Proper 15C Sermon (2010)

Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: Luke 12:49-56;
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

GOD’S WAY OF PEACE — THROUGH SUFFERING

Children’s Sermon

  • Place a bright ribbon (or rope) on the floor to create a dividing line, and lead the children in a short game of dividing into two groups by counting off one-two, one-two, etc.
  • Then divide between those who love Jesus and want to follow him and those who don’t. [Work in VBS, “High Seas Adventure,” mast that looks like a cross and reminds us.]
  • Remind them that before Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven, he suffered and died on the cross. Does following Jesus mean that we also need to follow him through suffering?
  • Here’s an example: You see that your friend is suffering and is very sad. You ask her why, and she says that her cat died. Well, let’s say your dog died a year ago, and so you can understand why she’s sad. And when you care for her and share her sadness with her, that’s the first step to feeling better, to finding Jesus’ way of peace.
  • If we know the choice of following Jesus means suffering like he did, what side of the dividing line would you be on? That’s really hard isn’t it! We might want to say, “Hey, I’ll sign up to follow you Jesus when it means peace of going to heaven like you, but I’m not so sure about having to suffer first. That doesn’t sound like Good News to me.” And I wouldn’t blame you. It doesn’t sound like Good News to me, either.
  • So here’s the Good News. None of us can completely avoid sad times in our lives, so Jesus shows us how to share those sad times together on our way to the promise of heaven, a time when there will be no more sad times. Prayer.

Sermon

An elderly priest, speaking to his younger assistant priest, said, “It was a great idea to replace the first four rows of pews with plush leather bucket theater seats. It worked like a charm. The front of the church always fills first now.”

The young priest nodded, and the old priest continued, “And you told me a little more beat to the music would bring young people back to the church, so I supported you when you brought in that rock ‘n roll gospel choir. We’re packed to the balcony!!”

“Thank you, Father,” answered the young priest. “I’m glad you’re open to the new ideas of youth.”

“But,” said the elderly priest, “I’m afraid you’ve gone too far with the drive-thru confessional.”

“But, Father, my confessions and our donations have nearly doubled since that began!”

“I know, son, but the flashing neon sign, saying, ‘Toot ‘n Tell or Go to Hell,’ just can’t stay on the church roof!!”

The goal of the Christian church has always been to grow — the more people following Christ, the better for the world. But growth has to come in ways that are faithful to following Jesus. A drive-up confessional booth might be faithful, but a neon sign advertising it as, “Toot ‘n Tell or Go to Hell,” probably crosses the line!

We’re in the midst of trying to understand huge changes going on around us, both at church and in our culture — bigger than we’ve seen in centuries. So as we enter the second decade of the Third Millennium, growing as a church is becoming more challenging than ever.

Prince of Peace has always sought to grow in ways that are faithful to following Jesus. But one of the things we’re seeing is that for the first time in generations, people are leaving and staying away from church must faster than they are connecting with church. So growth in this climate is extremely challenging for a congregation; and it is equally challenging for pastors and priests to know how to guide a church into growing.

There are at least three broad strategies for church growth at this difficult time we find ourselves in: one is to go back to being the kind of ‘traditional’ church that worked in the 1950’s and 60’s. But rather than helping churches grow, that strategy seems to be the fast-track for closing down churches. Unless we ignore the fact that folks are leaving traditional churches faster than any other, we simply can’t go back.

A second strategy is what the young priest in the joke was trying to do: hanging on to some traditional content but with contemporary cultural twists — heavy on consumerism, entertainment and convenience, with things like theater seating, popular music, and drive-up confessionals. I think that there actually is some short-term success in this strategy as we can see in many of the mega-churches’ on the scene right now. And as a pastor, I have to say it is very tempting to look at those churches and try to imitate them.

But if we did that, I think we would miss the opportunity that our time provides to ask in fresh ways: Is what we are doing trying to grow just for the sake of growth, or grow to be faithful in following Jesus? So a third strategy that presents itself right now in this time of great change is to recognize the unique opportunity we have to get unstuck from where we’ve been for generations, and to ask ourselves what it means to faithfully follow Jesus. We may need to go one step further and ask ourselves if perhaps one of the reasons people are running away from the church so much faster than they are joining is precisely because we have not been faithful enough to following Jesus.

