The Joy of Struggle

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Let us pray, Lord be in my heart, my mind and my mouth such that only your word is spoken, only your word is heard. Amen.

You know, Luke is a working Gospel. It's a hard teaching Gospel, a demanding discipleship. It never lets up from the birth narrative on. It calls us to be at work, doing something, understanding something all the time.

Here's what I think of. Are we there yet? This oft repeated question of children to their parents on the summer vacation trip represents the feelings of many of us Christians as we age. Our energies flagging, and yet always seeing there is more to do. Recently I visited a 91 year-old parishioner who greeted me with this impatient statement. "I'm ready to go now. I don't know why I'm here and the Lord won't take me. I can't do anything any more. When am I going home?" She professes herself ready for the next life, even now tired out by all the challenges of the 91 years she has lived.

In this season after Pentecost the long summer and the early fall we look at work learning and we have time now for some reflection. What we are learning is who this man, Jesus, is. He is a person who forgives sins. He heals the sick of all kind, spiritually ill, physically ill and in our own day we might say psychologically or emotionally. He heals all of these wounds. He returns the dead to life and he teaches a most upsetting Gospel. He challenges the very foundations of institutional religion of his day. He challenges the ideas of ordinary people about ordinary things in the world, when they know that it should go to the left, and he says no, it needs to go right.

So here we are finding ourselves in the world today looking for God, seeking a way to grow more faithful and obedient as Christians. Avery Brook has prepared an entire book looking at how we find God in the world. How can we see the traces? How can we see Good's footsteps in our midst? We have spent this entire season learning the expectations of covenant relationships. Learning that it is not an easy life, this life of the Christian. To be disciples we have to teach the way of life to ourselves and to others and the teaching comes as we open ourselves to the spirit of God who will guide and lead us.

We have said this entire season that we need to be servants and when we are servants we are at the mercy of the needs of other people. It feels like we are bearing burdens that are much too heavy for us. And these burdens the servanthood requires, feeding and healing and helping all who are in need. There are wonderful examples of persons who have given their lives like that. One of my most favorite examples is Mother Teresa. A part of her story is that her servanthood began not because she loved those people who were dying, not because she loved all those people with all those diseases she was actually terrified of. But in giving herself to Christ, seeing Christ in them, she loved and hugged them to her bosom, overcoming all of her natural human fears.

Disciples are to be prophets in preaching the good news of the reign of God and that preaching is not only from those persons who may stand in some pulpit at some time, or stand up in front of some group of people and proclaim on a given day this is the word of the Lord. But that prophetic preaching is in the every day lives of all of us who proclaim Christ as Lord and Savior. This is the tough expectation of covenant relationship with God. It is that hardness that I continue to find in the Christ of Luke who sets his face toward Jerusalem and never turns back. And his teachings become more intense and more challenging for all who would hear, invites us to do the service of God in the world. He insures that we are gifted by the spirit, and that we will be enabled to do the ministry.

So those of us living in the twentieth, nearly the twenty-first Century America, in a society that we have labeled in all kinds of ways, secular, hedonistic, humanistic, atheistic, agnostic, all of those are labels. They simply represent some of the kinds of things that we face that have always been faced by human beings for a call to a way of life, to a way of belief, that says what we see, what we feel and touch is not all that there is. There is good news beyond that and that good news is in God given to us by Jesus Christ. That good news is not readily understood by those of us who seek to follow Jesus today, just as it wasn't by those who followed long ago.

I have a favorite little book called "Mister God, This is Anna." It is a wonderful little story about a little girl whose life was not very long but she was very bright and precocious, especially about spiritual things. And so her guardian took her to church one day, put her in Sunday School and left her and she joined him later for the regular service. When the Sunday service was over he asked how did you like it? Oh it was really very good we learned about Mister Jesus and Mister God. So as the week went on she began to share some of those things as she played in the yard. She played with her friends and companions and she went to school. So the next Sunday she was waked up and prepared to go to church, and she said why are we going back? Didn't you get it the first time? I thought you understood. And so she did. Because she lived her life open to all that would be present for her, just as Jesus opened himself continuously to God.

We are faced, unlike Anna at that age and that time, with many distractions. Unlike Anna, we are not able to say, in the morning when we wake up, Mr. God this is Anna. Today I have to go to school and there is this kid, you see, who has been causing me some problems. Now, Mr. God I'd like very much for you to help me with him. And expecting a response, guess what? She got an answer.

Listening prayer is probably the hardest ever to practice. It means we must quiet ourselves. It means we need to empty ourselves of all of those things that drive us to distraction because they are distractions and create an empty space that is already full of the presence of God if we would but hear him. Once we do that it becomes so easy to recognize the need for Christ-like behavior in our own lives, but we do it a lot more easily than others. Yet, it is a lot easier to recognize it than it is to do it.

Being a disciple may have some spiritual benefits. But the economic costs seem more than most of us are willing to pay. Discipleship is high and costly work. It means paying attention, acting in the moment, persisting in spite of the hardship and letting go of our need for glory. And then even in this lesson we are promised that the end of time is not a wonderful thing. In Malachi, for example, the day is coming, burning like an oven when all the evildoers will be stubble. But there is the promise for those who revere my name, the Son of Righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.

And then Jesus says in Luke, the day will come when not one stone will be left upon another, all will be thrown down. This will give you an opportunity to testify. For I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. This terrible day sounds like the future ending of all things, but could it be? Might it be our future begins. Could it not be that this right relationship with God, this struggle and hard work has a gift hidden in it as we persist to the end. And that gift is the very presence of God.

So perhaps our struggle this year has not been in vain. Perhaps our reflection will show us that something wonderful has begun to happen in our lives today. Because we realize that the cost of salvation is myself in large and capital letters and the gift in that cost is Christ's very self in us.

The cost of discipleship, we are told over and over, is obedience to God and imbedded in that cost the gift of freedom. We know that the cost of work is service to us, long hours, tired bodies, weary minds. And it is all for the glory of God. And the gift imbedded in that strenuous activity is joy in the Lord. The good news is that we are all followers, not pioneers, and God holds us all close throughout all our life's journey. We are indeed beloved and blest.

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