Sunday, October 12, 2014

Phil Kniss: What to do when it’s hard to be a Christian

Church matters: Discipling and mentoring
Matthew 28:16-20; Hebrews 10:19-25

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“It’s hard to be a Christian in America.”
    So said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, of Durham, NC.
    His voice is worth getting familiar with.
        He is a white, southern evangelical
            with a seminary degree from Duke,
            who is an associate minister at a historically black
                Missionary Baptist church in Durham,
            who is a close friend to Virginia Conference Mennonites
                in the Chapel Hill/Durham area,
            who, with his wife and children,
                founded a new monastic community called Rutba House,
            who has lectured across the country,
                and published five books on church, spirituality,
                    and new monasticism,
            and who’s in his early 30s.

    Now why would this kind of radical, young Christian,
        who has embedded himself in such a supportive, intentional
            community of radical Christians,
        and who is smart and gifted and well-educated,
            say that it’s hard to be a Christian in America?

He recognizes what we as Christians, and the church, are up against,
    embedded as we are in a culture that not only misunderstands Jesus,
        but ignores the values of God’s kingdom, and
        actively undermines the way of life Jesus taught
            and demonstrated to his disciples.

So if we want to be a Christian in America,
    we must surround ourselves with other aspiring disciples,
    who support and encourage and empower us.

In an article Wilson-Hartgrove wrote,
    he called people to consider a radical path of life together,
        modeled after the monastics.
    And you might know that “radical” means “of the root.”
He writes, and I quote, “The roots of God’s kingdom are rhizomes.
    They spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below.
    Like the rhizome called kudzu
        that covers so much of the South where I live,
        God’s kingdom just won’t go away . . .
    Yes, it’s hard to be a Christian in America.
        But . . . with God, all things are possible.
    May we slip God’s kingdom
        into the cracks of this world’s broken systems.
        And may it spread like kudzu.”

He may be a southern, white, evangelical, new monastic.
But at least part of what he is saying,
    is a common theme that runs through all Christian traditions—
    Catholic, Episcopal, Protestant, Evangelical, Anabaptist.
I think the church everywhere, when we are doing our best thinking,
    all pretty much agree on this one thing:
    the most important work of the church is making disciples,
        for our particular time and place.

When our church disagreements aren’t stealing our attention and energy,
    when our priorities are not being misplaced,
    when the dominant culture isn’t dominating us,
        I think all churches, in our better moments,
            say that job #1 is making faithful disciples of Jesus.

How could we not say that? Jesus said it.
    In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave his parting words and mandate.
        “As you go, therefore, make disciples.”
    They are Jesus’ last words.
    They are the Gospel writer’s last words.
    They are the most potent summary of the will of God for the church.
Actually, “discipling” doesn’t belong in a series on church practices.
It’s not just one in a list of things to do as a church.
    It is the main thing.
    It is what it means to be church.

But sometimes the most obvious things are the easiest to neglect.
Sometimes, things that are just part of the landscape,
    are the easiest not to see when we look around.

I put discipling in this series, because I need to hear it said again.
    I think we need to be more intentional
        to develop structures for discipling,
        to grow a culture of discipling,
        to nurture habits that encourage discipling.
    I’m not saying we all must move into intentional communities
        in the broken parts of our cities . . .
            but I thank God for those who do.

I am saying, we all must be intentional
    about our life and growth as disciples of Jesus.
    Disciples of Jesus are not born.
        They are not delivered by storks.
        They do not just appear in the flesh, because, in a flash,
            they “have decided to follow Jesus,
                no turning back, no turning back.”
        I love that song, and sing it.
        Deciding is a necessary first thing.
            But don’t ever think deciding is what makes a disciple.
        Actually following Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit,
            and embedded in the community of Spirit,
            is what makes disciples.
        Following Jesus is hard.
        And it cannot be done alone. Ever.

Kyle Childress wrote in a journal article, “Ties that bind”—
    “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life,
        then they had better do it as a body or they will never make it.”
    “I want [us] to think in terms of God and each other,
        each other and God—
            that we cannot have one without the other—
            and to think like this so much that it becomes habitual.”
    “Jesus Christ calls us to a shared and common life in him.
        [But since most church members have no idea such a life exists,
            much less is desirable,
            it is imperative that we look around for glimpses and models
                of what a common life might look like.”
    And he points to the new monastic movement as one example.

    You might think words like that would come from some
        hippie-communal-Anabaptist-intellectual type person.
        But Kyle Childress, for 25 years and counting,
            is pastor of a Baptist church deep in the heart of Texas.

Along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, he defies stereotyping.
    Like all good disciples of Jesus should do.

So I want to challenge all of us here this morning,
    with these words—
“How are we finding our place in a discipling community?”—
    a real down-to-earth, rubber-hitting-the-road, kind of community,
    where we not only allow, but actively invite each other
        to speak into each others’ lives with love and honesty
            and courage and clarity and charity
            and grace and forgiveness and healing
    and where, like we heard the epistle writer say in Hebrews 10,
        we “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
        for he who promised is faithful.
        And [where we] consider how we may spur one another on
            toward love and good deeds,
            not giving up meeting together,
            as some are in the habit of doing,
            but encouraging one another—
                and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The New Testament church, in those early days
    when they were on the margins of a hedonistic society,
        and were persecuted for it,
        they knew they needed each other.
    No one had to tell them in a sermon or a journal article
        that it was hard to be a Christian.
        They knew it, and lived it, daily.

So they, quite naturally,
    came together to disciple each other in The Way,
    they broke bread together daily,
        listened to the teachings of the apostles,
        discussed and discerned, and often argued over
            what being a disciple meant for their time and place.

