June 6, 2021
The last time I preached at Seekers was in September of 2019. Since then I have avoided it with a variety of excuses, the most recent of which is my frustration with our Zoom services, mainly that I can’t actually see any of you but rather must settle for a collection of pixels which have been electronically manipulated to approximate your appearance. And for some of you, it’s not even that but just your name or a photo. For me an important part of preaching is seeing you, being able to make eye contact and notice body language. Pixels, however accurate they may be, are no substitute for living, breathing bodies.
I have recently concluded, however, that this objection, despite its basic truth, is not of sufficient weight to justify not preaching. I believe that I am at least minimally competent as a preacher and sometimes a bit better than that. To not share that gift at least once or twice a year with my dear Seekers community is simply selfish, the constraints of Zoom notwithstanding. I came to this conclusion around the middle of April and proceeded to sign up for the next open preaching date which at the time was June 6, today. I did this without looking at the lectionary for today and without knowing the liturgical theme for this Season of Trinity because Celebration Circle had not yet found one. This might seem like a rash way of choosing a date to preach: what if I simply could not relate to the Biblical passages in the lectionary or did not respond to the liturgical theme? I did not consider these questions because I felt that if I was truly called to preach, then I could do so, details notwithstanding.
With the benefit of hindsight, I must tell you that I cannot recommend this approach to choosing at date to preach. The liturgical theme for our Trinity Season, “The Strength of Threeness”, is not one with which I want to deal. I can easily imagine a sermon about all the places in our world where three whatevers are a sign of strength, concluding with a paean to the Trinity. We have five Sundays remaining in our Trinity Season, so I will let one of you do that. Looking at the lectionary readings which we have just heard, we have, first, Samuel’s uncertainty about a king for Israel. Some commentators have built on that passage a discussion of the church/state relationship. I really don’t want to go there. Another possibility might be some thoughts about servant leadership, considering Samuel and Saul as possible models. There is currently a Seekers working group looking at that matter from several different perspectives. I am not a member of that group, so I believe that the subject at least for now is best left to them.
The Gospel is about Jesus being rejected early in his ministry. First it’s by his family. They fear for his safety and want to protect him. Then it’s by the scribes, religious authorities who accuse him of being insane. He brilliantly refutes the charge of insanity and effectively rejects his birth family by asserting that his true family is those who follow him. I find this passage troubling. Even if my family creates obstacles to my Christian servanthood, they are still my family. Surely I can find a way to love them while still being faithful. I don’t need to hurt them. And while authorities of various sorts can and do get in the way of faithful Christian living, this is certainly not always the case. Most of the time we can find ways to reject their destructive edicts while still maintaining appropriate respect for them and for their roles. I know there are those who would say that in taking these positions I disqualify myself as a follower of the Way by being insufficiently radical, by rejecting what others have called the “scandal” of Christian faith, by trying to balance my faith commitment with others instead of being “all in” as a Christian. To this accusation I plead guilty, and I guess that disqualifies me from serious preaching on this Gospel passage.
I’m going to read again a portion of today’s Epistle, from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, because I want to focus there.
Though this physical self of ours may be falling into decay, the inner self is renewed day by day. These light and momentary troubles train us to carry the weight of an eternal glory which will make these troubles insignificant by comparison. And we have no eyes for things that are visible, but only for things that are invisible; visible things last only for a time, but the invisible are eternal.
Writing in his Adventurous Lectionary blog (I love that name “Adventurous Lectionary”) about our passage from Second Corinthians, Bruce Epperly says that
Paul invites his Corinthian listeners to trust in God‘s everlasting promise. He wants them to trust that they are resurrection people, growing in grace despite life setbacks. In the midst of life’s personal and political challenges, our hope is in the unseen, in God‘s vision for our lives. The resurrection transforms everything: failure cannot defeat God, imprisonment cannot defeat God, and aging cannot defeat God. Deeper spiritual growth is possible despite the limitations of age and illness. This is a life-transforming promise especially in our aging congregations.
Listen again to that final comment from Epperly. “Aging cannot defeat God. Deeper spiritual growth is possible despite the limitations of age and illness. This is a life-transforming promise especially in our aging congregations.” This aging reference is not just Epperly. The Apostle himself, in our passage, suggests that “though this physical self of ours may be falling into decay, the inner self is renewed day by day.” Well. Although I might resist the word “decay” to describe what is happening to this “physical self” at age 76, there is no question that it is definitely not what it once was. But the point here is that “deeper spiritual growth is possible despite the limitations of…age.” So where am I with that one?
