Deuteronomy 6: 1-9; Galatians 5: 13-25
March 10, 2013
So I told you I was going to share with you about this ribbon I’m wearing around my neck this morning. It’s actually a stole. I don’t know if I’m breaking some polity protocol by double-stoling it today, but I have a good reason for it. The stole isn’t mine. It actually belongs to a woman named Erin Hayes, who is a youth pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. At least for another week or so, and then she’ll be accepting a call to a church in New Jersey. She asked me to pray for her about this.
The thing is, I didn’t know Erin before this past week, when I picked up her stole at the national NEXT Church Conference in Charlotte. 650 Presbyterians from all over the country, gathering together for a day and a half of speakers, workshops, fellowship, and casual conversation about what the future of our denomination looks like. Spoiler alert: it looks awesome.
Anyway, back to Erin’s stole. I picked it up during communion, as her stole – and mine and everyone else’s – were laid out on the communion table in closing worship. When we came up to dip the bread in the cup, we were told to take a stole. Any stole. And I got Erin’s. We had been asked to write on them our name and then three words that described our sense of call to the church. The words Erin wrote were ENVISION. REFLECT. BRIGHTEN. This was – this is – Erin’s story.
Now there is so much that I want to share with you about this conference and the organization called NEXT PC(USA) that is daring to imagine the future of our church, but I can’t do it all at once. So for the time being, I’ll just say this: there were many stories shared at this conference. Stories from southerners and Northerners, West Coasters and Midwesterners and everyone in between. Stories from women and men, black and white, Hispanic and Asian. Stories from ministers and laity, conservative and liberal, young and old – lots and lots of stories.
We shared our stories in formal workshops, and we shared them in casual conversations in the hallway. We shared stories of our experiences in ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We shared a handful of stories of our concerns for the denomination and our local congregations, where attendance on a national setting is shrinking. But mostly, mostly we shared stories and excitement of the wonderful new things we see God doing in our congregations, of the vitality and energy that takes hold in bodies of Christ whether they want it to or not, whether they’re ready for it or not.
And through it all, we shared stories of how important “The Story” is – the story we read about in the pages of our Bible, the story we try to live each and every day following Jesus, and the story that we as the church work to convey to a culture and society that doesn’t always realize it’s the story they’ve been longing to hear. There are other stories out there, of course: we are over-saturated with a vast mosaic of sagas and tales that compete for our attention. But the story of our faith is one that needs to be told; one that needs to be heard.
All of this, from a stole that belonged to someone I’d only met in passing. Someone whose call to ministry, whose story, has now in a way become part of mine. And that shouldn’t surprise us, should it? Stories, by their very nature, are not meant to be held onto, like property. Stories are meant to be shared; to be passed on, so they can put around the necks of others and introduced to even more people, so the story lives on.
You think that’s what Moses realized; the day he stood there before God’s people, on the threshold of the Promised Land? I don’t know; I just like to imagine him standing there, his back to the Jordan River, the people gathered as a mass before him. Across that river was the land God had promised them generations before; the very land that made those Hebrews some forty years prior wake up in Egypt and pack their things as fast as they could to head into their freedom. Little babies who could barely remember that hasty exit were now holding their grandchildren, gazing ahead at the river and the land beyond it…
I get the feeling that Moses knew, in those last few moments with them, that now was the time. Now was the time to tell their story. It was a story they’d heard many times before. But just this one last time, they needed to hear Moses tell it, as they crossed the river and made their way into the Promised Land and their future. They needed to hear Moses tell them this:
God, our God! God the one and only!
Love God, your God, with your whole heart:
love God with all that’s in you, love God with all you’ve got!
Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
Now we had a fancy name in seminary for this little speech of Moses: we called it “the Shema.” It’s a Hebrew word that means “to hear” or “to listen.” And you know, I think it’s kind of cool that the name given to Moses’ speech here is a verb. Something that requires action; something that isn’t passive. Because faith and the story of our faith requires us to do something. To hear it, to listen for it, and then to live it out. Just as Moses implored those people on that day in that holy space between the river and the land. There’s a story in our faith that needs to be heard – that’s what the Shema has to say to us.
This Lenten season we are looking at Robert Schnase’s book, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. You’ll remember that the first is radical hospitality, where we go out of our way to bring others into the transforming presence of the body of Christ. Next comes passionate worship, where we gather together to praise God in a way that is authentic and heartfelt. Worship is, of course, the center of the life of the church. But there has to be more to our story. We can’t just remember it. We have to tell it – what Schnase calls INTENTIONAL FAITH DEVELOPMENT.
