Monday, September 19, 2016

Sermon: "Burrowing Deeper: Feeding our Spiritual Selves", Deuteronomy 6:4-9/John 3:5-13, 8:23-26, 31-32 (September 18, 2016)


Sermon video here.

(This sermon is the fourth and final in a pre-stewardship series on the topic of "Going Deeper" in our faith.)


Today, we conclude our series on “Going Deeper” with a sermon about our spiritual selves. While most of us can grasp how we might take our faith deeper physically or mentally, we in western society tend to struggle with the idea of spirituality—especially personal spirituality. We admire it in theory, but rarely attempt to try it for ourselves. It feels weird to us. Part of this, I think, has to do with the fact that it’s not something we’re ever taught how to recognize or engage in. We’re taught to think critically and logically, but never spiritually. Reformed theology is particularly guilty here. We’ve become so focused on the centrality of God’s word, with a lowercase “w” (reading it, studying it, discussing it) that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that the intellectual approach is, at best, a superior one, and at worst, the ONLY one. But we forget that the Word doesn’t exist just for the benefit of our intellect. 

The Word (with a capital “w” now) isn’t something objective that we can evaluate and study and categorize in a box. It’s so much more than ink confined to a page or ideas contained in a human mind. The Word is not ours to control or make sense of. It cannot, CANNOT, be understood using our minds alone. We’d do well to remember that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[1] This Word is wild and untamable. So if we want to be in full, real relationship with God (which I assume we all do, since we’ve made it to the end of this sermon series and you’re here instead of in bed on a Sunday morning) we need another way to encounter the divine.

Because this doesn’t come naturally to us, we need to look to scripture for guidance. Back towards the beginning of this series, when Andrew preached our physical selves, we read the first part of John 3. We considered the choices that Nicodemus made regarding his physical presence in his desire to follow Jesus. But today, I want to focus on the next part of this passage—the part where Jesus tries to impress upon Nicodemus just how confused his priorities are.

Nicodemus starts his conversation with Jesus by saying, “We know that YOU have come from God; we know that YOU are in God’s presence.” Jesus’ answer, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” seems like a non-sequitur, until we realize that Jesus is trying to redirect the subject of the discussion. He’s saying, “No, no, no; it’s not about who I am or where I’m from; it’s about how YOU enter into relationship with God. Recognizing me is only the first part of the journey. The endgame is about YOU.” Nicodemus, of course, misses the point entirely, getting hung up on the logic and reason of what Jesus is saying—sound familiar? “How is that even possible?” he asks.

So, I imagine, Jesus sighs heavily and tries to explain. “It’s not the kind of birth that you’re thinking of,” he says. “I’m not talking about a physical birth, because physical birth can only give life to the flesh. A spiritual birth is required to give life to the spirit. It’s not enough just to redirect your mind and body, because earthly things can only understand other earthly things. And God is NOT an earthly thing! You need a complete rebirth—a re-creation—in order to even comprehend, let alone enter, the kingdom of God. Your body and mind aren’t enough. You need to connect with your spirit. Get it?”

Of course, again—still—Nicodemus doesn’t get it. To him (and to us) one birth is all we get. One birth, and one death. That’s what makes sense. That’s what’s logical. By insisting that ours is a world of strict tangibility and objectivity, we set up a dichotomy between our usual lived experience and the spiritual “other”. Life is characterized by our ability to understand it rationally, so the spiritual realm must be something totally different. This “second birth” must come sometime after we’re finished with the first one: after our natural death. It’s something for us to hope for in the nebulous future; nothing to worry about now.

This perspective is one of the great failures of modern Christianity. The gospel doesn’t call us to a life of “mind now; spirit later.” American philosopher Dallas Willard, who devoted much of his life to writing about Christian spiritual formation, proclaimed that “The gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” And that’s the reality that Jesus is describing to Nicodemus. He’s telling him that the kingdom of Heaven isn’t something to wait for in death, but to pursue now through life—through spiritual re-birth. And in the human obsession with flesh and matter and fact, we miss this chance at new life even today. We miss this chance to live fully here and now and the way God intended for us.

Of course, a rebirth requires a new way of thinking and being, and that’s scary. Luckily, we don’t have to invent spirituality from scratch. Nicodemus wasn’t the first to be confused by this stuff, and we won’t be the last. As far back as the first books of the Old Testament—the Torah—we can find guidance for this curious endeavor. The passage that we read today from Deuteronomy is known as the “Shema” in Jewish tradition. This verse is to many Jewish people what John 3:16 is to many Christians: it captures the essence of their faith in just a few words. Notice how it says to love the Lord your God: with all your HEART, with all your SOUL, and with all your MIGHT—not a word about your mind, in contrast to other retellings of this verse later in scripture. That’s not to say that the mind is unimportant, but it’s not the emphasis here. So we find that for a faith that embraces law and commandment eagerly, its most central passage encourages a rather abstract, decidedly unintellectual way to interact with God.

