Today our Pentecostal series continues with a guest post from Susan Smartt Cook. You may remember her wonderful prose from our Advent series last winter. Susan is a midwife, a wife, the mother to two fabulous dogs and a friend to many in Edmond, OK.
She blogs about the question, "What does living in the Spirit mean to me?" . . . words that I think will resonate with any of us who've waded through life's biggest questions.
Some call them signs, synchronicities, affirmations. Others say it’s just reading into things. I call it living in the Spirit. Opening my eyes. I love to notice what some would call coincidences, but what I call clear moments of truth.
It’s the Spirit of God whispering my all-time favorite verse, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30:21). Pressure’s off!
Right OR left … just walk!
Pick up those feet and move. Show up, press on, step out. Life is scary. Changing is scary. Walking is scary. Considering the harsh negativity and pervasive your-annoying-if-you’re-inspired cynicism of this day and age, we have every reason to be spiritual couch potatoes, but the Spirit says WALK.
Several years ago I was on a study retreat in Idaho preparing for my national midwifery exam. I was daunted, paralyzed, COUCH potato-ed by the task. The exam, sure, it was gonna be long, but MIDWIFERY.
How dare I claim such a high calling in the world? How dare I fancy myself worthy of such sacred, special work?
I needed fresh air, so I went for a walk in the snow along a nearby stream.
On the way, I was feebly whining to God about my fear, my doubt, my stuck-ness.
And lo and behold if that very moment a bald eagle didn’t swoop low over my head, circle back over the water, snatch a fish, and soar away! It was stunning! Crisp winter air, snow capped mountains all around, and an eagle flying home. Many might consider that no more than a neat nature moment, but to me it was God. It was Spirit showing up, flying over, swooping down.
Why not infuse life with such meaning?
Why not find spirit among us every day, guiding us like a pillar in the wilderness or a bird in the sky?
Sometimes it feels more like a wink, and pat on the butt, “Go get um! Show ‘em whatcha got!” And sometimes it feels like the clouds roll back, the angels hit a high note, and God says “Hello, and YES!”
Yes to life, yes to me, yes to the right or to the left … choose a path, sister, and walk in it!
The particulars might change, but it’s the conviction, the force behind what we do that’s living in the Spirit. God is with us. It is so.
Do you know the website Spiritual Book Club? Check out this site to meet some new bloggers and spiritual thinkers as well as great book recommendations. Several months ago they contacted me for an interview as they are seeking to draw together a diverse collection of people of faith who are actively writing on the web. I thought I might direct your attention there and share part of the interview with you here.
Where you live:Washington DC and Oklahoma City, OK (the juxtaposition of two very different worlds!)
What you do as a vocation or avocation?
a blogger, pastor without a traditional church, social media consultant and global traveler in support of work of Feed The Children.
Why you are interested in spirituality?
I believe that all of life goes back to God. We come from God. We move and have our being in God. Our hearts become restless, as St. Augustine writes until they find rest in God. My life has been shaped, enriched and given greater connectivity as I have paid attention to my own spiritual rhythms.
Keep reading more by clicking here.
I'm always on a quest to find God in places that are outside the church. Spirituality can happen anywhere, I feel-- in conversations over coffee, while listening to music or even at the theater. We just have to have our eyes open!
I love watching and going to the movies. Even besides the excuse to eat more popcorn (my favorite), particularly good films especially the artsy kind have the ability I feel to shape my conscience and expand my worldview like nothing else can.
In light of this, recently, I've found myself making a mental list of the top five films I've seen in the last few years that have the possibilities for great faith discussions. Here's my top picks and a bit on how they got me thinking--
1. The Soloist (2009) When we believe in transformational community and doing life together, it is easy to fall into the trap wanting to "fix" people. We believe a person's life could improve if they could just do x, y, and z. But, The Soloist provides a unique message not only on how friendship can be one of the most important acts within the kingdom of God, but how complicated mental illness, homelessness and systems of social services can be. There are no easy answers but faithful friendship is a start. (Topic: Faith and Friendship)
2. Chocolat (2000) Life together is messy. Those who we think are "the religious ones" are often the most sick. Those who we think are the most lost are often the most found. Staying in one place, planting roots and being in relationships with others for the long haul is counterintuitive to our transit society. But, as we stick around and begin to learn from one another, what we find is that the pleasure of community life is sweeter than we could have ever imagined! (Topic: Faith and Community Life)
3. Moneyball (2011) There is the old way of doing things. There is the new way of doing things. How easy is it to think that they old way has nothing to speak to the new way. Leadership is doing the tricky balance of helping bring people along and create a new vision with respect for what has always been. Transformational leadership can be costly, especially to your family life. But, when tough choices are made and the right people are put in place, old institutions can be more amazing than we ever imagined. (Topic: Faith and Leadership)
4. Philomena (2013) Our paths to wholeness are often so broken that we feel beyond repair. The twists and turns of our lives lead us to wide open spaces of regrets, grief and shame. But, this is the mystery: grace is present even still. And it is grace-- as we lean into it-- that enables us to become the unthinkable: a forgiving people. And when forgiveness happens, it is like a dance that brings beauty to our lives even in our most rough edges. (Topic: Faith and Forgiveness)
5. The Way (2010) Healing is often about making the first step out of bed and then the next. And when we make such steps, guideposts of all sorts will often show up to help. Guideposts can look a lot like the gift of conversation over a good bottle of wine, the company of strangers, and strength for the next day. We all have deep pain, though some of our pain is more visible than others. And it is in facing our pain and the journey it takes us on, we find rest for our souls. Healing work is intense work, though so should not be entered into lightly. Who knows who we will become as we move? (Topic: Faith and Grief)
What others might you add to this list?
Over the course of our travels and many meetings with Feed the Children staff, partners and other NGO leaders there is one question I find myself asking these folks over and over: "Why do you do this work?"
The answers I have gotten from Africans and expats alike have varied but the heart of all of them has come back to calling.
"We are here to serve because we can do nothing else, be nowhere else."
In fact, a line that was said in our program with the staff last Saturday as part of the litany of blessing for the week ahead was "God has called us to serve." Drivers were called to serve. Cooks were called to serve. Administrators were called to serve. All staff of Feed the Children, we said together were called to serve.
In my pastoral work, I talk a lot about calling. I preach a lot about calling texts in scriptures. And I even call out the callings in others when I sit with folks in counseling sessions. But somehow hearing about the motivation behind why the many here on the ground here do what they do has made me stop to ponder calling once again.
Calling I believe is more beautiful than I ever imagined. For, as I have observed it and even felt it in my own heart, I have observed calling as a gift. It's a gift that can ground the right people in the right situations even if these are circumstances that others many call difficult or unimaginable. Calling is God's way of helping us be in the place where we are blessed by our giving and receiving.
When you have a calling, you can't say no even when it leads you to feed hungry children in the smelly slums.
When you have a calling, you can't say no even it leads you to remote villages to love on kids on bumpy roads for long hours.
When you have a calling, you can't say no even if it wrecks the plans you previously had for your life only one day before.
I am excited to continue to support the work of Feed the Children through Kevin's calling to be there and thus mine in some way too. I truly consider this time in our lives all the joy. How did I get to be so lucky?
