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 Following Jesus Down the Road Less Traveled

Sermon - 8/28/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 16:21-26

The text this morning that I want to reflect with you on is actually a continuation of the text from last Sunday from Matthew 16. I'll read the text for this morning in just a bit, but first I'd like to recap from last week.

In that text, you may recall, Jesus asks the Disciples "Who you say that I am?". And Peter, of course, responds "You are the Christ, the son of the living God". The 'great confession' we call it, that is the central affirmation of Christian faith. And as I said last week, we can disagree on just about everything else, so long as we affirm that central affirmation. Even if we have different understandings of precisely what it means, still, that's what defines who we are as Christians.

Billy Graham once was criticized for working with the National Council of Churches by some of his supporters, but he replied that he would fellowship with anyone who says Jesus is Lord. And indeed, that is good policy.

Well, Jesus responds then, to Peter's confession, saying "Blessed are you Simon", which is an ancient Jewish colloquialism for "Right on, baby!". You get an A+ You're solid as a rock. This, of course, is then the foundation of the church.

You can imagine Peter must have been pretty pleased with himself. James, did you hear what Jesus just said? Huh? John, are you listening? Well, then Jesus goes on to say 'now, let me tell you what that means'. And that's the text we'll come to in just a moment.

And of course, that is when the trouble begins. It always does. As soon as move from that confession of faith to putting faith into action, someone is going to disagree with your particular interpretation.

Take, for example, the preacher who persuaded 19 of his followers to strip buck-naked and can cram into one vehicle and to drive wildly down the freeway. I don't know why, you know, preachers sometimes do strange things :) But whatever the case may be, some police officer pulled him over. What, just 19 people driving naked down the freeway, what's wrong with that? He cited the preacher for failure to carry proper identification :) What do you show?

And, cited him for reckless driving. Should have cited him for reckless theology. But is that any less crazy than Harold Camping, the radio preacher, 89 years old, who decided -- based on his meticulous reading of scripture -- that the rapture was going to come on May 21st. Followed by the end of the world in October, just in time for our centennial celebration. You go to all that work, and it's all null and void :)

Well, if you've been following the story in the news, you may know that Mr. Camping, a few weeks or so after making that prediction, after the non-event, the non-rapture, was hospitalized, admitted into a nursing facility for failing health. And I wish personally the best for him, but I also wish that there were a comparable facility for failing biblical understanding.

And then there are the folks who put together an organization called "No More Deaths". And they seem to take Jesus literally when he said "I was thirsty, and you didn't give me anything to drink". Because they have made it their mission to provide drinking water along the trails in the desert of Arizona where would-be immigrants, trying to find their way into this country, literally have died of thirst. I only know about the organization because two of our members went with them on Spring break this last year -- Madeleine Bailey and Paulina Bryant. What are you thinking?! Where do you suppose these kids get these ideas? I don't know. . .

Alabama, proud of the toughest anti-immigration law in the country, would make that kind of assistance of undocumented persons illegal. Only some of the churches, including some of the most fundamentalist, conservative churches of Alabama are protesting this new law of their government, saying who are you to tell us who we can or cannot feed? This is part of the gospel. Good for them.

Yesterday, we had a wedding. Callie and Carmen, came to us I think about a couple years ago, after being told in at least two different churches that they were not welcome there. One of the churches said 'I think you'd feel more at home at First Christian Church downtown' :)

When we became open & affirming, they said they wanted to stand in front of their family and friends in the presence of God to make their vows of lifetime love and commitment. Who are we to say 'no'? Now, does that qualify as a marriage? The Oregon Constitution says no. And we had a protester who wanted to say 'no'. Turns out they didn't, actually. It was a cousin of theirs, a cousin who drove down from Seattle so that she could stand out across the street from us with a sign that said "Unholy Matrimony". Stood out there for the whole service.

I told Callie and Carmen before the service, and their two daughters (that were quite distressed about all this), I said, "Well, look at that, isn't that wonderful, your cousin has just affirmed that this is a matrimony. Not even the State of Oregon will give you that" :)

So, Christian people may disagree, and some of us may disagree on what to call that ceremony, but let me tell you: I've done a lot of weddings, about 250. I have experienced no wedding any more beautiful and wonderful and joyous than that one. And Callie and Carmen have just as much love and commitment as any couple. Even though I tried to get them to come to church this morning, they said "Well, we have these plane tickets to Maui" :). And, from getting to know them, I can also tell you they have more commitment to God, more faith in Jesus Christ, than probably many if not most of the couples I've married.

Prior to that wedding, of course, we had the parade. 40 of us were out there in that parade, proclaiming our message of a place where all are welcome under this roof. And in this community, sometimes known for its less-than-friendly atmosphere to Christians, from the several thousand who were gathered along the street, we experienced almost nothing but praise, and applause, and appreciation. It was very affirming and lots of fun.

I say 'almost', because we had one, there's always one, who when we were announcing that we're celebrating 100 years under this roof, someone yelled out: "And 2,000 years of oppression". Well, there's always one.

My point is simply this: there will always be those who are hostile to all kinds of religious belief. And those hostile to our particular witness of Christian faith. And those who simply do not agree with us, and can disagree quite loudly.

Putting faith into practice, you see, sometimes carries risk. Not everyone likes the message we proclaim. So with that in mind, listen then to this text, after Peter makes that great confession:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

This is a challenging text. It's not so much that it's hard to understand, it's more that it's hard to apply. I'm not sure I want to do what Jesus says.

