The disciples – they were serious followers of Jesus, the ones who made big changes in their lives, the ones who would be the foundations for the Jesus movement. And how do we fit into that vision?
It was in China in 1989 that the world watched in horror as tanks rolled over protesting students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as soldiers fired on the protesting students in Beijing and elsewhere in the country, as people fled for their lives after weeks of protests.
The death toll for the protesters is not clear. It varies widely from the hundreds to the thousands. The scar on the Chinese psyche is much clearer.
So you can understand why Chinese dissidents who had been in Tiananmen Square that day had reasons to be inquisitive a few years ago when they met with Steve Garber. Garber is an author, a teacher, a consultant who has been in Madison the last few days meeting with a variety of Christian groups in the general area of the University of Wisconsin campus.
The Chinese students, now living in America, were meeting with thinkers from various religious and philosophical traditions They still cared deeply about their native land and hope that some day they might return and help change the conditions of life there. They wondered if there was any philosophical basis for going back to a place they cared about but where they would risk suffering, even death.
Does Christianity have anything to say about that, they asked Garber.
How might you respond to a question like that?
And what does that question have to do with the story from the Gospel of Mark that we heard today that strips the teachings of Jesus down to their essence: love God “with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind and with all your strength” and then “love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’ll come back to the Chinese visitors and Steve Garber in a while. I think the words of Jesus, the challenge from the dissidents, the experiences in our own lives all help shape how we think and act as followers of Jesus.
Here’s one word for how we might describe ourselves: disciples.
Here’s how I think about the people who followed Jesus in his lifetime. There were the apostles – the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.
There was the wider group of people who gathered to hear him teach, to watch him heal people. They sat on a hillside for the Sermon on the Mount, they enjoyed the abundance of loaves and fishes when they day got long, they walked with him from Bethany into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his life. It’s a big group with shifting numbers, people interested, people affected by his life and message and people still pretty much living as they always did.
The group in between the apostles and the crowds were the disciples. They were serious followers of Jesus, the ones who made big changes in their lives, the ones who would be the foundations for the Jesus movement that helped spread his message after his death and resurrection.
Jesus sent out 70 or so disciples in pairs to help spread the word as he worked his way through Galilee, acting as advance teams to the villages he would be visiting. As his execution was coming close, the told his followers, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And after his resurrection, he told his followers, “go and make disciples of all nations.”
I think our task here at Memorial is to help each other be disciples. We’re not inner circle sorts of folks – at least not on most days. And I think we are more than spectators standing at the edges of the crowd, although there are surely days and times in our lives when we simply need to step back a bit.
For the most part, though, I think we fall into the category of disciples. We try to live out that essential message of Jesus – love God, love others as we love ourselves. We express the love of God in many ways, but we do it collectively here on Sunday mornings as well as other times when we gather as a community in prayer. And we express the love of God and the love of others in the ways we care for one another and for the world around us.
This is stewardship season at Memorial, so we are all asked to think about how we use our time and our talents and our money. One purpose, of course, is to ask you to consider how you will support the operations of Memorial in the coming year. That’s important to allow us a community to serve one another and the world. That’s important in to allow you to thoughtfully assess how you use the resources that you have.
But being a disciple of Jesus is about far more than the number you might put on your pledge card. It’s about far more than helping out with fellowship or singing in the choir or teaching Sunday school or serving a meal at Luke House or all the many other valuable things we do here under the umbrella of Memorial UCC.
A few weeks ago, I asked people here to send me lists of the groups outside of Memorial UCC where they volunteer their time or contribute some of their money. Almost 50 of you replied. The ripples of how you live as disciples is pretty amazing. I’d urge you to think about this in terms of living as disciples, as being more than just good citizens.
There are about 160 different places where those 50 people volunteer. If we added on the volunteer efforts of those who did not have a chance to reply, just imagine the reach of how you use your talents.
And the list of financial support is even longer, hitting some 225 groups. The range of financial support is as close as the Second Harvest Food Bank and Briarpatch and as global as Doctors Without Borders and the Heifer Project. They touch health and poverty and culture and the environment and media and justice, to name some of the broad categories.
People are giving their time in advocacy work on behalf of prison reform and emotional and spiritual support to prisoners through things like MOSES and the Prison Ministry Project and Sister House and Madison-area Urban Ministry. They are doing neighborhood work and Scouting, tackling the causes and effects of poverty, battling domestic violence and helping maintain prairies and gardens.
