Participating in Robust Interfaith Relations
SLIDE 3: THE FOOL HAS SAID THAT GOD IS DEAD
My father’s mentor at the University of Omaha was Dr. William Thompson, Professor of Psychology and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Thompson incidentally was also the father-in-law of billionaire investor Warren Buffet. My interest in Dr. Thompson today is that he was an amateur theologian of sorts and wrote a small book entitled The Fool Has Said That God is Dead, drawing his title for our Psalm this morning.
SLIDE 4: CONSCIOUSNESS OF ALL LIVING
Dr. Thompson approached his subject from the point of view of a psychologist noting that all living things demonstrate some level of awareness. Even tiny one celled creatures respond to stimuli like light, vibration, heat, cold, and this is true of plants as well as animals. Many flowers follow the sunlight during the day. Avid gardeners claim that plants grow better when they are treated gently, spoken to kindly, or when pleasing music is played for them. Now I know some of these claims are debated, but Dr. Thompson went even further to claim that the awareness of living things is a form of consciousness. Now clearly not intelligence as we think of human intelligence, but consciousness no matter how simple or even primitive.
SLIDE 5: HUMAN PURPOSE TO CONNECT WITH UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Now I know many people resist speaking of plants and even other animals as possessing consciousness, but maybe that is a sign of our arrogant claim to specialness that only we humans can possess consciousness. We should remember, that Charles Darwin, in the last book he published, The Formation of Vegetable Mold through the Action of Worms, in the year preceding his death, set out to learn how far earthworms “acted consciously and how much mental power they displayed.” Studying their feeding and sexual behaviors for several decades — Darwin was after all a naturalist with uncanny powers of observation — he concluded that there was no absolute threshold between lower and higher animals, including humans that assigned higher mental powers to one but not to the other. Dr. Thompson’s thesis was that he experienced all nature as possessing consciousness and that part of our human purpose is to learn to connect with the universal consciousness that is God.
SLIDE 6: SCOFFERS CRY: GOD IS DEAD
God is in all things, and we are a part of God. So if we join with the scoffers in proclaiming, “God is dead,” then we lose touch with the divine spark within us, and our lives become immeasurably impoverished stripped of mystery, awe and wonder. Without the divine spark in our lives we lose all sense of gratitude. Human life without the divine becomes in the words of the Psalmist, “like a fast-food meal full of empty calories and cholesterol over which we’re too busy to pray.”
SLIDE 7: MOST NON-CHURCH GOERS BELIEVE CHRISTIANS ARE JUDGEMENTAL
“Sometimes, atheists’ disbelief has its roots in science or philosophy. More often, it stems from unpleasant interactions with believers, either in lived experience, or in story or history. You know the list: the Inquisition, so-called witch trials, pogroms, the Crusades, discrimination of all kinds, threats of Hell. A recent study of non-church goers ages 16 to 29 found that 87% think that Christians are judgmental. (No wonder we experience difficulty in reaching out to the Millennials.)
SLIDE 8: GOD NEEDS BETTER REPRESENTATIVES LIKE US?
“Since God seems to have decided to not show up in person much anymore, but instead to rely on her people to be her representatives, you can hardly blame atheists if, having met only these kinds of representatives, they decide that God isn’t worth their time. In fact, that’s a decidedly un-foolish response under the circumstances. What God needs, then, is a different kind of representative, one that won’t convert people away from God, but will invite them to love. A representative who lives a life of grace and welcome and invitation and love and service, one who lives a life of adventure and tenderness. God needs representatives who are not fools. Representatives like us maybe?”
Because faith is a living as if something is true, how do we live as if God still lives?
SLIDE 9: WE PRAY
First, we pray. Now I know many of you get tired of me emphasizing spending at least half an hour a day in prayer. We are busy people and we can hardly be bothered to take that much time for prayer. Sort of reminds me of the sign my Far East History and Philosophy teacher in High School had on the wall: “God is alive and well in Argentina.” But if God truly lives in us how can we not set aside time for that relationship? How can we ignore the divine spark within that enriches our lives with mystery, awe and wonder?
