Monday, June 22, 2015

Riders on the Storm

Sermon preached  June 21, 2015

Texts: II Corinthians 6:1-10; Mark 4:35-41

            The Doors, “Riders on the Storm”
Those of you who knew about this song, have been waiting for it since you saw the sermon title.  I have not been doing this for ten years.  It is something that has developed over time and I appreciate how you have let me weave some of this music into the sermons.
            There were other song possibilities.  I might have used “Stormy Weather,” but then I thought about what our sign outside might say: “Come celebrate ten years of Pastor David’s ministry - Stormy Weather.”  Turns out we did not have room for the sermon title anyway.  Another good song choice may have been Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.”
            This morning’s Scripture readings are about stormy weather, about storms in life, about difficulties, traumas.  The bulletin insert offers quite a few statements about the difficulties and traumas of life.  Scott Peck: Life is difficult.  This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. (The Road Less Traveled, 15).  D. W. Winnicott: Life is difficult, inherently difficult for every human being, for everyone from the beginning. (Winnicott, 31).  Joan Chittister: I have yet to meet a human being who is not in some way still dealing with traumas, most of them garden-variety incidents, perhaps, but traumas nonetheless.  Every one of us goes through some kind of personal pain or psychic wounding in life that changes us….  Everybody has a story of twists and turns along the way that shook their certainties about life. (Living Well, 74, 75)
            There are storms further away that also mark us, mar us, move us.  The shooting this week at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina -  a twenty-one year-old high school dropout, motivated by racial hatred, shoots and kills nine African-Americans at their church – that storm has sent deep ripples into the souls of many.  I am moved to ask deep questions about race relations in this country – how long until we get it right, or at least significantly better.  I am moved to ask deep questions about gun violence in this country.  I know that is a sensitive topic, but I really don’t think it is a choice between policies that “take our guns away” or that leave guns everywhere.  There may be reasonable policies that help, but even more, people need to ask themselves more questions about their behavior with guns.  How is it that a loner and a high school dropout and someone such extreme views about people of color has such easy access to guns?  Stormy weather indeed.
            So what might this Gospel text, illumined some by Paul’s writing in II Corinthians 6 have to say to us about navigating the storms of life, and about the difference Jesus might make as we do so?  I want to offer three thoughts, and you can see them on the insert or in the morning prayer.
            Sometimes Jesus calms the storms of life.  God is at work in the world.  The Spirit moves and touches and influences and shapes.  Change for the better is possible.  Healing happens.  Storms abate.  Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  Last weekend, Julie and I watched the movie “Selma.”  Part of the background for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965 was the September 15, 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four young African-American girls.  It was the 21st bombing in Birmingham in eight years, none of them solved.  It is ironic that we should have watched that movie last weekend, given the events in Charleston this week.  Here is part of the story of the Birmingham bombing.  Monday after the bombing a young Alabama lawyer named Charles Morgan stood up at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham Young Men's Business Club and offered powerful words about race and prejudice.  Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, "Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?" The answer should be, "We all did it." Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it….  The "who" is every little individual… who spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son. The jokester, the crude oaf whose racial jokes rock the party with laughter. The "who" is every governor who ever shouted for lawlessness and became a law violator. It is every senator and every representative who in the halls of Congress stands and with mock humility tells the world that things back home aren't really like they are. It is courts that move ever so slowly, and newspapers that timorously defend the law….  It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence. It is the coward in each of us who clucks admonitions….  We are a mass of intolerance and bigotry and stand indicted before our young. We are cursed by the failure of each of us to accept responsibility, by our defense of an already dead institution. (The Atlantic, September 13, 2013.  Andrew Cohen:  For his speech, Charles Morgan and his family were forced to flee Birmingham because of the vicious reaction of his fellow Alabamans.  His wife and family received death threats.
