The Spirit’s Direction

Pink salt from the Himalayas

A sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 58:1-9aPsalm 112:1-91 Corinthians 2:1-12, and Matthew 5:13-20.

My friend Erik told me this week about a Lutheran pastor named Martin Niemöller. Now, I knew of him (and maybe you will, too) but I didn’t know his name. Niemöller was active largely in the mid-20c. He had been a U-boat captain in the First World War and then went to seminary and became a pastor. He was not perfect. He was often slow to catch on and he often learned to do the right thing only after doing the wrong thing first. Erik and I can relate. But he was never shy to confess his wrongs and vigorously work for what was right. He is probably best remembered for something that illustrates that perfectly. He said after the 2nd World War and with perfect hindsight,

  • “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
  • Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
  • Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
  • Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
  • Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

You’ve probably heard that, but you might not have known that today’s Gospel text was the text that formed his last sermon before being arrested and sent, first to prison and then to a concentration camp for the remainder of the war.

The problem he was facing was that the Nazi government was looking for all of the churches to fall in line with one state-supporting Reichskirche. Niemöller, though, understood that the Church needed to remain distinct from the world with it’s unique “saltiness.”

We in the Church have a distinct and counter-cultural message… a distinct “saltiness”… a certain flavor which is often different from the flavors of the world.

  • Our saltiness says that the poor and the meek and the reviled have God’s blessing, as Jesus told us last week. That’s often not popular in our world, where wealth and power and success are more fashionable flavors.
  • Our saltiness says every human being has worth and dignity; the world seduces us into imagining there are winners and losers.
  • Our saltiness, Isaiah reminds us this week, is to loose the bonds of injustice and bring the homeless poor into our homes.

So even as some of this generation’s most skilled merchants of fear, cook up conspiracies and brew lies that exclude, demonize and persecute, and the world around us simmers and boils in a perpetual stew of fear, we in the Church are called to something of a distinctly different, more Spirit-filled, more salty flavor.

We are called to stay salty so that when we see someone preparing a dish in our neighborhood that

  • gives bread to the hungry,
  • welcomes the stranger
  • or houses the lowly,

we can throw in our saltiness there and enhance that dish. That’s what salt does. It enhances flavors, and you and I are called to be salt. We’re called to lift up, bring out and enhance the bits of the world that bring people together, that supports, and enlivens and enriches.

We can do that because, as Paul explains to the Corinthians, God’s Spirit is real and flowing through us. This wondrous mystery is for Paul a humbling thing – not something to brag about. Paul never said “I have the light and you are in darkness; I have the salt, and your savor is null.” No, the Spirit for him was something wondrous, mysterious, beyond his knowing and yet palpably real; it humbled and left him in holy awe and trembling. And he describes in this passage so beautifully the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is:

  • that part of the divine movement and energy that appears when words fail
  • that soothes when answers are hidden
  • that accomplishes when our best laid plans, gang aft a-gley (go awry).
  • The Spirit is sometimes our last resort, but it is often God’s first choice of presence in our lives.

Filled with the Spirit, Paul says, we discover we are acting and thinking and living like people who sense that God’s Kingdom is at hand.

  • With the Spirit of God shining through us, we shine like light for others – not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way – but in a way that comes from God.
  • And we become salty as well – not in a way that overpowers or offends but in a way that is distinctive and delights.

***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***             ***

The world around us is brewing this horrible stew of cowardice and hate, exclusion and scarcity that has no touchpoint in reality. We are being invited to join that stew, to abandon our salty selves for the cayenne heat of fear:

  • imagining a world of scarcity
  • turning our backs on the stranger
  • dismissing the cries of those in desperate need
  • building barriers to protect ourselves from the sorrow, sufferings, loneliness, and deprivations of others

But attending to God’s Holy Spirit is a continuous process of scaling the empathy wall. When we follow Jesus, when we attend to the presence of the Spirit in our lives, we grow in compassion – a compassion that will take us up and over that wall.

And as our compassion grows, our fear fades.

It turns out that the opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but love. It’s love that casts out fear, that shines a light in the darkness, and that gives our salty selves their savor.

HT to Erik Karas for the front end of this sermon.

