Not To Boast, But…

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of this call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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“I’d like to come by and shoot a story about St. John’s.”

The producer from WHSV had called the church and when I heard his request through the phone I was both nervous and excited. A story. About St. John’s. On Television. But then I realized I needed to ask a question.

“About what exactly?”

We do a fair amount for our local community, but I had a feeling this request was for something else. And in the pit of my stomach I was worried that he wanted to do a story about the controversy series we recently finished. After two months of standing up in the pulpit and belaboring different points of friction, I was looking forward to leaving the controversies aside for a little while, and did not want to speak on behalf of a church where we are clearly divided over a number of issues.

But then he said, “I saw on your website that your church is hosting a communion service on Election Day, and I thought that was something more people should know about.”

He arrived about 30 minutes later with a bag full of camera equipment and a spiral bound notebook full of questions. He set everything up in the office and ran a microphone cable under the desk and into my lap to pick up on all of the dialogue. We tested for light and volume levels for a couple minutes, made sure I was in the frame, went over the specifics about looking at him and not directly into the camera, and then he pressed the record button.

“Tell me a little about the church…”

“Well,” I began, “Not to boast, but, this is the best church in the entire Shenandoah Valley. We’ve got a Preschool that has been in existence for about 30 years and has the greatest reputation for its education. The children are nurtured by our beloved teachers, they receive the necessarily information to excel when they leave for Kindergarten, and we strive to teach them about the virtues of love, grace, and mercy.

We have a solid youth group that meets on Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm for communion, discipleship formation, and bible study. The group contains the best and brightest kids from Staunton and they regularly out disciple me, their pastor. They have a hunger for the Word and are willing to vulnerably encounter one another in questions about their faith. To be honest, they give me hope for the future of the church because they believe in what we are doing almost more than most of the adults.

We have a lectionary bible study of which more than half of the attendees are not members of our church. Every week they gather in the room next door to read four scripture texts and prayerfully discern what God is saying to them through the text. They bring their experience and love of the bible to that group and all of us have grown in our faith because of that bible study.

On Sunday mornings we have some of the best worship that any church in Staunton has to offer. Our order of worship is streamlined for maximum impact, our hymns directly relate to the greater theme and narrative of worship, most of the time the sermons aren’t half bad, and we’ve got an organist who can really make our organ move and groove. The kind of hospitality that our church members extend to strangers and longtime members is worthy of imitation by all churches and they are truly the reason people come back week after week.

On any given week our building is used by a number of local civic organizations including girl scouts, cub scouts, and boy scouts. We have a quilt-for-a-cause team that regularly works on quilts that are then given away to local children in need. We’ve got a group of volunteers called the Cheer Team who take time to visit with those who are lonely or afraid in the community. We’ve got others who go to the Trinity Soup kitchen to cook and serve food to the homeless. We send a mission team of youth every summer to help different communities in need. We’ve got…”

“Just a little bit” he said. “Now,” he went on, “tell me about this Election Day communion service.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know more about St. John’s? I really could go on, I was only really getting started.”

“No, let’s try to stay on task.”

So for the next 45 minutes he recorded as we went back and forth about the current state of politics in our country, we waxed lyrical about pamphlets and fliers we’ve received here at the church about who we should vote for as Christians, we explored the theological implications of a communion service in the midst of such political division, and we even discussed the practical matters of how much bread to purchase and how many people we should expect to attend.

All in all, we examined just about every aspect of the Election Day Communion service and when we had gone through all his questions, we shook hands and he left to get some exterior shots of the building. The last thing he said was, “It should be on the evening news in the next day or two.”

We don’t have cable at the parsonage, but you better believe I kept checking the WHSV website for the story about our church. With every click to reload the page I dreamt about how many people would see the wonderful descriptions of the church, I imagined how many people would hear all the things I boasted about, and I began picturing our pews filled to the brim on Sunday morning.

Two days later, the story finally appeared on in the news cycle. The opening shot was an image of our altar, the one right behind me, and as the news anchor began introducing the story my teeth chattered with excitement.

The anchor said, “St. John’s Pastor Taylor Mertins has this to say….”

