Who Do You Say That We Are?

Inspired by Mark 8:27-9:8

Like many of you, I have been following the political landscape lately, particularly the various campaigns as they rally towards the upcoming election. As someone who is fascinated with sociocultural anthropology, which is just a fancy way of saying that I’m a people watcher, but not in a creepy way, I just love to figure out what makes people tick, how they interact with each other, how they present themselves, how people adapt depending on their environment or company they keep, all that stuff. So, watching these debates and rallies is like candy for someone like me! Ok, that did sound kinda creepy. Anywho, one of the things that I have noticed about all these presidential candidates is the way that they present themselves to those whom they hope will vote for them, you and I.

The way that they do this has intrigued me. Most of them use some form of an “I” statement to introduce themselves, “I am blank, and I” and then they usually finish that statement with something they believe or something that they will do or something about who they are. For example, Amy Klobuchar recently began a rally by saying, “Hello America, I am Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump!” And of course, the crowd went wild!

These politicians know how to get a reaction from a crowd, that’s for sure! And they know how to key in on the thoughts and feelings of American voters with their little catchphrases like that. Now all that makes for great campaign moments but what I find fascinating about these I am statements from all the politicians is that it really doesn’t matter who they think they are, what really matters is who voters think they are.

Hold that thought and let’s move to our reading for today. The Sunday before Ash Wednesday is always Transfiguration Sunday, the day that we retell the story of the disciple’s mountain top experience with the transfigured Jesus, in all his glowiness. It occurs smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, and that is no accident. It functions as a major turning point in the overall narrative that Mark has invited us into. It’s the moment when they realize that this Jesus may be something more than just a wise rabbi, more than a prophet, more than a miracle worker, more than a healer. It not only causes them to reexamine all they had experienced with Jesus up to that point, but changes how they see him from then on.

And with that in mind, I’d like to focus on the scene just prior to them traveling up that mountain. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am? They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” That was easy for them to answer. Anyone who was paying attention in the crowds that had been following Jesus could probably answer that question. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He looks them in the eye and asks, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” That may have been a little more difficult to answer. Only one person answered that time. Good ol’ Peter. “You are the Christ,” he says. But I’m more interested in the question than I am in Peter’s answer.

It occurred to me, maybe for the first time, that in this story, and the Gospel of Mark in general, Jesus is more interested in what others are saying about him, then he is about telling everyone who he is. Maybe it’s all the election campaigning that I have been watching on TV lately that made me notice this, I don’t know, but I found that quite intriguing. Contrast that with John’s Gospel, where Jesus is telling everyone who he is with “I am” statements: “I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the good shepherd.” At every turn in John’s Gospel, Jesus is telling people who he is. John presents a Jesus who would have made a great politician! Add that to the plethora of reasons why it’s my least favorite Gospel. But this is not the Jesus that Mark presents to us.

Mark’s Jesus asks a question that most of us wouldn’t dare ask anyone, let alone the public!” “Who do you say that I am?” I mean, maybe it’s my debilitatingly low self-esteem but you’d never hear me ask, “Who do you say that I am?” I’d be too afraid of the answers! My thin skin would rip like tissue paper! Now, whether or not Jesus had the same fears is up for debate, but what we do know, is even if he had those fears, he didn’t let them get in the way of asking people who they thought he was.

I mean, they could have said Satan, they could have said a demon, they could have said he was the worst rabbi they’d ever heard preach, they could have said he was a fraud. And people did say those things about him. Regardless, making sure that people had the right idea regarding his identity, was just too important to him. Remembering that your time on earth is limited will do that to you.

So, all of this got me thinking. What if we were brave enough to ask that question? And I don’t mean as individuals. I wouldn’t ask you to put yourself through that. But I mean as a church, as a congregation, as a denomination, as a religion. What if we were brave enough to ask the world, to ask the country, to ask Auburn, “Who do you say that we are?” If we are the body of Christ in the world, I think we should be asking that. If we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world, I think we should be asking that. And then really taking to heart what people say, even if we think it’s untrue. As scary as it may sound, I think we have an obligation to ask people, “Who do you say that we are?” I’d go so far as to say, church decline wouldn’t be a worldwide problem today, if we’d have been asking people that for the past two thousand years!

We’d have been able to hear what people were saying about us and been given the opportunity to make any course corrections that needed to be made. Because there are so many misconceptions about us out there, that it’s no wonder people don’t want to step inside our doors! So much of the world out there assume all us Christians are alike. There are so many that think we are all just a bunch of homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, racist, self-righteous, do-gooders! Now, don’t get me wrong, these assumptions that people make about us are justified. They know that it’s not hard to find Christians that are just like their assumptions. Thankfully, you and I know, not all us Jesus followers are like that. So, how do we make sure that people know that though?

Well, one way is to ask that scary question. When was the last time that you asked your fellow Auburnites, “Who do you say that we are?” Has Bethlehem ever done that? Like most congregations, probably not. We’ve never had to before. We’ve always had enough people naturally come through our doors, enough to pay the bills anyway. Well, as you can see, those days are gone. Oh, pastor, why do you have to be such a downer? Look, everyone is always asking pastors how to grow the church, right up until they answer. Then they never ask again because they don’t like the answers! But, I don’t see this as a downer at all though!

God has given you the opportunity to go outside these four walls and meet some of your amazing neighbors! Not only that, but God doesn’t send you out there empty-handed, but with good news to share! The greatest news the world has ever heard! Three simple words, “God loves you.” Period. Just as you are, strengths and weaknesses, “God loves you.” Those three simple words could be all that’s needed to help someone rethink what they’ve assumed about us Christians. But, we’ll never know of any misconceptions out there, unless we ask, unless we ask that scary question, “Who do you say that we are?” Do we have the courage to do that? Are we brave enough? Do we love enough? I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think so. Thanks be to God. Amen.


