Following Jesus

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
September 13, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

“Following Jesus”

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Peter. Oh, Peter. These are tough truths you had to deal with. You hit the nail right on the head when you told Jesus that he was the Messiah—the savior, the anointed one—and not just a reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another one of the prophets, as others were saying. You got it! You saw that this man is an original—the incarnation of God; not just a remake, a remix, a re-incarnation of someone else. This man is the genuine article. God broke the mold with this one. Threw away the key. Not to be improved upon. Peter, you got that eternal truth!

I guess it’s not too surprising then, when you couldn’t grasp that Jesus was going to die. You scolded him when he said that. Why? Maybe it didn’t fit your plans—your dreams of glory—your hopes for a military victory over the Roman oppressors? Maybe even though you said he was the Messiah—someone who would bring eternal victory—you still wanted to feel the surge of power that comes with revenge in this world? You scolded him when he told you he wasn’t going to do things your way. Oh, Peter.

Did you forget what Jesus taught? It wasn’t about military victory. It was about taking the little child upon your knee, welcoming the weak, the poor, the sick, the stranger, the refugee… Did you forget that Jesus said, in Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Did you forget that Jesus said this is what separated the sheep from the goats?

Jesus was a stranger. In the deepest sense of the word, Jesus was a stranger. He started his life as a refugee. Matthew 2:13 tells us that after the three wise men left Bethlehem, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to take his family to Egypt—to Egypt, another country—to flee the wrath of Herod who was looking for Jesus to kill him. They stayed in Egypt until Herod died, and even when they returned to the land of their people, the Hebrew people, they couldn’t go back to Bethlehem because Herod’s son was ruling there, and Jesus would still be in danger. To flee the wrath of the ruling class—to save their very lives—they all had to remain refugees. They went to Nazareth in Galilee—still refugees. Still displaced. Is it any wonder that Jesus had a heart for the outcast?

Peter, you must have forgotten that, when you became angry with Jesus for saying he wasn’t going to avenge your people. You were striving to get to the top, and Jesus’ heart was with those who were at the bottom. You were going in opposite directions, and Jesus sensed that you were embarrassed by his lack of drive for power. That must be why he said, “If you’re ashamed of me—a refugee, a stranger, one of the powerless ones—then I’ll be ashamed of you.” …

Hearts around the world were broken on September 3rd when a photo was released of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old refugee boy from Syria, washed up on a Turkish beach after the boat he and 22 others were in capsized on the Aegean Sea. That photo took a situation that was halfway around the world and brought it right into our homes. How many here do not know a precious, sweet 3-year-old child? How many do not remember the delightful, funny things our sons, our daughters, our grandchildren (Happy Grandparents’ Day, by the way) used to say when they were three years old? … How many here could not look for very long at that photo?

After the wise men returned to Jerusalem and refused to tell Herod whether or where they had found Jesus, Herod was so angry that he sent out an order to have all Jewish boys age two and younger killed. And the edict was carried out. Matthew says it was as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold it: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” …

That is the kind of anguish the parents who pull up stakes and board a tiny boat to float to anywhere but home are trying to avoid. That is why they become refugees. To save their children. To save themselves.

Under both international and U.S. law, a refugee is an individual who has fled his or her country of origin because of a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group.[1] And since the war in Syria started in 2011, more than 4 million Syrians have crossed—or attempted to cross—international borders as refugees. Another 7.5 million have not been fortunate enough to leave the country but are internally displaced from their homes. These numbers combined represent more than half of the population of Syria. There are now more refugees and displaced persons in the world than at any time in history.[2] That is staggering. Can you imagine how devastating (socially, financially, medically) it would be to have half of the population of the U.S.—or even of Colorado—displaced? It is beyond imagining.

… It makes our troubles seem a bit trivial, doesn’t it? …

It tugs at our heartstrings, but we don’t know what to do. We want to “follow Jesus” in his care for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the displaced, but we have so many questions.

