Saturday, July 26, 2014

"The Four 'Ds' of Discipleship: Discipline" (Part 2 of 4)

Pentecost 6 2014a
July 20, 2014

Trinity Lutheran Church (NALC) 

“The Four ‘Ds’ of Discipleship: Discipline”
Matthew 6:7-13, 16-18

                Paul Decker writes about a father who was talking with a five-year-old friend of his daughter’s, a little girl named Elizabeth, one day.  The subject of birthdays came up, and little Elizabeth said that her birthday was on March 30th.  Decker told her that his birthday was on March 27th.  He said, “Our birthdays are only three days apart!”  And little Elizabeth looked up at him with a very serious expression on her face, and she said, “Yeah, but you grew a lot faster than I did!”

                Which leads us to a question I want to ask you this morning: how fast are you growing?

                Today we continue our sermon series on “The Four ‘Ds’ of Discipleship.” In Ephesians chapter 5 we hear that being a disciple of Christ is living in imitation of the Lord and walking as he walked.   Last week we talked about the first step in discipleship – diminishing our will and giving God’s will primacy in our lives. And today we tackle the second ‘D’ in this process of following Christ.  And it is a word that has to be one of the most unpopular, most unpleasant words in the English language.  The second ‘D’ of discipleship is… DISCIPLINE.
                Too often when we speak of discipline in following Jesus an image pops up in our minds that is far from true.  Immediately we see some angel in a uniform with one of those ‘Smoky the bear’ hats on his head, and we imagine we hear him screaming at us: “You want to follow Jesus! Well, drop and give me 20 push ups!  And stop doing anything that’s fun!  Following Jesus isn’t fun!”
                But the truth is: following Jesus is full of joy.  And the discipline of discipleship is not meant to break us down, it is meant to build us up… and yield us a blessing.
                In following Christ, there are expected behaviors… things that we must discipline ourselves to do.  That’s what we hear in our Gospel reading this morning.
                As our reading begins, Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  He is sitting on a rock, the hillside below him filled with people; a great crowd.  But the crowd was just overhearing the lesson, because in Chapter 5 verses 1 and 2 it is made perfectly clear: these teachings are aimed first and foremost at His disciples.  And it turns out that being a disciple means that we will engage in some expected behaviors.
                Verse 5:  Jesus says “when you pray…”  Verse 16:  “when you fast…”  If we study the original Greek language of this passage we find something interesting – Jesus is speaking in the imperative tense.  These are not just suggestions, they are commands.  Being a disciple means we WILL pray; it means that we WILL subjugate our bodies and our appetites to Him.  BEING A DISCIPLE MEANS THAT WE WILL PRACTICE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES.
                Ooooh, there’s that nasty word again - discipline!  We hate that word discipline. It’s filled with imagery of denying the self and doing things we may not want to.  But IF WE ARE GOING TO WALK THE WALK… WE NEED TO WORK THE WORK.  Spiritual discipline requires effort. But unless we submit and put out the effort we will not grow as disciples of Christ.  We know that, yet we resist; because there is something inside of us that wants to avoid the effort and get the results some easier way.
                Take the way we deal with weight loss in this country.  We have an epidemic of being overweight in this country.  Being overweight, we know, can have damaging effects on our health. The formula for losing weight isn’t rocket science… it’s really pretty basic: you decrease the fuel going into the furnace by dieting, and increase the fuel burned in the furnace by exercise.  Diet… exercise, it isn’t rocket science.  But those two simple steps require self-discipline and effort, and people don’t want to have to be under discipline or put out the effort. Soooo… we invented diet aids!  Pills, powders, special diets that let us eat desserts and pizzas with fewer calories.  ANYTHING… to avoid having to discipline ourselves or put out effort to change. 
                Do you know that last year in this country, we spent over $ 40 billion on diet programs and weight loss supplements?  That’s billion with a ‘B’!  $ 40 billion is 10 times as much as the National Cancer Institutes spent last year on finding a cure for cancer; it’s 62 times more than we spent on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s last year.  People spent that much because they were trying to avoid diet and exercise.  They wanted an easier way without pain or effort.
                Here’s the truth about discipleship. In imitating Christ… in being a disciple… there is no easy way.   We need to discipline our hearts and our minds and our bodies and do what he calls us to do.  A champion marathon runner doesn’t prepare for the race by sitting on the sofa watching old movies, and then on the day of the race go out and expect to be successful.  Training to run a marathon requires training; there is no shortcut... there is no magic pill!  Neither can we be armchair disciples. There is no such thing! IF WE ARE GOING TO WALK THE WALK, THEN WE MUST WORK THE WORK.
                We need activities of spiritual discipline in our lives, and two of those spiritual disciplines are prayer and engaging the Word of God.
                We engage God’s Word by reading the Bible, yes; but also by hearing God’s Word proclaimed in preaching.  The Word sustains us and guides us and makes the reality of God known to us.  The Lord wants to nourish our faith with His Word, but if we don’t discipline ourselves to read the Scriptures or we don’t come to church to hear the preaching: we deprive ourselves of what we need, even though what we need is right there for us in our Bibles and our churches.
A pastor writes about taking his family for a vacation down in Florida.  They were driving through orange country down there: that area of the state filled with orange groves, and they decided to stop into a diner for some lunch.  As they were giving their orders to the waitress, the youngest child said that he’d like orange juice to drink.  And the waitress shook her head and she said, “I’m sorry, but the machine that dispenses our orange juice if broken.  You can’t get orange juice here today.”  And the father looked out the window, and everywhere he looked there were orange trees – full of juicy, ripe oranges.  Orange juice was right there waiting to be picked, but the staff in the restaurant didn’t want to do the work… to get it.
