Thursday, March 28, 2013

Cheers to Jeers

Sermon preached March 24, 2013

Texts: Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23:1-5

The Windmills of Your Mind

Play part of Dusty Springfield, “The Windmills of Your Mind"

Today’s sermon is going to be a lot about questions, so here are a few. Who sang that song? The original version was used in a 1968 movie, do you know what it was? The Thomas Crown Affair. Who starred in that movie? Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Who starred in the 1999 remake of the film? Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. Who ever thought it would be this hard just to come to church?
The windmills of your mind. A few years ago I took the Gallup Strengths Finder Inventory, then a few months later took it again. One strength that did not appear on my first list, but did on my second, is something called “Intellection.” You like to think. You like mental activity. You like stretching the “muscles” of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions…. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound…. This mental hum is one of the constants of your life. I am not sure that I sound like much fun, but there is truth in that description. The windmills of my mind are always turning, and I pay attention.
It is Palm Sunday, the beginning of holy week – the remembrance in the church of the last week of the life of Jesus. It is also “Passion Sunday.” We not only get a view of the beginning of the week, but some hints of what will happen later in the week. We read from both the Palm and Passion stories, though as one of my colleagues noted, there are no palms in Luke.
At the beginning of the week, as Jesus enters Jerusalem a whole multitude praises God joyfully with loud voices. They are thanking God for all they have experienced through this Jesus. The words they use are quite extraordinary. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some in the crowd are worried, worried no doubt that this kind of language seems subversive. There is only one king, and only one who brings peace – the Roman emperor. To proclaim another peace and another king could get this group into trouble.
Toward the end of the week, a crowd, rather than proclaiming Jesus king is accusing him of proclaiming himself a king. He is a trouble maker.
Let’s suppose that some who were shouting for Jesus at the beginning of the week are among those shouting at Jesus at the end of the week. Suppose that some of the same people had gone from cheers to jeers. What was going on in them? What transpired in the windmills of their minds, the recesses of their hearts and souls?
Examen. The Examen is a pathway to God. It is a spiritual discipline of taking time to reflect on the day. It is reflecting on our lives in order to become more aware of life, of our inner lives, and of God’s presence. This spiritual discipline traces its beginnings to St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Richard Foster (Prayer, 27-28): It has two basic aspects, like two sides of a door. The first is an examen of consciousness through which we discover how God has been present to us throughout the day and how we have responded to [God’s] loving presence. The second aspect is an examen of conscience in which we uncover those areas that need cleansing, purifying, and healing.
The story of this week, of how a group of people can go from cheering Jesus on to turning on him and betraying him leads me to ask about the inner life. What went on inside them? What goes on inside me, because there are moments in my life when Jesus shines through and moments when I betray him by how I live. Examen is a tool for plunging into the mystery of our hearts, souls, minds, lives to find those things that need celebrating, to find those things that need correcting, to find those things that need healing, and to see that God remains with us through it all, and is present in more ways than we might expect, if only we would notice. It invites us to take time for self-reflection every day.
Examen has to do with attention. What are we paying attention to? The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote that “we are fed or damaged spiritually by what we attend to.” The psychologist Stephanie Dowrick writes, “what we pay attention to reverberates in our lives” (Forgiveness…, p. 4). Apparently I like to pay attention to what goes on in my own mind, the windmills of my mind. I might naturally be attracted to this practice of Examen. However, paying attention only to the windmills of my own mind is not enough, is not sufficient to be a faithful follower of Jesus. When I am with someone who needs me to listen, I need to be able to turn away from the mental hum. When I am engaged with others in a shared task, or in helping them, like at Ruby’s Pantry, I need to pay attention to others. If what I attend to is primarily what goes on in my mind, I risk missing the beauty of a piece of music, of a sunrise or sunset.
