The story is told of an active Quaker Meeting, which is the name for a congregation in the Society of Friends. The Meeting gathered one day for their monthly discussion of church business. Once everyone was present and seated, the Clerk said, “Friends, we have a lot more than usual on our agenda for this evening. We need to get started so we can spend extra time in prayer and silence.”
“We have a lot to do, so we need to spend more time in prayer before we address our business.” If ever there was a countercultural way of conducting a meeting with a packed agenda, this is it. Most places I go, the response would be the opposite: “We have a lot to do tonight, so let’s skip our centering and get on to the business at hand.” I hate to guess how many times this has happened at meetings here at Pullen. I hate to admit that this is my personal instinct as well. My natural inclination is to get on to the tasks on my to-do list, and I know I’m not alone. Most of us here are very active people. We’re “doers” and there is much to do these days. These perilous times call for action since every day there is a new outrage. So our inner voices say, “Let’s get on with it.” Yet I know in my heart that our Quaker friends model something our culture and many of us haven’t learned, but desperately need. We need more silence and less talk. More listening and less thinking. For if we don’t do our inner spiritual work, our actions, however well-meaning, can be misguided, ineffective or even hurtful. Ungrounded action doesn’t often reflect the best we have to give.
This morning’s lectionary texts pose some interesting topics for us. Each of them could be the text for a Peace Sunday sermon. The psalm for today reminds us that those who follow God’s way are steady, and they do not let fear overtake them. What an important message this is in our fearful age. There is enough to be legitimately fearful about without leaders whipping our fear into a frenzy. Then the gospel passage is Matthew’s beautiful parable about salt and light. But I found myself drawn to the other two texts for today, the ones Ariana read a few moments ago.
The words of Isaiah are favorites of those of us who are committed to social justice: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” We love these words and rightly so. Like Micah 6:8, they summarize how we understand our calling in just a couple of sentences. Both prophetic passages, Isaiah 58 and Micah 6, are critiques of people who engage in religious rituals purportedly to honor God, but don’t act justly toward their fellow human beings. The message of both is clear: Religious ritual is meaningless unless we embody God’s justice in our lives.
Our text from 1 Corinthians is a different matter. Progressive people tend not to be drawn to Paul generally or to these words he writes to the Corinthian church: “…so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Now let me say quickly that some social justice advocates are deeply prayerful people. Many Quakers would be among them. But I am reminded in these days that our Baptist heritage and the mainline Protestant background of most of us hasn’t typically been as grounded in prayer as that of those who came from the Radical Reformation, most of them pacifists, like our Quaker, Mennonite and Amish friends. Even our evangelical neighbors are more inclined toward prayer than we progressives are in spite of the fact that often their views don’t feel very spiritual to us. I admit that sometimes I wonder if we’re reading the same bible and talking about the same Jesus.
Nevertheless, I believe our epistle reading for this morning has a word for us at this moment in history. Paul urges the Corinthian church to remember that accessing God’s power should be their focus rather than accumulating their own. The issue is not what we are doing, but what God is doing in the world. One of my beloved seminary professors used to say, “We church people often act as if God can only work through our programs. But the calling for the church is to look out on the landscape to see where God is already at work and go there.” According to Paul, we need to seek God’s spirit. Without it, he says, we wouldn’t have a clue about the shape or the grandeur of God’s purpose in general or in any particular situation. So we need this Spirit to guide our actions.
I think about this search for the Spirit as the difference between deciding and discerning. Deciding or decision-making, as we typically call it, is mostly an intellectual process, although we can never completely eliminate the impact of emotions on our decisions – nor would we want to. Decision-making involves weighing the pros and cons, sometimes even making a list on paper or in our heads of the various options available to us. This is a skill for which we should be grateful. All you have to do is experience someone who always acts on impulse to appreciate the importance of thoughtful consideration of alternatives before taking action.
But this kind of decision-making is a very human process. I would distinguish it from a spiritual discernment that is open to what God or the Divine or the Holy is calling us to be and do. In 1 John, there is a wonderful verse that says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Discernment is about testing the spirits to see whether the urges we experience are holy ones or whether they come from our ego needs or our wounds or even our assumptions about the needs of others.
This distinction between deciding and discerning feels especially critical in these days. For the last two weeks we have been hit with devastating news about one issue or another just about every day. As someone said, “The hits just keep on coming.” There has been a relentless assault on people we care about and promises of more to come. We sang the touching hymn about refugees because our nation has slammed the door on them, especially those who are Muslim. We’re revving things up with Iran, revoking visas, insulting our friends, and making it easier for people with lots of money to make more. I don’t need to tell you what has happened because you know it well. The continuous attacks on people and the planet are almost more than we can take in. They are so many coming at us so fast that one commentator warned against “outrage fatigue.”
