Sermon: Beyond The Boxes 7Aug2016


Image by Avi on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

First of all, I’d like to start by saying how delighted Diane and I are to be here. Finally!

And even though I know it seems like it’s taken a long time for us to get here – and indeed it has – but with everything we’ve had to do this past few months, the summer has really sped by for Diane and me: taking leave of my former congregation and getting them ready for the interim period; preparing for the 222nd General Assembly – our biannual national meeting, which was held in Portland this year – and then participating as a representative delegate in that unique process of democratic spiritual discernment which characterizes our denomination; afterward that scooting down to Wichita Kansas to visit with family we hadn’t seen for quite a while; and then returning to begin packing in earnest and saying goodbye to all the dear friends we developed while living in Davenport, Iowa. In between shuttling back and forth to Cazenovia to do house hunting.

Having said all that, we are most grateful for your patience and your enthusiastic anticipation, which we will certainly do our best to live up to.

We are also thankful for the gracious hospitality that so many have shown us during this whole moving process. While I just started my ministry here at First Presbyterian Church this past Monday, so many of you have already opened both your homes and your hearts to Diane and I. And many others have dropped by this past week, and just made us feel so welcome . . . and at home. And I can’t tell you how much that means, especially when you’re traveling to a far off land.

By the way, we did finally find a house and hopefully will move in by the end of this month. It is true that moving seems to happen in stages, just as it did with Abram and Sarai. Right now, however, we are in the box stage. Our lives are filled with boxes. Everywhere we turn there are boxes and more boxes.

Boxes of every conceivable size and shape. Big boxes, little boxes. Wide boxes to transport mirrors and paintings, as well as the technology that provides us with an unfolding view of the changing world around us. Tall – well packed and well-padded – boxes entrusted with the precious cargo of fine china that Diane inherited from her mother and her grandmother. And books! Lord have mercy. Boxes and boxes and books.

Unfortunately, I must tell you, we’re not quite done yet. Back in Davenport there are yet many more boxes standing empty and yawning, yearning to be made relevant once more by being filled with something new and useful.

And, I must confess, if I am to be honest there are some boxes in our basement in Davenport which are so tightly sealed that their contents haven’t seen the light of day for years; preserving volumes of wisdom and knowledge from ages past now languishing and perhaps begging the question of relevancy for today.

Now, my wife loves boxes. When we first met, Diane had already been in ordained ministry for about ten years. And after we got married and I moved into her two bedroom apartment, I soon discovered that the guest bedroom was entirely reserved for boxes – from floor to ceiling. Maybe that should have been a clue of something or another: “When God tells you to move; you move. So you’ve got to be ready.”

I, on the other hand, am a bit more ambivalent about the concept of boxes. To me boxes represent a challenge; something to be filled and used, or discarded. To me boxes are containers to be unpacked, the contents of which then require review and evaluation; subsequently to integrate or divest oneself of.

Phyllis Tickle, who passed away last year, was a professor of religious studies, prolific author and speaker and beloved mentor to so many of us clergy types. Known as a leading voice in the emergence church movement, Phyllis observed that about every 500 years or so a massive transition – an upheaval –  takes place in history of the church.

For the Christian Church, it started around 2,000 years ago when Jesus arrived on the scene to shake up the status quo of both church and state, starting the first movement of the great emergence. The next major shake-up happened around 500 years later with the schism between the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) churches. Another 500 years down the road, during the Middle Ages, saw the Crusades against the Islamic Empire to reconquer the Holy Land for Christiandom. The 16th century brought with it the shake up that most of us Presbyterians are familiar with, which we know as the Reformation, launched by such heavy weights as Martin Luther and John Calvin.

And now, just about 500 years later, observed Phyllis Tickle, we are once again going through such an upheaval. The Christian landscape is dramatically changing. Declining mainline denominations survey that changing landscape wondering what future holds for them.

While at the same time we see the emergence of renewed interest and enthusiasm – both throughout this nation and around the world – in matters of spirituality and personal faith. What does it all mean for the future of the church?

Phyllis Tickle suggests what is called for is a de-institutionalizing of the church; an `unpacking’ of those containers which have so long held the structures of our religious beliefs. She likens the process to that of having a `giant rummage sale.’ Which requires the often nostalgic – and sometimes painful – task of sorting through the boxes that we sojourners of history have sanctified over the centuries, moving them dutifully, perhaps even unquestioningly, from place to place, the contents of which may not have seen the light of day for decades.

Having a giant rummage sale means rooting through the attics of our faith, dragging out the musty boxes and going through them to see what is worth keeping and what should be left behind. What attitudes, tenets, beliefs, and traditions are still relevant and meaningful, and what needs to be let go of.

But I sort of think we do that sort of thing instinctively, because being human and experiencing change – wanted or unwanted – go hand in hand. Life is a series of letting go of one thing in order to take hold of another.

Jesuit Priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings have a human experience.”

In other words, we are actually spiritual nomads making our way through this world, stage by stage. Never quite satisfied to remain where we are, compelled by need or desire to take the next step in the journey of life; even the most ardent traditionalist or recalcitrant `stick-in-the-mud’ wanting to, now and then, brush the cobwebs out of the attic and shed new light on long held truths.

The truth is all of us have boxes that need unpacking for review and evaluation. Maybe they’re boxes that others – whether individuals or institutions – have tried to put us in; boxes of shame, inferiority, or exclusion. Boxes that limit our vision and restrain our potential.

It’s funny, as a kid – and maybe you were like this – on Christmas morning, I was always much less interested in the toys I got than I was with the boxes they came in. Maybe because the toys, as brightly colored and enticing as they may have been, were the products of someone else’s imagination. But I could make of a plain cardboard box whatever I wished. I could paint it any color I wanted. Cut it up and then refashion it into any shape I wanted.

And, if it was large enough, I could even climb inside, explore its boundaries, create a vessel limited only by my own God-given imagination.

I don’t know; maybe that’s, in part, why I became a pastor. Because I do believe that we are spiritual beings; incredibly blessed with the God-given gifts of imagination and intellect; endowed by God with an amazing capacity to overcome obstacles, refashion our own lives, and reshape the world around us.

Because I’ve seen what happens to such a precious spiritual being when they are imprisoned by shame or bigotry or hatred or any other kind of human sin that limits us from experiencing the truth about God and who God wants us to be.

And because I believe that that’s precisely why Jesus came to live among us, as the Holy Spirit of God incarnate; to help us get beyond those boxes.

Jesus told his disciples, “If you believe in me then you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Through the years, Diane and I have been blessed with relatively long pastorates. But we also have learned to be attentive to God’s nudging in our lives that it’s time to pick up and move to a distant land. And every time we do it’s a bit of an upheaval. But it’s also inevitably a good exercise in evaluating what essential and what is not for the journey ahead.

As we begin this partnership in ministry together, as your new pastor, it is my fervent hope that together we can begin to unpack the boxes to discover – as individuals and as a community – who God is calling us to be; and where God is calling to go.

To unpack, explore and evaluate, together, the great truths of God’s word and the deep learnings of our faith history. So that, when God calls for us to move, we might be truly ready, carrying only those things essential for the journey. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.