Examen, as a spiritual discipline is all about attention, which feeds or damages, and which reverberates through our lives.
Examen asks us to pay attention to where God may have been particularly present in our lives, to where we may have experienced grace during the day. This is not always easy. I have for a long time appreciated the wisdom in these words written at St. John’s abbey by a man named Patrick Henry. Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God…. I trust God’s grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward. (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 2).
I believe God is present always. Joan Chittister, a Catholic Benedictine nun, quotes the Prophet Muhammed in her book The Breath of the Soul. “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (p. 63). I believe that. I believe that God never leaves us nor forsakes us. What Examen does is asks me to think more deeply about where God’s presence and grace were particularly powerful. It is o.k. to offer tentative reflections – “I think” “maybe.” But failure to consider the day’s wonders leaves me spiritually drier than I need to be. In another book, this one entitled Happiness, Joan Chittister writes: To protect ourselves from becoming constantly negative about the little irritations of life until they become burdens rather than simply passing aggravations, it’s important to remind ourselves of the little gifts of our lives that live on in us yet, that punctuate our every day, and, far too often, that go totally unnoticed. (123) To take time, every day, to think about where I have experienced God, grace, the good gifts of life, is an important part of examining where my attention is going.
So part of Examen is looking to see where God and grace and gifts have been in our day. The other part is to look and see what I have been up to. Henri Nouwen: the prayer of the heart is the prayer of truth. It unmasks the many illusions about ourselves and about God (61,79).
Where, during the day, have I responded well to God’s Spirit? Where have I genuinely listened well to others, appreciated others and the world? Looking in isn’t just about seeing where we have fallen short, it is also celebrating where we have done well.
There are other questions too. Where have I been uncomfortable today, where have I felt challenged? If I have been uncomfortable when reading or listening, why? Is there an uncomfortable truth here I need to grapple with, or am I hearing something that I need to offer an alternative perspective on. I am uncomfortable when I hear racist language and my discomfort stems from my belief that this is wrong, contrary to God’s intention for the human community. I may also be uncomfortable when someone asks me to explore some of my own experiences with race. This discomfort might be the grace of God working to help me grow.
Finally, the inward Examen asks us to explore the questions about where we feel we have let ourselves down, or let others down, or let God down. Another writer I have long-appreciated is Reinhold Niebuhr. In an essay he wrote on Christian ministry Niebuhr penned these words: To confront other people without being confronted oneself leads to insufferable pretensions of righteousness (Justice and Mercy, 132). We need to confront ourselves, our failings and shortcomings. I need to confront myself, my failing and shortcomings.
This inward look at our souls, this paying attention to our inner lives is not an end in itself. We are not intended to wallow in guilt when we discover our failings. We are not meant to gloat when we celebrate where things have gone well. We are invited to turn our attention again to God, the God who rejoices with us in our triumphs, the God whose grace strengthens our resolve to do good and do better, the God who forgives again and again and offers new beginnings.
Another gift given to the Christian tradition by Reinhold Niebuhr was this prayer: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other (Justice and Mercy). It is a wonderful prayer for the discipline of Examen. After looking at my life, with its ups and downs, celebrations and remorseful moments, I want to turn attention to God. Give me grace again, O God. The things I have done today cannot be changed, so grant a measure of serenity and peace. Tomorrow is another day, give me courage to do good and make needed change. Always, God, by your grace, wisdom.
You see the point of Examen, of taking time for spiritual self-reflection is not to pay more attention to the windmills of your mind, but to get to places where we cheer God’s Jesus work in the world. Not only cheer, but where we loyally join Jesus on the journey toward God’s dream for the world. May it be so, by the grace of God. Amen.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Let's Get Physical

