Who, and So What?

(sermon 9/16/18)

banias

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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It was a really incredible thing – a big cliff face, looming straight up from the grassy area below, the rocks as red as anything you’d see in Sedona. At the very bottom of the cliff was a large cave opening. Inside the cave, there was a large natural spring that bubbled up and poured out of the mouth of the cave, and flowed down through the valley. In ancient times, it was the site of a temple to a pagan Canaanite god. Then the Greeks, who never missed a chance to make a bold architectural statement, rededicated the place to their god Pan, and they built an impressive temple directly over the mouth of the cave, and the water ran through the temple and flowed out the front, down a spillway built for it. Later, additional shrines and niches dedicated to other Greek and Roman gods were added to the cliff face and the grounds around the temple, making the place a major pilgrimage site for followers of any number of different deities. The fact that it was just a stunningly beautiful place only added to the number of people who visited there.

That was the state of things in the ancient town of Banias, which had been renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Roman occupiers, when Jesus and his disciples visited the place and enjoyed its natural beauty and the water flowing out and giving life to the valley below. It was in the midst of people all around them, arriving to pay their respects to the various gods, and all the religious cross-talk that any crowd like that was bound to have, that Jesus asked that question, “Who do the people say that *I* am?” And the disciples tell him, and then Jesus asking “Who do *you* say that I am?” And Peter gives his answer, the first time in the gospels anyone professes that Jesus is the messiah.

You’d think that this would be a bigger thing, something getting more supernatural attention. We get angels appearing in the sky and singing at the Nativity; we got clouds rolling back, the Holy Spirit descending, and the very voice of God voicing approval when Jesus was baptized. But now, when Peter makes this big, world-changing profession… nothing. If Monty Python had made a movie of this, you could imagine all the disciples pausing and looking up at the sky, waiting for at least some glorious, dramatic background music, something, anything. But instead, all they heard was the water flowing on past them and down into the valley.

And then they heard the most amazing thing – Jesus actually telling them *not* to tell anyone about it. Then he goes on, laying out in very plain terms that he’s going to suffer, and even be killed, by the religious and civil powers because his message – the actual good news from God that he’d been sent to proclaim – was a threat to both of them. And then, in the worst promotion and growth strategy in the history of marketing, Jesus invites them all to come along and suffer and die along with him.

When the disciples naturally balk at the idea, Peter especially, Jesus doubled down on what he’s said. It’s nice enough to profess that he’s the messiah, but by itself, that isn’t enough. If he’s the messiah, then so what? If he’s the messiah, that has to have real-life consequences. If he’s the messiah, then the way they lived needed to reflect that, consistently. And thinking only in human terms would ultimately be disastrous for them, an exercise in futility.

What sense does it make, he asked them, if you gained the whole world, if you gain it by throwing away God’s truth? If you compromise on the things that are really important to God, just to gain what you think is important in the here and now? And what does that make of your profession that Jesus really is the messiah?

Jesus criticized Peter for thinking in human terms. But how could Peter, or how could we, really think in any other terms; we are human beings after all. We do live in this very imperfect, very human world, governed by very imperfect, very human ways. Everything in our life is tempered by that reality. In fact, as a theological sidebar, that’s what John Calvin meant when he talked about “total depravity” – not that everything we do is bad; rather, that everything we do, no matter how noble, still has some element of human self-interest embedded within it.

This conflict within us is unavoidable. Still, Jesus tells us we need to resist that most common of human shortcomings. To not fall victim to giving in, to selling out God’s good news, in order to get, or to maintain, something we want in this life. Jesus’ words here are a stark warning to us even when we’re pursuing some good end goal, to very seriously ask if the end really does justify the means.

Not falling victim to that can be hard. Really hard. Jesus spoke to those disciples as they stood there next to the flowing waters, and across time he speaks to us, telling us to trust in the goodness and wisdom of the God who we encounter in the waters of our baptism, and to trust that this God can and will work within us, and help us to think less and less in human terms, and more and more in the ways of the one who was first called messiah on that fateful day in Caesarea Philippi.

