The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
May 22, 2016
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
One of my favorite books as a child was, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Perhaps you read it as a child, or read it now to your children and grandchildren. It is a very popular book in our house.
[Holding up book] You remember how it starts. “In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf. One Sunday morning the warm sun came up and – pop! – out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.” The story goes on about how hungry that caterpillar is; how he eats his way through apples, pears, strawberries. And then, one one day, he eats through a whole buffet of junk food – a pickle, some cheese, salami, sausage, lollipop. Then comes my favorite line. “That night he had a stomachache!” “The next day was Sunday again,” the story goes, “the caterpillar ate through one nice green leaf and after that he felt much better.”
I am proud to say that I’ve read this book dozens of times. It’s a book we’ve all read dozens of times. But, but, it is not the only book I read.
See, at first you learn to read, and then you read to learn. I started as a little kid reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” But since then I’ve read books of, let’s say, more substance: “Moby-Dick,” “Animal Farm,” “The Bible,” and recently I’m working my way back through Shakespeare. I’m on “Macbeth” right now. It’s not that “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is less of a book than, say, “Catch-22.” But it is to say that where we start as children should not be where we end as adults.
Jesus recognizes this, too. Jesus assumes that we mature and grow in the power of the Holy Spirit. At the last supper with his disciples, knowing full well that he’s about to be crucified and die, Jesus say, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” He’s telling his disciples that they have a good start, but that the Holy Spirit will be coming to teach them more. He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” There are things that the disciples could not bear at the moment, but the Holy Spirit came to complete the work. To continue the teaching. When I was five years old, I could not bear reading “Hamlet.” I could bear “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” But where I started was not where I was supposed to end.
This is the image of our spiritual life with Jesus. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, is now among us and it is the Holy Spirit that continues to teach us and to guide us. This is what Jesus is getting at in our gospel lesson today. It’s the idea that there are things to come in our spiritual lives that we cannot yet bear. God the Father is not done with us yet. We are a work in progress.
So let’s talk about our spiritual lives with Jesus. Let’s talk about our discipleship. Just like growing up to read bigger books, we grow up in our spiritual life. When we first start following Jesus, and we first start praying, we usually do so because we’re “supposed to.” We close our hands and say some words to God because we think we’re supposed to. We go to church because “we’re supposed to.” And you know what? That’s not wrong. We are supposed to. But it’s just a place to start. There are still more things for us to bear.
Later on, we want to pray. We want to worship. Suddenly we find that the Holy Spirit is enriching our lives through prayer. It seems that we are close to God and that God is close to us. There is great joy during this stage of our faith journey because it seems that we’ve arrived. Jesus is close to us, we know he loves us, and everything seems just so happy. But there are still more things for us to bear.
After a period of wanting to pray, then we find it difficult to pray. We find it difficult to wake up and go to church. There’s no shame in this, no need to be embarrassed. But it’s frustrating. One day God it’s like you can almost see God in your prayers, and the next day it’s like you’re in a cave.
In my experience, this is a crucial moment in our spiritual journey. At this point, many people abandon spirituality altogether. It’s too difficult, we can’t feel the Holy Spirit anymore. It feels that we’re still here but God has gone away. Or, what happens, is that we step backwards and we go back to the kind of simplistic prayers and infantile faith that made us feel so good. That would be like reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” as a kid, then picking up your first chapter book, finding it too difficult, and just going back to reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Remember what Jesus says. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” I think that what happens next, if we make it through the difficult time in our spiritual development, is that we discover a need to pray. We need to pray. Prayer becomes like the air we breathe. It becomes part of who we are.
But I’ll tell you this. When you arrive at the point in your spiritual development when you need to pray, it’s not that prayer becomes easy. It actually becomes more like work. Because all the other steps – supposed to pray, want to pray, difficult to pray – all those steps are about you and what you’re getting out of prayer. When you are growing and maturing in your faith, you get to the point when prayer is no longer about you, it’s about God. See, in our consumeristic society, most people give up on church and prayer and spirituality because “they’re not getting anything out of it.”
That’s a category error. A life of discipleship, a life of following Jesus, a life with the Holy Spirit is not about what you get out of the experience. It’s about what you put into it. It’s about how you glorify God through your life.
What Jesus presupposes here is that a life of faith, a life of spirituality, must be dynamic. There must be movement. There must be constant change and adaptation. We have to be constantly learning, constantly praying, constantly listening for how the Holy Spirit is calling us to new things. The Triune God, the God we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not a god who is complacent with simple lessons and children’s Sunday School beliefs. The Triune God is the God who invites us into ever deeper relationship, ever deeper knowledge, ever deeper faith. In your life of faith, you start off with the old prayer, “as I lay me down to sleep.” But you shouldn’t be complacent there. We need to move on to an adult faith, a faith that prays “thy will be done.”
The same, too, for the church. The church in 2016 cannot be the church that it was in 1916 and will not be the church it will be in 2116. The Holy Spirit still has many things to teach us. As Jesus told his first disciples, we cannot bear everything now, but the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth. The church will change, not for the sake of change. But if the church is faithful to the Holy Spirit, we should expect change. We should expect to be guided into all truth, we should just take it on faith that we do not know the full truth right now. I know, this is difficult to swallow. We feel like that poor little hungry caterpillar with a stomachache. We can lured into a simple faith, a simple church. But as St. Paul says, we are growing into the full stature of Christ. God is not done with the church yet. The Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth.
I also speak these words because today, Trinity Sunday, is the fourth anniversary of my tenure as the rector of Holy Comforter. There were things that this church is now doing that we could not bear then. Think of it: three worship services, a building project, the Church Has Left the Building. Even last week we had a spontaneous baptism in the middle of the service. We could not bear that then, but we can bear it now. And four years from now, forty years from now, four hundred years from now, Holy Comforter will be doing things that we cannot bear now. That’s okay, we are a work in progress. The Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth.
Most of all, my hope for this congregation is that we lean into a mature faith in Jesus. And where we end up – it will not be about what we want, or about what the community wants. Where we end up as a congregation, will be what God wants. That’s the key – the spiritual journey is not about what we get out of it, it’s about what we put into it to glorify God. Do not be a consumer of spirituality, a consumer of religion. Be a producer. Be a giver. Do not walk away from church on Sunday morning thinking about what you get out of it, think about how God was glorified.
And when you go home tonight, I hope you have something more substantial than “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” on your night stand. I hope that you grow up into something more mature. Do not fall back to what is comfortable, to what you know. Grow into what God is calling you to be. [Hold up book] Because think about how this book ends. The very hungry caterpillar is no longer a very hungry caterpillar, but a beautiful buttery. The Holy Spirit is coming into your life. The Holy Spirit will teach you things that you cannot bear now. You will change. You will morph. You will mature. When you invite the Holy Spirit into your life, the Holy Spirit will not allow you to stay the same. The Holy Spirit will teach you and guide you into all truth.