Organically Joined

Scripture: John 15:1-8

Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer

What do you get when you send your seminary intern to her first preaching festival in the nation’s capital during the week between Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday, when the theme of the festival is Preaching and Politics?  You get a Holy Spirit infused, super energized preaching intern with a first hand experience in what it means to be a branch on a vine in God’s holy vineyard!

On Thursday morning, during Reverend Anthony sermon entitled “Silence and the Provocation of Song and Protest,” Reverend Baily asked us to stand and sing, “We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall over come some day? Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.   When we sang the second verse, everyone started joining hands and swaying to the music, “We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand someday. Oh, deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”  Imagine several hundred people singing these words and the power of God through the Holy Spirit blowing through that church while we were singing. As we sang and held hands, I looked around and I realized that I was experiencing the transforming power of being a branch in God’s vineyard.  As I stood there, holding the hands of people to my right and left, I realized I had the same posture of the grapevine in the picture I chosen for the front of today’s bulletin. Can you see the resemblance? If you look closely, you can see that there are several grapevines in the picture and that the branches of each grapevine extend horizontally towards the branches of other grapevines on either side, as if they are trying to hold hands.  I’m telling you, the experience was providential for this sermon and the topic of abiding in the vine in God’s vineyard.

My time at the preaching festival ended with a prayer walk and vigil at the White House on Thursday night around 10 p.m.  But Friday morning, when I woke up, the experience of the festival was still on my mind as I began to pray and to think about editing this sermon. As I listened for God, I was hit with the revolutionary thought that I wasn’t a grape in God’s vineyard, I was a branch.  And, I wasn’t just a branch on one, single, solitary grape vine.  I was a branch abiding in the vine of Christ in the middle of God Almighty’s vineyard, among approximately 2.3 billion Christian grapevines planted by the Vine Growing God. And, as a grapevine, my destiny is to produce lush, globular, bold tasting fruit.  And then, I realized, that you all aren’t grapes either. You are all branches, just like me.  We are all branches, organically joined to the stabilizing, nurturing, life-giving vine, which is Christ. We are all branches in God’s vineyard and we are all tended by the Almighty Vine Growing God.  And the Holy Spirit infuses all of us with the same breath, energy, and life that is shared among the three persons of the trinity; The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We were never meant to be grapes.  Talk about God healing self-esteem issues.  You see, if you and I were grapes, we would easily be consumed by the people, powers, and principalities of this world who are determined to use God’s creation and the blessings therein for themselves.  But we are not consumable grapesWe are branches, organically joined to the vine, which is Christ, and we are destined to produce grapes, not to be grapes.  And our grapes will nourish all people on this earth, rather than only ourselves.  And, this is the Gospel I preach, and it is political.

Did you know that from the earliest memory, vineyards were essential to the well-being of the people of Israel?  The earliest memory of vineyards in the Bible goes back to the time of Noah after the flood. Genesis 9:20 tells us that Noah planted a vineyard after the flood subsided. Grapevines were an integral part of Israel’s livelihood.  Grapes could be dried and stored for later consumption. They were a source of energy, and they could be pressed into wine.  Vineyards also provided food for the poor, widows, orphans, the migrant, and the immigrant, who were allowed to pick the grapes behind the harvesters.  The vineyard was so important for the community, that in Deuteronomy 20, we are told that people who had new vines were excused from military service, so that they could tend to their new vines and ensure that they grew.  The vineyard was so central to Israel’s subsistence that scholars think the vineyard might have been a national symbol for the Israelites.[1]

In our text, the vine imagery represents a new community, united in Jesus and it emphasizes our organic and intimate union with Jesus, where Jesus is the vine and his followers are the branches that bear fruit.[2] As branches, we abide in the vine. Let’s listen to Jesus’s words again:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 

I have to be honest, the word abide does not help me understand Jesus’ meaning in this passage. Do you understand what abide means here?  In the Greek, abide can mean “to be one in,” “to be kept in,” “to remain in,” “to be held in,” and “to live in.”  As Christians, we frequently say the words “in Christ” and we pray “in Jesus name.”  When we use these words, we are saying that we are one in Christ or that we are abiding in ChristBut what does that really mean?

I found a more helpful translation of our text in The Message Bible and have provided the NRSV and The Message Bible texts side by side for your comparison in the white insert in your bulletin. Please look at the differences as I read from the The Message Bible, starting at verse 4:  Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. 5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation is intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered-up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

Don’t you find these words more meaningful than the word abide?  So, what does it mean to make your home in Jesus, or to make yourselves at home with Jesus?

I have had to make a new home, several times, wherever the Army sent me and later, my family.  Are you familiar with the saying,  that “Home is where the Army sends you?” As a military nurse and then wife and mother, I recognized how transient and uprooted our military lives were, and how important it was to provide my family with a sense of home, no matter where we lived. We all need a stable, safe, and nurturing environment to counter the instability of our increasingly transient lifestyles.  So, when we arrived someplace new, I intentionally placed the furniture–the tables, chairs, and lamps where I thought they would be most useful and where they best fit in the space available. I would put away the dishes and kitchen things in the kitchen and the clothes in the closets.  You get the idea.  After everything was organized, and my family had lived in that place a few weeks, I got around to decorating. The decorations I chose were ones that I thought would create a sense of home, warmth, comfort, safety, and peace.  Have you done something like this?  Have you had a chance to move into the space in which you planned to live and felt compelled, no matter what the situation was, to try to make the space your home?

