Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: Are We Doing God’s Will?
Keywords: Millions, Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Discernment, Community, Prayer, Study, Reason.
note: news about two mass shootings over the last 24 hours, one in El Paso, and one in Dayton, Ohio, arrived too late to be considered in the sermon today. But we offered the following in our community prayers:
News from Dayton and El Paso came too late this morning
for me to adjust the sermon, but this recent wave of
gun related violence would ordinarily be worthy of special attention there.
It should be clear that, when it comes to gun violence, we are not doing God’s will.
In those two incidents, there were 29 people murdered, and 42 injured,
so 71 total victims, not counting the bystanders and others
whose lives will be forever altered as well. There have been five
so called mass shootings in the past week, when we add
other incidents in Philadelphia, New York, and Gilroy, California.
And every year, in our country, these mass shootings
are just about 2% of the total number of gun related fatalities.
There were almost 40,000 of them last year, two thirds of them suicides
the others a combination of accidents and homicides.
This is a public health epidemic. More people die in gun related deaths
than automobile accidents. Please join me in lifting up this senseless violence,
and let us pray that there will be more than just prayers in our hearts,
but intention, and action, so that we can help save lives.
O Lord, Hear our Prayer.
Today we start a new sermon series
that will take us through August and September.
We’re calling it “No Insignificant Question”
and each Sunday we will explore a topic
that you all submitted for this purpose last month
and we’ll do our best to give it a proper response.
We received 33 topics
and there is no way to go through them all,
but I took the topics that had multiple people ask them–
there were a couple of those–
and then added topics that had a similar theme to some of the others submitted,
and those that echoed what I’ve heard from conversations
and interactions along the way,
and came up with nine Sundays worth.
No Insignificant Question.
The first one is a big one.
The full question was originally phrased this way
“How can you KNOW when you are doing God’s will with and for your life?”
And I tried to shorten it to a maybe more reasonable form
“Are we doing God’s will?”
Truth is, that’s a hard question to answer.
For many, it is WAY too easy to just assume that we are.
Of course God agrees with me,
Of course God agrees with my partisan perspective,
or my budget choices,
what I spend my money on and who I give it to and what I buy with it,
or the vocation I decided to pursue
or the place I bought a house
or how I treat my neighbor
or my decision to tune out criticism
or, maybe, God is just fine in my lack of concern
with whether God is invested in any of that.
It has been pointed out that if the God you follow
looks, and sounds, and acts pretty much exactly like you
then maybe that’s not following God, but something we’ve made out to be God
that reinforces our own biases, preferences, hopes and desires.
On the other hand, it can be far too easy to just assume
that we’re abject failures at this,
that there’s something wrong with us,
that God’s will is just too difficult to figure out,
or there are too many people who claim to be seeking God’s will for their lives
who claim to be actually living God’s will for their life,
and, when we look at them, they look way too hypocritical
way too uncaring,
way too fallible,
and then we feel judgy and nosy and uncharitable
that we feel like we’ve failed the overall point in the first place….
Or we see really really good and amazing people
who just seem to get it
and aren’t people of faith at all
or who go about their faith in quite different ways from us
Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and Atheists and Sikhs and many more besides
how do we know that they’re not doing God’s will?
Maybe they are.
And as for us: Are we doing God’s will?
Am I doing God’s will for my life?
How in the world would I know if I was,
and how can we figure out what is God’s will, and what isn’t?
One place we start, in our tradition, is with the bible,
and, importantly, its proper interpretation, as one quite important piece
of an answer to this question
not the only piece, but an essential one.
We’ve talked a lot about what makes for good interpretation,
but here we may highlight what our friends, the Methodists,
sometimes call the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
The idea is that good theological reflection ties together four components:
Reason, or Science,
The idea is that we don’t read scripture in a vacuum,
and that our engagement with scripture should be informed
by how people before us have read it…we call that tradition
and with our thoughtful understanding of the world we live in… reason and science
and with our own experiences of the world.
Because reading the bible to seek the will of God can be tricky.
You can’t just open to a random page, read it literally
and say, well, let’s go try to do that.
