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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One day as I was cleaning out my desk in my former parish in Marine on St. Croix, I found a manila folder marked Call Committee. I was sure it was mistakenly left in my desk, but I was curious to see its contents just the same. Truthfully, the folder contained nothing more than a few notes from the Call Committee regarding the new pastor. But there was one sheet marked “The Perfect Pastor” that caught my fancy. It read:
“The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He works from 8 AM until midnight and is also the church janitor. The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years experience. Above all, he is handsome. The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church. He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed. The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.”
Well, in spite of the expectations for the perfect pastor, the Call Committee at Marine on St. Croix presented my name to the congregation anyway.
Of course, there is no perfect pastor, nor is there is any perfect congregation, at least none that I have known. Instead, God calls reluctant disciples like you and me to do the work of his kingdom. We do the best we can with the time and talents and treasures that we have been given, and along the way we hope that we grasp the vision that God has given to the church. But every once in a while, we do make a misstep. Our eyes are dazzled by earthly things and not focused on heavenly things.
Yes, there are occasions when the true message of Christ and his witness of love and mercy to the world, and justice and peace are over looked. A young couple in a growing congregation invites a friend to join them at worship. They say, “Come and see our new building. We even have a coffee shop in lobby.” Or another says, “Come to our church. We have cool contemporary worship. We are on the cutting edge of Christianity.” It is similar in an inner-city church that has a vital homeless ministry. They say, “We are a good church. We serve the homeless people in our town.” And in all these wonderful congregations, the focus is no longer on “heavenly things.” No longer does it seem that their hearts are captured by the love of God, or the compassion of Jesus, but rather they are captured by things eathly. Well, it’s good you don’t have to worry about that here. Instead, you have to endure a pretty imperfect pastor who preaches far too long, and only occasionally hits the mark. As a beloved 86 year-old saint in my former parish in Marine on St. Croix Esther Mork was apt to say, “Oh, Pastor Haug- I haven’t heard anybody say anything bad about you- lately.” In the church, even on Rally Sunday, it is easy to lose sight of what is heavenly and divine.
My friends, God’s ways are not always the ways of the world. In a reflection written for this morning’s gospel by a seminary mentor and friend Michael Rogness, he quotes the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” The story of Peter and his confrontation with Jesus beautifully illustrates this truth. The conversation opens with Jesus asking his disciples who do people say that I am. It was bold Peter who spoke up and gave the right theological answer. “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” But it in the following dialogue Peter was brought from the heights to the depths. As Jesus announced that he would go to Jerusalem to be crucified, Peter tried to argue with him. But when Jesus, heard Peter’s rebuke, he said to him, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Poor Peter thought he understood Jesus purpose for his life and the church so differently. And he is not alone.
It is easy for the ways of the world and the prodding of Satan to prevent us from moving towards what is ultimately important. We get caught up in our own personal needs and wants and do not think about God’s world or mission. This week I was sent a list of things you’d never hear said in church. They’re humorous reminders that even church members are caught up on earthly things.
Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!
I was so enthralled, I never noticed your sermon went over time 25 minutes.
Personally, I find witnessing much more enjoyable than golf.
I volunteer to be the permanent teacher for the Junior High Sunday School class.
Forget the denominational minimum salary: let’s pay our pastor so s/he can live like we do.
I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!
Since we’re all here, let’s start the worship service early!
Pastor, we’d like to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas.
Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual stewardship campaign!
No these things would never be said in the church. Far too often our sights are on human things, and not on things heavenly or divine.
It is important for our congregation, for our families, and for our own personal lives, to set priorities and patterns, so that unlike Peter, the devil and all his empty promises do not keep sneaking up on us, and leading us astray. So where do we begin? My friends, let us mediate this day on Jesus’ invitation to his disciples to help them discover God’s ways in the world. “To deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow him.”
Jesus began his invitation with the words. “If anyone wants to become my disciples, let them deny themselves.” Certainly to deny yourself in the Christian context means to confess your sins. After three decades of parish ministry, I have grown to recognize that confession is not simply good for your soul, but it is also essential for one’s self-image. It helps you recognize that success, achievements, and personal satisfaction as measured by this world are gifts from God. “To deny oneself,” however, should not force you to a contrived form of humility, as was once spoken weekly in the Confession of Sin based on Psalm 22, “I am a worm not a man.” To “deny oneself” is not to make you less important, but rather it is help you harmonize your priorities with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — to love God and love your neighbor. You do not follow Jesus by demeaning yourself, but rather in denying yourself, Jesus calls you to do the very best you can with the talents and abilities that God has given you- or others.
Let us turn now to the second step. “Let them take up their cross.” There must have been a gasp as the disciples heard the second part in Jesus’ invitation. The disciples only knew one cross. The cross for them was not the simple burdens of daily life, nor the painful disappointments of age, nor even life’s unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. The only cross they knew was the gnarled wooden tree that stood along the roadside outside the city walls of Jerusalem, the cruel place where criminals convicted of heinous crimes against the empire were left to die. If “to take up your cross” was a condition for discipleship it was too inhuman to require.
There was, however, a glimmer of hope in what Jesus said that day, although the disciples may not have heard it. Jesus said he would be killed, but he added that three days later, he would rise again. Jesus also promised that those who lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel would save it. But at that time, how would the disciples have known that this promise would come true?
To keep your sights on divine things you need to gaze often upon the cross of Christ. For it as you gaze and meditate upon that cross, that you discover that your Savior Jesus Christ has taken up his own cross for you. Yes, as you stand at the foot of the cross gazing upon the suffering one, and mediating upon the power of his resurrection, you discover that the false promises of Satan and world do diminish and disappear- and in their place, his ways become yours.
My friends, it is when you allow the divine and heavenly promises of God to fill you and color your deeds and your words, that the third part of Jesus’ invitation seems rather simple… to follow him. Yes, when Satan is no longer behind you, you are able to follow boldly in Jesus’ footsteps in new directions that you could not have otherwise imagined.
Unfortunately, God has chosen imperfect, reluctant disciples like Peter, and like you and me. By our own human nature we want to be prosperous, strong, successful and influential. And as a congregation, we want to be strong and influential as well- or at least financially solvent. But Jesus has other priorities. Jesus came to serve and not to be served. His ways are not our ways, yet he invites you and me to follow him and to walk in his ways.
Charlemagne, King of the Franks, who united and ruled most of Western Europe in the middle ages and laid the foundations for today’s modern France and Germany, was crowned the first emperor of Rome in three hundred years after its fall. According to tradition, Charlemagne was buried in a most unusual manner. His body was draped in regal robes and a golden crown was placed upon his head. And in his lap was set an open Bible, and his index finger rested on Jesus’ words. “What does it profit a man if he gains he whole world and loses his own soul?”
Jesus gives us his hope and assurance, and reminds us this day that he has called us to follow him not just for the sake of the future, but in this life as well. He promises those who follow him a “more abundant” life. And so as imperfect as we may be, we follow, not just to be saved and directed on our way to our heavenly home; but we follow Jesus in service to the world, because it’s worth it. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.