Education as a Path to Spiritual Growth

January 13, 2019

Rev. Susan Bjork

Associate Minister

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

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Loving God, we thank you for your presence in our lives. And we thank you for the witness of those who have gone before us who have left tales and testimonies of your faithfulness and steadfast love. May we open our hearts and minds to continued growth and learning and to continued inspiration and transformation in your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we continue our sermon series on growing closer to God. Last week, Pastor Dave started us off by encouraging us to consider faith as a life-long journey. And that is the theme that will run through all of the sermons in this series. And today, we’re going to focus on education as a tool and resource for this journey.

I’m kind of a nerd (and proud of it), so I was glad to take on this subject. As you probably know, I am passionate about education and learning. Part of the reason I accepted the call to be your Associate Pastor is that I would get to engage in educational ministries for all ages. It’s something I love to do!

Many people talk about religious education as faith formation. I like that idea of formationbecause we are always being formed (and re-formed) in faith. The word formation also tells us that this is not solely an intellectual endeavor. That’s part of it. But in addition to growing intellectually in our knowledge and understanding about our faith, we are also growing in our relationship with God. It’s not only about our heads; it’s about our hearts as well. Religious education is nourishment for our souls and nourishment for our spiritual journeys.

And this process of faith formation and education is a life-long process, of course. Religious education is for our children in Sunday school and children’s choir and for our teenagers when we offer confirmation classes. And religious education is also for adults. This is why we also offer classes, Bible studies, Pub Theology, and other opportunities for adults.

This is also part of why we preach. In addition to prayer and praise in worship, it is part of our faith tradition to read and interpret scripture – to give us all something to chew on and reflect upon in the coming week, to expand our understanding a bit, to challenge us, and to help make connections between the ancient stories of scripture and the current stories of our lives.

And this tradition goes way back, of course. We just heard the story from Nehemiah of the day that the priest, Ezra, read and interpreted the text of the law (part of the Torah, most likely – those first five books of our Bible). That was way back in the 5thcentury BC (and it goes back further than that.

And let’s notice a couple of things about this story:

First, the people askedEzra to read the text to them. They wanted to hear the words of the Law of Moses. They wanted to know the insights of scripture. It’s something they knew they needed.

Second, Ezra, along with the help of some other leaders of the community, interpreted it for them. They preached. They offered commentary on the text so the people would get the sense of it and understand it. And, as a result, the people resolved to set aside time to study the law and learn to understand it and live it.

Third, this was a day of communal celebration. They feasted and they fed those who had no food of their own to feast upon. This was a special day.

Now, we can understand why this was such a celebration for them. This story is set after the experience of the Babylonian conquest of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple, and the long exile in Babylon. Persia had now conquered Babylon. And the Persian Empire – though still very much in charge – was more tolerant of local religious expression and gave the people of Judah more freedom. Those in exile were allowed to return home to Judah again and rebuild what had been lost. So the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the stories of the people reconnecting with the land of their heritage, of rebuilding the temple, of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem – and moving forward into a new phase of their ongoing relationship with God.

So it makes sense that this was an emotional day. What had seemed lost forever was being rebuilt. And they were now able to worship freely.

And to me, this begs the question, how do we claim that excitement and passion in our own lives? We, who have freedom of religious expression, who have access to the printed text of our sacred scriptures everywhere we go (in hardcopy or online), who have a wealth of resources to help us in interpretation. How do we read, and study, and reflect upon the Bible with joy, passion, and eagerness to learn, and grow, and be challenged?

This doesn’t mean we have to agree with every word of the biblical text, by the way. Part of good Bible study is grappling and debating with the text. There is actually a long history of this within our inherited faith tradition as well.

The point is that all of us, regardless of age, benefit from ongoing engagement with scripture and the theological foundations of our tradition. Throughout our lifetime we may hear or read many of the same passages of scripture multiple times. For those of you who have been a part of a church for a long time, think of how many times you’ve heard the big, familiar stories and passages over the years. But, as we get older, we hear them in new ways. Our understanding deepens as we grow. Our interpretations may change over time as well (and that’s ok).

And our lived experience informs our reading too. We may hear something new and needed in a passage of scripture because it speaks to whatever it is we’re going through when we read it. For example, think of these words of Paul from Romans 8 (it’s a favorite of many):

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:38-9)

On a good day, those are great and affirming words of faith. But how much more are they needed on a bad day, on the worst day? On a day when we feel like there is something clear and concrete that is causing us to feel separated from God’s love? Those same words could become even more affirming and profound. Or those same words could become even more challenging. Maybe even both at the same time – profoundly true and comforting, as well as a challenging call to trust God in the tough times.

