Sermon, Sept. 12

Have you ever felt ashamed of Jesus?

Let’s put some context around Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. 

Peter is arguing with Jesus about whether Jesus has to suffer and die to fulfill his role as the Messiah – the One sent by God to save God’s people.  Peter says, The Messiah is supposed to throw out the Roman forces and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for God’s people Israel! 

But Jesus knows that his call is to something much bigger and deeper than restoring one small nation-state. So Jesus says this famous line to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! 

Why “Get behind me”? Mark’s Gospel uses images of leading, and following, a lot – along with what seems to have been the earliest name for the Jesus movement: The Way. So Mark will say things like, “He followed Jesus on the way,” and he means both that that person walked along the road after Jesus, and also that that person became a disciple – a metaphorical follower of Jesus. So, “Get behind me!” is reminding Peter to stop trying to map the route and let Jesus lead. 

Why does Jesus invoke Satan here? In Old Testament tradition, Satan’s role is to test the righteous by trying to turn them away from their path. We see that in Jesus’ temptation after his baptism. And that is kind of what Peter is doing, here. He’s thinking in terms of human hopes, human success, human glory. He doesn’t understand the divine plan Jesus is called to fulfill. Full disclosure: I’m not sure I do either. But Jesus does.  And Jesus goes on to say something I think is really important:  that the greatest good isn’t personal success or glory or comfort. You can gain the whole world, but lose your soul. Sometimes the right path, the true path, the just path, involves pain and struggle and loss.  And if you’re not ready for that, says Jesus, maybe you’re not ready to follow me on the Way. 

So the people who are ashamed of Jesus, here, are people who are put off by the idea that God Incarnate, the long-awaited Savior, would be arrested and publicly executed.  And perhaps by the idea that being a morally good person doesn’t correlate neatly with being rich, healthy, or happy. 

That’s probably not what makes any of us feel ashamed of Jesus. For one thing, we know the part of the story that comes after the execution. For another thing, we know enough about the failures of human power and pomp to be glad that that’s not God’s deal. 

But that doesn’t mean we’re never ashamed of Jesus – or more likely, of bearing his name, as Christians. 

Being a Christian is always on the table for me. If someone knows anything about me, they know that I’m a pastor, and they assume that I’m probably a Christian. It’s hard to hide your faith when it’s also your work. Though I had a clergy colleague in New Hampshire who joined the local amateur ice hockey league, and I think he managed to keep them from finding out what his day job was for about eighteen months. He was convinced that if they found out he was a pastor, a priest, then all the easy camaraderie and trash talk and so on would dry up instantly. They might be afraid to cuss in front of him. 

It’s unusual for a pastor to be able to stay closeted for that long. However, most of you have a choice – and I don’t blame you if you are choosy about if and when you disclose that you’re a Christian. I know there are folks in this congregation who easily and graciously let others know that they are people of faith. I’ve seen you do it. It’s beautiful.

But others may be more cautious.  Because you probably have friends, acquaintances and colleagues who carry assumptions about what Christians think and do that you don’t want to be associated with.  If you share that you’re a Christian, then there has to be whole conversation about what kind of Christian. 

As Christians who are not a conservative evangelicals – the most vocal and visible type of Christian in America – we wear our faith identity while knowing that others who claim the same label often promote causes and agendas that may be very far from our convictions and hopes. Christians who promote anti-science and anti-vaccine ideas. Christians who stoke anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Christians who are striving to limit the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people.  And Christians who are committed to making it more difficult for a person with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy to have a full range of options available to them.

For the record, the Episcopal Church has long held the position that abortion should be safe, legal, rare, and, ideally, take place in the context of caring counsel from both medical and spiritual professionals. People hearing my voice right now may hold a range of views in their hearts. But I suspect the specifics of the new law in Texas, which has been getting a lot of press, cause concern and alarm for many of us. It seems like an approach that lacks compassion for people facing a life-changingly difficult situation. 

Some folks have responded to this harsh new law by referring to its proponents as the “Texas Taliban” – alluding to the Islamic fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan and suggesting an analogy between the treatment of women and girls in both contexts. 

This past week, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg called out that quip on Twitter. She pointed out that this little “joke” implying that religious extremism “is somehow Islamic, foreign, ‘other,’” stokes fear and hatred of Muslims, and of people who are perceived as Muslim. Ruttenberg says, “These jokes influence cultural conversations and who winds up on the receiving end of them is… not the Taliban… Stop punching down, your jokes aren’t funny, [and] you are causing harm.”

The apostle James is right; the tongue can be a deadly weapon. Our jokes can carry poison, even when we don’t intend it. Our careless words can be small flames that set a whole forest ablaze. 

