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Sunday, January 22, 2017 | 4:00 p.m.

Prayer of Examen

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life

Psalm 27
1 Corinthians 1:3–18


In the beginning verses of 1 Corinthians, the word fellowship is very important. We are called by God into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, it says. The Common English Bible and other translations use the English word partnership. The Greek word is Koinonia. It’s a word for community, for relationship, for partnership. When we are in koinonia, we are pulling together in the same direction. We are partners.

Paul reminds us that God is faithful to us. The grace of God has been given to us, but it’s not a one-way relationship that we have with God. We’ve also been called into partnership with Christ. We’ve been called on to work with Christ in the world.

I do not know all of you. Some of you have walked in today off the street because you happened to walk by and notice that a gathering was happening today. Some of you may have walked in, really, to see the architecture of this space. Some of you may have walked in to get warm, or because you’re attending the 5:00 community meal. Some of you are here to listen to the wonderful and moving jazz music. Some of you are here to pray or to hear prayers or to cry in your seat or to receive a spirit of hope, faith, and love.

I don’t know you all, and those of you whom I do know, I do not know “all of you.” I don’t know the details of your lives, what moves you and what frightens you, what makes you laugh and what makes your heart race with anger or fear or shame or joy.

But I do know that you are members of the human race, along with me. I do know that you do cry and you do laugh and sometimes your heart does race and pound. You have hopes and dreams and fears and passions, some of them wholesome and some of them misguided, like all of us. We are all made of this kind of mixed clarity and muddiness, beauty and ugliness, joy and pain.

But in this moment, in this hour, in this worship service, we come together in church, and we become a people. We have koinonia, fellowship, partnership, with God, with Christ, with each other.

And for those of us who are baptized, we’re also bound together by that act. We are all baptized in one Lord, in Jesus Christ, and that makes us a certain kind of family of God, a little subset family of God’s human family.

But we children of God here in this space have to go back out into the world after our worship service. The divisions that are outside the church come into the church with us when we come in. So we have to think about how we are going to be Christians together, both in here and “out there.” We have to think about it, and then we have to practice it. We have to try some things so we can continue to grow and change.

Yesterday I went to the women’s march, and there were many things about it that I loved. It was peaceful, but energetic. It was colorful and creative. People expressed themselves and exercised their democratic freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. I’m so glad we have those freedoms, and I will work to defend them.

But that march was only a moment, and now the work goes on. After the march I also saw some conversations about it happening on line, some of them involving friends, some of them involving family.

They were good conversations when people asked questions and really tried to understand someone else’s perspective. Why did you march? Why didn’t you march? What do you believe? Why do you believe that? What are you concerned about? What are your hopes?

These were good conversations when people asked them and wanted to know the answers and people tried to share their answers.

But a good conversation would go awry when someone started to insult the integrity of one of the conversation partners. They would use a word like crazy or ridiculous.

We’ve all been in these conversations, and most of us have been on both sides of the conversation. One person says, “You mean you believe that . . .” and they begin to list off a series of extreme statements that seem to be coming from another planet. They are not the things you believe, and you suddenly wonder how they can believe that you believe what they think you believe?

And it does get that circular. And that confusing. And we feel like we are talking past each other. Completely missing each other. And it’s baffling, sometimes infuriating.

What is happening in that moment?

That is a moment when a quarrel becomes a division. It becomes like a chasm that we really can’t seem to reach across. That is a moment that I think Paul is calling us to address.

To address it I think we have to look deeply into it. I think we need to ask ourselves questions about what we’re feeling and why we want to shut other people down, why we want to shut them out.

Sometimes we do have to withdraw from a hard conversation like that, just for our own survival. But sometimes we might have energy to invest in a connection, to invest in a relationship. Sometimes we might be able to look for the mind of Christ in us and hold open a space between us in which we can remember that we are each human beings, each children of God, each trying to live. Each trying to protect something.

Some said, in the church in Corinth, that they belonged to Christ. Were they saying that other followers did not belong to Christ? Were they dividing humanity, or worse yet, dividing Christ? God came to earth in the form of Christ, so who belongs to God? Who belongs to Christ? Do the followers taught by Paul belong to Christ? Do the followers taught by Cephas belong to Christ?

To turn the question on ourselves, we can ask, to whom do we belong? Do we belong to Christ? Thinking back to our scripture, we can remember what Paul said, that we are called to partner with Christ. How do we do that? How do we have koinonia with Jesus, fellowship with Christ, in the face of so much division?

