Joe Neville

Mark 8:27-38



Morning by Morning


Do you have morning rituals that you have maintained throughout your life, or marriage?  Rituals that each morning, no matter the weather, you perform, like one of you will silently slip from your bed, go downstairs and retrieve your morning papers from the driveway. While the other is sleeping, coffee is poured, stirred quietly, and brought upstairs with the papers and after a gentle nudge, you read the headlines together?  Or waking up silently, you tip toe down the stairs, greet your puppy with an expected morning wakeup message before you take him for a walk?  Over the years, we establish daily rituals that when disrupted, either by travel or early-morning meetings, will cause you to comment that the day just isn't the same.

Our rituals sustain and give shape to our lives and our relationships, don’t they?  Our rituals, when they are acknowledged and practiced as rituals and not habits or duties, provide meaning and direct us toward a deeper awareness and understanding of who we are and what's important in our life.

A morning-by-morning ritual for the Christian seeker is this very service on Sunday morning.  If I were to talk about my faith journey, I would have to describe a life filled with lots of questions and not always with answers, but the life of a seeker. But the one ritual that has been constant in my life--all my life--is the practice of getting up on Sunday morning and going to church.  This is the place, right now, you are the people, right now, where and with whom I begin and end my spiritual week.  This is the time when I return thanks to God, in the presence of others, for all that has been in my life and all that is and shall be.  It's the time of the week when I acknowledge, inwardly and publicly, that I am not my own, but that I seek to live in the discipline of community and in the light of the face of Jesus Christ as Christ is reflected in this place and this time.

Often when people discover that I am a minister, the next comment will be something like, "Oh, I'm a believer; I just don't go to church.  I worship the god of nature-or tennis-or golf-on Sunday morning. I work hard all week; I need that time for myself."  I've learned over the years to smile benignly, but inside, I am slowly boiling! Because you see, I really believe that to live as a Christian means practicing the committed discipline of living and moving and having our being in Christ's body in Christ's community, the church.

Now I'm not simply speaking of church attendance on Sunday mornings, the elementary concept that perfect attendance will get you a star in your crown or a garden spot in eternity.  I am speaking of being willing to move your heart, mind, and body into a life of relationships and even rituals which may not always be pleasing or easy, but which fulfill our call to live together as the Body of Christ.

I am reminded of Celie, the wonderful woman in Alice Walker's classic novel, The Color Purple:

She writes, ‘Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church?  I never did, said Celie. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show.  Any God I ever felt in church, I brought with me.  And I think all the other folks did too.  They come to church to share God, not find God.’

We come to church to share God. Each of us brings God to this place.  Once we arrive, the community takes on the shape and substance of who and how God shall be made manifest in this place.

It's the beginning of a new season in our life as a congregation and a worshipping community of faith.  How shall God be shared this year?  How shall the body of Christ be embodied in the life of this community?  Who shall we say that Jesus is-through our life and work and deeds?

The model for community comes from the mouth of Jesus: If any one would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  For those who would save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.

Fifty years ago, after the II World War, Viktor Frankl came out of a concentration camp with a new school of psychoanalysis.  He challenged what was the orthodox psychoanalytic theory of that day, that we are motivated solely by drives and impulses hidden from us in our subconscious. In the concentration camp he saw something different.  He observed that those who survived were those who had a sense of meaning and purpose in life outside themselves.  They believed their lives were involved in something greater than themselves.  They weren't driven by impulses. They were drawn by ideals.  He concluded that we have a will, the power to choose to live for something outside the self.  And in the prison, those who did survived, and those who were absorbed in themselves died.

He told of lecturing at Melbourne University in Australia, and given a boomerang as a souvenir. He used the boomerang as an illustration of the human predicament.  He said one generally assumes that the boomerang returns to the thrower.  Actually it returns to the thrower only when he has missed his target.  Similarly, and I quote: “Man returns to himself, to be concerned with his self, only after he has missed his mission,” only after he has failed to find meaning in life beyond the self.”  End quote.

