January 25, 2009
Edwards (Knox) United Church
Third Sunday After Epiphany
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The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson
Decision making is basic to us, and to all living things. No matter who we are, we are being invited to make a decision about this or that. Even animals have the capacity to make decisions about their environment, and our human consciousness is even more dependent on decisions made, personal or corporate. What is, arises from our creative responses to our environment. Decisions are also influenced by decisions made by others, our personal and corporate histories. Our health and our history influence what we decided. Our decisions are also influenced by unconscious factors and the conscious influences of our world. For example, Macleans has an article about advertising which now works on, "Its all about You."
In the information that comes to us form within and outside there is also the call of God calling us to transformation. It is mixed in with all the other bits of information that come at us. It is a call to transformation, to make new steps into the realm of personal and corporate transformation. For God’s call comes to us as hope for more beauty, more compassion, and more justice, and comes to us in persuasive ways, calling us to a better self.
This calling is a call and response, as all calls are. We hear and we respond, and that responding issues forth in deeper calls. And when our response is less than it could be we hear in that response this is not worthy of us.
I am reading Kathleen Norris book called, Acedia and Me. It is a study in how spiritual reflection helps overcome our tendency to say why bother. Our society tends to suggest two different and contradictory calls. The first is our sense of worth is dependent on what we accomplish, the present is but a prelude to a more important future, and it is the future achievements that will tell us we are flourishing. And because we have not achieved we are tempted to say why bother.
Yet the goal demands living that is totally in the present, practicing those gifts we have, shaping them, knowing them. And that takes practice. It is in some sense the Buddhist saying, "Don’t just do something, stand there."
The spiritual direction begins in the affirmation that God does not predetermine our choices. God has to work with our consequences, and works in partnership with our decisions. The spiritual activity is to aid us to see within the world process, in the decision made, the call of God to more flourishing. We are called to a holy adventure.
We are called to discern the many calls on us. This is a difficult task because it demands that we pay attention to the motivation of the calls. In "it’s all about you," our narcissism is reinforced by "this was made for you." The irony is this appeal to individualism makes us more homogenous. The things we want become needs and we narrow our concern to me - and if it does not directly affect me, the more we say why bother. We take in the ‘you sell’ not only because it is sold to us, but because we believe we are worth it. Our thought patterns are now what the monistic movement called ‘bad thoughts.’
Good thoughts have a potential to become virtues, bad thoughts are likely to become “bad Passions or habits of action.”* We have to be careful here for much of religious tradition has been to beat ourselves up, to tell us we are unworthy. We have had a tradition that humanity is evil by nature.
What the monks did was to remind us we are not our thoughts. Thoughts come and go. What is important is to think about our thoughts. To discern. Thoughts that are reflected upon become desires. Desires that are thought about become passions. When we examine our hearts and respond to the call of God, this is a redirecting the thoughts to the common good. The role of spiritual reflection is to redirect our thoughts and this is of primary importance to the well being of life.
Now discerning is not a proficiency test. When we fail we do not have to feel guilty or helpless. We can begin again. It may take time and time is all we have. It begins first in the recognition of what habits help us and what habits derail us.
Our story of Jonah is a great example of call response. Jonah is not keen to present Nineveh with a call for decision. He lays out the paths - one to destruction and one to peace. I heard that call in Obama’s rhetoric. We live in an interdependent world and what we do here is felt through the whole ecological reality that is our existence. We do in one sense reap what we sow. Will we choose life over individualism and national interests? Here is the transformational moment in the story - over against the dominate view of narrow religious understanding, which Jonah represents, the people repent. Not only that God changes God’s mind. This suggests that God is not limited by past actions, but is involved in a novel present. The future is open for both God and us. New things can happen, new energizes created when we focus on attending to the image of God in this moment for the next moment.
Mark keeps this theme going of the persuasive power of God’s call and our response. There they are in their boats and they get a call to a holy adventure. It would be easy to stay in the boat. It has been a good living. The call comes and they don’t ask what is your plan? What are your goals? Will it work for me? What about my wants? The call upsets all that was normal and without hesitation they join with Jesus. Like last weeks message - it is come and see - it is risk, to be without a predetermined goal, without all the ducks in order, before they begin. They were present in the moment and the discerning coming in the action of the journey.
We don’t hear about the problems, the misdirections. Oh yes, within the narrative we do hear hints. After all we know it is hard work to look beneath the surfaces presented to us and examine the cultural and historical forces underlying current issues. They, like us, were faced with - "why should we care enough to make the effort." So they went back time and time again to the generative event - we are called to a holy adventure - to their call - to help them keep the faith.
In every moment we experience a call and response. We are called to let go of old patterns, even old patterns of being the church. We are called not to perfection but to do our best in this moment, and learn from that good we have achieved. It is a call to leave the safety of the sidelines and to jump into life. It is a call to choose God’s dream of beauty and hope. I noticed there is emerging a cynicism to Obama’s words, just as there is a deep cynicism about faith. The call of discernment is let go of cynicism and to embrace the call of hope. It is a call of passion for the well being of creation. And it is call that says, we do have that passion - follow it.
*Norris, p. 91.