Monday, July 9, 2007

Seven Easy Steps to Discipleship

Well, my parade of worship services is almost over. I've gotten past Children's Sunday, High School Youth Sunday, and my preaching stint yesterday. All I have left is my pulpit fill in at a neighboring congregation next week.

For those who've asked, I've posted the sermon that I preached yesterday below.
I had planned to recycle this sermon and use it for the pulpit fill-in next Sunday. The preacher they had filling in yesterday didn't follow the lectionary so there was no danger in repeating a message they've already heard, but now I'm thinking that I need to go in another direction.

This is a congregation that had its pastor resign suddenly at the end of May and now they're scrambling to fill the pulpit until they find an interim.
I don't know the details of the resignation, but I do know that this is not a congregation that needs to hear the message that I preached yesterday, which was a strident call for discipleship. This is a congregation that is still recovering from the shock of losing their minister. They need to hear a message of hope, of healing, of finding one's way out of the dark and into the light.

The bulletin details are due tomorrow so I have one day to come up with a sermon title and appropriate scripture passage, Call to Worship, etc.
As usual, I trust God to lead the way.


Seven Easy Steps to Discipleship!
July 15, 2007

At General Synod a few weeks ago I was inside the Hartford Civic Center along with thousands of others listening to Bill Moyers speak. Those of us sitting in the upper section of the arena had our eyes fixed on one of the four giant video screens suspended from the rafters, our attention hanging on Moyers' every word, but at one point I was distracted by movement in the floor section below. Next to the audio soundboard there was a small boy, no more than two years old, playing catch with his father.

The little boy was wearing knee-length shorts, a blue and white checkered shirt, and converse sneakers; an outfit that invoked memories of a 1950's Leave it to Beaver. As he tossed a white whiffle ball back and forth to his father, I remember thinking how idyllic this scene was. Bill Moyers was speaking about the passionate call to action we harbor in the United Church of Christ. The crowd was pulsating with positive energy. And in the midst of all this a father was playing with his young son, exemplifying the universal ideals of family, community, and relationship.
As I took all of this in I could just hear this sermon writing itself…..

And then, I watched as the father gently tossed the ball to his son, the little boy caught the ball, spun around to his left and lobbed it with all his might at an unsuspecting passerby, hitting the poor man square in the head.

At that moment Bill Moyers was speaking about the wrenching suffering that arises from poverty and injustice, and I was laughing.

I was laughing at the absurdity of my effort to capture a poetic snapshot of the moment, to find patterns of predictability in what is ultimately an entirely unpredictable world.
Events rarely happen the way we expect them to.

Our scripture reading today is for some a lesson in predictability.
It contains Jesus' instructions on discipleship. A road map for those who heed his call and set out to evangelize; bringing God's message to an often hostile world.
In contrast to other scriptural passages, where Jesus chooses to teach using ambiguous questions or parables, this passage flat out says "if you want to be a disciple this is how you do it."

Just follow these seven easy steps and you too will be called a messenger of God.

Step One: Travel light.
2. Don't talk to anyone on the way.
3. Bless every house that you enter.
4. Stay in one place, don't move around a lot.
5. Eat whatever is put in front of you.
6. Cure the sick while declaring that the Kingdom of God is near.
And 7. If any town should reject your message, shake the dust off your feet and be on your way.

It sounds easy on the surface.
Until we unpack each step and examine what Jesus is asking us to do.

Step One: Travel light. Take nothing with you, not even a bag or a pair of sandals.
We could wring a whole sermon out of this one. We could go on about the evils of consumerism and how we all tend to have too much stuff that only serves to weigh us down on our journey. But in reality, if God commanded us to hit the road without our iPod and our bottled water we could do it.
Just ask anyone who has traveled on an airplane recently.
The Gospels are full of stories of those who cast all they had aside to follow Jesus - their possessions, their livelihoods, their families and friends. Is this what Jesus is asking us to do? To give up all the things that bring us happiness, the work that gives our lives purpose, the relationships that God himself has called us to build? I don't think so.

