Follow Jesus and be free

(This is the sermon I preached in response to Mark 8:31-38. You can find the full worship service along with the video of the sermon at www.ststphenlc.org.)

On Feb 20, 1939, just a few months before the beginning of what would be World War II, approximately 20,000 Americans gathered in Madison Square Garden in New York City to celebrate the rise of Nazism.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  20,000 people in NYC celebrating the rise of Nazism.  That’s no small number.  You can look this up – it’s an actual event that happened.  There’s a short seven-minute movie that highlights this event that has been forgotten for a long time.  It’s called A Night at the Garden.  It uses actual film footage from the event – in black and white of course.  And in it, you can see what took place and hear what was said.  There is plenty of military-like marching with men, women and youth carrying flags down the many aisles in the arena, in what are probably brown shirts – the famous Nazi uniform before WWII.  Remember, these are Americans. 

They are carrying Nazi symbols and American flags together.  There are Swastikas all around the arena and a larger than life portrait of George Washington at the front, the pledge of Allegiance is said, and so much more in this short film that highlights who those 20,000 were willing to follow.  There’s also plenty of full arm Nazi salutes, and a speaker who comes to the front of the stage and riles up the crowd with demagoguery and flat out anti-Semitism.  And what Nazi rally would be complete without someone getting beaten up – which is what happens right on the stage.  

20,000 people flocked to that event.  It was originally recorded as propaganda so that many more could see it, be sucked in and follow.  But what is amazing is that 20,000 people willingly listened to and followed a message of hatred, anger, fear, racism, and toxic nationalism.  

And I’m willing to bet many of the folks who showed up at the garden that day considered themselves good Christians who probably went to church every Sunday, finding no irony that they were claiming to worship Jesus – a Jewish rabbi with dark skin who didn’t look anything like the master race that Nazism proclaimed – the same type of person that the Nazis would then systematically dehumanize and kill.  But hey, why let historical fact get in the way of following an ideology, right?  Humanity has been doing that for eons.  

Tribalism, anger, fear, hatred, toxic nationalism, and messages that make it sound like a person or a group of people are divinely chosen to rule over others are so very seductive.  All it takes is a bit of color washing of Jesus to mold and shape him in our own image and with our own set of beliefs.

Jesus has been coopted and changed for centuries by empires, nations, religions and ideologies to make him look like the people who conquered, oppressed, and killed people, why should this be any different?  

We all follow someone or something, a set of ideals and beliefs.  The question is who and what – do we follow Jesus, or do we make Jesus in our own image and likeness?  Do we follow all these human-made things with their messages that are frankly exhausting – I mean it’s tough to keep up with who all we’re supposed to hate and fear, there’s just so many.  Or do we follow Jesus, which frees us from this kind of hatred, fear, and exhaustion?  

Does humanity get to set the boundary on Jesus, tell Jesus what he can and can’t have a say in?  Or does Jesus get to say things like he does in our Gospel today?  Do we get to ignore uncomfortable and inconvenient statements of Jesus?  Things that don’t match up with our preferences.  

What about when Jesus talks about money, power, political, religious and economic injustice, truth, poverty, outcasts, foreigners, those who are sick in body, mind, or spirit?  Do we just spin those away and have excuses for what he “Really” means, which amazingly is always in alignment with what we already believe?  How convenient – we don’t have to change at all!  

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus talks about all of these things.  They aren’t part of some human power agenda.  They are part of what God has always been up to – Shalom, the kingdom of God versus empire, liberation and freeing people from bondage and exploitation, flipping the power dynamics of societies and those in charge – especially those who use their power to take advantage of the poor, the lonely, the foreigner, the outcast, and the powerless.  

Who’s in charge – that the real question?  Us, or Jesus?  Be careful with your answer, because there are consequences to how we answer.  Of course, we all want to answer immediately with what we are all supposed to say – “Jesus is in charge…”. Ok.  Great.  What does that actually mean?  

If Jesus is in charge, then you and I don’t get to tell Jesus what’s off limits.   We don’t get to set the boundary on what Jesus can talk about or what topics or parts of our life that he can change.  We don’t get to say – Hey Jesus, as long as you only talk about my personal faith, my personal piety, and my personal relationship with you and only that, I’ll follow you.  We don’t get to say – Hey Jesus, you don’t get to talk about politics, or money, or race, or nationalism, or stewardship of resources and creation. Hey Jesus, you don’t get to have a say in any of these things.  

If we get to set a boundary on Jesus – what he can and can’t talk about and have a say in, let alone give commands about – then I wonder, is he really in charge, or are we kidding ourselves?  Are we trying to have it both ways?  Claiming to be a follower, but avoiding all the hard parts of what it means to follow?

Does this mean that Jesus is looking for us to be perfect in following him?  By no means.  We aren’t going to be.  Even the disciples messed up following him.  Peter, the disciple that he was closest to would deny knowing Jesus in his hour of trial.  Thank fully Jesus isn’t looking for perfection.  He knows that we aren’t going to live up to some impossible standard of discipleship and following.  And yet he loves us anyway.  And he still calls on us to follow, knowing that we’re going to put that cross down because sometimes it’s just too heavy.  But that’s ok.  Jesus carried the cross for us.  He sets an example for.  He invites us into a life of discipleship because it transforms us.  

