Focusing Out Lives – Part 4 of 6: When It Is Time to Talk
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
May 28th, 2017
What a day. We recognize graduates and we honor those who have given their life to something larger than themselves. I want to say one word to our graduates and that is that you will go to college and you will do what we’ve asked you to do all along. You will think; you will ponder; you will seek insight; you will doubt everything you’ve been told. It’s appropriate and you will doubt the existence of God. It’s appropriate. You’ll wonder, is there really a God? What evidence is there of a God? We will tell you — although we won’t tell you often – we have all been there. It’s easy to believe there is no God when your happiness is being watched out for. It’s easy to believe there is no God if you rely entirely upon scientific evidence: when life is going well for you, when your wisdom seems sufficient, when the luck of the draw has come to you.
I will say to all of you: you live in Chandler, Arizona; you came up in the Chandler Unified School District. The luck of the draw has come to you. You had been born on third base. We are counting on you to make it home. The number of things that you have not had to overcome just to survive is astronomical. The number of gifts that are given to you is high. So from this position it is simple to say: well, there is no God. Be careful with that. Be careful that pride does not overwhelm you and take you where you don’t really want to get to and that is to total self-reliance. You will redefine your relationship to God in the same way that you redefine your relationship to your parents. It’s appropriate. Know that when you wake up one morning and say: I’m just not sure I want to go to church today. OK, don’t go to church that day. But please don’t fall into absolutes. Please don’t run to an absolute conviction. Try to remain open to a mystery that none of us have been able to get our arms around – even words around — a mystery that finds us when we are in the foxhole as it were.
It is honorable and it is quite appropriate for us to revere those who have given their life to something larger than themselves. And I like to talk about that a little bit today, both as an invitation to our graduates to ponder their life but also to all of us as we think about honor flags and Memorial Day. I was asked this week: will you be inviting the veterans to stand and worship? I said no; that’s not what Memorial Day is about. Memorial Day is honoring those who have died. We cannot, we must not, ask them to stand. Honoring those who have died has been a practice that goes back as long as battle; because in any culture to asking young people to exchange the sacredness of their future for the finite goals of the battlefield causes pause; appropriately so. It causes people to seek a deeper understanding and meaning of the deaths on the battlefield. Unfortunately even our nation and other nations at different times, this is become a point of diversion between people who are a little too excited on both ends of the spectrum.
Some folks are so horrified at the effects of war that they have lost their tolerance for soldiers and all things military. They become so disgusted with the political forces that might send young people into battle that it is no longer possible for these people to engage in conversation on the topic. They find and quote sacred Scripture, which lifts up their cause they presume naïvely that diplomacy will always be adequate, and they become one note activists. They are people who have seen what can happen when fire gets out of hand. And so they refuse to use fire in any situation.
Some folks are so frightened of not being secure that they elevate soldiers and all things military to the level of hallowed hero. It becomes a plank in their politics; they link a feeling of power and goal of security to divine purpose and troops become angels. They find and they quote sacred Scripture which lifts up their cause. They presume naïvely that diplomacy will never be adequate and they become one note activists. They are people who have seen what can happen when fire gets out of control and so they rush to use fire in every situation. In every culture, in every time, these are the people who cry the loudest, which makes it hard for the rest of us who reside somewhere in the middle to have a reasonable healthy conversation.
If I were to choose a text to help us as a church learn about service to our nation and service to God’s kingdom, it would be in this passage from today that Nolan read for us. Especially if you’re willing to hear and ponder what Jesus is saying to us. I’ll get to that in a minute but about this passage, I’m not sure how to say this but I noticed a whole lot of similarities between what Jesus is telling and showing his disciples and the methods he’s using to teach them and what is taught to soldiers in boot camp and what is communicated to soldiers in training. I’m thinking about the disciples; they’d been following Jesus for a while now. They have been marching along with him. Jesus has twelve disciples, which by my count is the perfect size for a squad. You can know everyone in your squad intimately. They are out with Jesus on FTX field training exercise and he seems to be about developing a cohesive mission-ready team.
