The Cost of Change
Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
You all know that I am a dog lover and I love telling stories about my dogs. One of my favorites took place when we were living in Gary. We lived near the lakeshore and we were surrounded by the National park. So there was always plenty of wildlife… which my dogs loved. At that time, we had three dogs: Charis, Sophie and Eirene. That was the sequence of their age and dominance order: Charis at the top, followed by Sophie and Eirene at the bottom of the pack. At this particular time, Charis was on limited physical activity because she had hip dysplasia and had suffered an injury. So, she was gated inside the house to be sure she didn’t run and jump and play. And, when she went outside to do her business, she was to be on a leash. It was a fall evening and there was dew on the ground. I was already in my pajamas, with flip flops on my feet. I should add that Charis weighed almost 80 pounds and that I weigh around 87 pounds. When I opened the door into the back yard the two youngest dogs shot through it with a clear mission. They had spotted a possum in the yard. The possum scrambled to scale our chain link fence and had nearly cleared it when Eirene, our young Doberman at the time, reached the fence, jumped up and smacked it hard enough to send that poor possum tumbling. It barely hit the ground before it was snatched up by Sophie who immediately turned to present her captive to dog number one, Charis. Charis, meanwhile, had also spied that possum and her leash, with me on the other end, was of little significance. She bolted toward Sophie with such a jolt that the soles of my flip flops – wet with the evening dew – slid out from under me. Down I went with the leash still in my hand. Charis, with four wheel drive – well, four paw drive – had all the strength she needed to drag me along. Like George Jetson, I was on the ground, leash in hand, gliding across the grass coming to a sudden realization that I might meet that possum face to face. It was then that I gathered my wits and let go of the leash.
Now, what I want you to remember about that story are two things:
As I’ve done throughout this sermon series, I’d invite you to turn to the center of this morning’s program and consider “How easy is it for you to part with things you don’t really need? Are there things you keep even though you don’t regularly use them or need them?”
This morning’s scripture is a story about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I think Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Well friends, that is applicable to our understanding of Christian discipleship. Certainly it does have a destination. But Christian discipleship involves more than a destination; it is about the journey; a journey that demands our full attention and focus. A journey that is often difficult, but enormously rewarding. A journey that is impossible if we are weighed down and distracted by too much unnecessary stuff. Christian discipleship is a lifelong journey that requires us to “travel light.”
The encounter between Jesus and this rich man is a story about discipleship, about what it means to follow Jesus and to learn to live as Jesus lived… because that’s what the Greek word for disciple means. A disciple is “one who learns” and a disciple of Jesus is one who, out of loyalty and devotion to Jesus, learns to live like Jesus lived and Jesus, our gospels remind us, certainly traveled light.ii
This is also a call story; a story of a man who is issued an invitation by Jesus. He’s given an opportunity for his life to change. But that change is going to cost him something and he’ll need to decide for himself if it’s worth the price. Jesus invites this man – just as he invites all of us – to lay aside all of the other stuff that distracts and burdens us and to “then come, follow me.”
Now notice something about this guy. This guy is a great guy. I mean, he is religious. He knows a lot about his faith and he has been following all of the rules diligently. He’s sincere and serious in his interaction with Jesus. He addresses Jesus as rabbi, or teacher, a title of honor. He kneels before Jesus, a posture of respect. He is genuine and… this is the most important point… he knows, he senses that there is something more to life, to eternal life, that he is missing. This man who has it all recognizes that there is something that he is missing… something money just can’t buy.
So Jesus invites this man to follow him, to join him on his journey as he and his disciples head toward Jerusalem. But first, the man will need to lighten his load. He is weighed down; apparently, preoccupied by great wealth. It is an obstacle hindering his ability to follow Jesus. Now we can’t know with certainty exactly why this man’s wealth gets in the way but we can engage in some speculation.
