I was here at the church the day after it was announced I was your new pastor. That was one of the unique aspects of this particular move. Our covenant team meets each week in the parlor, at least we did until the pandemic began, to talk about life and ministry.
On this particular day, however, I walked up the ramp to the sanctuary entrance, to go through the same door I walked into each time we met. I was with a couple of other pastors and we were talking about the uniqueness of walking in knowing I would be coming here to serve in a few months. It was at that moment I noticed something I had never noticed before. I looked down and I saw a row of bricks, each with the names and dates of service for the pastors who have served faithfully here with love. I looked down and couldn’t help but wonder if, one day, I would be placed along that row of bricks.
Lots have changed since that day. I am still walking up that same ramp, but this time to serve as your pastor. I will admit that this particular transition is not what any of us imagined back in March. I didn’t believe for a moment that on our second week together we would be gathered in our cars and online to worship. I never imagined we would be socially distant from one another unable to really meet and get to know one another except for the use of technology, which I am appreciative to have. None of us imagined this would be life, but yet we press forward with the hope of Christ knowing that God is with us, even when it is hard and challenging.
While this transition may not have the normal components to it, we still have the same hopes and desires for God to bring forth a blessing in this new season together. We still have the same questions of where will God lead us and what am I about as a pastor. You’re starting to get a sense of me, in a way, already. I am someone who loves the liturgy of the church. I believe in the connection of the Methodist movement and working together as one body. I believe in having a good laugh, even as we do hard and serious work together. I believe in being a servant leader who shows the way by my example, which I pray is one of humility, grace, and hope in all things.
In all of that though, there is one overarching thing about me that really guides me as a follower of Christ and a pastor. Our passage, this morning, from Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23 gives us an opportunity to reflect upon that and that is discipleship.
Chapter 13 in Matthew’s gospel is one of the most important chapters in his account of Jesus’ life. It is there that we find Jesus surrounded by a large crowd of people wanting to hear from him and, also, to experience some of his healing miracles. Jesus uses the moment to teach about the kingdom of God that he has come to inaugurate and we are living in. So, he goes out to the Sea of Galilee and gets on a boat. The valley and ridges of the hillside surrounding the sea serve as an echo chamber to enable the large crowd to hear from Jesus.
What they hear are a series of parables that expressing something about the kingdom of God. Each of the seven parables use things that the people of Jesus’ time would have been familiar with to convey a deeper element of truth. They are stories, often with the use of allegory, in order to teach what it means to follow Christ and be part of God’s kingdom.
So, Jesus invites them into the story and calls them to listen. Here, to listen is not to just pay attention to what Jesus was saying by giving space for him to speak. It is to pay attention to Jesus’ words, to reflect upon them, and put into practice what he is calling the people into through the stories.
This particular story, though, is of a sower who goes out to prepare the field. The Galilean region where Jesus spent a majority of his earthly life and ministry was known as an agricultural area. It would not have been uncommon to see fields and farmers trying to plant on the difficult soil over top of limestone. In the story, the sower goes out and throws seeds across the field. This was the normal way to sow seeds for a large field. The seeds fall into different types of soil – some along the path, some barely go much further down into the ground than the topsoil, and some are thrown into thorn bushes. Some, though, go right into the good soil and produce fruit.
What is going on in this story? We need to unpack the elements a little bit. The seed is representative of the word of God and the witness of Christ. It is shared into our hearts by Jesus and those who seek to follow in Christ and inspire others to do the same. The word of God gives witness to the truth of God’s holy love and the living witness of the kingdom of God. The soils represent that various types of receptiveness to God’s word. Some seeds will fall along the paths and quickly fade away. Some will only make it to the top soil and not foster deep roots into the soil and waters. Some seeds will get placed into the thorns and get choked off. However, some soils will land in good ground that fosters fruit. Fruit of discipleship that leads to transformed lives that reflect the nature of Christ in all that we do.
