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).

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