Pentecost 16: A Sermon (from 8.31.08)

If you have children or have ever worked with children, you have undoubtedly played “Follow the Leader.” I was games leader at VBS a few years back, and played this game with the nursery schoolers, leading them around the church lawn while clapping or waving our hands in the air or hopping on one foot or making silly noises or pretending to be different animals.

In junior high, I remember playing more adventuresome versions of this game. One night at youth group, we did a trust walk – we were all blindfolded except for the line leader, and we all held hands as the leader took us around the church, and outside the church. He’d give directions to the first person in line who would pass the directions along to the next person and so forth. He’d say “curb: step up,” or “we’re going downhill” or “be sure to hold the door for the next person.”

I think that when we think about what it means to be a Christian – what it means to follow Jesus – we really really wish that it felt like that first game of follow the leader. We want our faith walk to be full of joy and full of life, easily imitating Jesus as we follow him on a nicely manicured church lawn, with soft grass and level land, fully aware of our surroundings, kept safe, and only asked to do simple things.

But we know, don’t we, that our following Jesus often feels much more like that second game of follow the leader, wandering without full sight, through challenges and obstacles, holding on and trusting the leader, sometimes stumbling, sometimes unsure of our footing.

Both Jeremiah and Peter want the life of faith and the life of discipleship to be safe and sure.

Jeremiah recalls that he gladly accepted God’s call to be a prophet, and how God’s words became to him as joy and the delight of his heart. But if you know anything about Jeremiah, you know that his career as a prophet was perhaps the most difficult of any of the Hebrew prophets. He was mocked and taunted. He was imprisoned. He was cast into a pit to die. And if you read the book of Jeremiah, you know that he grieved and lamented and cried out to God in the midst of all of his frustration, pain, and troubles – all of these trials and tribulations coming upon him simply because he accepted the call to follow God. In this morning’s reading, Jeremiah is grieving. He is not casting aside his call, nor is he giving up on his faith, but he is lamenting to God about the troubles that he has endured, and the troubles that Israel has endured. He is holding fast to God’s challenge to “utter what is precious, and not what is worthless.” This is a challenge to follow God and to live faithfully, not because it is easy, but because it is essential. And both the grieving Jeremiah and the grieving Israel can persevere in their faith and calling because they have faith in a God who promises, “I am with you to save you and deliver you.”

And then there’s Peter. Right before today’s Gospel reading, Peter has made the bold declaration “You, Jesus, are the Messiah!” And then Jesus has responded by telling Peter “upon this rock I will build my church.” But then…then, instead of painting Peter and the disciples a rosy picture about faith and discipleship, Jesus instead levels with them about all of the hardships that he is about to undergo. Jesus fills them in on how he will be challenged and mocked and arrested and, eventually, put to death. Jesus shares with the disciples the difficult path that he will undergo for the sake of the salvation of the world.

And Peter immediately backs away from his initial enthusiasm. He hears that this whole Jesus-thing has real impact and real consequences and even real difficulties, and he’s quick to say “God forbid it, Lord!” And Jesus responds by saying “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus then goes on to talk about what it means to set aside the human things and live according to God’s higher calling. He says, "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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

How often do we find ourselves feeling like Jeremiah and Peter? When we celebrate at the font with the newly baptized, and rejoice in welcoming a new brother or sister in Christ as a faithful worker with us in the kingdom of God, do we not also wish that his or her life of faith would be full of joy and hope and peace, and that his or her path of discipleship would be quiet and calm and protected from grief or lament? How much do we grieve when we hear stories of Christians being persecuted, or churches being attacked, or faithful people being questioned or mocked? And how much, sometimes, do we want to stand still and hide our light under a bushel rather than shine for the world to see, because we don’t want to risk being challenged because of our faith?

And yet, at the same time, we hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer ringing in our ears, warning us against clinging to a cheap grace that requires nothing of us, and that, at the end of the day, is not grace at all. Instead, he urges us toward that costly grace that takes seriously the work of Christ on the cross and takes seriously the work of discipleship, in all of its challenges and joys!

The good news of the gospel story is that Christ has defeated sin and death, and that our burden of sin and death has been replaced by the yoke of Christ. The good news of the gospel story is that even though we may experience troubles and trials, those troubles and trials do not have the final say!