SLIDE 10: WORSHIP — PUBLIC PRAYER
Second, we worship, we engage in public prayer, we join with a group of good spiritual friends to pray with and for each other. Jesus taught that when people pray together the power of prayer is multiplied, not arithmetically, but exponentially. Public prayer does not take the place of private personal prayer, however public prayer is a visible testimony to others of a communal faith in God. God is alive and well in this community of faith.
SLIDE 11: WHEN WE SHARE
Third, we demonstrate that God is alive in the world when we share, especially with the poor. We are the hands and feet of the Christ in the world, when we reach out to people in need and share with them. Sometimes they need clean water, or food, or blankets and warm socks in the winter. The poor are God’s most beloved, and those of us who have been inordinately materially blessed find our spiritual blessing in sharing with the poor, the mentally ill, and the homeless ones. God also calls upon us to reach out to the spiritually impoverished, the addicted, the depressed, the lost, the hopeless. Sharing hope can be every bit as important and more difficult as sharing socks, or food, or blankets.
SLIDE 12: ADVOCATE FOR JUSTICE
Fourth, we demonstrate God is alive in the world, when we advocate for justice challenging discrimination and racism, working for economic justice, so that the benefits of our society are more equitably shared and do not accrue solely to a privileged class.
Rabbi Rami in Perennial Wisdom of the Spiritually Independent makes this observation: “If it is true that ‘with God, all things are permitted,’ how then do we spiritually independent types decide what is right and wrong? We return to our philosophical principles: we are all manifestations of a singular Reality and, as such, are intrinsically called to love both neighbor and self.
“The principle is not rocket science: treating others justly and with compassion is good, while treating them unjustly and cruelly is bad. Of course we can argue over exactly what is just and kind in any given situation, but it is justice and kindness rather than obedience to an idea of God that motivates us. We can argue passionately about justice and kindness, and the end of our argument will always be a more nuanced understanding of these ideas. In short, the spiritually independent place values over theology.”
SLIDE 13: AFFIRMING THE FAITH OF OTHERS IN INTERFAITH RELATIONSHIPS
A fifth way we demonstrate God is alive in the world is by affirming the faith of others in interfaith relationships. All faiths share a common goal of serving an ultimate reality beyond ourselves. Dr. Thompson’s thesis was that all nature possesses consciousness and our human purpose is to learn to connect with the universal consciousness that is God. Other faiths may celebrate different holidays, sing different songs, follow different customs in prayer, but all faiths that point to a reality, a universal consciousness beyond themselves are worthy of being affirmed. When we cooperate with other people whose religious customs are not our own, we are not abandoning our faith, but rather we are affirming the most important values of our faith.
SLIDE 14: JESUS SAID, “I HAVE OTHER SHEEP NOT OF THIS FOLD”
As Jesus said, “I have other sheep who are not of this fold.” Think of Mahatma Gandhi, the Dali Lama, the great Sufi poet Rami, the Buddha, and all of the other great souls who must surely reside in the silent memory of God. It is for us to affirm their goodness and wisdom, rather than judging their theology. And so we are called upon to participate in robust interfaith relations like the Tri-faith Initiative in Omaha we talked about last week. God is not dead. God is alive and well among all those who embrace one another in God’s love.
SLIDE 15: GOD IS OUR BELOVED: PEACE, SHALOM, SALAAM, NAMASTE, ALLAH-U-ABHA
SLIDE 3: COUNTRYSIDE JOINS TRI-FAITH INITIATIVE
In April I noted on Facebook that my home church, Countryside Community United Church of Christ in Omaha, had voted to join the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Nebraska. As I read about this innovative and courageous interfaith project I became excited. In a world where religious fundamentalists of all flavors are demonizing all faiths other than their own, where political candidates are criticizing the President because he will not use the term “Islamic Terrorist,” thus alienating almost one billion people, we are in need of an experiment that proves that people of different faiths can live and work together in peace and harmony.
SLIDE 4: TEMPLE ISRAEL LONG HISTORY OF INTERFAITH LEADERSHIP
The Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha is comprised of Temple Israel, the oldest synagogue in Nebraska, the American Muslim Institute one of five mosques in Omaha, and now Countryside Community United Church of Christ. The beginnings of interfaith cooperation are written deep in Omaha’s past. Temple Israel has been a community leader for 144 years. I remember as a teenager growing up at Countryside Church we held all of our youth group retreats at Camp Esther K. Newman, the Jewish Community Center Camp, where we were joined in our activities and discussions by “Uncle” Sherman Poska an important leader in the Jewish Community and a member of Temple Israel. Rabbi Brooks from Temple Israel and Bob Alward the Pastor at Countryside enjoyed a good working relationship, and so part of our confirmation was a tour of Temple Israel and an introduction to Judaism by the Rabbi.