Now we pick up with them in the evening. I need to tell you earlier in the day — the part we didn’t ask Nolan to read — Jesus warned his disciples: beware the yeast of the Pharisees; don’t follow those guys. Now in the evening they are hunkered down and they are relaxing and it’s a good time for conversation. It’s an opportunity to present his command philosophy; to put out some training objectives; identify for them what lies ahead. And so he asked them in this conversation: who do people say that I am? Then he asked the disciples: who do you say that I am? These are important questions; these are get-to-know-one-another questions. There is something powerful and unspoken that is happening in these moments. You get to know one another in a squad. You get to know who talks big and complains a lot and doesn’t follow thru very often. Who seems reluctant, who doesn’t talk very much but who is always at your elbow with a good word. Who do you say that I am he says. Do you believe in me enough to offer your life for mine? How is this group going to interact in such a way that it can accomplish much more than all of us could alone? If you ask any disciple who was come back from a mission trip, they will talk about the people who were on that mission trip with them, their squad. If you ask any soldier who has come back from the war about their heroes, they are going to talk about the guys in their squad.
I wonder if this is why anytime Jesus encounters a Roman soldier; he doesn’t seem to have any difficulties with them being soldiers. He never once confronts a soldier; it makes me wonder if there is a kinship of sort between the discipline and sacrifice of soldiers and the discipline he was calling disciples to and the sacrifice he is asking disciples to make. Peter interrupts this moment of knowing one another when Jesus asked this question: who do you say that I am? Peter becomes the hero in the moment; Peter blurts out: you are the Messiah, the son of the most high God. Right here in the text Peter becomes the hero. You are the Messiah; we will follow you, don’t follow the Pharisees, follow Jesus, the one with God’s agenda. We heard that: don’t follow the Pharisees and now we hear, do follow Jesus; which gives us a little bit of a something-to-think-about as we think about soldiers. as we think about disciples; you are only as effective as your leaders.
It calls to my mind the NCO code — Non-Commissioned Officer code — that Marines say. I am dedicated to training new and influencing the old. I’m forever conscious of each soldier under my charge and by example I will inspire to the highest standards possible. I will strive to be patient, understanding, just, and firm. I will commend the deserving and I will encourage the wayward. I will never forget that I am responsible to my commanding officer for the morale, the discipline and the efficiency of my men. Their performance reflects an image of me.
What I’m seeing in Jesus is this same challenge needed in disciples working in the church, that same kind of commitment. It’s important for us who would be disciples to hear this because the story keeps moving on. To ponder Jesus using some of the same methods with his disciples is important for us. Maybe the comparison to soldiers is important to us too because what happens next in the text – well — at some point you have to get up and set your face and move toward what scares you. Sometimes you got to move toward the people who are actively trying to kill you. Peter again is the voice for the moment. He blurts out: Never Lord, we shall never let that happen to you. Peter is no longer the hero; Peter has become the coward in the moment. Everyone is facing fear; everyone has to face their self-importance and their anxiety; everyone must come to terms with the fact that no one is special; no one is exempt from death. And the biggest enemy is self talk, voices in our heads that make excuses. That means that brave is simply getting out of our head and focusing on the task at hand.
It’s interesting, six versus ago Peter was the hero of the story. You are the Messiah, the son of the most high God, and now: No, save yourself; save your skin; that should never happen to you. The hero becomes the coward. Maybe we need to stay away from hero talk because quickly things change. We discovered a few weeks ago that faith is simply being open to the divine spark that comes from God, the willingness to let God’s preferred way come through us; which is GREAT when it’s just talk. But now as it’s our safety, our security, our life on the line when you start talking about dying and you’re talking about me maybe dying – well — that’s a different conversation and for some of us it takes a while.
