25 September 2012

A Life of Service

Mark 9:30-37
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 23rd September 2012

It was not their finest hour.  Like last week, we find Jesus and his disciples “on the way,” touring through the Galilee preaching the kingdom and healing the sick.  They eventually make their way to Capernaum, the center of Jesus’ ministry situated on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.  He waits until they get inside the house, away from the public, then Jesus has his own “come to Jesus” meeting with them.  “What were you arguing about on the way?” he asks.  He overheard their argument while they were out there on the road.  It was not their finest hour.

            Their silence betrays their shame.  “But they were silent,” the text says, “for on the way they had argued with one another.”  This wasn’t a theological argument, it wasn’t a debate about the interpretation of scripture, this wasn’t a dispute about worship.  It was pretty childish, actually.  They were fighting over who was the greatest among them.  And their hesitation about ‘fessing up tells us they weren’t too happy with their actions out there “on the way.”  Their silence and hesitancy in answering Jesus suggest there was some embarrassment and shame.

            This is important to note here because what stands behind this text and the entire New Testament was a powerful shame-honor dynamic – it might seem odd to us and not immediately apparent, but this shame-honor dynamic permeated every level of society.[1]  It was pervasive in Palestine because it was the norm throughout the Roman Empire.  Roman society was rigidly hierarchical.  One’s sense of honor or shame was contingent upon how one was viewed by the larger community, particularly those in your social level.  To be publicly humiliated was one of the most painful experiences one could endure.  To lose a sense of one’s honor, to be publicly shamed, to be dishonored felt like death.  And many a Roman preferred to take one’s own life instead of face dishonor or shame.

            On the one hand, organizing a society this way, cultivated a growth in civic participation, one that encouraged living a life that is honorable in the eyes of the wider society. Honor virutus preamlum.  Honor is the reward of virtue.  On the other hand, human nature being what it is, this approach inevitably leads to secrets and schemes to keep the shame-producing truth from ever emerging.  “In shame cultures it is the group that has the conscience, not the individual.  Thus when a group accuses one of violating its standards, deep shame is the result.”[2]

            It’s quite natural, therefore, that the disciples would have been curious about where their movement or ministry was placed in the larger social context and, internally, they would have wanted to know who was the “greatest” among them.  Status meant everything.  Status brought power.  Status brought honor.  Status meant height, being “high” above others who were below you.  Once you figured out where you were in the pecking order you were encouraged to stay there.  That’s what was meant by “being humble.”  It meant, “staying within one’s inherited social status, not grasping to upgrade oneself and one’s family at the expense of another.”[3]  In Jesus’ world you knew who was at the top – the emperor – and you knew who was on the very bottom – the slave – and somewhere in between was you.

            Now, all of this is important to keep in mind because what’s going on in this text is radical.  And what Jesus is up to here is quite astonishing.  We get a glimpse of what his ministry is all about.  In the privacy of this house, not out in the public, Jesus doesn’t judge them for their discussion.  Instead, he intentionally undermines their societal assumptions of how the world “really is,” and shows them a still more excellent way.  He challenges their assumptions about what matters and doesn’t.  He destabilizes the foundation, the structural core of their moral universe.  That’s why Jesus was radical, literally meaning, of or pertaining to the root.  He gets to the root, the core of what matters.  He does this by lobbing at them the curve ball of curve balls, something so counter-intuitive, something they would never have considered valuable or possible or sane or even desirable.  Jesus unmasks the power structures of his society and their aspirations for power and then undermines their value system.  It’s as if Jesus is taking on or hoping to heal the damage inflicted by a society based on shame and honor.  How?  Where?  When Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  That would have left them speechless.  Knowing something of his world, it leaves us speechless too.

