I have a friend, Jonathan, who is a UCC pastor in Connecticut. His church is in a town about the size of Winona and it is located right in the center – a typical New England design. Their church sign is right on the corner of the busiest intersection – and as it is a church sign that is easily changeable – Jonathan likes to change it often and post his creations on Facebook. The thing about Jonathan, though, is rather than posting information about the church – he posts puns. Like, the puniest of puns. Here are a few: “Got a clown problem? Go for the juggler.” “Why should you never use a dull pencil? Because it is pointless.” “If 666 is evil, then 25.81 is the root of all evil.” Those messages he create often make me roll my eyes, but I always smile. Sometimes, though, Jonathan posts a marginally ‘religious’ sign – like the one he had for last Easter which said “In trouble? Ask WWJD. Then act dead and disappear for three days.” I imagine if I lived in that small Connecticut town I would look forward to driving by and seeing a new, punny sign and it would make my day a little brighter.
Another UCC pastor, Adam who ministers in Oregon, recently made national news for the messages he was putting up on his church sign. The one that grabbed national attention this summer read “Jesus wasn’t neutral. He sided with the poor, sick, and immigrant. Be like Jesus.” Newsweek did a story on Adam’s church sign in May when it read, “God loves you just the way she made you.” Those church signs of inclusion and brave stances on political topics of the day have created tons of feedback for that little UCC church, nearly all of it positive. In fact, Adam, the pastor of that church, said recently that worship attendance has doubled as people reacted to seeing church signs that shared such a positive and progressive message.
Our own church makes public and bold statements. Outside we have two banners that tell people who are passing by a lot about who we are. Our rainbow banner, in particular, is a bold and declarative statement that we are an open and affirming church. Not only are all people welcome here, but all people are celebrated here just as they are. And our Be The Church banner is another one. A few weeks ago I pulled into the parking lot on a Monday morning and introduced myself to a visitor to Winona who, while on a walk, stopped to read that banner. It says so much about who the UCC is and priorities that we set: “Be the church, protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, fight for the powerless, share earthly and spiritual resources, embrace diversity, love God, enjoy this life.” The visitor who had stopped to read that banner was so impressed. She said, ‘that is the type of church I would go to.’ As she was in town for just a couple of days, I helped her find a UCC church near to where she lived.
Church signs do make an impact. But, what kind of impact would they make if they said: “To be a disciple you must hate your family!” Or, “To be a disciple you must give up all your possessions!” Or, “To be a disciple you must pick up and carry a cross!” What would the reaction be to those church signs? I know how I would feel if I were driving through middle America and saw a church sign like that – I would make a quick and easy assumption. “Those aren’t real Christians,” I would tell myself. “Those are close-minded, hateful people and they give Christianity a bad name!” Except, those three imaginary signs are simply quoting scripture. Not only that but quoting Jesus.
This church thing isn’t easy, is it? And, don’t we prefer easy things? Of course we do, I know I do. In fact, this week when I opened the Gospel lesson for today and read what it was – I immediately closed it again. It’s the beginning of a new program year! We are starting Sunday School today! The choir is back! It is my one-year anniversary at this church! I wanted an easy scripture. I wanted a scripture that was happy and fluffy. One that could be put on a church sign and people driving by would say, “Isn’t that nice? Maybe I’ll go that church.” Instead, we have for today one of the hardest sermons or lessons that Jesus teaches. You want to be my disciple, Jesus asks, then you have to give up everything. Not just your stuff, that would be too easy. You need to give up your family, those you love. You have to give up everything if you truly want to follow me. Take it seriously, he says, count the cost. If you are not willing to pay, then you have no place following me. This is not the happy, nice, easy scripture I wanted to reflect on for this important Sunday in the life of our worshipping community. But, you know what, it’s not supposed to be easy.
Jesus in this scripture is not talking to his disciples, the 12 he chose to teach. In this scripture Jesus is talking to the crowd. We are about halfway through his ministry as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. He is about halfway to Jerusalem, where he will be tried and executed for his subversive teachings and actions. We are about halfway through and he has started to attract crowds. He is becoming popular. Masses of people are starting to follow him, eager to witness miracles, eager to hear his lessons about how God loves the poor and outcast, not the rich and powerful. People are following him because they are hoping he is the true Messiah, the one they have been waiting for, the one who will pick up the sword and strike down their oppressors, and become, by whatever means necessary, the King of the Jews. The one who will take back the power from the Roman Empire and give it to the people. Jesus was becoming popular and drawing a crowd, and I wonder if he was getting frustrated, because they weren’t getting it. I imagine him turning to the crowd, exasperated, and saying to them, “This isn’t going to be easy! I am not the easy answer to your problems! You truly want to be my followers? Then you must give up everything you know and love.” Count the cost, he says. Because it is a big one.