Then the shot cuts to me in the office, with Star Wars figurines and works of theology on my shelves. Here was the big moment. And then I watched myself say, “We are going to pray for our political leaders whether it’s the person we voted for or not. That would be the most Christian thing we could do.”

And then it ended. 10 seconds. The vast majority of our conversation was left on the cutting room floor, and 45 minutes of bragging was reduced to a 10 second sound bite.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that WHSV came to do a story about our Election Communion Service, it will be a profound moment of unity in the midst of chaos and division, I only wish that everyone watching got to hear and experience all the things that make our church what it is.

And then I reread our scripture text for this morning.

2 Thessalonians is one of the earliest Christian documents that the church has. It is the second letter written by Paul to the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, the Thessalonians have their act together. Not only does Paul mention the fact that he gives thanks and prays for their little community, but also Paul boasts about their church to all the other churches. They are the city on the hill to which all the others churches should aspire to, they are the standard by which other churches should measure themselves, and they are worth bragging about.

But why did Paul choose to brag about them?

Was it the number of people they had in the pews on Sunday morning? Perhaps they had a remarkable preschool that was helping to shape the future? Maybe they had a youth group that met once a week for communion, fellowship, and bible study? Or perhaps they had streamlined their worship services to connect all of the hymns with the scripture, and the sermon, and the offering, and the prayers?

No.

Paul boasted about the Thessalonians because they remained steadfast in their faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. Paul boasted about their church because they grasped and lived into the mission of the church: to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We, the church, are a different people. We, the church, are an alternative form of community. Rather than being labeled and defined by the marks of culture that surround us – consumption, power, greed, political parties, nationalities, sexual identities, economics – we are like strangers living in a strange land.

What we value and desire is not what the world values and desires.

            What we proclaim and believe is not what the world proclaims and believes.

            What we worship and affirm is not what the world worships and affirms.

            We are a different people, we Christians.

Though the world may change, though new presidents may reside in the oval office, though new pastors can be sent to different churches, we grow in love of God and love of neighbor. That is our mission, and if anyone can say we love God and others, if that’s what they boast about, well that’s good enough.

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So perhaps, the ten-second sound bite about the Election Day Communion service is precisely what the community should know about our church. They don’t need to know about our different activities and ministerial programs, they don’t need to know the specifics of our Sunday liturgy, they don’t need to hear a forty-five minute speech about all the best things we’ve got going on at St. John’s.

All they need to know is that we are growing in love of God and neighbor by putting aside things like all of our political differences and joining together to feast at God’s table. Instead of being captivated by the world as the results pour in on Novembers 8th, we will be here loving one another and remembering that we worship the living God.

Therefore, maybe it is our sense of challenge, our willingness to return to this place Sunday after Sunday that connects us with the church in Thessalonica from so long ago. They suffered under persecution and affliction and were able to keep the faith. We wrestle with the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance and we keep the faith. Rather than falling prey to the whims of the world, instead of being consumed by the popularity of politics, we remember that we are God’s people. This land is going through a time of great division and schism, but because of God’s grace, we have not lost sight of who we are and whose we are.

To this end we pray, asking that God will continue to make us worthy of the call and that God will fulfill by His power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace and mercy of God.

The mission of the church, and the mission of all Christians, is to love God and love others. That’s it. Amen.

 

Naked and Afraid

John 21.1-17

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana of Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now not of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

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Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. The angel at the tomb shared the Good News with the disciples and with the Marys, and later that day Jesus appeared in the room with the disciples. He commanded them to “Go” and spread the Good News to all the earth. But Thomas was not there. Thomas doubted his friends, and their stories about the risen Lord. So a week later Jesus appeared again before the disciples and offered his hands and his side to Thomas to prove the resurrection. He concluded the moment by saying: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

After these incredible moments of resurrected existence, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples for a third time at the sea of Galilee when they returned to their former lives. What a fitting reading for the second Sunday after Easter. Just two weeks ago we were gathered in this sanctuary shouting “Hallelujah!” and praising the Lord for Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We were living in the light of the resurrection, and boy was it bright! The scent of blooming lilies punctuated the air and invaded our nostrils. No matter what was happening in our lives, God bombarded us with the Good News, death defeated, and we left church feeling filled by the Spirit to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

And here we are two weeks later. The lilies are gone, the hallelujahs are still are our lips but they don’t have the same power, and the darkness of life has crept back in. Every year we experience Easter like a mountaintop, but at some point we have to travel back down to the valley of existence.

