"He Looks Like a Terrorist" - Sermon for September 13, 2015

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Who do you say that Jesus is?  Watch out, while the answer may be what you expect, the expectations for that answer may be something else and new entirely.  Who do you say that Jesus is? 

 Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The text is included for your convenience, but it is not entirely like the delivered version, which includes nuances that can't be read.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

September 13, 2015  - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  

" 'He Looks Like a Terrorist' ".  Text is from Mark 8:27-38





Greetings to you, my sister and brothers, saints and sinners, children of God.  The gospel of Mark takes us into a new place now, and it goes to the core of Jesus' identity.  Traveling around Roman parts of Galilee in the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has been in the company of these men for some time. They have watched him make miracles. They have heard the wonderful teachings that have been uttered from his lips. They have seen him baffle the scribes and Pharisees with a new interpretation of God's law, one that challenges the very foundation of Jewish life and upturns traditions that have been deeply embedded in their culture for centuries. But until this moment, there have been no particular discussions about his identity among them.  

And so his question to the disciples, "Who do people say that I am," lays a good foundation to establishing what he is by comparing it to what he is perceived to be: Elijah, John the Baptist, one of the prophets.

When Jesus asks Peter "Who do you say that I am", the response, "The Messiah" is a turning point in the narrative. Because his instruction to tell no one is a final confirmation of something that Peter and maybe a couple others have begun to suspect. Nowhere in Mark is the Birth narrative where we are foretold of this child who would save the Israelites from the shackles of its oppressors, Mark starts off with John the Baptist predicting one to follow in his footsteps and moves on to the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Only now do we begin to approach the significance of this man and ministry.

 To the children of Israel the Messiah is a worldly one indeed.  He has been prophesied to save from the Herodian kings and Rome, leading them into a grand Jewish kingdom, those were the dreams of many a Jewish dreamer in the time of Jesus. 

And this makes what Jesus talks about next so disturbing to them. Because he admits he is the Messiah, but he then describes the suffering and death that is coming not just for him but for his followers.  And so how easy is it to get into Peter's head and feel his devastation. How can you tell us this, Jesus, we finally understand who and what you are an just to have you die on us? What kind of Messiah is that? Just what exactly are we supposed to do with that? 

Who do you say that Jesus is? 

Yesterday I was delighted to finally be installed as Pastor of this congregation. All my work in seminary, so much of what I have done in my life has prepared me for this time, and now the work really starts. And no small part of that work is laying out for you, the people of the parish, who I understand Jesus to be and how I relate to him and listen to who you say that he is. 

Downstairs in the Fellowship Hall there was a painting of Christ the Good Shepherd, I believe it came down so they could paint, but many of you have seen it and not all of us would automatically question it, as iconic as it is to us who have a white mainline church history but the Jesus in the image is a typical mid-20th century rendering of a Caucasian brown haired man, vastly unlike the Jesus we would certainly have expected to encounter in a 1st Century Palestinian community of Jews in the region of Galilee. 

Indeed, the Jesus that walked the earth, born of Mary, and for all that anyone knew, son of Joseph, two children of Israel themselves with strong history, one Davidic, one Levitical, would have certainly looked much more like the people indigenous to the Arabic peninsula today.  Darker skin, darker hair, very Mediterranean features, not in very much sense white. 

In fact, I remember hearing a joke recently, that if Jesus tried to board a plane into the US, he'd immediately be screened and pulled aside, and at the very least searched, because of the likelihood someone with his features was a terrorist.  

arab Jesus by theapokalypseshovel.jpg

though the whiter depiction of Jesus was around centuries before, it became popularized in 15th Century Italy when a certain pope commissioned paintings of his son Cesare Borgia, with his peculiarly European features as Jesus, that we begin to see a rendering of Jesus that's not at all like what we innately know Jesus must have looked. But that's the image of Jesus that comforts so many Christians of European origin, to have a lord and Savior that looks like someone from their own family, and it may be that some visions of God by white people have been one of a Christ who appeared the most comfortable to them.  