This man would have received two benefits from his wealth. One was security. Even today, we’re told that money provides security. Financial advisers remind us that we need to always have three to six month’s worth of living expenses in our savings so that, should something go wrong, a medical emergency, loss of job, etc., we don’t lose our homes and find ourselves out on the streets. Secondly, money – especially having lots of it – has a significant impact on our sense of identity. With money, others treat us differently, and we begin to perceive ourselves differently. Now, my point here is not to encourage financial recklessness and irresponsibility. But I want us to think about the fact that it is very, very easy for us to begin to judge ourselves based on our belongings, our reputations and our abilities. In Jesus’ day, someone with wealth was supposed to function as a patron for the needy. And the way in which those who received help thanked their patron was through the giving of public praise. So, if you were wealthy and owned a great deal of land and I was poor with no means to support my family, you might allow me to farm a piece of your property rent-free. And, if you did that, I would tell all the folks in town about what a fine, upstanding guy you were because you had been generous with me in my time of need. And if I went around telling everybody in my village about how awesome you were… Well, a fellow could really get used to that, right?
Now, that’s all speculation with this guy. We don’t know the personal details of his life. But clearly Jesus knew his heart and knew that his wealth – all that stuff in his life – was hindering him from following Jesus. It stood in the way of him placing his full trust in Jesus. It prevented him from allowing Jesus to be the source of his security and his identity.
And when he realizes for himself how attached he is to his stuff, it makes him grieve. He makes a painful choice. He counts the cost and then he chooses all that stuff. But it’s not a choice that brings him joy. It’s a choice that causes him sorrow.
Folks, sometimes our lives become a frustration, or even a disappointment. We sense that something is lacking; we know what we’re doing now isn’t working. We have so much stuff filling up our lives, our calendars and our closets. And, it’s just too much.
But, that’s not the only way to walk life’s journey. We can choose differently. We can choose to follow Jesus and to “travel light.” Jesus issues the invite to us: do we want eternal life with him enough to shed that excess stuff and make following him our singular passion and our sole focus? Can we decide that the only relationship that will determine our identity is our relationship with Jesus? Do we trust that the only enduring security we have is Christ? Or do we believe that we need all that other stuff?
Our life is a journey in which we’re challenged daily to decide between following Jesus or giving in to the expectations and standards of our commercial culture.
But it’s not a challenge we face alone because we’re in it together. And when I struggle, it’s your job to encourage me; and when you struggle, it’s my job to encourage you. Discipleship, friends, is a personal journey. But, it’s not a lonely journey and it’s not a private journey.
You know, my dogs got that possum because they weren’t distracted by other stuff in the backyard. When they shot through that door, they were locked on to that possum. We need that kind of intense focus in our discipleship journey. And, we can help one another get there. But we can only really help one another if we really know one another. And that happens by joining a bible study or a small group or serving together in mission just as we’ll do this afternoon, or being part of a fellowship group where other people get to know us and we know them.
It’s hard to follow Jesus if we try to walk the journey alone, weighed down by all the stuff our culture tells us we need to hold onto. But we don’t need bigger closets or containers and we don’t more clutter on our calendars. All we really need is Jesus.
ii See Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58.