            I tell this story because after Charleston, there will be no death threats for people appalled by what has happened there.  The governor is appalled by the violence, her voice choking back tears, but she will not be condemned by any but those on the very fringes of our society.  Our progress on race is still too slow.  It has not moved in a straight line.  There is work to do, but there is also more determination to do that work than fifty years ago.  Some of the storms have calmed just a bit, even if new storms arise.  Change is possible.  The Spirit is at work, even if we are slow to respond.
            Sometimes Jesus calms the storms and sometimes Jesus calms us.  When Paul writes about his work in II Corinthians, the storms of life have not gone away.  We have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.  Not exactly a stilling of the storms.  Yet in the midst of that Paul has also experienced and shared purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.  Storms don’t always go away, but there can be a calm within.  We can hear the whisper of God in the voice of Jesus saying to us “Peace!  It is I.” (from the poem “On Christ Calming the Storm, Anatolius).
            Over the years, not all the storms in my life have gone away, but I have grown in my ability to be calm and centered in the midst of many of them.  I have never really enjoyed conflict, but my ability to manage myself in the midst of it has grown, though I am really glad that I have not had to test that out much here lately.  I think we have grown together as a congregation in our ability to deal with issues.  We are a stronger church even as we work with all the issues that face churches everywhere today.  In the midst of some of the storms of life, Jesus calms us.
            Even more than simply calming us, I think Jesus invites us to be wave riders.  In Jesus, we are invited to see something of the potential for our own lives, and Jesus was often a wave rider.  Wave Riders are curious people possessed of an innate capacity to go with the flow, constantly seizing upon opportunity when others see no possibility, or even disaster.  (Harrison Owen, Wave Rider, 1).  Jesus: Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?  In these questions is an invitation to be wave riders.
            Part of the context for this story of Jesus stilling the storm is that the boats are headed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, toward the more unfamiliar Gentile side. There is a storm there all its own and perhaps the disciples would have been just as glad to turn the boats around.  Following Jesus isn’t only about being comforted in the midst of the storms of life, important as that is.  Following Jesus is also about riding some waves, working with God’s Spirit to make changes in our lives and in the world.  In the midst of the storms of the turmoil of race relations in this country, we are challenged to be wave riders, to be willing to go to the other shore to build bridges of understanding and care. 
In the midst of the storms of climate change, Pope Francis this week issued his encyclical, “Praise Be.”  Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of
goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact
will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.  He encourages us to care for our common home, including cultivating a renewed spirituality.  An adequate understanding of spirituality consists in filling out what we mean by peace, which is much more than the
absence of war. Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because, lived out authentically, it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle together with a capacity for
wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life.  The call here is to be wave riders.
            I love this part of Mara Eichner’s poem, “What My Teachers Taught Me I Try to Teach My Students.”  It is about wave riding.
Make routine
a stimulus. Remember
it can cease.  Forge
hosannahs from doubt.
Hammer on doors with the heart.
All occasions invite God’s
mercies and all times
are his seasons.

