On Sunday, May 31, 2015, Church of Our Redeemer celebrated the graduation of its first Education for Ministry (EfM) class. Graduates James M. Surprenant, Janet Needham and Cara Kalf preached the following sermons that day. The full text of the sermons is below or click on the play button to hear an audio recording.
James M. Surprenant
In today’s gospel we find Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a teacher of the Jews, seeking out Jesus in order to find out who Jesus really is. Nicodemus is a seeker and is driven by his desire to know God, to understand God and to follow God.
I have known this desire, this urge to know God and experience God. This longing has drawn me to many places throughout my life including my decision to enroll in EfM four years ago.
The desire to seek God seems to be an elemental human need. But God is ineffable, beyond human comprehension. If we could grasp God with our finite minds, then either God would not be God, or we would not be human.
So we have religion – a pretty good human invention designed to help us understand the divine and provide cohesive communities with a means to approach God.
But there are so many different religions and many proclaim exclusivity – that theirs is the one true religion.
We Christians read in the gospel of John that no one comes to the Father but through Jesus, We can feel pretty smug with ourselves by proclaiming that “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.”
If we live our lives certain that ours is the one true religion, then how can we live in community with our brothers and sisters who worship and believe differently? Condescension is not a Christian value.
We have explored this question much this year in EfM, as our theme was “Living Faithfully in a Multi-Cultural World.”
Part of the EfM experience is the opportunity to share your spiritual autobiography. Here is a bit of my story.
I was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church and my Catholicism has provided a most solid foundation for my life of faith.
As I matured into young adulthood, my Christian faith remained strong but as I began to think my own thoughts and develop more progressive values, I became aware that the Roman church was no longer the optimal fit for me. Eventually I came to find my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.
Do I believe the Episcopal Church is God’s one true church or even “better” than the Roman Catholic Church? No, I do not. But I do know is that at this time in my life, the Episcopal Church feeds my soul and it helps me experience God.[For others, such as my dad, and my father-in-law, both of whom traveled to be with us today, the Catholic Church remains the place where God feeds their souls.] Others find spiritual sustenance in other denominations or in one of the many non-Christian traditions.
Frankly, it seems incomprehensible to me that there could ever be one universal religion. Though God may be one, we most certainly are not…
Men/women, young/old, gay/straight, rich/poor, we with various skin colors, levels of intellectual and physical ability belonging to different cultures and political systems and speaking different languages. The combinations of human differences are endless!
This may explain why God sent different messengers with seemingly different messages. They tell you in business school when making a sale you need to tailor your message to your audience. Perhaps that is what God has been up to all along?
In speaking of religious diversity and the need for pluralism, Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi Emeritus of Great Britain has provided an apt metaphor. Rabbi Sacks said,
I understand my relationship to my late parents, but I can’t ever really understand my brother’s relationship. Each relationship was so private. And our relationship with God is private, but it doesn’t mean to say [God] doesn’t have relationship with other people, other languages, other traditions, and we will never understand that. 
So faith must be a personal experience. My relationship with God is personal and your relationship with God is personal.
Like a good parent, God calls each of us as individuals into a unique relationship. We, with our unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses, joys, hurts and desires each experience God differently. Yet together we make a great family.
I believe that God’s family includes those gathered here today and those scattered everywhere else, regardless of whether they profess Jesus as God made man or not.
Part of the wonderful EfM experience for me has been that it has been a safe and nurturing environment where I have been free to share how I experience God while learning from the shared experiences of my sisters.
In EfM I have come to appreciate that while we profess the catholic faith, we never agree on all of the details. Even within our beloved faith community here there is room for disagreement and conversation.
For four years, my dear friend Cara Kalf, mother if my two beautiful goddaughters and I have debated about what is meant by Christ’s resurrection? For her, a firm literal acceptance of the reanimation of Jesus’ body is absolutely essential to faith as a Christian.
While I respect her fervent defense of the central tenet of our faith, and do proclaim Jesus’s resurrection, I remain a good bit agnostic about what actually happened on that first Easter morning and oftentimes I wonder if the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body was even necessary.
For me, the significance of the Resurrection is that two thousand years after Jesus died; Christ is very much alive in our world. The resurrected Christ lives in us and through us.
God calls each of us to be Christ-bearers. To paraphrase Theresa of Avila, Our hearts are the heart of Christ. Our voices are the voice of Christ. Our hands are the hands of Christ. I believe that as Easter people, as the very bodies of Christ walking in faith in the world today, we make the Resurrection happen every day.
My membership and participation in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic communities have been invaluable helps in my walk in faith. I have been comforted by tradition, inspired by scripture, challenged by good preaching, and I feel a real connection to our community when taking communion.
My work in EfM has helped clarify what it means to live my life faithfully in today’s complicated world. Fundamentally, that means loving God by loving the other. Using the tools I developed in EfM, I hope to be a better minister to others as I strive to live my life as a disciple of Christ.
And like Nicodemus, I shall continue to seek God and to listen for God’s call to me.
Amen. Sacks, Jonathan, “The Dignity of Difference,” from a broadcast of On Being with Krista Tippett, originally aired September 13, 2012. [LINK ]
Brother James has done an excellent job in explaining how EfM has touched his soul and opened his mind and heart over these last four years together. By the way, James started the tradition of calling us his “EfM sisters” in our email threads in which we sent out prayer requests and other information between our Tuesday evening meetings. It made us smile to refer to one another in such a way, but it also acknowledged that we truly felt as though we had become “brothers and sisters in Christ”, and that our gatherings were so much more than Bible study or church class. We had become a spiritual community.
