February 25, 2024- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


February 25, 2024                                        Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

Mark 8:31-38; Annual Meeting                    The Federated Church, UCC


     Four years ago, during the Super Bowl, a car manufacturer advertised a new feature on one of its cars: the car could park itself with just a click of the remote. The ad was memorable for this New Englander, though, because it featured John Krasinski, Chris Evans, and Rachel Dratch, along with Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz, Big Papi—“your bigness” in the ad—doing their thickest Boston accents to tout the car’s new feature: “Smaht pahk.” It was the talk of that year’s Super Bowl ads.


     This year, an ad with an entirely different emphasis has received the lion’s share of the post-Super Bowl reaction. Taking off from a scene in Jesus’ ministry, and seeking to highlight what it is that makes Jesus uniquely holy, it was an ad sponsored by the group “He gets us.” In the ad, people we tend to think of as at odds with each other are washing each other’s feet: a guy who works on an oil rig and a creation care protester; a police officer and a young Black man; a young daughter and her drug-addled mother; a stereotypical white middle-American woman and an immigrant woman of color just embarking in this country. Just as Jesus washed the feet of everyone, the ad implies, irrespective of their beliefs or their moral standing, so ought we to do the same.


     The ad created a stir because numerous people objected to the apparent premise of the ad. It seemed to these critics that the ad gave short shrift to the moral compass that they perceive to be at the heart of Christian life. Contrary to the spirit of the ad, the conviction of these critics is that not anything goes: some things are right and some things are wrong, they say, and we have to stand up for what’s right. The premise of the ad takes a different tack, though, which is that the work Jesus gives us to do is not to judge and correct each other; it’s not to keep each other in line; it’s not to convince each other of what we might think of as the “right” way to believe or to act. No, the work Jesus gives us to do is simply to serve each other. It’s metaphorically, and perhaps literally, to wash each other’s feet. It’s to honor each other across every line that divides us. While the ad is certainly not perfect, and is sponsored by some people with whom we might disagree strongly on any number of subjects, and while it was expensive enough that we could appropriately wonder why the money wasn’t spent to make a difference in the lives of some people in need, I nevertheless found the ad compelling. Tempted as we are to judge each other and to rule out those who are not like us, a disciple of Jesus refuses to rule people out and focuses instead on caring for people of every persuasion and belief system and orientation. No exceptions. Our love is not to be parceled out only to those of whom we approve, or to the members of our tribe, or to what we see as the in-group. That love is instead to be liberally shared, across every boundary, with everyone. Everyone.


     The Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel reading is very much of a piece with the “He gets us” ad and its images of foot-washing. This is a Jesus who can make us squirm in our seats. After telling the disciples that he’s going to be put to death for who he is, he tells them something about what they’re to be, as well. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). And when Peter “grab[s] him in protest,” Jesus rakes Peter over the coals for having “no idea how God works” (8:32-33, The Message). Peter is evidently so far off from the way God works that Jesus has to set him straight. Peter has set his “mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33, NRSV).


     We hear these words today in the context of a tense time in the life of Federated Church. A proposal by the Church Council to sell our Family Life Center has generated considerable discussion and not a little heat. And we come to our annual meeting on this charged day seeking some sort of resolution on the issue.


     My part in this whole matter is to be your pastor. So that you know something about me and my role in this, I want to say that this is the congregation’s decision, and that I am here, not to take a public stand on the issue at hand, but, as your pastor, to love the people of this church, and the church itself, with as much grace and affection as I am given to share. I have thought and prayed about this extensively, and have consulted colleagues and mentors. Their unanimous view corresponds with my own deep sense that the pastor’s role is to accompany the church in its discernment and to love this heady mix of children of God no matter what the result of the voting should be.


     That said, I want to make some general observations as we seek to be true to the words Jesus has put before us today. These are things you and I know. And perhaps we all need something of a reminder today. And what I feel called to say first is this: it’s a good thing to care about the church and its finances and its properties. The passion exhibited in the current discussion is a sign of people’s affection for this place and their care for its future. Let’s celebrate such energetic engagement on an issue about which we care.


     Related to that is the conviction that when we talk about money and property, it is indeed something intricately wrapped up in God. Sometimes people say or imply that a concern with money and things is somehow beneath the purview of God. Far from it. The subject Jesus talked about most after his focus on the Dominion of God was money. Talk about money and things is talk about where God’s priorities can be put into action. No matter which side of the current issue you’re on, we’re talking about money and tangible things. It’s unavoidable. And that’s an appropriate and faithful subject for us to discuss.


     At the same time—and here is one of the great paradoxes of life—it seems vital also to say that the matter before us is not finally a matter of ultimate concern. It’s a matter of proximate and relative concern. Life and death: that’s ultimate. Whether we trust God’s undying faithfulness: that’s ultimate. Whether we live and die for a holy mission that transforms the world: that’s ultimate. Let’s not confuse what’s ultimate with what’s transient and relative. And because of that, there’s a corollary worth paying attention to: our Buddhist friends would remind us to let go and not to get too caught up in the results we crave.