            This is the grand reversal that Jesus comes to proclaim to the world.  This is what the kingdom of God is and does and what we’re called to embody. This is what grace does. This is the way the world ought to be and is becoming.  This is justice.  Jesus reverses the pecking order.  The Gospel always questions the prevailing morality of any culture.  Jesus challenges the assumptions of his society.  The first shall be last and the last shall be first (Mark 10:31).  If you want to be first, if you want to be great, if you want something to really feel honorable about, then give up your status, move in the opposite direction of where you are, choose downward mobility; instead of wanting to be served, serve – serve all, especially those who are below you or those you consider are below you.  If you want glory, then be who you were created to be – serve one another.

            And with that Jesus reaches over and places a little child among them and then he puts his arms around the child – Mark uses one of the most unique verbs found in the New Testament – and takes the child in his arms and says:  See, like this.  This is where you start.  This is how you do it.  And this gesture, too, is wildly radical and even subversive.  Unfortunately, we have domesticated it.  We all have our images of Jesus welcoming the children. We have those images from Sunday school curriculum and flannel-graph pictures of the children gathered at Jesus’ knee, smiling, well fed, well dressed, well behaved, clean, and cherub-like.  These images are seared into our brains. But I wish we could get rid of them or cast them aside.  We must not romanticize this text; we must not romanticize children here.  And we must not dehistoricize this text by lifting it out of Jesus’ time and placing it in ours or taking our views of children and projecting them back into the text. 

            When I mentioned earlier that slaves were at the bottom of the rung, well, children were just a little higher than slaves.  Like slaves they were nonentities, they were invisible.  They had no status, no rights.  “Childhood in antiquity was a time of terror.  Infant mortality rates sometimes reached 30 percent.  Another 30 percent of live births were dead by age six, and 60 percent were gone by age sixteen.  Children always suffered first from famine, war, disease, and dislocation, and in some areas or eras few would have lived to adulthood with both parents alive.  The orphan was the stereotype of the weakest and most vulnerable member of society.  Childhood was thus a time of terror, and survival to adulthood a cause of celebration.”  That’s why rites of passage ceremonies were so important too because they survived childhood.  “Children had little status within the community or family.  A minor child was on a par with a slave, and only after reaching maturity was s/he a free person who could inherit the family estate.”  To call someone a child could also be a serious insult (Matthew 11:16-17).  This is not to say that children were not loved and valued.  They were.  Having children promised continuation of the family, as well as security and protection to parents in old age.[4]  Still, it was at time of terror.

            When Jesus embraces the child it’s a symbolic action that demonstrates what Jesus is all about, what matters most in the kingdom of God; he shows us the kinds of values and questions that matter to God.[5]  We should not be arguing who is the greatest.  Instead, we are called to question the moral structure of society if that structure does not allow for the care of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).  What is more, we have to work against that structure if society is not willing to care for the “least of these.”  We are called to serve, not the rich and powerful, not those with status and honor in the eyes of society, we are called to serve the children, to embrace them, care for them. 

            While it is true, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said, “the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Yes, we are called as people of faith to ensure that our children are safe and secure, that they are cared for, that they are offered the prospect of a future to grow and develop and love; while all this is true, Jesus is not really talking about children as we consider children today.  Jesus is really talking about welcoming, embracing, holding the most vulnerable segment of our society: the weakest, the marginalized, the ignored or excluded, those without power.  That’s what the work of God’s kingdom is about.  These are the people we are called to serve – the least of these among us.

            In his last speech, vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey (1911-1978), was channeling this kingdom ethic when he said, "...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  In other words: the most vulnerable.

            Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) caught the vision of the kingdom when he said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

     Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has tirelessly reminded us, “If we don’t stand up for children, we don’t stand up for much.”

     But Jesus is not talking about nations or governments, he’s talking to the church, to the people of faith who are in seats of power and have authority in nations and governments, people of faith who through their voice and actions have some influence upon the way we care for the most vulnerable in our society, for the marginalized, for those women and men and children who are invisible to us, whose plight is unknown to us because have not stepped into their lives, or maybe have not stooped down low enough on the social ladder to consider their plight. 

