Jeff is 26 years old. He gave his life to Christ as a teenager when he was on a youth retreat, and he was all in. Youth group, mission projects, Bible Study. He joined Campus Crusade in college and spent Friday nights evangelizing in his residence hall and spring breaks converting people on the beach. He was totally sure about Jesus. Then in his 20s his certainty started to break down, and so did his faith. He found himself disagreeing with his church friends; he was really hard on himself for some mistakes he made at work and in his social life; his college girlfriend decided he was no longer good enough and broke up with him. And he wonders lately: “Has Jesus has broken up with me too?” Jeff’s faith isn’t working because he’s got to figure out that following Christ isn’t about being perfect, it’s about receiving grace.
Monica is a 43. She’s a wife, mother, and professional; most days she knocks it out of the park in all categories. And she feels completely lost and overwhelmed. For most of her 30s she felt like the most important thing was achievement and getting things done, and so she did that, including with her faith. She attended all the right church mission activities, met with the moms group, dragged her kids to worship and Sunday School, and even got her husband to go some of the time. But lately she’s been wondering what its all for, because all the achievement isn’t bringing her much joy. “I’m not growing in faith,” she thinks. “Is church nothing more than another place to have to meet expectations?”
Byron retired 6 months ago at 62. He made plenty of money, the kids are off to college, he’s got his health, and his wife still leaves for her job at the hospital every day at 7. Byron is lonely, and has no clue what he’s going to do with the next phase of his life. All his friends were work friends and they’re still working. He spent so much time at the office that he doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, and he’s already sick of playing golf three times a week. At night he looks at the ceiling trying to fall asleep and wonders, “Who am I?” He’s gone to church all his life, because it seemed like the right thing to do, but lately for the first time he’s started to wonder: maybe I need God’s help to figure this out.
Theologian Brian McLaren starts a recent book with these words: “…[F]aith was never intended to be a destination, a status, a holding tank, or a warehouse. Instead, it was to be a road, a path, a way out of old and destructive patterns into new and creative ones. As a road or way, it is always being extended into the future…”
These words are true for individuals, and also for communities of faith. McLaren continues: “If a spiritual community only points back to where it has been or if it only digs in its heels where it is now, it is a dead end or a parking lot, not a way. To be a living tradition, a living way, it must forever open itself forward and forever remain unfinished—even as it forever cherishes and learns from the growing treasury of its past.” (McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, xii)
In a recent sermon, I shared another quote from that same book: McLaren writes to all of us: “You are not finished yet. You are “in the making.” You have the capacity to learn mature, think, change, and grow. You also have the ability to stagnate, regress, constrict, and lose your way.” And then he asks, “which road will you take?”
This Sunday we come to an end of this sermon series in which I’ve spoken to you about the four pillars of our emerging Strategic Plan, and the idea I’m focusing on this morning is the most important. The first pillar of our plan is called Dynamic Spiritual Pathways. It presents a challenge: For people like Jeff, Monica, and Byron, and for the community we share, what is the role of the church? Will we treat faith as a static destination, or will we take people on the journey of a lifetime? Which road will we take?
This morning’s scripture may be instructive. It presents the same challenge: We can treat the story of Jesus like a history lesson about something that took place for one man, long ago. Or we can treat it like what it is: an invitation to a spiritual journey, for all of us.
The Scripture is one I’m sure many of you have heard before. The first lines of the Gospel of John are commonly read as part of Christmas worship. I wonder if you’ve ever thought much about what it means. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the way John describes the birth of Jesus. No shepherds, no wise men, no Mary and Joseph, no star or manger. Instead: eternal Word, life, and light out of darkness. This is who our Savior has been since the very beginning of time.
