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Monday, January 31, 2011

Sermon from January 30, 2011

Sermon from January 30, 2011 + The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, year A
“Not That Complicated”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This past week Cantor Cherwien and I were doing some preliminary conversation about Lent (yes, it is coming – but not right away!), and in the course of the planning we started talking about the concept of Lenten discipline. Our Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday liturgies bracket a forty day period which for centuries has been called the “discipline” of Lent, and the language of those liturgies very clearly evokes that idea. What we were reflecting on was how that word, discipline, has somehow become a word people seem to want to avoid in Christian circles. Discipline has become a word evoking punishment, consequences, harshness. You’ll hear more about Lent as it gets closer, but today’s readings from God’s Word put us in the heart of the question of Christian discipline. We call it discipleship, mostly, and this week I wondered if that’s because it sounds less formidable than discipline. But the lectionary for the Epiphany season is all about being disciples – for a few weeks we focus on the call of disciples, and the remaining weeks, beginning today, center on the shaping of disciples of Jesus. On discipline, for lack of a better word.

Discipline is also a word used in parenting, and as in Christian churches, it’s a word that has a mixed history and a connotation many also now seem to want to avoid. It’s often a direct synonym for punishment, especially corporal punishment. Yet at its Latin roots, it’s all about shaping and educating: being a pupil is being a disciple; teaching a student is disciplining them. In fact, there are some wonderful resources for parents which seek to reclaim discipline from its “don’t spare the rod” connotations and recast it in the ancient meaning of shaping and leading children to become good people, to find a discipline of love and support and guidance which becomes a positive and healthy way of helping children to adulthood.

Even in this reclaiming, however, is the idea that there is a shape to which the teacher or parent aspires to mold the student, the child, the follower. For parents, each family has to decide as they go what that shape might be. For those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus, it is Jesus himself who draws the outline, who creates the template for our lives. And there might be the rub. Perhaps we avoid the idea of Christian discipline not only because of the negative punishment associations with the term. Maybe we avoid it because at our heart we don’t want to be shaped into something different. We aren’t interested in being molded into something else, even if it is by Jesus himself.

That seems to be the point at which we must make a decision. If in fact we are looking for God, seeking God’s grace in our lives and in the world, and God’s answer involves shaping us into new people, then before we say or do anything else, we must answer that simple question: are we willing to be changed? If we only want some God who will occasionally make us feel good, then this is not the place. If we only want to be affirmed in our own ways and feel blessed by God, then this is not the place. But if we truly seek God – and want to know what God has to do with us and with the world, then this is the place, but it will mean change for us. Discipline. Because that’s what Jesus, the one we call Son of God, came to announce. And for two millennia disciples have found that in this discipline is the life and grace the world needs desperately, the light in the darkness which seems to pervade so much of our lives.

So assuming we all are open to this discipline, we can look at what God says to us today.

And here we find a disturbing thing: our readings from Scripture today describe both a standard that seems impossibly high and a God who clearly knows we fail to meet it.

The psalmist declares that only the blameless – only the blameless! – may abide with God. Others need not apply. And the list of attributes isn’t inappropriate – it’s a good list: those who speak the truth, don’t take bribes, aren’t evil to their friends, don’t slander. It’s just that any list like that reminds us that we don’t always meet it. We certainly aren’t arrogant enough to call ourselves blameless, at any rate.

And Jesus has high expectations, too, about those he calls “blessed”. The blessed ones are clear. Those who show mercy, those who make peace. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are meek, and poor in spirit. Some of these we aspire to be but do not reach, others we likely would rather avoid because we see them as weakness.

But in the next weeks the shape of the life of the disciple will be more fleshed out for us by Jesus, and the standards will continue to be high. So high we know we won’t always meet them. And God knows, too, more’s the pity.

Micah envisions God bringing a lawsuit against the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness and poor discipline. In dramatic fashion, the jury in God v. the people is the whole creation – mountains and hills are called to witness to God’s complaint.

The complaint is simple, and if you’ve worshiped here on Good Friday and recall the Solemn Reproaches, the complaint is also familiar. God says, “How have I wearied you? All I did was save you from slavery, gave you a land, and sent you leaders to show you my saving acts. What more could I have done?” God has done everything to bless God’s people, and has received no disciples in return. And we read this as our own reality: we who have received so much from God are in no way like what the psalmist or Jesus would call blameless or blessed, and now we know God knows it, too.

