March 4, 2012

“It is Hard to Follow”

Matthew 8: 31-38

On days like today, I wish I was not a lectionary preacher.

You must know that our worship folk began planning for this Sunday months ago, and we began with this prescription of texts for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, with Matthew 8:31-38 as the Gospel lesson.

I suppose I could have chosen one of the other four texts to emphasize in my sermon.  There is the text from Genesis 17, the second  of the great covenants in the Old Testament, the covenant with Abraham.  There is fertile homiletical ground there, why didn’t I choose that text?  I could have chosen the Psalm.  Psalms are always good.  I usually sneak them into the liturgy itself, but I could have chosen to preach on Psalm 22, that Psalm that is usually associated with Good Friday:

 22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

This could make a nice sermon, why not speak about God listening carefully for our cries for help?  I don’t know why I didn’t choose the psalm.   Even the Epistle would have been good.  It’s reflection on our inheritance of the promise to Abraham gives me a sigh of relief and wonder every time I read it.  I don’t know why I chose this text from Matthew 8 but I did and it is too late to turn back now.

I am not pleased, not one bit, by this turn of events.  What with Jesus chastising Simon Peter in front of the other disciples and all.  He even calls Peter names, where is Mary during all this?  Even my mother has told me never to call someone names.  Yes this exchange troubles me.

But what troubles me ever more is what comes next.  Jesus turns to all of the disciples and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This term, this word, was loaded with excess meaning.  For the disciples, who knew nothing of the end of this story other than the synopsis they are hearing now on the lips of their Lord, for them the cross was but a crude and brutal tool used by the Romans to ensure that the power resided with them and not with any of the many militants sneaking around Jerusalem.

I have a problem with this because I am not so sure that this message will resonate with my ‘core constituency.’  See, we are a people who have been conditioned by the politics of our age to gobble up sound bytes and politicians to struggle mightly to ‘stay on message,’ and a message massaged to resonate with the hearers.  I should have chosen a different text because I am not so sure that the notion that following Jesus is difficult, painful even, will resonate with our ‘core constituency’ here.

It is out there now.  Pastor Johnson has read this text and now I have to take some baskets and gather together the fragments.

If you are like me, you do understand that discipleship is not easy; considering the secular society in which we live.  It may be possible if one person attempted to do this, you know, some unreasonable sage who could cast off responsibility to family and community and take up their cross and follow Jesus.

In reality, this text was not directed at a person though.  It was directed at a people.  The challenge for the church is to not be distracted by all that glitters and glows and takes one step after another along this Way of Jesus.

Pastor Goguts has said, that pastoral ministry has two goals: “to make known the free grace given by Jesus Christ and to sustain and direct those who have recognized God’s grace so that they may increase their knowledge and love of God.”  I have tried to build upon this ministry we share, and I’ve characterized such work as ‘making and strengthening disciples.’

Since I arrived over 2 years ago I have heard directly and indirectly a yearning for increasing the program and ministry of Hain’s church.  I hope and pray that we have been building upon the solid foundation of faithfulness which I received.  I have to tell you, however, that as far as I can tell there is one significant step we need to take to move in this direction:  to call Pastor Johnson as a full-time associate that can help us strengthen and further develop our ministry here at Hain’s.  I spoke to the Elders last Thursday night about this subject, particularly by laying out my hopes and dreams for our faithful discipleship.  I want you to hear me say that this step is not the beginning of our mission to serve Christ here on the hill, but it is an important step along the way to increasing our faithfulness.  This step is simply a way to equip ourselves to grow in our mission and ministry.

One reasonable question is: “What will he do with all that time?”  He will add to those things he already does, more opportunities to make and strengthen disciples: to continue with development of small groups, more teaching, more resourcing to the Youth, and help improve our caring for one another.

Some of you, undoubtedly, will have a thousand questions.  Ok, I exaggerate, five-hundred questions.  I wish I had all the answers, but I don’t.  I do know that when a group of disciples who are committed to following the way of Jesus, that we cannot over estimate what is possible for them.  This step is not a done deal, but I am asking and will be asking the leaders of our congregation to join me in this crazy and unreasonable journey, this following of Jesus; and, to figure out how we can get this step done in the near future.

If I am right, there is not any special achievement in doing this.  No, it is instead another step in the direction of faithful ministry.  The problem is that journeys like this take a certain about of giving up something of ourselves.  It is hard to focus our energy on Divine things and not human things.  It is not enough to center our attention (and our handwringing) on so-called practical matters.  Neither is it adequate to insist that God said this to me, so get going on it.

When I answered the call to ordained ministry I knew that there would be a certain amount of personal sacrifice.  I admit that there were daydreams in my head about ultimate sacrifice.  I think about the assassination of Arch Bishop Oscar Romero, while he was celebrating the Eucharist, the death squads came for him because of his advocacy of the poor in Nicaragua.   If I were in this scene there would be families that would come to the place where Jon died.  There was weeping in the afternoon, fathers telling their sons, look here, this is where Pastor Fogle gave it all up for Jesus.  But as the years have gone by I have realized that very few of us are so blessed, most of us, convinced as we are that Jesus has given us a mission in the world, have to die a little bit every day.  We have to give something of ourselves to the world so that what is revealed in our simple task of creating space for them to join us is the grace of God.

I do not want to leave you here, only believing that discipleship involves a great leap to faith, even though it does.  But let me add that having made the leap, death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead. That is His victory, that is how he wins the final, apocalyptic battle over the power of Satan.  That is why His life turns the wisdom of this world on its head. And that event, that tomb where our Lenten journey ends, means that death, nor the distractions of this world will not be allowed to speak the last word over Him, or over us either — thanks be to God!