Exploration as a Christian Vocation
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16
Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. To fix one's thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.
For the first 3 weeks of November we are looking at our church’s Mission Statement: welcoming everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods. Last week we looked at what it means to be able to welcome everyone. Next week we’re going to look at how amazing it is that our living God is in our neighborhoods. This week we’re going to talk about that one word--the hinge word in the very middle of our mission statement: to explore. What does it mean to be a community committed to exploration and learning and discovering, especially exploring what God is up to among us and in us and all around us?
Today we’re going to talk about our faith community’s life of exploration. Before I start, let’s hear our New Testament reading from Matthew 7:7-11. Listen now for a word from God.
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
We humans are constantly learning and exploring. Time magazine came out with a special edition all about children a couple months ago. It’s been sitting on our coffee table at home and we’ve all picked it up to read different pieces every once in awhile. One of the most fascinating parts of the magazine is how it describes the different ways and the different things kids are learning and exploring from infants to teenagers.
As infants, babies have very little prefrontal cortex development (think inhibition) which frees them up to explore everything, to try many different possibilities when they’re playing--all the possibilities, really. And studies have found that babies will select toys that offer them the most learning, that will teach them the most, that will give them the most ground to explore.
When you get to ages 4-7 you are starting to explore worlds that are different from your own through READING. Exploring language means you get to explore other people’s experience, point of view, landscape, and values. And the free play at this age allows kids to explore two things robots can never replace: creativity and teamwork.
And the teenage years are amazing (mostly)--recent research shows that the brains of teenagers are particularly elastic, which means they can explore and adapt to change and respond to new things well.
As humans we are always learning and exploring.
Most jobs and careers are like this as well. I’ll list all the things I’ve explored and learned in this last month alone: how to set up a business bank account. How to file 501(c)3 papers with the federal government. How to plan a funeral for a complete stranger. How to set up financial transactions online. How to arrange seating for Santa Claus.
Even our own Louis in his 80’s is learning the organ. And he’s good!
Exploration and learning is part of our very nature as humans. We’re always doing it, and if we’re not--our health deteriorates and we get bored and depressed.
Yet as I’ve been thinking about this proclivity of ours to explore and learn, I started to recall times and places in my life where that wonder and spirit of exploration was not all that welcome--where questioning the givens, trying new things, seeking alternative routes, or going off-course in general were looked down upon or straight up condemned. And some of those places in my life were churches--not all of them, but some.
I mean, exploring new frontiers isn’t exactly the commonly understood work of the church--just ask Galileo or Joan of Arc.
And this is God we’re talking about--the immutable, unchanging, everlasting. Right? How do you explore such a thing? You don’t want to get it wrong! No one wants to be a heretic. Or get on the bad side of the divine. There is a level of fear of getting it wrong when you are talking about matters of spiritual and eternal import.
And the church, fearful of all of this, has often been seen as protectors of dogma more than purveyors of truth. Or guardians of the ways “it has always been done” instead of doorkeepers to the great wide world of God.
And at the heart of all of this, is fear. A fear of getting it wrong. Being rejected. Going past a point of no return. A fear in the risk of being wrong.
There are a lot of reasons our churches, our communities of faith, haven’t embraced the vocation of exploration given to us by God and it shows--when I met Darcy’s very first friend’s mom at Parkside and she found out what I did as a profession she took a step back and said, “I’ve never had a pastor for a friend.” Fear, even if it was playful fear, was in her eyes. The church and faith seems to be known by some as more of a protector of standards rather than an adventure of living.
And yet exploration was at the heart of the people in the presbytery who decided not to sell the property but explore what God might be doing in a new church. Exploration was at the heart of the hiring team, a group dedicated to exploring and talking about the possibilities for this community. Exploration is the way we enter this Sunday space--singing, praying, talking with each other and learning each others’ names and hearing each others’ stories.
You see, I don’t believe our faith life is so different from, or stands in dichotomy to, how we approach the rest of our lives--constantly learning and exploring, even if it holds some risk, as all of life’s most important things do.
Simply consider the last 2,000 years of church history and theology and liturgy and prayers. Books and books stacked with new thoughts, uncharted territories of grace, prayers spoken fresh by new voices.
