I am going to leave those readings alone for the most part,
and allow them to speak for themselves.
I think they do, especially the first and second ones.
The third one,
which we have been hearing parts of
for three weeks in a row
because the lectionary of appointed readings
thinks we cannot get enough of it –
will get only a brief reference.
So instead, we are going to peek into the stages of faith.
Now some of us, because we are oldish,
or aging, or just plain aged,
might imagine we have climbed the summit of faith
If that describes your self-evaluation,
I hope you will reconsider.
Faith is a developmental process
not a point of completion on the horizon we arrive at.
I am going to summarize some of those primary stages
but it is a cycle not a stair step.
As we know,
children have a pretty good “crap-detector.”
Specifically, children between five and eight years old
seem particularly cued-in to the distance
between our adult talk and our walk.
Something very significant in the life of human beings
happens during this time,
and a kid’s experience of religion
can be right in the middle of it.
During our first six years or so,
children are like a sponge –
we soak up experiences without a critical,
We are little data-collectors
who absorb the world around us,
swallowing it whole for digestion later.
Those who study human development
suggest that we spend the rest of our lives
deciphering the original data we collected
in those first six years or so –
adding to it of course,
but filtering all new information
through what was garnered in those first six years.
I don’t know about all that,
but I do know that between six and eight
children start to pay attention to issues
concerned with “affiliation.”
If those first six years are stage oneof our development,
then the next ten or fifteen years
are stage two– affiliation.
Who are these people I am with?
Who is my family, and what does it mean
to have my name?
What does it mean that I am a Catholic, Baptist or Jew?
Who goes to my school and who doesn’t?
What is my ethnicity and who else shares it?
What is my race and who is and is not like me?
Why do we live in this part of town
while most people who are a different color
live someplace else?
Think about all the ways that people affiliate
and are automatically affiliated with groups of people, and we can make an endless list
of identity-markers based on those affiliations.
So, if it is true
that we soak up information
in our first six years of life,
then the next stage is one of sorting and analyzing
all that raw data
through the filter of “affiliation.”
There are other filters of course,
but the concerns of affiliation are very strong,
profound, and even primary in our development.
Looking back, I can remember
one of the things I learned
in that time of social awakening.
Perhaps you do too.
I learned that the adults in my world
didn’t really believe in Jesus.
I have strong and lasting memories
of my initial confusion and wonderment
when I realized that the stuff I heard Jesus saying,
and that was being reinforced verbatim
in my Sunday School classes,
was not at all lived out
by the adults in my world or elsewhere,
as far as I could tell.
For example, the story of the Good Samaritan,
where the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good;
or the story of the Prodigal Son,
where the youngest gets off the hook
and the oldest gets disregarded;
or the lesson of the widow’s might,
where the poor woman who gives a penny
is more honored than the rich man
who gives a hundred bucks;
or the story of Jesus saving the prostitute,
where he invites those without sin
to cast the first stone.
Jesus’ whole schtick –
as in his willingness to disagree with his teachers, parents, and elders;
his eating with outcasts and cocky attitude
toward people in authority;
his insistence on the kind of painful, radical forgiveness
as written about by that grieving father
in today’s liturgical reading –
all of it contradicted
the way the adults in my world behaved,
and they did not seem the least bit embarrassed
by the obvious contradictions.
Eventually this led me to interpret the data
to mean that no one really believed in Jesus.
Jesus, it seemed to me as I was beginning to wake upand think about my experiences,
must be a lot like Santa Claus
who adults just smiled and winked about.
Your experience and data analysis
may have been very different from mine,
but you get the idea about this middle stage
of faith development – when we are processing
all that early information and more.
Now, skip ahead ten or fifteen years
and I came to another moment of double-exposure
when two stages of development
overlapped each other.
It is when we are standing in the affiliative stage
and being called, or lulled, or thrown into
a stage of exploration.
Most of us,
having been pushed to the limits of our affiliations –whether family,
race, ethnicity, sexuality,
or social status –
enter into a period of searching,
during which we question or even reject
the affiliations given to us via family and caste.
This could be a quiet exploration
that is largely internal
or a more violent thrashing around
that draws the attention of others.
It is a little tricky to think about,
because often our choice of work or profession –
if we had a choice –
can be an act of affiliation toward our origins
or an act of rebellion away from them.
Joining the military or priesthood,
becoming a law enforcement officer or welder,
doctor or lawyer,
teacher or bartender –
each can be an act of affiliation or exploration
depending upon the unique circumstances
of our family and social culture.
Some family cultures
are so well-defined or even rigid,
that just joining a different denomination
while continuing to be a church-goer,
or entering a different branch of service
while still serving in the military,
can cause a ragged split within the family.
Other family cultures
are so diffuse that anything goes,
and it would be an act of rebellion
to become highly partisan about anything.
But either way,
at some point, most of us come to a place
in which we begin to question
the boundaries and assumptions
that our family and cultural affiliations
have prescribed as the correct ones.
We find ourselves making a friendship with someone
who does not conform to what we were told was okay,
and that experience causes us to question
the wisdom of those with whom we had always
Or we have an experience that contradicts
what we had always been told was the way things are,
and then we have to decide
whether to believe our own experience
or what the authorities in our life have told us.
In any case, something happens
to make us question core principles or teachings
of our affiliations.
We then choose or are thrust forward
into an exploration of what is true
or makes more sense
based upon our own experiences.
OR, we deny our experience and seek the shelter
of what we have always been told.
For me, this dance of exploration with affiliation
happened after I had rejected Christianity as I knew it,
majored in Chinese and then Western philosophy,
then became an interested-but-unaffiliated-consumer
at the buffet of world religions.
