Following Christ

On December 30, 2019, in Sunshine Cathedral, by Rev.Dr. Robert

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Following Christ
Preached by Rev. Anne R. Atwell
Sunday, December 29, 2019

My friends, would you please pray with me.
Divine Spirit, Holy One of goodness and of light. Guide us to be your presence in this world. May we offer hope and love to all that we meet. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts bring healing and peace to our world. It is in your many names that we pray; Amen.

When I was a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, we went to Sunday School every week at our home church – the Brockway Presbyterian Church. The weekly Sunday School class was held before the church services so it was my job as the oldest child to pick up my younger sister and brother from their classrooms before we would go into the big church.

I remember one Sunday morning, I went to get my brother and I could tell just by looking at him that he was very unhappy. He had his arms crossed and he looked more than a little angry. He was just about 5 years old at the time so it didn’t take much for Scott to be upset. My sister and I tried talking to him before we took him into the sanctuary but he was just really unhappy and there wasn’t much we could do. So we went in and took our seats with our parents. I remember my sister and I were on the one side of our mother and my brother, being the youngest, sat in between my parents. My mother saw immediately that Scott was troubled and she began to ask him questions. “How was Sunday School?” Scott just shrugged his shoulders and didn’t say anything. “Did you sing?” and he nodded his head, “yes.” “Did you color some pictures?” and again he nodded his head, “yes.” My mom said, “Scott, what is it? What’s the matter?” To which my brother announced to everyone within earshot….”I’M JUST SO SICK OF THOSE OLD JESUS STORIES!!”

What Scott didn’t understand at that time is the powerful shift that can occur when one hears the stories of Jesus – the accounts of his life and his ministry. To a small 5 year old boy, it probably just didn’t make much sense. But, for each of us, if we really listen, the profound impact of Jesus’ message in our lives, can be monumental! And yet, it can also be disconcerting. These narratives call us to new ways of living, to let go of the old way of doing things, and they may even shake us out of our comfort zones.

The reading we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning is intriguing. Mark is believed by biblical scholars to be the first of the Gospels that was written. I like the style of Mark’s author. It is quick. It is to-the-point. It is succinct. No messing around. And that is something you may notice while listening to Mark’s message. It begins with proclaiming the good news of one who will come – the one who will make the roads smooth. And, just 20 verses later, the one, Jesus, is inviting people to follow him, to fish for people, to bring them into the fold by sharing the Good News that God’s realm is near!

Mark’s author is very intentional about moving the Jesus narrative forward. There is Good News to be had and Mark wastes no time in conveying that to the community. John is baptizing people in a desert place and God is there. Jesus is in a desert place for 40 days (which just means a long time) and God is there. Simon and Andrew leave their nets and immediately follow Jesus. It moves quickly and if the reader and the listener aren’t paying attention, it could move right by them.

I will share with you that when I was reviewing the readings for today, I wasn’t terribly sure of what I could do with them. There is a lot to take in. So how do I preach a meaningful message where there is so much information! The readings are important, they’re significant. How do I do justice to them?

When I am unsure or confused, not really knowing what to do, I stop and I pray. And my prayer in this instance was really quite simple. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” I realized after a day or two was that my questioning prayer of “What am I going to do?” was really the answer I was seeking. “What am I going to do?” “What can I do?” “What can we do?”

No longer was the question about preaching from specific sacred texts but had become the message that I was to receive – that each of us is to receive from these readings. What can we do that will carry the joy and hope and love and peace into the New Year? When it comes to following Christ, what can I do AND what can we do?

Now that the pageantry, the celebration, the hope and joy of Christmas Day is behind us, what do we do? We are now in the liminal space that is Christmastide; still Christmas and yet it doesn’t seem so. It is a time of reflection and contemplation. What can we do to continue carrying the Christmas message?

We are on the precipice of a New Year, a new decade. What can we do to ensure that the message of Jesus becomes an integral part of who we are – our being and our actions? We know that Advent is a season of preparation. Is it possible that Christmastide is a season of preparation, as well?

The past few years have been difficult and more than a bit stressful. It seems almost impossible at times to find goodness in the world. When more and more people are being oppressed, when basic civil rights are being challenged, we may wonder what it means to truly follow Christ. How can we bless others when we feel overwhelmed by antagonism that seems to be all around us? I think that the answer is to be constantly aware that each person does have sacred value. Each person is a beloved child of God. Each person deserves respect and dignity – care, kindness, and love. Each person recognizes the Christ in others – no matter the circumstances.

LGBTQ+ people – they are beloved by God.
Women and children – they are beloved by God.
Refugees running for their lives – they are beloved by God.
Those who are food insecure or housing insecure – they are beloved by God.

A number of years ago, a friend told a story that impacted me deeply. He shared a personal experience when he helping in a soup kitchen. Now the motivation for providing food assistance was two-fold. He wanted to feed people and he wanted to tell them about the good news of Jesus Christ in order to save their souls. At that time he was attending a very religiously conservative school and he was encouraged to save as many souls as he could.

While volunteering at the soup kitchen, he saw an older man come in who appeared hungry and who also, in his mind, appeared in need of saving. So the young man took some food over to the gentleman and began to proselytize. The older man paused and said, “You know, I think it’s great that you’re here feeding people and spending time with us. That’s really wonderful! But instead of feeding me because you think I need to find Jesus, how about feeding me because you see Jesus in me?”

This friend said that this encounter was a turning point for him in his faith journey. And it was something I never forgot. When we help others, pause for a moment – and recognize the Divine in them. Be kind – because we all deserve a little kindness. Be compassionate – because we all deserve a little compassion. Be giving – because anytime we serve others, we are serving Christ.

On Christmas Eve, we heard the message from Luke’s gospel, “And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” When I read that passage, I wondered to myself, how many of us, myself included, have thought, “Well, if I had been there, I would have made a room for them. I would never have left them in the cold. I would welcome them. I know I would!” Friends, now is the time for us to make room. Now is the time for welcome. Now is the time for us to notice who is missing from our table and make a concerted effort to be more inclusive, to be more welcoming. We do this not to feel good about ourselves but because we have chosen to follow Christ. To follow Christ means to welcome all, love all, to serve all….without question, without judgment.

I was at a holiday gathering this past week and one of the guests was lamenting about Christmas being over. She shared, “I wish the Christmas feeling could last all year long. Everyone is so kind and nice. I really miss that when Christmas is over.” Her seemingly innocuous comment gave me pause. My friends, if we follow Christ, Christmas kindness will last all year long. We need to be more loving. We need to break down systems that oppress. We need to remember what it does mean to follow Christ’s message of love and compassion.

There is poem from Howard Thurman that brings this message to heart. We hear it often at Christmas. It might just be the perfect message for Christmastide and our New Year.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When (all royalty) are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among (all people),
To make music in the heart.

My friends, what is it that you can do? What are new, positive, uplifting ways of being you want to create in your life? How will you follow the message of Jesus during the coming year? Let’s each of us make a resolution to speak a word of joy, of compassion to be made manifest in our world. Let’s look beyond ourselves and into the heart of others. Let us be the Christ presence in the world.
And this is the good news!
Amen.

~~~~~~

Today and always
I will be present to the light of the Divine in others
I will follow the message of the compassionate Christ
And so it is
Amen!

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