But, some of us don’t currently have homes.  And others of us, might come from unstable homes –homes that were not nurturing, safe, or comfortable. Does our text in John still apply?  I think it does, because Jesus is offering both himself and his heavenly home to us, both of which are more stabilizing, nurturing, and safe than our brick and mortar, earthly homes—with the added benefit that Jesus’ home is a mobile home.  We can be at home in Jesus, no matter where we are and no matter what our circumstances.  Let me explain . . .

In John 15, Jesus says “abide in me.” Meaning we are supposed to make ourselves at home in Jesus. This could mean his body, and by extension, the church. But in John 14, Jesus also says “in my Father’s house are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”  So, Jesus appears to be saying, that abiding in him is, in a way, like moving into Jesus’ and his Father’s house. John also tells us that Father God abides in Jesus and Jesus abides in the Father. Later, John tells us that we also, are to abide in Christ as Christ abides in the Father.  While Jesus walked this earth, he modeled this abiding with his Father. Jesus was constantly influenced by God, in communication with God, and sustained by God, in unbroken fellowship, and God was always present and continually at work in Christ’s life while Christ lived physically on this earth, which is the mystery of the trinity. The Message Bible tells us that we, who believe in Christ, share in this same intimate and organic relationship with Christ and his Father. So, our relationship or connection to the vine is something more than just living together.

So, let’s go ORGANIC for a moment.  These are grape vines. What is it that sustains the life of these grapevines? Nutrients and water in the soil come up through the roots and out to the branches, where they nourish the branches, leaves, buds, blossoms, and eventually the grapes.  At the same time, sunlight or light energy and carbon dioxide in the air is taken in through the leaves and mix with the water and nutrients from the soil to help the plant digest and use its food to give life to the whole plant.  And, a healthy plant breaths oxygen and water into the air which is then used by animals and humans to live. A healthy grapevine will also send out feeler vines to find support structures that will hold it up, so it can grow towards the sunlight which it needs for energy. What we can’t see is the internal arteries and veins inside the vine and its branches, which transport the nutritional life-giving substance throughout the whole plant.  This organic process of feeding, digesting, and breathing is how the vine lives in the branches and the branches live in the vine.  And I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “abide in me as I abide in you.”   This process is the mystery behind our Christian communion too, where we feed on the bread and drink the wine which is the body and blood of Christ.

This morning, as I walked outside to get the morning paper, I noticed all these branches on my lawn. They are dry and brittle, and they can be easily broken. If you break these branches and look inside, you see the marks of a dried-up vessel.  There is no life-giving fluid flowing through its veins.  These branches are not connected to the vine any more. They are not living, they are dead. I don’t even think of them as branches anymore.  I think of it as kindling for a fire that I might want to have in my fire place.  What has happened to theses dead branches happens to us when we are separated from the true vine that is Christ.  This dead branch still has a purpose, but it is not the purpose God originally intended for it.  Similarly, when we, as humans, become separated from Christ because of our unbelief, our doubt, our stubbornness, our pride, our selfishness, or our laziness, our lives change.  We still have a purpose in life, but that purpose will be different from that which God originally intended.  And if we persist in living apart from God, our spirits will eventually die.

Abiding in Christ is living an abundant life, intimately joined to the source of that life.   And just like that ancient nation of Israel understood that tending to the new vines was essential for sustaining the life of its community and the individuals within the community; we also must choose to tend to the life of the vines in our orchard at Arlington temple. We need to read and study scripture together, not only on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week. Just as Jesus wanted his first disciples to make abiding in him their way of living, Jesus wants us to make abiding in Christ our way of living. Understanding the abiding life was so important to Jesus, that it is one of the last conversations he had with the disciples before he died. The ability to live intimately with Jesus and the Father is a reality, but this abiding life must be cultivated. Jesus, in the Message Bible, tells us how to cultivate this relationship, he says, “if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”

How do we make ourselves at home with Christ and Christ’s words at home in us?  The only way that I know, is through daily prayer, Bible study, meditating on scripture and listening to God in silence.  But the reality of life in the vine goes beyond this. Once we’re believers, Christ’s blood flows through our veins and Jesus not only remains in us, he empowers us to live the Christian life through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the vine that sustains us and holds us secure, both when life rains down on us and when the sun shines on us.

It’s really hard to kill a grapevine, but the master gardener at the nursery where Glenn and I bought these plants told us that feeding our grapevines on a regular basis is key to growing healthy vines that will grow and produce an abundance of fruit.  What kills grapevines and whole orchards is failing to feed them.  Will you take time to commune with God through daily prayers, both in your home, and in this church, which is God’s vineyard in Rosslyn? You may already be doing these abiding disciplines.  If you are not, there’s no time like the present to begin. Amen.

