Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens...When Love Is a Verb," 1 Corinthians 13

Sermon 9/25/16
1 Corinthians 13

Church Happens … When Love Is a Verb

            “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
            Even if you don’t think you know your Bible very well, chances are, you know this passage of scripture – 1 Corinthians13 – the love chapter – even if you couldn’t have told me exactly where in the Bible it was from. You’ve probably heard this passage of scripture read at many, many weddings. I would guess, that out of all of the weddings I’ve officiated in my years of ministry, probably close to fifty percent of them include this passage as their scripture of choice. It’s hardly surprising. Although the scriptures teach us that the greatest commandments are grounded in love – love of God and love of one another – rarely does a biblical author spend any time talking about what love is, how we go about fulfilling these greatest commandments. Paul’s words about love, then, are some of if not the most direct and prolonged writings about love in all of the Bible. Of course it is popular for weddings!
            The downside of this, other than for the pastor, who has more fun putting together a wedding message if you choose some obscure text that no one else ever uses, is first: Sometimes when we know a passage too well, we stop listening to it, and second: If you only ever hear anyone talk about this passage while at a wedding, you’re probably not going to get the same in depth look at the text as you would during a regular sermon or Bible Study. So we miss out on some of the context that helps us really dig into what Paul is saying. Lucky for you though – we’re going to try to change that today!
            Remember, Paul is writing this letter not to two people, not to a couple preparing to start a life together. Paul is writing to a whole group of people – a new congregation – a new church trying to figure out how to exist together, function together, grow together, serve together. So when Paul is talking about love here, he’s not talking about romantic love, although what he says certainly applies. He’s talking about something both broader and deeper. It’s the deep love God has for us. The love of a parent for a child. And the love we’re called to have for one another.
            This passage comes just after the passage we looked at a couple weeks ago, where Paul was talking about how we’re all parts of the body of Christ, and yet one as Christ’s body. Paul had been talking about this because the Corinthians had been arguing over who had the better gifts – that is, who had the talents and skills that were more useful in the congregation. Paul puts a stop to that line of thinking, reminding the Corinthians that all of the gifts God gives are necessary in the body – they’re just different parts of the one body of Christ. But Paul concludes by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” The more excellent way, then, is love. Paul has already talked about spiritual gifts. And now, here, he speaks of another gift: love, which is doubly awesome because 1) Everyone has the gift of love. Everyone. And 2) It’s the best one. Paul says love is the a more excellent gift than all the others he’s mentioned. It is the gift that comes with power and responsibility to use it, and we all have it.  
            Paul’s mini-essay has three sections. In the first, Paul says that you might have great spiritual gifts – but if you don’t have the gift of love, you are just noise. He says you might be a great prophet, wise and knowing. You might have the deepest faith. But if you don’t have love – you’re nothing. He says that you might even be so devoted and committed that you give up your possessions, even give up your life in good works. And still, without love, all that you do counts for nothing. In other words, our skills, our talents, our actions, even our faithful and righteous behavior – none of it matters without love.
            And then Paul goes into this list of all these things that love is, or isn’t: Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, and so on. In our English translation, this list sounds like a bunch of adjectives – words that describe a noun, words that describe what something is like. But in the Greek, every one of these words about love is a verb. They’re all action words, doing words. Love suffers patiently, love hopes, love acts with kindness and mercy, love doesn’t boast, love endures. Paul describes love as a living thing that exists by doing. Just as none of our actions have meaning without love, the reverse is also true. We can’t truly love without action that gives love purpose and meaning. Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s not an emotion. It is a way we interact with God and others. Love must do.
            Finally, Paul says that everything else, all we know, eventually comes to an end – everything except love. In fact, we experience love perfected. Paul says that even the deep love we experience now is like “looking in a mirror, dimly.” Mirrors in Paul’s time weren’t like they are today. The best mirrors offered somewhat blurry, somewhat muddled reflections. Not crisp images. So Paul says that when we are perfected in God’s love, in God’s eternity, it will be like actually seeing ourselves clearly for the first time ever, the way God always sees us, the way only God knows us. Perfect love is when we know fully, and are fully known. The greatest gift of all, Paul concludes, is love.
