“From the Inside Out”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
February 16, 2020
I realize that we are in the dead of winter now, despite what a warm one it’s been, but I have been looking around the parsonage yard recently… imagining the raspberries coming back to life and bearing fruit… thinking about the big green hydrangea leaves forming and unfolding and the lovely, oversized blue-purple blossoms that will come later… even getting excited about planting lettuce in the vegetable garden…
Even in the bitter cold, there are roots down there in the frozen ground, with the genetic information necessary to create beautiful flowers and sweet tasting fruit. As we speak, people and machines are putting seeds into colorful envelopes (somewhere) that many of us will pant and that will eventually produce crisp string beans and tasty salad greens.
What is inside and underneath will eventually be outside and visible. What is underground, even if it is microscopic and completely mysterious, will eventually become something tangible and will make its entrance on the earth in front of our eyes.
In the Christian tradition, especially in more evangelical circles, there is a basic teaching that says: Our first priority is to become people of faith, to give ourselves to Christ, and then good things will follow. We will be blessed. And better behavior will follow.
There are some things about that formula that I don’t buy — especially that it is a formula and I don’t think our spiritual lives can be defined by formulas. But I do think that there is a really important connection between what our interior emotional and spiritual realities are and the exterior quality of our lives as we experience each day with God and others.
When I put a pot water on the stove and turn on the burner to cook pasta, I usually place a lid on the pot because it comes to a boil more quickly. Invariably, I wind up slicing vegetables for the salad or doing a few dishes when suddenly the top of the pot slides off and the water boils over onto the stove and there’s a loud hissing sound and a huge mess.
Makes sense. Boiling water will push the top of the pot off if not caught in time. The heat and the steam inside will have its way.
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a section that we have traditionally called, The Sermon on the Mount. It’s a series of sayings and images that runs from chapter 5 through chapter 7 and is one of the best known sequences in the New Testament. It starts out with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the peacemakers and so forth), and includes last week’s scripture reading about salt and light.
This morning’s reading was just a few verses long, but I think it captures the meaning of this particular section of of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus draws connections between our thoughts and feelings, our words, our relationships, our actions, and our faith in God.
5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’
5:22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
OK, so Matthew’s version of Jesus is a little hyperbolic, but he gets his point across. It’s not just what we do that matters, it’s what’s going in inside of us, too. Our intentions and the words they produce.
And our words do have a real impact, whether we want to admit to or not. Insulting someone used to be something that happened face to face, but if we think about it, technology allows us to insult each other in myriad ways.
100 years ago, we could write a poison letter or phone someone up and say all sorts of nasty things. We could give someone the finger from the safety of our car. Nowadays, we’ve got unlimited choices: Email, text, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (of course), and so many more.
But our mode of delivery doesn’t change the fact that our feelings of disdain for the other — and our words — can do great damage to others — and to ourselves, spiritually.
Matthew also includes those verses about reconciling with our sisters and brothers before offering our gifts at the altar. In Jesus’ world, offering a gift (meaning an animal sacrifice) at the altar in Jerusalem was the ultimate act of worship. So, Jesus is connecting our relationships with others with our relationship with God. He’s saying that they cannot be separated or compartmentalized. They are inextricably linked.
Which I think makes good spiritual sense. We cannot separate the apple seed from the soil or the rain or the tree or the blossom or the fruit — or the sun that makes it all possible. They are all connected.
At other times, what’s outside of us influences what happens within us very strongly.
When I was the youth minister in the Walpole church in the late 1980’s, there was a young teenager named Tom whose grandmother had died just before I started at the church. He would be in worship every Sunday, whether his parents came or not. He would walk to church if necessary. And it was because he had been so very close with his grandmother and the deep loss he felt drove him to search for comfort and for meaning and for direction in his life.
He thought about pursuing ordination, but eventually became a seminary professor; I am sure he has positively influenced many pastors as they’ve prepared to lead congregations.
So, loss can move us to faith and to leadership and to service. It can cause deep pain and emptiness, of course, but can also lead us toward transformation and effectiveness.
So can education. When we encounter new information, if we are open to it and really absorb it, we are filled and we are changed. Learning repositions our perspective.
I remember reading the New Testament all the way through for the first time when I was 22. I didn’t accept every single word of it and I still don’t, but I was never the same again. In a good way. Everything from my politics to my life goals shifted and became energized.
Traveling can do the same thing. In Mexico, I encountered both suffering and hope that has informed my preaching and my ministry with all of you in too many ways to name. I know that not everyone can afford to travel far away, but even walking through Boston Common can inform our understanding of the world, if we’re looking and listening closely.
Looking at paintings, listening to music, exercising, spending time out of doors. All of it molds us, feeds us, inspires us.
Serving our neighbors in need awakens within us a sense that we are not the center of the universe, that we share this earth with others who aren’t so lucky.
Showing up to work and doing our best and dealing with conflicts and challenges. That, too, alters our identities and priorities.
New relationships do the same. Someone walks into a room — or someone contacts you online. Whether it’s romantic or friendly or professional, our life is forever changed. And our interactions with that person hopefully lead us toward a new and satisfying and generous way of living.
Our spiritual experiences also shape us. Some of them are more mystical and indescribable, like a dream or a prayer or a sudden revelation. Sometimes it’s just coming to church on an ordinary Sunday morning like today or going on a retreat. But these moments make us more aware of the presence of God in our lives.
What I hope and pray for is that all of these influences — whether it’s the way our parents raised us or the ways our kids inspire us or our experiences on the playing field or that master’s degree we got or Van Gogh’s Starry Night or the view from the top of Mount Adams or our wonderful church or our time providing food for our hungry neighbors… I hope that these things will have a meaningful impact on us. From the outside in and from the inside out.
I pray that all of these things will make us better people. That they will act as a glue, connecting us to each other… and to our neighbors… and to God, that something much larger than ourselves, that something wonderful and indescribable.
Words of Hope
Often, life pulls and pushes us in so many directions that we become dis-integrated. We lose our sense of wholeness. Here, we celebrate that the Spirit of God embraces all of who we are and loves us into completeness. Let’s sing Gloria.
Spirit of Love, God of Jesus Christ, we open our hearts and minds to you now in a time of prayer. We are in awe of the universe you have created and the ways that you lead us through the life and ministry of Jesus. We thank you for all that you provide for your children. We thank you for the beauty of nature, for the stars at night and the slowly brightening sunrise and the breeze as it moves the branches and the grassy fields. We thank you for the most important people in our lives — our partners and friends, our sisters and brothers and parents and children and others whom we consider to be family. We thank you for our colleagues and teachers and students and patients. We thank you for life and all of its interconnections. This morning, O God, we pray for those who are in distress of any kind — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. We pray for those who feel they don’t fit in and for those who are purposefully excluded. We pray for those in other lands who have been forced from their homes by violence. We pray also for each other here in church and for our leaders. We pray for ourselves, that we might be the kind of people you call us to be. Please help us to have patience and courage, and compassion most of all. (silence) In the spirit of Jesus we pray, Amen.