Learning Curve
 — Dawn Christenson

September 15, 2013
Rally Sunday

Exodus 32:7-14
Luke 15:1-10

Grace & Peace to you this morning, grace and peace.

On this Rally Sunday, the kick-off for the church year, especially with regard to our Christian Education programs, Phil thought it would be nice to hear the perspectives of a seminarian, deep in the throws of her education. Truth be known, a few weeks ago I asked Phil if there would be an opportunity for me to preach this month, before starting my field placement/internship at First Congregational in Grand Ledge. Wise man that he is he seized my enthusiasm and here I am. Can you believe that I’ve been working on a Masters in Divinity for 3 years now? … a 3-year program on a 6-year plan. Half-way there … thanks be to God.

You know, having spent 30 years in higher education teaching in the College of Vet Med, I know all about learning curves. Any educational process takes time and requires nurturing. I freely admit that I prefer the role of educator/nurturer than to be on the receiving end. What’s the old saying: ‘tis better to give than to receive? I’m not a good recipient. Not that I don’t enjoy learning. I do! It’s the stress of exams and other deadlines that I don’t enjoy. Timed exams – online, with computer glitches … now there’s stress. And all of the reading …. Mountains of books and articles to read with these tired old eyes; 19 books for two courses this semester alone. Ugh. Does reading put anyone else to sleep? Ah, the shoe is on the other foot. I’m sure my graduates would love to see me squirm now.

What have I learned in these 3 years? Certainly too much to detail in this sermon … unless you’d like to stick around through this evening. In brief, I’ve learned everything from UCC History and Polity, to theology, pastoral care, biblical interpretation and many things in between. The educational process has been exceptional…owed to an outstanding faculty and a marvelous learning environment and community – both in Chicago and online. Community…

Community is so important at so many different levels and in so many different ways. If we look at the reading from Exodus this morning, an ungrateful, disgruntled and impatient few got the entire community in deep, deep trouble with God. Selfish hearts and mob mentality got the best of them. Fortunately, Moses was able to tap into God’s compassionate nature to spare the Israelites from being “whacked” (whacked – the conjugated form of smite ala Dick Bayles). Compassion in any relationship is vital for the health of the relationship. And because relationships are the building blocks of community, that compassion should be paid forward into and for the sake of the greater community. Our Gospel message from Luke today, demonstrates the importance of community for sharing joys … the joy of finding the lost sheep and the lost coin. How often have we celebrated each other’s joys? A joy shared in community is a joy magnified, and a concern shared in community is a concern divided so that no one carries too heavy a burden. Community is about loving everyone within that community (warts and all, as Phil would say), welcoming strangers in, walking with one another through the rollercoaster of life – sharing the good, the bad and the ugly no matter what. Community is about relationships – with God and with each other. This is not a new lesson that I’ve learned. It is one that comes as a reminder, renewed and refreshed: because community is essential for learning, growing and surviving.

The learning community at CTS has been fully welcoming: of me as a person, of my ideas and of my dreams. I have felt completely embraced by faculty, staff and my classmates. I feel safe and loved when I am there, even when they challenge me. Much like when I am here, but not quite. You see, this is home for me. Yes, you too support me on my long journey toward ordained ministry. More importantly, this community of faith has walked with me through deep dark valleys of illness, death and divorce, loved me through disclosure of my sexuality, and so many other challenges as well as achievements. I could go on. The list is endless, for me, as it is for so many in our midst. You have been there through thick and thin. Yes, this is a very special community.

Let’s do a comparative, shall we? Let’s compare this community of faith to those in today’s parables about the lost sheep and coin. Are there similarities? Yes, this community of faith would celebrate the joy of finding that sheep and that coin. But there is also a marked difference: this community of faith would rise up to help them find what was lost and then celebrate. Truth be known, we’d be celebrating through the search itself. When one of us, or our family members, or extended family or friends are in need – collectively we raise our voices in prayer, we rise up to feed the hungry, comfort the weary and sad of heart, visit those who are ill, and even fire up chainsaws to clear storm damage. So often we have gathered to live out the Gospel message…following Christ’s footsteps by reaching out to the “least of these”. And for those times when I would count myself among the “least”, I am most grateful for your reaching out to lift me up and sustain me. You are truly the body of Christ.