One of our members wrote, “When I go grocery shopping, I buy a box of Cliff Bars to give to the homeless people I see under the bridges of the bike path on my commute and to the many people I see outside my office downtown.”
Another is helping an individual family with monthly rental payments. Some work with vets on Badger Honor Flights, others work as volunteers with children in classrooms. Some travel overseas on medical missions.
The list goes on and on. You can see it on our web site – no names are attached, but the range of activities and involvements there will stun you.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We can feel good as a community about that. But we should also recognize that Jesus kept reminding his disciples that walking this road with him was not about feeling good or being self-satisfied. He reminded them that there were plenty of risks in being a disciple, that loving one another comes with a cost.
Remember in the Beatitudes, those sayings that opened his Sermon on the Mount, when he said. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
Remember the rich young man who came up to Jesus to tell him that he had been doing everything right, following all the laws and wanted to know what more he could do? “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Remember what he told his closest followers when they wanted to protect him from the plots forming against him: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
That brings me back to those Chinese visitors talking with Steve Garber a few years back. Is there any philosophical basis for going back to a place they cared about but where they would risk suffering, even death. Does Christianity have anything to say about that?
I think it does.
We are disciples of someone who walked the roads of his homeland trying to make life better for those he encountered, but challenging not just his disciples to change the way they lived but also challenging the powerful – whether in the temple or the halls of the rulers – to act with justice.
He did that knowing he risked suffering, even death. But his story did not end with his death on the cross. The power of Jesus story, what Christianity has to say about this, is that death and evil do not get the last word.
The sacrifices Jesus made, the sacrifices made by Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany and Rev. Martin Luther King in America and Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador – those sacrifices were costly to each individual and to those they loved, but they also continued to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.
They were disciples who loved God and who loved their neighbors even as they loved themselves. That’s what Christianity has to say to the Chinese dissidents.
Let me end with one more story of someone risking suffering, even death, to change the world around him.
Many of you probably heard of the appearance this week by Bryan Stephenson, the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. He is an attorney whose work has gotten innocent people off death row, has altered the way the courts deal with juvenile offenders. The stories he tells in his book bring to life the arbitrariness of the court system and the inhumanity of the racist structures whose effects still poison our nation.
Beyond the stories, he called on us to think about four things if we want to change the world for the better.
We need to be proximate to the situations and people we care about. When you sit at a table at Luke House with other diners, you begin to enter their world. When you share a cup of coffee at the Good Neighbors Personal Essentials Pantry with a patron, you learn a bit about their lives. When you help a visitor to the Micah Center at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi or push the wheelchair for a veteran on a Badger Honor Flight and sit with an inmate in prison, their stories become part of your life.
As we enter into the lives of those who are suffering and oppressed, Stevenson said, we need to change the narratives in our world that sustain inequality and injustice. We talked last week about the impact of fear on our lives. Stevenson said “when you root policies in fear and anger, you will abuse other people.” We need to shape a narrative of inclusion and justice.
Third, in the midst of all this, we have to stay hopeful. “Hopelessness is the enemy of ending injustice,” he said. People can change. Situations can change.
But then, too, we have to do uncomfortable things if we want the world to change. That’s the fourth thing. We have to risk being broken ourselves in the midst of helping others and ending injustice.
In his book, describing a night when he felt totally exhausted and defeated, he wrote: “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something…our shared brokenness connects us.” And then he reminded his readers: “Even as we are caught in a web of hurt and brokenness, we’re also in a web of healing and mercy.”
He told of a woman he met on the steps of a courthouse after two very tough cases. Fifteen years earlier, she had lost a 16-year old grandson to a murder. They talked. She had come to forgive her grandson’s killers. She did not want more suffering in the world. So she came to the courthouse to let those who were suffering lean on her.
Evoking the image of the story of Jesus facing a woman about to be stoned, inviting those without sin to cast the first stone and watching the men drop their stones one by one, the woman on the steps told Bryan, “I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
We can’t all be Bryan Stevenson and win great legal victories in the U.S. Supreme Court. We can’t all be Martin Luther King, Jr. and lead a freedom movement. We can’t all be those brave Chinese dissidents looking for a way to risk their lives to transform their nation.
But we can all be disciples, maybe catching some of those stones that might otherwise be thrown, maybe offering a smile over a meal or an offering money to sustain a program or supporting music that will lift the spirits of one in despair.
We can all be disciples who love. We can all answer that call of Jesus to folks along the shores of the lake in Galilee. Let’s sing about it. It’s a hymn that’s familiar. It’s hymn #173, “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore.” Let’s sing the first three verses.