Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon, "Serve Jesus," Mark 10:35-45

Sermon 10/28/18
Mark 10:35-45

Serve Jesus

Today, we’re concluding our series looking at the components that will make up our intentional discipleship plan, the method, the approach we’re going to use as we try to focus on our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our hope is that we will help folks to Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus as we journey on the path of discipleship. We talked about how we want to work to bring folks into Jesus’ presence to meet him, and how we will do the hard work of choosing to follow Jesus, even when there are sometimes many paths we’re tempted to choose. Today, we think about how we continue to grow in the life of faith. As followers of Jesus, we commit to serving him, and the best way we’ve found to serve Jesus is in serving one another, serving our neighbor. Jesus always links together loving God and loving neighbor. We demonstrate our love of God and our service to Christ when we work to serve one another. The original incarnation of our intentional discipleship statement was Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, Serve (with) Jesus. The with in parenthesis was mean to indicate both that we are meant to serve Jesus and that, since the heart of Jesus’ work was serving others, we serve others with Jesus. It was a little too confusing and too disruptive of the flow of the statement to keep it, but the sense of it is still here. For me, we best embody Jesus’ call to be servants when we follow his example. Jesus served people in face-to-face, hands-on encounters. He built relationships with people. He listened to stories of pain and hurt and suffering. He went where he would meet all kinds of people. He gave his time and attention. He let people know that they were of worth, that they were loved, that they belonged to God and to the community. When we think about how we want to serve as a congregation, when we think about the best ministries and missions for us to engage with, the more they reflect the patterns of Jesus, the better we will embody the servant heart of Jesus.
Jesus talks about being a servant in our text today from the Gospel of Mark. James and John, brothers and part of the Twelve, approach Jesus with an extremely bold request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” It’s almost like they think they can get Jesus to say yes and then tell him what they want. But Jesus asks them to say what it is they want. And they go bold: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words, give us the very best places there are, for all of eternity. Wow! I am just bowled over by them. Would you dare ask for such a thing?
Jesus has just been talking, as you remember, about how hard it is to enter the reign of God when we’ve got things like our wealth and our stuff and our love of accumulating weighing us down - harder than a camel going through the eye of a needle, in fact. Jesus says that it isn’t even possible for humans to do on their own merit. Only for God, with God, is it possible. In the short handful of verses between that passage and our text for today, later in Mark 10, Jesus speaks about how the first must be last and the last will be first. And then he describes his own eventual crucifixion and death, saying that he will be handed over to the religious authorities who will condemn him, mock him, beat him, flog him, and kill him. He does say that he will rise again after three days. But all in all, the conversations Jesus has been having with the disciples paint a picture of a challenging faith journey that requires our all. It makes me wonder, then, if James and John were even listening when I read about their request.
Jesus tries to tell them that they don’t know what they’re asking. But they insist that they can do it, they can follow where Jesus leads, drink the cup he drinks, be baptized with his baptism, meaning-laden imagery that speaks of the suffering and trials and violent death Jesus will endure. Jesus acknowledges that they will indeed walk the hard road with him. But he still doesn’t have seats of honor up for grabs. That’s not on offer.
When the other ten disciples learn of James and John’s request, they’re furious - whether because they think the request is foolish, or because they wish they’d ask themselves, we’re not told. So Jesus tries to set them straight. Outside of God’s way, Jesus says, when someone is a ruler, the ruler lords power over others. When someone is great, has great status, a role of honor, they act as a tyrant. That is not the way it is among disciples, Jesus says. If a disciple wants to be great, that disciple becomes a servant, not a ruler. If someone wants the best place, that one becomes a slave, not a tyrant. In fact, Jesus says, he himself “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” With that, the conversation ends, no doubt leaving the disciples with a lot to think about.
