June 22, 2020
Finding your way in the spiritual world – J. Barry Vaughn – June 21, 2020
Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping prophet.” The first chapter of the book of Jeremiah tells us that God called him to be a prophet before he was even conceived.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1.5)
And yet, Jeremiah found that being a prophet made him miserable. It made his life a living hell.
In today’s first reading he says,
O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot. (Jer. 20.7-9)
And if we read a little further in chapter 20, we find Jeremiah saying this:
Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,”
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame? (Jer. 20.14-18)
So, imagine Jeremiah’s situation: From the very beginning God had intended him to be a prophet. To be God’s prophet is to be designated to proclaim God’s message. It is to have a profoundly intimate relationship with God. Surely that’s what we are supposed to desire for ourselves, isn’t it? Intimacy with God; to know God and be known by God.
Well, yes. Of course, it is. But the problem is this: Having a profoundly intimate relationship with God may not make us happy; in fact, it may make us miserable.
When Jesus invites us into relationship with him, he says: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10.38-39) Now, there’s a formula guaranteed to attract people! If you want to follow me, Jesus says, you must take up an instrument of death and be willing to die.
The religious marketplace today is strange and confusing. On one hand, we have the “rise of the NONES.” Not women who have taken monastic vows, but young people who reject traditional religions. However, the rejection of traditional religions does not mean the rejection of religion itself, much less the rejection of spirituality.
Author Tara Isabella Burton writes, “Today’s [young people] reject authority, institution, creed, and moral universalism. They demand to rewrite their own scripts about how the universe, and human beings, operate. Shaped by the twin forces of a creative-communicative internet and consumer capitalism, today’s [seekers] don’t want to receive doctrine, to assent automatically to a creed. They want to choose… the spiritual path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them. They prioritize intuitional spirituality over institutional religion. And they want, when available institutional options fail to suit their needs, the freedom to mix and match, to create their own daily rituals and practices and belief systems.” (Burton, Strange Rites.)
The paradox is this: More demanding creeds, such as some forms of evangelical Christianity, the Latter Day Saints, and Orthodox Judaism “may be more likely to retain the average member, but they’re… more likely to alienate those members who are unable to conform their identities and values to those of the community. Meanwhile, more progressive and liberal traditions, such as mainline Protestantism, are often capable of being more welcoming to those on the theological margins, but more often than not fail to retain members or fulfill their spiritual needs.” (Burton)
I don’t really want to talk about the dilemma this presents for the Episcopal Church, in general, or even for Christ Church, in particular, although I’d like you to keep it in mind. Remember that over the last twenty years, American religious institutions have lost twenty percent of their members. Think about how difficult it is to attract and retain new members in this environment. People are genuinely seeking spirituality, but they are suspicious of institutions (all institutions, not just churches) and unwilling to adapt themselves to traditional institutions.
What I’d like to talk about is your spiritual quest and mine. You and I have heard from the very beginning that Jesus loves us, that he invites us to place our burdens in his hands, to let him bear our sins and the sins of the world. All of that is perfectly and profoundly true. But there is more to the story.
Jeremiah reminds us that the path God calls us to follow is difficult and dangerous. Of course, not all of are called to be prophets, although in the Pentecost story we heard a few weeks ago St. Peter’s sermon said that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” If you are tempted to claim that promise, just remember Jeremiah!
The spiritual path is not easy, and that is not just true of the Christian path. The Tibetan Buddhist leader, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, said to his students: “The problem is that we tend to seek an easy and painless answer. But this kind of solution does not apply to the spiritual path, which many of us should not have begun at all. Once we commit ourselves to the spiritual path, it is very painful and we are in for it. We have committed ourselves to the pain of exposing ourselves, of taking off our clothes, our skin, nerves, heart, brains, until we are exposed to the universe. Nothing will be left. It will be terrible, excruciating, but that is the way it is.”
The German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it succinctly: When God calls us, he bids us come and die.
I would even say that one of the ways that you can tell a true spiritual path from a false one is that a true path will be difficult. It will demand great things of you. But it will not demand that you park your mind at the door. Never follow a spiritual leader or group that demands that you never ask questions or that pretends to have all the answers.
Too often we have invited people to follow the Christian path by only reminding them of Christianity’s wonderful promises:
- Come unto me, all you that are burdened and heavy-laden, and I will refresh you.
- God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that all that believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.
- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
All those things are true. But we have too often failed to warn people about the rest of the story, about how difficult and painful the spiritual life can be.
I am a Christian. Furthermore, I am a Protestant Christian.
The reason that I identify as a Protestant is because of what theologian Paul Tillich called the “Protestant principle.” In brief, the Protestant principle says that it is too easy for institutions, even the Christian church, to become idols. Ultimately, we do not follow a church; we follow a person – Jesus of Nazareth.
I have studied other religions and have benefited tremendously from the things I have learned about Judaism and Buddhism, in particular. But I will always be a Christian. And the reason I know that I will always be a Christian is because of Jesus. I often quarrel with Jesus, but I will always try to follow him. I find Jesus to be a compelling figure for many, many reasons; there are too many to go into today.
I hope that you, too, will always follow Jesus, but I want you to be aware of how difficult that can be. Do not expect the way to be easy. Expect difficulty, expect opposition, and maybe even expect persecution. But the Christian journey is worth it. It is fulfilling and can even be joyful, although at times it is full of tears. But never, ever expect it to be easy.