Sunday, April 5, 2015

“Closer Still” (John 12:20-33)

So I want to tell you a true story.

(I always strive to tell you a true story.)

When I completed a two-year commitment to the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland, I came away with lots of new surprises when it comes to relating to God.  Or perhaps I should say how God relates to us. 
My teachers were fond of saying, “When a lesson needs to be learned, the teacher will come.”  We don’t need to worry about spiritual maturity, it happens by the grace of God. God uses our whole lives to communicate with us—a conversation at every turn.

Another word for teacher is mentor; or guide.  Sometimes the mentor appears in person—sometimes the mentor appears in print.  After all, isn’t our Bible a collection of testimonies about how God is with us and how ordinary persons learned to listen to God?  All of the persons in the Bible are mentors, or teachers, in the faith.  Jesus’ disciples referred to him as “teacher.”

Well, when it came to a mentor I’d hit a dry spell.  No person raising my awareness of God and no book challenging my perceptions of God.  So I’m engaged in my day of silent prayer at St. Agnes in Red Lodge where I walk between their prayer chapel and their sanctuary for several hours.  I start in the chapel, reading and then sitting quietly—and then I move into their sanctuary where I sit quietly, and walk around the room prayerfully, and then sit, and then walk, and so on. 

Many conversations with God were in my heart, including one about the need for a new mentor.

I’d sit in the same little wooden pew in the sanctuary every time—an empty pew, free of the clutter of bulletins.

After I had sat quietly in that same little pew for about the third time, when I opened my eyes, there was a card right beside me.  It had not been there before.  It was the prayer card of St. Gertrude.
I looked at the words for a few minutes before I realized what this card meant---it wasn’t about St. Gertrude’s prayer---St. Gertrude was my next mentor, so I ordered a book about her life with God.  St. Gertrude has lasted a long time, I’m currently in a faith formation program at St. Gertrude’s monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho.

In the book that I read I was listening for God’s conversation with Gertrude.  What was Gertrude’s issue with faith?  She was afraid of her gift—God wanted Gertrude to write about her relationship with God and Gertrude didn’t feel worthy. 

I had to ask myself, “Do I hold back from God because I don’t feel worthy?”
And so it goes with the Spirit of God, and mentors or teachers in the faith.

This past week I encountered a twist on the words my instructors at Shalem offered me (when the lesson is ready to be learned the teacher will come) and it goes like this, “When the server is ready, the service will come.”
When the server (or servant) is ready, the service will come.

Isn’t that beautiful?

Isn’t that an amazing insight?

Most of us think that God gives us something to DO to mature us, when in fact it’s just the opposite—God matures us, and then gives us something that is very important to God for us to DO.  God is hungry for concrete acts of love – they move the creation forward to the peaceable kingdom God says will emerge one day.

But in order for us to engage in concrete acts of love God first has to “work the soil of our hearts”.  There are AT LEAST three orientations of our hearts that God desires (as far as I can tell):
     1. An Undivided Heart.  Jesus teaches us that we cannot serve two masters; the Ego (the ME) and the Word of God.

I am reminded of the story of the story of the conversion of Antony the Great, sometimes called Saint Antony, (who lived 200-300 years after the death of Jesus.)

 One day the young Antony, who had been brought up in a Christian family of the church of Alexandria (or at least in the region of Alexandria), and who had therefore heard the Scriptures read since his childhood, enters the church and is particularly struck by the text of Scripture that he hears read: the story of the call of the rich young man: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me; you will have a treasure in heaven". (Matt. 19, 21) 

Antony has undoubtedly heard this text many times before; but this day the message strikes him most forcibly, and he receives it as a personal call. He therefore answers the call, sells the family property - which is quite considerable - and distributes the profits of the sale to the poor of the village, keeping just enough to support his younger sister for whom he is responsible. 

A little later, on entering the church once again, he hears another Gospel text which affects him as much as the first: "Take no thought for the morrow" (Matt. 6,34; Ant.3). This text too goes straight to his heart as a personal call. And so he entrusts his sister to a community of virgins, (such communities have been long in existence), rids himself of everything that remains to him and undertakes the ascetical life near his village, under the guidance of the ascetics of the region.

No if’s, ands, or buts with Antony, only urgency.  All voices were made smaller so God’s could grow taller. 

    2. An Unattached Heart.  Jesus teaches us that we cannot love material possessions and enter the Kingdom of God.  A life of love is about generosity towards God and neighbor and not grasping stuff; it’s about compassion and not about calculation—love isn’t about tax deductions.  “Love,” we learn from the life of Christ, “Doesn’t count the cost.” In fact it is the exact opposite.  Love has a sacrificial element—forsakes meeting our own needs with our resources in the faith and hope that God will sustain us.”  (See Renovare Spiritual Formation bible.) Jesus turns to his friends at one point and says, “I don’t have a place to lay my head.” Material possessions are irrelevant because he has a place to rest his heart—in God.

3.    3. An Unafraid Heart.  Jesus teaches us that we are not in control of where our life with God will lead—we are called to OFFER our lives to God no matter where the road leads—to trust God no matter what the outcome—including death

In our story today from the Gospel of John Jesus shares with his friends the reality of his life with God—he will sacrifice his life in order for God to show the world a glimpse of God’s power in the life of a human being, in the well-being of the creation, and in order to give us a glimpse of what life with God is like after our death.  “Listen carefully, “Jesus teaches his friends, “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”

God is invested in our health and well-being and the well-being of the world; offering concrete actions that help us open up to God so that we can go forward with God, like Jesus.  

Does a prophetic word help us trust a life of love more?  God provides many in the scriptures.  Have you ever encountered a prophetic word from God in your own life? A friend shared with me the other day that her husband had a dream that a little money was coming their way—and much to their delight they received an unexpected inheritance that is helping them find some confidence in retirement.  This prophetic experience is encouraging them to put their heads to their pillows a little harder each night—to listen to God—for other instructions.

Does a resurrection help us trust a life of love more?  God provides an amazing one in the life of Christ.  Have you ever encountered a resurrection in your life?  Have you ever been dead to the world through loss and grief only to find, with love and time that you returned to joy?  

Why does God indulge us in such experiences? Because the world certainly needs more love.  We are starving for tenderness and compassion and helpfulness and generosity and humility and encouragement.  If you and I hold back; if we are lost to a love of material possessions or control—God’s good plan remains delayed.

So Jesus chose to cut his life short that you and I could learn to trust God with our own lives and let God shape us into instruments of love and peace.  Does his act of devotion deepen our own acts of devotion when we realize it was something he chose to do?

Have you experienced similar acts of devotion?  Last Wednesday at the Soup & Study gathering around the topic of “Humility and Obedience” two women told stories about supporting persons enveloped in tragedies—cancer, and an accident that left a young woman paralyzed.  The first woman reduced her work to part-time, receiving less pay, in order to tend to the woman diagnosed with cancer who had no care giver.  The second woman volunteered to clean the house of the young woman who suddenly found herself wheel-chair bound and over-come by the new physical demands of her life as a paraplegic.  Both of them gave up something of value to them; money, time—in the faith and hope that God would sustain them—in the faith and hope that love would win over apathy (I don’t care) and hate (I detest your life.) 

It’s amazing what a loving heart can do.  It’s worth dying for.

Let us Pray:  Loving God we offer up our suffering and, come to you seeking to be made whole. For you God, put your love within us; you wrote it on our hearts; that we may be your people.  Amen. 

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church on March 22, 2015.)

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