I think it is easy to dismiss this text, to insist that we don’t have to wrestle with Jesus’ words because we’d never be so silly, so daring, so deluded as to ask for the very best seats at Jesus’ side for eternity like James and John did. We just want a place with Jesus, right? But we don’t need the best place. Any place will do! Really! But anytime I want to dismiss a passage as “not about me” I know to be suspicious that I’m not being very honest with myself.
Some of you might not know this about me, but I can be pretty competitive. Not in every area of life. But I like to win, and I like to excel, and I can get really motivated to push myself if I have someone else in my field of vision that I can challenge myself against. For example, I, like many folks, use a Fitbit. And people often hold these “Workweek Hustle” challenges to see who can take the most steps from Monday-Friday. And I like to win these challenges. When I’m on my game, I will walk to exhaustion if it means I win the challenge, for which the prize is a big fat nothing other than bragging rights. And even when I’m off my game, being part of the competition usually pushes me to walk more steps than I might want to without the extra motivation - because I don’t want to look bad in front of my co-walkers. So, sometimes my competitive streak can serve me well, like when it pushes me to a healthier lifestyle, or years ago when I wanted our team from my first church to fundraise the most money when we participated in the Relay for Life. My competitive nature spurred me and others to be bolder and more consistent in our fundraising aims and our efforts did a lot of good for our community.
Other times though, I’m aware that my competitive nature can be less fun and more harmful to myself and others. When I was in high school, my relationship with my dearest friend was tainted over time by a competitive streak we nurtured between us. We were in everything together, and we seemed to want all the same things. We competed over who got the better scores on our piano and voice solos at NYSSMA, who got the better parts in the school play, who got better grades in our classes, who could gain the affection of the boys we liked - always the same boy of course, and honestly, even who could walk faster from place to place. Our competition with each other was covered in a sheen of niceness to each other’s faces, and meanwhile the heart of our friendship was crumbling.
Life in the church isn’t always free from that competitive edge either. I try hard to focus on following Jesus and tuning out any other voices, but I will admit that I can get pretty fixated on how I’m stacking up against other pastors. How many people do they have in worship? How many youth are coming to their fellowship group? Yeah, sure, they have a huge budget, but did they pay all of their Ministry Shares to conference this year? I want to be a good pastor, a successful pastor, and sometimes I’m tempted to measure my success by seeing how I stack up against others who are doing this same work.
I imagine, with some examination, you might find areas of your own life, in your own experiences, where you can relate. We can be very driven, sometimes in good ways, but often in ways that harm and hurt, when we’re chasing success. We want to get ahead. We compare ourselves. We become jealous. We want to be better than others, and when we get focused on wanting to be better than, we stop caring for the people who are around us. We want to have more than others so that we’ll know that we are successful, worthy. We try to secure our place, our power, our status. At our worst, our need to grab enough power skews to hate, to greed, to violence, and we see horrific acts occur, like the tragic shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Such hateful actions seem like the sad but natural extension of our fear that there is not enough for all of us.   
When I reflect on my own chasing after success, which I like to pretend I don’t do, that I’m above, James and John’s audacious request of Jesus starts to make a little more sense to me. All the time we struggle with the deep feeling that there is not enough to go around. Our insecurities and fears play up this idea of scarcity in our minds, helped along by messages from our larger culture. If there is not enough, we have to compete for limited resources - of power, of money, of status, of privilege, of rights, of admiration, maybe even of love. David Lose writes, “Are we not also tempted to assume that there is not enough to go around and, like James and John coming to make their request to Jesus apart from their compatriots, view those God has given us to be our companions merely as our competitors?” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/10/pentecost-22-b-gospel-irony/)
James and John believe Jesus is the ultimate source of power, and they want to make sure they have the best share of it they can secure. My friend Sara, who is a United Methodist pastor in Schenectady, had this to say about better understanding James and John: “[James and John] try to seek power within the system as they understand it – and by doing so they display just how much they believe that Jesus is the source of power. They ask to sit at his right and and his left … They lived in an honor-shame society, the ultimate hierarchical system. Honor was a zero sum game. They thought Jesus had it, and they were trying to gain more honor by getting closer to him and acknowledged by him.