Often times in the church, we think of spiritual disciplines as a practice which we can qualify as holy action. Practices like praying, reading scripture, doing works of charity and the like are often the prescriptions for spiritual growth.
But Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Altar in the World (which we at Washington Plaza along with our friends at Martin Luther King Christian will be studying together this fall), speaks of how we find God in the most ordinary of circumstances. Altars she writes can be anywhere we encounter the holy. It's a discipline for all of us to simply pay attention.
This week, while on travel in Kenya and Malawi, I have a new altar to add to my list and that is international travel.
As many of you know who have traveled throughout the developing world, nothing ever moves as fast as it does in the United States or even Europe. Not that it is bad (I happen to like the change) but it is simply different.
Bags get lost easily on flights.
Traffic jams on narrow roads make getting from one place to another a chore.
You look for something you need and can't find it.
Water that was once warm becomes stone cold.
The electricity goes out for no apparent reason.
And it is just life.
In these circumstances as a non native you have a choice. You can get angry. You can grow in misery of why things aren't the way you wish they were.
Or you can go with the flow. You can embrace the moment. And you can accept the challenge as a spiritual discipline.
What might God be saying to me about who is ultimately in control?
What might be learned about enjoying the company for the journey instead of being so consumed in reaching the destination?
What might I really need instead of just want for my personal comfort?
I am having fun this week in these out of the norm circumstances, hoping that if I embrace them I might just learn more about myself and God's ways of being with us in the process.
I’m Spiritual but Not Religious: James 1:17-27
“Pastor, I don’t think I need to come to church. I’d rather commute with God by watching the birds on Sunday. This is my spirituality.”
“Pastor, I don’t think I’m coming to come to church anymore. It’s nothing against you or the church people. You all are nice and all. I just don’t need a church and it’s religion for my faith.”
“Pastor, I just don’t know how you can stand working for the institutional church. Have you read history books? Have you read the news lately? The church hurts people. I just don’t get how you could be in the ‘religion’ business.”
And, as I’m preaching to the faithful this morning, a crowd gathered here to worship God in August (yes, the traditional low attendance month in churches across the country), I know I’m preaching to the choir. I’m preaching today to a congregation of folks who apparently aren’t hung up in all of the “spiritual vs. religion” cultural debates because you are here. You understand the importance of a communal spiritual life. And different from some of your peers, you’ve been able to reconcile the idea of your spiritual life finding a home in an institutional house of worship, in particular Washington Plaza Baptist Church.
But, today, I’m musing about this statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious” in hopes of opening up a larger conversation that I hope we can continue together later around the lunch tables in the Plaza room. It’s a conversation we need to have and keep having together. Because most of all it’s a topic that we in the modern church must stop fighting snarky word wars over. Instead, we must commit ourselves to understanding why the “spiritual but not religious” folks are among the fastest growing group of seekers in our country.
The thing is—you can find very passionate, insightful and God-loving people on either side. Though we are quick to judge, no matter where we stand on it.
Those of us who choose to practice our faith in the context of a community called a church often do so for more than just reasons of “It’s what I’ve always done” or “It’s what my parents brought me up to believe.” Those who make church membership and attendance a priority in their lives often say that God meets them in worship, in study groups with fellow disciples, and in close-knit fellowship of community life. We aren’t necessarily without a rich inner life that those in the spiritual community boast they only found outside the church.
And in the same way, spiritual but not religious folks, are good people too. Many of them think Jesus is a pretty rad dude and frame their lives around his teaching. Their lives aren’t void of faith practice. In fact, they often are full of them! The seriously spiritual pray, read, meditate, etc. with great furor and discipline. And because of this emphasis on preparation for the divine, they often use their keen intuition to seek out God wherever they find themselves—places those of us with our heads in the church might miss. It’s not a question of laziness—but in many cases actually a choice based on hard work that puts the “religious” to shame.
But, even with this true—we in the church often feel like our spiritual but not religious friends are the distant step child that we’d just wish would get with the program, stop being so independent and critical of our structures and join our membership rolls.
We often feel tempted to criticize their faith, especially as their attitude of “My faith can survive without your unnecessary institution” seems like a big slap in the face, to what we’ve worked so hard to hold together all of these years. We feel tempted to talk about their egos without even considering our own. And, in light of this, I could easily stop this sermon this morning and invite us to all go home and re-read the Prodigal Son story from the perspective of the older son who got mad when the son left home and the father loved him the wayward younger son the same . . . But I’ll wait for that exhortation for later.
But regardless, our culture seems operate with these assumptions—spirituality is good; religion is bad.
Spirituality equals pure faith and God’s presence. Religion equals corruption, human made flawed structures.
We find religion in churches. We find God in spirituality.
Yet, into this conversation enters our New Testament lesson for this morning, taken from the book of James, most likely written by James, the brother of Jesus. And while it’s a book that Martin Luther was known to say is the “epistle of straw” for its practical approach to faith instead of theological—it’s ancient text wrestling what might not be truly modern problem after all.
To the community in which James wrote, a group of believers in Jesus struggled with how much this new movement called Christianity was about truth statements and how much it was about actions which spoke without words.
Though there were many who said: “We’d better get our theology in order. We need to write more doctrine.” There were others who said, “Theology is well and good, but what does it mean? What does it look like?”
And to these questions James answers by saying let me tell you more about who God is and what that means to you. It’s not that I want to throw out all the great work that Paul has done, helping us to understand the essence of faith. But, I do want to tell you something else and that is this basic wisdom: you can talk a good game for a long as you want, have all the right answers with what you think Jesus meant about this and that, but if your life doesn’t show what you believe then it’s all rubbish. Pure rubbish
Look with me at verses 26 and 27: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
If we conduct church business in a particular way because it how they did it back in 1995, it’s worthless.
If we maintain our buildings for the sake of maintaining our buildings, then it’s worthless.
And it’s not that traditions are bad or religious structures like church buildings are evil. But, rather, James exhorts us, that if we do not consider why it is that we do certain things and have certain things then, we really shouldn’t call this faith. We should call it religion for all we are doing is maintaining the framework of what has led us to God in the past but is not necessarily what is going to lead us to God in the future.
And these are the kind of questions we’ve been asking ourselves as a church together over the past year. Questions like:
“Why do we always to have all of these standing committees? Why not staff the committees/ positions of church leadership where we have energy in our congregation to serve and are essential to our life together as a community?”
“Why do we always have to worship just as a single church? Maybe there might be other churches like Martin Luther King Christian who would want to worship with us from time to time?”
“Why do we always have a full meal at coffee hour? Might there be weeks when just bagels will do to provide the same kind of life-giving table fellowship?”
And I truly believe we have more “Why do we always do___?” questions to ask ourselves in the future.
But notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the structures are bad. Rather, mindless choices we make in the name of religious tradition never up for reconsideration are. Because sometimes traditions and religious teaching and practice can be indeed just this—practice from human hands, flawed and in need of a fresh wind of the Spirit upon it over time.
Because the Spirit moves in our world, we believe, right? And if we believe that the spirit moves then, what God wanted from us and what we spent so much time building in 1980 might not be what God wants from us in 2012. When we hold tighter onto tradition than we do Spirit we often have religion. When we hold tight to what the traditions of our religion offer us with room for the Spirit to shake us as needed, we have spirituality.
