So I’ve been thinking about the attractional church model a lot recently. Mostly because I recently started serving in a new annual conference where it seems like this is the method of choice for new ministries and church revitalization. Forgive me if I am missing other models that are out there in West Ohio, but the attractional church model definitely gets the most attention/PR.
For those of you who don’t know what I mean by that phrase let me explain. The attractional church model is essentially: if you build it cooler, more modern, more hip or trendy, then they will come. It is usually pretty obsessed with worship numbers and giving units. It is really hard not to get caught up in this style of ministry or this mode of thinking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen into this trap, this trap of thinking that if I just did the right THING/PROGRAM my church would grow. The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s stuck in a conditional/consumer driven understanding of what church is and how the church should function in the world. Really what the attractional church says is that we have a spiritual product to offer to our neighbors and our job is to make it really, really pretty and enticing so they will buy what we are selling. Eugene Peterson, who I quote way too often, put it this way: “The vocation of pastor(s) has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”
One of the larger problems for the attractional church is that it creates a dynamic that is sometimes called functional atheism. Functional atheism is when people who identify as faithful people, i.e. they believe in a relational God who is acting in the world on behalf of our salvation, act as though it’s all up to us. The attractional church model says to church leaders: you can and should be growing your church by doing X,Y, and Z…. And if the church isn’t growing it’s because you’re doing something wrong. This often leads to depression, stress, exhaustion and burn-out. The reality, though, is that I can’t save a church because I’m not the church’s savior. I can’t even save myself even though I’ve tried and tried.
The crazy thing about our faith is that it isn’t until we give up trying to save everything and everyone ourselves that we finally experience that profound transcendent moment of powerlessness and grace (unearned love). It’s in this moment we see the truth of our existence which sets us free, as St. Paul put it: “ But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) I’d rather be part of helping a community live into state of humble recognition of our powerlessness together, boasting of our weakness as we walk faithfully to our death together, because anyone whose read the whole story knows that God’s greatest work is done in a graveyard.
read Jame 2:1-17.
Where to sit at church? Who sits where? No matter what church I go to: big or small, traditional or modern, filled to the brim or more sparsely attended, it seems that who sits where is kind of a big deal. Most of the time it’s an unspoken dance that we go through where everyone who is part of the church community knows, ‘oh you don’t want to sit there because that is so and so’s pew.’ It is one of those things that we often talk about when we get together with folks from other churches at district or conference events. We even joke about it, mostly because we all know that it is true, it is part of the life of our church.
We know that it matters to us because we are creatures of habit and ritual. It matters to us because when we arrive in our sanctuary, this sacred place of prayer and worship, in this topsy-turvy world we live it, it’s comforting to sit in the pew that we’ve always sat in. It’s comforting to sit in the same pew where we celebrated the baptism of that child we always love seeing on Sunday morning, or where we mourned the death of a longtime friend, where we prayed for God’s guidance as we discerned the next step in our career, or we prayed for our kid when they were really struggling to find themselves and we heard God’s still small voice saying trust in me and trust in my love.
We have these experiences and these moments of grace that come over us as we inhabit this one particular pew in our church sanctuary and it becomes more and more our spiritual home. These are all of the good things about where we sit at church. On the other hand, there’s what to do when someone new comes to church. Where are they going to sit? Are they going to sit in MY pew?
The reason I bring this up because it relates to our scripture this morning. The passage for today talks a little bit about where people sit when they come to church. In some ways it is really comforting that the church, as it is today, is exactly the way the church has always been. It’s filled with people: beautiful, flawed, broken people. And because it is filled with people we have to deal with problems like who is going to sit where when we gather for prayer and worship.
So lets take a look at our reading from James to see exactly was going on. James is a letter written to one of the early Christian communities responding to some problems that the church was experiencing. In this passage we see one of those problems illuminated for us.
The passage begins with a scenario. What do you do when some new visitors come to your church, one who is rich and one who is poor? We can assume that this scenario was more than just a hypothetical. It was probably something that had happened, perhaps regularly or perhaps it just happened once, but nevertheless it made an impact on James. So much so that he felt compelled to address it in his letter to the congregation.
