Many churches are exploring the what 'formation' means in their life and work. At First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg we are doing the same. Here is a sermon I preached on the theme. I would welcome any comments or feedback.
The texts were 2 Samuel 12:1-7a (Nathan confronting David); 1 Kings 3:16-28 (Solomon's judgment between the two mothers)
For some reason I liked school. I remember pictures of me doing homework on a family trip to Florida when I was in grade 3. I don’t know what it was but I just seemed to fit into the structure. I am not sure if it was this experience or not but I was always a sucker for those private school movies like Dead Poets Society that seemed to elevate and expand the experience of school to a whole new level. As I grew older what became increasingly strange was the way a particular form of knowledge was elevated. Many of these movies adopted a Jeopardy-like view of education. In the game-show Jeopardy contestants are asked to answer factual questions in different disciplines of study. In these formats knowledge is evaluated by memorization. Every question has a clear and correct answer. As I grew older I found something troubling about this model. There is of course nothing wrong with memorization and, in fact, there are many things to commend it but to elevate it as a sort of high-water-mark in education or intelligence began striking me as somehow impoverished.
While this model memorization and repetition is perhaps more appropriate for grade-school I do see that this way of thinking remains a symptom of how we view education and knowledge. Being able to recite The Sermon on the Mount is different than being able to understand and engage its vision of God and its call for humanity. The two are not incompatible and can easily complement each other but must be done so intentionally. This may have been why in earlier adulthood I became drawn to the writings of people like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. They were later called ‘existentialists’. I understand that word most simply to refer to those people who attempt to take questions of the meaning of life and the influence of our human experiences seriously in how we develop knowledge and understanding; that meaning, experience, and knowledge must be related. Listen to this quote from Kierkegaard,
[C]onsider that one is dreadfully deceived if one is deceived by much knowledge. Let us imagine a firstmate and assume that he has passed with distinction all the examinations but as yet has not been out to sea. Imagine him in a storm: he knows exactly what he has to do, but he is unacquainted with the terror that grips the sailor when the stars disappear into the pitch darkness of the night; he is unacquainted with the sense of powerlessness the pilot feels when he sees that the helm in his hand is only a plaything for the sea; he does not know how the blood rushes to the head when in such a moment one must make calculations – in short, he has no conception of the change that takes placein the knower when he is to use his knowledge. [emphasis mine]
Notice that Kierkegaard is not critical of knowledge but is rather warning the reader that knowledge can become one of the most insidious forms of deception. The point here is that if your knowledge does not become integrated with our life, experiences, emotions, and relationships then it will remain at best a poor education and at worst a deceptive and destructive presence. This is, at least in part, why our church has decided to shift from having an education committee to having a formation committee.
Now, before proceeding I would strongly encourage us this morning and in future conversations not to get too hung-up on the terms here, yes education can be conceived of as formation. What is important is to explore the shift that we as a church are considering. We are looking at our role in the church as something more than simply the development and acquisition of knowledge or information. We are looking to be formed as a spiritual people of faith.
I chose the particular readings for this morning because they reflect, at least in part, what our faith calls us to when we talk about formation. Perhaps the readings seem odd together or unconnected. We typically read the Bible for its content seeing the passage tell us something about life, or it may be comforting, encouraging, or instructive. In this instance, however, I want us to think of the method these passages reflect. The characters in these stories communicate in a particular ways that I want to draw attention to.
Let’s begin with Nathan. King David desired to be with Bathsheba but she was married to Uriah. David sent Uriah out to the front lines of war where he was killed. This freed David up to marry him. Nathan wanted to confront David about his actions. He wanted David to confess and repent from this action. However, Nathan did not just approach David and address the issue directly. What would likely have happened if he did? David likely either would have denied it or reacted against it (perhaps at the cost of Nathan’s own life). I have little doubt that David understood that what he did was wrong but in the process he will have already done the mental justification or denial for doing what he did. So instead of addressing the issue directly Nathan told a story about a rich man who was too greedy to enjoy what he had so he stole from someone who had almost nothing. This story incited David’s sense of justice. He reacted with impassioned anger against such an injustice. David knew what justice was. He however, did not let his life be formed by it. And so Nathan concluded the story with the words, you are that man. Nathan needed to open up David’s knowledge, his understanding of justice and then bring David’s life face-to-face with it. Nathan attempted to create a context in which David himself could be formed into God’s vision of justice. This was not simply a matter of education but of formation.
The case with Solomon’s judgment is perhaps a little more complex. Solomon faces a case in which two woman make maternal claims over a baby. Both offer speculative and personal testimonies that have no outside witnesses. Instead of imposing direct interrogation, trying to get one of them to confess Solomon creates, in the words of one commentator, a condition that compels the truth. Solomon creates a context which he believes will resolve the conflict.
