By Dr. Rev. Barbara Barkley
Scripture reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14: 1-14
Sermon for May 14, 2017
Today we have more passages that follow up on what it is to be people on “the Way”, to follow Jesus as The Way and to be close to God and our understanding of God through that path. Today we are told that we know God in knowing Jesus. We know the WAY by seeing how Jesus traveled his life, and being willing to do the same. We know it by living it. Bonhoeffer said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will.”(The Cost of Discipleship)
We know this is not easy. We know this because we see how many people no longer come to church. I think Church is too hard, frankly, for many folk. If we are genuine about our faith, about living that out, we won’t see most of our culture in church because faith and living, following God’s path, are commitments that take time, dedication, intentionality and a genuine desire to know and be in relationship with God. Yes, the rewards are great. Life fully lived in all its abundance, life fully embraced, life eternal, relationships with God and God’s people. The rewards surpass everything. But unless you have experienced and lived those rewards, fewer people believe in them, understand them, or are willing to do the work of faith and action in order to achieve them.
We are part of a culture of instant gratification. And there is little room in that kind of fast paced, “I want everything and I want it now” activity for time with God, for intentional focusing on faith, for living out that faith with any kind of commitment. Much of our culture lives a very shallow existence, where taking time to ponder, to talk to God and more to LISTEN to God just simply don’t fit in. Usually what jars people out of complacency is some kind of tragedy, some kind of suffering. There are reasons why there are so many death bed conversions. The fact of suffering, the experience of deep pain can finally jolt people out of a surface level existence and into the recognition that they need to connect to something bigger than themselves, that life has no meaning without a deeper vision and connection which a life of faith can give.
A few years ago I was able to go and hear the Christian rock band, Mercy Me. The lead singer, Bart Millard, shared with us about his childhood experience of being the son of an extremely abusive father. Bart said, “Calling him a monster would be an understatement”. But his father was diagnosed with cancer when Bart was a sophomore in high school. And that led his father to a deep and complete conversion. Bart said that by the time his father died three years later, he not only respected his father but saw him as the man he would most like to be like. His father, through his conversion, became the best man Bart had ever known. That’s what faith can do. It can change us, turn us around completely, make us new in the truest sense of the word. But I don’t think most people in our culture these days WANT to be new or changed until something happens that forces them to realize that they simply cannot continue to live the shallow way that we are encouraged to live by our culture and media.
A fellow pastor and I had a conversation some years ago in which she said that she believes it is actually good news that people are no longer coming to church simply because it is “the thing to do”. It is good news that the people who remain in our churches are here because they genuinely get the need and value of faith and being connected with others in that faith. It means the church, when it stops being about “saving its own life” out of fear for the losses in numbers that are being experienced, can now actually BE the church God calls us to be rather than country club organizations and institutions. And she’s right. We can be freed to genuinely follow the WAY, living as Christ would have us live when we are not just simply another part of main stream culture. We no longer have to just fit in with what society would tell us to do but can really live lives on the Way.
I started thinking about all the things that this congregation does. It is an amazing and impressive list for a small, aging congregation. We being with prayer. We have two adult Christian education opportunities each week as well that study and pray together. We’ve been offering two different types of worship services each week plus Taize during advent and lent. We begin with prayer and worship and are grounded in that relationship to God. And then we continue in “the Way” of following Jesus with all of the service that we do, in the name of Jesus, for other people. Between the many ways we support hunger issues and other deep needs of people – Winter Nights, our community meal here, the one we support in Pittsburg, supporting Contra Costa Interfaith Housing as well as Monument Crisis Center and Heifer project, going on mission days, our PFLAG meetings, providing gifts over Christmas – to our outreach and education of children, families and adults of all ages through things like Godly Play and our family program, our men’s group, our women’s support group, our quilting group, our faith and film nights, our fellowship opportunities such as progressive dinner, church picnic, Oktober Fest. Our deacons as well as those who aren’t on deacons serve the congregation with food, transportation and visits. There is so much that we “do” to be on the way. And all of it is a way of following Christ and striving to be close to God.
The people that we see portrayed in our TV sit-coms and media don’t have the time and energy to give like this. They can’t be bothered with caring for God’s people and it would throw them out of a comfort zone in which clothing, and dances and make up and money and “fun fun fun” are the primary values. But that kind of shallow existence doesn’t lead to life, won’t lead to life. And for those of us who have chosen a different way, we know this, we experience this, we live an existence that is richer and fuller because of it. We live an existence in which we see God by seeing Jesus, and by living as Jesus calls us to live.
And the thing is, what we do makes a difference. At my pastor’s group one week, one of our pastor members was saying, “How do we convince people to come to church?” And the answer? It is mostly our actions, it is the things we do outside of these walls that are different and set us apart that get people’s attention. Everything we do matters. Everything we do makes a difference. Are we kind? Do we show even our enemies love? Are we giving? These things matter. And while it may become frustrating at times feeling like we haven’t brought people in those doors and sometimes it can be hard to see how we have impacted those around us, we do. The lives we lead, following on The Way of Christ make a difference.
In the Movie, “Two Weeks Notice” Sandra Bullock plays a character who has actively followed on “the way” as she understands it. She has stood up for the oppressed, been a voice for the voiceless, fought against injustice at every level. But there comes a moment at which she hits a place of despair. She is done. Her father is upset by her decision to no longer live a life of action. And he confronts her saying, “we didn’t teach you to sit on the sidelines.” She argues that what she does makes no difference. To which he responds, “Then you change your tactics. As long as people can change, the world can change.” She says, “But what if people can’t change?”
Can people change? First of all, yes, we know they can. The father in the movie I just quoted proceeded by declaring, “Let me put it this way. I am eating a piece of cheesecake made entirely of soy. I hate it. But because of my health issues, I am doing it.” Yes, people do change. But the second thing is that again, that is not our job. Our job is to follow in the Way. We have to leave the results of that up to God. And God, as we know, is pretty good at changing people.
There was an article on Facebook a while ago about the top things that pastors fear. And the number one thing on that list was that we fear we are irrelevant, that we make no difference. My guess, though, is that every person of faith wonders this at some point. Does what I do matter? Does it make a difference? Do the efforts I put into feeding and caring and housing and listening and studying and praying – do these efforts matter?
They matter to the people whose lives you touch by serving them for that moment. And they matter to you because they change you and bring you closer to God. Because of all of that, they most importantly matter to God. They matter to God because God delights in people following Jesus on “the Way”. And they matter to God because God delights in your moving closer to wholeness, which you do by being closer to God in following Christ’s way. And they matter to God because God calls you to be the people of Christ by following in this way. Click here to read Barbara's Blog