SLIDE 5: A MINISTER AND A RABBI WALKED INTO A BAR
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, leader of Temple Israel since 1988 has continued the work of interfaith cooperation and justice work of his predecessors. Rabbi Azriel and Dr. Eric Elnes the pastor of Countryside Community Church jointly led a study group two years ago entitled “A Minister and a Rabbi Walked into a Bar.” The study was held in a bar and they packed the place for six weeks running.
SLIDE 6: AMERICAN MUSLIM INSTITUTE – DR. SYED MOHIUDDIN
The Muslim community in the Tri-Faith Initiative is the American Muslim Institute. I spoke on the telephone with the President of the mosque Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, who confirmed that when I was growing up in Omaha the Muslim population was very, very small. In recent years, however, like many other Mid-west Cities the Muslim population has grown very fast, so there are now five Mosques in Omaha. The American Muslim Institute welcomes all people and bridges the divide between Sunni and Shiite and many different ethnic groups. The relationship between the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel was cemented, when the day after 9/11, Rabbi Azriel showed up at the American Muslim Institute to help protect the Mosque from any angry backlash. This gesture of courage and compassion led the way for a ground breaking interfaith relationship. And that led to a rather mundane conversation about parking and building space.
SLIDE 7: SHARED VALUES AND COMMITMENT TO INTERFAITH COOPERATION
Temple Israel had outgrown its building and as they were thinking about a new location they wanted to have good neighbors. And so a conversation began between the leaders of Temple Israel and the leaders of Omaha’s Muslim community about both groups’ land and parking needs. The two groups then started talking about their shared values and commitment to interfaith work, and they expressed their mutual desire to foster hope for their children and for future generations; they recognized themselves as two Abrahamic faith groups. The conversations gave birth to an unlikely dream: wouldn’t it be remarkable if three Abrahamic faiths could partner to build three houses of worship on adjacent properties? They began looking for a Christian church that might also share the dream.
SLIDE 8: HONEST CONVERSATIONS
Many interfaith projects start with a long “getting to know you” period that focuses on what the faith groups have in common. But the Omaha group did things differently than the norm; they came together to build a tangible project and they talked about their greatest fears right away. Everyone had tough questions and concerns. How would they keep their unique faith identities? Who would own and control the buildings? And perhaps, the greatest fear — that members of one faith group would try to convert members of the other groups. As they worked out their questions, the delegates developed a Memorandum of Understanding that stands as the framework for collaboration today. More importantly, the honest conversations led to a deep sense of trust and respect among the delegates. Real relationships were growing, and that had become the most important thing.
SLIDE 9: CHALLENGE STEREOTYPES
In working together, our vision is to build bridges of respect, trust and acceptance, to challenge stereotypes of each other, to learn from one another, and to counter the influence of extremists and agents of hate.
SLIDE 10: RESPECT — NO PROSELYTIZING
Each participant community’s religious building/space will be completely separate and controlled only by that group. Each participant community agrees to completely respect the beliefs and practices of the other participants. All beliefs shall be respected. To the extent practices take place outside the walls of one’s own religious space, consideration shall be given to the beliefs of other participants. No participant community shall engage in any proselytizing (intending to convert members of other participant communities).
SLIDE 11: SHARED SPACE
To the extent each participant community can agree to do so, they will create ‘shared space’ that will allow for efficiencies of common operation and facilitate collaboration and interaction between and among the participants. This is expected to include such basic things as parking and common outdoor areas. It is hoped to include such things as shared library space, food service, meeting rooms, auditorium, conference and banquet facilities and other common indoor areas.
SLIDE 12: ACCEPTANCE, RESPECT, TRUST BUILDING
Participant communities shall foster among their members an environment of acceptance, respect and trust-building towards other participants and their members. Participant communities agree to seek and create opportunities for communities, groups, families and individuals to gather, meet, interact and learn about and from one another. Participant communities shall look for opportunities to understand differences and build on commonalities among participants.
