Monday, May 06, 2013

The Next Step

Matthew 10:5-20

“To laugh - is to risk [looking like] a fool. To [cry] - is to risk being called sentimental. To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.  To love - is to risk not being loved in return.  To try - is to risk failure; but risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing at all.” William Ward

We often have grand ideas about sticking our necks out for something with the expectation that it will work out "if God wills it" or if we plan carefully, but even then we often hold back a substantial part of ourselves for lack of a guarantee, some reasonable assurance that the potential reward will outweigh any risk - failing as we do to appreciate the value and reward of we only think of as failure!  As some of this nation's greatest entrepreneurs have discovered, God's will is not always aligned with our own will or our understanding of what "success" really means, that their greatest sources of achievement came at great risk and substantial loss. 

Yet failure is not only the inherent risk of any endeavor but is perhaps also a necessary rite of passage because hard lessons, even those that break our hearts, will ultimately produce much more in the long run than when everything just seems to work out.  It is why inherited wealth or a sudden lottery jackpot are often much more a curse than a blessing because the acquisition of that wealth required no sacrifice, no discipline, certainly no hard work - though the "hard lessons" will come soon enough.  By that time, however, it may be too late - and the wealth long gone, and they find themselves worse off than before. 

Every successful journey involves risk, and risk always produces bumps and bruises - like learning to ride a bicycle!  How many of us would even know how to ride a bicycle if we quit after the first skinned knee, reasoning that the skinned knee as a "failure" indicates that it cannot be done?? 

Ministry is no different, particularly in outreach and evangelism, those "compartmentalized" efforts of the church that are more misunderstood than appreciated for their value.  Many churches have tried the door-to-door approach to ministry by reaching out to neighbors, ringing doorbells, shaking hands, passing out fliers, and trying to encourage these neighbors to visit the church.  One thing these ministers have learned over time is that in order to get just one visitor, they must be willing to knock on 100 doors.  Our Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses friends have discovered (as they have told me) that to reach just one lost soul, they must be willing to be cursed and spit on by at least 500 "Christians"!  See what I mean about "compartmentalized" ministry, when we "Christians" fail to understand that our work and witness in Christ is our daily living?  Our worship is Sunday, but our "work" is Monday-Saturday!

Still, these door-to-door ministers understand this kind of outreach is no easy task and comes with no guaranteed success - at least as we measure success.  They have endured many more failures than they have successes, and yet they persevere.  Why?  Why would anyone put themselves through this kind of nonsense that has no visible, tangible reward?  They endure, first of all, because they care about and appreciate the mission itself for what it is.  They endure, secondly, because they choose to see past the failure.

The so-called "mainline" denominations might give it a shot every few years, but there is no real excitement or commitment about doing it because they remember the failures of past efforts and lose sight (assuming they ever had a vision!) of why such efforts are to be made in the first place.  We write off the "failed" efforts of the past as hard lessons learned, another "thing" that just will not work, another failed idea.  So our neighbors never hear from us again, and we're ok with that because a) we think we've done the "Lord's work", and b) we reason amongst ourselves that "at least they know where we are" should they change their minds and decide to pay us a visit.

The point is not whether knocking on doors - or any other particular effort - will work because it is not about the work itself; it is about what we intend to accomplish and why we work in the first place that should motivate us and drive us to excellence.  It is the very essence of discipleship, of discovery.  We must learn to look through the inevitable failures, not ignore them and certainly never surrender to them.  For it is as St. Paul wrote to the Romans: "We boast in our sufferings (what we may think of as "failures"), knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope ... and hope does not disappoint" (Romans 5:3-5)

Well, that all depends on where our hope lies.  It all depends on what we hope for.  We do always hope for something, but we cannot say our hope is always fulfilled.  And because our hope is often misplaced, we fail to appreciate the blessing it can be that we do not always get what we think we want.  Thus we never, never, EVER think to give thanks to our Lord for the adversity we will inevitably face if we choose to take risks.

Jesus assured His disciples of one thing: You will be dragged before ... councils and synagogues and governors and kings - and beaten - because of Me.  Now we can clearly see the disciples are being sent on a particular mission to do a particular thing, but here is where our own hope in such efforts loses sight of the actual mission.  WE think the mission is to increase the size of the Church, but Jesus says this is the mission: "Proclaim the Good News".  It would appear that Jesus' instructions are being given to prepare the disciples for what is ahead, but I think we must look at the mission itself as the "preparation" for other things to come - like the day when our Lord will no longer be there to instruct us. 

We embark on any mission with a goal in mind.  We have plans to achieve these goals, but we fail to understand in our efforts that our plans must never be ours and our goals must never be "compartmentalized" to the extent that we put "religious stuff" over here and "secular stuff" over there.  Assuming we are genuine, baptized disciples of Messiah seeking the Face of God, everything we do can only be in one, single category: our lives; and the "mission" can only be one thing regardless of what we intend to accomplish.

Jesus says success is found by "those who lose their life for My sake" (Mt 10:39), for it is only then when our true and lasting life will ultimately be found, when we give up the life we only think is real.  Here again, however, is the danger of "compartmentalizing" our lives; we think Jesus is referring ONLY to physical death. 

Yet we should see that we face adversity in religion and even in living a secular life of faith because the life we are called to lead is the polar opposite of what the world expects and demands (remember Jesus says, "The world hated Me first").  So we tend to view "failure" as a sign from Above that we are going in the wrong direction according to how the world responds to us, but we do not come to this conclusion as a result of a focused and intentional life devoted to prayer and discipleship; we draw this conclusion based on our own standards of achievement.

Our "next step", then, cannot be determined by a sermon, nor by a few hand-selected verses of Scripture, nor by a prayer "here and there" like when we don't get our own way, and certainly not by human desire or human measures of achievement.  For you see, whether we are taking our next steps into the greater world from high school, from college, or from this very moment in worship it is not about "achievement" - it is about "priorities".  "Seek first the Kingdom of God - THEN - all these things [the necessities of life] will be added to you".    

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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