            So, we seek to love God, and love one another, and we make sure that our actions are full of love, and our love is full of action. Easy, right? Well, there are some people that are just so easy to love, aren’t there? I spent the day with my niece and nephew yesterday. Loving them is so easy! It’s easy to love them, to actively love them, to tell them I love them and show them I love them and help them learn to be loving people. I’m sure you can quickly think of people who are easy to love, easy to love in active, meaningful ways.
But I also suspect that you can quickly come up with a list of people who it is challenging to love. When Jesus commands us to love one another, when Paul writes about how without love we’re nothing, I think we sometimes start to play this mental game with ourselves, hoping God will play along. Well, I love everybody, but I don’t like everybody. “I love you, I just don’t like you very much.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it? I’m sure that I have! But that doesn’t sound like very powerful, deep love, does it? Jesus says that great love is love where a friend will give up life for a friend. Would you give up your life for someone you didn’t like? Someone about whom you would say, “Well, I love you, but I don’t like you?” The love Paul writes about to the Corinthians is something deep, and we tend to want to make his words shallow, stripping them of all their power. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much?” What if God loved us like that? Loving because we’re obligated to love isn’t actually love at all.
Still, how do we love one another? Because even if “I love you, I just don’t like you” isn’t a very deep love, sometimes, it is just exactly how we feel, isn’t it? What pops into my head is that great “unrequited love” balled, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” She sings, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” I thought the words were very profound when I was lamenting over a boy in junior high who didn’t return my feelings. It’s true, isn’t it? You can’t make someone love someone. Love with obligation isn’t love. So what can we do?
            I think, in fact, we can learn to love. We can cultivate love. We can seek to love someone. We can practice it, and get better at it. Last year, a news article from the New York Times was circulating quite a bit, showing results from a scientific study suggesting that – in completely non-scientific terms – two strangers might fall in love with each other by following a certain set of instructions: the pair answers 36 questions in a conversation with each other. The questions are increasingly more personal, beginning with “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” and ending with things like “If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?” After that, you and your conversation partner are supposed to stare into each other’s eyes – sustained eye-contact, no talking, for four minutes. The author of the article – she fell in love with the person with whom she tried this exercise. The whole experiment even became the subject of an episode of Big Bang Theory.
            So, do we need to have these sit down, deep conversations with every person we find difficult to love? Maybe! The point is – love like Paul describes is intentional, not accidental. We have to mean to love people to love like Jesus loves. Jesus loved by spending time with people, by listening deeply to people, by hearing their stories and hopes and dreams. He loved by looking with compassion and forgiveness and mercy. He loved by giving himself for others. He loved with purpose.
            I’ve sometimes heard folks recommend to young people in love that they should replace their significant other’s name for the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, to see if they are a worthy candidate for dating. I wonder what would happen if instead, we put our own names in the place of the word love. Make them “I” statements, and see if they ring true. “I am patient. I am kind.” And in fact, if you can pull up in your mind that list of people that you have a hard time loving – you can add them right in, and see if it works: I am patient with Fred. I am kind to Cindy. In some cases, maybe it is a whole group of people we need to think about: I am never rude to people who are voting for the wrong candidate this November.
            To cultivate love, to stretch our hearts to become more loving, to include more people on the list of those we truly love, I think we start by practicing some of those action words that Paul lists. That’s my challenge for you this week: Read through 1 Corinthians 13, and ask yourself: Am I patient? How can I be more patient? Have I been kind? Have been envying anyone? Have I been boasting? Arrogant? Rude? When did I insist on my own way? When was I irritable? How full of hope am I? If we do this, if we are disciplined in practicing these actions, I think we will learn that love only happens accidentally once in a while – but we can cultivate it on purpose whenever we’re ready to commit to this intentional way of building each other up, and building up the gift of love that God gives to each of us.    
            Church can happen anywhere – anywhere that is enveloped in love, anywhere that is reaching out in love, anywhere that is growing in love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When We Run to Win," 1 Corinthians 9:13-27