     There are many “weak” segments of our society we could lift up here, the contemporary “children” of our age who need our care and love.  Close to home here in Baltimore, I’m thinking particularly of the work of The Samaritan Women in Catonsville, providing sanctuary for women coming out trafficking and space for homeless veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Did you know?

·       One out of every 10 homeless vets under the age of 45 is a woman.
·       The number of female veterans who end up homeless–estimated 6,500–has nearly doubled over the last decade
·       According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 23% of the homeless population in the United States are veterans and 3/4ths of which experience some type of alcohol, drug, or mental health problem.  Among women vets, it’s estimated that 60% have addiction issues.
·       In Maryland and Virginia, the estimated number of homeless female veterans in 2009 was 466; the number of available beds in our area is only 24.[6]
     Marian Wright Edelman was channeling Jesus when she said, “Service is what life is all about.”  It’s what the life of faith is all about.  The motto of Hard Rock Cafes, found all around the world, perhaps says it best:  “Love all – Serve all.”  Serving all God’s children.  Serving the least of these, the most vulnerable.

     To welcome a “child” – to embrace the most vulnerable in our society – means that we are at the same time welcoming Jesus: to welcome him is to welcome and embrace the One who welcomes and embraces us all.  This is what the kingdom of God is all about. This is the Gospel.  This is what we’re called to.  It’s tough.  It’s not popular.  It requires courage. Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, this is what we’re called to do – we’re called to serve.

[1] See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992).
[2] Malina & Rohrbaugh.
[3] Malina & Rohrbaugh, 237.
[4] Malina & Rohrbaugh, 238.
[5] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus  (Maryknoll:  Orbis Books, 1994), 260ff.
[6] These statistics may be found at The Samaritan Women website: http://thesamaritanwomen.org/tsw-residence/veteran-womens-program/.

18 September 2012

Faith on the Way

Mark 8: 27-38

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 16th September 2012

Every text has a context.  Every text is surrounded by a context.  Every text is embedded in a larger setting.  To know something about the context, the surrounded terrain, the setting helps us to open up a text.  There’s much to know about these couple of verses in Mark’s gospel, the theological center of his narrative.  There’s much that can be said and has been said about this text.  But what needs to be lifted up, at least initially and exclusively for us here today, is the significance of this verse, “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi….”

            Why is this significant?  Because Jesus intentionally takes them there to preach to the villages of this area. But what we need to know and what the text fails to state explicitly is that Caesarea Philippi was a Gentile region.  Jesus leads the disciples away from the safe, “clean,” respectable Galilee, a Jewish region, and crosses into Gentile territory, an area named for Philip, the son of Herod the Great.  After the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the Roman Empire was determined to undermine and divide the power that would come to Herod’s heir.  So the Romans split the territory up into four kingdoms.  This region was very Gentile.  The main city, Banias, the location of the imperial palace, was a kind of pagan Las Vegas of the Roman world.  There were avenues after avenues of temples to all the Roman and Greek gods.  You could go there and hang out with your favorite god.  There is a huge cave there that, tradition has it, claimed to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan, the god of the underworld, hence the name of the city, Banias.  I’ve been there.  I’ve seen the temple ruins.  I’ve stood at the entrance to the cave.  They’re very impressive.

            That’s where Jesus takes them and invites them to preach the good news of God’s kingdom.  But why there?  Why into this most Gentile, this most pagan of places?

            There’s something else we need to know that only now are scholars discovering.  Archeologists have long known that there was a temple to Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) in Banias.  This particular kind of temple is known as an Augusteum – temple to Augustus.  I’ve seen the sign in Banias that states somewhere nearby stood the Augusteum to Augustus.  But the sign is incorrect because in 1999, archeologists from Macalaster College, a Presbyterian-related college in St. Paul, MN, stumbled upon an enormous find on a hill in a field several miles from Banias.  What they found was the foundation of what would have been an enormous temple, made of marble that was shipped from as far away as Turkey.  The exterior was probably painted gold to reflect the hot sun.  This was the Augusteum, built by Herod the Great (74/73 – 4 BC), to honor Caesar Augustus – a temple for the worship of Caesar’s divinity.  Remember, Augustus was not his last name or his proper name, it was one of his many titles.  Augustus, meaning the illustrious one, refers to the fact the emperor was a practitioner of the augurs, he was a skilled priest, he was a religious authority, as well as a political authority.  The Roman Senate declared him Augustus in 27 BC.  He was also considered divine, worthy to be worship.  One of his other titles was Imperator Caesar divi filius:  Commander Caesar son of the deified one, or, simply, son of God.

