Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon - 2nd Sunday After Pentecost - Year A

Matthew 9:35-10:8[9-23] 

Christian - Believer - Disciple

There are three words which are often used interchangeably – which shouldn’t be.  Those words are Christian, believer, and disciple.  I am not saying that they are in no way related; I am simply pointing out that they allow quite differing understandings of what it means to think of oneself as one of Jesus’ crew.

This long and somewhat disjointed reading from Matthew provides an opportunity to call attention to what it means to be a part of Jesus’ movement.  What I intend to this morning is use it to illustrate a tendency to short-change what it means to be invited to become one of God’s chosen.  And I am going to do so by taking about those three sometimes supposedly interchangeable words to do so – Christian, believer, and disciple.

Let’s start with “Christian.”  If you have not read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I encourage you to do so.  A coffee conversation a week or so ago reminded me that this book is still popular.  That discussion also brought back to mind the content of this short book, particularly it’s opening chapters.  (Actually, stop reading after those opening chapters; the later sections of the book are rather dated.)  Lewis reminds us that “Christian” is the title used to describe someone who is a follower of Jesus.  To be a Christian means that one is following.  The word is applicable whether that following is done well, or not so well.  Lewis decries the tendency to evaluate whether one is following sufficiently, or in a way which meets the standards of the one doing the evaluation. 

Hence, we will sometimes hear “They claim to be a Christian, but are not.”  To be a Christian means one thing and one thing only – that you are following Jesus.  Sometimes we do that well, sometimes we do not.  But once we are a follower, we are a Christian.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we are told that Jesus is traveling among the cities and villages and there are these folks following him.  They are watching what he does, they are noting what he says, and they are learning from him the content of the Good News to be shared.  Of those following him, twelve are singled out and named.  Of course Peter, and James and John are there.  So is Thomas, whose story was retold the first Sunday after Easter.  Remember, he is the one who expresses deep doubts.  Matthew the tax-collector is named.  This may be significant because it is in the opening verses of this same chapter that Matthew is called.  He is a newbie, a recent addition to the group, so he could not have yet learned very much.  But Matthew is named among the followers.  And so is Judas – with a note that he is the one who will betray Jesus – but he is there, named among the followers of Jesus.

To be a Christian is to be a follower.  It is to willingly give over any attempts at a self-directed life in favor of a life spent following. 

I don’t think this is what we have in mind, when we use the word.  In modern usage, to call someone a Christian has more in common with calling them a “believer.”  “Believer” is the second word in my list of three.  And while “believer” is often used interchangeably with “Christian” or “Disciple,” it doesn’t automatically mean the same thing.

However, “believer” is the word which captures what many if not most within our culture associate with being Christian.  Believing – believing certain things – particular teachings or affirmations – this is what we most often imply when we ask whether someone is a Christian.  We aren’t so much trying to find out if they are following Jesus; we wonder if they believe certain things about Jesus.

Back to my reference to CS Lewis’ book.  He warns that we are losing the meaning of the title “Christian,” when we begin to allow it to be used in a way which can be subjectively evaluated.  One of my Facebook friends posted on Friday, “Well, I was just told that I am an atheist.”  At dispute was her understanding of how a follower of Jesus is to live in the world.  The person who refused to allow the label to be attached to her had decided that her way of following Jesus was wrong – so she isn’t a follower, i.e. not a Christian.

If being a Christian is reduced to being a believer, then believing something different from other followers of Jesus opens one up to being prohibited from using the title.  If being a Christian is reduced to being a believer, where is the action and activity?  Look back at our Gospel lesson.  Jesus didn’t ask them what they believed or whether they believed the right things or whether they believed.  He merely said, “Follow me.”  Remember what the disciples did on that first Easter day?  They hid out in a locked room or went fishing.  Actions seeming to confirm that they had believed Jesus or believed in Jesus when he told them he would not leave them abandoned.

I am a teaching preacher.  Most of my sermons aim at teaching rather than inspiring.  So I do have a high regard for knowing, for knowing the right things, and believing them.  But believing is not the same as following.  And following is what makes one a Christian.  Being a Christian involves willingly giving over control of our lives.  No longer do we ask what is best for me and mine; we strive for that which will better the world which God has made and died to redeem.