We ARE Worthy!

Inspired by Mark 5:21-43

How many of you remember that Saturday Night Live skit Wayne’s World? They even made a movie out of it. It was about two Rock music fanatics who made a TV show on their public television station and one thing they were known for, whenever they met a Rock musician celebrity, was falling on their knees and bowing over and over saying, “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” That is the image that came to mind while I was preparing for this sermon, as silly as that sounds.

However, this Bible story we have before us today is anything but silly. In it, we have two characters that go to Jesus for help, and both are coming from a place of unworthiness. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s back up a bit. This story occurs right after last week’s story of the poor demonized person whom Jesus healed and restored to the community.

We’re in the same chapter in fact. The only segue is the fact that Jesus is now on the other side of the lake, meaning that he is back in Jewish territory, with his own people. In their minds, this is where Jesus belonged in the first place. He had no business on the other side of the lake, with those Gentiles, much less helping them! So, Jesus comes back, and he can’t even get off the boat before he is mobbed by a swarm of followers. Because you see, they didn’t follow him to the Gentile land that he went to, because they didn’t want to risk being contaminated by them. And that’s no exaggeration, I can point you to the passages in Leviticus that state all the regulations and rituals that they’d have to endure if they got too close to a pig, or an unclean person, or God knows what! We Gentiles are a sketchy lot!

However, despite being back with his own people now, he has two strange but similar encounters with people that felt unworthy of Jesus’ help, let alone just being in his presence. The first is with a synagogue leader. Think church council president. I mean, who’s more worthy of Jesus’ time than a church council president, right! But no, this synagogue leader did not feel worthy. He comes to Jesus pleading on his hands and knees. I think that’s a detail that we too quickly overlook. Have you ever been that desperate? I think most of us know what desperation feels like but to go to another human being and submit yourself before them and beg. That’s a whole different level of desperation and humility that I’m guessing most of us have not experienced.

So, there’s Jairus, begging for Jesus' help, to heal his twelve-year-old daughter. Jesus agrees and goes with him, only to be interrupted on the way by yet another one from his Jewish community, this time a woman who had been suffering from a bleeding disorder for twelve years. Notice the number twelve in both stories. That’s not an accident. Mark was a master storyteller, linking these two stories together, almost subconsciously. But let’s keep moving through the story.

The woman is the very embodiment of the very uncleanliness that his followers wanted to stay away from on the other side of the lake, and for them, uncleanliness meant unholiness. This woman’s condition made her unclean, unholy. And you did not want to be made unclean! There were rituals that needed to be done, a time period had to elapse, offerings had to be made, which meant there was a financial burden as well! You just didn’t risk being made unclean!

Now, a woman’s menstrual period already made her unclean. The Levitical law was that she had to segregate herself from the rest of the community until it was over. In their eyes, blood was just something to stay away from. So, if you read between the lines here, you realize that she has been ostracized for twelve years now. She was taking a risk even being there! But she was desperate. And more than that, she trusted that Jesus would be able to help her, to help her be restored back to the land of the living, back to her people.

Now here’s a bit of a side note, they were so hypersensitive about being made unclean, they believed that even touching the clothes of someone who was unclean would indeed make you unclean. So, this woman may have been thinking, “If we can be made unclean by just touching someone’s clothes, I bet you the reverse of that is true, that I could be made clean by just touching Jesus’ clothes!”

So, that’s what she does, especially because, in her eyes, and in her society’s eyes, she’s not worthy to do anything else. She’s not worthy to ask for an audience from this rabbi. She’s not worthy enough to interrupt him. She’s not worthy enough to risk contaminating him. She’s not worthy. But desperate times call for desperate measures. So, come what may, she reaches out and touches his robe and is healed.

Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” And then he and his followers have this little comical scene as they argue over the idiocy of that question. To which, Jesus just ignores them, because Jesus wants an audience with whomever touched him, with whomever had so much trust in him to do that! And he turns around to see her, on her knees, begging for mercy, and probably to not turn her over to the authorities. Why? Because she doesn’t think she’s worthy.

But we can’t stop there. There’s a little more story to be told. At this point, one of Jairus’s people came to tell him that his daughter had died, that there was no need to bother Jesus now. Further evidence that they just didn’t feel worthy of Jesus’ time and care. But Jesus felt otherwise. He goes to the house anyway, and when he gets there, he does the unthinkable! If they thought touching a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years would make you unclean, imagine what they thought about touching a dead body! You just didn’t do it. There were people who were set aside to do that, who were committed to a life of uncleanliness. But Jesus was not only fully committed to restoring people, but doing it in ways that were considered unlawful, unclean, and unholy.

Why? Because once again, the healings in these stories, aren’t the real story. They’re just the backdrop. The real story here is Jesus' willingness to go out of his way, in radical, irreverent, and in society’s eyes, immoral and ungodly ways, just so that he could make a point. And that point is this: there is nothing, and no one, who can tell you, that you are not worthy, even if that person is you.

There is nothing on God’s green earth, that can make you unworthy of God’s love and care for you, not even scripture. There is no circumstance that could make you unworthy. There is no behavior or mistake you could make, that would make you unworthy. There is no one who has the power to determine your worthiness, not even you. If you want to kneel before God, by all means, do it. If you want to bow before God, by all means, do it. Just don’t do it with the words, “We’re not worthy.” But instead, learn to live with the words, “We are worthy.” Thanks be to God. Amen.