James goes on to say if you have a rich person and a poor person and you say to the rich person, come and sit next to me in my pew, the place of honor in the community and in the same breath you say to the poor person why don’t you stand in the back, or why don’t you take the pew that no one really wants to sit in, you know that pew right up front. If you do this haven’t you distinguished between the two? James says haven’t you judged which of these two persons is worthy of the best seat in God’s house and which isn’t?
Now James is pretty direct in this and pretty hard hitting. He then goes on to say did not God bless the poor and is it not the rich who oppress you? He writes “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’
You would do well if you really fulfill the law, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Most of us, even if we are new to Christianity or if we are back after some time away, know that this is part of a Christian life. Most of us know that Jesus commands us, in other words he says this isn’t optional; he commands us to love God with all we have, and to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. We know this intellectually. Many of us even have it memorized in some form from going to Sunday school or youth group or coming regularly to Sunday worship. And yet, if you are like me, we sometimes struggle to put these words into action.
The community that James is addressing is struggling to live into this commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Apparently they were doing alright in trying to love the people in their community who were rich and wealthy. The people who looked like them or dressed like them, or maybe not like them but how they’d like to look or dress. The community apparently did not have a hard time extending radical hospitality to those rich folks who happened to visit on a Sunday morning for worship.
They seemed to struggle though when it came to those who were poor, those who didn’t have enough money to buy the finest Sunday clothes, those who maybe hadn’t bathed in a little while, those who were hungry and struggling to make ends meet. The community wasn’t able to see that these folks, too, are deserving of the radical hospitality of a Christian community, that we as followers of Jesus, are called to love all our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Now I want to be clear that James is not saying that the poor are more deserving than the rich of love. Not at all. James is not condemning any person or group of people. What James is condemning is the human action of showing partiality to one group of people over the other. And usually when we show partiality it almost always favors the rich and the powerful. James is trying to instill in the community that we must not stand in judgement of other but to love all people, especially the weak and the poor. Like Mother Teresa once said, “if you judge other people then you have no time to love them.”
See James reminds us that God’s love in Jesus Christ shows no partiality, God’s love is nonjudgmental, God’s love is indiscriminate and unconditional. The challenge for us in all of this is that we are called to live into this love, to allow it to wash over us and make us whole, and to grow in this love for others at all times. But the challenge for me, and maybe you are like me in this, my love tends to be far too conditional. In other words I find it pretty easy to extend love to others if they are able to meet all the various conditions I have set for them. I am always willing to love others if they are willing to be created in my image of them.
So the question for us from James then is how are we to grow as followers of Jesus in unconditional love within our own hearts? How are we to learn how to truly love all our neighbors as we love ourselves? For James this is pretty simple, put love into action. At the end of the passage this morning is this beautiful and challenging set of verses. James writes:
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. It’s one of those verses that gives me goosebumps because it is so filled with truth the kind of truth that sets you free. Faith without works is dead. As Christians we are called to be people of faith and also people of action. We are called to live out our faith in this world. Not that we will be perfect people, not that we will always do or say or feel the right thing. We are called to put our faith into action because we are called to grow in the way of Jesus.
For us as United Methodists this makes a lot of sense. This is part of our heritage and our tradition as a denomination. Our founder John Wesley believed that we were called to a deep personal holiness: a life of prayer, reflection, scripture study but that we were also required to have a social holiness: a life where we advocate for the poor, where we reach out in loving relationship to all who are weak and vulnerable, a life where we live our Christian love in a public way.
John Wesley believed this because during his day there were a lot of people who were saying they were Christians but they weren’t acting very Christian. The church was filled with folks who said all the right things, they went to church every Sunday, believed all the right things, and had a deep faith in Jesus, but that faith never changed the way they lived in the world.
And so Wesley started these small groups of Christians who would get together and talk about the ways they were struggling to live their faith in the world. They started to be in ministry and solidarity with those in their community who were neglected and ignored. They started to try to come along side them, to be in relationship with them, to learn their name and their story and to try to lighten the burden of their load.
These folks who were part of this movement were really, really intentional about how they lived their faith. They scheduled time in their days and their weeks for being in relationship and service with the poor. They were methodical in their following of Jesus, which is where we got the name “methodist.”
