Sermon: Answering the Call

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[Given on Sunday, June 22, 2014 by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO]

“…whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” – Matthew 10:38

Last week, Mother Anne raised up examples of everyday discipleship among us to underscore that discipleship, the fundamental call for every Christian, is lived out in small everyday acts. This week, I want to raise up the other side of the discussion. I want to suggest that in addition to these small acts of discipleship, the Christian, the follower of Jesus Christ, is also called to a more uncomfortable, costly discipleship.

The call of discipleship is, at its very heart, a call to a new life. Jesus tells us in John 10:10 that he comes that we might have life and that more abundantly. But one thing that is made very clear throughout the Christian witness is that this call to “new life” is purchased at the cost of our old one.

In order to receive, you must give. In order to rise, you must fall. In order to lead, you must follow. In order to live, you must die. This is the paradox of faith.

This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer underscores when he states that “when Christ a man [a woman], he bids him [them] come and die.”[1] It’s what Jesus himself means when he calls us to “take up our cross” and follow him.[2]  To walk in the newness of life offered to us by Jesus Christ, we must intentionally lay down our very lives at his feet.

But through some ingenious rhetorical manipulation, we’ve somehow come to see this scripture, this call, this summons to a new life as meaning something other than what it says. Discipleship for many means a casual acquaintance, an occasional run-in with the Risen Christ, one that doesn’t come too close, one that isn’t too risky, one that doesn’t cost too much. We want the “innumerable benefits procured unto us” in discipleship, but we want it on our terms.

Nearly two millennia since our Lord first walked the sandy shores of the Sea of Galilee calling the disciples from their boats, to leave everything and follow him, the cost of discipleship has often become so cheap, so meaningless, that there is seldom a noticeable difference between the follower of Christ and one who isn’t.

This cheapening of Grace has become more popular in recent years as the Church scrambles to reverse the downward trends of attendance, power, and prestige. The Sacraments become mere door prizes. Money, not mission, becomes the purpose. Membership, not discipleship, becomes the requirement. One by one, responding too often out of fear and not faith, the Church casts her pearls among swine,[3] giving “that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving.”[4]

Discipleship, following Jesus Christ, ought to cost you something. Better yet, following Jesus Christ ought to cost you everything. Anything that is held back from God, is held up as an idol. What else can we give to him who gave us his all? What else shall we render unto our God for all God’s goodness towards us?

I do believe that we all are trying to do our best to follow Christ. So what keeps us from surrendering our all to God? I want to suggest three attitudes that keep us from surrendering: fear, pride, and shame.

The first spiritual disposition that can prevent us from surrendering to God at the core of our being is fear. Fear is the magnifying of the world. We like control, we rest in the ability to manipulate the minutia of our lives, and in the face of all of the instability and changes and chances of this transitory life, we feel like we have to control something.

Fear is the response of an isolated spirit, one that sees things out of proportion, one that is cut off from the true source of life. We’ve got to counter the fear of life by walking in faith. In order to stop the dark parade of fear, you’ve got to know who you are. Howard Thurman suggests that “the awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.”[5]

When you know what your very soul is being held in hands that spread out the vast expanse of the universe, that spun the galaxies, that molded the earth from “starstuff,” that erected the mountains and carved the valleys, when you know what your very spirit is nestled securely in God’s hands then you know that you have nothing to fear.

Fear makes God small. Faith makes God big.

To walk in the discipleship means that we dethrone our worries and our anxieties, and magnify the One who said “come unto me and rest. Lie down, thou weary one lie down, thy head upon my breast.”

The second spiritual disposition that can prevent us from surrendering to God is pride. If fear is magnifying the world, pride is magnifying ourselves. When we place ourselves, our desires, our wants, our dreams, our goals as the center of our lives we have dethroned God and enthroned ourselves. We have committed self-idolatry.

