An ELCA pastor shares his thoughts about the Bible, spirituality, the world, and LGBT issues.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Red Cup Controversies and Other Human Temples

PROPER 27  Mark 13:1-8
11/15/15 David Eck

     Depending upon who we listen to signs of the apocalypse, or end of the world, are all around us. The latest and perhaps most ridiculous, is the infamous Starbuck's RED CHRISTMAS CUP! [Show the cup to the congregation] Quake with fear mortals! Here it is, right before your every eyes. Why it's practically the mark of the beast! Don't you see the evil oozing from it's seemingly innocent red and green exterior? I drank from this very cup so, what out! you might want to approach me with caution today!
     If you have no earthly idea what I'm talking about, social media went nuts this week over a simple red cup. I can understand people getting upset about poverty and homelessness, war, violence and terrorism. But a simple red cup? YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!
     The story, in a nutshell, is that Starbucks unveiled their new holiday cup which is the one you see before you this morning. When the cups rolled out in late October, Starbucks vice president Jeffrey Fields said the company "wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories." It was meant to be a symbol of diversity and inclusivity that honored everyone's celebration of the season, be it Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, etc.
     Well apparently, evil was lurking behind this simple gesture of peace on earth and good will to all people. Joshua Feuerstein, a former pastor who calls himself a "social media personality," posted a video to Facebook on November 5th that went viral and had over 10 million views! He criticized Starbucks for removing "Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus." I know that's utterly ridiculous, but it gets worse. He then suggested that customers say "Merry Christmas" instead of their names in order to force baristas into writing the phrase on the cup. This, supposedly, was his way to combat the alleged "War on Christmas." He then asked customers to post their picture with the cup on Instagram and Facebook. Apparently being obnoxious is a great way for Christians to usher in the Christmas season. Who knew?
     I have several thoughts on this cup. First of all, when was it Starbuck's job to proclaim the birth of Christ? I thought that was our job. I shudder to think what Starbucks would do if they did promote the birth of Jesus. Perhaps there would be the subtle shadow of a stable, baby Jesus, and Joseph and Mary on the cup. Maybe they would introduce a new We Three Kings Blend with hints of gold, frankincense and myrrh. OR a Shepherd's Field latte with an extra shot of espresso to help us watch over our flocks by night!
     I think you get my point! I don't want Starbucks to proclaim the birth of Christ. I don't want it to be their next marketing strategy. Instead, I want that to be our job where we have the opportunity to talk about the true meaning of Christmas in a way that invites people into the story. Somehow, being obnoxious to baristas is not a very effective witness for Christ. It does a lot more damage than good. It hurts the witness of the entire church.
     Secondly, I wish we could get as passionate about addressing the problems our world faces as we do talking about the non-issue of this simple red cup. Homelessness, affordable housing, terrorism, domestic violence, global warming, poverty, alternative energy sources. Pick an issue, any issue and let's put our passion into that! Let's dialogue and blog and post about something that needs to be fixed in our world and put our energy behind that cause.
     We Americans are far too distracted about trivial and unimportant issues. Society may be collapsing around us and all we can do is worry about a stupid red cup!  It's sad, indeed. In light of the terrorist acts that happened in Paris this week, i makes the debate over a red Christmas cup look utterly ridiculous!
     Believe it or not this bring us to our gospel lesson for today. As I imagine the scene, Jesus and his disciples are standing on the Mount of Olives. Last January I stood in this very spot on my trip to Israel. From this vantage point one has a spectacular view of the city of Jerusalem. It's on the hill opposite the city with the Kiddron Valley in between them. The Temple would have been the crowning jewel of this view.
     Earlier the disciples had been ooh-ing and awe-ing about how amazing this Temple was. "Look, Teacher, " they said, "What large stones and what large buildings! It's absolutely magnificent!" To which Jesus replied,"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” I'm sure that brought their conversation to a screeching halt. They may have thought Jesus was crazy for saying such a thing. How could this temple, with its massive stones, be reduced to rubble? It felt so permanent, a triumph of human engineering. It was a fitting place for God to dwell.
     Mark doesn't include the rest of the conversation as Jesus and his disciples journeyed from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. Perhaps they made the trek in silence, with the disciples being afraid to ask Jesus any further questions. When they finally reached the top of the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John and Andrew broke the silence: "Tell us, Jesus, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” I think they asked him this question because they didn't want to be around when it happened. They wanted an advance warning so they could retreat to the safety of their homes around Lake Galilee.
     But Jesus ignored their question and gave them a stern warning: "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."
     This is just the beginning of the birth pangs? I doubt that disciples wanted to ask him anything else. In Mark's telling of the story of Jesus this is the first time Jesus spoke in such a manner. He had predicted his own death three times but the destruction of Jerusalem was something new. Unfortunately, Jesus prediction came true. In 70 AD Rome destroyed the city and reduced the Temple to rubble. I would argue that both Israel and Jerusalem have not recovered ever since. Those large stones that seemed so permanent, all came tumbling down. All that is left is the Temple Mount which includes the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall as some Americans call it. We are left to ponder the purpose behind prophecies such as the one in our gospel less for today.
     What can we learn from predictions such as these? How do they speak to us in a time when stupid red cups command our attention? Well, I've given this some thought this week. My conclusion is that we humans build lots of temples of stone. Some are literal, some are metaphorical.
     We build majestic cathedrals and massive mega-churches which are designed for shock and awe. The sheer size of these things are supposed to echo the majesty of God. We also build skyscrapers and stadiums, mansions and other massive structures that are a tribute to modern engineering and are a monument to human achievement. Jesus says, all these structures will be reduced to rubble, sooner or later. The World Trade Center comes to mind whose massive towers I stood on top of a time or two. They seemed so strong, so permanent. But now they are no more. Maybe Jesus gives us such a dire warning so that we work for those things that last for all eternity instead of building human monuments that will reduced to nothing sooner or later.
     The same goes for the metaphorical temples we build. When we're young we think we're immoral. But those of us who have more than a few miles on our bodies know that they wear out and decay. Sometimes we're fine one day, and at the brink of death the next. It doesn't matter how much we exercise or eat nutritious foods, we cannot escape death. These temples we inhabit will be reduced to rubble. Therefore we need to work on our souls which are meant to last for all eternity. We need to put as much time into them  as we do trying to stay young and look healthy. 
     We also build temples of impressive resumes and work hard to achieve awards, acclamations, promotions and the like. But even the most successful among us know that jobs and careers can end suddenly and unexpectedly. Perhaps Jesus reminds us that we should be building an impressive person rather than an impressive resume. We should be doing the work he has called us to do: giving the hungry something to eat, fighting for justice for the marginalized and oppressed, tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned. Jesus said that's where he was going to be hanging out, so why aren't we doing the same?
     In our gospel lesson Jesus tells us that all human temples will be reduced to rubble. This should be a wake up call for everyone. It should make us reevaluate our priorities and think about the way we live our lives. Why get upset about a stupid red cup when we should be upset about the suffering that is right here in Asheville as well as in the world? Why look for the devil in a cup of coffee when real evil is rearing its ugly head all over the place through murder, violence, abuse and neglect?
     In reflecting on Jesus' words in our gospel lesson, I don't know if we're living in the end times or not. But what I do know is that some preachers, like the one at the center of the Red Cup Controversy, are putting their energy into all the wrong things. Even the temple of Starbucks  will be reduced to rubble one day. As we enter yet another Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas season we have the opportunity to do things differently. It's easy to get sidetracked by trivial things that don't really matter like stupid red cups and wars on Christmas that don't even exist. Instead, may we put our time and energy into being Christ in the world, following his example of service, sacrifice and humility. We are the ones who announce the presence of the Word made flesh who dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. We are the ones who embody his spirit and make his presence real in a world that is far too self-absorbed for it's own good. Let us throw our red cups aside and, instead, throw ourselves into the holy work Christ has called us to do. AMEN.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Sunday Sermon: The Widow and Her Gift