SLIDE 13: GREATEST CHALLENGE FINDING A CHURCH
The greatest challenge was finding a Church to participate in the project. The Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska started out in the conversations, but they were unable to find a congregation, who could enter into the agreement. Finally in 2013, the Episcopalians invited Countryside Church to become the Christian presence in the Tri-Faith Initiative. In April of 2015 the congregation of Countryside Community Church United Church of Christ finally voted to participate in the Tri-Faith Initiative.
SLIDE 14: GROUND BREAKING
Temple Israel has already built their building on the shared site. The American Muslim Institute broke ground for their building on May 21st of 2015. Countryside is still in a study phase before launching a building campaign.
SLIDE 15: ALL CHILDREN OF THE SAME GOD
Now why have I chosen to preach about the Tri-Faith Initiative? First, Temple Israel, the American Muslim Institute and Countryside Church have decided to recognize that they are all children of the same God. Now just as in families each child has a different relationship with their parent, they are none the less brothers and sisters in the same family – all God’s children.
SLIDE 16: LIVING INTO A DIFFERENT ATTITUDE
Second, we are living in a dangerous world where radicals of all religious stripes are trying to tell us that we cannot trust people of other faiths and indeed we must be aggressive and hostile toward other faiths seeking to convert others who believe or behave differently from us. This kind of aggressive and hostile attitude often leads to violence toward others who are different from ourselves. The Tri-Faith initiative is trying to live into a different attitude where mutual respect and understanding are the hallmark of relationship. If we can prove to the world that we can live together in peace even affirming one another’s faith, we can begin to change our world. As the memorandum of understanding reads: In working together, our vision is to build bridges of respect, trust and acceptance, to challenge stereotypes of each other, to learn from one another, and to counter the influence of extremists and agents of hate.
SLIDE 17: CAPTURING THE HIGHEST VALUES OF THE ABRAHAMIC TRADITION
As one member of the American Muslim Institute wrote about the Tri-Faith Initiative: “This project also captures the highest values we are called to in the Abrahamic tradition. Those of mutual respect, service and scholarship. When the world is so full of conflict and cruelty between members of the Abrahamic faiths, this initiative stands as a shining example of what is possible when people practice their faith — instead of perverting it.”
SLIDE 18: HUNTSVILLE RIPE FOR A MULTI-FAITH INITIATIVE
Third, I believe as a result of the ground work laid by the Interfaith Mission Service Huntsville has the potential to take bold steps toward a multi-faith initiative. I don’t know what that initiative might look like, but I believe we have the potential here in our community to make a significant contribution to interfaith relationships.
SLIDE 19: BABY STEPS VISIT THE MOSQUE
Fourth since all journeys begin with baby steps I would like to affirm Alix Morehouse’s suggestion that we at United Church can arrange a tour of a mosque here in Huntsville for our Sunday school children and any adults who would like to accompany them. We can help our children and members realize that Muslims are people just like us. The extremists in the Muslim world are a very small minority, just as we have Christian extremists.
SLIDE 20: RADICAL HOSPITALITY AWAITS US
Fifth, when I spoke with Dr. Mohiuddin, Rabbi Azriel and Dr. Elnes they all promised that if a group from Huntsville would like to make a pilgrimage to Omaha to see and experience the Tri-Faith Initiative we would receive radical hospitality. I want to share this sermon with the other members of the Southeast Clergy Cluster and others to test whether we might organize a group from Huntsville to journey to Omaha and perhaps strengthen our own resolve to further our interfaith relations.
SLIDE 21: GOD IS OUR BELOVED – PEACE, SHOLOM, SALAAM
Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth
SLIDE 3: ECCLESIASTES
One of the more pessimistic and depressing books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes or the Hebrew title, Koheleth, traditionally translated “preacher” or “teacher.” The author purports to be the son of David in Jerusalem, but was not written until the late 3rd century BCE. The author sets as his goal to reflect upon the “meaning of life.” But after reviewing the pursuits of wealth, pleasure, religious piety, philosophy, and wisdom, the author concludes that there is no meaning to life except to enjoy the simple daily pleasures of eating, drinking, earning a living and enjoying one’s partner as one is able. But there is a decidedly pessimistic tone to the narrative: “God has also set eternity in the hearts of humans; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Vanity of vanities all is vanity.”