Sermon 9/18/16
1 Corinthians 9:13-27

Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When We Run to Win

All things to all people. When you hear that phrase, “all things to all people,” you usually hear it with this at the beginning: “You can’t be.” That is, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Thank goodness, right? Who would want to be all things to all people? Usually, we tell this to someone when they’re trying to (and failing to) get everyone to like them, to please everyone. Do you ever struggle with that? Being a people-pleaser? And finally, either you come to the conclusion yourself, or a friend or loved one who is trying to help you get a grip on reality tells you, “You can’t be all things to all people!” You can’t please everyone. Not everyone is going to like you. Don’t even try. It’s a lost cause!
Last week I mentioned the Adam Hamilton book Half Truths, and we talked a little bit about some phrases that aren’t in the Bible that we think are, like “that’s just between me and God.” But sometimes the opposite is true: there’s a saying that we’re sure is just bad advice, and it turns out it comes straight from the scripture. That’s the case with this phrase, I’m afraid. “All things to all people” comes straight from the New Testament, straight from today’s lesson from 1 Corinthians, where Paul proudly proclaims that to proclaim that gospel, he has become all things to all people. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” All things to all people! I don’t know about you, but my initial impulse is to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. How can we live up to such a standard? All things to all people? I can’t do it. Trying to be all things to all people seems like the surest way to burn out of ministry that I can think of. Paul may have had the dedication and the drive, but just thinking about trying to be all things to all people makes me feel like I need a nap! All things to all people. Is Paul really saying what it sounds like he’s saying?
When our passage opens for today, Paul is talking about how he makes a living. We don’t think of it often, but of course, Paul had to have money to eat and travel and get from community to community, where he would go and preach the gospel. Paul notes that people usually get paid from wherever they serve: if you work in the temple, you get paid by the temple. So, Paul reasons, if you preach the gospel for your life’s work – you should be entitled and able to have that work also provide your living. Paul doesn’t do that, though, as he tell us here. He says, “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor I am a writing this so that they may be applied in my case.” We know from elsewhere in the New Testament writings that Paul and some of his companions continue to work as laborers throughout their time in ministry so that they can provide for themselves. And Paul says that he does this, works to support himself apart from his ministry, so that he may have the joy of boasting in the gospel. He wants to present the gospel “free of charge,” and doing so is the only reward Paul seeks.
And then Paul gets to this “all things to all people” part. He says, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul means that he is free because of his new life in Jesus. He’s been set free from this idea that he must work and work and work to earn God’s love and grace, something we can never earn, since it is given as a gift! His life in Christ is what enables Paul to receive the gift – and so he is free. Nonetheless, in order to help others find this same freedom, in order for others to find new life in Christ, Paul is willing to change the patterns of his life.
Paul writes, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
It would be easy to assume that Paul is somehow compromising his beliefs or values in order to get himself “in” with these groups of people. He’s talking about Jews and Gentiles, and his ability to weave into both communities, even though he himself doesn’t really belong to either anymore, but rather belongs to Christ. But I don’t think Paul means that he gave up his understanding or his identity to preach the gospel. Rather, I think Paul means that didn’t assume or insist that others would have to adopt Paul’s ways and Paul’s journey and Paul’s practices as their own in order to become Jesus-followers. Instead of Paul insisting that Jews give up their practices in order to follow Jesus, or insisting that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could follow Jesus, Paul instead simply immersed himself with the people with whom he was sharing Christ. He spent years living with different communities of people, building relationships, learning about them, sharing with them. Paul does this, he says, because he’s in it to win it. That is, his purpose is to share the good news with others, to share the message of Jesus with others. And he wins when others accept the good news and find new life in Christ. That’s his purpose. That’s what’s most important to him. And so he’ll do what he needs to do to win – to help others experience what he has: a complete change of life in Jesus.
And Paul is just following the example of Jesus himself. When Jesus was preaching and teaching the good news about God’s kingdom, God’s reign come to earth here and now, Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him, or for them to become like him. Jesus travelled to where the people were, and ate with them, and stayed in their homes, and spent time with them, all while being criticized by the religious leaders for doing so.
