Archive for September, 2010

Investing for the Generations

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Jeremiah 32:1-15
September 26, 2010
Mary Hammond

I can really relate to the prophet, Jeremiah, not so much to his mission–which is infinitely harder than mine–but to his temperament. Jeremiah was a sensitive, faithful soul who both took his calling to heart and felt his heart break at times amid his calling.

The passage before us today is one of the prose narratives from Jeremiah’s life. Called to prophesy to a resistant people during a time of impending catastrophe, the prophet is confined to the royal palace during a time when the Babylonian army has Jerusalem under siege. Jeremiah predicts that the king of Judah will be handed over to the Babylonians and the city will fall.

In the midst of this dire situation, Jeremiah receives a rather innocuous message from God. Hanamel, his uncle’s son, will come to see him and ask him to buy the family’s field in Anathoth.

Sure enough, Hanamel arrives and makes his request. Jeremiah complies and sees that the deed of purchase is signed, witnessed, and carefully stored in a pottery jar. The prophet announces God’s long-term intention by saying, “Life is going to return to normal. Home and fields and vineyards are again going to be bought in this country.”

What is beneath this short story? What is the importance of this transaction? Anathoth is Jeremiah’s hometown (Jer. 1:1). Earlier in the text, we learn that the citizens of Anathoth don’t want to hear Jeremiah’s words of judgment, so they seek to kill him (Jer. 11:21-22). Their response is reminiscent of the reaction Jesus gets from the hometown crowd centuries later in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-37). Jesus walks through the angry crowd and goes his way. Anathoth, however, is in the path of the Babylonian invaders, and its citizens are about to face catastophe (Jer. 11:23) as their town is most likely razed to the ground.

In such circumstances, Jeremiah’s relatives are reduced to poverty, without home and livelihood. Only two options remain–to sell themselves into a bond servant relationship or to sell their land. According to Levitical law, the land never “belongs” to the one who works it; it always and forever belongs to God. If a family member becomes poor and has to sell any of it, the nearest relative–if there is one–shall buy it back.

Every 50th year is proclaimed the year of Jubilee. Those who cannot buy the land back before this time may return to it and resettle there, according to the law (Leviticus 25:23-28). However, there is no evidence in biblical history that the year of Jubilee was ever upheld and celebrated.

Jeremiah becomes the last hope for the family to keep the land in its name. He never returns to Anathoth to live in his hometown. Once Jerusalem falls as he predicts, vast numbers of Israelites are deported where they live in exile for 70 years. Jeremiah stays among the poor who remain in Judah.

There is deep significance to this brief biographical sketch. Jeremiah’s vision of the future isn’t transitory; nor is it skin-deep. Instead, it stretches far beyond the agonies and exigencies of the moment. We do not know how long it is before Hanamel’s family or progeny actually return to the land. The fact that Jeremiah stores the deed in the pottery jar for safe-keeping indicates that the day may be far in the future.

Jeremiah cries out, “Oh, look at the siege ramps already set in place to take the city. Killing and starvation and disease are at our doorstep. The Babylonians are attacking! The Word you [Yahweh] spoke is coming to pass–it’s daily news! And yet you, God, the Master, even though it is certain that the city will be turned over to the Babylonians, also told me, ‘Buy the field. Pay for it in cash. And make sure there are witnesses’” (Jer. 32:24-25).

The prophet is convinced that the imminent fall of Jerusalem and resulting exile of his people is not the end of the story. In such brutal and chaotic times, he envisions a new day when people will return to their homes and again live ordinary lives. He not only envisions such a day–he plans for it. He purchases Hanamel’s field as a tangible sign and symbol that a new day will rise out of the ashes of the present distress.

Does it strike you as counter-intuitive to buy a field in an area where an invading army is taking over and has probably destroyed that very same property? Does it strike you as counter-intuitive to purchase land that you never expect to live on–especially land in a place where your neighbors sought to murder you?