But why should that be a comfort to me if he does not look like me? Why can I not view an ebony skinned Jesus, as is hanging in the small chapel of St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, or an Asian Jesus, as the 21st century Chinese artist He Qi depicts in his myriad of paintings of biblical images, or a Polynesian Jesus that is often found in Samoan or Tongan or New Zealand churches. 

CompositeJesus

Why cannot we have a Jesus like he probably looked, like an Arab, with dark skin and dark eyes and a thick bushy beard, who is telling us to follow him and be prepared to suffer for him and lose our lives for him. What is it about that image of Jesus that makes us feel concerned for our safety, that rocks our world and forces us to look at some of our deepest sin in order to fully appreciate the sacrifice that this dark-skinned Semitic man gave in order that we might be free?

Who do you say that Jesus is? 

He explains in no uncertain term that being the Messiah also means heading to the cross.  That to overcome the world, one must be executed by the world. That to find victory and new life, one must find death. And in frightening, cold language, he convicts the ones who are looking at this life of following him as an opportunity to gain money, power, or prestige. But for those who are seeking a revolution of government, "This Messiah is not the one that you are looking for."  In fact when Mark was finally putting his words from ink to scroll a few decades later, what Jesus was warning about had already begun to kick into high gear.  The Israelites were in open rebellion, yes, but that way was doomed to loss and failure. The most ardent and devout followers of Christ had in fact traveled the way of the cross and been subject themselves to ridicule, humiliation and execution. The world is turned upside down. The Messiah that Israel was looking for would not lead them to victory over the Empire, but would instead die himself a victim of capital punishment of that empire. 

But just within and beyond Jesus' words of conviction lie the seeds of God's great love for his children, clothed in language of glory.  The ones who would lose their lives would save it, and that the Son of Humankind would come again in the glory of God and the angels.  

In this day and age, where only thirty years ago baptism was the norm for most children in the United States, in many corners the belief that Christianity is the sanctioned state religion is, while legally false yet remains effectively true. In such a place, persecution of Christians does not exist despite the ramblings of certain politicians who are seeking worldly gains. And while we may sometimes be subject to ridicule for our beliefs in online circles, and occasional public scorn from those who have themselves been harmed by the church by people acting in the name of Christianity, we yet remain fully protected in employment, housing and Christians continue to be the dominant and largest single group in the United States. 

So following Jesus and to carry the cross yet means death it also means the beginning of our resurrection. It means to give up a life of greed and avarice and consumption and be the shining beacon of God's light in our communities. It means that each day begins with an inventory of where we fail knowing that his physical suffering and death on the cross, defeat of the power of the grave, and resurrection into heaven has given us the divine grace to where we don't have to suffer like him in order to be sanctified and act as Christ. Through the wondrous gift of God's Holy Spirit, we have the power to live into the kingdom that he has promised us. 

We are born in a time of great wonder and hope. We are given this life in the end time of the world, when human suffering and injustice are finally coming to an end.  As we first saw in Christ's resurrection, we have in our grasp an image of the kingdom he is leading us into. 

And this dark-haired, dark-skinned, dark eyed Jesus, in his robes looking to the dominant culture more like a terrorist than messiah, is inviting us to live with the countercultural and revolutionary ideas that we are called to forgive the unforgivable, like God forgives.  We are called to love with all of our heart, our fellow human, not just the ones we like but the ones who annoy us and the ones who fear us.  We are called to live that love in service to God, and we are called to follow him knowing that he comforts our suffering and that his glory surrounds as we are images of God's mercy and love in the world. 

"Who do you say that Jesus is?" 

He is God's love for us, our means of holiness and a better life, our rescue from certain death.  He is, my brothers and sisters, the good news. 

Amen.   

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on September 13, 2015 6:59 PM.

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