Frankl stumbled on what is called “the paradox of the gospel.”  Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would lose his life will find it.  That's the call.  You find yourself to the extent that you give yourself to something greater than the self.

The same is true for life. We return to ourselves, to become self-absorbed and preoccupied, only if we have failed to find meaning in life. The meaning of life is to move out beyond ourselves, beyond our own meaning, and therefore find meaning. If we live only unto ourselves, spending money only for ourselves, squandering our time and our strength only on ourselves, focusing chiefly on ourselves, life boomerangs and comes back to us with only ourselves to show for it.

Mother Teresa's life takes on a larger-than-life meaning not only because she insisted on caring so much for others, but because she found Christ in each relationship. Each person, each body, she cared for came to her as Christ in human form. She lost herself in giving and caring, but a whole new self was returned to her through the love of God in relationship. She continues to shine even in death, for the work of her life challenges us to live that larger-than-life life she chose. Her life moves something in us, doesn't it?

Hopefully, it is more than mere admiration for her courage and witness. Perhaps it is because she dared to be so selfless and endlessly caring in a culture and an age which is narcissistic, selfish and self-absorbed.

To seek to save your life, you must be willing to lose it. That's the Gospel truth.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who could have stayed in the United States when Hitler began his reign of terror in Germany. Bonhoeffer was determined to stand with his own people against the Nazi horror. For his opposition and his attempt on Hitler's life, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and sentenced to death. He went calmly to execution, filled with hope for the end of the war and the end of the regime of hate. Through his own life and death, he dramatized the joy and certainly the cost of discipleship. He lost his own life, but his willingness to stand for love in the midst of hatred and injustice continues today to give life to others.

Few of us will find ourselves in a situation which calls for our very lives, as did Bonhoeffer; and few of us have the willful determination of a Mother Teresa, but all of us do have the chance every day to make critical choices about what and who is important and how we will live and shape our lives.

Will we live life simply unto ourselves-making choices, transacting business, forming relationships which end up benefiting chiefly ourselves?  It's the boomerang life.  This kind of life, although from the outside it appears to have everything in it, will ultimately be devoid of meaning.  For the self has little meaning, except in relationship to others.

Or will we seek out a life of caring relationships with others?  Perhaps those among us who are parents know this best-that the only way to raise hopeful, happy, healthy adults is to give your life over to the disciplined loving of your children.

Jesus believed that the caring life in relationship to the human community was the only way to go.  And you never know where that life may lead you. It may lead you to mentor one of our confirmands, or it can lead you to teach Sunday school or be moved to make beautiful quilts to send to the Katrina Victims. It might lead you to seminary or to signing up for foster care or to serving hot meals in a shelter; or it might lead you to this sanctuary this Sunday morning.

There is only one place the caring life will not lead you, and that is to a preoccupation with the self for the sake of the self.

A life lived in relationship to others within a caring community-indeed, learning to shape the caring community in the image of a loving, caring God-is the life we have chosen.

Morning by morning, we come here to this place to learn more about the sharing of God in human relationships among the beloved community.  Puritan Sabbath keepers had a saying that "good Sabbaths make good Christians."  They meant that regular, disciplined attention to the spiritual life was the foundation of faithfulness.

But another dimension of that saying opens up for us today.  Let's imagine a worshipping community helping each other live unselfishly and in a glad circle of gratitude for the gifts of a generous, caring God.  Worshipping as we long to do, in a loving, justice-seeking community of faith, regularly reminds us of God's creative, liberating, redeeming presence.  It also reminds us to live as grateful people, because God has been so generous with us.

As Celie says, “We come to church to share God.”  We come because God has shared so much with us.

In the song we are about to sing, we sing of God's great faithfulness in the midst of our community-"morning by morning new mercies I see."

May God continue to grace our lives and bless us in community, morning by morning.