“However, because it was a zero sum game, IF two members of the inner circle of 12 gained honor, then it meant the other 10 got moved further away and lost honor. The other disciples seemed to believe as James and John did: that things were scary, that this was a time to try to gain security, that Jesus was the best bet they had, and that Jesus was so honor-filled that the closer they got to him the better they'd do.
“It seems to me that they DID have the faith of a mustard seed, they just didn't have it in the right thing. While the disciples, led by James and John, are vying for honor in a zero sum game that permeated their society, Jesus is talking about an entirely different system. They ask for a favor, and Jesus says, “You don't get it. I'm not the honor-source you think I am. I'm here to upend the system, not to best it. Are you able to pay the price for upending the system with me?”” (https://www.facebook.com/notes/fumc-first-united-methodist-church-of-schenectady-new-york/twisting-expectations-based-on-isaiah-403-5-and-mark-1032-45/1792179214238204/)
Jesus is here to upend our system! He knows that chasing after enough power and status and success so that we don’t feel so scared and unsure of ourselves and our place inevitably leads to our lording our power over others, our becoming tyrants who look down from our places of privilege. That is not the way of Christ. That is not the path he’s taking. That is not the way God has chosen to work in the world, because no one can ever truly win at that game. If you want to compete, Jesus says, if you want to be the best for Jesus, here’s what you do: first place goes to the one who puts themselves last every time. The reward for greatest goes to the one who serves all, puts themselves at the lowest place. And to set the example, Jesus is the servant par excellence, willing to give his own life for others.
Your place with God is already secure - it has been, it will be always. God created you and loves you. No status you can achieve can earn you your place because it is already yours. No power you accrue will add any value to you in God’s eyes because you are already treasured beyond measure. Trusting in how very beloved you already are, all that energy you’ve been spending on striving for success can be turned instead into following Jesus. He’s already saved a place for you, by his side, a servant, pouring out your life for others as he does.
Yesterday, as news of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue unfolded, which followed news of an arrest made of a person sending packages containing bombs to politicians and other prominent figures, my brother Jim posted on facebook that he’d been listening the hip hop group Public Enemy, in particular their song, “Fight the Power,” with my niece Siggy. He told her that they should fight the power with love. Siggy told him in return that swords work better. Jim concluded, “It’s getting harder and harder to argue with that.”  
It is getting hard, isn’t it? But we can recall the words we shared last week - “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Jesus is here, upending our system, reminding us that despite how it seems otherwise, the power of love is always better than the power of the sword, being last is actually better than striving for first, and the greatest leader we know wants us working right next to him, serving like he does, where we’ll find our status as child-of-God to be all we ever needed. Amen.  



Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sermon, "Follow Jesus," Mark 10:17-27

Sermon 10/21/18
Mark 10:17-27


Follow Jesus

We’re continuing to explore today our outline for our intentional discipleship plan. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, how will we go about fulfilling the mission? What’s our plan for doing that here in Gouverneur? We’re going to try, as much as we can, to focus everything we do around these three steps: Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, Serve Jesus. Last week we talked about meeting Jesus, and we asked ourselves what we would do to get someone to Jesus. What would we do to make sure someone had the opportunity to be in the grace-filled, healing, life-changing presence of Jesus? Today, we’re digging deeper into what it means to follow Jesus. Once we’ve met him, once we know who Jesus is, we have to decide what place Jesus will have in our lives. Is he just someone who preaches a good sermon? Someone interesting to listen to? Or is he someone worth following? And if we say we want to follow Jesus, if we say we are Jesus-followers, what does that mean exactly? Lots of people meet Jesus in the scriptures, but not everyone decides to follow him. What about us? What will we decide?