Thanks be to God.

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The Not-So-Excellent Adventure

(sermon 1/21/18)

cow in sackcloth

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that they were to have brought upon them; and God did not do it.

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The Book of Jonah is short, but powerful. It’s only some forty-odd verses long, but in its few short words, it manages to give us some of the most memorable imagery in the entire Bible. Each one of its four short chapters tells what could be a fascinating little story on its own, while still weaving together to form the whole.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book, but part of what we do know is that it was intended to be a response against an extreme, exclusionary, nativist mindset that had taken hold in society, and that had caused great turmoil by causing the forced breakup of families, where Jews had married foreign non-Jews, and requiring that all people from different places and who had different religions had to leave. The Book of Jonah is meant as a protest against all that, by telling a story to emphasize that God is the God of all people, and the God loves and cares for all people – even, the story makes clear, the despised Assyrians living in the enemy’s capital city of Nineveh.

The book makes its point by telling a story of this poor shlub, Jonah, who really just wanted to be left alone, who didn’t want any part of what God was telling him to do, and as we know, who was willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to run away from it. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he’s afraid that as soon as he’d enter the city and start proclaiming their impending doom, the Ninevites would attack him, or throw him in prison, or worse. And near the end of Jonah’s story, in the last chapter, we also learn that he didn’t want to do it because he suspected that after Jonah put his own life and reputation on the line, foretelling the Ninevites’ doom, before that would happen, God would go all wobbly on him, and have mercy and compassion on them, and not wipe them out, leaving his enemies off the hook and leaving Jonah to look like a fool on top of it. Jonah wants God to take a harder line against his enemies than he trusts God will actually take.

Of course, for his part in this protest story, Jonah represents the political and religious leaders of the time, who, the author is saying, want to take a harder line about who are supposedly the people of God, and who aren’t, than God would take.

So we do have this social/political commentary going on in Jonah, along with all of the great imagery, and even some comic aspects. Just imagine: smelly, seaweed- and gastric-juice-covered Jonah getting barfed up onto the beach, much to the surprise of the fisherman and the sunbathers. The Ninevites being so convicted of their sin, and being so repentant, that they don’t just cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes in the traditional sign of repentance, but they have all of their livestock do the same – which wasn’t some quaint religious tradition of the time; it would have seemed as bizarre and comical to see back then as it would be today. Taken together, it all makes Jonah one of the truly amazing books of the Bible.

But what does it mean for us today? What about it speaks to us, in our own lives? Well, it does pretty clearly offer a word of protest against the similar kind of extreme anti-foreigner, nationalist mindset seen in so much of our current government policies and in the words of so many people. It’s important to know that, and to take that message to heart, but honestly, that’s another day’s sermon. Today, I want to think more about how Jonah’s story resonates with our own personal lives – how we personally hear and respond to God’s call.

Last Sunday, and again today, we heard gospel accounts of disciples who essentially dropped whatever they were doing and immediately followed Jesus, seemingly without question or hesitation. Jonah is the opposite of that. He hears God’s call, and is worried and afraid and not at all happy about where he sees it all going, and he tries to run away from it all. Even when he finally gives in, and he sets off on his not-so-excellent adventure, he enters Nineveh, but he still only does it in half-measures. The author of the story tells us Nineveh was a three-day walk from one end to the other – but Jonah packs it in and leaves town after going just one day’s distance into it.

I know that I’m supposed to be more like Jesus’ trusting and unquestioning disciples. But the truth is, I see much more of myself in Jonah, and the way he responds to God’s call. In all of his crankiness and doubt and self-interest and his wanting God to hate all the same people he hated, I have to say that Jonah seems much more human, much more real, to me, personally, than those disciples who seem to have just dropped their nets and walked away with Jesus without even asking if the job came with health insurance and a dental plan.

