I normally begin my preparation for my sermons in a lectionary study group with Lutheran pastors.  Generally speaking, we use the same readings on Sunday (sometimes with some slight variation in verses or one reading which is different).  But today they are celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, and we are not.  And our readings are completely different.  So after we looked at their readings, I made them look at our gospel reading:  “On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to [the disciples], ‘Let us go across to the other side.’”

I’m not really sure why, but my mind stopped as soon as I heard those words, “Let us go across to the other side.”  I can’t speak for you.  But it seems to me that my temptation is always to stop where I am, in my comfort zone, and not cross over into the unknown.  And I think that Jesus is always calling me into the unknown.

We in the Episcopal Church have a reputation, maybe even a well deserved reputation, for being a fairly liberal branch of Christianity.  But there is no way that a denomination which bases its liturgy on practices that are centuries old is not deeply conservative.  We want to preserve what we have found to be of value in our lives.  We treasure our heritage.  We are willing, within limits, to adapt our traditions to speak meaningfully to our times.  But we want to keep what we have and know.

Edward Hobbs, who taught the six week Intensive Greek class we were required to take before our first year of seminary, said some things that have always stuck with me.  One of the things he said was that any time, in our spiritual life, that we found ourselves comfortable, we were beginning to fall into idolatry.  Because God is always inviting us to grow, spiritually.  And if we hold onto what’s comfortable for us, we’re holding onto something other than God.

Times of spiritual growth are times of confusion and turmoil, as often as not.  And we need those times where we move into something new that God has brought into our lives.  We need the clarity and the comfort of coming to a new resting place on our journey with God.  We need the chance to regroup and reprovision so that we can journey on.  Still, it’s a mistake to think of our latest campground as the promised land.  It’s a mistake to think that our current resting place is our final home.

God is calling us to continue our journey.  Let us go across to the other side.  Let’s see where God is taking us.  Let us continue on our way with God.

I’m not at all sure I like this.  It means that I cannot simply rest where I am if I want to faithfully follow my God.  And what is true for me, I’m afraid, is also true for God’s Church.  We have deep traditions which feed and sustain us.  And we are in real trouble if we lose our roots.  We are nothing if we are not rooted in God.  But we still cannot rest on what we have.  God continues to call us to new growth, new life, new joy.  God continues to call us to find new ways to reach people we have not managed to include so that they too can know and live in the love of God as we know it in Christ Jesus.  We as a church cannot be faithful if we do not continue to follow our Lord into newness of life.

And that seems scary.  It’s scary to walk into the unknown.  It’s hard for us to agree together on a common path forward.  Even with the best of will, and it’s sometimes hard to find that, it is hard, sometimes it seems impossible, for us to get on the same page.  I suspect that’s God, calling us forward, trying to hold onto our roots while we try to move into the new fields into which our God is calling us.  The tensions, the confusion, are part of our spiritual growth.

And, frankly, not every new thing into which God calls us turns out to be all that scary.  God has called me into a lot of joy in my life.  Learning how to be married was new and scary once.  And, I have to say, it continues to be an ongoing challenge.  I think Anne and I have a wonderful marriage.  But I know I cannot just rest on my laurels.  I know that we both need to continue to grow if we want this relationship to continue to work.

This is a sacrament, a place where God’s love is made manifest, tangibly and concretely in my life.  On balance it has been a great blessing in my life.  But it once was a great leap of faith for me, changing the everyday realities of my life, and it continues to call on me to grow in new and challenging ways.

I’m not sure that anyone would ever be a parent if they knew ahead of time the ways that would continue to change and make demands upon your life.  I know that if I could have imagined all the change being a parent was going to involve in my life I never would have done it — before I was a parent.  As a parent, looking back, I cannot imagine my life without the blessings of my children.

The changes God calls us to in our lives are very often the every day stuff of life that makes life meaningful.  They are the stuff of joy and wonder.  But they are also the challenges and the sorrows of our lives.  People die.  Marriages fail.  Children and friends leave.  God is also actively calling us forward as we come to terms with all the losses of our lives and learn to find new life, resurrected life, growing out of the ashes.  God is leading us there too.

Anthony Bloom was the Patriarch for the Russian Orthodox Church’s  Diocese of Great Britain and Ireland, and a well known Christian writer on prayer and the spiritual life.  Without wanting to draw an absolute parallel between the buddhist story of a salt doll and Christian knowledge of God, he says that we can find a lot of truth in this story.

In this story, a salt doll, after a long pilgrimage on dry land, comes to the sea — something she had never seen and did not understand, another ground, if you will, that was mobile, insecure, noisy, strange and unknown.  What is this, she asks.  The sea’s answer was, it’s me.  I do not understand, but I want to know.  How can I?  Touch me.

The doll shyly puts her foot into the water, and she gets a strange impression of something that began to be knowable.  But when she withdraws her leg, her toes have gone.  What have you done to me, she cries.  You have given something in order to understand, the sea replies.  Gradually she gives up more and more of herself, until there is nothing left.

Bloom says that we grow into the knowledge of God gradually from year to year until the end of our life, and that we will continue to do so through all eternity, without ever coming to the point of knowing all there is to know about God.  We stand always with our past experience behind us and the mystery of the unknowable God still before us.  Every meeting with God brings such a change of perspective that what was known before becomes almost untrue in the light of what is known later.

Let us go across to the other side …

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