Unfortunately, our history in the Christian church of sharing Jesus with people doesn’t hold up well to the model. For many decades, centuries even, when Christian missionaries would travel abroad to bring the message of Jesus and the good news to people, they also brought with them an insistence that becoming a Jesus-follower also meant becoming a Westerner – that is, someone who would adopt the customs and practices of Europe and North America. I saw impact of this, still evident today, when I visited Ghana in West Africa while I was in seminary. My professors guessed that many of us expected worship services in Ghana to be full of music and customs that were indigenous to Africa – and in some places, that is exactly what we found. Worship that was in church buildings that looked like the other homes of the community. Music that resonated with the musical sounds of Ghana. Worship in the languages of the people. But the first worship service they took us to was in a very European-looking building, where the service was straight out of the Book of Worship of the Church of England, since it was the English who had colonized Ghana in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Even the style of dress was what you would expect to find in Britain, not Ghana. Somehow, we’d given the message that in order to be Jesus-followers, you also had to become like the messenger of the good news! The same thing happened to Native Americans here in the US. When missionaries shared the story of Jesus, it was with the explicit assumption, with demands, in fact, that Native people abandon their own culture and traditions and adopt the practices of missionaries. This is the very opposite of being all things to all people in order to share Jesus in powerful ways, and there is still pain and damage, healing that needs to take place, because of mixing up Jesus’ message and Jesus’ way with our way.
So how can we embody the example of Paul, the example of Jesus himself, as we share the good news? I think we begin by being clear about our purpose. Paul writes about being clear about his purpose. He is a runner in a race intent on winning the prize, not one who runs aimlessly. For Paul, the prize is when others learn about Jesus and commit their lives to following him, to being disciples. The prize is when others experience new life as he has. Not his new life, but their new life in Christ. His eyes are fixed on his purpose.
What’s our purpose? Many times, we talk about wanting to have more people in church – more children, more young people, more families, more people in the pews. I hope for that too. But I hope we are clear about why we would want such a thing. Do we want more people so that we can survive? Continue to exist as an organization? Have more people to pay our bills and serve on our committees and care for our facilities? Or: Has Christ so changed our lives, have we been so transformed by the love of God that we can’t help but want other people to experience what we’ve experienced, and journey with us as we seek to live more fully into the vision God has for our lives? I hope the choice is pretty obvious! And if that’s what we want – for people to have their lives changed because of the saving grace and love of Christ – if that is our purpose, our aim, the prize for which we’re racing – maybe having our eye on the prize can shape how we share our message.
I worry that too often when we invite others to follow Jesus, we’re really inviting them to come be like us. We’d like it if people went to church like we did, and had the same good morals we had, and behaved like we did, and got involved in church like we did, and practiced their faith like we did. That’d certainly be easiest, wouldn’t it? But what if instead of inviting people to come be like us, we instead invite ourselves to go and be with others. Imagine if, for example, we said “to those who struggle with addiction, I spent time in the very places where they struggled to make different choices, in order that I might win them with the good news. To those in poverty I became poor, in order to win those in poverty. To those who felt rejected by the church, I listened to the stories of those who had been hurt and went to the places where they found meaning, in order to win those who had been rejected.”
Church can happen anywhere, but it can especially when you are willing to step into the lives of others, to cross boundaries, to make connections, to pour yourself out for others, as we see Paul do, as Christ did, so that by offering your life, your time, your love to others, you might be able to share what God has done for you, and what God can do for them. How are you willing to share yourself with others, in order to share Jesus? Church can happen anywhere, when we remember our purpose. Not to create disciples like us, followers of our ways, but to make disciples who walk in the ways of Jesus.
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” Amen.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sermon, "Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When Many Are One," 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Sermon 9/11/16
1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When Many Are One