When it all boils down to it—James begs the church of his day and the church of our day to ask ourselves—are you spinning your wheels on building up what matters or are you just spinning your wheels?
Is your religion that of caring for orphans and widows i.e. those in need of compassionate justice in this world? Is your religion of following the teachings of Jesus or just debating them or pointing out how other Christians aren’t living into them? Is your religion that of building bigger buildings and structures that leave a mark of “we were once here?”
If so, then, James tells us to re-think our religion.
Anytime I do a funeral service, I find myself repeating a phrase of exhortation to the mourners—a phrase, I hope at least some of them might remember later because it asks them to channel the grief and loss of their loved one into well lived personal lives that bring glory to God. I guess I should get some new material but I can’t seem to find a better way to say it.
“When you and I die, only one thing matters: not how much money we have, not how many flowers decorate the alter, not how many people attend, not how many groups or societies we belonged to—only one thing—is it well with our souls? Are our lives in harmony with God? What will profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world and loses their own soul?”
So, this brings me to the place where I really want to say to those people who tell them they are too spiritual for church—I understand. I hear your frustrations. And you really want to find more God in your life and it just seems like a purer search to go at it on your own. I realize the church can be a messed up place. Institutions are like this. Sometimes we make good decisions that bring us together and other times we miss the mark painfully. And I consider myself a spiritual person too.
But, I also claim my religion as much as I claim my spirituality. I am a Christian. And with that comes the place called the church where generations of other believers before me have lived out their faith too. Is the church perfect? Has it made way more mistakes in its formation, declarations, and judgments than it has for the good of the world? Probably.
Yet, I won’t leave the church, though; it might be a lot easier in the short turn with a lot less meetings. Why? My faith is communal. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who have gone before me. It’s communal with the saints and sinners who fill the pages of my life right now. I believe the Christian journey, like that of the Jewish journey or the Muslim journey, is one at requires a lot more “we” than “I.” I need the church’s religion for my spirituality to have a home. It may not always be my only home, but it’s my home nonetheless.
So this morning, I’m asking you to consider again how much the spiritual but not religious among us are right—sometimes church we have our noses so deep in the sand that we forget the vastness of God that can only be found outside these four walls.
But our calling to be the church—to love each other, to love God and follow the teachings of Jesus together continues on, no matter who validates our togetherness or laughs at it while riding their boat or reading the paper on Sunday morning. Yet, knowing when our faith is lived out – being doers of the word, not just hearers only, it might just might look 100% different from any church we ever expected to be. So if you are with me on this, hang on to your seats and get ready, change is coming. It always does. It's just a part of our spiritual journey together.
May God continue to lead our church by the Spirit with courage to go wherever Jesus leads us.
As our series of "Sermons by Request" continues, I had an opportunity this week to explore Isaiah 53:1-6 and do some theological reflection of my own on theories of atonement. Thanks for reading.
I can remember the last time that I sought to directly evangelize a person to Christianity-- I was 20 years old and serving as a summer mission intern with Son Servants, a Presbyterian youth camp organization. No one in this ministry organization told me to evangelize directly to the children with phrases like "If you died tonight do you know if you'd go to heaven?" but I was the evangelical Southern Baptist in the group-- and witnessing was just what I thought I needed to do. I was a perfectly pious leader sadly at the time. Sigh.
One week of this particular summer's experience, after the team of youth volunteers and I led a group of children on the Indian reservation in South Dakota in a series of art and craft projects, we took them out to the playground near a lake.
One girl in particular, I'll call her Ana, became very attached to me quickly. She wanted me to push her and push her on the swings on the playground and climb with her on the monkey bars. For the entire playtime, Ana would not leave my side. Maybe it was because I had given out the juice and cookies only minutes earlier and she looked like she hadn't had a good meal in days. But, regardless, feeling good about the connection I'd made to this 9-year-old girl, I felt convicted about the next thing I should do-- I needed to tell her about the great divide her sins had caused between her and God and that Jesus paid the price on the cross so that she could live forever with the Lord. I did not want to have her lack of opportunities to receive the gospel to be my fault.
I don't remember much about the rest of the conversation or even if she prayed the 1, 2, 3 step "I am a sinner, Jesus died for my sins, and I'm so thankful God that I can now go to heaven" prayer I offered her. But I do remember being stopped in my tracks internally as the group prepared to go back to the campsite where we were staying, wondering what in the world I had just done? Though such a practice wasn't new to me (I'd been through the same routine countless times before with other kids in summer programs-- trying to lead them to faith), this time I really began to think about the theology behind my words.
Was this, I wondered, what the gospel were really all about? Was the gospel something that can be melted down into a 5 step plan that makes children feel sorry for their sins knowing the Jesus replaced their punishment on the cross? All I knew in that moment was that I needed to think some more about what all of this evangelism I'd been so interested in was really all about before I tried it again.
I don't know if you've ever been the instigator or recipient of a "let me tell you about the atonement for sins that Jesus offers you" conversation (I'm sure you've at least seen one example like this on tv), but often our Old Testament lesson for today is among the most quoted scripture passages on this topic. It's a passage that is often read at Good Friday services meant to explain what the crucifixion of Jesus means for those of us who seek to know and follow him today. It's a passage that centuries and centuries of Christians have claimed as among their favorite-- and was among the favorite passages submitted among the congregation last month.
And, with all of this true, I'm going to stop at this juncture and give you a mini-commercial on how reading Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures are best read (which applies to our sermon for this morning and all other times when our focus text comes from this part of the Bible).
Always, always, always, do not interpret scripture out of its original context. And I repeat: always, always, always do not interpret scripture out of its original context.
It would be very easy for us at this juncture to read Isaiah 53:1-6 into story of Jesus-- to say that the Isaiah writer was actually giving us a prophetic message for what would happen in the incarnation of Christ thousands of years later. And, while yes, we can't help but understand our reading of anything from Isaiah (and the other prophetic books for that matter) in light of the WHOLE story of the Bible as we read it cover to cover which includes the formation of a new Christian community, we can't forget the context of the original hearers.
We can't forget those who first received these words: the people of Israel who would soon be asked to return home from exile in Babylon.
We can't forget what upheaval and change they would be asked to embrace as they returned home. We can't forget the pain and suffering the leadership would face, in particular, for being obedient to God's plans for their lives.
We can't forget that a particular message to a particular people was being prescribed-- a message that had a lot to say about suffering. What was the point of suffering after all? Did participating in it actually have any redemptive value?
I think, though with all of this being true about the importance of paying attention to the context of the original Isaiah hearers, we can't have a discussion about this passage without talking about Jesus. For tradition has dictated through the years that Isaiah 53 is indeed directly talking about Jesus. And if you look at the front cover of our bulletin for this morning, you'll notice it's a picture of person's back tattoo with this verse of scripture on it. And it is in the shape of a cross. You don't have to go far until you realize for traditional Christians, Isaiah 53 has become a playbook for Christians seeking to explain atonement-- what Jesus dying on the cross really meant and means.
