Sunday, June 05, 2005

Graduation Sermon at Salem First United Methodist Church

Matthew 10:5-10, 16
(5) These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, (6) but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (7) As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' (8) Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (9) Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, (10) no sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

(16) "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…"

Today's text is really Jesus' graduation address to his disciples. You see, they've been enrolled in the Jesus of Nazareth Vocational School for Spreading the Good News of God, – on the summer intensive program, so far as I can tell – and now it's graduation day. It's time for them to move out and enter the "real world," so Jesus has some parting words for them.

But it's not really a very good commencement address, is it? I mean, graduation messages are supposed to be positive and affirming. Like: "you can make a difference" or "You can change the world if you put your mind to it" or, in the immortal worlds of Rob Schneider, "You can do it." Graduation speeches are supposed to be happy.

Clearly, Jesus has not been to many of these events before. I mean, he's got it all wrong. Far from happy and affirming, this speech is downright terrifying. First, he tells the disciples that they're going to have to do things that they certainly haven't been trained for: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Come on now… their supposed to raise the dead? Then, he tells them not to take any money with them on their trip. Now, we know that most new graduates don't usually have much money, but does he really have to rub it in? And finally he says, "I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves." What is that?!? That's not affirming, it's frightening.

No Jesus' remarks are completely inappropriate. It's no wonder his school wasn't open long. Inadequate training… terrible conditions… and now he nearly scares the graduates to death with this… I don't know… doom and gloom.

No, this is a problem. Let's look at the facts. First these disciples have already left their homes, and their jobs, and their families. They've given up everything that is comfortable and normal and familiar just to follow this Jesus character. They've got no kind of security whatsoever. All they have is their trust in Jesus that he'll take care of them. Second, they haven't been with Jesus very long. I mean, we're in Chapter 10 and the Gospel of Matthew is 28 chapters long. They've hardly even met the guy. All they've done so far is follow him around and try to figure out what he's up to. No training. No experience.

And what does Jesus do? He jumps right to the graduation. He kicks them out on their own to do all of the work, and they don't know how to do it. No, this is simply too much change in too short a period of time. It is not possible. What kind of crumby leader is this Jesus guy, anyway? He is expecting too much too soon!

But in truth, don't we all have times when we're asked to do too much too soon? At times, don't we all feel hung out to dry, abandoned, vulnerable, even like sheep among wolves?

Think of those transition points that you've had in your life – those times of change. Were you really prepared to leave your parents behind for the first time and go off to school? Or were you really prepared to leave your elementary school and go the big kid school with lockers, and bells, and passing times? Were you really prepared when you left your family home to go out into the world as an adult for work or college? Were you prepared for that first real job? Did you know how to deal with your first great love? Your first broken heart? Did you know what to do when you lost your job? Were you prepared for marriage? Were you prepared for divorce? Did you know how a child would change your life forever? Did you know how to deal with illness when it came? Were you ready to let your children grow up and live life on their own? Were you prepared for death when it came knocking? Were you prepared to live long enough to see all your friends die? Will you be prepared when you come to die? Are we ever prepared?

About a year ago I had my first experience of Field Education. I was assigned as a student chaplain in a nursing home, working mostly with residents who suffered from dementia. Now, I didn't have any experience that qualified me for this work, not a single course in pastoral care. So I met with my supervisor and shared with him my fear about not being adequate, about not knowing what to do or how to do it? I said I needed some training before I could possibly be expected to go out there and face people. He agreed and said that we would work on getting me some training. Then, as our meeting ended, he said, "I've got to go now. Why don't you go and introduce yourself and visit with some of the residents?" Had he forgotten what we had just talked about? I wasn't ready to do that. I didn't know how to talk with residents who had dementia. It was too much too soon.

I imagine each one of us could think of similar examples in our own lives when we weren't prepared to deal with the changing world ahead of us. We might have been afraid, overconfident, or completely blind to the challenge that was before us. But we have all had those times when the change was coming too fast for us to handle.

