Figure out what race God wants you to run
Pete gave our homily today, while Mike ably led us in worship. Thank you to you both! Thanks also to Peace, who gave the children's message, reminding us all to be persistent in prayer.
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
When I look the readings I have been asked to speak on and almost every time I think, ‘ooh, that’s tricky’. Today’s is no exception, they seem to have the theme of wrestling with God.
Jacob dared to wrestle with God, and was changed; the chapter after this morning’s reading describes how he and his brother Esau were reconciled to each other. Jacob dared to wrestle with God, and was changed.
Then the gem of a Psalm, I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Our Gospel reading of The unjust judge. The woman persevered. It makes God out to be unjust, is it in the spirit of... how much more will your heavenly father respond justly and quickly. Or, is Jesus warning us be prepared for times when God seems unjust, times when very little makes any sense, persevere.
Then there is the Timothy reading All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.“ Which is true but we ought to accept that we, consciously or unconsciously, make our own interpretations! And later in the passage, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” I have sympathy for Paul and his letter to Timothy. He was imprisoned, as far as we know, never to be released, he had done all he could to establish the Christian Church, many of his close friends were deserting him and he appeals to Timothy as one of his loyal friends to come and visit him.
But the tricky bit for me is; I can’t help asking, what is sound doctrine?
For instance, in Titus Ch2, Paul says you must teach ‘what is appropriate doctrine’ on how men and women should behave and the woman’s list is about three times as long as the man’s! There are better people than I who could explain the context and why Paul sometimes differentiated between men and women, why he felt he needed to say this. Today, some disdain such passages, others say this should be taken in the context of the times. I don’t think many who would agree with making a list for the men and a second list for the women! We interpret; most of us allow our doctrine to evolve. Martin Luther’s contemporaries at the time of the reformation used the word reforming, not reformed. They recognised they were working through a process which was ongoing – and is still ongoing.
Over the six decades I can remember going to church I could point out changes that have evolved in the church at large. The church’s and individual’s doctrine over issues such as racism, sexism, sexuality, heaven and hell, other religions, the way we observe Sundays, and more. In the 1960’s I could have pointed out people who thought the Baptists were the only ones you’d see in heaven! And then, not any old Baptist, only the independent ones, and even some of those were suspect!
Each of us believe we have sound doctrine, if we didn’t we’d change it. Our own doctrinal stance will have been influenced by who taught us, the books we have read, relationship within our own family and not least, the media. Perhaps this is what Paul is warning us against when he says they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. To recognise when you are simply going with the flow when you ought to be swimming vigorously against it. It’s very tempting to go with the flow, we need to discern what we think is right and wrong, and it’s not easy.
The American Christian writer and speaker Brian McClaren in his book Naked Spirituality (Hodder and Stoughton) describes what he sees as four stages of faith or spirituality; Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, Harmony.
Simplicity – everything is straight forward and clear cut.
Complexity – Everything is clear cut but it’s not straight forward
Perplexity – You’re not sure about God, the church or the Bible anymore; the only thing you’re sure about is you find the Apostle Paul annoying!
Harmony – The big questions remain unanswered but you’re prepared to put all of the perplexity to one side because you recognise your horizon is simply the limit of your sight and beyond the horizon you can see, there are many others.
But here’s the thing, he didn’t say this is the progress everyone goes through, or even should go through. For some, faith stays simple, clear cut and sometimes those are the ones who reach for the skies, have great faith and achieve great things. Those who believe there are complex answers are often the serious readers and scholars. There is a Christian apologist and physicist John Polkinghorne, I’ve tried my hardest with his books and went to hear him once. At the end I thought, you seem a wonderful person but I’ve understood very little of what you’ve said!
But here’s where I will try and answer the ‘So what?’ question. Our human nature is to group together with like minded people. We have done the same, we speak English and have a Christian faith so we meet together. But (as I know I’ve said on other occasions) that’s where the similarity ends. Between us we have a breadth of stories that span a wider spectrum than the vast majority of churches.
Here’s the coffee time homework. Ask someone ‘what sort of church did you used to go to? What was it like?’
Between us we’re likely to have a wide spectrum of what we might call sound doctrine. For those whose faith is clear cut and reaching for the skies, maybe there will be those who can help buttress your footings and foundations to see that you stay that way. For some it’s complex or perplexing which has not necessarily been of our own choosing, it’s just become that way, one can’t help the difficult questions popping into our heads. Maybe some enjoy the complexity or even the perplexity but if so, it’s important not to plant questions or doubt in others where no question or doubt existed before. If we do, I feel we’re being like the serpent in the Garden of Eden saying ‘Did God really say...?’ But also, we need to be ready to catch the pieces if the simple moves on to the complex and perplexing and is danger of crashing. Perhaps a young adult who finds the answers they were given through their childhood and adolescent years no longer very satisfactory. Our previous rector Rob used to touch on this sometimes, he told us there were times he had us expats coming to him saying for the first time in their lives, they were questioning why they come to church, then at another time he would have to work through issues with people who were quite fundamental in their beliefs and thought Rob should be as well. He had my sympathy in the difficulty in shepherding such a disparate band of pilgrims! Equally, those who’s complex and perplexing faith is in danger of crashing can be helped by those who take a more simple approach and carry less baggage.
In my previous church, there was a guy who would sometimes want us reaching for the skies but at other times was dogged by depression. When he was low, there were people there to help him. When he was up there - no one could keep up. He wrote a novel aimed at young offenders in prison that was pretty successful, he had plans and ideas inspired by a clear cut faith. He had this alternative BOGOF idea for his book, instead of Buying One, Get one Free, his idea was ‘buy two and the second one will go to a prison library.
For any who struggle with the complexity and perplexity of faith, I hope Christchurch is a place where questions can be aired, where permission is granted to question. And maybe this is where the parable of The unjust judge fits in. Perhaps Jesus was warning us it won’t always be easy, there will be times when you want to hear God’s voice but He seems to be saying nothing. Like Jacob, we need to keep wrestling.
Quoting the online reflections of Richard Rohr – Holiness, like all holiness, is unique and never a copy or mere imitation. Francis of Assisi’ wrote “No one showed me what I ought to do,” and then, at the very end of his life, he said, “I have done what is mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours.”
A couple of verses after today’s Timothy reading, verse 7 says, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Figure out what race God wants you to run – and run! Some can sprint a 100 metres like the wind. Others will dig deep and finish a marathon.
The only sound doctrine I would presume to impart this morning is to quote Micah 6;8 ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
For an alternative view of the readings today, you could go to Bob'sProspect (https://bobsprospect.blogspot.com/) which is where our former Rector, Rob Warren, occasionally posts his sermons. He is now Vicar of All Saints' Anglican Church in Rome. We miss him, but look forward to a new chapter in Christ Church's future, as we search for a new Rector.