Sermon for January 17, 2016

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching             Matthew 4:1-17

Tough Call

Last week Janet Cassidy taught our children that God calls us by name. She asked everyone their name and reminded them that when they are baptized, we ask the parents “By what name shall this child be called.” Our names matter. They give us hints as to the direction our life might take. Joseph heard in a dream that he would name his son Jesus, Messiah, the expected one of God. This weekend we celebrate the birthday of a pastor and witness for a civil rights whose namesake Martin Luther, transformed the church, both of these men, several hundred years apart giving birth to protest movements that utterly changed our world.

We talked about names this past week at the clergy conference I attended, with one of my colleagues in ministry Rich Kirchherr telling us his name in German means Lord of the Church, and Keith Haemelmann, whose name means man of God.

My name Verlee means that my parents came from Missouri, where lots of things get named for those people who love them, so Arkansas gave birth to Wal-Mart, a combo of Sam Walton and Marketplace, and general stores like Pam-Ida became popular, named after the founder’s daughter Pam and Ida. So you guessed it, Pastor Verlee’s name comes from my father Verne and my mother Leola which simply means child of two people who love me, which means I guess that they freed me to turn out however I wanted, as long as I remembered where I came from. It could have been worse. I could have been named for my great aunt Arvilla.

It’s not always easy to live up to our names or into our names. We have to take them on as our own and become the people God created us to be, not just a vision our parents may have had for us. It wasn’t enough that the angel Gabriel encountered Mary with glad tidings of great joy and that she would bear a son and that his name would be Jesus. He was named on the eighth day, as was the custom by his parents in the synagogue. God named him again when he raised him up dripping wet from the waters of baptism, calling him “Beloved, Son”.

Even when we know who we are, we can say “no” to our best life. Jesus was led into the wilderness where he was tempted in three ways, to do things he would have been really great at doing, and things that needed to be done, but just not by him.

First, Jesus was tempted to turn stone to bread, to feed hungry people with the literal bread in short supply under Herod’s local reign and Caesar’s oppressive empire. Second, Jesus was tempted to rise in political power. The world needed a just and merciful leader, a Godly leader who would put away greed and provide resources for his people. He had the charisma, the insight and the preparation to do it well. But Jesus knew this choice would be driven by ego and would serve the devil himself, rather than God. The third temptation of Jesus was to rise in the religious ranks. A student of the Torah who studied in the Temple in Israel by the age of 12, he could have become a chief priest, or head of the religious lawyers, the Sanhedrin, interpreting the law to better serve the people.

To all these temptations he said, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.” When I was young I was tempted to make a life in several ways. I wanted to go to college at Northwestern University in Chicago and become a journalist. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, listening to the stories of people in war torn countries of the world, bringing their situation to life through our living room t.v.’s. I liked to write, and I liked adventure and I liked talking with people. I still do.

Telling the stories of people throughout the world is important so that our world grows and our boundaries widen, but this wasn’t the best use of my gifts. As it turns out the medium for communication is still writing, but the content is different. I’m called to write and speak through Pastor’s Pen, and Pulpit, not the local press or nightly news.

It’s hard to discern the most faithful path. We want God to speak it plain, to write it in the sky. I suspect that Jesus didn’t set out expecting such a short ministry, or to die in the way he did. He simply set out to be faithful. Though he died in his early 30’s, the story of his life, teachings, death and resurrection continue to shape our world. Martin Luther King Jr. only lived to the age of 39, but how our country has changed and how much further we have to go. 

A writer my age tells the story of shoe box lunches, how her mom and Dad would take her and her little sister on road trips when she was a child. Each of them would help to prepare their shoe box lunch before they went: a thermos of lemonade, fried chicken, some potato salad, a piece of fruit and a chocolate chip cookie. As an African American family in 1960, she remembered that as they drove south to see family, they stopped at a gas station at a certain point and everybody went to the bathroom, whether they had to go or not. It would be the last time they could use a bathroom that wasn’t marked “colored”, if indeed they could find one at all. And the treasured shoebox lunches made sure they would have something to eat for the long journey, as most of the diners and lunch counters would be closed to them.

