Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sermon for August Sunday 24, 2008

All or Nothing
Matthew 16:13-28

History records that he was a great man. Yet he had humble beginnings. He grew up in a small village, an ordinary boy who did not do much to draw attention to himself. He worked in the family business and did his best to grow up strong and healthy. Deep inside, however, he knew he had a special purpose – a destiny to fulfill. As he grew older, people began to notice that there was something special about this young man. He had talent and charisma. He was gifted like no other. It wasn’t long before he started attracting crowds. Thousands came to see and listen to him. He chose a small band of loyal companions who traveled with him everywhere he went. Many of them had given up their jobs just to be with their leader and take care of his needs. As his fame spread, some grew jealous of him. But his popularity only increased. He touched the lives of young and old alike, and brought joy and laughter to the downhearted. Many hailed him as a king. Toward the end of his short life, he suffered quite a bit. Some who followed him fell away and turned to others. He died alone. Those closest to him where left discouraged and confused. They never expected his life to end that way. Soon after his death, there were rumors that he didn’t really die. His followers spread the news all around. “He lives!” they said. “He is not dead!” Some claimed they actually saw him. Even today, many believe he is still alive. By now you’ve probably figured out who this great man was.

His name was Elvis Presley.

Funny how we can play with words, isn’t it? We use words to describe a certain reality. But the same words can turn reality on its head. Add different languages to the mix, and communication becomes more interesting. Our girls from Ethiopia use the word “kaka” a lot. Like English, if something is kaka, it’s dirty or yucky. We say, “Don’t touch that trash. It’s kaka!” Imagine if I said the same thing to a Swede. In Sweden, kaka means cake. Or imagine that I go to your house and you say to me, “Leave your shoes on the mats.” I will assume you want me to wipe my feet on the doormats you have by the door. Say the same thing to a Latvian, and see what kind of response you get. In Latvia, “mats” means hair. In Estonia, “mats” refers to a bumkin. Try wiping your shoes on a Latvians head and see what happens.

How do know what words mean? Have you ever thought about it? I can point at this item with onionskin thin pages and tiny print and say it’s a Bible. You all understand what I mean. But how? Some researchers say that words gain their meaning from relationships. To say “good morning” gains meaning from a relationship called a greeting. Each person takes a turn. There is typically an exchange of mutual glances or gestures and there are only a limited number of moves I can make after you say good morning to me. I can say “good morning,” or “how are you.” But you might consider it out of place if you said “good morning” and I responded by screaming or cuffing you in the head. And the words “good morning” don’t really mean anything outside of the act of greeting. If we are having an argument about immigration and I suddenly say, “good morning,” you might be puzzled. Words, then, gain their meaning through cultural understandings of reality.

So, if language portrays different understandings of reality, then how do we know the truth? How can we tell the difference between words that are true and words that are misleading? Truth telling is like playing a very specific game. When we engage in actions like describing, theorizing, or explaining, we follow specific rules that count as a proper description. Imagine a witness in court being sworn in to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. The witness is then asked by a lawyer, “What happened this morning.” The witness is not allowed to just say anything, or to shout and jump up and down and start singing Swing Lo Sweet Chariot. We judge the words by how they function as truth-telling within the rules of the legal justice system.

If we take a word out of its context and place it within another, we call it a metaphor. The world is his oyster. Life is a bowl of cherries. The three-legged stool of social security. We don’t take these words literally, but they still speak truth to us. Consider what happens when disagreements turn into arguments. The experience is unpleasant. Voices are raised. Insults are exchanged. Instead of resolution, there is hatred. These outcomes can be tracked back to the metaphors we use to talk about argument. We says things like:
· Your claims are indefensible.
· I attacked every weak point in his argument.
· Her criticisms were right on target.
· He demolished her case.
· I’ve never won an argument with her.
· He shot down all my opinions.
In each of these statements, arguing is equated with war. Our words speak a certain truth that is appropriate to our culture. Win or lose. Kill or be destroyed. What would happen if we shifted the metaphor? What if we thought about arguing as a dance, or as space exploration? We might think of arguing as navigating towards resolution, or as a pirouette of ideas.

We set up these either/or situations with our words. Something is either true or false. Male or female. Free will or God’s will. Literal or Metaphor. All or Nothing. We often fail, however, to ask the deeper question: What kinds of people, institutions, laws, or faiths are favored when we speak in one set of terms as opposed to another? What ways of life are highlighted, and what ways of life are suppressed or destroyed?

In today’s reading, Peter makes a similar mistake. Peter gets an A on the first question of his test from Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed. The problem is that Peter is a victim of all-or-nothing thinking. Since Jesus is God's Messiah, God’s anointed savior, Peter assumes that Jesus is going to bring down Rome and marshal in the political salvation of Israel. Dying on a cross does not fit into that picture.