This story grips me in a strange way, here in 2010. Jeremiah is investing in the generations to come, not just his own survival. In times of great upheaval, survival becomes our primal instinct, but Jeremiah has a bigger vision, even in such a time. I think of the South Africans who struggled, generation after generation, under apartheid. Their hope was not for themselves, but for their grandchildren. I think of those who rebuilt Hiroshima after the utter devastation of the atomic bomb. I think of the many times during Sharing Time when Glenn Gall stands up and speaks about planting trees or finding ways to turn deserts into fertile land. I think about Kristen and Steve, working tirelessly with young people to teach them the ways of peace and nurture a responsible global ethic within them. Like Jeremiah, we are investing in the welfare of the generations to come.

I love doing campus ministry, and I’m so glad it is part of the ministry of this congregation. We have the privilege and joy of witnessing the march of generations, as we regularly glimpse the impact campus ministry has far beyond this place. In time, it reaches children and adults who are pastored by alumni who once sat among us. It reaches children who learn music in Guatemala or attend classes in Nicaragua. It reaches young people learning to read in Paraguay and hospice patients in North Dakota. It reaches inner city kids in Newark, New Jersey, and homeless teens in downtown Chicago. Like Jeremiah, we do not “buy the field” for ourselves, but we do it to invest in that which is yet to be revealed, the unseen work of God to come.

There is a lot of hopelessness in the Book of Jeremiah. There is a lot of denial and resistance to his message. There is a lot of violence and ugliness. There is a lot of Jeremiah’s own agony as well, as he wrestles with this difficult calling for which he often feels temperamentally ill-suited.

Yet here, in Jeremiah 32, we have a message of Hope. Hope that the chaos and agony of the present distress is not the last word. Hope that, out of the ashes of the Babylonian invasion, fall of Jerusalem, and exile of the Jews, something good will eventually arise.

It seems odd to me that I am preaching out of Jeremiah today. Yet, today’s message is remarkably similar to the message of the Psalm which I preached on two weeks ago. It is remarkably similar to Executive Minister Alan Newton’s closing words to the gathered assembly at the Regional Meeting of the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genesee Region yesterday. I cannot help but believe it is a word from God for us during these tumultuous times, a word to claim throughout our 2011 Budget Planning Meeting after church, during the challenges we face in our personal lives, amid the uncertainties of this recession that is impacting millions of Americans.

Hope is a four-letter word we can’t say enough! It is as simple as buying a field when such an action may seem ‘useless’ for now, but God knows its meaning will reveal itself down the road.

Alan Newton reminded us yesterday that such times may look like times of chaos and distress, but for the Church, for those who claim to follow Christ, these are times of opportunity. Like Jeremiah, may we cultivate the long view–God’s long view, so aptly described in our Responsive Reading from I Timothy 6:18-19: “…Go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage–to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If [you] do that, [you’ll] build a treasury that will last, gaining life that is truly life.”

May the Holy One find us–today, tomorrow, and in the weeks and months ahead–doggedly, persistently, and faithfully hoping in God, investing ourselves deeply in God’s Reign. Amen.

Be brave. The Times Demand It

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Mark 7:25-30
September 19, 2010
Steve Hammond

The woman was Greek and her daughter was dying. She hoped Jesus could help. But he didn’t seem to want to. It sort of sounds like he even called her a dog, saying she should wait under the table to see if any scraps fell off. He was a Jew, and he said he was here to help out God’s chosen people. Gentiles (or dogs as Jews called them) didn’t make the cut.

Before she was done with Jesus, though, her daughter was in her right mind and sitting up in bed. If you are looking for stories of strong women in the bible, this one should work pretty well. She looked Jesus in the eye and he blinked.

Why was Jesus like that? Some people say no, he wasn’t really being mean, he was testing her. Others say he planned on healing her daughter all the time, he just wanted his disciples to see an example of real faith.

Others say this woman changed the course of Jesus’ ministry. They say it took this confrontation for Jesus to realize he was here for more than the people of Israel. The point of the story, some say, is not how Jesus began his conversation with the woman, but how he ended it. He was smart enough, compassionate enough, he was humble enough to let this woman teach him something important.

Don’t forget, she did approach him, something that was unheard of. A gentile woman asking a Jewish rabbi to heal her daughter. That kind of thing just didn’t happen then. But maybe she saw something in Jesus that he hadn’t, yet, recognized in himself, or maybe was just beginning to. And, at least, she got him thinking out loud about it.