And the crazy thing about all of this is that John Wesley believed that as we did these things, as we reached out in intentional ways to grow in love for our neighbors, especially our neighbors who don’t think like us, don’t look like us, or who normally might be someone we shouldn’t associate with, as we put this faith into action, we would feel, understand and experience the presence of our loving God in this world in new and profound ways.
So as people who have gathered here today, longing in some way to grow in our faith, what are some ways we can put our faith into action this week? How can you be of service to someone in your life our this world? How can we as a community serve the poor and vulnerable in our neighborhood? Well one of the ways we can put our faith into action this week is our pancake breakfast coming up on Saturday. This is one tangible thing we can do as a community of faith to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I learned about the pancake breakfast as I was preparing for my introductory interview before starting here as your pastor. As I was praying about this appointment, I thought to myself, what a blessing and honor to be the pastor of a church that loves poor folks, loves people who are lonely and yearning for community enough, to cook them breakfast once a month. The pancakes, the breakfast meats, they satisfy that physical need, but the relationship building, the way in which the Holy Spirit brings us together in believed community, this provides us all the spiritual nurture we need to continue along in our journey.
We can all participate, if you can’t cook, come and share your listening ear, if you love people but sometimes get a little nervous talking to someone new come and offer your loving presence, if you can’t be here because you’ve got another obligation, pray, pray that God’s loving spirit will enfold our fellowship, will bless the pancakes, the syrup, the sausages and the love we share, pray that the kingdom of God will be realized in out time together, opening us up more to the movement of God’s unconditional love known in Jesus Christ, for you, for me, for the person who is the most like you in every single way imaginable, and for the one who couldn’t be more different from you. May we always remember this ruth but and importantly may we live it out in this world especially when it’s hard. Thanks be to God, amen.
This last week my wife Allison, who is priest in the Episcopal Church, and I were talking about the gospel reading for today in preparation for our Sunday sermons when we started talking about our two different experiences in summer camp as children. See each of us participated in church summer camps when we were in elementary school and as a teenager. We both loved being at camp; each for a different reason.
One of the ways we had a different experience was in our cleanliness. See Allison took a shower every single day at camp. In fact she even got an award at the end of camp, along with her best friend, for their cleanliness.
Me on the other hand. I went the opposite direction. I didn’t shower once, the entire week. I took pride in my uncleanliness. It was a badge of honor. A sign that I had in fact experienced the fullness of camp. Now I didn’t receive any outer awards for my uncleanliness, but I do remember how much fun it was to go an entire week at camp without a shower.
Cleanliness was an important topic of conversation during the time of Jesus. In fact, cleanliness has always been an important topic of conversation for religious folks dating back to the earliest beginnings of the Abrahamic faiths and up through the religious experience of the modern era. In face we even have sayings like “cleanliness is next to Godliness,” right.
The gospel reading for this morning lifts up this idea of cleanliness in the context of Jesus’ time in a real and challenging way. See the disciples and Jesus are traveling all throughout the region of Galilee participating in the healing and restorative ministry of God. Jesus is preaching, teaching and living into the kingdom of God. He’s healing the sick, he’s touching the untouchable, he’s breaking all societal and religious boundaries to offer folks who were excluded and shunned the grace of loving human contact. Jesus is breaking all of the rules. All of them. And he’s doing so for the sake of people, for the sake of relationship, for the sake of restoration and reconciliation, for the sake of loving folks back into life.
So as Jesus and his disciples are engaged in this ministry they run into some adversarial voices. Because whenever you’re out there trying to do some good in this world there’s bound to be a naysayer or two. These voices are from some scribes and the pharisees. Now the scribes and pharisees have come all the way from Jerusalem to the region of Galilee to check Jesus out. To see what he’s up to and to find some way to discredit him, to attack his ministry, to challenge him or to stop him.
Because the pharisees and the scribes were the religious authority of the day. They were one of the groups of religious leaders who had power and authority in their community. And because they were human beings with power, they were threatened by Jesus ministry because Jesus ministry is all about empowering the powerless, it is all about humility and radical inclusive grace which uplifts the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the unclean and offers them a seat at the feast of heaven.
