Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 12, 2021
Proper 19, Year B
To watch today’s service, click here.
(the sermon begins at the 12 minute mark)
Would you hire Jesus to pastor our church?
Take a moment and think about it. Like, really think about it.
Would you hire Jesus to pastor our church?
I know how much you all love this church. I know a little less about how much you all love Jesus, because that’s personal, and I’m not about to get up in anybody’s business. But given the fact that you’re here I’m assuming you love Jesus on some level. Right? Right? Let me see those jazz hands.Yeah. We love our church and we love Jesus.
But after what you just heard, do you love him so much that you’d put him in charge around here? With Todd leaving we do potentially have an opening… and it got me thinking… would I hire Jesus to pastor our church? Would I want Jesus as my co-pastor?
No, right? I mean, we’d obviously have to let the Messiah be the senior pastor.
Or would we?
I can’t believe I’m saying this, out loud and on the youtubes. This is incredibly stupid of me. Honest but stupid.
I’m not sure I would hire Jesus to pastor our church. If it came to a vote, I’d probably abstain. Because if there is one thing I have wanted for this church since the day I arrived, it is a future, and letting Jesus take the lead would not guarantee that.
I, on the other hand, always thought that I could.
The Church (with a big C) has been dying here in our country for as long as I can remember. I was ordained in June of 2001 – twenty years ago – and since then church membership has declined precipitously. I’m trusting there is no direct correlation, but that doesn’t mean the reality hasn’t been disheartening.
Membership in a house of worship (so we’re not just talking churches, we’re also talking synagogues, temples, mosques) has dropped from 70% of the population in 1999 to 47% now. In 2021 membership in a religious community fell below 50% for the first time since Gallup began tracking participation back in the 1930’s.
You look at the graph and it hovers around 70% for 70 years (boop de doopty, doopty doop) and then just craters (bbbbddddllllllll) from the turn of the century till now.
And yet I have always believed that with enough faith, grit, and hard work, any church I was pastoring was going to buck that trend.
I realize that there is a fine line between faith and hubris, and I have walked that line every day since I entered the ministry. I have attended countless workshops, conventions, retreats, and classes to learn the best practices for church growth. Thanks to “Common Ground,” I have even led some.
I have read every book I could get my hands on, books with titles like: “Searching for Sunday,” “Liberating Hope,” “Fishing in a Shallow Sea,” “Church Cracked Open,” “Church for the Rest of Us,” “Future Church,” “Real Good Church,” “Simple Church,” “Weird Church,” “Leaving Church,” “I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church.”
That last one wasn’t all that helpful, but I loved the title and the picture of the pastor on the cover, his chest puffed out and his arms crossed like superman. If that book had come with a free poster I would have hung that poster on my wall because that has been my mantra since day 1: I refuse to lead a dying church.
It’s true. I have.
I have been working hard, defying the odds, and playing to win this whole time, because that’s how I’m wired. That’s how I roll. Just like Peter, I have my mind set on human things, like survival. I love the church and I want it to live. I love this church and I want it to thrive. I don’t want to lose it to save it, and if I were to make a move in that direction, honestly it would really only be to save it in the end, not lose it entirely; a gambit rather than a true sacrifice.
Which is one of many reasons that following Jesus can be so infuriatingly hard for me, because Jesus…as you may have noticed… was playing to lose.
He says as much in our reading for today. He tells the 12 straight out that he plans to suffer, be rejected by his own people, and die on a Roman cross as an enemy of the state.
Not the glorious ending any of them were hoping for.
He then calls together a crowd and invites them to hop the express with him straight from Galilee to Golgotha:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves … take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:34-36).
Jesus doesn’t deny that he is the messiah, the long awaited King of Israel any more than he denies our desire for a good long life, but in those two verses Jesus turns the whole idea of what such things mean on their head, and it’s hard to know what to do with that. It was as hard then and it is now. But let’s look at “then” first and then we’ll consider what Jesus words might mean for us in the present.
Back then, Peter, like the rest of the disciples, was hoping for a king who would unite their people and conquer Rome. He wanted to see his people on top with Jesus in charge, not just because he wanted to win, but because he truly believed that Jesus would be a great king.
Sure there was bound to be some bloodshed on the way to the throne, but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Right? And with Jesus in charge all would eventually be well. If anyone could rule with wisdom and might, justice and mercy, it would be Jesus. So Peter is ready and raring to go.
But Jesus knows that story all too well. We all do. And it’s a story that never ends. Jesus has no interest in leading a violent revolution, because he knows that the ways of the world cannot save the world. Doing more of the same will not bring about different results. All violence ever begets is more violence.
