Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian for the Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
I was ordained on a Sunday afternoon almost two and a half years ago now, in the church in Salem that raised me. That morning I asked our pastor if I could do the children’s sermon and mostly I will admit it was because I wanted the chance to sit on the front stairs of the sanctuary one last time.
In some ways it felt like my faith life should have been etched into those stairs. I remember one of the first times we visited the church it was Christmas Eve, and even though my brother and I hadn’t gone to a single practice the Christian education director threw bathrobes on us and put us in the pageant. I stood on those stairs and I was a shepherd attending the birth of Christ for the first time. We joined the church and I was up on those stairs every week listening to my pastor Dean Lindsey do his level best to explain very adult concepts of faith in words that I could understand. I particularly remember one day he gave a children’s sermon about prayer. About how it was not only a chance to talk to God but to listen to God. That blew my childish mind and it changed who I was as a Christian and as a child of God. Eventually I outgrew the children sermons but I never outgrew those stairs. I stood on them to sing with the youth choir. I stood on them during the laying on of hands at my confirmation. I stood on them when I graduated high school and was celebrated by my church. I stood on them when I was ordained.
Those stairs watched me grow from having a child’s faith into an adult’s faith. Of course it wasn’t the stairs that made the change. It was the people—people in my life who took the time to teach me, to talk with me, to listen to me, to challenge me, and to encourage me into the life of faith. People like Nancy Gattoni, Katie Elmore, Rob Underwood, Erin Brady, Alex Brown, Anna Kennedy, Janet Chisom and so many more. These people got to church early on Sundays to teach me Sunday school, they dressed up in silly clothes for Wednesday night programs, they saw me through my awkward teenager phase, they taught me how to read the Bible and why to read the Bible. They showed me what it was to live a life of mature, deeply rooted faith. And they showed me what it meant to truly be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Faith does not spring fully formed into our hearts. It is not given to us as a perfect, finished gift, ready to be unwrapped. Faith is a seed that we choose to nurture, to give our attention and time and energy to, to help it grow and take root in ourselves. Looking back, most of the milestones in the formation of my own faith didn’t seem like much at the time—a meeting with my confirmation mentor at a donut shop, a conversation with my youth leader in the parking lot, a family tradition of bedtime prayer. It isn’t necessarily the big moments that grow our faith. It’s the little, constant tending to our sense of God’s presence, God’s peace, God’s hope. It’s the spirituality that we practice daily, even when it doesn’t feel like much. It’s continually putting ourselves in places where our minds and hearts can be stretched, can be opened, can be re-shaped by God.
As you look back on your own journey of faith, I imagine some of the important moments, the transformations, the epiphanies, happened in solitude, in the privacy of your own heart, just you and God working it out together. But other moments, I imagine, happened among the community of the faithful—in a Sunday School class or summer camp, at VBS or youth group, at Montreat or book club, on retreat or at a lecture, or simply in having conversations with Christian friends. Our faith is formed by those around us, pure and simple. When we surround ourselves with those who are strong in faith, our faith is strengthened in turn.
This is one of God’s missions for the church—that it become a place where faith can be nurtured, formed, and grown.
One of the great gifts we have inherited from Judaism is the value of study in the life of faith. Our Old Testament is full of wisdom literature, writing meant to poke at our brains until we see God or God’s world or even ourselves in a new light. In his own day, Jesus was known as a rabbi, a teacher, one who brought others to deeper understanding of God’s truth. The disciples followed him because they wanted to know God more, and they thought Jesus could be the one to show them how. Jesus knew better than anyone that their faith would be tested, strained, challenged. And so he tried to give their faith deep roots, roots that would withstand the storm.
In this year’s budget, we dedicated about 34,000 dollars to Faith Formation here at CSPC. That 34,000 dollars provided for curriculum for our Sunday School classes, pizza for our youth, crayons for our kids, and two trained and dedicated nursery workers to take care of our littlest disciples. Those dollars also allowed me to take about a quarter of my time to teach and to support our teachers, and covered costs for a little over a quarter of our building usage. The money helped us start a new confirmation class, lead a women’s retreat for over 20 women, start a new men’s discipleship group, and celebrate our 120th anniversary together.
34,000 dollars is a good chunk of change. It’s about 20% of this past year’s budget, and it’s proof that we at CSPC are prioritizing being disciples who are continually growing and learning. Proof that we take seriously Jesus’ call to learn and to teach. If our heart is where our treasure is, we have a heart for forming our own faith.
As always, the money is only a fraction of the resources we need to carry out God’s mission for us. Money supports our people, and its our people who are priceless—two nursery staff, fourteen Sunday School teachers, seven youth leaders, six Christian Education committee members, three confirmation mentors, plus the dozens of you who give your time to show up to classes and retreats and events.
Faith Formation is something we do internally here at CSPC. That’s not a bad thing. It is a mission this church has to its own members. It is the gift we give each other, to help each other be strong, full of hope and wisdom.
But we don’t grow our faith just to be our strongest selves, although that is part of it. We also grow our faith in order to produce good fruit, fruit that will make a difference in the world.
I read this morning from the introduction to Proverbs, a book all about wisdom and learning. The purpose of the book, it says, is for “gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity.”
We cannot learn to love God, learn how God loves us, without also learning to love God’s world, and the people in it. We cannot truly understand the depth of God’s justice without seeking justice in God’s world. We cannot see how God has set things right for us through Jesus Christ without working to set things right for others.
Being people of strong faith makes a difference to our world. It makes a difference in how we see people, how we treat people, the language we use, the behavior we tolerate in those around us, the way we spend our money, the way we handle crisis and grief, the everyday choices we make to help or harm our neighbor. Being people of strong faith makes us missionaries every day, to people who sorely need someone who knows the depth of what it means to love.
After three years of being the teacher, Jesus turned the task over to the disciples. Right before he ended his time on earth, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Part of our basic call as Christians is to be teachers and learners both. We have a great gift—we know a God who loves us, saves us, stays with us in every situation. Why would we want to hold that back from anyone?
But we are also always called to be disciples, to be learners, to keep tending to our own faith. I have a literal master’s degree in divinity, and I expect I know about a millionth of what there is to know about God, God’s story, God’s people. But I am in love with God, and when you love someone, you want to know everything about them. So I keep working at it, keep learning, keep seeking out ways to open myself to God’s presence, God’s wisdom.
I have learned much from each one of you. You have been teachers to me, as much or more than I have been a teacher to you. You are making me a stronger disciple, a more faithful Christian. You are nurturing the seeds of my faith, and helping me grow better fruit. You are helping teach me what it really means to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.
I don’t yet know what next year’s budget will look like. We have started several new initiatives this year, and I would love to be able to increase some of our steady funding for faith formation, especially for our youth. But I am confident that we already have every resource we need to grow strong disciples here at CSPC: you all. Your gifts. Your wisdom. Your imagination. Your love.
I thank you all for your dedication to your own faith, and to the faith of others in this congregation. It is a beautiful thing to witness.
For the mission of the church, I give thanks to God.