And it’s not as if these challenges are raining down on an otherwise perfect world. We have an urgent need to support refugees generally and our Muslim sisters and brothers specifically. But we also have an affordable housing crisis in our community where the average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $950 per month. At that rate, nearly 100,000 residents of Wake County are cost-burdened, which means they are paying more than 30% of their income for housing. Nearly half of those are paying more than half of their wages to put a roof over their heads. It takes nearly three minimum-wage jobs to be able to pay this kind of rent. There has been a 23% increase in homeless children in Wake County schools and nearly 5,000 adults are homeless over the course of a year in our prosperous community.
One response to the daily barrage of terrible news is to withdraw. Please don’t do that. Another is to hunker down, gather with like-minded people and develop our strategy. This is a laudable and much-needed response. It’s what open-minded members of Congress are doing and bless them for it. But my hope for us as individuals and as a church is that we will do our best to discern what our calling is in these scary days. Where will our resources be most useful? Where can we make a difference – a real difference? And most importantly, where do we feel a holy nudge to get involved through our words and our actions and our prayers and our solidarity? The answer to these questions will be different for each of us and we may even struggle to discern our corporate calling as the faith community that is Pullen. But in spite of potentially different responses, as people of faith we need to answer questions about our calling. “God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” said Frederick Buechner. Where is that intersection for you? For us as the Pullen family?
Many of you have heard me quote Thomas Kelly on this topic. Kelly was an extraordinary Quaker scholar, missionary and speaker who died in the 1940’s. Hear these words from his book A Testament of Devotion published in 1941 during the rise of Hitler: “The Loving Presence does not burden us equally with all things, but considerately puts upon each of us just a few central tasks, as emphatic responsibilities. For each of us these special undertakings are our share in the joyous burdens of love. We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to… But God speaks within you and me, to our truest selves, in our truest moments, and disquiets us with the world’s needs. By inner persuasions God draws us to a few very definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing God’s burdens in us… Then we see that nothing matters, and that everything matters, and that this my task matters for me and for my fellow human beings and for all eternity.”
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, he speaks several times about “mysteries” and “secrets.” He’s not talking about unknowable wisdom but rather things that can be known in a life with God. For many of us, it’s hard to seek this deep knowledge because it takes time and attention when we want to get on with the business of saving the world. It’s especially hard in these days when we face one tragic declaration after another and we know each one will hurt people we love. The temptation is to take the short cut and make decisions based on our intellectual knowledge or emotions. Or perhaps to say, “Well, God’s ways are a mystery” and go on about doing what we wanted to do in the first place. Says theologian Christopher Morse, “We cannot produce God’s Spirit or find it through human manipulation, by turning down the lights or turning up the music. It’s coming doesn’t depend on whether we feel inspired or not, or how religious or irreligious we imagine ourselves to be.” Instead I think we’re called simply to let go of our preconceived notions, which typically includes our need to control, and open ourselves to the Divine and to each other’s wisdom, and see what happens. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, God’s commonwealth will not come on earth because of human wisdom but through divine power. We’ve been trying for too long and failing too miserably at fixing things ourselves to believe that we human beings can miraculously solve the world’s problems now unless we tap into something beyond ourselves.
So my encouragement for us today is not for us to stop using our brains, our passion or our collective wisdom as we marshal our resources to respond creatively to the assaults that are coming at us daily. Like many of you, I grew up with the old adage: “God helps those who help themselves.” We can’t sit back and expect a Divine fix. So don’t, by any means, stop meeting and strategizing and planning and giving your time, money and energy to the movements that are arising. But remember that the One who created us and desires wholeness for every person and the planet is at work in the world. God is already present before we ever arrive. Let us go deeper. Let’s set aside the agenda to be quiet together. Let’s go beyond our thoughts and emotions to seek the places where God’s burdened heart is touching our hearts; to a place in our souls where we can ‘test the spirits’ all around us to see which ones are from God. Right now it is tempting to just do something – anything – that will meet our need to respond to the harm being perpetrated in our name. And that’s not a bad instinct. But we claim our power best when God is acting with us. Each of us does need to do something or some things. No one is exempt. But discerning where our gifts can best be used is our truest calling. As Kelly says, we cannot die on every cross, but there is one with our name on it as we work for peace in our world.
Many years ago I became a fan of singer Holly Near. I rediscovered one of her songs this week as I prepared for this service. Her music is about social justice and the lyrics of one offer an image that I am holding onto in these days:
We will have peace, we will because we must
We must because we cherish life
And believe it or not, as daring as it may seem,
It is not an empty dream
To walk in a powerful path.
Neither the first nor the last great peace march,
Life is a great and mighty march,
Forever for love and for life on the great peace march.
Friends, we are part of the great peace march. We’re marching for love and for life. It’s not the first one and probably not the last. But it is the great peace march of our day. And we really can walk in a powerful path if we walk together and, especially, if we are fueled by the Sacred Power that is waiting for us.