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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Disciples On the Move

Luke 9:51-62
 (Sung) Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? 
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
            This is the first verse of the hymn we will sing together in just a few moments. It’s a beautiful song with a lovely tune, but listen to those words and consider the meaning at the heart of this song. Pay attention to them as you sing them. They reflect both the invitation of Jesus to be his disciples to follow him, to commit to a life shaped and guided by Jesus Christ himself, and the need for each of us to respond to this invitation:
“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?”
“Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?”
            The kind of discipleship that Jesus calls for takes courage, and it takes faith that God will lead us and guide our way, showing us what it is that God has in mind for us as individuals, at members of a community of faith, as citizens of the world, and as human beings created and sustained by the love of God.
We don’t know where such following will lead. It does take trust to follow. It also takes trust in God’s plan to keep following when the results you want or expect are not the results you necessarily see and experience.
            Each week, we gather to worship and praise God. That is the primary focus and objective of our worship service. We come to be stirred up and to be challenged in our discipleship. Jesus gathers us around the table in the meal we share. Here, we are forgiven for our failures to follow as Jesus commands, and we are nourished and strengthened in the meal as we are sent out into the world to try again. We are called to share the love of God with our neighbor, and we are emboldened to go out in courage, knowing not where our path of discipleship will lead us.
            “Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known?”
            Listening to the Word of God and hearing the proclamation of the gospel are part of our preparation for going out. We love, because we have experienced God’s love and we share the story because we want others to know and experience the same kind of  love, mercy, and grace that is uniquely from God. The gospel of Luke today reveals some key things that disciples need to know as they follow Jesus by going out into the world. So let’s look a little more closely at this gospel text.
We are told here that Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem. That turn of phrase – “to set one’s face” means to move with firm determination; to move with purpose and resolve; to proceed with confidence and courage.
You and I know why Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. We know, although the disciples do not know, what will happen when Jesus arrives in there. We know the rejection he will face there. We know where this journey toward Jerusalem will take him, and how it will end.
But as we read these words, Jesus is just starting out, embarking on this journey, a journey that begins in chapter 9 but doesn’t actually end with Jesus reaching the city of Jerusalem until the end of chapter 19. As a result, my friends, we will be reading about this journey and learning more and more about what following Jesus means, for the next 19 weeks.
The path Jesus follows between this beginning place and his destination of Jerusalem is not a direct flight. It is like getting on a plane from Baltimore, Maryland for your destination of Chicago, Illinois, and having your plane take you there via Birmingham Alabama, Wichita Kansas, and Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, with stops along the way, before you finally make it to Chicago. Some of your stops are planned. Some are detours and emergency stops along the way. But you continue to persist, knowing that Chicago is really where you want to be.  
I suppose the fact that Jesus’ trip was so circuitous should comfort us, because our own journey of discipleship seems just as convoluted sometimes. Our individual stories often take unexpected twists and turns, and so does the story of our mission as the church of Christ. There are surprises along the way, and disappointments, and successes and failures, and sweet times of years past, and challenges as we vision for the future. Twists and turns require us to be strong and enduring, faithful and joyful. They also require us to listen carefully to the message Jesus brings.
Jesus wants to prepare us well for the work of being his disciples.
All along the way on his journey, Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to do mission and ministry for God, and what they need to know about following Jesus even when he is no longer with them.
Because of course, just as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and knows what he will encounter there, Jesus also knows intimately well the kinds of challenges his disciples will face – both now and in the future.
And so, there is a lot of movement in these verses. Just look at the words we see most often repeated –
Jesus set his face to journey to Jerusalem (vs.51)
            -and journeying they enter into a Samaritan village (vs. 52)
                        -because his face was journeying into Jerusalem (vs. 53)
                                    -and they journeyed into another village (vs. 56)
                                                -and as they journeyed on the way, a certain person said to him… (vs. 57)
Then there are these –
“They were going along the road…” (vs. 57)
“I will follow wherever you go.” (vs. 57)
                        “Let me go first to bury my father.” (vs. 59)
                                    “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (vs. 60)
It seems that discipleship happens in constant movement –that is, continued movement is required of disciples – Jesus discourages and admonishes those who want to look back for the purpose of staying with one foot planted in the past. It is hard – no, it is impossible to be a disciple if there is no movement.
