From the beginning to the end of the Bible, rivers come from God, and deep in our collective consciousness is the notion that going down to the river to pray will bring us closer to God. It worked for Jesus when he was baptized in the River Jordan and the heavens opened and a voice said, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased." If you, too, want to be a beloved son or daughter of God, if you want to get closer to God, come down with me and get to know a river.
So on these several Sundays after Easter, I wanted to share with you some reflections on what nature can teach us about the nature of God. As it says in the Song of Songs: "Come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come..." [Song 2:10-12]
Now some will doubt that the Creation is endowed with anything like intention. They won't buy the idea that the earth had a part to play in witnessing to the resurrection. But the more sensitive souls among us just might be open to the suggestion. The 14th-century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, "The Father speaks the Son from his entire power and he speaks him in all things. All creatures are words of God." [Sermon One, in Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation, ed. by Matthew Fox, 1980] If Meister Eckhart is right, if all creatures can tell us something about what God was speaking in Christ, then the earth has quite a story to tell. Let's listen:
I've been talking about the stages of faith for weeks now and what I've learned from James Fowler is that we have different needs at different times in our life. So it is no surprise that our understanding of Jesus changes as our needs change. Like every other truth we encounter in life, we get to know Jesus in stages. The crowd that lined the parade route in Palestine was made up of people of all different stages of faith and they had very different ideas about Jesus.
Believing in a perfectly logical, rational, and well-ordered universe may work for a while. But somewhere, typically in mid-life, we discover that life is more complex and truth is more multidimensional than we knew. We start to get a gnawing sense that something is missing, that there is a certain flatness to life that is unsatisfying. We start hungering for something deeper and more meaningful. When we start to have these kinds of thoughts and feelings, we are getting ready for Stage Five Faith.
We are talking about what James Fowler calls the "Individuative-Reflective Stage" of faith development. Up to this point, teenagers have been contained, so to speak, by the value systems of their family, church, and community. But as teenagers mature, they begin to develop the capacity to step back and reflect critically on that value system.... So, it's almost inevitable that teenagers will reject the all-too-human authority figures who have been telling them what to think and what to do their whole lives. We all have a little Bob Dylan in us.
I can't help but think that the people of Nazareth are acting much like teens in Middle School and High School, policing the borders of their town the way teenagers police the boundaries of their cliques. They don't want any outsiders to question their conventional thinking and the stories they like to tell about themselves. And that's because once they reached Stage 3 faith they decided to stay there. Once they learned the traditions of the faith and embraced them as their own, they became unwilling to question them. But because they aren't willing to question their assumptions about faith, they are not prepared to follow Jesus.
We never hear about him again, but I think the character of Nicodemus is meant to be a stand-in for a lot of us who are not quite there yet, but are on the way. He certainly stands in for Christians who seem to be stuck in Stage Two, thinking too literally about the stories of our faith. Whether we regard them as historically and factually true or dismiss them as nonsense—either way, we miss what the Spirit is trying to do: bring us to a deeper, richer, more multi-layered and contextual understanding of these stories and to a more God-filled experience of their truth for our lives today.
This is the first in a series of sermons engaging with the work of James Fowler, a United Methodist pastor Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He also was the Director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics at Emory. In 1984, he wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. In this first sermon, I am focusing on the first stage of faith that Fowler calls "Intuitive-Projective" Faith for children from 2 to 6 or 7 years old.
That makes me think that the hardest enemy to love is the one we find inside of us. As the saying from the old cartoon goes: "We have seen the enemy and they are us." And so our biggest challenge is not learning how to love that anonymous enemy on the internet, but how to love the one we know best, the one that trolls in our own soul. This is the one that makes us drink too much or eat too much, the one that holds on to hurts too long or takes offense too easily, the one that is always comparing us to someone else or measuring us against some impossible standard, the one that keeps score every time we screw up or is forever playing our parent tapes back to us.