Monday, January 6, 2014

Farewell Message to Washtucna and Kahlotus - Our Common Calling

Preached on Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Matthew 16:13-23

I started going back to church in the middle of my eighteenth year because, one by one, God had taken away all my justifications for being an individual and private Christian who was free to design my own creative spirituality. One by one, God had taken away my excuses to stay away from the frustrations of the church. One by one, God had persuaded me that none of my justifications and none of my excuses really counted, compared with his greatness.
Before the end of that year I made a recommitment of my life to Christ at a youth rally that our youth group went to. In the spring of my nineteenth year our pastor had taken a call to another church, and I was feeling the squeeze of God toward the ministry, that I had first felt when I was twelve. I had thought that I had safely escaped from that calling.
While we were looking for a pastor, we got an interim pastor (a temporary pastor) to help us hold steady during our search for a new minister. And I should say that that search was never going to produce any results.
Chet Marquis was our interim pastor, and I remember the title and main illustration of one of his sermons: “Marching off the Map”. The title actually came from a book by a Methodist preacher named Halford Luccock.
The title and story come from the time of the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great. He accomplished one of the unthinkable feats of the ancient world when he pulled together all the quarreling little countries of the Greeks by conquest and intimidation.
Then he did the next unthinkable thing. He conquered the unconquerable enemy of the Greeks; the vast Persian Empire. The Persians ruled from the west coast of what is now Turkey, nearly to India.
He marched his army farther and farther to the east. Neither Alexander, nor any of his men, knew anything about this part of the world.
Finally, in the mountains of Afghanistan, his generals banded together. They were afraid of where they were going, and they were afraid to admit it. They came to Alexander and said, “We don’t know what to do next. We have marched off the map.”
Our lesson is that this is what Christians are called to do. This is what faith is about.
This is what our readings from Jeremiah and Matthew tell us. Jeremiah was a child, or a teenager, who was confronted by God to take on a task for which he had no preparation, and no understanding, and no enthusiasm. In Matthew, Jesus was requiring his disciples, his church to stop being trapped, and tricked, and defeated by the conventional wisdom of their time and our time. Jesus gives the same requirement to us.
There is a time and place to be practical, and to live with common sense and prudence. The disciples often showed sense and prudence in their work, in their ministry, in addressing the demands of the world around them. They thought about organization. They invented a new kind of leader-servant called a deacon, to help the poor and the sick. They raised money for famine victims. They didn’t entrust that money to just one person, but to a team of people who were accountable to others.
But it must be seen that, just as often as they obeyed the rules of accountability and prudence, they also defied prudence, and the conventional wisdom. They had to, by the example, and at the command, of Jesus.
The conventional wisdom told them that they (as a group) were not up to their task. They were a small, unpopular, mostly poor mission that was trying to say something that had never been said before, except by Jesus: and he had been killed for it. They were trying to do something that had never been done before. They were trying to be Jesus in this world. It was so strange a mission that the conventionally wise either laughed at them or hated them for it. Prudence and the conventional wisdom told them to stop and lie low.
In Matthew, Jesus tried to open Peter’s eyes to his greatest need and to his greatest problem. In a great surprise, Peter was able to express his faith in a way that nobody had done before, and he was able to do this because he listened to God. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)
In the presence of Jesus and the Father, Peter was able to say, “You are the Christ (the Messiah) the Son of the Living God.” Peter was able to say this because, for a moment, he heard God; and he even listened.
Then, just a moment later, Peter was thinking like himself again. I mean that Peter was thinking like most other people again. Jesus had to say, “Get behind me Satan…. You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
This was not only Peter’s problem. It’s my problem. It’s your problem. It’s every Christian’s problem. It’s the church’s problem. First we think God’s way. Then we think our own way.
In my nineteenth year, I was reluctantly preparing to think God’s way, and march off the map. Our church was also thinking about marching off the map.
The experts and authorities (meaning the relevant presbytery committee) mostly told me that I was making a big mistake, and that I should stop. I didn’t have the people skills, or the temperament, for the ministry; and I wasn’t broad minded enough.
