Sunday, August 03, 2008

Throw Open the Doors

“Throw Open the Doors” is a sermon that was delivered in worship at Euharlee Presbyterian on July 27, 2008.

Scripture: Luke 10:1-9

Sermon:
If your family is at all like mine, I bet you have some family stories. Some of us have close friends that we share funny stories with as well. Most of those stories are best if you were there or if you know the people involved. But some stories are just good no matter what. Like one of the many times my mother, Lord bless her, a single working parent with three children (an eleven year old son, a fourteen year old daughter, and a seventeen year old son) tried to instill manners and maintain decorum at the dinner table. On this particular occasion my brother, heathen that he was, salted his food before tasting it. My mother, who always sat up straight, stiffened her lip, lifted her nose ever so slightly and said in an austere southern voice, “Jeffrey Scott Sasser, only barbarians salt their food before tasting.” The stillness was palpable as my brother took in the attack upon his sensibilities. Then he and I looked at each other and said, “Cool!” as we grabbed for the salt, trying to be more barbaric than one another.

In my wife’s family, the favored story is that of her father on the night her sister, Beth, was introducing Dave, who is now Beth’s husband, to the family. Now Treva is the youngest of five, so family functions are always big and fun. Treva’s mom is rushing about taking care of everyone and asks her dad to go find another chair for the table. A few minutes later he is seen circling the outside of the house before coming in and falling asleep on the couch. You see, he is a diabetic and his blood sugar had dropped, making him a little bit confused. Fortunately his eldest son Harry, who is a nurse, was there, and they were able to take care of him. And from that point forward, everyone remembers the day they met Dave (even those of us who were not there).

Whether they are serious or funny, family stories connect us to one another in ways that even our experience of one another can not. They make us a part of something bigger than we are, and they offer us a reason to stay connected even when we may not want to. That is why we, as Christians, find so much comfort and value in scripture. The Bible is God’s living word, and it can touch us in different ways depending on our situations and experiences. In studying today’s passage, it occurs to me how very differently this story can impact someone depending on their faith journey. It seems geared toward those who believe fully in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Even so, I think there is some level of invitation for those who may be unsure of this God we find revealed in Jesus Christ; this loving, all powerful Creator who allows the presence of evil and suffering in the world; this all present Spirit who is as close to us as the air we breathe and as far as the brightest star in Heaven.

So let’s see where our story meets up with God’s. Like any story, this “sending out of the seventy” makes more sense with a little background. Just a glimpse through the previous chapter shows that Jesus is on the move, and he is moving toward Jerusalem. In chapter 9 we see that he did a trial run, sending out his twelve closest disciples (even Judas Iscariot) giving them similar instructions and offering them the same level of authority. Their success draws thousands and Jesus feeds the masses. Peter is put to the test and proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus foretells his own death and resurrection. Jesus is transfigured into dazzling white on a mountaintop and is joined by Moses and Elijah, proving that he is neither of them returned but rather the very presence of God revealed. Jesus heals a boy others can not, and the disciples argue over which of them is the most faithful follower. Jesus answers them and the questions of others by offering challenges to those who say they are true followers. Then he appoints the seventy and commissions them to go out into the world.

So these seventy were part of the ongoing story of people who had experienced the very presence of God through this man, this Jesus. They were appointed, hand picked even. They were given a specific description of the situation in the world, instructions for what to do about it, and a way of knowing their task had been carried out. They were sent out and given the authority to do what needed to be done. And in the end, they had a place to come home to.

During the first half of July I experienced a similar opportunity in the Montreat Youth Conference. I was honored to be picked to be on the planning team for weeks 3&4 out of 6 weeks of thousands of youth descending upon the Montreat Conference Center in Black Mountain, NC. The story of the sending of the seventy was the closing scripture of the week, and I experienced it in a new way through worshiping with about 2,400 youth. The theme for this conference was “Throw Open the Doors”, and it was derived from prayer, study, and a variety of scriptures, each used to under gird the sub theme of each day. I want to share a little of that experience with you because I was challenged to do so, just as all the other conferees were. I also want to share it with you because it is part of the story of our family of faith, and I want you to know what your spiritual cousins have been up to this Summer.