                If we’re going to be disciples, we have to do the work.  In our Gospel, the disciples drew near to the Lord to experience His Word.  If we are going to be disciples, we need to discipline ourselves to do likewise.
                And we are commanded to pray. When you pray…” Jesus says in verse 5 of our Gospel; when you pray…” he says again in verse 6.  We are expected to pray, not just in church or before a meal or before we go to bed.  1st Thessalonians 15:17 tells us that we are to pray continuously.  Prayer discipline is a critical component of discipleship. 
                A lot of us have worked in factories or offices or stores or hospitals.  Let me ask you, what’s one of the first things you do when you begin your shift?  Most people check in with their supervisor.  They touch base with the boss and they find out what is expected of them that day; and they make their needs known so that the boss can meet their needs; if they think they need help to get the job done then they ask the boss for help.  Then, they listen to their boss and hear what he or she has to say.
                These are the two parts of disciplined prayer.  We talk to our Heavenly Boss, then we listen to His response.
                Now, when we talk to God in prayer, we don’t need to use flowery phrases.  So often people think that their prayers need to sound like poems… like very LONG poems!  I want to tell you, God doesn’t care about the language structure.  In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us not to pile up lots of words in our prayers.  Martin Luther caught on to this. In his writings he said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”   Disciplined prayer should be honest and direct and from the heart.
                One of the best prayers I can think of was uttered by Alan Shepherd, the astronaut.  In 1961 Shepherd became the first American to travel into space.  As he sat in his tiny space capsule that morning at Cape Canaveral, he knew that the eyes and ears of the entire world were on him.  And he felt the weight of his duty, and he thought that he was all alone… he didn’t realize that his radio microphone was on live, so he prayed a prayer directly from his heart. “Oh, God, please don’t let me [mess] up.”  Only… he didn’t say “mess up”, he said something else (he was a Navy officer, after all).
                But it was a prayer from the heart, direct and real and filled with sincerity.  God our Father in Heaven wants us to talk with him that way.  That’s what disciples do.  Maybe with flowery poetic phrases, maybe with words that reflect our brokenness apart from Him.  The first part of prayer discipline is to talk to God; to give thanks and to make our needs known.
                Frankly, the second part of discipleship prayer is the hard part.  The second part of prayer is listening… it is sitting still and letting God respond to us.  One of the hardest things we can do in the modern age is turn off our cell phone or our computer or our TV: and focus our minds in discipline to hear God’s voice. But listening is an important part of communication.
                When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, one of the things he dreaded the most were the long receiving lines at White House dinners.  Hundreds of people would line up to shake his hand, and he complained that no one really ever paid any attention to what he said; they weren’t listening, just going through the motions.  One evening he conducted a private experiment.  To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand FDR murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”  And the guests all smiled as if they hadn’t heard; they all said something like “Marvelous!  Keep up the good work, Mr. President!”   Or, “It’s an honor to meet you!”  It wasn’t until the last person in line that someone actually listened to what he said.  It was the ambassador from Bolivia, and as he shook Roosevelt’s hand the president mumbled, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”  And the ambassador leaned in and whispered, “Well, I’m sure that she had it coming, sir!”
                So often Christians treat prayer like a receiving line; a quick formality where we get the last word… without giving The Boss a chance to get a word in edgewise.  But the prayer discipline of discipleship calls for a dialog: speaking and then listening… following the model of prayer that Jesus showed us as he so often went off into the wilderness to talk and listen to His Father in Heaven. If we are to be disciples… if we are to be imitators of Christ… we must spiritually discipline ourselves to pray likewise.
                Discipline isn’t easy for us. It can be a lot of work.  But if we practice spiritual discipline, then we find something wonderful:  a closer, more intimate relationship with our Savior that’s based not on our desires… but in pleasing God.
                Vince D’achiolli writes about getting a new puppy at his house: a tiny little golden retriever they named Katie.  Katie seemed to adapt well with the entire family, but she really latched unto Vince most of all.  She would follow him everywhere, and it seemed like her favorite thing in the world was being near him.  One morning Vince was the first one awake, and he went downstairs to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.  He was standing in the back door, sipping his coffee and praying to God as he looked out on the back yard, when all of a sudden he felt a warm pressure on his foot.  He looked down: there was Katie; she’d draped her little puppy body over his slipper, and she just laid there looking up at him with her big puppy eyes… just so content to be with the one she wanted to be with more than anyone else.  And Vince says that he heard that still small voice speak. It asked, “Vince, how does that feel?”  And Vince said, “It feels wonderful, Lord!  It’s wonderful to know that she wants to be near me so much.”  And the voice whispered again. “Vince, that doesn’t even come close… to how I feel… when you draw near to me.”
                In Holy Baptism we are made children of God, and our Father in Heaven loves us, and wants us to be close to him.  Do we want to please the Lord?  Then let us start by disciplining ourselves: by studying His Word, by drawing near to Him in frequent prayer, and by disciplining our bodies and our lives so that nothing distracts us from Him; and nothing interferes with us experiencing the fullness of His presence with us.
                This is what God desires for us… AMEN 