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A reflection for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, offered at the Noon Eucharist with Anointing for Healing, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Malachi 3:1-4Psalm 84Hebrews 2:14-18, and Luke 2:22-40.

How do we picture our church?  We have just hired a Web designer to help us with the much-needed revamp of our Website and I have been going around taking pictures of the details of our church to use as images for the site – favorite windows, close-ups of the details of our space, of the things of our worship.

These images are beautiful but I know there is a problem with using just these images – there are no people. A gorgeous church before Christmas but empty, our Easter altar but not our Easter congregation. I took a beautiful picture of our font the other day, but then reflected: egads, no water, no child, no one around! Yikes.

When you picture the church, what do you see? What do we see when we come to church? Do we focus on the saints in wood and glass? Or do we see the saints among us—the difficult person from the Adult Forum class, the visitor who had the temerity to sit in our seat, or the ordinary and extraordinary saints-in-the-making all around us?

When we think of the temple of God, do we dare to see ourselves as God views us:  beautiful and beloved?

On this Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Gospel doesn’t pay much attention to the building. It focuses on the people. Jesus, the flesh and blood baby, now forty days old, is brought for a blessing. His mother Mary comes also to the temple for her blessing. And then, the bulk of the Gospel involves Simeon and Anna.

Simeon waits at the temple. He has received a vision that he will see the Messiah before he dies, and so he waits. And then it happens:  He sees Jesus, he holds him, and then Simeon gives thanks to God for bringing such life and light into the world. Because of this little baby, because of the coming of the Messiah, there will be peace and glory and salvation, salvation for all. Somehow, someday.

Anna, too, is in the temple, night and day, fasting and praying. With her trained spiritual eye she sees Jesus and recognizes him. She too gives thanks to God and tells others that Jesus is the way to salvation.  Someday, somehow.

Simeon and Anna are people whose faith outshines the temple itself. They know to look for God in the flesh, and because of this, they recognize Christ when he comes among them.

Denise Levertov has a lovely poem, called “Candlemas”, about this. Do you know it?

With certitude
Simeon opened
ancient arms
to infant light.
before the cross, the tomb
and the new life,
he knew
new life.
What depth
of faith he drew on,
turning illumined
towards deep night.*

The epistle reading today is from the Letter to the Hebrews. It reminds us “Surely it is not with angels that [Jesus] is concerned, but with the children of Abraham.” Jesus was made human in every respect, so that he might offer all of his humanity to the service of God, clearing the way for us to reach God. The lesson concludes with those beautiful words of hope, “Because [Jesus] himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who [like us] suffer and are tempted.”

In presenting his own body in the temple, Jesus leads us to present our bodies as well. We present all that we are to God, that he might consecrate us and purify us and help us to live more faithfully.

In the Presentation, we are also reminded of that choice that comes for us every time we enter the temple: do we look for God with the angels, or do we look for God in the broken-but-healing lives all around us? As we notice a few more candles around us especially on this day, may the Spirit remind us that here is the source of our light, that even on the darkest of days, Christ comes to us in this place, in sacrament, in prayer and in the outstretched hands of Christian community.

On this Candlemas, may the light of Christ be rekindled in our hearts that we may shine forth with his love in the world.

* Reprinted in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, 11.

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Let’s Go Hang Out with God’s Blessed

A sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them.

Visualize this in your mind’s eye. Jesus saw the crowds and went up the mountain.   He sat down. The disciples came to him. And he began to teach them – the disciples, not necessarily the whole crowd. He taught the disciples.

I imagine him looking at his disciples and then looking at the crowd. Sweeping his arm to the crowd, he said to the disciples:

  • these folks
  • this collection of thoroughly ordinary people: this motley crew
  • these are the ones blessed by God:
    • the ones playing out on the playground
    • the ones swinging their children on a Sunday morning
    • the ones still in their beds because this is their only day off
    • the ones hanging out at Rock City, the Brass Compass, ABC, Home Kitchen, having a cup of coffee and some early morning laughs
    • the ones out there:
      • children, teens, and adults,
      • the sober, the strung out, and the high,
      • the cold, the hardworking, and the unemployed,
      • those who have homes, those whose homes are subsidized, and the homeless, surviving week by week at the Ledges or Seven Mtns, or camping in the woods
    • Disciples, friends, those are the blessed.
    • Those are the ones whose lives have been touched by God, over and over

