In this weeks sermon, Pastor Dylan’s Parson talks about how Jesus didn’t promise peace but challenges. He compares how early Christian groups faced a lot of pushback, while modern churches are usually pretty comfortable and uncontroversial. Dylan notes that many younger folks aren’t finding a good reason to stick around in these unchallenging churches.
Dylan encourages everyone to step out of their comfort zones. He wants the church to be a place for personal growth and even a bit of risk-taking, following Jesus’ teachings no matter what. Using examples of churches that faced criticism for their inclusivity, he shows that sometimes faith can lead to controversy. In the end, Dylan challenges us to live a life committed to Jesus, saying that’s how churches can really grow and make a difference.
Don’t think, Jesus says pretty ominously, that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Yikes, huh? I don’t really like that very much. I’m not a sword kind of guy.
Peace sounds a whole lot better than a sword. And the contemporary church is not really a sword kind of place in my experience, which works out pretty well for me and for you. Very rarely do we even have outright debate and disagreement in church council. I mean, it happens here usually in a pretty healthy way, but for the most part, it’s not particularly intense, violent.
Our existence in this community is not for the most part controversial. It’s not polarizing. And that stands in contrast to Jesus and the disciples’ experience in Judea and Galilee, as well as the early churches’ experience under Roman domination. They were a disreputable, unwanted group.
They were a challenge to the society around them, and people just wanted them to go away. Jesus’ words to the disciples proved to be right, and this was long before his crucifixion. He said, If they had called the head of the house Beelzebul, which is another word for Satan, it’s certain they will call the members of the household by even worse names. That is, if they’ve called me the devil, imagine what they’ll call you.
It’s easy to forget in an era where Christianity is so incredibly mainstream how true this was for them for a long time. The Roman world knew, for example, that the church partook in communion, and since they already really didn’t like Christians to begin with, they were, Christians were widely accused of practicing cannibalism. Oh, they say they’re eating the body and blood of Christ. There’s something sketchy going on in there.
A similar thing happened in the early years of Methodism. This is an often forgotten piece of our history. Methodists in America were known for their loud, mixed gender, interracial worship services that were closed. You could only go if you were a member of the Methodist movement.
They were often held in barns. They were super loud and rowdy. And there was all kinds of gossip that would always go around about what sort of obscenities were happening in those barns. Christianity and eras of vibrancy has often existed at the same time in a state of controversy.
And yet, we can be pretty sure, I think, that no one is walking or driving past us this morning suspiciously wondering what’s going on in here. Probably not. We don’t really tend to bother anyone or upset the outside world, Nor is that really even in our concept of what a church might do. We don’t really think that way anymore.
The church in the US across denominations, it peaked in numbers the middle of the 20th century. And so for a time spanning roughly the 40s through 70s, which many of you will remember, it seemed like everyone went to church. You might remember those days. You probably remember those days.
I don’t. I’ve talked to some older pastors and they really can’t even grasp this. I have never seen a full sanctuary on a Sunday morning. Those days are just outside my experience.
Now in that time period, the church was the least controversial thing imaginable. Every decent person went to church. It was a pillar of the community. It was the social hub.
You know, whether you’re an adult, whether you’re a kid, your whole world was in the church. That’s where the town rotated around. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with being the center of community life, there’s nothing wrong with being a close-knit body.
We’re supposed to be. But that, as it turns out, wasn’t quite enough. The next generations found that there wasn’t really any compelling reason to stay. The church didn’t offer much that was particularly distinctive from the outside world besides an additional demand for time, effort, money.
and people decided it really wasn’t worth it for what they were getting out of it. And so here we are. So consider the state of the United Methodist Church locally and nationally. It’s not just us, it’s everybody.
Something has gone wrong. And frankly, we don’t get to blame it on the people who are out there for not wanting to come in here. It’s not their job to decide to come in here, is it? We have failed, as our traditional confession of sin says, to be an obedient church. And accordingly, give people a reason to stay or now even come to begin with.
We don’t treat the church, generally speaking, as a place where life-changing growth in discipleship happens. Our life together has diverged a little bit from the one Jesus describes this morning in Matthew 10. That church was living on the edge. It was wholly committed to Jesus, regardless of what that would cost them, And it did cost them a lot.
And it was a church that was taking up its cross. I’m currently reading a book right now by Will Willimon. If you’re familiar, he’s the somewhat harsh former United Methodist bishop. He spent decades in pastoral ministry in Alabama and in the Carolinas.
And his most recent book that’s written in the wake of our church split is called Don’t Look Back, Methodist Hope for What Comes Next. so I’m about halfway through that book. And in it, he writes of his experience pastoring a church. It’s really funny.
