Friday, April 21, 2017

A Person of Taste

Anabaptist-Mennonite Biblical Seminary
Elkhart, Indiana
March 24, 2017

Scripture Readings:
·        Psalm 34:1-10
·        Psalm 42:1-6a
·        Ezekiel 3:1-3

Thank you for your kind invitation to be here today, and thank you for being here.
A person of taste.  For some of us of a certain generation, that phrase evokes the beginning of a song: “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”  It is not a song that probably makes most seminary top ten lists, The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The very idea of “taste” seems a rather odd topic for a seminary sermon, or a sermon anywhere.  It seems more suited for the style section of the Sunday New York Times, or if we take the definition another way, the culinary section.  In either case, taste is something that seems at best, pleasant, essentially ephemeral, probably a distraction to the serious business of following Jesus and leading the church.
Yet one might think about taste differently, and in doing so dig deeply into being a follower of Jesus, into being a person shaped by God’s Spirit, and into being in ministry and leading the church in our time.  That’s my plan.
John Wesley, to whom we United Methodists trace our stream of the Christian tradition composed an essay published in 1780, “Thoughts Upon Taste.”  The brief piece is a response to another’s essay about the same subject.  Wesley makes appreciative remarks, but also some critical comments, before engaging in some of this own creative work on “taste.”  Wesley writes about taste as an internal sense that relishes something, that perceives something with pleasure.  Good taste involves relishing excellence, and that could include relishing the beauty to be found in virtue.  Good taste was something “much to be desired.”  “It greatly increases the pleasures of life, which are not only innocent, but useful.”  Good taste could help a person render “greater service to our fellow creatures.”  Especially for those who often engaged in conversation, good taste would help a person be more “agreeable” and “profitable” in conversation.
This essay fits well with interesting descriptions of Wesley found in a work from the 1890s.  A parishioner of mine from Duluth, MN lent me a rare book on Wesley, John Wesley: a study for the times, Thomas J. Dodd, DD (1891).  The author, wanted to show “the illustrious founder of Methodism as the great, broad, liberal man he was” (5).  His journal abounds with allusions to the Greek and Latin classics, and in quotations, which show not only that he was conversant with the great poets, orators, historians, and philosophers of antiquity but that he possessed the taste to appreciate their excellences” (35-36).  In history, philosophy, poetry, romance, physical science, philology, equally with theology, he was at home with the great thinkers of all ages (37).
In Wesley’s own thoughts, and in some writings about him, the idea of “taste” begins to take us deeper into our hearts and souls, deeper into what it might mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-formed person.  “Taste” can be used as beginning idea for moving into a conversation about our deepest desires, our most profound hungers, that which we relish.  I think one could speak helpfully about the work of God’s Spirit in our lives as the work of shaping our tastes – our hungers, our desires, our pleasures.
Our Scriptures use “taste” in such a way.  Psalm 34 invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”  Here taste is a verb, but the verse is not about taking a bite out of God.  It is about experience, about sensing God, but also about developing a taste for God, because “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”  Psalm 42 uses a different but related image, “my soul thirsts for God.”  “As a deer longs from flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”  Again, the image of desire, of relishing, of hungering and thirsting is used to describe our experience with God.  In that there is an invitation to develop this kind of taste for God.  In the third chapter of Ezekial, the very word of God is like a scroll to be eaten, a scroll that to the prophet taste “sweet as honey.”
Taste, both in its verb and noun forms, can be used to help us dig deeper into what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a Spirit-formed person.  The work on the Spirit in our lives can be conceived as the work of developing our tastes and shaping our desires.  Here is an overlap between spirituality and ethics.  Ethics is concerned with helping us reflect on doing the right thing, but at the heart of the moral life is the vision of the person who delights in doing good.  Augustine is famously quoted as saying, “love God and do what you will.”  Developing the right kind of taste, and taste for the right kinds of things carries into multiple dimensions of life.  In his essay, “Thoughts Upon Taste,” Wesley wrote that “generous minds” have a taste for human happiness, and a taste for the beauty in virtue.
