Sermon Title: Bigger Than the Box
Speaker: Pastor Kevin Kessler
Date: January 6, 2019
Scripture: Proverbs 2: 1-15
Today is Epiphany Sunday, the time of the church year when we celebrate the story of the those who traveled great distances seeking the Christ child. The child was nearly 2 years old when the seekers arrived. Whatever had sparked the curiosity of these seekers caused them to continue pursuing a goal. Something mysterious, something of wonder was out of their reach, something that compelled them to continue on until they were able to experience first-hand what they sought.
What became of these seekers beyond that moment of finding the Christ child is unknown to us, except that they returned a different way than they had come. Which is in itself a clue that they continued to seek. That something new compelled them to move on to the next experience of wonder and mystery. I imagine that with each new experience of arrival, they were shaped and formed into new beings, into some new form of themselves that they could not have imagined before, in some way reaching beyond their present potential. Does the life of these seekers sound exciting? Would you like to walk in their footsteps? Can you believe that you do? Or do you believe that you can?
Not only is this Epiphany Sunday, but we are also kicking off today our 2019 focus on spiritual practices, and beginning with the practice of study. Study is exploration. Study is seeking…seeking to find what lies beyond our reach, seeking that which can inform, form, and shape our lives to greater capacity and potential than we presently experience. Study places us squarely in the footsteps of the wise people seeking the Christ child.
Studying may be associated with the mundane task of learning facts and figures needed to pass a test in school. But it is so much more than a mundane task. Studying can lead us to new experiences filled with wonder and mystery, compelling us to understand that yet more wonder and mystery exists beyond what we have presently experienced. Life experienced in this manner is exciting, thrilling, full of surprises, engaging, never dull, never boring
Brian McLaren in his book Finding Our Way Again devotes a chapter to why spiritual practices matter. What he writes about all the practices seems so fitting for this particular practice of study. He writes:
“It is questionable whether you can ever be exactly the same person for two consecutive days: what today throws at you will force you to become better or bitter for tomorrow; it will push you toward breakdown or breakthrough, nudge you a step closer to courage, nobility, charity, integrity, and honor or otherwise.
In a wild world like ours, your character, left untended, will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a vacant lot filled with thorns, weeds, broken bottles, raggedy grocery bags, and dog droppings. Your deepest channels will silt in, and you will feel yourself shallowing. You’ll become a presence neither you nor others will enjoy, and you and they will spend more and more time and energy trying to be anywhere else.
“Well tended, your character will be a fragrant garden, an artist’s home, with walls and halls full of memories and beauty, a party with live music and good jokes and pleasant conversations in every corner. You’ll be good and deep company for others and yourself.”
What begins to emerge as a realization about how we are changed as a result of study, is that it doesn’t just fall from the sky and drop in our laps. McLaren talks about tending. The writer of Proverbs proposes other actions, but for the same purpose and end goal. In Proverbs, the writer notes the actions of reading and/or listening to a spoken word. There is the initiative of seeking. Seek it (wisdom) like silver. Search for it as if it is a hidden treasure, something with extreme value.
The writer of Proverbs also suggests that we become more aware of our surroundings. For the Lord gives wisdom, verse 6 of chapter 2 reveals. Again, it isn’t dropped in our laps. It surrounds us, but it is up to us to notice.
In the classic book, Celebration of Discipline, author Richard Foster talks about studying books and non-verbal books. Study of books is obvious, but the study of non-verbal books maybe not so much. What Foster describes is what the author of Proverbs is revealing. Non-verbal books consist of nature, our surroundings, things we observe and experience that are not written or spoken, yet provide us with volumes from which we can learn.
Foster writes: “We begin the study of nature by paying attention. We see flowers or birds. We observe them carefully and prayerfully.”
Foster goes on to tell the story of a student who observed a moth emerging from a chrysalis during a classroom lecture. The student enthusiastically shared with the professor how awed and filled with wonder he was at this metamorphosis. The professor scoffed and matter-of-factly noted it was simply a natural occurrence. What’s the big deal. Foster noted that the professor had only amassed information, but had not studied, had not observed and allowed the miracle of metamorphosis to engage and inspire him, to move him to seek after more.
An article in the Plough Quarterly magazine offers some perspective about studying book. The article is actually a letter a grandmother wrote to her granddaughter. It’s too lengthy to share in its entirety, but here is a portion of it that relates to the importance of studying books. The grandmother writes:
“Of course any work, even work you love, can become repetitive and wearing. So how do you keep up your vibrancy of spirit? Maintaining relationships beyond the workplace is still very important. Seek out not only like-minded company, but also folks with other reactions to the subjects that preoccupy you that day. They may add to your understanding of cause and effect, or outline your own conviction more sharply. Indifference, self-preoccupation—even hostility to something or someone unknown is hard to conquer and so prevalent in the young. Trying to understand where it comes from helps to bridge the gap. And seek out the old, not only the young. They can be mentors to you: true friends who dare to tell you where you are wrong without fear of ruining the relationship.
“And read! Save time each day for reading. In high school you read the great American classics: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, …The Chosen. When I read them as a teen, I read solely for the plot, the intensity of human emotions, and their tumult and ecstasies beyond my personal experience. Only as an adult was I startled and profoundly moved by their lessons. So keep on reading widely and deeply.”
Paul Sockman, pastor of the New York City Methodist Christ Church in the early to mid 20th century, offers this insight about study:
“Our growth depends not on how many experiences we devour, but on how many we digest.”
And then: The larger the island of knowledge, the longer shoreline of wonder. Leonard Sweet in the acknowledgement section of his book Soul Tsunami states: “The more I know God, the more I know a great deal and virtually nothing about who God is.”
Sockman and Sweet encourage us with their statements that the more we know there is so much more we have to learn, so much more that we can wonder about, so much more that we can sink our teeth into and grow even more.
Sweet shares in the introduction of that same book the story of a traveler who encountered a guru on the road and asked him, “Are you a deity?” The guru said no. “Are you a saint?” The guru said no. “Are you a prophet?” The guru said no. Exasperated, the traveler asked, “Then what are you?” The guru answered, “I’m awake.”
Wow! To be awake. To be aware. To soak up and digest as much as we can. The author of Proverbs suggest that it will save us from the way of evil (we’ll know a better way and ways we can keep from being trapped by it). We’ll find the knowledge of God. We’ll gain understanding and wisdom. Paths of justice will be secure. The way of faithful ones will be preserved.
This practice of study sounds rather appealing, yes? Brian McLaren suggests that as we continually and habitually engage in this practice and others, we enter a kind of sacred normalcy, a rhythm of life. The practice becomes automatic, not routine, not mundane. It is automatic in that it ignites our senses and encourages us to keep seeking, to find more, to be more completely transformed into the capacities of our potentialities.
We do this individually, but we also engage in this practice of study corporately. Paul Sockman in his book The Paradoxes of Jesus offers that “Whenever individuals or groups revolve on their own self-interests as center, they have a scattering effect. When they sink their interests into a deeper current of motivation, they have gathering influence.”
Consider the potential capacities of our gathering influence when we study together, not for the purpose of our own self-interest, but for the well-being and interest of others and the environment. Consider what that can and would mean for the dignity of all?
Consider that as we seek together that which cannot be contained in the box of human knowledge and understanding, in a way that is compelling and engaging, just how inviting such a practice may be.
What are you studying and digesting? How is it compelling you to continue the practice of studying? How is it moving you beyond self-interest? How is it engaging and being invitational to others? What are you learning right now that is so exciting you can hardly contain yourself? If you can’t contain it, then don’t. Share it, open it up for others to receive. Observe how attractive and attracting study can be.