            Now this Augusteum was situated along the main road that ran from the Galilee north into Caesarea Philippi.  Every one traveling on that road would have seen the temple.  Everyone on that road would have been conscious of the presence of the emperor reflected in the temple.  And when Mark’s gospel reads, “Jesus went with his disciples to villages of Caesarea Philippi, and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” somewhere along their way they would have walked right past the Augusteum.

Foundation of the temple in Omrit (Augusteum)
Was it at that point, somewhere along the way, on the way, blinded by the light reflecting from the temple that Jesus posed two of the most significant questions of his ministry?  I like to think so.  It’s clear that the power and authority of the Roman Empire is never, ever far from anything that goes on in the New Testament.  There’s always a Roman soldier lurking somewhere close by.  It’s in that context, the wider context of the power of empire where many, including his fellow Jews who served the emperor, which Jesus wants to know from them, “Who do the people say that I am?” 

            So they give a report, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 

            Then he moves closer to home, “But who do you say that I am?”  Now, Jesus is getting personal.  He wants to know their answer because a lot is riding on the answer.

            What would you say if posed the question?  Who is Jesus?  What would you say?  Who is Jesus to you?

            It’s quite extraordinary, really, given what we know about Jesus’ society and practices that he even posed such a question.  In Jesus’ age one’s sense of self was clearly defined by the collective, by one’s community or tribe or social setting.  Your belief, your traditions, your ethics, the way you understood the cosmos and your purpose in life were pretty much determined by where you were born, by your context.  And there was very little room for change.  You were stuck where you were born.  No upward mobility.  No leaving home to venture out on your own. No sense of individuality apart from your family.  The Roman understanding of the household was operative in Jesus’ world; the household was ruled by a pater (father), the Roman pater familias defined the structure of the family.  The father was the owner of the family estate.  The family members were considered property.  One’s welfare was contingent upon being part of a larger social environment. 

            So that when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” such a question wouldn’t have been all that unusual.  You would have been considered what everyone else thinks, you would have been concerned about the perspective of others.  You wouldn’t want to be different from the crowd, blending in was important.  The disciples respond. But did you notice that Jesus doesn’t really care what the crowd thinks.  He’s not concerned about their group-think.  Jesus doesn’t affirm or deny their claims.

            Jesus, ever the teacher, brings it closer to home.  The question that really matters is this: what do you think?  Who do you say that I am?  Not the crowd, not the community, not the religious elders.  You – who do you say that I am?  That’s what Jesus wants to know.  That’s what Jesus wants them to talk about, reflect upon, wrestle with, and then answer and answer and answer.

            That’s why I think Jesus takes them away from “home.”  He takes them out of their comfort zone. They must have been freaked out by a place like Banias.  He takes them away from the nosy religious leaders.  He takes them to a place where nobody knows them.  This foreign, Gentile, “unclean” place becomes a safe place for them to really say what’s on their minds, to say who Jesus is to them.  And they don’t have to say what others expect them to say.  They can speak from their heart.  They can be real.  Honest.  Authentic.

            And that’s what Jesus wants from all his disciples as we step out on our way.  So much rides on how this question is answered.  The answer reflects our level of commitment to him.  How we answer this question shapes every step of our lives.   It determines the journey, the direction we take, how we see the world and ourselves within it, how we live and relate to others, how we make decisions, what we buy or how we vote for or how much we pledge.  So much is riding on this question.

