16 January 2011


No standing ovation but a gentleman in the congregation who usually marks up my sermons (printed copies are available before the service) said there was no need for one mark this morning!

Christian Practices I: Discernment
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; John 1:29-42
text: “He said to them, ‘come and see.’” (John 1:39)
January 16, 2010 -- Second Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

On April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple in Memphis, TN the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his last sermon. He began his last paragraph with these sentences, Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

I just want to do God’s will. After the 16th Street bombing, after the dogs were unleashed, after the hoses were turned on, after the stabbing, after the death threats, I just want to do God’s will. The words may sound contrite, canned and devoid of meaning. I just want to do God’s will a phrase tested, tried, and trued, wrought out of the lived crucible of the transforming, violent, and societal changing Civil Rights Movement. I just want to do God’s will. I would say that is the desire of all us collectively and as individuals, that we just do God’s will. How to do God’s will has been a difficult, thorny, and vexing problem for the ages. I offer King’s life as one of perspective of a life that promoted the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. The process of discovering God’s will, of aligning our hearts with God’s is the work of discernment.

Ed Rogers, Jr, a Catholic layman who teaches at the Methodist (for now at least) institution The Claremont School of Theology along I-210 between Los Angeles and San Bernardino defines discernment as, “the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally take part in the activity of God in concrete situations.” I surmise his definition is what we all desire in our lives as individuals and as a church. The operative word may be discernment but the ground level question is what is God’s will for my life? Does my life have any meaning? Why haven’t I found what I’m looking for?

To all of these questions Jesus offers the invitation, “come and see.”

It is an invitation to a deeper, truer, and more authentic life. Look around at your life, the lives of others, and the life as portrayed in popular culture how much of it is the result of response and reaction rather than discernment? Our goal as a follower of Jesus is to discern the life giving ways of the Spirit for ourselves, for our church, and for our world. Our work is to seek and find where God is at work and where God is calling us to work so we can take part in the activity of God in concrete situations.

This morning we begin a seven-week sermon series on Christian practices. We is intentional. Seven weeks of sermons then during Lent I want everyone to break up into small groups and experiment with these seven practices until Easter, more on that later – just a heads up to pay attention! You will also notice that this sermon is a collective sermon about this church, please insert yourself instead of church as you wish. But discernment without the presence of a community is thin discernment. One of the gifts of Christian practice for this rebuilding of this city is the very gift of communal discernment, where two or three are gathered… The seven I have chosen are neither exhaustive nor exclusively within the purview of Christianity but they are representative of the elements of the community we are seeking to rebuild, foster, and nurture as individual followers of Christ and as a gathered community with the name this church. The seven: discernment, testimony, forgiveness, singing, saying yes and no, observing the Sabbath, and honoring the body are examples of an intentional approach to the practice, expansion, and cultivation of our faith.

We begin with discernment.

In 1995 the late Phil Hartman produce, in my mind, the greatest comedic skit of the 90s for SNL. It was an acting class and he was the teacher Bobby Coldsman. As Mr. Coldsman he informed the class of his acting genius in one simple exercise. Learning the difference between nothing and something. None of the students got it and Coldsman continued to roll his eyes at their lack of comprehension. I have held onto this image for I think it is the metaphor for us as we move forward, discerning God’s will as a choice between something and nothing – even when both look exactly alike. Moving forward I propose we switch from being a church where the expectation is to be served to a church that serves. We can take no one who walks through our doors for granted, we can take no one who reaches out to us or who we reach out to for granted. We cannot take our message of good news or the way we communicate the good news for granted. Discernment is a process but we cannot simply sit down and wait for it to come, we will have to learn on the fly, in moment, and through our mistakes what God is up to with us both as a church and as individuals.

Suffice to say discernment aint easy, regardless of the magnitude of the decisions. There are decisions that arise from moments of comfortability: is she or he the right one for me? Is he or she the one I want to spend the rest of my life with? Do I take this job or this one? Black pants or blue jeans? Crab cakes or steak at Clancys? Then there are decisions from the darkest parts of life: how do I get out of this relationship? Your told of being laid off, now what? Then there are decisions that come like a thief in a night: chemotherapy or no treatment at all? Do we remove the ventilator? All require a moment of discernment. All demand of us a decision, not reactions and not simply responses but decisions made with the help and aid of Christian discernment.

Nearly 2,000 years ago people in Palestine struggled mightily for both survival, age expectation for males was only 35 years old, and for meaning. The marketplace, the agora, of ideas and responses to Roman occupation were legion. Each group, ideology, and movement offered creative ways of resistance: general social banditry, brigands of bandits, messianic movements to restore popular kingship, the rise of prophets and prophetic movements, the Fourth Philosophy, the Sicarii, and the Zealots just to name a few. Would folk participate in clandestine plans for overthrow, would the masses rebel, or were the demands of life too taxing, literally, to fight, think or even respond? Into this confusing, pulling, and life-threatening world our Saviour was born, nursed and raised. Daily he sat at the feet of the stories which kept his community sane and on going. Surely the recent lore of the Hasmoneans were present, surely the stories of Isaiah and Jeremiah were there, surely the psalms were prayed, surely the meta-stories of the patriarchs and the little traditions of Elijah and Elisha were told, re-told, and re-told until they were no longer stories told but myths that shaped and formed who one was.

