Sermon: Becoming Christian: Hearing and Doing

Mark 7: 1 – 8
James 1: 19 – 27

What does it mean to be a Christian?

I imagine each of us might have our own answer to that question, and our answer might change on any given day! This letter from Jesus brother, James, is trying to help fledgling Christians wrestle with that very question.

What does it mean to be Christian?

At its simplest, being a Christian means we are baptized. It is the act of baptism that marks us as people dedicated to serve God in Jesus’ name. Most of you who come here every week are Christians. Some of you are Christians because your parents had you baptized when you were babies.

Some of you are Christians because when you were 13 or 14 years old, you professed your desire to follow Jesus and you were anointed, or you knelt and had water poured over you, you might have waded into a river or pond,

…and I think one or two of you even walked down the steps into our own baptistery and were submerged, making you Christians.

Others have felt Jesus hand on their shoulder or felt a tug in their hearts or heard a call they couldn’t ignore, and as adults you chose to follow Jesus. For many of us, those tender moments of saying “yes” in our hearts to discipleship in Jesus name, are special memories of commitment, or surrender, or even transformation.

When I was 5 or 6, I went to a Baptist Vacation Bible School. It was my piano teacher’s church and I loved her very much, and I have very happy memories of those summer weeks spent there. At the end of each week, there would be an altar call. At the time, I didn’t know that’s what it was…

I only knew that at the end of Friday worship, they would start to play “Jesus Loves Me.” And then our teachers would ask us if we believed that Jesus was our truest friend. And they would ask if we wanted Jesus to be our friend all our life. And they asked us if we wanted to try to be like the disciples we were learning about…

…and I couldn’t imagine any reason why I wouldn’t want Jesus to be my friend for all of my life, and so I would jump up from my seat and run to the front and join in singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and even with so very many years in between, I can still feel Jesus hand on my shoulder.

Our first experiences of saying, “yes”, in our hearts, to Jesus’ call to discipleship, can indeed be vivid moments of commitment and transformation. However, becoming Christian, molding and shaping our lives, our hearts, and our minds, to faithfully follow in Jesus footsteps, is a lifelong pursuit.

Over the past year, we’ve been hearing uncomfortable statistics about the many challenges facing the Christian church today. We’ve heard that “The Christian church is struggling to understand and define its role in an American culture that is becoming more secular, more religiously pluralistic, more ethnically diverse, and is in a state of change and fluctuation.”

The earliest Christians faced many of these same challenges. In fact, we can paraphrase that same sentence and say, “The early Jesus movement struggled to understand and define its role in the midst of the predominantly Hellenistic culture which was religiously pluralistic, ethnically diverse, and in a constant state of change and fluctuation.”

The problems we face today have been faced by Christians throughout the ages. Over the next few weeks, we will be reading excerpts from this letter from James, who became the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.

We will be looking for insight into how the earliest Christians tried to conform their lives, and hearts, and minds to Jesus teachings, in a chaotic and changing world… so that we can see what we can learn to help us in our quest of becoming closer to Jesus, and becoming more deeply Christian.

James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, welcome with meekness the implanted word…Be doers of the Word not merely hearers.” Notice that listening comes first and hearing comes before doing.

We must be quick to listen, listening to God’s Word to hear how God might be speaking into our lives; listening for God’s voice calling and leading us; listening and hearing with our hearts the cries for help around us; quick to listen to each other, joining our minds together, becoming one united mind in Christ, in determining how we can best answer those cries for help.

So, hearing is first, and what we hear with our hearts, should inspire what we do. When we talk about discernment, that is basically what we are talking about.

Listening to the Word, welcoming with meekness the implanted word in us, listening for God’s voice, listening to those in need around us, and listening to where our hearts are passionately beating together in unison. Someone once said that the way you find your ministry, is when someone’s story breaks your heart and brings tears to your eyes.

But becoming Christian isn’t defined by what kind of work or ministry or service we do, being Christian is defined by doing all our work in service to God, with love for God and for all people.