Which brings us to our third word – disciple.

Matthew 10.1 tells us that Jesus summons his disciples.  He gives them authority over the unclean spirits, and he sends them out.  The disciples are those who are sent into the world.  No longer merely followers, they begin to share in the significant work of the one whom they have been following.

Being a disciple does seem to be yoked with what it means to be a Christian.  Certainly, being a disciple involves more than merely being a believer.

Too often, in our culture, the emphasis is placed on believing.  I have already acknowledged that there is a value to be placed on believing certain things and perhaps even on believing particular things.  But believing isn’t what Jesus calls on us to do.  Jesus calls on us to follow, and to share in his work.

 It is possible to think, given that there are twelve who are set out from the rest, that these tasks or duties or marching orders are only for the few.  It is possible to think that – and I am in no position to say that that would be incorrect.  But, I would point out that the title “disciple” is used in verse 1, and when the list of twelve is given the writer has introduced the word “apostle.”   If you are looking for a way to place yourself outside the category of disciple, verse 2 might allow you to do that.  But I am not sure such an attempt at dodging Jesus’ commission will hold water.

I want to pick up on one aspect of today’s reading from Exodus 19.  There is a response from the persons to whom God extends the invitation, but that is merely a response.  They didn’t decide whether God would choose them.  They didn’t follow because they came to believe these things about themselves.  God acted – they become aware of God’s claim on their lives and on their very identity – and they respond.

We become Christians when some combination of events and/or circumstances makes us aware of the invitation to come and see, the invitation to follow Jesus.  Jesus calls us to himself and sends us out, as his disciples into the world.  This is what it means to be a Christian and a disciple.  These titles imply a whole lot more than simply believing.  All we really need to believe is that Jesus is the one who has called and that Jesus is the one who is sending us out.

What we believe does matter.  Because what we believe will give rise to what we do.  Those who follow Jesus do the work in the world that they have seen Jesus do.  Jesus’s disciples bind up the broken hearted and attend to those who are weighed down. 

May we all become believers in the call to follow Jesus.  May we all come to believe in the command of Jesus to cast out unclean spirits, curing every disease and sickness.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon - Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20     

                      “But some doubted”

The three lessons appointed for today were very carefully selected in order to illustrate the three aspects of our Triune God.  God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier – it is very important that Christians do realize, are taught, and remember that we confess and worship God as a Trinity.  Three persons, distinct, yet indivisible.   I am a huge fan of Trinity Sunday and an avid supporter of every effort to make sure that members of our churches are confronted with this doctrine of the Church.

However.  I have been waiting three years for this reading from Matthew 28 to turn up in the Lectionary.  I heard a sermon on this text while attending a conference in Minneapolis.  And I have been hankering for the chance to share what was preached to me.  The preacher that day was Bishop Will Willimon.  A native of Greenville, SC, he served as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, then as a Methodist Bishop, and is now retired and living back in Durham.  I am unapologetically stealing his insight – though I have no illusions I will be able to preach as convincingly as he does.

But here goes.

Matthew 28.  These verses are the last that Matthew will write.  What we have here is final encounter between Jesus and disciples.  Luke alone writes two books.  When he finished his account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, Luke writes a second book – the book of Acts – in order to help us understand what happens after all these thing had taken place.  Matthew and Mark close out their accounts soon after that fateful afternoon at Golgotha and not long after the bizarre Sunday morning when all heck breaks loose.

In Matthew 28 we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb.  In Matthew, it is while they are there that the earthquake occurs and there is an angel of the Lord who descends and rolls back the stone, and then sits on it.  The guards see this and are shaken.  Matthew tells us they become like dead men. 

The angel tells the women not to be afraid, that Jesus is risen.  He also tells the women to go tell Jesus’ disciples that he is going ahead of them, to Galilee, and they are to follow and see him there.

As the women start on their way, they are met by Jesus himself.  In Matthew, the women are allowed to touch him, in particular we are told that they took hold of his feet.  They worship Jesus, the scripture tells us, then Jesus reminds them of their assignment and sends them on their way to tell the disciples to head toward Galilee.

