Sermon preached March 25, 2012
Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
Here is a song about the Christian spiritual life – “Going Mobile” The Who.
Here is a story about the Christian spiritual life – “The Carpenter and the Unbuilder.” (story)
Once upon a time there was a man living in a certain kingdom who received an invitation from his king to come to dinner. Something inside him was excited as never before by the invitation. Something was afraid as well. Would he have the right clothes to wear? Would his manners be good enough for his lord's table? What would they talk about when they were not eating? Above all, the man was frightened by the long journey to the king's castle.
So what did the man do? Well, he spent one month deciding what to wear and buying the clothes he did not already have. He spent two months learning the rules of etiquette and practicing them as he ate. He spent three months reading up on all the latest issues faced by the kingdom so he would have something to say.
Finally he faced the journey itself. By trade the man was a carpenter. He built small houses and extra outhouses and garages better than anyone else. After he had packed the clothing and food he thought he would need for the journey, he had room for only a little more. So he decided to pack a few tools, enough to permit him to build adequate overnight shelter on the journey. Then he started out.
The first day he traveled through the morning and early afternoon, stopping only to eat some lunch. Then he set about constructing a rough shelter to spend the night in. After a few hours labor he had a small, safe, dry place to sleep. The next morning as he was about to start out again, he looked at the shelter he had built. He began to notice places where it could be improved. So instead of resuming the journey right away, he began to make improvements on his little dwelling. Well, one thing led to another, garage to kitchen to indoor plumbing, and so on. Soon, he had pretty much forgotten about the invitation and the journey.
Meanwhile the king was beginning to wonder about the man. And so, as kings are able to do, he arranged for another person who was also traveling to the dinner to stop by and see how the man was coming along.
When the king's friend found him, the carpenter was living in his second house. He had sold the first one to someone, remembered the invitation, and moved on for a day or so. However, he had soon settled in and built an even bigger and better house on the profits he had made from the sale of his first one. The carpenter was only too happy to invite the visitor in for lunch; but while he was content to accept the offer of food, the visitor said he preferred to eat out in the yard under a tree.
"Is there a reason you don't want to come inside?" asked the carpenter, immediately wondering if his house wasn't quite right in some way.
"Why yes," replied the visitor. "You see, I am on a journey to have dinner with the king of our land. It is important for me to stay on the journey. Perhaps after lunch you would like to come with me?"
"What you say sounds familiar to me," said the carpenter. "I think I too received an invitation to have dinner with the king, but I have been a little bit uncertain of the way."
"I know," responded the stranger. "I was once uncertain as well. As a matter of fact, once I was a carpenter just like you. I too wanted to build safe places along the way to stay in. One day, another person on the journey helped me learn how to unbuild instead of to build. He helped me leave the house I was living in and trust the journey itself. I was worried about following the right path. He told me that there were a number of paths that would lead to the dinner. The king had set it up that way, and the king had also set up warnings along the wrong paths. The important thing was simply to put one foot in front of the other with love and trust. I was also worried about what I had left behind. To this he said that the king had seen to it that everything worth saving would be at the castle waiting for me."
"What you say is certainly of comfort. It helps to know that you have been just like me," said the carpenter.
"Well then, why don't we let go of this house and get on with the journey?"
"I don't know. Maybe. Can I sleep on it?"
"May I fix a bed for you?"
"No," countered the visitor. "I will just stay out here under the tree. It is easier to notice the wonderful things the king has put along the way when you aren't looking out from inside something you have put up to protect yourself."
The unbuilder waited outside all night. The next morning the carpenter indeed had decided to resume the journey. Together they prepared to set out.
"Well," asked the carpenter. "Which way shall we go?"
"Which way seems right to you?" replied the unbuilder.
"I'm not sure."
"I'll tell you what. Let's just sit here a few minutes and think hard about the king. Remember the stories you have been told about him. Remember how much you love him. Remember how much he loves you. When you have remembered as clearly as you think you can, consider the paths that lie before you and see which one seems to satisfy your longing for, and remembrance of, the king. Let your desire to be with the king become more powerful in you than your uncertainty and fear about choosing the right or wrong path."