N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, puts it this way:
“To speak…of Jesus’s lordship and of the new creation, which results from his victory on Calvary and at Easter, implies at once that to confess him as Lord and to believe that God raised him from the dead is to allow one’s entire life to be reshaped by him, knowing that though this will be painful from time to time, it will be the way not to a diminished or cramped human existence but to genuine human life in the present and to complete, glorious, resurrected human life in the future”(230).
And if that assurance of resurrection and salvation is not enough, there’s more good news: we don’t ever walk the path of discipleship unaided or alone. We don’t walk the path unguided or without a light. We walk this path of discipleship accompanied and supported by the Christ who is himself no stranger to suffering. He does not ask us to suffer for a gospel that he himself has not also suffered for. The tragedy of his arrest, trial, and death is also the good news of our salvation. When we are struggling to be faithful during hard times, when the burden seems too much, we take comfort in a savior who knows what it is to grieve. When we weep and lament, we are embraced by a savior who himself wept and lamented.

When Christ asks us to take up our crosses and follow him, and when Christ asks us to keep our minds on divine rather than earthly things, he is asking us to remember our salvation and to remember that despite the sin and death that cause us to stumble, God has promised to make all things new. We get a taste of it here in this lifetime – we see the seasons change and we see children being born, we watch warring nations come together in Beijing under the Olympic flag, we watch politicians speak to issues of justice and goodness and reconciliation, we watch walls come down and we watch as our country becomes increasingly charitable. These glimpses of new creation are what keep us going when things seem tough. These are the things that help us press onward on our journeys of discipleship.

Discipleship doesn’t demand that we minimize or ignore the challenges that we face in life. Discipleship doesn’t ask us to dismiss grief or sorrow as if they were unimportant. Discipleship doesn’t mean that we have to be callous or stoic. Instead, faith and discipleship allow us to live more fully into all parts of our existence, both hardships and triumphs, both sorrow and joy. The life of faith is a fuller life, a realer life, and a life that is called to be a light to the rest of the world.

As Paul says in Romans:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
The demands of the life of discipleship don’t render us immune to bumps along the road, but they help us get through those bumps. The demands of the life of faith require us to give up our whole lives to God, trusting the promise that through God, we will receive abundant life. There might indeed be trials along the road, but God always gets us through. Just a few days ago, Edwards apple orchard – a place many of you know and love – sent out its fall newsletter. This is some of what it says:
Dear Friends,
This will probably be the most meaningful fall our family has ever experienced. A year of challenges has taught us a lot and left us with much to be thankful for. As many of you know, Boone County experienced a tornado in January that damaged our buildings and twenty-four of our neighbor’s homes and farms. We are grateful beyond words for the support that was given to us in so many ways. We are doing well and are very excited about the upcoming harvest season….The damage done to our buildings was extensive. The only structures on our farm that were not rebuilt from the ground up were the museum and silo….It is really miraculous that a project that might have normally taken 2 years to build has been completed in just 8 months….We realize that many of you have experienced your own ‘tornadoes,’ whether it was illness, job layoff, flood, accident, divorce, or death of a loved one. We hope that during your visit you can leave your worries at the gate and join us in the celebration of fall.
This is what Christ asks of us when he asks us to take up our crosses and follow him: to live faithfully through the storms of life, to leave our worries at his feet, and to join with all the faithful in the celebration of the new life and new creation that God has already begun in Christ!

I’d like to close with a prayer. It is a Gaelic prayer, a prayer for the journey. It is a prayer that faithfully asks God for a smooth path through life, but that also prays for God’s strength and support when the way is not so smooth. It is a prayer that speaks to our own lives and faith-lives, a prayer for hope and a prayer for guidance. It is a prayer for us as we live faithfully and abundantly in this life, and as we anticipate yet fuller life to come.

Let us pray:
Be Thou a smooth way before me,
Be Thou a guiding star above me,
Be Thou a keen eye behind me,
This day, this night, for ever.

I am weary, and I am forlorn,
Lead Thou me to the land of angels,
Methinks it were time I went for a space
To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven;

I Only Thou O God of life,
Be at peace with me, be my support,
Be to me as a star, be to me as a helm,
From my lying down in peace to my rising anew.


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