An important aspect of discipleship is being willing to go where God sends, where Jesus calls us to go. One of the great challenges of the church today is that for so many years, because the culture around us supported church membership and church participation, it seemed discipleship meant no more than coming to church, being friendly toward those who visited, opening our purses to the needs that were brought to us, supporting ministry near and far through the work we did inside our walls. At least, that is often the way we worked, and how our lives as church played out. But Jesus doesn’t call us and say, “Stay put,” or “Play it safe”.
We live in an age in which those things we came to expect are no longer true. In the church of the past, we became complacent. We knew that the church would always be here, and that it would be here for us. We expected that the pews would always be filled by those who found their way to and through our doors. Then we would do what we do best by welcoming those who came.
But Jesus prepares his disciples for mission and ministry that takes place outside the walls of any building -  even in a hostile world. And what does Jesus tell his disciples to do? Go!
First, Jesus sends his disciples out. He sends them into places and territories where they are strangers, no longer members among a close-knit group. They enter a village of Samaritans, and we remember that the Samaritans are considered “other” – Jews are not supposed to mix with Samaritans, and vice versa. Yet Jesus sends them to this place where the preparations they seek to make ready for Jesus are not welcome – where they are not welcome. Where Jesus is not welcome. Just like many places today.
Their first instinct is to crush those who don’t want to receive Jesus. The rejection stings. Who wants to endure more of that? And who wants to be sent out, only to face defeat and failure – and hostility? But Jesus has a different response. They are instructed to depend on the hospitality of those they visit, to wipe the dust from their feet if they are not accepted, and to wish whomever they encounter and interact with, peace.
As we reach outside our walls, we learn from this story that the good news in Jesus Christ will not always be welcome. Go anyway. We may not feel “ready”. Go anyway. We will not know what the outcome will be. Go anyway. And preach the gospel; the sometimes unwelcome, challenging word of a loving, inclusive Lord God who expects much from his disciples.
Jesus tells those who are procrastinating, let go of the past and all that holds you back from truly following him. “Lord, first let me go bury my father.” And Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Discipleship at its heart calls us to follow Jesus, to go where we don’t know the ending, to deny our tendency to cling to the past, to forget what the church was like 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even 7 years ago - and to look toward the future, while serving God in the present.
We confess that this is a hard thing for us to do. We don’t like this challenging “new” world. We want the direct flight, the non-stop journey to our destination. We don’t like all these detours and delays.
What kinds of things hold us back from discipleship – from following Jesus?
Most often, fear – fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of successfor if we go among strangers, or if we welcome outsiders in, we will be changed. We fear the unknown.
Frankly, if discipleship means letting go of all these things, “none of us will make the cut to follow Jesus. Our desire for soft pillows and comfortable beds, for fulfilling family and social obligations, [even] our patriotism will frequently have higher priorities than following Jesus – especially following Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and the cross.” (Brian Stoffregen)
Yet, our ever-loving Jesus is calling us to let go of all those things. As Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, he is calling us to follow him, and promises the gift of his Spirit will constantly be with us, making discipleship possible.
In a moment we will sing, “Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”
What will our answer be? By the power of the Holy Spirit, let it be ‘yes.’
Please pray with me:
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.*

* From Morning Prayer, Evangelical Lutheran Worship,2006.


Monday, June 20, 2016

The Demands of a Broken-Hearted God

Galatians 3:23-29 & Luke 8:26-39
For many of us, thinking back on the parent-child relationship calls to mind complicated feelings and memories, especially as they apply to the demands of our parents. Who here does not remember a time, when their parents seemed overly demanding, with high expectations and what you deemed as low tolerance for goof-ups? Even in the best parent-child relationships, although the intent of the parent is good, reasonable and responsible, the demands of a parent may seem harsh and unwelcomed. Especially during those rebellious, teenage years. Sometimes those feelings persist into adulthood.
