But, What Do You Think?

The following was originally delivered as the sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on September 13, 2015.

Where I lived when I was growing up, people would sometimes try to convert others to their own particular brand of Christianity. Sometimes a classmate would do it. Other times it was someone on the street, or going door to door, passing out pamphlets. And you sort of learned what to watch out for if you didn’t want to be evangelized, and most of the time you could sneak by them, or cut them off at the pass.

It wasn’t always possible, though. One time my mom got stuck in the line at the DMV with someone who was trying to convert her.

12011156_1042871019098829_2260206330329240522_nOne question I remember being asked a lot by the folks who wanted to convert others was this: Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I was a Christian, I did have a relationship with Jesus, but I was a little worried that they were going to tell me I was doing it all wrong and that they knew him a whole lot better than I did. So, to be honest, I’d hear the question and run the other way as fast as I could.

And then one time my senior year of high school, when I was really starting to explore my faith more, I tried to talk to a friend who had grown up in a fundamentalist family about it. She was heading in the other direction from her church and rejecting everything that she had been taught.

We were driving and I told her about this pull I was feeling towards belief and about how my priorities felt like they were shifting. And I could sort of see her getting uncomfortable, and she turned to me with this exasperated look and said something like, “Emily…are you trying to tell me you’ve been saved?”

And I recoiled and said, “oh…no…no…I was just saying I’ve been thinking about some things, that’s all.

This week’s Gospel lesson features Jesus having one of those awkward talks with his disciples. He asks them as a group, “Who do people say that I am?” And they give him some answers. They say some say he’s Elijah. Others say he’s John the Baptist. Others say he’s a prophet.
But after they all give him these answers, he asks the question another way. “But, who do YOU say that I am.”

I’ll bet for a minute there you could hear crickets chirping. It’s sort of like when you’re in class and you give the answer you think the teacher wants to hear, the safe answer, the one you read in all the books and the cliff notes. And then the teacher asks it again but this time says, “now I want to hear what you think”.

Finally Peter tries. He tells Jesus, “you’re the Messiah”.

Peter answered for himself, and he got it right. But I’ll bet just answering that question was a leap of faith for him. I’ll bet it was a lot easier to give the answer that everyone else was giving. When he had to answer it for himself, it was probably terrifying. And yet, when he finally did dare to speak, Peter was the first one to really understand who Jesus was.

I think we can all relate to the disciples here. If someone were to ask you, “Who do you say that Jesus is”, how would you answer? To be honest, I would probably try to put all those seminary classes to good use and come up with the perfect, pithy, theologically correct answer, hoping that others would think I was right. Because I spent a lot of time in seminary trying to come up with the right answers, and reading a lot about what other people said about Jesus. When Jesus asked me that question, I could go and pull out the heavy theological books from seminary, write up a summary in an essay, polish it up, and turn it in and pray for an A.

But then I think Jesus would ask me again, “But, who do YOU say that I am?” And that question would be ten times harder.

I think back to those folks I knew growing up. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” You know, in a way they were really asking, “Who do you say that Jesus is?” Except, I’m pretty sure that for most of them, there were right answers. And I’m not sure they were really wanting to hear my answer, so much as the answer they were looking for, the answer, they and their church all believed was true.

But I’m glad Jesus doesn’t ask us what everyone else says about him. He asks what we say about him. Because the reality is there is a lot of stuff that is said about Jesus that I don’t believe. And, unfortunately, when I ask my non-Christian friends what they think Jesus was all about they sometimes tell me what they hear churches saying about this issue or that one, and it’s not pretty.

If Jesus really were the person some of the voices that were loudest around me growing up said he was, I don’t think I would want to get close enough to him to find the answers for myself.

But the good news is that Jesus doesn’t call for all the voices around us to answer that question. He calls for each of us to answer that question. And in order to answer it, we have to get to know Jesus for ourselves. We have to, as the street preachers used to say, have a personal relationship with him.

And, unlike what those street preachers used to say, we have to trust it, and we have to trust that our relationship with Jesus is as valid as anyone else’s.

But that’s not always easy. During one of the hardest times of my life, a few years after I was ordained, I had to ask myself that question again: who is Jesus to me. And for a while there, I wasn’t sure. My doubt and faith were wrestling with one another, and I just didn’t know.

I would not want to go back through that time. But I’m glad I lived through it. Because it was that grappling, that questioning, that helped me to answer the question for myself today. It was that season in my life that deepened my faith, and made me believe that God truly did love me.

We are fortunate that we are in a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions like that. We have a lot of testaments and testimonies to faith from those who came before us. And we do believe things as a body. But we don’t have a checklist of things you must believe to be a part of this community. We don’t make you take a test, or answer the questions of a catechism correctly, when you come to the door. We just welcome you, and we welcome your questions.

For us as individuals, that’s both wonderful, and a little terrifying. It means that you don’t come here on Sunday mornings because I’m going to have the right answer up here in the pulpit. I might have the answer I’ve come to, and what I think is true, but that’s not to say that you will agree or that it’s the right one. And we don’t come here because we have the cheat sheet hidden somewhere in the church.