If we can use the notion of taste as a way to talk meaningfully about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to be a Spirit-shaped person, I think we can also use the idea of taste to help us think about some qualities important for leadership in the community of Jesus’ followers, the church.  There are some tastes that will serve us well if we are to lead the church.
Cultivate a taste for learning and growing.  Here is a favorite Wesley anecdote.  In 1765, Wesley was engaged in some conversation with some of his preachers who apparently were taking Wesley’s own words about being a person of a single book too literally.  “But I read only the Bible.”  Then you ought to teach others to read only the Bible, and, by parity or reason, to hear only the Bible.  But if so, you need preach no more.  Just so said George Bell.  And what is the fruit?  Why now he neither reads the Bible nor anything else.  This is rank enthusiasm.  If you need no book but the Bible, you are got above St. Paul.  He wanted others too….  “But different men have different tastes.”  Therefore some may read less than others; but none should read less than this. [Wesley’s “less than” was about five hours]  “But I have not taste for reading.”  Contract a taste for it by use, or return to your trade. (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist, 227-228).  Thomas Dodd notes in his book on Wesley that Wesley enjoyed a novel now and again when some of his fellow Christians considered the entire enterprise suspect.  In his “Thoughts Upon Taste” Wesley argued that good taste could be developed by engaging with “the writings of the best authors.”
One of the best things seminary can do for us is help us develop this important taste for on-going learning and growing.  I will never forget an encounter I had in my very first church appointment. I was the only United Methodist in a small community in far northern Minnesota which had a number of Lutheran Churches.  There I was, fresh out of seminary, and I recall a pastor telling me, “I have not read a book of theology since I left seminary.”  How disheartening.  You don’t have to aspire to deep scholarly reading alone, but keep reading, keep learning, keep growing.  John Wesley thought it important enough to tell those among his preachers who did not want to read that they ought to develop a taste for it of find other work.
Cultivate a taste for emotions.  This is my way of encouraging emotional intelligence.  Ask nearly anyone who has served in some kind of supervisory position with clergy and they will tell you that the thing that seems to get in the way of a more successful ministry more often than not is the inability of a clergy leader to be sufficiently emotionally intelligent.  A helpful way to think about emotional intelligence is developing a taste for emotions, in oneself and in the situation in which one leads.  Emotional intelligence is all about knowing what’s going on inside oneself, managing that, knowing some of the emotional atmosphere in the group one leads, and managing that as best one can.  Developing a taste for emotions involves slowing down, being reflective, being less anxious.  When you chew your food too quickly, you don’t have the opportunity to savor it.
When I was a district superintendent in Minnesota, I remember bringing a pastor to meet with the Staff-Parish Committee of the church to which the bishop was appointing him.  It was not his first choice of a place of service, but I knew the people of the church to be solid people, willing to embrace new leadership.  At one point in the conversation, someone on the committee said something about friendship.  If you know some of the conversations about healthy boundaries for pastors, you know that there are debates about just how deeply one can develop friendships within a congregation.  Well, this pastor decided to assert his boundary.  “I’m not here to be your friend.”    It took some work to hold that appointment, and it lasted one year.
Cultivate a taste for transformation – for a newer world, for new life.  The work of the church is finally the work of connecting people with the God of Jesus Christ and with others so that God’s Spirit can work to change lives and through changed lives change the world.  If we don’t have a taste for that, a hunger for that, we can easily lose our way in leading the church.
Finally, cultivate a taste for God.  As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God.  Taste and see that the Lord is good.  All the other tastes I have spoken of flow from this deepest taste and hunger for God.  We long to learn because we long for the God of a beautifully complex world, this God who continues to lure us toward even more complex beauty.  We cultivate a taste for emotions, because among the beautiful complexities of this world are the intricacies and complexities of human persons and human relationships, and the salvific work of God is the work of healing and wholeness.  We hunger for justice, righteousness, peace because the God we long for also longs for these.  To long for God is to develop God’s longings for new lives and a newer world.

Long for God.  Develop a taste for God.  Be Spirit-formed persons of taste.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the peace and power of the Holy Spirit make it happen.  Amen. 

No comments: