Sunday, April 5, 2015

“All In” (Mark 8:31-38)

How much do you demand of others?

My mother, for the most part, was a stay-at-home mom.
The house was her domain---inside that is—the meals, the laundry, and the cleaning.

The gift for me in this arrangement was that I never had to clean anything.  My job was to do well in school.

When I met John, my husband, he brought with him to the marriage a completely different set of rules to run a house by.  His father worked in the Air Force which meant long absences, and two of his three siblings struggled with disabilities.  By age three John was carrying groceries into the house, and by fifth grade he was washing his own clothes.
“Children are quite capable of being helpful,” John reminded me, “if we let them.”

So we made a commitment to teaching our children to do their own laundry as soon as they were tall enough to see the dial on the washer and dryer. 
They only messed up once—everyone has to learn to sort their dark clothes from their white clothes—no matter what age they start doing laundry.

Our children were quite proud of themselves, too.  When they went off to college and their friends lamented their new chore, laundry, our kids would smile and say, “Are you serious?  I’ve been doing my own laundry for years!”

Again, how much do you demand of others?

The largest Christian Church (DOC) congregation in Georgia is Ray of Hope.  Its pastor is Cynthia Hale.  Rev. Hale was a prison chaplain in her early formation years as a minister, and began Ray of Hope in 1986 with just 4 other persons engaged in Bible study in her home.  In 1987 67 persons signed the charter which officially established the congregation within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.)  Today their membership is over 5,000 persons. 

I know a little about the ins and outs of Rev. Hale’s leadership.     At Ray of Hope members are expected to partner with the Holy Spirit and build the kingdom of God—excuses aren’t allowed whether you’re too busy, too sick, too poor, too tired or too shy.  So Rev. Hale developed her own introduction to evangelism for the members of The Ray.  It’s called the “Rev. Hale School for Evangelism,” and it consists of being dropped off at the mall where you can’t go home until you’ve talked to three strangers about your love for God and your pastor and your church.

At Ray of Hope, everyone is expected to put God FIRST in their life in their living and in their financial support.  “The only way to prosperity, “preaches Rev. Hale to her over 5,000 members, “is through generosity.”  Ray of Hope members TITHE.  That’s ten percent of your income to the church BEFORE taxes. 

At Ray of Hope, members pray. Here’s the congregation’s weekly schedule:

  7:20 a.m. Corporate Prayer
  7:30 a.m. Worship Service
  9:50 a.m. Corporate Prayer
10:00 a.m. Worship Service
10:00 a.m. Children’s Church in the CE Building
10:00 a.m. Youth "iFlow" Teen Worship Service in the Chapel (2nd & 3rd Sundays)

10:50 a.m. Corporate Prayer
11:00 a.m. What’s@thecorE  Small Groups
  6:50 p.m. Corporate Prayer
  7:00 p.m. What’s@thecorE  Small Groups

  7:00 a.m. Men’s Intercessory Prayer in the Sanctuary
  7:00 a.m. Women’s Intercessory Prayer in the Chapel

(Notice what TIME corporate prayer, or praying with others, IS.)

In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), when I think about a church that is willing to make demands on others, I think of Ray of Hope, or THE RAY as it is referred to. The members work very hard to stay in the presence of God.

Why would anyone want to stay in the presence of God?

I have a little book on my shelf in my office.  It’s one of my favorites.  It’s called A Testament of Devotion.  If you think about it, that’s what the scriptures are—a collection of testaments of devotion—ours to God, God to us.  The book is written by Quaker Thomas R. Kelly.

Thomas R. Kelly grew up in a Quaker home—do you know very much about Quakers and worship?  Quakers sit in silence, stilling themselves inwardly, waiting for the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  They call each other “friends.”  Their places of worship are called meeting houses.  They refer to the Divine as “The Light,” and the “Light” is the most important part of the house, our spiritual house.  During intercessory prayer they hold people “in the Light.”  In Billings a small group of Quakers assemble at Angela’s Piazza on Sunday mornings for worship.   

Kelly discovered a great hunger for the Divine while in college.  Stirred by the beauty of God Kelly announced to a friend, “I am just going to make my life a miracle.”