But what is involved to create this context? There is a question of risk. Are the stakes too high? Is Solomon bluffing? What happens if both women respond by wanting the child to be saved? The passage ends with a note regarding Solomon’s ability to execute justice. But couldn’t both scenarios be considered a form of justice? Perhaps the woman ready to accept Solomon’s dividing of the baby felt that indeed that was justice. She knew that the living child would never be hers so why should another mother have the joy of a child while she was deprived? And as foreign and extreme as the image is, doesn’t the mother of the dead child reveal our own sense of justice?
I have heard it said that the definition of justice for most of us is making sure that others do not enjoy life more than we do. If I can’t have it, nobody should. We become more concerned with having the same material goods instead of nurturing a mutually shared quality of life. And so in Solomon’s judgment the mother of the living child also took a risk revealing that there was something more important than her particular claim on life. The context revealed that she desired the nurturing of life more than superficial equality. The context allowed the formation and emergence of God’s vision for life and justice.
So to what extent to do we let this reading, like Nathan earlier, name us as individuals and as the church, as the ones willing to sever the child for the sake of a false or dead justice? To what extent does this text open us up to expose how we have already been formed by distorted and destructive notions of justice? When have we demanded a perverse equality by killing what was of the most valuable? We are willing to sacrifice relationships for career. We are willing sacrifice knowledge for inflated grades. We are willing to sacrifice peace for personal gain. We know these things of our culture if not of ourselves.
So if it is the case that we need to reveal the improper ways we have been formed then how can we as a church create the contexts in which that can happen? Are we willing to risk confronting the powers as Nathan was? Are we willing to risk what is most dear as Solomon was? What could this mean in a time of pressing social, economic, and environmental concerns? How do we put at risk our values, our traditions, and our lives so that God’s vision of justice and restoration might emerge?
For our faith to be formed we must put it into play. We cannot leave it here as walk out this morning. We must create, or recognize, or enter into the contexts that open us up, that reveal our improper and prejudicial formation so that confession, repentance, and spiritual formation can occur. We must in some way be willing to risk, to put into play our beliefs and actions, so that what comes back to us would be life-giving and not the self-justified indifference of David or divisive vengeance of a dead child’s mother.
I want to conclude with an image of such a context that keeps coming back to me. I confess that it is not a complete image and it will, like other images, have its drawbacks. But I think that when it comes to understanding how formation and change can happen it might prove insightful. The image is from David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. In the book Wallace describes a particular gathering of Alcoholics Anonymous in Boston called the White Flag group. This group exists for the simple purpose of helping people return to life from the death of their addiction. The existence of the group is solely a function of its desire for life. It is not ordered by orthodoxy, it is not patrolled by moral code, it is not structured by status or achievement. It continues because there are enough people who stay sober for it to continue. It continues because life comes from it [period]. In AA there is often a process of coming to a deep awareness of who you are and how life works. But what is interesting is that this awareness is not expressed in terms of knowledge or intelligence. As with Kierkegaard, AA recognizes that knowledge can prove to be one of the most deceptive influences in our lives, always able to justify, deflect, or mock a reality that needs to be change. But those who hang in there begin to see that perhaps their own intelligence, their own view of the world was actually part of the problem. They actually enter into a space of change.
Another component of this group is that it understands that there is no greater punishment then messing up and falling back into addiction, nothing worse, even death is not worse than the fate of some addicts. And so they try and rid the group of judgment because that will not help recovery from the much more terrible punishment of succumbing to addiction. They simply welcome people back, they encourage you back.
There is no secret knowledge. There is no level of education required. In fact, on the surface, AA is often expressed in clichés and seemingly empty gestures like acknowledging some vague higher power and being told to take ‘one day at a time’. There are of course traditions and steps and guidelines but they cannot be forced. Someone must come to the place where they willingly enter the formation that is possible. As Wallace writes,
You have to want to take the suggestions, want to abide by the traditions of anonymity, humility, surrender to the Group conscience. If you don’t obey, nobody will kick you out. They won’t have to. You’ll end up kicking yourself out, if you steer by your own sick will. This is maybe why just about everybody in the White Flag Group tries so hard to be so disgustingly humble, kind, helpful, tactful, cheerful, nonjudgmental, tidy, energetic, modest, generous, fair, orderly, patient, tolerant, attentive, truthful. It isn’t like the Group makes them do it. It’s more like that the only people who end up able to hang [around sober] for serious time in AA are the ones who willingly try to be these things. This is why, to the cynical newcomer . . . serious AAs look like these weird combinations of Gandhi and Mr. Rogers with tattoos and enlarged livers and no teeth.
This is a community whose sole purpose is the formation or transformation from death into life. And as the quote indicates it can create an odd-looking community. But that is part of the point isn’t it? This context offers the ability to thrive and orient yourself for the sake of life and not for the production of how you will be perceived or for your sole preservation. It allows its members the ability to risk certain expressions if there is a belief that life will grow from it. Thinking of this tattooed Mr. Roger and toothless Ghandi, perhaps put most simply formation is when knowledge discards ego and embraces a courageous humility in the service of life.
May we see such places and enter them. May we create such places and offer them. May this be our act of worship and may God’s Spirit of life melt us, mold us, and form us that we might be used to this end. Amen.