Discipleship Rewards

Proper 8A-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Did somebody say reward?  Did Jesus promise compensation for the disciples? Jesus said, ‘prophets, the righteous—even those who do something as simple as give a cold cup of water to little ones who are thirsty should expect to receive the fruits of their labor’

I enjoy rewards. The Immanuel credit card awards hotel benefits. Over the years, Immanuel has become a Diamond Elite Member recognized at any Holiday Inn around the world. Three Sundays ago, you all hosted friends from Care for Real (by all accounts, you did a wonderful job). Kari and I flew to Germany. It was a little weird, but also very nice, when after traveling for 20 hours, we were awarded treatment. The hotel clerk was expecting us. He welcomed us by name, upgraded our room, gave us free wi-fi, and offered a complimentary breakfast. Clearly, Diamond Elite members matter more than other people. I wonder, can we accumulate reward points for Jesus?

Of course, if some people matter more, it follows that others matter less, or even, not at all.  I was surprised when I put my shoes on this morning. I could still see a trace of the white, chalky, gravel dust from Dachau.  Dachau, of course, is among the most famous concentration camps created by the Nazi’s in WWII. The Nazi’s created and ran more than 44,000 such camps throughout occupied Europe. Each one is hellish example of what happens when you apply the logic to its fullest extent that some people are important while others are expendable.

Rewards lift me above other people. Rewards undergird systems of privilege and hierarchy. Soon, I begin to believe the lie that I am better than other people. This seems so obvious to us while standing in Dachau or even the front desk of my hotel. Whatever rewards Jesus is talking about cannot be the same. They cannot raise us above any of God’s other creatures. This is antithetical to the good news Jesus taught. Yet tragically, isn’t this what many of us were taught? If you are good, you will be warmly received the moment you check in at the Pearly Gates, and if you are not good, you will be cast into an oblivion much worse than Dachau. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus opens an off-ramp from this rat-race. You are beloved –exactly no more and no less than everyone else.  Grace is for everyone or it’s not grace.

The Lord of the Sabbath does not tally our human value according to how good deeds we do or how many bricks we can make like the Pharaohs of this world. Whatever rewards Jesus has in mind cannot be for some and not all.  So, how am I reward for being Jesus’ disciple? As we slowly sift the wheat of the gospel from the chaff of cultural gunk and bad theology, what emerges that offers us guidance?

For a long time, when I was younger, I confess I felt more comfortable believing in God than in Jesus. I think, in part, this is because Jesus has been so buried behind harsh words, exclusion, and meanness. Our gospels teach us that the life and love of God is revealed in Christ Jesus.  Slowly, as I learned, studied, and prayed upon the gospel of Jesus, the harshness, exclusion, and meanness were washed away. Jesus stands for radical inclusion. Jesus did not exclude anyone. Moreover, this Christ Jesus is the logos, the divine inclusive, abundant operating in, with, and under everything.

The planets orbit the sun because they have no choice but to orbit the sun. We, on the other hand, have some degree of freedom to choose the center of gravity around which our heart, mind, and life revolves.  Even though the “planet” I call “me” will sooner or later spin out of control or disintegrate or turn into a flaming ball if I choose to leave the orbit I was created to follow—with Jesus at the center of my life—I have, nevertheless, chosen to do just that during my seasons of my life. (Rick Lawrence)

When Jesus is at the center of my life, I am gently called to befriend my brokenness.  Rather than launch me into a competitive race in which I must win out above all others, the gravitational pull of grace orbiting the Son of God begins to turn my vulnerabilities into strengths, my failures into wisdom, my limitations into connection with others. These are the kinds of rewards I have found in Jesus.

Putting Jesus at the center begets abiding relationships, forgiveness, and sometimes even the possibility of reconciliation with my enemy. The process of healing and resurrection is often painful. It requires patience and persistence. But God is both. Putting Jesus at the center opens my heart to loving others, the stranger, the alien, the suffering, the lost. Putting Jesus at the center also opens me to receive care and hospitality from others. I can do this, not because I am any better but because I know others are not any less. We are, each of us, living members of the body of Christ.  These are some of the rewards we have in Christ Jesus.

So now, while we may celebrate the good things of our history on this Independence Day weekend, we are no longer citizens of any nation. We are pilgrims in our own land just as our ancestors in faith were. In Christ Jesus, we are aligned with the care and wellbeing of all people and of all things that are living. We need not be afraid of any man. We do not fear even the power of death.  This too is our reward.

Mostly, they professed ignorance and didn’t want to get involved. But sometimes, by the grace of God, the people who lived in the little town of artists that was Dachau ‘risked severe reprisal and perhaps even imprisonment to slip food, drinks, or cigarettes to prisoners who were part of work details.’ “One group of women was so appalled at the conditions of the prisoners who were working near their street that they used their own ration cards to acquire bread for them.  The woman retrieved apples from their own cellars, spread jam on the bread and attempted to give the food to the prisoners but the guards pushed the woman away, cursed them and angrily confiscated the food.” (John C. McManus, Hell Before Their Very Eyes)

The Divine Logos works tirelessly within each of us, Christian or non-Christian, to do the will of the Father. The last few verses of Matthew 10 we read today conclude a series of Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as part of their commissioning. Jesus sent the disciples, not merely as his representatives, but each one as extension of his very self. Now Jesus awards this gift again to each of you, should you accept it, to be disciples of Christ bound together in the One Life of God, the Holy Trinity, at alive and work in the world forever.