I believe this command to travel light addresses our tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be, particularly when it comes to expressing our Christian faith.
Jesus taught a simple message. Love God. Love each other.

That's a difficult enough message for a disciple to teach without bogging it down with a bunch of extraneous creeds, doctrines, and theological litmus tests. The longer the list of do's and don'ts that we attach to Jesus' simple message, the less likely it is that it will be heard or adopted.
"Travel light," he told the disciples.
"Take only what I have taught you, and leave the rest behind."

Step Two: Do not greet anyone along the way.
This one is hard to decipher. It seems to go against the Christian understanding of mission and hospitality; but when we look at the text in its original form we learn it does not refer to a simple "hi, how are you" exchanged on the road, but to a more formal greeting that Jews were required to participate in when traveling between territories. These salutations were often complicated rituals that could take up to 3 hours to complete. In Jesus' eyes these rituals were time consuming and pointless.

Broken down from its literal meaning this step simply tells us not to get distracted from our mission. To not let extraneous side events keep us from focusing on delivering, or living, God's message. To not let the time we spend with our work, our hobbies, our obsessions, our addictions, keep us from building a healthy relationship with God, with our family and friends, with our community.

Step Three: Bless each home that you enter by saying "Peace to this House."
This is an easy one, if the only houses we enter are our own, or those of our friends and family. It's when we step into unfamiliar territory, houses that belong to those of another culture, another class, or even those whom we may consider to be our enemy; that's when we have trouble looking past what we perceive to be flaws.

The d├ęcor that is not to our taste, the cleanliness that is not up to our standards, the strange smells emanating from the kitchen, the noise of a language that we can't understand, and a bombardment of religious, social, or political beliefs that we neither understand nor accept. If we can't walk into our neighbor's house and call for peace, what hope is there for us to walk into our enemy's house and do the same?

Jesus did say: Call for Peace in EACH house that we enter. If we swap the word "peace" with "love" we'll see that we're being asked to put aside our urge to judge, to condemn, to dismiss, and to instead practice the same unconditional love with others that God offers to us. To love is to bless. And no one is exempt from receiving either.

Step Four: Choose a place to lodge and stay there; do not move from house to house.
This is a hard one for our mobile society. Either by choice or by force of situation, we tend not to stay in one place for too long. How many of us here were born and raised in this state, in this town, in this church? How many of us grew up elsewhere but now call this place home? How many of us are travelers who have chosen to settle here at this moment in time but there's no telling where we'll be five or ten years from now?

Jesus told his disciples to stay in one place whenever they entered a town so they would avoid offending their hosts. It was an act of hospitality to accept whatever one's host had to offer as far as accommodations. But once again, if we go beyond the text's literal meaning we discover that this step is espousing the advantage of putting down roots, of making connections that last, staying long enough to make an impression, taking the time to get to know those whom God has brought into our lives. People are more likely to accept the message if they know and trust the messenger.

Step Five: Eat whatever is put in front of you.
I'm convinced that my mother wrote this one.
I was once forced to sit at the dinner table until 10:00 at night with a plate of cold beef stew in front of me. I did not eat it.
This step is a hard one to follow. And I'm sure the people at Weight Watchers would prefer to cross it right off the list.

Taken literally, it is yet another call for hospitality on the part of the disciples. Don't insult the host by rejecting what he has to offer. What this step really is, is a call for inclusiveness.

The disciples were heading out into the world of the Gentiles and Jesus was in essence giving them permission to ignore the Jewish dietary laws that prohibited them from eating certain foods. To not only avoid insulting the hosts, but to let the gentiles know that they were legitimate recipients of God's inclusive message, regardless of whether they adhered to Jewish law or not. The same message applies to us today. As Jesus taught, it is not what we put in our mouths that defiles us, but what comes out of our mouths.
We live by our words, by our actions, and performing religious rituals does not absolve us from discipleship. So a modern reading of this text might be:
It matters not what we do in church, but what we do outside of it.