Sermon preached March 17, 2013

Texts: John 12:1-8

Olivia Newton John "Physical"

Physical. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (I Corinthians 6:15, 19)
If you watch the Olivia Newton John video of her song, you will see some very different looking “temples.” In the beginning are some well-shaped abs and muscular legs. In short order, there are also shall we say, roomier looking temples. I like to think my temple has a comfortable lived-in look to it!
Let’s get physical. Our physical, bodily existence matters. Paying attention to our bodies and caring for our physical existence is another pathway to God.
The verses we read from I Corinthians are classic verses for arguing that our bodies matter. I also think the gospel reading for this morning, in a more indirect way, reminds us of the importance of our physical existence. There we have a dinner scene. When we think of people gathering for a meal, what do we often think of but the smells of food. During the meal Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. To the smell of the food, we add the smell of perfume filling the whole house. To the sense of smell, add touch – Mary’s hands massaging Jesus’ feet, her hair brushing them.
Christianity has always been a faith of the body. From its origins in the Eastern practices of the Hebrew faith to the life of Jesus to the great variety of expressions of Christian spirituality around the world today, it’s impossible to deny the freeing truth that Christianity is to be lived in the body. (Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill, Body Prayer, 1) The passage from John, filled with sensuous imagery, reminds us of that. If we are honest, though, we must admit that Christians have not always done well by the body. We have too often separated the soul from the body, the spirit from the physical. They are intertwined, and paying attention to our bodies is a pathway to God.
What might this mean for us?
I think one thing it means is that we engage in practices that contribute to our physical health. United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes in his book Momentum for Life, “it is tempting for us to disassociate the selection of foods or the decision to exercise from our commitments to God, but our bodies are no longer our own” (145). To Mike’s statement, I would add words from Desiderata – “beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” We are invited, as another way to connect more deeply with God to exercise and eat well. My own efforts in this area are more sporadic than I would like them to be. When my days get busy or long, exercise is the thing I often cut from them, and while I have grown some over time, there is still room for improvement here for me.
Another thing that paying attention to our bodies as a spiritual discipline can mean for us is managing our diseases and ailments. No matter how well we exercise or eat, there will be times when we get sick. And for some of us, part of our bodily life that just is involves dealing with a chronic disease.
I was twenty-one when I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. What doctors have come to discover is that this condition is caused by my immune system attacking the inner lining of my colon. When it is acting up, it is not a lot of fun to deal with. Chronic ulcerative colitis increases one chances for colon cancer, and the kind of colon cancer typically associated with ulcerative colitis is a faster grown variety. So I get my colon checked every year – a guaranteed annual day of fasting as one of my spiritual disciplines.
I wish I did not have this condition. For a long time, there was a certain level of denial on my part about it. Over the years I have come to integrate this condition into my self-understanding, and into my spiritual life. It has helped me to know, more deeply, the truth of Joan Chittister’s words – We are not pure spirit, sharp mind, angelic creatures. We are a soul wrapped round by a body that, like everything else, will someday go back to the earth, with which, however much we would like to deny it, we are one. (Becoming Fully Human, 45)
We are souls wrapped around by bodies that are related to the earth, to which they will return. This basic truth is grounded in a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. “The linguistic unity in the Hebrew Bible of body, soul, feeling desire, and life is well-known” (Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices, 42). Soul, body, feeling, desire, spirit, life are all wrapped up together. Paying attention to our physical existence is paying attention to part of us that connects to God. Another element of attentiveness to our physical life as a pathway to God is to manage our desires, and the desire I want to touch on this morning is sexual desire.
Here is where the church has often been particularly unhelpful when considering our physical existence. One could get the impression from the history of Christianity that sexuality is tainted, dirty, bad. That is an awful misunderstanding of Christian faith. We affirm our physical existence as good. We affirm sexuality as a good gift. Soul, body, feeling, desire, spirit, life are wrapped up together. Yet good things can be used badly. Sharon Salzberg: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Lovingkindness, 175-176) Our bodies are good, and wholesome discipline is good for them, for us. Sexual desire is good, and wholesome discipline is good for that part of our lives, too.
Paying attention to our physical existence is a pathway to God when we engage in wholesome disciplines with regard to exercise and eating, to managing our diseases, to our sexuality. We are souls, bodies, feelings, desires, spirits all wrapped up together, and that bodily part of who we are will return to the earth one day. Taking account of that is also a pathway to God. On Ash Wednesday, I noted a spiritual discipline of the Dalai Lama. Every morning at 4 a.m. the Dalai Lama rises. He begins the day by offering a gesture of deferential respect (obeisance) to the Buddha. He then sits down on his meditation cushion to contemplate his death. “Knowing that death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, he prepares for death daily” (Donald Lopez, Jr. The Story of Buddhism, 1). Coming to terms with our own mortality poses deep questions for our lives. I don’t have forever, to what do I want to contribute with my life? Do I genuinely trust that God takes all my best efforts for peace, justice, reconciliation and love and builds on them?
Being bodily creatures and taking account of that as a pathway to God has a couple of broader social implications, too. We are having some conversations these days about health care. A Christian spirituality of the body does not answer particular questions about things like President Obama’s health care plan or whether states should establish health insurance exchanges. If our bodies matter, if physical existence is important for the spirit, might societies have some responsibility to construct systems that provide some basic support for the physical well-being of all? We need to ask questions about health care justice and the conversations need to be deeper and richer than the ones often had by our elected officials.
And if our bodies matter, if physical existence is important for the spirit, shouldn’t we be paying attention to the wider physical context for our bodily existence, the well-being of the planet itself? Joan Chittister: When we learn to live in harmony with nature and not at war with it, we become more human in the process (Becoming Fully Human, 48)
Christianity is a faith of the body, a faith the sees physical existence not as antithetical to the spirit, but part of the spirit. Our faith is meant to be lived sensually, lived employing all our senses, lived with our body. Henri Nouwen: In Jesus, God took on human flesh. The Spirit of God overshadowed Mary, in her all enmity between spirit and body was overcome. Thus God’s Spirit was united with the human spirit, and the human body became the temple destined to be lifted us into the intimacy of God through the Resurrection. (The Inner Voice of Love, 19) Our bodies are pathways to intimacy with God.
And there is one final way we can use our bodies as a pathway to God – body prayer.