Thank God this is changed, but other issues linger. Mothers teach their African American sons when and where to walk in the city, how to respond to police officers, and strategies to make it clear that they are not armed, to avoid provoking a confrontation. They teach them to scan the environment for activities in the neighborhood that could catch them up in the crossfire of someone else’s conflict.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached a gospel of love and forgiveness, while standing firm on the necessity of ending prejudice wherever it occurred. This is a hard calling, an unpopular and ultimately very costly ministry.

My friend Eric Elnes has a tough call. The senior pastor of Countryside United Church of Christ in Omaha, you may recall that Eric is the pastor whose congregation voted this past April to sell their church property and move to a new Tri-Faith Campus with Jewish and Moslem neighbors. The Synagogue is already complete, the Mosque in progress, and ground will break later this year on the new United Church of Christ Church.

A community center will be built at it’s heart, for shared education and social events, coming to know and understand one another better as neighbors. A prayer path will twine through the property, drawing neighbor near to neighbor in peace. Eric said to me, “you know, most people sell their church when they need a bigger parking lot, or they’ve outgrown the facility or the demographics have changed leading to a decline in the church. Try selling a perfectly good building in a great neighborhood with plenty of parking. In the first year leading up to the congregational vote, 100 pledging families left the church. After the vote 40 more left. One of them said, “I get it that our Christian witness has to be one of love of neighbor, but I can’t wrap my head around selling the church.

Whatever you may think of the bold, and I think faithful move of Eric Elnes and the members of his church, he is convicted that increased understanding between the major world religions is essential if we are to know peace in our time. He believes he is called by God to do this work. And for the life of him, he can do no other. This conviction has cost him dearly. A conservative Christian radio station and many of its followers have issued death threats toward him, his wife and his daughter, and have said unspeakable things about him in the local newspapers. He said to me this week, “I want to live, but I’d rather die for the right reason than to live without acting on the conviction of faith.” I pray for him. I hope you will too.

Listening to Eric, remembering Martin Luther King Jr., following this Jesus, makes me wonder. What would we do differently to serve God and God alone if we weren’t afraid?

The God who created you with a purpose and called you by name at the start, has a plan for your life still. God’s call may seem easy but more likely it is sometimes a tough call, a costly call with consequences you could not have anticipated at the outset. But if you are called by God, you can do no other. You are compelled forward shouting “no” to the always easy life, the path of least resistence, paved through the beautifully disguised temptations of the devil himself.

It’s tempting as a pastor to put my oar in the water of political debate. Our political candidates give us much ammunition as pastors. It’s tempting to settle into the golden years of ministry in a sweet church in a beautiful place and let the next generation solve the problems that tug at the edges of our sheltered experience here. It’s tempting to set goals through our annual performance review process that will make everybody more comfortable, including me.

But then I wonder. When Jesus said, “Worship God alone, and serve only God”, what does that mean for my call, for your call, for our ministry, for this time?

Today’s text is an uncomfortable one. We walk with Jesus into a wilderness where a battle for life and the future of the world takes place. United Nations Peacekeeper Dag Hammerskold of Sweden wrestled with his purpose when he joined the UN as delegate post world war II in the early 1950’s.

Hammerskold wrote that we have a thousand possibilities from which we can build many selves, but only one path gives congruence between the chooser and what is chosen,

“Only one -- which you find only if
you choose to exclude all the chances to be something else which you in curiosity, lured by wonder and desire, toy with, too shallow and too fleeting to preserve anchorage in the experience of life’s deep mystery and the consciousness of the entrusted talent which is  (your) “I.”

As a Christian, he wrote that the only way for us to know and live into the destiny that has been prepared for us is to stay close to the One who will reveal it to us, to seek life’s deep mystery and preserve our anchorage there. Only when we are near to God do we become indifferent to previously held ambitions, shallow cravings and temptations to become other than God created us to be.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, I’m as curious about God’s call and claim in my life and yours now as the day I walked away from the dream of a career as a foreign correspondent, and walked through the door of ministry instead. I’m curious about God’s purpose for churches like ours in times like these.

The shape of God’s work for us grows clearer. God has surely brought us into this wilderness of an anxious and troubled world, as mature and equipped Christians. It appears that God entrusts us as forgiving and reconciling people to join a legacy of others who have given their lives to make for peace.

When we set out to follow Christ, we do not always know where the path will lead nor what will become of us for traveling there. We make the bridge by walking it. But we do know this. Jesus invites us to join him and “Worship the Lord our God and serve God alone.”