Anyone who has ventured a fair distance
from the affiliations of their birth –
whether it is family, culture, or religion –
knows there is a moment at which
you can choose to re-affiliate or not.
The fear – like that of the Prodigal Son –
is that in order to re-join an affiliation
we must reject where we have been
and what we have learned.
It is of course a painful and violent choice
to be accepted only at the cost
of denying our own experience.
But, I am sorry to say,
that is often the choice that religion demands.
If you want to be “one of us”
then you have to reject them
and what theybelieve.
Such is often the demand of any affiliation,
which is why it is also painful and risky
to enter an exploration beyond our affiliation
in the first place.
We realize we may not be accepted
back into the fold.
That snippet from John’s Gospel we heard today
is part of a larger story
that is about that kind of an either/ormoment.
John has written a speech for Jesus
in which Jesus tells his disciples
they have to believe in him
if they want to know God –
and he uses the cannibalistic language
we read this morning to codify it.
The majority of his disciples – maybe 70 or more –
reject his demand and leave.
They are affiliated with a culture and religion
in which such language is impossible to accept.
Jesus then turns to the famous 12 disciples
and asks: Are you staying then?
To which Peter says:
To whom shall we go
if you are the only one
who has the secret knowledge?
The author of John has set up this either/or dynamic
in which the good guys we know by name
make the right choice,
and all the others who shall remain nameless
make the wrong choice.
The implication is clear
for those who John hopes will read his story: them or us.
It is a polemic – an argument that says,
either you go with us and the truth
or you go with them and reject to the truth.
Either them or us.
That is a perfect description
of standing at the border
between the stage of affiliation and faith
as we have always been taught it,
and the land of exploration
when we let go of what we know
and enter upon a search led by our experiences.
But it is only such a painful either/or choice
if our communities of affiliation structure it that way.
There are a whole bunch of people like us,
sitting here in the 21stcentury,
who know in our gut
that such a choice is a false choice.
And most of us here
are old enough
and have traveled enough roads to know,
that when we come out on the other side
of a searching and questioning time,
we are faced with questions of affiliation all over again.
The key here, is to figure out
that just because our ancient religion
has been cast in the mold of such either/or choices,
we do not have to accept that choice
in order to affiliate with Christianity.
What we have to remember
is that the wisdomat the core of our religion,
and the encounter with Godthat is central to it,
is not diminished by the human tendency to compel affiliation at the cost of other possibilities.
Every religion from Buddhism to Islam
has chapters in its history
in which the persecution of non-believers
stains the holiness of its wisdom.
But these are symptoms of a defect of character
that exists across all human organization
and not something symptomatic of religion alone.
So, when we emerge from our times of exploration
and find ourselves staring eyeball-to-eyeball
with a community inviting our affiliation once again,
we should not be surprised.
Affiliation is a basic human need
even for those who resist it.
At the core of all relationships –
and the spiritual life is a relationship –
there is a central commitment.
To affiliate with a particular spiritual practice,
to chooseChristianity from among
the many other choices we have in the 21stcentury,
involves a commitment.
The commitment is to engaging the wisdom
of our primary teacher – Jesus of Nazareth.
There are other teachers
and they need not be denied or rejected
in order to commit ourselves
Rather, he becomes the filter
through which all the other wisdom gets strained.
Does that mean we must reject Buddha and Buddhists? No.
Does it mean Mohammed was a schlep and Islam a fantasy? No.
Does it mean Krishna is a cartoon character among a pantheon of make believe gods? No.
What it does mean, is that Jesus is our teacher.
It does means that his life, teaching, and death
are a prism
through which the light of God is refracted for us.
It does not mean it is the only light
or the only source of God through which we can see.
It does means, we are committed to a long,
deep spiritual discernment of the teachings of Jesus,
and how they speak to our lives here and now.
It doesmean we look to where they point
and seek the presence of God
in the ways those teachings guide us.
Like all relationships, affiliation with Christianity –
a mature, adult affiliation,
entered into from the other side of a broad
and vigorous search –
is a relationship with the teachings of Jesus,
and the 2000-year envelope
holding the tangle of a thousand opinions
It does not mean, we accept all those opinions.
Instead, it means we are engaged in a process
of learning from them
and using them as a way to open ourselves
to the presence of God in our own lives.
All of us are born into a matrix of affiliations
that thoroughly engulf us into their ways of seeing the world and understanding ourselves and others.
But sooner or later we stand up,
we peer over the boundaries others set for us,
we pull ourselves free of the lifelines we were given,
and we venture out to see for ourselves
what is true and makes sense of our experiences.
But we don’t just do it once,
we do it again and again and again:
Affiliating, then going off on a search
that separates us from those
with whom we used to be affiliated,
returning a different person
and affiliating once again,
but this time on our own terms and with our eyes open.
But that is not the end,
because eventually we will be launched
upon another search that takes us far afield and back again.
Over and over and over again.
Whether we are sixteen years old
or ninety-two long years of age,
the cycle does not end
unless we simply refuse to participate.
That decision has its own costs, of course.
But if we are going to be enjoined
in this cycle of affiliation and exploration,
we need elasticity in our community, friendships,and religion.
Let us pray for those who never search,
and for those without the courage and confidence
to return and affiliate again.
It is this dance of coming and going,
an ebb and flowof adventure and safety,
a rhythmof doubt, exploration, and encounter,
that deepens our wisdom
and nurtures our spirit.
So even as we gather here this morning,
we can look around and know
that some of us are coming home,
some of us about to begin an adventurous exploration,
and some us have just arrived.
This understanding of faith development leans heavily on John Westerhoff’s work, “A Faithful Church” (1981),