David A. Bard

1. Create a sacred space by bringing your hands together in front of you. Be enveloped in silence and peace.
2. Stretch your arms up in praise of God and in gratitude to God for the good gifts of life.
3. Bring your arms down just a bit, forming yourself into a human chalice to receive from God blessings and peace and grace.
4. Cross your arms in front of you, letting God’s grace and peace and love penetrate deeply into your heart and mind and soul. Know that you are loved by God just because you are.
5. Open you arms in service to the world. We are not meant to hoard the good gifts of life, but to share them, to give ourselves to others in love.
6. End with the sacred space stance.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The F Bomb

Sermon preached March 10, 2013

Texts: Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

Hang on. This morning we are going to be discussing one of the most controversial topics, one of the most difficult issues, I ever preach on. Don’t tell me that we are going to use the story of the prodigal and the father to talk politics? Will it be about sex or sexual orientation or sexual ethics? Am I going to preach about money? Given the rather edgy sermon title, you may wonder if I am going to address foul language. You are right, there is an f-word involved.
Forgiveness. There, I just dropped this morning’s f-bomb.
I’m sorry. I forgive you. Difficult words. Challenging realities – challenging but important. A couple of weeks ago when I preached about prayer as a pathway to God and mentioned Anne Lamott’s new book where she says that she has found three essential prayers – help, thanks and wow – someone came to me following worship and said they would add a fourth – “I’m sorry.” I think she was right.
Why should forgiveness be as difficult to discuss as sex or politics or money? It begins with our recognition of the importance of forgiveness. We know this is important. Forgiveness calls to us, addresses us in the depth of our souls. Forgiveness whispers to us in the quiet places of our hearts. We recognize that forgiveness is important, that it matters, and we sense that it is a good thing. At the same time, we know, just as deeply that forgiveness can be incredibly difficult.
We hear the call of forgiveness in our lives. We understand it to be a good thing. We also know it to be incredibly difficult. And sometimes the very Scriptures we look to to hear something of the voice of God in our lives tell us things such as: If anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:13) Wow. Forgiveness – just do it. Not much complexity there. It sounds so simple that such words can make us feel guilty when we experience forgiveness as anything but simple. Forgiveness becomes a delicate subject.
If those verses from Colossians can make us squirm uneasily, the lovely story we read this morning might also complicate forgiveness for us. What a great guy that father was, running toward his prodigal son, throwing his arms around him, kissing him. He seems to have forgotten those long days of worry. You wonder if there ever was anger toward a son who had taken his wealth and squandered it in dissolute living. I love that phrase – leaves much to the imagination. But what a wonderful father. Oh to be able to forgive as freely and generously and joyfully as that. It doesn’t seem that simple or easy. Is there something wrong with me? I’m not sure I want to hear any more about forgiveness because I struggle with it.
The story about the prodigal and the father is a story about forgiveness, but there is more to the story, a richer reading, that I think recognizes some of the complexities of human relationships and forgiveness. It is helpful and useful to look at each primary character in turn.
Yes, the father represents pure, unbounded love, to use a phrase from one of our hymns. There is an image of God here. Let me suggest this, that this father who represents unbounded love, joyous and generous forgiveness is always, in a very real sense, running out ahead of us. If this father is forgiveness itself, my response to the story is that this is someone to grow into. Forgiveness is a horizon beckoning us forward. If forgiveness is more like a horizon calling to us from out ahead, it is less like a commandment that is simply to be obeyed in one single fell swoop. Forgiveness is more an invitation than an ought. This figure of the father, pure, unbounded love, forgiveness itself, is always running out ahead of us. The journey of forgiveness is the journey of following this loving way, growing into it.