As I try to study scripture and think about this, I need to expand the portion of the Bible that we read. It’s so hard to just lift out a couple of verses and get a sense of what’s going on in that story. So I kept reading ahead in Corinthians and I came to this.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31)

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, but that word shame, we hear it differently than its implied meaning here in the biblical text. The shame is not so that some can dominate others; it’s to bring a leveling effect, so that we see that wisdom comes in many forms. God chose what is weak to shame the strong, it says, but not for some to dominate others, but to bring a leveling effect, so that the strong can no longer dominate. So that no one might boast in front of God. So that we can find the power within us to remain strong and to be a force for healing in the world. So that we might be confident in God’s love and be united with the mind of Christ that is in us.

We all have our part to do. We have to do a self-examination of all the tangled feelings we have about each other.

We have to do the hard work of discerning. There are not simple answers. “Love your neighbor as yourself” may sound simple, but how do we do that when we have these emotional reactions and we have these divisions in our society?

How do we confront evil without becoming evil? How do we confront hatred without becoming hateful? This is difficult.

So I want to tell you today about a spiritual practice that may help us. It may be just one little thing that we could begin to roll into our lives to help us in our spiritual practice, to help us in our knowing God, our knowing ourselves, and knowing each other.

It comes from the Jesuits, from the Ignatian tradition, and it’s a practice called Examen. It’s a five-step practice that you can do at night before you go to bed. Maybe take fifteen or twenty minutes to do this. This is the practice:

  1. Become aware of the presence of God. Think back over your day, thinking about all the things you did. Review it with gratitude. We begin giving thanks that we have life. Gratitude is the foundation of our relationship with God. Walk through your day, imagining God being there with you.

  2. Invite the Holy Spirit into your reflections, to lead you and be present in this time of Examen.

  3. Pay attention to your emotions. Reflect on the feelings you experienced during the day. Ask what God is saying through these feelings. Did you feel angry? Did you feel happy? When you felt angry why was that? Look into that. Think into that. Was it because you felt vulnerable? Did you feel threatened, like someone might disrespect you or hurt you, or what? What is under the feeling? Try to look deeper and deeper at the feelings, so that an illumination can begin to dawn in you, so an awareness can begin to grow in you and you’re not just reacting madly to all the things around you. You can ask, what is God saying to me through these feelings?

  4. Then choose one thing that happened in your day and pray about that thing. You can ask the Holy Spirit to direct you to that thing. What is that thing to lift up from your day that’s particularly important? It might be something that’s very vivid in your mind’s eye at the end of the day. Or something that you feel very unfinished about at the end of the day. Focus on that, and spend some time praying about that one thing. Another version of these instructions describes this as the moment when you would face your shortcomings. You would think about where you didn’t live up to what you hope to live up to in your life.

  5. Look toward tomorrow. Ask God to give you light for what tomorrow’s challenges may be.

St. Ignatius was the founder of the Jesuit order, and he developed this. He encouraged people to talk to Jesus like a friend. So you can say what you’re thinking, invite God to be present with you in that presence of Jesus. (You can read more about the spiritual practice of Examen at www.bit.ly/2n1wLNz.)

I hope that doing spiritual practices like this, developing our awareness, thinking about our connection to each other, remembering how God is with us, no matter what is happening in each day—I hope this process could help us begin to develop our skills, strengthen our skills of talking to each other, so that when we have one of those conversations with a friend or a loved one and it starts to go awry and we don’t know where that is coming from we can take a step back and notice what’s happening. So we’re not stuck in it just responding but we take a step back, notice what’s happening, and look for God’s strength, God’s power, God’s love, God’s grace. So we can continue in that relationship and begin to break down some of the divisions and bring us back together in this country.

Now I’m talking about the role of our spiritual faith in what we do. There are also lots of other kinds of things that we need to do. Some of them are very strong things, and some of them are very exhausting things and important things in our society to be good citizens of this country and this world.
What I’m inviting us to do is think about how we are citizens of this country and this world while we are also citizens of God’s kingdom, God’s reign on earth.

Can we bring those two worlds together just a little bit more—through our spiritual practices, through our prayers, through the things that we get together and do in the church?

I think if we can do that, we can begin to answer Paul’s call to respond to division, to quarrels before they become divisions and to heal divisions that are already there.

There’s another scripture from Romans that says, if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably.

Sometimes it’s not possible. And sometimes it does not depend on you, because other persons are not willing or able to meet you in conversation.

But in so far as it is possible, in so far as it is up to you, I pray that this would be a way that we could heal our society.

We’re never going to be without divisions. But that’s what it is to be human, to be alive. This great diversity that we are, it can be a positive thing, but we’re all trying to learn how to make it positive at this time.

So my friends, I pray with you and for you and for myself in this journey that is difficult and long. May God be with, and may you know it, each step of the way. Amen.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
(Romans 12:18)