Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Keep on Growing

 Sermon preached December 28, 2014

Texts: Luke 2:22-40

            Derek and the Dominoes, “Keep On Growing”
            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 fit now?
            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.
Our inward 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.  (16-17)
            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.

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