Jesus then uses a metaphor. He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” Let’s not be so hard on Peter. When he calls Jesus the Messiah, he speaks truth. He follows the rules of his time and culture about who the Messiah is and what he will do. He doesn’t understand that Jesus the Messiah works in opposition to the prevailing values, assumptions, and goals of the culture. Impetuous Peter is quick to blurt out that Jesus is the Messiah. It’s a good first step, but Jesus changes the rules of the game. This Messiah will suffer, and be killed, and rise on the third day. Peter thinks about God with the metaphor of power. Jesus thinks of the Messiah through the metaphor of a suffering servant. And all who come after Jesus must also take up crosses instead of weapons of power, and follow the suffering Messiah in order to find their lives.

What would you say to Jesus if he asked you the questions he asked Peter. “Who do you say I am?” Let’s think about some of the metaphors we use in our culture. For some people, God is the resident policeman, ready to pounce on you every time you do something wrong. As an old George Jones song says, “God’s gonna get’cha for that. There’s no place to run and hide, ‘cuz he knows where you’re at.”

Some people compare God to a wise old grandparent who is revered but hardly aware of the complexities and problems of life today. Author David Sedaris writes about his experience with his great grandmother – an old-school Greek Orthodox women dressed in black, burning incense, and referred to as YaYa. YaYa’s health fails, so the family reluctantly moves her into the family home. Sedaris writes:
My brother and I came to view our YaYa as a primitive version of an ATM machine. She was always good for a dollar or two, and because we were boys, all we had to do was open her car door or inform her the incense had just set fire to one of he embroidered cushions. I saw her as a benign ghost, silent and invisible until you needed a little spending money. One could always change the channel while YaYa was watching TV there was no need to ever ask. She could go from the Sate of the Union Address to a Bullwinkle cartoon without ever noticing the difference. You might sit with her in the living room, but never were you forced to get her snacks or acknowledge her in any way.
This is who God is for many people: silent and invisible but always present. Out of touch, slightly generous with a handout, but otherwise harmless and easy to ignore.

In church, we often call God Father. It is a metaphor for understanding some attributes of God. For some, this is a comforting image. For those who had bad relationships with their fathers, it’s a harder metaphor to grasp. Some people think of God as mother. But there we go again, falling into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking – coupling words together in pairings in which one has to be better than the other.

Maybe your idea God is the sentimental, meek-and-mild one who helplessly loves everyone. Some people picture a God who always lets them down. For others there is no God at all. How about you? What do you believe?


The islands around Indonesia are the most beautiful in the world – crystalline tropical water, beautiful reefs with fish colored in every hue of the rainbow, powerful waves and tranquil bays. Tourists, surfers, and scuba divers from around the world have discovered these hidden jewels and pay lots of money to enjoy this unspoiled aquatic playground. But many of the locals won’t swim. Neither will they surf, wade, bathe, or do anything else that places their bodies near the ocean. For some, the fear of the water is so powerful that, even though they are surrounded by water and must sail in fishing boats to earn a living, many of the islanders have not learned how to swim. Why do they deny themselves the pleasure of exploring the natural wonders all around them? Because a long time ago, someone told them that the ocean was full of demons and that swimming in it would bring harm to them and their families. Many Indonesian islanders still believe it.

Just as these people miss the joy of frolicking in the surf, so there are people today who miss out on the great joy of knowing God. They believe that God is a cosmic killjoy who wants to take away their fun and make their lives dull, boring and utterly miserable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But our words, the words that have become culturally acceptable ways for relating to God, sometimes fail us.

God is bigger than our perceptions. When we look inside of ourselves to try to understand God, we say, “God, you must only exist in the ways that I see, or hear, or touch, or feel you. I only know you through MY form of worship, MY style of prayer. MY views are the only correct ways to understand you.” The God-of-my-knowledge is not really God at all. I often hear people say that we put God in a box. We put boundaries around God and only allow God to respond in predictable ways. But I think it’s the other way around. We put ourselves in a box, closing out ears when the God of the universe speaks our name, closing our eyes surprises acts, numbing our senses to God’s all-embracing love.

We glimpse more of the true character of God when we focus on following Jesus, the suffering Christ. When we focus on yielding our lives to Christ, we discover one who shakes loose all the incomplete images of God we have cherished. Through Christ we can begin to understand that God is not impersonal and indifferent, but a living, personal being who is active and interested in creation at all times. God is not weak, ineffective, or petty, like our own relationships can sometimes be. God relates to us, and in the relationship, we discover truth. God shows gentleness, tenderness, sympathy, patience, and compassion. And God is overwhelmingly majestic in greatness.

Who do you say Jesus is? And what does Jesus tell you about God? Is he completely human or completely divine? Savior or moral teacher? Judge or friend? Son of God or son of man? Historical figure or mythological character? All or nothing? How about this for an answer: For once, let’s just keep quiet. Instead of the insistence of our words, let’s take some time to listen to what God has to say. We might just see the tiny God of our words evaporate, and we’ll be left in the presence of a mystery we will never fathom or control. We might even sense the loving and broken hearted at the center of things. We might even hear the call to pick up our crosses and follow. We might even encounter Jesus.

Invitation to Social Constructionism by Kenneth Gergen
Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips
Naked by David Sedaris

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