It is good to be back after summer travels. I missed you. I missed opening my Bible and thinking about what you and I were going to talk about in the sermon Sunday. Writing a sermon is both completely delightful and utterly painful, because it requires digging into the Bible, and the Bible is the Book of Life, and life is both utterly delightful, and sometimes a little bit painful.
The Bible is a handbook for what it means to be human, and so, we find tension there. The Bible is also the most influential book ever written, but not because it gives answers, or imparts information, but because it unveils and transforms, through the discernment we are encouraged to exercise as we encounter tensions the Bible stories provoke. It is a book worth reading.
While in London this summer I met up with one of our younger parishioners who was studying at the London School of Economics. He came to all the Epiphany services at Saint Paul’s, and between the two of them we went out to lunch.
We talked theology, and the Bible came up. And he said to me when his friends at Garfield ask him about his faith, he would answer them this way: “If someone told you that they read a book that more people have read than any other book in the world, and this book has changed the world more than any other book ever written, wouldn’t you immediately pick it up and read it? That book is the Bible, and whether you “believe” everything in it or not, it’s still probably worth reading.”
He made the pitch for Jesus in the same way. “If there was one person that lived who impacted more people than any other person who ever lived, wouldn’t that person be someone you’d want to learn more about?”
Our focus at Epiphany is on knowing about Jesus and the Bible is what makes us a Learning Church. Today the learning comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the focus is on faith and the discernment faith inspires. But to get to faith, we must first have to pass through mercy. Lex talked about mercy last Sunday saying… “We could all use a little mercy.”
Well, good news! Mercy abides as evidenced by your presence here today. Mercy is about God keeping us around. Mercy is about God loving us not because of what we do but because we are souls set in the world. To understand mercy begins with acknowledging that God is the biggest; God is the best; God knows everything; God made everything; God gave us freedom; God made us with purpose and intention to be right here right now to care for creation. And then God looks at our lives, shakes their head and keeps us around anyway. That is mercy. God loves us more than our actions account for.
That is mercy… Not measured by our worth, but by God’s love. And faith is our response.
Faith is holding up a mirror and seeing ourselves and saying: “because I see me, God is merciful, God wants me around.” Faith is trust in God. Faith is trust that God’s Got This. Faith is saying, irrespective of the circumstances, God’s Got This. The measure of our faith, the strength of our faith, is proportionate to our capacity to say God’s Got This, irrespective of the circumstance we find ourselves in.
Now that’s not always easy to do. We see the fires in Maui, and we wonder. We witness the war in Ukraine, and we wonder. We watch a loved one die, and we wonder. Tragedy hits and we wonder: does God really have this?
I had an experience like that this summer. I was fishing… You know I was going to get to fishing somehow. And I know you’re thinking I’m going to tell you another story of some world record catch I landed, as I was walking on water… blindfolded. But not this time.
This time I was fishing with some buddies on a river they knew well, where over the years they had caught hundreds of fish. But that was not the case this year (and, not because they were fishing with me) but because of some environmental circumstances that had been imposed upon this particular river, causing the ecological balance of fish to be pushed out of alignment through the intervention of politicians, who classified one type of fish, an invasive species, as endangered; thus, causing another type of fish, native to the river, to be exterminated slowly, slowly, slowly, and then quickly. I was there to witness the tipping point.
And I wondered: Does God Have This? Is this part of God’s plan? Is God happy? Is God sad? Will God do something? And then discernment creeped in, because, Iike you, I have been formed over time by a Learning Church, which is why I then began to wonder: Why am I part of this story? Why am I here? What is my role?
That is the question to ask when we experience tension rises as our faith in God’s Got This begins to sound more like: Does God Have This? Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you are wondering if God’s Got This, know that you are being invited into a conversation with God. Know that you are being invited to discern the particular tension that you find yourself in; the tension that caused you to wonder: Does God Have This?
And when you find yourself in this place, know that you are in a space of discernment. Discernment is a conversation with God about the context of our life. It has three components I’d like to introduce to you today: gratitude, study, and reflection.
We begin with gratitude. Gratitude for the mercy of God that allows us to be here in the first place. This is not gratitude for the event that provoked the tension. This is not gratitude for the ecological disaster that I’ve been talking about. But gratitude to God for trusting us to be in this tension. Gratitude to God for inviting us into this conversation.
Gratitude is a practice we participate in as Christians through the spiritual exercise of worship. The name we give it tells the story: Eucharist, it means thank you. We begin with discernment. And then we get down to business as people who are formed by a Learning Church. We open our Bible, and we take a look at Jesus. We study.
In the Bible we witness tensions that run the entire range of what it means to be human. And these stories become examples for discernment in our own life. And we study Jesus, and by understanding his life we find the overlapping folds between our life and his life that reveal our power in the face of circumstances that seem overpowering. We study Jesus and the Bible to gain insight into our capacity to do the will of God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. We have the power to do so.
Then, we take our gratitude and our insights on Jesus and bring it to our Learning Church community, to other people who read the Bible and study Jesus, and who will listen as we ask the question: Why am I in this story? Why did God set me in this situation? Which leads to other questions: Am I here as a witness? Am I here to learn something? Am I here as preparation for some future situation? Am I supposed to get involved in this particular problem or not?
In these questions the rubber hits the road. Do I do something? Do I not do something? Do I do something at some future point in time. These are the discernment questions toward outcome, and they are all equally legitimate outcomes.
Yes. No. Not yet.
That is the discernment process when we find ourselves in the tension of our faith… asking: does God have this? Discernment begins with gratitude. Then moves to study – opening the Bible and asking Jesus. And finally, reflecting with our community on the question: Why am I in this story? And what am I supposed to do?
The faithful life is the discerned life, which leads to the good life. The good life is not life without tension. The good life is life of well-trained, perpetual discernment. Or as Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans (and, I’ll finish here), “Be not conformed to this world, but transformed by it through the renewing of your minds, through the discernment of your context so that you may know the will of God which is good and acceptable and perfect.
The faithful life, then, is the good life. The faithful life is the acceptable life. The faithful life is the perfect life. Is it without tension? No! Is it without doubt? No! Is it a life wondering: Does God really have this? And the answer is yes! Because it is a life in conversation with a merciful God, a loving God, a present God who keeps us around for conversations such as these.
And the more we discerned, the more certain we become that: Yes, God does have this, and you and I are here to be part of the yes, or the no, or the not yet.