Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Faith Journey"

This is my sermon for Sunday.  The texts are Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, found here.

“Faith Journey” – Stephanie Wing, 3.20.11
I was reading an article in a magazine last week about Lent.  A college student was driving somewhere and thinking about her Lenten disciplines.  She had decided to give up skipping classes for Lent.  That's a good start!  And she promised to take time each Sunday to bring her grandmother to church.  As she was reflecting on these disciplines and thinking about how better to integrate prayer into her life, she didn't see the black ice in the road ahead.  The next thing she knew, she was suspended upside-down by her seat belt.  Her car had spun out, and came to rest on the roof.  Thankfully, she didn't have any broken bones or major injuries, but she was quite sore, and it took her a long time to get back up to speed.  She missed some classes because of the accident, and having totaled her car, she wasn't even able to take her grandmother to church like she had wanted to do.  She felt frustrated that, just when she was excited about deepening her discipleship, this accident came along and her plans seemed to be ruined.
The accident slowed her down.  She had to rely more on others for help.  She became more aware of the gift of accepting help, and more appreciative of encouraging words and other acts of kindness.  She developed a newfound appreciation for those who lived daily with mobility challenges.  Though she wasn't able to fulfill the Lenten disciplines that she chose, this young college student received a much different gift.  During the Lent that she got, she learned more about walking closely with God than she would have if she had simply followed the Lent of her own choosing.
The author of this article observed that often, the Lent that we get is more difficult than the Lent we choose.  In some ways, following a Lenten discipline is about self-control.  Can we really resist chocolate, or coffee, or soft drinks, for six weeks?  Can we really get up early for devotions every morning?  It is a test of discipline, and a test of self-control.  But Lent is also about relinquishing control, or more accurately, relinquishing the illusion of control that we fight so hard to keep.  It is about recognizing that God is ultimately in control, and it is about giving ourselves over to God completely.  Lent calls us to learn the discipline of following God's direction for our lives rather than our own.
This is not an easy task.  So much of what we do is really trying to exert control over our lives.  We create rules, and plans, and structures, to keep everything nice and neat.  As Presbyterians, we can certainly appreciate the human desire for everything to be done decently and in order, but the fact is, when life seems to happen to us, the results are a far cry from the order we seek.
Our reading from Romans comes from a larger part of Paul's letter to the church in Rome in which he talks about the relationship of the Jewish law to the free grace of Jesus Christ.  Jewish Christians were wondering if they needed to continue to observe the Jewish law. The question of what was required of Gentile converts was an issue here and elsewhere.  Paul argues that living by the letter of the law is not what brings righteousness or salvation.  After all, look at Abraham.  Before the law was even given, his faith was the only sign needed of his righteousness.
This isn't to say that following Jesus is easier because there is no longer obligation to follow the law.  In fact, it is much easier to follow a set of rules than it is to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to go wherever God calls us.  It is easier to create our own checklists for righteous behavior than it is to step out in faith, as Abraham did.
Let's look again at that passage.  The first eleven chapters of Genesis are a kind of ancient history with epic tales of creation, exile, and flood, but in chapter 12, the focus narrows to this particular person, Abram, and the people that God will call as God's own.  We read, "Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you."  God calls Abram to leave his home, to leave his extended family, to leave all that is familiar and safe, and to start walking.  Where?  Who knows?  Just keep walking until God says "Stop!" 
Maybe if I were Abram I would have made a counter-offer.  "How about, instead of me picking up and moving, perhaps I can just go into the wilderness for a few days and then come back?  Or maybe I can give away some of what I own - heck, maybe half of it or more!  Or perhaps I can offer some kind of sacrifice.  Every day.  You know, first thing in the morning, before I do anything else."  Abram didn't choose his Lent.  He didn't choose his fast, or how to be faithful to God.  He simply had faith, and accepted the journey that God gave him.
God desires, more than anything, our love, and our response to God's love in our faithfulness.  Our faithfulness isn't about God playing mind games, trying to see just how far we will go to follow.  God doesn't send us out into unknown lands, into wilderness journeys, just to test us.  God desires our faithfulness for a purpose.  As he says to Abram, "I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
In following God, even through times of wilderness, to places where we would rather not go, in Lents that we do not choose, we can find God's blessing.  We don't know what that blessing will look like until God shows us.  It might not feel like a blessing at the time.  The blessing might be brought through tears and pain.  It might not be the blessing that we want.  But in following God's call, we will be blessed.
But it isn't just about us and our blessing, either.  God's call to us is part of a greater plan, that through God's call, in the ways that God wants to work in and through us, all families of the earth will be blessed.  There are many families, many individuals, and entire countries that desperately need to feel God's blessing.  As I have been praying for Japan, I have prayed that the people would know that God is with them, that God has not forsaken them.  There are spiritual comforts and ways that they might feel God's presence with them, but they also need to feel God's presence through us.
God uses us to be a blessing to others.  When we give our money, our time, and our talents, those gifts can be used to bless the families of the earth.  When we live more simply, in order to have more to share, we can experience God's abundance in new and more meaningful ways. 
In Lent, God does invite us to practice self-control and self-discipline.  But more importantly, God invites us to a faith journey, to step out and go to a place that God will show us.  God invites us to follow in ways that we had not planned and could not foresee, so that we can receive a blessing beyond our imagination, and so that all families of the earth can be blessed, knowing that God is with them in a very real way. 
Where is God calling you to go?  What is the Lent that you are receiving, whether you want it or not?  I invite you to embrace the journey, wherever it takes you, to step out in faith, and to follow God.  Amen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I am just home from a week of vacation - much needed, much appreciated, and now I am getting ready to play catch up!  Vacation can really be exhausting, in many ways.  First, leading up to it, there is so much to do in advance - a few weeks' worth of liturgies, often cranking out the newsletter in advance, finding coverage for all of the necessary pastoral functions, placing mail on hold, and so on and so forth.  Then there is the stress and fatigue of the travel itself - no matter if by air or land (have not yet tried by sea, but that would also require some combination of air/land to get to sea).  If visiting an unknown place, there is the stress of finding one's way around, figuring out the logistics of travel, food, and lodging.  There are choices to be made about schedule - getting the most out of your time, exploring sites, enjoying the local attractions, etc...  And if visiting friends or family, there is a double desire to squeeze more into less time.  Sleep schedules get thrown off, routines get thrown off, diets and exercise routines get thrown off - but isn't that what vacation is all about?  As a pastor, there is always the threat of an emergency phone call from back home, too. 