If we, as a congregation, have the intention of helping people become followers of Jesus Christ, how will we help people do that? Answering that question is the next piece of our discipleship plan. Our conversations here have led us to talk about spiritual growth, spiritual formation as one of our main goals. If disciples are students, then disciples need to be continually learning and growing. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, we need to be committed to growing in faith, to maturing in our relationship with God and our commitment to embodying the ways of Jesus in the world. We can’t just say that we’re following Jesus without actually following him, at least not with any authenticity. So, disciples need to commit to growing and maturing in faith.
You know my insistence that we need to be specific. How then, specifically, are we growing in faith? Hopefully, our time together in worship, this time when we look at scripture together and reflect on it during worship is part of the way you grow in faith. But as fabulous of a preacher as I am, I suspect that following Jesus and growing in faith might need to consist of more than these twenty minute messages. My hope, then, is that you will think seriously about what commitment you will make to intentionally growing in your faith in the months ahead. On the “church side” of things, my commitment is to offering a variety of small group studies, trying to offer short-term studies (like the 4 week study we have starting on Sunday nights next week), offering studies at different times for different schedules, offering some training for folks who’d be willing to start new small groups, and connecting you in with opportunities for spiritual growth beyond the local church, like the lay servant classes that folks like Lisle, Don, Hazel, Cadie, and Richard have taken. Small group studies aren’t the only ways you can grow in faith, of course, but journeying with Jesus and other followers of Jesus in such a purposeful way has always been a key part of discipleship, and it seems to be one of the best ways, the most tested and proven ways for people to develop as mature Christians. So, what is your plan? What will you do to grow in your commitment to following Jesus?
I think choosing to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, is the best decision, the most rewarding decision we can make for our lives. But I know it isn’t an easy one - maybe not an easy decision to make, and definitely not easy to do. There’s an expression we use that comes from the sport of high-jumping, where athletes run and try to leap over a bar that gets progressively higher until only one contestant is left. If something is really difficult, if the standard for approval for something is strenuous, if a lot is demanded of someone in order to be considered successful, we might say, “Wow, the bar is set really high” for whatever that is. We might say, for example, that to become an astronaut that actually gets to go into space, the bar is set high, as you must be physically fit and well, knowledgeable, experienced, and generally at your peak in order to be chosen for a space mission. We might say the bar is set low if almost everyone and anyone could qualify something. Like if the Olympics handed out medals for participation, just for trying, or if anyone could go and compete at the Olympics if they wanted.  
I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that the bar of discipleship is set very high. What does God want from us? Everything! How hard is discipleship? Why, it’s so hard that you might say it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for us to really enter into and get this kingdom of God and eternal life stuff Jesus talks about. I think we get tempted sometimes to say that what God asks of us as followers is easy. Sometimes churches try to make discipleship sound easy because we really want people to come and be a part of our community, and we’re afraid if discipleship sounds too hard, they won’t join us, join in. We’d like to start the bar out low, maybe even put it on the floor, so we can all get over without any help. Why can’t the bar be set at a level where we all might make it over? We’re selling ourselves, and them, and Jesus short when we try to make choosing to follow Jesus less significant than it is. I don’t want that really, the bar set low.. And I don’t think we’re going to get that. I don’t think we see that in the scriptures. I don’t think Jesus ever suggests following him is easy, or simple. Instead, I think the bar of discipleship is set very high. So high, in fact, that often, we’re going to fall flat on our faces when we try to get over it. So high, that sometimes we’re like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle when we try to follow Jesus.  
So about that camel. Our scripture text for today comes again from Mark’s gospel, now in the midst of a several scenes of Jesus teaching, sometimes in response to questions, sometimes in response to criticism, sometimes just things he wants to teach the disciples. In today’s reading, we find Jesus ready to set out on a journey. But before he departs, a man runs up to him and kneels and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus discourages the man from calling him good, a label Jesus says is meant for God alone. And then he proceeds to tell the man: “You already know the commandments, right?” The man responds that he has kept them since his youth.”
