“I have to go to the bathroom!” The coach pointed her in the right direction and off she went, returning 10 minutes later.
Then the coach demonstrated how to catch with a glove. And as the team was broken into pairs for some practice the little girl said,
“Now I’m hungry!” and she sat on the bench and pulled out some crackers and juice box from her bag.
Then it was time to build up some endurance so the coach asked the team to run five laps. As the team completed the first one the girl puffed up to the coach and whined,
“I’m tired” and the coach let her sit down on the bench again until the team completed the other four laps.
Then it was time for batting practice. The little girl picked up her bat, swung at a ball and missed.
“Oh, I’m so embarrassed!” she thought “maybe if go sit down again people will forget about me and not laugh at me.” And she slunk off to the bench again.
Finally the coach divided the team for a practice game. The girl was assigned to right field.
“Now I’m board,” she thought, so she pulled her ipod out of her pocket and played a game through the rest of the inning.
When her dad picked her up he asked, “How did it go, honey?”
“Oh great dad! The coach made sure I wasn’t hungry, let me rest when I was tired, and took good care of all my needs. I like playing baseball!
Have you ever taken up a sport? Do you garden, quilt, knit, cook or play a musical instrument? These are tasks that require discipline. To learn the various skills and how to do them well takes knowledge acquired by watching other people, a specialized vocabulary to discuss the various skills and factors of the task and lots of practice – actually throwing the ball, or making the stitches, or stirring the cream sauce, or trying the riff over and over, learning from the mistakes you make and adjusting accordingly. And to really get good we need to engage such practices under the watchful eye of a mentor, someone with experience who can guide and correct us as we go along, and someone to help us to learn the habits that will make us successful in your sport, craft or art. Slowly over time a novice can become a skilled and valuable member of the baseball team. But only if she takes up the discipline to actually put herself into it, learn to throw and catch, increase her stamina, stay humble enough to learn from mistakes and pay attention, even when she thinks nothing is happening in right field.
When we started our series Dangerous Attractions: Warnings about Idol Worship in Hebrews last week I proposed that our American culture with its freedom of religion has negatively affected our churches. Because the freedom meant by freedom of religion is the freedom of the individual to choose to engage in religion or not. One can be Congregational, or Baptist, or Catholic, or Quaker, or Jewish on Buddhist, or practice Yoga or worship the earth goddess, or make up her own religion named after herself. Like the little girl who wanted to play baseball, we are encouraged to start with ourselves, our beliefs, our desires, our wants. And if we join a faith community and keep coming back it is because that community provides for our needs. It is a loving a caring community.
Isn’t that what we try to be as a church? loving and caring. When I was starting out ministry I became very aware of the clergy who went before me who made loving and caring their top priority. Rev. Drake of Lynn visited every hospitalized parishioner every day, on top of all the other work he did for the church and community. Rev. Sweet of Reading had a similar policy that each member in a nursing home or hospital would be visited each week requiring us to spend hours of our ministry time driving a circuit from Methuen to Billrica to Boston to Beverly. Rev. Clark of Gloucester tried so hard to care for people in distress that he took on people with mental illness including one young suicidal man who shot himself in the head in the pastor’s presence, sending Rev. Clark to McLane hospital. In the name of loving and caring thousands, maybe millions of American babies have been baptized in the 20th century – babies who belonged to families who were almost strangers to the congregation, but wanted their baby “done.” Pastors didn’t question the parents, believing that if they felt enough love they would make good on the baptismal promises they were making to support the church with their prayer, presence, gifts and service.
Our focus on loving and caring often leads outsiders to accuse churches of being band-aid boxes, or placebos, allowing unjust systems that cause suffering to persist unchallenged. To be honest they have a point. If all we do as churches is try to be loving and caring, we will never be a church that makes disciples for the transformation of the world; we will never be able to help people receive their full rightful inheritance as beloved children of God, an inheritance promised to us at our baptisms. Discipleship requires the same patient, persistent acquisition of skills and knowledge as learning a sport, a craft or an art.