 

     [1] The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, S-Z, Vol. 5, p. 782.

     [2] Ibid.

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Pentecost For All God’s People

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Since I was little, I’ve loved learning languages. I love learning the ones that are relatively easy for a native English speaker, like Spanish; I like learning the hard-for-a-native-English-speaker ones, like Korean; I like learning the less-actively-useful-on-a-daily-basis ones, like ancient Hebrew.  I know there are many of you here who speak second and third languages with a fluency I will never achieve in any of them, but even so, I have always loved the process of learning. I would mostly call this a hobby, but honestly I’ve also come to see it as almost a spiritual discipline in its own right.  It’s not just about memorizing vocabulary or where the verb goes in a sentence.  Rather, it’s about learning to see the world from a new perspective.

I had a seminary professor who was Indian and whose first language was Tamil who told us once that in English, if we want to describe someone who is kind and generous and hospitable, we say they are warm-hearted.  But in Tamil you would say that person was cool-hearted.  After all, south India is pretty hot already – it is something cool that is inviting, that offers you respite.  I loved this example of how we don’t just use different words, but actually categorize things differently, things as basic as warm and cold.

I’m also very aware of the barriers to truly being able to see the world through the lens of a new language.  For a time I was helping translate a friend’s old family letters from German.  I studied German for years in school, and at one time I was reasonably good at it.   As I read those letters, mostly, I understood the words, and if not they were easy to look up. But even so I was constantly aware that I could never really be sure that I understood the meaning behind the words, the tone and intention the author had given them.  I could never really enter that perspective completely.

I like the story of Pentecost because it’s about speaking new languages.  I have often wished for a kind of Pentecost moment where a switch was flipped and I was just able to instantaneously speak fluently to someone in another language.

Of course, I know that Pentecost is not fundamentally a story about language proficiency.  It is a story of all those things that separate our lives and experiences and worldviews from one another, and how the church has room for all of us.

When the day of Pentecost arrives, we read in Acts 2, the disciples are all together in one place.  Jesus has at this point died, risen, appeared to the disciples over a period of several weeks, and then ascended back into heaven with the promise that more is to come.  The disciples are prayerfully waiting in Jerusalem for their baptism by the Holy Spirit before heading out on their mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus and resurrection and God’s love.

The disciples who were gathered in that place were an ethnically homogenous group of Jews from Galilee.  However, the crowd of Jews that was gathered in Jerusalem that day came from all over the known world – from all over the Ancient Near East, Asia Minor, northern Africa, Rome.  And, of course, they came with their own languages: Aramaic and Persian and Egyptian and Latin and Greek.  They were all Jews – dispersed near and far by ancient political events – and all were gathered for the festival of Pentecost to celebrate both the spring harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments.  But even so, there were certainly deep differences among those people of many places and many tongues in how they experienced and understood the world.

Here’s what I think is cool: when the Holy Spirit arrives that day, in a rush of wind and tongues of fire, she doesn’t make everyone suddenly start speaking the same language.  Instead, the disciples each begin to speak someone else’s language.  Pentecost is not a story of homogenization or assimilation, but of how God breaks down those barriers that so often work to keep us apart.  And so the disciples proclaim the good news of love and mercy and grace and resurrection – not in their own way or their own words, but so the people gathered around them can understand.

But again, Pentecost is not just a story about languages.  I have said this before and I will say it again: one of my deepest beliefs is that the entire Gospel is a story of God breaking down the barriers we set up to divide ourselves from each other.

From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry is one of breaking down walls. He calls as disciples both tax-collectors who sold out to the Roman Empire and zealots who had vowed to resist. He touches and heals people whose illness made them untouchable.  He interacts with women, as people, in ways that might cause the town gossips to talk, and he while he sees his mission as chiefly to the Jewish people, he answers the prayers of Romans and Canaanites alike.  He sits down to dinner with people who have been told they are unwelcome in polite society.  He preaches love for our enemies and forgiveness, that hard work of breaking down the personal barriers we set up between ourselves and those who have hurt or wronged us.  Finally, he breaks down the barrier between life and death itself.

We might go back even farther and rightly say that this work of barrier-breaking doesn’t start with Jesus, but is how God has been working in history all along: commanding God’s people to welcome immigrants, incorporating foreigners like Rahab and Ruth into God’s story, sending prophets like Jonah into enemy territory to give them a second chance.

On Pentecost, as the baby church receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, this work of God simply takes on its next shape.  It doesn’t stop with languages: as Peter speaks to the crowds gathered on the street below, he calls this the fulfillment of prophecy: “On those days I will pour my Spirit out on all flesh,” God said once through the prophet Joel: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free.  The Holy Spirit does not discriminate.  One by one, she breaks down our walls.

And when the people of this new church head out in mission, that is the work they will do as well.

