A Plan for Following Jesus.
Faithful Living for Hard Times: Go Out Into the World in Peace.
A sermon preached at The Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on July 9, 2017.
The first in a ten part sermon series.
The first sermon I ever preached as a student pastor
Wasn’t very good.
It was long and rambling and not very funny.
At least now, after some practice,
they’re no longer as long and rambling, right?
[I can tell, how you didn’t laugh at that, that they’re still not very funny]
The sermon was on the book of Haggai.
That’s one of the short prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible
And the sermon explored the idea that God has given us a way of life to follow.
A roadmap of sorts.
In Haggai, it’s about rebuilding the temple.
At least they had written instructions,
with the promise that the new devotion a new temple would portend
meant poverty, famine, even drought
wouldn’t affect the people of Israel any longer.
Sounds pretty good to me.
Actually, the idea of having concrete suggestions OFTEN appeals to me.
To know what it means to live a good life, a faithful life, a true life.
Not just abstractly, but concretely.
You’d think it would be easy, but its not.
Every day, we’re confronted with hundreds of choices that matter.
Maybe not the should-I-wear-red-socks-or-lime-green-socks-today sort of questions.
But the that guy is asking for change at the red light at I-435 and State Line today,
sort of questions.
–The I’ve had a stressful day, or am just plain annoyed at something
And my kid has forgotten for the SIXTH time to throw away that trash wrapper
And I might just go yelling a little bit but should I, really, should I??
Sort of questions.
–My mother is on life support, what do I do if I have to decide what to do
–My marriage is mired in long, quiet, awkward silences, but what can I do about it
–I’m so mad at my family for not doing more for social justice
I could just decide never to talk to them again and be done with it
–I’m being asked to understand racial injustice in our culture
And systemic poverty and welcome for the immigrant
But why should it impact my life at all, sort of questions.
–The I’ve never really given enough time in my life for thinking about God
About a reality bigger than myself
But I’m here, that’s a good start, right? Sort of questions.
You can just sort of get on a roll.
And it would be so very nice to have a roadmap, or a cheat sheet
That can make the work of deciding a little clearer.
I’d go for that.
The problem, of course, is that each of us has to do this on our own.
Each one of us has to decide what are the criteria we’re going to use
To orient our lives, to try to put some structure to our choices
So that they’re not just capricious, not just random.
There’s a great villain in the 20th century imagination
that lived his life choosing at random.
If you grew up reading Batman comics or saw Batman on TV
or remember Val Kilmer
Or Ben Affleck or Michael Keaton
butcher the part in the movies
You might remember the villain Two-Face.
Two-face decided what to do by flipping a coin.
Should I steal this car? Flip a coin.
Blow up this building? Flip a coin.
Win or lose, flip a coin.
The only decision was to give up our decision to some random device.
We realize how absurd that is.
Sure, it was meant to be absurd, and we know everyday people can’t live like that.
Almost all of us make our decisions
From our values, those habits of the heart
that are shaped and formed over a lifetime.
That’s partly what we’re doing here, in church
Learning through the habits of Christian practice what values are important for
Seeking to follow God through taking the way of Jesus.
And then pondering how those values intersect with our everyday choices.
But we are all a jumble of values,
and sometimes they conflict with one another as we work through it.
What’s more important in this circumstance?
Love of neighbor or love of my family?
What about holiness vs. attending to someone’s hunger?
The point, really, is that its not all cut and dry. Its often not that easy.
And while we learn from our study of scripture that, for Jesus,
its never the case that anything goes,
Its never true that as long as you try and intend well
then its all ok, thank you very much
–we also know that we each have to carry our own backpack
if I can bring forward a metaphor from last week’s sermon
that we can’t just have someone tell us “do this” or “do that”
and have that be the right answer for us, in this moment, at this time.
God created us with the capacity for moral reasoning,
With the responsibility to apply our values to our decisions
The best we know how.
And maybe that’s why we’re all amazed that God sticks with us even so
Given how god-awful we human beings can be at this sometimes.
This isn’t a question about salvation, or anything like that.
We’re grateful that its not. You can’t do anything to make God love you.
God already does.