But, to answer the question placed before us in the sermon for this morning: "The suffering of Jesus means what?" we must be stay with the crucifixion of Jesus more than just one day every year-- if that at all (for in fact, the Good Friday service is one of the most poorly attended worship services globally in fact. . . But that's a whole other sermon). We must learn to stick with the hard questions of faith-- even if they make us squirm in our pews a little bit more this morning. Hard words like "atonement."
If I say the word atonement-- a most basic theological definition of this word is Christ's work of redemption on behalf of humanity.
I want to share with you two camps of atonement theory-- not to just to help your theological education and understanding of the text before us today-- but because so much of how we explain our faith to our neighbors (via evangelism or not) has a lot to do with how we describe atonement. And, it is so much a part of popular rhetoric about Christianity.
Realize this morning for sake of time and our brains not exploding, I'm painting with some broad strokes here. There are indeed more than two camps of atonement theories, but I believe in light of Isaiah 53, these are the two we should most understand. I don't always say this, but feel free to take notes if this helps you follow me.
The first camp of the theories is that of substitutionary atonement or in more basic terms the phrase, "Jesus died for our sins."
It's the camp that says that what Jesus did on the cross was to right many wrongs committed by all humanity. And there is a wide spectrum to this belief of atonement. There are some who believe in substitutionary atonement who say that Jesus had to die as a payment for our sins; Christ suffered for us so that we didn't have to.
And at then at the other end of the spectrum there are those who say that the substitution Jesus made was more because God demanded it. God took the life of Jesus as a payment for our sins.
But in either case, the phrase, "Jesus died for our sins" boils down to our being asked to simply believe in Jesus as Savior so that the substitution of our unrighteousness for Jesus' righteousness can take place.
This camp is the most popular of the theories of atonement through Christ tradition. Just pick up any hymn book and turn to the "death of Jesus" section and what you will find are statements about how Jesus paid it all, how we've been washed clean in the blood of the lamb or Jesus took our place on the old rugged cross.
But problems with this theory arise when you take a step back and see the larger picture of what was going in the suffering of Jesus from this perspective. The largest problem is that if you say, "Jesus died for my sins" then you also profess that God set up the crucifixion of Jesus. God brought suffering on Jesus.
Or as Phyllis Tickle once said, "It's a huge example of divine child abuse." And for many of us stomaching following a God like this is too much to bear. In fact, Sojourners magazine just this week, published an article about how seeking to convert someone by starting the conversation with "Jesus died for your sins"[i] can be the scariest thing you could say-- and should be avoided.
However, there is another camp of the atonement theories and this is the representory or exemplar perspective.
In this camp, Jesus was sent to earth to represent God to us. We who were living in sin, we who had fallen short of God's best for us, we who had gone off course of God's original intentions for humanity, were given Jesus so that through him, we could find our way back home to the right path. Jesus showed us a different way to God-- a perfect way.
However, as this theory goes, Jesus did such a great job of showing us God that those with power in his world during his time did not like him. They didn't like him so much that they had him killed.
Therefore, this leads us to recognize that if we follow Jesus and the path he set out for us to know God better, we should not be surprised if we are killed too. For in fact didn't Jesus say to his followers, "whoever loses his life will find it?"
It's a theory in the end that takes the focus off Jesus as the recipient of divine punishment and instead directs us to the cost of discipleship. If we want to follow Jesus, this theory says, then, we must be prepared to suffer.
And it is here at this point that we arrive again at a great point to sit with our Isaiah passage yet again. A passage which speaks of a servant (though undefined who) which suffers. We read of a servant who in verse three "was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity . . . has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases."
It's not a type of suffering that we read is just in vain. It's not a suffering just for suffering's sake-- because the Divine is mean and trying to bully his subjects into submission. Rather, it is suffering that makes a difference because God is revealed in it.
For as the servant forged a new path of righteousness and integrity, even in the face of evil, the onlookers of the person going through the suffering saw God.
The onlookers saw God's grace.
The onlookers saw God's message to the world that even though we've all messed up, we've all made some not so good choices in our lives, the Divine says back to us, "You are ok. And I love you."
When I think back to those days of seeking to convert the children on the playground in South Dakota (with some shame of course of my misguided approach), what I most wish I could go back and tell Ana, my young friend with mad skills on the monkey bars is: get to know Jesus.
Get to know this man who loved you even before you were able to love him. Get to know this man who wanted you to know your heavenly parents-- your always loving parents, always forgiving, always providing parents more than anything, so badly that he gave up everything so that you could have this chance.
And come and learn of Jesus' suffering too-- how he was rejected for doing the right thing. For you, Ana will suffer much in your life (if you haven't already), and you'll need to know that someone has been there too. Jesus suffered to the point of death so that in his life, he could show us the way to God. And the God you'd learn more about through Jesus is the God who loves you already more than you could ever imagine!
Because atonement theories or not, isn't this what all of us long to hear? That we are loved. That God sees us, especially in our moments of deep pain.
That Jesus not only offered us through his life (which included suffering) a way to be in deep relationship with God.
And that as we suffer in this life, our pain, as we give it back to God for God to use for divine purposes in this world can be redemptive too?
The first time I heard the phrase "God is too big for any one religion" I was in seminary. This statement was found on a bumper sticker on my roommate's car. I looked at it every morning when I walked out of the house to go to school. I was intrigued, but confused. Growing up with a "Jesus is the only way to God" upbringing, I had no idea about what to think of my Baptist soon-to-be clergy friend's bold declaration on her car. Was she crazy being so public about her inclusive theology in the Bible Belt of the US??
Fast forward nine years to the present, as I willing submitted myself to a continuing education course in the practice of spiritual direction in an interfaith setting. My discomfort with God being found outside the bounds of Christianity has greatly diminished through thought, prayer and careful study. I believe that Jesus is the only way to God for me, but might not be the case for someone else. Vocationally, I am a pastor of an opened minded church where all are welcome as they work through their spiritual struggles (And, we really mean all). And, I am so proud to have friends in other faith traditions from whom I regularly meet with and learn from in my neighborhood. I find my own faith journey encouraged not only by texts in the words of Christian scripture, but reading of all kinds that draws my attention back to the common humanity that we all share. I too, can now talk about the vastness of God with confidence too.
So, while there were countless spiritual direction programs I could have learned much from in my own Christian tradition (much closer to home too), something stuck out to me about Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley. It wouldn't let me go. I knew this would be a place where I would learn in a completely different context of my seminary education or any other formal training I've had, for that matter. I knew I could be uncomfortable, stretched theologically and come to moments of complete disagreement with my classmates. But, I also knew that this would be good for me. What might the Spirit be leading me into next? And for the past three days I've been learning.
In all my processing, I''m still scratching my head with all of the "why" questions of what being in a program like this for the next year (I'll come back 3 other times before graduating) will mean for my future. But, what I do know is this: how blessed it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity of our common human tradition. Though I'm tempted to challenge my classmates at many junctures about their ideas on the brokeness (or not) in this world, God's essence, human responsiblity, who the divine is, and the importance of committment to a faith community, such is not why I am here.
I am here to learn about how to receive stories of fellow pilgrims on a spiritual journey. I am here to learn how to be a better listener both to myself and others. I am here to learn from the richness of the world's religious traditions, so to better edify my own spiritual practices. I am here to be among a community of folks unlike any other experience I could receive at home in DC.