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord

Thursday, July 17, 2014

“The Four ‘Ds’ of Discipleship: Diminishment” (Part 1 of 4)

5th Sunday after Pentecost 2014a
July 13, 2014
                                         “The Four ‘Ds’ of Discipleship: Diminishment”

A man walks into a church one day and kneels down to pray. "Lord," he says, "I’ve made mistakes, but I’m determined to change. If you let me win the lottery, I promise to be a good servant and never bother you again."
Nothing happens. So the next week the man tries again. He goes back to the church and he prays, "Please, God, let me win the lottery, and I’ll come to church every week."
Again: nothing happens. So the man decides to try one last time. "Lord," he prays, "why haven’t I won the lottery? Have you abandoned me?"
Suddenly a deep voice booms down from above. "My son, I have not abandoned you, but at least meet me halfway—buy a ticket!"
So often as Christians, people want to win the lottery without buying a ticket; they want the wonderful life with Christ that we see in the Bible and that we see in people who live saintly lives – they WANT that… but they’re not willing to take the steps necessary to be all that they can be in Christ.
Christians who try to follow Christ without walking the path are called believers.
Now, being a believer is a good thing.  To believe shows that we have faith, and it is faith that justifies us before God. But make no mistake: Jesus wants us to move beyond mere belief and live as disciples.  In the New Testament, even Satan BELIEVES that Jesus is God… but he doesn’t follow him.  In Matthew 28, Jesus doesn’t command us to go make “believers”; he commands us to make “disciples”.  And what he wants us to be, too: disciples.
So… how do we do that? What is the first step in being a disciple?  Well, we see the first step in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus is walking along the seashore in Galilee, and he sees the men he wants to be his first disciples: Simon and Andrew, a couple of fishermen caught up in their normal day-to-day lives.  And what are the first words that Jesus uses to call them into discipleship?  “Follow me…”  
From the very beginning, being a disciple requires submission to God over our self.  Discipleship is diminishing the importance of our will relative to the will of God.  (Let me repeat that:  the first step in becoming a disciple of Christ is to diminish our will relative to the will of God.)
In Greek this is called ‘kenosis.  It means, literally, emptying the self.  If we are going to let the will of God fill us and have dominion over us, we need to empty out our will to make room for His will.  This is how we follow Christ His way, not our way. 
It’s always been hard for people to put God’s will first.  In the Old Testament we see this in Jonah.  “Go east to Nineveh and give the people there my message” God tells Jonah, “Go east.”  And what does  Jonah do?  God says to go east, Jonah hops on the first ship he can find going west!  He winds up in the belly of a big fish until he submits to God’s will instead of following his own will.
Now here’s why this first step of discipleship is such a stumbling block to so many Christians.  Diminishing the self means letting go of the steering wheel of your life and letting God drive.  Frankly, a lot of Christians would rather have God riding shot gun; sitting next to them in the passenger seat while they continue to drive the car of their lives.  They respond to the call to discipleship in one of two ways: they pretend that it doesn’t apply to them and they ignore it. They’re like workers in the factory or the office – when the boss steps out at 4 o’clock and calls out “I need a volunteer to stay late tonight”, suddenly everyone looks busy… they act like they didn’t hear.  So often Christians ignore the call, or if they do respond they settle for the Readers Digest version.  You remember Readers Digest where they take books and they condense them down – a 300 page novel gets condensed into 70 pages.  A lot of people try to condense the path of discipleship, too.  They try to reduce it into attending a class or attending a seminar or reading a book… instead of committing to a daily continuous process of becoming what God wants them to be. But there can be no shortcuts in following Christ.
When Jesus approached Simon and Andrew in our Gospel reading, notice that he didn’t say, “Hey!  Where are you guys heading?  Do you mind if I come along?”  No, he said, “If you want to be my disciple: I lead, you follow.  FOLLOW ME…” he says.  The first step of discipleship is diminishing our will and making God’s will more important than our will.