On Monday we opened the doors to possibility, celebrating the mystery that comes with inviting God into our lives and the endless possibilities it opens to us. On Tuesday we looked at broken doors in our lives and experienced the healing God can offer. We explored the ways God can be with us in our brokenness and can even use it to offer a deeper understanding of God’s presence for others. On Wednesday we considered what it means to open the doors of our hearts and truly come to know Jesus as Lord of our lives. We realized how risky that can be, how it can lead us to give up things we hold dear so that we might hold God even more dearly. On Thursday we looked into the church door and came to understand the community of faith as the place we experience and extend God’s grace to others. We shared communion and were made one with all the church through all of time in the Holy Spirit. And on Friday we looked into the door of opportunity, and we walked through it. You see possibilities are endless, but opportunities are specific. We were challenged as we left to consider this calling to the seventy as our calling as well. Formed and reformed in the image of Christ, we now have a new vision for living and being in relationship with others.

So, we had a concrete experience of what it means to be Christ’s disciples, and what it means to be the church. Truly this was a “mountaintop experience”, but at the same time it was nothing new. The same types of things happen all around us, for the Kingdom of God has come near. You remember that I said this passage is not just for the absolutely, Jesus-Freaky, Gung Ho Christian? I believe this story is relevant to anyone, because the Kingdom of God has come near. For the seventy to be sent, someone needed to hear that. I bet you know someone who needs to hear that today. Not only that, I bet you know someone who needs to see it through your hospitality, your willingness to care about someone else’s problems even in the midst of your own, and the healing and wholeness you can bring into someone else’s life just by bringing them here. You may even be the person who is in need.

You may be someone considering the endless possibilities God has in store for your life. You may be someone who is so wrapped up in brokenness that the only way to Jesus is through the roof, carried by the faith of your friends. You may be someone who is considering the risk of opening your heart to God by opening your life to someone else of a different faith, ethnic background, or lifestyle. Or you may be someone who has accepted all of these things and realized that when you follow Christ the opportunities to witness to God’s grace just fall right in your lap. You might be all of these at once in different situations, or you may even get to a point where you have stopped seeing the opportunities and you have to start all over again to find them. The beautiful thing about all of this is that it’s OK to be at any of those places on your faith journey, as long as you are moving ahead faithfully. Faith in Jesus Christ is not a means to an end, like a train ticket or a list of things to do. Instead, faith in Jesus is our end, our reason for being.

So, here you are, Christian. Here you are in the community of faith you have been called into. Here we are on the mountaintop we gather on every Sunday to experience God’s presence. For some of us the possibilities are endless, for others the opportunities are quite clear. And the more you come here, the clearer they will become. For every day offers brokenness, healing, risk, and opportunity. Every week, somebody is going to need to teach Sunday School, somebody is going to set up some coffee. Somebody is going to walk through those doors in need of conversation connecting life and faith. Somebody is going to need deeper study and reflection in order to grow in her or his understanding of God’s activity in the world. And somebody is going to need all of those things, but will not come through those doors unless you ask him or her.

That’s a pretty clear example of moving from possibility to opportunity, but let me go a step further. Zach Hunter is a 16 year old, normal, white, North American teenager, except for one thing. At age 12 he found out about human trafficking, the modern day form of slavery. According to the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the Christian Science Monitor, there are around 27 million people enslaved in sweat shops, permanently indentured servitude, and other less mentionable forms of service. According to the US House of Representatives there are around 17,500 foreign nationals trafficked illegally into the US every year. Zach is a Christian, and he was appalled. So he became an abolitionist and started an organization called “Loose Change to Loosen Chains” to collect spare change in order to help fund slave advocacy groups. He began making connections through his church and was invited to speak at Christian rock festivals before thousands of people, and by age fifteen he had written a book about the virtues that motivate him and the people who have inspired him. The book is called “Be the Change.” I want to share with you what he says about the fear that keeps us from taking risks, and also a little bit about the true meaning of sacrifice that goes along with our response to God’s grace. About fear he writes:

Often it is our fear that keeps us where we are and prevents us from getting close to God and others. God can use our fear to remind us of our need for [God.] We need to forget about ourselves and focus on others. If you have the fear of the unknown, go on a mission trip to a country where you’ve never been. If you are afraid of failure, try something new that you may not be good at. It’s important to acknowledge and confront our fears so we can move past them. Breaking free from fear is one of the most liberating feelings in the world. By liberating yourself from fear, you open the door of your mind, allowing the room once occupied by fear to be filled with creativity and passion. And when creativity and passion come in and clean things out, you are able to care about more than yourself and your own fears. And that is a good thing.

Further on he writes about sacrifice and has this to say:
We are a generation that knows its rights. We have had this drilled into us through our education. We have the right to speak our mind, the right to be treated fairly, and the right to be respected. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to live in a country where our rights are protected. But we sometimes act as if we have the right to be completely comfortable and maintain whatever is ours, with no care to what others might be going through. The question is: Are we willing to make any sacrifices in order to benefit someone else?

And that’s what it takes, friends. In receiving the grace of Jesus Christ, in receiving God’s forgiveness, in knowing God’s presence in our lives we are caught up in and called to do something about the suffering of others. The harvest is ripe, and the opportunities to serve God are as close to you as the clothes you wear and the loose change in your pockets. You know, there are some who look at the church and the problems in this world and talk about the church needing to be more “missional”. But isn’t that a bit redundant? If we are not proclaiming to the world that the Kingdom of God has come near through our actions and our words, how are we the church? So go! Proclaim the Kingdom of God with your lives, and fear nothing. It is by God’s authority that you offer the salvation of the world, not your own. And not only that, in Jesus Christ you always have a home to return to… no matter what the world can dish out.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Christian or Desciple

A friend sent me this link from Brian Jones, and I think it makes some valid points. Primarily he is arguing that the term "Christian" is only used in the Bible by non-believers who are describing people as Christ Followers. Not a bad term, but he is arguing the point that its not all that scriptural in the first place, and that it says nothing of function. Disciple, however, is used routinely in the New Testament and, he says, has a more active connotation and root meaning. My question is this... Is anyone outside the circles of Christianity (non-believers, un-churched, what have you) going to care? Is there truly a connotation of activity with one word over another? And what activity is conjured in the mind of those not already in the community of faith? Not that we tailor to the needs of those outside the community, but the question (at least for me) is whether we are practicing a theology of inclusivity or exclusivity.

I think this speaks to the quagmire of faith the church is mucking through right now. We have this WASPy milieu that says, "They will know we are Christians by our love" and yet the church has become a service provider for faith rather than the active arm of God transforming society. In the US we live in a nation uncomfortably at war. Polls show an increasing disatisfaction, but the war remains staffed by an all volunteer military. We learned our lesson in Vietnam regarding the care and respect for our troupes, and so we find a mixed expression of care packages and dissatisfaction with political leaders. Through all of this the church has been largely silent. In fact the church is really more concerned about "attracting members" and "assuring a church for future generations" than it is in being the Body of Christ. Offering the presence of Christ can never come through naval gazing or institution building and maintenance. It comes only through suffering with and offering the healing that only a community of love can offer.

So, yes, discipleship matters for these things. A church filled with disciples is going to be a church that steps out into the world acting as Christ. Rob Bell, in one of his "Nooma" studies, talks about the idea that a disciple followed a Rabi hoping not just to learn from him but to be like him. Not only that, he suggests that having given the example and the means through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus... God has faith in us that "we can actually be the kind of people we were meant to be. People of love, compassion, peace, forgiveness, and hope. People who try to do the right thing all of the time. Who act on the endless opportunities around us every day for good, beauty, and truth."

In light of discussions over declining membership and divided denominations over social and theological issues, I wonder if we as the church have forgotten this. I wonder if the famous quote by Marianne Williamson could be applied to the institution of the church:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, is discipleship the key? I think it quite possibly could be. Call me what you will: Christian, Christ-follower, Disciple of Jesus. I'm fine with Cristian, but I hope I will be understood as all of the above.