SLIDE 4: PERENNIAL WISDOM
Indeed, when the early Rabbis were deciding what literature to include in the Hebrew cannon Ecclesiastes almost didn’t make it. I believe the author of Ecclesiastes is more in line with a more modern perspective on Judaism and religious faith in general as expressed in Rabbi Rami’s book Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent. This morning I would like to call attention to our scripture from Chapter 12 of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful and imaginative poem about aging.
SLIDE 5: AGING
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain; when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men stoop, when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim. . . .” The “preacher” is offering an imaginative description of the disabilities that accompany aging – loss of eye sight, hearing loss, weakness in the legs and back, difficulty chewing with the loss of teeth, sleep and digestive disorders, urinary tract difficulties and the tapering off of sexual desire. Indeed as we age we are subject to a number of physical changes that can reduce our mobility, and our enjoyment of life.
SLIDE 6: CULTIVATE A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD WHEN YOUNG
And so perhaps the best advice the preacher offers us is “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth. . .” When we are young and full of life we can be so full of ourselves we have no time or attention left to consider our Creator. Our culture seems to almost require an atheistic phase in our youth a time when prayer, worship, contemplation, meditation have little or no time on our agendas. We have so much to do: school, dates, texting, sexting, extra-curricular activities, athletic events, time with friends, time in the gym to stay trim, taking care of pets, then children with all of their appointments and activities. There is just a lot to do and so little time left for spiritual concerns. No time to remember our Creator in the days of our youth.
SLIDE 7: WE BECOME SET IN OUR WAYS
The problem with postponing time to remember our Creator is that as we get older, we become more set in our ways — habit and routine take over. We may have the best of intentions to set aside time for study, prayer and meditation, and other spiritual disciplines, but the longer we wait to start the more likely we will never get around to it. Also our minds can become less flexible as we age, and cultivating a relationship with God can beckon us into new and uncharted waters, where we need all of the mental agility at our command. So for those in the congregation who are on the lighter side of 50 my advice is to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”
SLIDE 8: OVER THE HILL AND PICKING UP SPEED
Now for those of us who have gone over the hill and are picking up speed on our way down let me suggest that all is not lost. As we age there are some natural consequences of growing older that can contribute to a deepening of our spiritual lives – aging, illness and death. As I have discovered in the past year pain is an important teacher. When we are young we can convince ourselves that we are going to live forever, but when the physician begins to say, “Well at your age,” that should be a wake-up call to pay attention. The truth is that all that we think or feel or do is written in our bodies. Or as Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years it’s the mileage.” None of us is perfect.
SLIDE 9: WE GRIEVE WITH OUR WHOLE BODIES
We carry in our bodies the memories of injuries from the past, our angers, our disappointments and our griefs. Especially as we grow older we are more likely to experience grief as first parents, then siblings and friends, partners and sometimes even children die. We do not just grieve in our heads, we grieve with our whole selves, and all of our losses are written somewhere in our bodies. As we age injuries that used to heal within hours or days take weeks and months to recover.
SLIDE 10: WITH DISABILITY CAN COME HUMILITY
All of us are mortal and vulnerable and if we can acknowledge that reality we can learn to be more kind and compassionate to others. A member of the congregation this past week was sharing with me some of the pains she is attempting to cope with, and then she added, “But it has made me more mindful of the problems of others.” As we learn to live with disability we can even be humbled to the point we can ask for help. Humility is difficult until we know we cannot keep up any more.
SLIDE 11: TIME IS PRECIOUS
Another gift of aging is the realization that we will not live forever. Time is precious. I can no longer imagine just sitting and watching television or playing solitaire or any other activities intended just to pass the time. As the hours become fewer, they become more precious. Young people often complain they are bored. But after sixty life is no longer ever boring. Time is just too precious and we have too many projects and activities left to do. A key is to allow spiritual development to be one of those projects we remember to pursue.
SLIDE 12: HOPE
Another gift that is offered to us as we grow older is the contemplation of what might lie beyond death. Now I recognize that we do not want to spend an inordinate amount of time on such speculation. We cannot know before we get there. But the prospect that God does not abandon us in death can offer hope that empowers the final years of our lives. According to the preacher, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Do not underestimate the power of hope in human life. Hope can sustain our spirits, when all else seems lost.