The Crucible of Change
Scripture: Luke 22:31-34
My undergraduate degree is from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It’s a small, Catholic University and I could not have afforded to attend without scholarship money, grants and loans. Even so, it was a stretch for my family. That’s why one summer I opted to take my science elective, biology, at a nearby state college. I enjoyed biology in high school and did well. I have to confess, another perceived perk in taking my course at the local college was that my letter grade did not transfer. So long as I got at least a C, the credits would transfer and I’d be set. I imagined that getting a C at this state school that was far from renowned for its academics, would be a breeze. I was very wrong. I happened to get a professor who was notorious. The semester began with about 60 students in the course. After each quiz, more students would drop out. They were dropping like flies. I knew I couldn’t afford to waste those tuition dollars so I was determined to get that C. By the end of that summer intensive, my entire life was consumed with biology. The last three days before the final, I ate my meals with a book propped open in front of me and did barely anything but study. I pulled an all-nighter, pumping myself full of caffeine. The test was at 8 a.m. I arrived and took my seat. I looked around the room. Only about a dozen other students had even bothered to show up. The professor passed out the exams and I stared down at the paper. My foot was tapping against the chair. My fingers were moving nervously across the pencil. With all that caffeine in my system, I felt like my heart was going to burst right out of my chest. I remember having the fleeting thought that, perhaps a cardiac event would come with an automatic exemption from the test or at least an extension. I had spent other late nights studying and had consumed my fair share of college coffee; but never to that extreme. That was the hardest test I ever took. By the skin of my teeth, I got my C.
Many of us, I imagine, can remember a particularly demanding test at some point in our lives. Perhaps it wasn’t of an academic nature. Perhaps it was an athletic competition or a music audition. If you served in the military, you may feel that basic training was your most rigorous test; a test of physical and mental endurance.
To live is to experience testing. It comes with the human experience. But the most demanding tests are the ones that test our spirit. Whether it is a life-threatening illness, financial disaster, a child’s suicide attempt; those are the tests that we find most difficult to bear. They are crucibles that change us. But, as followers of Christ, we are never left alone in our times of testing.
If you’ll turn to the center of your morning’s program, you’ll see a question there: “When has there been a time in your own life when you were undergoing difficult change or testing and felt God carried you through?”
This morning’s gospel reading may have surprised you. It is a strange passage unique to Luke. It is set within the context of Jesus’ final night on earth. Sharing a last supper with his disciples, Luke – like his gospel comrades – tells us of Peter’s impending denial of his Lord. But Luke gives us an additional detail unique to his account. It is this peculiar couple of verses in which Jesus warns Peter that what is about to occur is the direct result of the work of Satan, the adversary. Peter is about to undergo a test, sifting is how Jesus describes it… with a word that implies great agitation or shaking. Peter’s whole world is about to be shaken apart by Jesus’ impending arrest, trial and crucifixion. But Jesus adds this assurance: that he is interceding for Peter so that his faith or trust in Jesus won’t be destroyed. Peter will get through this and, when he emerges on the other side, he is given the assignment of strengthening his brothers in the faith, his fellow disciples.
Now, as a quick aside, we need to be cautious as we look at these brief, but peculiar, verses and not make assumptions. We must be careful not to place blame upon Jesus as if he has tossed Peter to the enemy. Peter is not Job and Jesus does not say that this testing of Peter is some peculiar thing that Jesus has negotiated. Jesus’ announcement is that and nothing more. He wants Peter to be made aware of what lies ahead.
Perhaps as hearers of Luke’s story we should not be so surprised. The devil has been lurking in the shadows of this story since the close of chapter four.
While Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell of Jesus himself being tested by the devil for forty days in the wilderness before his public ministry begins, Luke is – once again – unique in his account. While Matthew and Mark provide an encouraging conclusion to their temptation story by telling that angels came and ministered to Jesus, Luke closes with these ominous words, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.”i So, when Jesus faces arrives at these, his final hours of life here on earth, the devil is back with a vengeance for round two and we should not be surprised that his work of testing has extended beyond Jesus to encompass those who are a part of his inner circle.
So Jesus does not mince words in letting Peter know what he is coming up against. But Jesus also provides the assurance that his intercession on Peter’s behalf will get Peter through this test. It will be no blazing success… after all; his fear will cause him to deny even knowing Jesus. But this test, this adversary, will not destroy him because Jesus is interceding on Peter’s behalf.
