Imperfect Imitation: A Sermon

Imperfect Imitation

A Sermon by Rev. Julie Emery

Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church

September 25, 2011

Text: Philippians 2:1-13 (Common English Bible)

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.  Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.  

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,

he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human, 

he humbled himself by becoming

obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names,

so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under earth might bow

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes. 

 

***

A few years ago a relative of mine passed away and I was given her bible.  It is something that I’ve learned happens to pastors, the gift of bibles that people don’t seem to know what to do with.  And I had to laugh a little bit, because this bible  which had belonged to a woman in her seventies still looked brand new, inscribed with her name in her own 3rd grader penmanship and the name of the pastor who presented her with it so many years ago.  It was not, I knew, a testimony to her faith, or her knowledge of scripture (perhaps there was another bible in her life that was more regularly opened); but it made me affirm my own desire that the bibles given today to our fourth grade class might be used, read and treasured, underlined and dog-eared and worn.  Maybe by the time these young fourth graders leave for college.

Today marks an important day in the life of our church, although in some ways, every Sunday is important, another celebration of our connection and salvation in Christ.  So too the importance of this day is due at least in part to the ongoing ministry to and with our children, as we continue the tradition of passing down our faith in each and every Sunday School Class, in each spoken prayer, in the blessings we share as our children and teachers head off to learn and leave us here to worship and learn as well.

The gift of Bibles to our fourth graders is an important part of this process.  As we pass down the word of God we also pass down our reverence for it – and our hope that the reading and study of our scriptures be an important part of their life of faith as well.

Today also marks the formal beginning of the confirmation year for a group of 8th and 9th graders in our congregation.  The truth is that the true beginning of this journey began a long time ago for many of them, as their parents and the members of their churches committed to supporting them in their lives as young people of faith.  But now – after Sunday School and 4th grade bibles and years of imitating the faith of their parents – they will begin to stretch beyond themselves into a journey all their own.

Our year will be filled with time in community, as we seek to understand what it means to be a community of faith, bound by our life in Christ.  It will be filled with service and worship, and studying scripture, as we practice those things that are a part of the active faith life of an adult membership: stewardship and prayer, service and fellowship.

It is the way we often learn – by doing.  It begins as early as when an infant’s eyesight and understanding is good enough to focus on the people around them.  They begin smiling, raising eyebrows, blowing up cheeks and sticking out tongues at those goofy-looking parents who are making those same faces right back at them.

It continues, of course, into the phases of crawling and walking, eating and talking, causing us parents to feel forced to tow the line better and better each year – cleaning up the adult language, changing words like “stupid” to “silly,” slowing down, yelling less at other drivers, trying even if failing miserably at being the kinds of people we want our children to imitate, lest we hear them shout something un-preachable from the backseat of the car, or (God forbid) in Sunday School class.

Imitation is the natural way we raise children, slowly, but surely into the people they will become.  And children will naturally imitate those people who they see most.  It is why we remind older siblings to set a good example, why I remind the older boys in my neighborhood that my sons are watching them very closely when they shoot nerf guns at each other or play football in the street, why I try to stop and take deep breaths when I am cut off in traffic, rather than any alternative.

In Churches we have capitalized on this natural tendency of imitation for thousands of years.  As people begin to join the community gathered here we expect that they will imitate those around them as they learn how we act out our life of faith.  We stand and sing together, we fold our hands in prayer, we say “Amen.”  We do these things again and again.  We take bread, dip it in the cup.  We read the words in the bulletin and speak the words in bold out loud.  We listen quietly, nod affirmatively during the moments for mission.  We give out bibles, open them and read them together.  This is what we do here.

For some of us this comes as natural as breathing.  For others, it feels strange and confusing.  But, this is what we do, together as a community of faith.

Now, there comes a moment, or a bunch of moments, when each of us has begun to question those actions we’ve been imitating and wonder whether or not we want to keep doing them, or something else.  There comes a moment when young people especially begin to choose other people to imitate.  Sometimes people we don’t approve of, sometimes people they’ve seen on TV or in school.  There comes a moment, when as parents we have a diminishing opportunity to be the people our children imitate.

Perhaps this moment coincides with the time when our children begin to go to school, as they begin to become more involved in extra curricular activities.  In fact, as children grow older, they begin spending less and less time with parents and more and more time with their peers.  Which may contribute to their increase of imitating people other than their parents.

In a recent research project, a group of seventy-five suburban teenagers were given beepers and belts and asked to write down exactly what they were doing and feeling at the exact moment the beeper sounded.  (This research project is discussed in Mark DeVries’ book, Family-Based Youth Ministry.) After several months of observation, the…study revealed that teenagers spend less than seven percent of their waking hours with any adults, while spending approximately half of their time with peers.

For teenagers, this may seem fine – normal, even good.  It is true that developmentally teens are naturally pulling away from their parents, testing out independence, becoming adults, and this is a necessary part of growing up.