It’s important to know this back story as we encounter the text we heard read this morning because it explains why Jesus is so confrontational with the pharisees and the scribes. See this confrontation happens as the pharisees and the scribes are observing Jesus’ disciples who have neglected one of the traditions of the elders and have not washed their hands before eating their food. Upon noticing this they ask Jesus why his disciples don’t participate in this ritual of cleanliness?
Immediately Jesus launches into his response calling them hypocrites and quotes from the prophet Isaiah who talks about people honoring God with their lips but their hearts are far from the heart of God.
Without this background information about the intent of the pharisees and scribes Jesus’ response to a relatively simple and seemingly harmless question could sound a little bit too reactive. But Jesus knows that the pharisees and the scribes are there to discredit his movement.
They are there to maintain the status quo. They are there to preserve their own power, prestige and ego. They are not interested in listening for what God is doing in their midst, they are not interested in metanoia, in a transformation of their hearts and their lives, they only want to maintain that which they know and that which they constructed.
So Jesus embodies the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament and he confronts the powers of this world with raw truth telling in order to help everyone wake up to this truth: God is in fact doing something new in this world, right here and right now.
Jesus is calling the pharisees and the scribes to see that these practices, these rituals, these traditons that they are holding fast too are not helping them to grow in their knowledge and love for God and God’s people. On the contrary, these traditions and rituals have in fact become a barrier for them, a barrier between them and other people.
Let me explain a little bit. And I want to be clear at this point that I am not saying that I am above and beyond the pharisees and the scribes. They are human beings just like you and me. We all have this temptation within us. A temptation, as one theologian once put it, “to let our last experience of God become a barrier to our next experience of God.”
See the traditions, rituals and practices that the pharisees and scribes were adhering to were practices that had developed and evolved over the years in the Jewish faith. They were rituals and practices that were intended to draw one’s attention and focus beyond the ritual and practice itself toward God. These practices were intended to enable and empower folks to practice their faith in this world and help them to learn how to love God with their whole heart and love their neighbor as themselves.
But as it often happens with us human beings, we missed the point. We built up practices and rituals that helped us to define who was in and who was out, who was included in God’s favor and who was excluded. We decided who was clean and pure and who was tainted and unclean. We drew all sorts of lines and boundaries so that we knew exactly who was worthy of God’s love and salvation and who wasn’t. This practice hasn’t gone away mind you. Christians and even more so, pastors have fallen into this same temptation and trap.
There’s this Buddhist teaching that say a spiritual practice is “the finger pointing at the moon, the finger is needed to know which way the moon is, but all too often we mistake the finger for the moon.” The temptation that the pharisees and the scribes fell into is the same temptation that we all fall into: to make an idol out of our religious practice.
And so Jesus calls them and us out on it. He challenges our assumptions and our traditions in order to ask us are they helping us to grow in our love for God, are they empowering us to truly love our neighbors and are they pushing us beyond our comfort zones to love the stranger, the lost, the outcast in our midst.
See Jesus calls us all as followers in his way to examine the contents of our own hearts and our lives. To acknowledge and confess the things within us that if left unchecked could defile us and our actions. See Jesus knows that the heart of a spiritual life is allowing God to transform us from the inside out, not from the outside in. The purpose of our rituals and traditions, the purpose of the law of the Hebrew scriptures, is to bring a growing awareness to that which is within us which needs the touch of God’s transforming love.
The commandment to love our neighbor, the commandment to love the stranger, the commandment to give away one tenth of our money; these commandments are intended to bring a growing awareness to our tendency to withhold love from those we deem unworthy, our tendency to not want to see others as created in the image of God, or our love for our own wealth and power instead of a humble reliance upon God’s grace and mercy. These outer practices have an inner component. The problem occurs when we disconnect the two.
So you might be wondering what’s the deal with the sermon title this week. Iron, starched but haven’t bathed. It comes from a quote from our founder John Wesley which I learned just this past week. The true quote is this: “the church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”
It speaks to the heart of this gospel reading, the heart of this spiritual truth that Jesus is trying to wake us up to, we must make sure that our inner life matches our outer life. We must make sure that we are allowing the life-giving love of God to wash over us, to fill our hearts and our lives, to make us whole by God’s overflowing mercy and forgiveness. We must confess that which is within us that leads us to want to turn inward and away from God’s leading and then we must turn ourselves outward toward the world with that loving and open spiritual posture to be agents of radical inclusive grace in this world.
