Discipleship Takes Obedience

Last week, I invited you to “own” your discipleship. To go out in the deeper water and actually follow Jesus. This week we arrive at the very next step, which is the daily decision to keep following Jesus. This is the place where most of us stall out as disciples — somewhere between that first “yes” to Jesus, and the next dozen or hundred “yesses.” After all, at some point down the road Jesus will say, or do, or ask something that makes us slow down in our tracks. Or, we will have something else along the roadside grab our attention. Have you ever seen the movie UP with that dog being so distracted by that squirrel?  I was having dinner with two of my cousins this past week and we were people watching.  Our grandmother used to love to people watch at the State Fair, so it’s in our genes.  Ha!  We observed a couple who were sitting in front of the sunset on their phones.  It was not just a quick glance, it was a whole 5-7 minutes.  Maybe they were texting each other.  They may be texting one another.  I don’t want to judge.  But these smart phones are easy to get distracted by.  Sometimes we will just long to head back to Galilee and that ship full of fish. That would definitely be easier. It’s the struggle to keep following, to keep in step with the Lord. And the word that sums that it all up is obedience. Being in the making as a disciple takes obedience.

It’s hard to wrap our heads around obedience to God, because in human relationships healthy obedience is so rare. How can we obey someone else if even the best make mistakes? And, at worst, human “obedience” can be totally corrupt, based in fear, coercion, control or manipulation. Think about child soldiers in Africa or abusive households. Think about the big ways in history that the people of faith have gone wrong: the Pharisees, the crusades, the inquisition, legalistic fundamentalism, the Jonestown massacre. Because of our fallen human condition, “obedience” can go horribly wrong. If we focus on the “rules” TOO MUCH, we miss the freedom Christ wants to give us. If we focus on getting everything “right,” we miss the beauty of grace. Not a cheap grace, as I said last week, but a costly grace. The grace that comes from a Savior that suffers alongside of us, Emmanuel, and was obedient unto death for you and me.

Philippians 2:5-8 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Some of you may be thinking of course he was obedient. He was and is Jesus. The perfect one. Need I remind you of his 40 days in the wilderness, of temptation after temptation, or him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane “Take this cup from me.” It’s not easy to be obedient. Not even for Jesus, who was at the same time God and man.

If we own our discipleship and we’re growing more and more like Christ, it’s still going to be hard at times to be obedient, to walk in the way that leads to life. We have a hard time with obedience, because most of our culture rejects it. We want to take the easy way out, get out of things, or be ambivalent. My peers, the millennials and younger, look at all that broken human history and we mistrust human institutions and traditions, especially the Church. We say, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Question everything. Preserve your freedom!” And, culturally, we’ve concluded that there is ultimately only one person who is trustworthy to obey — ourselves. Let that sink in a little bit. Some say the only person you can truly depend on is your self. But the problem with that is my “self” is just as human as everyone else. I operate under the same fallen human condition. If I think obeying only myself is going to solve anything: *newsflash* how has that gone for me so far? I find, sometimes, that myself is an idiot. “I” am just as corrupt and self-centered and off-base as any institution. The Christian faith tells us that our only hope is to be guided by something that exists outside of this broken, fallen system. Something, or rather Someone, who loves us, who understands all the perfection and glory that God meant for us before the fall. Where are we going to find Someone like that? As a matter of fact, he came to find us, and his name is Jesus. It’s totally counter-intuitive, but what it means is that the only way for any of us to be truly free, or to be our truest selves, is to give ourselves over to him. We’ve got to lose our lives to save them. Jesus calls us to live counter-culturally. Obey God alone. Follow Jesus’ instructions. Go where the Spirit leads you. Trust.
I think we get a great glimpse of it in Matthew 10:5-15 today. It’s a great picture, literally, of what comes next right after the disciples have first said “Yes” to begin following Jesus. And it says a lot for proper obedience.
Matthew 10:5-15
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.
All of a sudden for basically the first time in Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are going to leave the training wheels behind and ride the bikes. Jesus takes them aside for special instructions, and they’re being sent out. Can you put yourselves in the disciples’ shoes? It’s been a sweet deal. They’ve been little tag-alongs, watching Jesus do the fireworks, and being in awe like everybody else. Not only that, but they’re probably starting to be noticed, right? Like, fame by association since they’re his inner circle, like the tv show Entourage. If Jesus is the lead singer of this boy-band that everybody swoons over, sooner or later someone will start to notice the rest of us, his disciples. There’s the bad boy – Judas; the one with the good hair – Philip; the cute one – Bartholomew; the other cute one – Simon the Zealot, and so on. No risk, no effort, no tough decisions, all reward. Until Jesus says, now I’m sending you out, and by the way, I’m not coming with you. And, by the way, you’re still going to be responsible for carrying on my mission in just as powerful a way as you’ve seen me do it. As Scooby Doo would say, *Ruh roh*.
I, personally, may be a little freaked out with this change. Jesus is giving specific instruction about how to go about this mission, but he says he wants us to do these things AND not take practically ANYTHING with us!?!?!?! I admit, I’m a bit of a control freak. You may not fully realize this about me, but I like things a certain way. Some may call it OCD, some may call it organized, whatever. I’ve had to learn the hard lesson of not being so self-reliant and independent that it begins to becomes an idol or a mantra. “I can do it myself.” Just like a kid learning to do something for the first time shouting, “By Myself!!” Thomas Merton writes, “All the good that you do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used for God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.” We need to let go of the need to prove ourselves. We are enough. We are called to be Disciples of the Most High King. We all need not our own ways, but God’s provision for each of us. That God will pick us up and dust us off when we fall from the bike with no training wheels. We may scratch and scrape our knees, but our God works things for good for those who love God, and what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. We have to trust that if we risk ourselves and are obedient, he will give us the power and authority to move mountains.
One of the biggest ways we turn away from obedience is we doubt ourselves. We doubt our abilities. We aren’t comfortable with God’s call. And we, ultimately, secretly say to ourselves: he’ll just get someone else to cover this. Surely it can’t depend on me? There are 12 other disciples, there are millions of other Christians, there are so many better Christians than me. I’d rather just be the one “with the good hair.” But Jesus challenges that here. Jesus wants them to not only hear the Good News but take it to the world. Jesus not only wants them to see miracles, but perform them. Jesus wants them to seek out the lost, the last and the low, not the easy crowds that have gathered to hear a celebrity preacher or a magician. Jesus wants them to seek out the Zacchaeus in the group, the bent over woman, the Samaritan. Karl Barth writes, “The human righteousness required by God and established in obedience — the righteousness which according to Amos 5:24 should pour down as a mighty stream — has necessarily the character of a vindication of right in favor of the threatened innocent, the oppressed poor, widows, orphans, and aliens. For this reason, in the relations and events in the life of his people, God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who already enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied and deprived of it.”
What crowd do you think Jesus would hang out with today? Republicans? Democrats? Independents? Green Party? Everything in between? Police officers? Protesters? National Guard? First Responders? Anarchists? Red? Yellow? Black? White? Brown Hair? Purple Hair? Don’t Care. God gives his prevenient grace to all people. God woos us to God’s self before we’re even aware of it. We are ALL created in the image of God. Who would Jesus want to reach? All of us sinners and saints. You. Me. The person on the other side of the political divide, cultural divide, any kind of divide.
I’ll close with these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Humanly speaking, it is possible to understand the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. But Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience — not interpreting or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his words. He does not mean for us to discuss it as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.”
Matthew 5:3-11,
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Prodigal Son Sermon a la the Ukraine