            Life is difficult.  There is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life (Michael Eigen, Conversations, 113).  Sometimes as followers of Jesus, we find that the storms get stilled.  Even more important, though, is often it is not the storms that change, but it is us.  Jesus calms us, grows us, and in that growth we hear an invitation to ride the waves, to make a difference, to work with the Spirit for a newer world.  Let me end with these word of invitation to wave riding, from Mara Eichner (from “Out of Cana):
Eat bread.  Drink wine.  Try to sing the song
of Christ.  Live life.  If you can dance, dance.

Everywhere grace awaits.  Desire to love to love.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Chicago 1977

Sermon preached June 14, 2015

Texts: I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Mark 4:26-34

            Chicago, “Baby What a Big Surprise”
The name of this band is “Chicago.”  You could hardly be a teen in the 1970s without knowing about Chicago.  This particular song was released in 1977 (Chicago XI), the year I graduated from Duluth East High School, where many of you now know that I received “B”s in gym.
            The sermon title for this morning was a bit mysterious.  What happened in Chicago in 1977?  For those who know me, that there was a song involved was not really a surprise, though the song itself is about surprise.  Mystery and surprise is where we are going this morning.
            A psychoanalyst named Wilfred Bion once wrote, “life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134).  I disagree with him, but there are such things as bad surprises.  Remember that banking commercial where the raccoon jumps out of the hedge at the guy trying to trim it?
            Friday before last, I ran some errands.  Coming home I had parked my car in the driveway and brought some groceries into the house, leaving the garage door open as I was going to go out and mow.  I figured it would be good to lock the door between the garage and the house while I put the groceries away and changed into my mowing clothes.  Mowing went really well.  I felt good to be outside on a really nice day.  Then I went to get back into the house to start getting dinner ready.  That door that I had locked earlier was still locked.  Surprise.  So was every other door into the house.  My car was open, but there were no keys in it.  Well, it was about 5:15 p.m. so I figured that Julie would not be too long in coming home from school.  I was wrong.  It was her last day with kids and she had decided to work late.  She arrived home at about 6:45.  We made different plans for dinner.
            Not every surprise in life is good, but many are, and being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude.
            Take the reading from I Samuel.  Samuel had been a part of God’s selection of Saul as king (ch. 10), though he had warned people that having a king was not all that wonderful (ch. 8).  Saul ends up being a disappointment, and God tells Samuel to look for the next king.  He is directed to go to Jesse in Bethlehem.  One of his sons will be the new king.  The text we read has this review of the sons, but God tells Samuel that appearance is not what matters, not how tall, or strong, but that it is a matter of the heart.  Surprise.  Even more surprising, it is David, the youngest, who is chosen.  In an ironic twist in the story, though, David is described: Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  The story is filled with surprises.
            What about Jesus’ teaching in Mark?  The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come….  With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in it shade.
            So where is the surprise here?  In the first story, the man who scatters seeds is surprised by how they grow.  He doesn’t understand, but the seeds grow.  In the second story, the surprise is just how large the mustard plant grows from the seed.
            But there is even more going on here than that – more surprise, more mystery.  The stories introduce surprising and unexpected elements.  What kind of farmer is this first person?  He just scatters the seed and then does nothing.  I know people who garden.  This is not the recipe for a successful garden, though I wish it were.  Mustard seeds are very small, and the plants do grow significantly, but the image of birds nesting in the shade of its branches is a bit of hyperbole.
            Jesus offers riddle parables.  “Riddles are interactive metaphors” (Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 11).  They invite us to think more deeply, to see in surprising ways.  The Mustard Seed is a riddle, an intentionally ambiguous question that asks the audience to respond; its rhetorical impact derives from the fact that no clear answer is provided….  This leaves us in the same position as Jesus’ original audience: confronted with an ambiguity that is never fully resolved, and still debating its true meaning two thousand years later.  (Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 81)