This is not an easy lesson, is it? It feels impossible. In fact, I have long suspected that there is a missing verse that should be attached to this story, saying “and the crowds following him got a lot smaller after that.” But you know what, they didn’t. The crowds didn’t walk away from him. In fact, we remember that when Jesus finally does make it to Jerusalem, on the day we remember as Palm Sunday, he was greeted royally. By masses of people shouting Hosanna. Yes, maybe that was because they didn’t understand who he truly was or what he was doing, but they were there. They didn’t walk away. They didn’t give up even when Jesus told them just how hard it is going to be – what they will have to sacrifice. Of course, we know the story of Holy Week, we know that those same crowds will turn on him and demand his execution. But, we also know, nothing is impossible with God. Because Jesus’ ministry doesn’t end there. And 2000 years later, the crowds are still following him. Trying to make sense of his lessons in the 21st century, trying to decrypt his confusing parables, and trying to deal with the bluntness of today’s lesson. The crowds have continued to follow Jesus.
And, so now I wonder if perhaps this scripture is the perfect one for us to start another year together. I wonder if this is exactly what we need to hear. I wonder if, in God’s mysterious way, this lesson about what it takes to truly follow Jesus is just what we need for today.
So often, the Christian world laments the decline of the mainline church. We look across the way to the mega-church that has so many people wanting to attend worship they need to open satellite locations and we ask ourselves, what are we doing wrong. We hear people saying loudly the church is dead and has no meaning for today. For the last year I have heard your fears and anxieties about the future. I have heard you tell me stories of when the church was packed and we had the largest Sunday School in town. So many people may look out at our large, ornate sanctuary and see so many empty pews, and hang their head in defeat. But, I don’t see empty pews. I see disciples.
I see people who are still doing the hard work. I see people who reject the easy hypocrisy of so much of Christian rhetoric and instead gather to worship God and explore what that means for today. I see people who, with whatever we can scrap together, start a small Sunday School in the back of the sanctuary. I see people who feed our neighbors on Thursday, not just a meal, but feed them with community, dignity, and love. I see people who write cards to friends and strangers just so they can be reminded that God loves them. I see people who change lightbulbs and hang pictures and scrub long unused rooms so we can take pride in our building. I see people who fill our space with music to glorify God. I see people who study our history so we can embrace our future. I see people who give what they can to make our corner of the world a better place. I see people who don’t settle for easy answers or solutions, but instead work together through the hard stuff and move one inch close to the Kingdom of God. I don’t see empty pews, I never have. In my first year here you have each blown me away with your commitment, your passion, your exuberance, your hospitality, your love, and your willingness to do what is hard. I don’t see empty pews, I see disciples. And what could be more glorious than that, on this day when we begin another year together.
My beloved community, when Jesus said we have to give up everything we love and hold dear in order to truly be his disciples, we need to listen. We need to remember that to follow Jesus, to love God with all our heart, soul, and might, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we need to remember that to follow Jesus we cannot settle for what is easy. We may never get there. In fact, I imagine that for each of us, myself included, we will never fully get there. But we will try together. We will let go of whatever is holding us back and step boldly forward. And sometimes, we will fall back to the old way. Sometimes, we will say, no – I need to do what is easy right now. Sometimes, we will get stuck or lost along the way. And, you know what, I am pretty sure Jesus knew that too. I am pretty sure Jesus knew, when he turned to the crowd that was following him that they would not be able to give up everything true discipleship requires. But, he would still love them. He would still heal them, comfort them, feed them. And I also believe he would celebrate with abandon each step closer to the Kingdom of God that they took. He knew it wouldn’t be easy but he knew they would not be doing it alone. Because, he knew, that with God, nothing is impossible.
Today marks the start of another year. Each day marks the start of another year. Each day we are given the opportunity to move further along the path to true discipleship. Each day, each hour, each minute, we are given the choice to choose God. We are given the choice to choose one another. To embrace our neighbors and our strangers. To give up something that is holding us back and embrace something to help us move forward. This is a start of another year and there is no more exciting place to be. It won’t be easy. Jesus says, without any hint of glossing over the truth, that it won’t be easy. But Jesus also says that he is the way, the truth, and the life. And we are to choose life. To embrace this life. To love this life. And to help others experience that love as well.
My beloved community, here is my prayer for our next year together. That we will keep doing the hard things. That we will embrace change and new beginnings. That we will celebrate who we have been and who we are becoming. That we will continue to be a beacon in our community for openness and love. That we will grow together on our journey to become true disciples. That we will study the scriptures and not turn the page when it seems impossible. That we will continue to show one another the grace that Jesus taught. And that we will do all of this surrounded and sure of God’s love. May God bless us in the work together. Amen.