ORDINARY 24 Mark 13:38-44
11/08/15 David Eck

     Today's gospel lesson appears in a interesting place as Mark tells the story of Jesus. In chapter 11 we have the Palm Sunday story where Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem on a donkey with palm branches paving the way and shouts of "Hosanna" filling the air. The next day this festive mood is all but obliterated as Jesus makes a beeline from Bethany to the Temple. Along the way he curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit. But this is just a warm up to what happens next.
     When Jesus arrives outside of the Temple, he begins to overturn the tables of the Temple merchants and money changers. This is one of the few times in the New Testament where we see Jesus get really, really angry. "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations," Jesus yells to a group of stunned merchants, "But you have made it a den of robbers." When the chief priests and scribes heard what Jesus had done, they began plotting his demise. No one was going to upset their way of living, especially an itinerant rabbi from the hick town of Nazareth.
     On day three Jesus is back at the Temple again. The chief priests begin questioning his authority. He upsets them again by telling a parable about a vineyard that is ill kept by its tenants. Jesus says the tenants should be destroyed and the vineyard be given to others. You can imagine how well that went over with the chief priests and scribes! It's clear that Jesus thought they were the tenants who needed to be removed and he was serving them an eviction notice!
     The final lesson of the day, is our gospel lesson. If Temple leaders hadn't understood the turning of the tables or the parable of the vineyard, Jesus hits them with the same message a third time. He is standing in the Court of the Women where the "treasury" or offering boxes are located. The Court of the Women obtained its name, because women could go no further into the Temple complex. Around the perimeter of this court were thirteen chests where charitable contributions were placed. Each chest was set aside for a specific purpose. They were called "trumpets" because they were  narrow at the mouth and wide at the bottom like a trumpet.
     This is an important detail as Jesus makes the following observation in our gospel lesson: "Beware of the scribes," he told the crowd in the Court, "They like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!" In other words, they like to "trumpet" their own cause. They loved to put on a show and be seen by everyone. "Look at me! Look how religious and devout I am!"
     But Jesus destroys their illusions of grandeur with as much force as he did when he overturned the tables of the merchants and money lenders: "They devour widows’ houses" [You know that had to hurt!] "And for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." If the chief priests and scribes started plotting Jesus' demise the day before, then this teaching sealed the deal.
     The reason why I spent so much time setting this up is that we can see Jesus is making the same point over and over again. There is something about the way the chief priests and scribes are practicing their faith that God absolutely hates. They think they're being faithful followers when nothing could be further from the truth.
     So why is it about their behavior that caused Jesus to react the way he did? What was it that caused him to overturn tables with righteous anger, and criticize them so harshly? Well, I think its important not to oversimplify what's going on here. As a disclaimer, not all chief priests, scribes, and other religious leaders connected to the Temple were bad people. In fact, some of them were holy and righteous individuals. The gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Jerusalem. He was the one who placed the body of Jesus in the tomb. I'm certain there were others as well.
     Therefore Jesus' anger was not a blanket condemnation of all the religious leaders of Israel. Instead, it was a critique aimed at a sacrificial system that was quite broken and in need of reform. The true source of Jesus' anger can clearly be seen in the words he uttered two days before the incident found in our gospel lesson: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a den of robbers."
     Jesus wanted the Temple to be open to everyone because he believed everyone had access to God, not just those who had enough money to pay for an animal sacrifice in the Temple. According to Jesus all it took to reach God was a simple "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name," and contact was established.
     Furthermore there didn't need to be a court of Women or a court of the Gentiles, or a special section that only Jewish men could go into. Jesus believed that God is available and accessible to all. Unfortunately, the Temple became a marketplace where a small number of people got rich, capitalizing on the fear and vulnerability of your average every-day citizens.
     Yet when we understand this and locate the source of Jesus' anger, it's easy to think his critique doesn't apply to us. "We don't act like the the chief priest and scribes," we earnestly protest. But if we are really honest, there are some important lessons we can learn from them.
     Henry Langknecht, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, made the following observation about this text on "We'd like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we've accomplished."
     Wow! Just let that sink in for a moment. And as we think about how this part of the text impacts our lives we need to look at a part of ourselves we might not like to see. The part that sometimes talks the talk but doesn't always walk the walk. The part that is sometimes overly boastful about what we've accomplished in the name of Jesus. The part that makes a point of telling others we're a Christian, but then we ignore the plight of the poor, the homeless, the refugee, those imprisoned, and the stranger. 
     We are more like the chief priests and scribes than we may care to admit. So let's not let ourselves off the hook too easily. Instead, let's spend some time this week thinking about the ways that Jesus' critique of the chief priests and scribes applies to us.
     Meanwhile, we have a story to finish! After Jesus gives a scathing indictment of the behavior of some of the Temple leaders, he turns his attention to the treasury boxes. Some people are putting in large sums. The sound of coins clinking other coins becomes deafening. There is a certain sense of pride in that!
     Then Jesus sees a widow who puts two small copper coins into one of the trumpet boxes. These coins are so small, they don't make a sound, but Jesus hears them drop into the box anyway! "Truly I tell you," Jesus says, "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
     There is a phrase used in poker for what this widow did. When someone has a hand they think is unbeatable, they move all their chips toward the center of the table and say "I'm all in!" This widow was "all in" when it came to God. I'm fairly certain her two small coins were not enough to grant her whatever sacrifice she was trying to perform that day at the Temple.
     But Jesus saw her meager offering and knew it was the biggest gift given that day. He knew she was "all in." He knew she was offering everything she had. She was putting everything on the line. Therefore, he praised her for her dedication and devotion to God in the midst of an unfair sacrificial system.
     It was a system that "devoured widow's houses" by placing unfair taxes upon them. But she was not going to let this stop her from making a thank offering to God. She stood in the Court of Women like a lamb in the midst of wolves. She silently proclaimed that she was "all in" with God. Jesus noticed her sacrifice and praised her for her actions. The chief priest and scribes might not have noticed her at all, but God saw her offering and received it with joy.
     Her actions in the Temple that day were a sign of kingdom living where our giving to God isn't easy, it has to cost us something. If we, like this widow, are "all in" with God, heaven help us! It means we are bound and determined to embody the greatest commandment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, all our strength, and all our minds. Does that sound like easy discipleship to you? I don't think so.
     If we are "all in" with God, it means we are dedicated to a life of service. It means we have the audacity to believe that everyone is a beloved child of God and then we treat them that way. It means we give of ourselves, just as Jesus gave his life for us.
     If we are "all in" with God then stewardship isn't only about percentages and growth giving and the like. Stewardship is something that involves our whole lives and our whole being. The reason why we decide to be "all in" with God is that we know Jesus was "all in" for us. So how could we do anything less?
     Friends in Christ, today's gospel lesson has the potential to change and challenge our lives, if we have the courage to allow it to do so. None of us want to be the chief priests and scribes Jesus criticized in our gospel lesson. Yet, to become the widow, to be "all in" with God, is no easy thing.
     So, are we up for the challenge? Do we hear Jesus' call this morning? Let's do some soul searching this week and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us. Let's renew our commitment to Christ and summon the bold spirit of the widow that lives inside every follower of Jesus. I know she's in there. We just have to try and find her! AMEN

