Disorienting Dilemmas

A sermon preached on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME. Lections: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48.

I meet on occasion with folks in youth ministry around the diocese and we’ve been reading about the experiences of young people who make mission trips and pilgrimages, who spend some time away from home and come back seeing their own world with new eyes. Almost all of them recount a process of going through a disorienting dilemma.

Disorienting dilemmas are events, natural or constructed, that pull the rug out from under us far enough to make our existing cultural toolkits inoperable. They can be as ordinary as

  • adjusting to a Mac after years of owning a pc
  • or as profound as traversing a ropes course,
  • adopting a child,
  • changing jobs
  • or going to therapy

Now, not every disorienting dilemma is positive:

  • a parent’s death or divorce
  • a friend’s drug use or suicide attempt

disorient us as well.  Yet disorienting dilemmas go hand-in-hand w/ spiritual transformation

  • a burning bush
  • an angel in the living room
  • Saul’s 3 days of dark

All of these disorienting dilemmas shifted the recipient’s attention away from themselves and riveted their attention on God.

And when I think about the Sermon on the Mount and especially today’s Gospel, with its mind-blowing, radical 3 word core: love your enemies, I think this is the kind of thing that gets written only AFTER someone has experienced a disorienting dilemma. Love your enemies is an ethical command but it is more than that, I think. It’s an invitation

  • an invitation to a deeper truth
  • an invitation into a disorienting dilemma
  • an invitation to make our own spiritual journey

Let me tell you about Gabrielle. After graduating from high school, in that summer between high school and college, Gabrielle went on a youth group trip for 5 days to Mexico.

During the trip, in one of the many discussions about the young ruler who must give up his possessions to follow Jesus, the youth group leader issued a challenge: give away your most prized possession – not necessarily the most expensive but the one with the most sentimental value and do it by the end of the summer:

  • there were sharp inhalations and an outbreak of mutterings
  • and, as G tells it, people began racking their brains
    •  some knew they couldn’t do it (wedding ring, something to pass down to daughter
    • but G wanted to accept the challenge but didn’t know what her most precious possession was

The story and her trip launched a disorienting dilemma for G, unmasking her identity as a consumer and achiever.

“One of the saddest things I saw all day was an old woman sitting on a blanket. She was trying to sell these unappetizing little pellets of gum, gross little turds of chicle, and I felt so bad for her that I was going to stop and pull out some money for her. But my group didn’t stop and neither did I. How much would I have given her? Would I have given her my lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter? Probably, because I wasn’t too hungry that day. But would I have given away my dinner at the campsite? Would I have given up my sunshower had she needed it, and as a result been filthy overnight? I don’t know.”

The trip in the end changed G’s attitudes towards material possessions:

“It didn’t so much make me hate opulence as it made me realize how I don’t need material goods to be happy. It’s funny, that’s what [yg leader] has been trying to tell us with his Bible passage about the young ruler all week…. But it took this trip to make it real. I don’t feel repulsed by what I have. I feel sickened by how little it does and how long it took me to share.”

There is something here that speaks of what our Gospel command must mean. Love your enemies, says Jesus. Love your enemies. Not just your kin, tribe, clan. Not just your neighbors. Yr enemies.

Why?

  • Jesus does not promise that love will turn your enemies into friends
  • Jesus does not pretend that turning the other cheek will save the wicked
  • Jesus does not say love is required because it’s the thing that will make the world right.

Instead, Jesus is calling for a love that does not depend on some THING,  some particular outcome, any particular goal. “Love your enemy” seems to call for us to do good to the enemy, despite the circumstances, and without regard for any particular result.

Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go the extra mile, lend, love the enemy. Why? Because this is how God loves. Full stop. This is how God loves.

Gabrielle’s journal makes few references to Jesus and offers little in the way of doctrinal awareness. In the end, she is won by the trip, by Mexico

She insists, without really understanding why, that it was the trip, the experience, the doing of the trip, that made all the difference for her. And that “just do it, Nike-like” response feels very much like gospel truth: pick up your mat and walk, love your enemies: pray for them, do good to them, salute them.

It’s action, not emotion, that Jesus calls for. And the action of her trip meant that she was put in situations that disoriented and opened up new possibilities for her.

The second important element is her own reflection – but that, too, was a thing done. Her journal. And, at the end of the summer, she knew what possession she’d need to give up:

  • not her phone
  • not her class ring
  • not her photos

She gave up her journal

  • her record of her own disorienting dilemma
  • an account of her own transformation

Doesn’t this sound like what St. Matthew will have done? I can see Matthew working at his papyri:

  • I have been transformed by Jesus in ways I can barely articulate,
  • but will recount for others to experience in this shocking account
  • This was key to my spiritual journey, says St. Matthew, my disorienting dilemma,
  • that it could be possible, one step at a time, to be confronted by a love so outrageous it included his enemies

If you want to follow Jesus, be prepared for your own disorienting dilemma. It’s okay. Let yourself be transformed.

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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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Candlemas

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.
Decades
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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