And however you understand salvation: being made right with God
Knowing, deep in your bones, you’re never alone
That you matter to God
Even if other people in this world tell you
that you’re not good enough, or worthy enough,
or that you love the wrong person,
or make the sort of choices that they never could imagine making–
however you understand salvation, know this:
We don’t earn or merit God’s love. Its already there. Overflowing. Prodigal.
So this isn’t about that.
But it seems as if what it means to follow God
on the way of Jesus
has many of us confused.
And we’d like a roadmap, please.
And don’t just say “read the bible” because, again, as we’ve been learning
With stories like the binding of Isaac last week
And the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael the week before that
Its not safe to assume that just reading the bible is enough to do it.
People whom the bible laud as having deep faith
Are shown as getting it wrong ALL THE TIME.
Sometimes, that’s how it relates the most to us.
I do think God has given us a roadmap for living,
But its not a one size fits all sort of thing.
It’s the life and teaching of a person, of Jesus of Nazareth.
And for us, its our life’s work, our joy and our challenge
To figure out how in the world we’re going to apply THAT life and THAT teaching
to OUR life.
This is what it means to be a Christian.
You pray. You ponder. You deepen your faith and your love for God.
You seek to have that faith impact your life
And, hopefully, to make those choices a little bit easier.
Sometimes because faith suggests an answer: this, not that.
And sometimes faith is useful
just because you know that God’s got your back
And knows how hard this can be
And loves you anyway
And will help you pick up the pieces if you mess it all up.
The Christian path isn’t the only path out there.
There are a lot of competing philosophies about the values
behind the choices we make, if we’re honest.
There’s hedonism: just do whatever feels good.
There’s protectionism: do what you can to bring safety to you and yours,
however wide you draw that circle
All others can fend for themselves
There’s acting in self-interest: do what you need to do to get ahead,
or helps you in the end.
There appear to be competing visions of what following Jesus is all about, too
Some of which might be, and are, indeed, life giving and rewarding and true
Even if they’re not my particular vision. Or yours.
That’s ok. We need to stop talking as if there is just one right way of following Jesus.
Just as we should stop saying that people who do NOT seek to follow Jesus
Can’t live a life of values and principles that we can recognize as being
True and loving and deeply good. They can. And they do.
At the same time
There also appear to be some competing visions of how to follow Jesus
which seem to be more guided by unhelpful and decidedly-non-Christian values
By hedonism or protectionism or self-interest, for instance
That seem to be Christian in name only.
These break my heart. And they often cause real hurt to people.
I think that breaks God’s heart too.
That’s a lot of preamble for this sermon series.
I hope I didn’t lose you somewhere near the mention of the book of Haggai.
We’re looking at a way of living the Christian life,
A method to this madness
Suggestions for understanding the roadmap that is the person of Jesus Christ.
A method, not THE method.
Its not exhaustive. Nor original.
But it is, I think, really, really helpful
As we think through how we can be faithful in the everyday humdrum of life.
Last year I renewed a practice that many of you had been familiar with.
We now end each worship service not just with a blessing, we call that a benediction.
We also end with a charge.
A charge is a statement of encouragement to live the Christian life.
We gather, we study and pray and witness together,
And then we go, we depart, we get on with our lives
And we do this centered around a CHARGE that commends to us
That the things we do here matter.
The Charge we’ve been using goes like this:
Go out into the world in peace;
Hold on to what is good;
Return no one evil for evil;
Strengthen the fainthearted;
Support the weak,
And help the suffering;
Honor all people;
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
When you look at it,
you realize that this is something of a roadmap for following Jesus.
It offers practical teaching, ways we can orient our lives
Values that we have been learning.
Criteria for making decisions.
What can we do? Well, here are some things we can do…
What am I to make of that? Well, how does it fit with these things here…
Sometimes people ask me to cite for them where this comes from
And the answer is more complicated than they often expect.
It comes from the Bible, of course,
But from several different places,
drawn from the life of Jesus and the teaching of the Apostle Paul and Peter.
The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship cites First Corinthians, Second Timothy
Ephesians, First Thessalonians, and First Peter as some of the sources.
The earliest reference I can find of it being all put together like this
Is from a 19th century Episcopalian church manual
But we Presbyterians have been using it for more than a century.
Which explains why many of you seemed to be repeating it from memory
When I reintroduced it last year.