Silently they sat through the morning in the carpenter's front yard. Slowly it began to seem as though they were already on the journey. As that feeling grew and grew, it suddenly didn't seem like any decision needed to be made; it just happened. With a deep sense of freedom they were off.
Many of the days went just like that, new steps out of silent beginnings and pure desires. They simply waited until the sense of journeying wrapped itself around even their waiting, and then they were off without worrying whether they were on the "right" path or not. In the stillness of their hearts they made room for the path and the path seemed to come to them.
Of course the carpenter still felt the need to build a home from time to time. The unbuilder made sure he understood what he was doing and then let him do it if he really wanted to. While the carpenter labored, the unbuilder, his guide and friend, would continue the silent waiting in the yard under a tree, and soon they would unbuild yet another house and begin the journey again.
In the meantime the king kept the food warm, which he was very good at doing.
The Christian spiritual life is a journey – going mobile. The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus, the walk with God is on-going, continuous and it is a process of building, unbuilding and rebuilding.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Jesus says. A journey, a process.
“This is the covenant that I will make… after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” these word from Jeremiah. The journey is about a new heart, always a new heart.
In thinking about this journey of faith I think about the words of Gandalf the wizard: “My dear Bilbo… You are not the hobbit that you were.”
In thinking about this journey of faith I think about the wise doctor, Dr. Seuss. Congratulations! Today is your day. Your off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes…. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew. Just go right along. You’ll start happening too. OH! THE PLACES YOU’LL GO!
Moving back to Duluth six and a half years ago has been fascinating. I grew up here as many of you know. Oh, the places you’ll go – well, in some ways I’ve not gone very far. But things are different, and I don’t mean just in the usual ways. Yes, I am older than when I last lived here in 1982. And I have children – adult children. The junior high I attended (where Dick Wallin was the principal) is now the high school I attended (where Irv St. John and Joe Berini were on staff). The grocery store where I worked while in high school and college is now a fitness center. Things are different.
But the biggest differences are inside. That’s where the journey has really gone places. I am not the same hobbit I was. With God’s Spirit working on me and in me and with me I am sometimes happening too. Oh, the places I’ve gone. I think I’ve learned some things along the way.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey about passions, about the heart. The new heart that God creates in us is a heart that is soft, supple and can be broken. As a teenager, I knew what it was to have a broken heart, but the kind of heartbreak God continues to create is a heart that breaks for others, that is passionate about the well-being of others – the lonely, the left out, the hungry, the suffering, the poor, the grieving. My heart particularly breaks for those who have been hurt by religion, church words that have wounded. I want to help them find a way back to God, to Jesus, to community. The journey of faith is about a new heart, always a new heart, a heart that can break, but a heart that breaks open, a heart passionate about God and the good.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is a journey about compassion – about being with, about feeling with, about seeing with. When I first became a pastor, I was often uncomfortable in really difficult situations. What would I say, what could I say to be of help? I’ve learned that what matters most is hanging in there with people, even when it is hard – trying to feel with them, see what they see, even when we may disagree. The compassionate heart is often also the courageous heart.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is about being open to questions. I was saddened the other day when I read a blog post that a friend and colleague linked on Facebook. In the blog a young woman shared 15 reasons why she left the church. Here are a couple of her reasons. I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities. I left the church because I believe the earth is 4.5 billion years old and that humans share a common ancestor with apes, which I was told was incompatible with my faith. I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt. (Rachel Held Evans) Questions are an important part of the journey.
The journey of faith, the journey with Jesus is about taking the next step. We are on a way. The earliest followers of Jesus were called “the Way.” Congratulations! Today is your day. Your off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes - - - brains and feet and hearts and minds and souls that need to take the next step. Sometimes the next step is to build a resting place for a time. Sometimes the next step is to unbuild and move on – unbuild our usual ways of thinking or doing Christian faith. We are going mobile.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. This is the way of faith, the journey with Jesus – dying and rising – build, unbuild, rebuild - - - going mobile.
This is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. This is the way of faith, the journey with Jesus – a new heart, always a new heart - - - going mobile.
But oh the places you’ll go, many of them inside, deep inside. When we have gone places inside the familiar places outside are never the same. I think of the words of T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets, 58, 59).
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
“My dear Bilbo… You are not the hobbit that you were.” On the journey with Jesus, none of us ever is. Amen.