Over the course of his life Kelly would teach science, give himself to religious work in the Far East, volunteer his services as a Quaker first in canteen duty with the Y.M.C.A. and then in work with German prisoners of war in England, marry, teach philosophy at Harford Theological Seminary, open a Quaker center in Berlin, and teach philosophy at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where he retired.

He was deeply committed to the life of a scholar, to be sure, but his little book, A Testament of Devotion, is about his love for the Divine, the source of his life.  Kelly writes,

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.  It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it.  Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action.  And He (the Divine) is within us all.”

Like Christ, Kelly understood that our most precious possession is within us—the living Christ—the Divine Center.  In our text from Mark Jesus refers to it as the “soul.”  And like Christ, Kelly understood that we lose contact with the Divine life within us—that part of our personality that lives from the heart of God, which is compassion, and which extends itself for the spiritual growth of others. This is what it means to perish, to “loose Contact with” the Divine life within us.

How do we lose contact with the Divine life within us?  Jesus teaches us this morning that when we put ourselves at the center of the universe, when we demand that God and neighbor serve us, give TO us, we move very, very far away from the goodness of God which is at our center.  Jesus’ whole life teaches us that when we fill our days with worry because we aren’t this and we don’t have that, when we use religion to shame others like the Pharisees, and garner status and attention for ourselves instead of letting the stability of religious practices keep our attention ON the grace and goodness of God, we are very, very far from God.

Likewise, the only way to return TO the Divine heart and voice within us is to remover ourselves from the center of the world—and replace ME with GOD and NEIGHBOR.   we can only remember two things after reading the Bible, Jesus instructs us to remember these two things, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

How do we do that?  Kelly writes, “Yield yourself to God who is a far better teacher than outward words; yield yourself to your Inner teacher.”  What he is talking about is prayer—prayer as awareness of God—stilling ourselves—listening to inwardly without ceasing.  We take our loving gaze OFF ourselves and place it ON God. 
Did you know that as a religious man, Jesus prayed three times a day? As a faithful Jew, Jesus would have recited Israel’s sacred creed, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel:  The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might…”  He would have prayed the Eighteen Benedictions---a beautiful work of praise and petition. As he went about his work, Jesus would ponder the words of the Torah and the Prophets he heard discussed in the synagogue. Through his meditations Jesus would welcome the Holy Spirit’s planting of the words of Scripture deeply in his heart so that they permeated his prayer and informed his life.  How did he survive the temptation in the wilderness to use his life for his own profit instead of for God’s profit?   Scripture!
What I am talking about, then, is effort.  Jesus was born with the gift of the Divine life within him, like all of us—what a beautiful well!  And, like all of us, we have to do the work to stay close to that well.  In today’s lesson from Mark Jesus is talking about being ALL IN with God—we can’t hold on to the Divine light, the Divine life within us, if we are fickle and prone to waver because we don’t approach life like the majority of our friends; if we don’t have a stable prayer life and if can’t reconcile with suffering. 

To quote the Christian ascetic Evagrios of Pontus, “Do not worry about poverty or sorrow, such things lift our prayers to heaven.”

Why would we want to do the work to stay in God’s presence?  Thomas R. Kelly observes that even though we are unworthy, “God draws unworthy us, in loving tenderness, up into fellowship with His glorious self.” God makes of our unworthy life a miracle of faith and compassion!  “Self-renunciation means,” writes Kelly, “God-possession.” 

As Jesus teaches us, our whole being possessed by God is our real self.  We have at the core of our character a compassionate self, both tender and courageous—connectedness to all living things—so that when one person suffers, we all suffer—and when one person sings, we all sing!  We have, at the core of our being a light that shines in the darkness, filled with the beauty and grace of God, and Jesus came to teach us how to find it, and draw from it.  Jesus didn’t come to shame us (John 3:16) but to set our miraculous selves free!  All it takes is commitment.  Jesus calls this “picking up our cross.”  “Pick up your commitment and follow,” urges Jesus and I paraphrase, “pick up your daily returning to the source of your life and follow me to your best life.”

Let us pray: 
Holy God, can we find 20 minutes d day for you?  What if we traded a meal for prayer, or an hour of television for an hour of reading the psalms? What if we picked a verse of scripture and repeated it quietly to ourselves a couple of times a day?  What if we sat quietly every day for 10 minutes and let you love us?  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Billings Central Church on march 1, 2015.)

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