09.03.2017 Preaching Text: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:26)
Life is full of choices. Of course, some decisions are pretty simple, requiring little or no thought. But some are far less obvious, or at least should be.
It’s generally a good idea, in other words, to stop and contemplate the latter, those situations that demand hard choices. For we know the temptation to make quick decisions is strong. Reacting unthinkingly to situations is far too tempting.
In many respects, the Christian life can be boiled down to one basic thing: discernment – spiritual discernment. When faced with a multiplicity of options, as we all are, Christians are asked to stop, pray, and seek God’s will.
We were talking the other night in our adult book study about Tony Robinson’s thoughts on church life and the role of discernment. (He is, as you know, the author of the book we’re reading.)
It’s critical, he argues, that churches not fall into the secular trap of running things the way the world does. In fact, much of his thesis centers on the fact that we Mainline churches tend to mimic the business and/or organizational aspects of our culture without fully appreciating how often our faith requires an entirely different way of seeing and doing.
In each aspect of church life, from the way we greet the stranger, to the way we hold our meetings, to the way we make decisions, to the way we raise and use money, and, perhaps most importantly, what it is we hope to accomplish as a church, all these things, he says, teach (or betray) what we believe.
As we look to the future, we need to ask: what is God calling First Church to be and do? On the face of it, this seems an obvious question. But as I’ve said countless times, we tend to answer this question the way a child might during a children’s sermon: “to worship God.” Then again, the devil, as we know, is in the details.
Robinson points out that in the earliest Congregational churches, and that likely includes this one, spiritual discernment was considered foundational. They didn’t always assume the answers to life’s deeper questions. They sought God’s often hidden counsel. So they spent a lot of time praying and listening.
Genuine listening is not easy. In secular fashion we’re more apt to define the problem and come up with a quick, actionable solution. Yet in so doing, we risk missing out on the new thing God wishes to do in and through us.
I’m struck by the way the Quakers hold their Sunday “meetings.” Though I’ve never been to one, my understanding is that they sit in a room in total silence, until, that is, someone feels the Spirit move them to speak.
This is in start contrast to us “word-y” Mainliners, myself included. We eschew silence. Instead we approach matters with our uniquely American “can do” spirit, which certainly has its place, as well as its merits, but which can also shrewdly deceive.
And even in those times when we do make the effort to discern things, modern-day Americans tend to rely too heavily on feelings. Now I’d be the last person to deny the importance of emotions. They are, after all, an integral part of what makes us human.
The problem is that we tend to employ our emotions almost to the exclusion of all else, including using our heads! Within our current political landscape, for instance, emotion seems to dominate our discourse, if you can even call it discourse. There seems little room for contemplative thought.
Perhaps even more so, and what may be the most problematic is the very human assumption that what we think and feel is incontestably paramount!
No matter how loftily or sensitively we articulate life, human beings are simply not the measure of all things. It is God alone who created and sustains all that is and therefore it is God’s will that is sovereign. Thus, in the end, the question is not what I think, but what God thinks!
In today’s lectionary readings, we encounter this theme again and again. In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus (which I didn’t read), God calls Moses to lead his people out of captivity, despite the fact that Moses has other ideas. For one thing, he doesn’t want the job, believing he’s not up to its demands.
Similarly, in Romans, Paul encourages his hearers to act not according to their understandings but God’s. For example, he tells us we should forgive others, regardless of whether we feel like it or not! Why? Because it is God’s will.
In the end, forgiveness, as with all of Christian life, begins with a decision, a decision we are commanded to make. We choose to forgive, not because we feel magnanimous, but because it’s our duty. Talk about countercultural!
Then in Matthew, Jesus harshly rebukes Peter for trying to prevent his friend and mentor’s impending death. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says, with a tone somewhat less than gentle, “You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus then goes on to state a classic Christian paradox: if we seek to save our lives, we lose them. But if we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, we find them.
Part of what makes our biblical faith so hard to fathom is that it often rejects our understandings. In fact, in a sense, it doesn’t really even care what we think or feel!
So what is the purpose of these seemingly harsh commands? What do they portend?
The answer, quite simply, is that they are necessary to God’s plan for human flourishing. God’s will is not, in other words, intended to punish or diminish. It is to lead us to know the blessings only God is able to bequeath. Amen.