As your pastor, I’m trying to lead us in the third strategy, which, even if churches using the second strategy outgrow us in the short-term, I believe is the best chance for growth in the long-term. But first we need to try to understand what makes people run away from the traditional church, and especially ask how the traditional version might not have been fully faithful to following Jesus in the first place. One key piece is that more and more folks see the church as historically perpetrating violence in the name of God instead of being a leader in the way of Peace. Especially as weapons have become more and more deadly over the past centuries – especially the last one that ushered in “weapons of mass destruction” – the stakes are much higher!

Albert Einstein said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.” In other words, if we don’t begin to think differently about finding the way of peace in today’s world, with the power of modern weapons, humanity cannot survive for long. Do you agree? Disagree? Or simply try not to think about it? I think that most young people agree, and for the most part are doing one of two things: either they are resigning themselves to it and living for the moment trying to enjoy the mind-numbing entertainment-of-the-day; or they are hoping to change it before it’s too late but looking for answers outside the church, because the church in the past 500 years has too often been front and center when it comes to our descension into greater and greater violence.

When people disagree with my view on this, they often specifically cite this morning’s Gospel. They say, “Pastor Paul, if Jesus was really all about bringing God’s way of peace, then why does he say, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!'”

I can see why they ask! Especially as this text is so often taken out of context. It often gets removed from the context of Luke’s entire Gospel. For example, Luke is the only Gospel writer that tells us Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem after his last, dramatic Palm Sunday entry into it. He wept, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies … crush you to the ground…; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” God in Jesus Christ visited us to show us the true way to peace, and we missed it.

This is where we meet up with our children’s time this morning, and so we end where we began. Luke’s words from Jesus come at the point of the journey when Jesus is desperately trying to teach his disciples that if they want to follow him in a way of peace, it must be through suffering — not around it, but through it. Above all, his followers must not deflect suffering onto someone else, but suffer it themselves. But once again his disciples are not getting it, so, as he often did when they did not understand, Jesus presents us with a parable – or a riddle.

Jesus was frustrated! God’s own people expected a Messiah who would lead the way to peace by military victory; even his closest disciples did not understand that Jesus’ way of peace involves taking on suffering, not deflecting it onto anyone else. Admittedly, to most of us, that doesn’t seem like a way to peace. That’s why it takes faith, I guess — faith in God’s raising Jesus from the dead as a promise that new life does come through the way of suffering. Jesus went through suffering utterly alone; as followers of Jesus, we can go through it together – and when we share suffering, it is the beginning of peace.

This is what our reading from Hebrews is about today, too. The writer catalogs for us heroes of faith by the suffering they endured. The great cloud of witnesses are those who have gone through the suffering and come out on the other side — all because Jesus pioneered this way of peace by enduring the shame of the cross.

We have the seeds planted to understand this in new ways at Prince of Peace. Just last month forty-five folks went to Guatemala – a place where global economics and politics put tremendous suffering of poverty on others. Yes, our travelers found the suffering and violence of poverty imposed from a global economics that favors a few and leaves the vast majority out. But they also found a people who share their suffering together, and so find the beginning of God’s way to peace in Jesus Christ. Will we have the courage in the weeks and months ahead to continue the friendships made in Guatemala by addressing the violence of a global economics that favors a few and leaves the vast majority to suffer?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe with all my heart and soul that, in this unique moment of history in which we find ourselves, we are being given one more chance to see how our modern ways of doing church over the past 500 years missed God’s way of peace. Just as we’ve created weapons that give us the power to destroy ourselves and God’s entire creation; and economies that create abject poverty the likes of which most of us cannot begin to imagine, we’ve also been given a precious window through which to read the Gospel with new eyes. Following Jesus means following him into God’s way of peace — sharing the suffering of others on a way of peace that just might yet save us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 15, 2010

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