There is a short insertion about the plot between those shaken guards and the chief priests to lie about all of this.  And then we get to the verses read for us this morning.  The bumbling disciples do make their way to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them.  They get there, and then they see Jesus.  Again, there is some worshipping. 

It would be helpful to have some insight to what this “worshipping” was all about.  Did they fall down before Jesus?  Did they also take hold of his wounded feet?  Did they pledge themselves to him and to his message?  If we knew the form and format of that worshipping, we might be so perplexed about what happens next.

When they saw him, they worshipped him; Matthew tells us.  Then Matthew adds, “but some doubted.” 

“Some doubted”?  What, exactly did they “doubt?” 

The doubt most common among would-be disciples of Jesus is doubts regarding the resurrection itself.  But how could they doubt the resurrection when the resurrected Jesus is standing there with them?

Some doubted.  What, in the world, would they have reason to doubt?  Had they not been with him on Friday, and watched as the blood and breath and the life were wrung out of his beaten body?  They may have doubted the depth of human cruelty, but on that day they had seen it in full display.

“Some doubted.”  Did they doubt the ability of Jesus to keep his word?  Had he not promised them he would not leave them orphaned – and he didn’t.  Had he not promised them that he would show up in Galilee, if they were to make the trek out there – and here he is.

But some doubted.  What is it that they doubt?

Willimon invites us to consider that the doubts may be associated with the lines which follow.  Jesus invites them to that particular mountain top in order to remind them of what he had said to them before, on the top of the mountain.  Jesus had told them that it was his right to share with them the authority they needed to go forth into all the nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus had told them, and now he is reminding them, that if this whole thing is going to work it is up to them to teach others how to obey what Jesus had commanded.

Some doubted.

And we would surely not fault them for doubting, would we.  Are we not far too often victims of precisely the same doubt?

Some doubted - that they knew enough or could remember enough to tell the story and proclaim the message.

Some doubted - that their skills in public speaking were equal to the task of taking on the mantle of God’s spokesperson.

Some doubted – no doubt – that Jesus would really do this.  That Jesus would go away and say to them, “You are in charge.”  “Run with it.”  “Have fun!”  “Be faithful.”

Some doubted, and we can hardly blame them, that this bumbling bunch of dim-wits and screw-ups could form the foundation of a Church which would house the living word of God.

“When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”

I don’t know where in your experience you have seen Jesus.  But I know that you came out here today in order to worship him.  So I am going to ask you to allow me to place you firmly among those on the front-side of that semicolon.  You have seen Jesus, or seen enough of him, to worship him. 

I want to challenge you this morning with the second half of the sentence; with the part that comes after the semicolon.  Is there doubt in your heart?  Is there doubt on your tongue?  Do you doubt the action of Jesus in commissioning you to be the one who will now go to all the nations, baptizing and teaching?  Because that is what happens in Matthew 28, on that mountain top. 

I agree that it is a reckless thing to do – but there is no doubt that Jesus entrusted the telling of his story and the sharing of the Good News to those who had experienced it.  There will be the occasional heavenly visit, but the life and vitality of the Church of Jesus Christ rests solidly on the shoulders of his disciples.

One more part to this which I do not want to fail to mention.  It is to all of the disciples that Jesus gives this charge.  Not just to some; not only to a few; but to all of them. 

I was asked during the week about my sermon last week in which I spoke of the Spirit of God coming at Pentecost and blowing some things (some beautiful and faithfully crafted things) away.  I am on the same message today.  For the Church to be what God is calling it to be the Church must accept the hurricane strength breeze which is blowing among us and moving us.  We have got to return to our roots and harken less to the structures we have painstakingly crafted.

We do not gather on Sunday morning so the Gospel can be preached; we assemble on Sunday morning in order to be strengthened for the task of taking the good news into the world. 

When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.  They doubted that he would entrust them with this Holy Gospel.  They doubted that they would be equal to the challenge.  They doubted their own abilities.

But Jesus did not doubt them.  And Jesus had no doubts or misgivings.  And the expansion and ministry of the Church for these 2,000 years illustrates how correct Jesus was.