Friends, when we face testing in our own lives, as disciples of Jesus, we never undergo it alone. Jesus is continually interceding on our behalf. The author of Hebrews puts it like this:
Because Jesus himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.ii
It is the job of a priest to intercede for God’s people and, the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is a priest like none other. He knows what it feels like to be tested and to suffer the battering of this sinful world. But Jesus defeated the adversary; he emerged from his testing victorious and now he lives eternally in the presence of God the Father to make intercession for us in our times of testing.
Jesus assures Peter that his intercession on Peter’s behalf means that Peter and his faith will not be destroyed. Peter will outlast this test; it won’t be the end of him. But, perhaps even more importantly, when he does emerge from it, he is not called to simply breathe a sigh of relief and put it behind him, moving on as if it never happened. That is our human inclination. We don’t want to think about our painful past. And we don’t want to speak of it. We’d like to pretend it never happened. But we shouldn’t; and here’s why: our brothers and sisters in the faith are walking this journey with us and they – just like us – face times of terrible testing and, when they do, they not only need Jesus to intercede for them. They need us to strengthen them. While the pressures of the crucible may harden our resolve and fortify our faith, those personal experiences of testing should also soften us toward our brothers and sisters. They should cultivate within us a deep compassion; a willingness to share the strength we have gained from our victory with them; a readiness to remind them that they are not alone and that Jesus is interceding on their behalf and he will bring them through it.
Friends, when we are in the midst of spiritual testing, it is hard to hang on and so we must strengthen one another as Jesus calls us to do. If the merciful intercession of Jesus has brought you through a divorce, a bankruptcy, a life-threatening illness, a family member’s death, or any other grueling test, don’t keep that to yourself. Use it, speak of your experience, so you can bring strength and hope to your brothers and sisters in the faith who are now facing similar tests and trials.
Many of you are aware that I was in Dayton last week teaching at United Seminary. As Methodists in a connectional church, United uses ordained clergy to facilitate spiritual formation courses for ministry students. The spiritual formation courses are designed to help students integrate and balance their personal spiritual lives, their ministry contexts, their studies and their relationships in healthy ways. One of the assignments that take place when we are together on campus involves sharing a reflection on ministry that requires students to analyze, evaluate and theologically reflect on an event or experience in their lives. Every year, at least one student shares a reflection that is hard for the rest of us to hear because it reveals an intense struggle. We may hear in it evidence that a student feels guilt that their family is being hurt by their ministry context. We may hear in it evidence that the denominational hierarchy threw a young, naïve pastor into a cauldron of conflict. We may hear in it stories of self-doubt or fear or even regret. Now, the learning model requires us to draw out the student and push them to explore healthy ways to face their challenges. Yet often, when the presentation time has ended, in those breaks between assignments, we speak to one another words of understanding and compassion. Some of us have been there and we know what they are experiencing. And we want them to know that they’re going to make it even though right now, they might feel completely overwhelmed and crushed. We pray with them and we remind them that the God who called them is with them and is faithful to them. And it gives them strength for the journey ahead.
And friends, that kind of an experience shouldn’t just be a seminary class assignment for people going into ordained ministry. That should be something that happens regularly among all of Jesus’ disciples. We should be ready and willing to share our struggles with one another. And those of us who have been there should be ready to respond with prayer and with words of encouragement that strengthen our brothers and sisters for the journey.
Friends: no doubt, testing changes us. But it doesn’t need to change us for the worse. As disciples of Jesus, it should change us for the better because, when we encounter Jesus, when we know that he has brought us through that crucible, then we emerge with a strength we can use to strengthen our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God!
i Luke 4:13
ii Hebrews 2:18
Scripture: John 3:1-15
Last winter I put on a few pounds. It wasn’t a super big deal. But I could feel the change around my waistband and, with as hard as it is for me to find “little person” clothes; I determined I would make some dietary changes to take those few pounds back off. A few days into the process, missing my chocolate and other sweets, I said to Britt, “I don’t think this is making any difference at all.” He asked, “So how long have you been doing this?” “At least a week,” I said, realizing as soon as the words left my mouth how ridiculous I sounded. Did I really think those pounds I’d picked up over four or five months were going to magically go away in one week?
