How to Persist in Faith
Children’s Sermon: Here, have a cup! I have something for you from my pitcher. WHAT? Why can’t you be happy with what I’m giving you?! Why can’t you just say “thank you, Pastor Cheryl”? Because it’s empty? Because what I gave isn’t enough? Why not?
Well. I guess you’re right: my pitcher is empty. And that’s because I didn’t fill it. I wanted to keep giving and giving and helping people, because I love y’all! I want to make you happy. I want you to have what you need. But I don’t have enough to share because I didn’t do the things that fill me up. So where can I go?
· CUP OF WATER BY BIBLE IN LECTERN: Sometimes I go to the Bible and I read something that reminds me how much God loves me, or I come to church and listen to someone who reads to me.
· CUP OF WATER BEHIND FLOWERS: Sometimes I go to nature, and I remember God’s gifts for making plants grow, for creating the sky with the colors of the sunset, and I marvel at all of God’s creation, and that reminds me that God made all of creation for joy and so that I could have joy, too.
· CUP OF WATER WITH A FRIEND: Sometimes I talk with a friend, and that reminds me that when I have a problem or even when I feel fine, I can talk with a friend who can remind me who I am and who can remind me that God loves me.
· CUP OF WATER AT THE PIANO: Sometimes I sing music in worship, and then the song sticks with me for the whole day, or even more than a day. I learn the songs that teach me about God’s love.
· CUP OF WATER IN ATHLETIC SHOES: Sometimes I need to just move my body! I like to take walks, or sometimes I’ll do yoga. Moving my body gets my blood moving and I remember to thank God for the abilities I have, for the wonders of my body to take me places.
· CUP OF WATER FROM BAPTISMAL FONT: Sometimes I take the water from the baptismal font to remind me that God called me and claimed me before I could even do anything for God. God doesn’t need me to do anything before God is determined to love me. Taking time to remember that, that fills me up.
· CUP OF WATER FROM BEHIND COMMUNION CHALICE ON ALTAR: Oh, and I also get filled up when I receive communion. It’s the Body and Blood and Jesus Christ—Jesus feeds me with himself. That reminds me of God’s power to heal and to bless, to remember that I am loved and to get the strength to love others too.
So now that I’ve gone all these places, this has filled up my pitcher pretty well! Now I have enough to share—I could even share with all of you! (I won’t share this one though because it’s just colored water and it doesn’t have any taste and it isn’t clean, it just looks cool. But where can you go to get water? We have a water fountain down the hall—that’s clean water that’s good for drinking!)
Everyone has different things that fill them up, so I want you to notice this week where you go that fills you up with joy and gives you energy to serve God and care for others. God created you with interests and talents to bring you joy, and God shares in that joy with you.
Let’s pray together: Dear God, you give us everything we need. You are always full of love, full of mercy, full of healing, full of grace. Help us to receive what we need from you, to remember the places to go to get filled up, and help us to show others the way to you, the source of all joy. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about persistence. Just keep going, keep asking for what you need, keep fighting for justice even when there is little to no chance you’ll ever get what you’re seeking. It’s an encouraging message, kinda—have faith in God, hope for the future, pray with boldness, speak the thing into existence, manifest success, etc. etc.
But some of us have done a lot of persisting lately. Some of us ran out of energy a year ago and now we’re just existing. Is anyone else tired of persisting? Not just me?
Where do you get the energy to keep going? Who else has had to put up with day after day of bad news? The world’s on fire, or experiencing terrible floods, nationalism is trending in the world, and Christian nationalism in this country, and other countries are making nuclear threats…and that’s on top of whatever else we have going on in our own lives, attending to sickness, pain, death and grief. It really is a lot.
Who has the time to go all the way over to the well of living water and drink deeply—isn’t that an extravagance? Mere mortals are not worthy, right? Aren’t we too busy for that?
Howard Thurman writes,
“We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are. The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives? What are the motives that order our days? What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go? Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused? For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life? What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?”
Howard Thurman recommends finding the answer to these questions in contemplation, which he called “centering down.” He wrote, “How good it is to center down! To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!”
