Spiritual Progress

Posted on 04 Aug 2019, Pastor: Rev. Patty Ebner

Spiritual Progress

Rev. Patty Ebner

August 4, 2019

When I woke up yesterday morning, I began my day with a cup of tea, some reading and silent meditation.  I pulled this card from a box of inspirational words which reads:  “Right now, in this moment, your soul has again created opportunity for you to be, do, and have what it takes to know Who You Really Are.  Your soul has brought you to the words of wisdom and truth before.  What will you do now?  What will you choose to be?”

I then picked up “Jesus Calling” written by Sarah Young.  The reading spoke to the power of words, how they can either bless or wound another individual.  Its words emphasized “the ability to verbalize” as an “awesome privilege” and one which requires assistance in wielding this mighty power in a responsible way.”  God’s concluding promise in the devotion was “I will enable you to be quicker to listen and slower to speak so that you may have more Joy.”  I can’t imagine that more appropriate words could be placed on a document for a minister who spends a majority of her time in conversation with others or at the pulpit on alternate Sundays.

As I began to mentally prepare for today’s message, I was once again reminded just how much I respect, admire and appreciate each of you.  Quite often though, what I know about you and the high opinion I hold of you, works against my ability to bring a message which will inspire and challenge you, to bring a message which crosses the “t’s” and dots the “i’s” in your paths to a fuller understanding of God and God’s purpose in your life.  After all, you are a really great group of people, with strong and open minds, souls full of love and acceptance.  What are the words which will make a difference in your lives?

Fortunately, I learned in seminary that the purpose of the preacher’s message is to “share the good news.”  In reading the words of this morning’s scripture, one might wonder where the good news appears in words which ask us to give up all of our earthly desires, whether material or behavioral, to live a life hidden in Christ, and finally to peel off the labels which have defined us and helped others to better understand us.  To that end, I looked at the verses in four different versions of the scripture. In an excel spreadsheet, I compared the words from one version to another to see if anything in particular stood out to me.

I noticed that tenses are often different from one version to the other and that certain behaviors are named differently.  “Fornication” as “sexual immorality”, “passion” as “lust,” and “greed” as “covetousness” or idolatry.  While none of these are surprising or out of the ordinary, I really appreciated the expansion of “seeking” to “setting one’s heart on” the things above.

In verses 8 and 9, I noticed that “getting rid of” language was changed to “putting them all away,” and “stripping off” was expressed as “taking off” or “putting off.”  I appreciate these modifications as well.  Putting them all away could mean that if I want to find them again, I can choose to do so.  And putting off might indicate that a certain behavior is always available to me but does not have to be embodied every single time I have the urge.

In verse 10, I love the active, dynamic presence of God, through which we are being renewed.  “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.”  While the words are slightly different in each version, what’s critical is the knowledge that our understanding of, our interactions with, and our relationship to God our Creator, is dynamic and always subject to change.

Finally, in verse 11, we learn that Christ encompasses everything and everything within Christ, occupies Christ.  Labels are a difficult aspect of the English language.  On the one hand, they can enable us to more fully understand one another.  And on the other, the distinctions they bring can separate the unity experienced by that same understanding.  I believe that verse 11 is getting at something bigger than sexuality, gender, and ethnicity.  It is pointing to the location of Christ in every one of us—what it means to be a child of God, a sibling in Christ.  And the entire scripture hinges upon the idea of others, including ourselves, being able to see the Christ within us.

I used to think that if I couldn’t be perfect, I might as well be perfectly non-perfect.  I know I’ve shared with you that I was raised in a house where we cleaned every room before the housekeeper arrived.  We ironed not only handkerchiefs, which was understandable, but the bottom sheet, the difficult one with the puffy elastic on each of the four edges.  The bottom sheet is difficult enough to put on the mattress, much less to iron.  These “earthly” ways led me to set perfection as the expectation and goal.  Fortunately, in my 20s, I learned that God accepts me just as I am and wherever I am, that all I would ever be able to claim is “spiritual progress, not perfection.”  That was a new concept for me.  But if you think about it, if I am to be a better person and can only become that person with God’s help, what would it serve for God to reject me in my earthly state?  And if I could become a better person without God’s help, why would I need God’s help afterwards?

