The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
January 20, 2008
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend
First Congregational Church,
Introduction to the Scripture:
Last week, you heard the story from early in Jesus’ ministry, when the adult Jesus went out to wilderness to be baptized by John the Baptist. Remember, there were many religious teachers in that day, and before Jesus was known, John was famous. In last week’s story, when Jesus approached John for baptism, John initially refused, saying, “You should be baptizing me.” But Jesus insisted, and when he was baptized, God called Jesus his beloved son. John will tell that story this morning.
Remember, now that I am talking here about John the Baptist. This reading comes from the gospel of John, but that John is not John the Baptist. The gospel of John comes from a man, John, who will become Jesus’ beloved disciple, and will take a community and lead it after Jesus’ death. He’s the voice of this gospel. In this reading, he is writing about events at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and about a different John, John the Baptist who is telling people the story about baptizing Jesus.
Who does John the Baptist tell the story to? Well, he tells it to his disciples. Jesus wasn’t the first person to have disciples, to have people who followed him in a life of spiritual discipline. Lots of people had disciples. John the Baptist had disciples, very devoted ones who were willing to follow him out into the wilderness and call the proud and the mighty to repentance. So John in this reading is going to be talking to his own disciples.
Guess what happens next – well, to give you a clue, you are going to recognize the names of some of John the Baptist’s disciples. Why do you recognize them? Because they will go on to become disciples of Jesus, and this is one of many of Jesus’ recruitment stories.
Scripture: John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
That is the story of how Simon Peter, and Andrew became disciples. They followed John the Baptist to Jesus and saw in Jesus a certain quality that John the Baptist saw. John called Jesus the Son of God. Andrew and Peter called him “rabbi,” the term that Jewish people use today for their clergy, rabbi being a term that meant “teacher.” But either way, John, Andrew and Peter were ready to sign up for what was going to be a difficult life of sacrifice, of serving the poor and the sick, and of questioning the ways of the world.
Not everybody is willing to jump on board like that. Not everyone wants to follow a savior who may demand sacrifice. There was a story about a small boy who was standing at the back of the church, staring at an historical brass plaque that contained a list of engraved names. An usher approached him and said, “Young man, are you wondering what that list of names is? Well, those are the members of our church who died in the service.”
The little boy gulped. “Was that the nine o’clock or the ten-thirty service?”
The small child had a sense that we may have lost, that the Christian life may indeed involve sacrifice. In other versions of the call stories of disciples, Jesus puts it more bluntly and says, “Give up everything and follow me.”
We really aren’t a “give it up” kind of culture are we? I tend to want more out of life, not less. The average house size in 1970 was 1,400 and in 2003 it was up to 2,200, and must be bigger now.
We even leave this world with more than we used to, weight that is. It used to be a coffin was 22.5 inches wide, but now comes the company Goliath Casket’s new triple wide, at 44 inches. At least in this country, each generation seems to live with more comfort, and more consumption than the last.
Lynn Kahle, a professor of
marketing at the
So how would Jesus’ recruiting
efforts go today? Would he be able to pick up any disciples on the corner of
I say yes, he would, and the day I stop thinking that is the day I need to find a new line of work. Because as cynical as we can be about our culture, and as important as it is to be self critical, I am convinced that people today are no more or less holy than they were two thousand years ago. While we may have access to more stuff, to bigger houses and yes, bigger coffins, the existential struggle is still the same.
How does my life have meaning? Where do I find my salvation?
I suspect Jesus’ recruiting effort would go about the same as it did two thousand years ago, which is to say that Jesus would indeed attract some followers, but his message would not be for everyone. He would reach, in particular, the searchers, the questioners, and yes, the outlaws.
There would also be a whole group of people then, as there is a whole group of people now, who would hear the message and think, “I don’t get it. My life is working fine. I have a lot, and I deserve a lot, and I get one shot at this life, and the one who dies with the most toys wins.” Those people were around two thousand years ago and they are around today.
For the people who wondered why the things they wanted so much failed to make their life perfect, Jesus’ gospel has an appeal. To the people who had nothing because of an unjust system and who wanted to change it, Jesus’ gospel had an appeal. To the outsider, the outcast and the outlaw, it appealed.