I know the world has changed radically,
    and the church has changed,
    since those early days we read about in Acts and Hebrews.
I’m not suggesting we have a precise model in the N.T.
    that we just need to copy from.

But, in other ways, not much has changed at all,
    in terms of the conflict between
        the values of the church living under the reign of God,
        and the values of the dominant culture
            which the church inhabits, and breathes in every day.
        It was hard then.
        It is hard now.

    To even have a chance,
        we must immerse ourselves in a discipling community.
    We need to be situated in such a way
        that we can both be discipled,
        and help to disciple others.

    We have a different sets of experiences that shape us.
    We have different perspectives,
        points of view that are valuable,
        but that need to be checked against the points of view of others.
    We have differing gifts and insights.
    We have differing levels of growth and maturity.
        Some have been at this for 60 years.
        Some for 6 months.
            And both have something to offer of real value to the other.

    We have our differing stories to share.
        We have accounts to give of our lives.
        That’s what being accountable means, really.
            It’s not heavy-handed or coercive.
            Accountability should not be something
                that gets dragged out of us against our will.
            Accountability is owning my story, the account of my life,
                and being willing to give account for my life
                    to one whom I trust.

    Where there is community,
        there has to be accountability.
    Choosing not to give account,
        is choosing not to be in community.

I’ve been a baptized follower of Jesus for well over four decades.
    I’ve been in pastoral ministry for three decades.
    But I am not now, nor will I ever be,
        above the need to be discipled in my Christian walk.
    If I call myself a disciple of Jesus,
        I will be in covenant with other disciples,
        and will be willing to give account of my discipleship.

How do I do that?
    For me, it happens in various ways.
    You’ve heard me talk about our small group experience before.
        That is one important way that I give account, every week.
        We don’t come together demanding account of each other.
            There is no one person, pastor or otherwise,
                enforcing honest confession and transparency.
        Instead, we have created a space, a group culture,
            where confession and transparency
                is beautiful and life-giving,
            where we each know what we share will be treasured,
                and held lovingly.
        And when there is some unintended hurt toward another,
            there will be forgiveness and reconciliation.
        I would not want to be without that in my life.

But as wonderful as that group is,
    it’s not everything I need for discipleship.
    I carry a lot of different responsibilities and roles,
        so I need to be creative and flexible
        in how I go about being discipled, and discipling others.

    I meet with one other pastor most weeks,
        for mutual sharing and counsel and prayer,
        and have been doing that for 17 years.

    I have a district minister who asks me questions regularly.

    I lead a monthly group of area pastors,
        in which I help us give account to each other
        for some practices we agreed upon.

    I walk with two other young pastors in the area,
        who have asked for some intentional mentoring in their roles,
        and as you might expect,
            I end up learning a lot from them, as well.

    And for the last two years, I’ve been in something we call a huddle,
        led by someone else—
        a group of about 10 followers of Jesus, including several pastors,
        who meet every two weeks for the express purpose
            of growing as disciples and leaders,
            as we follow the leadership of our discipler/mentor.

    And of course, here at Park View, I don’t walk alone.
        I’m part of teams of leaders.
            We three pastors meet every week for mutual sharing
                and discerning.
            The elders meet with us monthly for the same reason.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of meetings. It is.
    And I’m certainly not saying you need 5 or 6
        different accountability structures.
    But I have a variety of responsibilities and roles,
        and I therefore need a variety of ways to stay accountable.
        Responsibility, and accountability, need to be in balance.

    So yes, I do take seriously my need to give account,
        and to keep learning, and growing.
        I may be a leader, but I am still a disciple,
            an apprentice of Jesus,
            with much to learn.

So today my challenge to each of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus,
    is to ask ourselves, and be honest with ourselves,
    “To whom do I regularly give an account
        for my life and walk as a disciple of Jesus?”
    Who is actively discipling me?

And please, don’t say, “My pastors.”
    Because that is not our calling.
    We are not your disciplers.
        We are here to equip the discipling community.
    We are not here to walk beside you
        down the straight and narrow road that leads to life.
    We can be with you in certain limited ways, at certain times.
    We can teach and preach from the pulpit,
        in ways that might assist in your growth, God helping us.
    And there might be a very few we walk with closely,
        in a discipling relationship for a season.
    But you need more than we can give.

And please, don’t say, “My spouse, or significant other.”
    Oh, I do hope, if you have a spouse or partner,
        that you have the kind of relationship
            where you give honest account
            about all areas of life, including your spiritual life.
    But that is not the same as being in a discipling relationship,
        where you are inviting someone from an outside perspective,
            to help you examine your life,
            and to speak honestly and prophetically into your life.

And . . . it’s not only a question of “Who am I giving account to,
    and who is investing themselves in my life?”
    There is also the question, “Who am I investing in?
        To whom am I making myself available?”
        And maybe it’s not even someone asking for it, explicitly.
        Elijah, in the O.T., walked up to his protégé Elisha,
            and threw his mantle over his shoulders,
            without Elisha asking for it.

Perhaps, God is putting someone in your life right now,
    who can’t even articulate a need to be discipled,
    but who is open to the gifts of yourself that you have to offer them,
        and who would grow as a disciple, if you did.

I invite you to give careful, and prayerful, thought,
    about the persons in your lives right now,
        both the ones who are investing in you and your discipleship,
        and the ones in whom you are investing.

And may this be our prayer . . .
    Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear,
    that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share.

    Help us to build each other up, your strength within us prove.
    Increase our faith, confirm our hope, and fill us with your love.

    Together make us free indeed--your life within us show,
    and into you, our living Head, let us in all things grow.

    Drawn by the magnet of your love we find our hearts made new.
    Nearer each other let us move, and nearer still to you.

Let’s sing together, HWB 362

—Phil Kniss, October 12, 2014

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