And this isn't just an individual matter. The church itself has these same struggles with change. Are we ever prepared when a new pastor is assigned? Do we know how to live together when political differences divide? How can we work together when sometimes we don't even like each other? What happens when the neighborhood, and the city, and the world change around us? What do we do when "the way things have always been" doesn't seem work the same way it used to? What happens when the things we trusted in start to fail? How can we find our way when everything that is comfortable and safe and secure suddenly dissolves and we are thrust out into a whole new existence, just like those twelve disciples who were uprooted from everything that they knew and thrown into a hostile world full of wolves just waiting to devour them?

Fortunately, Jesus gives us three big clues about this, and the first two come together: be wise as the serpent and innocent as the dove. Let's unpack what that means.

First, be as wise as the serpent. The very same Greek words used here can be found in Genesis 3, where it says, "The serpent was the craftiest of all the creatures God had made." Crafty and wise are the same word in Greek. That serpent in Genesis usually gets a pretty bad rap for being sly and tricky, for fooling humans into disobeying God. But for whatever reason, Jesus tells his disciples to be just as wise, just as crafty, sly, and prudent as that old serpent.

In other words, Jesus tells us to use our brains. We are to keep seeking after knowledge, like the serpent sought knowledge. We should keep thinking rationally about everything that we believe. We should analyze what we do to see what is working well, and what needs to be improved. Most importantly, we should never stop asking questions. So that's the first piece of Jesus' advice: keep using your brains and be just as crafty as a serpent.

Second, Jesus says to be innocent like doves. Another way of translating that is to be whole and complete like the dove. Now, if the serpent is the symbol for wisdom, then the dove is surely the symbol of the spirit. After all, Matthew has described to us earlier how the Holy Spirit descended onto Jesus like a dove.

In other words, we are supposed to keep using our spirits, just like we are to keep using our minds. It's explained more completely a few verses down when Jesus says, "don't worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit… speaking through you." We need to keep being open to the action of the Spirit in our lives. Most of all, we need to let go of all of the fear and folly that comes from thinking life is all about us. When we think that it's all about us, we are slaves to our pride when we succeed and our guilt when we fail. A great saint of the church once said, "Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-aggrandizement." Either can block us from the freedom that God offers through the Holy Spirit. But trusting the Spirit can open us up to grace sufficient to carry us through even in scary sitiations. It certainly helped on my first day at that nursing home… words came that I didn't know were there.

So, we are to use our minds like serpents and use our spirits like doves. Both are essential. We need to have both faith and learning.

Third, and finally, Jesus tells us to be like him. Did you notice? All of the things that Jesus says to do – proclaim the kingdom, raise the dead, give without payment – it's exactly what Jesus has been doing for the last six chapters. In other words, Jesus tells his disciples to: Be Jesus. Be Christ to the world.

You might have heard of Double-Predestination, but have you heard of Double-Incarnation? Double-Incarnation is the idea that, first, God's love for the World was incarnated – literally was made into flesh – in Jesus Christ, and second, that we can also be an incarnation, an enfleshment, of that same love that God has for the world. Take a moment with me to hold out your hands and look at them. See the skin and all of its creases and wrinkles. Notice how the muscles work to move the bones. See the little hairs, and the scars, and the calluses and the warts. Your hands are the hands of Christ. So use them as the hands of Christ, the way that Christ would use them. Treat everyone you meet the same way that you would treat Christ. And when people look at you, let them see Christ in you.

When we let Christ live in us, and through us, somehow the worries, dreads, angers, and fears about change begin to fade. We can face with integrity all of those scary things that life puts in front of us. We shed the self-centered false self and blossom into our true selves, made in the image of God. When we all do this, the Church becomes the whole Body of Christ, working together because of our differences, not in spite of them.

So be crafty like a serpent. Nurture your whole spirit like a dove. Be Christ to the world. And as you strive for these things, know that wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever perils are before you, whatever winds of change are blowing, God goes with you. God, Christ, and the Spirit go with us all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is beyond excellent, David.

Mary Ann

4:53 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Very well done. Thanks for posting this.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very detailed and very wise sermon...Thanks!

8:54 AM  

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