This is just one of the small ways in which EfM has changed me. There have been many subtle shifts in my faith and in my relationship with God over the past four years, so it is difficult to pinpoint any single “Ah Ha” moment that would make a spectacular sermon, but I will try to describe a few ways in which this program has been important to me, and in doing so, attempt to give you a feel for what being an “EfMer” is like.
After four years as a member of Redeemer’s Tuesday night EfM group, I now feel perfectly comfortable, and entirely natural, asking other people to pray for me. I am also quite open about telling people in my secular life that they and/or their loved ones are “on my prayer list”. I have no trouble giving an honest and well-considered answer each Tuesday night to the question “How is your Soul?” These may not sound like major accomplishments, but they are small indications of how I have come to see myself as a person of faith, and as a Christian, not just in this wonderful, nurturing, spiritual community of Redeemer on Sunday mornings, but in the wider, multi-cultural and pluralistic world. Within this trusted group of EfM, we have prayed, listened, opened up, examined our faith, learned and studied, cried and laughed, shared our stories, and prayed some more. On occasion, we allowed our stories to be examined through the lenses of our culture, tradition, and faith. This we call “doing a TR”, or a Theological Reflection. It is the core skill that each of us has practiced and honed over these four years. In addition to sharing, worshiping, and studying, we have all gotten better at reflecting; sometimes on the big, faith-changing events of our lives, and sometimes on the small, everyday details. We have examined how we thought and felt at a particular moment, and how by extending that personal situation into a more universal metaphor, we reconsidered the event within God’s cycle of creation, sin, judgment and redemption, and applied to it what Jesus or a Psalm might have to say to us in that context.
TRs were hard, confusing, wrenching, exhausting, eye-opening, humbling, enlightening, and occasionally amusing. And they were useful…to each of us in our spiritual development, and on our personal journeys.
I would like to stand here before you and claim that EfM has given me the answers to my faith questions. In fact it has just given me more questions. But it has also reassured me that God wants us to keep asking the hard questions. I had hoped when I joined EfM that it would help me understand God’s next call for me, and what I should DO next. I have not heard that call yet. But I can say, that the process has helped me discern who I should BE.
And for that I am truly grateful.
Anyone who believes that theology is hopelessly complex and confusing, unconvincing or boring, has not read enough C.S. Lewis.
That—as we say at EfM—is my position.
My understanding (such as it is) of the Trinity is so thoroughly grounded in Lewis’s writing that I was tempted to just can the sermon and read you a chapter or two from Mere Christianity. But somehow I didn’t think I could get away with that.
Lewis wrote, “Theology means ‘the science of God,’ and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available.” I happen to agree with Lewis, which is why I signed up for Education for Ministry when Kate first brought it to Redeemer four years ago.
At EfM, we talk about learning to “think theologically”—to gain a better understanding of our world and our lives by basing it on God’s revelation of his nature, his designs, and his will. So if part of the nature of God is the existence of three persons in one being, how does that guide our thinking about our lives?
Lewis acknowledges that academic theology is not the same as experiencing connection to God. But that is both its weakness and its strength. Lewis explained, “If a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he … will be turning from something real to something less real … [but the map] is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. … [And] if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary.”
When we say we look to the Bible for guidance, we don’t mean that it is a how-to guide, but that—as a mirror allows us to see how we look and straighten up anything out of place—the Bible’s stories of the People of God are our story, and they teach us about ourselves.
If I have had an experience that has lead me to feel, for example, doubtful of my judgment and anxious about my future, I might wonder what the Bible has to tell me. At EfM I have learned that every experience is at its core about the thoughts and feelings it evokes, and we have yet to find a set of thoughts and feelings that are not reflected in the Bible, not just once but in story after story. Noah, building his boat in the desert, the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane—all of them shared my anxiety and doubt.
In fact, the one story of Jesus on the cross has so many facets that it can hold up a mirror to almost any situation we have thrown at it.
Realizing we are not alone, no matter how we feel, is a gift of its own. But the Bible gives us more than that—it shows us that each story offers us redemption. Something about this story, with its anxiety and doubt, is going to make it come out right in the end.
In today’s Gospel, what is going to make it come right is being born again through the Spirit to become children of God. Nicodemus, of course, is a bit confused by all of this high-minded theology. But who can blame him? He hasn’t read C.S. Lewis.
With the Spirit here joining the Father and the Son, we find our Trinity. (Remember the Trinity? This is a sermon about the Trinity.)
The Trinity, as complex and strange and improbable as it sounds, has never been a problem for me to accept intellectually because it makes sense of one of the most common ways we talk about God. As Lewis says, “The words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”
Of course, that cannot be because it was the overflowing love of God that made the world.
In Lewis’s understanding, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an esoteric topic for academic debate, but the incredible realization that “God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”
Like the map of the Atlantic, this doctrine did not come from someone sitting alone and pondering, but from the experiences of many people and their attempts to describe those experiences.
One of this graduating class’s favorite memories was the time in our first year we attempted to write a creed. “We believe in God.” I’m pretty sure we got that much down before the debates began.
What are we confident that God has revealed about himself and his nature, designs and will? Turns out, not too much! But in the end it didn’t matter that we could not reinvent Christian theology. We learned from the discussion and the process, and that was the point.
Lewis said, “the one really adequate instrument for learning about God is the whole Christian community, waiting for Him together.” That is what we had in EfM, an instrument for learning about God in the form of a tight-knit Christian community, an experience I will always treasure.
Now, like all graduates, we are being told to move out and get a job. Our Education was, after all, for MINISTRY. That doesn’t mean ordained ministry, as I explained to my very concerned parents in the first year. It means all of the ways we interact with other people. In other words, it’s about relationships—just like God himself.