They will preach God’s word first right there in Jerusalem, and in the rest of Judea and even the religiously suspect nearby land of Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.  They will proclaim the story of Jesus to a eunuch, a sexually marginalized person, from Ethiopia.  They will accept as one of them the worst Christian-hater they know.  They will reach Jewish communities in Greek-speaking places.  Eventually they will decide to let Gentiles, non-Jews, in as well, because they see the work that God is already doing among the people they once considered outside the fold.

The barriers that the Holy Spirit is tearing down are barriers of language, but they are also barriers of culture, gender, status, religious background and social propriety.  She is tearing down walls put up by society, walls put up by individual prejudice and bigotry, even walls put up by religious tradition.

The story of God and the story of the church is a story of those walls, one by one, coming down.

Now let me confess something to you.

That part of this sermon, all of those words I just said to you, came easy.   They came easy because it is a beautiful story and a beautiful idea that God is bigger than our differences, that the Holy Spirit transcends them, that our job as the church to keep breaking down those barriers and tearing down those walls.  And when I say it’s a beautiful story I don’t say that dismiss it as if it is just a fantasy, because like I said, I believe in the core of my being that it is true.

This part of the sermon, the part that is coming, is the part that I put off for too long and stayed up too late writing, because I didn’t know how to put it in words or how to make it sound hopeful.  Because the truth is I despair of the divisions that I see and feel all around us.  And the truth is I hate appeals to unity that try to simply paper over those divisions, because they are about real things, things Jesus maybe even cares about.  And the truth is, I suppose, that there are certain walls I’d rather keep up.  And I’m not always sure what to do with all that.

It’s no secret to anyone who lives in the United States that there are walls dividing us.  We live in red states or blue states; we watch different news and can’t even agree on what is true or false, and we demonize each other constantly.

This fact itself is often lamented, and yet our differences are over important things – not just the languages we speak, but, more often, what our values and priorities are; how we believe we can best keep ourselves safe; how we treat certain groups of people. Do I really believe the Holy Spirit can transcend these differences?  And do I really believe that all differences should even be transcended?  What would Pentecost look like in the US today?

Well, to be fair, the work of the Holy Spirit has never been to bring us together as a country.  Her work is to bring us together as the church.

But don’t even get me started on the church – the global church, that is.  The church might be in a worse state than the country.  Many of those same political divisions are alive and well in the Body of Christ, and to those we can add some serious theological differences as well.  We can’t seem to agree on what we believe or what it all means or what exactly it is we’re doing here.  And sometimes I admit it’s easy to get the angriest at fellow Christians who I think have gotten it all wrong!  We want to dissociate ourselves from each other: “I’m not that kind of Christian.”

Even and especially in our own denomination, the United Methodist Church, these days, this seems to be the case, and maybe because it’s so close to home, this is the divisive-ness that wounds me most of all.  You know I’ve stood up here from time to time and updated you on our continued denominational fight over same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT people, which we will be spending several million dollars on next February when we have a special General Conference to vote on whether we can find a way forward through our disagreements without splitting.  It’s fashionable in the midst of all of this to make appeals to unity, and yet it seems like no matter how you slice it, unity for some means exclusion for others.  I fear we will end up unified around the wrong things, and again, I despair, and sometimes, honestly, it makes me want to give up on the church altogether.

I struggled all week with the fact that when I read the Pentecost story, all I hear is a story of unity.  And I’m burnt out on unity.  I didn’t want to preach on unity.  Oh, sure, I can preach on speaking different languages – but, in the end, that’s not what really divides us, is it?

But it’s not my story, so I guess this is where I bring all of my doubts and reservations and struggles and wounds and let God’s story speak in spite of myself.

I really do believe that the Holy Spirit’s work is to break down the walls that keep us from each other.  It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful idea until she comes for one of the walls that I’m struggling to hold up.

And yet, I have to say this, too:  I have seen the Holy Spirit doing this work in the church.

I remember a trip I once took to Tangier Island, in the Chesapeake Bay with a group of other church-related young adults.  We were on a trip called an ecological pilgrimage, planting seagrass and learning about overfishing in the Bay and attempts to restore it to health.  On Tangier we talked to fishermen and crabbers whose livelihood and heritage both were threatened by restrictions on overfishing, who thought they were an example of government overreach.  That Wednesday night we went to church on the island, and, as our group leader pointed out, the church was maybe the only place where people with different perspectives on this issue and others ever found themselves in the same place.

I don’t always like that fact, but there is something beautiful in that, too.  And the most difficult, unlikely, beautiful thing is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t paper over our differences.  She doesn’t make us all speak the same language.  She just makes us the church, together.

I think of a man I once knew from a church I interned in.  At first, he was someone I did not like.  Though we were both native English-speakers, he often spoke in certain religious language that did not come naturally to me.  We disagreed on many things.  I felt he said the wrong things, even offensive things, in the way he sometimes talked about the poor in our community, in the assumptions he seemed to make about them.  If there was a wall I put up between myself and this person, certainly it was a Jesus-approved wall, a wall put up in defense of the most vulnerable people in our community.

