Sunday, August 23, 2009

Certainty in Uncertainty

Sheepscott Community Church August 23, 2009

1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6: 10-20

John 6: 56-69

Certainty in Uncertainty: Holding the Vision

You’ve probably heard this joke before, but bear with me. I’m going to stretch it to cover a point I want to make this morning.

A guy is riding on a train, and as he rides along he is tearing up a paper he has in his lap and throwing the bits out the train window. His compartment mate is looking at him askance, wondering whether he should go down to the club car, the sooner the better, but not before he has to ask, “Why are you doing that?” The reply? “To keep away the elephants.” 

“But there aren’t any elephants,” the man said. “ You see,” the tearer of paper replied, “it’s working!”

We have our little rituals, charms, and habits––whether we’re conscious of them or not––that we think enable us to get through the day. What I suggest to you today is that there is no need to depend on charms of any kind, that it is possible to be able to not just get through the day but to be able to rejoice in the day without knowing what the day holds, what the rest of your life holds; to rejoice in the day without tearing up pieces of paper or anything else to keep at bay whatever it is that we ponder with fear in the night. You know this is finally going to be Jesus, don’t you? No big secret, but let’s see how we get there today.

Two weeks ago when I gave a message about putting the car in reverse when we find ourselves on a wrong road, and not continuing on just because we want to see something through or to save face, when I gave that message, Bill Weary had an interesting counter to that message that I want to touch on this morning. He noted that there are also roads to the unknown that we start down that we would do well to continue on, to perhaps discover our destiny, or something we had not known before, which we will not discover otherwise.

And I want to go in that direction, down the unknown road, this morning. But before we do, I would talk about discernment, which is one of the gifts of the Spirit. Discernment enables us to distinguish, to discern what is of God and what is not of God. It is an element of the gift of wisdom. It is essential when we are making life decisions that we prayerfully, thoughtfully, carefully discern a plan of action, a way or direction forward.

As an example of what happens when we do not exercise prayerful discernment, think of Jim Jones and his followers in the equatorial jungles of Guiana in South America back in 1978. 909 people died when they drank the Kool-Aid, a saying that sadly entered the language at the time, and which indicated the absence of thoughtful discernment, the pitching headlong down the wrong road, following a charismatic leader in a lemming-like way. A twentieth-century Pied Piper of Hamlin, only this was no fairy tale; it was tragically real.

If Jim Jones’s followers had discerned before they left California that the situation was something that had to be closely looked at, if they had talked among themselves and ideally with others outside of that closed group, the outcome might have been very different. Did anyone have misgivings?

The point at which we stop our car and back it up, so to speak, is when Jones’ followers might have decided not to board the plane for South America. It is the same point that the disciples of Jesus have reached in this morning’s gospel. It really is a watershed moment. If you recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus has just announced and repeats in this morning’s gospel, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” A hard saying, difficult to take in, repulsive even. And indeed his disciples said, one to another, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Jesus knew they were grumbling, and said to them, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” Nothing he said convinced some of them, and so from that point many of the disciples turned back and did not follow him anymore. They did put the car in reverse and back up off this road they had been tentatively following down, having trusted in what they had seen and heard: the healings, the water into wine, the multiplied fish and loaves of bread, the wonderful down-home teachings. But now, this new word. It was more than they could take. It was an insult to their intelligence and their sensibilities. As Jesus asked them, “Does this word offend you?” And of course it did. Mightily. They were refusing to understand something in a new way and to accept what they could not understand. 

Note that there were many disciples beyond the Twelve, who were later called the apostles. By definition, a disciple is one who attends upon another for the purpose of learning from him; a pupil or a scholar, and in this context, Christ is the teacher, all of his followers, the disciples. Apostle by contrast is one sent, a messenger, applied preeminently to Christ as the one sent of God, and after that to his twelve selected followers, who were witnesses, they themselves in turn sent as messengers of the new Way taught by Jesus.

Jesus asked the Twelve if they too would leave, and Peter spoke for all of them when he said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And so he was, which was the biggest contrast with a tyrant like Jim Jones, whose interest was in controlling people, exercising power over, something Jesus never did. Jesus never coerced; he always invited and lived the life he talked about. Leading by example.

It was yes, the belief, but especially the knowledge that could provide the wherewithal of vision necessary to keep the whole group of them going forward, following Jesus down an unknown road. We believe and know. Each of those men in his heart––and the women followers who were also with them but are not mentioned in this passage––each of those in his or her heart had to make the decision whether to continue to take a chance on this charismatic leader––and he didn’t make it any easier by talking this way, did he? What must others think about us as his followers? They were no less conscious of others’ opinions than we are now. 

The Twelve did stay with him. As Peter said, “To whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” Understand that that decision was more difficult for them in a way than it might be for us because there was no history, no religion, no tradition had yet built up around Jesus. He was the nominal head of Jewish sect, seen as a troublemaker by Jewish leaders. If it was more difficult in that sense for the early followers, it was also perhaps easier in another way. Here they had the living man to listen to, to look at, to watch in his amazing feats, to learn from. While some were wondering out loud if he was the expected Messiah who would free them from Rome’s rule, he was only one. There were others who were being evaluated in that same light. When people are anxious for deliverance, whether from economic woes, religious persecution, the threats of and oppression of war, messiahs of many stripes will rise up and be acclaimed in the various areas of human striving, suffering, fears and success. Jesus was one, a special One, granted, but only one of many.