     The truth of the matter is that today’s vote can go either way, and all of what truly matters in life will still be available to us tomorrow. Faith and hope and love will still be on the table grounding us. We will still have a dynamic faith community with a deeply compelling mission. No matter which way the vote goes, and not unlike if all our properties burned to the ground, tomorrow we will still be part of this special community of God’s people. You and I will still be church together, with a mission to care for each other and this world into which we are privileged to have been born. We dare never forget that church isn’t its buildings or its money or its property. It’s the people. So yes, this issue matters. And no, it is not the core of faith.


     The deep theological and spiritual truth is that our hope is not in any earthly circumstance. If we have hope only because things go well for us—because it’s a sunny day or our team won or the stock market has soared or we survived a threatening health scare or we kept a property or sold a property—then we’ve missed something crucial. Hope that depends on a particular result is not really hope. Hope and faith are about a God who is present with us no matter our earthly circumstances. Hope and faith, those pillars of life in God, are not conditioned on things going well or poorly. They are not even conditioned on whether we live or whether we die. At the heart of Christian life is a profound trust in the God who makes possible each charged moment of life and undergirds every instant with an undying affection, no matter the apparent success or failure of the moment.


     And then there’s this: love is hard. That’s the whole point of today’s biblical story. Jesus has essentially said that he’s going to be put to death because of his devotion to love. Peter doesn’t want to hear it and tries to correct Jesus. But it’s true. Love is so often searingly painful. Every earthly love of ours has its share of disagreement and disappointment. And every love will end with either rupture or death.


     You may have noticed, as have I, that love seems to be at something of a premium at Federated lately. So let’s address that elephant. Love isn’t simply butterflies and roses. It’s not something we’re to offer just to the people we like. Love asks something of us. It may go against every grain in our body. It may revolt us. And yet that’s at the heart of who Jesus is, and it’s at the heart of the life that Jesus beckons us into. We’re called to be disciples, or followers. And discipleship is not easy. In truth, it can sometimes seem overwhelmingly demanding.


     I’m guessing that we’re all nudged to take stock of how we’ve been behaving on this matter. If we have made our participation at Federated and our happiness here contingent on things going the way we design them, then we’re not really here to love each other; we’re here to get our way. If any of us here have stopped talking to people who feel very differently from us on this issue, then love has been missing. If we have intended to reduce our pledge or eliminate it entirely if the vote doesn’t go as we’d like it to, then love has been vanquished. If we find ourselves questioning the character and integrity of those who stand on the opposite side of the divide, then love has left the building. If we find ourselves impugning the faith and faithfulness of those who do not share our views, then love has been absent. If we have done any of those things, and are continuing to do those things, then we have let Jesus down and forfeited a sense of this being a community of faith. We have let love wither.


     Love is hard. It can be challenging in the best of circumstances. And in this moment of Federated’s life, the love of which Jesus speaks asks a great deal of us. If we’re sitting here smugly thinking none of this has anything to do with us, or we’re going through the mental gymnastics of trying to justify our tactics, then my guess is that Jesus is perching on our shoulders at this very moment reminding us that those are human things, and urging us to set our minds instead on divine things and to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. There is no easy road to discipleship, and all of us fall short.


     All of us, though, are invited to put aside our lesser instincts—instincts that we all have—and instead to live into the vision Jesus has for us. We are invited to approach someone with whom we rabidly disagree on this matter and to ask how their children are, or to mention something for which we’re grateful, or to remind each other of a lilting memory we both share. We’re beckoned to remember that, at precisely such a time as this, just when we’re feeling most divided, that that’s the time to redouble our pledging and our giving, because this is the very place we can have difficult conversations, and know that beneath those apparent divisions, we are one. And that beneath all that, God loves the very person with whom I’m struggling. Division isn’t the time to cut our giving. It’s the time to enhance it, precisely because we are bigger than anything that apparently divides us. Beneath that divide, we are one in the Spirit, we are one in holy God. To put our minds on divine things is to remember that all that threatens to undo us—those “human things”—are less than the God who showers all of us with light and love.


     It may be fair to say we’re in something of a wilderness moment here at Federated. And what people of God do when they’re in the wilderness is they trust, and they love. They—we—trust that no matter what happens in any given situation, we are held tenderly by the God who never lets us go. God is accompanying us on this journey. And difficult as it may sometimes seem, it is also not unlike countless journeys of faith throughout the eons. This is a challenging time. But it’s also a holy time. Because God travels with us.


     And just as God cares for us through it all, God also puts before us again and again the mandate to take up the mantle of God, who will lead us to find a way out of no way. And we find that way as we do the difficult and at the same time unbelievably rewarding work of loving each other even when it may seem too much to ask.


     Near the beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, when Abraham and Sarah set off on their journey to the land God promises them, the succinct biblical take on the moment is that they are “blessed to be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). This is our role, too. We’re bid this day, as we wend our way through the current challenging chapter of our life together, to take stock of how we have been blessed and to reflect on how we might be blessings to each other. We have been asked by the One who calls us by name to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and to follow Jesus. We have been beckoned to love each other even when it’s difficult. We know in our bones that this is our calling. Let’s live it with energy and faith and grace. Let’s wash each other’s feet and serve each other, just as Christ has done for us. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.