Now, apart from suggesting that our relationship with the divine requires more than just our minds, the Shema is interesting to me for another reason: because it insists that this non-intellectual engagement with God ISN’T A PASSIVE EXPERIENCE. As Jesus implies to Nicodemus, a spiritual connection isn’t an automatic benefit of being one of God’s children—otherwise, as a Pharisee, he would have been all set. We need to work at it. It’s not enough to passively experience love for God. This scripture calls us to absolutely surround ourselves with the task, to burrow ourselves in deeply and entirely: reciting the words, teaching them to our children, binding them to our hands and foreheads and doorposts and gates, and doing this whether we’re at home or away or lying down or rising up. This is the work of every moment of this life.

I’m sure you’re beginning to see the contrast with our own expectations of spirituality today. Think about how often you’ve heard someone say, or you’ve said yourself, “You know, I’m just not feeling spiritually fed.” This is the language that WE most often use today; the language of being served spirituality on a plate. We wait for it to magically appear before us and become puzzled when our spiritual lives then aren’t as filling or satisfying as we expect. But that’s not a scriptural approach. I kind of hear the instructions following the Shema, telling us to burrow deeply into the work of the spirit, as an admonition against this mentality. To continue with the metaphor of being fed, it’s like when you complain that you don’t like what’s for dinner, so the cook tells you, “If you don’t like it, then get into the kitchen and make your own food!” Spiritually speaking, we can’t be fully fed unless we’re willing to get into the kitchen and work for it. In other words, we need to take off our bibs and put on our aprons.[2]

So now we know that we need to be reborn of the spirit to experience things of the spirit, and to do that we need to step away from the table and step into the kitchen. So what’s the payoff for all of this? What’ll we find once we’ve committed to life in the kitchen? Well, it turns out that the writer of John has something else up his sleeve. As much as the gospel discusses spiritual matters, it also includes another important theme: TRUTH. Many of our favorite verses pertaining to truth (including “I am the way, the truth, and the life;” Pilate asking, “what is truth?”) are unique to the gospel of John. And in John 8, as Jesus becomes increasingly frustrated with the Pharisees who challenge him, he uses truth almost as a trump card with them, declaring, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That’s a lot of truthiness in one sentence.

But wait a minute, if God is about truth, if that’s the fruit of all our efforts, then we’ve done all this spiritual work only to arrive back at facts and logic, right? We’re back to an intellectual theology. Jesus sounds like he’s quoting a procedural drama, like spirituality is actually about uncovering the objective facts of a case to solve the crime—I mean, to enter the kingdom.

But here again I’m afraid that we’re trying to tame the Word and give it a meaning that was never intended. John’s truth—Jesus’ truth—is different than our truth. To us, truth is fact: words on paper, easily verifiable or disproven. But the Greek word for truth that the gospel uses again and again—aléthia—isn’t limited in that way. Aléthia has the added sense of “unconcealedness” or “disclosure”. Truth for Jesus doesn’t hinge on being “right” or having special knowledge, as it so often does for us. In this gospel of flesh versus spirit, discovering truth is the act of uncovering a deeper reality through our work of the spirit. So paradoxically, as we burrow deeper, getting in the kitchen and surrounding ourselves with matters of the spirit, we’re actually doing the work of uncovering God’s Truth for ourselves. A truth that can’t be perceived with our minds, no matter how hard we try.

And at the end of the day, that’s what spirituality is all about: letting go of our earth-bound, logic-dependent perspective in order to see things more as God sees them, to see God’s Truth. That’s why things like Lectio Divina and coloring mandalas and meditation work so well at tapping into our spiritual side. They challenge us to see familiar things in a different way: Scripture, color and patterns, even the process of thinking itself! It can be hard to convince ourselves that these practices have value (and yes, they do take practice) but it’s so important to foster this part of who God has created us to be. We’re born—and, if we do it right, reborn—to be creatures of spirit just as much as creatures of mind and body.

Even today, I can hear Jesus echoing his words to the Pharisees in his frustration, “Why do I speak to you at all?” We hear his words, and yet we do nothing. We wait to be fed, never stepping foot into the kitchen, never getting our hands dirty to burrow deeper into matters of the spirit. We persist in our spiritual ignorance, even as we revel in our intellectual acumen. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Since it’s an ongoing task, the opportunity to be reborn of the spirit is ever before us. The kitchen door is wide open; you just have to take that first step in. It isn’t easy work, and it won’t necessarily come naturally at first, but it’s what Christ calls you to do, and who God created you to be.

So go ahead. Get up from the table. Seek out that which brings your spirit to life and awakens the wholeness of your being. The truth is that you’re so much more than a brain living in a body, and THAT truth will set you free.

[1] John 1:1, 14.

[2] I heard this bib/apron metaphor second- or third-hand through a friend. She first read it on Jan Edmiston’s blog, but it may have originated somewhere else.

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