Matthew 6: 19-33
September 27, 2009
You know those moments where things just seem to line up and fall into place, and you have absolutely nothing to do with it? You know those moments where things just seem to line up and fall into place, and you have absolutely nothing to do with it? I experienced one of those moments myself. Two weeks ago, on the kick-off Sunday of our Fall Discipleship season, a bunch of folks filled our church Fellowship Hall, where we enjoyed a wonderful covered dish lunch and listened to Lee Daniels walk us through “The 15+ Plan” and the challenge to our church in the coming year and years after. As part of our conversation Lee asked us to define the word DISCIPLESHIP – or, more accurately, to come up with words or phrases that helped to unpack what that word meant. This is what the group came up with:
OBEDIENT. CHRIST-CENTERED. PEOPLE-FOCUSED. UNSELFISH. FOLLOWER. LEADER. EXAMPLE. RISK-TAKER. SERVANT. OBSERVANT. GETTING OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE. PRAY-ER. PEACEMAKER. CONTRIBUTOR.
Now what struck me about these words was not only that they were good descriptions, but that they were also words of action, of vibrancy. Discipleship is not a laid-back or passive thing. It requires something of us, involves a commitment on our part that is more than simply believing in something or showing up on Sunday mornings.
That was followed last week by a heart-felt Minute for Discipleship given by a member who had forewarned Lee and myself that he was going to speak from the heart and might offend some folks in the process. To be honest, I am always grateful when people feel comfortable speaking the truth in love in the community of faith. John gave us many things to chew on in this Discipleship season – one of which really stuck with me, so much so that I asked Shasta for a pen and wrote it down on my bulletin while John was still talking. He said that part of the reason true discipleship is so hard, and why we often fail at it, is that by and large we are a people living by fear instead of living by faith.
Now this dilemma – and these two experiences of the past two weeks – have been heavy on my mind; as I've pondered and prayed about our ability on one hand to recognize true discipleship as evidenced on the newsprint, and on the other the incredible difficulty we encounter in trying to live into that reality, of being guided by our fears instead of our faith. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to recognize that you and I live in a culture saturated with fear. We've almost come to expect it, grow comfortable with it, let it define everything from our religion and politics to the way we interact with others, to our life decisions, to how we view and respond to the world.
Just consider any number of studies conducted over the years that identifies our greatest fears. According to one of them, some of the top ten stressors for Americans are: death of spouse,
divorce, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, losing one's job, or a change in one's financial situation. Even some things that we consider positives – marriage, pregnancy, retirement – even they carry a burden to be reckoned with: will my new baby be healthy? Will our marriage last? Will I really like not having to go to work? If these are the classic worries we face, then it's no wonder that ours is a culture mired in fear – fears we face on a regular, even daily basis.
Not too long ago I was catching up with an old friend on Facebook – actually the truth is that were engaged in a rather spirited discussion on a hot-topic issue. Once the angry words subsided, my friend got to the heart of what was bothering him: he told me that he was afraid. And when I asked him what he was afraid of, his response was swift. “What am I NOT afraid of??” he typed. “I'm afraid of losing my job – they've already kicked others to the curb. I'm afraid if I keep my job they'll cut my salary, which already is barely enough to make ends meet. I'm afraid that those in charge who have power over me and the things in my life are not thinking of me when they make their decisions. I'm afraid of all the things I know I should be afraid about, but I've even more afraid of the things I don't know!”
Do you know what that's like? Do you know how my friend feels?
It is into this kind of world, that Jesus gathered some folks on a mountainside and had the audacity to call them “disciples” – even in the midst of their fears. We've been trying to imagine this scene for the past few weeks. And you know, I don't know if this is right or not, I don't think there's anything in scripture to back it up, but I've always kind of wondered if the more Jesus talked, the smaller that crowd on the mountainside got. I mean, really – calling them to serious discipleship, telling them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, suggesting that faith isn't about show and needs to be authentic – you've got to figure that there were some people who just decided this wasn't for them!
And if that were the case, then it very well could've been a small remnant who heard Jesus say this – as recounted in The Message translation:
If you decide to live for God, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you wear. What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving.
Now on the surface these word seem clear enough – calling the faithful to “not worry.” It certainly makes sense – worry isn't going to add a day to our lives, and if you believe some studies, it may even lessen it. But I've got to tell you something – I've got a little problem with this. I mean, don't get me wrong – I'm not criticizing Jesus – but something about simply telling a person who is worrying to not worry seems insufficient at best and callous at worst. It's like the young kid who wakes his parents in the middle of the night to inform them that there are monsters under his bed; only to be told by a half-awake father that there's no such thing as monsters so he should just go back to sleep. Which, if you're wondering, is in fact advice I have been known to dispense myself at 3 in the morning! No, the question here is: does dispensing advice like this really make anyone feel better? Does it help to get to the heart of the matter?
I'm not sure that it does – which is why I'm inclined to wonder if Jesus was doing something more here than just invoking his inner Dr. Phil. Is it possible that Jesus was calling those disciples to a different way of living – a way that is more than not worrying about things, but a way that redefines how you and I live our lives?