Do not doubt, but believe.  Believe that Jesus has this confidence in you.  Know that Jesus does not doubt your ability to be his messenger in the world.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21    

                                                                      The Wind Blows

We need to make sure that everyone has the basic information in their heads about Pentecost.  Pentecost is the Christian Festival on which we observe the sending (or arrival) of the Holy Spirit among the disciples.  All of this happens on “the day of Pentecost.” “Pentecost” is not an observance added to the calendar.  Pentecost is another Jewish festival onto which Christian tradition is added.  This is a rather common practice.  The events we observe each Easter are intertwined with the ancient liturgies of Passover.  It during Passover that the Christian story of the Last Supper occurs.  In John’s account, it is on the day of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs that Jesus dies an innocent death.

Pentecost was being observed, in Jerusalem, on the day that the events described in Acts 2 are depicted.  The people of God were assembled, to remember God’s activity in the past and to commit themselves to living in accordance to God’s hope for the future.  This celebration was already underway, and the people of God were comfortably repeating their liturgies and carrying out their traditions.  They were happy and content.  Comfortable in their relationship to God.

Then.  Something happens.  Acts tells us that there was “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.”  The whole house was filled with it.  And soon, those gathered in the house were filled as well.  And they began to speak.  And as they spoke devout followers of God from every corner of the world heard them and could understand.  Peter steps forward and tells them that all of this is God’s doing.  And he tells them that this sound, like the rush of a violent wind, is announcing good news.  God is adding to their stories and their traditions.  God is bringing them an update and God is inviting them to see Pentecost in a whole different light.    

That is what happens.  On the Day of Pentecost.  As recorded in The Acts of the Apostles.

These events became visual for me this week.  I will call it a revelation; a vision – from God.  This vision wasn’t only in my mind, my eyes participated as well.  And so did the camera in my smartphone.  I took a picture and we printed it on the cover of today’s bulletin. 

Right along the border of the two yards is this stand of day-lilies.  Our neighbor’s yard puts ours to shame, but Laura and I appreciate all their hard work.  We admired this flower bed, talked about it, and for weeks anticipated the day when the shafts would produce buds and the buds would burst forth into flower.  Then it happened!  And they were so beautiful! 

The hard work and care of faithful stewards of God’s creation resulted a lovely and admirable display of the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.  Something to behold; a work worthy of admiration; an end result too powerful for words.

But then, there came this thunderstorm.  We heard it.  But we also saw its effects.  The rush of a violent wind came upon that bed of day-lilies.  And the scene was changed.  Much of the bed of flowers remained; but you can see that a good number of them were blown to the ground.

Even an armchair agronomist knows and would quickly point out that the wind is not to blame or be feared.  In fact, without the wind, those beautiful blooms could not scatter their seeds.  Without the wind, rain would not come and rock would not be transformed into rich, fertile soil.

The vision, the revelation which I attempted to capture in this photo is an acknowledgement that these faithful stewards had used all their craft and devotion in order to craft a thing of beauty; and then God’s wind came.  When the wind came, some of what they had worked so hard to build was torn down.  That tearing down disappointed me, Laura, and others who were admiring what had been built up.  But it is God who makes the wind to blow.  And when God’s wind blows, that expression of God does what it is that God is doing.

We need to be careful, that we are too limited in our ability to see.  We need to be prepared, to accept the change which comes when something like the rush of a violent wind comes.  We may be too quick to stomp our feet and complain at the disruption this wind has brought upon that which we have crafted.  That wind is absolutely necessary to bring to completion that which God has created.

I didn’t do the work; but I was still disappointed when I saw what happened to the flowerbed my neighbor had worked so hard to establish.  I caught myself, but I did initially think “What a tragedy.”  That’s when it became a vision, a revelation.  Like those verses in Job when Job complains about the worm that kills the tree that had given him shade, God reminded me that I had not created those lilies nor had I tended them.  Who was I to place my desire for a thing of beauty above the designs and intricacies of God’s creation and the ends toward which God is calling that which God has made?