There is the son who outside the bounds of the social conventions of his day asks for his inheritance early and then goes off and wastes it all on dissolute living. We might think of his theme song as the Grateful Dead’s “Hell in a Bucket” – “ I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.” Things don’t work out. He ends up envying the pig slop. By this time the ride has gotten old – been down so long it looks like up to me. Then he comes to himself and realizes that he might have a father who still loves him, and might forgive him.
This is a story about forgiveness, and we shouldn’t forget that one of its primary purposes has been to remind us how often we are like this son. We are good at squandering. We waste opportunities to appreciate the beauty of the world. We take for granted the people closest to us. We use our gifts only for our own benefit rather than also sharing our energy, our time, our talents for the good of others. We fail to develop our gifts and abilities. We fail to see our own shortcomings and it takes us some time to come to ourselves. One important aspect of the Christian message of forgiveness is that we are all in need of it. I appreciate Reinhold Niebuhr’s insightful writing. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. (The Irony of American History). Part of the important work of forgiveness is the continuing recognition of our need for forgiveness, and of our need to forgive ourselves. That, too, is a complex journey. Maybe part of this son’s coming to himself is his journey toward self-forgiveness. Within our own hearts and souls we need to allow pure unbounded love embrace our inner prodigal.
There is another son in the story, too. He gets much less attention, but we are like him, too, and he speaks to us about the difficulty and complexity of forgiveness. This elder son is not so excited about the return of his brother. The music and dancing and feasting which are a sign of forgiveness only make him angry, hurt and stubborn. He is not ready to join in the party. He is not ready to forgive. He has been hurt by his younger brother. It seems that he feels hurt by his father. Is it possible that the father, in this relationship, has not adequately appreciated his faithful son? There is a realism here about how easily we can wound others even without intending to do so.
What is the father’s response? Does he command him to forgive? Does he tell him it is his duty? The father does drop the f-bomb – forgiveness. But it is an invitation. We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. The father understands forgiveness like Jack Kornfield does. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, p. 25) We cannot change what the wayward son has done. Refusing to meet him today only means we miss out on the music and dance of life. And maybe that’s o.k. for a time. Maybe we need to hang back for a bit. Forgiveness isn’t a switch to be flipped; it is a work of art that needs creating.
When we focus on this older son, we see that this story sees forgiveness as a process. The journey of forgiveness can be bumpy. There can be potholes. The hurt doesn’t just go away. Richard Foster: Forgiveness does not mean that we will cease to hurt. The wounds are deep, and we may hurt for a very long time. Just because we continue to experience emotional pain does not mean that we have failed to forgive. (Prayer, 187) We won’t forget. Again, Richard Foster: Forgiveness does not mean that we will forget…. Forgiveness is not pretending that the offense did not really matter. It did matter, and it does matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The offense is real, but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior. (Prayer, 187)
Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. It is a journey to a new place, and it is your journey. We can learn from others, but forgiveness always remains our journey, our process. It is a journey to which God’s Spirit keeps beckoning. It is a call from the horizon out ahead. Perhaps we need to learn to say “I’m forgiving” as much as saying, “You are forgiven.” Forgiveness is an openness to a person who has hurt us, but that openness can look different, and it doesn’t always mean a party with music, and dancing and feasting. It may simply mean not letting that past hurt define who we are, while maintaining distance from the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness is a journey, a running after the God of pure, unbounded love, who is always both with us and out on the horizon. Forgiveness is a journey, a journey where we draw closer to God. Forgiveness is a pathway to God. It is a journey where we become more god-like. It can be a struggle. It is worth the struggle. Amen.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Keeping Going

