Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Call to Discipleship

a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland Maine
Palm Sunday March 16, 2008

[extemporaneous introduction about the significance of New Members Sunday]

Despite our reputation as a religion for intellectuals, in its essence the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition is based on a very simple premise: the premise that Truth, vigorously sought and plainly spoken, will win out over falsehood every time. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is the keystone of our religious practice; ultimately, it's the reason that free churches like ours endure. But the triumph of Truth doesn't always happen quickly or easily. That typically requires both a long season of seeking, and an even longer season of speaking "The Truth"...but I thought that today, on Palm Sunday, I would simply speak a little bit about the notion of Discipleship; which is to say, on what it means to be a dedicated, disciplined religious "learner" (which is what that word "disciple" really means).

This seems to me a particularly appropriate topic for this particular Sunday, simply because of the nature of the events which the Christian tradition has historically commemorated during Holy Week. It's the great irony of the Gospels, that one cannot really appreciate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, accompanied by a chorus of Hosanas and a sea of waving Palm fronds, without looking ahead to his rejection by that same crowd later in the week, and his painful execution alongside two common criminals on a Roman cross at "the Hill of Skulls."

And likewise, one cannot really make sense of the Crucifixion without looking ahead to the events of Easter, and the anastasis -- the "standing again" of the departed teacher in the transformed lives of his surviving students. The popular acceptance of the truth of an idea ebbs and flows with the whims of the world. But Truth itself is not so easily put to death so long as there are those who continue to live to learn it. And this choice, this willingness to dedicate oneself to learning and living "the Truth," is what I like to think of as the “Call to Discipleship.” Not a blind obedience to an easy truth which never seeks to move beyond itself. But rather, a curious, questioning, probing truth, which constantly challenges existing assumptions in the effort to achieve a greater understanding.

As I mentioned earlier, the word disciple literally means "learner." But one can also easily see in it the root of yet another familiar English word: the word discipline, which is an essential component of the idea of Discipleship. I don't know what life was like growing up in your household, but “discipline” was and remains one of my own father’s favorite words, even though it wasn’t exactly the most popular concept in my own mind when I was a kid. Basically, to my young ears, be disciplined meant to be punished -- it was something that I tried to avoid as much as possible. And as I grew older, and my father began to preach to me about the virtues of "self-discipline," I figured that he must be crazy: why would anyone go out of their way to punish themselves when there are so many other folks out there who are willing to do that for you?

Now, if my father had explained to me way back then that all he was really trying to do was simply to encourage my brothers and me to cultivate the quality of being lifelong, committed, dedicated, self-motivated learners, he might have had a lot more success getting his point across; as things worked out, it was not until after I started college that I finally started to figure out for myself what he had been talking about all those years. I think it was Mark Twain who once observed that when he was fourteen he couldn’t believe how ignorant his father was, but by the time he’d turned twenty-one he was equally astonished at how much smarter the old man had gotten in just seven years. That was basically my experience when it came to learning about “discipline.” It wasn’t the sort of lesson easily learned by lecture alone. I kind of needed to figure it out for myself, by trial and error in the laboratory of my life.

I think it was also Twain who quipped that he tried never to let schooling interfere with his education (which, when you’ve spent as many years in school as I have, takes on a particular poignancy). It's a clever remark, but behind it lies yet another very important truth about “The Truth:” the insight that serious learners tend to learn for the love of learning, and not merely because they are motivated either by the fear of punishment, or the promise of external rewards like good grades, or praise, or the expectation of a better paying job. A passionate curiosity is the first characteristic of the Call to Discipleship: a curiosity which must then become disciplined through the commitment to an organized, methodical, self-challenging learning process in order to achieve its full potential.