Jesus looks at the man and loves him, Mark tells us. As much as we feel Jesus’ love shining through his actions, we don’t often hear specifically that Jesus loves someone he interacts with. It should catch our attention. It’s important to note that Jesus loves this man, because the words he says next are so challenging to the man that it might not feel like love to him. Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus loves this man enough to zoom right in on the thing that he knows is holding this man back from following with his whole heart. Jesus loves him enough to encourage him, to challenge him to let go of what he’s made so important in his life: his money, his stuff, his treasure on earth. And Jesus tells him - get rid of that, that other stuff you’re following, and instead, come follow me. The man was great at keeping all the commandments that had to do with how we treat neighbors. But those ones about our relationship with God: About there being just one God, and about putting nothing else before God – it seems Jesus got to the heart of the matter and pinpointed the very thing that would come between this man and God, between this man’s desire to follow Jesus, and his commitment to actually doing it.
When the man hears Jesus’ response, he’s shocked, and he goes away grieving, because of his many possessions. We don’t find out what happens next. Maybe the man is grieving because he knows he won’t be able to give all that stuff up to follow Jesus, and maybe he’s grieving because he knows he’s going to try and he’s already mourning losing all the stuff he’s carefully accumulated. Either way, the call to follow Jesus seems to be marked with grief. Choosing the path of Jesus would mean giving up some other paths.
After the man leaves, Jesus looks at his disciples and comments, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are perplexed. Isn’t wealth a blessing? But Jesus continues, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are astounded, and they turn to each other asking, “Who then can be saved?” If the standards are so high, if entering into the reign of God is so very hard, how can anyone make it in? And Jesus tells them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The bar for following Jesus is set high, and Jesus loves us enough to be demanding, and to zero right in on whatever holds us back from giving our whole hearts to God. Part of following Jesus is about following Jesus, but another part of following Jesus is realizing that there are other things we aren’t following if we are following Jesus. Following Jesus is opting for Jesus rather than many other things that want us to follow them instead. Following Jesus is making a conscious decision to choose Jesus instead of other things, other people, other philosophies we might choose to follow. We live in a very both/and culture. We want this and that. We don’t want to have to choose between things. We have a great fear of missing out, and we don’t like being told that choosing one path means the other path is closed to us. But Jesus tells us we have to make a decision to follow Jesus, and we have to support our decision with our actions. What would you be most disappointed to hear from Jesus as the thing he would tell you to do to be a follower? What would make your heart sink? What would shock you, and cause you turn away grieving, knowing that if Jesus asked that of you, then you’d have to really wrestle before saying Yes? I think there is some grieving in our discipleship no matter what choices we make, just as the rich man found himself grieving at Jesus’s challenging words.