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Creation Spirituality: Via Transformativa

Via Transformativa [Reformation Sunday]
Luke 6:43-45, Matthew 9:35-38, Jeremiah 31:31-34
10/25/15 David Eck

     Every morning, except for Sundays, Gary and I have the same ritual: we go City Bakery for breakfast. All our friends know they can find us there and occasionally we'll have a drop-in visitor. but most days, it's just the two of us. We sit down with breakfast and the newspaper and begin discussing whatever catches our eye. Sometimes we talk about what's happening locally. Other times we talk about what's happening globally.
     Lately, it seems like many of the countries we've visited over the years are in some sort of crisis. Germany is trying to figure out what to do with such a large influx of Syrian refugees. The violence between the Jews and Palestinians is heating up again in Israel. Greece is still in a financial crisis and Turkey has terrorism pushing toward its borders and spilling into its cities.
     Gary and I have discovered that once we've visit a place abroad we feel a special connection to it. It's no longer some unknown country "over there," it's a place whose people we met, whose cities we've walked, whose food we enjoyed, and whose architecture and culture we admired. The concerns we discuss over breakfast always end up being a part of my meditation and prayer life later in the day. I hold these placed and situations up to God and ask the Almighty to send healing and relief their way.
     The reason why I share this routine with you is that I'm fairly certain most of you have similar routines. You may get your news on Facebook or from the internet. You may watch it on television or, like us, go the old school route of newspapers and magazines. Whatever the case may be, there are very few of us who do not know what's happening in the bigger world around us. We are connected to people across the globe in ways our grandparents could have never imagined. We are also connected to our family and friends in ways our grandparents could have never imagined.
     Yet, all this information is not always a good thing. It can leave us feeling overwhelmed, depressed and hopeless. As we look at all the problems our community and world are facing, it can give us the false impression that there's absolutely nothing we can do to affect positive change.
     Friends in Christ, if you're feeling this way today, I'm here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth! If we pay attention to the natural world around us, we hear the message that life is not meant to be one endless season of winter. We all experience winter times of letting go, death and rest. But we also experience spring times of awe and delight. We experience summer times of learning, growth and creativity. We experience fall times of harvest where our ideas and actions come to fruition and we make a difference in our lives and in our world.
     This is why I wanted to do this sermon series on Creation Spirituality. My experience is that it's easy to become trapped in a never-ending season of Winter. We walk what Fox calls the Via Negativa and it feels like there's no end in sight. But the good news of Jesus is that new life always comes from death. Dead ends give way to new beginnings. Sometimes this happens miraculously and spontaneously. Most of the time we are an important part of the process that moves us from the Via Negativa, to the Via Positiva, to the Via Creativa, to the Via Transformativa.
     This last spiritual path is the one I want to explore this morning. If you haven't heard the rest of this sermon series, please e-mail me and I'll send you the other three sermons. The Via Transformativa tells us that compassion matters. At some point in our spiritual life there should be a harvest that grows from the spiritual seeds that have been sown in the soil of our lives and our world.
     I think this is what the prophet Jeremiah is getting at in our first lesson. In this text Jeremiah is speaking on behalf of God. "This is the kind of new covenant I will make with the people of Israel…I will put My law within them. I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people."
     What I hear in this text is that God expects our faith to be embodied in action. It's not enough to know the Greatest Commandments: Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. At some point our head knowledge needs to become heart knowledge. And when it becomes heart knowledge it can't help but make its presence known in the world around us.      
     This is the path of the Via Transformativa. The seeds that were sown in the good soil of our spiritual lives are meant to grow. They are meant to produce a harvest that is 30, 60, 100 times more than we could have ever expected. The energy that makes this harvest happen can be summed up in one word "compassion." Compassion is the transformational force that helps head knowledge become heart knowledge. Compassion is the force that gets us out of our seats in church and into a world that desperately needs everything we have to give it.
     We see this transformation force in action in our gospel lesson which is my favorite passage on the subject. Matthew says that, "Jesus went around all the towns and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. But, when he saw the crowds, his heart was moved with COMPASSION for them, because they were distressed and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd; And he said to his disciples: 'The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray to the owner of the harvest to send laborers to gather in his harvest."
      This passage says all we need to know about how the Via Transformativa works in our lives. It begins with compassion which is the force that motivated Jesus to do the work Matthew describes in his gospel.
     You may have heard this before but there are actually two Greek words that can be translated as "compassion." The first is ELEEO. This word is used by the sick and suffering who appeal to Jesus for relief of their pain. It is most commonly translated as  "have pity on me," but it also means "have compassion on me." The second word for compassion is SPLANCHNIZOMAI. This word is always used when describing Jesus. It's the word that is used in our gospel lesson. It literally means "to be moved in one’s bowels." In modern English, we would say you "feel it in your gut."
     This is the kind of compassion Jesus had for the crowd. He was not simply feeling sorry for them or having pity on them. If this were the case, he might have been tempted to jump in a boat on Lake Galilee and head for an undisclosed location. Instead his head knowledge of "Love you neighbor as yourself" became heart knowledge, or gut knowledge, if you prefer. And when this happened, it could not be contained. It produced a harvest of good things in the lives of those Jesus taught, healed and served.
     But if we look at this text closely Jesus makes it clear that he is not the only one who is called to labor in the field of the world. "The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few." Jesus said, "Therefore pray to the owner of the harvest to send laborers to gather in his harvest."
     Friends in Christ, can there be any doubt that we are the laborers who are called to gather in God's harvest? Can there be any doubt that the seeds God planted in our spiritual field, that grew a beautiful garden, are meant to produce the fruits of the Spirit, which can feed a hungry world? Jesus states it quite clearly in the gospel of Luke: "There is no such thing as a good tree bearing worthless fruit, or, on the other hand, a worthless tree bearing good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit."
      So, how do we get there? How do we become those good trees who produce a miraculous harvest? How do we walk the path of the Via Transformativa? Well, the way we accomplish this is to nurture a spirit of compassion in our lives. The one thing that kills compassion more quickly than anything else is to become overwhelmed by the needs of the world around us. 
     If we go back to the illustration I shared at the beginning of the sermon, it would be easy for Gary and I to feel helpless as we read the paper and pondered all the suffering in the world around us. It would be easy for us to circle the wagons and focus only on ourselves in the face of such great need. But what keeps both of us going is that we realize we cannot do all the good the world needs, however, the world needs all the good we can do. We can make a difference, even if it's only one person at a time, one activity at a time.
     Let me give you an example. After having returned from Israel this past January, we were both moved by the desperate situation Palestinian Christians face on a daily basis. We were both inspired by the wonderful work Christmas Lutheran Church is doing in Bethlehem to help this war-weary population. So we both decided to set up Craft Markets in our churches that are filled with products that are made by local artists in Bethlehem. If you haven't looked at the table yet, it's in the hallway close to my office.
     I know full well that this doesn't solve all the problems that Palestinian Christians face. But I also know that if my church does this, and Gary's church does this, and congregations all over the United States do this, it can make a big difference to these people as they seek to support their families in a desperate and sometimes hopeless situation. It is activities like this that help to keep the spirit of compassion alive and well in my heart. My encouragement to you this morning is find a harvest field somewhere in this world that moves you into action. Find a people you can help, a cause you can support. It doesn't need to be halfway across the globe, but it might be. It could be here in Asheville or even the family who lives next door to you.
      Whoever it may be, allow yourself to walk the Via Transformativa. Allow you head knowledge about Jesus to become heart knowledge about Jesus. Allow this heart knowledge to blossom into acts of compassion in the world around you. This is the most beautiful and rewarding  of the four spiritual paths to walk. It is my hope and prayer that Jesus will lead us into a season of bearing beautiful fruit in the world around us.  Amen.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Creation Spirituality - Via Creativa