One day, nearly, 2,000 years ago two men were enjoying the afternoon when one crazed, prophetic, and mesmerizing man, John the Baptizer, saw him again. He had seen him yesterday, he had baptized him the day before, he had witnessed the presence of God overtake him just the day before. When he walked by this time John’s spirit arose from the midday haze and exclaimed, Behold the Lamb of God. Like love at first sight, like the savory aroma of a home cooked meal (or bacon that a Sunday School class cooked for breakfast), like magnetic pull from the depth of their souls Andrew and Peter knew he was the way.

How long had they been with John? How many times had they heard him defer to the one who would come after him? How many times did John wonder if Jesus would ever come? It was time for Jesus to emerge and begin his ministry, a way of teaching, healing, embracing, gracing, loving, challenging, reconciling, breaking up, tearing apart, building up, restoring, shaping, and preparing the kingdom of God. For an unspecified period Peter and Andrew along with some others spent time with the Baptizer. I wonder if they were only in the Jordan valley? only in the desert? only in the unpopulated areas? With unknown words, stories, tales of dreams and temptations John taught these men and women till they were ready to discern not right from wrong but truth, truth when it breathes on you, truth when it walks past you, truth when it kisses, truth when it embraces you wont let go.

John had taught in ¾ time, he waltzed the early disciples with his poems of the world to come, of his hopes for a non-violent world that he knew would bring its violence upon the message/messenger of peace, of his historical rootedness in stories told long ago of a captive Israel. When Jesus came there was no time to waltz, they did not simply double their step to a jig in 6/8 time they jumped to compound triple time of 9/8, they were in the unfamiliar and unpredictable world of jazz and improvisation. They would follow Jesus’ lead, feed off one another, try and fail, fail and try again, they would pick up old standards and reinterpret them, they would cause dead #s to live again and cause alive chords to cease. They had to discern on the fly, in moment. Constantly readjusting what they knew in light of what Jesus was saying and doing. It was the speed, time, and rhythm of the kingdom. It is not always Amazing Grace, it is more like Blue Rondo a la Turk.

The major quest for Christian communities and followers of Christ is to constantly be engaged with one another to discern the will of God. We cannot look at our Christianity as if it were on auto-pilot. We cannot view the working out of our salvation as something that took place at revival when were 12, the old account may have been settled long ago but the world is still in need of healing, restorative love, and mending. In mid song we will have to adjust the time signature and dance anew over and over and over again. Discernment is a practice we are betrothed to now and forever more.

As moving and true our moments of salvation were I think they did us a great disservice as we have attempted to live out our Christian experience. I vividly recall as a teenager after my baptism looking at the pastor and asking, “now what?” Formation was something I learned on the fly, there were and still are many mistakes but I have serendipitously stumbled onto realms of glory with contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and spiritual direction. But all roads of Christian discernment do not have to be like State St. Drive, the road to my family farm in the middle of Upshur County WV despite its ruts, mud holes, and protruding boulders is still smoother than that road. The road of Christian discernment can be made smooth like the avenue with the aide of a community. We have each other, the collection of a congregation – the love and pain, the hurt and healing, the joy and tears of a people who have lived life head on, bull headed, been blindsided, heartbroken, awestruck, and walked this world east of Eden with heavy souls. We can discern together, we can lean on each other, we can pray for one another, we can be a sounding board for each other. We have a lot to learn from our Quaker brothers and sisters on consensus and the Jesuit way of echoing down.

Realize that we go forward with a hindrance, we do not have our Lord and Saviour walking beside us, we do not get to hear the nuance in his voice, detect his body language or receive his non-verbal communication. We simply have stories, wonder working stories – yes, but stories nonetheless. If we are going to take up the practice of discernment we will have get to know the stories. Our very own Rev. Dr. Paul Powell is now giving up his free time to specifically work on this very project – how are we going to undertake Christian Education/Formation in our day and time? How can we create situations for folk to spend time with the stories, folk who don’t have time, folk who don’t stories, our plan is not for the church we have here but for the church we will have.

I would like to close with a story from a parishioner from the church I served in Rhode Island. His name is Raymond H. Raymond is the sage of the congregation and a man I learned to love and admire more and more. I offer this brief story as an example of discernment, of learning on the fly, and discernment only available from life in a Christian community.

Driving back from a jazz presentation at the University of Maine one Friday night in 1968 the news was delivered over the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, TN. Raymond thought all night about his response to the killing. The next morning he woke up his two daughters, one was Nancy who was here last January, and drove to the Church of God and Saints in Christ; and African-American church on the south side of Providence, RI. In the early 60s this church and the Lime Rock church shared choirs, church suppers, and studies. When Raymond and his daughters arrived, they were the only white people in the congregation, the pastor looked at Ray and asked if they wished to say anything. Ray responded, “Yes, there’s been a death in the family. We had to come.”

Not many times in life will you or I ever get the chance to say something like Raymond did. But we will get our chance, when history and time collapse on our shoulders, when a loved one is dying, when there has been a terrible quarrel between two lovers, when someone is begging for bread we do not want to offer a stone. We want to discern God’s will, we want to intentionally participate in the healing of God on this earth in concrete ways. We just want to do God’s will.

God in Jesus Christ is calling us to the intentional life of discernment, accept the invitation, “come and see.”

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