I am thinking
I could not have chosen a worse sermon title for today – “keep on growing” –
really!? I don’t know about you but a
lot of the growth that happens to me this time of you is not necessarily
positive. How many clothing returns do
you suppose are of items that would have fit the person when they were
purchased, but now after Thanksgiving and holiday parties, well, they just don’t
However, growth in girth is not what
I am talking about this morning. In Luke
we read of Jesus, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and
the favor of God was upon him.” In his Notes on the New Testament, writing about Luke 2, both verse 40 and 52, John Wesley
wrote, “It plainly follows, that though a man were pure, even as Christ was
pure, still he would have room to increase in holiness, and, in consequence
thereof, to increase in the favor as well as in the love of God.”
The Christian life is one where we
are encouraged to keep on growing. There
is always room to grow in grace. There is always room to grow in wisdom. There is always room to grow in faith. There is always room to grow in hope. There is always room to grow in love. There is always room to grow as a person of
God and as a human being. I like to use
the phrase, grow as “a person of God” better than “child of God,” because
though I like that phrase in some ways, in other ways it might perpetuate the
idea that we are always children when it comes to faith, and that is not the
case. Recall that in John’s gospel,
Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer… but I have
called you friends” (15:15). Paul speaks
of Jesus as “the firstborn within a large family” (Romans 8:29). Jesus is like an elder brother with whom we
grow up. The writer of Ephesians writes,
“we must grow up in every way… into Christ” (4:15).
The Christian life is one where we
are encouraged to keep on growing. We
can all say “yes” and “amen” to this easily enough. At the same time it is good to be reminded
what it really means to grow, what it really means to learn, what it really
means to mature. Growth is sometimes
easier to say yes to than to actually accomplish, and that’s because learning
and growing is not always easy. I want
to say three things about this.
One, learning and growing involves
change, and change is not always easy or comfortable. Edgar Schein is a well-respected management
consultant, and professor emeritus of the Sloan School of Management at
MIT. He is considered an expert on
corporate culture, and in one of his books on that topic, Schein writes about
change. “People resist change because
unlearning is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing” (The Corporate Culture
Survival Guide, 115). I am guessing that we may not need an MIT
management consultant to tell us that we tend to resist change. Schein digs a little deeper. He says that for change to take place, we
need to keep two principles in mind.
Survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety, and
learning anxiety must be reduced through increasing a sense of psychological
safety rather than increasing survival anxiety or guilt. (124)
Schein is arguing that change is
uncomfortable. We’ve experienced
that. To motivate change, we have to
introduce another measure of discomfort, some dissatisfaction about the way
things are. That dissatisfaction must be
higher than the discomfort of learning.
We could keep raising that dissatisfaction level, but that also produces
defensiveness, and so becomes counter-productive. It is better to provide some sense of safe
space for change. And if all this is not
complicated enough, Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, in their book Immunity to Change, write that even when we want change there are also
things in us which resist that change.
“We are a living contradiction” (38)
Learning and growth require some
change, and change is messy and complicated.
Nevertheless, we are invited to keep on growing.
Learning and growth also mean taking
some risks. In the passage for today,
Simeon takes some risks. Yes, it says
that Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit, but God’s Spirit is often a whisper
in our lives, and to try and follow the Spirit may mean that we miss the
whisper sometimes. Had Simeon shown up
on other days at the Temple, looking for the Messiah? We don’t know, but learning and growth often
require taking some risks, following whispers of the Spirit knowing that we may
not hear clearly sometimes.
Learning and growth involve some
risk taking. We take risks when we ask
tough questions of our faith, not settling for the answers we were given in
Sunday School. One of the things I
appreciate about the Adam Hamilton book many of us have read, Making Sense of the Bible, and by the way, there are a couple of copies still
available, is that Adam invites our deeper questions about the Bible. I admire the kind of risks Adam took in his
own journey of faith, and the kind of risks it took for him to write this
book. Not everyone will agree with him
that there are places in the Bible that never really reflected God’s purposes,
passages, for instance, that regulate slavery rather than speak against it.
Learning and growing involve taking
some risks, asking some questions, trying spiritual practices that may not
always work well and then have to be changed.
How many of you remember our experiment with monthly Sunday evening
meditative worship? When the fourth
session came around and I was there alone, it seemed that maybe we were not
meeting a need with this, and discontinued it.
A third thing about learning and
growing that makes it challenging is that it often happens through difficult
moments, and we learn from such moments when we can lean into them. In today’s Scripture reading, Anna is a woman
who was married for only seven years, and has now been a widow a long
time. At age 84 she fasts and prays
often. You get the sense, here, of a
woman who knew difficulty and loss and learned from it, grew through it. Mary is told that her soul will be pierced
along the way. What a difficult message.
Parker Palmer, in his book, Let Your Life Speak, writes about the seasons of life. In the
Upper Midwest, newcomers often receive a classic piece of wintertime advice:
“The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.” Here,
people spend good money on warm clothing so they can get outdoors and avoid the
“cabin fever” that comes from huddling fearfully by the fire during the long
frozen months. If
you live here long, you learn that a daily walk into
the winter world will fortify the spirit by taking you boldly to the very heart
of the season you fear.
winters take many forms – failure, betrayal, depression,
death. But every one of them, in my experience,
yields to the same advice: “The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to
get out into them.” Until we enter
boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our
lives. But when we walk directly into them – protected from frostbite by the
warm garb of friendship or
inner discipline or spiritual guidance –we can learn
what they have to
teach us. (102-103)
In her book Necessary Losses, Judith Viost echoes something similar. The
road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout out our life we grow by giving
up. We give up some of our deepest
attachments to others. We give up
certain cherished parts of ourselves….
Passionate involvement leaves us vulnerable to loss…. Losing tends to be difficult and
painful. Let us also consider the view
that it is only through our losses that we become fully developed human beings.
Learning and growth often involve
loss, or getting out into our loss. We
all experience difficulty and loss. I
don’t think God does things to us for our growth, causes us pain and loss. That’s just there. It’s part of life, like the season of winter. God, however, walks with us as we get out
into it, so we can become fully developed human beings, more mature in Christ.
We want to learn and grow, but it
isn’t easy, and we are tempted to stay put, to stay static. How do we manage the courage to learn and
grow? We know we are not alone. God is with us through it all. That Jesus presented at the Temple is a
reminder that God is always present to us.
And we are there for each other.
And we know we are loved by God in Jesus.
Because we are known and loved and
not alone, we can grow and become strong, filled with wisdom; with God’s favor
on us. May it be so, otherwise our faith
can feel a lot like a dead shark. Keep
on growing. Amen.