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Worship and Sermons
June 25, 2017


"Christ's Counterculture" By the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Pentecost 3 – Genesis 21:8-21 and Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17, Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39

THEME:  Persevere in sharing the faith, no matter the cost.

 

         I recently came across a list of some very famous people who succeeded only after they persevered in the face of rejection.

         Take Walt Disney, for example.  Long before he founded the company that bears his name, was fired from the Kansas City Star – for a lack of creativity! 

         Then there’s Stephen Spielberg.  As a student applied and was rejected by the film school at the University of Southern California not once, but twice.  They’ve since made him a trustee. 

         JK Rowling’s manuscript of the very first Harry Potter book was turned down by no less than 12 publishers, before it became a phenomenon.  

         When I read our gospel text, it occurred to me that this kind of perseverance in the face of rejection is exactly what Jesus is asking of his disciples. He’s giving them last-minute instructions before sending them out to share the gospel with their Jewish neighbors, and beyond.  

         He tells them to imitate him, to do what he’s been doing.  That means they should also expect the same treatment he received.  He was met with rejection and contempt.  They can expect the same, even from their own families. 

         And, of course, this message is for you and me as well.  Jesus is reminding us that, if we’re being faithful, trouble and conflict are part and parcel of being a Christian - in any era.

         Now we may be saying to ourselves, “Hang on a minute.  I’ve never been violently persecuted for proclaiming Jesus.  This is America we live in. We have freedom of religion.  No one’s going to drag me before councils or courts because I share the gospel.  So, what’s this text got to do with you and me?”

         One or two of us may have experienced the kind of family division that his followers faced, but, for most of us, that seems like a far-fetched scenario, doesn't it? 

         But, let’s not be too quick to dismiss this warning.  To understand what Jesus is asking of his disciples, we need to understand what family meant in their culture.

         The family unit was the building block of the Greco-Roman world.  In that patriarchal society, the authority of the father, as head of the household was unquestioned.  It was the social equivalent of the political power exercised by the Emperor.  In fact, the two were linked.  Strong families were essential to a strong empire.  And any threat to the family was a threat to the Empire.

         So when Jesus says he comes to divide families he’s not just forecasting a potential family feud.  He’s threatening the social and political order.  That’s why demanding his followers place their loyalty to him above even their families was deeply counter-cultural.

         And that is the same kind of challenge we in the church face today.  How are you and I to remain faithful disciples of Jesus within our culture, knowing that it means facing rejection and hostility?   

         Over the centuries, the church has tried various ways to be faithful in the midst of a hostile culture.

         The first and most obvious response was to separate themselves from the culture.  Early Christians saw the corruption of the secular world and how it threatened to creep into the church itself.  Many of them simply retreated from it.

         In the first few hundred years of Christianity, a few began to go into the desert to live in solitude.  Then, some of them banded together to form monastic communities.

         The problem with this approach is obvious: its naïve.  It’s just not possible to remove ourselves completely from the culture around us.  That’s because wherever we are – we inevitably take it with us.  More importantly, didn’t Jesus told us to do the exact opposite:  to go into the world and make disciples?

         An alternative approach the church has adopted is to defy the culture.  In other words, if the culture sees something as good, well then it must be bad. 

         This sort of kneejerk opposition has led groups of Christians to forbid fun things like dancing and playing cards.  Afterall, they’d say, if everybody’s having a good time doing these things, they must be tools of the devil, right? 

         If you’ve ever seen the old Saturday Night Live skit that Dana Carvey did called “Church Chat”, then you’re familiar with this mindset.  The problem with this approach to culture is that these folks may have plenty to say about what’s wrong with society, but they have precious little advice for living better, more joyous lives.

         More recently, many churches have tried a different strategy for navigating the culture.  Instead of rejecting it, they decided to embrace it.  Their thinking is if you can’t beat it, you might as well join it.   

         We call this cultural accommodation.  It’s all about trying to be relevant by copying the culture.  “Hey, if all these hipsters who aren’t in church are doing something, let’s copy it.  Maybe that’ll get them here.”

         The problem with this quest for relevance is that it can be a slippery slope.  It tends to put the culture in the driver’s seat and it moves Jesus into the back – maybe even into the trunk.  The result is a watered-down gospel that demands nothing and transforms no one because it bears little resemblance to Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him.

         But there is another way.  It’s more complicated, but it’s also more faithful, more fruitful.  It’s the way Jesus taught.  The mission he gives his disciples is the same one he gives us:  to be countercultural, but to do this from within the culture. 

         It starts by meeting people where they are, accepting them as they are, and, then, with genuine humility, offering to walk alongside them and help them.  It’s teaching the gospel by embodying the gospel, with a loving and generous spirit.  

         We’ll meet resistance alright, but we might just be surprised how ready a lot of folks outside the church are for the peace that comes from following Jesus.

         Think for a moment about those young adults who are just now starting families and getting used to the working world.  No one knows better than they how difficult it is to live in the midst of a culture that promises self-fulfillment, but more often delivers uncertainty and anxiety.

         Take sex, for example.  More than any other generation before them, this generation has come of age grappling with impulses and images of sex that are anything but loving.  They’re ready for the Christian understanding of sex as sacred and relational, a gift from God that’s meant to honor God.

         Some of them have become captives to the slavery of consumerism and materialism.  Others are already disillusioned with those things because they’re struggling with crushing school debts. 

         They’re ready for the scriptural wisdom that simply having enough is best, that life – real life – isn’t based on how much stuff we buy, but on the relationships we build.  They’re open to the Biblical message that a life of gratitude and generosity trumps greed every time.

         The majority have grown up in fragmented families.  They need the help of a church family to support them in guiding their kids to a future that’s better than they’re own.  They want the church’s help in making better decisions than their parents did, based on a firmer faith than their parents had.  They want Christian mentors who can guide them and their children as they all grow in the faith.    

         That’s the countercultural mission Jesus calls us to.  It’s what the popular Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller calls creating “a counterculture for the common good.”  Instead of rejecting our culture, Jesus wants us to cooperate with him to renew it, even if that means our lives and our church will never be the same.

         This next year, we will have the opportunity to consider new programs and outreach for these younger families, many of whom are moving into homes being built right now all around us.  What might this missionary work look like and how might it change their lives?  How might our lives have to change in order to do it?

         It won’t be easy - change never is.  We can expect some of what Jesus himself received:  rejection from the very people we try to help, and even some resistance from within.  But he calls us to persevere, knowing that the only way new life happens is by letting go of the old life.  That’s what it means to take up our cross and follow him.

         One Southern pastor I know of puts it this way: “In a world where everything revolves around yourself—protect yourself, promote yourself, comfort yourself, and take care of yourself—Jesus says, ‘Crucify yourself.  Put aside all self-preservation in order to live for God’s glorification, no matter what that means for you in the culture around you’.”

         That means we can’t let fear get in the way, neither fear of rejection, nor fear of failure. 

         In the final analysis, as Mother Teresa herself said, our success will be measured the way Jesus measures it:  by trusting in God’s love enough to persevere in faithful witness, even in the face of hostility and rejection.

         May we always do that.

 

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:46 AM
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