This is a stumbling block to a lot of Christians.  It is so much easier to just believe and keep Jesus at arm’s length.  Being just a believer lets people continue to live how they want to live and still gives them a place to go on Christmas Eve.  As merely believers they can keep on focusing on their own priorities in their lives.  If we’re merely believers, it becomes easy for us to reduce the Word of God to a buffet meal: in a buffet if we don’t enjoy the beets or the salad we can just skip over that and go right to the shrimp cocktail or the desserts. If the church they’re attending doesn’t simply validate them as they want to be, then they pick up and move to another church that does validate them; or they can find a pastor who tells them what they want to hear… and conveniently doesn’t tell them what God says they need to hear.
So many Christians seek to have God conform to them, instead of conforming themselves to God.  This first step of diminishment is a hard step to take.
But if we are willing to submit to the will of Christ, then something wonderful happens.  From the very beginning of our discipleship journey we experience the fruits of discipleship.  Two of those fruits are power and joy.
Philippians 2:13 tells us “…for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  When we surrender our will to Christ, God is able to work in us and through us; and we receive His power in us.  We say, “Lord, I am going to stop doing things as I want to do them and I’m going to start living as you want me to live.  I’m going to follow you and try to imitate you every hour of every day.  I am going to stop living for me… and I am going to start living for you.”   When we make that kind of commitment to God: we suddenly experience power in our lives. 
God’s power makes us stop saying ‘Lord, I can’t stop doing this thing in my life’.  When we experience God’s power… we can.  Before we diminish ourselves in discipleship we say ‘Lord, I can’t do what you want me to.  I don’t have the energy or the time; I’m too uncomfortable doing those things… I just can’t!’  When we experience God’s power… we can.  Before we diminish ourselves in discipleship we say ‘Lord, I can’t understand.  These things have happened … some of those things in the Bible…  I can’t understand, Lord, I just can’t!’  But when we experience God’s power, suddenly we begin to understand; and what we can’t understand – we find the faith to accept.
The power to live as God wanted them to and to understand were exactly what Simon and Andrew and James and John wanted in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus didn’t just give them what they wanted, he called them into a journey of discipleship. “Follow me…” he said, and they followed.  The fruits of discipleship don’t come to us unless we are willing to diminish ourselves and follow the path of discipleship.  You want to win the lottery jackpot?  Well, first you have to buy a ticket…
One of the fruits of discipleship is God’s power.  And another is joy.  I think so often churches have poo-poo’d joy in following Christ.  Almost every parent has told their kids in the pews at some point, “Stop laughing!  This is church!”  And when we learn to come forward to receive Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ, how many of us have ever had the pastor say to us, “Remember to smile!”  You’re coming forward and holding out your hands to receive as a free gift of grace forgiveness for every sin you’ve ever done and the renewed promise of eternal life… when you  come forward God Himself affirms to you that you are going to live forever: but don’t you dare be happy about it!
We delude ourselves into thinking that following Christ is supposed to be somber and joyless.  I tell you it is just the opposite!  In John 10:10 Jesus tells us, “I came that you may have life, and that more abundantly.”  Joy is part of the abundant life that we experience in discipleship.  Think about this and tell me if this isn’t true.  The moments in our lives when joy is hardest to find, aren’t those the moments when we were living in our own will and not Jesus will?  When we submit ourselves to Christ in discipleship... we find a joy that passes our human understanding.
Tony Campolo speaks about a friend of his who is really living in the joy of discipleship; a man named Brook.  Little things that would really bug most people don’t seem to bother Brook nearly as much; he seems to have the power to just laugh them off.