            As I shared with you in the newsletter this month, one of my most challenging classes during my doctoral work was a class on ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is a fancy word that means “the study of the nature of the Church.” In the class, we talked a lot about what makes church church. Is it the music? The sermon? Reading scripture together? That we worship God there? Why do we think of some things as church and not others? If you and I get together and sing a praise song, are we having church? For our final project, we had to write a paper explaining our understanding of church. This is what I came up with: “I believe that the Church is the gathered Body of Christ, where the Word of God is proclaimed and enacted, where the people worship, serve, and engage in the mission of disciple-making, both within the church and in the world.” What do you think? How would you define church?
            Even though we love our church building, are thankful for the space that enables us to do so much wonderful ministry, we know that the building is not really the church. We, the gathered people, are the church. Over time, over the centuries, around the gathered people, an institution has been established – we have denominations and boards and agencies and committees and hierarchies and organizational plans. These things aren’t bad – they help us order ourselves to do the work of Jesus in the world. But the institution is not the church. The people gathered together in the name of Jesus are the church. And because the church is where the people are gathered, church can happen anywhere. Church happens here because we’re here together. And church happens when we’re together, working and serving in the community.  
            For the next several weeks, we’ll be thinking about this idea – the idea that church can happen anywhere. We’ll think about what needs to happen, what needs to take place for us to be the church in the world, not just the church in this building. And to help us think about that, we’ll be looking at the book of 1 Corinthians in the Bible. 1 Corinthians is the first of two epistles, letters, that we have that were written by the apostle Paul to the new followers of Jesus at Corinth, a city in Greece. Paul had, according to his letters, helped to “found” the small faith community some time before the writing of his letter. Paul was himself a new follower of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, devoted to the careful interpretation and practice of religious law, and he had been a zealous persecutor of followers of Jesus, until a vision of Jesus calling him to a brand new life totally turned him around.
            Paul, steeped in a life of carefully following the law, became the most vocal advocate of the freedom that we find in Christ Jesus – and so Paul reached out mostly to Gentiles – people who were not already Jewish – to share the good news and invite them to follow Jesus. That might not seem like a big deal to us – but Paul was the first to so strongly work for carrying the message of Jesus beyond Judaism.
            So Paul would come to a community, teach people about Jesus, and help them set up what we’d call a house church. New followers of Jesus would meet, for practical reasons, in the homes of the richest members, because they had the largest houses and the most resources, and could provide the best setting for getting together. The new church at Corinth met at the home of a rich man named Gaius. We can glean some knowledge from verses of scripture about worship practices. They probably met weekly, on Sundays. They did many of the things that we do still – they prayed, both spontaneously and with ritual prayers. They sang. They read scripture. They shared testimony – their own experiences of God at work in their lives. They celebrated the sacrament. And all of this happened over the course of a meal. We’ll be talking more about their worship feast in a few weeks when we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
            These brand new faith communities also needed guidance. They didn’t have anything like set pastors, or a denominational office, or other church leaders they could turn to for clarification or further instruction or support. What they had was occasional letters from Paul, occasional visits from other missionaries, also preaching and teaching about Jesus, and each other. And, like any group of people trying to live a new life and be a new people and build a new thing together, things did not go smoothly all of the time. So Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are full of instructions about how to live together as the Body of Christ in their new community of faith.
            One of the issues Paul addresses is conflict that has arisen among the new Jesus followers. Apparently, some people – people who have been named as leaders among the community, or people who have particular gifts for ministry or preaching or teaching – some people are seeing themselves or seeing others as holding more important places in the congregation than others. If I am a part of the community but I’m the one responsible for teaching everyone about Jesus, and you are only responsible for making sure our space is clean and welcoming, aren’t I more important than you?
