Monday, February 22, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Jesus did not come to make us comfortable

Exodus 20:1-17
1st Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-25

I’d like you to take a moment to think about why you come to church. And what you hope to get from your time here at church. 
In part, we come to church for fellowship, comfort in hard times, strength, hope. These are all important and good things. God wants us to have that support which empower us and strengthen us to do the work of the church in the world. We support one another in our faith, we support one another in the work we do for the church and the world, we seek comfort from God and from one another, we find hope that leads us out of difficult times and out of despair, we obtain the healing power of prayer and of God’s word for us as we come together.
But there is also another side to our coming here. God calls us into relationship and that has to be dynamic. We walk a journey, and we hope to move forward in that journey, growing with God, growing in our faith, growing in our spiritual lives. We are part of a Christian community to help us to move in our spiritual development. So we come to church, also, to be challenged and to grow.
James Fowler wrote extensively about spiritual growth and development. He outlined a typical path of spiritual growth through six stages as he observed them. I’m not going to outline those here, though maybe at some point I will. But I do want to share with you what he and others have said about how that movement through the stages of spiritual development takes place. And what Fowler and many others have said is that both conversion and spiritual development tend to happen in the same way: they both tend to happen most often and most fully after some kind of crisis. People are most in a position to change their understandings, their outlooks, their behaviors and their faith through and after they have gone through something that has challenged their world view, understandings, or beliefs up to that point.
That’s not to say that crises are safe or always a good thing for our faith growth. You can probably think of situations in which faith bodies have taken advantage of the fact that people in crisis are more open to belief changes. Cults, for example, typically target vulnerable people. They find people who are hurting, who have just experienced a loss or a change of some kind, and they promise something better, something which will move them out of their pain. I have seen this happen first hand. My high school good friend’s mother died a month after we began college. He had just moved away from home, across the country, living away for the first time ever. He was stressed with the new work load of attending a school far from home, and then his mother passed away. The Moonies in his college community found him within a month after her death, offering him a new family that would hold him, would love him, would fill the emptiness he felt, would offer a sanctuary from the confusion and stress, would help him walk through his new life journey. He was very attracted to the promises they made him and he attended several of their events before those of us back home became concerned enough to step in. Fortunately, there was a Presbyterian Church in the community with a pastor who, once contacted, was able to reach out to him and show him that while their promises sounded good, the cost of giving up all his outside relationships, all his finances, and even his personal identity were too high. But we also know of many who are not so lucky and who do join cults in their times of crisis.
So, too, many of us can think of examples of people who have given up faith entirely in reaction to a serious crisis. Something bad happens and people can become angry at God. Often that bad thing is something that happens in church. For some, they choose, in their anger, to deny God altogether. I’ve always found it interesting that many of the atheists I know, while claiming that they don’t believe in God, in fact are actually just really angry at a God they continue to believe in, despite what they say. They are punishing God for their pain or loss by denying that God exists. Other atheists are in between stages of spiritual growth, unable to move from one stage to another smoothly and so they reject a previous stage of faith belief but cannot embrace the faith of a later stage. For example, a person who has been at the stage of belief in which Holy texts are literal writings may find themselves confronted by scriptures that are divergent from each other, such as Jesus blatantly contradicting the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye.” If that person cannot find a way to understand this discrepancy, if they cannot find a community that can support them in a new understanding of those texts, if they cannot find a model for a faith that does not require a literal approach to scripture, all too often they end up leaving their faith journey all together.
So we know that crisis can be hurtful to one’s faith journey as well. But it is also, as I said at first, the fertile ground that can help us move in our faith journeys into a deeper, more genuine and more honest relationship with God. Crisis doesn’t have to be big in order to do this.  It can be as small as simply something that causes a change in one’s thinking, a comment made in a class or during a church service, seeing something that doesn’t fit into one’s world view, reading something that challenges one’s belief. Small things as well as large things, anything that challenges our thinking, that moves us even a little out of our comfort zone can move us forward in our faith, if we are open to God’s movement within these challenges and changes. Other times the crisis might be larger.

