Jesus tells us that he is the Way. The Great Way we call Jesus invites us to practice great faith, great doubt, great effort, and great patience. Whether longtimers and newcomers we are all just beginners on the path. With a child’s heart we once again enter the Way with wonder, curiosity, and unlimited possibility.
We confess, Holy God, our impatience. We confess our boredom, our preference for stimulation–those little dopamine hits that excite the brain’s pleasure centers. The waiting is the hardest part. We wander the garden wondering where and when and if the spring shoots will sprout. Forgive our distraction. Give us faith in a seed. Give us rising hope. Amen.
The theme for this Advent season at First Congregational Church of Granby is “I believe.” In the Bible the same Greek word is used for both “believe” and “faith.” Many people equate “believing” with assenting to certain propositions. Take the Apostle’s Creed, for example: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord . . .” and so on. That’s one way to understand believing. I understand belief in terms of “faith.” Belief as “faith” tends to be in short supply these days.
Rev. William Sloane Coffin famously wrote, “Faith is not belief without proof but trust without reservation.” In a world where some powerful people see it in their self interest to actively destroy our faith in institutions, our faith in our neighbors, our faith in our ability to work through our differences with love and compassion, saying “I believe” can actually be a radical act.
So this Advent we’re saying “I believe”: I believe in hope. I believe in peace. I believe in love. I believe in joy. I believe in Christ. Belief is the risky act of entrusting ourselves to each other and to God’s boundless love.
The news this week of coronavirus’ spread among our top political leaders reminds us that the pandemic is still very much with us. It is unsettling to think of how the virus is compromising the health of the leaders we count on to guide and protect us. While I pray for President Trump and First Lady Melania’s health along with the many White House staff and congressional leaders this outbreak has affected, I am reminded that each of us hold the other’s health in our hands. Compassion demands care. This is not letting the virus “dominate us”–to use the President’s words. This is simply being sensible. Our faith is not about denying reality. We practice our faith by facing reality and then taking wise action to protect the precious lives God has given into our care. I don’t understand why our President and those around him don’t see what is so obvious to me, but this is the difficult, complicated situation we face.
Regarding the difficult, complicated situation we face: I am so proud of our staff both paid and volunteer. I’m proud of our leadership: Church Council, Trustees, Deacons, Tech Team, our program committees (Vitality, Serve, Explore, Connections, Care Team). I am encouraged by the patience and grace I see in all of you. My “star word” this year is “hopefulness.” When I drew that word from the basket during worship that first Sunday in January, I had no idea that global pandemic was in store for 2020. Nevertheless, I find that 10 months into the year I remain hopeful.
My hope is not that everything will be wonderful and pleasant in the coming months. It seems pretty likely that disappointments, difficulties, and dangers will continue to present themselves. The abundant life that Jesus promises to his followers includes disappointments, difficulties, and dangers along with miracles, bliss, and joy. Abundant life embraces everything.
Psalm 23 says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” This is why I’m hopeful: no matter what the coming months and years will bring, God’s goodness and mercy will never abandon me. Neither will they abandon you.
Several years ago I traveled to Michigan to visit my extended family. Two of my uncles and several cousins are dairy farmers, so I spent time touring the farms that I grew up working and playing on and learning the latest news. At one point the conversation shifted to organic farming. My uncle shook his head. “Yeah, one of our neighbors is farming organically. It doesn’t look like a farm. It’s full of weeds.” Then he went on to explain the point of genetically modifying certain crops is to reduce the need for pesticides. It was a wonderful education in the tough choices modern farmers have to make in order to survive in an era dominated by global agribusiness.
Scripture for this Sunday’s joint worship service is a parable of ancient agricultural practice. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 is known as “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.” “Tares” is an old-fashioned word for “weeds.” Rev. Moon is preaching a series on agricultural themes in the Bible, which feels appropriate to the rural character of our community.
The Greek word for “tares” or “weeds” in this text actually refers to a very specific kind of plant: darnel, also known as “false wheat.” A brief Internet search informs me that darnel has been known since ancient times. It looks very similar to the more familiar kind of wheat we use to this day to make our bread, cakes, and all kinds of daily staples. Wheat and darnel are almost indistinguishable as young plants, but the fruit of darnel is black instead of the golden color we’re used to. Darnel has its uses, but the grain can sometimes get infected with a fungus that causes illness in humans. All of this added up to a common problem for ancient farmers–sorting the tiny darnel grains from wheat grains at harvest. I can easily imagine that this would be a maddeningly tedious and prohibitively time consuming task.
So it’s unsurprising that farmers might ask, “Can we eliminate the darnel plants before they mature? That way we don’t have to sort the grain at harvest.” The answer of the parable is “No. Attempting to eliminate the undesirable darnel endangers the desirable wheat. Leave the sorting for the harvest. At that time, the fruit will make plain what is darnel and what is wheat.”