It makes sense that today is a day we would be celebrating the gift of holy communion. This sacrament of God, this sacred meal in which God makes herself known to us. This meal is one of the ways we are washed and made whole because in this meal we recognize that even though we all fall short of the glory of God, we are unbelievable worthy of God’s love and God’s favor, we remember that we are God’s beloved children and that God is well pleased with each of us, all of us. And so as we prepare to receive the bread and the cup, let us take a moment to consider that which is within us which we need God’s help to transform in love.
Read John 6:56-69
We live in a world that is saturated with advertisements, brand images and product placements. As we move about this world and we are bombarded, every single moment of every single day, with some message from a company or corporation telling us that we need this product or service to make our life complete. The crazy thing is that the number of these impressions, just keeps growing and growing and growing.
I was reading an article this past week where it was estimated that back in the 1970s the average person would encounter 500 different advertisements a day. 500 different times during someone’s day a company or corporation would get their product along with a catchy jingle or a clever commercial in front of a potential buyer. Do you know how many different advertisements we see today? Double that? Nope. How about 10 times that at the very minimum. 5000 different images, commercials, product placements drift into our world every single day. And this on the low end. The reality is that for most of us it is probably much higher than that.
Why does this matter? Well it seems to me that all of these images and advertisements are trying to tell us a very similar story: something is missing in your life, something about your life isn’t quite as good as it could be until you buy our product. Or to put it another way: if you buy our product we will help you to be who you want to be in this world.
A couple years ago I was really struck by this commercial for Apple computers. It was a simple commercial with two men on screen. The man on the left was dressed like a dorky, middle aged man. He had a suit on which was brown and beige, wearing glasses and he generally gave off the impression of someone who works in the accounting office. Standing next to him was a young guy, wearing cool jeans and a hoodie, his hair was slightly messy in that hipster, I’m too cool for school kind of way.
As the commercial began the guy on the right said, “ Hello I’m a Mac.” And the other guys said “and I’m a PC.” I’m a Mac, I’m a PC.” I mean it is clear to most which one you want to be. You want to be the cool, young, hip, relevant guy on the right. See they aren’t just selling computers but they are selling an identity. I’m a Mac and definitely not a PC.
Our scripture lesson for today speaks to this in a very real and honest way. Let’s unpack it just a bit. The gospel reading comes from the end of the 6th chapter of John. We heard the very beginning of the chapter a couple weeks ago when Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. After this miracle the writer of John relays a series of teachings that Jesus gives to us about being bread of life and the bread of heaven. It is a long discourse and a long series of teachings in which Jesus talks about the various aspects of what this teaching means in the life of a believer.
Our reading from this morning is the conclusion of this set of teaching. Jesus is in a synagogue in Capernaum, which is a town right on the sea of Galilee. He’s teaching in this place when he says to the people:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Those who are following Jesus respond to this teaching by saying, “this teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”
I can tell you this much, I identify with those disciples and followers of Jesus who are baffled and confused by such a teaching. In fact this doesn’t just apply to this teaching but to a lot of teachings that Jesus gives us. It’s difficult to understand what he is trying to teach us. It is difficult to understand what it means for us to each his flesh and drink his blood. A lot of the folks that heard Jesus teaching this were baffled because they thought he was being literal.
They had a surface level understanding of what he was trying to get at. For that reason they were really confused by Jesus. Eat your flesh? Drink your blood? I don’t think so. That’s too much. And so baffled and not quite comprehending these difficult teachings some of the disciples turn away from Jesus. They go back to their day to day lives. They stop following him.
Now it might be easy to want to distance ourselves from those disciples. It might be tempting to say to ourselves, well I’d never leave Jesus, even when things got difficult or confusing or you weren’t really quite sure what all of this faith stuff actually means. That’s the easy way for me to go in interpreting this text.
It’s easy to put some distance between me and those disciples questioning Jesus “this teaching is difficult, how can we accept it?’ But the truth is that there isn’t that much distance between me and those disciples and I am pretty sure I’m not alone in this.
