Rev. Pamela Shepherd

The book of Acts tells the story of what happens when the Spirit of God is let loose in community–when the spirit Jesus promised comes to the people like tongues of fire and turns them into people of God.

The Great Story of our biblical faith begins with Creation and ends with Redemption, when everything is brought Home into God. This is the story Jesus taught. He taught the people the story of God’s Salvation history, and he claimed that in our lives is the very place God’s found. He called this Evangelion—good news. The good news was not about Jesus. The good news was God’s Salvation History; the good news was all about God.

Last week I preached that God brings us goodness and mercy. This week I want to mention that our faith can get you killed.

This reading, from the Book of Acts, tells the story of Stephen, a young man described as full of grace and power, with a face like the face of an angel, who begins to preach God’s Salvation history, just as the prophets, and Jesus, and Peter did.
But the crowd doesn’t reply by saying, “thank you for sharing. They pick up stones and kill him.

And then our strange history of the birth of the church drops in a telling detail: among those who will help God’s Salvation history go forward is a man named Saul—later called Paul—who holds the coats of those who stone Stephen, supporting their violence against him.

God’s salvation history keeps unfolding through the world’s least likely people. Which is good news for us, because now it’s our time–our time to choose how we’ll live. My sermon this morning is on the cost of discipleship—how that simple, joyful splashing at the baptismal font is meant to cost you everything you own.

Not only your possessions, that’s the simple part. It’s meant to cost the life you’re living. We come out of the water innocent and everything must change.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this path, the narrow way, and he writes that discipleship is not meant to create a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of men and women who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.

The way is hard, he wrote, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. It was published in Germany in 1937 just as the Nazi regime was coming into power.
Bonhoeffer lived his discipleship in Christ and his vision of the coming Kin-dom, and then died for it in a Nazi prison. Just as Jesus died for his vision of the kin-dom; just as Stephen, and Peter and Paul and scores of others did. We believe another world is possible. Creating it takes everything we own.

That is our story. That is our community story. The Grace of God is free and everywhere and open to all people. It is as liberal and free as an Ashland UCC baptism, and it will cost you everything you own.

It will call from you your self-sufficiency, and claim all of your money; it will call you to live against the culture and values your friends and neighbors choose. It will call you to find a way of living that does not exploit God’s poor, or hurt this holy planet. It is meant to cost you everything you own.

Not all at once. Thank God for that. But day by day we are called to live it.

Most of us will never be asked to die for our faith, but we should expect to be stretched and inconvenienced. We read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as operating instructions for how to live. We accept that if this faith path is truly followed, the very way we live will have to change.

I’ve always hoped the people of Ashland would be baffled and challenged when they look at our church. They’d have to choose for themselves whether God is Real and drawing all things to wholeness, or else if maybe we’re a little bit insane.

When people see how we spend our time, our gifts, our talents, and big chunks of our money, they should think, either those people are deluded and crazy, or maybe there is a God who holds this world, who holds us.

For God so loves the world…. Our lives should sing it. People should look at how we live and be challenged and be changed. Our goofy Jesus-following ways should make our neighbors nervous.

A Methodist minister friend of mine was the minister for an elderly white, middle-class congregation in San Francisco when the AIDS crisis broke out. People in the city were struggling to fight this health care pandemic on every front, and one of those fronts was a new idea to try a needle exchange program for IV Drug users so they wouldn’t share infected needles.

When this approach was first considered it was against the law for people to do that. But the minister suggested to her elderly, middle-class congregation that perhaps the city would review, and even change the law, if they were faced with arresting elderly, white-haired, Methodist grandmothers who were handing out needles and condoms on the street.

The congregation voted to participate and risk arrest, and it began them on a tradition of radically and joyfully serving the world outside their walls.

Some years later, a group of them was arrested for participating in a demonstration against some injustice or other. They were so busy by then, with a church culture of social activism that I can’t remember if it was a peace vigil or economic justice thing, or why exactly they were breaking the law. But they were arrested and convicted of breaking the law, and at the sentencing, instead of sending the elderly church folk to jail, the judge sentenced them to forty hours each of community service.

The Prosecutor went crazy. He’d had it with these troubling people. He jumped to his feet in protest and shouted, You don’t understand, your Honor. These people like that sort of thing!

That is what it means to be a follower of our world-crazy Jesus. It means we risk our wealth, our lives, our reputations. Sometimes it means breaking the law and sometimes it means dying. It always means that we must forgive everybody everything, and must claim for ourselves, and the whole human race, the sweet tender mercy of God.

We don’t have to judge anybody. We don’t have to scold. We don’t have to try to convert other people. We just choose to live baptized, like our world-crazy Jesus, and the rest we leave up to God.