21 September 2009

Explorers, Not Mapmakers

Proverbs 3: 13-18 & Luke 2: 41-52
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 20th September 2009

“Are we there yet?” How many times have we heard these words anxiously echoed from the back seat of the car or min-van? Perhaps it was just this past summer. Can you remember saying the exact same words as a child? “Are we there yet?” We know how frustrating it is to hear this question (particular if you’ve only driven around the corner on the start of a very long journey). I learned that in Eric and Tara Ebersole’s household the question, “Are we there yet?” was answered with, “Yes, we are. Now get out!”

But there’s also something about the getting there, no matter where “there” is, that is frustrating for us, no matter our age. We don’t like that feeling of being between places, not home, not at our destination: en route. Other times we’re in a rush to arrive, only to ask, “What was the rush?” We’re destination focused, as we should be. We all need to have a sense of the direction toward which we’re moving. Sometimes, however, we’re so obsessed with the destination, rushing to get where we need to be, that we miss out the joy of the journey. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) said it so well, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” (Virginibus Puerisque, 1881)

From the beginning the Christian life has been viewed as a journey – with a definite destination in mind, yet an expedition with many roads all leading to the Celestial City. The earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians but as we glean from John’s gospel and from Acts, they were known as the Way (Acts 9:2). Jesus himself said, in John, “I am the Way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6).” It was understood that to follow Jesus meant to follow the one who is the Way, it meant to walk with the Way, on the way, on the road of faith, of discipleship, of the cross, of servant-hood – the life Jesus bids us welcome when he says, “Follow Me.”

“Are we there yet?” What does the Christian say? No. We’re on the way. Whenever someone asked my grandmother, Ann, “How are you?” She often gave this memorable response, “I’m getting there.” She never let on where “there” was, but she was on the way. The same is true for us in the life of faith. None of us are there yet. Perhaps if someone asks you, “Are you a Christian?” the best response, honest respond might be, “Not yet, but I’m getting there.” This is not to suggest that we are earning our salvation or working our way there without grace, but that we are on the way to becoming who Christ knows us to be.

It’s important to remember we’re not there yet. Sure, we might be baptized, we can declare our pedigree: attended church school (even with perfect attendance, like I had), confirmed member of the church, serve the church, attend worship regularly, serve as an elder, deacon, trustee, maybe even a minister of Word and Sacrament. We can recite by memory and confess with all integrity every article of the Apostles’ Creed. You might know your Reformed theology and your Bible. Work tirelessly in mission. Give generously to the church, even tithe, more than tithe. But all of this doesn’t come close, part but not all of what it means to be a disciple – a student of Jesus Christ; it doesn’t come close to understanding what it means to be a follower of the Lord.

I loved the quote Dorothy Boulton selected for last week’s bulletin on Kick-Off Sunday, by the great Presbyterian theologian, Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001), “BE IT HEREBY ENACTED that every three years all people shall forget whatever they have learned about Jesus, and begin the study all over again.” I uttered, “Amen,” during the sermon – maybe I should have spoken up and said it louder (saying, “Amen” during a Presbyterian sermon, is allowed, by the way). We can’t assume we know. What’s required, especially in our age full of intellectual and theological arrogance, is humility of knowledge, we need to be able to say – as an expression of a mature faith – “I don’t know and I’m eager to learn, I’m eager to discover.” We can’t assume that we have this faith all figured out. To be a disciple of Christ means to be a student, with Jesus as the teacher. It means to be constantly open to the new thing to be learned as the foot of the master.

I loved Dorothy’s sermon last week. She beautifully lifted up themes that are so central to the Christian life and needed in the life of the church today, themes of considerable significance for me as a Christian and as a pastor. Being a Christian is not about simply learning facts and reciting creeds and ideas and beliefs, cramming all this “data” in our heads and then spitting them out when needed. That might be religion, but it’s not faith – an active, dynamic, living, breathing faith that comes through a relationship with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s completely different. Like any relationship, we come to know the other by relating and encountering and listening to the other over time, we come to deeper knowledge through the relationship. That’s the way it is with the Spirit. The Christian life is a relationship over time.

Are we there yet? Are we, as a church and as individuals, fully embodying Christ’s message and love in every aspect of our lives? Are we so confident that we have God all figured out? Are we so confident we fully understand who Jesus is and what he expects of us and wants for us and for the world? Of course not – and, I would go so far to say, “And give up trying! Enjoy the journey!”

