Heart of Discipleship – June 25, 2017
Matthew 10:24-39 My sister shared an article on Facebook this week from forbes.com, titled “Why Millennials Keep Dumping you: An Open Letter to Management.” The 2015 article was written by a mother-daughter team in response to the struggle many businesses have in attracting and retaining talented young people. It is, I understand, a significant issue as folks in their 20’s and 30’s have developed a kind of reputation for not staying long term in any particular position or company. The “open letter to management” is written by a young woman to explain, beyond the stereotypes, what is really behind the resignation letters. In a nutshell, it comes down to meaning. She writes: “I need to be surrounded by people who are on fire for what we’re doing. I need a manager who is motivated to push boundaries and think differently. Working in a cool office is really awesome. So is free lunch. But a purposeful culture is more important.” In the end, she concludes: “I was raised to believe I could change the world. I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work. But I’m not doing it to help you get a new Mercedes. I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but I need to know it makes a difference to something bigger than your bottom line.”
The article is about the work world but it is not too hard to translate its message of the importance of a “purposeful culture” into our Christian church world. Also, the letter is signed “a millennial” but when my sister posted it, she referred to how much it spoke to her. Like me, my sister is part of a generation older than millennials and so this message is true for many people, people of all ages. One of the reasons to pay attention to young people and youth culture is that it is in younger folks that the truths about our culture are most overt, more intense. But we’re all part of the culture and the intense desire for meaningful work… indeed, a meaningful life… is broadly true, not the least for the Baby Boomer parents of Millennials facing retirement and who increasingly wonder what’s it’s all been for.
An early 21st century study of youth spirituality in the United States called the National Study of Youth and Religion found that most teenagers “have a positive view of religion but otherwise don’t give it much thought.” (17) This is one of the findings former youth pastor and one of the researchers of the study, Kenda Creasy Dean, focuses on in her book based on the study titled Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. I have only read small parts, but just the first chapter offers searing insight and uncomfortable truth about who we are as Christians and what it is we’re doing in church. Mostly there is no overt rejection of Christianity but rather, it is just not considered at all.
Dean contends that “we have successfully convinced teenagers that religious participation is important for moral formation and for making nice people… [but] these young people possess no real commitment to or excitement about religious faith. Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.” (6) The introduction gets particularly uncomfortable as it flips the script to argue that “the blasé religiosity of most… teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel…” She asks hard questions like: “What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum asset?” What if it is a ho-hum lacking in purpose similar to that which the author of the resignation letter decries?
I haven’t gotten far enough to find out how she addresses the theological questions imbedded in the overall results of the study and point of the book. But she does name theology among the core problems… perhaps THE core problem. As such, finding the right method or program is not the issue. The issue is a theological one with the answer being a cultural change where churches teach young people, by themselves practicing, a “‘consequential’ faith – a faith that matters enough to issue in a distinctive identity and way of life.” (22) This does not equate to a theology espousing Christian exclusivism, personal morality mostly with regard to sex, and an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, literalist view of scripture. The point, rather, is about claiming who we are as followers of a Risen Christ in a robust and passionate way. The point is about fearlessly asking big questions, graciously debating how now we believe, and being willing to be theologically thrown when grace and love call for it. It’s about boldly living with question: “what are you willing to give up for the sake of love?”
While not stated in quite that way, today we hear Jesus proclaim the heart of Christian discipleship in the Gospel according to Matthew. The speech began by giving instructions about proclaiming the Good News of God’s kingdom, as Jesus has been doing, and warning the disciples of coming persecutions. Today, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter with a call to courageous confession and to follow in Jesus’ way of loving sacrifice above all else.
Jesus reminds the disciples that we are not above our teacher, Jesus, but that we are to strive to be like him. Far from being a call to low self-esteem or eschewing of responsibility, this call reiterates the framing of the whole speech that we heard last Sunday with the disciples lives and calling to ministry mirroring that of Jesus himself. More, Jesus ups the ante of this parallel by extending it through to difficult, life and death choices. “… The parallels between the disciples’ lives and that of Jesus, [include] sharing the same fate of rejection and persecution.” (NIB, 260) As the first disciples will soon find out, being like Jesus is not about earthly glory or power or success. Indeed, being like Jesus means trouble and pain as the path to abundant life.
Jesus’ call to courageous confession continues with a repeated injunction to not be afraid. “Have no fear of them…” Jesus says. I wonder to which “them” Jesus was referring but then its vagueness means that we can mentally fill it in with whichever “them” we might be afraid of… terrorists, Muslims, evangelicals, new Canadians, old Canadians, young people… the list is almost endless in its possibilities. Have no fear of whatever “them” scares you the most. Instead, hold fast to truth and light and to Jesus’ promise that the fullness of light and truth will one day be completely revealed. In the meantime, Jesus proclaims, do not fear, not even death, for you are loved… fully, completely, without reservation. Reminiscent of the “do not worry” section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assures the disciples… Jesus assures us… that every hair of our head is counted. We are beloved. It is from our identity as beloved children of God that we draw courage and strength to follow Jesus’ command to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. Do not be afraid.
Having issued the command to courageous confession, Jesus then turns to the most difficult part of the speech. The discipleship to which we are called is not without price. The discipleship to which we are called is costly. The commitment for which God asks through Jesus is a commitment of our whole lives. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” It is a mouthful, to be sure, and it is a passage we would just as soon ignore in favour of a comfortable and nice Christian faith that doesn’t ask too much of us. Ho-hum assent to a watered-down Gospel might sound pretty good. And yet not engaging with these strong, even offensive, words of Jesus sends a bad message. It means that it’s okay to simply ignore what we don’t like, what is hard or uncomfortable or challenging and worse, it means we abdicate passionate faith to those who would use such passages to promote division, oppression and violence. Instead, we must wrestle with what it means to put our confession of faith in Christ above all else… above even family relationships and even our own lives. Because that – a faith that has sacrificial love in death and in life at its core is a faith that can change the world. It is a faith much more robust than is what Dean calls “benign whatever-ism.” It is a faith that “bear[s ]God’s life-altering, world-changing, fear-shattering good news…” (24)
The discipleship to which Jesus calls us is anything but ho-hum or benign. It is courageous in pushing boundaries and thinking differently. More than an extra-curricular activity or volunteer task, it is a faith that makes a difference to something bigger than a bottom line. If we take Jesus’ teaching to heart and get on with letting go of our lives for the sake of God’s great love made manifest in Jesus, we need not worry about attracting or retaining anybody in our community. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”