Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Five Practices: Intentional Faith Development

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 2:37-47:

Baseball Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver was known for many things besides for leading the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series title.  His temper tantrums were legendary.  He owned the major league record for being thrown out of the most number of games for many years, including being thrown out during the exchange of the line-ups before the game twice.  He was also known for his unique philosophy of winning baseball games, in which he said the key was “pitching, defense and three run homers.”  But none of that really has to do anything with today’s message except as a set-up to this.  One of his players once said, “Don’t you want to walk with the Lord?” to which Weaver was said to have responded, “I want to walk with the bases loaded.”

I thought that quote was appropriate for today, not only because we are now in the midst of the baseball playoffs, but also because today we look at the third part of our series on the five practices of fruitful living, based on a book of the same name by Bishop Robert Schnase.  We started by looking at passionate worship, which is to give all that we have and all that we are to God in worship, to literally bow down and pledge our allegiance to God through our lives.  Last week we looked at radical hospitality which is about opening ourselves up to welcoming others way beyond the ordinary, and this also begins with opening ourselves up to receiving God’s radical hospitality which is offered to us and is best represented by the table fellowship we share when we participate in communion.  And today we move onto intentional faith development.  Now it could be argued that passionate worship and radical hospitality are issues of the heart, because as we commented on, you can do worship and hospitality and go through the motions, but never live into the adjectives that we have accompanying them.  But when we give of ourselves in these things and become radical or passionate, it comes from the heart, from the emotion, from the feelings we bring to these issues, not really from the mind.  Surely there is something of the mind involved, but that’s not really what we think of when we talk about these subjects.

With intentional faith development, however, this becomes more of a mental exercise, again not that the heart isn’t involved, because it certainly is, but for much of this we are talking about giving to God all of our mind.  Today we’re going to flip our pattern a little bit and we’re going to start with the adjective.  What does it mean to be intentional? (Done on purpose, deliberate, planned, calculated, intended, and purposeful)  I think we might all agree that there is a usually a difference between something that is just done and something which is done intentionally.  When we add intentionality to something we go beyond the ordinary and we are often also seeking specific things to happen, specific results or goals to be achieved, and that really comes from the Latin word that intentional derives from which means “to stretch out for, to aim at.”  As Bishop Schnase says, intentionality “ratchets up the commitment and consistency.”

So, what does faith development entail? (Worship, learning, attendance, deepening in faith)  I know you’re not supposed to use the word in its definition, but faith development means that we are going to work on developing our faith.  That our faith life is not something static, or something which we can acquire enough information and stop.  It’s like a story that the poet Maya Angelou used to tell in which she met someone and they began the conversation by saying, “I’m a Christian,” and normally bad things happen to get said after that statement, but before they could continue, Angelou said, “already?  I thought becoming a Christian took a lifetime.”  That’s what faith development in this context is about, is seeking always to be learning more, to be experiencing more, to be doing more, to be acquiring more, to be deepening our faith every single day, to be, as we say as Methodist, moving onto perfection.  And this is not a solitary exercise, but this is something which is done in and in the midst of community.

In today’s passage what has happened that the people are responding to, is that it is the day of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit has filled the disciples with the gift of tongues and in response to accusations that they are, in fact, all drunk, Peter says no, it’s only 9 am we can’t be drunk, which I always find amusing, and then gives a speech about Jesus being the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of God.  That is why people ask what they must do to participate in this, and Peter tells them to repent and be baptized.  Then we find that the 3,000 are devoted “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That is they were being intentional about the faith development.  Not just the 3,000, but also the disciples and apostles, which Luke, who wrote the book of Acts as well, uses as interchangeable terms, although I don’t think they are.  They are gathering together to hear teaching, which is what we normally assume is what we are talking about when we talk about faith development, that is just attending classes.  But it’s about so much more than that.

It’s also about fellowship.  It’s about gathering together to help each other on our walk of faith.  One of the things that helped the early Methodist church grow was the use of small groups, and the sense of family and belonging that this engendered amongst people.  But they weren’t gathering just to talk about how the Broncos are going to do today, the question that began every meeting was “how is it with your soul?”  These were mutual accountability meetings in which people talked about how they were doing spiritually, their struggles and also their triumphs.  They held each other accountable for what was going on, including calling people out for areas in which they were failing in their faith lives.  Fellowship with our fellow Christians is part of faith development, but again it has to be intentional.