This is all part of the journey of faith formation. We are always engaging in a dialogue with scripture. And we bring our whole lives and our experiences, into that dialogue.

But it’s also important for us to remember that this dialogue isn’t only between us, as individuals, and the text (or even just between us and God). When we engage the text, we do so in the company of other readers.

Some of those other readers are our peers. We often read these texts together. Whether in worship or a class, we reflect on them in community. One of my favorite things about leading Bible studies with any age group is hearing the varied insights, interpretations, reactions, and reflections of participants. Sometimes common themes emerge and that’s a great affirmation of our collective faith. But it’s also great when someone says something I’ve never thought of before. We can open each other’s eyes and broaden each other’s perspectives simply by being honest readers and reflectors together.

But even when we’re reading the text all by ourselves, we are still informed by other readers. When we encounter the biblical text, we are also encountering a whole history of interpretation. And unless you are reading the text in Hebrew or Greek, you are already benefiting from someone else’s interpretive work because you are reading a translation. And every translation is an interpretation because translators must make interpretive choices when choosing words in the translated language that convey the meaning of the original.

And if you’re reading a study Bible, maybe you’ll read some of the footnotes and commentary along the way to help you in your interpretation. And the best of those study Bibles say something about the historical contexts in which these writings arose. And so, for example, you might grow in your understanding of what the region of Galilee or the city of Jerusalem might have been like when Jesus lived during the age of the Roman Empire. Or you’ll learn about the experience of the Babylonian Exile (like we have today) and how that experience informed the theology and writings that followed.

If you come to one of our Bible studies, you’ll definitely get even more of this kind of historical information. But there are also a lot of good books out there. And travel is such a learning experience too. I had read plenty about Jerusalem and Rome in the time of Jesus long before I went to those cities – but going there absolutely brought that history to life.

And all of this is important because our scriptures didn’t arise out of a vacuum. They arose out of particular times and particular places. They were stories, ideas, and poetry that were shared aloud and written down by people and communities who were doing the work of theology – doing the work of examining how God was active in their lives and in the world and how they related to God in faith.

And so, when we learn more about those times, and places, and people, our engagement with the Bible can deepen. And soon we begin to understand how the theologies of our religious tradition have unfolded over time and that we too have been formed in faith by the lived experiences of people of faith who have gone before us – formed by their stories, their histories, their cultures, and their experiences of God.

And, to me, that is at the heart of how ongoing religious education can help us grow in our faith and in our relationship with God. For one, we learn that we’re not alone. We learn that we are part of a bigger story that began long ago and will continue long into the future.

And we find points of connection along the way. Though we may not experience life in exactly the same way, we relate to the joys and struggles of the people of the Bible. And the more I read and re-read the biblical stories, the more I realize that humans haven’t really changed all that much throughout history. The stories of the Bible (even those that may seem strange or foreign at first) are usually ultimately relatable because they are about people like us.

And, most importantly, we learn something about the character and faithfulness of God. The more we engage with these stories, the more we dig into their histories, and the more we let ourselves be moved, inspired, and challenged by them, the more we grow in our understanding of who God is, what God has done, and what God might be doing now in our lives and in our world.

And hopefully that enriches our relationship with our God – our relationship with the one who created us, the one who walked alongside those who went before us, the one who walks alongside us still.

And we’ll likely come to the understanding that the journey continues. The journey of education, the journey of faith formation and re-formation, and the journey of growing deeper in our relationship with God – all of which are all life-long journeys.

So, I would encourage you (especially if you ever find yourself feeling a little stuck) to find some new ways to engage in religious education… take a class, read a new book, watch a good documentary, travel if you can… follow a prayerful reading process like lectio divinaand see how scripture speaks to you (pick up a postcard in the narthex).

Personal Bible study can become a prayer practice! As much as I love history and think it’s important, I also want to make it clear that you don’t have to know all of the history to get something out of scripture. Sacred texts have many levels of meaning. And there is actually a history of great openness to varied interpretations of scripture in both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. Jesus himself quoted scripture and then offered his interpretation and commentary on it (and sometimes those were new and different interpretations). And freedom of understanding and interpretation is also something we value here in our church community.

And finally, there is also a limit to our pursuit of knowledge. We don’t know everything. We don’t know what we don’t know. And so, openness to not knowing, openness to mystery, openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit are all part of faith.

And that is good news for our continuing journeys of faith formation too because there is always somewhere new to go. And we don’t have to worry about reaching a particular destination because we can trust that wherever we go, God goes with us. Amen.