And it is our job as followers of God, as disciples of Jesus, to learn – and I suspect relearn – how to connect with God’s blessed people: to hear their stories and to learn from them how God is present and active in this world.*

This is the ambitious goal of the Living Local: Joining God, a process we have entered into in the Diocese of Maine and here at St. Peter’s. I want to spend some time today, with Matthew’s powerful set of Beatitudes on our hearts, to outline what this Living Local thing is, name some of the people involved, detail its goals, and begin to indicate how you will likely be affected by this process.

Living Local: Joining God is a two-year process for helping congregations connect with God’s blessed people out there. Every week, in our creed and in our Eucharistic Prayer, we proclaim that God is living, active, and faithful in all our lives and in our world. But we act as if God is mostly found here. Well, God is here, you’re not wrong about that, but the idea that God needs the church, and without it, all hell will break loose, is misguided.

At a recent Living Local gathering, Bishop Lane talked about how for his whole adult life, working and ministering in the church he loves, he has watched the church shrink and shrink and shrink. For the past 40 years, church people have sought to be welcoming, to open their doors, and watched as fewer and fewer folks came through the door or even as their own members grew dissatisfied and walked away. For 40 years, he said, we worked to get people in and have failed. Failed and felt bad about it. But when we think about our mission, it’s useful to remember that it’s not the church that has a mission, it is God.

And the mission of God is not to have a church, but to reconcile all people to Godself. And increasingly, it seems, God is doing that without churches or even in spite of churches. We’ve all seen the trends. The largest religious category in America is the nones (folks with no religious affiliation) and the second largest is the dones (folks tired of church).

Will the church survive? If God wants it to. Living Local is not an effort – secretly – to save the church. This is not an effort to preserve the authority of the diocese. This is an attempt to learn, I think in ways we have forgotten how to do, how to connect with God’s people around us.

Living Local teaches participants to seek and observe, find out what God is up to, and to join in. That’s what this is about. And because we’re not good at that, we’ve gotten some help. St. Peter’s is joining with 12 other Episcopal churches in Maine and with parishes in three other diocese (CT, SW VA and East TN) to begin a 2-year process of learning how to listen and connect with the people who are NOT here on Sunday, those blessed of God that Jesus talks about in our Gospel for today.

Our process is guided by outside consultants and by local coaches and is fundamentally lay led. This is not about what Jane or I will do but what lay people at St. Peter’s will do. Now, there is a core group called a “Guiding Team”.  The Guiding Team will be aided by coaches and consultants from The Missional Network.  And they will be inviting some of you to help them in specific, short-term parts of this process. They will share with all of us what they are learning.

So, what we’re about in this process is that in our local place, in Rockland, we are learning again what it means to be God’s people and reconnecting with the others of God’s people who aren’t Episcopalian, and seeing if, together, we can build relationships and we can build up the Kingdom of God in our place.

I am really excited about this. One of our great gifts is our ability to connect people. We disciples of Jesus are all about reaching out and making connections. And these processes will help us get better at that. Done with humility and an openness to learning, we cannot fail. No matter what we do or who we listen to or what we try, we can only learn. And as we do so we will discover together what God is up to.

  • We’re gonna meet people we’ve never met before,
  • have conversations we can’t now imagine,
  • discover God at work in ways we never knew about

This is gonna be so fun.   May God welcome our efforts to learn and get to know those who are blessed of God out there and to begin to learn anew to share in those blessings.

*The content of this sermon was cribbed from notes delivered by Bishop Lane at the Living Local Training Session, January 21, 2017, at Christ Church in Gardiner, Maine.  You can see a video of that address here:


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Calling All Disciples

I have a sense of the light calling the viewer as it changes through the space of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, 2013. This is not my video but it captures what I remember of the installation.  For a fascinating discussion from James Turrell himself on the physicality of light, see the Guggenheim’s own video for this installation HERE.

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 5-131 Corinthians 1:10-18, and  Matthew 4:12-23.