How often do we stop what we’re doing and notice where we are, or notice what God is up to? Many of us have come from the traditions of Christianity here in the United States where the Protestant work ethic emphasizes greater value on what we can do rather than who we are. Reflection and contemplation are not valued very highly. We work in specialized fields, and we expect religion and faith matters to be specialized as well, as though we’re not going to have to answer to Jesus for our own selves someday!
So we’re draining our energies trying to get a piece of the American dream, whatever we understand that to be, and…what’s left for trying to retain a sense of self, as a precious human being created in the image of God? Is there any energy to persist in this never-ending wheel of work, and for what?
Over the past few years, in the times when I’ve been tempted to give up, I’ve gone searching for stories of people who faced hardship and still thrived.
Barbara Holmes has written a book about contemplation and the Black church here in the United States, beginning with the origin of the Black church. The Black church was not born during slavery, when enslaved peoples from Africa were brought to this country in the Middle Passage, but the Black church is a tradition rooted in the spiritualities and understandings of African cultures more directly.
Communities of enslaved people gathered together for survival and necessity, but they came from a tradition of communal contemplation. For Africana traditions, contemplation is not just sitting alone in silence, but can include prayer and worship, singing and drumming; contemplation can come from dancing—dancing! Can we white people even imagine that?!—as well as communal silence, the hush arbors, and rituals to mark sacred moments in life, such as births and deaths and rites of adulthood.
This isn’t a different form of Christianity, this is noticing Christian practices that come from other cultures. In our white American Christian culture, we value personal spiritual experience, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but do we know how to interpret our individual experiences? Who do you talk to when you’re struggling with some big question? And what happens if you go to worship but you don’t “get anything out of it?” How does a community grow stronger or encourage each other?
Contemplation happens in many ways during communal worship, which, hey, some of us still do participate in this practice! The sermon is only one way that God might be reaching out to you, but maybe it’s the music, or even one line of a hymn, or touching the water of baptism or tasting the promise of Holy Communion. It’s not like we’re not already doing this, but how much do we notice about what we’re doing?
Simply jazzing up the music isn’t the goal either. Barbara Holmes knows how to tell the difference between worship that’s ecstatic as a result of the Holy Spirit, and one of my favorite sentences of this book is this: “Unrelenting praise teams modeled after cheerleading squads do not satisfy” the need for moments of contemplation in worship. She explores the purposes of why we do what we do in our life of faith, and she explores the ways these spiritual practices kept alive generations of enslaved peoples who experienced horrors most of us will never see. She doesn’t turn away from the horror but acknowledges the agency and the strength of people who were enslaved.
Holmes writes this:
“External oppression may defeat the body and perhaps even the mind, but the inner sanctum will not be breached without consent…the human task is threefold.
First, the human spirit must connect to the Eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning.
Second, each person must explore the inner reality of [their] humanity, facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace.
Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts.
Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth. These tasks require a knowledge of self and others that only comes from the centering down that Thurman advocates. It is not an escape from the din of daily life; rather it requires full entry into the fray but on different terms. …contemplation requires attentiveness to the Spirit of God.”
If it sounds overwhelming to consider contemplation, on top of everything else you’re already doing, then congratulations on paying attention. But the thing is: making time for contemplation, being willing to make oneself vulnerable in front of others in community, persisting in asking the big questions…this is when you begin to find the same energy of the widow in Jesus’s parable who is able to persist in her quest for justice. Eventually you find the same strength of Jacob who struggled all night with God—persist in that struggle, and you might just receive a blessing.
You might also walk away with a lifelong limp, and maybe that’s the goal—an encounter with the living God is going to change you, and for the better. You will walk through life differently as a result. Some of us are struggling, and some of us are limping, and some of us know the power of God to heal, to bring peace. That inner peace can never be taken away from you.
God desires a relationship with humanity, even when that means struggle. Let us grow in prayer, in communication with the God who created us and who loves us still. When Jesus returns, may he indeed find faith on the earth.
 Howard Thurman, “The Inward Sea,” in Meditations of the Heart (Richmond, IN: Friends United, 1976), 28-29; quoted in Barbara Holmes Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edition, Minneapolis