I don’t know, obviously, what was going on that day in Jesus’ mind. But I do know this. He was caught up in that thing that we still struggle with today. How do we cross the lines that divide us? Especially when we see those lines as being drawn by God?

There is something ugly going on in this country right now that is manifest in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant movements. It’s that drawing of boundaries that goes back way before Jesus’ day. It’s that need to define who is us and who is not us. That has been an important tactic even amongst the opponents of Barack Obama. They try to tell us that he is not one of us. He looks different. He has a funny name. They even have convinced many in this country that he is a Muslim, even though at one point they were up in arms about the pastor of the Christian church he attended in Chicago.

This need to draw lines between people very much has a religious component in it, as it did in the story about Jesus and the woman who wanted her daughter healed.
You can see it in what people are calling Christian Nationalism in our country. A lot of people in this nation believe that the United States is God’s chosen nation. They don’t support an idea like the separation of church and state, because they believe Christians should be running the state.

The same folk who are so worried about Koranic law being somehow established in this country, are the same ones who want the Bible to be the source of our laws. And some of them like James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and others with organizations like Focus on the Family are pretty hard core about it. Like their Islamic counterparts, they aren’t looking for legislators to establish the laws of the land, they want the theologians to do it. The theologians, of course, they agree with.

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Fox News, many Republican office holders, and some Democratic ones are the leaders in this Christian nationalist movement that is currently taking root in this country. And for some of the folk behind the scenes, this is definitely not just politics. They are as committed to a theocratic form of government in this country as the Mullahs are in Iran.

God has tried this chosen nation thing before. And it really didn’t work out. We just read a little bit of what Isaiah thought about this being a chosen nation business. Amos. Jeremiah. All the prophets lamented what Israel, the chosen nation, had become. Being chosen became a tool for the establishment to rule by oppression and repression, to favor the rich over the poor, the powerful over the powerless, and strong over the weak. That used that notion of being chosen as a cover for all that violence, all the oppression, all that greed, all of that boundary setting.

Do we really think that God cares about our national borders? Does God think the United States is better than any other nation? Sure, there are great things about this nation. We have a marvelous history in many ways, and an ugly one in many others. But do we really believe God loves us more than God loves Cubans, or Italians, or South Africans, or Koreans, or Canadians?

It is true that people in Jesus’ day wanted to believe that God loved them best and some people, it does appear, still want to believe that today. But the little twist in our own nation is that there are people who actually believe that God abandoned Israel for us. And that is very dangerous for us in this room, for us who live in this country, and for us who live in this world.

God is not looking for a Christian nation. God is looking for people to be Christians in their nations, who want to bear witness not to this country or that country, but to the commonwealth of God. And in these hard times in our country, and they may well get worse, we need to be brave enough to bear that witness, to lift up a Jesus who does not love specific nations or specific races, or specific genders, but all people, from all places.

The radical Christian fundamentalists in this country keep challenging Muslims to stand up to their radical fundamentalists. Actually, lots of Muslims have been doing that, including the ones building the Islamic Community Center in New York. It’s time we Christians did the same. The vision that Christian nationalists have for our faith and our nation are ugly and ungodly visions that must be challenged by the church. Burning Qu’rans, shutting down mosques, blocking the borders, demonizing gay people, takes us right back to this story of Jesus and that woman. Jesus had the sense to realize that we can’t keep on living like God only loves us.

That will never be a popular notion to Christian nationalists in the U.S., Muslim nationalists in the Middle East, Hindu nationalists in India, Buddhist nationalists in Thailand, or Shinto nationalists in Japan. Too many people are invested in maintaining those divisions. Jesus became such a threat to religious nationalism that they had to kill him. But Jesus still calls us to make that witness, to make him known as the one who crossed boundaries and tore down walls.

That’s not easy. Just the other day at the Connections Fair I saw the look on some of the faces when they saw the sign that said Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin. It’s obvious that we get lumped together with the Christian nationalist, and the other radical fundamentalist Christians. Our task it to unlump ourselves, not put our light under a bushel, or even walk away from the whole thing.