But curiosity alone, even a disciplined curiosity, is not enough. There also needs to be, somewhere in one’s character, an understanding that The Truth really matters: that this is not just some sort of abstract, intellectual exercise we are engaged in, but rather potentially an activity of life-transforming significance. The Call to Discipleship is not just an invitation to know the truth, but also the imperative of being "set free" by the truth: a willingness to live, truly, by what one has learned, to come into the light rather than skulking in the darkness.

It is on this level, I believe, that we can see most clearly why Discipleship truly is a "religious" discipline: it represents a profound commitment to something which is larger than the self, larger than one's personal preferences and desires -- a commitment which is open to the possibility of surrender, of losing one's self in order to find it. Knowledge becomes transformative only when one is willing to be changed by what one has learned. Yet the willingness to change -- and by this I mean not only a willingness to accept change, but also to seek out and to embrace change -- is perhaps the most difficult lesson of all. We seek greater knowledge in order to be able to change the world, but the most significant thing that we can ever learn to change is our own selves. Self-discipline not only requires self-understanding, it also creates it. And this in turn is what ultimately empowers us to change the world around us as well.

For my own part, when I first felt the "call" to ministry, it was precisely because of my commitment to Social Justice. Very quickly though after beginning my theological studies at Harvard, I started to develop an interest in the more contemplative aspects of religious life. I was looking for a language with which to express my own mystical sense of who I was in this vast Universe we inhabit; and I discovered that as I learned, this new knowledge helped both to shape and to expand my understanding. It not only gave form to what I already felt, but it also drew me out beyond it: the "discipline" of Discipleship became in itself a vehicle for personal religious transformation, the source of a new understanding which grew upon itself rather than merely reorganizing what it found. And likewise, this same process ultimately brought me to a much deeper appreciation of the Church as an institution: not merely a potential springboard for social change, nor even a convenient forum for intellectual stimulation, but also a dynamic institution in its own right: an institution built on a very human scale, unlike the huge banks, and corporations, and governmental entities which exert so much control over the way we live our lives.

Indeed, over the years more and more of my own personal understanding of what it means to be a "disciple" has come to center around my relationship to a church community -- and not merely as a minister, as the so-called "professional" Unitarian -- but even more significantly simply as a "fellow traveler," a learner who seeks a deeper knowledge of himself and the meaning and purpose of his life, and who finds that it is only in community, in the often-times extremely difficult challenge of collaborating with other people and creating some kind of a common life together, that the really important lessons are to be learned.

I’m sure you’ve all heard it said that knowledge is power, and also that power corrupts, which naturally leads some to the logical conclusion that we must therefore disempower the knowledgeable in order to prevent them from corrupting the integrity of our democratic process. But this twisted syllogism becomes true only when the power of knowledge is allowed to remain in the possession of only a few, select individuals, when information is hoarded rather than shared, and knowledgeable “insiders” are allowed to take advantage of the ignorance of others by keeping them in the dark and manipulating events from behind the scenes.

It’s an insidious temptation for even the most wise. Think of how easy it would be simply to remain confident in one’s own enlightenment, scoffing at the foibles of the fools around us, and taking advantage of our “superior” understanding to get our own way (or at least to insulate ourselves from the demands of the outside world). But within a community of disciples, a community of committed learners, the discipline of the group keeps us constantly on our toes, while the challenge of collaboration, of sharing our knowledge for the good of all, helps to draw us away from our smug complacency to a place of humble and well-intentioned openness.

The Call to Discipleship is a challenge to seek a wisdom beyond ourselves, and to use it in the service of a purpose larger than ourselves. It is a call to remain curious, to cultivate discipline, to open ourselves to the possibility of transformation as we endeavor to live our lives according to the lessons we have learned. Ultimately, I believe, it finds its fullest expression within the context of a community, in the give and take of attempting to create a common life together. It is the fundamental vehicle for our religious fulfillment. But there is also a price to be paid, a challenge to be met, and it is to this challenge that we will turn our attention next week, when we gather once again as a community of faith, to celebrate Easter Sunday -- Unitarian Universalist style....