Perhaps you are like me in this way, there have been times when I’ve felt like this way of living is just too difficult and challenging for me to accept. There have been times when I’ve felt like believing in Jesus and living following in his way might actually be in vain. I’ve sat with folks whose faith is deep and rich and wondrous, folks who have the kind of faith that inspires you and uplifts you, and as I’ve sat and listened to their story I’ve heard them relay moments in their journey where they too wanted to turn around and stop following Jesus. They’ve relayed feelings of wandering around in the dark or feeling as though it was all for not.
Maybe it’s that dark night of the soul we sometimes go through, those spiritually dry places when no matter what you do you just can’t feel God’s presence the way that you used to,
or perhaps it was walking through the illness of a loved one, a spouse, a child, a dear friend, and as you are praying you’re wondering why they are so sick.
Maybe it’s that terrible business decision you made for the sake of people and the stress of the finances and trying to make it all meet is just too much.
It is in these moments where we feel that real temptation to just turn around and stop following in the way of Jesus, because well, the road is tough, the teaching is difficult, how can we really believe it.
But Jesus speaks into this reality these words of challenge but also words of comfort, he says, eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me and I will abide in you always. Jesus says to take all of this, his teaching, his call to follow in his way, Jesus’ very life-giving love itself, take it into our selves, to take it into our hearts, our souls, the deepest parts of our inner being and to abide in him, remain in him and he will remain in us. He says take all of it into yourself and allow it to transform you from the inside out.
He’s teaching us this very important truth about a spiritual life, because: The spiritual life is about learning to be ok when things aren’t ok.
Spirituality, is not about transcending suffering or the heavy things in this life, nor is it about living in denial of these things. No, it’s about naming them, claiming them, knowing them for what they are, incorporating them into our story, but not letting them have the last word.
Jesus teaches us to live from our true identity and our true selves, first and always even when it gets difficult and challenging, even when the road seems dark and long and treacherous, and he promises no matter what that his life-giving love will never leave us, abandon us or fail.
See all that other stuff in this life will do just that it will fail you. No matter how awesome and useful, no matter how innovative, no matter how sleek and cool, all of it in the end is just temporary. No matter how much Apple wants me to believe their products can offer me this awesome and cool hipster kind of life if I just buy enough products with that cool logo on it. No matter how many iPhones I buy I’m still going to be that dorky guy who looks like he’s from accounting.
So I decided to title this sermon, you are what you eat. It’s that old saying which helps us to remember that one of the keys to being healthy is to eat healthy food. And there is truth to all of that: right what we take into our bodies matters, it affects us and it changes us, for the good and for the bad.
It’s the same thing with our spiritual lives. What we take into our spiritual lives matters. It can change us and transform us from the inside out in ways that are life-giving and healthy in our spiritual maturation, and ways that are life-stifling too. That’s why Jesus calls himself the bread of heaven, this is why he talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He’s helping us to see that we need to be aware of what we are spiritually putting into our selves every single day.
We are bombarded with all of those images and narratives telling us that we are not complete, we are not whole, we are not loved or lovable until we buy this one thing or we complete this one program. And yet we know that in the end none of those things will satisfy or bring us an abundant life.
One of the ways that our founder John Wesley believed we can stay in right alignment with God, allowing the love of Jesus to abide in us always was to participate in the sacraments of the church as often as we can. Now in case you are new to Christianity, or perhaps you need a little refresher course, the United Methodist Church practices two sacraments of the church. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace. In other words, a sacrament involves tangible material things which help us to experience, feel and understand God’s intangible grace at work in our world. The two sacraments that we practice are the sacrament of Baptism and Holy Communion. Each of these involve something material or physical, the water, bread and juice, but they take hold in our heart and our lives in this deeply spiritual way.
And at the core of each of these sacraments is a reminder, a grounding in our core identity, our true selves. In our baptism we acknowledge that each of us is known, called and loved by God first and foremost. When we receive holy communion we humbly recognize that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we find the fullness of our own lives, the freedom of life made new by God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness which is bestowed upon us continually.
