Sermon preached January 3, 2010
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
“We Three Kings” may be the traditional soundtrack to the story of the wise men, but I think this song could also serve as a soundtrack to the story. Play: “The Seeker” The Who
The Who, "The Seeker"
The Magi, the wise men are religious seekers. The wise men were trying to find one way or another, in one place or another, wisdom, the Divine, the Spirit, God. They followed a star that led them to Jesus, found him, then returned home.
Being a religious seeker is nothing new, I guess. Yet seekers have gained in prominence in recent years. In the Pew Forum survey on religious affiliation in the United States released in 2009, the fastest growing group was persons unaffiliated with any faith tradition (16.1% of the population). But interestingly about a third of that group identifies themselves as “religious unaffiliated.” 70 % of the unaffiliated believe in God and a whopping 92% believe in God. Religious seeking seems a growing phenomenon. While doing some research for this sermon I found an on-line blog written by a twenty-something woman in which she wrote: “I’ve been thinking and searching a lot lately for something to believe in. I need something to understand, something to place confidence in.” That is pure seeker language.
To those who are seeking, the Christian faith offers Jesus, the Jesus the seeking wise men found years ago. The essence of Christian faith is that God can be found in the life and teaching of Jesus, that the essence of God is love, and that the life of Jesus also serves as a model for what living in response to God is like. Christian faith offers resources that are true to life – love heals and our world needs healing, love runs into roadblocks because it threatens what is unloving (notice the fear of Herod in this story), love triumphs (after the crucifixion, resurrection). Christian faith offers resources that are true for life, helping us live more lovingly. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
So we who are Christian, who have found Jesus, are our seeking days done? I don’t think so. There is still something of the adventurous spirit of the seeker that should be ours. One might say that Christian faith gives us a map, but the territory remains open for exploration, for adventure, for seeking. As Christians we are also seekers, not unaffiliated seekers, pure seekers, but seekers nonetheless. We realize that the God we know in Jesus Christ can be explored for a lifetime.
There is an old story about a billboard that read: “Jesus is the Answer.” Underneath someone had spray painted, “What’s the Question?” As Christians we say, “Jesus is the answer,” but we also know that the questions change, we change, and how Jesus is the answer changes along with that. American philosopher and psychologist William James has this wonderful line that I deeply appreciate. “Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas” (in “Preface” to The Meaning of Truth).
One testimony to being Christian and seeker can be found in the life and work of Marcus Borg. One of Borg’s well known books is entitled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, a title that itself combines being Christian and seeker. In that work, Borg relates his own story about being a Christian and a seeker, his own story about how one can “meet Jesus again for the first time.”
Borg was raised in North Dakota, in a Scandinavian Lutheran home and church. He grew up with a very traditional picture of Jesus, a picture he held firmly too throughout childhood. Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world and whose message was about himself and his saving purpose and the importance of believing in him. (6).
In his early teen years, Borg began to have doubts about God, and these doubts filled him with anxiety, guilt and fear. He prayed to believe simply and easily. He left for college at a Midwestern Lutheran school “with a conventional but no longer deeply held understanding of the Christian faith.” (7) A religion course in his junior year proved very helpful. It introduced him wonderful intellectual resources for studying religion and Christian faith. It was a rich and rewarding experience. “But it didn’t help me believe. Rather, it provided a framework within which I could take my perplexity seriously” (8). Borg followed college with seminary at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and there his deep interest in Jesus reemerged through study of the New Testament. He read about all the work that scholars had been doing on the gospels, and his picture of Jesus was reformed.
In his mid-thirties, Borg had another series of experiences which shaped his Christian faith, experiences he describes as “nature mysticism” and moments of “radical amazement.” “They fundamentally changed my understanding of God, Jesus, religion and Christianity” (14). I no longer see the Christian life as being primarily about believing. The experiences of my mid-thirties led me to realize that God is and that the central issue of the Christian life is not believing in God or believing in the Bible or believing in the Christian tradition. Rather, the Christian life is about entering into a relationship with that to which the Christian tradition points, which may be spoken of as God, the risen living Christ, or the Spirit (17). Christian and seeker – Borg’s wife says of him: “he has been looking for Jesus all his life” (6).
Awhile back I read a simple phrase which continues to move me to deeper reflection, something written by a man named Kirk Bingaman where he discusses “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (in Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices, 23). Even when we find Jesus, there remain opportunities to meet him again for the first time, to update and transform our inner/psychical image of God.