But before a verdict is declared, the people give a counter offer. And their approach is not also unfamiliar to us. But just as in Micah’s day, our tendency is to miss God’s point completely.

In fact, here’s the crux of the whole problem: our response to God is diametrically opposite to what God is hoping for from us, from what God hopes to see in our discipline.

The people in Micah’s courtroom scenario jump ahead of a verdict with offers of all sorts of sacrifices and dramatic buy-offs. They ask, “how much sacrifice will it take, God, to make us right again?” And then they start with the offers. A few calves? Not enough? OK – how about thousands of rams? No? Ten thousand rivers of oil? Still not enough? I know, could I sacrifice my firstborn?

Here’s the disjunction, then and now: God blesses us and we don’t follow God’s way, we don’t have discipline. And when we are brought to account by God, we go overboard in trying to buy God off. From a few calves to thousands of rivers of oil and sacrificing first-borns, we do the same. But we sacrifice others to distract God from us. The church is filled with people and congregations who think that following God’s way means drawing lines between who’s in and who’s out, being rigid, in some attempt to be faithful. Like hating others, rejecting others, to please God – or because we think it will. Being rigid toward folks whom we’re comfortable calling “sinful.”

And this crosses all lines: today is a Sunday when congregations who are Reconciling in Christ as we are, are invited to remember that commitment to be reconciling people of God. This is a good thing to which we are called. But perhaps we need to be accountable for our anger and rigidity toward our sisters and brothers in Christ who aren’t welcoming, who disagree with us on the welcome we feel God is calling us to be and live here. Who don’t do justice as we see justice should be done. It’s not only one side of an argument that can be rigid and judgmental, and in many ways we do it because we’re all thinking it somehow pleases God, and takes God’s eye off of our failed discipline.

But God’s answer then and now is the same: it’s not as complicated as you seem to need to make it. If you want to be my disciples, you know what to do: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Be merciful. Be peacemakers. Be pure in heart. Don’t slander – not even the people you think have it all wrong. Speak the truth from your heart. It’s all there in today’s readings. Or, as the Son of God has summed up again and again: Love your God with all you have and are, and love your neighbor as yourself.

In fact, the life of disciples, the discipline of faith, is incredibly simple to understand. But like the board game Othello, it takes “a minute to learn . . . a lifetime to master.” Sometimes I wonder if we act as if Christian discipline is so complicated in an attempt to justify to ourselves our unwillingness to embrace it. Maybe we do it simply because we’re afraid that we cannot ever live it as we are called to do. Or afraid we don’t want to. And here we have an answer from Paul.

Here’s where the foolishness of God comes in: when we fail in our discipline, we always remember that we are claimed by and live under the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s call to disciples is complete, and asks everything of us. That’s unavoidable truth. And yet Psalm 15 isn’t correct anymore, not in light of the cross. If indeed it’s only the blameless who can abide with God, the foolishness of God is that all are forgiven in the cross, all are declared blameless and blessed. Even those who do not do justice, love kindness, or walk humbly with God. Even those whom we sometimes despise for their lack of justice while claiming Christ.

For us, a challenge of discipline is accepting that God’s foolishness not only applies to us. It applies to those whom we least like, those who offend us the most. Even they are welcomed. Now we can understand why Paul calls the cross a foolishness, an offense, a stumbling block: because as much as we desire God’s forgiveness, we are reluctant to share it with those whose discipleship, whose discipline we question most of all.

In the end, this is the best discipline of all.

Because we are renewed in our daily walk, our daily discipline, by the foolish love of God for us, and for all. If we try to play the “buy off God” game, pretending that we in fact are the blameless and the blessed, we will miss it all. We will stumble over the cross, be blocked by its bulk.
When we recognize, however, that every day our discipline is weak, faulty, and sometimes non-existent, when we remind ourselves each morning that in spite of our desire to do it our way, God’s way is clear and easy to understand, and that God will help us live into and in that way, when we ask the Spirit of God to help us do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, and forgive us when we fail – when that happens, we will truly understand what it means to have discipline, to be discipled, and to become disciples. Blessed disciples. Blameless, even, through the foolish grace of God in Jesus. It’s as simple as that, thanks be to God.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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