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.
Money makes us think that we can own things and people. We use it to impress our neighbors and coworkers, placate our spouses, and bribe our children. Money also makes us think that we can control things. If we have enough money, we can buy a good education, we can buy insurance, and we can pay into a pension, and then we will have it made. But all it takes is a divorce, a diagnosis, or a death to prove that money is not nearly as powerful as it seems. Now let's take a look at God. The Psalms say that all power belongs to God. [Psalm 62:11] But the way God works is so very different from the way money works. The best way I can put it is that money leads to ownership whereas God leads to relationship. Money seeks to be in control. God seeks to be in love. Do you see the difference?
But as I reflected on this text this week, the Spirit helped me to see that there is a way to believe in both the narrow gate and the wide circle. Think of the narrow gate as the Truth... The problem is that none of us have it. None of us can claim to have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about ourselves or anyone else. Yes, I have my truth. You have your truth. But let's be honest: neither of us is very close to The Truth. So thank God there is also mercy. The wide mercy of God gives us the grace we need to get through the narrow gate, as long as we realize that the grace that is wide enough to include us is also wide enough to include the brother or sister that has something against us.
I appreciate that Jesus begins his inaugural address with a blessing. Jesus begins with a positive vision of life. Instead of starting out complaining about all the things people are doing wrong, as many of the prophets did and politicians do, Jesus begins by blessing those who are doing things right. But don't be fooled, for these blessings do have a bite. In every verse where Jesus is talking about the reign of God, he is in the same breath challenging the reign of man. The problem is that we are so familiar with these words that we can't hear how radical they really are. What Jesus is saying and what the authorities are hearing is that when God's Kingdom comes, your kingdom will have to go.
So Isaiah's words come all the way to the West Coast to remind us that even though we are living on the edge, in more ways than one, we can't be written off, for the good news is for us, too. In fact, living in the coastlands of this great country gives us a unique perspective on the gospel. Living on the margins of the continent, we can appreciate a gospel that was intended for people living on the margins.
Baptism is the ritual by which we sign up for a journey that through suffering and death brings us more and more to life. I could never belong to a religion that promised that if you do certain things you can avoid suffering. I can't believe in a god who would use power to relieve some people's suffering and not others. But I can believe in a God who sees what is going on in the world and comes down into human life and participates in human suffering, even death, and is able to bring meaning and hope and new life out of it.