While some might think I'm crazy and might even "loose" my own faith in an integrated setting like this, I have to say that such the opposite is true. Being in an interfaith culture for the week, I'm remembering again why I love being a Christian and why I could not imagine any other path for my life. While I can appreciate the faith practices of my classmates, I can't imagine embracing their beliefs for myself.
Sure, there are hair pulling out moments where I wonder how soon I can go back to my Christian cocoon and why the teaching doesn't mean more of "my" needs. But, such is far from the point. There is something I need from my classmates. Our world is growing more by the day in the direction against "organized religion" so it seems the interfaith education is the future. The God I am meeting in Berkeley is pushing my buttons, but this is what living in Interfaith land is all about.
God Calls You: to See What Others Don't I Samuel 3:1-10; Romans 12:1-8
Several years ago while participating in the Lewis Fellows Young Clergy Leadership program, our group of 30 pastors gathered in Atlanta, Georgia for 3 days of workshops. One afternoon, our discussion sessions suspended and we were all encouraged to walk from our downtown hotel to the historic district of the city known as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s childhood home. Because we were studying leadership, it was important, we were told to get to know the culture and surroundings which shaped the greatest American civil rights leader of all times. Those of us who had not been to this site were eager for the opportunity to visit and absorb as much as we could.
As we began to walk around MLK's childhood home, it became apparent that one of the greatest influencers we learned upon Martin's life was his father. Though raised in separate but not equal segregated Atlanta schools-- his Martin Sr. was known to push his son to not become complacent in his studies or in his life.
One historian wrote: "Martin Luther King, Sr., quite often referred to simply as "Daddy King," served as the first role model for young Martin Luther King, Jr. and one of the principal influences in molding his personality. . . . He assisted in the organization of voter registration drives, participated in the NAACP, and sat on the board of Morehouse College. As pastor of the local church, he embedded strong religious ideals in his son and linked him to the church. The lectures from both King's parents on the subject of racial harmony stuck with Martin and armed him against all forms of prejudice."[i]
As the national park service guide concluded the tour, he summed up our experience in the home by saying, "If it wasn't for Martin, Sr. paving the way-- calling out academic and spiritual gifts in his son, we might not be standing here today talking about this man who did so much good for our country and the racial equality of all humankind."
Similarly, today, our lection for this morning directs our attention to one of the greatest priest and prophets of all in time found in the Old Testament: Samuel, who would begin his life of service at a young age through an apprenticeship. Samuel, who would become a spiritual leader for turbulent times of transition in Israel's life together-- guiding and anointing the first two kings in the nation's history.
But, as we know, we don't just arrive in life without being under the influence of someone who teaches us. Who was the influence behind the spiritual upbringing of Samuel, like Martin Luther King Sr. was to his son? The answer arises in our lection for this morning.
In Samuel's childhood, Eli served God in the temple as the head priest. Though not his father, Eli had been in relationship with Samuel from his toddler years. Samuel's mother, Hannah, who struggled to conceive, prayed hard for Samuel's arrival. Eli was there to give Hannah a word of encouragement that God heard her prayers and one day she'd have a child. And, when Samuel was born and once weaned, Hannah dedicated Samuel to God in the temple for a life of service. Eli became his guardian.
Yet, while this story sounds beautiful from its beginning, it is important to note that all was not perfect. There were great problems in the land. Historically, since Moses and Joshua lead the nation of Israel to the Promise land, the people weren't very good at listening or paying attention to God's plans for their lives. The leadership system in place of judges did not receive wide-spread support from the people. The spiritual foundation in the land became increasingly far off-center of what God's presence in their lives looked like.
Furthermore, in a culture were religious leaders passed from generation to generation, Eli's biological sons were not up for the job. The son to son business of serving in the temple would stop with Eli. In fact, prophets had already showed up at Samuel's doorstep foretelling the consequences of the sons' corrupt behavior. Personally, I can imagine that Eli grieved the sadness of unmet expectations on part of his family-- they were not the family he wanted them to be.
So with all of this true, it didn't exactly seem like a moment in time when God would show up . . . when God would do something new... when God would bless.
Yet, if we know anything about our God we know that when we least expect is the very time that God does begin to move.
And, Eli emerges as the natural first choice. But, Eli, what? What was God thinking in picking him to begin this new movement in Israel's history that would begin with the call of Samuel.
This is what we know: Eli probably thought his moment in time of doing anything significant with his life had passed. It was his time to retire-- to kick back and enjoy life a little. And, physically, his health is failing. He's going blind in fact. Look with me at verse two where we are told about Eli, "whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see."
Again, let me reiterate that seems completely unlikely that Eli would be the one to SEE anything significant. He couldn't see.
But, he does see. In the paradigm of how God works in the world-- using the most unlikely of us for the most unlikely of tasks, God calls out Eli to use his gift of prophecy or discernment to SEE things for Samuel.
In our New Testament lesson for today, we heard the words of Paul that we've stuck close to all weekend if you've been around for our chili cook-off and special Bible study sessions this morning. We've learned that we all have spiritual gifts. And these gifts are meant not for ou r own good, but to build up the Body of Christ. And, most of all, we've learned that using our spiritual gifts is how we move in and through our corners of the world with SIGHT bigger than just what we know. Offering our gifts to God is how we worship the Lord with our daily lives.
If our gift is service, we will see things that need to be done and do it-- we'll see when the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the paper products to be refilled in the bathroom, the food collected here to be taken over to the food bank. And, we will do.
If our gift is mercy, we will see the hearts of the hurting and broken-- offering a listening ear, a tissue, or simply being a presence.
If our gift is encouragement, we will see the bigger spiritual picture of individual and groups concerns-- offering a word of motivation, placing a meaningful book in a person's hands at just the right time, or offering to share a testimony in worship of where we see God at work in our lives.
If our gift is teaching, we will see the deeper truths in the texts of scripture and other literature that are meant to grow others in wisdom and knowledge-- enjoying the research process of preparing to teach as much as the teaching and watching the joy come to folks eyes when they get a new understanding.
If our gift is giving, we will see how our momentary resources can be used for the good if managed well-- being ok with less new things so that more funds can be directed to mission organizations, being ok with not getting credit for making donations, actually preferring it this way, and being blessed by seeing the fruits of their personal sacrifices bless the community at large.
If our gift is leadership, we will see the bigger picture of how to position just the right people in just the right places to bring transformative change in the administrative life of a community-- being the one who steps up and says a word, being the one who coaches others to claim their callings too, being the one who inspires vision in practical ways.
And, if our gift is prophecy, we will see the possibilities of what God can do that may not seem clear in the present moment-- using our voice to say yes to God's leading and helping others do the same.
And such was Eli's gift. When Samuel came to Eli twice in the middle of the night thinking that it was him who was calling his name, "Samuel, Samuel," Eli redirects him back to bed. By the third time Samuel hears a voice calling his name and still comes to Eli thinking that Eli was trying to tell him something, Eli sees the situation clearly. It was the Lord doing the calling. And because this was true, it was Eli's job to help Samuel recognize this and respond accordingly.
In verse 9, we hear Eli's prophetic word: "Therefore Eli said to Samuel, 'Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak Lord for your servant is listening."