When we celebrate the sacraments we remember that we abide in Jesus always and Jesus abides in us
That is who we truly are, that is who you truly are, you are loved, you are cherished, you are created in the image of the most high God and God is well pleased with you. When you move about your world, when you see all the different voices and narrative trying to lay claim upon your heart, those voices that tell you life would be perfect if and when you do or buy this one thing, gently remind yourself that you are baptized, you have tasted the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, you are forgiven, made whole and complete by the love of our savior, Jesus Christ, who calls to us with a voice of love, calling us to know love and to be love for this hurting and broken world. Remember who you are and more importantly whose you are. Thanks be to God.
We live in an age that we sometimes call the information age. We are swimming in a sea of information. It’s been said that there is more information generated in ten minutes than in the whole of human civilization up until this point. Think about the information that we have access to right now, in this very moment.
When I was growing up I remember having these questions that would pop into my mind throughout the course of a day, like:
who was the youngest president to ever be elected?
or what is the distance from the sun to the planet Pluto? (of course when I was a kid Pluto was still a planet)
or what was the biggest comeback of all time in baseball?
I would have these random questions that would arise through the course of my day. I would stop, pause for a moment, wonder what the answer might be and then continue about my day. This was because in order to find out the answer to those questions it took work. It took a lot of work.
It meant turning to the old trust Encyclopedia Britannica which we had on a book shelf. Either that or it meant you had to go down to the public library and seek out that one specific book which may or may not contain the answer to your question. Or, maybe it meant searching your address book for the phone number of that one person in your life who just seemed to know all there is to know about everything you ever wondered about. Then you had to call them on their home telephone and hope that they were at home to answer.
Because it was so much work to get the answer to any of these questions, most of the time what I would do it I would pause and think to myself “what a great question, I wonder what the answer is” and then I’d go on with my day.
Of course this has all changed. I can answer any of those questions in a matter of moments. In fact I decided to do a little experiment. I actually timed myself as I answered all of these questions. Using my trusty iPhone and Google I was able to answer all of these questions in 2 minutes and 11 seconds. Two minutes and eleven seconds to find the answers to all of these random questions that popped into my head.
Now for those of you who are just so curious that you can’t focus on the rest of the sermon until you know the answer to all of these questions here are the answer; youngest president: Teddy Roosevelt he was 42, 3.67 billion miles from the Sun to Pluto and the biggest comeback in baseball history was a 12 run difference, it happened three times in the history of the game: Indians over the Mariners in 2001 and two other times in the early 1900s.
It is a little overwhelming to me when you think about all the information we have access to today. Of course in many ways living in this age is absolutely amazing. We have the ability to share information and knowledge in a way that can make such a deep impact on individuals and communities. That same knowledge which used to be held by a select few powerful and wealthy individuals is now available to the entire world.
There are definitely some positive things about living in the information age. And at the same time it can be overwhelming and anxiety producing. In fact according to the statistics we are more depressed and anxious than any other generation in human history. Now, I have to believe that one of the factors that plays into all of this is the 24/7 news and information that streams right into our pockets, which is just one click away all the time, around the clock, whether we are out buying groceries, or we are at the park with our grand-kids, whether we are cooking dinner or folding laundry.
But as people of faith we know that there is more to life than just digesting all the information we have at our finger tips. We know that there are some questions that Google or Alexa just can’t answer. Big questions like why am I here? What is the meaning of life? What is the next right action to take in this world? Why do good people suffer? How do I take all that I have and all that I know and all that I am and make an impact on this world? I guarantee no matter how good Google is, I can’t answer those questions in 2 minutes and 11 seconds.
As people of faith we know that there is something else we need to seek and cultivate in order to life a rich and whole life: and that thing is wisdom.
This brings us to our reading for today. Our reading that I’ll be focusing on for the sermon is the story of Solomon, the son of King David. Now if you are not familiar with the story of David it is important to know that David was a great king who united the northern and southern kingdom of ancient Israel. He was a brave warrior and a shrewd and cunning leader.
But one of the things that is so remarkable about the story of David, as it stands in contrast to other stories of kings from the ancient near east, is that the Hebrew people told the stories of David as a great king but they also told stories about his flaws and his character defects. They didn’t shy away from the fact that David was a human being who made some big mistakes.
