Saturday, June 21, 2014

"Dangers of Discipleship" - June 22, 2014

Matthew 10:24-39

            There has been a meme floating around the internet recently that shows a picture of Jesus chasing the moneychangers from the Temple, and the words that go with the picture say, “The next time someone asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that freaking out and flipping tables is a viable option.”  Jesus did not come to bring peace.  He came to bring the Kingdom of God.  Peace will be part of that, but getting there can involve confrontation and conflict, and he did not hold that back from us.  He said,

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.   [Matthew 10:34]
When we forget that, we find ourselves unprepared to handle the conflict as well as we might.  Anger takes over and we act or speak out of defensiveness.  We become more concerned with winning than with being true to the gospel, which calls us to love, not to win – or, even better, to see that to love is to win.

            Conflict is not always a bad thing.  Some level of conflict or disagreement is inevitable whenever more than one person is involved in any endeavor of importance, and increases with the importance of the matter in hand.  Buying a can of beans may set two people on opposite sides: Bush’s or Campbell’s.  It’s unlikely to destroy a friendship or marriage, though.  Buying a car or a house will bring out stronger feelings.  Then there are truly major issues like how far you’re willing to trust God with your finances.  If you want conflict within a family, that would be a good discussion to have.  Conflict around important areas of life is going to happen.

            What’s good or bad is how we handle it.  A psychologist named Connie Lillas describes three extreme responses that are not helpful:

“Foot on the gas. An angry or agitated stress response.  You’re heated, keyed up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
Foot on the brake. A withdrawn or depressed stress response.  You shut down, space out, and show very little energy or emotion.
Foot on both gas and brake. A tense and frozen stress response.  You ‘freeze’ under pressure and can’t do anything. You look paralyzed, but under the surface you’re extremely agitated.”[1]

If conflict is faced honestly and squarely and with mutual respect, then it’s a lot easier to say, “Look, I disagree with you and you disagree with me.  What do we do until we can work things out (admitting that that may never happen)?”

            The ironic thing is that Jesus warned us that it may be within our most intimate relationships that becomes hardest to do.

 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  [Matthew 10:34-36]

Within a family, we expect that there will be an almost inborn way of looking at things.  So-and-so is a Smith, and you know they’ll always be on time.  So-and-so is a Jones, and you know they’ll always be late.  The North family are all dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and the West family are all liberals. The Marxes all play practical jokes and the Dumonts have no sense of humor whatsoever. 

            Making it worse, the family is where we expect a sense of security.  It’s where we normally can be most ourselves, most relaxed, most safe.  When conflict enters into that place, it is most threatening of all.  It’s where we are most scared to allow it.  It’s where the potential for destruction and harm is greatest.  All the same, it finds its way in, especially when there are questions about religious commitment.

When there is such conflict, it can be handled well or handled poorly.  I have only presided at one interfaith marriage in my life.  The groom was Christian and the bride was Muslim.  Not a single one of her family showed up at the wedding, and it was heartbreaking.  That was not done well.  Another time, I got a phone call from the mother of an old friend who is Jewish.  Her daughter, as she said, “Has got engaged to one of yours, and her father is not happy.  I want you to talk to them.”  (“Them” meant the engaged couple.  Her father did not want to talk about it.  He had nothing to say.)  In the end they held a small wedding with just the immediate family present; no guests.  They didn’t want to look like they approved.  But immediately afterward, they held a big reception for everyone, because they were happy that their daughter was happy, and when the father-daughter dance began, everybody got all verklemt.  That was well done.

            Jesus’ message to his followers was never that there would not be trouble and conflict.  His message was that in the midst of it all, God’s care would be there, no matter what.  And he wasn’t just talking about a family argument.  He included what could happen if it went even farther than that, as can happen when religious disputes turn violent, as we see in our own day in Syria or Sudan or Nigeria or Northern Ireland or any of a dozen other places.  He said,

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.  [Matthew 10:28-31]

Discipleship, faithfully following the ways of Jesus, will occasionally be dangerous, and occasionally somebody will get hurt.

            There is, in God’s grace, always healing beyond the hurt and safety beyond the danger.  No one is quite sure who said, “A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”  We are certain, though, who said,
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  [Matthew 10:39]
It was someone who lost his life, and three days later was alive again.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

"Being and Making Disciples" - June 15, 2014

Matthew 28:16-20

Things that you see and hear as a child stick in the back of your memory sometimes.  TV theme songs, for those of us of a certain age, are a good example. 

