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.

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