Or consider how the Bible has been read in new ways these last 100 years--black women have explored the texts and found redemptive stories in Hagar’s resilience. White Europeans have come face to face with the horrors of colonization through the stories of the conquest of Israel. Our faith is an act of exploration and learning.
And so, despite our fears and the common misconception that church folk can’t change, “to explore” sits at the center of our mission statement. Next week we’ll talk about what in particular we feel this community is called to explore, but that’s next week. This week we’re just getting comfortable with our Godly call to be Indiana Jones.
And we find it in the scriptures for today. Todd read to us from the Wisdom of Solomon, and no, that particular book is not in many of your Bibles at home most likely. The Wisdom of Solomon is one of those books that the Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and others argue about being “canonical” or not. These are details we could EXPLORE another time if you’d like--see what I did there.
This particular passage was part of the lectionary today, a world-wide calendar of readings from the Bible, and it has much to say to us about our vocation of exploration. Partly what it has to say to us is what it says that we should do. I hope you heard the verbs when Todd read it--discern, find, seek, desire, seek, find wisdom, which in this particular writing Wisdom can be translated as Sophia, the wisdom and embodiment of God. The good work of the good people is to be on the move, to be active looking for God. We are called to explore--to find, seek, discern.
The Matthew passage from chapter 7 picks this up again. This particular passage is toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, a famous sermon delivered by Jesus on a mountain. This section of his sermon is almost a list I can see Jesus spouting off as he’s wrapping up and on fire: don’t give holy things to pigs! Enter by the narrow way! Do unto others as you’d have them to do you! Ask. Seek. Knock!
It’s not just a kid’s task, or a work commitment, or a hobby. Asking, seeking, knocking--exploring--is a godly posture. If you’ve got a question, ask it. If there is something you need, seek it. If there is a door closed, knock at it. This is the way we enter real faith and real community and encounter the real God among us--maybe even in our neighborhoods--but that’s next week.
And there are many who do this beautifully. One is Barbara Brown Taylor. Some of you are reading her book An Altar in the World in your porch group--it’s a beautiful book about different spiritual practices that we don’t normally consider spiritual--like the practice of feeling pain or paying attention.
In her chapter on the spiritual practice of “getting lost” she describes how it’s so easy for us to take the route familiar, well worn, walked first by others. We are most comfortable with that. But, she argues, it’s in exploring a new route, a new way of being, or a new idea, that we really come alive, to God, to ourselves, and to each other. When we’re exploring we have to watch our step and look around us. We have to wake up and “no longer count on the beat-down red dirt path making all of your choices for [you].” Taking a new route, exploring, for Brown Taylor is “such a remedy for [our] deadening habit of taking the safest, shortest route to wherever [we are] going.” (71)
She gets at the heart of the difference between people who are on auto-pilot or people exploring the world God created. I mean, if God wanted lemmings God would have planned our curiosity, abilities, senses, and overall humanity a bit differently.
Another person who lives the life of exploration well is Rumi, a Persian in the 13th Century. Rumi wrote amazing poetry embracing the adventure of finding God and exploring God’s world. One of my favorite Rumi sayings is, “Why, when God’s world is so big, do you fall asleep in a prison of all places.” Why be satisfied with a small box when God has given us a whole world to explore?
And as many of you know, or maybe you don’t, this month we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door. The reformation was all about exploration: explorations like, “what if we read the Bible stories ourselves? What will we find?” “What if our leaders disappoint us, who will lead us now? Can we be leaders?” “What happens after I die? Do I go to heaven or purgatory? Or can someone pray me somewhere else?” And questions like “How should we organize ourselves as Christians? As people? As equals in God’s eyes, even if not in the earthly powers that be?”
The reformation was about exploring new ways of believing, of living, of worshiping, of loving your neighbor. So 500 years later we’re going to embrace this legacy. We’re going to be explorers here at Ormewood Church. We’re going to risk it. We’re going to learn, and we’re going to try new things. We’re going to seek and knock and ask God all the questions we’ve been storing up.
Because that’s who we are, as humans from infants to our 90’s, and that is who God has made us to be. Amen and amen.