The devout followers of God who were gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost were no doubt content with the world as God had made it and revealed it to them.  They liked the beauty of their rituals and their Temple and their understanding of God’s involvement in their lives.  Then, there came a violent wind.  And it filled the whole house, and eventually it filled all those who were gathered in the house and then it began to fill the streets and the city and eventually the whole world.

Those who were there, that first day, probably would have liked to put that wind back in a bottle.  But they couldn’t.  And they didn’t.  They allowed the wind violently remake the world and the understanding God’s people have of what that world is to be like.

They started gathering on Sundays rather than Friday evenings.  They started making the sign of the cross when they prayed.  They would not neglect the widows and orphans – particularly the orphans and widows of those who did not share family blood lines and/or skin tones.  They begin to write new, sacred books and they instituted new religious festivals and reinterpreted old ones.

That wind was violent.  It disrupted so much of what they had come to know as God’s pattern for their lives.  It blew down their day-lilies, and wreaked havoc on the beautiful gardens they had planted and tended.

On this Pentecost Sunday, in the year of our Lord 2017, we would do well to prepare ourselves for an expression of that same violent wind.  (Actually, the text doesn’t say it was a violent wind, but a sound, like the rush of violent wind.  I also need to insert a reminder that the Hebrew word for “wind” is the same word as is used for “Spirit” and “Breath.”  So, this “wind” is to be understood as God’s “Spirit,” even God’s “breath”.)

  The form taken by God’s agent of change is up to God.  What we need to do is to be ready to experience it; we need to be prepared to embrace it; and I would go so far as to say that we need to be praying for its arrival.

I know I upset more than a few of you a few months back when I spoke about the popular notion that the church is in decline.  What I said then, I am saying again now, but I want to attempt to saying it with more clarity and precision.  The Church of Jesus Christ will never decline.  That is why I refer to it as a “popular notion.”  The Church of Jesus Christ grows stronger and more beautiful every day.  However, this reality should not be confused with the very real possibility that some of what we have (in good faith) built to house the Church of Jesus Christ may decline or even come to an end.

The thunderstorm which destroyed the day-lilies was of God and from God.

The disruption which began in Jerusalem on that Pentecost Day some 2000 years ago was of God and from God.

In this year of the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, we ought not be surprised at the suggestion that God’s presence among us is calling forth additional understandings and interpretations of the ancient writings and rituals.  God’s presence is being experienced among us; some of the day-lilies may fall; but let’s make sure we are welcoming this expression of God rather than attempting to put it back in the bottle.

The vision or revelation for which I am grateful did not bring any clarity as to what aspects of the way we express our devotion are to be blown over and which are to remain standing as tall as the day-lilies to the left of the photograph on our bulletins.  And I want to be very careful not to allow the revelation to become lost in my own agenda.  Perhaps every generation of followers has come to wonder if theirs was the age when things had gone downhill to the point where something needs to happen.  Maybe every society longs for making great again the institutions and structures which we have crafted and carefully attended.  Maybe.  But there seems to be an unsettled feel among God’s people.  It seems that some may already be hearing the arrival of that violent wind.

The vision of God’s violent wind, shaping the world to God’s liking without respect for what we think is best surely needs to be seen and shared in every age.  We need to ask whether what we have crafted and attended (all out of extreme devotion) is in keeping with what Jesus instructs his disciples to do.  It is those outside of the Church, or folks who have left the Church, or persons who explain why they don’t belong to a church who speak most often about the structures and systems which require tremendous energy to maintain.  Sometimes, it seems, at the expense of tending the lambs and feeding sheep. 

Exactly like the devout persons gathered in Jerusalem on the very first Pentecost of the modern era, I don’t want any wind or spirit to come and disrupt the Church, this congregation, my life.  I like things the way they are.  I have tended and crafted much of what surrounds us today, as we gather in this place.  But scripture won’t allow me to ignore how God acts.  And that bed of daylilies is an image I can’t get out of my head.  I will work to preserve and enhance the beautiful things we have built in the name of Christ.  But I will pray, and invite you to join me in praying, for the ability and strength to perceive, accept, and give thanks for the change which occurs when God’s Spirit blows among us.