Jonah’s relationship with God is messy, and that resonates with me because I know that my own relationship with God can sometimes be messy. I’ve been known to be a pretty reluctant follower of where God seemed to be calling me. Just as was the case with Jonah, part of that reluctance was that I wasn’t sure I liked what the likely outcome would be for myself. Also like Jonah, I’ve tried to run away from God’s call, and also like him, I’ve found myself in the belly of the whale, as it were, before I learned that there really wasn’t much future in trying to run away from God. Thankfully, I also eventually learned that by following where God was leading, even with doubt and reluctance, God always had something better in store that I could have ever imagined.

Maybe some of you have felt the same kind of feelings as Jonah, too. Have you? Have you ever sensed that God was drawing you to do something that you were less than enthusiastic about? Maybe you’re even experiencing something like that now. Do you sense God drawing you to make some change in your life? To take a turn in some new and unexpected direction, maybe one that promised to take you well out of your comfort zone? Maybe it was, or is, a school choice or a job choice. Maybe it’s some family or business decision that promises to take you into new, uncharted waters. Maybe it’s starting, or breaking off, a relationship. Maybe it involves a change in where you call home. Maybe it’s being called to some new understanding, something that’s different from what you’d always been taught before, something that opens up some new understanding about God that isn’t necessarily in line with what you’ve thought and believed up till now, as was the case with Jonah. The possibilities are endless where and how God may be calling you.

But if you do find yourself being called by God to something new, called to follow God in some different direction you didn’t really expect and frankly may not be excited about, remember Jonah’s story. Even though he went into Nineveh giving it only partial effort, God made something amazing happen. Even with Jonah’s doubt-filled and half-hearted willingness to follow, God still blessed those actions, and through Jonah, God’s will was achieved. And through all of it, if you know how the Book of Jonah ends, you also know that God kept looking out for Jonah – grumbling, self-centered Jonah, the same Jonah with all the doubts and fears and presuppositions and stubborn, bull-headed stances that only end up hurting himself. Until the very end of the story, God continued to work on Jonah’s heart so he could see and understand God in a richer, fuller, truer way – and in the process, so Jonah could see and understand more about himself in a richer, fuller, truer way.

Jonah is you. Jonah is me. And because we worship, and sometimes follow, a God who loves the Jonahs, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

It’s a Local Call

(sermon 1/22/17)

telephone-operators-circa-1965

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

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There was a time just after my architectural firm folded, in the midst of the Great Recession, when my only source of income was what I was making as a part-time, night-shift hospital chaplain, which I promise you, wasn’t much. During that time, I scurried to find some kind of work; *any* kind of work. There just weren’t any jobs available at all in what I was professionally trained to do. There weren’t any jobs doing *anything.* I couldn’t get a job behind the counter at Panera, or as a delivery driver, or even working in a telemarketer’s phone bank. I think that the second worst day of my life was when I’d sunk so low, when things had gotten so desperate, that with six years of pastoral experience at that point, I actually applied for a position to conduct animal funerals at a local pet cemetery. I say that was probably the second worst day, because surely the worst day was when that company called to tell me I hadn’t gotten the job because I wasn’t qualified.

The only job I was able to land during that time was passing out samples of food in grocery stores, trying to catch people’s eye and getting them to sample whatever the item of the day was, telling them all its virtues, and that they could get this wonderful product right over there in aisle 3, and that there was even an amazing sale on them right now.

It was hard on my feet and back to stand there for hours on end. But I made the most of it by chatting up the shoppers, trying to coax them to come over and try this incredible crab dip, this delicious baked-in-store apple pie, this to-die-for dark chocolate and sea salt candy bar. It wasn’t always easy. Some people just stayed away and wouldn’t come over to hear me, even with the temptation of free food, but I could usually get most of them, even the most reluctant ones, to eventually come over.

And I’d go off-script. I’d be over-the-top and theatrical with them. I’d ham it up, try to draw them into a little conversation, and joke with them, and get them to laugh, or at least smile, and to give them, no matter what else might have been going on in their day, just a little zen moment of silliness, and warmth, and happiness, all served up with a little pimiento cheese spread on the side.