The disciples, after literally witnessing the resurrected Christ, decide to return to their old lives. Peter says to the boys, “I’m goin’ fishing!” and they reply, “We’re coming with you.”

Do you love me?

It seems strange from our vantage point that the disciples should return to their former occupations, even though Jesus told them to go and spread the news. It feels bizarre to hear about them going back to their boats and nets after their friend transformed the meaning of life and death. Yet, this is how people usually respond to an emotional overload. In the weeks after a baby is born, the new parents wonder about when they will be able to sleep again. After a wife loses her husband she wonders when it will be okay to laugh again. When something deeply and fundamentally transformative occurs, it is only natural to ponder about life before the change.

This story of a reunion by the sea is a reminder that there is no escape from the Lord. Wherever the disciples went, and wherever we go, Jesus is with us.

They were out all night fishing but didn’t catch a thing. Jesus stood on the beach watching the disciple row in to shore, but they did not recognize him. He commanded them to cast out their nets one more time and promised they would catch something. Three years earlier he had said the same thing to Peter and Andrew while they were fishing before they left everything to follow him.

They immediately caught so many fish that they were unable to haul in the net because it was so heavy. In that moment, as the pieces finally came together, Peter recognized who was standing on the shore, put on some clothes and jumped into the sea.

There are many details in this epilogue to John’s gospel: the mention of a charcoal fire draws us back to the charcoal fire around which Peter denied Jesus. The appearance of fish and bread to feed the disciples hunger propels us back to the time when Jesus fed the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus even asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” which connects with the three times he denied Jesus.

But this simple note that Peter was naked on the boat while catching fish, and decides to put his clothes on before swimming to Jesus, really stands out. It would have been easier to fish under the oppressive heat of the climate without the baggage of clothing, but instead of immediately jumping in (as he had done once before) Peter puts on clothes before he see the resurrected Lord for a third time.

Peter was naked and afraid. Not just physically naked without clothing, but maybe he was afraid of making himself completely vulnerable to Jesus. Perhaps he did not want to address the emotional denial of Jesus prior to his death. Maybe he didn’t want to admit his fallibility, or he did not want his life to be altered. But the resurrection changes everything.

Like we all do when we feel vulnerable, we put on the armor of denial and ignorance in order to protect ourselves from others. Afraid of the inevitable confrontation we sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything has gone back to normal. And then Jesus shows up with his question:

Do you love me?

Sure I do Jesus! I come to church nearly every Sunday, I listen to the pastor up in the pulpit, and I even try to sing the hymns in harmony.

Feed my lambs.

Do you love me?

Of course I do Jesus! I wear a cross around my neck, I always have my check written and ready for the offering, and I post pictures of prayers on Facebook for everyone to see.

Tend my sheep.

Do you love me?

Jesus, you’re making me a little uncomfortable… you know everything and you know that I love you. I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I give a little money to charity, I try to pray before I eat my meals… what more could you want?

Feed my sheep.

Most of us have probably never faced a time like Peter did when he denied Jesus outright. We’ve never really had to suffer for our faith, and we’ve never really been afraid for following Jesus. But all of us have had moments where we denied him; we just might not realize it.

We might be in our car driving down the road, and perhaps we’re even listening to a Christian radio station, when we stop at a red light and we see someone standing in the median right next to us with a sign asking for money. Perhaps we reach out our hands to lock our doors, or we make judgments about how they got themselves into whatever trouble their in, and before we know it the light turns green and we are able to get on with our lives without being bothered by the panhandlers.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having a cup of coffee with a friend and the topic of the recent Panama Papers comes up in conversation. We can feel our fists tightening as we complain about the ultra wealthy evading the taxes that all the rest of us have to pay. Perhaps we start drawing connections between the economically elite with criminals who prey on the weak and underprivileged and we wish someone would do something about it. But before too long the conversation moves on to another topic and we finally feel the tension start to slip away as we talk about something else.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having dinner with our family when someone goes on a tirade about a particular political party. We keep our mouths shut because we’ve heard them go off like this but we can’t help but shake our heads in disappointment over their opinion. How could someone be so backward in their thinking? If they believe their candidate can fix all of our problems, then they are going to be sorely mistaken…

