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.

Sermon: Barrier Free

Rembrandt

Mark 4: 35 – 41
2 Cor 6: 1 – 13

Just as the disciples were being assailed by that storm at sea, Paul’s Corinthian church, and the earliest Christians, were being assailed by an un-accepting and resistant society. In his letter, Paul is encouraging his fledgling Christians, to remain steadfast and faithful in the face of all obstacles.

Over the past year, we have been discussing how we, as church-going Christians, are feeling assailed today…sports and shopping on Sundays, changing ideas about church and religion, increasingly busy work and travel schedules, the daily demands of our everyday lives that leave us exhausted and spent when we wash up, emotionally bedraggled in church on Sunday morning.

Sometimes, it seems there are nothing but obstacles in the way of us being good and faithful Christians in the world today.

Paul encourages his besieged church by reminding them that although they face many obstacles, he commends them for “putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may found with their ministry.”

Paul challenges us not to look at the obstacles we are facing but instead to examine the obstacles we are creating for ourselves and for others. That’s what we have been trying to accomplish with the Crossroads process. To take a look with new eyes at the physical, social, and emotional obstacles that are preventing us from pursuing the ministries we are passionate about and that might be inhibiting others from joining in our life of service together.

We have been evaluating our building, our organization, our skills, our passions, our assets, our communities needs, and our finances, in order to gain insight and perhaps a new perspective on our ministry together.

One of the phrases that struck me when I met with our Crossroads group leaders to talk about what they have been hearing in their meetings, is the phrase “Barrier Free.” In many of the discussions, the groups were asking themselves how we can make our church and our community “Barrier Free.”

That is exactly what we hear in Paul’s message this morning when he commends the Corinthians for, “putting no obstacles in anyone’s way.” No obstacles to God, no obstacles to participating in God’s grace and love, no obstacles to discipleship and ministering to those in need, no obstacles to all gathering together at Christ’s table. No obstacles. No barriers.

So what are some of the obstacles and barriers that have been identified in our small group discussions?

In all three groups, people had trouble even imagining leaving this church that we love, and where we have so much history, but people also feel that the building has become an impediment and an anchor weighing us down. No one will be surprised by the unanimous opinion that the greatest obstacle our building has is the problem of handicapped accessibility.

But there are also the things we might not even notice anymore, like the terrible damp mustiness when you go downstairs that assails our senses. We know we have mold and there are many people today with mold allergies, asthma, and respiratory sensitivities for whom that mold problem, is a huge barrier. The asbestos floors have become a barrier to planning youth and community activities in Memorial Hall. The lighting throughout the building is dim, the rugs are worn, walls are stained, and the bulletin boards are fading.

One discussion questions was, “Does the building serve us or are we toiling in service to a building that impedes the ways we want to serve and minister?” The consensus in the small groups was, If we are staying, let’s do what we need to do to make the building work for us, instead of us working for the building.

Another thing that came up in the group discussions was a desire to move away from a membership model towards a discipleship model.

The basic assumption of membership is that some are “in” and some are “out.” A membership model creates a class system where members are a little bit better and more preferred than non-members, even when those non-members are full participants in the life and service of this church.

A membership model offers privileges and perks for members vs. non-members. Even if they are seemingly small things, such as lower fees for building rentals, or more money for a campership or scholarship, voting “rights”, or certain help or money available for “members” only…these small things, imply that a member is more deserving than a non-member.

Jesus did not require membership for help or healing or love or grace. Jesus offered radical welcome, forgiveness and love to those who were living on the edges of society – the ‘non-members’ who had no standing, or place, or privilege.

Our Communion invitation says, “All are welcome” and we are called to ask ourselves, in all that we do, are they? Are all welcome as brothers and sisters, equals in standing, all children of God, sharing what we have with those who have the greatest need?

The earliest Christians, shared what they had with those in most need. If you had two coats, you gave one to someone with no coat. Paul says, there must be “no restrictions on our affections.” It is natural for us to yearn to belong, to fit in, to be accepted, and to be a part of something greater than ourselves.

But Jesus challenges us to expand our definition of “membership” to include all our brothers and sisters. Paul challenges us to ‘open wide our hearts’ and we must work steadfastly towards inclusion of all people, on a level playing field, with equal access to the gifts of God and God’s abundance in our lives.

We already know that our committee structure has become a barrier and a burden that has finally stopped functioning. It is not due to a lack of care or commitment. It is due to the fact that our committee structure was created for a different time for our church and our culture.

It is now time for us to examine how we can organize to better serve our neighbors and the community and to better enable our service and ministry. We need to identify and focus our ministries and then we need to streamline and organize around how we best support and carry out those ministries.

How might we change if we start with our ministry front and center on the page and we think about how we shape our lives together around facilitating that ministry? That means not organizing around the “business” of the church, but organizing to enhance and facilitate the service and ministry of this congregation.

So some of the fruits of our Crossroads discussions have been the following: recognizing a desire to eliminate the limitations of our physical space to better support our ministry; recognizing a desire to move towards a discipleship rather than membership way of being church; and recognizing a desire to organize not for “business,” but for service and ministry in the community.

There is, however, one more obstacle we face together as a faith community… and that obstacle is fear: fear of change, fear of spending money, fear of touching our endowment, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of failing, fear of the storms swamping our little boat, fear of going under…..

In the midst of the storm, Jesus peacefully sleeps, seemingly indifferent. The disciples run and wake him saying, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” That is the fear that still has us paralyzed…is this church perishing? Is the Christian church perishing?

Jesus asks us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

We can’t see what the world or what this church will be like in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years from now…and we can’t let that stop us from acting today. We don’t know what the future holds, and that is why Paul says, “see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” The time for us to act is now…to help people today, not yesterday…not in the distant future…the time to step out in faith, and act, is now!

Stepping out in faith means moving ahead not knowing where we will end up.

Stepping out in faith means getting in the boat and shoving off in the direction that Jesus is sending us.

Following Jesus means, ensuring that we are not creating obstacles for ourselves or for others to relationship with God, to ministry, to full participation in our lives together, or to service in Jesus’ name.

Stepping out in faith means, “having no restriction in our affections…and opening wide our hearts to all people.”

Stepping out in faith means sailing into the unknown, pushing into unchartered waters – and even if there are storms ahead, remembering that we are all in this boat together, and we need to trust and have faith and confidence that Jesus is in the boat with us.

Let us step out in faith and “Open wide our hearts until we are barrier free.” It is time to hoist anchor and set sail in the direction that Jesus is pointing us, so that we can deepen our service to God and to others in Jesus name.

Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of Salvation!