            This morning in adult education we talked at length about evangelism – the dreaded E-word for Presbyterians, what it is and what it isn’t.  What we have here in this text directly shapes our approach to this word.  Evangelism, first of all, is a terrible word; it’s not an –ism, an ideology.  What we are called to be is evangelical – in the New Testament, biblical sense of this word, which means someone who shares God’s good news, which is Jesus Christ.  Being evangelical means that we share the good news of what Jesus has shown us, taught us, revealed to us about God’s grace and justice and love.  That’s what we share.  Our ability to share is directly related to our ability to answer who Jesus is to us.  If Jesus is not God’s good news for you, then it’s not worth sharing. But if he’s God’s good news, then that’s worth sharing, right?  That’s worth talking about, right?  That’s worth shouting from the roof tops, right?  And yet we’re reluctant to share our faith, or talk about it, and none of us are shouting from the Church House roof, including me.

            I think a lot of our reluctance is found in our not wanting to look like a religious fool or a fanatic or zealot or Jesus freak.  We worry too much about what people might think of us.[1]  Some feel uncomfortable talking about their faith because they don’t want to end up in a position of having to defend what they believe; they don’t want to get in an argument.  Why does it have to be an argument or debate? We have lost the ability to talk about our faith.  Unfortunately, then, one’s faith is reduced to one’s opinion that one holds privately, without an opportunity to engage with the wider society.  There are far too many Christians out there who do a poor job of representing Jesus and giving the rest of us a bad name that we don’t want the stigma of being identified as a Jesus follower.  But maybe we need to take on the stigma, be different, step out, share our faith.

            I came across a cartoon that captures this sentiment.  Two men are standing on a street corner waiting for a bus.  One man is in a suit and carrying a brief case.  The other man is wearing a black t-shirt that reads in large white letters, “LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS.” The man in the suit gives him a weird, querulous look.  The man in the t-shirt says to him, “It guarantees me a seat all to myself.”

For the past two weeks I’ve been talking about call and journey, vocation and the Christian way.  The call and the journey, the vocation and the way matter little without a sense of how we would answer this question – and answer it.  There isn’t one answer and the answer can change and evolve on the way.  But we have to answer it.  You don’t have to write a theological treatise.  Make it simple.  What’s your elevator speech?  What would you say if someone asked you in an elevator, who do you say Jesus is? Who do you say Jesus is?

When you reach the ground floor and the door opens, whatever you say will shape you, whether consciously or unconsciously, as you go on your way.

[1] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “…the greatest degree of authenticity is possible only if we avoid identifying with what others think of us.”  Aldo Carotenuto (1933-2005), To Love, To Betray, trans. Joan Tambureno (Wilmette, IL:  Chiron Publications, 1996), 26.

11 September 2012

The First Step

Genesis 12: 1-9 & Matthew 4: 18-22

15th Sunday after Pentecost/ 9th September 2012

One of the deep metaphors, images, archetypes of the Christian life is journey.  A follower of Jesus Christ is a traveler.  She is on the road.  He is on the path. The Christian is an explorer of the human spirit, an adventurer in the Holy Spirit, a pilgrim on the way with the One who is the Way toward the place of resurrection.  Life in the Spirit implies movement, not stagnation.  It’s a movement forward, not backward.  It suggests going somewhere. 

            Some Christians have described the journey as ascent, of climbing the mystical ladder toward God.  Others have described the journey as descent, of going down into the depths to discover God there.  These are metaphors, ways to capture dynamics of the journey. If you were here last week, you probably picked up on the one that resonates with me, descent.  It doesn’t matter which you prefer; either way is the correct way providing that you’re on the way, on the go, moving toward God.  George Macleod (1895-1991), the progressive visionary minister and founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, said it best (in one of my favorite quotes): “For Christ is a person to be trusted, not a principal to be tested. The Church is a movement, not a meeting house. The faith is an experience, not an exposition. [And] Christians are explorers, not mapmakers.”[1]  Explorers, not mapmakers. 