The experts and authorities also came to our church. They came to us in all their depth of practical experience, and conventional wisdom, and prudence. They told our church in the gentlest, and the most polite, and the most non-coercive way possible that it would be unlikely for us to be able to find a pastor who would be willing to serve us, and it would be so much wiser and simpler to stop.  The church listened to them.
They stopped. I didn’t.
Our church stopped at the edge of the map, and it stopped existing as a church. I marched off the map. I did what almost no one thought I could do. It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.
I’m not saying that I marched well, or that I am doing so now. I see myself with the same eyes I saw myself so many years ago.
I never dared to ask for proof that I was capable of doing what God called me to do. I never dared to ask to have anything to show for it. I only asked God to keep his promises, in his own way and time.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he wrote of his own calling and his sense of weakness. When Paul confronted the Lord with his weakness, the Lord said this to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8)
When I was nineteen, I told God that he would have to keep this promise to me. My current prayer is to have the same heart as I had then.
I invite you to that same heart and promise.
In the presence of the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit gave Peter the essential faith that he needed. It was a faith that does not come from prudence, or sense, or the conventional wisdom.
But just saying this is not enough. It is in the presence of the living God, in the presence of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit that you can keep your balance and tell the difference between prudence and faith, and the difference between faith and craziness. The gates of hell are built just as much of prudence as they are of craziness, and both will lead you astray.
Both prudence and craziness can defeat faith. Prudence can turn faith into fearful and cautious self-destruction. Craziness can turn it into insensitive, loveless self-destruction.
You must make sure to lovingly stay “in the presence” of the living God and let your serving be shaped by the love of him, above everything else. You must do all your living, and you must do all your serving, as individual Christians, and in fellowship as a church, from the center of the presence of the living God.
You must pray, and pray together, and worship, and study, and listen. Listen! Don’t be afraid, and don’t devour yourself. Love God and love each other relentlessly and with infinite patience.
Even the church of the twelve disciples who were called by Jesus hardly knew who he was until after the resurrection, and even then the knowledge didn’t come easily. And it still doesn’t. Jesus is a different kind of King and his kingdom works by a different wisdom than they were prepared for. It is the same for us.
His kingdom will have no borders. It will not grow (alone) by people coming in, but by it going out.
It will not be comfortable. Nothing in the Bible gives us that hope. The Bible tells us that we will all receive comfort, but never that we will be comfortable. His kingdom is about loving God and loving a hostile world, and caring enough about both God and the world to be crucified.
The world is changing, but the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Jesus, does not change. At the same time we are wrong, most of the time, about how to participate in the kingdom. We are wrong, most of the time, about how the church works as part of the kingdom.
The kingdom of God is like a precious gift shipped in a box. The church is the box, and it is also the plastic peanuts that take up far more room than the gift. The shape of the church as we have come to love and value it most (with its familiar customs, and values, and expectations) is mostly cardboard and peanuts.
We have been wrong to think that the church and the kingdom were about people coming here, to us, and taking our places when we got old. The ancient maps had dragons painted along the edges to keep people from daring to march off the edge. We have willingly inherited those dragons, or painted dragons of our own along the edges of our map.  We have more edges on our map to march off of (in Washtucna, and Kahlotus, and Hopper, and Benge, and the whole neighborhood) than we can possibly imagine.
Most of the time, the edges of the map are these walls. It you want to be the Church of Jesus Christ in these very unfriendly and uncooperative times, you probably have to do most of your marching beyond these walls. You will have to do your marching in homes, and yards, and other places I can’t even think of.
Even the part of the world closest to you will not hear you say who Jesus is when you say it in here. You will have to say it out there.
Remember that the gates (the defenses and the weapons of hell) cannot prevail against this faith in Jesus the crucified son of the living God: especially not when that faith goes forth over the edges of the map. You have the keys. The keys are: this faith, this willingness to go out following the crucified Jesus, this willingness to live listening to the ways of God and not to the ways of this world. Do not listen to the ways of the past you that you so much enjoyed before you arrived at the edge.

We stand at the very edge of the map. Jesus (who carries the scars in his hands and feet, and side for having marched this way before) now says, in an alarming way for which you can never be prepared: “Follow me!”