But when we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, our grief always gives way to hope, to joy. Jesus tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle – in other words, impossible by our own human efforts to do. But we can’t forget Jesus’ words of hope, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Following Jesus isn’t easy. He asks us for everything. He asks us for whatever we love most! He asks us to put following God before everything - and I mean everything - else. He asks us to take up a cross. He asks us to go to the end of the line. He asks us to open ourselves to ridicule and scorn. He asks us to let go of the things we’ve been taught to see as treasures, and instead treasure only what God values. He asks us to reject the ways of the world and to choose him and his path first and always. He asks us to give our lives for others, to spend our days working relentlessly to bring ever nearer the reign of God where all are included, where justice reigns and the systems of oppression have tumbled to the ground. The bar is set so high that it’s hard to see from here on the ground. Making it over that bar? Impossible. But for God? Well, for God, all things are possible. And so we pray not that we might be good enough to get over that high bar, but that we might be wise enough, faithful enough, humble enough to let God lift us up. We pray that we might just give up our whole selves, put our whole lives into God’s hands, so that depending on God, we might be raised up with Christ. The only way I know to get a camel through the eye of the needle is God’s way. Up and over that bar set so high. We can’t do it on our own. But God can. With God, we can. Jesus is looking into your heart. And Jesus loves you. And because of that love, Jesus is setting the bar high, and asking you to follow. With God, it is possible for us to say yes. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sermon, "Meet Jesus," Mark 2:1-12

Sermon 10/14/18
Mark 2:1-12

Meet Jesus

Last year, I was compelled by a book that I read as part of our district Pastoral Leadership Development group called Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger - I’ve mentioned it to you before. In it, they talk, among other things, about how in our desperation to try to keep people interested in and connected to our churches, we have so complicated things with events and activities and programs, that we have no clear message for people about how they’re actually supposed to become disciples. The mission of The United Methodist Church, and thus of this particular United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Since it is our mission, our purpose, everything we do should be able to point us to our mission. Activities and programs that are nice or fun but don’t actually help us in the work of making disciples who change the world? Well, they really don’t make sense for us. But if our mission is making world-changing disciples, what is our plan for doing that? Do people who attend this church, who call this church our faith home, know what they should be doing to fulfill the mission? Simple Church suggests that most churches are not very good at this part - having an intentional discipleship plan that simply and clearly communicates to everyone how they might go about living out the mission.
I’ve suggested to you - in our leadership teams, in our newsletter, and you see it now in our bulletin every week - that our intentional discipleship plan could be summed up in three simple parts: Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, and Serve Jesus. Now, just coming up with a memorable slogan does not mean we have a plan. But I’m hoping that if we can capture the vision of disciple-making that helps people to meet Jesus, follow Jesus, and serve Jesus, we can begin to flesh out what the details of that would look like in our congregation. How will this church help folks meet Jesus? What does it look like to become a follower of Jesus and how can our ministries support that happening? What does it mean to live a life of service in the name of Jesus, and what opportunities can we support to help folks to do just that? Over the next three weeks, then, we’ll be looking at each component of our intentional discipleship vision, and digging deeper, exploring together.
Today, we start … at the beginning, with the most basic, and in some ways the most challenging part of our plan: Meet Jesus. Have you met Jesus? Who in our community needs to meet Jesus? How do we help folks who come here to meet Jesus? In what ways do we make it possible for folks to come here to meet Jesus? What would you do to make sure someone else could meet Jesus? To help us think about these questions, we turn to the gospel of Mark.
Our scripture text for today takes place very near the beginning of Mark’s gospel. As I’ve shared with you before, Mark rarely shares things with a lot of details if he can possibly say something in fewer words. The pace of his gospel is practically frantic. So it’s worth noting that Mark’s version of this event - Jesus healing a paralyzed man - is longer than in Matthew and Luke where it also appears. Mark, for once, gives the most details. After a preaching and healing tour through the region of Galilee, Mark says that Jesus has returned to his home in Capernaum. We don’t often think of Jesus at home, but that’s where Mark says Jesus is as this scene unfolds. Once people find out he’s home, they start crowding in at the house to see and hear him. After all, he’s been building a reputation. He can fix people, and he speaks in a new way, with a new kind of authority, about God and the scriptures. They want to meet him. They want to see if what they’ve been hearing is true.
In particular, a group of people seems to want to get their friend to meet Jesus, and they want this to happen very much. We’re not sure how many in the group - but there are at least 4 who are carrying their friend who is paralyzed, presumably hoping that Jesus will be able to heal him. The crowd is so thick, though, that they can’t even get in the door of the house. This, however, does not deter them. They simply take the man to the roof, dig through it, and lower the man down on his mat before Jesus that way. If Jesus is surprised, we don’t hear about it. Instead, he seems to be impressed. Mark tells us “when Jesus saw their faith,” Jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven. Hear that again - on seeing the faith of the friends who brought this man to Jesus, Jesus announces that the man’s sins are forgiven. We aren’t told that forgiveness is what the friends or the man came seeking of Jesus. We’d assume that they were there for physical healing for the man. But what they get is a promise of forgiveness.
