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Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2008

Core Values: Prayer, Study and Service
John 8:31-41 (Ephesians 4:17-25)

“Jesus has a very special love for you . . .but as for me, the silence and the emptiness are so great, that I look and do not see, …listen but do not hear. Where is my faith? Deep down there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain. I have no Faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart, and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Guess who wrote those words. Mother Theresa, of all people! Her personal writings reveal that for the last half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart or in worship.

In today’s reading, Jesus says, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But how many of us can truly claim that we know that freedom? If spiritual powerhouses like Mother Theresa struggle to know God, what can we expect for ourselves? How many of us here today can say we have remained faithful to Christ’s teachings and feel free from the cycles of depression, or addiction, or violence that life offers? How many of you came here today feeling that you remain faithful to God, but you secretly wonder if God notices, if God cares, if God’s presence truly has the power to transform you and your family?

In today’s gospel reading, we meet some people who also miss out on knowing God. They say, “We are children of Abraham.” They insist that their lineage guarantees them God’s blessing. They believe that birth determines character and that having the proper ancestors assures divine favor. They assume that their identification with Abraham should be enough to set them free.

Then Jesus, a child of Abraham himself, makes the social compass go haywire. He says they are not free because they have not made a place for his word in their lives. Knowing God’s favor has nothing to do with who your mom and dad are. Identification with God doesn’t depend on social status. Jesus insists that whoever is from God hears the words of God. If you don’t hear, you are not from God. Character and behavior determine one’s freedom, not one’s lineage.

One of our core values at TCC is that we are at our best when WE make room for God’s word. We insist that just having our names on the membership rolls of a church does not set a person free. God doesn’t pay attention to us just because we worship at the oldest church in town. What distinguishes true disciples of Christ is abiding in the Word, not loyalty to tradition. Freedom comes from remaining in God’s Word, and we do that through prayer, study, and service.

1. Prayer. If the truth sets us free, then prayer is how we listen for truth. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view. Prayer is about not losing heart when the heart seems empty. It’s about keeping a watch for God when tragedy destroys our cities and our families are scattered or destroyed. We pray even when we don’t always see God’s face or feel God’s presence. If we can’t pray, it’s because we do not believe that God acts, that God is a creator, that God takes a hand in reality. We get stuck because we do not believe God would want to change divine will to suit our prayer, to lead us to where God’s will and ours mingle in agreement.

Judaism has a concept called the Bat Kohl. It means “Daughter’s Voice.” Jewish mystics understood it as an audible voice from heaven and a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes about his experience with the Bat Kohl. He experimented with an ancient Rabbi’s teaching about spontaneous, private prayer. The one praying pours out the heart to God, describing all one’s thoughts, feelings, problems and frustrations. Shapiro devoted himself to one hour of prayer a day. He prayed for weeks before he heard the Bat Kol, the Daughter’s Voice. For Shapiro, the Voice was clearly female, and it heralded an encounter to the Divine Feminine, God as Mother. He still hears the voice, and Her answer to his prayers is always the same: “Sweetheart, drop the drama and look at the truth, then you will know what to do, even if you choose not to do it. Here, let me help you.” Shapiro writes, “God’s help is rarely pleasant. Having my story wrenched from my grasp, being stripped naked emotionally and intellectually, and forced to see what is rather than what I so desperately want there to be, is humbling and often terrifying, and always profoundly liberating. And it is done with such love and compassion that in the end I fall into Her arms in selfless surrender.”

Prayer brings freedom. Prayer helps us discover the truth about who God is. Prayer reveals who we are. Prayer shows us the world for what it is, and gives us hope for its beautiful possibilities. Prayer help us find the truth.

2. Study. If prayer helps us listen for truth, study helps us know truth. Prayer helps us listen to our God who still speaks to us. Study confirms what we heard as we seek to align God’s voice with the words God has spoken through scripture. Does the thought of opening a Bible fill you with excitement? Do you listen to Scripture and read it expecting God to speak? Most people I talk to tell me that they don’t read the Bible because they don’t understand it. Some were raised in religious traditions where no one but the priest was allowed to read and interpret scripture. Some people are distracted by murders, holy wars, and fallacies in the biblical texts. Whatever the reason, we are left with a problem. The Bible is our holy book, and many Christians don’t know what’s inside. The most widely known Bible verse among Christians is “God helps those who help themselves”—and those words aren’t even in the Bible. They are from Ben Franklin.

Many of us in the church sit on our hands, thinking to ourselves, “I need more knowledge. I need to know God is real. I need a sign. I can’t do anything with my faith until I have more assurance.” Our core values affirm that we can know God through the study of Scripture, and that knowledge brings us freedom. I don’t want to limit the ways in which we hear God. God can communicate truth with us in surprising and unexpected ways. But we affirm that the predominate way to know truth is to study Scripture. When we open our sacred writings, God speaks to us as a covenant partner.

A couple of years ago, in the wake of the death of legendary ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, reporters reflected far and wide about his life. I remember one report centering on his love and admiration for America. Jennings, a citizen of Canada, always carried a copy of the Constitution of the United States in his back pocket. He marveled that a country as vast and diverse as America could be held together by a single document less than 10,000 words in length. Peter Jennings secretly became a citizen of the United States of America.

Our constitution, as the People of God, is the word of God. We would do well to carry it in our back pocket at all times and consult it often that it may become hidden in our heart and revealed through our life. Scripture nourishes of our vast and diverse life together as God’s people. Just as the Constitution of the United States outlines the articles of free people, so our scriptures bring freedom to the inhabitants of God’s kingdom. Read it, alone and together, and allow it to speak to you.

3. Service. In prayer we find the truth. Through study we know the truth. But we don’t stop there. We also serve others, and in service, we live the truth. God speaks to us because God wants us to respond. If we really understand God’s love and how God is speaking it to us, we will do something to let God know that we understand. Our duty is hear the Word, and to trust and obey it in life and death. We are liberators who free others from the shackles of despair with the Word of love.

In his book entitled The Man who Planted Trees, Jean Giono tells the story of a shepherd he met in 1913 in the French Alps. Because of careless deforestation, the mountains around Provence, France were barren. Former villages were deserted. Springs and brooks had run dry. The wind blew furiously, unimpeded by foliage. While mountain climbing, Giono came to a shepherd’s hut where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner, Giono watched the shepherd meticulously sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd had counted out 100 perfect acorns, he stopped for the night and went to bed. Giono learned that the fifty-five-year-old shepherd had been planting trees on the wild hillsides for over three years. He had planted 100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or die due to the elements, and the other half to live.

After World War I, Giono returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation: There was now a forest, accompanied by a chain reaction in nature. Water flowed in the once-empty brooks. The ecology, sheltered by a leafy roof and bonded to the earth by a mat of spreading roots, became hospitable. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed.

Giono returned again after World War II. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd had continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored that of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. Giono writes, “On the site of the ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms . . . The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again . . . Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure."

Acts of service are like spiritual reforestation. We dig holes in barren land and plant the seeds of life. Through these seeds, dry spiritual wastelands are transformed into harvestable fields. Life-giving water is brought to parched and barren souls. Lives are rebuilt. People begin to know healing and restoration. And that, my friends, is freedom.

Freedom is not about belonging to the right church, or the best family. It’s not about being at the right place at the right time. Jesus says it’s about take a new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a word-centered life -- a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God’s character reproduces in you (Ephesians 4:25). We are at our best when we take time for prayer, study, and service. We listen, we know, and we live the word of God. And in the process, we find the freedom God offers the world.

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