As most of you know, I lost my dear wife, Jane Engle, three and a half years ago by suicide. Her death, in addition to evoking pain and grief, has unexpectedly opened a new avenue for psycho-spiritual exploration. I have learned through months of talk therapy that Jane was playing a role in my life of which I was mostly unaware. And it was not just Jane. Other women, in earlier parts of my life, have also played this role. I’ll get back to this in a minute, but right now I want to acknowledge the patience that my mission group, Celebration Circle, has shown with my repeated sharing about what I call my “motivation problem,” although a better name for it is simply “procrastination.” I have, in the last couple of years, had trouble getting work done when it did not involve any external commitment. I seldom procrastinate about any type of work or activity about which I have made a commitment to a person or a group. I do not make such commitments to people or groups to which I do not have a strong sense of connection, and that connection, that involvement, is enough to keep me on track for getting it done, whatever “it” happens to be. Offering this sermon is an example. The problem arises when I am the only person who knows what needs to be done and why it is important. Lacking any connection to anyone other than myself, I procrastinate.
An example of this is changes in the way I use space in my home. Since I live alone now, these affect only me. (Well, they do affect my dear cat, Marie, but she has proved quite flexible in adjusting. She actually seems to enjoy exploring the new arrangements.) Since Jane’s death, I have made some changes, but there are more that I want to make. Some of these involve a fair amount of work, reorganizing and moving books and furniture, so I keep finding excuses not to do them. No one knows about these tasks but me, and “me” does not seem to care enough about them to actually get them done.
Now this is not a new problem. Ever since childhood I have relied more on people or organizations other than myself as a source of direction and motivation. First it was my parents, mainly my clerical father. Then it was some combination of the woman in my life and my employer. This worked OK through two marriages, even with twenty years between them. But since Jane’s death and in my retirement, it no longer works. I am struck by the stark reality of having to make and follow through on my own decisions. I don’t find making them to be particularly difficult; it’s the follow through, the doing, which is problematic.
So it seems that I may be ready for what Epperly calls “deeper spiritual growth…despite the limitations of age.” This is where the going gets difficult, both in living my life and in this sermon! It may seem that what I need to do is to simply take myself in hand and “just do it!” I’m sure that this approach seems reasonable to those of you with a history of years, or perhaps decades, of dealing with such issues in this determined, focused manner. As I have explained, this is not my situation. The decades of my life have been filled with relying on others to motivate me. So what I am faced with is not just one more decision point in a long series of them, but a new and somewhat frightening life situation. I must get my own act together without relying on employer or partner.
Earlier I called this a “psycho-spiritual exploration.” Despite offering a Pauline context, most of what I have said so far has been more on the psychological side, but it has led me to what I must now call a spiritual crisis. Resources outside myself that I have depended on for living my life to this point are no longer adequate, so Epperly’s quote raises some serious questions. Am I willing “to trust in God‘s everlasting promise”? Am I really one of the “resurrection people, growing in grace despite life setbacks”? Is my hope truly “in the unseen, in God’s vision for [my life]”? This might be a point in my sermon to rephrase these questions so that they are addressed to you rather than to me, and I encourage you to do that for yourself, but for me to do that would be yet another example of going down an easier path and so dodging the harder work set before me.
Last Sunday Pat Conover spoke about Seekers as “part of the Resurrected Body of Christ.” In Pat’s words,
We are parts of the Resurrected Body of Christ here and now. We are a current expression and shared embodiment of the ever changing relationships of communities of Christians who, from generation to generation, have oriented their lives to shared memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus. We are embodied memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus.
Pat bolded “embodied” for emphasis in the text version of his sermon on our website. “We are embodied memories of the inspiration and guidance of Jesus.” Elsewhere Paul encourages the Corinthians to “put away childish things.” So it seems clear that having “childish things” in my life is incompatible with embodying much of anything about Jesus. And this long-standing habit of relying on others for motivation and energy certainly qualifies as a childish thing. I learned it in my childhood, and I continued to practice it throughout my life, yet I now claim to be part of a community where we incarnate memories and guidance of Jesus, certainly not a childish thing.
It’s time now to offer some kind of conclusion to this sermon, and I find that difficult. I have shared with you from the cutting edge of a major issue in my life. You should know that I have taken a few small steps towards dealing with this, toward doing a little better job of the embodying. These are limited, and confidentiality prevents me from sharing them. I hope that you have found my story helpful and an invitation to reflect on the childish things in your own life that get in the way of embodying memories and guidance of Jesus. So I leave you with the questions I am still trying to answer for myself: What does it mean in this time and place to have hope in the unseen, in God’s vision for our lives? What does it mean now to be an embodied memory of Jesus? Amen.