So he’s writing about this church that he was appointed to serve early in his career. And he’s so disappointed in this place. He’s like, I got there, their attendance is only 300 people. It was declining.
I’m like, Okay, bud. I don’t relate, but I understand your point. He said the median age was 60. I’m like, Wow! But he writes about his experience pastoring this church that was declining and that had no interest in revival.
And he wrote something that I had to go back and read a couple times. He says, We are a loving, caring congregation, they reassure one another as they peacefully pass away. Listen to that and see if it stings, right? We are a loving, caring congregation, they reassure one another as they peacefully pass away. Look, I got a couple notes in my pastoral reviews that some of you want to be challenged, so here we go here.
Jesus tells us flat out that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword. The gospel should be a source of comfort. The gospel is a source of comfort. The congregation should be a place of love and inclusion.
But the sword that Jesus describes must have an edge. The work of a faithful church requires making hard decisions to build the kingdom of God and make disciples of people who are both here already, we should be getting better, and people who aren’t here yet, they should be coming in, being welcome, being built up in Christ. It requires doing this, risking conflict and disagreement because it requires movement. It requires risk, period, which we’re really averse to.
Are we willing to take risks in the name of Jesus’ ministry? Are we willing to accept the possibility that we might be controversial or in a position that makes us truly uncomfortable? And I hope so because Jesus says here in Matthew 10, Those who do not pick up their crosses and follow me are not worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives because of me will find them. We can be timid, we can maintain above all a concern with stability and comfort. We can hold on to our preoccupation with stability.
We can be conservative with our resources out of worry of what the future holds. Or we can have faith that honest, striving to follow Jesus will be blessed. I have emphasized this before, but I think one of the boldest, most Christ-like ministries in the partnership. is Fairhaven’s welcoming prevention point.
We know full well that most of our neighbors don’t like this. We know that many of them are actively opposed. There was a threat in the midst of our controversy last year that someone was going to call in KDKA, was going to stage a protest on a Thursday afternoon, and I was really nervous about that possibility at the time. But now I wonder if we might have welcomed the opportunity to witness to Christ’s grace, to our ministry in this place, to a group of people that plenty of people aren’t willing to have nearby.
Similarly, I spoke to a colleague recently, he just finished grad school in Boston, he was getting a second master’s, and he went to a church in Boston that flies a rainbow flag every June to symbolize that all people are welcome there. And they know full well, he told me this, they know full well that every year they’ll face vandalism that month, Every year that flag is going to get burned on their front lawn, and they do it anyway, knowing that flag is going to get burnt up. The congregation has internalized the challenging message that Jesus offers his disciples. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, it’s certain that they will call the members of the household by even worse names.
Now what taking up our cross looks like in our context might be different. Mission is different everywhere, but part of the work of discipleship is figuring out what our mission field is, what our call is, what we are supposed to reach out to that may or may not be a popular choice to make. But some aspects of discipleship are universal. One, we have to spend our money doing risky kinds of ministry.
We have to come come up with plans that are new, that are different, that are focused on reaching new people. We have to open ourselves up to the world, including people that the wider world doesn’t like very much, and we have to put our comfort on the line for Jesus. And that’s scary. That’s scary for me.
I want the peace, not the sword. But consider the sparrows whom God knows and loves. Are you not worth more than many sparrows, Jesus said, which is very generous, right? Why should we be scared to do the work that Jesus assigns to us? If he watches even the sparrows, if he numbers the hairs on our heads, there’s nothing that we can do seeking to follow Jesus that will bring us to harm. If you don’t internalize anything else today, I want you to think about this.
Has any church in history spent itself to death ministering to its own community or the world? Or do churches die and dwindle when they decide that their own needs, their desires, their survival are the first thing that comes first? If you can find for me a church that died because it spent too much money on evangelism and outreach, or spent too much time in the community trying to reach new people, I will take that back. But I don’t think it’s happened. And I think that’s because Jesus’ promise here is crystal clear. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.
The only way to survive, let alone grow and thrive, is to pour ourselves out for the sake of others. To risk losing what we have, money, security, comfort, whatever, to gain what Jesus promises us. living and proclaiming the good news of Jesus, inviting all people into grace and freedom, announcing it from the rooftops, Jesus says, is the single priority that we are given. The single priority above everything else, regardless of what the cost is, regardless of what our preferred plans may be.
Above family, Jesus says, above loved ones, this is the thing. So this day, measure your life, the life of our church together, by whether or not we’re picking up our cross for the one who carried it for us. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.