And, you know, I love that clarifying word: intentional. In other words, faith development not accidental. It doesn’t just happen. Intentional Faith Development is telling the story in a deliberate and meaningful manner. It’s an active exercise, not a passive one. We don’t just show up on Sunday morning and assume it’ll automatically happen to us. Intentional faith development is going out of our way to tell the story of our faith. Because no matter how old or young we are, no matter how many years we’ve been a member of this church, we still haven’t heard the whole story. There is always something new for us to learn and grow from.
In fact, we see that intentional part right in the Shema itself – what’s called the mezuzah. A mezuzah was a tiny parchment of paper with the words of the Shema inscribed on it, then place in a decorative case and hung – as scripture commands – on the doorposts of their homes, or on their hands, or both. It was there as a constant reminder. It reminded the person wearing it on their wrist or posting in on their doorpost that they belonged to a particular faith story and needed to live as such. Think about it: every time they looked down at their hands and saw that mezuzah, they had to ask themselves, are my hands being used for things that serve to uplift the story of my faith? And every time they walked in the front door of their home, they had to ask themselves, does my home glorify God and the story of my faith?
So the mezuzah reminded them of who they were and whose they were. But the mezuzah wasn’t just for the person wearing it or posting it on their door. It was for everyone who saw it. It identified that person as a participant in a particular story. It was a witness of sorts, inviting people to learn more about the story that was being told and the people who were telling it.
You know, we do the same sort of thing in other ways today. When you see someone with one of those yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets, chances are it’s being worn by a person who in some way or another has been touched by cancer. Just a few weeks ago, about 60 of you left this sanctuary on a Wednesday night with the sign of the cross in ashes on your forehead. I wonder if any of you got weird stares from family members or friends you ran into later that evening? It may not have felt like it, my friends, but you were telling a story that night!
The thing is, we are constantly telling stories with our lives, aren’t we? We are forever in the process of proclaiming something with how we live and who we are. The apostle Paul talks about this in his letter to the Galatians – that the fruits of our lives come directly from whether we are anchored in the Spirit or not. That anchoring – or lack thereof – tells a story.
So the real question for you and me today is this: what is the story inscribed on our mezuzah? What are the three words written on our stole? How do these things define the life we live and the manner in which our faith grows and deepens? And perhaps most importantly: how are we being intentional about that growth?
I’ve said it before from this pulpit, but it bears repeating: simply showing up at church on a Sunday morning does not automatically cause your faith to develop, any more than going to a McDonald’s automatically makes you a hamburger. We have to be intentional about developing our faith. That’s the very reason we offer all our Bible studies and Sunday school and SPARK, and all those other things in the life of our church that help us develop our faith. All those things that build on the radical hospitality and passionate worship we already have here, so that our church can be a spiritually-growing one.
So: two things I want you to leave you with on this first Sunday of Spring Discipleship. First: I want to challenge you to be intentional about finding ways to enhance and grow and develop your faith, other than just showing up for something. Sign on for one of our Bible study groups, or come up with a brand new idea of your own. Find a way not just to pay homage to the story of your faith; but to listen to it, to hear it, to engage it. Find out what is written on your mezuzah or on your stole.
And speaking of that stole – I think you should have one of your own. Because you are called to tell the story of the faith in the same way that the 650 of us at the NEXT Church Conference this past week were. And so, the elders are going to pass out stoles to each of you – I hope there are enough. They’re also going to pass out Sharpies; probably one per row. You’ll have to share. What I want you to do, while Ellen plays some soft organ music at the end of the sermon, is to write your name on your stole, and then write three words that describe the story of your faith. Maybe it’s the name of someone in the Bible whose own story resonates with your. Maybe it’s a descriptive word or phrase, like “passion” or “mission;” or a particular ministry of the church like “friends feeding friends” or “fellowship” or “music.” Don’t overthink this; there aren’t any wrong answers. Save your stole for the end of worship.
And as you do this, friends, remember this: the story of the faith is not just some words written in a book. You are the story. You’re the story of the church as it is now, and the church as it will be. Don’t ever stop telling the story. Don’t ever stop listening to the story. Don’t ever stop being intentional about allowing that story to grow in you. Let the story come alive! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.