Though it might be easy to be critical of Eli-- talking about his failings throughout his life and most certainly mentioning that he raised poorly behaved sons-- I believe that in this moment in time Eli fulfilled God's calling upon his life to see what others (aka Samuel) did not.
You see, with all the life-changing, spiritual game changing, Holy Spirit filled moments that Samuel would soon lead within the nation of Israel, it was Eli's six words that helped this boy who had not yet known the Lord to SEE the Lord for the first time. Using his discernment gift, Eli became the influential person who help Samuel think about the inconceivable plans that God had already prepared for his life.
It might be easy at this juncture of the sermon to think that calling to use your spiritual gifts is just for professional Christians or "those important" people (whoever those people are). But need I remind you that God places a calling to use our gifts on ALL of our lives. No one who desires to be used by God is left without a gift. No one.
Over a year ago now after a series of sermons, Sunday School lessons and discussions in Church Council, we agreed as a church to begin a deacon ministry again. And, so we asked for names from all of you of folks you thought had the gifts to do this job full of the gifts of mercy, service and encouragement. And, with my list given to me by the Congregation Care team of who your recommendations were, I began to make some calls to several of you.
While a few said "yes" eagerly right away, most of those I called were quite shy. "Who me? No, I can't be a deacon in this church?" (And you'd go to tell me the reasons why we shouldn't pick you).
But then after some time had passed, several of you came back to me and said, "Well if you believe in me and congregation see these gifts in me, I think I need to give it a try to serve."
And such an experience is not isolated to merely the deacon ministry. Countless times, I've seen the same situation played out in our community life together. Many of you have found yourself in positions of service, leadership or care that you never in a million years imagined you'd be. But, you're the ones signing up now to be being the liturgist, leading one of our ministry teams, helping out in children's Sunday School or serving in our hypothermia project because why? Someone used their gifts to encourage you to use yours.
This is the big picture my friends-- God wants God's body on earth to be blessed. God wants us to have every gift we need for the kingdom building that awaits us. And so God gave us each other. But, not just so we could bump shoulders and see someone sitting beside us in the pew. But, so that by using our calling-- seeing God through OUR particular lens of giftedness-- we help others see what they might never see if it weren't for us.
I dare say if Martin Luther King, Jr. was not taught serious study of the things of God from his father, we would not know his name today or have freedom in all the corners of our land where it exists today. If Eli hadn't told Samuel to go and respond to the Lord when God called, we wouldn't have known King David and all that he would teach us about praising God's name through song.
I dare say too that there are countless new stories ready to be written in our community if only we each use our gifts to help others see what they could not see without us recognizing it first.
In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC where seminary professor and social advocate, Tony Campolo spoke. It came time to give the offering for missions after the sermon. And, the gentleman guiding the program asked Tony to pray before the ushers came forward to receive the offering. Seemed like a very normal churchy thing to do.
However, to the shock of many, Tony refused to pray. "What?!?" we were all thinking in our seats. Instead he said something like this: "We don't need to pray for the offering tonight because this is what I know about God. God has already given each us in this room enough resources to meet our $15,000 offering tonight. All we need to do now is to give. So, I'll start by emptying my wallet with the cash in it and maybe some of you could do the same."
And, just like Tony said that night, we got our $15,000 plus mission offering plus some in that very room.
Rest assured I'm not asking you to empty your wallets this morning . . . . though I am sure the trustees wouldn't mind.
But, what I am saying, like Tony Campolo said about giving, is that in this church, just like other local communities of faith, God has given us every resource we need to do what we are called to accomplish. God has given us teachers. God has given us servers. God has given us encouragers. God has given us leaders. God has given us those who can show compassion. God has given us givers. God has given us prophets.
This question then just sits on our shoulders: are we going to all God to use our gifts so that others can be blessed through us? How are you going to make God known by seeing what others don't?
[i] Gregg Blackely "Formative Influences on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Peace Magazine. http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v17n2p21.htm
God Calls You to Take Care of Yourself
I Corinthians 6:11-20
Today we begin a series of messages in this season of Epiphany all about God's calling to us.
It's the time of year that the Christian calendar asks us to do some consideration again about this life of faith that we've committed to live in. It's the time of year for us to hear from scripture again some of Jesus' hopes for our becoming as people called the Body of Christ. And, today's "God Calls You" blank inserts the words "To Take Care of Yourself."
It seems we tow a good line as leaders and faith seekers in Christian community on the topics of self-sacrifice, selflessness and extending beyond the bounds of our own natural abilities so that God can work mightily through us, but rare it seems that we ever talk about care of self.
While we are eager to talk about becoming something "more:" more loving, more giving, more serving, more faithful, it is rare that we talk about the physicality of a body from which all of the loving, giving serving and faithfulness comes or do we ever talk about our limits of care.
I don't know why this is, other than generations of doctrine and preaching and study has seemed to do a great job disconnecting the body and the soul.
Because of humankind's fall in Genesis 3, we learn we're condemned to a sentence of bodily suffering, pain. The body is bad and will die while the soul is good and will abide in the presence of God forever, if redeemed. Yet, we have forgotten that God previously said over the words of our birth that we were made in God's very own image and called "very good."
As a result of all of this confusion, we easily think us regular church going people, what's the point when it comes to our own health and well-being?
If we really need rest or a day of solitude and someone from the church calls us to do something, then the "godly" choice is always to say yes to others and to the church.
Furthermore, if we want our lives to be pleasing to God, then we've got to learn to give up beauty, give up pleasure, or even lay our own medical problems on the altar of denial, so we have time for everyone else other than us. Though we are taught all along about love and grace and all that jazz, we believe the only way God will REALLY love us is we die to self by putting ourselves last.
I remember my father saying to the children in Vacation Bible School once that "If you really want to be happy in life, you'll learn to love Jesus more than anyone else, even yourself."
As I grew older and had the ability to consider the deeper meaning of this saying I saw so regularly, I doubted the claim of "I wasn't really loving Jesus if I was loving myself."
Did Jesus never eat, sleep, take retreats or be quiet from time to time? But, Christian culture seem to teach me and my peers-- loving yourself was a bad thing. It you took a mental health or catch up on your sleep day, you just didn't talk about it.
We find our lection for this morning found smack dab in the middle of a long series of instructional teaching from Paul to the church in Corinth, a church we know that Paul helped to found and nurture in its infancy.
Paul sought to teach this gathered community-- new coverts to the way of Christ-- what living out their baptism (as we were talking about last week) would look like in the practical every day issues in a particular context.
(As an aside, this is often why, we as modern readers have a hard time with the epistle scriptures. While there is much to learn from the "big ideas" of these letters, we often reach dead ends of frustrating fundamentalism when we take the directives of Paul too literally).
In the verses previous to and after our lection we hear Paul describing his concerns for order in the church, legal matters, marriage and the process of worship.
So, with this understanding, it seems less random these verses about sexual morality and food before us today which say in verse 13: "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food" or in verse 18: "Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself."
It's like we are listening into a thousand plus year old conversation, though one-way, about food and sex morality's place in the life of faith. Paul wanted the church at Corinth to know that even as he taught much about "freedom in Christ" and the truth that being in Christ meant they were no longer bound to laws about this and that behavior-- still limits existed. "All things are lawful for me," Paul reminds them but adds, "not all things are beneficial."