Our spiritual practice is not like modern monoculture. The goal isn’t to eliminate undesirable feelings, experiences, behaviors, or people. The goal is to observe and transform them. Scripture says, “Sorrow lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In other words, the goal isn’t to eliminate sorrow, it’s to fully experience it and watch God transform it through faith into joy.” The goal isn’t to change that annoying person but to observe the annoyance arise in our hearts and ask, “What does this person trigger in me that I’d rather not see in myself?” Watch annoyance transform into wisdom. And so on. Observe and let go. Observe and let go. This process can indeed be tedious, time-consuming, and inefficient, but ultimately, the fruit of this organic practice is nothing other than the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. What’s coming up in your garden?
On the church calendar this is the first week of the Easter Season: 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. Jesus had ascended to heaven following his resurrection, but had promised his followers the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to carry on his mission even though the physcial form of the historical Jesus would no longer be present in the world. The 50 days of the Easter Season was an intense time during which Jesus prepared his followers to be his hands and heart for the world.
This preparation begins with appearances of the resurrected Christ. This week’s Scripture, John 20:18-31, recounts two appearances of Jesus to the disciples who had gathered the week before to celebrate Passover with Jesus in the “upper room” they had rented for the occasion. The text–like all of the stories of Jesus’ appearances–raises two big questions: “Who is this resurrected Jesus?” And “How should we respond to him?”
The John 20 account is famous for the story of a disciple named Thomas. As I mentioned above, Jesus appears twice in John 20. The first time Thomas is absent. His fellow disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appears to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas is among them. Jesus invites Thomas to examine and touch his wounds–just as Thomas had demanded–and Thomas believes. The scene ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If you were in Thomas’ shoes, how would you respond to reports that Jesus was alive? I grew up in a very conservative Christian community that understood faith to be a kind of “belief without proof,” a kind of “take my word for it.” The Bible says God raised Jesus from the dead, so we should accept it as fact even if it seems like a fairytale. To doubt or question was understood to be antithetical to faith. While I definitely had my questions and even as a young child asked them, more than that, I wanted to be a good Christian, so I accepted what my parents and Sunday school teachers and pastors said even if not everything made sense.
As a young adult I studied at a divinity school where we learned to question and critique Biblical texts and church doctrines. As an middle-aged adult I have pastored more liberal churches in which folks tend to wear doubt as a badge of pride–a sign of intellectual rigor and freedom of conscience. And as I have gone deeper in my studies I have noticed yet another turn: a practice of doubting one’s doubts. A comedian once put it this way: “You say there is no God. Are you sure? Have you looked everywhere?”
I invite us to consider stepping beyond faith and doubt as intellectual exercise. The significance of Christ’s resurrection for me is the reality it points to: following Christ’s way moment to moment makes new and abundant life possible for me, for you, for all of creation. Try it yourself and see!
Holy God, trust is difficult. Day after day we suffer insults to our ego. Reality refuses to bend to our will. We suffer setbacks, endure disappointments, fear failure, weather the storms of shame and self-doubt. The voices of our culture that tell us our value is in producing and consuming, competing and vanquishing, branding and marketing ourselves are so insistent. Sometimes those voices are our voices. Teach us to trust in our ultimate value, which nothing, not even death, can diminish. Teach us to drop our small, fragile ego and embrace the great adventure of living for you. Amen.
*Prayer of Dedication
Holy God, only your irresistible grace will enable us to completely trust in you. Nevertheless, even with incomplete faith we offer you a portion of our finances, trusting that you will complete the good work you’ve begun in us. Amen.
My family and I had a wonderful holiday together in Windsor. We took some time off to focus on reconnecting. Fiona and her boyfriend (who is from Tokyo and stayed with us this winter break) cooked for us. My sister and her family of 6 (!) stayed with us for a week. They filled our sleeper sofas and bunk beds. Olivia directed the Christmas pageant here at FCC Granby and worked lifeguarding shifts at the Jewish Community Center. Even in this age of virtual reality and social media, there is no substitute for simply sharing space. While physical proximity does not guarantee intimacy, it is a key factor for cultivating closeness. (Which, just to drive the point home, is why there is no substitute for dragging your _____ to worship on Sunday morning.)
This week I’ve been settling back into a work rhythm. The answer to “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?” is “a lot.” I’m sitting in my office with the “to do” list Office Manager Sue prepares for me every week, to which I typically add a dozen or so more items. My view is that if my “to do” list doesn’t exceed my ability to complete it, I’m not living big enough. How do I avoid a constant state of overwhelm? Prioritizing and letting go. Even so, sometimes it’s difficult to prioritize. So many things demand attention. In these moments I use a tool I’ve learned in many years of meditation practice: focus on what’s in front of you. Sounds simple enough. But then the question becomes How do I get the things in front of me that are most consistent with my goals and values? This brings me back to the practices of inviting Sue to partner with me in creating a “to do” list and literally putting it on my desk where I will see it. This brings me back to the “big rocks” of Scripture study, sermon preparation, writing liturgy, namely, the spiritual practices that ground me in what is of ultimate importance.
One of my favorite Buddhist Scriptures is called “The Five Remembrances.” It’s part of an ancient text attributed to the Buddha entitled “Subjects for Contemplation.” The fifth remembrance is this: “My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of all my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.” The only place to act is here. The only time to act is now. What are you doing right here, right now? What practices help you align your deeds with your values? Who are your “closest companions?” Are they hindering you on your spiritual journey or propelling you forward? What is your “ground?” Is it a solid place on which to stand?