“People, let me tell you ’bout my best friend,
He’s a warm-hearted person who’ll love me till the end.
People, let me tell you ’bout my best friend,
He’s a one-boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy.

People, let me tell you ’bout him; he’s so much fun,
Whether we’re talkin’ man-to-man or whether we’re talking son-to-son.
’Cause he’s my best friend.  Yes, he’s my best friend.”[1]

That was the opening of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which ran from 1969 to 1972.  The video portion showed the two main characters, a father and son, walking together on the beach, followed by shots where the father was imparting essential life skills that included how to cast a fishing line, how to throw a Frisbee, and how to tee off with a golf club that is as tall as yourself.  Those are stereotypical father-son scenes. If you’re older, you may remember Andy Griffith and Opie walking along a dirt road with fishing poles.  If you’re younger, maybe you remember Cliff Huxtable showing all of his children, including Theo, how to dance during the opening sequence of The Cosby Show

            Not all fathers are the same.  Not all fathers fit that idealized picture.  When things go well, though, a lot passes from one generation to another from fathers and grandfathers and uncles and godfathers, not as much by spoken words as by demonstration and coaching. 

            I was fortunate to have some wonderful theologians as teachers in seminary, and I thank God for them.  The man who prepared me for parish ministry, however, was my first field education supervisor when I was a summer intern at a country church in North Carolina.  The day I met him he was in the church office, kneeling on the floor.  I wish I could tell you he was praying, but he had a screwdriver in his hand and he was taking apart a Xerox machine.  Over the next week, he had me salvage everything we could from that copier, and he took the rollers and other parts and over a period of weeks turned them into a pea sheller.  He had me visit folks to let them know it would be available to anyone who wanted to use it.  Mind you, this was before e-mail was common, so it meant sitting on the porch everywhere and drinking a lot of that sugary Southern tea, and being shown around a lot of backyard gardens.  In the course of that I had to get a handle on who was whose cousin on their mother’s side and which people were working fifty miles away and how many years they’d been part of the church and a lot of other matters that I won’t go into.  Then I’d report back to the parsonage for supper, and to answer the questions, “Well, then, what happened today?” and “Where is God in all of this?”

            Four years later, I was living on an island far away from North Carolina, and also where the nearest Xerox repair shop had to be reached by plane.  I was very glad to be able to call someone and say, “Yup.  The corona bar is shot.  Here’s the model number, and we’ll need a new drum in about four months, so send one of those, too.”  I was also glad to have learned to ask myself his questions: “Well, then, what happened today?” and “Where is God in all of this?”

            Jesus didn’t gather students about him.  Yes, he did teach.  That was a big part of what he did.  But his teaching wasn’t the kind that aimed to satisfy intellectual curiosity.  It was the kind that aimed to impart a way of living.  He gathered disciples.  He took them with him, and showed them how to fish for people, how to repair broken hearts, how to mend lives.  Then he sent them out to do it.  Luke says,

“Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”  [Luke 9:1-6]

The Bible doesn’t give us the details about it, but says that

“On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.”               [Luke 9:10]

            That process itself was something that Jesus wanted them to learn, and to repeat with others.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]

Making disciples doesn’t come, sad to say, by preaching.  Making disciples comes by the day-to-day sharing of a way of life that follows the example Jesus gave us.  That’s the “obeying everything I have commanded you” part.  We have to be disciples to make disciples.  Going back to the Fathers’ Day theme, you cannot have a child without having been a child yourself, or help someone grow to maturity unless you yourself are trying to be mature. 

            Jesus didn’t just tell his disciples that they should be a people of prayer.  He took Peter and James and John aside with him at times to pray.  Jesus didn’t just tell them to proclaim the forgiveness of sin, he forgave them when they fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane and didn’t notice that a posse had come to arrest him.  He didn’t just tell them to love their enemies, he prayed on the cross for the people who had nailed him there.  He asked nothing of them that he did not himself also do.  Thus are real disciples made, by being shown the way of life.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” said Jesus. 