I have to admit then when I first started doing that, I was mostly doing it for myself. It was just a way to break the boredom, and to keep my mind off how sore my legs were, and how big a failure I must be, a 45-year old man reduced to doing this just to make ends almost meet. But gradually, it became less and less about me, and more and more about them. Thinking that maybe the silliness, and the smile and warmth and acceptance that I shared with them would be the one thing that stuck with them that day. Maybe it would be the one thing that they’d smile about and tell the others about as they sat around the dinner table that evening. In other words, I came to realize that, notwithstanding the really crappy circumstances of the job, what I was being, the way I was doing what I was doing, was actually an important part of my ministry. It was literally something sacred. It was an important part of my call.

Today’s gospel text touches on this idea of being called. John the Baptist, who makes a kind of offstage appearance in this passage, had been called to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. And we heard about these first disciples, being called to follow Jesus. The idea of a call, or a calling, from God, is an interesting one. I think that a lot of times, when people consider this idea of receiving a call from God, they only think of ministers or other people who make their living by being a part of the institutional church.

But our tradition has something very different to say about this idea. It runs deep in Presbyterian thought, all the way back to the writings of John Calvin, that every one of us has been called, is being called, by God in some way or another. And that somehow, what we do as an occupation is an important part of that call. That whatever we do for a living, God is calling us to engage in it in some way that advances the Kingdom of God in the world. Sure, I know that we could all think of some illegal or immoral ways of making a living where the way to please God is to just *not* do it, but I think you understand what I mean here.

And we need to make another distinction here, too. For a lot of people, God’s call may not be something specific about precisely *what* you do for a living. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that if we’re caught in some unbearable, low-paying, dead-end job, it’s because God wants us to be poor and miserable, that that’s just our lot in life – or even worse, that maybe God is punishing us for something, and it’s our job to just shut up and accept our fate. No. That isn’t how our occupations our professions, key into God’s call to us. To be blunt, as much good as I might have done while passing out food samples, I still got out of that job as quickly as I could.

I think that maybe the way we can understand God’s specific call to each of us is this: Whatever you do for a living – or, if you’re younger and in school, whatever you’re doing in school; or if you’re older and retired, whatever you’re doing to fill your days – whatever it is, God has called you to do it in ways that are pleasing to God. And I believe the most concrete way to please God in this world is to live in ways of compassion and care for others, in all of the hundreds of interactions we have with people throughout our week.

Just as an example, if you’re a server in a restaurant, treat the people you serve with kindness and compassion, no matter how lousy they are to you. Because you just never know – maybe that person is on a tightly fixed income, and can only afford to treat themselves out to a meal in a restaurant once a month, and this is their night. Or maybe they just got some terrible news about their health. Or maybe they’re wrestling with some inner struggle that not even their closest relatives even know, and they just need a friendly face and a kind word. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call. And of course, the flip side of that scenario is true, too, even though it doesn’t have anything specific to do with an occupation – if you’re in a restaurant, be kind and compassionate to your server, too, even if it took them a little longer than you’d like to bring out the bread sticks or top off your iced tea. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they’re running a little behind because they’re dog-tired, working two or even three jobs, or they’re near the end of a double shift that they’d had to work just in order to pay the rent that’s already a week past due. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call.

Well, that’s just one hypothetical example; no doubt you can imagine a parallel scenario based on your own life situation. The point here is that it isn’t just people like me who receives a call from God. Every single one of you have, too. It’s a different call from mine, but it’s no less important. It’s no less sacred. It’s no less a form of ministry. Each one of you is being called, and drawn, by God, to do something, and to *be* something, specific in this world – to help other people, to be kind and compassionate to them, to show them mercy, and justice, and human dignity, and most importantly, to do it all out of love and gratitude for the God who created and loves us all.

The truth is, everyone’s dealing with something. The truth is, God is calling each of us to help them get through it.

