Sermon preached December 27, 2009
Texts: I Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52
Woody Allen’s 1977 Academy-Award winning film Annie Hall is about a man named Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and his relationship with a woman named Annie Hall, portrayed by Diane Keaton. After a series of ups and downs Annie and Alvy have a difficult conversation about the state of their relationship.
Annie Hall clip
Annie: Let’s face it, I don’t think our relationship is working.
Alvy: I know, a relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know, it has to constantly move forward or it dies. I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.
There is wisdom in that for our faith. Our faith should continue to move forward, to grow. When it doesn’t, it can become stale. It can seem too small for our lives. Our Scriptures encourage growth in faith as they describe Samuel and Jesus. “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Growing older is inevitable. Growing in our faith is intentional.
And the church exists, in important part, to help those who are a part of it grow in faith. Another way to say that is to say that the product of the church is people. The church exists to help people, whether or not they are a part of the church – so we reach out to feed the hungry, to clothe those with inadequate clothing, to house those without housing, to care for the sick and dying, to establish justice, to strive for peace, to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. One “product” of the church is a better life for others. Another product of the church is changed lives among those who call our church “home.” We want to mess with your lives if you become part of the church. We want to see people’s lives shaped, formed, transformed by the love of Jesus. Another “product” of the church is those changed lives. Of course those two goals are interconnected. As people’s lives are changed, formed, shaped by God’s love in Jesus, they will reach out to make a difference in the world. One of the ways our lives are shaped and formed in love happens as we reach out to others.
Our faith needs to move forward, to grow, and as one year turns to the next seems like a good time to consider how we might like to help our faith grow, how we might like to shape our lives in cooperation with God’s Spirit in the coming year, how we might like to be more deeply formed in faith. I want to suggest that there are a number of ways we can more deeply be formed in Christian faith, be more open to God’s Spirit. I want to briefly discuss these broad categories and offer us some time for reflection on how each of us might choose to be formed more deeply in faith in the new year.
I think we can be more deeply formed in faith and grow in faith as we seek to reweave the past into our lives. In his novel Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner writes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Act I, scene 3, p. 80) There is deep truth there. We carry the past with us, and while we cannot change the past, we can rework it, see it differently, reframe it – and doing so helps us grow as people of faith. If I use some of my energy to hold on to a past wrong done me, I have less energy for the present and the future. Some past wrongs need to be rectified. Some need to be let go. There is a huge difference within between saying “someone hurt me and I can’t be whole until they get their due” and saying “someone hurt me and it is unfair but I am not going to be trapped by this forever.” Only you know when it is appropriate to take which stance in your life, but as we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, is there something in the past that needs to be rewoven into the present? Jack Kornfield, therapist and spiritual teacher once wrote, “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25). We may not be able to change the past to make it better but we can reweave it into our present. Is there some place where you need to forgive to free yourself in this new year?
We are formed in faith and grow in faith as we enlarge our territories. There was a very popular Christian book published ten years ago now, The Prayer of Jabez. Maybe some of you remember it. It seemed helpful to some. Jabez was a minor character in I Chronicles chapter 4 who managed a few more lines in a long list of names than others. A pastor named Bruce Wilkinson took the prayer of Jabez (Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain) and made it into a small cottage industry. Part of the prayer was for enlarging one’s territory. Wilkinson has an interesting view of that part of the prayer. If Jabez had worked on Wall Street, he might have prayed, “Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolis.” (31) I am not sure that this is a very good interpretation of the prayer of Jabez, but Wilkinson is on to something with that idea of enlarging our territory. We grow in faith as we learn new things, as we take on new tasks and responsibilities in our lives. As we stretch ourselves we find God in new ways. As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to learn more or what new task or responsibility might God be inviting you to consider in your life?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of Christianity, believed that people were formed more deeply in faith and grew in faith by following three general rules. These have been updated by Bishop Rueben Job. The rules are: do no harm, do good, stay in love with God. I would like to use some of Bishop Job’s words to expand on each of ways of being formed more deeply in faith.
To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation…. I will determine everyday that my life will always be invested in the effort to bring healing instead of hurt; wholeness instead of division; and harmony with the ways of Jesus rather than with the ways of the world. When I commit myself to this way, I must see each person as a child of God – a recipient of love unearned, unlimited, and undeserved – just like myself. (31) As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in your ability to heal rather than harm, grow in your determination to see others as beloved of God?
Doing good, like doing no harm, is a proactive way of living. I do not need to wait to be asked to do some good deed or provide some needed help. I do not need to wait until circumstances cry out for aid to relieve suffering or correct some horrible injustice. I can decide my way of living will come down on the side of doing good to all in every circumstance and in every way I can. I can decide that I will choose a way of living that nourishes goodness and strengthens community…. (37-38) Taking appropriate care of self and living selflessly are not opposites. Rather they are each essential elements of a healthy and productive life(46). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where would you like to grow in doing good, in nourishing goodness and strengthening community? Where might you need to take better care of yourself?
Staying in love with God is the foundation to all of life. It is in a vital relationship with God that we are enlivened, sustained, guided, called, sent, formed and transformed…. Only living in the healing, loving, redeeming, forming, and guiding light and presence of God will bring the redemption, healing, transformation and guidance that is so desperately needed. (48-49) We may name our spiritual disciplines differently, but we too must find our way of living and practicing those disciplines that will keep us in love with God – practices that will help keep us positioned in such a way that we may hear and be responsive to God’s slightest whisper of direction and receive God’s promised presence and power every day and in every situation (55). As we begin the new year and you seek to be a new you as a person of faith, where do you need to hone your spiritual disciplines in order to stay in love with God?
I’ve suggested some ways our lives are formed and our faith deepened. It is often helpful to keep before ourselves a picture of the direction of this new you that we want to work with God to create in our lives. One wonderful picture of the kind of people we try to produce as the church is found in Colossians 3. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another… forgive each other…. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together…. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. I like the way Eugene Peterson renders this passage in The Message. So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive and offense…. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
That’s the new you for the new year we want to produce here, helping each other along the way. As you reflect on the ways that new you can be formed, what one thing would you like to do in the new year to be more Christ-like, to wear love more consistently? I would invite you to use the blank space on the bulletin to write down one or two, but no more than three things you would like to do this year to grow in faith, to be more deeply formed in faith. You don’t need to share it with anyone else, but keep it in a place where you can look at it from time to time, just to see how you are doing.
A woman asked her spiritual teacher, “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?” “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?” “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.” (deMillo, One Minute Wisdom, 11)
A shark moving forward, a new wardrobe knit out of love, the sun rising in our lives - - - it is a new year, a good time to consider how we can work with God to cultivate a new you. Amen.