One stark difference between the ancient Christians and ourselves lies in the belief that God existed only in the skies above them.  Nowadays, it is commonly recognized that God both surrounds and fills us.  God is everywhere.  Verse 3 tells us that our life is hidden with Christ in God.  Note that the scripture does not say “hidden from view.”  Thus the need to “rid ourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from our mouths.”  Why?  So others can see the Christ in us.

I was all set to preach a sermon this morning on the importance of claiming spiritual progress and not spiritual perfection.  To remind everyone that our God is not an angry God who turns its back on us in our greatest times of need or rejects us because we fail to live up to our own expectations, the expectations of others and the God who created us.  I was planning on delivering it devotion style, easy on the ears and souls.

And then, I heard the news about the shooting in El Paso, only 6 days after the shooting in Gilroy, California.  Hearing this news changed the tone of my sermon from casual to urgent.  It caused me to read the scripture in an entirely different way.  It caused me to read the verses over and over again in The Message, which begins with “So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides.  Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.  Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.  See things from Christ’s perspective.”  Eugene Peterson characterizes the old life as a “filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire.”  He tells us that we are “dressed in a new wardrobe, custom-made by the Creator,” with God’s label on each thread.  Other labels are no longer needed because everyone is included in Christ.  It would be easy to breathe a sigh of relief.  But wait, what does it mean to be included in Christ?  What does it mean to be “renewed in knowledge according to the image of one’s Creator?”

We know it can’t mean being perfect.  And at the very same time, it is all too clear what doing or saying nothing looks like.  Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit Catholic priest and theologian, known mostly for his contributions to liberation theology, offers a word which characterizes positively the behaviors we are being told to get rid of, to put away, and to strip off.  His word is “Orthopraxis:  acting correctly, with justice and mercy.”  This is the practice employed and embodied by Jesus in his life of 33 years and 3 year ministry.  Jesus acted correctly when offering understanding and acceptance to the woman at the well.  Jesus acted correctly when telling the others, “ye who is without sin may cast the first stone.”  Jesus acted correctly even when he turned the tables over in the temple, showing those gathered what was proper and what was not.  Jesus acted mercifully when he said, “forgive them for they know not what they do.”  I was then reminded of the questions on my card, “What will you do now?  What will you choose to be?”

The “correct” answer to these questions is clear.  Of course, we want to be Christ like in all that we say and do.  Of course, we want to be of service to the stranger, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, those whom we love, whether friend or family.  On a good day, we want others to see the Christ in us.  It’s the rest of the days which present such difficulty.  The days on which we are confused about which action to take, the days in which our own needs seem more important than our neighbor’s, the days we just can’t seem to get past that which paralyzes us.  It’s those days that orthopraxis seems to exist only outside our earthly abilities.  It is those days in which we can’t begin to imagine the Christ living within us.  It is those days when we are worried about what others will see in us if we speak up, if we take action, if we speak truth to power.  My friends, these days are absolutely the most important ones for us to act correctly, with grace and justice and to hear the words from Romans 8:38-39 which remind us that nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we act in this way, we are empowered by the Christ in us, others are able to see, feel and touch the love of God within us. 

I am positive that people everywhere are ready for “the announcement that a new outfit is available.”   I am convinced that today is the day that we must let go and put away that which no longer serves God and interferes with our ability to be God’s witnesses, that which causes us to doubt our importance to the kindom of God in this place and time.  I stand in the assurance of our loving God, in the example of Jesus of Nazareth and in the hope of a “new outfit for all” that we will both claim and give visibility to others, the presence of Christ within each and everyone of us.”  Amen.