VIA CREATIVA  Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-20, 
1 Corinthians 3:6-9, Matthew 13:1-9
10/18/15  David Eck

     When was the last time you were creative? When was the last time you felt like every cell in your body was glowing with excitement? When was the last time you got a crazy idea to do something…and then had the courage to follow through with it? For a lot of us, I suspect, it's been a while since the Spirit of creativity blew through our lives.
     When we were kids, it was easy to be creative. A well placed blanket over a couple of kitchen chairs became an impenetrable fortress. A camping trip with our family became a wild, exotic adventure. Give us crayons, glue and a stack of paper and we could be entertained for hours. Let us loose at the beach and wave jumping, sand castle making and sea shell hunts kept us busy until our sunscreen wore off. It's easy to be creative as a kid. It's easy to let our imagination run wild snd take us where it may.
     Then, somewhere along the line, our creativity got squashed like a bug. This often happens during our teenage years. We begin listening to the voices of others who tell us we aren't really that talented at art, or sports, or music, or whatever creative endeavor we're involved in. This puts a damper on our creativity.
     During our teenage years we also start comparing ourselves to those who are "experts" in their field. We see the finished products of professional artists, athletes and musicians, and we begin to doubt our own talents and creative abilities. In school our creativity gets tested and graded and criticized and critiqued. All of this is supposed to help us figure out what we're "good at," what we're going to be when we grow up, but it's a creativity killer nonetheless.
     Today my Creation Spirituality sermon series continues with the third of four spiritual paths we walk at different times in our lives. Matthew Fox calls it the Via Creativa which embodies the characteristics of Summer. It is a green season in our spiritual lives. It's a time of learning, growing and deepening our relationship with God and the world around us. This third spiritual path is rooted in the Creation stories from the book of Genesis which remind us that we are created in the image of God.
     "Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us." God says in Genesis 1. "Let them be stewards of the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground." And so "humankind was created as God's reflection: in the divine image God created us." We are created in God's image. This Divine spark that resides in us calls us to create and be creative.
     We see this happening in Genesis 2 where adahm, the earth creature, begins naming all the animals God created. From the very beginning we see that God encourages us to be creative, just like God is creative. If God can make weird creatures like duck-billed platypuses, giraffes, jellyfish and praying mantises, then we, who are created in God's image, have our work cut out for us! We are blessed with the gift of creativity this is supposed to last way beyond our childhood imagination.
     Last week we explored the Via Positiva which tells us that awe and delight matter. This spiritual path corresponds to the season of spring, where the world comes alive before our very eyes. God puts on quite a show in the spring. The Holy Ones' creative juices really flow as the earth becomes a canvas of color and scent. 
     The Via Creativa naturally grows out of the Via Positiva. After we are wowed by God's creative power, it inspires us to create as well. Outdoors we begin seed planting, fertilizing, watering, adding annuals to our yard, and the like. In our spiritual lives we nurture the people, ideas and activities that began to sprout and grow in our spiritual, personal and family soil. If we don't cultivate these things, they will quickly wither and die. The Via Creativa is a process where we become co-creators with God so that a beautiful garden might emerge in our lives.
     This process of co-creation is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3 where Paul is talking about the young spiritual plants that emerge in the soil of our lives and in the life of the Church: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." Do you see the process of co-creation going on here? We play our part in nurturing spiritual seedlings and God does the same. Our spiritual plants will not grow if they are not planted and watered. Likewise, without God's miraculous ability to make things grow in the soil of our lives, all the planting and watering we do will be in vain and will produce nothing.
     The best Biblical text that illustrates the Via Creativa is Jesus' Parable of the Sower, which should probably be retitled as The Parable of the Miraculous Harvest, since this is what happens in the story. 
     Jesus says, a sower went out to sow. This mysterious sower could be either God or us depending on how we look at the parable. It has been my experience that it's a combination of both. Sometimes things grow in our lives that come as a great big surprise. We wonder "where did that come from?" Other times, we are the ones who intentionally plant seeds in the soil of our lives with the hope that they will sprout and grow.
     This sower is a bit reckless in his or her seed planting. Seeds are flying everywhere. The agricultural term for this is "broadcasting," which means "to scatter seeds by hand or machine rather than placing them in holes or rows." And so, in this parable seeds are flying everywhere. Some land on the path where the soil is compacted. Birds come along and snatch them up immediately.
     Sometimes this happens in our efforts to be creative. Predators snatch our creativity before it even leaves our hands. How many times have we heard things like: "You're not a very good drawer." OR "You know, baking is just not your thing." How many times have we heard things like: "There is no way you're going to be a doctor, an architect, a nurse, a pastor…you fill in the blank."
     Creativity killers are all around us, circling our lives like predatory birds who kill our hopes and dreams before they ever have a chance to find fertile soil. My advice to you is DON'T LISTEN TO THEM. If you are inspired, give it a shot. If you have a crazy idea, try it out. You never know what's going to take root unless you try planting it first. This is what the Via Creativa is all about.
     As the parable continues, some of the seeds fall on rocky soil where they are not deeply rooted. The sun easily scorches these plants and they wither and die. Other seeds fall among weeds which, like kudzu, begins taking over everything so these young plants also wither and die.
     Metaphorically speaking, this part of the parable talks about the things that can easily kill our creativity garden. When life gets hot and rocky, when trials and tribulations come our way, the young seedlings that have been planted in the soil of our lives are most vulnerable. There is nothing that kills creativity faster than having a series of bad days in a row. We circle the wagons and kick into survival mode. During these difficult times, creativity is seen as a luxury, an extravagant, wasteful activity.
     Yet, I would argue that when life gets hot and rocky this is the time when we need creativity the most. How else will we find our way out of life's challenges? It's not going to happen by wishful thinking alone. Coming up with creative solutions. Thinking in ways we've never thought before. These are sure-fire ways to help us during difficult times.
     This part of the parable also reminds us that we also need to do some maintenance in our creativity gardens. Weeds are much easier to uproot when they are young and just popping up out of the soil. Our spiritual plants also have a better chance of being deeply rooted if we remove some of the rocks from the soil BEFORE we begin seed planting. Are you with me? Like Paul and Apollos, it's our job to do some of the planting and watering, but it's also our job to do some of the soil preparation as well. Sometimes God does this for us, but more often than not, we play an important role in soil preparation.
     The final portion of the parable is the stuff we love the most. The good news of the parable is that some of the seeds that we and God sow find fertile ground. Up until this point, the situation seemed pretty hopeless. We threw lots of seeds everywhere, but nothing became of them. This can be very discouraging. We've all experienced times in our lives when we felt like we tried everything and nothing worked. We've all experienced times in our lives when we felt like we exhausted every possible option and no lifeline was in sight.      
     If Jesus' parable teaches us anything, it is for us to trust that God will help us find good soil somewhere in our lives. It might be just a tiny, tiny patch of fertile ground that is surrounded by circling birds, rocks and weeds. But when our seeds of creativity find this good soil…WOW! Watch out! Stuff is going to start to grow! We are promised a harvest that is thirty, sixty or a hundred times more than we could have believed was possible. If that's not good news, I don't know what is! As we walk the Via Creativa, God promises to help us find good soil in our lives. God promises to help us nurture the creative seedlings we have planted until they bear much fruit in our lives and in the world around us.
     Friends in Christ, I don't know what spiritual season you are in this week, but I hope my words this morning will encourage you and give you hope. God has called us to be creative people. It's woven into our DNA as those who are created in the image of God. Let us claim this birthright and trust that God will help us to grow a beautiful garden in our lives and in the world around us.  AMEN