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

The conclusion to John’s gospel is like epilogue in its willingness to address many of the elements that made Jesus’ ministry what it was. As we read it, as we smell the fish cooking on the open fire, and we try to dry ourselves off after swimming in the sea, and as we listen to Jesus’ questions it reminds us of darkness.

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Through this text we are forced to confront the darkness of our hunger for meaning in our lives, or our failure to recognize Jesus in our midst, or the fact that we have denied him by denying others. But at the same time, this story reminds us that none of the darkness has overcome the light. Christ still died for us while we were yet sinners. God still sent his Son into this broken world to start putting the pieces back together. The Holy Spirit still moves among us and calls us to love one another even when it feels impossible.

Christianity, at its best, is not about what we think or feel about Jesus – it’s about what Jesus does to us. Not a technique for how we can use him to accomplish our goals, but rather his plans for using people like us to transform the world by feeding and tending to the sheep.

Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For many of us, the normalcy of life has returned. The darkness of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

            And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?”

If we love Jesus, then we have to start loving one another. Which means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep by encountering the person on the side of the road asking for money. And not by just addressing their financial situation, but also by treating them with worth and respect. It means that we have to tend to Jesus sheep by helping those trapped by the power of greed to see how their greed affects all of God’s creation. It means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep when they argue and bicker about politics by listening and loving rather than ignoring and judging.

It is here at the lakeshore of life, that we discover what a strange Messiah we follow. A man who came and was hung on a cross only to forgive his murders; a man who went back to the friends who betrayed him, and ate breakfast with them by the sea; a man who got killed for calling people to serve the last, least, and the lost; a man who expects us to love him by loving others. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Peter 2.21

1 Peter 2.21

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

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The argument broke out during a discussion on the Philosophy of Religion with a few of my peers in college. “Dying for someone is the ultimate sacrifice!” someone yelled. “Don’t be such a martyr!” someone ironically interjected. The conversation started politely enough; I made mention of a passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was curious what others thought about it: “I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” Before too long an argument had erupted regarding the necessity of physical sacrifice for others. A few of my friends adamantly believed that our ultimate call was to give our life for others so that we completely mirrored Christ’s life in our lives.

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However, one young woman was unconvinced. She stayed quiet for much of the fight but eventually, with a calm and collected voice, she said, “I think dying for someone else is easy. Not that Christ’s death was easy; but his death is not our death. Christ died for the salvation of the world, so that we would not have to. I think the far greater challenge is to live for one another. Living for someone else requires us to love the way Christ did. It would be so easy to sacrifice my own life for someone else. But to live for someone that I despise? Thats what Christianity is all about.”

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“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” For those of us living in the comfort of Christianity in the United States, our faith will probably never require us to give our lives. Christianity has become such an accepted reality that faith rarely frustrates or disrupts our society. However, we have been called to so much more than just sacrificing ourselves for others in death. The call of Christ on our lives is to sacrifice ourselves for others in the way we live. Just like the young woman proposed during our argument, to love someone that we despise is precisely what being a Christian is all about.

In this Easter season, a time of new faith, new beginnings, and new realities I wonder how we are all sacrificing ourselves for others? Today might be the best day to ask ourselves whether or not we are really following in the steps of Jesus.

Family and Faith: Others – Sermon on Matthew 12.46-50

(The concluding sermon in a three part series on Family and Faith. Preached at St. John’s UMC on 9/22/2013)

Matthew 12.46-50

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘”Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to this disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

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Families of faith – part 3. We began by looking at the role of God within the family- we talked about how our individual relationships with God extend out toward others around us including our family, and we left with the challenge to encounter God through scripture and regular prayer. Last week we were challenged by Paul’s description of the Household code in his letter to the church in Ephesus, we pondered over the problematic interpretations of hierarchical family structures throughout the centuries, and we left with the challenge to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Today we conclude our sermon series on Faith and Family. We have already covered the first two primary aspects of Christian families: God and the family unit itself. And now we come to the end by addressing the role others play in families of faith.