SLIDE 13: REMEMBERED FOREVER IN THE SILENT MEMORY OF GOD
Now I know some people who believe that to deny any form of life after death is somehow a more noble or honest way to live. After all there is no hard scientific evidence of life after death. But I would point out to them that just as I cannot prove there is a life after death, they cannot prove there is no life after death any more than they can prove there is no God. It is all a matter of faith. And as long as we are free to choose what we want to believe, why not choose to believe something that imparts hope that can empower the final years of our lives. Not silly pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye kind of hope. Not a hope that if we just believe the right things, or say the right prayers, or go to church often enough, or perform enough good deeds we will earn our way into heaven. No instead a deep and abiding faith that the universe is a friendly place, and our creator loves us – loves us so much that we will be remembered forever in the silent memory of God.
SLIDE 14: THE ROPE AND THE KNOT
Remember the experiment with the rope and the knot. If we take a rope and we tie a knot really tight, and we leave it there for a long time, when we untie the knot, the rope still retains a memory of the knot that was in it. In the same way, when we die, the knot representing our life is untied, relaxed, but there is still a memory of our life.
And so I offer you my poem to celebrate the hope of the possibility of life beyond this life.
SLIDE 15: THIS IS THE ROAD HOMEWARD
“The hair runs grey now time has streaked
With winter white,
The brow relaxed from tempest,
And storm subsides all energy released—for nothing.
The world turns ever; the grasses sway
For breeze of tempest lost.
The sun wanes and rises, wanes again
No rage can halt the revolution of the light.
No waters can wash the soil of age.
But nothing never ceases; fear of loss
Is child’s embrace, that wrinkles ease
And years decrease.
Steps bring journey always closer to the end.
A path I do not fear, for all I know
This is the road—homeward.”
Don’t Assume You Know It All
SLIDE 3: ROBERT A BOY FULL OF QUESTIONS
Our grandson Robert has always been a boy full of questions. How come? Why? Where? When? Now Robert is still full of questions, but this summer we have run into a new phenomenon. He will ask a question, and then as we are offering an answer, he says, “I know that!” At one point on our drive from Pittsburgh to Huntsville, exasperated, his grandmother replied, “If you already know that, then why did you ask the question? If you are going to dismiss what I am saying with, ‘I know that,’ then I will not answer any more questions!”
SLIDE 4: A CASE OF THE KNOW IT ALLS
At the age of ten Robert has developed a case of the “know it all’s.” I think most young people go through a phase, when they are more impressed by what they know, or think they know, than what anyone else can tell them. And some of us grow out of that phase, but all too many people, remain stuck in a bad case of the “know it all’s.” Much of our schooling and our academic disciplines even encourage a “know it all perspective.” Doctors, lawyers, ministers, administrators, teachers, engineers, scientists, business people, POLITICIANS even some trades people can be especially prone to assuming that all knowledge is best understood from the perspective of their academic discipline or their profession or their line of work. We are most familiar with what we do, and so we tend to make assumptions and judgments based upon what we know best.
SLIDE 5: TRUST GOD
The author of our proverb today understood our prideful tendency to assume we know it all. “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; God’s the one who will keep you on track. Don’t assume that you know it all.”
SLIDE 6: SIMPLE BUT HARD TRUTHS
Our proverb offers us five simple truths. Now remember I said simple not easy. Sometimes simple is hardest of all. First, trust God. Have faith in something larger than your “self.” Putting our faith in something larger than our selves is the corner stone of all twelve step programs. Implicit in this first simple truth is humility. We are not the center of the Universe. God is God and we are not. We did not create ourselves, and we can trust that our creator loves us and provides for us. We can trust that we do not have to be responsible for everything, without our efforts the world will continue to turn. Without our worrying about it, the sun will shine, the rain will fall, the seasons will change.
SLIDE 7: WE ARE NOT ALONE
Second simple truth, we are not alone. God is with us always. As Paul said, nothing can separate us from the love of God. And in the words of the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.” And not only is God always with us, but God calls us into the church, so we have a community of faith — people who will pray with us and for us and remind us of God’s abiding love. And because we are not alone, we don’t have to figure everything out by ourselves. God will help, and the good spiritual friends with whom we covenant in the life of the church are also available to help us figure out what we need to be about. They may even offer us a helping hand, if we will allow them to love us.