But then I realized that this man also sought those same poor people out and made an effort to befriend them.  He brought them meals.  He listened to them and prayed with them.  He invited some of them into his home.  In other words – while it so often seemed like we were talking past each other, speaking different languages, there he was living out the teachings of Jesus more authentically, probably, than I ever had.

And a wall came down.

This is not a sermon about how our differences don’t matter.  This is not a sermon about unity as our highest goal.  This is a sermon about Pentecost, and how the Holy Spirit continues her work of breaking down the barriers that divide us, sometimes joyfully and sometimes against our will, and how that has been the case from the beginning of God’s story.

And if, like me, you sometimes struggle with what that means and how that looks, then I guess let’s struggle with it together.

Because Pentecost is the beginning of the church’s mission, and this is our work now, too.

Are you ready to break down some walls?

 

Unworthy Disciples: Disciples Who Do God’s Work

Scripture: Mark 6:31-44

One of the ministry hats I wear besides being your pastor is that I help lead a program of the Virginia Conference that offers summer church internships to college students who are discerning a call to ministry.  At the end of the summer, all of that year’s interns gather together back in Richmond to process their experience together, and we usually start this event by sharing what a colleague dubbed “Highs, Lows, and Uh-ohs” from the summer.

Highs and lows – those are probably pretty self-explanatory.  Highs might include preaching for the first time and having it go really well, or a week spent at a conference-run camp for children whose parents are incarcerated, or seeing an event you’ve helped plan come together at the end of the summer.

Lows might include some host family drama, or coming to terms with the fact that the congregation seems to be of a very different political bent than you are, or some experiential learning of church politics.

“Uh-ohs” are a little harder to define, and in fact, we usually tell interns to define it however they want.  These are the surprises of the summer, the times they were caught off guard, the things they didn’t think they could do.  We had an intern once who had to step in and lead worship on her own one Sunday morning when her host pastor’s baby came sooner than expected.  Another intern found himself and the youth group he was chaperoning in the middle of a fight downtown on a mission trip to an urban area.  These are the experiences that make you ask, “What do we do now?”

Over the past six weeks we’ve been following the twelve disciples in the Gospel of Mark and I think it is fair to say that they have experienced some highs and lows in their three years of following Jesus.  Highs: That first time Jesus spoke their name, that first experience of being sent out in mission on their own and being given authority to cast out demons.  Lows: That time they were caught on the lake in a storm and Jesus admonished them for having such fragile faith.  The time Jesus mentioned the yeast of the Pharisees and they thought he was talking about lunch and he bemoaned their thick-headedness right in front of them.  The time they made a public spectacle of themselves trying and failing to cast out a demon, even after they’d been given that authority.

And uh-ohs?  That time there were five thousand people gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching and, when the disciples pointed out that it was probably time to break for dinner, Jesus told them: “You give them something to eat.”

A couple big things have just happened in Mark’s Gospel before this story takes place.  The disciples have just returned from that first mission Jesus sent them out on.  While they were gone, John the Baptist was killed by King Herod.  Jesus and the disciples all have some processing to do.  So Jesus invites them to come on a little mini-retreat with him and rest, and they all get in a boat and head for a deserted place.

In pastor circles they say that ministry happens in the interruptions.  That is certainly true here.  People see them leaving, and when Jesus and the disciples disembark on the other side of the lake, the crowds have beaten them there.  As an introvert, I can certainly imagine how disheartening it must have been to  find five thousand people crashing your silent retreat.  But instead of telling them to go away, Jesus sees their need for hope and direction, and he begins to teach.

Just before dinner time his disciples come to him and say, “It’s getting late, Jesus, better let these people go get something to eat.”

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says.

The disciples look around awkwardly and say, “Well, uh, there are kind of a lot of people here, and, uh, that’s going to be pretty expensive…”

In other words, they tell Jesus, “Sorry.  We don’t have what it takes.”

But instead of accepting that answer, Jesus says, “What do you have?”  They have five loaves of bread and two fish.  So Jesus says, “OK.  Use that.”

Here’s the thing about a life of discipleship: there are plenty of times when we won’t have what it takes to do the thing that God is calling us to do.

But God tells us to take what we have to offer and do it anyway.

So far in this series we’ve followed the disciples’ story pretty chronologically, from their first call through some of their highs and lows, but we are actually going backwards in the story a bit today with the loaves and fishes story. I admit that that’s because I wanted to end this series on a high point, which the Gospel of Mark itself does not do.  At this point in the story, the disciples have not quite gotten to some of their biggest misunderstandings and discipleship fails.  But at the same time, Jesus knows who these guys are.  Jesus knows who he has called.  He knows they’re not just going around impressing everyone at every turn.  And yet Jesus trusts them with doing God’s work. Those loaves and fishes aren’t going to serve themselves.  You give them something to eat.