Yet to the insider, the popular kid and the rule follower, it was a harder sell. Not impossible, but harder, as it is today.
Out here where we live, we exist in a world of appearances. There are many wonderful things about this area and this culture. Let’s be honest (because we’re in church), it is a world of appearances, where everyone is supposed to be happy, snappy and full of activity. In fact, I have figured out that there is only one socially acceptable answer to the question, “So how are you?”
Years ago, that socially acceptable answer was, “Fine.” But today that mandatory answer has changed to “Busy.”
“How are you?”
“Busy, really busy; and you?”
Can I just say from the pulpit I am tired of that level of conversation and that I long for something more? I would love to ask someone “How are you?” sometime and have them respond, “Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking out the window and contemplating my place in the universe.” Heck, I’d even like to hear someone say, “How am I? Well, great, I’ve been watching a lot of television.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I doubt you are busy. I know you are. We are. But I think there is a certain idolatry in that constant refrain, “I’m so busy.”
Let’s be honest, in this culture out here, busyness is associated with an active and productive life. Instead of telling people how we are in other ways, we focus on that one – it’s socially acceptable. We talk about our activity level, and then if we really want to get deep and intimate, we start listing the activities – “there’s softball coming up, the village meeting about this, a trip for work, the committee for restructuring everything wrong in the world,” and heaven help us, sometimes we list the church.
I’m not knocking any of these activities, but here’s my fear from the perspective of this gospel passage. If Jesus were recruiting for disciples on the streets outside the church, his greatest obstacle wouldn’t be his call to care for the oppressed, the sick and the poor. It might be the refrain, “You know what, I would love to but I am just too busy.”
I want to, this morning, lift up discipleship and remind you of what you already know and believe. Here at our church we are a culture of discipleship and not a culture of membership.
Just to review, in a culture of membership, you sort of sign on to church like you would a health club. It’s one equal activity among many. There are experts on staff who direct you and tell you what to do or meet your needs. If they don’t, you transfer elsewhere. That is a culture of membership and while some churches and many parishioners engage in it, I want to offer up a different model, which is the culture of discipleship, not because I thought of it, but because Jesus did.
When Jesus recruited for the disciples, (and if you take this model seriously, then those disciples are us, just a few generations back) when he recruited, he did not portray himself as an expert or as a provider of services. Instead, he focused on the people who wanted to follow him, not as his followers but as the potential leaders of others.
So in a culture of discipleship, every follower is also a leader, and we are all the experts and service providers to one another, mutually. Then the church becomes, not a club, but a place of spiritual formation, of preparation for life, where at one time you may be of service to another disciple, and at another you may be receiving help, and teaching and ministry. But it’s not about receiving service, it’s about changing lives.
It strikes me that discipleship is actually the perfect model of church for the high energy and high-powered world we do live in. If you are busy and capable and energized in your everyday lives, you deserve more from the church than a service providing club.
You need your church to be the church, to be a place where you are challenged to grow in your Christian discipleship, to change in your view points, to be transformed in how you look at life, and in how you live, to be able to be a real person, and not just a busy one. Being a disciple is not all joy. There is cost as well – the cost and joy of discipleship. They both are necessary. They both help us grow and change.
Let me tell you a little story about the cost. In the last couple of weeks, a number of you have sent me an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently, about a church in our denomination that was denied insurance by a company from whom they had sought a bid. I will read you the opening sentences of the article.
“A small Protestant
Insurance Co. of
Marci J. Fretz, a regional underwriter for Brotherhood Mutual – one of the nation's largest insurers of religious institutions -- wrote in a letter to the church last summer: "Based on national media reports, controversial stances such as those indicated in your application responses have resulted in property damage and the potential for increased litigation among churches that have chosen to publicly endorse these positions."
Now, let me respond. First, that church had never experienced any vandalism or hostility around these issues, and the church already had insurance with another carrier. They were merely exploring options, and needless to say, after that response, they stuck with their original insurer.
Secondly, this story does point out that when you take a stand that is not the majority point of view, your opposition can come from unexpected places. Here is a church taking a hit from the insurance industry, who are essentially saying, this church is a risky place.
To which I say, Amen. The church should be a risky place – obviously, not physically risky, but mentally and spiritually risky. Amen.