And so Jesus comes instead to establish a new kind of kingdom: one built by love not force, a kingdom upheld by forgiveness rather than fear. Not a kingdom imposed from the top down, but a whole new way of being that bubbles up from below as those who follow in his way strive to do the next right thing no matter how counterintuitive it might seem.
Loving our enemies, sharing all that we have with anyone who asks, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile: Jesus was calling for a truly holy revolution that would gain ground bit by bit as his followers did the next right thing no matter what the cost.
Jesus did not come to take power, he came to give it away. He did not come to dominate but to liberate. He did not come to win the game, but to change it… entirely.
“Jesus,” according to the good people at SALT, “is a king who subverts conventional kingship, a deliverer who means to save us (not from our enemies, but) from our self centered obsession with our own deliverance” (https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/9/11/crossroads-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-seventeenth-week-after-pentecost).
I’m going to say that again because it is so important: “Jesus is a king who subverts conventional kingship, a deliverer who means to save us (not from our enemies, but) from our self centered obsession with our own deliverance”
And friends, I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t quite know what to do with that. I don’t know if it’s brilliant or insane, counterintuitive or just plain counter productive. All I know is that it makes my brain hurt…my brain and my heart.
Jesus was playing to lose and that kills me, just like it killed Peter. Jesus knew how threatening his vision would be to those in power and how lethally they would respond, and yet he kept at it anyway. Jesus was playing to lose and that confounds me because just like Peter, I love Jesus. I believe in Jesus.
At the end of the day, I’m not in this to win just for the sake of winning anymore than Peter was. I don’t want the church to survive simply for the sake of the church – because I like hanging out in old buildings with like minded people listening to pipe organs – as great as the organ is.
I want the church to survive for the sake of Jesus, so people will still hear the radical, upending, world changing gospel of Jesus. Like Peter, I want to save Jesus because I believe that he has what the world needs. We may have a different sense of precisely what that is, but Peter and I both want to see Jesus come out on top.
So when Peter rebukes Jesus, I understand why.
And when Jesus rebukes Peter, I know I need to listen.
I don’t know how to resolve the tension between the two of them. And honestly, I’m not sure they did either. I mean Jesus chastised Peter for having his mind set on human things – things like power, wealth, security, longevity – but in the end, Jesus also chose Peter to build the Church.
And thanks to the power, wealth, security and longevity of the institution Peter built, you and I, some 2000 years later, are still talking about Jesus the better to understand him and follow in his way.
I know Peter needed Jesus. None of this means anything without Jesus. But I think you can also make the case that Jesus needed Peter, because none of us would be here without him.
So what are we to make of the fact that the Church they both set into motion is dying all around us. In light of Jesus’ words, what does it look like to be faithful in this moment?
I’m not sure.
I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to save the church and I’m still committed to it and believe in the worth of it. I think we need the church to preserve and pass on the stories, the wisdom, and the traditions of our faith.
I think people need sacred spaces, maybe now more than ever, holy places where the community can gather to celebrate and grieve, learn how to make meaning and learn how to make a difference. I think people need places where they can come and fall in love with Jesus.
The truth is, I could talk all day about why I believe the church is worth saving. But I also believe that in order for it to truly live, those of us who love it have to keep learning how to let it go.
Institutions, by their very nature, have a way of becoming ends in and of themselves and we need to resist that at every turn.
Our job is to hold all of this as lightly as we can such that we never lose sight of our mission; the work of teaching and encouraging people to love and forgive, pray and serve, witness and work to make God’s love and justice as real here on earth as it is in heaven.
That’s our true calling. That’s where life is found. And if we sometimes neglect the institution for the sake of our souls, that will always be a risk worth taking.
And yet I understand, completely, why we cling the way that we do to our traditions and our buildings and our endowments. We cling because we want to keep church as we know it and love it safe for the future. I understand. Truly I do.
But I also know it’s time to accept that when it comes to the church, wealth and power offer no guarantee. I can point to plenty of churches who ran out of people long before they ran out of money. As Todd likes to say, there’s such a thing as being too careful.
The hard truth, the truth that Jesus refuses to hide, is that spending all we have on ministry and mission, daring to do church in new ways, following the Spirit wherever She leads, offers no guarantee either.
Everything dies. The question is not how do we keep this going forever. The question, the only question is whether we will die bearing fruit as we live into our mission or wither on the vine, full of wealth but bereft of life?
Friends, I can’t guarantee us a future any more than Jesus can. All I can offer is my willingness to stand with you and do the next right thing. Somewhere along the line I began to understand that we’re not called to be successful, we’re called to be faithful. To be ready to lose life as we were taught it ought to be lived in order to find the life that is truly worth living.
I don’t always know how to do that and I know you don’t either. Like Peter, we’re only human. But First Churches, I’m hoping that with Jesus’ help we can keep figuring it out together. Amen