But that is our human nature, fueled by our instantaneous culture. Decades ago, if people wanted to hear the day’s news, they needed to be in front of their TV set at 6:00. Today, we just pull out our smart phone anytime and anywhere. We’re just one click away from knowing what happened on the other side of the world thirty minutes ago… unless we’re surfing social media and then we learn about it in real time. A few years back, a friend told me the story of a little boy whose parents signed him up for T-ball. He wasn’t doing very well. So they took him to the doctor. That makes sense… after all; you’d want to check his vision or other potential medical issues. But a thorough check-up revealed everything was normal. The doctor’s diagnosis: he’s just taking a little bit longer than the other children to develop those skills. But it was more than the parents could bear. They signed him up for ball therapy. Yes; it’s true. Ball therapy is a real thing.
We live in an instantaneous world. But here’s the caveat: relationships will always take time to grow and mature. Relationships involve understanding, trust and intimacy and there are no shortcuts for those. And, although people sometimes think of Christianity as a belief system, it is – first and foremost – about a relationship with Jesus and that relationship, like all relationships, will take time to mature. Over time, our relationship with Jesus will change us. We’ll begin to feel and think and speak and act in different ways. But change doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes even in the church, we contribute to this “microwavable conversion” approach. We all love the story of a sensational conversation. When we read scripture, we focus on passages like the one in Acts when Saul (who becomes Paul) is struck blind on the Road to Damascus. What an exciting story. But most of us aren’t struck blind and for many of us, our desires to be healthy disciples of Jesus might feel more like my first sugar-free diet week. But friends, change generally doesn’t happen overnight. Change takes time.
I want to invite you to turn to the center of your program. Although our Christian maturity does take time, I do want to invite to consider “can you recall a time in your life when you experienced a ‘spiritual growth spurt’?
[pause] There’s a great picture also in your program. Claudia Levy and Dan Glover have written a book called “Deepening Your Effectiveness.” It’s a book about Christian discipleship and it employs the metaphor you see pictured in your program. Our relationship with Jesus, friends, is a little like swimming. We generally don’t wind up swimming with great proficiency in the deep water on day one. It takes commitment and time and courage to move from the shoreline out into the deep.
And fortunately, we do have a biblical character who serves as a reminder that our relationship with Jesus can sometimes take time to develop and mature.
This morning I shared from John’s gospel, chapter 3. A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” to question him. In John’s gospel, the darkness that accompanies nighttime is a powerful symbol. From the beginning, our gospel writer reminds us that Jesus is light. Even in our culture today, light is associated with enlightenment and darkness is associated with confusion and uncertainty. So, when Nicodemus first comes to Jesus, he is “in the dark” – literally and figuratively. As Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about spiritual birth, Nic isn’t getting it. He’s confused. He’s also fearful. People do under the cover of darkness what they do not want others to see. Nicodemus is part of the Jewish religious establishment. They will be, all throughout John’s gospel, in opposition to Jesus. So, even here, Nic is taking some risk in coming to Jesus. But, by coming under the guise of darkness, he minimizes his risk; minimizes the chance that he’ll be seen.
But John, chapter 3, is not the end of the story of Nicodemus for he enters the stage of John’s gospel two additional times. Now first let me say, here in chapter 3, it’s never clear that he’s “left the stage,” so to speak. Jesus’ response to his question, “How can these things be?” evolves into an eloquent discourse about new birth and new life. And where is Nic? Did he walk away? Stride offstage? Drift into the shadows? Or perhaps just sit down behind some prop on stage right to watch the drama unfold? I’m being facetious, of course. But my point is this: the journey of Nicodemus has just begun and, at this point, we don’t really know what the future holds for this character.