Matthew perfectly paints the picture for us.

Jesus has been speaking with the crowds for some time about an assortment of things: The metaphor of a tree and its fruit, a comparison of the sign of Jonah to the resurrection, and warnings against the return of an evil spirit.

Everyone is gathered tightly together, inspired by the words. Here we have Jesus at his very best, teaching with his disciples. This is where they belong, nestled together, perhaps sharing some bread and wine, daydreaming about the kingdom of God.

And then someone told him, “Look, Jesus, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” There is no hesitation on Jesus’ side, no spared moment to contemplate his action, he simply questions to the one who interrupted: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And with the simple gesture of his hands toward the disciples in the room he continued, Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!”

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Have you heard this story before? It’s fantastic, clear, straightforward, and it contains its own simple message: Whoever does the will of God is your new family. I love passages like this one because it does not require preaching; it preaches itself!

In the first century, this story was one of the most widely quoted in early Christian literature. People loved to share this little anecdote about the new family in Christ because wherever the Gospel was received, families were divided, and those cut off from their blood relatives found immense comfort in the knowledge that they now belonged to Jesus’ true family. However, as the centuries passed, Christianity became the dominant faith, it went from being a movement to an organization, and it was an expectation for people to be Christian.

This story lacks the same luster that it held in the beginning because being Christian is no longer considered revolutionary, its more like a club or civic group. Today, commitment to Christian faith may still result in alienation from family members, like it did in the first few centuries, but for different reasons: in our time family members might reject the Christians in their midst because they cannot comprehend or tolerate such a waste of time or talent. Some of you have perhaps experienced someone in your own family or social group dismiss you for being a Christian, but chances are this hasn’t happened. However I would venture to guess that everyone here can think of a person that has treated you differently, even just once, for being part of a community of faith.

I’ve felt called to the ministry since I was 16, and the seed itself was planted long before that. When I shared it with my family they embraced this revelation in my life and have done everything in their power to support it. My friends and church affirmed my call and rejoiced in my own discovery. Passages like this one from Matthew always sounded nice, but I already had my Christian family in addition to my church family.

Years later, when I was in college, I got a phone call from my grandfather. He spent most of his years living either in France or Florida so I had a very minor relationship with him, and when he called to say that he was coming to visit I was elated. I planned my whole week around his arrival and took care of all of my assignments early so that I could spend as much time with him as possible.

I remember picking him up from his hotel and showing him all around campus before we made our way to the restaurant. Our conversation flowed so easily and I soaked up every detail. It was turning into the kind of night that I had prayed and hoped for.

After ordering our food, he looked up from his folded menu and said something that I will never forget: “Taylor, I think going into the ministry is a waste of your time.”

What was Jesus’ family doing outside when they called for him? What did they want to speak to him about? Did his mother and brothers think he was crazy and want to stop him? Probably! We’re talking about Jesus here. You know the guy who helped some fishermen bring in the biggest haul of their lives only to tell them to leave it on the shore and follow him. The guy who made just as many enemies as he made disciples everywhere he traveled. The guy who questioned authority, walked on water, ate and drank with the poor and the outcast.

If he were my brother I would’ve tried to stop him too!

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Everything Jesus did carried with it a hint of disruption. You say you need to stay behind to bury your father, I say let the dead bury the dead (Matthew 8.22). You want to know what to do to inherit eternal life? Sell all of your possessions and give to the poor (Mark 10.21). I could go on, but the point is: following Jesus requires us to make significant changes in our lives.

Rather counter-culturally, Jesus calls his disciples his new family as a replacement for the traditional family. This is not a rejection of his biological family, but an extension of the family unit to those beyond blood relation.

In the church today we carry on this practice through the sacrament of baptism and the reception of members. When we baptize individuals in the faith we are welcoming them into a new family where everyone that gathers is connected with everyone else.