We have talked over the past six weeks about how much we ourselves sometimes resemble the first twelve disciples: unready to trust, unwilling to understand, unable to carry through with the tasks they are assigned.  We’ve talked about how sometimes, all those imperfections in our own lives and journeys of discipleship make us hesitant to even claim that title of disciple at all.  But God’s Kingdom isn’t going to witness to itself.  God’s love isn’t going to share itself.  The good news of God’s mercy and welcome isn’t going to spread on its own.

It makes me think of these words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century.  She said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless his people.”

In other words, flawed and failed and imperfect disciple though you may be, God needs you.  And sure, God is powerful enough that God could do whatever God wants without us – but that’s not how God has seen fit to make it work.  God needs you to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, continuing this work that Jesus started.

There was a member of our weekday community here at Arlington Temple who told me about someone he used to pass each day on his way to a soup kitchen in a different city.  This person clearly had needs that were not going to be solved by a free meal.  So the man telling me the story said he went around trying to figure out whose job it was to help this guy – to get around, get an appointment with a doctor, whatever it was he needed – but he couldn’t find anyone whose job that was.  So he continued to walk past this guy every day until, he said, I realized: it was my job.

Let me assure you, the man who told me this story was not a person who had it all together, by any kind of outward appearance.  But he got that right.  For some some reason, God trusts us with this important work – unworthy disciples though we may be.

There’s an author I like named Sara Miles who writes about the enormous power that Jesus gives those who follow him.  “’It’s actually pretty straightforward,’ Jesus says. ‘Heal the sick.  Cast out demons.  Cleanse the lepers.  You give the people something to eat.  You have the authority to forgive sins.  Raise the dead.’”  “What would it be like,” she asks, “…to just take his teachings literally, go out the front door of your home, and act on them?”[1]

Sara Miles herself was, again, not a Christian who had it all together.  She was an adult convert to the faith.  She didn’t have a “neat set of beliefs” or an intricate knowledge of Scripture.  What she did have was an experience of being fed – of wandering into church one morning, taking communion, and realizing that Jesus was real – and the belief that she was then supposed to feed others.  So she started a food pantry, in the same space where worship and communion took place on Sundays.  For her, they were the same thing.  And people came to that food pantry – people old and young, speaking Spanish and Chinese and Tagalog, some homeless, some mentally ill, some addicted to various substances.  And, she says, some of them stayed.  They volunteered at the pantry and they, too, fed others like they had been fed.

That’s what this life of discipleship is all about: feeding others as we have been fed.  Not necessarily just with literal bread, of course.

Another of my favorite preachers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, put it this way: “Never once,” she said, “did Jesus scan the room for the best example of holy living and send that person out to tell others about him.  He always sent stumblers and sinners.  I find that comforting.”[2]

I told you at the beginning of this series that if you came away with one thing, it would be that if these twelve guys with all their flaws and failures could be disciples, then there is nothing stopping us from claiming that title either – whether not we feel worthy of it. But I also don’t want to leave things there.  I don’t want the only thing you take away here to be “Well, if I’m a just-OK disciple, that’s cool, because God can still work through me.”

God can.  And God will.  But God also keeps inviting us to go a little farther, to open our eyes just a little bit wider to those opportunities around us, to cultivate hearts that are just a little bit more ready to respond.

One of the theological debates John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, once had with a man wonderfully named Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, was about whether the life of a Christian was a life of growth.  Zinzendorf said no.  Once we accept Jesus, we are as holy as we’re ever going to be.  Wesley heard that and said, wait, no: You mean to tell me “that an father in Christ is not a whit more holy than a newborn babe?”[3]

Wesley called this process of growing in grace over the course of our Christian lives sanctification.  And he did actually believe that a person could be entirely sanctified in their lifetime, though he never claimed to have reached that point himself.  Still, kind of intimidating, especially given I’ve been talking to you for the last six weeks about all of the ways we fall into fear and miss the point and fail at our given tasks.  Could we really imagine that, by God’s grace, things could be different?

Here’s the thing: Wesley never meant that we would always get things right.

He meant that we could reach a point of a life lived fully from a place of love.

A few weeks ago I asked what you needed to be able to grow to that next level in your discipleship.  I got lots of great responses and I really appreciated them.  In those responses three things stood out to me – one, that there are those of us who could use some help discerning what God is calling us to and putting our gifts to work inside or outside the church; two, that there are those of us who could use some more help talking about our faith outside of church; and three, that there are those of us who could use some help staying connected to God – incorporating spiritual disciplines into our daily lives and staying accountable to that.

I’m going to be thinking – and maybe you can help me – about what opportunities we might have to help you all grow in these ways.

Because God calls unworthy disciples.  God calls us despite our misplaced fears, our hardened hearts, our frequent misunderstandings, and our worst failures.  God calls us and needs us and trusts us with God’s work in this world.

But it’s our job to offer what we have in God’s service.  And to offer a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more, as God gives us the grace to do.

Fellow disciples, it is a hurting world out there, and people are hungry.  They are hungry to know mercy, hungry to belong, hungry for signs of justice in the midst of injustice.  They are hungry for new beginnings, hungry for a sense of call and purpose, hungry for community, hungry for some sense that God is not far away.