            The movie, Wish I Was Here, tells the story of two brothers whose mother had died a number of years ago, and whose father is now dying.  One brother is an actor, married with two children.  His family struggles some to make it on his wife’s salary while the husband pursues his dream of acting.  The other brother lives alone in a trailer on the beach.  This description makes the movie sound quite depressing, but it is sad and sweet and funny.  In one scene the older son, the married actor, goes to see his rabbi.  This older son has not been active in practicing his faith.  He begins to tell his rabbi about the play he and his brother engaged in years before, how they were both super heroes, the only ones who could save everybody.  Lately he has been dreaming about this and he wonders.  “Do you think God is trying to tell me something, trying to guide me in some way?”  To which he quickly adds, “And if you say God works in mysterious ways I will run out that door.”
            To encourage us to be open to mystery and surprise and the unexpected is not meant to be the end of the conversation, the end of the lesson.  It is truly an invitation to dig deeper.  There is mystery in the teaching of Jesus, probe more deeply to listen for how God might be trying to speak.
            Jesus introduces the parable as an invitation to pass through the looking glass: on the other side the mighty cedar is brought low and the humble herb exalted. On the other side: that is to say, in the world mirrored in the looking-glass of the parable….  If the kingdom is extended in the parable with comic relief, it is in order to offer the kingdom only for what it is.  It is not a towering empire, but an unpretentious venture of faith.  As a venture of faith, however, it is of course potentially world-transforming. (Robert Funk, Jesus As Precursor, 26, 24)
            The parable centers attention upon mustard seed, which, as a comical burlesque of the Great Tree, demands that the hearer accept grace in an unexpected fashion.  The Kingdom’s miracle, its grace, demands the acknowledgment  that indeed the mustard seed is the appropriate metaphor. (Bernard Brandon Scott, Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, 72)
            Being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude.  It is Jesus invitation in the parables here.  It is the invitation of the story in Samuel.  Let me say just a little more.
            We should be open to being surprised by our self.  Where have you surprised yourself?  Where have you found in your life strength or courage or love you were not sure was there?  I love these lines from John Wesley.  For if it really be true that you can do nothing, then you have no faith.  And if you have not faith, you are in a wretched condition. Surely it is not so.  You can do something, through Christ strengthening you.  Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace. (John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (1785)).  With God’s Spirit at work in our lives through Jesus, we can surprise ourselves sometimes
            We should be open to being surprised by others.  We are often convinced that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  There is some truth in that, but also some truth to the idea that people can change and grow.  It is important to listen to others, to learn with and from others.  Next year I will be a delegate to the United Methodist General Conference.  Our denomination faces some significant struggles.  We have been disagreeing, sometimes acrimoniously, over human sexuality issues, marriage issues, structural issues.  It can be discouraging sometimes, but I plan to cultivate an openness to being surprised, to finding ways to work with others who may not seem natural allies.
            We should be open to being surprised by God.  God can surprise us through ourselves and through others, but there are times when grace-filled serendipity seems to happen.  I officiated at a wedding a couple of weeks ago.  During my reflection, I quoted from the song, “I Was There To Hear Your Bornin’ Cry.”  I have never used that song before in a wedding.  I don’t know exactly what drew me to that song for that wedding.  Later that week I heard from the bride.  She told me how meaningful that song was to her, for it was the song she requested when her son was baptized.  Surprise.  Last Sunday, I had gone to the Unitarian Church for a meeting that was scheduled for that evening.  Somehow, the meeting had been cancelled.  I came to my office just to double check the e-mail I had received about it.  I had not mis-understood, but obviously the event was cancelled.  I decided that I would call Sammy’s Pizza and pick up a pizza for Julie and me.  When I got to Sammy’s there was a nice family gathering, and among those gathered were a couple whose infant son had died four years ago, and I officiated at the service.  They were there with their two children, and it was so nice to see them and their children and their family.  Surprise.
            An ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all.  Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around….  Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity….  (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8, 9, 10)