When we break down the pieces of the parable, we see that this story is really about discipleship and our willingness to live for Christ. Even though the word discipleship is never used in the New Testament, the aspect of what it means to follow Christ and put into practice his teaching is at the essence of everything we read in Scripture. Discipleship is about recognizing that we are on a journey of faith of growing in the likeness of Christ through our acts of worship, Spiritual growth, and service into the community. It recognizes that faith is not about a one-day decision to accept Jesus as our Lord, but that it is a daily commitment of having our entire lives formed and shaped by Christ’s indwelling love and words. Discipleship inspires us not to be a new reflection of our old selves, but it calls us to step away from our old identity and take on a new life marked by Christ’s love and presence so that we become a new creation in Christ.
Discipleship is at the heart of who we are as a community of faith. I yearn for it in my own life and our community a deep discipleship. A discipleship that goes deep into the living waters of Christ’s love and eternal presence, so that we are fostered by his grace, renewed by his love, and sent forth to share his hope. I yearn for a discipleship that is not about another program, strategic messaging, or save-the-church focus plan. I yearn for a discipleship that is about spiritual and communal renewal that is more than just being about knowing things about Jesus, but about connection head and heart knowledge into a deeper connection with God that has a firm foundation in his love. A discipleship that inspires others to see Christ at work in their lives, and desire to know more about the redeeming hope of Christ.
My main focus is not in creating new programs, though those may come. My main focus is not interested in, primarily, keeping churches financially solvent, though that is important. My main focus and desire as your pastor is seeing all of us come alive in our love of Christ, grow deeper in our connection with God and one another, and then go forth from this place renewed in our hope to share God’s love and grace with all the people we meet through both our words and actions. Everything else, from our programmatic ministry to our administrative life, flows out of our discipleship journey in Christ.
I am interested in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of Huntington, and West Virginia, and Appalachia, and the United States, and the entire world. I am focused upon this, because I know we will all face challenges that will come our way that can hinder our walk with Christ. The various soils tell us to be mindful in us, and even our community, of these hindrances that can keep us from growing deeper in Christ’s love.
We need to be mindful of who we are and where we are in our walk with Christ, because the challenges for the word of God to be deeply planted in our hearts will come. There will be moments when we are like that a fruit planted on a path when we hear, but do not want to understand where God is leading us. There will be times when ware like a fruit planted on a rocky path, when struggles and challenges will cause us to lose sight of God. There will be times when we are planted among the thorns, and get distracted by the world and its desires for political glory, financial success, and so many other things that we become more interested in the self than God. If we do not take seriously our discipleship and yearning to be planted in the deep waters of Christ, we will get overwhelmed by the challenges before us.
That there are challenges that can prevent us from following God does not mean we should stop. There are challenges now, today, for us to worship God, but that doesn’t mean we stop. We’ve not stopped worshiping God in this season nor have we stopped being the church. We have found new ways to worship, to study together, and, even, to do Vacation Bible School. The church is alive, even as there are challenges all around us. A reminder, perhaps, that when we focus on discipleship fruit of deeper lives in Christ will come.
So, let us do the things that cultivates in us good soil that can foster deeper discipleship. Let us not stop worshiping God as a collective body, even if it means we are distant from one another, and discerning ways to celebrate the sacraments, and coming together to study what it means to follow God’s love together. Let us continue to meet the needs of our community as a witness of our faith. Let us, too, give space for people to wrestle with their questions, doubts, and fears about what it means to follow God. Let us not run away from difficult questions, but embrace them and, as well, give space for those who struggle with the idea of faith. Let us never be content with being a club for like-minded Christians, but a living, breathing, witness of the God who is most high and loving. Let us be willing to learn daily anew what it means to follow God and never for a moment believe we have it all figured out.
Discipleship is what we are all about. Discipleship that is focused on Christ and seeking a deeper connection with God and one another. If we are going to seek to be a church that makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world and community, then let us do the things the lead to deeper discipleship and prayerfully consider where God will lead us to sow seeds of discipleship in this new season together.
Let us join our hearts together to be disciples who are solely focused on discipleship that seeks to love God, grow in faith, and serve the Lord.