That means when you look around this morning at the congregation you are not just sitting with neighbors and fellow Stauntonians, but you are with your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. All who gather in the name of the Lord to worship and do the will of God are the new family (for better of worse).

This passage strikes forth to combat loneliness in the world. We’ve all lost someone in our lives, and this place, this church, is where we come to rediscover what it means to be together. It is also particularly meaningful to those who have been liberated from an emotional slavery to dysfunctional families and can now find a new family in the church.

Last week more than sixty people gathered together in our fellowship hall for a murder mystery spaghetti dinner. Everything had been taken care of. We advertised it appropriately, gathered plenty of donations, and set up the room beautifully. A team of us gathered the night before to make sure all the food was prepared and ready to go. The day of the dinner came, and many volunteers arrived early to put everything in the right place and when everything started we could all breathe a sigh or relief.

We made it through the first two acts of the play, and after praying, everyone lined up to receive their gourmet spaghetti. I was enjoying myself in the kitchen, helping as I could, when some guest barged in, “Um, there’s somebody outside to see the pastor.”

“Right now?” I thought to myself. I mean we’re in the middle of serving all of these people dinner, they paid for this, and now somebody needs me. And so I reluctantly made my way out of the kitchen and into the fellowship hall.

Standing in the doorframe was a homeless man who had seen the sign out front and the cars in the parking lot and decided to come in. At first I felt like everyone in the room had their eyes on that disheveled man, everyone sitting quietly looking at him, but then I realized that many of the eyes were on me wondering, “what’s the pastor going to do?”

After speaking together in the hallway, I collected a container of food for him, asked if he would like to stay and eat with us, but he expressed his desire to keep walking. I made my way to the door with him, shook his hand, asked if there was anything more we could do, and wished him well.

As I stood there in the doorway, one foot in the church and one on the brick walk way, I considered my position. I could hear my church family behind me upstairs in the fellowship hall eating and laughing together, while watching this homeless man walk away from the building. Who is my brother?

What Jesus offered his disciples, what he still offers each and every one of us is a new family. Jesus called all of us to this church and this way of life in order to live into the kingdom of God on earth. Some might consider our participation in the church as irrelevant or a waste of time but its not. We are here to be Christ’s body for the world. That means we have to learn a new language and a way of thinking. It means that when a homeless man walks into our fellowship hall he is our brother!

We sit at a remarkable moment in time. For perhaps the first time in centuries Christianity no longer carries with it the air of gravitas that it once held. Sunday mornings are now recognized as a time to sleep in more than the time to be reverently present in worship. Though the majority of Americans still identify their faith in God through Jesus Christ, the church is losing its role in the political arena and churches are struggling to fill their worship spaces.

Many people look at the changes to the role of the church in the world and they see failure. I see opportunity.

We have the opportunity to discover what has and always is the case – that the church, including the people called by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. Perhaps because we are finally being seen again as counter-cultural we are free to be faithful in a way that makes being Christian today an exciting and life giving adventure.

Many people today do not understand the church. It’s why people like my grandfather consider my vocation a waste of time. Our responsibility to Christ’s church is not to describe the world in a way that makes sense, but rather to change lives, to be re-formed in light of the stunning declarations of the gospel.

Families of faith contain three important priorities: God, the family itself, and others. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment he responded by calling his disciples to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. If we want to cultivate families of faith we need to learn how to maintain these three important areas of our lives: God, our family, and others.

One of ways we can live out our calling to maintain relationships with others is to simply go out and be Christ for the world. It means being willing to open our eyes to the suffering and tragedies around us and no longer ignore them. We can continue to bring donations to the church, bags of food and clothing, but to really live out our Christian identity we have to follow Christ and be radical people committed to the kingdom.

I know my grandfather loves me, and that precisely why he wanted to stop me. Just like Jesus’ mother and brothers he was no doubt concerned about what I was going to do with my life. And frankly he just did not understand. But nothing can ever compare with the importance of following Christ. It is my prayer that we all live everyday to the fullest potential of our baptismal identity ready to be a strange people in a strange land, willing to invite the lost and lonely into our space to feel the warmth and love of God, and eager to go out into the world to serve one another.

Jesus asks: Who is my mother and who are my brothers?

You are.

Amen.