August 5 Sermon

“Connecting with God: Study”                                                                          Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                 Matthew 22:34-39
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL                                    Romans 12:1-2
August 5, 2018

Brett Younger, pastor of the historic Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, NY tells the story of growing up in churches that “had all the answers.” “Heaven was up, hell was down, and we knew who was going in which direction. We reduced the mystery of the Unknowable God to Four Spiritual Laws that would fit on a post card and still leave room for “The Bible Says it. I believe it. That settles it.” We didn’t have room for questions, because we were certain of everything.”

He went to Baylor University. His plan was, “to straighten out the misguided freethinkers.” In his Introduction to Old Testament class, he read something in the textbook that questioned part of a story in the Bible. So he went to talk to the professor, saying that his textbook questioned the Bible and that wasn’t right.

The professor responded, “Brett, do you think that God might want us to ask questions about the Bible? Could it be that God wants us to work to believe? Maybe faith shouldn’t be easy.” As they spoke, he says, “I transferred my membership from the church of the certain to the church of the questioning.” [1]

I feel blessed because I grew up in the church of the questioning. My dad is a professor and my mom long ago left her rigid childhood faith. I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained in a United Church of Christ congregation filled with college professors. Part of our UCC tradition is the founding of hundreds of universities across the country. It’s clear to me that this congregation is also part of the “church of the questioning.” You clearly value having pastors who know how to think. There’s a reason you give me study leave and that study is in my draft position description. There’s a reason you sponsored my application to spend six years in the UCC’s Next Generation Leadership Initiative. I just got back from orientation for that and I’m turning around and going to a mediation training all next week. There’s a reason nobody here gives me trouble about that and it might be because I’m new but I also think it’s because you want me to keep my mind sharp. And that’s good, because I know would a much worse pastor without study.  The “church of the questioning” has a long tradition, one that goes back to Jesus urging people to love God with our minds, and back even further still. Jesus was called Teacher again and again.

But not every church values that approach to faith. In many churches, thinking is fine unless you start thinking the wrong things or asking the wrong questions. Then you’d better get in line. Popular movies like “God’s Not Dead” and its various sequels warn people about the dangers of godless college professors determined to make Christians stray from the faith. I don’t bring this up to say “yay us!” and “boo them.” This is a complicated topic. I never wish to be unloving. Rather I want to be very clear about who we are and who we can be. This church doesn’t ask you to turn off your brain. We are all invited to learn, our whole lives long! Otherwise we get stuck. When our thinking doesn’t grow, neither do we.

But I imagine that when most you saw that I was going to talk about “study” today, you didn’t exactly jump for joy. A lot of us have great learning experiences but a lot of us don’t. Sometimes learning at church has been horribly boring. Sometimes we haven’t been encouraged to question. Sometimes it’s seemed like what we’re talking about doesn’t matter. And sometimes we’ve accidentally sent the message that learning is just for kids and not for adults. For whatever reason, even in a church like ours that stands in a great tradition of learning and thinking together, many of us hear “study” and want to run the other way.But it doesn’t have to be that way. Study is one of the most basic spiritual practices for a reason. The search for truth brings us closer to God – and to each other.

At the heart of our faith is the call to love and follow God with our hearts, our whole beings, and our minds. In fact, as the church leader Paul wrote, we are often called to change our minds, to leave old ideas behind. He knew this because before he led Christians he killed them. He thought he had all the right answers – until he allowed God to change his mind. For true faith means thinking for yourself, not just accepting what you’re told. That goes here, too: don’t just take what I say as the way you have to think and believe. Explore for yourself. Question for yourself. If you want to find God for yourself you must also think for yourself. So I would like to challenge each of us: let’s keep learning, questioning, discovering, growing together!

It just so happens that providing opportunities to do just that has become a major priority of mine in the past few months. We’ve had amazing conversations – especially with council and the Religious Education Board – as we considered how to support everyone at Lyonsville in their journey of faith, from birth to death. After all, loving God with our minds isn’t just something we do on our own. It’s something we do together. As we’ve done our own exploring and study and learning, we’ve decided to offer something new. Starting on Rally Day, September 9, we will offer an intergenerational learning time at 9:30am, with worship for all ages at 10:30am. We’ll also be providing more resources for you to take home to learn and grow during the week. And, we’ll still offer an adult-only learning experience during the week. We’ve learned that churches where people of all ages think and learn together are churches where people of all ages grow together. This is something we’re trying for the program year, and we’ll see how it goes. To say I’m excited is a major understatement. I’m thrilled, and I can’t stop talking about it. You can expect to see and hear more and more this month.

Am I anxious? Of course! Trying something new is always scary. So if you’re wary and wondering, that’s just fine. But I believe we’ll figure it out together. I’m glad to be working with a church that is willing to try new things. I believe this is an opportunity to grow in our love of God and one another. I believe that there are a lot of people out there who need a place to question and learn and grow and wonder together. And, I know that our time together will be many things but boring is not one of them. I really, really, hope you give it a try.

Study is most effective when we do it together and at home, either on your own or with your family. So I’m also inviting you to make a daily time of Bible study part of your life. Even 5-10 minutes is enough. I’ve included a daily Bible reading guide in your bulletin from the American Bible Society. It includes a short guide to getting the most out of your reading. I don’t endorse everything from them but this is a great resource. If you start and then fall behind, don’t try to read everything you missed. Just pick up on the right day. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine too. Do what you can, not what you can’t.

For the past month or so I’ve been preaching on different spiritual practices – ways of growing closer to God’s heart. Prayer, Meditation, Study, Connecting in Creation, Fasting. I imagine some things haven’t connected with you at all, and I also hope that at least one idea or practice has. But even if you feel like nothing has been helpful, I hope you remember one thing. God wants to be with us. And being with God is worth anything and everything. God’s breath gives us meaning and purpose in life. Jesus offers us “life that really is life.” Not just going through the motions, but living, feeling, loving, breathing life. The Spirit offers us power to transform our lives, to transform our communities and our country and our world to be a more loving, merciful, just, and peaceful place. And it all begins by letting God nearer to your heart, so that our heart may become more like God’s heart.

May you be blessed with a thirst for God. May you know God’s presence along your journey, no matter where that journey takes you.