The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (604-531 BC) once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  An alternate translation could be, “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”  As Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) knew, we have to step out. [2]  We have to take risks.  We have to move off the mark from dead center or stillness or paralysis and move, act, lean forward, or, as Abraham and the first disciples knew, one has to go, you have to take the first step.

            I paired the calling of Abraham with the calling of the first disciples as a way to demonstrate that in humanity’s encounter with Yahweh, the Living God, we know that God is a God of action (actually all we know about God is through God’s actions), we know that God summons people, that God calls and calls and calls us.  We know that God meets us in one place in order to take us to another place.  We know that God calls in order to enlist ordinary human beings in God’s unfolding mission in the universe.  We know that God has a job for us to do.  We know the calling is often difficult, that it demands something of us, and that it’s sometimes scary, but if we follow and follow through we know there’s plenty of grace there, we come to see that we’ve been invited to go, to travel to where our souls might come alive.

            And taking the first step on that journey is probably the most difficult.[3]  If you look closely at each of these call stories and others like them, it appears that God offers the call and the people immediately respond, without a thought.  God says to Abraham, “Go!” – and he goes.  Jesus invites Simon Peter and the others to follow – and they leave everything and go.  Unfortunately, the text doesn’t say how much time lapses between the call and the response.  That’s what many of us want to know, especially with Abraham.  It’s easy to think, I’m not like Abraham or the first disciples, I can’t just drop everything and go, I guess I just don’t have it in me. I guess I’m not really called.  Thoughts like these preempt or eclipse the call extended to each of us and cause us to miss the point.

            And the point is this – this is the point – and not to be missed:  You’ve been invited.  You’ve been called.  You and me – a personal invitation has been extended to each of us to go on an adventure, the journey of a lifetime (literally) to discover the depths of God’s grace. The question is whether or not we will accept it.  Are we going to be open to all that it entails or will we shut down and come up with all kinds of excuses and rationalizations why this would not be a good time.  Are we going to respond with Yes or No? Are we going to accept and enter on the journey with a spirit of openness?  Or will we reject it and play the skeptic or the cynic? 

            Before you answer these questions, there’s something for you to consider.  The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr makes a helpful distinction between ego and soul, which is relevant here in our text.  The ego, our individual ego, is usually directed by fear.  As a result, the ego wants to be at the center of things – egocentric – and it resists and fights against anything or anyone that tries to de-center it.  Now, it’s important to hear me clearly here, our egos are not bad – we all need to have healthy ego-strength.  Our egos help us survive, protect us, and motivate us.  However, there’s a problem here, because the ego, directed by fear, isn’t always wise and it’s not as strong as we think it is and it can’t be relied upon to take us where we need go.  A deeper problem arises – a deep, spiritual problem – when we equate the ego with who we really are.  Who we really are is under the ego, below the ego, deeper than the ego.  Richard Rohr notes that “the ego is always strengthened by constriction, opposition, and reaction – NO – and that when religion starts with no rather than yes, it always ends up obsessed with purity codes and does not lead to compassion, justice, and a truly transformed heart and mind.”[4]  The ego constricts around a problem.  In fear, the ego clamps down around a problem or crisis or threat.  On the one hand, this is natural; it’s what allows us to survive.  But that’s not necessarily how the soul operates.  “The ego wishes comfort, security, satiety; the soul demands meaning, struggle, becoming.”[5]  The ego has certain goals in mind; the soul has an altogether different agenda.

            I believe that when God called Abraham and Jesus called his disciples and when the Spirit speaks to our hearts the invitation is not directed to our egos, but to our souls.  The response of our ego is usually – NO, resistance, excuses, opposition, and reaction, a shutting down.  If we listen to the depths of our soul, however, the soul says, YESsign me up, how soon do we leave?  For the soul demands meaning, struggle, becoming.  We were made this way; we were created this way.  This is the part of us that responds to God’s presence, this is the part of us that connects with God:  soul to soul.   

            The soul says YES to the call; wants to say YES; longs to say YES.  Saying YES is remaining open and fighting against everything and every time our ego wants to shut down and says, “Come on, be realistic.” 