Well, my friends, the truth is, ours is a demanding, unsettling God, a God who also makes demands of us, demands we are often unprepared to hear and unwilling to follow.
We much prefer the God who is full of grace, (which he is) who forgives us all our sins, (which, through Christ, he does), who promises us great things, who blesses us abundantly, who is ever for us and ever before us, and never asks us for a thing.
So, while it is true that God is the giver of all good things, there is also the other aspect of God, the God who, in relationship with us says, “yes, I love you and you are mine, and there is nothing in this world or the next that can change that. I have given you unending life through Jesus. But it is not for you alone. It is for the goodness of the kingdom of God in which you have a stake. Therefore, there are things I need you to do.” And then come the demands.
The demands of God begin with things like,
believe in me,
trust in me,
            love me, and
be still, and know that I am God.  
            Frankly, those seem like okay demands, inviting us into a relationship where God is our rock.
But then, there are these others: Look out and stand up for those who are ignored, preyed upon, or oppressed. Show mercy to all, love the stranger, forgive as you wish to be forgiven. Turn away from the things that have come before, and follow me by following Jesus.  
Of course there are these demands we Lutherans especially love to hate – “go!” Jesus says, “Go out into the world; spread the good news; tell my story; tell others about the good things you have seen and heard. And remember, to follow me, you will love like me, live like me, and die like me.”
Whoa! These demands are a little more tricky, and we are as resistant to those as we were to those of our earthly parents.
Then we realize the truth: This loving, demanding God has expectations. And it is our nature to push back against them. They are demands we often ignore. They call us out of our comfort zone. They make this relationship with God not about me anymore, but about God, and about the things and the people God values and cares for.
When it comes right down to it, these demands have one thing at the core – love. They all hinge on what Jesus called the great commandment, that we love the Lord our God above everything else and that love be at the core of all we do, of our relationships with all people.
Obeying God then becomes about sharing this love that Jesus modeled so perfectly and allowing it to shape our lives so clearly that others will see and know that we are disciples of Christ.
Events in our world today call us to be ever more faithful stewards of this family that God has created but which has become so fractured and torn apart by sin.  These events testify just how much the world needs to know the healing, saving, inclusive love of God. It is this love, created by faith through Christ, of which Paul writes when he argues that in Christ, we are made children of God and we are clothed with Christ.
Because of Jesus, within the human family created by God, there is to be no  distinction – no difference - among us. In Paul’s words, There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female. There is to be among us no distinction by age, class, color, language, nationality, sexuality or religion.
In the human family of God’s creation we are all one, while at the same time expressing the individuality with which we are blessed in myriad ways. We are all members of one family, where love and acceptance, mutual respect and equality are presumed. In this family of God, we are not all the same, but we are all cherished the same, with no distinction in the economy of God’s care – black, white, Christian, Jew, Muslim, agnostic, Taoist; rich, and poor, straight or queer, God has created and loves us all.
In the past year, as we have watched, horrified at events unfolding in the world all around us, we have become more aware than ever of our own failures and at the systemic failure to make God’s way known. It was one year ago this week that the massacre of black Christians during a bible study in a church in Charleston, South Carolina took place; a massacre committed by one of our own, deeply entrenched in racist ideology.
A week ago, as we gathered for worship here in our sanctuary, news outlets were broadcasting the horrific details, yet unfolding, of another, larger, hate-inspired massacre, a mass killing that has earned the distinction of “largest-ever,” mass shooting in our country. The divide in our culture and in our country is so wide, and the bigotry and hatred of groups so pervasive, that this kind of violence has become routine, except by its scope. Who is possessed by demons now?