            Being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude.  It is an important part of hope.  Who knows, but that with God, scattered seeds just grow into something meaningful and important.  Who knows, but that with God, tiny seeds become welcoming shade trees, welcoming for all.  Who knows, but that with God, the person needed for an important task may seem the least likely.  Being open to surprise, to mystery, to serendipity, to the unexpected is to live with hope, and hope, along with faith and love are what finally remain, are what finally matter.  Amen.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Construction Season

Sermon preached  June 7, 2015

Texts: Mark 3:19b-35

            Last weekend my brother-in-law was in the hospital.  On Monday, he was released and he called and asked if I could give him a ride home from Miller-Dwan.  I was at home eating lunch at the time, so I had to think about how I might best get there.  Third Street heading west is closed at 10th Ave. East.  I thought I could take First Street heading west and drive up Third Ave. E. and get to Miller Dwan.  It seemed to work pretty well until I turned on Third Ave. E.  Potholes were being filled and the traffic was backed up for much of the block.  There was little alternative but to wait.  After dropping my brother-in-law off at home, I came back down Central Entrance, and found that one lane heading toward the church was closed due to construction.
            That’s just how it is this time of year.  Potholes are being filled, roads are being redone, building projects affecting traffic are in fully swing.  It is construction season, and while I am glad that potholes are being tended to, there are times when I am less pleased that it slows everything down.  Construction season is a bit of a mixed blessing.
            As confusing and frustrating as traffic may be, our reading for this morning from the Gospel of Mark can be equally confusing and a bit frustrating.  What are we supposed to get out of this chaotic scene of gathered crowds, concerned family members, and hostile teachers?  It can be helpful to recognize that what we have in this passage is two stories sandwiched together, a very common technique used by the writer of Mark’s gospel.  There is the story of Jesus’ family and the story about the confrontation with the scribes.  Mark brings them together in a way that they shed light on each other.  We had a rich discussion of this passage on Wednesday evening and I appreciated that opportunity to listen again to this reading.  Our Wednesday Bible studies are going to use a Scripture that will be the basis for the following Sunday sermon.
            Anyway, one way to think about this passage, merging with the sermon title, is that it is, at least in part, about roadblocks in our journey of faith.  I want to talk about three such roadblocks this morning.  These are identified in the bulletin insert that we will use for our Faith Forum After Hours discussion.  These are not the only roadblocks to our faith, but they are ones I see in today’s Scripture reading.
            The first roadblock is our tendency to think in either/or terms rather than both/and, or to over-simplify when we need to deepen our ability to see complexity and nuance.  Jesus was perhaps acting in ways that might have been considered unusual.  He was certainly attracting a crowd, so large they could not even eat.  Rumors began to spread that perhaps he had gone out of his mind.  Either/or.  The scribes could not fathom that someone like Jesus could really be helping people with their demons.  He must be using “demonic” powers himself.  Either/or.  Things are more complex.  Perhaps, Jesus tells the scribes, I am binding the strong man to topple his house, that is, challenging the demonic with another kind of power.  Perhaps, Jesus tells his concerned family, I am creating new kinds of relationships, new kinds of family.
            Here is one way this issues plays out in my life.  As a pastor, I talk a lot about God.  It is my job, but much more than my job, it is my life.  There is a lot of God-talk, though, that makes me uncomfortable.  Someone finds a parking place near when they need to be.  She attributes it all to God, God blessing her with that particular parking spot at that particular time.  A football player catches a game winning pass and attributes it all to God, God blessing him with that catch at that time.  Here’s my problem.  With so many in the world suffering – going hungry, living in fear of violence, suffering abuse or oppression, is God really all that concerned about whether or not a particular team wins a game or a particular person gets their hoped-for parking spot?
            But is it either/or?  Either God arranges everything that happens or God is not involved at all?  I believe God cares about everything in our lives and in our world.  God is not indifferent to our joy, even the joy of getting a needed parking space.  I also believe that God is not the sole cause of all that happens in the world.  There are choices.  I decide at what time I leave the house and that may have something to do with an open parking space.  Someone else gets a phone call and leaves a parking space.  A football player works hard so he can make game winning catches.  There is freedom and there is serendipity.  God is one important part of the causal nexus of what happens in the world, but not the only part.  It is ok to thank God for the parking space, but it may go too far to claim that God opened up that space just for you, rather than for the person behind you who may also have wanted that space.  My faith is enriched and deepened when I can dive into complexity and nuance.  Avoiding that can be a roadblock to growth in faith.  I appreciate Patrick Henry’s reflections on being “an ironic Christian.”  “The ironic Christian who knows an “as if” world and the God who made it… [insists] that few answers are given in advance, and even those that are may not be easy to understand” (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8)