            When Abraham went with God and the disciples followed, they were saying YES.  And saying YES has the potential to transform us.  Dag Hammarskj√∂ld (1905-1961), the Swedish diplomat and former general-secretary of the UN and a committed Christian, described the way his life changed when he finally opened himself up to the call.  This is how he described becoming a person of faith.  It happened this way:  “I don’t know Who – Who – or what – put the question, I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer ‘yes’ to someone or something.  And from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, there, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”[6]

            Saying, Yes.  Remaining open.  Acceptance.  This is what the soul longs for.  This is what scripture means by faith and even prayer – remaining open.

            The call is given – it’s there, now already, every moment – the road, the way is there for you to travel, the journey requires consent.[7]  And with your consent, the Spirit will begin to move you down along the way, calling you to leave one place in order to venture toward another, inviting you to leave familiar lands, familiar territory, familiar beliefs and experiences, and venture out to some place new.  The call is an adventure that summons us to leave constricting, confining places – life as usual – to leave the known and venture beyond the borders of the familiar to a new land, to leave the safe, small places the ego has created for itself in order to venture out into the vast, broad, expansive places that the soul requires, places that allow our souls to come alive!  All this we can discover and more when we say, Yes, when we consent, when, by God’s grace we listen to our souls and take the first step.

            Journey.  Travel.  Pilgrimage. Way.  These images have been swimming around my head this week as we approach Kick-Off Sunday and begin a new program year together.  They’re never far away from my experience.  Our children in church school, especially those just starting, are embarking on a journey today – God only knows where it will all lead.  We are teaching Bible stories, sharing what we believe as Christians, helping our children know right from wrong, to develop an ethic that is based on love and mercy and grace.  We are modeling for them something of the Christian life, the centrality of worship, and fellowship, and service.  All this is good, very good.

            But what I’m talking about here is different, it’s the journey of faith that can only really begin in adulthood, after one has grown and developed a sense of one’s self and lived a little.  You see, we can encourage our children to attend church school and know about the faith, but it is incumbent upon us as adults, whether we are parents or not, to embody the faith and live it.  As adults we are called to go on this journey of faith and to stay on it and not be seduced into thinking that we have arrived, even if we’re 95. 

            There are far too many who equate belief in God with actually following where Christ leads.  There are far too many adults who might be chronologically age 55, who have developed in all other aspects of their lives, but still have the faith of a 5 or 15 year-old.   It’s easy to stagnate, to get stuck along the way.  There are far too many who equate attending worship with following the way of Jesus Christ.  There are far too many who equate living a good, decent, moral life with following the way of Jesus Christ – as if Jesus suffered on a cross for us to be well-behaved.  The cross certainly means more than that.  The call was not extended to Abraham and to the disciples because of their beliefs or their piety or their morality.  Yet, how many people think this is the sum of religion:  belief, piety, ethics. 

            Increasingly, I feel it’s important to stress that God doesn’t want our beliefs and God doesn’t want our piety and God doesn’t want our middle-class, socially sanctioned morality. God doesn’t want your belief and God doesn’t want your piety and God doesn’t want your ethics – God wants you, God wants your life, God wants the totality of who you are – all of you (and not just the perceived “good” or nice parts) – in order that your life in and with God can reveal its true purpose and experience the abundance of God’s grace!  God wants our hearts, our souls, our feelings, our gifts, our resources, our experiences.  God wants us to open up, to open it all up, to open our arms and yield to the One whom alone knows what our souls are looking for and hoping for.  To say, Yes, to God. To go with God and allow God to open up our lives and expand our lives and transform our lives in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine, in ways that our egos are reluctant acknowledge and too fearful to embrace. 

            Where are you on the journey?  Have you taken the first step as an adult?  Have you taken many first steps, but have lost your way?  Are you well along the road?  As we begin a new program year, I really want to challenge us to step out and take some risks together.  Parents with children in church school need to take responsibility for their own continuing growth and development.  You can’t pass on to your children what you don’t possess.  You can’t “catch” the depth and joy of the Christian life unless you’re contagious.  This is also true for all of us, whether we have children or not – it’s one of the ways we fulfill the promises made at their baptism. 

