First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
February 3, 2019
Scripture: Luke 5:33-39; Galatians 4:8-9
This week I started reading a book written by Charles Eisenstein entitled Climate: A New Story. As the title suggests, it’s a book about climate change, but it’s different. Eisenstein takes a different approach in unpacking the ecological challenges our world faces. He criticizes the simplicity of approaching climate change as something to be solved or conquered – suggesting that the source of the problem is deeper. He likens our destruction of the planet to addiction – citing that often if one addiction is eliminated, another manifests. Chasing behaviors does not solve the issue, instead you must focus on the root of the behavior.
Throughout the Bible, we hear stories of people challenging the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. This morning’s story is no exception. The reading from the Gospel of Luke opens with the Pharisees questioning the behavior of Jesus disciples. It seems their behavior is not “pious” enough for them. Not only are they eating and drinking and enjoying themselves, but just before this passage we are told that their feast is being held at the house of Levi, Levi, a tax collector. Jesus and the disciples are feasting with tax collectors and sinners – the Pharisees are not happy.
Eisenstein posits that an us vs. them dichotomy has been promoted in environmentalism. The idea that the natural world is something other than we are. Eisenstein suggests that such a distinction causes us to forget that our well-being is tied to the well-being of the natural world. He asserts that the distinction between the two is false, there is not them – only us. Jesus seems to be suggesting the same. There is no other – the well-being of the tax collector, the well-being of the sinner is our well-being. As such, we are called to engage one another, not separate ourselves.
Jesus, however, doesn’t leave his teaching at that. He uses the Pharisees opposition to challenge their practices – to suggest another way of understanding obedience to God. We hear stories of Jesus doing this throughout the New Testament. This is his legacy – he lives out his faith differently from the norms of the day. In doing so, he makes those who are wed to their own ways of doing things so angry – they eventually conspire to have him killed. They don’t ever seem to stop and consider the possibility that the root of their behavior could be based upon a flawed understanding, a flawed story.
Make no mistake, the Pharisees and Jesus all believe that they are living lives that are obedient to God. The Pharisees believe that obedience can be set in a certain set of rules. This does not require an internal orientation to God per se, it just requires knowledge of the rules. Know the rules, follow the rules, be pleasing to God.
Jesus is suggesting a different way. In the beginning of his book, Eisenstein tells the story of a man who is lost in a maze. He has limited time to escape that maze and as such rushes around furiously trying to find the way out. The more he races, the more he just repeats the same path, the more tired he gets. Out of necessity, the man stops – but while he is stopped, he realizes he can hear music. He also realizes that there are parts of the maze he keeps passing by because he doesn’t expect them to lead to the exit. When he begins to look for the exit again, he proceeds slowly – listening for the music. He moves where the music leads him – even if it seems unlikely, and eventually he makes his way out of the maze.
When I read this, I couldn’t help but think it was a great image for how we are called to live out our faith. We must listen for that which others are not hearing. We must trust and follow even our culture tells us otherwise.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a training for clergy. The leader of the training came from a faith background and had a master’s in business administration. He had some great insights regarding where church communities are often missing the mark. He knew that the marks of ministry from the days of yore are no longer helpful. Tracking membership, worship attendance, and even giving does not necessarily capture the story of a faith community – nor should it define the story. And yet, one of the suggestions of the training was to have a plan – what’s your plan for your congregation to live into the future you want for it.
My relationship to strategic planning for church communities has changed over the years. When I first started out, my guess is I would have been wholly behind the idea. Trained as an engineer, I love planning. I love breaking down tasks into bite sized pieces. I love moving forward and chipping away at the steps. But over time I have become less enamored with strategic planning for churches. I couldn’t exactly put my waning enthusiasm into words until this week when I read this in a book entitled, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church by Reggie McNeil. McNeill says,
Typical approaches to the future involve prediction and planning. … The better (and biblical) approach to the future involves prayer and preparation, not prediction and planning.
McNeill reminds us that the stories in the Bible tell of people who follow God’s lead. Abraham didn’t plan to become the father of the Israelites, Moses didn’t plan the exodus, and Jesus followers didn’t plan for a messiah to be born. Instead, all of these people had to open themselves to what God was doing in the world and prayerfully follow.
Living a life of faith is not about pressing forward to some end goal that we have set. It’s not about executing a rote set of rules to make God happy. Instead it’s about listening for the music and following. We must prepare ourselves to hear the music. We must prepare ourselves to follow where it leads. As Eisenstein and McNeill both suggest in their books, it’s critical that we understand and clarify our values – the why behind the what. How are we trying to be in the world? It’s actually impossible for us to know what God may want from us in the future, but if we stay rooted in the values that Jesus demonstrated to us, we have the ability to faithfully follow. May God grant us strength and wisdom for this journey. Amen.