From the beginning of the church, Christians have been baptized with the promise of life in the kingdom of God. Our inheritance, the birthright that we have come into when we entered the New Covenant through our baptisms is the Kingdom of God described in Hebrews 12:22-24. It is Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where all the creatures of God, angels and saints have gathered for a festival to celebrate God’s goodness and mercy, justice and peace. They are the assembly of the firstborn, enrolled in heaven before a righteous judge, the God of all who makes his people righteous and perfect through Jesus the mediator who washes away our sins with his blood. Living in this kingdom means transformation of our old lives into new life in Christ.
But like a child who has inherited innate abilities with music, it takes discipline to develop and use our birthright to its full potential. It takes years of shaping character to use our gifts to their full potential of going beyond caring for the world, to transforming it, reshaping it so that the kingdom of heaven does break forth here on earth as it is in heaven.
Without that discipline we are quite apt to be like Esau and reject our inheritance and all the blessings that come with it. Do you remember Esau? Jacob’s twin brother. They were Abraham and Sarah’s grandsons, heirs to the Covenant. Easu was born first and so it was assumed that he would be the heir, but one day as a young man coming home from a hunt jealous Jacob enticed Esau to give it all away for a bowl of tasty stew. Hebrews describes Esau as pornos – sexually immoral which some scholars take as a metaphor – think of Foreigner’s hit song “urgent;” Esau felt that his hunger was so urgent that he didn’t mind giving up his birthright for one meal. As Eugene Peterson puts Hebrew’s warning, “Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite.”
The meal that we choose in place of our birthright becomes our idol. If we come to the church only hoping to find care, whatever care we receive becomes our idol – whether it is comfort, friendship, or a short, entertaining worship service. It becomes our idol because it actually stops us from growing as disciples, from looking at our lives in light of the gospel and offering ourselves to be transformed into new creatures, becoming more more a reflection of God. Hebrews 12:29 warns “our God is a consuming fire” the kind of fire that destroyed all the idols in the Promised Land so that Jacob’s descendents, heirs of the covenant could live there in righteousness and peace before God. God is a consuming fire, the kind of fire spoken of elsewhere in the bible as a fullers soap, a fire that separates the dross from the gold.
The question for us today is where is the playing field where we can take on the disciplines necessary to accept our inheritance as citizens of Zion? Where is that workshop where we can find master bakers, master quilters or master musicians who will help us hone our skills at receiving and using the gifts of the Christian life?
Again I turn to Stanley Hauerwas, my ethics professor at Duke Divinity School, who proposes that the number one place to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ is worship. When we do it right, and we do it again, and again worship transforms us and teaches us the practices necessary to live fully as citizens of the kingdom of God. (After Christendom? Chapter 4 "The Politics of the Church: How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples")
For example in worship we say the Lord’s Prayer. Learning to pray requires humility fitting to say the prayer – we look to God as our Father who dwells in heaven and we call God holy. No one can truly say “Our Father who art in heaven hollowed be thy name” without humility. But, Hauerwas proposes, that the only way to start gaining that humility is to pray the prayer. “We do not believe in God, become humble, and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.” In the same way Hauerwas proposes that part of our training in worship is to learn to become sinners through confession. People outside of the church don’t go around thinking of themselves as sinners. They might recognize that they are fallible, but that is not the same thing as knowing that we have fallen short of God’s purpose that we live in God’s image. And sinners cannot learn to confess, really confess our sins until we learn that through Christ we are forgiven. Accepting forgiveness does not come easily because it puts us out of control. Only someone else can forgive us.
Just like when we take up a new instrument, or take a painting class, or join a new sport, in worship we may be asked to do things that seem to have no point. Only in the doing of them we discover the point. And the good news is that in spite of our modern penchant to substitute care for discipline, “when a craft and a community are in good working order, discipline is quite literally a joy, as it provides one with power – and in particular a power for service – that is otherwise missing.” (Hauerwas p. 107)
So instead of a caring church trying to offer immediate gratification to anyone who presents a need, let us grow in becoming a discipled and a discipling church. Let us look around for those persons in our midst whose lives look the most like Christ’s, and spend time looking to them as our models. Some practices are hard to acquire. Patience is best learned during trying situations. Being peaceful is best mastered during the stormy times of life. The times when our confidence is shaken are the times when God shakes out all the dust and debris that can become an idol, leaving us only with Jesus the solid rock. Let us also consider that there are those around us who look to us as the mentors, and let us take time in our conversations together to speak of the important things of faith, allowing for questions and encouraging others to grow with us in faith.