Some people in this world are  called by God to do some big thing, something that makes it on the national or world stage. For most of us, that isn’t the case. Most of us are called to do a whole lot of little things, local things, things that maybe no one will ever know about. But they all add up to a great thing. Just as an example, look at what happened yesterday in this country, and around the world. it was something truly amazing. Millions of individuals did just one simple thing: they just showed up. They just showed up, to be counted, to make it clear where they stood and what they believed and why, and to make it clear that they would work to advance those beliefs. Each one of them just did this one simple thing – but together, they did something record-breaking. Something truly momentous. Something heroic. Something historic.

Those first disciples that Jesus called didn’t set the world on fire on day one. Christianity didn’t circle the globe in its first week. Those disciples started out pretty simple, one day at a time, one little thing at a time, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong, as they tried to hear and follow Jesus’ call to them. And it’s the same with us. So today, I just ask you to think about your own, personal, local call from God. What does it look like? It’s probably a series of those little things. A smile, a shoulder to lean on, a few dollars shoved in a pocket, a ride to the doctor. And maybe it comes with a surprise gift of fresh-baked corn bread. Or a casserole delivered on the afternoon after the funeral. Or maybe even a sample of cheese dip in aisle 3.

Thanks be to God.

What If? (sermon 3/1/15)

what if

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”    – Mark 8:27-38

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(In passing, I suppose you need to know that earlier in the service, I did a Children’s Message based on the classic kids’ story “Stone Soup.”)

A good story has a good structure to it. It has twists and turns, and highs and lows, calculated to add intensity and emphasis to the storyteller’s point. Today’s gospel text is the high point, and the turning point, in the overall story that the author of Mark’s gospel is trying to present. It’s the end of the first part of the story, that tells people about Jesus and points to who they’re supposed to understand him to be, culminating with Peter’s proclaiming here, in this passage, that he’s the Christ, God’s specially blessed and anointed one. That’s the peak of the whole gospel. And then it turns, and becomes all about Jesus’ journeying to Jerusalem to be crucified.

In this passage, Jesus and the disciples have traveled to the area of Caesarea Philippi, north of the Sea of Galilee. This is the site of the origin of the Jordan River, and for many years it had been a place of great significance to the worship of numerous deities. It was a place of religious pilgrimage, and talk about the various gods who had temples or other places of worship there was commonplace. And that provides the setup for Jesus’ famous question to the disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?’ and then, “Who do *you* say that I am?” followed by Peter’s statement, making him the first person in the entire gospel to call him the Messiah.

But right after that, Jesus starts to talk about all the trouble that’s going to come his way; that he’s going to be arrested and killed, but that then he’d rise from the dead. And Peter scolds Jesus that he shouldn’t say those kinds of things, that people would think he was nuts, that saying things like this was going to have a negative effect on recruiting new believers into the fold. It just wasn’t going to look good.

And here Jesus turns the tables and scolds Peter, saying that he needs to stop seeing things from a human perspective, but rather, from God’s perspective. And that God’s perspective includes some hard truths, hard realities, things that people were just going to have to accept if they want to be among Jesus’ followers. According to the writer of the gospel, Jesus put it in terms of taking up one’s own cross, just as he himself was going to take on a cross for the sake of God’s kingdom. He said that if you worried too much about saving your own life, you’d have missed the point of his message, the whole point of the kingdom of God, and that people who lost their lives for the sake of God’s kingdom would gain real life in that same kingdom.

It’s hard to read this passage and not think about the Christians who were kidnapped and executed by ISIS recently. Or the countless other Christians around the world who are persecuted every day for their faith – and I’m not talking about the ridiculous claims of persecution by some crybaby Christians in this country who claim persecution because they want the right to pray a Christian prayer at the beginning of the school day in a classroom filled with kids from all sorts of religious backgrounds; or who claim they’re being persecuted for their religious beliefs when they’re told they can’t use their religious beliefs to discriminate against people in the public workplace. I’m talking about real persecution; life and death persecution. It’s hard to not think about the fact that there have been more Christians killed for their faith in this century than in all the previous centuries combined since the beginning of the faith.

