Sunday, June 28, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Movement"

Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness.

36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers.

38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.” (Common English Bible)

“Whole: A Call to Unity in a Fragmented World,” Week Four

You don’t need me by now to tell you what happened eleven days ago at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  You know the horrific, barbaric details.

What I want to talk with all of you about is the why.  Why it happened.  Why we reacted to it the way we did, with many white people reactively defending the marks of their own culture, like the Confederate battle flag, even as their neighbors staggered in shock and grief at the gunning down of nine souls by a single gunman.  Why we have already gotten defensive over this hate crime, rather than springing forward to offer more than only prayers, but genuine efforts at healing and at justice.

I want to talk with you about why we, as a nation, as a community, as a church, are not in the harmony that we ought to be, why we do not move in step and in time with the world we live in as we ought.  I want to talk with you about how we can be more like Christ in moments like these, and less like Pilate, or Caiaphas, or any of the legion of naysayers who eventually cost Jesus His life.

And I want to talk with you about all of this because that not only goes to the heart and soul of what it means to be a Christian, it goes directly to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a church, a church that must now do more than simply open up its doors and hope that the people come in. 

Open doors is no longer enough, we must have an open, completely open, mission to live out too.

This is a new sermon series for the summer season, which will take us through June and into early July.  It is based off of a book written last year by Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, who has served for the past eight years as our denomination’s General Minister and President.  As such, she is one of the most visible pastors in our tradition; she has written in magazines and newspapers, preached at national prayer services, and been interviewed by just about anyone you can imagine about what exactly the Disciples think about this or that (trick question: we never think exactly the same about anything).

Pastor Sharon has used this widespread pulpit of hers to proclaim her vision, which she finally put into a book by the same name as this series, and the name comes from the preamble to the design of our denomination: that we are called to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  In a world broken apart by sectarianism, prejudices, and hatred, we as Disciples are meant to be a movement for making humanity whole but to make ourselves as persons whole.  But what does that even look like?  Well, that is what the book she has written is for.  We are going chapter by chapter through the book, with texts paralleling it from Matthew’s Gospel, and to start off with, we talked about the nature of the Lord’s table, before moving on to the theme of welcome and then wholeness itself.  Today, we’ll be going on to the chapter entitled “Movement,” springboarding from this excerpt from said chapter in Pastor Sharon’s book:

During the last century in the United States and Canada, throwing open the doors of the church and offering an extravagant welcome for whoever came through those doors represented the best practice of a faithful, vital congregation.  In the middle of the twentieth century, people were looking for a church.  Churches simply needed to be ready with a great offering of programs when discovered.  Attraction was the name of the game.

But times have changed.  We may build it, but they will not just come.  Other activities have taken priority on Sunday and Wednesday nights, formerly the sacred time for church.  Social norms no longer include weekly attendance at worship services.  Churches cannot just open the doors and wait anymore.  Those doors swing out, and we have to follow the arc of that swing.  We have to exit the church building, going beyond the parking lot into all those unexpected places where Jesus might have gone—including on the road, at the beach, around the most unlikely people’s supper tables.

It is not about attraction anymore, it is about action!  The church needs to heed Jesus’s advice.  “Go!” says Jesus.  Go into the entire world!  Go!  Make disciples!

But making disciples is not the end goal, even though we in the church often treat it as such—I’ve seen churches brag on social media or in their promotional materials about the number of “salvations” they have achieved in a given year, as though getting someone to recite the Sinner’s Prayer is the be-all, end-all of what it is we are doing here.

No, that be-all, end-all isn’t *simply* to save people, it is to turn them into people who, like the original Twelve, are disciples, not merely believers.  Followers of Jesus, not merely His roadies.  There is a world of difference between the two, and that difference comes through in Matthew 9.

“The size of the harvest is bigger than you can possibly imagine, but there are few workers.  Plead with the Lord of the harvest to send more workers for His harvest.”

The harvest, in this passage, are the people who are crying out to Jesus in desperate and dire need of Him and of what He brings: healing of illness and affliction, wholeness out of brokenness, love in place of neglect and apathy.

They also are not people we tend to think of as a part of the Lord’s harvest, because there is nothing in it for us.  Churches tend to like for people to stride through the door with their checkbooks and calendars of days wide open for volunteering, but the truth is, that isn’t how life—and life here in Longview especially—works anymore.

Church is for the broken and the broken-hearted, the sick and the silenced, but who the church has historically laid out the proverbial red carpet for are those who are not helpless, who are the exact opposite of the troubled and helpless crowds Jesus encounters here, who have so many means that it can stagger your imagination if you let it.

And we can and should absolutely make disciples out of our big rollers, because such means can be such a terrible, terrible obstacle to hearing the Gospel—just look at the rich man who came to Jesus asking for eternal life and going away despondent because Jesus instructed him to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor.

But that is sometimes what needs to happen to become a disciple—one has to give up all of their trappings in order to truly begin to follow Jesus.  Which brings me back to Charleston.

Can we, as a predominantly white church, move forward by shedding some of the trappings of our own beliefs and culture surrounding race?  Because that is exactly what the New Testament church had to do in Acts of the Apostles—as a predominantly Israelite church, it had to shed some of their trappings, like requiring circumcision, to, welcome in Gentile Christians.

You may say that giving up circumcision is not so much a sacrifice—hey, Joey, guess what?  We aren’t going to take a Roncko Great Grater to your giblets!—but make no mistake: to Israelites steeped in the tradition of their fathers and forefathers which dictated that circumcision be a sign and a symbol of one’s covenant with God, in a world where none of their enemies would adhere to this practice, so much so that calling a Jew “uncircumcised” was a horrific insult, it was a big deal.

But slowly, over the course of the church’s new life, they welcomed in the new cultures, new peoples, new ways of life, because they were all united by one singular truth: that Jesus Christ was indeed the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that by believing in Him, we both have and give life in His name.

What life will we give to the families and friends and congregants of the Charleston terrorism victims?

What life will we give to the people—complete strangers until we get up the gumption to get to know them—who walk through our doors?

What life will we give to anyone and everyone in our lives whom we see, as Jesus did, being troubled and helpless, sheep in need of a shepherd?

What life will we give to the world itself, the world God made and gave to us but that we beat up and beat down out of selfishness and greed?

We are called to be life-givers, not life-takers, and yet when push comes to shove, the life we look out for the most is our own, our tribe’s our clan’s.  Just look at the reality that in the wake of Charleston, six other predominantly African-American churches have been reportedly the victims of arson.

That is why, in a nutshell, I think so many of us have focused on playing defense after Charleston rather than on playing openness.  And it is slowly, painfully, profoundly harming the church.

It is slowly, painfully, profoundly harming us all.

We have to remember that at some point in our lives, even if we were raised in the church from our baby cradles onward, that we too were one of the people Jesus is encountering here, in such great need for the Good News of the kingdom of God, that the need is physically palpable, that you can see the need in the eyes, in the soul, in the speech, that you can almost reach out and touch.

Which, in fact, we are meant to do—reach out, and touch.  It is how Jesus healed the sick and the injured, and it is how we too can heal the spiritually sick and morally injured today: by reaching out to them, rather than reaching inward only for ourselves.

Gone are the days when we can afford to be so self-centered, to simply throw open our doors and assume that others will come to us rather than us being humble enough to go to them.  Now is the time to reach out.  May we prove ourselves worthy of that great task.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 28, 2015

1 comment:

  1. So true, Eric, so true! so easy to get stuck with ourselves and our own. Openness and vulnerability is risky business. You have laid out the challenge! Thank you.