Being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is costly.  People who have died for the faith know this very well.  Just look at the people throughout history that took to heart what being a follower means.  They took seriously Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading – that any who will be Jesus’ follower will deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow Jesus.  They didn’t do it on their own strength or because they figured out faith.  The Spirit empowered them.  They were sinners and broken just like us.  And Jesus loved them, just like Jesus loves us.  He loves us so much that he calls us, just like them, into discipleship.  

Just look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Edith Stein, who were executed in Nazi Germany for their faith. Or Oscar Romero who was killed in El Salvador in the 1980’s for living his faith.  And you don’t have to travel to another country – The Charleston nine (Six of whom were women) were killed by Dylan Roof, an ELCA member, in 2015 at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC.  The nine were holding a Bible study.   It was in their vulnerability and their faithfulness that they welcomed in Dylan because they could see the Image of God in him.  All of these faithful people carried their cross in following Jesus.  And their faith cost them their lives.  

Discipleship is costly.  It costs you your life, your desires, your wishes, your future.  And it transforms you in incredible ways – ways that opens your eyes to see the image of God in others, ways that opens your ears to hearing the Good News, ways that opens your heart to encountering Jesus, and ways that opens your hands to service.  

As costly as discipleship is, it is actually quite freeing, which is why Jesus calls us to it.  

Martin Luther wrote about the freedom of a Christian.  He said, “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

This contradictory statement was a key theme in Luther’s theology.  We’re free from all, because Christ has made us free.  And because of the faith and action of Christ, we willingly submit to Jesus and serve all – and in doing so, we serve Christ.  We live into the two great commandments – to love God and our neighbor.  The most perfect form of loving our neighbor – regardless of whether they are friend or foe – is in seeing the image of God in them and responding to their need.  It’s what guides us to follow Jesus in thought, word, and deed.  It’s what guides our decisions, how we use our money, and our politics too, our resources, our relationships, everything.  

There is no section of our life where we get to tell Jesus he has no access to or control over.  

Here’s a metaphor that I’ve heard.  Imagine you have a house.  Jesus comes knocking on the door and you open it.  Jesus walks right in and starts rearranging the furniture.  You are thrown off and tell Jesus, wait a minute, I like it the way it is set up.  But Jesus goes right on doing what he’s doing.  And then all of sudden, he starts removing some of the furniture and putting in new furniture – stuff you don’t even like.  Whoa Jesus, what’s going on here!?!  I didn’t say you could change the furniture.  Maybe rearrange some of the things, but take out some of my favorite stuff?  What’s going on?  

Then it gets worse – Jesus goes upstairs.  And starts entering rooms – really private rooms that you don’t let anyone into.  And he does the same thing.  You try to stop him, but he just keeps saying, this is what it means to follow – All while he is rearranging things and changing everything up.  

And then Jesus goes to the locked rooms – the rooms that we all have in our lives with the skeletons in the closest – the rooms we don’t tell anyone about, and we might even be ashamed of.  And he busts open the door and he goes right in.  And cleans it up – he frees it up and sets us free from those places that we have been hiding and protecting that are actually damaging to us.  What a relief.  

If any are going to follow Jesus, then it means we aren’t in charge.  God is.  Jesus is.  The Spirit is.  We don’t get to tell Jesus what he can do.  

Why is this good news?  Following Jesus is actually quite freeing.  It frees us from having to figure it all out ourselves.  It frees us from having to pretend we are God.  It frees us from having to believe we have our act together.  It frees us from the idolatry of being right.  It frees us from believing that we have to save the world.  It frees us from fear.  It frees us from having to dehumanize others with hatred and demeaning labels and attitudes.  It frees us from diminishing others just so we can think we are superior to them.  It frees us from constantly seeing enemies everywhere we look.  It frees us from the never-ending pursuit of stuff and money.  It frees us from believing that our identity is found is a political party or nation or system of beliefs, in money and possession, in work and relationships, in health or intellect, or anything else.  It frees us.  

That’s what Jesus does – frees people – you and me.  Following Jesus is freeing us from having to follow anyone or anything else.  

Following Jesus is a leap of faith because we aren’t in charge.  And there is nothing scarier for a human being than to not be in control – to have the perception that we are in control shattered.  Jesus’ call to us today is scary.  

But here’s what I know: all the other voices – the people and messages that offer their saving messages in partisan politics, money, and whatever and whoever else – that offers messages that are based in fear and hatred, scapegoating and blame, othering people, and toxic individualism – They are messages that tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.  Because they are messages that tell us that we don’t have to change – that others do.  That others need to be like us.  But we know the truth about ourselves if we are honest.  And at the same time, we are also told, we aren’t good enough.  That we lack something.  And what we lack, these false messiahs have the answer, the idea, the scapegoat to blame, the solutions, and more.  

And there is never any rest with their messages.  It never ends.  There’s always more to do, more to get, more enemies to fight, more people to blame, more, more, more.  It never ends and salvation is always out of reach.  Not what will actually save us or transform our lives.  

Not anything that will allow you to love God and others, to serve, or at the core – to actually be free.  Free from the bondage that these false messiahs are actually selling – the same thing that the serpent in the garden was selling – that you can be like god.  You can’t.  You aren’t.  You aren’t called to either.  You are called to follow Jesus, not be God.  

You are called to be free.  Jesus calls us to follow him – to be free, really free.  To take it seriously.  To let go of control over your life.  To be free from believing that we have to be perfect in following him.  To be free of all the guilt, shame, and all the other baggage that we carry around in our life.  And being free from that, Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and to follow him.  And in doing so, to be transformed.  To follow him wherever he takes us.  To follow him, regardless of the cost.  To be free. Amen.

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