But what the early church was also doing was gathering together for the breaking of bread and for prayer.  That is they were gathering together for worship, and they worshipped both in the Temple and in each other’s homes.  The term synagogue, which is where they also would have worshipped since they were all Jews, means literally “bring together.”  Worship brings us together.  Now there are some who say that worship gives them all that they need for faith development, that they learn all they need to here, they have all the fellowship they need, that the hour we spend together is enough.  But I have bad news for you, it’s not enough.  I cannot teach you everything to help you deepen in your faith during our time together, nor does our fellowship time match what is necessary for deepening our faith or holding one another accountable.  On the flip side of that is for those who don’t consider worship to be part of faith development, we need to change that belief, because it is part of how we deepen our faith.

But what all of these things have in common is that they are done together.  It is possible to read the Bible alone, to read other books that help deepen our faith life alone, and to pray alone, but it’s not enough.  We have to do things together.  As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, and I have quoted before, “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and… to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”  It’s not that those things aren’t important, because I do a lot of that, but it’s not enough.  When we do everything by ourselves then we are never challenged to look at things in a different way, we are never challenged in our beliefs, either by someone else or even by the Holy Spirit.  We can get locked into our own positions and think that it is enough, and of course that we are correct, but by gathering with others, and after all what Jesus tells us is that where two or more are gathered there he is amongst us, then we are open to new and different ways of seeing ourselves, our faith life and God.  And the purpose of faith development, whether intentional or not, is not ultimately to learn more about God, although important, but the purpose is to know God, and we do that best when we do it together.  In addition, as many of you know, when you make a commitment to something, like working out, or eating better, or trying to stop something, when we do it by ourselves it’s a lot harder than when we covenant to do it with other people.  Because when we do it with others, then when we fail to do it we also let down others, and vice versa, when we are successful we help others.  Another way to look at it is if we look at the greatest in really anything, whether sports or music or writing, whatever it might be, the greatest persons always has coaches or mentors or editors or directors.  The greatest person in any profession always have others who critique them and encourage them and help them to become greater and better than they could be by themselves, and the same is true with us when it comes to our faith development.  All of us can help each other to be better than we are and to know God more.

Now one of the major things I hear from people is that they would like to do more, they would like to be involved in more things, they would like to take a Christian formation class, they would like to be involved in a small group or a covenant group, they would like to read the Bible or pray every day, but they can’t.  Why?  Because they just can’t find the time.  I’m sure you’ve said that, because I’ve said it as well.  But here is the simple truth, and we all know it’s true, no one ever finds time; they make time.  We make time.  We make time for things that are important to us.  We will move other things around on our schedule to do the things that we really want to do, or eliminate those things that aren’t really that important to us to do it.  My doctor has told me that I need to lose weight, and I tell myself that I don’t have the time to go out and walk for 30 minutes every day, but I do make the time to watch the Yankees play every day.  We don’t find time, we make time.  So if we are going to be intentional about our faith development, if we are going to be intentional about knowing God and walking this journey of faith, then we have to make the time to do it.  No one else will make it for us, and I think it’s too important to be left off, to say “Oh, I’ll do that when I retire and finally have the time.”  The time is now and we either choose to do it now or we choose not to.

I think the purpose of the church as a whole is to know Christ and to make Christ known.  I don’t think we do a really good job at the second part, but I think we do an ever worse job at the first part, of knowing Christ.  But the reality is that the second comes from the first.  If we don’t feel comfortable about our faith, if we don’t know the answers to questions that people might ask, if we can’t talk about our faith or what it means to us, then we are going to be resistant to try and share it with others, which means that knowing Christ will lead directly to helping us to make Christ known.  To generate fruit and deepen our faith and our walk with God, requires us to cultivate our walk of faith, including sometimes pruning out things, so that we have the room and capacity to grow in faith.  And that requires all of us working together.  It requires us as the church to offer all the opportunities to allow people to grow in faith, it requires us to allow space for new groups to begin based on interest or need, it requires us to step up and lead groups or to say this is what I am interested in giving my time to in order to deepen my faith walk with my fellow pilgrims.

Since we began with a quote from Earl Weaver, I thought we’d close with one as well, as he said that “it’s what you learn after you know it all that counts,” or as someone else said, the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know, and so it is with our faith lives.  Our journey of faith development never ends, because we never stop growing in our need to know God and to know what God is calling us to do and to be.  So it’s not about how much we know, or even if we know it all, it’s about what we are looking to learn and to do tomorrow and the day after as we intentionally seek to walk this journey of faith together and to deepen our relationship with, and knowledge of, God in the person of Christ.  I pray that it will be so my sisters and brothers.

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