Every January, no matter the lectionary year (A, B, or C), our Gospel readings tell the story of Jesus calling the disciples. It means that issues of noticing, attending, and following, questions about our own vocations as followers of Jesus, even if we don’t commonly call ourselves disciples, dominate the readings and, as far as I can tell, that is why Annual Parish Meetings happen in January.

  • It has nothing to do with the fiscal year.
  • It definitely has nothing to do with our liturgical calendar,
  • but it’s very convenient, I must say, that on the day we gather as a whole community to reckon where have we been, what are we about, and what lies ahead for us, we do so in the context of Jesus’ call to each one of us as his disciples.

Today’s story of the calling of the disciples is so different, though, from last week’s, isn’t it? Today’s is stark. Jesus comes by, sees perfectly ordinary fishermen going about their work, suggests they go with him and fish for people. And immediately they go. It’s all so spare! What? Out of the blue like that, we wonder?

Much more believable was last week…. Andrew and a friend have been hanging with John the Baptizer, listening to him preach, studying with him, perhaps being baptized by him along with this fellow Jesus. And John, whose spiritual senses are keen, who understands real holiness when he sees it, gives Andrew a nudge and says, pointing to Jesus: that’s the one, follow him. And so we got that lovely awkward moment when Andrew and his friend are literally following Jesus and Jesus turns and asks, “what do you want?” Shuffle, cough, shuffle, “Uh, where you going?” “come and see” exchange.

It means we have to think a bit about what could make you drop your nets, what could make you just up and leave your Dad with all the mess and follow Jesus. And do it immediately. So, let’s look at this a bit.

One key aspect of discipleship is being aware and attentive. Certainly, in our lives, being a disciple is in large measure about developing the skills to help you not miss God. (The following is largely cribbed from Rowan Williams, Being Disciples.)

  • God is quiet, God whispers, speaks in silence, in gentle nudges and impulses which are so easy to ignore, to not see because of the sheer busyness of life, and because we’re too wrapped up in ourselves.
  • what’s needed then is an attitude of awareness, and more than awareness – of an awareness inseparable from a sort of expectancy.
    • disciples are always expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher
    • something about to burst through the ordinary and to reveal a new light on the landscape.
    • disciples are like birdwatchers. Are any of you experienced birders? Perhaps you know some:
      • they are sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy
      • knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.
    • I’ve always been partial to the image of prayer as birdwatching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view.
      • often it means a long day sitting in the rain without very much happening
      • but then you see what T. S. Eliot called “the kingfisher’s wing” flashing “light to light” and it’s all worthwhile.
    • Living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind both relaxed and attentive enough to see that when it happens is basic to discipleship.

And I think to make some serious sense of our Gospel today, you have to imagine that Peter and Andrew, James and John were simple fishermen, but they were not spiritually simple. They were ready. If you have that expectant kind of awareness, you can and do respond immediately.

Secondly, disciples are people who follow. It means we are willing to travel to where the Master is, to follow where the Master goes. And in the Gospels where the Master goes is very frequently not where we would have thought of going or would have wanted to go.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps.

  • Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched,
  • the self-hating, the poor, the diseased.
  • So, that is where you are going to find yourself.
  • Sometimes, we don’t need to go far to find such people; sometimes we need only look in the mirror. But the point is that our discipleship is not about choosing our company but choosing the company of Jesus.

Another deeper consequence of being with Jesus is that, like him, when we are near to him, we too get to rest on the breast of the Father’s heart – as it’s so beautifully put in the Prologue to John’s Gospel. Following closely to Jesus means we, too, are with God: where he is, we are to be also.

The point is: we are to be where he is

  • not only in terms of mission and outreach and service in the world, in serving and accompanying the outcast;
  • we are also to be where he is in his closeness to God.
  • We don’t just follow to the ends of the earth but to follow to be next to the heart of God.
  • The heart of discipleship in this way is bound up with the life of the Trinity.

When I think of Peter and Andrew, James and John I imagine here were four men able and ready to be attentive and expectant, centered and ready to catch the light off the kingfisher’s wing. And men who were so filled with longing that they prioritized being close to the holy.