Step Six: Cure the sick while declaring that the Kingdom of God is near.
This is the one that baffles us. In Jesus' day curing the sick meant casting out demons, and that is not something we learn to do in Sunday School. Although I'm sure there are a few Sunday School teachers who wish they had that ability.

Today, in most cases, we can cure the sick, with medicine, technology, and old-fashioned TLC. But just as in Jesus' day, the illnesses we encounter aren't always physical; they can be emotional or spiritual.
And it is our presence, our compassion, our hope, that Jesus tells us to rely on. These are the tools that God has given us to cast out demons, and as disciples we're meant to use them.

The second part of this step, tells us to declare that the Kingdom of God is near.
Theologically we can talk about the Kingdom of God as either being something that will happen in the future during the end times, or something that we can build in the here in now….we need God's help to do it, but we have the power to make it happen.
Regardless of which Kingdom of Heaven theology we subscribe to, step seven is the one that we mainline Protestants struggle with the most. It is a call to evangelize. To go out into the world and proclaim God's message.

Too often we equate the call to evangelize with television preachers or street corner prophets. We dismiss it as the work of those who go door to door leaving scriptural tracts in mailboxes or who corner us in public places asking us if we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. This is not the New-England UCC way of proclaiming God's message.
We prefer to let our actions speak for us. We work tirelessly for the poor and the marginalized. We enact policies and support laws that protect the powerless and promote inclusiveness in our churches and in our communities.
We live our Christian faith in our every day actions.

But when the news media seeks out a spokesperson to get the "Christian perspective" on an issue, it's not our voice that is being heard. God's message of love, forgiveness, and grace for all is not what we hear emanating from the pulpits of those doing the evangelizing in the world today. Yet theirs is the voice of Christianity that the non-Christian world often hears, and thus all Christians are assumed to be the same.

The world does not know that we exist.

I spoke at a Unitarian Universalist congregation last summer, a denomination that champions social justice and equality but has moved away from its Christian roots. The topic of my sermon was Progressive Christianity and how it differs from what has become known as the Christian Right. After the service several people came up to me and were curious to learn more about our denomination, the United Church of Christ.
One woman said, and I quote:
"I thought all Christians were the same, they were all narrow minded fundamentalists or biblical literalists who only cared about abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring the plight of the poor and the oppressed.
I didn't know that there were Christians like you."

Our voice is not being heard.
Yet we continue to remain silent, out of fear of conflict, or fear of causing offense, or fear of being pegged as a religious zealot.
There's nothing wrong with letting our faith speak through our actions, in fact this is what Jesus commands us to do. But Jesus also tells us to not be afraid to use our voices. To speak out in the face of religious hypocrisy and injustice. To refute the Pharisees when they accuse us of being weak or immoral because we dare to associate with the outcasts of society.
To show the world an image of Christianity that we believe Jesus intended us to promote.
An image of love, and forgiveness, and grace for all.

This is not an easy thing to do.
In fact, Jesus got himself killed for doing just this.
But the cost of discipleship is often high.
Jesus sent his disciples out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
And he asks us to do the same.
We may not be asked to literally die for our beliefs, but we're being asked to step outside of our comfort zone. To wear our faith on our tongue as well as on our sleeve.
And we don't have to ring doorbells or grab a bull-horn and stand on a street corner to do it.
We need only speak up and identify ourselves as Christians when we hear others using language that promotes bigotry or exclusion in any form.
And the next time we feel called to express our opinion on the issues of today, we can simply say "Well I am a Christian, and this is what Jesus taught us to do…."

This leads us to the seventh and final step:
If you come to a town that refuses to hear the message you have brought, shake the dust off your feet in protest, and be on your way.

This one is a lot harder than it sounds. It's not easy to walk away from those who reject us. To just leave them be without doing everything in our power to convince them of how wrong they are and how right we are. It's even harder to walk away when we know that we are wrong but pride is keeping us from admitting it. This step requires us to let go. To admit that we're not always in control. That we can't always predict the way things are going to turn out.
That sometimes we just have to trust God to take care of what we can't.