The rest of what happens is secondary - at least for our focus today. Some of the scribes - who are also hanging out at Jesus’ house - question in their hearts at how Jesus can possibly say something so presumptuous as “your sins are forgiven.” They consider it blasphemy. Forgiveness of sins is something only God can offer, and they do not believe Jesus to be God. But Jesus, perceiving their inner dialogue, calls them out. “Which is easier?” he wonders. “To forgive sins? Or to just heal this man and tell him to walk? But,” Jesus says, “just so you know that I can forgive sins …” Jesus then commands the man to get up off his mat and walk home. The man does exactly that. And everyone praises and glorifies God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
As we think today about meeting Jesus, I want us to zero in on the extraordinary measures this group of people went to so that the paralyzed man was able to meet Jesus. When have you wanted to meet someone so much? When have you been so passionate about making something happen? When have you been so committed to making something happen not for you, but for someone else?
I’ve been thinking about times I’ve been passionate about something, or dedicated enough to something that others wanted to know more, times when I’ve been able to invite others to share in something that meant a lot to me. Recently, I’ve been re-watching the TV series LOST. Were any of you LOST fans? Lost is probably my favorite TV show ever. It follows a group of survivors of a plane crash as they try to make sense of their new life on an island full of mysteries. Back when LOST was on, starting in 2004, I must confess that I was unlikely to schedule any church events that might interrupt my viewing of LOST. I read weekly recaps of the episodes so I could follow all the latest theories about what was happening next and what different events on the show might mean. I was, well, a little obsessed. And I told people about it. I think I was the first person in my family who started watching LOST, but by the end of the series, I’d convinced everyone else to watch too. Along with some friends. And some church folk. And probably some strangers. I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too. Somewhere in the midst of my LOST obsession, I wondered - have I ever been as good at encouraging others to meet Jesus as I have been at getting them to watch LOST? Can I say what I say of LOST: I just loved it so much, and I wanted everyone else to like it too? Sure, convincing people to watch a TV show is both an easier commitment and a less threatening, personal topic than persuading someone to follow Jesus Christ. But the question pulled at me.
Or, I think of ways in which my life demonstrates my commitment to the things I believe. Many of you have probably talked to me, at least a little bit, about the fact that I’m a vegan - I don’t eat any animal products. Going into all the reasons I’m a vegan isn’t usually a conversation I initiate, even though it might seem like something you’ve heard me talk about. It’s just that eating is part of our everyday life, and so you’ve probably been around me at some function that involved food, and you’ve probably seen that I wouldn’t eat some things that others are eating, and naturally, people start asking questions. Or, I’ve had to let someone know that I eat a vegan diet so that they could feel prepared - when I started at the church, or when I visited someone for dinner, or when I ordered meals for an event. Or you’ve witnessed my excitement over a new vegan product or dish. People are naturally curious when they see someone doing something different than what many others are doing, and so, over time, I end up having a lot of conversations about veganism. I can’t say that I’ve influenced as many people to become vegan or vegetarian as I’ve convinced to watch LOST, but it is, of course, a bigger level of commitment, and, since many people tend to get opinionated when it comes to what we eat and why, I often even deflect the vegan conversation if I can. Despite those barriers - the commitment, the complex topic - I know people who have started changing their own diets because of me. It’s a good feeling. But the point is, in this case, unlike my LOST viewing, my influence isn’t even primarily impacting people because of what I say, my influence is because of what I do. It’s not because I’m talking about animal rights all the time, it’s because every day I live out my choices in what I do, what I eat. So, again, I try to make the connection. If I want to help people meet Jesus, am I living in such a way that demonstrates the difference Jesus makes in my life? Would anyone look at my life and my choices and my way of being and want to ask questions about what it is that drives me? Centers me? Guides me?    
