Thinking different...

NOTE: Just finished this week's sermon notes for our celebration of Epiphany on Sunday, January 4th 2009. I wanted to get this completed as I will be away on retreat until Saturday. So, if you're in town and would like to stop by for worship, join us at 10:30 am as we begin a 4 week series into our proposed mission/vision statement: In community with God and each other we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and act with compassion." After worship, we'll regroup to talk about this, too.

Today is the Feast of Epiphany – the celebration of God’s light being shared with all creation – a liturgical moment that brings the season of Christmas to a close. At its heart, Epiphany is a spiritual invitation for us to explore both how God’s grace is active and present in the world, and, what new wisdom or insight has been born within or among us because of this light.

Epiphany, you see, does not look backwards into tradition. Rather, it calls us straight ahead into the unknown future trusting that God will continue to bring light into our darkness. After all, how does the story of the Magi conclude?

… the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: they were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! So they entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him… opening their luggage and presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh. And then in a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, they left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country by a different way.

That’s why I thought it wise to begin our discussion of the new proposed mission and vision statement today:

+ Like the Magi, we have been following the light of God into new discoveries – the presence of Messiah born into our hearts, minds, bodies and history – and now the time has come to “work out another route – return to our ordinary lives by a new and different way” – follow the star and God’s dream into new places.

+ Like the theologian, Douglas John Hall, is fond of saying: In the Jesus life, there is a new way for people to live. You show wisdom by trusting people; you handle leadership by serving; you handle offenders by forgiving; you handle money by sharing; you handle enemies by loving and you handle violence by suffering. In fact, you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in the Jesus life you repent NOT by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

And that is precisely what our new vision statement challenges us to figure out: how to think differently from the status quo of both church and society, and, why this matters? In clear, direct and bold language, this new articulation of our mission says: In community with God and each other we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and act with compassion.

For the next four weeks I’m going to be unpacking some of the ideas and implications of these words for our life together as a congregation. Your church leadership has worked hard to give expression to how they sensed God’s new and different way working within and among us. And now they have asked me to lead a series of conversations about why these words are important. So, on Epiphany we begin at the beginning: we gather to reflect on our Christian faith. That is, we gather to learn how to think differently and there are four Biblical texts that inform this invitation.

Isaiah 55 which begins: Come all who are thirsty, come to the water… come, buy your drinks, your milk and wine without money. Don’t spend your hard earned cash on junk food… listen to me and eat the best, fill yourselves with the finest… because (and pay careful attention here) my ways are not your ways – I don’t think like you think – and the way you work is not how I do it. For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think. Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don't go back until they've watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They'll do the work I sent them to do, they'll complete the assignment I gave them.

Are you with me? Part of what it means to reflect on our faith is to explore and learn about God’s very different – even upside down – way of thinking, acting, loving and being. For the way of the Lord, thanks be to God, is NOT like our way: God is about grace, not karma – justice, not the status quo – light beyond the darkness, not fear and ignorance.

One truth about reflecting on our faith has to do with learning about the upside down kingdom of God. Another is to be found in the advice St. Paul gives the church beginning in the 12th chapter of Romans.

Romans 12: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

When I first learned these words I delighted in the admonition: do not be conformed to the manner of this world but, rather, be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you might know what is good and acceptable, your spiritual worship of the Lord. Isn’t that powerful? Use your mind to become part of a new way of living…

First, reflection involves a careful consideration of God’s grace-filled ways. Second, it has to do with challenging ourselves to give up conformity and renew our minds in the love of God so that our ordinary lives will begin to look more and more like Christ in action. Third, reflecting on our Christian faith has something to do with wrestling with how to make the words of Jesus flesh in our time and place.

Matthew 5: Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. Don't suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God's Law or the Prophets. I'm not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God's Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God's Law will be alive and working.

What do you sense going on here? There’s study of the scriptures involved in our type of reflection, right? Not memorization, but wrestling and arguing with the word. But first – and I really mean this – we have to know the words; we have to understand, comprehend and cherish them as a way of seeing something of God’s alternative way of being.

And then I would add this additional insight from St. Paul about learning to live without always knowing – learning to live by trust – or as Richard Rohr puts it: “Your great spiritual teachers always had to balance knowing with not knowing and knowing that you don’t know. This has been almost totally lost. Even the Christian churches largely define faith as knowing, when in fact; biblically it means exactly the opposite. Faith is being willing not to know, and still being content, because God knows. Now that’s a gift from God—to be able to live with the freedom not to know.”

I Corinthians 13: Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. Now we're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love… because Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.

One of my favorite Sufi stories – from the mystical Islamic tradition – tells of Nasrudin who has lost the keys to his house. Frantically he searches for them in the shrubs and the garden and eventually gets on his hands and knees under a street light to keep up the search. One of his students happens to come by and ask, “What’s going on? What are you searching for?” and Nasrudin says, “My house keys – I’ve dropped them and lost them.” So his student gets on his hands and knees under the street light, too, and begins to search. Eventually he says, “I am not finding anything here: are you sure you dropped them in this spot?” To which the old fool replies, “Oh my goodness no, I dropped my keys over in the alley but… you see the light is so much better here.”

Reflecting on our faith is not searching like a fool: it involves a long, loving look at scripture, culture and human nature all from within the radically upside down grace of God – and even then there is often more darkness than light. But we have tasted love – and so we go on.
(NOTE: Nobody captures the alternative to a life of faith better than Radiohead on this song they call "Faust Arp." What a killer, yes?)

RECOMMENDED READING FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Here are the five books that will better ground us in our reflections. They range from basic and practical to more scholarly but all are very helpful.
1. Practicing Our Faith - Dorothy Bass
2. The Heart of Christianity -Marcus Borg
3. To Begin at the Beginning - Martin Copenhaver
4. Common Prayers - Harvey Cox
5. Thinking the Faith or The Cross in Our Context - Douglas John Hall


Liz said…
When it comes to reflection, the soul, wisdom and healing, I have come to lean, among other people/teachers, on Dr. Sha. "Soul Communication" was just wonderful, and I've already ordered (it comes out next week!) "The Power of Soul." He relates such direct and powerful material on how to access and apply the power of the soul. There are some great insights on how to deal with things like blockages in your life. I just know it's the end of the year, and he is helping me prepare my life and soul for the new year ahead.
RJ said…
Thanks, Liz, I'll check it out.
Liz said…
I hope it helps! (And I also wanted to add that I love the colors/art/etc. on your web site...)

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