Last weekend my wife and I returned to Fargo, ND, for the first time since we left 12 years ago. We lived there for four years while she completed her schooling.
Moorhead, MN, is across the river from Fargo; it’s the home of my younger cousin and her family. During our years in Fargo she gave birth to her second child, a daughter, and asked if we would be baptismal sponsors. The reason we returned to Moorhead last weekend was to continue to be faithful to the promises we made at our goddaughter’s baptism, to walk with her on her faith journey; this time, to attend her confirmation. What a joy for us to see how the toddler we knew is blossoming into a fine young woman!
Anna is 15 years old. As is true for most teenagers, she no longer accepts at face value what she is taught by her parents and teachers. She has lots of questions, and that’s true for the life of faith, as well. Anna is blessed with parents, a mentor and her home pastor who welcome her questions. No question is out of bounds.
In exploring her faith through confirmation Anna has expressed interest in other religions, including Buddhism. In her bedroom hangs a painting of Jesus sitting with legs crossed, hands extended, eyes closed, in a meditative posture we might associate with Buddhist practice.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I wonder how the grown-ups in my life would have responded if I’d explored the life of faith in a similar way when I was Anna’s age!
In today’s gospel reading Jesus, near the end of his life, says to his disciples, I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
We can imagine some of the things that his disciples would have found unbearable. Such as: That he would die a horrible death. That they would all betray him. That he would be resurrected. That they would be pioneers of a new religious tradition. That Gentiles—non-Jews—would be revealed as equals to the Jews as recipients of God’s promises and God’s love.
Our goddaughter’s church in Minnesota is not Lutheran; it’s a United Church of Christ congregation. We Lutherans have what is called a full communion relationship with the UCC, as well as with several other denominations. That means that we can freely commune one another. And, a UCC pastor could be called to this congregation, just as I could be called to a UCC congregation, with no obstacles in the way.
The UCC “slogan” for some years has been the simple phrase you see on your bulletin cover this morning: God is Still Speaking. You see that big red comma? It symbolizes Gracie Allen’s famous quote: Never place a period, where God has placed a comma! Our gospel reading this morning assures us that the Spirit of truth will guide us into all the truth.
Now, when you think of Truth do you think of commas…or periods? Probably periods, right? We need to believe that truth is unchanging, something we can pin down. And yet, in Scripture we find that God always has more to say, even about what we think of as unshakeable truth. Never place a period where God has placed a comma—or, as Jesus put it, I still have many things to say to you—but, you cannot bear them now.
Notice that he didn’t say, “You can’t understand them now.” In learning something new, understanding comes first. But the harder part may be accepting that new understanding. So each of us is left with the task of discerning what at this point in our faith journey the Living God is saying to each of us…that we can understand, but just can’t accept, just can’t bear.
When we look to the story of God’s action in history, we find that it is not God as much as human understanding that changes over time. Our human impulse is to pin God down, to keep God small, to protect our beliefs and habits of a lifetime. What religious people throughout history have found most difficult to bear is that God is still speaking.
Never place a period where God has placed a comma. Today we honor the Holy Trinity, which is a great example of how God is still speaking. In the Old Testament, God was revealed as one. In the New Testament, three! The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is a human insight; but if God is still speaking, is that all there is to it? Or, is there still other wisdom that might add to our understanding of God and our relationship to God?
We are constantly tempted to believe that God has stopped speaking, to place periods where God has placed commas. We cling to what we believe and the walls go up if our most cherished beliefs are challenged. We forget that it has always been this way; in every time, in every generation, God is revealed in new ways that may feel threatening. If you experience some of that discomfort, congratulations–welcome to the life of faith!
As I think about my own faith journey I look with gratitude on those times when my world was turned upside down, when I was exposed to new ideas about God and life and even my most basic beliefs and values. Some of these new ideas showed me how I had placed periods where God had placed commas. When my beliefs were challenged, at the time it was no fun. I got angry, I was resistant, clinging to what was comfortable and familiar.
But many years later those concerns that once seemed like the most important thing now seem not to be so big a deal. Over time, with practice, I have learned sometimes even to welcome what is new because I have learned that God is still speaking. In what I find uncomfortable or new, maybe even in that—maybe especially in that—the Holy Spirit is providing an opportunity to grow, even to be transformed into something closer to what God created me to be.
As I think about my own faith journey, I feel great hope and excitement for our godchild Anna. Here is a young person who at the tender age of 15 is asking good questions, allowing her faith to be stretched. She senses that God is much bigger than the limits of human knowledge and tradition. God is still speaking. Could it be that her own Christian faith may be enhanced by other religious traditions, even non-religious teaching?
Our first reading this morning celebrates Wisdom. The easy path through life is to trust in what we call “common sense,” traditions, personal experience or emotions. These, of course, have value but by themselves will not lead us to wisdom. Wisdom is able to set aside what is comfortable and familiar to ask in every age how God is still speaking, even when what is new doesn’t line up with what we’ve always believed. May the Spirit of Wisdom—the Spirit of Pentecost– lead each of us with courage into those uncomfortable places where we are afraid to change. May we find our comfort not in familiar ideas but in the stories of our faith that remind us we are not alone. God is still speaking. Christ walks with us. And the Holy Spirit empowers us through a community to move forward into God’s future! AMEN