In fact, the bible itself recognizes how hard this is.
The Bible itself, as you read it,
reveals different efforts to communicate God’s will for us.
The Hebrew Bible found meaning in theophanies—divine appearances,
in dreams and visions,
or through messengers and prophets and still small voices,
as well as through the law of the old testament, crafted and handed down on tablets,
rituals and requirements and norms,
all of which helped the people develop a sense that it was doing God’s will…
Were they doing God’s will?
Well, sometimes they were, and sometimes they weren’t.
Prophets and peasants critiqued the Hebrew community,
and, eventually, it critiqued itself
developing quite beautiful and lifegiving interpretive methods along the way
to becoming what we know today as rabbinic Judaism.
For those of us who branched off of that tradition,
through the life and teachings and death of the rabbi Jesus,
we saw HIS interpretation of that history as revelation itself,
a new way of understanding what God is doing in the world,
what God wants for us and for society.
Jesus calls that the Kingdom of God.
And it confused his followers. His disciples.
All of it was utterly confounding at the moment, apparently,
or so the Gospels tell us.
For example, in the passage that Mich read for us today,
at the very end of the Gospel according to Matthew,
you have what we call the great commission
Jesus telling the disciples to go and baptize and find disciples in all nations.
Teach them to obey what I have commanded them, Jesus said,
and I am with you always….
That last bit was meant to be comforting,
an allusion to the holy spirit that Jesus promised
the helper, the paraclete,
who would give us a little hand as we tried to figure out what it means to obey
and to follow and to do what God wants us to do.
And even then, Matthew says, some doubted.
Some didn’t get it.
Some struggled to see….
Are we doing God’s will?
The Apostle Paul, whether you love him or not,
has helped out a lot in giving us some clarity surrounding this question.
Paul described human limitation in his letters.
Paul understood that we are finite, limited creatures
with a slew of things going on,
a varied collection of perspectives and desires and inclinations and biases.
Paul suggests that we all should come to grips with our limitations
and trust that someday, maybe in the life to come,
we will have a more complete understanding.
In one of his more famous passages, for example, Paul said this:
For we know, only in part. We Prophesy, only in part…
Now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
For now, in this life, we have to exercise discernment.
DISCERNMENT is the biblical word
for what we have to do to try to understand God’s will.
Discernment means judging well, interpreting the Bible well, making good choices
and grounding those choices in true and reasonable
and emotionally sound perspectives.
To reflect a bit about discernment
let us read our second scripture text for the day
this one from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome.
Let us open our hearts and our minds to this reading from God’s word:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,
by the mercies of God,
to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God,
which is your spiritual worship.
2Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me
I say to everyone among you
not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,
but to think with sober judgement,
each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
4For as in one body we have many members,
and not all the members have the same function,
5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
and individually we are members one of another.
6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:
prophecy, in proportion to faith;
7ministry, in ministering;
the teacher, in teaching;
8the exhorter, in exhortation;
the giver, in generosity;
the leader, in diligence;
the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
9 Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
10love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honour.
11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you;
bless and do not curse them.1
5Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
16Live in harmony with one another;
do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.
18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
And may God bless to us our reading, and our understanding,
and our applying of this word, to how we live our lives. Amen.
One of my favorite movies of all time is called Millions.
Maybe you saw it.
It was released in 2004, and it is a British-comedy-drama
written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Danny Boyle.
The novel upon which it was based would later win the Carnegie Medal.
Millions tells the story about a newly widowed father and his two boys,
Damian and Anthony,
as they move to a new home and try to make sense of their life without their mother.
There is a fictional subplot,
that would have made much more sense to Great Britain at the time,
because the relatively new European Union
was just rolling out a new currency called the euro.
Not every country adopted the euro…
eventually, 19 of the 28 member states changed over
but not Great Britain. They still use the pound sterling.
But when the movie was made, that hadn’t quite been decided yet,
and the movie imagines what it would have been like
for the country to declare that it was going to jump to a new currency:
everything is going to be euros, and the change will happen just after Christmas.
The whole country is working to get their money switched over,
and the government collects the soon-to-be-obsolete pounds
and ships them across country by train so they can be destroyed properly.
