First Lesson: Genesis 21: 8-21
Responsive Reading: Jeremiah 20: 7-13
Second Lesson: Romans 6: 1-11
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 10: 24-39
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today, I want to reflect on the quintessential American story. It’s a tale of humble beginnings, God-given athletic prowess, illness, healing, rising to the top of the world, rumors, innuendo, fall, and uncertain path to redemption. The quintessential American story is the story of cyclist Lance Armstrong. Armstrong grew up in Plano, Texas. Armstrong grew up without knowing his father. Armstrong as a young child developed an overwhelming force of will to try to prove himself. Armstrong began as a swimmer, then he became a triathlete, he soon realized that he was a good bike rider, so good that he eventually turned professional. Armstrong was initially considered more of a sprint cyclist rather than an endurance cyclist. Armstrong was still in position to make a good living as a cyclist even if he never won the world’s greatest race the Tour de France.
In 1996, Lance Armstrong’s world came crashing down. He received a diagnosis of stage three testicular cancer. Armstrong had ignored the symptoms, and the cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and abdomen. Armstrong’s Urologist believed that he had no chance of survival. Lance Armstrong through experimental treatments and sheer force of will overcomes cancer.
Armstrong vowed to return to cycling better than ever, even if teams were only willing to pay him 20% of what he had been making previously. Armstrong was determined to overcome the longest of odds to win the Tour de France. 1999 comes and Armstrong shocks the world by winning the race. Armstrong quickly became a hero to millions. Armstrong founded an organization called “Livestrong Foundation” that raised over 500 million dollars for cancer research through the sale of yellow wristbands. Armstrong though didn’t just win one Tour de France; he kept winning Tour de France after Tour de France. Seven wins for Armstrong in all. He was the most decorated cyclist of all-time. Lance Armstrong was the definition of a modern-day “saint." His life seemed to be way too perfect; he was dating a beautiful rock star and a national hero.
The rumors started to spread. Armstrong had close ties with a controversial trainer known to bend the rules; former teammates started saying that Lance Armstrong had taken blood injections during his victories giving him his superhuman endurance in the French Pyrenees. Then in 2013, Armstrong gets interviewed by Oprah where he admits that the story of Lance Armstrong was all a big, fat lie.
We all know Lance Armstrong’s story. We know it when the local businessman faces accusations of cheating his customers. We know it when we find out that our neighbor has got caught with a “DUI." We know it when our children display the kind of morals that we wish that they didn’t display as adults. What Lance Armstrong’s public shame reminds us is that everyone at some point in their life will stumble and fall off the wagon. You only hope it’s not on display in front of the entire world.
What do we say to people whose life and the lives of their loved ones have ended up before the whole world as being nothing more than abject failures?
I think the path to proclamation comes in remembering the words of the Apostle Paul from Romans 7 when he says, ““So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”
We remember that our stumbles are not the same as Lance Armstrong’s, yet they are still present. We are grateful that any path moving forward from our day of shame is ultimately not found within ourselves.
Second story involving a famous person this morning, recently one of the biggest music stars in the world Justin Bieber decided to get baptized. This baptism raised people’s eyebrows. You see Bieber is far from the type of role model that we would hope that kids emulate. Within the last year, Bieber got arrested twice once for getting a DUI while drag racing, and another time for assaulting a limo-driver. Bieber’s been caught on camera engaging in a relationship with a prostitute along with telling racially insensitive jokes. Bieber would in many ways be the last thing that a father would ever want to see her teenage daughter bring home.
Recently Justin Bieber goes out and gets baptized. Bieber then begins talking about God’s forgiveness. People were skeptical. They claimed this is all a publicity stunt. One Fox News commentator said, ““Bieber doesn’t care about the Bible; he only cares about Justin Bieber."
All of Justin Bieber’s haters get Christianity wrong. They get Christianity wrong not because they doubt that Justin Bieber will mess up again; I am sure that he will. Rather these people get Christianity wrong because they assume that God’s mercy and blessing are dependent on our motives. They act like it’s a bad thing that Bieber turned to God when he was at his lowest, when this is precisely the moment when people turn to God. The standards of skepticism that could be applied to Justin Bieber’s baptism could be used to question the effectiveness of anyone else’s baptism.
Plenty of people were skeptical of Saul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, but Paul understood God’s grace better than perhaps anybody else in the early church. The reason that Paul understood God’s grace was because of the depths to which he had sunk. What we inevitability forget about Christianity is that Christianity is not about turning us into better people, Christianity is rather about a cross where bad people are forgiven and redeemed.