Whether that work is protesting in the streets for social justice, funding a food pantry, participating in a mission trip, teaching Sunday School, or whether that work is cleaning up after coffee hour, making dinner for the kids, bathing a patient, planting flowers, sending a sick friend a card, smiling at a stranger, or letting someone into traffic ahead of you…

…Becoming more deeply Christian means doing all things, living each moment of our lives, within God’s context of loving our neighbor, loving our friend, and even loving our enemy, as we love ourselves.

Becoming Christian means following more and more closely in Jesus footsteps by offering praise and thanksgiving to God for all things, and loving and serving all people that we meet.

Becoming Christian… means offering up to God whatever we do, in gratitude to God for all that we have.

Baptism, in an instant, marks us as Christians for life. But becoming Christian, is a life-long pursuit…and a worthy one. A pursuit that, just like Jesus did, is worth spending our lives to accomplish.

Mother Teresa, when asked to describe her life of service said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

How are we, as Christians, allowing God to write love letters to the world with every moment of our lives?

Let us pray,

Loving God, write your law in our living hearts. Let us be missives of your love.

9/11: When Will We Ever Learn?

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My Mom was crying. I’ll never forget it. I’d only ever seen my Mom cry once before. That time long ago, she was sitting with the neighborhood Moms watching TV, and they were crying too. I was shocked at the sight of adults crying.

I remember sitting on the floor, looking at the small, black and white screen trying to understand what was happening. There was a parade with a long gray box covered with piles of grey and white flowers moving slowly down a highway lined with black and white people. The absence of color fit the painful dark emotion sucking all the light and life from the room where all the Moms sat cloaked in deep silence.

What I remember most is a little boy a couple of years younger than me. He was dressed all in black, holding onto his Mom’s hand. I couldn’t see her face because it was hidden by a black veil. But I could see the boy’s face. The TV voice said that his name was JonJon.

It seemed like a funny name to me but I didn’t feel like laughing at all. He was crying because his Dad was in the big gray box. I wondered if he knew what was going on; and then I thought he probably didn’t. I thought he probably just wanted to go home and see his Dad again.

The shades of grey people on the screen didn’t seem real to me. But my Mom’s tears were frighteningly vivid. This was a Mom face I had never seen, this blotchy red mournful crying face.

All us kids were creeping around the edges of that parental sorrow not knowing how to reach through…to break through…not knowing what to do…and so we played quietly without being told. We didn’t argue or squabble. We didn’t ask for snacks or drinks or lunch or attention.

One by one we were slowly drawn by that palpable grief to sit on the floor at our Moms’ feet…pressed up against their legs like dogs who give comfort the only way they can…with the warmth of their bodies.

And here was my Mom, all these years later, crying again.

This time the funeral procession on the TV was in bright and glorious technicolor…but the people lining the streets as the casket went by were still black and white. In the casket was not just a man but a dream. And many were afraid that the dream would be buried with the man.

This time, instead of a neighbor, it was my turn to sit with my Mom with a blotchy red mournful face….

…and weep.

And then, years later, I was the Mom weeping.

I stood transfixed by the TV and watched in horror as graphic image after image, yellow orange and red explosion after explosion, replay after replay in slow motion and real time, from the front back and side played and replayed and replayed and replayed until I could close my eyes and see that scene still playing against the inside of my eyelids like rolling waves after a day at the beach…

I sobbed aloud as I watched those two modern miracles of glass and steel gracefully collapse like deflated balloons at the end of the Macy’s parade. I watched in horror as it began to rain ash..

…and people.

My three year old daughter sat on the floor, eyes wide with fear. She couldn’t see the vivid nightmare playing out on the TV…she was looking in fear at me…

…at my blotchy red mournful face…

…a Mom face she had never seen before…

…and perhaps, will never forget.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  Nelson Mandela

Dear God, Let us become instruments of your peace.