Sermon preached March 3, 2013

Text: Luke 13:1-9

How many of you watched the Oscars, the Academy Awards this past Sunday? That is something I typically enjoy watching, and something that our family has often enjoyed watching together. Last Sunday, Sarah and Beth got together in the Twin Cities to watch. I was in the Twin Cities as well, changing planes. My flight was supposed to leave Minneapolis for Nashville about the time the Oscars started and if everything went well, I might be in my hotel for the final awards.
Everything did not go well. We got on the plane just fine, and at the right time. Then we sat, and sat, and sat. Apparently the first officer, the co-pilot, had not arrived. He was supposed to have been there by now, but there was a full airport search going on. We waited, and waited some more. They never did find the first co-pilot, but eventually located a substitute. The plane took off two hours late, and with the two hour flight to Nashville, I missed the entire broadcast.
I have had the chance to catch some highlights. I watched Ben Affleck’s acceptance speech for Best Picture – “Argo” and could not help but notice a very dapper looking Abe Diaz handing out Oscar statues. In his speech, Ben Affleck spoke about how he had been there fifteen years ago, and about learning a lot in that time. You have to work harder than you think you possibly can. He went on to say: It doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is that you gotta get up.
Now I do wonder how far is it you get knocked down when you are still making movies with Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones and when you get married to Jennifer Garner? Nevertheless, I think Ben Affleck is right. What matters is getting up.
Listening to that speech, I could not help but think of something else I once heard someone say. The speaker is not nearly as well-known as Ben Affleck, though he is a Noble Prize winner for literature. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney gave a poetry reading at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1996, a year after winning the Noble Prize. I heard it on MPR and recorded it on tape. During his Guthrie presentation, Heaney read a poem of his entitled “Keeping Going” from his book The Spirit Level. The poem shared scenes from Heaney’s life, and from his brother’s – his brother who continues to farm near where they grew up – Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland. “My dear brother, you have good stamina.” Heaney admires his brother for “keeping going.” When he finished to poem Heaney told the Guthrie audience: Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s about – getting started, keeping going, getting started again.
The parable Jesus tells in Luke is a parable about getting up, getting started and keeping going. It is the story of a man with a vineyard and a fig tree in it. The fig tree was not bearing fruit. He speaks to his gardener. “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” The gardener responds. “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."
The gardener is patient and persistent. Perhaps not enough has yet been done with this fig tree to see if it is genuinely capable of bearing fruit. Perhaps it is a late bloomer and needs a little digging, and a little manure. This is a hopeful story that addresses our lives where we are. If we are feeling a little down, a little discouraged about the trajectory of our lives, maybe we need to see how we can turn the soil over a little. Perhaps there is some spiritual nurture that we have yet to feed on. If we are feeling stuck in our relationship with God, in neutral in our following of Jesus, maybe we just have not been at our particular spiritual practice long enough yet. Maybe we need to get started, keep going, and get started again. Persistence can be a pathway to God.
If the parable has this hopeful word for our lives, what about the rather cryptic and ominous first part of the passage. Two tragedies are presented to Jesus, one an act of political violence perpetrated by the ruling empire, and one a tragic accident – a building collapse. Jesus responds curtly and harshly. “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Is Jesus inviting awful deaths for his unsuspecting listeners? I don’t think so.
If a pathway to God is our persistence in the way of Jesus, our patience with spiritual practices, our perseverance in doing justice, acting with kindness and love, then we lose our way if we get diverted. And there are a number of diversions.
We can lose our focus, lose our steam, forget about keeping going by paying too much attention to all that jostles for our attention in the world around us. I want to be careful here, because I believe we have work to do in the world around us. The world needs people committed to God’s dream for the world, a dream of justice, beauty, righteousness, peace and compassion. We need to know something about our world to do something good in it. Yet news can also function as a diversion. “Look, Jesus. Look at all the awful things that are happening in the world. Let’s talk about that.” Instead Jesus asks his listeners to also pay attention to their own hearts and lives. The journey with Jesus is always both an inner and an outer journey, and too much focus on either and we lose our way as we seek to keep going.
We can lose our focus, lose our way as we seek to keep going by spending too much time comparing ourselves with others. You know what, it is always easy to find someone who is not doing as well as you. That message of repentance, that message that we need to look at our lives and see where we might be wasting the soil, that message must be meant for people who are really doing awful stuff. Right? “Look, Jesus. See what happened to those Galileans. They must have been pretty bad people for something like that to happen to them. What about those people killed by the falling tower? They must have been pretty awful for that to happen.” Again, Jesus turns his listeners inward. “Why do you suppose they were so awful? Bad things happen to good people. What are you doing with your life?’ We are the ones who need to keep going, and not grow apathetic.
We lose our focus, lose our way in keeping going, when we get too much into our heads. I love theology. I love discussing, debating, thinking about, writing about tough theological conundrums. Why do bad things happen to good people? Who is God in such a world? Where is God in such a world? The questions are good ones and they matter. But if I am not at the same time I am asking such questions also asking questions about my own life, my heart, my soul, whether I am producing peace, justice, beauty, love, then my theology can become little more than a head game.
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – that’s a pathway to God. In the midst of the messiness of life, keep going in your journey with Jesus. To know the benefits of prayer, worship, spiritual reading, self-examination, one needs to keep going. Even when we don’t have it all figured out philosophically or theologically, we need to keep going.
Till the soil of your soul. Turn the soil over from time to time – and the word “repent” is the word for turning. Turn the soil over. Find richer nourishment. Keeping going is a pathway to God. In a phrase I encountered last Lent in one of my disciplines, Joan Chittister writes: “All the way to God is the Way” (The Breath of the Soul, 18). Often our task is to keep going.
One of my favorite passages about keeping going is a passage from a letter the poet Rilke wrote to a younger poet. You will find it on your bulletin insert. Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language…. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four)
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – the spiritual life. We do that knowing that the God of Jesus Christ is like the patient gardener, willing to dig a little deeper with us, willing to find more nourishment for the soil of our souls. That’s God’s grace, and still another pathway to God is simply to remember and give thanks for God’s persistence in our lives. Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Longing God