Tony says that he and Brook drove over to the beach in New Jersey one day just for fun.  And as they were walking back to the car, and Brook realized that he’d lost his wallet.  Now, Tony says that if he lost HIS wallet: he would just go to pieces.  Wallet, Driver’s License, credit cards: he says he would be wailing and gnashing his teeth.  But his friend Brook reacted differently.  He looked over at Tony with a big smile and he said, “Hey, guess what!  I lost my wallet!”  Ha! Ha! Ha!
They got in the car to drive home, and as they drove they tuned in a disk jockey for a New York radio station; the disc jockey was inserting little tidbits in between the music.  And they heard him say, “Do you know friends that 83 % of car owners in America don’t know their own license plate numbers?”  Brook said, “Well, I don’t know mine!”, and he laughed.
As they drove home, they decided to stop in a little town called Egg Harbor.  They stopped in Egg Harbor because Brook had a garden, and in Egg Harbor you could buy chicken manure for 50 cents a bushel.  He brought two bushels; along with four canoe paddles… because Brook liked to go canoeing.  So they filled the trunk with chicken manure and canoe paddles and they got back in the car and started driving again.
They hadn’t gone too far when all of a sudden a police car pulled in behind them and turned on its lights and pulled them over.  The cop got out and walked up alongside Brook’s car.  Brook rolled down the window… looks at the cop… and bursts out laughing.  Now folks, when a cop has just pulled  you over for speeding, when the cop is standing alongside your car: beg for mercy… plead for forgiveness… grovel in the dirt before him:  but don’t laugh at the cop! 
The cop said, “What’s so funny?”  Brook said, “You are NOT going to believe this!  You’re going to ask me for my driver’s license and registration card, right?”  The cop said, “Right.”  Brook said, “I lost them!”  And he laughed even harder.  The cop… did not laugh.  With a stone face he looked down at Brook and he said, “Sir, you have no driver’s license, no registration.  I don’t even know if this is your car.  Can you tell me the license plate number of your vehicle?”   And Brook started laughing even harder.  He said, “Officer, do you realize that 83 % of car owners in America don’t know their own license plate numbers?”  And at that, even Tony Campolo started laughing with tears rolling down his cheeks.
That’s all the cop needed.  Tony says that’s how it came to pass that he, an ordained minister, found himself spread eagled on the car while the cop frisked him and frisked his friend Brook.  Then he searched inside the car and he said, “You’re clean. What’s in the trunk?”  Now Tony and Brook almost fell on the ground, they were laughing so hard.  The cop said, “What’s so funny?” And Brook said, “You are not going to believe this!”  The cop said, “What aren’t I going to believe?”  Brook said, “What’s in the trunk.”  The cop said, “What’s in the trunk?”  And he was laughing so hard he almost couldn’t get the words out, but Brook said, “Chicken manure and canoe paddles!”  The cop was not smiling. And he said, “Gimme the keys!  Gimme the keys!  Gimme the keys and get back in the car!” And Tony and Brook fell into the car they were laughing so hard, and the cop took the keys and went around and opened the trunk;  that cop… that cop never did come back.   From inside the car Tony could hear him muttering, “Oh, I don’t believe this!”  And he got in his car and Tony and Brook could hear him laughing as he drives away.
And as the cop drove away his friend Brook turned to Tony and said, “You know what, I think that the Lord said, ‘That cop has had a hard day… and he needs some joy.’”
Folks, Romans 15:13 tells us that as followers of Christ we will be filled with joy.  When we diminish ourselves and amplify Christ in our lives, we are suddenly filled with a joy that passes human understanding.  Joy is a fruit of discipleship.
Let’s remember that in Matthew 28 Jesus doesn’t tell us to go out and make believers: he commands us to make disciples.  And he desires for us to move beyond being believers and become disciples ourselves.  The journey of discipleship is a path… a journey of becoming all that we can be in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And the first step of that journey is to diminish our own will, and put God’s will first. It is taking our hands off of the steering wheel, and letting the Lord take control of our lives.
And if we set out in faith on this discipleship journey, we will experience power, and joy, and a depth of God’s love that will amaze us.  For in following Christ, he abides with us, and we abide with him, and with him… all things are possible.  AMEN

The Reverend M. A. Greenauer 2014
Permission is granted to reproduce this work in whole or in part if the glory for its content is given to the Lord