For example: What is the difference between a refugee and an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant? I know I’m touching a nerve here. I’ve seen the sign someone not a mile from here has painted on his fence supporting a candidate whose comments about immigrants from Mexico have offended many. But I hope I can help all of us move toward a new understanding on this issue. World Relief, a national voluntary agency that partners in refugee resettlement in the U.S., has initiated a campaign called We Welcome Refugees, and they are calling upon churches, today, September 13, 2015, to unite in the effort to help relieve the refugee crisis. This is not a political effort. This is humanitarian. This is Jesus. This is goodness. This is God.

Granted, we can’t open our borders to just anyone. No person gains refugee status without a thorough screening process conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the FBI, to ensure that the individual does not pose a safety or health risk to this country. World Relief says, “In the United States, anyone admitted as a refugee has legal status from the moment they enter. While these individuals could still face deportation if they committed serious crimes or otherwise violated U.S. immigration law, in the vast majority of cases they become lawful permanent residents and then become eligible after five years to apply for U.S. citizenship. … There are also processes to request asylum. Asylum-seekers arrive in a country either on a temporary visa or unlawfully, but claim that they meet the legal definition of a refugee described above. … If approved, in most situations they will be allowed to stay.”

In other words, we are talking about law-abiding individuals here. People who are in compliance with—or who are in the process of compliance with—the laws of the country in which they are seeking safety. And God would have us open our doors to these people.

The Hebrew word ger, translated into English as foreigner, sojourner, stranger, or immigrant—appears 92 times in the Old Testament, usually in the context of God commanding the people to love and welcome those who came as foreigners into their land. This is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament! But not just the Old; the New Testament, too, repeatedly commands us to “practice hospitality,” which literally means to practice loving strangers—with the hint that, by doing so, we may be welcoming angels. Welcoming refugees is a tangible way to love our neighbors, part of Jesus’ Great Commandment (love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself) and to practice the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).

What would have happened if Egypt had closed its doors to Joseph, Mary and Jesus? What would have happened if Galilee had stopped them from settling in the town of Nazareth? Thank God they didn’t. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Look into the eyes of little Aylan Kurdi, and see the eyes of Jesus. Look into the eyes of millions of others fleeing the homes they love, seeking safety in a strange land, and see the eyes of Jesus. And may they look into our eyes, and see the YES of Jesus. (I realize I didn’t stay as close to the text in this sermon as I usually do, but this issue of the refugee crisis has been calling to my spirit this week. And it’s at the heart of Jesus’ passion, too.)

I have prepared a handout that offers some suggestions of ways you might help in the Syrian refugee crisis, if you feel God tugging at your heart. Some of these are UCC-related; some are not. There is something every one of us can do. Let us not forget that Jesus was once a refugee. Let us take up our cross and follow him. Let us say yes to them. Amen.

What You Can Do to Help with the Syrian Refugee Crisis

September 13, 2015

UCC-Related:

  • Watch the Global Ministries web site for information on relief and advocacy efforts in the Middle East and Europe: globalministries.org/mee.
  • Also watch the UCC’s Middle East Initiative for opportunities to give financially to support Global Ministries’ refugee work: globalministries.org/mei_giving_opportunities; and to help with their advocacy efforts: www.globalministries.org/mei_advocacy_opportunities.
  • To financially contribute to these efforts without going online, you may mail your check (with “Refugees” in the memo line) to UCC Global Ministries, 700 Prospect Ave. E., Cleveland OH 44115; or call (216) 736-2100.

Ecumenical:

  • Go to World Relief’s “We Welcome Refugees” website at wewelcomerefugees.com for updates on ways you can help.
  • Talk with others about what they’ve seen on that website—suggestions for partnering church to church; using your voice in advocacy efforts; supporting refugee rescue work; supporting a refugee family for 3-6 months; welcoming refugees in our community; and last but definitely not least, prayer.
  • Write to World Relief at 7 East Baltimore Street, Baltimore MD 21202, or call (443) 451-1900 to give, or for more information on what you can do.

[1] From wewelcomerefugees.com

[2] Email from James Moos, UCC Global Ministries, September 7, 2015