It’s funny. Next month I will begin my field placement – an internship of sorts – a hands-on part of the educational process designed to prepare me to lead in worship, to guide others in spiritual practice, to share the sacraments and the life, message and love of Christ. But here’s a huge learning curve for you: you don’t need a formal education, certainly not a Masters in Divinity, to share the love of Christ … to live out and reflect the image of God. In your faces I see God. Within each of you is a divine spark, glowing brightly. That is not something to be hidden. It is not something to be relegated to seminarians, to ordained clergy, or to the PhD educators in academia. We cannot leave it to a select few. This communal task of sharing the life, message and love of Christ is a responsibility that falls to each and every one of us. Is there a place and a need for detailed knowledge and understanding of scripture, theology and such. Certainly! Is such knowledge necessary to share the love of Christ? No. You … every single one of you can do it. Some of you do it naturally already. Others of you are probably thinking: “but I don’t know how”, “I don’t know enough”, “I’m scared”, “I’m too shy”, “someone else will do it”. Baloney! It’s as easy as sharing a smile with a stranger on the street. Do you realize the difference you can make in someone else’s life by that simple gesture? Imagine someone so downtrodden by life that they feel unwanted, unloved, and virtually invisible – thinking that no one would know or care if they disappeared tomorrow. Then you come along and look this despairing person in the eye, smile and say “hello”. What if that simple gesture gives him/her a glimmer of hope for tomorrow? What if that’s the one positive event in her day, her week, this year that allows her to go on just one more day. Is that so hard? Remember it’s not about you. It’s about having an open heart to allow God’s love to be evident through you. It’s about leaving heart-prints, not finger prints, but heart-prints with others…paying forward the gifts of grace and the love of Christ that have been so freely and selflessly shared with each of us. Our cups overflow; let them spill over into the lives of others.

Of course, you could always take it a step further and pray. “But I don’t know how to pray.” “What would I say?” “How do I begin?” Prayer is nothing more than a conversation with God … to give thanks, to express the pain of life, to ask for forgiveness, to ask for help or guidance. It’s simply sharing what’s on your heart in a given moment and letting God take it from there. No grandiose production or fancy words necessary. Prayer is a “come as you are” “what’s on your mind” kind of thing. Are there particular times that I pray? Yes … for example, I pray for God’s guiding hand every night before I go on duty in the hospital. Beyond that, prayer for me is a “live chat” kind of thing – moment to moment. And yes, there are times when I down-right yell at God. It’s okay … it’s a biblical practice called lament. In my book, it’s pure honesty. I might as well say it, because I’m pretty sure that God knows what’s on my heart anyway. I can’t hide from God – It says so in Psalm 139. But I segway – let’s get back to praying for that downtrodden stranger. The prayer could be as simple as: “God, he seems so sad. Please comfort him. Thanks. Amen.”

That’s strangers. What about the people that we know? Look around you. Are there people here that you don’t know? Have you taken a moment to get to know them? What about those that you’ve known for years? When was the last time you took a moment to actually find out what’s happening in their lives lately? Are there people missing? Why not pick up the phone to say: “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while. I’ve missed you. How are you?” Feeling forgotten leaves a person with a sense of being unloved, unwanted – orphaned. God forgets no one! All are children of God and loved by God! Without any kind of tangible evidence it is very difficult for some to perceive God’s presence and love. That’s where this community comes in. You see, we are the connection to make this invisible God tangible. God’s kingdom is here and now and we are God’s hands and feet in the world to make the still speaking God ever present in the world, even if it is only in our little corner of the world. And the buck stops here, folks … with each and every one of us. We cannot make assumptions that someone else will do it. What’s the phrase: ‘If it is to be it’s up to me’? If God has placed it in your heart, called you, yes you to reach out to someone, how can you refuse? You see, if each of us does just a little, this community of faith can make a huge impact in the lives of others. If we start within this community of faith, the light of Christ shining forth from this body will not/cannot be contained. But it takes each of our flickering flames to make it shine brightly. Be the love. Remember Caddy Shack? Chevy Chase was golfing and saying “Be the ball. Nanananana.” Well, we need to be the love. Embody it. Live it.

That is the lesson to be taken away today: we are loved by God – each of us as individuals and all of us as a community of faith – and we are called to share that love. Pure and simple. No preaching, no teaching. Simply living each moment, each day in a way that embodies the love of Christ. No seminary education necessary. No strings attached. Just paying it forward and sharing the gift of love freely and selflessly shared with us. What’s the phrase?…yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift – that’s why it is called the present. Gifts are meant to be given away. As Helen Keller once said, “I am only one, still I am one. I cannot do everything, still I can do something. Let me not refuse to do the thing that I can do.” Share God’s love, that’s our task. God empowers each of us/all of us to do our part to make a positive difference in the world, let us not refuse to do what we have been gifted to do with the help of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.