            One of the best expressions of the Christian journey is the labyrinth. 

The nave of Chartres Cathedral, France.
Labyrinths are powerful “tools” used by the Church to help us consider the journey. It’s a movement from the outside to the inside, to God, and then a movement to the outside.  It’s not in a straight line, you twist and turn and meander around toward the center, but you can’t get lost – which is why a labyrinth is not a maze.  There’s nothing tricky about it.  Perhaps the best-known labyrinth is the one carved into the floor of the nave of Chartres Cathedral, in northern France.  We have a small one in the back of the church house.  There is a good-sized one at Bon Secours Retreat Center in Marriotsville that’s open to the public.  Brown Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill has a large labyrinth in their sanctuary.  

The labyrinth offered here for you to use is finger-sized – just follow your finger slowly along the way.  Some people offer a prayer before they begin the walk or they ask a question and then begin.  Some stay in the center for a while and then move back out.  There’s nothing magical about this, but there is something mysterious about it.  Years ago we rented a large one and had it on the floor in the gym during Holy Week.  Several members left the labyrinth in tears, surprised by their response.  Many people meet God along the way or feel something give within them as they go. The back and forth helps to dislodge the ego from feeling in control and makes way for the soul to speak or feel.  It’s a traveling aid for the journey. I invite you to use and reuse it.

            What is God calling you toward?  Where are the constricting, narrow places in your life, and where is that larger expansive life God desires for you? What steps can you take to deepen your connection with God?  Are you driven by your ego or are you listening to your soul?  How do you listen to your soul?  What’s your prayer life like?  Is there enough stillness in your life to listen for the voice of the Spirit?  Perhaps you need to go deeper into scripture, begin a study of the Bible, or join a Bible study group.  Maybe you need to become more involved in the life of the church – you can join a committee. However, let me say something about committees – we always need help on committees, but Jesus never said, “Follow me and join a committee.”  Sometimes we equate committee work with discipleship – they overlap, but they’re not the same.  Sometimes committee work (especially our Presbyterian obsession with committees) can lead us away from being attentive to what God is trying to achieve through us, beyond our agendas.  Maybe you need to get involved in a service project, volunteer at The Samaritan Women or spend a day helping out at the IMA World Health center in New Windsor or get involved with the Catonsville Emergency Food Ministries.  Maybe it’s joining the choir or teaching church school, whatever it is, try doing something that will make you just a little uncomfortable.    

The call is there for you.  You know it’s there.  Are you saying, No? or Yes?  Are you staying open or shutting down?  Are you playing it safe or are you willing to risk something for Jesus?  How’s the journey going for you?   Do you desire to follow God in a new way?  If so, then consent. Take a step, the first step – step out.  Say, Yes.

[1] From a sermon given in 1955, cited in Daily Readings with George MacLeod, Ron Ferguson, ed. (London:  Fount, 1991), 115.
[2] “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
[3] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “What saves a man is to take a step.  Then another step.”  C. S. Lewis (1898-1963).
[4] This is a theme found in many of Rohr’s writings, such as The Naked Now: Learning to See As the Mystics See (Crossroads, 2009) and Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass, 2012).  The summary of Rohr’s insight I use here can be found in David G. Benner, Spirituality and the Awakening Self:  The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Brazos Press, 2012), 65. Rohr’s ego/soul differentiation here is essentially a reworking of the analytical theories of C. G. Jung (1875-1961).
[5] James Hollis, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life:  How to Finally, Really Grow Up (Gotham, 2006).
[6] Cited in Benner, 65.
[7] I’m grateful for Benner’s emphasis upon individual consent in the Spirit’s ongoing work of transformation.  “…when we respond to life and the continuous invitations of the Spirit to become more than we presently are, with consent and openness of heart and mind, it can be our experience….” (xii).