Preached at St. John United Methodist Church, L’viv, Ukraine

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Our text from Luke today is a familiar text to many of us. As soon as we hear the intro, “There was a man who had two sons…” some of us begin to think – oh, I know this story. This is a good one. It’s like those old favorite hymns – you know them backwards and forwards and they speak to you whether because of their foundational and transformative messages or because of their familiarity and the feelings and memories they evoke. I remember listening to the story as a child and being fascinated by the younger son feeding the pigs and wanting to eat what the pigs were eating. Could have been my love for animals or it could have been the funny pictures of pigs that we put on the felt board in Sunday School, but for some reason, that was what stood out to me in the story. My romanticized view of getting to sit with the pigs quickly changed as I got older and sitting in the mud with pigs stopped being so appealing.

One of things about the familiar is that sometimes it’s really easy for us to let the words and the meaning slip by us. When it comes to the routine, it’s easy to go on autopilot and miss what God is speaking to us today.

Because we know this story so well, we have lost some of the shock and horror at the behavior of the younger son. Since we know the beautiful ending that is coming and can almost hear the orchestra tuning up the celebratory music, we forget the harshness of the younger son’s words and the father’s great hurt. The broken relationship that is clearly present.

Culturally, in Jewish tradition a son was allowed to obtain possession of his inheritance, only after his father died or the son got married. As his father is still alive, he had no right to dispose of it. He’s demanding what he wants when he wants it, disrespecting his father and cultural tradition and acting like his father is dead. He’s all geared up for rebellion – no matter the cost or whom it hurts.

Several studies have shown people that have won the lottery or somehow received a great deal of money, for the most part end up right back where they started, no matter the amount, and some even worse off than they were before. There are a lot of reasons for this – an extravagant lifestyle, thinking the money will never run out, a false sense of reality, not thinking things through. The prodigal son easily could fit the profile of one who gambles it all away – the text tells us “he squandered his property in dissolute living” and “he spent everything.” Here he was a Jew tending pigs for a Gentile and longing to eat their slop. He had lost everything. Both his wealth and his integrity.

Just because Jesus eats with sinners, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take sin very seriously. As seen in the consequences of the younger son’s actions – sitting in filth and coveting pig food. Sin does have serious consequences and can lead down a devastating and degrading path. Not only has the son been led to a physically desperate place, his sin is also seen as broken relationship with God and the community, as he is left in self-imposed isolation in his pigsty.

I like the phrase, “when he came to himself” in verse 17. It’s as if he’s been in this stubborn and disobedient state and he’s finally beginning to snap out of it. Praise God for those lightbulbs of awareness – the Holy Spirit – coming to us and helping us to realize how lost we are, helping us to come to ourselves. It’s not easy to face the reality of our disobedience, but it’s definitely necessary to move forward.