We come because we are all journeying down the same road, trying to answer for ourselves, the question Jesus asks of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Sometimes we will try to answer that together. But sometimes we can only answer it for ourselves. And we have to trust that whatever we say, if we are truly answering out of our relationship with Christ, it will be enough.

I’ll close with this. There’s always been one thing about that passage we read this morning that has bothered me. When Peter answers correctly, when he says “you’re the Messiah”, Jesus tell them all, “don’t tell anybody”. Now, I think there were a lot of reasons for that. Some had to do with where he was heading, and his own coming death and resurrection. But I wonder if there was another meaning there too.

I wonder if Jesus said that because he wanted people to find out for themselves. I wonder if he said that because he didn’t want us to take the shortcuts to the right answers, instead of really getting to know him. I wonder if he said that to discourage generations of followers who came later from taking the easy route, from just buying into the soundbites about faith that they hear all around them. I wonder if he said that because he wanted to make that journey with us, and because he was our companion on the road to that answer, and not just our destination.

It’s sort of the difference between flipping to the back of the math textbook and writing down the right answer rather than actually showing your own work. It’s easy. But in the end you’re no better for it.

So, on this gathering Sunday, where we start a new program year, I home you will join me on the journey of asking the big questions. And as we bless the backpacks of our students today, we send them out into a world where they will ask big questions and seek worthy answers. And they will do it with our blessing, just as they will in church school each Sunday, or in youth group, or even when they go off on their own one day. We are literally blessing them for the journey today.

And it’s a journey all of us are on. Because more than anything, the life of faith is traveled on a road paved by our own questions. And this is a place where you can ask those questions, gathered together in this community, gathered together on this journey, and gathered together to ponder Jesus question to us all: who do you say that I am.

I love walking this road with Jesus, and I love walking it with all of you. Even when it’s clouded and we can’t see up ahead. Even when it leads us to some places we’ve never gone before. I love it because I know we are all trying to answer that question, both together and as individuals, and we’ll never get the answer quite right. At least in this lifetime. But we keep trying. And we keep our hearts open. And slowly, together, we begin to find the words to answer our biggest questions. Amen.

If You Could Ask God for One Thing….

Note: the following was delivered as a sermon on Sunday, August 16, 2015 at the Congregational Church in Exeter, NH.

There’s a story you may have heard before about two women, and one baby. Both women claim that the child is theirs, and that they are the rightful mother. But one is lying, and it remains up to a wise king to decide which one.

The king listens to both women, and comes up with a fair and equitable solution: cut the child in half, and give half to each woman.

One woman says, “That’s fine. This way the baby will be neither hers nor mine.”

But the other cries out, “Give the baby to her. I’d rather she have the baby than anything happen to him.”

The king declares that the woman who would rather surrender her child to another than see him hurt is the child’s mother. Because a parent who would see a child destroyed for their own selfishness is no parent at all, but a parent who would willingly relinquish a rightful claim so they child may live? That is love. That is the true parent.

That story has been retold through thousands of years in books and plays and movies. But all of those retellings come from this one story, written in Scripture long ago. And it’s the king in the story who gets our attention. The one who orders a child to be divided in half, a horrible and brutal solution.

Prophet-SolomonBut the king, of course, never has any desire to harm the child. Because he knows that a parent who truly loves a child will never sacrifice that child to their own jealously or greed. And it’s that king’s wisdom that saves the day.

The king in this story is King Solomon, sometimes known as Solomon the wise. The Bible describes his wisdom and his discerning mind again and again. It tells us that leaders of other nations, like the Queen of Sheba, sought him out and came to ask for his advice. And he ruled his kingdom as a wise leader, who sought God’s wisdom in all he did.

It’s natural to think that Solomon might have been born wise. Maybe he was just a smart, precocious kid with wise parents. But, though he might have been bright, he didn’t grow up surrounded by paragons of wisdom.

Solomon was the son of David, a great king for sure, but not always a wise one. David was a strong king. He fought Goliath with just a few stones and a slingshot. But he was also a king who had serious lapses in judgement. Like the time he saw Bathsheba sunbathing on a roof, and wanted her so much that he had her husband killed in battle. He was a powerful king, but not a wise one.

Ironically, it was that very relationship, David and Bathsheba, that produced Solomon. And when the time came for Solomon to replace his father, God called to him and asked him the question all of us might jump at: “Now that you’re going to be king, what do you need? What do you want me to give to you?”

Think about that question for a minute. God is offering you anything. What do you say? What do you ask for? Money? Fame? Power? Security? Love?

All of the above? Or none of the above?

In the end that was what Solomon asked for. None of the above. Instead he said to God this, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Solomon knew that he was in over his head. He was just a young man and he was being asked to lead God’s people, and he was rightfully terrified. And so when God offered him anything in the world, Solomon forgets about money or power or all the rest, and he asks only for this: wisdom.

