Sunday, March 11, 2018

Jesus and Stage 4 Faith

Scripture Passage: Matthew 15:21-28

            Most, if not all, 12-step recovery groups use the Serenity Prayer during a meeting. In many cases, the prayer is said at the beginning of the meeting and again at the end. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It is interesting that people who have hit a wall in their lives- in their addiction or relationship with an addicted person- implore God for these things. Within the prayer, there is no “if it is your will, Lord” or “Please, God” or even “If you do this, Almighty One, I will do…”
            That last phrase is particularly important. It is impossible to achieve a sense of serenity, that is God’s alone to grant, if you are still trying to control things in around you- including God. And many, many people try to control God with their behavior- if I pray in exactly the right way, if we complete our sacraments or sacramental rituals in exactly the right way, if we never miss a Sunday, or raise our children just right…. then God will reward us.

            If, in the back of our mind and heart, we retain the idea that God will deliver if we hold up our end of the bargain, we create a horrible distance between the Divine and ourselves, not to mention a terrible canyon between other people and ourselves. If God is simply waiting for us to act first, then God is passive. The God who made and kept promises to Sarah, Miriam, Mary, Martha, Lydia, Mary Magdalene, Eunice, and Lois is not passive.

            Since the nature of the Divine is eternal love (1 John), God does not (and has never) waited for any human 1) to move first and 2) to be able to fully uphold our end of any covenant. Grace alone makes God, God. Thus, it is only God who can grant serenity, courage, and wisdom for us to respond to the circumstances of our lives.

            Sometimes it is easier for us to grasp a concept if we consider it from a different angle. In Italian, the Serenity Prayer begins, Dio concedimi la serenité… God, concede to me… The use of the word “concede” versus “grant” helps us to have a better sense of what we are asking of our Creator. We are requesting a concession that is only God’s to give. I cannot ask another person to concede serenity to me. Even if I knew people who had serenity to spare, they wouldn’t be able to give it to me. Furthermore, when we ask God to concede something to us, we are acknowledging that the concession comes at God’s will, not ours and not in exchange for our good work.

            The Canaanite woman in today’s gospel reading is asking for a concession. She is pleading with Jesus for him to concede a miracle to her and to heal her daughter. And, much to our chagrin, Jesus seems in no hurry to grant that concession. Generations of pastors have tried to save Jesus from this moment, wanting to make it clear that he was teaching the disciples a lesson or otherwise purposeful in his initial rejection of this grieving Gentile. Those theologians, well-meaning and worried, want to control how Jesus appears and how you hear and see him and how he is perceived.

            If we are to accept both the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, then it is neither our task nor within our capability to save Jesus from himself. The fully human Jesus had to develop in his faith, just as we do. The Jesus we see in today’s story is making the move from Stage 3 to Stage 4 faith. A person at Stage 3 faith has found peace in belonging to a group and within the group identity. They feel defined by responsibility to the group and zealous in committing to the norms and tasks of that group.

            A person in a congregation who is a Stage 3 believes strongly in the rules of the group and takes personal pride in policing those norms. The value of the symbols and rituals of the community, as well as correctly performing those things, define faith and faithfulness for the person at Stage 3.

            The person who is ready for Stage 4, however, finds a real tension. The majority of adults in this room and around the world are in either Stage 3 or 4 and, painfully, people in those two stages struggle to understand and empathize with one another, more than people in any other stage. At Stage 4, people have begun to realize their lack of control over the larger world. They see that they have not only tried to categorize people but also that they have attempted to box God in by their own definitions and expectations.

            Moving into Stage 4 can often feel like or actually be a crisis of faith. If in this dark night of the soul, we aren’t kind to ourselves or to others, we may feel as though we experience a loss of our faith. A healthy move into Stage 4 involves accepting that our relationship with God is about the direction of the relationship, not about specific answers to specific questions, A person into Stage 4 becomes more comfortable with mystery and a lack of certainty, as personal integrity in the lived faith journey.

            Within today’s gospel, Jesus is confronting what it would mean to extend the concession of healing to a Gentile woman who dares to ask it of him. Within himself, he has the divine power to grant her request, but he also has the human compulsion to continue to maintain the boundaries and right behavior that he has been taught his whole life. What would it mean to let that boundary become permeable, to lower his guard and consider that this woman may be as much a child of God as his own mother, siblings, and disciples are?

            The story happens quickly as we read it, but in my sanctified imagination, I can see it drawing out- long pauses on Jesus’ end as he reflects, the silent shock of the disciples, the frustration of the woman and her fear for her daughter. For people who are in Stage 3, a person who moves to Stage 4 and is grappling with ambiguity, the realization of the loss of control, and a release of some of the community rules and standards seems like a backslider, a person who cannot be considered faithful. To a person at Stage 4, the person who is still faithfully in Stage 3 seems too binary, too demanding of answers, and too sure of what they know. Both will have to learn to be peaceful together for the sake of the community and the work of following the Way of Christ.

            Thus, we find Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, moving into his own Stage 4- knowing his own power and connection with his Heavenly Parent and the Spirit, but also experiencing the human tension of needing to change his views, pressure to expand his thinking, and the reality of living with discomfort and mystery in pursuing the will of God. If we see that Jesus has the experience, do we think that we can or will avoid it? Should we try?

            When we approach God for concessions, serenity, courage, wisdom, healing, strength, relief, wholeness, it is important for us to be open to the deep truth that we cannot control how and when God will grant us these requests. The further into our faith development we go, the more we realize how little we control. Most of you may be thinking, “I’m already too aware of how little I control”. Coming to peace with that, my friends, is the reality of the mature faith of Stage 4. We cannot produce our own peace with that. It is something that we seek, as a concession, from God.

            Our friends and neighbors who have found themselves outside the church or organized religion or on the outs with their Creator are most often the people who were not able to make the move between 3 and 4 because leaning into the mystery of God feels like too much. Church splits most often happen when the people at 3 and the people at 4 cannot work together and one group disdains the other. When our spiritual practice focuses on doing and doing correctly (or thinking correctly), we miss the call of God to be human beings and we shut out the moments of stillness that would strengthen our trust in the holy.

            What is the concession you want to ask of God? Or concessions? Are you prepared to acknowledge that not only are they God’s alone to grant, but that truly they come about through God’s grace, not by any good work on your part? Are you prepared to sit, quietly, marinating in the mystery of resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the presence of eternal Love? Are you willing, like Jesus, to be moved to consider that a person or group that you believed to be anathema is also beloved by God? Can you ask for and wait to receive God’s own peace?

            Dio, concedimi la serenità di accettare le cose che non posso cambiare, il coraggio di cambiare le cose che posso, e la saggezza per conoscere la differenza.

            God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.



1 comment:

Jemma said...

Thank you for this good word and for the call to conversion it contains.