

Who you calling Christian?

What does it mean to us? Does it mean worshiping a certain way, or sending your kids to religious school? Does it mean never saying the right words the wrong way?

At that time, I thought it meant me. I was in my mid-20s, and a lot of what I thought mattered about being Christian was external.  I never missed church, and I made sure the whole family came along. I volunteered and willingly took on terrible jobs, like recruiting Sunday School teachers from a long list of people I’d never even met. I knew giving money was important, and I suffered over having virtually no income to commit to the church myself. I gave my energy, though, and my time.

I loved it, and I felt good about it, and it made me feel good about myself.

But it was mostly on the outside. And I believed – I almost hate to admit this now, but it’s true – I believed that if I did all those things thoroughly and willingly, everything in my life would go well. And I wasn’t experienced enough or observant enough to figure out that life, even for a faithful Christian, is more complicated than that.

And since the world can’t agree on what a Christian is, anyway…

Ooh, politics. Get thee behind me, Satan!  I am tempted to go down the road of talking about birth control and stereotypes and what I think Jesus would think…and that might get me into hot water. We don’t like politics in church, even if we write down on paper that the preacher has the freedom of the pulpit.

We’d just as soon not hear it.

That’s just the trouble, though, isn’t it? Jesus got mad at Peter because Peter wanted Jesus to shut up about getting in political trouble with the religious authorities and being killed because of it, and Peter especially wanted Jesus to stop that crazy talk about being raised from the dead.

Because that was news to him. Disturbing, bad-sounding news.

Get behind me, Satan. Stop distracting me from what really matters.

Who you calling Christian?

What do we mean when we say it?

If someone calls me a Christian, I’m not sure if they’re naming me or calling me a name. The same name that sounds wonderful to me may sound awful to someone else, an example of oppression or inhospitality or snobbery or judgment.

Ever tell someone you’re a Christian and have them take a big step back?

It happens to pastors all the time.

What does it mean to be a Christ-follower, to you? To the world now? To the people around Jesus?

You’ve heard me say I struggle with the seemingly universal view of Christians as conservative evangelicals who are – at the moment – anti-contraception and anti-gay and anti-equality. That doesn’t describe most of the Christians I know. Unfortunately some of the very Christians whose ideas inform that public perception would call me – and yes, you – not “real” Christians.

Having me, a woman, stand up here and preach,  would be reason enough for some of them to say we are not truly faithful.

Who you calling Christian?

Christians are the people who aren’t afraid to talk about what really matters. And for Christians what really matters is – I have to stop right there.

What really matters is not the same for all Christians. I’ve driven by churches with signs that say, “We preach Christ crucified.” “We preach Christ crucified.” It’s part of a verse from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Somehow that emphasis on the cross is powerful for many Christians. It points to the sinfulness of humanity – our total depravity – not something Congregationalists tend to focus on very often, but we have a Presbyterian here today, and I want her to know I’ve given this some thought.

It points to our sin. And whether you think we’re born that way or just get that way, it’s true that we are inclined toward sin. We want to distract ourselves … and even God! …from paying attention to ultimate matters.

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Who you calling Satan?

This had to sting for Peter. He did NOT understand. Surely, surely this man who could calm storms and feed multitudes and heal blind people and lepers and lift up Peter’s own mother-in-law from her death bed, so that she could fix dinner, surely he could figure out some way to avoid suffering and rejection and death!

Who you calling Satan?

Jesus said it to the one who tempted him to avoid all that.

Remember, in Mark, we didn’t get a description of the temptation, no long conversation between Jesus and Satan, but we can read this exchange backward. Jesus was tempted to avoid a bad ending in the world’s eyes, or tempted to be ordinary, or tempted to show his full power, or…

Quickly, though, he spoke with vehemence. He REBUKED Peter, a word that sounds just like the slap across the face it is. It’s an outraged NO!!! Not this again!!! I will not have it!

I will not have it.

It’s tempting to focus on the crucifixion. After all, Jesus says we need to carry our crosses if we want to follow him, and he doesn’t mean wear a necklace. He means be prepared to suffer, to be humiliated, to lose everything you have and everything you ever wanted. Be clear. It’s rigorous, a lot more rigorous than the busy schedule I set for myself as a young mom who volunteered at church.

Who you calling Christian?

Christians are the people who remember God is with them when the path leads up the side of a hill to a place where everything important feels exposed and endangered.

But that’s not the end of the story. We know there’s more.

Here’s who I call Christian: the people who focus on Christ resurrected.

Then he 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. (Mark 8:31, NRSV)

And in that rising is our connection to the past and our hope for the future. Death is not the end. Evil cannot defeat the God of Love. These are the things that matter to Christians.

Who you calling Christian? I hope all of us. In the name of the one who suffered and died and in three days rose again. Amen.

Adoption, Family History, Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16, Lent 2B

Suppose God Named You

I’m not sure why God felt the need to give new names to Abram and Sarai. I sometimes wonder if it’s just that there were two sets of stories about them, with two sets of names, and someone clever made the difference in names a shift in names instead, and connected that difference to the change in circumstances that led to a new reality for Abraham and Sarah.

God remade their future. So I suppose it’s possible God named them for it.

This doesn’t begin to answer the question “What’s my excuse?” It’s almost comical how many names I’ve had. Marriage and divorce and return to my maiden name. Lather, rinse, repeat. But even before I had that “maiden” name, I had another one, the name given to me by my birth mother.

