I’m just back, as many of you know, from a deeply moving pilgrimage to Ireland that has inspired me to do a fair amount of life review. I’ve been looking back at the defining moments of my life, at the many forks in the road I’ve come to, and the choices I’ve ultimately made.
One of the most important choices I made was choosing to marry my husband, Richard Israel. I am frankly amazed that I chose so well, considering how young and self-centered I was in my twenties, but wonder of wonders, I did choose well.
We were a totally unlikely match in terms of our backgrounds and temperaments, but we have found a balance and complementarity that has been a blessing for almost 40 years. I was really attracted to his calm manner and sense of humor and, although I didn’t always admit it, his passion for social justice.
He actually proposed to me after a public demonstration marking the peaceful implementation of the Cleveland schools’ desegregation order for which he had been tirelessly working through the Greater Cleveland Interchurch Council. In the early years of our marriage we spent time in more dingy spaces than I could count where his clergy colleagues held forth on various ways to confront institutional injustice and oppression. My inner suburban American princess would come out from time to time, and I would joke that his friends were Bolsheviks and Communists. We would laugh, he allowing me the space to be exactly where I was, and I, secretly admiring him for being one of the most faithful disciples of Jesus Christ I could ever have imagined.
The years of our marriage have sped by and as I look back, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for how faithful God has been. Richard and I always tried to live by the words, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you” and sure enough we’ve always had enough.
Actually, we’ve always had way more than enough. Enough money when there were pressing needs. Enough community support when we needed to get through some very painful losses and trials. Enough challenge when we needed to grow, to let go of old beliefs and habits that bound us and kept us small.
That being said, I will honestly admit that despite God’s unfailing care, I also wrestled through the years with what it means to be a disciple. My all too human self has at times questioned the way of the cross to which Jesus calls us. While Jesus certainly could be commended for truth in advertising about the cost of discipleship, I sometimes wondered if it was maybe a little too much truth. Good luck recruiting disciples, Jesus, I would think in my most rebellious moments.
But of course as you and I know, Jesus has recruited disciples–innumerable disciples– over more than two thousand years who have changed the world. Disciples like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Nelson Mandela to name but a tiny handful. That doesn’t include the millions and millions of disciples whose names and faces we will never know, people who understood, and still understand, that life is so much bigger than the small spaces of our individual lives and limited vision. Led by God’s vision of shalom– of wholeness and right relationships– they took risks, and are still taking risks, to participate in God’s redemptive work in this beautiful, but broken, world.
Clarence Jordan was one of those delightful disciples, founding the racially integrated Koinonia community in Georgia in 1942. (Did you get that? A racially integrated community in Georgia in 1942!) A Bible scholar who eventually wrote the Cotton Patch translations of the New Testament, and whose community gave birth to Habitat for Humanity, Jordan took up his cross in the face of constant threats and intimidation, but always did so with a sense of humor. One time the Koinonia community set up a roadside stand to sell peanuts and the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Undaunted, Jordan put up another stand. The Klan blew that one up too. Finally, Koinonia Farm resorted to using mail-order ads that read: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”
Today’s lectionary Gospel reading is part of the so called “Missionary Discourse” in Matthew in which Jesus lets the disciples know what they are likely to encounter as they carry out his mission and what it really means to be a disciple. This is no “Sweet baby Jesus Asleep on the Hay.” This is “Fierce Jesus”, “Take No Prisoners Jesus”, “Tell It Like It Is Jesus”, “Let’s Keep It Real Jesus”. This scripture passage is a window into the significant struggles of Matthew’s community in the first century as the Jesus movement clashed with the Jewish authorities. Families were being torn apart by this powerful spiritual movement and life was anything but peaceful. We get a glimpse by the way Matthew frames the story of just how much his original audience was encountering rejection and even violence. His writing likely functioned as encouragement to those who were suffering and a call to Jesus’ followers to be strong and stay the course. “This is what it means to be a disciple! Get up and get on with it. Be strong!”
This portion of the Missionary Discourse is also a call to us to think about the cost of discipleship and Jesus’ claim on our lives. Its dramatic language lets us know in no uncertain terms that discipleship is serious business. The sword Jesus wields in this passage could be compared to the surgeon’s knife that initially causes pain, but ultimately brings health. This is a call to put God first above anything else we may be tempted to put in God’s place–family, friends, material possessions, and even tightly held beliefs or opinions.
I think it’s really helpful to understand that “disciple” really means “learner.” We’re all learners. The original twelve who sat at Jesus’ feet were learners, and like most of us, sometimes painfully slow learners. But learners we are, called constantly to develop our capacity for more mature faith and action. The “Journey Inward, Journey Outward “ that we talk so much about at Forest Hill Church, is the means to that kind of growth and learning. Being obedient to Jesus demands both study and discernment, and a willingness to engage with the world and participate in its transformation. And so we faithfully study Scripture and pray, and then do our best to behave in ways that witness to God’s love and righteousness.
Sometimes the learning comes through the great experiment we call life. Circling back to my leap into the unknown, I could never have imagined the life God had in store for me when I married my husband. It’s only in looking back that I realize how important it was for us to push through our fears and go where we believed God was calling us. We stepped out in faith at times when neither salaries nor tenure were guaranteed and we were overwhelmingly blessed. We faced some oppressive situations that were nothing short of evil, but the protective closeness of God was as real to us as the nose on our faces. We had to confront the belief systems in which we were raised that weren’t life-giving to us or anyone else, and our spirits were set free in ways that words can scarcely describe.
It hasn’t been a straight path by any means. I know I’ve gone back and forth through many doubts, fears, and even failures, but in the end have learned that God is faithful beyond anything my little brain can imagine. Now when I am afraid of the unknown future, I take time to pause and breathe. As I do so I recall how God has brought me through various challenges, and opened my heart and mind in astounding ways, not in spite of, but because of, those very challenges. It’s something akin to what our Jewish friends do at Passover–calling to mind God’s faithful deliverance and care from generation to generation. I think it’s a critically important practice for all God’s faithful disciples, particularly when we are paralyzed by fear and prone to imagine a bleak future.
As this beloved community makes important decisions today about how you will respond to God’s call upon your lives, I hope you will take time to remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember how God has carried you through some very great challenges. Remember how God has expanded the borders of your mind and spirit because of those challenges. Remember the way God has surprised you with unlikely relationships and situations that have blessed you in ways you could never have predicted. Remember how God more than met you halfway when you stepped out in faith. Remember the way God’s spirit has whispered her hopes within your soul and within the soul of this community.
And above all else, remember the ways you’ve found your life–your truest life– whenever you’ve been willing to lose it for God.