Now, take note of how quickly Peter has gone from being the hero, with all the right words, to the villain, who would betray everything that Jesus stood for. The rock on which the church would be built all of a sudden becomes the stumbling block. Peter goes from the head of the class to the class dunce. From the mountaintop where he can see the promised land, to the valley of the shadow of death. All in the blink of an eye. How did he fall so quickly from the good graces of Jesus? He broke the cardinal rule of heights -- he looked down. He looked down when he should have been looking up. You set your mind on human things, Pete, not on divine things. And it can happen that quick, it really can. One moment, you're the star quarterback for the number four-ranked team in the nation, and the next moment you're fighting to stay out of jail under threat of a felony assault. I'm not gloating :) I'm just thankful, for once, it wasn't the star player for the Duck's that's in trouble :)

The phone call came late at night, it was a voice I had not heard since high school. "Danny?", the voice said, "this is Jimmy". Keep in mind, no one calls me 'Danny' who doesn't live to regret it from certain threats that they subsequently receive :) So I knew it was a voice from a long-ago. And I recognized his voice as one my best friends in middle school. But he kind of went a different direction, experimenting with drugs. And now he was in a drug rehabilitation program here in Eugene, and wanted me to come and visit. I said sure, we talked for an hour.

He told me about all kinds of things that had happened to him, things he was not proud of. Even killed a man in a bar fight in Mexico. Lost his job, lost his wife, lost his son, made and lost a fortune. In and out of rehabilitation three times. His family had bailed him out now for the fourth and he knew final time. He wanted to get back to church, he wanted to return to that faith and practice in which we were both raised, in the same congregation. He wanted his parents to be proud of him.

He believed in Jesus, he knew God could work a miracle in his life. And if he didn't make it this time, he said, his next visit to church would be his funeral. We prayed together. I have him a big hug. I promised I'd return, and I did -- we talked about his recovery plan, and all of the steps. He had it all laid out. I left him with a card, my phone number, my home phone number, call me Jimmy if you need anything.

A few months later, was the 20th reunion of the graduation class from my high school. I went, and looked for Jimmy. Didn't see him. Finally, I overheard someone talking about him. It was his peer counselor in Narcotics Anonymous, who said Jimmy lasted two days. Two days. And he was back into that habit.

And I remembered all those conversations we had. Jimmy knew what he needed to do. He knew all the right things to say, he just couldn't do it. He fell that quickly. Was it some character flaw? Was it some defect in his DNA? Was it a predisposition to addiction? Was it some spiritual weakness? Probably some of all of the above.

Whenever I think about Jimmy, or I hear a similar story about someone else, I think about what Paul wrote to the Romans: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. I find it to be a law that when I want to do good, evil lies close at hand".

So what is this terrible weakness that causes us to do that which we know is not right? You are setting you mind on human things, says Jesus, not on the divine. Simply a failure to put God an the center of our lives, to base all of our values, actions, and beliefs on something less than the Creator of life revealed to us through Jesus Christ, who somewhat paradoxically then invites us in choosing this God of life to take up the cross and follow him to Jerusalem, where he is killed.

Dietrich Bonheoffer summed up this call in its harshest terms in his classic book "The Cost of Discipleship", not knowing, of course, that some 7-8 years later he himself would be executed by Adolf Hitler. But he wrote: "When Christ calls someone, he bids them come and die".

I don't know about you, but I enjoy his life, I have no intention of giving it up anytime soon. And I honestly do not think that Jesus or Bonheoffer meant that literally, even though some like Bonheoffer, Jesus, and Martin Luther King have had to pay that ultimate price.

I think instead of the many figurative ways in which we die when we put God at the center of our lives. We die to self-centeredness, or maybe self-interest. To consumerism and a life of consumption. We die to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. We die to nationalism, to addiction, to hatred, to fear of all kinds of things. Or in the more traditional language of the meaning of baptism, we are buried with Christ to our old way of life in sin, and raised to a new way of life in God. Only sometimes it's just not that easy.

Too often we make this way of figuratively dying as a life of sacrifice -- giving up all sorts of pleasures and otherwise good things we might enjoy. "Take up the cross" becomes a sacrifice of all of your self-interests. It's no wonder we don't want to do it.

So I think in terms of the Christian life not so much in terms of sacrifice and burden, but rather in terms of choice. Not of what I have lost, but in what I have gained. Not of the cross as a burden, but as an opportunity.

That great poem of Robert Frost, I think, says it so well in the last stanza of The Road Less Traveled when he writes: "I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence. Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference".

What have I gained on this road less traveled by, following Jesus? The opportunity to be a part of a wonderful community like this, of the body of Christ, and to participate in days like yesterday -- celebrating the raising of our roof in a parade:

And celebrating the affirmation of God's love and blessing upon that couple in the wedding. The pleasure and privilege of raising our two children in this community, in this congregation, in a place where they have always known they are loved and valued for who they are and now they, in their own way, are giving back.

To have such a supportive community as this in a time of crisis, and to feel that support expressed in so many ways. To join together with so many different people of faith, and of different faiths, in ways that are affirming, not condemning, loving, not judging, working for God's justice and peace.

And to witness even the smallest of miracles as we did last Sunday in our first service, when one of our mentally-ill regulars, who can often be (truthfully, always is) disruptive in some little way (sometimes big ways), talking often non-sense, in our joys, clear as a bell, coherent as could be, he shared his joy of four years of being clean and sober instead of out stealing our cars like he used to do to support his drug habit. What a wondrous thing to hear God's people affirm him with the applause.

The road less traveled, where many are not willing to go is the one Jesus invites us to take, keeping our minds and hearts not on the negative, but on the positive. Not on the burden and sacrifice, but on God's will and Christ's love.

Such is the way that transforms lives, transforms Christianity, and transforms the world.

May it be.


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