By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 139
In 1775, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement introduced a covenant service as an important part of spiritual life of the people called Methodists. (Now, because it’s not a very common term, let me pause for just a moment to explain what a covenant is. A covenant is a formal agreement between two people or two groups. It is similar to a contract; except that the conditions of a covenant are grounded in the establishment of relationship.) Wesley’s covenant service came to be observed annually on the Sunday nearest to January 1. It was a time when the Methodists would come together for self-examination, reflection, dedication and a renewed commitment to offer themselves up entirely to God. Through repentance, confession and humility, it affirmed one’s willingness to submit one’s life fully to Christ.
A few months back, someone asked me why I continue in my commitment to the United Methodist Church. I do not agree with its official stances on some issues about which I am passionate. Likewise, while its system of governance is wonderful in theory, like our current American democracy, it often plays out in ways that are frustrating and discouraging. So, why do I persist, my friend wanted to know and it was a good question.
After a few moments’ reflection, I responded that John Wesley was the reason why I am still a Methodist. First, Wesley is often categorized as a mystic. A mystic is defined as someone who is deeply aware of God’s presence and personally encounters God. As you have heard me say over and over, Christianity is not a belief system; it is a relational system. It does us minimal good to know things about God; we must encounter and experience the God who knows us intimately, as Psalm 139 and so many other scriptures affirm. In other words, if one wishes to enter into relationship with God, it will require more than coyness or flirtation; it requires honest and truthful encounter; a willingness to “go deep” in this relationship.
Secondly, through that time Wesley spent in communion with God, in awareness of God’s presence and the Spirit’s leading, Wesley brought remarkable change to the world around him. Friends, our God chose to be embodied in the infant Jesus. Our God cares passionately for this world God created. Wesley, during his lifetime, worked vigilantly to address issues of suffering and injustice. He addressed social concerns such as debtors’ prison, slavery, lack of affordable health care for the poor, unsafe working conditions, unfair labor practices, predatory lending, lack of quality public education, and on and on I could go.
So, I am a Methodist because I desire and seek to live out the legacy of Wesley: a lifestyle whereby thoughtful, purposeful time spent “tuning in” to God’s presence will shape how I live in the world: how I think and feel; what I choose to say and do; how I spend my time, how I spend my money. That is what it means to be Methodist.
And that is a pretty intense commitment because we do not live in a culture that encourages intimacy and honesty and wholeness. We live in a culture of public persona; a culture in which what we say and what we do are often incongruous. While many in our culture are happy to embrace practices like yoga for flexibility and physical health, even within the church, we are often discouraged from raw and vulnerable encounter… with one another and even with the Almighty. In the commentary series, Feasting on the Word, preacher Dave Bland writes of Psalm 139, “As Americans, we revere our privacy… We guard the information about ourselves we share with others. We take great care in revealing who we really are, sometimes even to our closest friends and family members. At the same time we possess a deep desire for another to truly know and understand us… contrary to all our efforts to protect ourselves, God invades our privacy and knows us better than we know ourselves.”[i] In fact, we sense our own contemporary ambivalence even in the words of the ancient Psalmist as he queries: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” Both high and low – in the heavens and the depths of the earth – God is still present. In summary, the Psalmist confesses, “I come to the end – I am still with you.” It’s an unusual Hebrew word there, sometimes translated, “I awaken; I am still with you.” Either way, this is Santa Claus gospel: “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake…”
All throughout scripture, for better or worse, God intimately knows God’s people. In John’s gospel, in particular, the way in which Jesus knows the unknowable confirms his divinity. At the moment they encounter one another, Jesus renames Simon to be Peter who will, in time, live into his God-given identity. When Jesus meets Nathanael, he announces him as an Israelite in whom there is no deceitfulness. In other words, Nathanael doesn’t pull any punches; he calls it like he sees it and isn’t afraid to speak up. You see, just one day prior, Nathanael had made a wisecrack about Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Let me read it to you:
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"[ii] (John 1:44-49)
Jesus, who is one with God the Father, knows us intimately and calls us into relationship with himself. Christ wants us to know him as deeply as God knows us. Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel that, through encountering him, his disciples can intimately know and experience God. He says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”[iii] Jesus didn’t come just to die on a cross for us. He came to reveal God to us; to deepen our encounter with God. Friends: God isn’t trying to hide from us. God is in the business of real, authentic, intimate relationship.
And, like any relationship, it requires tending and cultivating if it is to grow and flourish and deepen. And that is what this morning’s covenant renewal service is really all about. We need to take seriously encountering God by setting aside time to be in God’s presence through prayer, through study and meditation on scripture, through quiet listening, and a host of other spiritual practices that Christians have engaged in down through the centuries to heighten our awareness of God’s presence; to live fully awake to the presence of God. If you want to know more about any of those spiritual practices, see me after worship or email me this week: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes Christians seem to think that such quiet time (this “sitting still in God’s presence”) is nothing more than navel gazing. But it’s not. Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak – a book I highly recommend – stresses that so many of us try to live our lives being someone other than who God created us to be. We succumb to all the voices around us in our culture, especially in our families of origin, which tell us what we ought to be. But it is God who uniquely created us and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. It is God who has uniquely created and gifted us. But, unless we spend time with God, we will not know who we are or who we were created to be. Palmer speaks of the damage we do not only to ourselves but to those around us when we try to be who we are not. Our cultural prevalence of burnout, Palmer contends, goes well beyond our reluctance to rest; it is also about our trying to do and be that which we were not created and called to do and be. So we experience discouragement and frustration; we sometimes lose hope and despair; and the gifts God has bestowed upon us are hidden under a bushel and wither and the kingdom of God suffers.
Friends, I encourage you this day: renew covenant with God and determine to establish a rhythm in this New Year that will allow you to personally encounter God and to be more deeply aware of God’s presence. Again, if you need any guidance in that, just contact me. But establish that sacred time with the God who knows you intimately, the one who wove you in secret in the depths of the earth, the one who has uniquely created and gifted you. For in knowing God, your life will speak – through word and deed; your life will proclaim the grace and mercy and justice of God. It is God’s Spirit that will set your life’s course for how best to do his work and serve his people and live into the person he created you to be.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Year B, Vol. 1; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; P. 249
[ii] John 1:44-49, NRSV
[iii] John 14:7, NRSV
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