By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 9:1-6
If you have a Methodist background, you know that Methodist pastors itinerate. We move from congregation to congregation at the assignment of our bishop. To make this transition easier, the majority of Methodist congregations provide a house for their pastors as part of our compensation. Now, one of the challenges in that is the difficulty in keeping track of your stuff, particularly seasonal items. I am someone with a visual memory. When I attempt to recall where something is, I often see it in my mind’s eye in its physical context. But, because no two parsonages are alike, the context is continually changing. Early in Britt’s and my ministry, while we were living in Dayton, I decided one Christmas season to put out my nativity set in a more theologically accurate sequence. In those first couple weeks of Advent, the scene included only shepherds and animals. Then, Mary and Joseph arrived. On Christmas Eve, the baby Jesus was laid in the manger. On January 6, the shepherds were removed and wise men and camels took their place. But something went wrong when it came time to pack up my nativity set. I think that, intending to do the same thing the following year, I did not want to wrap up Jesus with the camels and wise men. But I had already boxed up the shepherds and animals. Somehow baby Jesus got lost in the shuffle. The following Christmas: there was no Jesus to be found. I did, however, console myself with the thought that, in the process of moving (the advent of which was inevitable), I would, undoubtedly, find Jesus again.
Truth be told, many of us Americans have more stuff to keep track of than we should. The burgeoning of “U-Store It” facilities over the past couple of decades is proof. Once utilized for short-term storage, they have now become like extra attics or basements… another place to store away stuff; stuff we don’t necessarily use or need, yet cannot bear to part with. And so this interesting evolution is taking place in our culture; a curious flip flop of a century ago. The stuff we once engaged with daily – things like appointment calendars, address books, books in general, newspapers, typewriters, albums, record players, even clocks – have become smaller, lighter, more compact and merged with one another; while other items – clothing, shoes, kitchen gadgets, tools – have exponentially multiplied. How much stuff do we really need to do the things we need to do? The dawn of disposability has brought a trash crisis with discarded plastics having created an island in the ocean larger than some that have become submerged with global warming. We live in an interesting world. So, what are ya gonna do with all that junk; all that junk inside your trunk?[i] And, what would Jesus do?
Well, Jesus and his disciples have a good bit of experience with itinerating. Together, they are a sort of traveling rabbinical school. But they are more than that because the disciples of Jesus (those who have come to him to learn) are also cut loose to go. They are both disciples (meaning, “those who learn”) and apostles (meaning “those who have been sent”). They have a dual function of spending time with Jesus in order to learn from him, experience him, understand his purposes AND going for Jesus, sent by him to do and say what he has been doing and saying.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching a sermon series entitled “Built to Last.” None of us can debate that the world is changing dramatically and sometimes it seems the Church is on as shaky of ground as Wonder Bread and the Polaroid camera. But, as I mentioned a couple weeks back, Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – is God’s idea and so we know that Church – as a community of disciples gathered around the message and mission of Jesus – won’t ever fail. The Church is built to last… but perhaps, not always in the format we envision or are accustomed to. Church has always been, from its beginning, a contextualized phenomenon. Jesus came, proclaiming the kingdom of God, in a way that first century Palestinian peasants understood. With the stories he told, the metaphors he used, the controversies he addressed, he captivated and transformed his audience. When he said, “the kingdom of God is like…”, people knew they were about to hear a teaching that – curiously enough – might be confounding to the religious and political establishment; yet it would be compelling truth, the reality of God at work when heard and seen by a simple Galilean peasant.
So as churches in America today wrestle with the reality of declining numbers, we need to ask, where is our focus? Is our focus today, at times, on religious establishment; maintaining the organizational structure we’ve come to know and love? Or, are we committed solely to communicating the good news of the kingdom in ways that allow it to be heard and seen clearly by those who need it most?
In Luke, chapter 6, we read “Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”[ii] The chosen twelve are identified by both terms: disciple and apostle. Disciple is the translation of a Greek word meaning, “a pupil, one who learns.” Apostle is the translation of a Greek word meaning, “to send forth to an appointed place.” We also hear these guys referred to with a term that simply means “followers.” So, they are to be those who stay with Jesus to learn AND those who are sent forth by Jesus to do. They stay and they go; they watch and they learn and they do; they listen and they speak. The mission of Jesus becomes their mission. And when they are sent forth by Jesus, always – with great consistency – they are commanded to travel light. They are not to allow themselves to get bogged down with stuff. They’re reassured that those who welcome them will care for them and, when they’re not welcomed, they’re to move along to the next place. But the mission is always in motion and the mission is more important than anything else.
Today, here at Trinity we’ve claimed the mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” And we accomplish that through our vision of “growing in love and service through relationships with God and community.” But we have to recognize that – just like the first century – we will have to go to build that sense of community and develop those relationships. We are blessed with a beautiful church building and for people who come, this space is awe-inspiring. But there are many who will not come on their own; and so we must go. It is easy for the stuff we have – facilities, committees, structures – to hold us back. And most certainly this is a beautiful place for us to gather as disciples to learn, to worship, to pray. Yet, true followers of Jesus, are also sent. We are modern apostles sent forth to take the good news of Jesus out beyond our walls. The resources God has blessed us with are abundant. God has taken good care of us. But all the stuff we have ultimately serves no other purpose than to make disciples and to grow in love and service through relationships with God and community.
There will always be church buildings, I think. And there are churches still building bigger buildings. Yet research also reveals that many of the fastest growing faith communities in America today don’t own any buildings because, as we sang at the end of worship last Sunday, “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people”[iii]; a people sent forth to bring other people into relationship with Jesus.
And what is true for us as a congregation is also true for each of us as individual Christians. We need, each one of us, to be continually assessing and asking ourselves: “Is all the stuff in my life – possessions, activities, organizational meetings and events – helping me become a more mature disciple and apostle? Or, is it distracting me and fragmenting me, exhausting me and getting in the way of my effectiveness at being an apostle for Jesus?” We need to ask ourselves, “Are there things that Jesus wants me to be saying and doing on his behalf that I’m neglecting because I’m too invested in all the other stuff in my life?”
As I’ve been reading and thinking lately, there is a quote by Pastor Andy Stanley that is really growing on me. He says it’s important for us to understand the distinction between wanting something from people and wanting something for people. When we want something from people, it is about us and what we need. We expect them to help us carry the burden of all our stuff. But, when we want something for people, it is about the new life that we know they can experience through a relationship with Jesus. When we invite people into the Church to serve, is it about what we want from them or for them? Do we want them to stay inside here with us to help us take care of our stuff? Or do we want to gather here to worship and pray and learn so we’re cut loose to go out there, traveling light, bringing the good news of Jesus to a world in need of healing. Friends, Jesus calls us to a life of service, not a life of busyness. He calls us to a life in the beautiful rhythm of coming and going; of listening and proclaiming; of learning and doing. He calls us into Christian community, not into a religious establishment.
Luke tells us: “Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles.”[iv]
And even in these days, Jesus calls his disciples… whom he also names apostles. Jesus calls us.
[i] Black Eyed Peas
[ii] Luke 6:12-13, NRSV
[iii] We Are the Church, music and lyrics by Avery and Marsh, 1972. #558 in the UMC hymnal.
[iv] Luke 6:12-13, NRSV
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