Well, God, that sounds like a pretty tall order, and I’m not really sure I have what it takes...

What do you have?  God asks.  Use that.  You give them something to eat.

 

 

[1] Sara Miles, Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead, p. ix

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, p. 30

[3] Albert C. Outler, ed., John Wesley, p. 370

Unworthy Disciples: Discipleship Fail

Scripture: Mark 9:14-29

Once in a while, or perhaps more often, you may have had an experience where it just seems really clear that God is working through you and using you for God’s good purposes.  You do something or somehow contribute to something amazing that can’t solely be explained through your own skill or abilities.

Once in a while here at Arlington Temple, people from the community who are otherwise unknown to me will stop in because they need to talk or pray with someone.  I remember one particular time when this happened.  A young-ish man for whom multiple things had not been going well lately stopped by looking for some hope and direction, and we talked for a long time, and we prayed, and he went on his way.

A few months later I happened to run into him at the gym, and he recognized me and said, “I’ve been meaning to come see you.  Ever since we talked that day my life has taken a turn for the better.”  And he went on to tell me that he had gotten some answers about the health problems he’d been having and they were under control, he had started working again, he had reconnected with some old friends.

Well, hey, I believe that there is power in prayer.  But I’m not sitting in my office working magic here.  That day I rejoiced that God had seen fit to use me in some small way to help this man find some hope in his life again.  That, I would say, was a successful day in ministry.

But the truth is there are many, many other days when I have not felt like a success in ministry.

There have been those times when I have prayed with someone in my office about some challenge they are facing and they have come back to say, “That didn’t work.”

There are the times when, either due to my natural reticence or my deep fear of telephones, I have not offered someone the pastoral care they needed.  I’ve gotten some flak for that at least once or twice over my time in ministry.

You know how last week we talked about how disciples sometimes miss the point?  I’m sure I have done that at times, but there are also those sermons I have preached where it is clear afterwards that at least some of the people listening – completely missed the point.  (Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you.)

There are the chances I have missed to invite someone to go deeper in their discipleship, the church visitors I’ve ignored for too long or scared off too soon, the times I have let my own pessimism squelch a new thing for fear it couldn’t be done, the times I have tried a new thing only to have no one come.

I know these are examples are from my own pastoral ministry, but maybe they resonate with you in your own journey as well.  We all have those times we missed the boat on caring for a friend in need, had that opening to talk about our faith but chickened out, knew we probably should have upped that number on the pledge card but didn’t, promised to pray for someone but forgot, or maybe even tried to get people excited about a cause that we really felt called to only to have no one respond.

In other words: we failed.

It occurred to me as I was thinking about all this that the word failure can mean a lot of things.  It can mean, on one level, sins of omission or commission, ways I have not treated people in the way God commands me to.  Or it can mean something I tried my best at that didn’t work, through no fault of my own.  Or it can mean something in the middle: something that keeps me up late at night thinking of everything I should have done differently, all the ways I should have been more faithful, wondering how much was me and how much was due to forces outside my control.

In this sermon I mean all of those things.  And I believe that the first twelve disciples experienced all those different kinds of failure as well.  And I believe that there is hope for us in that fact.

In today’s story from Mark, Jesus has just gone up on a mountain with his three closest disciples and been transfigured before their eyes in this holy experience they don’t know what to make of.  When they come down from the mountaintop, they are greeted by chaos below – the rest of the disciples are fighting with some of the religious leaders and a they’ve drawn a crowd.  When they spot Jesus, the whole crowd stampedes its way to him, and he has to ask them: “What’s going on??”

A man in the crowd responds, “I tried to bring you my son so you could cast a spirit out of him.  But you weren’t here, so your disciples said they could do it, but they couldn’t.”

We quickly move into the part of this dialogue that this story is famous for, the more inspiring and evocative part: Jesus tells the boy’s father that all things are possible for one who believes and he responds, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

But that’s a sermon for another day.  Jesus casts the spirit out of the boy, and later, when they are alone, his disciples ask Jesus: “What went wrong?  Why couldn’t we cast out the spirit?”  And Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

What do you think?  Did the disciples forget to pray?  Had they not prayed hard enough?  If you remember from a couple weeks ago, back in chapter 6 when Jesus sent the disciples out on their first mission, he had given them authority to cast out unclean spirits.  This was something they were supposed to be able to do.  But was there some sort of spiritual defect that made their attempt to heal this boy unsuccessful?  Did they let their previous ministry success go to their heads and forget God’s role in it all, think they personally were the caster-outers of unclean spirits?

If I were the disciples, these are the questions I would have stayed up late asking myself.

There are certainly some commentators who would say that was the case, that the disciples failed by their own spiritual fault.  But that’s not the only way to look at it.  Personally I wonder about Jesus’ answer, “This kind can only come out through prayer,” which almost makes it seem like they are facing something new here, a different species of unclean spirit unlike the ones they have cast out before.   As theologian NT Wright put it, sometimes as we progress in our journey of discipleship, the tasks we are given simply get harder.[1]

I don’t know what kind of failure this was, per se: the kind where you did something wrong or the kind when you tried your best and it just didn’t work out.  But either way I bet it felt like failure.

