Pentecost 6 2014a
July 20, 2014
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
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