Sermon preached February 24, 2013

Texts: Luke 13: 31-35

Do you ever wonder what your life looks like from the outside? Many of us, when we get into our forties, perhaps, and certainly by the time we are in our fifties and beyond, have those moments when we are kind of stunned to realize that we are now in our forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties. Sometimes we just say to ourselves, or to others, “I don’t feel fifty.” But how do we really know if we have never been there before? I’ve come to the conclusion that part of feeling fifty plus is that you don’t really feel it.
We experience our lives from the inside, but do we stop to think what our lives look like from the outside? To do so too much is not a good thing. We would be overly self-conscious, always wondering how others are perceiving us. Yet I think it might do us good, at least on occasion, to stop and think what our lives might look like from the outside. I am fifty-three. I don’t really feel fifty-three, though how would I know because I have never been fifty-three before? I am fifty-three. I am not terribly tall. I don’t really think about this all that much. I’ve lost a lot of hair. Surprisingly I don’t think about that much either, though I know it saves me time in the shower in the morning.
So trying to see myself from the outside, I am going to be blunt here. I am short, bald and middle-aged. There are times when this outside perspective could be helpful. If I notice a younger woman, and the age for younger women keeps moving up, if I notice a younger woman glancing my direction my first thought probably should not be thinking of myself as thirty, but trying to see from the outside. I am short, bald, middle-aged, someone is glancing my direction. Do I have broccoli in my teeth? Has my hair blown over my scalp? Are my pants zipped?
On a broader level, it can be helpful for our church to look at ourselves from the outside. We know what a wonderful group of people we are – warm, caring, searching, wanting to make the world better. What some may see from the outside is a building that can be a little cold, and they might wonder if this is a place only for the well-to-do.
Pathways to God. No, I am not going to focus on looking at ourselves from the outside as a pathway to God. I want to talk about prayer as a pathway to God, and I have just taken my sweet time getting there. Yet there is a point to all this looking at things from the outside.
We typically think about prayer from our side of things. By that I mean when we talk about and teach about prayer, we focus on what we should do and perhaps on our inner experience of prayer. Twice since I have been pastor here, we have offered opportunities to study the book In God’s Presence: theological reflections on prayer by Marjorie Suchocki. By the way, I am going to be serving on a national denominational study commission with Marjorie and I am really looking forward to that. Marjorie’s book has chapters on intercessory prayer, prayers for healing, prayers of personal confession, prayers of corporate confession, liturgical prayers, the Lord’s prayer, and prayers of thanksgiving and praise. We might expect those kinds of things in a book about prayer – types of prayers that we might pray.
During Lent, 2011, our theme was prayer. We began by discussing the heart of prayer being relationship and transformation. Then we journeyed through meditative prayer, prayer as asking, silent prayer, prayer as lament and complaint, and prayer as gratitude.
Recently our district superintendent offered a workshop on prayer in the area, and it included methods of prayer such as praying with Scripture, prayer shawls and beads, prayer walks, labyrinth prayers, and body prayer.
We typically think about prayer from our side of things, and that’s o.k. St. Augustine, in his work, “The Confessions” addresses God. Yet the human, this part of your creation, wishes to praise you. You arouse us to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. (Book One, Chapter One). We think of prayer and we consider our restless hearts searching for God. We think of prayer and we trust that prayer changes us, as the Joan Chittister quote on the insert notes – “the function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.”