Shane Claiborne writes this, “I am convinced that most of the terribly disturbing things that are happening in our world in the name of Christ and Christianity are primarily the result not of malicious people but of bad theology. (Or at least, I want to believe that). And the answer to bad theology is not no theology but good theology. So rather that distancing ourselves from religious language and biblical study, let’s dive into the Scriptures together, correcting bad theology with good theology…”

That woman wasn’t simply standing up to Jesus she was standing up with Jesus, helping him see over the walls that divided Jew from Gentile. She was showing people what Jesus was about maybe even before he knew what he was about. That took courage.

We can be a little braver and stand with him too. What did the angels say to the women at the tomb. “Be not afraid. He is not here in this place of death. He is alive and he will meet you.”

You see, we can do much more than regret the way others live out their faith. We can live out ours. Jesus will meet us. We can heal people. We can heal nations. We can be the Body of Christ and learn what we can do. We can be the living presence of the living Jesus. I think that woman who went to Jesus that day would suggest that now would be a really good time to do it.

Journeying on Uncharted Ground

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Psalm 14
September 12, 2010
Mary Hammond

A few years ago, this church purchased a banner from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to hang outside our building. It read, “We believe torture is a moral issue.” What a tragedy that any church in the United States had to clarify this as a Christian conviction within the public sphere.

A group of students from Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin (ECO for short) organized both a Christian and multi-faith witness for 9/11, protesting the growing religious intolerance and Islamophobia unleashed in our country. Stoked by the controversy that has surrounded building an Islamic Community Center two blocks from Ground Zero in New York City, anti-Muslim sentiment has been further inflamed and galvanized by Pastor Terry Jones of Dove Outreach, who declared 9/11 as “International Burn a Koran Day,” suspending his plan at the eleventh hour after the Secretary of State, President, military Generals, and Vatican weighed in on Jones’ plan.

Acts of intimidation and hatred against Muslims are occurring around the country. Arson was deemed the cause of a recent Tennessee mosque fire. A Muslim cab driver in New York City was brutally stabbed by a customer. This past week on CNN, Muslim leaders described parents afraid to send their children to school and worshipers afraid to go to the mosque for prayers.

This is a double tragedy for the Christian church in the United States because of the role that individuals purporting to represent the Christian faith have had in furthering this hostility. In preparing for the campus events of 9/11, two ECO members had fellow students ask them, “Are you going to be burning Korans on Saturday?”

What passes for Christianity and bears no resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels is broadcast far and wide in our culture and throughout the world. We risk turning a whole generation of young people into skeptics and cynics about Christianity before they even catch an authentic glimpse of the practice of Jesus.

Yesterday on campus, ECO students publicly proclaimed that they follow One who welcomes the stranger and cares for the outcast. They trust the One who teaches us to love our neighbors as well as those some call our ‘enemies.’ Theirs is a different discourse on interfaith relations than that coming out of Dove Outreach in Gainsville, Florida.

Remarkably, Psalm 14 reads on September 12, 2010, like a prophetic lament on the “signs of our times,” not like an ancient text from centuries long past. The psalmist begins with the declaration that his enemies believe “God is gone.” Older translations render this phrase, “God does not exist.” The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary of 1953, reprinted in 1981, sees this psalm primarily as an indictment of atheism. As I relate this psalm to 2010, I see in it an indictment of “functional atheism,” a much more insidious force than straight-up denying the existence of God. “Functional atheists” spout all the God-talk associated with belief, but act, speak, and treat people (particularly the most vulnerable) as if God does not exist, as if there is no accountability for actions and speech, as if the common good is of little or no importance.

“Their words are poison gas,
fouling the air; they poison
Rivers and skies;
thistles are their cash crop.”

Every day, poisonous dialogue infects the airwaves and the halls of power. Bearing false witness against the neighbor has become both political sport and media entertainment. The truth is sacrificed without thought or remorse. When untruth is repeated often enough, it seductively becomes part of the popular mindset and mythology of the nation.

We could come up with all kinds of illustrations of this process in the public sphere. Let’s take, for instance, those “poison gas words,” Global warming doesn’t exist; it’s a liberal plot. I spoke to a young person yesterday who works at the Feve. He had recently visited Alaska, and I asked about his trip. “That is the one place I would really like to see before I die,” I said to him. “Well, you better go soon,” he replied. “I saw a glacier, and I watched it melting before my eyes.”