So Damien and Anthony and their father
have bought a new home, out by the train tracks, you see,
and Damien goes out one day with some of the moving boxes
and a roll of packing tape and some scissors
and he builds a little play house out of the boxes and tape
a big box for the living room
another box for a chimney.
The kid is sure to be an engineer someday.
The boys have a vivid imagination,
and Damien has a spiritual side to him:
he loves saints in the way some kids
memorize dinosaurs or various kinds of dump-trucks:
he reads books about them, and sometimes has visions of them.
He SEES Saints, hanging out with him, like an invisible friend.
When they’re in their new school for the first time
and they’re all sitting around,
their new teacher asks them to name people that they admire:
Classmate Dominic mentions Roy Keane, a footballer for Manchester United.
There are cheers. This is a British movie, after all.
Barry says Van Niestelrooy, also from Manchester United. More cheers.
Anyone got any heroes who don’t play for United?
The class clown says: Robbie Fowler, for Manchester City, the archrivals,
and everyone boos.
Damien raises his hand, and the teacher calls on him,
How about you, Damien?
St Roch, sir.
St. Rock? Who does he play for?
No one, sir. He’s a Saint!
He was so worried that he might say something bad,
that he said nothing at all for 20 years…. Damien explains…
and the class chuckles, and the teacher chuckles,
and says we could do with a couple like him in this class,
and then he quickly tries to change the subject to his hero: Nelson Mandela.
He’s a different kind of kid, is the point.
Damien loves to sit out in his box-house, out by the train tracks
particularly when the trains go by. He loves it. They rattle the boxes.
Sometimes he’ll imagine a saint in there with him.
The first time, we see him sitting there with this big smile
and a woman plops down,
wearing a beautiful white and blue habit…
Claire of Assisi, Damien exclaims, so very happy
1194 till 1253.
That’s right, she says, lighting a cigarette
I used to have a hermitage myself once
I used to go and hide up there.
If anyone needed me, I’d send them a vision,
sort ‘em out.
That’s why I’m the patron saint of television….
The camera pans out to show that the box they’re in
is an old RCA television box. Quite clever.
Are you allowed to smoke then? Damien asks.
You can do what you like up there, son.
It’s down here you have to make the effort….
Have you come across a St. Maureen up there, he asks her,
Maureen being his mother. He wants to know if she’s up there, in heaven.
No, she hadn’t.
But then again, she says, it is infinite up there. Absolutely infinite…..
And right then, in that poignant moment,
we see a large duffle bag come out of nowhere
toward the cardboard house…and boom, it knocks the whole thing over.
Damien climbs out of the boxes and looks around to see what happened
and he finds the duffle bag just lying there.
It turns out that the bag is full of money.
Lots and lots of money.
Some thieves poached one of those government trains
that was transporting soon-to-be-obsolete pounds
and gathered millions and millions of pounds worth into duffel bags
which they threw overboard
planning to go back to get them
and then turn them back in for euros
or spend them before they became worthless again.
But Damien doesn’t know that.
Who knows where the money came from?
It is a delightful movie.
Damien and Anthony count the money,
and then wrestle with what to do with it.
Should they turn it in?
Use it to help their dad, who is struggling to adjust?
Start spending it to become more popular at school,
that’s what Anthony wants to do.
He imagines driving up in a red sports car,
flashing the most popular clothes, kids fawning over him.
Should they give it away
to help the hungry, the poor, the unfortunate?
It will all be worthless soon.
They have to decide, and quickly!
It turns out to be a tricky little question for them
and they start seeing what sudden wealth does to them
and how it is hard to make good choices that don’t have harmful side effects.
The movie is a beautiful, charming, witty exploration
about theological and moral discernment: am I doing God’s will?
How do we know?
What do we do to find out?
By the end of the movie, which I don’t want to give away
Damien has a greater sense of purpose
a clearer understanding of how these holy people might guide him along the way
a conviction that it is better to seek to do the good
than to just throw up your hands and enrich yourself when you’ve got the chance.
