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Homily: “Religion and Formation, Part 1”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 18, Year C)

Sometime this past week, Fall happened. I believe it was Tuesday morning as I recall, just before the service of Morning Prayer at All Souls’ Chapel in Pekin. The temperature dropped; perhaps — and I am guessing and have not looked this up — the barometric pressure shifted. In any case, the signs of Autumn are all around: it is Labor Day weekend, schools have been filled with children for several weeks, the outdoor swimming pools are closed for the year, major league baseball teams have called up their best prospects from the minor leagues, the Marigold Festival kicks off this week, my own family is starting to plan for apple-picking in local orchards—and, well, you all could probably add your own “signs of Autumn.”

From my role, constantly looking at this Parish as a whole from a pastoral perspective, one of the changes that Autumn brings is the gathering and regathering of groups of parishioners for formation classes. It is exciting to me, personally, that this is happening at both at Saint Paul’s church and All Saints’ church. It is exciting because it is through adult formation experiences that we can strengthen bonds in our parish family, ask questions that can lead down new creative paths, and reinforce personal bonds with each other as well as with Jesus Christ.

As I have told many of you, I was blessed in my previous parish with the invitation to lead adult formation classes for four years. This not only forced me to bring down to earth what can be the rarefied air of seminary studies — formation really is where the rubber meets the road—but also it was an opportunity to learn how to listen to God and how He can speak to us, beckon us, entice us—and to do so in the usually quiet times within a small group of adults. One of the many insights I took away from that experience of being a parish catechist is that the riches of the Christian faith are inexhaustible. It is a great blessing to us today to have two thousand years of recorded reflections by devout Christian men and women at our disposal, even at our fingertips.

Because the role of adult formation is so crucial to survival of the Church today—including, I strongly believe, the survival of this Parish—I will not only speak this morning about Formation, but I will do so next Sunday as well—something of a two-part Sermon series. Yet in both cases, I will ground whatever I have to say in the appointed Lessons from Holy Scripture. And so, in that Spirit, what do we hear this morning that calls us to reflect upon the importance of formation? We hear it in Jeremiah:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.

God wants to form us. And who would not want to be clay in the hands of God? God has made the most beautiful and stunning things we have seen—he is the architect of everything in the universe—such beauty, to paraphrase our Psalm, “too wonderful for us; it is so high that we cannot attain to it.” God’s nature is Love. God can only form us into more and more loving creatures. It is he that makes us, and not we ourselves. So may we consent to be like clay in the hands of our loving God!

We also hear about formation from Paul in his Epistle to Philemon:

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Formation is the process by which we continue the journey to have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Without formation, we have only a partial understanding, if even that. Note as well how for Paul, formation happens in the context of sharing faith in the community. Formation does not happen in isolation. Individuals cannot form themselves. Community is essential.

I often base my thinking about Christian life on what happened on the Day of Pentecost. As I have recounted many times, everything fundamental we can say about Parish life can be derived from the response of the People to the Coming of the Holy Spirit. Saint Luke tells us they continued in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Formation relates to all three dimensions of the prayer life, but it is part of that first one: “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.” Our faith in all its dimensions traces from the apostles’ and what they taught of their experience with Jesus, and that experience is only communicated in community that meets also to break bread and for prayer. Formation, then, is not an option, but necessary. And it is also Prayer. Again from our Psalm: “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them!” True formation is not learning the right answers on a test, but being thrown into prayer, thrown into wonder and awe.

Finally in our Gospel, formation is one way to interpret the entire passage. We must hate our family members not in the way we feel about them—we are to love our family members—but we are to see Jesus as more important even than the mother and father we love, the brothers and sisters we adore, the spouse to whom we are devoted. If we do not choose to love God and make him our first priority, even above our family, we cannot be his disciple, Jesus is saying. And yet in order to choose Jesus, our choice must be an informed one. All the best choices we make in life usually come from being educated about the choice we face—whether building a tower, fighting a war, or choosing the food we eat, clothes we wear, the company we keep, or where we spend what money we might have. And formation teaches us about Jesus so we know about Him that we are choosing. Without formation, the choice we think we might be making about Jesus may not in fact be about Jesus at all.

Formation is the opportunity we give the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the other people gathered, through whatever it is that is being studied, whether a text from the Bible or something else. Formation can be a crucible that forges our character in the shape God intends it to be. The concluding line from our Gospel reads, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” That is not “give up” in the sense of give away, but rather in the sense of “offering it up” to God—to place everything we have on the Altar and allow God to reveal their purpose. Our Collect begins, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” May we all give our hearts to God, day in and day out. And may He give them back to us formed like clay in His hands in an ever-deeper understanding of Him, so that we may truly carry his cross into our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods as disciples of Jesus—always thanking God because we are marvelously made.

Cover image “Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles” by Duccio di Buoninsegna is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.