I found this out a few weeks ago when organizing the service for Children's Sunday.
Organizing a Children's Sunday is like trying to coach a pee wee soccer team.
You kind of herd the kids in the right direction and hope the ball goes in the goal.

The night before our first and only rehearsal I sat down and wrote a detailed list of everything that we needed to cover to be ready for Sunday.
I even envisioned how the rehearsal would go. I would explain to the kids what they needed to do, they would listen intently and then they would proceed to do what I told them to do.

Needless to say, the rehearsal did not go quite as I had planned: I spent 15 minutes trying to get them all to stay in the same room while I discussed their assignments. I distributed neat, color coded folders with all the needed bulletins, scripts, and hymns inside, which they proceeded to dump all over the library floor because no one received the color folder that they actually wanted.

Once we got everything sorted we moved to the sanctuary to practice.
We weren't 5 feet inside the door before one child had her shoes off, two were sliding up and down the pews on their backs, one turned on the sound system and was in the pulpit yelling into the microphone, two were in the back of the church looking for trouble in the narthex, one had the collection plate and was threatening to use it as a Frisbee, and one was in the choir loft dangling a stuffed tiger over the balcony.

For the next 30 minutes I had them run through everything that they needed to do while they wandered off, asked questions unrelated to what we were doing, insisted on going to the bathroom every 5 minutes, and generally carried on as if I was just a voice buzzing in the background.
Can you tell this is my first year teaching Sunday School? Can you tell that I have very little experience trying to control a group of hyper-active children?
Would it then surprise you if I told you I came home that night with a giant grin on my face?

I'm learning as I'm going, and as trying as nights like that night can be, I love working with the kids. I like seeing them learn new things, ask questions, and figure out what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Come Sunday the kids pulled it all together and did a fabulous job.
I wouldn't have predicted it, but the service came out even better than I expected.

Like the little boy in the Hartford Civic Center who shattered my idyllic imagery when he threw his ball at an unsuspecting stranger's head, there is no such thing as predictability.
You can't make a list of things to do and expect to follow it without fail.

There's no such thing as seven easy steps to discipleship.
There's no such thing as seven easy steps to anything.
Life is unpredictable. Life is messy.
Life refuses to fit into our little categorical boxes no matter how hard we try to stuff it in.

What it comes down to is that we're not always going to be perfect disciples.

We're going to set out on journeys and find that we're carrying way too much stuff.
We're going to stop and talk to people along the way and get distracted from what we set out to do.
We're going to be guests in people's houses and say and do things that can be considered less than hospitable.
We're going to get bored with where we are and insist on moving on to somewhere new.

We're not going to eat everything that is put in front of us.

We're going to forget that the Kingdom of God is not some far off never-never land that we'll never see, but it is instead a description of a world that we have the power to create in the here and now.
We're going to continue to feel uncomfortable expressing our faith verbally and avoid challenging those who claim to speak for God….because it so much easier not to.

And we're not going to shake the dust off our feet and walk away from those who reject us or our message. We're going to hang around too long hoping that they'll come to their senses or we're going to walk away carrying resentment and anger.
We may be disciples but we're also human.

Ultimately the purpose of discipleship is to enact change, to transform ourselves and our communities into the Kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned for us two thousand years ago.
If life was predictable and never challenged us to think on the fly, we'd never learn how far we are capable of going. We'd never discover the abilities we didn't know we had.

As author Diane Butler Bass so eloquently expressed in her book Christianity for the Rest of Us:

"Transformation is the promise at the heart of Christian life."

Discipleship is not about personal salvation or getting everyone else saved, it's not about practicing the politics of exclusion or moral purity. It's about the promise of transformation.
That by God's mercy, we can change, our congregations can change, our world can change.

So as we walk out of this church today let us remember that we are called to be disciples of Jesus, not just in our church lives, but in our whole lives.
And all we have to do, is remember these seven easy steps:

Travel Light
Stay focused
Love all
Build relationships
Be inclusive
Use your voice as well as your hands
Learn to let go, and let God take care of the rest.

Blessed Be

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