But Ruttenberg goes on, because the issue isn’t just the risk of our words feeding hatred towards ethnic and religious minorities. It’s also the impulse, on the part of those who think of themselves as progressive Christians, to deny and deflect. 

She writes, “Reckon with the fact that [those behind the new Texas law] are Christians… Please don’t play the ‘not real Christians’ card here. It’s a kind of gaslighting. ‘Oh, the Crusades? The… pogroms? The pro-Holocaust theology? The genocides & cultural genocides.. of colonialism? Not Real Christians.’”

She continues, “I know it’s tempting to just want to cut back to the teachings of Jesus, to St. Francis, to Merton and Dr. King and James Cone and everyone else preaching about love and justice and care for one another. I love those guys too. I know there is wonderful, powerful, liberatory Christianity. I am a big fan of many of its teachers. [But] I believe that the best and most holy of it acknowledges and grapples with [harm] perpetrated in Jesus’ name.” 

I’m working on taking this challenge to heart. I know that it’s not helpful to say of those whose convictions are different from mine, on a whole range of issues, that they are not real Christians. Because they may well think that I’m not a real Christian. 

And also: Very few people actually wake up in the morning and ask themselves how they can make other people’s lives more miserable. Those whose convictions are different from mine are also striving to follow Jesus as they understand him. 

It’s also not enough to say, Well, I’m not that kind of Christian. I’ve heard that from Episcopal church leaders a lot. I’ve preached and proclaimed it myself – and been called out on it, rightly.  Because saying what you’re not is easy. Instead, step up to the challenge of saying what you ARE, and what you’re trying to be. Including past failures and present growing edges – because being honest about that stuff is what lets people know you’re serious about the work. 

Last week St. Dunstan’s mailed out a postcard to the residents of the new apartment complex next door to the church, and others who have recently moved in nearby. I was clear that the postcard should simply introduce St. Dunstan’s as a neighbor, without pressing people to attend or join. A lot of folks are pretty allergic to being invited to church without the context of an existing relationship. 

I drafted some text that said some things about the kind of church we are, or are trying to be – under the heading “Curious about church?” I said that we value justice and mercy, cultivating members’ spiritual lives, caring for creation, intergenerational community, and unconditional welcome. 

Then, under the heading, “Not looking for a church?”, I listed some ways we could be good neighbors: offering meeting spaces, collaborating on community projects, sharing our grounds as a place of solace. 

I shared that draft text with several keen-eyed members of this congregation. They helped me trim and clarify. But the most important change they suggested was to put the “Not looking for a church?” stuff before the “Curious about church?” stuff. 

I love St. Dunstan’s and I’m proud of what we’re building together here. So my natural impulse was to lead with that. But most of our neighbors probably aren’t looking for a church… and they’re not going to read past what we want to say about ourselves, to get to the part about how we want to be good neighbors for them, too.

Any reckoning with people’s reasonable suspicion towards churches – with some people’s experiences of harm through the actions and words of Christians – has to start with our commitment to simply being good neighbors, first and foremost. With an intention to be a presence for good in our community, regardless of whether it leads to recruiting new members. Because we have bridges to build and fences to mend, in order to be witnesses to Jesus as we know him.

It’s easy to feel a little shy about Christianity, in a city that is literally the headquarters of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But those times when the dominant public face of Christianity seems far from your hopes and beliefs are exactly why it’s important to let folks know that there are lots of kinds of Christians. 

People may wear the label Christian uneasily. Maybe you feel like there’s a secret checklist of stuff you’re supposed to believe and positions you’re supposed to hold, and you’re not sure you check all the boxes. Maybe you feel like you don’t carry your faith into daily life enough to “qualify.” Maybe you’re just uncomfortable with the term, because of all its associations. Maybe you’d rather say that you’re Episcopalian than that you’re Christian. 

I define Christian pretty expansively. People who are drawn to Jesus in some way – even if he perplexes us as much as he attracts us. People who are trying to shape our lives, even in small ways, around Jesus’ path of boundary-breaking neighbor-love. People who are on the Way, trying to move in the same general direction as Jesus… even if we’re way at the back, wandering, stumbling, sitting down to rest, pausing to look at a rock. 

We ARE Christians, beloveds. Curious and confused, doubtful and hopeful. And when we encounter the word Christian, in the news, on social media, in the public square, in a context that makes us uncomfortable – as a label within which we cannot find ourselves – I hope that doesn’t make us ashamed. 

I hope it makes us determined. 

Determined to seek deeper understanding of Jesus – through Scripture, tradition, and reason; through conversation, prayer, and occasional encounters with the living Christ. 

Determined to love our neighbors and strive for the common good, for Jesus’ sake and even – when the moment is right – in Jesus’ name. 


Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg’s Twitter thread starts here: