The Sunday Sermon: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 15, 2018
Scripture: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
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How are We Supposed To … ?
The Church treats our minds as though they were really important. The church says to all of us, young and old: “Here are the mysteries challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have discerned, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have discovered and then look deeper to discover more, for faith is also an intellectual adventure for the Truth.” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, Shall the Fundamentalists Win? Sermon from 1922, paraphrased)
Question: What happens to us after we die? Answer: Yes.
Question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Answer: Community.
So far this month, these are our answers, answers to two of the most confounding questions we ask as people of faith. They are not answers offered to us by science. They aren’t arrived at through empirical scientific study. They don’t even make logical sense, if “logic” is understood as the most formal processes used in thinking and reasoning. That’s because we’re not using the language of the head this month, but the language of the heart.
“What happens after we die” isn’t a yes or no question, so the answer “yes” doesn’t make sense in our “heads.” But it does in our hearts. If we allow it to. We know exactly what we talking about if we listen with our heart.
I initially responded to last week’s question of “Why do bad things happen to good people” rather flippantly with “because they do.” That’s more logical, perhaps, but the final answer is more practical, and is, “Community.” That makes no sense in our heads, either. But it does in our hearts. Listen: Why do bad things happen to good people? Community.
I know it still doesn’t work for some of you, perhaps many of you. It doesn’t’ always work for me, either. We’ve been so educated to think with our heads and to turn to faith only when “reason” doesn’t work, that we can hardly begin with our faith at all. But that’s what I’ve asked you to do this month. So, let those with hearts to hear, listen.
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God. Read Eccleciastes 3:1-8. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This morning it is time we use our hearts to respond to a number of questions that you submitted last month. In the broadest of senses, they began with the words of our sermon title this morning: How are we supposed to … ? I chose three (having started with six, then five, then four before deciding for practical reasons three was enough. How are we supposed to “pray,” understand “justification,” and treat the Sabbath. There’s a time for each. And sometimes it’s the same time.
So let’s remind ourselves what we discovered last week. If we are to have the slightest chance of understanding, let alone answering, questions like the ones we’re exploring this month, we will have to reject the notion that God’s, our “God’s,” reality can have any meaning apart from a relationship with the world and with us, all of us, you, me, those like us, those not like us, those we are comfortable with and those who make us uncomfortable. All of us. “God” is not only Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, God is creating, sustaining, and redeeming – every moment of every day. So, “God” is affected by our actions. What we do matters to God. God changes, if only to encounter us in new ways with a power that is not coercive and controlling, but evocative and life-changing. So, then …
How are we supposed to … pray?
Two responses from you on this subject. How are we supposed to pray? And, what happens when we pray. This is one of those cases where we know immediately where to turn to in scripture. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus himself, in some of the most clear direction he ever gives says, “Pray then in this way …” or “When you pray, say ..” and then he leads his disciples in what is now known as … anyone? Yes, what we call the Lord’s prayer, Jesus’ prayer. The “prayer we learned so long ago.” We pray it every Sunday morning together, or a version of it. Matthew’s gospel is closest to our 21st century recitation, though we’ve added a “Doxology” (for Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, the Glory) since probably the 2nd century.
In Matthew, Jesus is warning his followers not to be hypocritical in their prayers, not to do it for others, and not to make a big deal of it. In Luke, Jesus is responding to his disciples request that he “teach them to pray.” He does so using those words, those petitions and those hopes. And then he goes on to teach them about perseverance in prayer. I’ve no doubt that this lesson is what Paul lifts up when, in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, he extorts them to “pray without ceasing.” We read or hear Jesus’ encouragement or Paul’s from 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and don’t take it literally, or even seriously. How are we supposed to “pray without ceasing?” We wouldn’t get anything else done. We think this way because we understand prayer as some thing we do with heads bowed, eyes closed, and hands folded. If we stayed that way we wouldn’t get much else done. But that’s only one way to pray, only one part of prayer, namely, putting words to it, to the prayer that is our very life.
Katie made friends with George Ella Lyons, a Kentucky author many years ago, and so I read many of her books, most set in Appalachian Kentucky. In her book, Sonny’s House of Spies, her characters are talking about prayer and one of them notes, “I figure prayer is anything you do in the direction of God.” That’s my favorite definition of prayer to date. It’s my favorite because it means prayer is not just something we do, it’s something we are. We are prayer. We pray without ceasing, then, when we live our lives “in the direction of God.”
How are we supposed to pray? Again, we pray without ceasing. Your head is going to have a hard time getting itself around that and you’ll leave it alone too soon if you keep trying. But your heart knows. Use your heart. Follow it.
“What happens when we pray,” then? Prayer is primarily thinking about God – and “think further,” remember – the Holy, the Sacred, about the source of Life and the power of Love. Our verbal prayers, our words, connect us more deeply with this God – with others and their lives, with the “wrong” that is happening in the world, and with the desire to “make it right.” Our non-verbal prayers (meditation, contemplation, and our actions, themselves) also connect us to more deeply to the reality that is at the center of our lives: that which we most commonly call “God.” By talking to God and listening for God we change our lives to find ourselves more “in sync” with God and the way things are supposed to be … on earth as it is …
What happens when we pray? Connection to “God,” who is all around and deep within us.
Next: Justification. Just that on one response from last month: Justification. I include one other response in this part of the sermon that asked, “What’s up with predestination?” There’s some crossover.
Again, a pretty easy place to begin in scripture. Romans, chapter one, verse seventeen: For in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteousness will live by faith.” On this and other of Paul’s insights from the book of Romans did Martin Luther, in the 16th century provide one of he foundations for the Protestant Reformation that changed Christianity forever – so far. But what does it mean?
It means that we are “justified,” made right with “God,” not by anything we try to do to “get to God,” but by the reality that God “has gotten to us.” Again, think further. If we are to have the slightest chance of understanding questions like these we will have to reject the notion that God’s reality can have any meaning apart from a relationship with the world and with all of us. We are not God, but God is within us, each one of us. And if that is so, then salvation is not a prize to be won, but a gift to be accepted. Remember our answer to the question “what happens after we die?” Ye-e-es.
The problem with this understanding is we can easily think that if we’re “justified,” then we can do whatever we want now. Salvation is assured. I do believe the later, but justification is only the beginning, the way in which we “become Christian” – ones with faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But being a Christian is not simply about believing and receiving. It is also about living and serving as Jesus did. That has to do with our teachings on “Sanctification,” which no one asked about, so I’ll save that sermon for later. (Or more accurately, I’ll re-preach that sermon later. We have been there.)
Let me rather end this discussion trying to briefly respond to “What’s up with pre-destination?” This question comes mostly from members of other Christian denominations when we tell them we’re Presbyterians, so it’s good to at least skim the surface of a response.
We know from scripture (look up Romans 8:29) that predestination has to do with the question of salvation. In the years after the Protestant Reformation, unmoored from the Catholic Church, it’s priests, and their certainties, Protestants became consumed by questions like “How are we forgiven?” and “How can we know we are right with God (justified) and going to Heaven?” John Calvin, forever associated with what became Presbyterianism, laid out a teaching that essentially said, “Don’t worry about this! God knows. Live your life according to the Gospel and don’t worry about this!” Calvin was addressing the “existential angst” of the time with the assurances of salvation.
I blame the “Calvinists,” who soon enough developed the doctrine of “Double Predestination” that very quickly became, and remains for many (mostly non-Presbyterians!) the one position you’re supposed to believe if you’re a good Presbyterian. Calvin himself did teach it. If some are saved, then that must mean others are not. But Calvin never championed it in the way that those who followed him did, mostly, I suggest as a way to control the laity and maintain the status of the church. I know that’s awfully conspiratorial, but maybe awfully accurate, in the same way the early church codified Jesus’ radical understandings of Love and salvation by the third century. So …
What’s up with predestination? Don’t worry about it. And by that, I mean that’s our answer, that’s what any explanation about predestination can mean for us. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Take care of today.
Finally for this morning: How are we supposed to “treat the Sabbath?”
My favorite interpretation of the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis critiques our most common understanding of it. Namely, that the human creation was and is the crowning glory of God’s creative work. Not so, says the story itself. Humanity was created, in the poetic language of our first book, on the sixth day. But the story is very clear that God finished the work on the seventh day when God rested. We are, at best, the work of a late Friday afternoon, and we all know what kind of work actually gets done on a late Friday afternoon. It is the Sabbath that is the crowning glory of God’s creation. The final act that ought to be the starting point for all creation, that which makes sense out of everything else around it. But of course, it doesn’t. Because we have created our own world, one that prizes rest, reconnection, rejuvenation, and renewal almost not at all.
When we ask about “the Sabbath,” surely we’re asking about a “day.” The “seventh day,” a day of rest, a day that we should “do things for ourselves.” But when we drop the definite article, and talk more deeply about Sabbath, it becomes more than simply a “day,” it becomes a spiritual discipline. In can happen on any day, at any time, and it’s about much more than resting ourselves, or “doing what we want.”
Sabbath is about reconnecting to one another – those we know intimately and those we’ve never met. Sabbath is about renewing the right relationship with those others, finding and offering forgiveness to ourselves and others. Sabbath is about rejuvenating the life that was intended from the beginning, a life lived in harmony with Creator and all creation. That’s why it’s at the end of the story. Stop, breathe, look around, reconnect, renew, rejuvenate and begin again.
But to do any of that, to even have a chance of doing any of that, we need to take a rest. And this is where we fall most short of the glory of our creation. Our world, the world we’ve created or allowed to be created for us is designed very specifically not to let us rest. Almost every headline and every lead story on the News at night keep us in fear and suspicion. We can’t rest. Almost every personal reproach we have for ourselves or others begins with the observation that we’re being lazy, we’re not being productive enough; that other are working enough, or at least not as hard as we are; that our children aren’t studying enough or engaging others enough. Enough, enough, enough … enough.
Understanding Sabbath as a way of life that allows rest, reconnection, rejuvenation and renewal could quite possible change the world. In Judaism, on the Jewish calendar, every day begins at Sundown. Once again, this is based on the creation story in Genesis. How does the end of each “day of creation” end? They end this way: And it was evening and it was morning, the first day … And it was evening and it was morning, the second day … and so on. By mentioning the evening before the morning, the Torah defines a day that begins with the evening. Imagine that? A day that begins with family time, a communal meal, and then with rest – five, six, seven (is anyone getting eight hours?!) of rest. Try it this week. Try engaging the end of your day as its beginning and the beginning of your day as its midday. Rested and rejuvenated from the respite that begins it, we are more able to reconnect and renew our life in the time that follows.
How are we supposed to understand the Sabbath? As the beginning of life as it was intended to be. Wouldn’t that be great?
So there’s a few. There were so many more form you: How are we supposed to … curb our desires, handle depression, take care of our planet, forgive, share our faith, engage on social media, deal with the polarization, and how do we understand Jesus as a personal God and not a simply another delusion of solipsism? Perhaps that leaves sermons for August. I’m not worried. “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” Right now, it’s time to sing!
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 15, 2018