When I was a senior in college, a group of people from the house church in which I lived went to visit Nicaragua and Guatemala to try to understand the poverty, wars and political turmoil those countries were enduring. We were a group of twenty committed Christians, college students who, frankly, believed we had it all figured out and were just going to get more education. All of us were people of faith, though we were in very different places in our faith journeys. But as we listened to the stories of the people in these countries who were suffering, who were struggling, all of us were confronted, deeply, in our faith. Many of us began the journey with faith beliefs such as “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and “everything happens for a reason” only to be confronted by people of faith who had experienced much more than they could handle, and who had truly experienced atrocities that went beyond any possible “reason”. These were people who had their entire families disappeared and killed, people who had been tortured and left to die by the side of the road; deep, faithful Christians who had lost their minds because of witnessing the atrocities of war. None of us were left unaffected by the courage of the women and children who would risk their lives to share their stories with us. None of us were unaffected by the sound of machine guns mowing down local villagers, waking us from sleep one night. None of us were unaffected by the begging of the villagers for us to talk to our government about what was going on and to tell them to stop supporting a war on the peasants that was taking place in these countries at that time. But the ways in which we were affected were very different. How do you handle the challenge to your faith, when the foundation of it has been trusting that if you have faith, you will never experience more than you can handle, only to see that this isn’t always the case? If your faith is only a guarantee against bad things, how do you handle it when bad things happen despite your faith?
One of our twenty decided that these people weren’t really Christian. If they had been Christian, God would not have allowed this to happen to them, God would not have “given them more than they could handle”, and the “reason” for their suffering must be their lack of true faith.  That may have felt like a safe way for her to hang on to her faith, but it couldn’t last very long, as it was sure to be confronted again in some way. Another of our group decided, for a while, that there must not be a God at all - after all, how could a good and loving God allow such atrocities to take place. Personally, I found myself trusting the voices of the people themselves when they were asked about their faith. They said they did not believe God was responsible for these atrocities. People were. And that their experience of God was one of Jesus standing by them, crying with them, being on the cross with them; screaming out against the money changers and the Pharisees and all the injustices in their land as well; calling for other people of faith to step forward and change what was happening, promising that even if their lives were lost, there was new life on the other side that they had to believe in, in order to make a change, in order to bring the realm of God, the reign of God to their countries. And my faith grew because of listening and being moved by their faith. But the person who was most profoundly challenged by the things we witnessed in Central America took time moving through his faith crisis. He went home and crawled into bed and did not emerge for a week. Because we were all living together in a house church at the time, we rallied around this young man. We came and sat with him. We tried to offer advice and our insights, but the campus ministers wisely told us that our presence, our experiences and our love were more important than any answers at that point. So we shared our stories, and we shared our love, we shared our confusion and doubt as well. Together we walked the journey. Together we each emerged with a deeper faith. Even our friend who rejected God altogether is now serving as a Christian missionary now to those same countries, trying to change the situation. The only one whose faith did not survive was the one who refused to be challenged by the situation but who simply rejected those who suffered as un-Christian. She could not allow for the questions and doubts to rise in her mind. She could not, therefore, work through them and walk forward in her journey. And as a result, her faith finally did not survive.
What is the job of the church in light of this? 
I think we have to look at scripture and see what Jesus models for us to do. If the church is the body of Christ, then being that body must look like following Jesus. So what did Jesus do?      First, he brought healing to people. As a church we do this in several ways. We pray for people, in some traditions, that prayer can involve a laying on of hands or a healing service. For others, it is just taking people to the doctor and visiting people in the hospital. In times of crisis, the job of the church is to stand with people and to help them move through their questions, through their experiences, through their doubts, in a way that does not proscribe for another what their individual journey must look like, but that walks gently with each person and encourages above all, continued communication with God. We can’t proscribe a certain path because each journey is unique and God’s relationship with you as individuals cannot be determined by me or anyone else. It is your relationship with God. The best we can do is walk with you and help you hear God’s voice when it becomes difficult to hear. This is what my house church did for those of us who went to Central America. We walked with one another, and that was more powerful than anything.

Secondly, Jesus stood up to injustice. He stood up for people who were being put down by others. This, too, is part of our job as a church. We need to be the voice that stops those who would throw stones at the woman caught in adultery. We need to be the voice that stops those who would condemn Mary who let down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. We need to stop the voices of judgement and condemnation, stop the violence against the poor and oppressed, and stand with the marginalized, the outcast, the poor and the voiceless.
Third, Jesus taught about God’s love and care. He told stories, he told parables. We, too are called to tell our stories, to tell the stories we know in a way that challenges limited thinking, that challenges hateful thinking. We need to speak about God’s love in a way that moves people to be more loving.
Fourth, he challenged peoples’ understanding of worship. He changed the symbols of the pass-over meal into our communion meal. He said that wherever two or more are gathered God is there - and wherever that is becomes a site for worship, an opportunity for worship, a call to worship. He challenged people’s faith. And in doing so, he invited growth, he invited change.  We, too are called to experience new things in our worship lives, to not become complacent as a church, but remain open to the movements of the Holy Spirit, even in our worship lives.
Finally, he did things like we read in today’s scripture: he overturned the money changers in the temple, he got angry and confrontive, he stirred things up and challenged the norm, the standard way people did things which they hadn’t examined in a long time and which needed to be looked at, re-examined, spoken about in a truthful and honest way and changed. As a church, we, too, are called to look at things, even in the temple, even in the church, to look at our own actions and patterns, to risk seeing things clearly and to speak about them as they are.
            Clayton Valley is a unique place. It is a church that I believe understands the value of being challenged, the necessity of change as a part of our lives both as individuals and as a community. I have already experienced in you a great deal of openness to experience new things, and a great deal of willingness to allow your crises to be opportunities for growth, opportunities to move closer to God and to experience God in new ways. I want to encourage you as part of the process of spiritual growth to share with one another, your brothers and sisters in the church, those experiences. Share with us when things are good, share with us when things are difficult, share with us when things are challenging, joyful and when things are unpleasant. Your sharing is a gift to all of us. We learn and we grow in our faith journeys, not only from our own crisis and experiences, but from yours as well. I invite you to give us the gifts of your stories and
experiences. And I invite you to remember that sometimes the discomfort you may feel at any moment is an invitation to growth. Other times, that discomfort may be an invitation for the rest of us to grow, for the church to grow, or change. We need to be given that opportunity, too.

Growing us in our faith - that is the job of the church. We can’t do this always by being comfortable, though offering comfort is an important part of the job. Jesus offered it all: comfort and challenge, a safe haven and encouragement to go out and do the work of the church, support and empowerment to change the world, love; and a voice that challenges us to grow and be better.  As the church, we strive to follow Jesus and do nothing less than all of the above.  Amen.