Last week in our exploration of membership we talked about the critical membership quality of cultivating a personal spiritual practice. I want to thank those of you who took the time to shoot me an email telling me what you planned to practice this week; I hope all of you had some time to take a step back and think about how it is you practice your personal spiritual life.
Today, instead of looking inward, we’re turning to look outward at the actions we take that give substance to the personal faith we claim. We’re calling this practice, “discipleship”. In other words, how does your life—the day to day expression of how you live—reflect what you say you believe? The practice of discipleship is not a membership trait we made up…no, you heard our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus took every opportunity to get the message across that what we say we believe inside had better have meaningful expression outside: “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Well, that all sounds good, but, you know, we have busy schedules and a lot going on. And the problems in the world…well, where to start? It feels sometimes like it’s too hard to even try to make a difference. So, how do we learn to live lives of discipleship, lives that truly reflect what we say we believe?
Last year I started baking challah. I like to make it on Friday mornings, on my day off. There’s something that feels a little “pioneer woman” about baking your own bread when you could just go and buy it in the store—empowering! Also, who doesn’t love the smell of bread baking filling the house? Though my bread has always come out tasting really good, if I do say so myself, it’s forming the loaves that has taken me over a year to master.
See, when you’re baking a traditional challah loaf it’s usually divided into six strands and braided, and I never did learn how to braid six strands growing up. For me, the process of learning how to braid six strands has not been a one-time learning experience. Instead, whenever the challah dough is ready to be formed into loaves I have to bring my computer into the kitchen, type “video of braiding a six-strand challah” into the search engine, and wait to find the YouTube video I use every single time to remind myself how to make that braid. With flour-covered fingers I pause, rewind, play again, watching as carefully as I can, until I manage to form a loaf that looks—mostly—like a braided challah loaf. Just this past week, for the first time in over a year, I was able to braid that loaf of bread without simultaneously watching the YouTube video.
I thought of my learning process this week as I tried to think of the best way to talk about a life of Christian discipleship. The process is very similar. The best way to learn how to be a disciple is to look around and watch what other disciples are doing. How do their lives reflect what they say they believe? What are the ways in which they contribute to the transformation of the world that God intends to bring about through the Gospel? Watch and learn; this is how we become disciples. And that is precisely why the active practice of discipleship is so critical for the cultivation of a vital community of faith…we are teaching each other how to follow Jesus.
Today in worship, as we talk about discipleship, we are also celebrating the life of one of the great disciples of our congregation, Vivian Nielsen. A member of Calvary for fifty years, you could always find Vivian sitting in worship with her husband Al right over in that pew. When you met Vivian for the first time, you would immediately have the impression that she was just the sweetest, kindest woman ever. Which, I may say, in fact she was. But she was much more than that around here, let me tell you. In addition to showing up in worship every Sunday, she spent much of her time engaged in all sorts of justice-making, discipleship activities. I’ll never forget Vivian, though over 80 years old, metroing in every year on a cold November morning to join a hardy crew of Calvary folks to walk in the Walk for the Homeless. She faithfully led the Woman’s Mission Society, which meets once a month at Calvary. She’d only recently passed the torch to others in the leadership of the Downtown Social Club, a Calvary ministry to patients at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. For years and years Vivian served in leadership capacities all over this church and the larger Baptist church in this city through the DC Baptist Convention, and around the world through American Baptist Churches, USA. There’s likely very little around this place that Vivian wasn’t involved in!
And more than supporting and often running mission efforts and denominational organizations, Vivian wasn’t afraid to stand up and speak up in some hard conversations we’ve had as a congregation over the years. When we were considering our statement of welcome for all people, Vivian stood up and spoke tearfully of her experience learning to love someone who was different from herself. When we were debating our denominational affiliations, Vivian stepped up to make declarative statements about who we are as a church and what our associations said about what we believe. Even when this church set out to find its current pastor, Vivian was the chair of the search committee that presented quite an unlikely candidate even in the face of some serious opposition. Vivian was never afraid to put in the time for what she believed in. She didn’t shy away from bold declarations of faith. She didn’t hesitate to reach out to welcome people who were radically different than she was.
I knew this about Vivian because I watched how she lived her life. It was underscored early this past December when I went to visit Vivian in the hospital. She had just received the news only the day before that she would be facing the end of her life very soon. I sat by her bedside and held her hand, trying to think of something helpful to say. I finally asked her: “Vivian, are you scared?” She looked at me and said, “Yes, a little bit. But I keep thinking: this experience of dying is such a great opportunity for spiritual growth!”
Vivian Nielsen lived a life of true discipleship.
It’s an unusual practice to have the celebration of a life during a regular Sunday morning worship service. Some of you may find it a bit strange. But in this case, I can’t think of any better way to talk about the practice of discipleship than to remember Vivian and the life she lived. Vivian was a disciple of Jesus Christ, and her life consistently reflected that commitment.
When we consider the membership requirement of discipleship today we can and we should look around us at the people we see practicing our faith. We should watch and learn from them…how to follow Jesus more closely, how to be agents of transformation in the world, how to spend our lives on things that really, really matter, how to be…disciples.
In the Catholic tradition there’s a formal way to recognize people whose lives of Christian devotion bear emulating. Saints were first chosen in the Catholic Church by democratic process, but soon enough the Pope took over the supervision of canonization and a very specific three-step process for sainthood was put in place. It’s a pretty rigorous standard to meet, too. Once someone is named a saint, prayers can be offered in their name, churches dedicated in their honor, masses and feast days held for them. They even are pictured with halos.
Here in the Free Church tradition we don’t canonize saints, and we don’t assign halos, either. Instead, every single one of us is called to a high standard of exemplary Christian living, to the task of discipleship. And as members of a community that represents the Gospel message in the world, it’s critical that each one of us takes this call to discipleship seriously. Think this is a standard you can’t meet? Don’t know where to start? Confused about what Christian discipleship looks like? Hear again the words of Jesus, who told us to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Hear the mandate of Jesus and then look around you at people right here, people like Vivian Nielsen, who are living examples of faithful discipleship.
Watch them. Watch carefully, then follow their examples.