Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
My Sabbatical is just around the corner, and part of what I am committed to doing for this big Eli Lilly grant is to climb Mt. Rainier. Now they didn’t put this upon me. It was something that I chose because at the time I was doing the grant it must have seemed like a good idea.
Here’s the deal: for most people, at least for me, you can’t just show up and climb Mt. Rainier. To make it to the top, you have to bow down and be obedient to the mountain. This means getting in shape, and not just a little in shape, but running 5, 6, 10 miles at a stretch, and doing the stairs of purgatory over on Capitol Hill.
The plan to climb Mt. Rainier is set in stone. That is my direction. That is my trajectory. And as a result, I have to be obedient to the mountain. Well, I don’t have to be obedient to the mountain. I am free! But as a friend said to me the other day, “The level of your obedience to the mountain now will be measured in your pain when you return home.”
Today’s sermon is about trajectory and obedience, and how what we do now has an impact on what our life looks like later. Trajectory is a pattern that we understand by experience. It is why we save for retirement. We know from experience that our obedience to the discipline of saving now will have an impact on what life looks like later. We understand this pattern of obedience and trajectory. So why am I preaching on it?
Because I believe that God gives us patterns like obedience and trajectory to teach us something about our relationship with God, or, more to the point, how do be in relationship with God. And I believe we are designed so we can be in relationship with God now and for eternity. And because I believe this, I believe that how we live now matters. What we are obedient to now matters in influencing what our relationship with God will look like tomorrow, and the next day, and for eternity.
That’s a big deal and a big topic. But it is a topic we can get our minds around because God made us with the capacity to understand what our relationship with God can look like. And God did this because God loves us.
Now here is the uncomfortable part. Trajectory and obedience rub up against this idea that God just loves us no matter what, and God loves everyone no matter what. That when we die we get to keep all the good stuff about us and leave the other stuff behind. And that our friends who are great, even though they think God is a figment of the imagination made for weak minds, are loved by God as well and will be happily in relationship with God when they die. That all may be true. I don’t really know.
But what I do know is that trajectory and obedience are real things, and so applying them to my relationship with God now seems the reasonable thing to do. I mean if I apply the pattern of trajectory and obedience to my retirement, to my climb up Mt. Rainier, and to my kids’ college savings, it only seems reasonable to include God and eternity as well.
So, that is the “why?” behind this sermon today. Now I want to move to the “how.”
As I begin talking about the “how,” I want to make an observation: that every religious system that has existed with any longevity has some sort of spiritual training. Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and the American Indian traditions. Even before humanity began to think about training the brain, or building the body, exercises developed to attend to the human spirit. These exercises were sought and honed because wise people, over time, saw how intentional spiritual exercises gave people a sense of equanimity and serenity and peace, and how this always seemed good for the community. Now these spiritual exercises that developed were similar. They dealt with bringing time and matter into obedience with the human spirit.
Let’s take a look. We’ll start with time. There are five spiritual exercises that seek to make time obedient to the human spirit.
- Daily prayer
- Weekly Sabbath
- Weekly worship
- A liturgical calendar
- And a pilgrimage event
These disciplines of time demand we stop what we are doing to do something else. They require that we take a timeout from our schedule to attend to our spirit. Through daily prayer, weekly Sabbath and worship, following a liturgical calendar, and preparing for an going on pilgrimage, time becomes obedient to the human spirit. This obedience sets us on a trajectory toward equanimity, serenity and peace. So, those are the spiritual exercises around time.
Next is the obedience of matter. This is easier. There are only two exercises. One commands the obedience of the body. The other commands obedience of material things. The first is fasting and the second is tithing. The fast is the spiritual exercise that calls our body into obedience. The tithe is the spiritual exercise that reorients our relationship around things we own, or manage, or control. The fast reminds us that the body is perishing. The tithe reminds us that all of the things we consider ours, are really not ours at all. Every major religion has similar spiritual exercises designed to bring time and matter into obedience to the human spirit.
Now we have talked about trajectory and obedience as patterns that we acknowledge and live by. And we have talked about the spiritual exercises that all religious systems seem to practice as a value to the individual and the community.
So now the question is what makes Christianity different. The answer is the cross. Christian spiritual exercises are done in obedience to the trajectory of the cross. For many the cross looks like an end point, a final date, punctuation. The cross looks like the final event in a person’s life, which is death. And to many, as Paul points out in the scripture today, to look upon the cross with admiration and guidance is foolishness.
But, for people who follow Jesus, the cross has trajectory. The cross has direction. The cross has momentum. The cross has power. This direction, momentum and power are towards resurrection. For Christians the trajectory of the cross is toward our eternal life with God. Resurrection is God’s way of saying, “I am here; I am near; and I will never leave you…even death can’t get in the way of our relationship.” That is why we call the Friday before Easter Good Friday.
Now other religious systems have theologies of eternity as well. So let me say more about Christian eternal life. When we are obedient to the trajectory of the cross we are seeking to live in a way that is pleasing to God. Or as we often say around here, to live our lives as Jesus would if he were living our lives. And so we have trajectory and obedience. We have spiritual exercises. And we have resurrection as the destination the cross points to.
Now we get to the complicated part, so stick with me.
Now is the time to define the human spirit which is that part of us on a trajectory, as formed by the exercises, heading toward resurrection. In scripture the words spirit, heart, and will are used interchangeably. They represent that place from which we make our decisions. They represent that place where our true character resides. The heart is the place we would peel back and look into if we really wanted to see who a person was. Now you noticed I didn’t include soul when I listed names for the spirit, because soul and spirit are different. They do, however, have two things in common: they were both made by God and they both have eternal trajectory.
Each soul is made by God, once and for all, full and complete, and belongs to God for eternity. Each spirit is made by God, but planted as a seed in the human heart, to grow or to perish by our choice. And when we are obedient to the trajectory of the cross the seed planted in each of our hearts grows and grows and grows. And the hope for all people is that at some point the spirit outgrows matter, it outgrows time, and grows fully into the soul. And as our spirit grows into our soul, our soul is magnified, and God is glorified!
God’s greatest hope is that our spirit, by our choice, grows into our soul that is God’s, and they become one for eternity. The resurrection is God’s hope made known. The cross sets the trajectory as it guides us through the ups and downs of life, through the pain and suffering, always in hope, always towards God, and always for God’s eternal purposes.
So the question you may be asking is do we earn this co-mingling of spirit and soul through obedience to the spiritual exercises? Because it would seem that way based on what we know about trajectory and obedience. A lot of theologians have thought over this question for a long time. So I am not going to wade in on this with some definitive answer because I really don’t know.
But I will close by saying one last thing about the unique nature of Christianity; every soul is beloved to God. There are no outsiders or insiders when it comes to the soul. Souls are beloved by God, fully and completely, even if the person chooses not to be obedient to the mountain. So some spirits may perish, just like bodies perish, minds perish, and communities perish. It is a choice to be obedient or not to the locked-in trajectory of the human spirit.
Our souls are heading toward eternity, one way or the other. The question is how do we participate? How do we live now, anticipating our lives with God later? And does it even matter?
I think it does. I think there is a difference between living with God for eternity as a soul, and living with God for eternity as a soul magnified by the choices of the human spirit. But I don’t really know.
What I do know is that either way, the mountain is there ahead of us.