As the psalmist says, words are “fouling the air, they poison the rivers and skies; thistles are their cash crop.” A sobering and far-ranging impact of words, indeed.

God is not impervious to this picture. The Holy One looks around the earth for someone–anyone–who is hungry to respond to God. The psalmist is blunt about the results of the Creator’s search:

“God comes up empty. A string
of zeros. Useless, unshepherded
Sheep, taking turns pretending
to be Shepherd.
The ninety and nine
follow their fellow.”

Thousands upon thousands of Americans turned out recently when Fox News host, Glenn Beck, led a religious rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In an article titled God, the gospel, and Glenn Beck (from, Southern Baptist pastor, Dr. Russell Moore, decries what Christianity has become in the United States. He writes a scathing review of the rally, saying “Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads…Too often, and for too long, American ‘Christianity’ has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it…”

Moore takes to task the left as well as the right in his trenchant critique. While lamenting the state of American Christianity, he is convinced that Jesus will build the church on the Gospel, and Jesus doesn’t need American Christianity to do it. Moore concludes by saying, “And there will be a new generation, in America and elsewhere, who will be ready for a gospel that is more than just Fox News at prayer.”

The psalmist indicts both Shepherds and sheep, holding the two accountable for their behavior:

“Don’t they know anything,
all these imposters?
Don’t they know
they can’t get away with this–
Treating people like a fast-food meal
over which they’re too busy to pray?”

I am captivated by Petersen’s imagery here in The Message Bible, because it is pregnant with contemporary meaning. Our national public discourse is rife with scapegoating and stereotyping, and, in places, the Church has sadly contributed to the problem. A generation ago, the convenient scapegoats were “godless communists” and “radical feminists.” Today, they are “illegal aliens,” “Islam,” and “the radical gay agenda.” When Christianity wraps itself in garments of hatred and intolerance, the Church peddles another Gospel than that of Jesus Christ.

Jesus of Nazareth gathers such a diverse crew of disciples that it staggers even our contemporary imaginations. Into his inner circle, Jesus invites Zealots who wanted to violently overthrow Rome. His traveling disciples include women of means like Joanna, whose husband is a steward in Herod’s court. Jesus welcomes tax-collectors who are despised by the Jews as Roman collaborators and fishermen who are plain folk a little rough around the edges. Luke is a physician; Mary Magdalene faces down her own demons–on and on it goes.

If Jesus was gathering disciples in the United States today, I think he would gather Democrats and Republicans, Green Party members and Independents, the a-political and the post-political. He would gather lgbt folks and straight folks. He would gather immigrants and the native-born. He would gather outsiders and insiders. As he did with the Samaritan woman and the Roman Centurion, Jesus would commend and welcome faith wherever he found it, even when beyond the framework of his own religious heritage and background. We, his followers, can do no less.

As societal change speeds up, “treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray” is an apt description of how many people this world over are treated and mistreated. They are considered second-class citizens, commodities to make profits, cheap labor pools, as pawns in the international sex trade industry. Too often they are seen as expendable, not as beloved children of the Most High God.

The psalmist issues a solemn warning to those who abuse humanity:

“Night is coming for them, and nightmares,
for God takes the side of victims.
Do you think you can mess
with the dreams of the poor?
You can’t, for God
makes their dreams come true.”

I am not fond of Petersen’s rendering of this last statement, because it is too easy to mis-interpret. “God makes the dreams [of the poor] come true.” Happy ever after? Really? We look at the brutal realities the poor face around the earth, and we know that often doesn’t happen in this life. Older translations speak of God vindicating the poor, and I think this is a more apt reflection of the psalmist’s confession.

God is on the side of the victim, the poor, and the outcast. Imagine a world where everyone in power, everyone with more than enough, everyone with any influence whatsoever is on the side of the marginalized! It wouldn’t be long before we would witness a transformed world.

“Is there anyone around to save Israel?” the psalmist queries. His answer comes quickly, an unequivocal, “Yes. God is around; God turns life around. Turned-around Jacob skips rope, turned-around Israel sings laughter.”

There is hope. Things may look dire and like they are deteriorating, but there is hope. After a deep expression of lament, the psalm ends in joy, laughter, and celebration. There’s partying at the end of the story; there’s life.

