Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
June 22, 2014
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. — Matthew 10:39
Can we acknowledge one thing right up front this week? These are tough lessons. Coming on the heels of the mighty winds of Pentecost, our options for preaching and teaching this week may elicit more pastoral whimpers of dread than powerful “Amens! of anticipation.” I mean, really, do you like preaching about the rigors and difficulties of Christian life? Is it easy to teach that the life of faithful discipleship is not all rosebuds and lollipops? After all, in a lot of places it’s hard enough to keep the faithful motivated and interested enough to file in for Sunday’s worship.
Could this actually be a large part of the problem? Do we spend too much time trying to make Christianity “palatable” for the masses, expending effort on crafting worship “experiences,” and trying just a little too hard to make it cool at the expense of keeping it real? Do we sacrifice content in a quest for greater numbers and better demographics? Is it even a tiny bit worrisome that the faith community down the street seems to be doing a bang-up job of packing ‘em in on Sunday morning?
Easy is not always the answer. In fact, most things truly worth having require expenditures of time, effort, and energy. Why should we expect the life of faith to be any different? If Jesus’ life and ministry and the paths of his early followers are our model, most of us are in real trouble!
In the 21st century, it’s the exception rather than the norm to be persecuted for one’s faith or to risk losing one’s life to follow Jesus. For the developed world, it’s more the case that one will be ignored altogether as irrelevant and out of touch with reality. We Christians no longer dominate the culture. In the face of this reality, maybe we all ought to be whimpering and lamenting what we’ve become.
Where is Christ’s church growing the most and the fastest? It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that one out. Just look to the places where there is poverty, difficulty, famine, and strife; there you’ll find the church growing. There you’ll find disciples in the making. And there you’ll find Jesus in the midst of pain and suffering lifting up his people, strengthening them, and abiding with them. Of course, Jesus loves the rich and privileged, too, but it’s a lot more difficult to see Jesus when you don’t really need him or have room for him in your already full and satisfying life.
So dear preacher and teacher, I wish I could tell you I had easy ideas for how to make these lessons sit well in the ears and hearts of the privileged folk that many of us serve, but I can’t. A wise mentor once told me, “If you’re not irritating folks at least a few times a year, chances are you’re not really preaching the gospel.”
Consider this a “burr under the saddle” kind of Sunday. Yes, there’s grace in the gospel, but this week it’s all wrapped up in a bitter reality of the real cost of discipleship. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that a partial commitment doesn’t cut it. He wants each and every one of us, AND, he wants all of us. Every last hair on our heads, every ounce of our energy and dedication; Jesus demands our full participation.
Want to find real life? You gotta lose everything that stands in between you and Jesus. No fooling. No justifications. It’s an all or nothing proposition that we can’t accomplish on our own. Thankfully, that’s where the Holy Spirit and the merciful love and grace of God comes into play. So go ahead, faithful servant. Put all your cards on the table; lay your soul bare and leave nothing in the pulpit. Know that God is with you. The bread and cup await you. You are not alone, but you have to be a loser to be a keeper in the divine economy. Trust the one who lost it all for you–it’s a win/win proposition.
On June 24, many liturgical churches will remember John the Baptist. John was not only Jesus’ cousin, but the one who announced his coming–decreasing as Jesus increased in ministry. John had a popular following, but he knew that he was only the opening act for the real deal, and he lost his head for Jesus. Consider having someone play John the Baptist and talk about his life and witness. If you can’t get anyone to dress up and look wild and shaggy, craft the long lost last letter from John in prison and read it to the congregation. Have John reflect on what it means to follow Jesus, or in his case proclaim the advent of the Lord.
Dead to sin; alive to God in Christ Jesus. This is what Paul writes to the Romans about what it means to be a new creation, a new being in Christ. That’s great in abstract, but how does this play out in real life? How do we die to sin each day and rise to new life in Christ? How can we find ways to remember this on a daily basis? Invite the youth to engage in small group discussion about this topic. After some discussion, challenge each group to illustrate the verses from this week’s epistle lesson (Romans 6:1b-11) in a single image, a collage of images, a skit, a poem, or video. Be sure and share, discuss, and celebrate the results of their efforts. You might be amazed at what they create. Consider using either The Message or the Common English Version to help the youth get a more modern take on Paul’s language.
Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that we can live fearlessly as Christians because God loves us and values us. God values us more than a tiny bird–a common sparrow. God even knows, according to Jesus, the number of hairs on our head. Invite the children to guess how many hairs the average person has on his or her head? Consider all answers. According to most sources, the average head of hair numbers about 100,000. Granted some people have more than others! So if God knows about 100,000 hairs on each person’s head, that means God can count a lot of hairs (Thank goodness God doesn’t seem as inclined to split hairs as much as we humans do!). Multiply 100,000 x the number of children present. Do the same math for your congregation’s membership. If you can, consider totaling the approximate number of hairs for your town. The point is that God knows the exact number for each one of us–that’s how important we are to the God who created the entire universe. We may be mighty small and feel plenty insignificant, but that’s now how God views us! And that is very good news! End with a simple prayer.
Photos: Jonny Hughes, Ramunas Gesiauskus, and gerardofegan, Creative Commons