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Watershed Moments

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Sep 14

My childhood summers were spent in the Colorado Rockies—on the eastern slope of the Rockies, to be specific. I loved to drive to top of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. There were long views to the east and west and we climbed numerous 14,000-footers with stunning 360-degree views. More than once we hiked along trails that followed the Continental Divide. As a child I was fascinated by the Continental Divide—the fact that a drop of rain failing to the West could end up in the Pacific Ocean, while a drop falling to the East could end up in the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. In my mind’s eye, I could visualize the journey from stream to tributary to river to ocean. There was something both magical and comforting about the apparent clarity of that world order.

The world of human affairs seems to lack the kind of clarity I found in my childhood imagination. The absolute sense of what’s what. We find ourselves searching for maps and guides, trying to gain perspective on our experiences, our choices, our path. Many people yearning for simplicity and certainty are drawn to faith traditions that provide strong rules.

My sense of the spiritual journey—and especially of Christian life in community—is that it is far more surprising, puzzling, conversational, dialogical. We do a lot of listening in order to find our way. Listening to the world around us, listening to each other, listening to God. Listening in the silence and in the in-between spaces.

How terrifying it must have been for the Israelites to hear God’s call to liberation—to deliverance out of slavery—only to be led directly toward the waters of the Red Sea! How very odd that God’s chosen pathway defied gravity. (Maybe the world was different before Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravitation?) And how amazing that through listening and following boldly the Israelites were led to safety—with hazards on both sides—but a clear path forward!

This fall our congregation will focus on establishing some priorities for the next chapter of our life together. This is an on-going process in any healthy congregation, and we do it regularly. But we’ll be giving it some focused attention over the next couple of months. This practice of “sorting” is called discernment. (Yes, I mentioned the “D” word.) “From the Latin word, discernere, which means ‘to separate,’ ‘to distinguish,’ ‘to determine,’ ‘to sort out.’ In classical spirituality, discernment means identifying what spirit is at work in a situation: the Spirit of God or some other spirit” (see Ref. 1).

As one author writes, “discernment is ‘sifting through’ our interior and exterior experiences to determine their origin” (see Ref. 2). I like the notion of sifting through internal and external experiences. Our culture has us super-saturated with experiences and its imperative—not only to test their origin—but also to evaluate their relative importance.

I suspect that churches too often focus on questions of little importance. How do we attract members? What about changing demographics? How can we “stay current” and meet the needs of coming generations? These are not bad questions—not irrelevant concerns—but they do seem like small questions. They could lead to a narrow, internal focus, which is not the purpose, the heart of Christian life. They are questions that beg a “technical fix,” rather than a dynamic, on-going relationship with a living God. Small questions do not open us up to “adaptive change,” to use the language of organizational theorist, Ron Heifetz.

“Big questions” lead us out of ourselves toward connection with our community, into relationship with a broken and hurting world, and deep into relationship with our living God.

Last week Dan began to frame some “big” questions that feel like they hit the mark. What kind of spiritual and religious community does the world need? What are the distinctive charisms of this congregation—First Church in Cambridge, United Church of Christ? What are the distinctive opportunities of this time and place—2014, Harvard Square, USA? What is God’s Spirit calling us to do and be? These questions may seem enormous, but congregations in every time and place must invite such questions.

We find in the Book of Acts a stunning example of the first Christian churches engaged in just such discernment. The Jerusalem Council (or Apostolic Conference) took place in Jerusalem somewhere between 48 and 50 A.D. The stated purpose of the Council was to decide whether circumcision was necessary for adult converts. (No worries—this is not about to morph into a sermon about circumcision.)

The Jerusalem Council is a prime example of a church body gathered to focus on a technical question: What are the requirements for membership?

The author of Luke-Acts makes it clear that the fledgling churches are wrestling with a changing sense of identity and they are asking some very big questions. The Jesus movement is growing rapidly and, as it expanded from rural to urban areas, and spread from Galilee to the whole Mediterranean, myriad questions arose. Sure—they are followers of Jesus—the radical Jewish teacher, healer and prophet. But what will that mean in a time of phenomenal growth and change?

They began as an off-shoot of Judaism. But as Greeks, Gentiles and all manner of people heard the gospel and joined the Jesus movement, would they remain a Jewish sect—adhering to Torah, keeping Sabbath, upholding purity laws, keeping dietary regulations? Would they require circumcision?

In some ways, the question of identity is a distinctively modern question. It’s doubtful that those gathered at the Jerusalem Council would have posed a question like “Who are we?” Yet they were clearly wrestling with where to place the boundaries of the community. Who is included? Which practices would mark the distinctiveness of the community? These are core questions of identity and purpose.

Here’s how they approached these issues. A basic roadmap—perhaps—for the congregational practice of discernment. They began with dissention and debate. They called a meeting and gathered to discuss the question. They shared stories of faith—there were many stories of Gentile conversions. They shared joy. They shared silence. They prayed. They listened: to the distinctive opportunities of the world around them, to the deep witness of their tradition, to the testimony of Jesus’ life. They listened to each other. And they listened for the leading of God’s Spirit.

Through this process, something remarkable happened. They had begun with an important technical question: whether to require circumcision. And they ended up addressing a much larger question: where is the Holy Spirit leading us? Something about sharing stories, listening to each other, something about sharing silence and praying together…something about listening for God’s voice opened them to a wider conversation and a broader view.

In the story from Acts, Peter makes a stunning speech about how God’s Spirit is at work in the Gentiles. (The Gentiles, of all people!) And the whole assembly listens to Peter. What Peter says is (essentially) this: “God’s love and calling knows no boundaries. God is doing a new thing—creating a new community for this time and place.”

So, what is God calling us to do and be here and now—at First Church in Cambridge? In this distinctive time and place, I believe God calls us to religious and spiritual communities that are have extraordinary flexibility and depth: attentive, relational, dialogical, accountable, morally grounded, clear, rooted in tradition, yet aware and responsive to the times.

Now, that was a mouthful! And it may seem like a tall order. But we are a whole community of practitioners—supporting each other and journeying together. Ours is a living tradition. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. And most of all—we are in relationship with a living God, who makes all things new!

Help us, O God (even when we begin with small questions) to ask big questions boldly and with confidence in you. Help us to listen deeply to each other, to the needs of our world and—most of all—to you. “Create a spirit within us that truly draws us toward you and toward our brothers and sisters: a spirit deep, perceptive, gentle, and bold.” Amen.

* * *

Ref. 1: Suzanne G. Farnham, et al., Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Communities (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg, PA, 1991), p. 23.

Ref. 2: Ibid.

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