Monday, October 12, 2015

Creation Spirituality - Via Positiva

10/11/15  David Eck

     While Gary and I were on vacation, our friend Maureen surprised us with train tickets to Zermatt, Switzerland. Maureen lives just outside of Zurich which was home base for our adventures in Switzerland. The three of us boarded the first train at 6:30am. Three trains later and a cog wheel ride up a steep mountain, we arrived at 10,000 feet to behold the Matterhorn.
     The weather was perfect. The view was spectacular. From our vantage point we had a 360 degree view of the Swiss Alps with snow covered peaks and a few glaciers for good measure. Several whips of clouds surrounded the Matterhorn but the rest of the sky was a clear, vibrant blue. I took tons of pictures but none of them can compare to actually being there. You just can't fit a sight like this into the lens of a camera. It's too big, too majestic, to be reduced into megapixels.
     I have seen a lot of wonderful things in my life, but Zermatt is near the top the list. As I took in this indescribable view, it didn't make me feel small and insignificant. In fact, it did the opposite. It made me feel deeply connected to this amazing world God created. My heart was filled with wonder and gratitude as I contemplated the God whom the Psalmist says holds these mountains in Divine hands. The great mystery of life is that this same God can hold each and every one of us as well.
     Today my Creation Spirituality sermon series continues with the second of four spiritual paths we walk at different times in our lives. Matthew Fox calls it the Via Positiva which embodies the characteristics of Spring. The Via Positiva tells us that awe and delight matter. They are an important part of our spiritual journey. After we have walked the first path, the Via Negativa, where we experience a time of letting go, death and rest, the Via Positiva is the new life that emerges from the winter seasons of our lives.
     Think about Spring for a moment. Sometime during the month of February, at least in our region of the country, we sense that things are starting to stir underneath the soil. After several months of snow and cold weather, crocuses, daffodils and forsythia are the first to announce that new life is being born in our world, once again. Our hearts will with delight as mountain turn green, flowers bloom everywhere, and bears awake from their hibernation. 
     We start shedding our heavy winter clothes, and venture outside a little more each and every day. Our mood is lighter. Our outlook on life is more positive. Most of us start working in our gardens and begin to plan more outdoor activities. Allergy problems aside, Spring is the time when even the most unobservant among us cannot help but be wowed by everything that is coming to life around us.
     This is how the Via Positiva works in our spiritual journey. It is a time when the Via Negativa comes to an end. Something begins to stir inside us. The places in our lives that we thought were dead, begin to blossom with new life and vitality. The Via Positiva is a time of creativity, a time of seed planting and idea generating. It's a time when we feel more connected to God, and the world around us feels vibrant, hopeful and full of infinite possibilities.
     The sense of awe and delight the Via Positiva generates is reflected in the reading I chose from the Essene gospel of Peace. Listen to it again, and feel its sense of unbridled joy and enthusiasm.
     "God wrote not the laws in the pages of books, but in your heart and in your spirit. They are in your breath, your blood, your bone; in your flesh, your bowels, your eyes, your ears, and in every little part of your body. They are present in the air, in the water, in the earth, in the plants, in the sunbeams, in the depths and in the heights. They all speak to you that you may understand the tongue and the will of the living God."
     If we could only feel like this each and every day of our lives. How wonderful would that be? Unfortunately, there are far too many days when we are stuck in a perpetual state of winter. We get up, go to work, come home, fix supper, watch TV, go to bed, and do the same thing over and over and OVER again. Far too many of us live lives that offer very little awe and delight. We settle for the bland and ordinary while God desires to give birth to something new and wonderful in our lives.
     Yet, we know from nature that winter is not meant to last forever. It is only with us for a season. Likewise the Via Negativa is not meant to last forever either. At some point along the way, God calls us to move in a new direction and walk the path of Via Positiva when the time is right. This does not always happen without us making the first move. Sometimes we have to be intentional in moving from the Via Negativa to the Via Positiva. Sometimes we have to find ways to awaken a sense of awe and delight in our lives.
     Brian McLaren, in his insightful book, Naked Spirituality offers 12 simple ways for us to connect more deeply with God. Number 3 on his list is summarized by the word "O" or "Hallelujah." This word calls us to awaken to the beauty and joy of God and God's creation. I would summarize this spiritual discipline by using the word "Wow" which is exactly what I uttered when I caught my first glimpse of the Matterhorn.
     McLaren says that this word is meant to "Awaken us to the heart of God, which is characterized by an essential, unconquerable, boundless, radiant, wonderful, infinite, exuberant, generous, glorious joy." If that's not the Via Positiva, I don't know what is! 