A man who grew up in Souderton, named Henry Appenzeller, went to Korea in the 1880s and spent almost twenty years there, founding a school and tending to victims of a cholera epidemic, and getting quietly involved with the movement to free Korea from Japanese occupation.  All that time he preached about Jesus, and the power of his resurrection.  He shared the message that life is stronger than death, that the grave has no power over God’s people.  Then came the night of June 11, 1902, when the ship which was carrying him to a meeting of Bible translators was rammed by another, larger ship in the fog.  Twenty-seven people died in the accident.  One of those was Henry Appenzeller.  He drowned because he chose to try to save a young Korean girl rather than swim to shore.  All that he had done to that point was good and faithful, but when word spread of the way he died, that was when people saw that he had meant everything he had said.  There are currently about 1.5 million United Methodist Christians in Korea who trace the origins of their faith through him.

1.5 million, from one faithful disciple…  How many people are there in this room, now?

[1] Written and performed for The Courtship of Eddie’s Father by Harry Nilsson.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"Vine and Branch" - June 8, 2014

John 15:5-11

            Today’s sermon will be pretty short.  I hope no one minds.  It’s also mostly for the confirmands, and I hope they don’t mind other people listening in.

            In January (or was it December? – the past winter was one big blur of white), a big tree fell down at the side of the churchyard and I pulled off this big section of vine, thinking that it could be used as a decoration for today.  We had been talking since September in confirmation class about how Jesus said he was like a vine and we are like its branches, and how when we stay connected to him it makes it possible for our lives to have some good things appear, like the fruit that shows up on the branches of a healthy grapevine.  It was the theme of the course.

            You can see here what happens when a vine is disconnected from its roots.  This section that I hacked off then has been sitting inside for months and is all brown and crumbly.  This vine over here, comes from the same fallen tree only this week and is nice and green because it hasn’t been cut off from the earth.   You can even see that it has the strength to put life into the branches that shoot off of it.  To stay grounded is to stay alive, and even to grow. 

Jesus stayed rooted at all times in God, being the pure expression of God’s life among us, and is able to keep God’s love alive within the people he compares to the branches.  When we stay connected to Jesus, the way that he is connected to God, the life that is in him, God’s Spirit, flows through us as well.

This is review material.  We’ve been over it before.  Most things worth knowing, though, are worth repeating.

We stay connected to the source of life through Jesus, and we do it in many ways. 

We stay connected by prayer: spending time with him as our friend, even when we don’t have anything to say.  He may have something to tell us, and that is where reading the Bible regularly is important, and thinking about what it means specifically for us.  That’s why we make sure people get a Bible about the same time that they master reading.

We stay connected by our presence: not just by going to church, although that is a necessary part of keeping connected, but by being part of the church, which is the people of God.  Jesus said that wherever two or three people gather in his name, he’s there with them.  We should know one another well enough to learn from each other, to appreciate one another as unique people, to care enough to forgive one another’s shortcomings, and to be forgiven for our own.  That’s being the church.

We stay connected by giving our gifts: helping support the programs and activities and places that keep us close to God and that invite others to experience the life of Jesus in their own hearts.  A lot of you are acolytes.  When people offer their gifts, they pass through your hands.  That’s a holy moment.

We stay connected by our service: by doing what we can for others, we echo what Jesus has done for us, and every day get a deeper appreciation for what it cost him and how much he must love us, because not all service makes you feel good, and it doesn’t always get a “thank you”.

            So in a few moments, I’ll be asking you, confirmands, if you will uphold the church with your prayers, presence, gifts, and service.  It’s what I ask anyone who is formally becoming a member of the church.  In doing that, what I’m asking is if you are ready to accept the blessing that was asked for you here as a baby being held by the font, when the pastor put her hand on your head and prayed for you by name: “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born of water and the Spirit, you may be found a faithful disciple all the days of your life.”

            In that sense, confirmation is a delayed part of the baptismal service.  God’s part in baptism – the part that makes it a sacrament – is complete and done already.  God’s promise that you are part of the Kingdom, that’s a given and there’s never any need to repeat that.  But at baptism, the church promised to help you grow to the point where you have become aware of the gift that you’d been given, and that there’s still a lot more growing for you and all of us to do. 

The added part of it is now we also formally recognize that you’re also becoming able to help the people who have helped you, and other people, too.  That’s when the fruit starts to appear on the vine.

            Of course, fruit takes time to ripen.  It isn’t always ready right away, and there will be times when people still see you as not quite there yet.  Sometimes they may be right.  Sometimes they may be wrong.  What matters most isn’t that.  What matters is what Jesus said about it all:

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” [John 15:8-11]

I don’t know entirely what God may have in mind for you, but with a promise like that, I do know it has to be good.  Now let’s see what you come up with.