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Free To Think…Bound to Serve

Christianity is more Doing than Doctrine: Half of every relationship with God is the individual.  God, who is timeless and constant, is known “as in a mirror dimly” while we live.  We, who change and die, find our knowledge of God change throughout our lives.  And we not only differ from our younger selves or who we shall become. We differ from each other.  Temperament, experience, inclination give our approach to life different emphases.  We each have our own perspective. Some Christian traditions address this fact by establishing doctrine as definitive.  Individuals subscribe to set teachings, by an act of will, and forgive themselves privately for being puzzled or unpersuaded by some of the formulations.  Personal conviction is in the authority of the church which has decreed dogma. Our tradition takes a different approach.  We urge that for religion to be real, it must be based on a person’s honest beliefs.  This means that each individual trusts himself or herself as a reader of scripture and a thinker about what is revealed there about God.  We know we shall each understand God a bit differently from each other, and that the inevitable limitation of our understanding will carry through all the concepts which are part of our religious life.  We trust God’s grace and the Spirit’s work to keep us in community, and to keep us ministering to the world. We are required, as followers of Jesus Christ, to love others.  Feeding, healing, forgiving, clothing, and paying attention to those with needs is the way Jesus embodied God’s approach to life.  We must do the same. The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel states that it is caring for other people, and not profession of religious views, which counts with God. The church long has aimed to make its Christianity a matter of active service, and long has accepted open, earnest inquiry as part of its character.  For twenty years we’ve summed up this approach to discipleship with the credo “Free to Think, Bound to Serve.”

THIS MONTH’S ESSAY FROM THE PASTOR

The two disciples in Emmaus, after their guest has blessed and broken bread with them, have him vanish from their sight. They say to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us, when he spoke with us on the road, when he opened to us the scriptures?” They now know it is Jesus, risen from the dead, but in this remark they share that they almost knew it earlier. They were each silently host to feelings of excitement and expectation about their companion on the road. His dismissal of their discouragement and exhortation to believe made them intuit something special was going on, that he was something special. They didn’t recognize him on the road. Whatever their “Ah!”’s and “but what about?”’s punctuating his instruction, they said nothing about the quickened pulse they felt, or the apprehension of a still-obscure but dawning realization. They met Easter with their mouths closed. What does one say? When I was a young preacher I was happy to have holidays for which to prepare, because they had so much meaning that I thought it made it easier to address them. Christmas had its big theme(s) and so did Easter. The other sermons expected had to be about something, but what would it be? A few years along, I realized I’d been wrong. It was easier to find something to say about a lot of things, about relatively little things. It was harder to find anything to say about God’s Christ being sent into the world, or raised from the tomb. Easter, especially, is hard. What art can add to the wonder of the story, or explication unpack the significance of the miracle? Despite Christianity’s having made doctrine and dogma out of the resurrection, what words are equal to expressing it? At the conclusion of the story of Job, when God has appeared to challenge Job’s stance with regard to Job’s suffering, Job ceases to speak. He has said too much; the greatness of God overwhelms human efforts to comprehend, there is presumption in our instinctive sense-making when it comes to the things of heaven. Later, God will agree that Job was justified and his comforters wrong. Perhaps Job’s refusal to say that for himself is part of his having been right. Christmas is ringed with music. People can’t wait to sing the carols. They’re on the airwaves a month ahead. They’re not just part of the culture, not just reflected in the recorded-music businesses having a million Christmas offerings. The first Christmas has its heavenly host singing. The shepherds’ vision is musical. Easter is quiet. It is silent sorrow made into mute astonishment. Can anyone imagine women on their way at dawn to a tomb to prepare a body for permanent burial talking in their marketplace voices? Wouldn’t they have almost whispered their wondering about the stone being moved? Once there, what gets said? John’s gospel has Mary weeping, then questioning someone who appears, but it’s hard to make that a noisy conversation. Morning is hushed, generally. The early riser gets the benefit of relative peace, fewer other people stirring, the customs and commerce of the day hours off. Birdsong and little noises of creatures colliding with brush nuance the quiet. Our keeping Easter has its grand hymns, and usually more voices joined. Lilies cue the eye and nose that the central holiday of the faith has arrived. What can we do, but hear again the old story, and return to the old forms of prayer, and readings, and sermon? Religion is bigger than we are, and our joining its patterns gives us a foretaste of a realm in which God is all. We sing out gratefully, and are glad of the words we hear. Behind Easter, however, there is a great, numbing meeting of heaven and earth, eternity and mortality, Maker and creature. The first to stumble upon it were struck dumb. Whatever the music of the morning, and conviviality of the company, some part of Easter will be silent. It is not the sound of emptiness, but of wonder, witness, and Peace. Mac