     McLaren writes further that "many of us associate God with cranky nuns with hands on hips OR stern preachers with pursed lips nearly bursting with fury because we were chewing gum in church. We see God as a stern and controlling parent who was watching us with simmering rage from the window as we were experiencing the thrill of our first kiss in a car in the driveway. OR we see God as a terrifying judge who has been counting our life's infractions and will inevitably charge us, mercilessly judge us, and eternally punish us for our guilt. But the scandalous truth, known by mystics throughout history and affirmed in the pages of our sacred texts, is that when we connect with God, it is as if we are plugging our souls into a pure current of high voltage joy."
     This "high voltage joy" McLaren speaks of is the Via Positiva which calls us to awaken a sense of awe and delight in our lives. This is something we have to be intentional about cultivating in our lives. Let's be honest, most of us don't get to behold a sight like the Matterhorn on a daily basis. Yet, there are wonders all around us, each and every day, if we only have ears to hear and eyes to see them. There are sights and experiences that can help us get in touch with our inner sense of awe and delight if we only take the time to do it.
     In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us a valuable lesson in how to walk the Via Positiva. It's a text that is familiar to many of us, but we often miss the subtler points of what Jesus is trying to teach us. Twice, he tells us to pay attention to the natural world around us. "Look at the wild birds," Jesus says, "Study the wild lilies." What he is telling us to do is more than simply walk by a beautiful flower and say "Well, that's pretty," or hear the call of a bird and say 'I think that's a crow." Jesus is telling us we need to set aside everything that is a distraction and really take a long, close look at the natural world around us. 
     Nature is trying to teach us many valuable lessons about God and the way God works in our world, but we're too busy looking at our cell phones to notice! OR we're too busy checking off our "To-do" list for the day that we miss the moments of awe and delight which surround us all the time. So, if feel like you're in a perpetual season of winter, and can't remember the last time you felt sense of awe and delight in our life, Jesus is calling you to stop looking inward at all the awful stuff that is happening in your personal life, and start looking outward into this great, big beautiful world God has created for us.
     "Look at the wild birds," Jesus says, "Study the wild lilies. No, really look at them! Put down your cell phone, slow your pace, sit down in the grass for just a minute. You have the time!  I know you can do it! Watch the baby birds being taken care of so lovingly by their mother. Imagine what it's like to have a bird's eye view of the world around you. See that even in the dead of winter wild birds find food to eat. These are the ways God takes care of you: Nurturing you like a mother, giving you the gift of perspective, and sustaining you when your life is challenging and difficult. When you do this, you will be filled with a sense of awe and delight. You will not be anxious and worried because you will know that God cares for you."
     "Then take a look at the wild lilies. No, really look at them! Notice their intricate pattern and design. Breathe deeply and smell their sweet fragrance. Watch the bees dance around their stamens as they move from flower to flower. If God puts this much effort into creating a flower, which only blooms for a short time, how much more will God take care of you."
     Jesus concludes his teaching with a sentence that I have always thought was "refrigerator worthy." You know what I mean. It's important enough that it should be hung along with all the pictures of those who are our cherished loved ones and friends. "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own anxieties. Every day has trouble enough of its own."
     Friends in Christ, this is the way of the Via Positiva. It reminds us that seasons of awe and delight are and important part of our spiritual journey. We cannot live a full and rich life without them.
     So, your homework assignment for this week is to find sights and experiences that awaken a sense of awe and delight in your life. Take a walk out in nature and really marvel at the fall colors which surround us. Put your cell phone on mute and make sure it stays in your pocket. Go to the market and buy yourself some beautiful fresh flowers to place on your dining room table. Don't think about the cost. Just grab whatever catches your eye!
     Sit in a chair for a few minutes. Take a crisp, fall apple in your hands. See what it smells like. Pay attention to the crunch when you bite into it. Savor the flavor be it sweet, sour or a combination of both. Go to your favorite bakery and buy that dessert you've been lusting after but have passed it by time and time again because you're on a diet. Sit down in that bakery with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy every single bit of it. Go for it!
     Whatever awakens a sense of awe and delight in your life, now is the time to do it. The Via Positiva reminds us that life is not meant to be lived as one meaningless experience after another. It is a gift to be savored and enjoyed!  AMEN.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Creation Spirituality: Via Negativa

John 15:1-2,5-6; 12:20-26
10/04/15  David Eck

"For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven."  [Ecc 3:1]

