Discovering Discipleship

This sermon was preached Sunday, October 7th, 2012 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY.  Audio can be heard online here.
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Over the last few months I’ve noticed that many of you, youth and adults alike, bring your phones to worship.  And let’s be honest, some of you use them during worship.   Now we all know phones can be disruptive and distracting, especially when they ring in the middle of a prayer or a sermon, and most especially when the ringtone is “Highway to Hell.”   Please, friends, silence your phones—and should you forget in the future, please be sure your ringtone is something like “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.”

Now, I ask you to silence your phones this morning because I am also extending an invitation for you to use them.  Yes, that’s right, I hope you’ll use your phones this morning to spread the word: tweet, facebook, text, blog, microblog, etc; what I’d like you to do, if you have the capability and if you have nimble enough fingers; what I’d like you to do is listen to the words of scripture and listen to the message this morning; as you listen, share with your friends and the whole virtual universe what inspires you, what you discover, and what you hope to do.  Let’s harness the power of technology for the good of the gospel, let’s get a conversation started that takes our worship to new places.

Now, friends, let’s all turn together to an ancient piece of technology that we all have access to this morning, this book.  Let’s read from the Scriptures.  Follow along with your hearts as I read:

Micah 6:6-8

God of Life, Breathe your understanding upon us this morning.  Give us ears to hear and eyes to see Your truth. And now may the meditations of our hearts and the words of my mouth be pleasing to you, O God, our Rock and Redeemer.  Amen.

I love this passage of scripture.  Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite verses in all of the bible.  I believe it compresses and crystalizes the journey of Christian life.  People of God are called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in a relationship with the divine.  One pastor and author suggests that I am not alone in my affection for this verse—he suspects this verse is one of the top 5 most popular verses in our day and age, and trending upward.[1]  Why?  Because people are beginning to see that religion cannot be crammed into a sterile set of beliefs, instead religion is most vibrant and vital when it is rooted in everyday action, in a whole way of life.

The prophet Micah is described by John Holbert as a good ole “country boy,” he was from a small town in Judah surrounded by rural wilderness.  And this country boy was furious with the pomp and pretense of all things urban. [2]  Not only does Micah take particular aim at the evil of Israel’s cities, he blasts the religious institution centered in the most prominent city of Jerusalem.  Our passage this morning is nothing short of a stark, radical critique of Israel’s religious practices.

An individual comes before God and asks God a question on behalf of the whole people of Israel.  It is a simple, earnest, and enduring question:  What is it that will please God?  The questioner begins a frantic search for possible answers.  Will God be pleased by a single burnt offering?  Or might God be pleased by a large number of animals? Or maybe God will be pleased by so much oil that it fills ten thousand rivers?  The quantities in question grow to ridiculous proportions and the whole line of questioning climaxes in a surprise—might God only be pleased by a human sacrifice?

I can imagine a frenzied archer stringing up a bow and aiming an arrow here and there, asking God which target to hit:  that soda can 15 yards away, that pebble 100 yards away, that airplane cruising 35, 000 feet overhead?  My own child holding the can?  Which target God?  Which target will make you happy?

When God responds, God turns the questions inside out and upside down.  God’s answer to the earnest plea exposes the whole line of questioning as an adventure in missing the point.  God does not want ritual sacrifice or ceremonial gifts, God does not desire temple traditions or anything one might do in a religious house of worship…  instead…

God reaches out to the archer and steadies the arrow moving anxiously between targets

God relaxes the tensed arm aiming the bow

God invites the archer to let the bow down

God points to the man weeping, a man whose land has been seized by a greedy neighbor

And God says, “do justice”

God points to the orphan sitting silently nearby, alone and terrified

and God says, “Love kindness”

God steps toward the orphan and the oppressed

And, looking with love on the archer, says, “walk humbly with me”

What I love about this passage is that it puts all our worship, all our church work, all our religious lives into perspective.  God desires for us to move beyond ritual and ceremony—beyond church meetings, beyond doctrinal disputes, and even beyond our worship services—God desires for us to move beyond all this into our everyday lives, and to anchor our ordinary lived in justice, kindness, and humility.