What I love about Millions
is that it paints a realistic picture of how we all struggle
with this question
and how there just aren’t easy answers to it.
Even the saints sometimes give conflicting advice.
There aren’t shortcuts.
Usually it works out better when you’re WANTING to find God’s will, you know,
but even then, matters are often more shades of gray than black and white.
Damien wants clear answers.
But maybe there’s not one clear answer,
so that everything else is the wrong way, and THIS answer is the right way.
Sometimes there are MANY good answers,
just as there are MANY, many bad ones.
Sometimes we have to work these things out the best we can,
and have some trust that, when we put honest effort into it,
that we’re at least coming from the right place.
The Apostle Paul commended to us this difficult task of discerning the will of God,
which he says is “good and acceptable and perfect.”
How do we do that?
What goes into good discernment?
Paul offers some ideas:
Practice good deeds:
Love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honour.11
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you…
15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…
so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all, and so on…
The point seems to be that, when we engage in loving acts like these,
when we practice charity and good will and humility and peace,
we can get our mind focused on the same values
that Jesus taught and lived and shared.
This mindset can help us in our discernment.
That mindset can help us make good choices.
We can pray, too. That was in Paul’s list. Prayer.
Develop a prayer life, where can work on listening
and meditating and offering up your discernment to God.
But there’s more to it than that.
Prepare, through study, through education.
This isn’t just about holy things, books of saints or the scriptures themselves,
but work on reading and learning all you can about the things that matter to you.
Learn about our world.
This is the reason/science, tradition, and experience part of the
Wesleyan Quadrilateral I mentioned earlier.
Paul talks about this as developing the gifts God gives us:
the teacher has gifts in teaching,
the giver, in generosity,
the leader, in diligence,
the compassionate, in cheerfulness… and so on.
Develop your gifts. Embrace them.
See them as enlivened in you by the God who made you and loves you
and wants to see you use them for the common good.
That’s another aspect of developing our ability to discern:
recognize that there are some things in us that we do particularly well
that we are passionate about
that we enjoy doing, or that cause good things to happen in the world.
This can be true for all sorts of skills and professions:
from doctors to lawyers to cashiers to caregivers
accountants and bus drivers and account executives and union laborer.
Frederick Buechner once said that we should pay special attention
to the intersection of our particular gifts and the needs of the world
that place may be where God is calling us….
That matters, in our discernment.
And in the end,
if we are the finite creatures that Paul thinks we are
then we do better doing our discernment in conversation with others
in some sort of community
maybe with some close friends, or our partners
people we can bounce ideas off of, consider various possibilities
explore angles to the question that maybe we hadn’t thought of ourselves.
Discernment is always best done from a position of humility
where we seek various perspectives and ideas,
but then, knowing that we need to make a decision,
we do the best we can with the information we have,
and we move forward in faith.
Are we sure that this is what God wants from us?
Are we doing God’s will?
I would always caution us when we think that answer is a 100% yes.
But I think we can get relatively close
when we can understand core values of our God
through the lived example and teaching of Jesus Christ
to love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength,
and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves,
and when we can apply those to the questions we have about our lives
through a practice of faithful actions,
study and reflection,
and engaging others in testing and expanding our thinking.
When we do these things,
we exercise the moral judgment that God gave us
trusting that God will be there to help us
and to nudge us in the right direction.
Are we doing God’s will?
Well: What are we doing?
Is it rooted in God’s values of loving God and loving neighbor?
Is it understandable when compared with the life and ministry of Jesus
and the practices that we learn from watching him?
Is it rooted in humble prayer, the best learning we can undertake
the consideration of alternatives
and the advice and support of people we find wise and helpful?
These are the best ways we can seek to do God’s will,
discerning what we do today
and then revisiting it again tomorrow
as we try to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples every day of our lives.
May we, my friends,
take comfort in the fact that Jesus saw how challenging this was for us
and take guidance from his example,
so that we might love one another as he loved us
and make good choices that reflect that love.
In doing this, we will seek to do God’s will.
May it be so.
Image: Damien talks to a Saint in his bedroom. A still from the movie Millions.