     People mark time in different ways. Some of us carry a physical calendar with us to keep track of events and appointments. Others use a digital one on our cell phones. Some have four seasons and all the delightful changes each one brings. Others live in a temperate climate and have to watch for subtler signs that signal what time of year it is.
     Not surprisingly, our spiritual lives are structured in ways that mark time as well. Christians have rites that celebrate significant life events such as birth, confirmation, marriage and death. There is also the liturgical calendar the Church observes that takes us through the cycle of the year. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter take us on a journey through the life of Christ. Pentecost begins a season of the Spirit where we focus on spiritual growth.
     Today I begin a sermon series that presents yet another way of marking time. It's based on the work of Matthew Fox who identifies four spiritual paths we walk at different times in our lives. These paths are Via Negativa, Via Positiva, Via Creativa, and Via Transformativa. Today we will focus on Via Negativa which embodies the characteristics of the season of Winter.
     Matthew Fox says that Via Negativa tells us that "darkness, suffering and letting go matter." They are an important part of our spiritual journey. The Via Negativa is probably the hardest of the Four Paths to walk, but it serves a holy purpose in our lives, just like Winter serves a holy purpose in nature.
     When November 1st arrives, the time of the fall harvest has come to an end. The leaves have fallen off the trees as they prepare for the slumber of winter. During this time they turn inward and draw their energy from the good earth through their root system. It is a time when each day gets shorter and shorter until we reach the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year. Days also turn colder and we spend less and less time outdoors.
     Our focus is inward. We do our own form of hibernation. Yes, we try to distract ourselves with lots of Christmas lights and a flurry of activities. But if we listen to what this season is trying to tell us, we hear that there are times in our lives when we simply need to let go of that which no longer serves a purpose in our lives. There are times when we need to go inward and look at parts of ourselves we might not want to examine. It's a time to rearrange our roots and think about the things which nourish and sustain us. It's also a time to rest and cease the need to always be productive.
     This is the spiritual path of Via Negativa. Not surprisingly, it is the hardest of the four paths to walk. Just like Winter is a difficult season for many, the Via Negativa is a difficult path to us to navigate. Darkness, suffering and letting go are not subjects we like to talk about. Yet, these things serve a holy purpose in our lives. They help us to clear away the clutter so that something new might be born. What I would like to do this morning is examine several elements of the Via Negativa. My task is to show you the important role they play in our spiritual journey.
     We start with LETTING GO. Just like the leaves that fall off the trees, the Via Negativa reminds us that sometimes we need to let go of that which no longer serves a purpose in our lives. The gospel of John gives us a wonderful image to understand the importance of letting go. Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Any unfruitful branch in me he takes away, and he prunes every fruitful branch, so that it may bear more fruit."
     LETTING GO means we allow God to remove the dead branches from our lives so that we create space for something better to take their place. LETTING GO means we allow God to also prune our healthy branches so that they may bear even more fruit.
     Let's be honest, LETTING GO is not a fun process. It may involve some pain and suffering. It might mean we need to go into a time of mourning to grieve that which was lost. As we find ourselves walking the Via Negativa, it's important for us to remember that if we don't submit ourselves to the process of removing dead branches and pruning our spiritual trees will be much weaker. It is only in the LETTING GO that we create room for something new to grow in their place. It is only in the LETTING GO that our lives become much fuller and healthier. This might seem a bit contradictory, but those who have walked the Via Negativa know that it's the truth.
     The second element of the VIA Negativa is DARKNESS which is a subject most of us want to avoid. Yet darkness serves a holy purpose in our lives as much as light does. Barbara Brown Taylor in her magnificent book Learning to Walk in the Dark, says "The problem is this: when, despite all my best efforts the lights have gone off in my life, plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died. The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair. The witches have not turned me into a bat. Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could not have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion: I need darkness as much as I need light."
     In John's gospel, Jesus talks about seeds being planted in the darkness of the earth. "In truth I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains solitary; but, if it dies, it becomes fruitful." When we plant a seed in the ground, it breaks itself open. This can be seen as dying but it is actually transformation. The young green plant of spring cannot emerge until the seed itself is broken open. The same can be said for the caterpillar who retreats into the darkness of its cocoon. From all outward appearances, it looks like the caterpillar has died. Yet we know that it is actually transforming itself and will emerge as a beautiful butterfly. Nature teaches us time and time again that darkness is a good thing. It is a part of the cycle of life. It is a gift from God if we are willing to unwrap it and learn its secrets. 
     There are many Bible verses which paint darkness as something we need to avoid. However, there are also a number of stories which tell us that darkness can be a good thing. Anyone who knows the story of Abraham remembers the night God led him outside to look at the stars. "Count the stars if you are able," God said to Abraham, "So shall your descendants be."
     Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long, surviving the match with a limp, a blessing, and a new name. His son Joseph dreams such prophetic dreams at night that he catches a Pharaoh’s attention, graduating from dungeon to palace to become a royal interpreter of dreams.
     The Exodus from Egypt happens at night. God parts the Red Sea at night. Manna falls from the sky in the wilderness at night. And that is just the beginning. What we learn from this is that darkness is not always bad. Sometimes good things happen at night. God works as much in the darkness as God does in the light.
     The final element of Via Negativa is REST. It is an essential part of the cycle of nature. Nothing can truly thrive without it. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we see a powerful understanding of Jesus as one who deeply understood the natural world around him. "What is matter? Will it last forever?" Jesus told his disciples, "All that is born, all that is created, all the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other. All that is composed shall be decomposed; everything returns to its roots; matter returns to the origins of matter. Those who have ears, let them hear."
    While this is not in our Bibles, I love the wisdom it contains. Jesus is observing the cycles of nature and the origins of life. He is echoing the words of Ecclesiastes that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." Activity and rest. Work and play. Labor and leisure. Learning and unlearning. There has to be a balance between these things. Therefore, as we find ourselves walking the Via Negativa, we need to give ourselves permission to REST; to stop the need to be productive; to step back from day to day activities and discern the bigger picture.
     Perhaps Jesus said it best in Matthew 11: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Does that sound like someone who is a harsh taskmaster? Hardly!  It sounds like someone who observed the cycles of nature intimately and understood the need for rest, for letting go, and even for dying so that resurrection and new life might appear!
     There is so much more I can say about this subject but I will save it for another time. If you feel like you are walking the Via Negativa  during this season of your life, I hope my words will encourage you to trust this important spiritual path. It is not an easy path to walk but it has much wisdom to offer us if we take the time to listen.  AMEN

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Sermon: Who Do You Say That I Am?

ORDINARY 24B  Mark 8:27-38
9/13/15  David Eck

     Jesus is the Answer! That's what the church sign proclaimed as Gary and I drove by it the other day. Jesus is the Answer! To which I immediately remarked "But what is the question?" 
     I've always understood that phrase as implying that Jesus is the answer to every question we could ever ask Jesus is the answer to every problem we face. Jesus is the answer to every longing that is in our hearts, and every difficult decision we need to make. Jesus is the Answer!  Period!
     How I wish it were that easy. How I wish that all we needed to say was "Jesus" and everything would fall into place. But Jesus is not the answer to every question we could ever ask. "How do I pay the bills this month?"  Jesus. "How do I know if I'm making the right medical decision for my loved one?" Jesus.
     See what I mean.  It doesn't work that way! Jesus is NOT the answer to every question we could ever ask. In fact, Our gospel lesson tells us that Jesus is not an answer to a question but he is a path we need to follow. Let me repeat that: Jesus is not an answer to a question but he is a path we need to follow. But before we get to the path we need to follow, Jesus begins by asking a question: "Who do people say that I am?"