It's his way of saying, in the story of Christ's grace, we are not left out of the family of God for what we do and our actions do not change the way God looks at us or thinks of us, BUT freedom in Christ has limits. The limits are meant for our good.
Like a young child who will not take instructions without their parent or caregiver answering their thousand, "Why?" questions, Paul gives the whys for his considerations for this particular community about how they partner sexually and what food they put in their mouths.
Their bodies are not bad. Their bodies are not just flesh and bones with nothing to do with their souls. Their bodies gave life and thus were a part of God's very own Self. Therefore, a call resounds to care for their bodies.
I wonder how many of us in this room made New Year's Resolutions? And, among all of you who made resolutions, I wonder how many of your stated intentions related in some way to your body or health. (Any brave souls to raise your hands?)
A recent article about our New Year's Resolution practices in one US city[i] states that the top five resolutions made this year included to:
1. Spend more time with friends and family
2. Become fit in fitness
3. Lose Weight and tame the bulge
4. Quit Smoking
5. Quit Drinking
No matter that social studies say that 80% of New Year's Resolutions fail by January 20th (that's only 5 days away in fact), there seems to be a compulsion in most of us to improve our satisfaction with our bodies and an equally strong compulsion to not.
According the National Center for Heath and Disease Control, nearly 2/3 of adults and children in the United States are overweight; nearly 1/3 are obese. And, if we single out the church going crowd the statistics are worse. A recent study by a Purdue University sociologist "found that religious participation in the United States specially, participation in the Christian denominations (for which the Baptist church was highlighted as a chief offender)-- correlates with status as overweight or obesity.[ii]
Have you been to a church dinner lately? Have you met a group of pastors lately? Though our church and its leaders might be able to say that we've cared for the sick and dying and we've given good weddings and funerals, when it comes to taking care of our own health, our own well-being, and our own mental peace, we do a really lousy job of it.
We don't really think our bodies matter that much.
I can't tell you how many times I've been at clergy gatherings where fellow colleagues have boasted of "never taking their vacation" or "working from sun up from sun down."
I can't tell you how many pastoral encounters I've had in homes when a piece of cake or pie has been shoved on me though I really keep saying, "I'm full." I can't tell you how many times the sin of gluttony has been ignored in church life as if it is ok to eat and eat and eat some more and the sin of lust has been ignored and we all know what happens when that comes out . . . We as the church global have problems with God's call to care for our bodies.
All of this talk this morning is not meant to knock those of us who in the midst of a life-long struggle with body image, time management and finding ways to love exercise (though we hate it so), but it is this text that asks us to stop and ponder what IS God's calling to our bodies again. It's our time now to ask us what God's calling to "glorify God in our bodies" looks like?
In my early years of faith, I heard a lot about salvation as the process of being made right with God.
Salvation as making a stated confession to a community of my sin, repentance and faith in God. Salvation amounted to a prayer of confession and a lifetime of service in the church, hoping to lead as many others as possible in this prayer of confession too.
It was such a big deal that people would ask, "What was the day that you came to Christ?" And, when you appropriately answered, your salvation story was complete.
But, even as my understand of salvation began to change over the years, a class during my 3rd year of seminary, shifted my theology in a completely different direction.
Salvation was not, as Dr. Esther Acolotse, put it in pastoral care class one afternoon about a moment or a limited engagement experience. Salvation, she suggested was about become a human being-- the human being God designed each of us to be at creation. Salvation was about a journey to be made whole.
Such words lingered with me long that day after class and have stuck with me until now. That, yes, God calls us to take care of ourselves because our salvation depends on it.
But, what does this look like, you might wonder? I'm still trying to figure it out, of course, but what I've learned is that there is no way that I can act on God's calling for care of self if my schedule is out of balance.
If we try to over work or under work, if we say "yes" when we should be saying "no," we wind up cranky, drinking too much caffeine, and eventually physically ill.
But, if we remember when we look at the week ahead that it is good to care of ourselves-- the time we need to cook meals at home, the time we need to go on walks, the time we need to decompress-- as much as we say "yes" to other things, a funny thing happens.
We feel better. We might just sleep better. We enjoy my life more, and we exude the joy of being exactly the person God created us to be. And, sure there are always times in your life and mine when we need to go more than others, but afterwards we always must remember to take a step back and not let this constant rush be our norm.
The stakes are high with this calling, my friends, for you and I get into more trouble than we can ever know now if we don't live into this. Not only what we first might think-- facing life with preventable health concerns dragging us down-- but in our community relations with one another. If we are ever going to be the presence of God to one another as other callings upon our life will ask of us-- we must first start with ourselves.
After all St. Teresa of Avila once said to her community:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours.
So, what are you going to do to care for yours? AMEN
[i] Top Ten New Years Resolutions. Albrecht Powell. http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/holidays/tp/resolutions.htm
[ii]Mary Louise Bringle. "Eating Well: Seven Paradoxes of Plenty." http://www.baylor.edu/christianethics/HealthArticleBringle.pdf
In the lectionary cycle, we are reaching the end of the time of year that is named "ordinary time." Next week, we will celebrate a service of remembrance of Thanksgiving and then the following Sunday, November 27th will begin Advent. (Hard to believe we are at Advent again, isn't it?)
Though "Ordinary time" isn't the most exciting descriptor of course of all the good work we've been exploring together in worship since we celebrated Pentecost Sunday in June, it's the liturgical season we stay in the longest in any given year.
Ever wonder why the color of the pulpit cloth and my stole is green and has been green for seemingly forever (unless you are Ernie and just noticed the color change last week?). Green is a color that symbolizes growth, and summer and early fall-- the time of year that ordinary season occurs every year-- it's a time in the life of the church to put all our attention on "spiritual growth" without the highs and lows of the religious holidays such as Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter or Christmas to distract us. During ordinary time, we are to devote ourselves to the business of deepening our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
All of this to say, when reflecting about the fact that our "ordinary" (aka growth season) in the church is nearly over, I could help but take the opportunity and go off the lectionary for this week and do a check-up of sorts about how it is that we are doing in the "growing up" portion of our own spiritual lives. Drawing upon some wisdom from the writer of the book of Hebrews-- a book we don't hear too many sermons from in a given year given its complexity and unknown authorship, but has much to teach us about the richness and the beauty of what following Christ is all about.
Let me interrupt your regularly schedule sermon narration to ask for a true confession time: are any of you willing to admit that you still are holding onto an object of sentimental value from your childhood? It could be an old lunch box, your favorite stuffed animal or that leather jacket that you just had to have your senior year of high school but is now five sizes too small with no possible way that you could find your way into anytime soon? If so, feel free to raise your hands now.
If I were to make my own true confession it would be that I still have a baby blanket that my great-grandmother made me for me. It's a carefully crocheted in pastel colors that has stood the test of time, these 31 years of my life. Mu, as she was affectionately known on my father's side of the family, died when I was a year old, so though I have no memories of her, the blanket is still special to me-- even though as you can obviously see, I am no longer a baby in need of a blanket.
Why is it that we hold on to such things-- long past their time of practical usefulness to us? The obvious answer is the emotional comfort the continuity of such objects in our lives provide.