My own life is a testimony to the fact that one can be both a Christian and a seeker. I was baptized as an infant and grew up in the church, though my family was not the most active family in the United Methodist Church of my youth. I made a more active and conscious commitment to the Christian faith at age 14. I was well-formed and well-schooled in a more traditional, conventional, evangelistic form of Christian faith, one I was learning more about outside my United Methodist Church. Like Marcus Borg, I, too, began having doubts and questions about this Christian faith – for me those developed in high school and continued in college. In a theological statement about the church issued in 1999 (Called to Love and Praise) by The British Methodist Church, they noted “our understanding of ourselves as human beings, of human history, and of society has been deeply influenced by thinkers such as Darwin, Marx, and Freud.” In college, I encountered some of these thinkers, and others, who challenged my simple faith.
Yet I could not and did not abandon it. Rather, I took my questions with me to seminary. There three streams in particular reshaped and recast my faith – made it stronger but also made it different - - - theology in general, biblical studies, and process theology. In seminary, I fell in love with the Bible in a remarkable way. When I could see it as both a human and Spirit-inspired document, it opened it up to me. The rich scholarship on the bible makes it much more lively and interesting. It is a book of which we can ask questions, not a simply an answer book. It gives some answers, but provokes even more questions. Process theology gave me a tremendously helpful framework for thinking about how God is connected with all of life and influences all of life.
Seminary was not the end of my seeking days. I became a pastor. Before officiating at my first funeral, I can count the number of funerals I had attended on one hand. Even with those, my family had really shielded me from death. Now I encountered it first hand. My first funeral was for a fifty some year old man who died of brain cancer leaving a wife and five children, the youngest of whom were twins in junior high school. That was about three weeks into my ministry, and within the first five weeks there had been three funerals. I have had to learn about grief and pain and tragedy through this – and I have officiated at funerals for persons from just under two to over 102. - - - five in the month of December.
A couple of years later I remember watching the movie Sophie’s Choice. It is a gut-wrenching story about the Holocaust. I read William Styron’s novel and realized that somehow I needed to grapple with radical evil in the world. I needed to think more deeply about Christian faith and such evil. What particularly struck me is that the Holocaust happened in a country steeped in the Christian tradition, a country which had a vibrant intellectual life. Germany has been a center of theology and biblical studies, and while some theologians and church people stood strongly against Nazism, others said nothing. Some of the anti-Semitism which fed Hitler’s ideology has long roots with Christianity. Faith cannot simply be in the head, not matter how sophisticated the thinking. It must shape/transform the heart, the soul, all of life so that we are kinder and gentler people.
Other experiences and forms of thought have shaped how I understand Christian faith: being a husband and a parent, death in my own family, rediscovering poetry while working on my Ph.D. through the Voices and Visions series on PBS, or rediscovering jazz, again through a PBS series. In both those cases, I had encountered poetry and jazz in college, but they were more tangential interests until they were rekindled. The same could be said for Buddhism and psychoanalysis. A couple of years ago I was asked to teach a course on peace for the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission. One book I read on world religion made me think that there were elements of Buddhism left unexplored from my college days, and I have found the conversation between that tradition and my Christian faith deeply helpful. I was a philosophy and psychology major in college, but had not thought much about psychoanalysis until about a year or so ago when I read Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. Again this conversation is enriching my spirituality and theology as a Christian.
Toward the end of his long poem “Little Gidding”, T.S. Eliot pens these lines:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
That’s what it means to be a Christian and seeker, to keep finding fresh insights and resources for living within Christian faith. Anglican priest Andrew Shanks writes, “the truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed.” (What is Truth? 5). Truth in the deepest and most interesting sense is a journey, is a way, and Christians name that way Jesus.
Joan Chittister, in her memoir Called to Question distinguishes between religion and spirituality – both have value, but for Chittister “spirituality” is the life, the heartbeat, while religion the outward form. “Spirituality is a commitment to immersion in God, to the seeking that has no end…. Religion, the finger pointing at the moon, is not the moon…. [To get us there] we need a spirituality of the search.” (24)
We have searched for a home one way or another, a spiritual home for our wandering hearts and souls. As Christians we have found this in Jesus, but what we discover if we dare is that this home has countless rooms, fascinating hallways, walk-in closets, hidden basements which are there for the exploring as our own lives change. It is also a home full of windows, windows which allow us to see the world from all kinds of different angles and which let the light in in countless ways. Welcome to the spirituality of the search.