     Jesus and his disciples are in Caesarea Philippi when he asks them this question. This is an important detail in the story. I've been to the site of this ancient city and it's setting is quite dramatic. There is a very high stone cliff face in front of where this ancient city used to stand. In this cliff face there is a large cave from which a crystal clear spring flows. Carved into the face of the cliff are little niches where statues of the gods used to be placed.
     Originally the city was called Panias, to honor the Greek God Pan. His statue stood in one of these niches, along with the Canaanite god Baal, and other Greek deities. Eventually this city was conquered by the Romans. Herod Philipp, the son of Herod the Great, built an administrative capital building there and renamed it Caesarea Philippi, in honor of himself as well as Julius Caesar.
     So imagine Jesus and his disciples are sitting somewhere in front of this massive stone cliff. It's filled with statues of the gods and goddesses of the day. It's also a place that represents the power of the Roman occupation of the region. Surrounded by all these symbols of authority and influence Jesus asks the question "Who do people say that I am?"
     As he asks this question I imagine his disciples acting like school kids taking a test. They want to get the RIGHT answer. They want to please Jesus. And so they start raising their hands and shouting out answers. "Oooh, Jesus, me first! Some say, John the Baptist." I can hear Jesus laughing, "Well that would be quite a feat considering our beloved brother John was beheaded by Herod Antipas."
     Another disciple raised his hand, "Some think you're Elijah, or one of the prophets." Jesus smiles and replies, "They're getting warmer, but they're not quite there yet. So…who do you say that I am? You've heard what others think of me, but what's your personal opinion?"
     Not surprisingly, Peter is the first to speak, I know! I know! You are the Messiah!" Jesus puts his finger to his lips and tells them to keep this to themselves. [Sh!]
     It would appear that this was the answer Jesus was looking for. But what happens next shows that that the conversation was not quite finished yet. Peter tells Jesus that he is the Messiah which in Greek is "the Christ." Both of them mean "the Anointed One."
     What Peter envisions by his answer is that Jesus will be the one to topple all of the symbols of power which surrounded them. The gods and goddesses of old will be history. Pan and Baal will no longer he worshipped. The Roman occupation will come to an end and the Israelites will be free, once again. Peter, envisions a military coup, and perhaps renaming Ceasarea Philippi "Jesus-ville" to show that there's a new sheriff in town!
     Peter does not say these things out loud but Jesus knows this is what he is thinking. Perhaps this is the reason why he sternly ordered his disciples not tell anyone. They still failed to produce the right answer to the question "Who do you say that I am." So Jesus begins to clarify Peter's answer. He tells his disciples he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest and scribes. Then he is going to be murdered. And after three days he will rise again.
     I'm sure at this point you could have knocked Peter over with a feather. This is NOT what Peter had in mind when he told Jesus he was the Anointed One. So, Peter took Jesus aside and he began to rebuke him. "Jesus, what are you talking about? Why did you bring us to this place if you're not going to start a revolution? You are not going to suffer! No one is going to kill you! Stop saying such foolish things!"
     Then Jesus gives Peter one of the biggest verbal backhands in the New Testament: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Ouch!  You know that had to hurt. Jesus was saying that Peter was not acting like a disciple but like an enemy. Apparently, it wasn't enough that Peter had the right answer to Jesus' question. It was equally important that Peter understood what his answer meant.
     Let's pause of a moment and think about what all this means to us. We may be more connected to this story than we realize. As disciples of Jesus, we must also answer the question "Who do you say that I am?" Over the years we've all heard lots of people give different answers to this question.
     We've listened to pastors share their scholarly and personal opinions regarding who Jesus is. We've probably read some books on the subject and maybe discussed it in Sunday School. We've also heard lots of public dialogue where a million different answers to the question have been offered.
     Everyone who makes an attempt to answer this question wants to get it "right." Not surprisingly, in trying to get it "right" we, like Peter, mold Jesus into what we need him to be. Suddenly, Jesus looks and acts like a Southern Baptist or a Lutheran, a Republican or a Democrat. Jesus becomes a political revolutionary, or a social activist, or a healer of what ails us, or a handyman who is going to fix all our problems, and so on and so forth.
     As we attempt to answer the question "Who do you say that I am?"we may come up with a really good answer, but like Peter, we are often guilty of wanting to tell Jesus who he needs to be and what he need to do for us. Is it any wonder Jesus rebuked Peter, saying "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 
     I have the sneaking suspicion that we are often guilty of doing the same thing. Instead of letting Jesus mold our lives into what HE wants us to be, we want to mold Jesus into what WE want him to be. "Get behind me, Satan, indeed!
    But, thankfully, Jesus doesn't leave things with a sharp rebuke hanging in the air. Instead he reminds his disciples, as well as us, that he is not an answer to a question but is a path we need to follow. "If any want to become my followers," Jesus said, "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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."

    This well-known response remind us that there is no one "right" answer to the question "Who do you say that I am?" Just about the time we think we have Jesus figured out, he goes in a different direction altogether! Our answer to the question "Who do you say that I am?" will change over time, based on life experience and our growth as disciples of Jesus.
     If Jesus teaching us anything today, it is the spiritual truth that what is important is NOT that we have the right answer, but that we answer the call to follow. "If any want to become my followers," Jesus said, "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." This reminds us that the path Jesus wants us to follow is not an easy one. Our goal is not to mold Jesus into who we need him to be. Our goal to follow his example of service and sacrifice.
     Jesus is NOT the military Messiah who will conquer those we label as our enemies. He's NOT the bully club we use to beat up those whose answer to the question is different from ours. Instead, Jesus is the Anointed One who walked a path of servanthood and sacrifice, and calls us to do the same.
     What would the Church look like if we stopped arguing over the question who do you say that I am?" and started putting the needs of others before our own? Can we feed the multitudes without asking  for their political or religious affiliation? Can we welcome immigrants, refugees, and the homeless as if they are our long lost friends?
     What would the we look like if we stopped molding Jesus into our image, and let him mold us into his? Can we pull it off? Can we live a life of sacrifice and servanthood? Can we keep our know-it-all attitudes in check?
     So many questions that come from this one seemingly simple question "Who do you say that I am?" I hope we've learned that Jesus is not a question to be answered but is a path we need to follow.  AMEN.