But in the case of my blanket and your fill in the blank items as well, we keep them close for comfort's sake, but in doing so, might we also have our "growing up" stumped a little in the process? Do we really NEED such things from our childhood?
In the same way, the preacher of our text for this morning, is too trying to find a way to say to his congregation a word or two about the "growing up" that he feels they need to do as well, letting go of what had worked for them in the past.
I don't know if along the way in your educational life, you ever encountered a teacher that was known to challenge their students: challenge in the sense of motivating students beyond originally felt was one's capacity for study. Well, if you have had such an experienced or journeyed with your child in such a hard experience, then you have an idea already what the Hebrews preacher is up too.
If we were to read on past where our lection ends today at verse two of chapter six, soon we'd be in some of the most complex passages in all of the New Testament. Passages which speak to the nature of some of Christianity's most important concepts: faith, the place of Jesus in relation to God and even about who angels are.
Like any good teacher, the Preacher of Hebrews knew, that if we went over his congregation's head and just jumped into all of this deep stuff, without some good hook, they'd soon stop listening and maybe even fall asleep during the end of the sermon. So, this is where the words of our text come in. Look with me at verse 12: "By this time you ought to be teachers, but instead you need someone to teach you the ABC of God's oracles over again."
Though at first glance this verse seems to sound like a lecture given from a lofty pulpit with a harsh tone, it isn't actually. It is a rhetorical strategy used by the preacher/ teacher to say: "Listen up friends. I am about to tell you about some of the most amazing teaching you've ever heard, but you aren't ready. So I won't."
The hope of the words that follow, then is persuasion for the congregation to listen up, to prove their teacher wrong. That, yes, really yes, they could handle it. They were ready for more. To say with the nods on their heads that yes, wanted to journey with the preacher into conversation about the deep waters of faith.
Because if we understand the type of teaching in Christian community commonplace among converts at this time, we realize that much like our regime of offering Sunday School for children and adults, the intended audience of this sermon had also been through instructional teaching for a year or sometimes three at least. These listeners were not those who had never been around Christianity before and need a 101 lesson. Rather, they at least had heard the basics.
But, even with this true, the preacher says, in 6:1: "Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity." What does this mean? Doesn't everyone need a refresher course every now and then?
But the preacher is saying: the time of hashing and rehashing over the same "Jesus was important teacher. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus rose again which is why we celebrate Easter..." just can't last forever. As good as it was to know and hear the basics, life in the ways of God was so much more adventurous than this. They were asked to no longer stand still. In fact, the Hebrews preacher suggests that staying in the same place spirituality that they had always been was in fact NOT standing still, as it might seem. Rather, it was indeed going backwards.
The analogy employed here in Hebrews, is in fact one that has stood the test of time from ancient to modern. Look with me at verse 13 when the preacher says, "Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, with no experience of what is right. Solid food is for adults, whose perceptions have been trained by long use to discriminate between good and evil."
And such a statement we understand from this preacher: "Are you still an infant in the faith? No. Well, then why in the world are you still drinking milk only? Don't you know that as adults, your calling is to eat and teach others to also eat solid spiritual food-- food that cannot be merely gulped as a whole, but food that needs to be carefully cut into smaller pieces to be digested slowly."
A friend of mine was taking her young son to the dentist for his annual check-up. When the dentist examined my friend's son's teeth, immediately he had that look of alarm that every parent knows. Something was up. The dentist began to ask more about the child's diet and when and if he still took a bottle at night.
When the answer to the milk in a bottle question was yes, the dentist was quick to respond: "You know that this is not good for your son. He has to stop drinking milk this way and taking bottles altogether at his age. He's growing up you know, and if he keeps at this 'infant-like' behavior the growth of his mouth as an adult will actually be stunned."
So, the question before us this morning is, are we still drinking milk spiritually or have we moved on to steak or a plate full of the most beautiful sautéed vegetables (for the vegetarians in the room)?
Not that there is anything wrong with milk if we are new to the faith-- of course. When we are newborn in terms of accepting Christianity as our spiritual home, milk is perfect. Actually, it is indeed THE most nourishing substance we can provide and surround ourselves with, often taking it in as newborns take milk from their parents-- being feed by those who are more experienced at spiritual food than we are and taking it all in.
Drinking spiritual milk would look like coming to Bible study and asking as many questions as we need. Sitting in worship, not saying much but listening well.
Not tithing part of our income to the church yet, but giving what spare change we can find in the bottom of our purse. And, reading scripture or other devotional texts as we feel moved to do so. All of these baby steps in faith become beautiful testaments to the work of God that is beginning to take root in our souls. And if this is where you are today, I say, keep drinking up the milk. Go for it. Drink up.
But, what about the rest of us? Why are we still drinking milk (like the picture on the front cover of our bulletin for this morning)?
What about those of us for whom we raised in the church?
What about us who have been re-associating ourselves with church and now realize we've been a member regularly attending WPBC for five years or more?
What then, is the" grow up" message of our text for this morning? How might the spiritual practices of our past be holding us back, stunning our growth, much like the mother who couldn't refuse her child his bottle at night but then got the bad news from the dentist? What might a life of solid spiritual foods look like?
But, the truth be told, I can't describe what spiritual solid food will look like in your life and what it will look in mine. If we take a minute and consider just a moment how it is that we digest a meal such as the one we have on the altar table, we might find some clues to get us moving in the right direction.
Consider thinking about spiritual food like we do solid food.
Spiritual food like solid food takes time to come together. Just as we can't come home from work quickly and put together a five course meal in the matter over 30 minutes or less if we haven't prepared ahead of time, we can't expect to receive spiritual nourishment if we just call upon God when a crisis hits or our guilt gets the best of us.
Spiritual food like solid food takes time to digest. Unlike drinking a cold glass of milk in under a minute if we want, eating solid foods takes time. To eat solid foods, we must slow ourselves down to chew so that we simply don't choke. Growing spiritually does not come from reading a couple of sentences devotional every now
and then-- it comes in setting the intentions of our days that growing in relationship with our Creator is actually something we want to put into our schedule. Not lunch on the run, or lunch multitasking while on our email, but lunch with time and space to enjoy every bite of God's love given for us in the Word called the Bible.
Spiritual food like solid food comes in various forms. At some points in our lives, we could eat chicken fingers and mac and cheese for every meal. But as we grow
older, we often learn to eat foods we would have turned our noses up to as kids-- broccoli, spinach, and carrots, just to name a few. In the same way, the intake of spiritual foods in our lives will probably look different with each passing year. Sometimes it will look like lots of Bible Study classes. Sometimes it will look like weekends devoted to social justice projects. Sometimes it will look the quiet devotion of abiding in deep friendship with other believers. But regardless-- it is nourishment that we need at the time and we must eat up, not being to picky complaining that our spiritual food doesn't look as good as our brother or sisters'.
So this morning, I ask you, again, do you want to grow up? Do you want to have something other than milk for dinner? Do you want to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good? Then, come join me, come join your fellow believers on this journey in the feast of spiritual foods that our heavenly Parent has laid before us. Let's do this important work and grow up in the faith together.
I promise you that as you learn to eat your spiritual food, it will taste better than you could have ever imagined as you keep chewing it, preparing it, feasting on it and sharing your meal with others.