The road back is paved and well lit, because we have traveled this story many times. We forget how scary it is for the prodigal to come home. The shame, the feelings of unworthiness, the lack of hope. I read of a man who had committed a crime for which he was deeply ashamed. When he’d served his prison sentence and was about to be released he wondered if his family would reject him because of the scandal he’d caused and the shame brought on the family. He wrote his parents saying that he would be coming back by bus but didn’t want to embarrass them with his presence if they didn’t want him back. He asked them to tie a yellow ribbon on the ooak tree at the beginning of their street if it was all right for him to return home. If there was no ribbon on the tree when the bus passed he wouldn’t get off the bus. He was nervous on the bus and as he got closer and closer to his street he couldn’t bear to look so he asked the driver to look for him. But, he needn’t have worried because the tree was covered with yellow ribbons!

The father in this passage offers his son yellow ribbons, and following his lead, the community joins in the celebration as well. It is clear in this passage that the father is representing God. God does not stop us from making choices or from the consequences of those actions, but as our loving parent God is ready and waiting for us to come home. In the passage, the father also goes above and beyond to show his love and forgiveness to his son. The son had dishonored his father and the village by taking everything and leaving. When he returns in tattered clothes, bare-foot and semi-starved, he would have to get home by walking through the narrow streets of the village and facing the raised eye-brows, the cold stares, the disgusted looks of the village. So when the son is still far off, the father sees him and decides immediately what he must do. In compassion for his son and to spare him the pain of walking through the gauntlet of the town alone, he runs to him, falls on his neck, and kisses him. The expected thing for his father is to wait in the house and let the young man be brought before him. Let the boy fall down on his face before his father and grovel in the dust. The father may then reluctantly accept his apologies and put him on probation. This father does not do any of that. Instead, he not only runs to his son but also falls on his neck and kisses him.

A man was commissioned to paint a picture of the Prodigal Son. He went into his work fervently, laboring to produce a picture worthy of telling the story. Finally, the day came when the picture was complete, and he unveiled the finished painting. The scene was set outside the father’s house, and showed the open arms of each as they were just about to meet and embrace. The man who commissioned the work was well pleased, and was prepared to pay the painter for his work, when he suddenly noticed a detail that he had missed.

Standing out in the painting above everything else in the scene, was the starkly apparent fact that the father was wearing one red shoe and one blue shoe. He was incredulous. How could this be, that the painter could make such an error? He asked the painter, and the man simply smiled and nodded, assuring the man, “Yes, this is a beautiful representation of the love of God for His children.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, puzzled.

“The father in this picture was not interested in being color-coordinated or fashion-conscious when he went out to meet his son. In fact, he was in such a hurry to show his love to his son, he simply reached and grabbed the nearest two shoes that he could find.”

“He is the God of the Unmatched Shoes.”

Praise God that our God is a God of the unmatched shoes.

The great God of the universe came down and dwelt among us, took our sin upon himself, and died on the cross for each of us. Wow. Talk about grace in the face of disobedience. We believe deeply in God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace – that God loved us even before we knew it and God draws us to God’s self even when we don’t realize it. God’s justifying grace – where we realize the great gift of God’s salvation for us – that he died for our sins so that we can be again in right relationship with God. And lastly, God’s sanctifying grace – that God doesn’t leave us where we are, but we’re on a journey constantly growing and stretching in our faith and our understanding of God and discipleship. Grace. Nothing we’ve earned, but we’ve been given freely.
Before we close the book on the story, let’s look at the elder brother. The elder son was in the field and heard music and dancing as he approached the house. After he hears what has happened, he is angry and refuses to join the party. Again, the father could have easily reacted in anger, but he goes to his son, rushes out to him, and begins to plead with him. The son is extremely rude to his father. This son begins his speech with a Greek word that is often translated “Behold!” This version of the Bible has correctly caught the mood of the son by translating the word as “Listen!” His bitterness and anger are clear in his response. He sees himself as a slave working for his father rather than a son who is taking care of his own property.
Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, commented on the “lostness” of both sons in the story of the Prodigal Son. He wrote, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness. The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money. His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too. Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven. The problem with resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular. And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life. Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”

The thing is, whether we think we have it all figured out or if we have blatantly been living a life of disobedience, as Romans says, we have all fallen short of the glory of God. None of us has an edge on the sin market. We’re all in need of God’s grace. We are each part prodigal and part elder brother. As Karl Barth wrote, “If Jesus himself had not left the Father and traveled into the far country to share a table with sinners, we would still be there, eating those pig pods.”

And that is what we are to remember. Our text for today does not begin with the parable, but with Jesus interacting with the Pharisees. Our parable and the two that precede it, that of the lost sheep and the lost coin, are in direct response to this opening grumbling made by the Pharisees, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are called to do the same thing. I feel like I’ve been saying this all weekend, but we have got to share the light of Christ to all the world, to be the salt, to eat with sinners and Pharisees alike. If we share our little sparks in our daily walk with Jesus, may they become a raging fire, fanned by the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Spark by The City Harmonic