The first step in our discipleship process is helping folks meet Jesus. There are lots of ways we can help folks meet Jesus, and I want your input and ideas about the best ways we can do that here, whether folks connect with us through worship, or starting out at RipIt, or starting out helping with We’ve Got Your Back or serving at the Friday lunch program - we have so many opportunities to invite people to connect. But do we have the will? The commitment? The desire? Are we passionate about Jesus? Has Jesus changed the way we live? How much do we want to make sure others meet Jesus too? I think of the friends of the man on the mat. A group of people that was willing to carry him from who knows where, and then persist through the crowds, and then take him to the roof and then dig through the roof and lower him to the ground. It was their faith, not the faith of the man himself, that is life-changing for this man. It is their faith that causes Jesus to respond as he does.
What would you do to make sure someone else was able to meet Jesus? Who do you wish could have the life-changing experience of being brought before Jesus and hearing the words, “your sins are forgiven”, or experiencing the healing power of Jesus from their pain and hurt - and what would you do to make that happen? I worry that sometimes our expectation for how people will meet Jesus is that they will care for that part of their spiritual journey themselves. Certainly, for some people, this happens. Some people seek out Jesus on their own, and I think that’s pretty amazing. But for this man, at least, he needed a group of friends to get him there. I worry that we’re sometimes expecting our friends who are broken and hurting and metaphorically like this man on a mat to get themselves to Jesus without our stepping up to grab a corner and help clear a path to Jesus.
For some of us who have grown up in a community of faith, who have been nurtured as disciples of Jesus since before we could talk or walk, it is hard to wrap our heads around meeting Jesus for the first time, because it seems like we’ve always known him. That’s certainly my own personal experience. Although I can turn to some meaningful moments in my faith development where I made an intentional deepening of my commitment to follow Jesus, I grew up with Bible stories, with church attendance as the core of my family’s rhythm of life, with the hymns we sing deeply embedded in my memory. When did I meet Jesus? I don’t ever remember not knowing him. I’m thankful for the foundation that I have, which has served me well in immeasurable ways over my life.
But there’s a downside, or at least an area that needs careful attention if you feel like you’ve always known Jesus. It can make it more challenging to feel the urgency in helping other to meet Jesus. Since Jesus has been a “given” in my life, I can sometimes forget the life-changing impact Jesus has had. And in turn, then, I’m less likely to give all my time and energy to carrying my friend’s mat to Jesus’s feet. That’s why sometimes that best disciple-makers, the people most excited about getting others to meet Jesus are those who just met him themselves. They still remember what it was like, meeting Jesus, and what it was like, without that core of faith. If you, like me, friends, met Jesus long ago, I want to encourage you, challenge you to really think about how your life has been shaped by knowing Jesus. Think of the gifts that have come into your life because of having Jesus at the center of your being. If you can’t get in touch with the impact Jesus has had on your life, it will be hard for you to convince anyone else that Jesus matters, and hard for you to convince yourself that you’d carry mats and dig through roofs to get others to the feet of Jesus. We’ll talk some more about how we do that - how we stay in touch with Jesus - over the next two weeks. (First UMC only) If you are new here, or you’re just learning about who Jesus is, or what this church thing is, please know that I am - and we are - so thankful that you are here. And we’re ready to learn from you too, as we can learn from the passion and hope, the seeking and searching, the growing that marks your getting to meet and know Jesus. I hope that we who have met Jesus, recently, or so long ago that we can’t even remember the details, can demonstrate the passion, the commitment, and the changed lives of our own that will help us carry others to meet Jesus.
A group of people carried a man to meet Jesus - and his life was never the same. The man was healed, and his sins were forgiven, and people praised God because of what they had witnessed. What would you do, friends, if the people in your life could experience what this man did? What would you do to help someone meet Jesus? May we live in such a way that Jesus might say of us: Their faith has changed your life. Amen.