So David has a son whose name is Solomon and the reading from today relays the story of David’s death and Solomon’s ascension as king.
The passage says that as Solomon became king he went to one of the high places, a place called Gibeon to make a sacrifice to God. After offering his sacrifice he falls asleep and God comes to him in a dream. God says to Solomon, “ask what I should give you.”
And Solomon answers God praising God for all the faithfulness God has shown to Solomon’s father David, and the people of Israel. Then Solomon asks God for the ability to govern the people and to discern between good and evil, or as I like to think about it, the ability to see beyond good and evil.
God is pleased at this request. This request for a discerning and wise mind. God replies to Solomon, I will grant this to you because you didn’t ask for all the riches of the world, you didn’t ask for the death of your enemy or worldly power. You asked for the wisdom to see and to know what is right and true so that you can govern the people and make the world a better place.
Now I don’t want you to get the impression that Solomon is a perfect human being according to our scripture. He is never portrayed in this way at all. He is deeply flawed just like his father King David. But, we do as a people of faith, remember his humble request that God would grant him wisdom to be a good leader to his people.
As people of faith we are called to cultivate wisdom, to grow in our wisdom as we journey through this life with God. What exactly is wisdom? It’s one of those questions that you can ask Google and you will never actually get the right answer. I tried it. I googled what is wisdom and saw a number of different articles and blog posts. They all talked about wisdom and they got pieces of it and portions of it. But no one blog post or article or study can capture all of what wisdom is because to me wisdom is that experiential knowledge we cultivate as we follow in the way of love.
Solomon asked for the wisdom to know the difference between good and evil. He asked to see beyond the information of the situation, to see beyond what was in front of him and to see the truth which lies beyond the facts. To see the spirit of God at work behind the circumstances or the situation and to know what is the next right action he was called to take on behalf of God’s love and justice in the world.
So the question for us as we go about our days and our weeks is how are we do grow in our wisdom as people of faith? How do we to learn from our brother Solomon and ask God humbly to receive the wisdom to know what is the next right action we are called to take?
One of the prayers and practices of our tradition which can help us in our pursuit of cultivating God’s wisdom in our lives is a simple prayer called the Serenity prayer. Now you probably know it or maybe have heard of it. The Serenity prayer is a prayer that has become really well known because of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups. It is part of the ritual of a 12 step group to open the meeting with this prayer. But what you may not know is that it is a shorter version of a longer prayer written by a Christian theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr.
The original and longer version of the prayer is this:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
I love this prayer so much as it captures faithful living in the day to day, as we encounter situations and circumstances and we are trying to discern and figure out what we are called to do and how we are called to follow in the way of Jesus. The simple, yet profound brilliance of the prayer is that first portion: God give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Far to often I think we get caught up in trying to change the things that we just cannot change in this world. It becomes an obsession. It causes us undue anxiety and stress and it does spiritual harm to our souls. We become obsessed trying to control other people or to change what others think about us or how others see us, we try to rearrange our external circumstances in just the right way so that we can receive a lasting peace.
Sometimes we do all of this and it eats away at our soul, our spirit because at the end of the day these are the things that we cannot control. If we learn to surrender, learn to accept that we are not in control of our universe, then we can learn to trust and rely more fully on the one whose love and power is greater and bigger than ours.
And at the same time, we sometimes ignore, deny or live in fear of the things within us and around us that we can change. The things within our hearts which need to change. That old hatred we need to let go of, that habit which has grown and grown into a full on addiction, that longed for perfection in our life that we’ve sought in desperation. These are things that we can change if we are willing to step forth in courage.
And at the heart of it all, the thing behind all of it that allows us to move forward in our spiritual journey with God into a full and abundant life, a life of wholeness balance and peace, is the wisdom to know the one from the other. The wisdom to see beyond the circumstance and the facts, beyond the information and the news and to see the spirit of God, the loving spirit of our God who longs for us to live lives of love, who longs for us to live lives of connection, who longs for us to live in hope and to walk humbly in faith all the days of our lives.
So may God give us grace with serenity to accept the things that we cannot change, courage to change the things which should be changed and the wisdom to know the one from the other. Thanks be to God, Amen.