God is so impressed with Solomon’s request that God says, “it’s yours”. And God even ends up giving Solomon all the other things he didn’t ask for, riches and power, because God is loves Solomon for choosing wisdom instead.

I love this story because it goes against so much of our popular culture. In a time when we watch reality TV and read about people who are famous for being famous, this story reminds us that the true treasure is never given to those who seek things only for themselves. Instead, it is given to those who go a little deeper than that. People like Solomon, who want the wisdom to do the right thing, not just for themselves but for those they serve.

I love the idea of wisdom as a gift from God. Something we can ask for. A spiritual blessing. And something that our world needs now more than ever.

I think about the lack of wisdom we have in our culture sometimes. Because wisdom isn’t particularly valued. Success is, in all of its material forms. But not wisdom. Make a million dollars and everyone respects you. Drive a fancy car, or own a big house, and you’ll get noticed. Get the big promotion, and everyone will know you won.

But seek only to be wise? Not so much.

I was listening to a conversation recently in another context where a parent was talking about their son who was now in college. She was saying that he was majoring in philosophy. And another person at the table piped up and said, “A philosophy major?! What’s he going to do with that? He should be majoring in finance or STEM! He’ll never make any money.”

And I thought to myself, is that what we’ve come to? That being an English major is a mark of failure? And God forbid you are a religion major or a philosophy major. What will you ever accomplish with that?
And I thought about how wisdom is not valued in our particular culture. Deep thinking isn’t coveted. Moral questioning is scoffed at, and ethical questions are only considered so long as they don’t impact the bottom line. And young people who choose to devote themselves to the big questions, are met with resistance.

“Where did we go wrong? Our kid is an English major!”

(I can say that because I was an English major.)

But what if we, as people of faith saw the pursuit of wisdom as a part of our spiritual lives? What if we saw seeking knowledge, asking the big questions, and seeking God’s will, as central to the life of faith?

I don’t just mean in terms of being book smart. I’ve spent enough time in academic settings to know that can have a PhD and be very smart but also not very wise. I mean in terms of seeking God’s presence and God’s desire for us in our daily lives.

I’ve talked before about my love for Reinhold Niebuhr’s short prayer that has come to be known as the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I think of that prayer not so much as the serenity prayer, but as the wisdom prayer. God, teach me to be wise enough to know what I can do in this world, and wise enough to know what I cannot. Because if I know the difference, I will know your will for me. I will know where to focus my energy. Make me wise, so that I may make this world better.

What would it mean if we were to teach ourselves that? What would it mean if we were to teach our children and young people that? What if we taught them that seeking God’s wisdom mattered more than anything?

I’ve been reading this book by a Washington Post reporter called “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.” It’s excellent so far. And this week I read this shocking statement, “The average high school kid today experiences the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient of the 1950’s. And perhaps more disturbing, scientist are finding that when children are exposed to stress – often stemming from the overwhelm of their parents – it can alter not only their neurological and hormonal systems but also their very DNA.”

In other words, we have created a culture that is literally making our kids sick and rewiring our children’s brains, and not for the better.

And that is because though we may have a culture of smart phones and advanced placement and conspicuous consumption, we are not very wise. We focus on what doesn’t matter first, and on what does matter if we have the time. We do the opposite of what Solomon did. We ask for all the things he didn’t, without asking for the wisdom to know what they are really worth.

I think there’s a sweet irony to the fact that Solomon didn’t ask for money or power, but he got them anyway. They came in an organic way, a product of having his priorities in the right place. And that’s how he was able to keep them.

There’s an article in this weekend’s Washington Post about happiness, and how to find it. An experiment was done to find what activities helped people to become happy, and maintain that happiness. And the findings were interesting. More than taking classes, playing sports, engaging in civic duties, or even volunteering, participating in a religious community was the most correlated with maintaining ones happiness.

I don’t think the goal of coming to church is to be happy. But I think it is to know God, and to seek wisdom of God. And I think that, like Solomon’s wealth and power, our happiness becomes an organic byproduct of that quest for wisdom, and of that desire to know God’s will for our lives. Because I think when we strip away all the stuff of the world, all the “shoulds” and “musts” and desires to get ahead, replace them only with a desire to know God’s will for us, we are reshaped and, in the best sense of the word, re-formed.

I think about the young people the book talked about, and the anxiety and stress that they live with, often picked up from watching the adults they love and respect the most. And I think about what our culture would look like if we valued seeking God and God’s wisdom more than seeking anything else.

And I think about the two women, and the baby, who came to Solomon. And how one mother was willing to destroy a child to get what she wanted. And the other was willing to let go of everything in order to save them.

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us. As individuals. As a church. As a community. As a world. Without wisdom, we will destroy what we love the most. But if we seek God’s wisdom, we will make the hard choices that will allow the next generation to thrive.

Today we will go to God in prayer once again. And in a real way I believe God is asking us the same question God asked Solomon: what do you need? Choose your answer carefully. And wisely. Amen.