One of my favorite hikes here in Door County takes me alone the shoreline of Europe Lake and then heads east toward Lake Michigan. When the trail gets to Lake Michigan, there’s this gorgeous cut-out that the lake has carved out. I like to jump down to the water level and get out to the rocky beach that is comprised of thousands of rocks that over the centuries have been rounded by the action of the water. The constant action of the waves along with the sandy grit in the water have formed those rocks, eroding the harsh, sharp edges until they are smoothly rounded.
This past weekend’s lessons have me thinking about how followers of Jesus are formed. We read the story on Sunday about Jesus prediction of his suffering and death and Peter’s not so helpful response. “No, not you, Jesus.” Jesus scolds Peter pretty harshly and then issues this charge. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
During childhood visits with my grandparents, I listened in on Grandma and Grandpa talking about churchly things at the dinner table. Grandpa was a pastor whose ministry was centered in the pastoral care of his people in a small congregation in rural Kansas. Grandpa would go on about the trials of someone he had visited the day, and often Grandma’s response was about what a hard or terrible or undeserved cross to bear. I grew up thinking that any kind of suffering was simply our cross to bear.
That’s not what Jesus was talking about. I think he was talking about the difficulty and challenge of living a life that is patterned after the life of Christ. And in case you’re wondering what that looks like, Jesus spent a long time and a lot of words in the beginning of Matthew describing what that life looks like. We call it the Sermon on the Mount. It’s in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait.
The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are so counter-cultural. They don’t describe the life of most Americans, even most American Christians. They certainly don’t describe my life. They describe a life that is rooted in the virtues of love, grace, humility, honesty, patience, service. And they are always rooted in the care, love and service of the most vulnerable, the outsider, the stranger, even the enemy.
One Sunday, I got some serious pushback when at the height of the war in Afghanistan, I prayed for the Taliban. On the very Sunday when we read the words from Matthew instructing us to pray for our enemies. Yeah. You can guess how that went over. Even when we had just read the words in that very service.
And if you’re not convinced by the Sermon on the Mount, go to the latter sections of every last one of Paul’s letters when he starts talking about the ethical implications of the new life we have in Christ.
These are not only the pattern by which I seek to form my life (albeit, imperfectly), they are also the patterns around which, as a pastor, I seek to pattern the formation of a community of faith. This is what I believe the people of God, the body of Christ are intended to look like.
Yet, I gotta tell you, it often feels like Sisyphus eternally rolling the rock up the hill. Even the most faithful people, I get for an hour a week; maybe an hour or so more for a handful of others who come for bible class or some other thing we do for faith formation.
What chance do I have against so many other cultural forces? Corporate leaders are deeply formed by the corporate leadership culture 60 or so hours a week. That’s not the culture of the Sermon on the Mount. You almost can’t cast your gaze anywhere without a message from our consumer culture that teaches that we just need to purchase that one more thing that will be enough. I confess I have been formed pretty deeply by that idol. We are constantly bombarded by the myth of American exceptionalism, a false idol that suggests that American somehow has a privileged place in God’s economy.
I think that right now, one of the big influences is political party affiliation. For so many of us, both on the right and on the left, the sensibilities of the political parties we affiliate with are more formative of our views about ethical matters than the scriptures.
I get accused of being a shill for the Democratic party. I don’t accept that. What I will acknowledge is that as a pastor of the church, I’m trying to form followers of Jesus. If the Democrats right now seem to be more aligned with those sensibilities that the Republicans, then don’t come after me; go look at your bible and have the argument with your scriptures. I’m not a shill for partisan politics. I’m called and ordained to proclaim the Word.
What I yearn for is a church where we understand that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. The kind of church where we can speak the truth to each other when it becomes clear that we are going after other idols, which I often do, and for which I desire my siblings to make me accountable. Give me a church that understands that any of the inevitable and multiple loyalties we claim have to take backseat to the loyalty to the baptismal covenant by which we declare death to the old self and a commitment to live in the freedom of a child of God.
I’m not a huge fan of the Petrine letters, but I do find a strange attraction to this description of followers of Jesus in the world: “Beloved ones, I exhort you as sojourners and resident aliens to abstain from fleshly desires, which wage war against the soul, keeping your conduct comely when among the Gentiles so that. . .they might from the good deeds they have observed glorify God on a day of his visitation.”
Yeah. Resident aliens with competing loyalties that all take a back seat to our loyalty to the work that God is doing to restore the world.
Dear Lord, let us be a church so formed.