Martha is … Martha. Plain. Simple. Maybe she bakes, or is a competent needlewoman. You trust her with the silver, or to make sure the children stay out of trouble.

Surely she is neither dashing nor intriguing.

Read about her. Amazing.

Or she’s awful. I just read an article saying pastors shouldn’t make out-of-date cultural references, but honestly, growing up when and where I did, I couldn’t help hearing stories about Martha Mitchell, a “political prisoner” of Watergate. That voice, that hair, that name…yes, I was a Washingtonian political child, if not prisoner, and I hated sharing her name.


She was a Republican, to boot.

This isn’t really about me, of course, although it’s certainly true that in childhood I found my name dull. Someone once thought my name was Nancy, and that was probably the only time I preferred Martha over every other possibility in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called Nancy. (Please, no letters to the author.) It’s just that every now and then I identify with my name, and that’s a relief.

But other times I wonder what it would have been like to go through life with a different name. This is probably the fantasy of most adopted children. What was my “real” name? Who gave it to me? What were those people like?

I’ve written about this before, I think. The name on my first birth certificate is Elizabeth, and in a strange set of coincidences, my adoptive mother was a former social worker and had been friends with the social worker named Elizabeth for whom my birth mother named me.

Tasha Tudor’s take on Martha (l.), The Secret Garden

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go through life as Elizabeth instead of Martha. They’re both Biblical names, and both those ancient gals had important proclamations to make.

They’re both names you might hear in a British novel, although Martha is surely more likely to be the housemaid than the lady of the manor.

Elizabeth, Lizzie, Libby, Betsy, Beth — they all sound pretty, don’t they? Elizabeth is one of those women who can manage anything. Lizzie is fun and funny, with a wit that sometimes makes you want to take a step back. Libby attracts attention whenever she walks down the street. Betsy wears a ponytail and climbs trees. Beth is kind and quiet and plays the piano sweetly, and everyone who takes the trouble to listen loves her.

Some of those impressions come from literature, and some from the memories of girls I knew growing up. Some of them come from the fun of a name that has so many possibilities. (Eliza, Liz, Libba, I could keep going…)

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those girls.

I can flirt sarcastically like Elizabeth Bennet (and on those Jane Austen quizzes, I always come out as Lizzie), and I have moments of being as sweet as Beth March, sometimes, and I used to climb trees just like Betsy Ray.

But that’s not me.

I’m Martha.

That’s the name I was given, a family name, the middle name of a treasured grandmother who was a political and religious leader in my hometown.

And it affiliates me with the woman — hear that! the woman!!! — who made the Christological confession in John’s gospel, the woman who said out loud who Jesus really was.

It affiliates me, too, with her bluntness and bossiness and short temper. (See Luke’s version.)

That’s okay.

Suppose God named me?

Maybe it wasn’t family heritage that mattered, really.

Maybe that’s the name I needed to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Suppose God named you?

(It’s a bit of a walk around the block, but I did start somewhere in the neighborhood of Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.)

Grace, Lent, Lent 2B, Romans 4:13-25

The Law is Wrath

I’ll tell you a secret. I took a whole semester on the Epistles. But when I look back and try to remember what New Testament classes I had at Andover Newton, I almost always forget that one. I went in with a bad attitude about Paul, and I came out with a slightly less bad attitude, although I quickly resumed it and have only in the past two years started to be friends with him, gingerly.

He just makes everything so complicated. He says so many things that are subject to misinterpretation, and I mean by me as well as the rest of the crowd of people who care about reading the letters he dictated so long ago.

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace… (Romans 4:13-16a) (I cut this off mid-verse because I don’t want to go on to more stuff about Abraham right this minute.)

So it’s faith that brings about our salvation, but in the dictated-by-Paul’s-letters-and-also-those-other-letters-he-didn’t-actually-write world of my girlhood religion, there were a whole other set of laws to obey, and if you weren’t obeying them you clearly didn’t have the “right” faith.

The rules for girls were not necessarily the same as the rules for boys.

And as I have surely said before, I grew up to believe living a faithful life is a response to grace, not a prerequisite for it.

I mean, I’ve preached it. I must believe it.

My new friend Paul was pretty sure of this: “If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”

Really, he does not look happy, does he?

(P.S. The Law is WRATH, which makes it sound rather like Khan, which I think will be my new favorite thing. The Law is Khan. And being too attached to it won’t work out well, as anyone who saw Star Trek 2 can assure you.)

Paul always makes things harder to understand than they really need to be.

All of us come from ways of life and family systems and rules of engagement. Adhering to those ways, systems and rules may keep us organized and safe and even civilized. But none of that makes us right with God. God takes care of that all by God’s own Self, through an incredible extension of grace based not on our accomplishments, or our purity, or our self-denial or (rats, because I really thought maybe I was the exception) our addiction to perfection.

The Law is Wrath. The Law is Khan. Khan is not grace-full or love-giving. Khan is tribal and limited and cruel.

We are seeing Khan all around us, in the un-grace-ious political dialogue that suggests if only everyone would abide by one set of religious rules then we would all go back to the happy times of old when girls grew up to be mommies and men were men and gay people were in hiding and (really, we’re not far off from this one, too) races didn’t mix.

Grace calls bull$#*! on all that.

And that’s a good thing.

Now, I have no problem saying all that in the global sense, or about you and your life. My trouble is getting my arms around it where I am concerned. And while that’s not the specific task of my Lenten discipline, getting my arms around grace would certainly support it.

Or maybe I need to let grace’s arms go around me. Because I don’t want faith to be null or the promise to be void.