But are history and tradition enough to make us choose to go down the road after this Christ, who may be the answer we have been looking for to counteract those night fears, to help us make meaning of a life that has lost its meaning because of no defining employment; because of a relationship lost; because of a sapping illness, whether physical or mental; because of a tangle of hostility in our family that makes the day-to-day existence a trial if not downright unbearable? Can this Christ be the answer? Is this the road?

Well, I have my answers of the moment, and it is by those I live from day to day. But those are not your answers. You yourself have to ponder these words of Jesus, as the disciples did; some remained, some left.  Do we even want to be that close to someone, that when we take in that one––even if it is words of spirit, as Jesus said––do we want to seem to surrender our autonomy by such a personal invasion of our space, or what we consider our space?

I think each of us can ask for an experience of Jesus that can provide life-giving vision over a lifetime, that will give us a focus, a reminder when we begin to forget why we are doing this worship thing, why we come to church at all. Is it just tearing up those pieces of paper and tossing them out the window, just in case, just in case. Are we simply hedging our bets by coming here, by trying to live a good life? I think we deserve to ask ourselves this question before God and can also ask for an answer, a more defined assurance that it is not all for nothing. I can almost guarantee you’re not going to have the St. Paul experience of being knocked off your horse, although that’s possible. However, I can guarantee without qualification that right now in this moment, you are intimately, completely known and loved by the God of the universe, who we call by any number of names, and who has been called even more names through the ages, as in Isaiah 9: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. We as a worshipping church have come to know him through the immediacy of Jesus. And how do we know Jesus, except by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit of the living God who moves among us. 

Incidentally some have wondered why we use the word “Spirit” now rather than “Ghost,” as it was formerly––the Holy Ghost. As I understand it, that change was instituted across the denominations about 25 years ago, simply because of the freight that the word ghost had come to carry, not the least part of which was that it frightened small children. No need to introduce that kind of fear around God; there’s plenty of other fear without that as well.

Anyway, we are still milling around on the road to nowhere, trying to decide, as some of the disciples did, whether to follow Jesus down that road, or, as some other disciples did, to turn back. I am encouraging you, if you do not have conviction enough to go forward, wherever you might be in your faith walk, to ask the Spirit of God to give you that level of conviction, so you’re not just spinning your wheels, but actually progressing in your life with God, your spiritual life. This vision will be attuned to you; only you will recognize the earmarks because it is customized for you. The caveat is that you have to care enough to be looking and listening for the Lord, who will reveal himself, in the scripture, through another person or circumstance, in worship, at the communion, in a random moment when you are walking along the street, thinking about something else. 

The key is to keep your heart right, as best you can. When the judgment against another comes in, when you slip into self-pity, when the grudge mode surfaces again, send those things packing. You, we can do that in and with our free wills all the time. That business is totally ours to do. When we do choose to keep our hearts right before God, we make a way for the revelation or refinement or extension of our personal vision, a vision that can keep us on the road following Jesus.

I have thought when I have read Peter’s response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I have thought when I’ve read that that it sounds like Peter was shrugging his shoulders. What else were they going to do? Their fishing business was all but kaput. They had already tossed their nets on his side of the boat. It doesn’t sound like there was any joy in his response, only resignation in faith, although tinged perhaps with a bit of remembered awe.

We can ask for our own basis for awe so that we have something, which, while insubstantial because it is of the spirit, is yet substantial in that same sense, enough to carry us along, to carry us through. And then you have to walk in the light of that vision that has been given to you and not compare yourselves with others or judge them. Their vision is between them and God. You can never be the same after the unveiling of truth, and if that has not yet happened for you, seek it with all your heart and it will be given.

That watershed moment will mark you as going forward as a truer disciple––or not. While there is no certainty about the course ahead, there is certainty about the One we are following, and we continue in that following––again––in the light of the vision that has been given us. It is not to idolize the vision, but to check in from time to time to assure ourselves that yes, this is true, and that is true, and God has given me this gift to remember, and I can go forward, while much in the world clamors against my going forward. 

In relation to this idea, there was a phrase repeated twice in the first reading: “toward this place.” Solomon prayed to God, “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place.”

The parallel I make here is not idolizing our personal vision that keeps us going, whatever form it takes or took, but that just as Solomon asks that God hear the prayer of the people as they pray towards the Temple, so we can turn in the direction of that interior vision which is in our inner Temple, where we commune with God, whenever we need a booster of our faith. That vision will in turn lead us back to prayer through Christ. 

So, while tearing up bits of paper might ensure that the elephants don’t come in one person’s cosmology, we can have infinitely greater assurance that trusting prayer in the leadership of Jesus, in the sense that Peter recognized it––”to whom else shall we go?”––we can trust that prayer in and to that one will guide us on all unknown roads, including that last road. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Amen.

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