The problem with pride and idolatry is that it is fundamentally empty and impotent. Peter Gomes suggests “the sin of idolatry… is denounced not so much for what the worshipper does not give God, but for what the false gods cannot give the true worshipper… A false god, or an idol, is by definition one who neither has nor can deliver the goods.”[6]

When we rest on our own ability, lean on our own understanding, we set ourselves up for disappointment. But when we trust in the Lord, when we understand that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, when we walk in humility, we open ourselves up to a greater reality. Humility is not a denial of our goodness, our beauty, our power, or our giftedness. Humility is an understanding that our goodness, our beauty, our power, and our giftedness is enhanced by the light of God. Like a stained glass window, humility is the willingness to hold ourselves up to the light and allow the light to shine through us revealing a kaleidoscope of beauty.

The third spiritual disposition that can prevent us from surrendering to God is shame. If fear is magnifying the world, and pride is magnifying ourselves, shame is magnifying the past. To walk in shame is to say that our past, who we were or what people think about us, is bigger than who God is. Shame is debilitating because it shackles us to yesterday even while God wants us to walk in freedom.

Shame can prevent us from surrendering to God because we develop a sense that God doesn’t want us, that we are too dirty, too used, too this or too that to be acceptable to God. Shame is a fundamental denial of the goodness, the God-spark that is in each of us.

The opposite of shame is not pride, but awareness. You are not your past – you are God’s child. You are not who people say you are – you are God’s child.

Baby, you are a firework – you are fabulous – and who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. Don’t let folk diminish you. Don’t you diminish yourself. Walk confident in who you are – short or tall, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll – you are fabulous darling. It is only when you know that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” that you can truly surrender all of yourself to God.

Fear, pride, and shame – all of these can prevent us from surrendering to God, from walking in the vocation of discipleship.

Yet the call remains and it is the responsibility that this call places upon our lives that will change the world.

What the world needs now is “Crazy Christians,” Christians who have made, and are making, the surrender to God each and every day.

“Sane, sanitized Christianity is killing us. Comfortable, demure Christianity may have worked once upon a time, but it won’t carry the gospel any more… What we need are… Christians who are crazy enough to catch a glimpse of the crazy, transforming, transfiguring, life-changing vision of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christians who are crazy enough to follow him into the work of helping God to realize God’s dream for all people and for all creation.”[7]

We need those who are not ashamed to give the world proof of their calling in how they, like our Lord, seek to serve the world.

“If the world despises one of the brethren, the Christian will love and serve him. If the world does him violence, the Christian will succor and comfort him. If the world dishonors and insults him, the Christian will sacrifice his own honor to cover his brother’s shame. Where the world seeks gain, the Christian will renounce it. Where the world exploits, he will dispossess himself, and where the world oppresses he will stoop down and raise up the oppressed. If the world refuses justice, the Christian will pursue mercy, and if the world takes refuge in lies, he will open his mouth for the dumb, and bear testimony to the truth.”[8]

That is costly discipleship. That is our call.

The 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. that closes today, has made headlines all over the country because of what transpired this week. In an overwhelming vote of support, the Presbyterian Church affirmed marriage equality allowing their clergy to perform same gender weddings, divested millions of dollars from companies that supported oppressive policies against Palestinians living in the “apartheid state” of Israel, issued an overture supporting a moratorium on capital punishment, and an overture calling for action in response to the proliferation of gun violence in this nation.

As great as this work is, I would suggest that the fact that this meeting made headlines is an indictment against Christians everywhere. Christians doing the work of pursuing justice, loving mercy, shunning privilege to empower the oppressed, and bearing testimony to the truth should be an everyday occurrence.

Discipleship is our call.

It asks us to leave it all and follow Christ.

What will your response be?

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship, 99.

[2] Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:24, Luke 9:23.

[3] Matthew 7:6

[4] Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship, 58.

[5] Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 56.

[6] Peter J. Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: William and Morrow Company Inc., 1996), 188.

[7] Michael B. Curry. Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2013), 8-9.

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Cost of Discipleship, 289.

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