From our own place of relative safety, we tend to understand Jesus’ words as allegorical, metaphorical. We don’t have to think about losing our lives for the sake of our faith. But maybe during Lent, and the deeper reflection of the meaning of Christ’s life and our relationship with God that we’re called to be having during this time, we might ask ourselves if we were in such a place of risk, what would we do? Would we have the strength of faith to do it? What if Jesus were serious about us needing to be willing to lay down our lives for the faith? It’s a very difficult question to think about, let alone to try to answer. I’d like to think that I would have that strength, but in the actual moment, would I? Or would I find some way to justify why it’s better for my family, or my congregation, or whatever, that I should survive, so I should do what it takes to save my life? And in so doing, would I have just lost my eternal life? What if Jesus was serious about that?

Maybe, as part of that process of reflection, we could ask a related, but more manageable question: even if we don’t know if we’d give up our lives for our faith, how much would we be willing to give up? How much of our comfort are we willing to sacrifice for the kingdom of God?

How much of our financial security would we give up? A lot? A little? Did you know that this year, the congregation is budgeted to run a bit of a deficit, but that if every pledging household committed to giving just another eight dollars a month, the deficit would disappear. Eight dollars a month; not even an extra hundred dollars for the year. Would we be willing to sacrifice and discomfort ourselves to the tune of eight dollars a month? What if Jesus was serious about that?

How much of our time and effort would we give up? Would we be willing to designate space, and to participate in fundraisers and donate our time to take the first bay of the basement in this building, level the floor up, put in a dropped ceiling, and let it become the place where the congregation re-starts its youth ministry, showing the current youth that we believe they matter, and showing the kids in the Children’s Worship Center that they have something to grow into, to look forward to as they get older? As the church, the scriptures tell us that we have an obligation for the nurture and development of disciples in the faith, especially including the youth, who aren’t the church of the future but who are the church of today, and they need every bit as much attention as part of the congregation as anyone else. Would we be willing to put ourselves out to that degree? Jesus said following him wasn’t always going to be easy or comfortable. Jesus said take up our cross. What if he was serious about that?

And what if we did make that space, and we had another bitterly cold winter like this year? What if someone suggested that at least a couple of days a week, when the youth weren’t using it, that we could open that room up for homeless people to at least come in and get warmed up for an hour or two, and maybe get a bowl of soup and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Would we be willing to be discomforted enough to make something like that to happen, to help the neediest in our community? Jesus said to take up our cross. What if he was serious?

I’m offering those scenarios as reflection exercises, in order to spur the Lenten reflection, “How far am I willing to go personally for my faith? How much am I willing to be discomforted personally in order to follow Jesus, the one I profess to be my Lord and Savior? Where are my personal lines in the sand? And is that where they should be drawn? Because the truth is, I think we all realize that yes, Jesus was serious about that. None of us are likely to risk death for our faith, like many others are. But where are our supposed sacred cows, or our lines in the sand of comfort or familiarity that we aren’t willing to go beyond? These are extremely important points to consider, certainly for our own lives, our own awareness, and our own personal spiritual growth, but they’re also very important things to ask ourselves as a congregation, especially right now as the Mission Study Team is in the middle of its work, and as you’re getting your surveys to help the Team identify our congregational mission into the future.

Keeping our congregation vibrant, and keeping our own personal faith healthy, always requires stretching outward into new areas, into areas that can and will initially cause discomfort. The townspeople in the Stone Soup story I shared with the kids today didn’t originally want to share their own vegetables and meat for the soup. But once they did, they ended up experiencing the joy of having done something good, and that the whole community benefited from. By allowing themselves to be stretched into a place they didn’t originally want to go, their lives, and the lives of others, were made better. That was the high point of the kids’ story today. And it’s the high point of the kingdom of God, too.

Thanks be to God.