Theologian Richard Rohr sums up this idea, joking that “Christ is not Jesus’s last name.” To claim that Jesus is the Christ—the eternal Word—is something much more, much deeper, and also profoundly important for you and for me. God has a divine purpose and intention for the goodness of the world, and it has existed since the beginning of time. Christ is a name for this good purpose. At one very important time in human history, a human being called Jesus walked among us as a particular manifestation of that goodness, purpose and presence. He was born of a woman, grew and increased in wisdom, gave us a vision of how to live together, offered healing and forgiveness, and endured all of the pain and sorrow that comes with human existence. He brought joy to all who followed him, for he himself was full of love and joy. That was Christ’s presence in one place and time. It exists still today, and will be here long after we are gone. Jesus’ life is part of a spiritual pathway that began at the dawn of time and will continue through the end of time—and we are invited to join. Jesus’ life is not a history lesson we are supposed to memorize, it is an invitation to a journey. We are invited, from whatever point we need to begin, to join on the sacred path, and grow.
Knox Presbyterian Church is committed to growing. About 18 months ago, in an effort to figure out where to devote our energy next, we asked members of Knox to complete a lengthy survey. It told us a lot of wonderful things about our congregation and what you think about it: Knox is a great place for worship and music; it is a place that cares about children and youth, we care for people who are struggling with grief and loss or a tough transition in life; we are committed to mission; and we are a place that asks thoughtful questions about God and the world. The survey also told us about places where we can do better. We can go deeper in mission, we can improve some of our stewardship of this building and our other resources, and we can do better at assimilating new members and helping them find their place in the community. Each of those needs became a pillar of our Strategic Plan, which I’ve been telling you about in the last three sermons.
The fourth area of growth is the hardest. This congregation scored rather low when it came to what the survey called “spiritual vitality.” That means you told us that many times you struggle with things like sensing the presence of God in everyday life, or making connections between the rest of your week and what happens here on Sunday—and that the church isn’t doing enough to help you with that. I’ll be honest with you: as the pastor of this place, my first reaction to that feedback was, “ouch.” I’ve been here for almost a decade, so I must bear some responsibility for that failure. Perhaps I’m not really cut out for this work after all.
But then I had a chance to digest that feedback and to see how the congregation’s leadership began to respond to it, and I’ve started to feel differently about it. Every congregation has things that it does well and things it can do better. Most old established congregations like this one are good at worship services, programs and activities, weddings and funerals; and many traditional churches are criticized for kind of resting on our laurels and not being attentive enough to what one might call spiritual vitality—and that’s why many folks leave churches like this one.
Here’s how Knox is different: we’ve decided to do something about it. While I’m choosing to talk about it last in this series, the first and most important pillar of our new Strategic Plan is this one: creating Dynamic Spiritual Pathways for growth in faith. We want to listen to stories like the ones of Jeff, and Monica, and Byron, and help people go deeper in their walk with God. We want to help that happen whether its through Bible Study or music, a prayer group, or a service opportunity, a way that we commune with God’s Creation or with one another in fellowship groups, or through any number of ways we haven’t even thought of yet, but that we will think of, with God’s help.
You know what’s really wonderful about that? It means that Knox is committed to growth. We are not stagnant, we are not settling, we want to learn, mature, think, change and grow. We can hear the feedback our congregation gives us and respond to it. We are not finished yet. We are in the making.
Today is what we call Commitment Sunday, and that means that it’s the day the church asks you to make a commitment, to turn in your pledge and offer your time, talent, and treasure. This might be the worst Stewardship sermon ever, because on the doorstep of asking you to turn in your pledge, I have actually stood up here before you today and told you, point blank, that this congregation scored poorly on spiritual vitality. But here’s the thing: we’re committed to doing better. We’re committed to growth. We’re committed to going someplace together with God where we haven’t been before. And in that sense, I’m telling you something we don’t usually say on Commitment Sunday. I’m telling you, on Commitment Sunday, that Knox is committed to you.
Of course, as we shared last week in worship, there’s really no “we” and “you” in all of this, there is only “us.” The current group responsible for the Session and the Board of Deacons and our Strategic Planning Team, “they” are “you” and will evolve again every time we elect a new class in February, and every time we welcome a class of new members. Likewise, it will take commitment from all of us if Knox is to be a church that continues to grow in faith. So I ask you this Commitment Sunday: Will you be a part of this journey with us? Which road will you take? Amen.