So why don’t we spend some time this summer and focus on This Charge together
And maybe we can take heart that we might have
some accessible guidance for the Christian life after all.
The Charge starts with this beautiful commendation:
Go Out into the World in Peace.
You hear echoes of this in this passage from Philippians:
Stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
The Lord is Near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication
Let your requests be made known to God
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The Apostle Paul writes that God’s peace is something that goes with us
To guard our hearts and our minds.
A few verses later, he’ll say that if we exercise our powers of discernment
And if we ponder on what Paul is trying to teach us
And choose the things that are true, that are honorable
Whatever is just, whatever is pure,
what ever is pleasing, whatever is commendable
To use his language
If we do that, then we know the God of Peace will be with us.
The first step of faithful living is to go out into the world
bearing the God of Peace.
The word for peace is shalom in Hebrew, and eirene in the Greek.
It appears more than a hundred times in the New Testament,
more than two hundred and fifty times in the Hebrew Scriptures.
It is a foundational concept of the Christian faith.
We inherited the idea of Shalom from our Hebrew forebears:
is the condition where all is right in the world, where justice is secure
And people do not wage violence against one another
Swords broken into plowshares and all that.
–It means treating fragile people fairly,
and respectfully, so that they can regain their strength,
mount up with wings like eagles, walk and not faint.
–It doesn’t mean docility.
Its not passive, in that it lets the strong walk over the weak.
Instead, it chooses not to back down in the face of opposition,
But it is willing to wander in the desert for a generation
To see things put to right.
If these allusions sound familiar, then you might have had some history
With the Hebrew Scriptures,
a story of God seeking shalom for the people of God
and through them, for the whole world.
Those of us who look to Jesus
to help us understand in a full way these visions of God from the Hebrew Scriptures
remember that we call him the Prince of Peace.
–That he rejected the possibility of violent conflict in the garden,
when he rebuked his disciples for it.
–That he taught a form of engagement that respected the hurting
And called the hurtful to repent.
This Jesus, who, in something of a metaphor for our lives
Stood up in the rough sea and told the wind and the waves: Peace, be still.
This Jesus encouraged people to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile
To give the cloak too, so that through these concrete acts of peace
The power of violence to oppress could be overturned.
Jesus was operating out of this Hebrew concept of Shalom,
When he was arrested and tried and condemned to die, for our sake.
Donna read for us this morning a somewhat obscure passage
from the Gospel of John.
We don’t often read into the 16th chapter of John
It may not be all that familiar.
But Jesus is warning his disciples that this life of ours,
when we go out into the world in peace
Its going to ruffle feathers.
John worried that it might get people killed, in that day and age
Even by people who, in doing so, think they are offering worship to God.
There are going to be people who say that, when we get punched,
we have to punch back ten times harder.
There are those who will say an eye for an eye,
Or might makes right
Or peace through strength,
by which they tend to mean the strength of the biggest stockpile of lethal force
rather than the strength of conviction, or trust, or other forms of reconciliation.
But the life of following Jesus is always to go out into the world in peace.
To seek to be peacemakers ourselves.
Asking: what will it take for difficult situations to de-escalate
And if it is in our power, can we help make it so.
Insofar as possible, how can we live peaceably with all.
There’s a rather famous prayer that has been attributed to St Francis of Assisi.
St Francis died in 1226, and there’s no evidence that he wrote it.
And before it was attributed to him, it was also said to have been written by
William the Conqueror. So there’s that.
But it’s been called the Peace Prayer.
Its simple, and its timely, and it has been used as a sort of roadmap
For millions of faithful people around the world:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
This prayer is a powerful expression of self-giving love for the sake of God’s Shalom.
When we live into it, Paul says, the peace of Christ is with us
And though the world around us may rage
Though the mountains might shake with tumult
This life of living with Christ can be incredibly peaceful, and comforting
A sort of tranquility and repose even in the face of difficult times.
Our first step along the way is to take this to heart:
How might you nurture this gift of a peaceful life
Choosing to go out into the world in peace?
May we ponder this deeply and well
As we seek to follow God on the way of Jesus the Christ
And live a decidedly and purposefully faithful life
And because of it, experience the amazing love of God
A love that we can share with those around us
And enjoy every moment of our lives.
May it be so. Amen.