(Preached at St. John’s UMC on 9/8/2013. I am indebted to Will Willimon’s sermon “Don’t Think For Yourself” for inspiring parts of the following sermon (Willimon, Will. The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2010), 123-127.))
My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Is that really written in Proverbs? Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight? I was always taught to think for myself. Haven’t we been told to do that all of our lives? We can assign you the right books, we can help you get into college, we can show you the door, but you’re the one who has to walk through it. Think for yourself! We can teach you all about God, politics, or even healthy eating habits, but freedom is important, make your own choices.
Be independent, employ your true freedom; create your own way of life. Go out and get your hands dirty, lose yourself in something beyond yourself, fight for something worth fighting for but above all think for yourself. What a perfect bumper sticker for our culture. All I need to get through this world is me, my thoughts, my opinions, and my beliefs.
When I read through our scripture for today it made me think about a time I was helping a church in Michigan. Now this church was HUGE. While I was attending the services there were easily over 1000 people in worship on Sundays between their multiple services. You could choose between different styles of worship and at different times, you could choose between preachers and types of sermons. When I started helping out, there were five pastors on the staff each working in a different area within the church. They offered activities every week from Bible Studies, to service opportunities, to Yoga classes. In fact the first week I was there I served on a panel to discuss the theological virtues of the hit series The Hunger Games for concerned parents and parishioners. They had a lot going on.
Even though on the surface it seemed like everything was great at the church, there was something missing. There was basically no one in their 20s attending the church. Now, perhaps they assumed that because I was 24 I could explain this phenomenon they decided to give me the results of their recent questionnaire to make sense of it all. The church had recently done a massive survey of the congregation, the community, and members who had left the church. They asked all the typical questions: Has you attendance increased or decreased over the last year? Why or why not? Do you prefer to receive information from phone calls, text messages, mail, or email? Etc. But what they were really trying to discover was why none of the young people were in attendance.
What I discovered surprised me, and I believe it greatly reflects our current culture, and the scriptures for today.
Indeed, the 20-30 year age group was the lowest number for attending church, but they did not need to use a questionnaire to discover that fact. Do you know what surprised me the most? The largest group to decrease in attendance over the last year was the 45-55 year age group. Why?
As far as I can tell here is the common cycle for church attendance: A lot of people grow up in the church, when they go off to college they stop attending until the get married, have kids, realize they have no idea what they’re doing and so they start attending again. This cycle has been true for many people that I have met in my life but there is a newer trend developing. A significant portion of parents stop attending church once their children leave for college. That’s why they went back in the first place, they went back for their kids, and now that they’ve grown up, there’s no reason for them to keep attending. So that child comes back home for the first time, maybe at thanksgiving break: “Hey Mom and Dad, what time are we leaving for church tomorrow?” “Oh honey, we haven’t been recently, but I guess we can go tomorrow…
Think for yourself. Isn’t that what we want for our children, for our friends, for our families? We don’t want to push people too far, no indoctrination, we want everyone to be free to do anything they want… but thinking for ourselves, only for ourselves, often gets us in trouble. Thinking for ourselves has led to the current situation in Syria where we spend days and weeks debating whether or not to drop strategic bombs, thinking for ourselves has led to the growing number of impoverished people across the world and even in our own neighborhoods, thinking for ourselves has led to great numbers of people no longer attending church because they can handle life on their own…
God speaks to us through the writer of Proverbs: “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you.” Paul similarly speaks to us in his letter to the Ephesians: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
In many ways, God is pleading through these verses: Do not think just for yourself. Think beyond yourself. I know that sounds drastic and remarkably contradictory when compared to the American dream, but to be followers of Jesus Christ requires us to orient ourselves and our thinking toward God, and not the other way around.
God begins by addressing us as we truly are: his children. We all have one heavenly Father who is above all and through all and in all. God has called us to lead worthy lives with humility and gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in love.
Being a part of this church community carries with it the responsibility to remember God’s teachings, and to keep his commandments. During the time of the Old Testament the Israelites were taught to remember and keep God’s commands: Deuteronomy 6.4-9: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Remember these words, because they are an alternative for the world’s desire to isolate us from one another; They calls us to be in unity as a body. They call us to remember. We can maintain our individuality but we must not lose sight of our interconnectedness as the body of Christ. It’s important for us to remember how unique each of us are, but we are all in this together.
Instead of commanding us to think for ourselves, God calls us to keep his words! Teach them to your children and your friends. Live out your vocation as a Christian in your actions, words, and deeds. Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Do not rely on your own insight, do not think for yourself alone, do not be wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord and turn away from evil.
Where God sits in your life will extend to people outside of you. When you keep his words and live out you’re calling as Christians your families and your friends will notice. Be holy just as God is holy…
When I discovered the decrease in attendance of parents whose children had grown up, I was surprised, but it made so much sense. Think about what it says to those around you when you decide that church is no longer a priority, what it says when God is no longer at the center of your life? Our words and behavior are powerful things, not just for ourselves but also for those around us.
I met a man once, perhaps you know someone just like him. He lived a good life, came to church at Christmas and Easter, and made it through day after day by relying on himself. Sure his family was a little dysfunctional, but whose isn’t? His kids had grown up, went off to college, and had little contact with their father. He assumed everything was normal until one day, out of the blue, one of his friends invited him to a group that met before work hours at the church to pray and enjoy coffee together. He went, reluctantly, sat in the back, and kept his head down. But the more he attended the meetings, the more he started to notice little changes in his life. After reaching a certain comfort level with the other men he started to share his own prayer concerns, his own questions about the bible, and even his own disappointments in his life. His prayer life grew outside of the group and he began to regularly commune with God.
When I met him, he had been attending the group for five years; he told me that his entire disposition toward life had been transformed. He spoke with his children regularly, he found pleasure in his career, and above all he had discovered his relationship with God. “It changed everything,” he told me, “praying like this, reading scripture, opening up. It changed my work, it changed my family, but most importantly it changed me. I realized that I’m not going through life all on my own and its not up to me to do everything; God is with us.”
Families of Faith: that’s the title of this sermons series. What does it mean today to be a family of faith. One of the greatest joys of being part of a family of faith, like this church, is realizing that we have been freed from the burden of having to always and constantly think for and care for ourselves alone.
Can you imagine how truly freeing that is? Have you ever experienced that kind of relief in your lives? Having a relationship with God does not guarantee that everything will be completely turned around like the man that I met, but it can at least bring newness and a sense of peace previously undiscovered.
Families of faith contain three important priorities: God, the family itself, and others, but it must first begin with God. By heeding the words of scripture from Proverbs and Ephesians, we can teach and remind our family and friends the commandments that were first handed to us. If we write the love of God on the tablet of our hearts it will be conveyed to the people around us.
One of the ways that we can live out our relationship with God in the family is to reclaim our commitment to reading scripture and having a regular prayer life. When I was growing up the only time we ever prayed as a family was before meals, and we certainly never read the bible aloud. How can we convey faith to our children, our parents, or our friends? Unlike the families that leave their children and friends to “think for themselves” in isolation we can show how wonderful it is to trust in the Lord. It is my hope that starting this week we can all start to read a little more and pray a little more and maybe, just maybe, we’ll start to see the fruitful value of these practices in our lives.
Trusting in the Lord and not relying on our own insight is a challenge because the world has always been telling us to think for ourselves. However, there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
What a great God we have: the one who freed us from the loneliness of the world.