The disciples also know that other type of failure, the kind where it is clear you have stumbled, fallen, missed the mark.

For the disciples, this kind of failure is most evident toward the end of the Gospel, which gets progressively darker as Jesus approaches his death.  There is the failure of the disciples to keep watch while Jesus is praying in Gethsemane – while he is in agony, they fall asleep.  There is, famously, Judas’s betrayal.  There is, famously, Peter’s denial.  There is, less famously, the unnamed, scantily-clad disciple who Mark tells us loses his linen garment and runs away naked from the scene when Jesus is arrested (look it up) – who, scholars say, might represent Mark himself, or maybe any of us who run away when things get risky.

And, at the very end of the Gospel, there are the women at the scene of the empty tomb, who, at the angel’s command to go tell the disciples what they have just seen, flee in terror.

You could make the case that Mark’s Gospel is the story of one big discipleship fail.

But why would Mark want to tell that kind of story?  Where’s the good news in that?  Why would that have been helpful to the community of first-century Christians he was writing this story down for?

Well, for one thing, as I’ve been emphasizing throughout this series, it means that if these yahoos can be disciples, there’s probably nothing preventing us from being disciples, either.

I called this sermon series Unworthy Disciples, and I wonder if maybe the biggest reason we might sometimes feel unworthy to claim the title of disciple is precisely because of our failures.  We, better than anyone else, know the times we have fallen short and the times we have been neither faithful nor effective in sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God.

An author by the name of Dan Hochhalter writes about his own experience of failure when his PhD dissertation was rejected.  It wasn’t just rejected like he was asked to do a few more edits and come back.  It was rejected like he was told never to come back.  He didn’t go into the details – I admit I was curious – but he did add that after that he also lost his job as a high school teacher.  This was followed by months of rejection letters from jobs he applied to.  He had been sure that by teaching and getting his PhD he was faithfully following God’s call, and it had only led to failure.[2]

Months later when Dan finally did get called for an interview for a teaching job at the college level, he almost didn’t go.  He simply didn’t believe he was worthy of being a teacher anymore.

Dan Hochhalter also writes about someone else he met who knew the sting of failure.  Earl was a homeless man he sat across from at breakfast during a youth mission trip he chaperoned.  Dan learned that Earl had two daughters, but he hadn’t been in touch with them for years.  When Dan asked why he didn’t call them, Earl looked down and responded, “Because I don’t feel worthy to be their father.”

It struck me, reading those stories, how much failure can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We think we are not worthy to be something or be called something, and so we don’t make an effort to be that thing.  I wonder if it is the same with discipleship: if we stop trying to grow as disciples when we’ve already convinced ourselves we’re at best just OK at it anyway.

And yet can you imagine if those disciples had never tried to cast out another unclean spirit after this embarrassing incident?  If Peter had never considered himself worthy after those three denials to declare himself to be a follower of Christ again?  If the women who fled from the tomb, silenced by shame, really never said anything to anyone?  We wouldn’t be here today.  Because a church built on disciples who never fail – is a nonexistent church.

But I wonder if we can even go a step father than that.  I wonder if we could say not only that the church is by definition made up of failed disciples, but that the church in fact needs failed disciples.

I asked earlier why Mark would have told this story of discipleship failure to his first-century congregation.  Maybe it’s not only to comfort people with the idea that there is a low bar for discipleship.  Maybe, also, it’s a reminder that the church these twelve went on to build was not of their own doing, that the demons they did cast out were not cast out by their own power, that the people they healed were not healed by their own magic touch or their own beautiful prayers, that the people they converted were not drawn into the fold by their own ability to drum up enthusiasm for the Gospel.  These “successes” were not their own, but God working through them.

Our own failures and our own failings cannot stop the Kingdom of God.  And God needs people who know that.  God needs people who have experienced grace firsthand and want to share it with others.

Our failures help us learn where we need to grow.  For the disciples, maybe, it was figuring out what would help them confront this new kind of unclean spirit.  Or it was Peter’s realization that he wasn’t actually as brave and steadfast as he imagined himself to be that deepened his resolve to boldly and publicly proclaim his faith in Christ no matter the consequences.  The life of discipleship is one of growth – growth in love and grace and holiness, over the course of our lives – and we call the tangible things that help us along the way means of grace.  Prayer is a means of grace.  Communion is a means of grace.  Maybe we could say that failure, counter-intuitively, can also be a means of grace: because through it, we realize that God loves us anyway, and through it, we experience God’s power, and through it, we learn to love others better, and through it, we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The church needs failed disciples.  It needed them back in Jesus’ day, and it needs them now.

Praise God for grace when we fall short, and that by God’s grace, our failure is never the end of the story.

 

 

 

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone

[2] Dan Hochhalter, Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship After Epic Failure