16th Sunday after Pentecost Sermon
A parishioner recently told me, “Eric, the subtext of all your sermons is that the spiritual life is one of perpetual becoming.” I thought about it for a minute, and said, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
It’s true. I do hold this elemental observation and belief that, if God chose to make a dynamic world – a world constantly in change, in which we and all creatures are born and grow and eventually die – then this process of “becoming,” from one stage to the next, must matter to God. Which means, it must matter to us. And not only that, but each stage of this growth must also matter and be respected for what it is – not as an end to itself – but as the necessary next step on the journey God is taking us.
It’s like Cynthia used to say of the kids when they were growing up with their various ways of behaving, “It’s age appropriate, Eric.” And she was right. It’s appropriate for a five-year-old to act like a five-year-old when they’re five! How else will learn how to be six?
And it’s this wisdom, and this spirit, that’s reflected in the section of Paul’s letter to the Romans we heard in this morning’s reading:
Don’t get worked up (he tells them), over little differences of faith that exist among you in the church. Are some vegetarians by matter of theological principle? Okay. Great. Bless them! Do some think they should worship on Saturday on others on Sunday? Okay. Great. That’s fine. If these convictions are the best way they understand to express their faith and to demonstrate their fealty to God, bless them. Just bless them.
What matters is the spirit – is each person seeking to honor God as best they know how at this stage of their life.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of a significant moment that was coming up for me, I decided to revive a spiritual practice I’d experimented with some years before: that when I was awake in the middle of the night (which happens often), I’d choose to get up and go for a walk in the dark. And so I did. And on that first night, as I walked down my very dark driveway, I was aware how alive I felt. I was availing myself to God. “Here I am, with my desire for you and my desire for a future-me that is shaped by you.” Now to be clear, what God would do with this availability of mine was entirely God’s responsibility. I have no control on that front. And you know, honestly, nothing noteworthy happened on those walks, other than me creating space to articulate my desire before God.
And I realized, “Oh, that’s exactly what we’re doing at Lent.” Whenever we choose a Lenten discipline – giving up some food or reading some book – the worth of what we’re doing isn’t in the act itself, so much as it is the spirit in which it is done. It’s this tangible little discipline that says, “In doing this, in creating this space – this moment – I am availing myself of you and my desire to be formed in you.”
So, of course, these gestures of faith – these steps of presenting ourselves to God – will look different for everyone. They might not even be recognizable as acts of faith to someone else. In fact, they might actually be irritating – or even offensive – to someone else. But it is grace, alive in the church – and by extension in our families and our communities – that allows us the spaciousness to bless the other as they do their best to find meaning in their lives.
And for each of us, there’s a limit to how far ahead we can see as we make our movements towards meaning, towards faith, towards God. We’ll always be limited by the horizons of where we now stand.
When I was growing up, the literal horizon from our front yard was this ridgeline of hills opposite our house. It was all a regional park – covered in bushes and trees. But if you looked carefully, there was this big block of cement sitting right on the crest of the ridge: the Nike Base. (It was a remnant from the Cold War when it housed missiles to protect the San Francisco Bay Area from attack.) But for me, as a little kid, who used to fantasize about where I’d go if I ever needed to run away from home, this was my plan: I’d hightail it to the Nike Base! What would I do once I got there? I had no plan for that. I was five. But that was the furthest focal point I could see on the horizon, so that’s where I’d go.
When I got older (when I was ten, or so), my run-away plan was a little more sophisticated: I’d go to the bank, withdraw all my birthday and Christmas savings, and buy a plane ticket to Salt Lake City. (That’s where my birth mom lived.) At ten, my horizons were larger, so I had a bigger plan of where I could run away to.
What I was doing as a child, was making plans on how to handle life when it got too difficult. And like all children do, my childish solution was simply to run away. And that’s fine. It was an age appropriate response! Because, of course, life is hard and continues to be hard. But as we age, as we mature, we learn that running away rarely solves the problem. It just delays and increases the problem. And so we must learn. Everything we do, in one way or another, is simply sifting through this ever-changing flow of experiences to make sense of this world and our place and duty within it.
Our plans and our dreams, our political opinions and our allegiances, our beliefs and our theologies: they’re all Nike Bases of sorts – they’re all concrete destinations within the realm of our horizons that we can imagine ourselves getting to. But, as anyone who’s ever gone on a hike knows, horizons have a way of stretching further and further ahead of us. How else could it be for us, living on this sphere as we do?
And part of the growing, part of the maturing, is learning the grace to live “this becoming-life” with one another – to grow in our appreciation that each journey is at its own pace and taking turns quite distinct from our own. As children, we’d not yet learned that our experience was unique to us. We thought our way of seeing and interpreting the world was the only way. But if we are drawn to love, if we choose to prosper within communities of grace, we discover quite the opposite to be true. And so we offer space and dignity for those who are experiencing this life differently. We lessen our grip on the need to enforce our experience on others and we find richness in the perspectives they can share. After all, what do I know of what it means to be a woman? or black? or trans? or any other life that is in any way different than mine, unless I learn to believe in the validity of its distinctive worth?
In this journey, we can walk past our Nike Bases, with all their missiles poised to shoot down every incoming threat. We can learn to bless those among us who are different or irritating or offensive! For in the end, via one path or another, we each are making our way towards God, before whom every knee shall bow and every tongue give praise. God will prove to be the horizon of all our yearnings.
And one of the blessings of being a church, is that we can do this together. We are quite intentionally a community that exists to find our common union by seeking this God together and blessing each other in our various movements towards Godlikeness.
At the Lake Hazel Branch Library in Boise, Idaho, there’s a 56-person waiting list to check out a new book in their collection: The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis (spelled C-R-I-S-M-I-S, “Crismis”). It was written and illustrated by “Dillon His Self” (all 88 pages), a local boy who yearns to be an author and who slipped it in among the other books in the children’s section of his local library. When the librarians discovered it, they made it an official acquisition of their branch and “announced that it had won the first-ever Whoodini Award for the Best Young Novelist – an award created in his honor.”
I sincerely doubt it is the plot itself, or the quality of its illustrations, that has 56 people lining up to check out his book. It is a community that wants to bless a child in their midst who is finding his place in this world.
This is what the church can be: for children who are first encountering the goodness of the Good Shepherd in the atrium, for a widow who is learning to be alone in this new way for the first time in fifty years. Wherever people are, whatever steps they are taking in their lives, we can lay down our preferences and our agendas, to meet them where they were. We don’t need to correct them, to insist they see or do it our way. We can bless them.
The church is so much more than a community of tolerance, where we endure what we suspect or know to be foolish or wrong. We are a community of grace. Christ is the Good Shepherd who calls us each by name and seeks us when we are lost. Our role is simply to be the voice, the hands, the spirit that loves while God is doing this beckoning, redeeming work.
For the economy of God’s kingdom is as Jesus portrayed it to be in today’s gospel reading. It is entirely rooted in grace. God’s love for each of us has no end of mercy. So if we seek to be formed in the way of God, wherever and however we encounter our neighbor, our posture must also be one of grace. As God loves, we love. As God forgives, we forgive. As God is patient, we are patient.
For as our journeys prolong before us, more and more do we discover that the horizons of our longings are broad with God’s love.