Finally, there is the return - the bursting of the bubble of being "away" from everything.  We usually return from our trip just in time to jump back in the Sunday saddle, starting off the week on a very exhausting foot.  If the sermon still isn't done, that also means an extra-late Saturday night, and probably early Sunday morning, as well, making sure everything is in as much order as it can be.  Sunday arrives, and all of the concerns of the week that no one wanted to bother us with while we were gone (thank you!) are waiting at our door.  Barbara Brown Taylor talks about being something of a bulletin board Sunday mornings, with everyone just waiting to stick in a pin.  If that is the case, then Sunday morning after vacation is like extreme acupuncture.  Ouch!  Then of course the rest of the week is full with the meetings that were scheduled for after the trip, catching up on everything that happened the week before, not to mention the regular tasks of day to day ministry.  It's enough to warrant a vacation!

And yet, I think many pastors experience a great deal of tension - internal, external, or both - around the "issue" of vacation.  In the PC (USA), we are blessed to have a mandatory policy of 4 weeks of vacation and 2 weeks of continuing education leave as a minimum (at least in most places, though I have known of one Presbytery that seems to skirt that somehow).  In fact, some presbyteries have even more generous vacation or leave mandatory minimums.  These minimums are required to be offered to all ministers - those fresh out of Seminary and those who have been at it for many years.  There is no official "accrual" policy, though it can be difficult to take vacation right off the bat.  Basically, the church has recognized the genuine need for ministers to have ample vacation time and continuing education time to renew body, mind, and spirit, and deemed such time important enough to mandate minimums.

Yet, absences from the pulpit and office may not be as warmly supported by the local congregation.  Of course there are exceptions, but there is still in many places a model of pastor who is always on call, who never leaves town, and who, if he or she did leave town, would come back in an instant if someone was in the hospital or if someone passed away.  Perhaps that actually has been a reality for many congregations, or maybe it is just selective memory.  Either way, it is not always easy for congregations to "bless" time away from the church and community.  Especially when one tries to avoid absences during Lent and Advent, it can be difficult to spread out the other weeks away to accommodate for important church events, times away from the church that are spent working (such as mission trips, meetings, etc...), and so on.  Even taking the 6 Sundays allotted can seem to give the feeling that the pastor is always out of town.  And we all know that perception is reality.  Throw in the fact that many of our parishioners, if still working, do not have such generous vacation time, and pastoral vacations can become a real sticky wicket. 

I was struck this past week reading the list of commandments in Deuteronomy that in this list, the one that gets the most "airtime" is the commandment to keep the Sabbath.  This commandment is not an individualistic commandment at all.  In fact, there are major social ramifications.  Honoring the Sabbath entails not placing demands on anyone else to work on the Sabbath, as well.  It is a commandment to the individual and the community, and one that requires communal support in order to really work.

So how do we, as pastors or leaders in the church, nurture a Sabbath-observant community?  One step must be to set an example of taking Sabbath regularly, and setting and communicating Sabbath boundaries to the congregation.  We must take vacation time, continuing education time, and our days off without apology, always providing the context of God's commandment to keep the Sabbath.  We NEED this Sabbath time to rest, to recharge, and to refuel for the work of ministry.  Skipping vacation or continuing education time, or regularly working on our day off, is not doing anyone a favor, and it is setting expectations and an example that are contrary to God's commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.  I don't mean to suggest that we should return to Sunday Blue Laws and be legalistic about Sabbath keeping, but we must take seriously our charge as spiritual leaders to model and teach this important commandment. 

The term "Protestant Work Ethic" didn't get coined accidentally.  We must have a high understanding of vocation, and of our charge to be active and at work in the world as the body of Christ, but we also must remember that we are called to rest from that activity.  When we overhear comments praising "hard workers" who work 7 days a week and rarely take vacations, we should challenge that.  We need to be mindful of how and when meetings and church events are scheduled.  Perhaps we need to take "Sabbath" as a church - designating a month as "meeting-free," for example.  I read of one church in New York City that actually shuts down in August.  What started as an answer to a budget shortfall has become a real communal practice of Sabbath.  Members worship elsewhere in the month, free from any duties at all - no greeting, no locking and unlocking doors, no setting up communion, etc...  When they return in September, they take time to share what they have experienced, and to reflect on their time of Sabbath.

I am so grateful for the gift of Sabbath, for the time away that the church affords us, and for the resources to enjoy this time, as well.  But as I prepare to swing back into overdrive, I am craving some middle ground.  Perhaps as we enter the season of Lent we can reflect on Sabbath keeping as a spiritual practice, and as a gift (and commandment) from God.  At least until things get really busy during Holy Week!