SLIDE 8: ALLOWING OTHER PEOPLE TO HELP US
For some of us allowing other people to help us isn’t easy either. After all we are bold self-confident individualists. We can do it all on our own. We don’t need anyone’s help. Sure! But remember: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.”
SLIDE 9: LISTEN IN PRAYER
The third simple truth is to pray and listen in prayer. We cannot hear a word from God unless we listen. So many of our prayers are about what we want, what we are feeling, how we want God to help us – sometimes even giving God a piece of our mind. And then we complain that we pray, and God never answers! But have we ever listened – really listened for more than ten minutes. Mother Teresa once told one of my seminary professors, Henri Nouwen, to never do anything you consciously know is wrong, and spend an hour a day in silence – an hour a day. Have any of us spent even a half an hour listening for God’s word, ever? We want what we want and we want it right now – instant gratification. God does not work that way.
SLIDE 10: WELL?
I am reminded of the cartoon Kudzu, and one of the characters the Rev. Will B Dunn. In the first frame Rev. Will B. Dunn fervently prays, “God give me patience.” Then in the next frame, he is looking at his watch asking, “Well?”
SLIDE 11: WAIT PATIENTLY FOR DIRECTION
Jesus encourages us to ask for what we want, and then wait patiently for direction. God does not hand out million dollar checks. God does not punish our enemies or reward our friends. What God can do is offer direction, if we are open. Problem is most people who pray for direction already know where they want to go. Most of us are simply asking God to get behind our goals and plans, rather than asking what God wants us to do. It is sort of like the problem of knowing it all. If we already know what we want God to do, how can we be open to what God wants us to do? Wait patiently. Listen. Be still and know that God is God.
SLIDE 12: DON’T ASSUME YOU KNOW IT ALL
The path of the hurricane can be affected by the flap of the butterfly’s wing. Humility! Humility is essential to our survival. We think we know so much, and yet our knowledge is so fragmentary. Our physicists now believe 96%of our Universe is Dark Energy and Matter, substances they cannot even describe. If we cannot describe 96% of our Universe how can we know it all?
SLIDE 13: HUMILITY SHOULD BE OUR NATURAL ATTITUDE
Humility should be our natural attitude. And yet most of the time we proceed as if we do know it all. We approach climate change, the use of nuclear energy, and our rapidly expanding use of genetics, as if we can anticipate all consequences. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.”
SLIDE 14: SUBMIT TO DISCIPLINE
The fifth simple truth is to submit to discipline in humility. “But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline; don’t sulk under her loving correction. It’s the child she loves that God corrects; a parent’s delight is behind all this.” Everything we do has consequences — good consequences and bad consequences. In life there are no rewards and punishments, just consequences. The key is to learn from our experiences. The definition of crazy is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. If we pay close attention, and we humbly listen in prayer, we can learn from our consequences.
SLIDE 15: DISCIPLINE ISN’T FUN, BUT IT PAYS OFF
The discipline of physical therapy is a real pain, but unless I submit to that discipline, I will end up crippled. The Letter to the Hebrews says the same thing about our spiritual lives. “At the time, discipline isn’t much fun. It always feels like it’s going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for it is the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God.”
SLIDE 16: FRENETIC ACTIVITY WITHOUT PRAYER
Before I bring this sermon to a close allow me to suggest that one of the problems in the life of the church is frenetic activity without prayer. As attendance and participation in churches drops we become so anxious about the future of the church, we start planning and organizing, and initiating programs without praying. Oh we may offer a perfunctory prayer at the beginnings of our meetings, but we seldom enter into extended prayerful discernment. God loves the church even though I am sure God is often exasperated by our behavior. God will offer us direction, if we stop acting as if we “know it all” and stop and listen prayerfully.
SLIDE 17: WE ARE NOT ALONE – THE LARGER CHURCH
And sometimes we can actually consult with people beyond our local church for wisdom and understanding. In the past our congregation has tended to dismiss or even demonize the larger church. One of the gifts of being part of the wider church is that we are not alone. We don’t have to figure it all out on our own. There are people who will help, if we ask and listen!
So listen to the proverb and learn: “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; God’s the one who will keep you on track. Don’t assume that you know it all.”