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August 21, 2005 (Sunday 21 · Time after Pentecost)—“Stepping Up To The Plate”
Pastor David Barber
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
About a month ago two of our confirmation students, Kyra Ann Takamiya and Karyn Castro, stood up and shared with us their Statements of Faith. They did a great job and I want to thank them once again for this witness to their faith.
When I was a confirmation student we didn't have to write a Statement of Faith. We did have periodic public examinations in front of the congregation, which made going to the dentist for a root canal seem like a piece of cake.
Randomly, the pastor would ask us a question and we would have to repeat from memory the answer to the question. We would "sweat bullets" just praying silently and crossing our fingers so that the pastor wouldn't ask us to repeat Martin Luther's Explanation to an Article of the Apostle's Creed.
Even though a "Faith Statement" doesn't require any memorization, it's just as difficult, but perhaps more helpful than what we had to endure in confirmation. Kyra and Karyn couldn't fall back on rote memorization, which some of us do quite well, but they had to wrestle and struggle with what they believed and how to express their faith.
This isn't an easy task, and most of us would rather be kicked out of an airplane with a parachute on our back, or be in a room with a den of snakes than get up in front of this congregation and speak about the content of our faith. This generally isn't an exercise for the faint-hearted, and those who do it, often approach it with fear and trembling.
Our Gospel for today appears in some form almost every year. As a result it's so familiar that we may not pay much attention to it or take it very seriously. But maybe we can't afford to set it aside. It forces us to examine our relationship to Jesus--the heart and core of our faith.
He begins by asking a question, "Who do the people out there say that I am?" Various answers are given. Some believed that Elijah would come back to life and return to the same role as Moses. John the Baptist was also very popular in the polls especially after he was beheaded.
But now Jesus changes his plan of attack. Instead of asking what others are saying about him, Jesus now asks his disciples, "What about you? Who do you say that I am?"
In one of her sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells the story of a woman leaving church one day where she encounters a stranger on the street. The stranger asks her, "What is it that you believe in there?"
The woman realizes she doesn't know how to answer the stranger's question. So the stranger apologizes and walks away. Brown tells us that Jesus is this inquisitive stranger except that Jesus doesn't walk away.
He asks us this relationship question very directly. It's not a question of idle curiosity but a question of relationship. It's the kind of question that a lover might whisper to his or her beloved. Jesus asks it point-blank and insists that we answer, "Who do you say that I am?"
Discussions about Jesus--who he was, what he was about, and why he died--are frequent today. The Jesus Seminar and a whole host of others have devoted themselves to the "Jesus question."
This scholarship is important, and perhaps it helps us to articulate and clarify our understanding of Jesus. But again the question that Jesus raises this morning takes us beyond scholarship and intellectual inquiry. It is indeed a question of relationship.
When a lover asks the beloved, "Do you love me?" the lover isn't interested in an intellectual analysis about love and what it means. Nor would the lover be satisfied with a generic response such as, "Of course, I love you. I love everybody!"
What the lover wants to hear is something very concrete and specific in regard to their relationship. He or she wants to know if they are loved, and sometimes, this is followed by an even more difficult question, "Why do you love me?"
Sometimes we go through our daily routine assuming the answers to such questions and taking them for granted. But then maybe a crisis hits, which forces us to clarify and articulate the content of our love for each other.
In the same way, a time of crisis in Germany forced some men and women living under the regime of Adolph Hitler to define their relationship to their Lord and to affirm their loyalty to Jesus Christ. They wrote a document called the Barman Declaration.
At first glance the words of this document appear to be very modest. They're nothing out of the ordinary, but there is a confession--similar to the one in our gospel for today.
It says in part: "Jesus Christ...is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust in life and in death."
When people were calling Adolph Hitler, "Mein Fuhrer" one of the signers of the Barman Declaration, Martin Niemoller, who was also a guest in this congregation, wrote a book of sermons entitled, "Christ is Mein Fuhrer."
For that book, Pastor Niemoller went to Dachau for 7 years, and another signer of the Barman Declaration, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hung by the Nazis in 1945.
When we were back in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I preached at a former congregation where I had served for 17 years. This was their 100th anniversary year.
During the potluck following worship, both Karen and I were given the opportunity to speak about our life in Hawai'i, and each of spoke about the uniqueness and the giftedness of LCH and its ministry.
Among other things we both mentioned the blessing of being a part of a Reconciling in Christ congregation. I indicated that if the church isn't large enough to include gays and lesbians, those wrestling with addiction and mental illness and all those on the margins of life, then we're really not being the church of Jesus Christ.
But I think Karen stated it even more eloquently when she said that by being involved with you our hearts have been stretched. And if we don't allow our hearts to be stretched to include all folks in the Good News of the Gospel then we're putting a boundary or a wall around God's grace and love.
For me this understanding and this conviction has grown out of my faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Because I, too, believe that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust in life and death, I cannot believe in a gospel that might include some people while excluding others.
Because Jesus is Lord and Savior I can't be content with a world where men and women and children are starving and dying especially when we have the resources and the technology to make poverty and hunger come to an end.
I can't be content with a world where we solve our problems and our conflicts by resorting to war and violence as the primary and the first-line of defense. And I can't be satisfied with a world where greed and exploitation and the bottom line are far too common in the marketplace.
Our confession of who Jesus is influences how we conduct ourselves as individuals and as a church in all that we do and say. There's no compartmentalization of life where Jesus is relevant to this area but he better not meddle in our business over here.
I grew up in the tradition of Norwegian Lutheran piety. I grew up in that tradition that has now become very familiar to many people because of Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor.
My mother could have easily been a member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, although that changed after she had a life-threatening stroke and lay in a coma for two weeks. We were also forbidden to play such games as Royal Rummy because chips were used and that made it similar to playing poker.
I remember the songs of this piety from my childhood, and although I haven't sung them for years, I could probably sing them from memory even today. "My Jesus I Love Thee" and "Living for Jesus" are two songs in particular.
They're actually kind of schmaltzy--and probably not songs that would pass muster in this congregation. And in reality I've moved quite a distance from the message of these songs and my understanding of Jesus from those formative years.
But in spite of its shortcomings, there's something in this piety that won't let me divorce my faith in Jesus from the ethics of daily life.
How we care for creation, how we treat one another in this community and beyond, and how we work together for peace and justice and the welfare of all especially those who are fragile and weak are all connected to our relationship with Jesus. In fact I'm not sure how it's possible to have a love affair with Jesus without these implications for daily living.
The church has the opportunity to stand up as it has never stood up before to bring hope and healing, to proclaim the Good News of grace, mercy, and forgiveness to all, and to be a partner with God to mend the brokenness and to make new all those places that cry out for wholeness and reconciliation.
Today Jesus invites us to be a part of this rock-like foundation upon which he builds his church. He invites us and calls us to become building blocks of the Kingdom.
He calls us to follow--not because we're perfect--not because we have complete faith--not because we're sufficient.
He calls us to follow because his grace flows through our lives and we're given enough faith and enough understanding to confess, "Jesus Christ is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust in life and in death."
Copyright © 2005 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org