The question that we might want to ask these days, however, is whether or not they are becoming adults.  Studies are showing over and over again that the period of time called “adolescence” has lengthened significantly over time, so that some would say adolescence starts sometime around age 12 and extends to age 30 or 35.  It is a period that is marked much to our fear and chagrin, by risk taking, experimentation, non-committal, irresponsible behavior,

The flip side, is that this time is also marked with expansive creativity, energy, deep and intense passion, and a belief that they are able to effect real change the world.

As Paul urges the Philippians to imitate Christ – to be self-emptying, to be humble, looking not to your own interests but to the interests of others, he begins by reminding them of the qualities they already have.  Our English versions say “if,” but the underlying Greek is more like the word “since”:

 

“Since, then, there is encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the spirit, compassion, and sympathy” since you already have these things present in and among you…

 

Paul is writing to the community is Philippi what some scholars refer to as “the most affectionate of Paul’s letters – an expression of deep friendship.”

Paul writes to a community of faith whom he knows and loves, reminding them of who they are and what he expects of them.  It is much like a parent I know who says to his teenager when she goes out on a friday night, “Remember who you are.”  Remember who you are, Paul says, and you will be a community that imitates Jesus.

Reverend Paul Hoffman tells a story about a woman named Kathryn, who came to his church in Seattle, Washington as an adult looking for “something spiritual.”  The church invited her to join their adult catechumenal class, a year-long adult confirmation class.  The students are matched up with a sponsor or mentor – a loving member of the congregation who will walk with them on their journey of faith.  They take classes together, pray together, read scripture and ask questions of faith and doubt and together they discern whether or not God might be calling them to be baptized or renew their baptismal vows on Easter Sunday.

Kathryn was an enthusiastic student, learning the ways and beliefs of the church and eventually deciding to be baptized into the church community.

During the same year, the church was in it’s own discernment process as it considered whether or not they wanted to invite something called the Tent City to spend three months camped on the church’s front lawn.  As Hoffman explains, “Tent City is a well-organized long-standing coalition of self-governing homeless people who have banded together for safety, community and advocacy. They refer to themselves as “houseless,” not “homeless.”  This community is allowed to encamp within the limits of the city, but only to places they are invited and only for 90 days, which means they are mostly hosted by churches around the Seattle area.

As you can imagine for a church in suburban Seattle just down the road from some wealthy home-owners, the hosting of Tent City was not inevitable and was hotly debated and contended.  They discussed and discerned in prayer, they patiently waited.  When the time came for an open forum on the topic, leadership prepared to be open to all voices, listening to all concerns, many of which were raised.  They had not expected someone so new to the community to speak.

And then Kathryn stood up to talk.  Still a brand-new Christian, she called the church to question.  She could not believe that they were not embracing the opportunity to host Tent City.  “You told me,” she said, “that to be a disciple of Christ meant to care for those less fortunate – to reach out to those in need and to share God’s love with all people.  That’s what you taught me it means to be a baptized disciple of Jesus.”

And then she shocked them with an ultimatum: “So if we decide that we can’t invite Tent City to be on our front lawn, I will have to leave this congregation. If Tent City can’t be here, then I can’t either, because what you have taught me about who we are as the people of God and what it means to be one of you will not be true.”

 

“If then, there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love…”

Paul reminds the Philippians of who they are by reminding them of who Jesus is, urging them to strive towards imitating Christ in humility, in looking out for others before ourselves, in being of the same mind.  It is the stuff that makes up a community, watching out for one another instead of just ourselves, sharing, offering compassion and sympathy, encouragement.  It is the stuff we hope our children will learn from being a part of a community – this community – perhaps by imitating those they see here.

But it is not only those who have been here for years and years who remind us of who we are as Christians, sometimes it is the newly baptized, the new member, the visitor who calls us to act as we are called to act in Christ.  As Jesus reminds us in todays Gospel lesson: it is not the one who simply says he will follow but the one who actually does it who obeys the will of the Father.  Even tax collectors, even prostitutes, may be closer to the mark of discipleship than we are.

The important thing to remember as we embark on another year of confirmation, is that this process is not only a process of passing down our faith to our young people, but also a process whereby our young people remind us of who we are as a community of faith.  Each of us participates in the confirmation process, as we help to pass down our faith.

As a community, we remind ourselves of why this church is so important to our lives, we remind ourselves of what an active faith life looks like, we remind ourselves of those beliefs we can affirm and those we still struggle against, we remind ourselves that our true goal, the one more important than any other aspect of our lives, is to imitate the Christ who loves selflessly, who reaches out to those less fortunate, who cares for the thoughts of others more than his own.

After Paul reminds the Philippians of who they are, after he reminds them of the way of Jesus – the way of selfless love and sacrifice – the way they are to imitate – he says these words: work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”

The journey of faith is long and unending, taking twists and turns, through forests of doubt and islands of mystery.  It is unique to each one of us, as unique as each one of us.  We walk this life of faith with fear and trembling, knowing the ways we try and often fail to imitate the Christ we follow.  But we trust that God has begun something in each of us, and that God will see it to fruition.  That is God, not us, who leads and guides, who inspires faith, who enables us to work for God’s good pleasure.

Amen.

 

 

 

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