The church should be a place of moral discourse, substantial and meaningful conversations and ethical decision-making. This is the heart of making disciples of each other, of allowing people to grow and change. The day the church has to restrict such “risky” behavior is the day we will stop being the church and just be a club.
Rest assured congregants, our church is well-insured and we have never received a letter like that. A spokesman from our denomination said about the Wall Street Journal story, "As far as we know, this is the first time one of our churches has been denied an insurance quote because of their denomination's affirmation of gay and lesbian people,” and I certainly hope it will be the last.
It may not be, and we, like all churches that deal with real issues, have been tested along the way. I’ll give you a small example. When we put up our first “God is Still Speaking” banner, a year ago, and made an early public association with our denomination’s identity campaign that, among many other things, refers to our historic welcome of people regardless of sexual orientation, the banner literally disappeared one night. All that was left were shreds of ripped material from it. The evidence indicated that it had been vandalized and torn down.
We could have panicked when that happened. We could have wondered if it would happen again. We could have despaired that we had not won somebody’s latest popularity contest. If we were a health club, we would have worried about how to turn our marketing around to win that person over.
We’re the church, and that means we’re a people of hope. So we shook the dirt off our feet and put up new banners, this time attached to our building and out of harm’s way. We had some complaints about those, believe me, as your pastor, I get complaints about any number of things from random people who are not a part of our church. They e-mail me or “button-hole” me on topics as wide ranging as whether or not, I as a woman, should even be allowed to be a senior pastor – to whether or not we are Christian enough for the rest of the Christian club. I refuse to believe that people of other religions need to be converted to ours.
When I get such unsolicited feedback from my fellow Christians about that – if I saw myself as a club member, or a cruise director, that stuff would bother me.
Because I am a disciple in the business of making disciples, it does not.
Those complaints are
nothing to me, and they should be nothing to you, because we have each other.
We are on this spiritual journey together. Whether or not other people
understand it or approve of it is not our concern. Our concern within a culture
of discipleship is simpler: Are we following Jesus? Are we encouraging other seekers to do the
same? If Jesus were outside on
I think Jesus would receive a hearing, and some of us would sign right up, while others might say, “Let me think about it.” I can picture a number of you saying to Jesus, “I’m already on board, but can I sign you up for a ministry team?” If Jesus were recruiting outside the church, we wouldn’t all be in the same place, just as we’re not all in the same place here.
I tell what I don’t think we’d be saying. We wouldn’t be saying, “Well, what’s in it for me?” I think we’d agree that whether we’re ready to be disciples or not, we’d know that we’d been asked to do something important, something more meaningful than our own self-interest.
As I considered the holiday that we will be celebrating this weekend, I went to my computer to see what people were saying about Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes I worry that we have twisted his memory into something tidier and nicer than it really was. For if all we do on Dr. King’s birthday is remember his kindness with acts of volunteerism, we are misremembering the man. He did not simply perform acts of kindness. He did things that made people angry.
As he wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in 1963, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
Dr. King made sacrifices for his own beliefs, which were shaped by his discipleship as a Christian. We must remember that not only was he persecuted in his life, but he lost it, and that wasn’t because of acts of kindness, but because of acts of justice that were unpopular with many at the time.
In a casual search on the Internet this week, I learned that King is still persecuted in his death, in ways that actually shocked me.
There was another section with flyers for school children to download called “Which holiday honors a philanderer, a drunk, a liar, a plagiarist, and a cheater?” and advises students to distribute these at their schools. Not that African Americans were the only ones being singled out on this site; the Jewish people were targets as well. And finally, when I clicked on what was labeled as an educational video, I found instead an empty website sponsored by stormfront.org, “White Liberation and Self Determination, White Pride World Wide.”
Now, let me be very clear,
I didn’t have to fish around for this website. This was the number six website
that popped up under his name on Google™, listed directly after the website for
It was a real reminder to me that for this man, this real man, this imperfect man and yet still a heroic man, the cost for his discipleship did not end even with his death. The battles he fought are still not over. The cost of his discipleship remains the cost of our discipleship as long as people are suffering in this world.
I want to close my sermon today with a quote from Dr. King, in his own words, and not those of his detractors.
From his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”
From his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, December 10, 1964: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
May it be so. Amen.
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