Remember that famous line from our scripture ready today: No one can serve two masters. He speaks specifically about money and wealth, and there's a whole other sermon there. But maybe, just maybe, Jesus is also calling attention to things in our lives that compete for our devotion that are not of God? I mean, think about it – when we let the things we “possess” possess us, when we allow them to become our masters, we live in the uncertainty of what might happen if we lose those things, if we ever acknowledge that there really are parts of our lives we have no control over. And the byproduct of all of this, the result of this kind of mentality, is that we worry. And we live by our fears.
And that is why I wonder if what Jesus is calling us to here is to live by faith instead of our fears. To be freed from the things that bind us up and realize the full impact of the presence of God in our midst. To see that our worries do not define us but serve to remind us that each and every day we get out of bed, we entrust our lives to a God who calls us to a new understanding of discipleship.
It's risky living, isn't it? It's other things too – like that newsprint from two weeks ago. It's getting outside of our comfort zone, it's being unselfish, it's living as a servant, it's being obedient. And let me tell you something – crazy things happen when we do this. Crazy things happen when we make the decision to live by faith instead of our fears.
Just ask Kevin Kelley, football coach at Pulaski High in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was a small write-up about him and his team in last week's Sports Illustrated. Over the years the team has adopted a very curious style of football that does not include punting – the typical thing a team does on fourth down when they don't have enough yards to get a first down. In fact there isn't even a punter on their team – instead they go for it every time. They also don't have a field goal/extra point kicker, making the pursuit of the end zone and two-point conversions their only options. It sounds crazy and unconventional, but the thing is, Kelley has the stats to back it up – his team actually has a better chance of scoring points to win the game without punting and kicking for points. And their record – 100 wins this decade – seems to back that up. (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1160256/index.htm, visited on 9.24.2009.)
Now that's some fearless, faithful living! And that's only on the gridiron. So let's ask the question: what does this look like in the church? How does “living by faith instead of fear” not only define who we are as a body of Christ, but literally change the ways in which we live into our mission together?
I was reading a book the other day that asked that very question. In fact, it put together a formula of sorts to determine what could happen if every Christian in America tithed their after-tax income to the church. They ran the numbers and arrived at a figure somewhere between $46 and $133 BILLION dollars. Now that's a load of cash! But more important than the dollar signs is what could be accomplished in the name of Jesus with it. Again, they did their research and offered well over fifty significant initiatives. Here are just a few:
- We as the church could sponsor 150,000 new missionaries and pastors;
- We could fund the complete eradication of polio and malaria;
- We could finance 10,000 faith-based programs of AIDS/HIV prevention, education, and medication in sub-Sahran Africa;
- We could provide food, clothing and shelter to ALL 6,500,000 refugees in Africa, Asia and the Middle East;
- We could quadruple the current budget of Habitat for Humanity;
- We could provide food, education and health care to 20 million needy children;
- We could hire 10,000 new youth ministers and 50,000 Christian educators;
- We could raise the salaries of 50,000 of the most needy U.S. pastors by $15,000 each, thereby encouraging “the best and the brightest” to enter the ministry;
- We could finance the installation of heating, cooling and electrical systems in 20,000 of the most inefficient U.S. church buildings per year, including the installation of solar panels;
- We could finance 25 faith-based organizations that would provide assistance and to pay heating and utility bills for the most needy in our country.
[Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don't Give Away More Money by Christian Smith and Michael Emerson (Oxford University
Press, 2008), 13-18.]
And that's just the tip of the iceberg, folks. I mean, can you imagine?? We're not talking about simple upgrades here. We're talking about huge bold strokes that would not only change the face of the church, but quite literally change the world – all in the name of Jesus! Of course, it's nothing more than a hypothetical. But it shows us what can happen when we as people of faith come to realize the truly amazing, wonderful, meaningful, life-changing power we have when we live by our faith instead of living by our fears.
And I want to ask you to keep this power in mind – not only as you prayerfully turn in your pledge card for the coming year by next Sunday, not only as you contemplate your calling to be part of “The 15+ Plan,” but also as you consider how you and your family can be changed and bring about change in the body of Christ that is First Presbyterian Church.
Because we are so much more than an organization, a benevolence, a social gathering. We are so much more than a place to teach children morals, a program center, a building. We are so much more than a club, a distributor of goods and services, a feel-good center.
We have been, and always will be, the body of Christ on earth, continuing 2000 years after the fact what Jesus started on that very mountainside. We are a gathering of disciples, in every sense of the word, helping to spread the good news of the gospel which says that no one needs to live by their fears any longer. We are the people of God, sin-full and grace-filled, sent on a mission and vision that by its very nature calls us out of our comfort zones and into the possibility of the promise.
We can worry about all that if we want, friends. Or we can embrace the transforming presence of God in our midst and watch as it takes us to wonderful places. I'm thinking the latter sounds pretty good. And you know what? I'm betting that you do too. Thanks be to God. AMEN.