            Paul answers this question with a resounding no throughout Corinthians, and particularly in our passage or today. Paul writes that even though we are many – and we remain many – because of our identity in Jesus Christ, an identity that we share – we are also one. “In the Spirit,” he says, “we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” All our other labels, all the things that separate us from each other, every other identity we claim is supplanted by our identity as members of the body of Christ. It’s as part of Christ’s body that we find our true identity – and our place in Christ’s body is essential, so very important. And so is our neighbor’s place in the body! This passage of scripture is one in which Paul paints an incredibly vivid mental picture for us, as we imagine along with him – what if a body was made entirely of noses, or eyes, or ears? Maybe some part of the body are less “glamorous” than others, and some are more visible than others, but every part is needed – many members, one body.
            Paul goes on to say it goes deeper than just tolerating that we’re all part of the same body. When we’re part of the body of Christ together, when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. And when one part of the body is honored, the whole body rejoices together. Paul’s fervent hope was that there would be no dissension – no arguing, no wrangling over places of importance – within the body of Christ – only building each other up, all on the common path of discipleship, all working toward the same end – inviting more people to be part of the body, to experience freedom in Christ Jesus, to be made one in the Spirit of the Living God.
            I think Paul’s words are incredibly important for us yet today. We cannot be the body of Christ by ourselves. The body of Christ is one body, but with many members. Last month we completed a study of Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths, in which he looks at pseudo-religious sayings that people think are from the Bible or reflect the Bible’s teaching, but are really not quite right – half-truths. Here’s a half-truth I hear from time to time: “That’s between me and God.” It’s something people say when there’s a part of their pain, part of their struggle, part of the sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back nature of our journeys of faith that they don’t want to share with others. When people feel a bit too vulnerable, perhaps, to share with others about their shortcomings. It’s just between me and God. But it’s at best, a half-truth. What’s between us and God, according to Jesus, is our neighbors. The greatest commandments? Love God and love one another. We can’t fully love God unless we love one another. We can’t be in a relationship with God that’s vibrant and growing unless we’re also working on our relationships with each other. We’re in this together. We’re accountable to each other, to challenge each other, help each other grow in faith, and lift each other up.  
            For the past several weeks, we’ve been collecting feedback from congregational surveys, about church bible studies, favorite hymns, and more. There’s still time to fill one out! I asked you to share prayer requests and something about your hope for the congregation. And a number of responses – a number of the prayer requests and the hopes and dreams mentioned the unity of the church. We long for the Spirit of oneness in the Body of Christ that Paul talks about.
            So how do we do it? First, as you’ll hear me say again and again in the next several weeks, we build each other up. Sometimes, when we talk about building each other up, what quickly comes to mind is painful experiences when someone else has hurt us, when we’ve felt torn down. The hard part is setting that aside, and focusing instead on what we can do to build up others. Paul tells us that we need each other. Because we need each other to be the body of Christ, we don’t just tolerate each other. We are called to honor each other. As you look around you, who do you see that needs lifting up? Building up? Who needs to know that you honor them, and their unique gifts, their unique role in the body of Christ?
            Church can happen anywhere – anywhere God’s people are together. But it can’t happen alone. It can’t happen when we leave each other behind, when we cut off parts of the body that we have forgotten to honor and cherish. Church happens when we, who are many, are one in Christ. What a witness our oneness could be for a world that is so splintered! So that’s my challenge for you this week – your homework. In your personal life, who needs building up? In your professional life, who needs building up? In your journey of discipleship, right here in this community of faith, who needs building up? What can you do this week to build someone up? I’m hoping you’ll think about it, and then act on it, and then share with me next week – how are you building each other up?
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Let’s go and be the church in the world – and let’s go together. Amen.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, "Unfinished Business," Luke 14:25-33 (Proper 18, Ordinary 23)