  • maybe they knew it already because they worked outside and knew nature’s rhythms
  • maybe they’d been studying and were restless
  • maybe they’d known John but now John was arrested and languishing in Herod’s prison and they’d gone back to fishing. But were aching for the news of the Inbreaking Kingdom

So that when Jesus called, there were no questions. They were more than ready – not because they knew what was in store, but because they longed to be his disciples, his followers, to be bound up with God the Father in an intimate and meaningful way that they’d only seen hints of on their own. So that when Jesus called, they ran, ran with all their might to the one whose priorities and purpose filled their hearts and filled all their other relationships with even deeper meaning.

May you know such eager discipleship, too.

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What Are You Looking For?

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-121 Corinthians 1:1-9, and John 1:29-42.

Do you recall the moments when another person invited you into their life and into a relationship you have treasured ever since? Think of the day you met the person who would become your husband or wife. Do you remember it? Or what about your best friend who has been a friend for life. Or a valued colleague. Do you recall the day you met? How some details may be hazy but others are remarkably clear, with amazing detail.

You remember perhaps what you were wearing or the quality of the light or a phrase that was said. The significant thing is that you value the relationship, whatever sort of relationship it is, beyond words. And when that happens, you remember such interesting details.

Today, we see that moment happen for two of the disciples when they enter into a relationship with Jesus that would change their lives forever. They are with John the Baptizer as his movement is winding down. They and he may very well be discussing , probably sadly, the decline of this great movement, wondering why it is declining and asking where is God in this. As they are talking Jesus passes by. It is a measure of John’s greatness that he points them to Jesus, unselfishly and courageously.

Whether they follow his suggestion immediately, we don’t know, but at some stage they take their leave of John and set out after Jesus, probably a little wary because they don’t know him, perhaps even a little embarrassed, wondering how all this is going to go. Suddenly Jesus turns around, looks at them, and asks a simple disarming question: “What are you looking for?”

I like to think they were thrown by the question.

  • It’s not an easy question to answer.
  • Try it yourself: “What am I really looking for in life?”
  • It is a deep question, defying any casual off-hand answer.

We can’t help but smile at their response: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask, wriggling out of an embarrassing moment.

  • When we don’t know what to say, we blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, and often regret it..
  • Yet Jesus says nothing that would further embarrass them.
  • Instead, he takes them at their word and issues a warm and easy invitation: Come and see.

It is a wonderful moment,

  • a moment of ease, graciousness, sensitivity,
  • a moment of natural hospitality.
  • In the deepest sense they are being welcomed in.

A tribute to the richness of the welcome is that they “stay all day”. An even greater tribute to the relationship that subsequently developed is that years later one of them remembers, “it was about four o’clock in the afternoon.” This is exactly how it is when we recall an unforgettable experience in our lives, particular nuances are etched sharply in our memory.

So we have shared a moment in Jesus’ life when he first changed the lives of two people for ever.

But there is more in the story for us. It lies in the awkward question that Jesus asks: “What are you looking for?” How do we respond?

  • Is success as it’s generally understood enough for us?
  • Are we satisfied with the relationships in our lives?
  • Are we happy with the contributions we’re making to the good of the world?

What are you looking for?

Are you looking for some place, some zone of blessedness, peace, compassion, and health, a place where we experience the world in a way that begins to grasp at the transcendence in this space, a way that points to the One

  • the one we come to know in word and sacrament,
  • music and liturgy,
  • fellowship and service.

That one, our Gospel suggests, is already searching for you,

  • That one calls you into a life in which you can become not only a seeker of God but a seeker of others with God,
  • a life in which you serve as an agent of love and justice, healing and hope in the world.
  • I’m thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., of course, but also of you
  • This search and call are not only about being found and saved.
  • They are about a new life in which, as Jesus did, we offer life and hope to others.

“What are you looking for?” If it’s Jesus himself doing the asking, our reply might be to way, well, I’m not really sure, maybe I need more time to consider…. And I wonder if we mightn’t hear him say, “Come and see.”

  • Come and see,
  • act on what you wonder.

God’s truth is not ultimately a riddle to be solved; it is a life to be lived, a thing done.

I think it was Samuel Johnson who said that the business of life is drawing adequate conclusions from inadequate information. That is why the ‘come and see’ method is so essential. We discover great truth by acting on the little truths we already know.

So, come and see.

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