Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: Part of Something That Matters

Matthew 7:13-29
Part of Something that Matters
James Sledge                                                                                      March 22, 2015

Last month I was at a Saturday gathering of something called Next Church. The featured speaker was David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, and he told a story about an extremely extroverted colleague who took his seat for a 14 hour long flight, introduced himself to the passenger next to him, and asked, “Do you go to church?”
His fellow passenger apparently wasn’t put off by this because he not only responded, he told how he had attended church for most of his life, but that he and his family were thinking about dropping church. He went on to explain that like many families, his was overcommitted and needed to drop some things. At a family meeting they had listed all the things they were involved in, then prioritized them by whether they really seemed to matter, really made a difference in their lives. Girl Scouts for his daughter did, but church did not for any of them.
The father was troubled by this. He had always gone to church. But he agreed that church wasn’t really important in their lives. It made little difference in how they lived away from church, so it just didn’t make sense to commit the time and energy it asked of them.
Dr. Lose what quick to tell those of us listening, pastors and elders, that this wasn’t our fault. We had not messed up church so badly that this family, and many others like it, had decided to leave. There’s been more energy and innovation in church and worship in the last couple of decades than any time in history, yet across the board – conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary – people are leaving and attendance is dropping. And even committed members are attending less frequently.
The Church lives in a very different world from the one of my childhood. A generation or two ago, people raised in the Church tended to stay in it. People went to church because they were supposed to. But as our world has become filled with more and more choices, more and more options, going to church became one choice among many. “Supposed to” no longer cuts it, and church now gets weighed among other possibilities.
This situation poses some real challenges for churches who grew accustomed to the culture sending us people on Sunday. But it also poses some interesting opportunities to examine what it means to be the Church, followers of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world. Surely there is something very important about it, something about it that really matters. Why else would we toss around terms like salvation, new creations, abundant and eternal life?
As Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, he clearly thinks he has just shared something important, something that really matters. He speaks of a narrow way that leads to life, of the need not to be misled, of how essential it is to do God’s will and act on his words. But just what is this narrow way? What is the will of God for you and me?
If someone asked you how your life is different because you follow Jesus, what would you say?  How is your way directed, your path narrowed from that of the world? How is your relationship to money different? How is God’s new day being born in you?

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes contemplate retiring the term “Christian.” It’s not always clear just what it means. When I was growing up I frequently heard the term “good Christian fella,” but this often was little more than a folksy synonym for “good citizen.” And in our day one group using the term Christian may have almost nothing in common with another group doing the same.
If it rolled off the tongue a little easier, I might abandon “Christian” in favor of “Jesus follower.” According to Jesus, being his follower is a lot more difficult that what often describes Christian. It is a narrow way, one that not everyone is willing to take, one that does not always line up nicely with conventional social morals or values.
In the the teachings that lead up to our reading today, Jesus says that his way is about a God who cares especially for the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers. God’s heart is inclined toward those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who look at the poor, oppressed, and marginalized in their community and cannot look away.
Jesus says that his followers will be change agents. They will be salt and light, transforming the world by their presence. They will be like God, caring for good and bad alike, countering evil and hate with love. They will engage in regular spiritual practices that align their lives with God. They will be more concerned with their own spiritual transformation than correcting the faults of those around them. And their lives will not be controlled by the almighty dollar, but by seeking to build God’s new community. And so they will not worry and not be anxious, trusting God to provide.
According to Jesus, following his narrow and sometimes difficult way undermines worry and anxiety. Seeking God’s will and working to bear fruit, to help construct God’s new community of love, frees followers from slavery to fears about not having enough. At least that’s what Jesus says.
When Matthew’s gospel begins the Sermon on the Mount, it opens this way. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them saying…
The Sermon on the Mount is instruction for disciples, for followers, but the crowds are allowed to overhear. The curious, intrigued, and those wondering if Jesus is really onto something, are invited to listen and consider whether they might want to become followers, too. Jesus never disparages the crowds. He has compassion on them, saying they are like sheep without a shepherd. He hopes they will join him, will become followers. His call to follow a narrow and difficult way is not about only the exceptional being embraced by God. Rather it is an invitation join him, to discover that life, in all its fullness, comes via this surprising path that Jesus walks and invites us to walk with him. It is a call to become part of something that really matters.
Very often, American Christianity has been more a gathering of crowds who like Jesus than a group of dedicated Jesus followers who are learning to walk as he does. But Jesus does not condemn the crowds. He beckons them, shows them the depths of God’s love, and hopes that they will consider turning and beginning to walk the path he walks.
The path many of us have chosen is one filled with anxiety, worries about not having enough: enough time, enough money, enough experiences, enough success, enough influence, enough advantages, enough information, and more. But Jesus comes teaching and modeling another way, calling us to turn from ways that do not lead to aliveness and to begin walking the path he shows us. He invites us to become fully alive, and to live lives that truly matter. Can we trust that he knows the way better than we do?

We Make the Road by Walking. The practice begun in Advent continues through summer of 2015. Scripture and sermons will connect to chapters in Brian McLaren’s book. This week’s chapter is 31, “The Choice Is Yours.”

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