We typically think about prayer from our side of things, and that’s o.k., but it might be helpful for us to consider prayer from God’s side of things. We get a glimpse of that in today’s Scripture reading. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The story carries a feeling of foreboding. Pharisees warn Jesus to avoid Jerusalem because Herod wants to see Jesus eliminated. Jesus intends to outfox that fox Herod by continuing his work of teaching, healing and freeing. Then speaking as a prophet speaks, with the voice of God, Jesus says: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (NRSV). “I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (CEV). “How often I’ve longed to gather your children, gather your children like a hen, her brood safe under her wings” (The Message). God desiring, God wanting, God longing to enfold people. God seeking to wrap us as a hen tenderly gathers her chicks under her wings. This is prayer from God’s side.
This is not entirely a strange point of view. If you had been among those who read Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence, you would have encountered prayer from God’s side. Prayer is not only for our sakes, but also for God’s sake (18). Our texts portray a God deeply involved with the world and its events, with God wooing the world to deeper modes of community and caring, wooing us toward deeper relation with one another and with God’s own self (19). Suchocki’s theological reflections on prayer evoke “the image of the dancing God who woos us to partnership through prayer” (127).
God longs for us, longs for our time and attention. God desires to be as close to us as our own breath. God is wooing us into a more intimate relationship.
Why does God woo us, long for us, desire us? God wants to gather us as tenderly as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. God just wants to be close. In addition, prayer makes a difference to God. Again in the words of Marjorie Suchocki, these also found on your insert: God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer makes a difference to what God can do in and with the world. (31) Opening ourselves to God in prayer changes us, changes the conditions in the world God is trying to influence. We become more open vehicles for God’s love for the world. Our prayers means God has new material to work with as God works toward a newer world.
Prayer makes a difference to God and for God. Shifting back to our more typical perspective, prayer also makes a difference to us. Prayer changes us. It helps us grow “to experience the heart of life with all one’s heart and soul and might” (Michael Eigen, Contact With the Depths, 116).
Prayer changes us. In a novel I just recently finished, writer Annie Dillard penned this line: What was solitude for if not to foster decency? (The Maytrees, 165) Solitude, prayer draws us closer to God, and we are changed. We cannot be drawn closer to the heart of God without having our own hearts and souls changed.
Prayer is a pathway to God. It is a two-directional pathway. We take time for God, reach out to God and find that a longing God is always already reaching toward us, wooing us.
Two final words. Some of the best advice I ever read about prayer was this ancient piece of spiritual guidance: Pray as you can pray, don’t pray as you can’t pray. (Thomas Langford, Prayer and the Common Life, 12) Prayer can be daunting. Just do it. Find a method that works for you and pray. Perhaps the second best advice about prayer I’ve encountered is found in Anne Lamott’s most recent book. Lamott: I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow. (Help, Thanks, Wow: the three essential prayers, 1)
If you are ever having problems getting started with a prayer, may you hear the wooing voice of the longing God: How often have I desired to gather, longed to gather, you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Amen.