He appears again in chapter 7.[i] There, Jesus has gone to Jerusalem at the time of a religious festival. The city is bustling with people and so Jesus uses this occasion to preach. He captivates the crowds and creates a great deal of controversy and speculation. Even the temple police are not sure what to make of him. But the chief priests and Pharisees are fed up with it all and angry that the police didn’t arrest Jesus. And then, amidst their bickering, Nicodemus speaks up. Our narrator reminds us that this is the same Nicodemus. And he asks this question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing, does it?” Now Nicodemus’ question is far from a bold confession of faith, but it is a bold question and the other religious leaders suspect this involves more than Nic’s love of the law. They ask, “Surely you’re not also from Galilee, are you?” In other words, “what’s up with you? Why are you defending this guy as if you have some stake in him, some association with him?” As one bible scholar notes, by “insisting on correct legal procedure toward Jesus, Nicodemus takes a certain personal risk.”[ii] And yet, he still appears to be “on the fence.” When his colleagues lash back at him, he seems, once again, to drift quietly into the narrative shadows.
But he’ll return one final time.[iii] After Jesus’ crucifixion, he will join Joseph of Arimathea in laying Jesus’ body to rest. The job of burial rites belonged to the family of the decedent just as it generally does today. And so, by taking the initiative to care for Jesus’ dead body, Nicodemus’ “identification” or association with Jesus is no longer a possibility; it is a clear fact. Jesus was executed as a criminal. No law-abiding citizen would want to be associated with him, right? Yet Nicodemus now participates actively in these burial rites. And the excessive amount of burial spices Nicodemus uses to anoint Jesus’ corpse reveal that his intent is to honor Jesus. Though lacking a verbal profession of faith, Nicodemus’ actions speak volumes.
And so we find, within John’s gospel this character whose faith journey is, most definitely, a journey. And his journey can become, for us, a model and a challenge. Nic models for us the reality that our relationship with Jesus will, likely, take some time to grow and mature. He also challenges us because, by the story’s end, there can be no doubt that his honoring Jesus has become of greater importance to him than his social position or reputation. He has made a choice that we are sometimes reluctant to make because, at the end of the day, anyone can say “Jesus is Lord,” but it will be much harder to live it out. It takes time and commitment and courage to decide that honoring Jesus is more important than our careers or what our peers think of us. It takes great loyalty to Jesus to decide that he will be the recipient of the very best of our time, our talents, our money and our energy. It takes great love for Jesus to decide that our boss, our coach, our advisor, our teacher, our friends and colleagues, even our families will need to get in line behind Jesus. And it will likely take some time for that kind of loyalty, that kind of love, that kind of relational commitment to grow. And it’s OK if you’re not quite there. It’s OK even if your journey has just begun. But here’s what’s important: are you making progress? Are you more committed to Jesus now that you were, say, a year ago; or maybe 20 years ago; or maybe even just last month?
As a culture we promote check-ups, right? Once a year, Britt and I get blood drawn to evaluate our health. It tells us how our cholesterol is and how our major organs are doing – our pancreas, heart, kidneys and liver. And every year we fill out paperwork from our financial advisor to determine if the way she’s investing matches our goals and needs. And lots of us do that sort of thing.
But when was the last time you evaluated your spiritual health? If we never take time to reflect, how will we know if we’re maturing in our relationship with Jesus? So, if you turn back to your program, I want to encourage this week to set aside time to reflect on your discipleship health; to think about where you are in your relationship with Jesus. How long has it been since you’ve had a spiritual growth spurt? How much have you allowed Jesus to change you – the way you think and act and speak; the priorities you set in life? Change doesn’t happen overnight. So, take some time, make some time, to consider where you are in your relationship with Jesus. Take the time and take a step to consider your next step to grow closer to Jesus.
[i] See John 7:45-52
[ii] Word, Theology and Community in John, Painter, Culpepper and Segovia as editors. Chalice Press, 2002, pp. 23-24.
[iii] See John 19:38-42
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