It has to stop. This, has. To. Stop. The God we experience and know abhors the killing, abhors the hatred, and is deeply saddened by the divisions and in-fighting that follows every one of these atrocities. We live in a society that is so divided by our differences that rather than come together in solidarity following each of these tragedies, we become further polarized.
The God who gave his own son over to death for the salvation of the world is a demanding God, a God who demands our love not only for Godself but for one another. The God who demands our compassion be poured out on the “least of these” will not stop sending us out to heal the sick and tend to the broken-hearted, and commands our love for all people.
The texts we have before us today invite and demand our participation in the mission of reaching out to those who are disenfranchised, those who are hated, those who are persecuted. The texts we have before us today testify to just how much the world needs to know the healing, saving, inclusive love of God.
In our Gospel story, Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the sea on their way to Gerasa, which is in Gentile territory. On the way the disciples’ boat was beset by a storm, which Jesus miraculously stilled – the discipes are amazed and frightened – how is it that Jesus has the power to still a stormy sea, calm the winds, and transform their terror?
When they arrive on the distant shore, they encounter a Gentile man whom Jesus heals, from whom demons, who obey Jesus’ command, are driven. Not only does the natural world of wind and rain and catapulting waves obey Jesus, but the supernatural world of demons knows and obeys him as well.
Jesus heals and transforms a man who has been so encumbered by demons that his whole identity has been swallowed up by their possession of him. So overcome by demons has the life of this man become that when Jesus asks him his name, he tragically replies not with a name as you and I have, but with a label that underscores the horrible possession he has endured – one that has rendered him inhuman. But Jesus knows better. Jesus connects him to his humanity.
My friends, there is nowhere that God will not go to reach, love and free those who are broken and despairing. Not only is the demoniac a Gentile, living in the wrong zip code, without a name of his own or an identity, but because of the demons possessing him, he has been hanging out in the tombs – you know – where dead people are lain.
On so many accounts, it would be understandable for Jesus to pass him by. He is perilously unclean – he is possessed by an unclean spirit, living in an unclean place, among the dead. By any measure, one to be avoided and despised. This is the very last place Jesus should be, and the very last person Jesus should have anything to do with. And yet – that is exactly where God usually shows up.
After his healing, he sits at the feet of Jesus – this is the place disciples sit. He wants to go where Jesus will go when he returns to Galilee. But Jesus tells him, no, stay and go – go tell the story of what I have done for you.
They will see your transformation and understand my power and authority.
Tell them that there is nowhere that God will not go to breathe life into those who are dead. Jesus does not leave this man unforsaken, but transformed. David Lose writes:
“…there is no place on earth that is God-forsaken. Moreover, and more importantly, there is no person that is God-forsaken. Unclean. Outcast. Abandoned. Unpopular. Incarcerated. Unbeliever. No one is left out. Consider, there is no indication that this Gentile man later became Jewish or, for that matter, Christian. He wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back home with the instructions, “Go and tell what God has done for you.”
To put all this another way: There are no conditions to be met to receive God’s love. You don’t have to be wealthy…or poor. You don’t have to be from one ethnic group…or another. You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or come to faith only recently, or have any faith at all. Jesus seeks out everyone, even this unclean man possessed by an unclean spirit living in an unclean place. And just so God loves all: male and female; young and old; gay or straight; white, black, Asian, Latino; believers and non-believers; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist; the list goes on.
“Which might make us ask, where are we willing to go? Whom are we willing to love? In the wake of one more violent crime of hate and terror, we need, I think, first to be reminded that God is always among those in greatest pain and need and, second, that we are sent to go and do likewise. This week, that means God was particularly present in Orlando, and so should we, whether physically present, via vigil other means of support, or in our own corporate and personal prayer.
“This is not often easy work, of course, but we take it up and go out knowing that as God is sending us, God is with us, working through us to seek out those in need, to share a word of mercy and grace, and to witness to the hope we have in Jesus, the one who continues to seek us out when we feel down and out, caught in the shadow lands, eager for a new name, identity and future. 

Thanks be to God!