Hope is found in a small group of Christian students tabling at Wilder Hall, organizing a public witness of Christian solidarity, a Multifaith March, a Candlelight Vigil, and a gathering around food at the Multifaith Center. Hope is found when we welcome the stranger and dine with the outcast. Hope is found when Christians stand up and declare, “I follow the Way of Jesus. Period.”

I get very nostalgic during New Student Orientation. I become very mindful of the “great cloud of witnesses” of former students who have been part of this church community and the ECO student group. It is as if I sense their presence in all the familiar events of Orientation. Steve gets all nostalgic about Commencement the same way—we are such a good balance for each other!

On my walk one day, reflecting on Orientation events, I was thinking about that great Scattered community of OC alums. I sent an e-mail to many former members of ECO, asking them to pray for the group this year and for the students in their actions this weekend. I reflected on the “uncharted ground” of campus ministry in 2010, working with young people who witness a world replete with religious violence and a nation racked with pseudo-Christianity. The skepticism and cynicism about religion that we often see is understandable, given the contemporary milieu.

David Reese Weasley picked up on my ruminations, offering me the encouragement I needed by saying, “Uncharted ground seems like the right place to be, and seems like the place Jesus is hanging out these days.”

May we look for Jesus there, and join him on the journey. Amen.

Beware of the User Friendly Church

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Beware of the User Friendly Church
Luke 14:25-33
September 5, 2010
Steve Hammond

Here we go, again. This is another of those gospel stories that really throws people off. How could Jesus say such a thing? Why does he want us to hate our family members? Relax This is one of those passages where you need to stop and take a deep breath and think about it for a minute.

We know that Jesus made it clear that God is calling us to love one another. He says we should love our enemies. He says we should love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated a love that reached beyond the boundaries and prejudices and customs of his day, loving the outcast, loving the stranger. So wouldn’t it be a little weird if Jesus came along and said God wants you to love everybody, even the most unlovable of people, except your family, of course? You are supposed to hate them. Doesn’t that kind of invalidate everything else he talked about? That doesn’t make any sense. We run into problems when we take a couple of verses or a story and isolate them from everything else. So that must mean that Jesus is trying to get at something else in this story that doesn’t contradict everything else he has ever said.

I recently read an article about a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who has been surveying teen-agers and young adults about who have left or are in the process of leaving the church. Teen-ager and young adults are leaving churches. Conservative churches. Progressive churches. Big churches. Small churches. White churches. Black churches. And the primary reason according to this study? They aren’t being challenged to do anything, to take any stands. They aren’t being called to live out their faith in ways other than taking vaguely personal moral stances on things like sexuality and drug use. As one kid summed up what many kids were feeling, “All they ask of you in church is to be nice.”

These are the same kids and young adults who are hearing all kinds of people from rock stars to the coordinator of the learning and service program in their schools challenging them to do something, to go out and make a difference in this world. And lots of them are leaving the church behind to do it.

It’s not just the kids, of course, who need to be challenged to make their Christianity mean something. It’s all of us. Jesus said following him has to mean something to us. There has to be something about it that costs us something, that makes demands of us. There has to be something to it that we have to think about, consider if it’s what we really want to do. Jesus said, It’s like building a house. You’ve got to sit down first and decide if you’ve got enough money, if you are really willing to make the investment to build it right for so it won’t fall over.

Jesus was nothing but serious about what it means to follow him. He knew that really following him would put us in conflict with the structures that shaped our lives. And in his day that was the family which, as we said a couple of weeks ago, was a much different thing than what we think family is about. Family is only one of the things that shape our lives, though it shapes us quite a bit. But in Jesus day, family was what shaped almost everything about people. Remember when we said that family in Jesus’ day was more like what we would call a clan or a tribe today? The family contained the real governing body you were accountable to. The family established the norms and customs you were obligated to follow. The family made the decisions about who you married, where you lived, what kind of work you did. The family determined who were your friends and who were your enemies. And in Jesus’ day, the challenge for the family was to continue to manage to do this with the demands the empire was putting on it.

So I think Jesus is telling us that following him may well put us into conflict with the structures that try to control our lives, including not only our families, but our government, our empire, our work and school places, our peers, our laws and customs, our traditions.

