“Growing the Faith”

Sunday was one of those times when I would have liked to be in the pulpit somewhere. But if you look, you would see that I have only been in the pulpit once in the past 8 years on this liturgical date. And that is to be expected since this is a time of year when most pastors prefer to be in the pulpit. (This was edited to take out a reference to a summary page that I deleted.)

Now, as it happens, I will be filling in for a pastor next Sunday, the 4th Sunday in Lent (10 March 2013) at Grace United Methodist Church in Slate Hill, NY. Service is at 10 am and you are invited to attend. On Saturday, I will provide the reading and message at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. We open the doors at 8 on Saturdays and you are invited to be a part of this new community growing in Christ and faith.

The message for next Sunday is entitled “The Decision We Must Make” and is based on the Scriptures for the 4th Sunday in Lent – Joshua 5: 9 – 12, 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21, and Luke 1 – 3, 11 – 32.

The Scriptures for the 3rd Sunday in Lent were Isaiah 55: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13, and Luke 13: 1 – 9.

As I stated, because of the Gospel reading for Sunday, I would have liked to have been in the pulpit. A number of years ago I wrote a piece (“The Bottom Line”) in which I noted that M*A*S*H was my all-time favorite television show/series. The movie is also one of my top ten but that is for another time and piece. I also noted in the piece that the “Banacek” and “The Rogues” were among my favorite shows.

For me, there was a little bit of an anti-establishment flavor in them. Banacek, played by George Peppard, was an insurance investigator brought into cases that were seemingly impossible to solve and beyond the capabilities of the insurance companies investigators. “The Rogues” were a family of thieves who started off planning some sort of elaborate theft or con that would bring some more evil person to justice and bring them a little more wealth. Both shows had limited runs on television and I always suspected that one of the reasons was the intellectual level was perhaps a bit higher than normal television fare. Besides, many times shows with an anti-establishment attitude generally don’t last long anyway (with M*A*S*H clearly an exception to this rule).

Two current shows that have joined my favorites lists are “Leverage” and “White Collar”. “Leverage” was on for about four years and just recently ended (though I think there is the possibility of some sort of made-for-TV movie lurking in the future somewhere). “White Collar” started a year after that and is currently completing a series of episodes.

Both have that anti-establishment tone that I like and both involved someone on the wrong side of the law doing good.

The reason that I am referring to “Leverage” is that we find out in the third episode of the first season (“The Miracle Job”) that Nate Ford had once studied for the priesthood while growing up in Boston. In the pilot for the series Ford is brought together with three individuals whom he had chased as an insurance investigator – Parker, the thief; Hardison, the hacker, and Elliot Spencer, the hitter. Circumstances in the pilot episode bring Sophie Deveraux, a grifter, onto the team.

After the pilot episode, the team established Leverage Consulting in Los Angeles and begins going after individuals or groups that have abused their power and privilege. In the third episode, an unscrupulous real estate developer has engineered a deal that will close the church pastored by a good friend of Nate.

As the episode is ending and the Leverage Consulting team is finishing their plans to bring down the real estate developer, we hear part of the priest’s homily, which focused on the parable of the fig tree that is our Gospel reading for today. For the priest, the parable of the fig tree represents an opportunity to speak to the church authorities who have approved the closure of the church and the sale of the property to the developer, arguing that time is needed to see growth in the church, growth in an area where there isn’t much life or hope, topics that speak to many churches today.

Now, as it happens, the church is named after Saint Nicholas, whom Parker sees as Santa Claus. But as Nate Ford points out at the end of the episode, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves. And the priest added earlier that it was interesting how God used the work of Nate Ford and his crew, thieves themselves, to save a church.

I think that I could have easily found a way to use the other readings in this message because they speak of moving beyond the present. Whether I am thinking about an episode of “Banacek” or “The Rogues” or watching a past or current episode of “Leverage” or “White Collar”, there is that thought that the hero is working at a slightly higher level than the others.

When I look at the work of the church today I wonder how many people do that, work at a level slightly above normal.

When I began teaching high school chemistry I found myself in a situation far different from the six or seven classes a day, five days a week that most teachers encounter. Lewis County C-1 operated on a modular schedule that was more along the lines of a college schedule of lecture, recitation, and laboratory. The typical method of teaching didn’t always works and I found myself trying to develop lab experiments and exercises since the traditional high labs didn’t fit.

Unknowingly, my work to prepare those lab materials for my chemistry lab introduced me to the work of Jean Piaget and his theory on how children develop their thinking skills. When I began working on my doctorate, I was convinced that my dissertation studies would be in that area, especially since much of the research literature in chemical education at that time focused on intellectual development in chemistry.

While I was looking at this idea, I was also introduced, admittedly in passing, to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Kohlberg argued that one’s moral development was in stages very similar to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.

Now, whether one is talking about cognitive development or intellectual development, it seems to me that it cannot be done independently. Each person develops at their own pace but for there to be progress it must be done in an environment that stimulates the development.

I cannot speak specifically to the ideas presented by Kohlberg but I do see too many people who, even completed college, have difficulty with abstract thought. Their entire educational process has been done without any stimulus and while they can respond to and solve basic problems, they are incapable of solving more complex problems or even thinking through problems with possibly no solution. All one has to do is look at what is happening in the world today and how we continually and constantly rely on old methods to solve new problems. In the end, the old methods don’t work and our general response is to force the solution instead of developing new ones. The problem is that we can’t develop new solutions because we don’t know how.

And I fear this is happening in the church today as well. There is a stage that every person has to go through when they grow in the faith – that of the child, learning about Christ and God.

There is a second stage, which I believe many people are in today. It is a stage where they have learned the Bible and the basic understanding of what it means to be a Christian but they haven’t done much with that learning. There is a need to learn the fundamentals of the Bible and we do that as children but there is also a need to understand those fundamentals and I fear that many adults do not do that.

They haven’t been placed in a situation where that was necessary and it will not come without stimulation. And because they haven’t been taught how to think beyond the walls of the room or outside the box, they are unwilling to grow their faith as well. The strength of those we call “fundamentalists” comes from the fact that they are able to state basic concepts of the Bible without fear of contradiction or questioning.

There is that third stage of Christian development. It is that stage where one takes the words of the Bible and makes them come alive; where they read of the people of the early church and how they helped others and seek to emulate that work in today’s society. Part of this might be found in the emerging church movement; part of this might be found in those who claim to be spiritual but not religious.

Those who look at the numbers that are generated by the church are still in that middle stage. They see the numbers as the indication of life and vitality. The only problems is that numbers speak to the size of the church and not the life.

Do the numbers tell you of the discussions that take place during a meeting, when individuals with varied backgrounds gather together for one reason but stay for another and discuss the meaning of God, Christ, and religion? How do you measure the change in life on an individual who comes to the meeting without knowledge of the love of God but leaves with perhaps some knowledge?

The numbers told the owner to cut down the fig tree because it wasn’t producing fruit. But the gardener argued that it needed just a bit more time and effort. If we are to be true to the Gospel and we want to grow the faith, shouldn’t we move beyond the walls of the sanctuary and into the fields and pay attention to the plants, trees, and individuals that live there? Our faith will not grow unless we do.

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