There is never a point of arrival (at least not in this life). Not only are we people of the Way, we are also people walking with the Way, on the way to the life Christ dreams for us, individually and together. The Christian life is a dynamic experience, we’re always on the move, filled with curiosity and questions, eager to learn (as we see in Jesus learning and then teaching in the temple), continuously searching for wisdom (as we see in Proverbs), searching for deeper insight into the depths, with a hunger for meaning, never satisfied with the surface, with things as they, ever open to what can be, of what is to be discovered in new territory.

Luke gives us just one verse to sum up Jesus’ development from adolescence to adulthood: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (Torrance) Jesus life becomes the pattern for our own, who shows us what it means to be human and human in relationship with God. In and through the relationship over time with him comes the wisdom and knowledge. The literal meaning of “increased” here means, “beat his way forward blow by blow,” as in a struggle. This is what Jesus experienced, and what he experienced for us, and what we experience when we’re in him, growing with him, maturing in wisdom with him.

Are we there yet? Of course not, thank God, but we’re on the way – or can be with the Spirit’s leading. The Christian life is not static, but dynamic, words like growth, development, transformation, change, process, movement, journey, adventure describe our experience in Christ, these words are part of the Christian vocabulary they inform our reality, they shape the rhythm of our days. We’re on the way – we need to be on the way.

But it has to be our journey, along our own road. You can’t walk someone else’s journey, it has to be yours. My journey is not yours and yours isn’t mind, but we can learn something about the experience and help one another along the way as companions in the journey. We need to take responsibility for our growth, inner growth and outer; it’s why we offer adult education. Growth is expected – venturing out, studying scripture, deepening prayer life, engaging in worship, reading, listening, doing, growing up and growing down, exploring out inner lives – ever growing in wisdom and understanding. It’s so critical that we move beyond the faith we had as a child. The faith we had a child is great, but it’s not sufficient to speak to the complexity of life, or when tragedy strikes, or when we experience suffering, or try to make sense of our circumstances or the world as adults with the faith perspective we gained as children. It’s not sufficient. It’s why throughout Paul’s letter he was always encouraging his churches to move from a liquid diet to solid food (1 Corinthians 3: 1-4). Setting our face forward, we strive for the goal of the upward call in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3: 13-14). We set our face forward and move.

When Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) moved his massive, conquering army across Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, he was confronted by a frightening sight. The army emerged through a dense forest and before them stood the Himalayan Mountains – and they stopped there awestruck and afraid. While they conquered every enemy in their path, there was one more fear to face – the unknown. You see, they arrived at the edge of the known world. They marched clear off the map. There was no map for the territory beyond that point. Alexander’s commanders wanted to return and go back. But then Alexander spoke and said, “Every army in the history of the world has always been tempted to go back to what it has known, and we can do that if you want. But, a truly great army will always march off the map and conquer new worlds. We have a choice – we can be an army that turns back to what is familiar, or we can be a truly great army and march off the map and conquer new worlds.” They marched off the map. That’s a powerful image. This is always the choice before us as Christians and as a church, isn’t it? We can be tempted to turn back to what is familiar, or we can be faithful and march off the map and explore and discover new worlds.

That’s the image that George MacLeod (1895-1990) has given us, the progressive, visionary founder of the Iona Community and the one responsible for the restoration of Iona Abbey. On Friday evening, the pastor of Dickey Memorial Church, Liz Johnson, married, Scott Blythe, a Scot, a pastor, and a member of the Community – so were his three groomsmen. It was a real honor and joy talking with them about the Community, group of about 200 scattered through the world who continue the work Macleod started. Macleod was a liberal-progressive-evangelical-mystic-Presbyterian-Christian. I remember reading these words from his biography, on the plane back to New York after having lived in Scotland for the year, 18 years ago. They struck me then and continue to shape me. They offer a vision of what it means for us to be Christian, to be church, to be faithful. “For Christ is a person to be trusted, not a principal to be tested. The Church is movement, not a meeting house. The faith is an experience, not an exposition. [And] Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.” Not mapmakers, but explorers led by the Spirit of the Risen Christ toward God’s redemptive vision of the world. May it be so.


Robert McAfee Brown, The Bible Speaks to You (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 87.

Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 132.

I’m grateful to Theodore J. Wardlaw, president of Austin Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas, for this illustration. “Remembering Who We Are,” sermon preached July 8, 2009, Montreat, North Carolina.

George Macleod, first printed in the Coracle, 1942. Cited in Ronald Ferguson, George MacLeod: Founder of the Iona Community (HarperCollins, 1990), 195.

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