The kids have been asking if the church is really willing to do that. And too much of the time they look around and the answer is a clear no. We can’t challenge the status quo because we are the status quo. We bless the wars. We foster the prejudice and racism and sexism. We turn the stranger away. We fear the truth. We accept the lie. Why? Because if we don’t, it might cost us something. There might be a price we have to pay. Those folk that Jesus understood as family in his day might crucify us.

But what did Jesus say. “If you are going to be my disciple pick up your cross and follow me.” The kids see what we’ve done with the cross. Make it a decoration and a piece of jewelry.

There’s a story about the time Clarence Jordan, author of the “Cotton Patch” New Testament translation and founder of the interracial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia, was getting a red-carpet tour of another minister’s church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and luxurious decoration. As they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” the minister said with a satisfied smile. “You got cheated,” said Jordan. “Times were when Christians could get them for free.”

The church was never meant to be easy, never meant to be user friendly. It was assumed the kind of cross Jesus knew would always cast its shadow. But the church was meant to change the world. And why would you want to be a part of a church, a lot of kids and others are asking, if you weren’t looking to change the world? If you weren’t serious enough about following Jesus for it to cost you something?

We are fortunate here. We have Kristen and Steve and Sunday School teachers and others of us who are helping our kids understand that following Jesus means something, and it’s worth paying the price. And we are all doing that for each other. We have taken some pretty risky stands around here and have been willing to pay the price.

But here’s the thing. Following Jesus is always about the future, not the past. The kids aren’t going to see what we have done in the past, but what we do now. Joining the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists with the full knowledge we might lose our building doing it is so five years ago. The risk we take to welcome folk now is what matters. And we never know what’s ahead, what price we may have to pay to follow Jesus. That’s when it will matter to the kids if we are willing to pay the price.

I think where we have failed the kids, and I mean all of us non kids all over the world and the kids we have failed are all over the world, is by giving them death. But Jesus came showing us that God is a God of Life. Jesus was willing to take on the cross, to take on death because he believed in resurrection. Do we believe in life that strongly? Are we willing to not only pay the price, risk crucifixion, but also risk resurrection for the sake of our kids?

Will our kids see us taking a stand for resurrection, see us bearing witness to the living Jesus Christ, see us being the body of Jesus Christ when it costs us something? It’s not a magic potion. It’s not going to get all the kids back in church or keep them all here. But it’s all we’ve got.

Do you know the band Rush? 80’s? Big hair? Loud guitars? One of my favorites. There is nothing about Rush that could be taken for a Christian band, except what they sing about.

If we burn our wings flying too close to the sun,
If the moment of glory is over before its begun,
If the dream is won and everything is lost,
we will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.

When the dust has cleared, victory denied,
a summit too lofty, river a little too wide,
if we keep our pride though everything is lost,
we will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.

And if the music stops, there’s only the sound of the rain,
all the hope and glory, all the sacrifice in vain.
And if love remains, though everything is lost,
we will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.
We will pay the price, but we will not count the cost.

It’s not the intention of the band Rush to be singing about Jesus and bearing witness to the gospel. But why are they doing a better job of it than we are doing in the church too much of the time? Why is this more like Christian music than so much of the music that is marketed that way?
Shane Claiborne in his book The Irresistible Revolution talks about the Palm Sunday stories in the gospels where the religious rulers tell Jesus to quiet down the crowds. Jesus replies even if he could quiet them down, the rocks would cry out. Shane Claiborne’s comment on that is that the because the church has quieted down it’s the rock stars who are crying out, challenging kids to work for peace, help the poor, take care of the stranger, comfort the broken hearted, find a spiritual mooring in their lives.

Do you know the name of this song by Rush? Bravado. Can we help our kids and ourselves be a little more brave in following Jesus? Can we be more willing to pay the price without counting the cost?

And that bravery is not simply about the dramatic sacrifices we are willing to make. It’s also about the day to day ways we can take a stand for and with Jesus. The times we can be brave and pick up the cross and make the ways of the God of life known where we live, where we work, in our families, and in our churches.

That’s all the kids and Jesus seem to be asking of us. Can we rise to their challenge?