Thursday, August 27, 2009

When Scripture Seems Too Challenging

Sermon for 8.23.09
1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Please pray with me: Dear Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer.

From today’s Gospel: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

I long for reassurance and for clear answers, especially sometimes when I escape from the world and go to church. I want the “blessed assurance” we receive from the kind of grand old hymns we sang this morning. But there are certainly times when neither easy comfort nor a clear answer comes. I can be patient and trust in God’s fuller mercy and judgment. With Psalm 130, I can wait upon the Lord. There are also times when, like the disciples, I feel my heart sinking as I try to live up to Christian teachings.

Let’s be honest here: Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult. Think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the even tougher version in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Here are clear directions to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We conclude Scriptural readings with, “This is the Word of the Lord” or “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Have you never thought—and I mean no offense to you or to God—“All very well for you to say!” or “You really have to be kidding!” or “What is the Spirit saying to the churches?” We are, of course, at liberty not to think about it at all as we tuck into a favorite and comforting hymn.

A desire to face some of these hard moments led me to go to a retreat last weekend called “Provocative Grace,” led by the Reverend Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest from South Orange, NJ. “Provoke” is strong language since it’s roughly synonymous with incite or stir up. I can remember hearing the small arguments of my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen. Maybe about what they were cooking or how to raise me: “Don’t be so provoking, Kate,” Grandma would say. The workshop sounded like a more positive application. I was intrigued.

The weekend was held at Adelynrood, a retreat center just below the New Hampshire border in the town of Byfield, Mass. I’ve been there before and love it its calm and holy way of life. It’s run on a volunteer basis by laity, a community of women called The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. It’s a big rambling summer-only structure with wonderful and gracious living rooms and an excellent kitchen. We sleep in tiny bedrooms that are surrounded by generous screened porches. “The Rule of the House,” as they say, wakens us with bells at 7:00 so that we can go out on those porches to pray together. Then there is morning worship. There is no conversation until the breakfast hour that follows. We sing grace before each meal. There is noon worship and then an evening service at 9—both of them also announced by bells. Then there is silence until the next day. Doesn’t sound very provocative, I must admit.

The center was built just after the turn of the last century by a group of women, one of whom, Vida Scudder, was married to my great uncle. Vida was committed to social reform, especially for the women who worked in the mills in places like Lawrence. But she and her friends were pulled together in a special way when one of them, Adelyn, while still a young woman, was diagnosed with cancer. Her friends saw it as their first priority to companion her. After her death, they decided to dedicate themselves to a ministry of presence to those who were ill and ill-treated. That decision led to the founding of their society, often known simply as Companions. They named their retreat center Adelynrood (Adelyn’s cross) in honor of their friend. Over the years, the work and goals of the Companions have profoundly shaped my priorities.

Appropriately enough, the theme of my workshop was the way in which the Jesus of the Gospels “challenges us to find and use our strengths” (18).[1] It’s so easy to think of Jesus’ sayings as rules that are almost impossible to live up to, impositions too idealistic for serious discipleship. And if that’s the case, maybe we have an excuse for giving up. We probably don’t think of God as the giant eye in the sky keeping a book with gold stars and black marks. But deep down we may still feel that since God is the boss, we need to respond with a “Yes, Boss,” mentality. Well, of course, sometimes we need to. But Morris suggests that it may be more useful to think of Jesus’ teachings as “provocations to grow step-by-step, by trial-and-error learning, into the best possibilities of our nature” (17).

This is also pragmatic given the fact that Jesus’ apparently “simple” statements aren’t all that simple. For one thing, they are filled with contradictions: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” he says. And then at another time, he says, “Judge with right judgment.” This is the maddening way wise sayings often work: “Look before you leap,” must be balanced against “She who hesitates is lost.” Obviously, the trick is to be wise enough to know when to use which, how to deal with the paradox.

In an ethical/religious context, the ticket is a willingness to enter into a discernment process so that in fact we become partners with God. Jesus tells us as much when he says, “I don’t call you slaves but friends.” Why? “Because the works I do you will do also. In fact, greater works you will do.” This is the goal of good teachers, good parents, who love admiration but really want the child to surpass them, or at least long for the child to meet them halfway. To continue only in worshipful adoration, with child-like obedience, can be to remain immature.

So maybe the partnership can be a richer exchange, and maybe this is what God longs for. As we hear in Acts, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” There is a kind of synergism to grace, a cooperation. Wesley loved to speak of prevenient or anticipatory grace, that grace that comes before our efforts. Thus our sails are filled with wind, and we also need to do a little steering. We don’t earn love, but we create a place for it to dwell.

We really need to spend quality time with God and with Jesus, practicing, tending relationship through worship, through our imagination, through various practices of prayer, such as chants and silence, through service. There’s not just one way! For years, I’ve turned to the Taize chant, “Be with me, Lord.” Reaching out, with that kind of invitation, suggests mutuality, as much as a cry for help. Falling in love can be almost instantaneous, but truly loving, Morris reminds us, takes a lifetime of growing gradually, “through challenges that unmask our blindness and resistance. Beginning in our interactions with those closest to us, [love] grows strong by facing all that would hinder or undermine its full and complete reign in our lives” (38).

Morris left us with four challenges of his own: to encounter Jesus through the Gospel, really practice going beyond. This is the real meaning of the Greek word metanoia that is usually and too succinctly translated “repent.” Two: to practice using the Gospel sayings as challenges to grow up. Three: to mentor each other as apprentices of Christ. And four: to consider why we matter to God. I hope we can explore such challenges. Together, let us allow ourselves to be incited, provoked by Grace.

Let us pray: May we walk each step
in this moment of grace,
alert to hear you
and awake enough to say
a simple Yes. Amen.
(Prayer adapted from Robert C Morris, copyright 2004)

[1] Quotations are taken from Robert Corin Morris, Provocative Grace: The Challenge in Jesus’ Words (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006).

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