This is in fact why we say what we say in church. This is what worship is about. This is what baptism means. This is what happens after the Lord’s Supper. What we do in church is practice dying. That’s what all of this is about. We are practicing dying. We are getting contented with not surviving what lies ahead. We are coming to terms with the fact that no one is special; no one is exempt from this fact. And so we enmesh ourselves in our squad. We get comfortable with other disciples around us carrying on the battle after we are dead. God’s preferred way will come; God’s kingdom does come. We’re probably not going to be the one that brings it. But our life and death can lead to it. Let’s be clear, that’s in the text too. We get this one directly from Jesus. Peter is kind of quiet now. What we learn from Jesus is: not everyone is going to survive. And the way to get OK with not surviving is letting meaning come from your death into the lives of those around you. Your death can inspire your squad.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he said: a greater love has no one than this, to lay down your life for your friends. A life offered to others can give new focus. We can give them clarity of purpose; it can drive them to do what is right; it can affect generations to follow. And in fact this is what happened to Peter and all of the other disciples except for one. They saw their friend die and it change them; it deepened them; it caused them to contemplate their life and what their life was for; it judged them. It’s quite compelling and it brings to mind our honor where we see our lives as a reflection of the high esteem we have for Jesus. It calls us to duty and implants us with an obligation; it judges us; it judges what we do with our time; it judges what we value; it judges what we want. We live our lives differently — to the highest ideals — by our submission to God.
That’s why it’s appropriate to have the flag of the nation in worship. It is the disciples in that community, submitting our nation to God. It is the commitment of this disciple in community lifting the highest ideals of our nation as a reflection and honoring an obligation to the high esteem that we hold for God’s way, made known to us in Jesus. I believe this is the best display of the nation’s flag in worship; marking sacrifice, lives given.
I have to then talk about the one disciple who didn’t go deep; whose life was not really changed; it was Judas, the treasurer of the group. He was with one who protested the loudest any time any money was spent. John 12 directly tells us that Judas was a thief and as the keeper of the moneybag he would help himself to whatever was in it. Matthew 26 tells us that Judas approached the chief priests and offered to hand over Jesus for money. How much will you pay me if I deliver him to you? They said 30 silver pieces. He said, sold. Greed, call it what it is: greed. Judas allied himself with the chief priests as they were trying to figure out a way to dispose of Jesus because Jesus threatened their power. Chief Priest Caiaphas managed to wrap their solution in patriotism. He said: Oh it’s better for us that one man should die for the people than that the nation fall. The nation was not at stake. That was an overblown political move to sell fear.
What was at stake was the Sanhedrins — the religious authorities — grasp of power in the nation, and this was their solution power preserved by aligning with greed and wrapped in patriotism. This has been in all times and all nations, this has been the problem for the soldier who is committed to duty and honor and service toward the highest ideals of the nation. Some leaders of every nation seem never to have to wrestle with responsibility or duty. They seem never to be limited by honor or oath or what is right or what is best for the nation. They seem to display no obligation beyond the funding of their next reelection or their next vacation or their retirement. Power preserved by aligning with greed and wrapped in patriotism.
Just before our passage today, Jesus told his disciples, beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. Beware of the effect of self-serving, selfish, egocentric, greedy people in our midst. Do not follow them. Back in Matthew 10 Jesus spent some time commanding his disciples to be as wise as serpents. Be aware, be quick to sense, be cautious, and slither away from the ways of the world. The sly underhanded calculating profitable ways of the world, sense what forces are leading. He says do not mistake honor with dishonor and do not use dishonor as a method for achieving your goals; even when you are fighting against dishonorable people, dishonor is never powerful. Do not face evil with evil. Darkness does not cast out darkness. He said your disciplined honorable life offered to service and camaraderie will be the greatest and most powerful force. Honor honors beyoud our years.
Herein is our opportunity to honor those who have given their lives in honorable service. We must be aware of the forces around us. We must be as wise as serpents to messages which appeal to power. We must be cautious about distractions of greed, the misleading of loyalties, the temptation of a lie. We honor those who gave their lives by living honorably. I invite you to commit to be an advocate for the highest ideals our nation can muster as a reflection an honoring submission an obligation to the highest esteem we hold for God’s ways, made known to us in Jesus.
After the service I want to invite those families who have bought flags today to join me here at the altar. I would very much like it if you would tell me about your loved one. I would invite anyone who would like to listen to come too.