What I believe about Justin Bieber was best summed up by Martin Luther nearly 500 years ago when he described “the believer’s existence as being one of being both fully sinner and fully saint at the same time." We are fully sinners by our very nature, our very weakness in the face of temptation. We are fully saints because God has declared us to be his own in Christ Jesus.
Where as many people question Justin Bieber’s faith because they don’t like him. We receive a call to defend the undefendable because we believe that no one is too far gone to receive God’s grace.
This brings us all to our Gospel lesson for today from Matthew the 10th chapter. Our passage is one of the tougher lessons in our entire gospels. Jesus promises “He came not to bring peace to the earth, but rather a sword."
Jesus’ strongest words come in verses 38-39 when he says “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
This whole Gospel passage centers on speaking to the Disciples’ fears. There is no more common human emotion than fear. Lance Armstrong was a highly completive athlete, who feared that his cancer would wreck his career. Justin Bieber has everything at the world at his fingertips, yet fears for his own soul. We fear for our own lives and safety, we fear for our economy and our nation, we fear for loved ones.
Jesus is speaking to the Disciples’ fears because he knows that they will encounter all sorts of nasty slander, rejection, and persecution in the days ahead. Jesus knows that the Disciples are about to travel into hostile environments. Jesus knows that the Disciples were being asked to say things that were going to cause them to be rejected even by their own family members.
We misunderstand Jesus’ message when we water it down into nothing more than Jesus was “nice” and “loving”. If that message were all the Disciples were going to say, no one in Palestine would have hated them or given them two seconds worth of thought. Instead, the Disciples were being asked to engage in the muck and mud of life. The Disciples were being asked to bring forgiveness to the Lance Armstrongs and Justin Biebers of the world. The Disciples were being asked to reach out even to the worst sinners amongst it. The Disciples were being asked to engage people at their very lowest, and all the while ripping their own masks out of their eyes.
When Jesus told the Disciples to take up their cross and follow him, he was thinking back to the days of his childhood as Jesus would witness crosses being hung alongside the road. These crosses hung up for those who dared to think outside the box, those who dared to challenge the status quo of Roman rule, religious rule, and social rule. Jesus saw first hand how little value those around him placed on human life, so Jesus was going to challenge the disciples to place immeasurable value on human life as messy as it might be.
The message of the Gospel inevitability brings division. We always want to portray to others that we’re entirely in control of our future. We have a hard time coming to terms with the message that our own guilt and sin must be put to death to undergo a resurrection. We have difficulty wanting to believe the message that our God reaches us at the point of our brokenness. The message that God does not justify making excuses, or minimize our sin, rather the message that God instead forgives the sinner. We have the Truth, and the Truth shall set us free. (John 8:34).
What Jesus is seeking to remind the Disciples is that they can go forth with confidence because what can ultimately destroy the body cannot kill the soul, that those who bring death cannot stop the Holy Spirit, who brings faith.
Today, we have an important event in the life of our congregation as Hunter and Chase Dow receive their First Communion. Hunter is the most enthusiastic acolyte that we’ve maybe ever had here at Sychar. Hunter asked if he could acolyte with his big brother, Brandon, and sister, Tara, in 4th grade. Margaret Groethe and I figured any kid that wants to acolyte, we better get him a robe as soon as possible. Chase has such boundless energy; he’s one of the rare kids that have been able to tire me out.
Today they receive the gift of the presence of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins for the first time. What makes this gift, so special is that we do not hold the keys to it. What makes salvation so wonderful is that it offers us something that is so valuable that we do not possess it on our own, or cannot ultimately control it.
We do not offer Communion today to Hunter or Chase because we believe that they will never get in trouble again at home or school. We don’t offer them Communion today because it’s magically going to transform them into perfect Christians. We rather invite them to the table today because our faith and salvation do not belong to us. We come to the table today because each and every one of us from Lance Armstrong to Justin Bieber to myself to Hunter to Chase desire’s God’s forgiveness.
We come to the table today because we eagerly anticipate the day when all human cynicism, skepticism, and anger will be put to death. A day where we inherit a world where he will be our “God”, and we shall be his children. We look forth to entering a world where our lives and beings will be so precious that all the hairs on our head will be numbered. These are the promises given to us today through Christ’s body and blood given to Hunter, Chase, and given to each and every one of us. Amen
 Romans 7:17-18
 Griswold, Alexander. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours”. Juicy Ecumenism. 17.Jun.2014. Web. June.18.2014
 The following quote was made by Juan Williams taken from Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.”
 Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.”
 Griswold. “What Should We Make of Justin Bieber’s Baptism and Ours.””