The first Sunday in the Christian season of Lent is coming on March 13. Lent is the 40 day period preceding the celebration of Christ’s resurrection that is marked by the mourning of our sin, repentance, and a deeper commitment to the holy life that disciples are called to live. The season of Lent is a call to pray and fast, to confess and repent, and to share selflessly of our “alms” with the poor and needy. Over the next few weeks you will experience some excellent sermons that intersect with these Lenten themes. Until we fully experience the sorrow that comes from mourning our sins, the brokenness of the world, and the sacrifice of Christ, we can’t fully celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection. So, toward the season of Lent we run!
SERMON: “On the Other Side of the Lake”
BIO: Matt is the lead pastor of Love Chapel Hill, a new church plant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He serves on a team with some of his best friends in the world. The church is an eclectic collision of college students and homeless men, young adults and families, artists, academics and activists. They meet on Franklin Street in the heart of downtown. Love Chapel Hill describes themselves as “an experiment in grace, living as captives to the truth that sets souls free.”
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Lenny: Describe the congregation you serve in terms of levels of spiritual maturity?
Matt: In a word, diverse. We have a somewhat quirky kind of diversity in our congregation. We have a lot of college students from UNC who are seriously some of the smartest, most impressive people I know, who excel in a high-pressure academic environment. At the same time, in stark contrast, homeless men make up at least 10% of our church family. Many of them wrestle with the vicious cycle of addiction. On occasion they come into church drunk, sometimes making the sermon an “interactive adventure,” which keeps things fresh. So, you have people asking the deep spiritual questions about the existence of God and the problem of evil. And at the same time, you have people whose most nagging question deals with where the next meal will come from. The beauty of the Gospel is that, regardless of our bright futures or broken pasts, it forges us together by our shared desperation for rescue and our common hope in the grace of Jesus. It speaks across the spectrum.
Lenny: You preached a message that challenges would-be disciples to consider the costly commitment entailed by following Jesus. What led you to preach a sermon like this? Were there things going on in your context that revealed the need for such a forthright message on the cost of discipleship?
Matt: Two things sparked this message for this time. First, of course, we were entering the liturgical season of Lent. We are committed in our preaching to be Story-centric and tied to time. In other words, rather than planning series based on hot topics and issues, we base our series on the arc of Scripture’s narrative, and follow the rhythm of the ancient Church calendar. A happy accident of this is that we’ve spent almost equal time in the OT and NT, and hit on just about every hot topic you can imagine! As a new church we are always innovating and experimenting, but recognize the need to root ourselves in the sweeping history of the Church—to remind ourselves that we are a small expression of a much, much larger Story. Secondly, this message doesn’t just articulate the call of Lent, but the heart of what discipleship is about—a willingness to follow Jesus, driven by a reckless kind of love.
Lenny: Your introduction was light-hearted and humorous. The point of the opening story, I think, was that love makes us do crazy things. Did the thought go through your mind, “I’m preaching a tough message and it would be wise to use some humor to begin”? I tend to do this when talking about financial stewardship, always a hard message for me to preach. So, what were you trying to accomplish through the introduction about your friend who had a crush on the substitute biology teacher?
Matt: That’s about the best story I have. So my folks hear it once a month. Just kidding. Maybe. I definitely love to use humor in my messages. I feel like humor allows everyone to relax and engage, and gives an opportunity for the preacher’s personality to come through in a way that is authentic and natural. It gives the people and the preacher a chance to connect with one another on a personal level, and has a way of removing some of the distance between the people ‘out there’ and the person ‘up front.’ We don’t give Jesus enough credit for this. It’s part of the genius of his teaching (about 1/3 of his teaching comes to us in the form of parables—story or image). Think about his story about the guy with the plank in his eye. I’m sorry, but that image is hilarious. What brilliance and skill, to drive home a painful point about hypocrisy with such a ridiculous and funny mental picture.
Lenny: This was very much a Wesleyan holiness message for today. You were calling your people to sanctification, without using that particular word. You called it, “giving your all to Jesus.” What are the challenges of preaching a message on discipleship that “bids us come and die,” to borrow from Bonheoffer, in an American church context that has become narcissistic and consumeristic?
Matt: You’re right in saying this is a Wesleyan holiness message for today. I agree completely. While never using the terms of holiness or sanctification, we clearly spelled out the heart of those truths, calling people to surrender, to the unrivaled reign of God in their lives. And of course a key text in the message was Jesus’ articulation of the Great Commandment, which Wesley used as his definition of holiness.
And I think that your assessment that our church culture is often tangled up with consumerism is right as well. But the ironic thing is, we invited this. This is actually a sign of our success to a certain extent. We adopt methods perfected by corporations whose goal is to create consumers. So, when we use the exact same methods, we achieve the exact same results. We have created consumers by promising a better version of church than they experienced before we came along. But that is not what we are meant to promise. We are meant to promise hope and grace and love and life, won by Jesus through the cross and the empty tomb. We are meant to promise the dangerous reality of discipleship that comes from following Jesus. “Come and die” is not an effective marketing pitch. It is, however, a compelling, counter-intuitive call into authentic life.
Lenny: I love how you played with the phrase “the other side.” This phrase was used in your title and then at the end, pointing out that despite the cost there is something joy-filled and life-giving “on the other side of the cross,” “on the other side of death” to self-centeredness. These phrases not only tied your sermon in a focused bow, but connected to the season of Lent in a profound way. At what point in the sermon preparation did this “other side” metaphor surface?
Matt: This metaphor captured my heart years ago. When reading through this passage once, I tripped over that phrase and the imagery reached out and grabbed me. Since then, this has been a central message for me in preaching and living. I’ve preached it a dozen times. I’m trying to start living it. I feel like it will remain an enduring theme in my life.
We can turn the idea of discipleship into a complex, vague kind of concept. But this phrase is powerful to me because it is more than just verbal– it is also visual. It immediately sparks in my mind an image, helping me ‘see’ what discipleship is about. It helps me see discipleship in a way that is simple, but in no way easy.
Lenny: At the end of the sermon you drew the net (pun intended) by inviting people to write their names on a piece of paper and place them in a literal boat, to evidence their willingness to jump fully into the boat of discipleship. Why did you feel the need to do something so tangible, so concrete?
Matt: Some messages are more informative, some more inspirational. This message was designed as a call to action. And so it demanded a response. I’ve found in my own life that I remember these kinds of moments more vividly. When I physically respond to a message in some way, it reminds me that this is not about being entertained by a speech. This is about stepping into the story God is writing in my life. This is alive. This is active.
Also, this was a pivotal message for our church. As a leadership team, we wanted to intentionally spell out for our people what discipleship looks like, what Jesus asks of us, and therefore what it means to be a part of this church. It was an individual invitation. But there was an unspoken communal element as well, to join us as we surrendered the future of this church to his leadership and vision and direction.
The cool thing is, this action didn’t only create a memory for the people who responded to the call. It continues to remind me of our shared commitment on that day. I keep all of the pieces of paper in my office. Every time I see the stack of colorful paper, the collage of surrender, it reminds me why we are here and where we are headed.