Six years ago I found this verse front and center on the national website of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I had just graduated from Centre College, and the small, rural church I was serving as a youth director invited me to step into the role of pastor. I figured that if I was going to serve this church as its pastor, I should probably learn a thing or two about who they were and what their denomination was really all about.

I discovered the Disciples were born out of something called the “Restoration Movement.”  It was a 19th century effort to restore the kind of Christianity that existed before the rise of the institutional church and the explosion of creeds, catechisms, and theological disputes that so often divided it.

That spoke to me.  In college I never really connected to any particular tradition, not even the Nazarene Church which I grew up in.  I liked the freedom of exploring different churches, different worship experiences, and different communities.  I felt that denominations too often got in the way of church.  On top of that, I was wrestling intensely with some of my inherited Christian beliefs.  I was sorting through new ways of understanding scripture, God, and the purpose of Christian life.  I definitely didn’t want to be told what to believe any more; I needed space to piece together the fragments of my beliefs.  What I needed was a community that would anchor and incubate my curiosity, not suppress it.

That’s what I found with the Disciples: a denomination that did not require agreement with the Nicene Creed, or the Apostles Creed, or instruction in the Heidelberg Catechism; a denomination that centered on holy scripture, but also valued freedom of interpretation and reasoned reflection; a denomination that still practiced communion every Sunday, but opened it to all people despite differences of belief and opinion; a denomination that did not turn church into a belief factory. Rather, church was about bringing Christian together around what matters most—a commitment to Jesus and a desire to live out the way of God. That was a blast of fresh air for my wandering heart.  It drew me in, and it inspires me still.

Micah 6:8 was on the national website of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ).  And I suspect it was there because it outlines the basic task that all people of God have in common despite creed, background, gifts, or interest; I suspect Micah 6:8 was there because that verse does not dwell on belief as that which God desires and that which binds us together, but instead focuses on what we do wherever we are on the journey of understanding.  doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly.

Believe it or not, I’m not particularly fond of sharing with people that I’m a pastor.  That’s not because I’m bashful about what I do, I believe that pastoring and serving God is a noble, important task.  I’m not fond of sharing with people that I’m a pastor because that piece of information usually results in some predictable responses, all of which tend to hijack conversation.

Some people find out I’m a pastor and immediately begin confessing all their sins.  I don’t mind hearing the intimate details of someone’s life and helping them work through their guilt, but not while I’m having my hair cut.

Other people find out I’m a pastor and start talking about amazingly religious they are.  I discover that people manage to go to church 8 times a week at four different churches and have read the bible backwards while feeding orphans leftovers.  It’s all well and good, and I love to celebrate people’s personal piety, just not in the check-out line at Kroger with my frozen vegetables thawing.

Still others are a bit defensive when they find out I’m a pastor.  They feel the need to defend why they have quit going to church; they begin listing everything that is wrong with “organized religion” and why they are still a good “spiritual person.”  Maybe they find God in nature, or maybe they believe in God but that no religion has a corner on who God is, exactly.  Maybe they think that if we just do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly on our own, then the world would be a better place and God would be pleased.

The danger lurking in Micah 6:8 is the false sense God wants for us to do spirituality alone, in our own private way, apart from “organized religion.”  Micah is showing us what it means to follow in God’s will and way, as individuals and as communities of faith.  Micah is drawing the religious institution back from being pre-occupied with itself so that the practice of religion will strengthen and embolden the people of God to go beyond it.

The Disciples of Christ have rallied around this, even if they are like every other religious institution that struggles with disputes, mis-steps, and the sinfulness which entangles human life.  So how can we, as a people of faith, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?  Maybe, friends, it begins with practicing it together; maybe it begins by doing something which brings everyone together no matter who they are, what they’ve done, what they believe, what guilt they bear, what trouble they’ve stirred up, or what religious tradition they grew up in; maybe it begins by doing something which calls us to love and experience love; maybe it begins with doing something that humbles us; maybe it’s the very thing that Disciples of Christ have made central to who they are as a religious institution: maybe it begins with the Lord’s table…

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One thought on “Discovering Discipleship

  1. Hi Michael,
    I enjoyed reading your “musings” today. Have been missing you and Rebecca and hope you are both doing well!
    Andrea Fisher

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