Sermon 9/4/16
Luke 14:25-33

Unfinished Business

Some years back, United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was serving as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He got a call from a very upset parent of one of his students. "I hold you personally responsible for this," he said.
"Me?" Will asked.
The father was hot, upset because his graduate school bound daughter had just informed him that she was going to chuck it all ("throw it all away" was the way the father described it) and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti. "Isn't that absurd!" shouted the father. "A BS degree in mechanical engineering from Duke and she's going to dig ditches in Haiti."
"Well, I doubt that she's received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work, but she's probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months," Will said.
"Look," said the father, "this is no laughing matter. You are completely irresponsible to have encouraged her to do this. I hold you personally responsible," he said.
As the conversation went on, Dr. Willimon pointed out that the well-meaning but obviously unprepared parents were the ones who had started this ball rolling. THEY were the ones who had her baptized, read Bible stories to her, took her to Sunday School, let her go with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship to ski in Vail. Will said, "You're the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me."
"But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian," said the father, meekly. (1)
Have you been introduced to Jesus? Let’s take a look at the Jesus we meet in the gospels today. Our lesson today picks up just after Jesus had finished his dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. In addition to the parables we talked about last week, where Jesus encouraged people not to choose places of honor for themselves, and to make sure to invite those that usually never received invitations. He continues, after last week’s passage, with more parables, all around the theme of the wedding banquet, a metaphor for God’s kingdom, God’s reign. In his next parable, Jesus speaks of a banquet where people are invited, but are too busy to come, and all make their excuses. They would come, but they have to do these other tasks first, they explain. Angry, the host instead invites the poor, the sick, the broken-hearted, just as Jesus urged the Pharisees to do. And the host promises that none of those who were too busy to show up will ever get a taste of the wedding banquet.
It is right after this that our text for today begins, and the theme certainly carries through. Luke tells us that large crowds of people are traveling with Jesus. Just imagine that – everywhere he goes, a crowd goes with him. And he turns to them and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Wow. Jesus’ words today make his words about turning family members against each that we studied a few weeks ago seem pretty tame in comparison. The word here for hate doesn’t have quite the “emotional connotation” that we give it today – a passionate rejection of a person based on negative feelings. Instead, it means “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” to set aside. It “denotes action, not emotion. Jesus’ point is not how you feel about your family, rather, it is about who you will choose if and when it comes to choosing between family and the kingdom.” (2) Even still, it doesn’t make Jesus’ words particularly comforting for the crowds or for us, and he doesn’t mean them to be. When push comes to shove, when you have to choose, do you choose God? Do you turn way from, detach yourself from, set aside your family to choose God? Would that we never had to choose! But if we did… Jesus is saying that coming with Jesus means choosing him above all other things. 
And he doesn’t let up. He says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” For his first hearers, the cross doesn’t yet get tied to Jesus – they don’t yet know that Jesus himself will be crucified. But they were familiar with crucifixions. It was the preferred method of death of the Roman government that was occupying their homeland of Israel. People who crossed the Roman government, who crossed the Empire, would be executed in a brutal, public fashion, in order to create a climate of fear, to allow the oppressive government to continue to keep people in their places. For Jesus to say that discipleship involves carrying the cross, he seems to be saying that being his disciple could get you in as much trouble with the authorities as he always was. Because the message of Jesus, where the exalted are humbled and the first become last, was a message that flew in the face of the powers and principalities. The Roman government and the religious elite didn’t like to hear that in God’s world, the whole social order was flipped upside down, and the poor and humble would be first in line. To be a disciple, Jesus says, means to take a stand against people with power over your very life. Following Jesus means choosing Jesus above even yourself.
Jesus says that if we commit to being a disciple without realizing in advance what that really means, it’s like we’ve started to build a tower, without ever making blueprints and drawing up a list of supplies and figuring out if we have enough budget for it. It’s like declaring war on another country only to realize after that fact that you’re outnumbered 2 to 1. By the time we near the end of the text and Jesus tells us that being a disciple also means giving up our possessions, it barely registers. What Jesus asks is already so high, so much – letting go of things seems pretty easy after choosing discipleship and the cross over all other paths. 
I think somewhere along the way, many churches have gotten a little confused about their message, their purpose. I read so many articles about “church growth,” and what churches should be doing to help their churches grow. Some of them have thoughtful ideas, but so many of them seem to focus on getting people to “like” what you offer so that they’ll choose you. Don’t get me wrong – I do want people to find us to be welcoming, to offer hospitality in the name of Christ. I do want people to find that we’re loving and encouraging and that we build each other up. But frankly, sometimes Jesus’ message isn’t exactly likable. It’s compelling. Life-changing. Life-giving. But easy? Likable? Hardly.
Bishop Willimon, in a sermon on this text, started out talking about The United Methodist’s Church advertising campaign, and asked, how hard is it to sell the difficult message Jesus has to share with us?  He writes, “Jesus clearly, at least in this text, has no interest in meeting our needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values – after all, who could be against [parent]hood, family, and self-fulfillment? Jesus, that’s who . . . What Jesus says just happens to be true because he is the way, the truth, and the life.” Willimon continues, “I didn’t say that he was the way that nine out of ten thinking Americans want to walk. Didn’t say that he was the truth that we think we want or his discipleship was the life we seek. We can’t have a good Jesus advertising campaign because his way is decidedly against the crowd. The only reason why we’re here is not out of our seeking, our wanting. We’re here because, in some surprising way, he has sought us, wanted us, called us to walk a way not of our own devising. And all reason or reservation to the contrary, we believe, despite its patent absurdity, his is the way, though narrow, that leads to life eternal. Forgive me, forgive the church, for sometimes implying that Jesus will make life easier for you, will fix everything that’s wrong with you, will put a little lilt in your voice, a little sunshine in our life. Chances are, he won’t. He can do even better than that. He can make you a disciple. Forgive the church for sometimes being guilty of false advertising.” (3)Our mission statement in the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It isn’t to make United Methodists. It isn’t to make church members or church attenders or church contributors. Those things might happen as a result of our work, and God’s work in us, of making disciples, and I hope they do! But if we had a congregation full of members, attenders, and contributors, and we didn’t have disciples – that’s when we’re in trouble. Disciples are what Jesus is after: people who are ready to turn away from any path but God’s path – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that. People who are ready to risk it all to confront oppression and injustice and anything else that prevents God’s reign on earth from flourishing – or people who are ready to commit to trying each day to do that.
I have many hopes and dreams for us, and I know you do to. I think God is doing great things here. But if I’m choosing, I want you to be disciples, not church members. I’d love if you could be both – but I can tell you that my hope for how we shape this church together, my vision for what we will be is centered on us following Jesus wherever he goes. Sometimes his path is pretty lonely. Sometimes it seems impossibly difficult. He asks us to take a cross with us. Failure seems certain! But we serve a God who picks us up when we fall. We serve a God who walks the road with us. And we serve a God who, again and again, brings life even out of death. Amen.  

(1)   As quoted by Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger, William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Sept 10, 1995,

(3)   Willimon, William, Pulpit Resource, lesson for September 5th, 2004, pg. 43

Sermon, "In Denial," Mark 8:31-37

Sermon 2/20/24 Mark 8:31-37 In Denial My sermon title is both a reflection of our gospel text for today, and a reflection of how I felt abou...