            A second roadblock in our journey of faith is that we tend to like things the way they are, even when they may not be working all that well.  Jesus’ family seemed to want the old Jesus they once knew to return.  The scribes did not want to have their religious boat rocked.  In the early pages of his book We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren writes about his intent for his book, but writes in a way that illumines the idea I am wanting to convey.  If you’re a long-term Christian whose current form of Christianity has stopped working and may even be causing you and others harm, here you’ll find a reorientation from a fresh and healthy perspective (xxii).  What McLaren is saying is that sometimes we get stuck in our journey of faith and that our faith can stagnate.  Why do we hold on to it, then?  We like the familiar, even when it is a bit painful, even when it pinches, even when it is not working.
            I remember when I was a teenager watching a powerful film on the late show.  In those days, not every network had its Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman/Steven Colbert.  Often one network showed old movies.  The movie I am thinking about here was a film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick called “Days of Wine and Roses.”  It was a harrowing portrayal of alcoholism made even more stark by the fact that the film was shot in black and white.  The film is a story about a man, an alcoholic, who marries a woman who had not been a drinker, but who also becomes an alcoholic.  He gets sober and she does not.  Towards the end of the movie there is a heartbreaking scene where the sober man talks to his wife about getting help so that she can return to their marriage and to their child.  She tells him that she doesn’t want to, that the world looks too dirty and ugly without the booze, even though her life is pretty dirty and ugly with the booze.
            It is a powerful example of the tendency we all carry within us to cling to the familiar, the known, even when it may no longer be working in our lives.  Sometimes God invites us to change, to new things, and we have to risk letting go of what we know to get to a better place.
            A final roadblock to discuss this morning is this – perhaps we expect too little from our faith.  Churches are often filled with relatively good people who want to become modestly better, and this is a good thing.  There is nothing wrong with that.  God rejoices in goodness and kindness, and in people taking time for prayer and worship.  The problem may be this, can we let our faith touch the demons in our lives and in our world, those deeply traumatic places that we may carry around or that are certainly part of our world.  If the church is only about being pretty good and getting a little better, what do we do when we have to work with really hard issues in our lives?  What do we do if we think we have done something unforgivable?
            So let’s tackle that one.  There is this ominous part of today’s reading about the unforgivable sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  What’s that about?  Begin with what precedes it.  “People will be forgiven for their sins, and whatever blasphemies they utter.”  Forgiveness here is pretty unequivocal.  What Jesus may be getting at is not that God refuses forgiveness for some class of sins, but that we have the ability to close ourselves off from receiving forgiveness.  Eugene Peterson renders part of this passage this way: “you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you are sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.”  Even then, God’s grace doesn’t go away.  Forgiveness is there, but it may mean digging deeper into our lives to experience it.
            We should expect from our faith that it will help us grapple with every deep issue in our lives and in our world.  We should expect from our faith the unexpected, that we might be brought to some “crazy” places if we follow this Jesus.  John Wesley, throughout his ministry, was concerned that people expected too little of and from their faith in Jesus Christ.  He wanted people to choose “the more excellent way.” (1787 sermon, “The More Excellent Way”).  Emily Dickinson reminds us wonderfully, Much madness is divinest sense/To a discerning eye/Much sense the starkest madness.  She is not talking about mental illness here, but about being willing to let our faith take us places that may seem a little unusual, a little beyond the pale.  In a world where cynicism often passes as conventional wisdom, it can seem a little crazy to be people of hope, people still caring about others and the world and trying to make things better.  In a world where politics seems nothing more than who wins, who loses and whose campaign has the most money, it can seem a little crazy to work for a politics that focuses on the common good, on doing justice, on creating peace.  In a world where church is becoming more marginalized, it can seem a little crazy to be investing ourselves in this place because we trust that God is still touching lives and sending us out into the world from here, and is still creating a new kind of family where all are welcome and all have a place.
            Maybe all these roadblocks are part of one huge roadblock, our tendency to forget that Jesus invites us to a life of adventure and discovery, that this is the more excellent way of God’s grace.  When we ignore complexity and nuance, when we are too comfortable with the familiar, when we come to expect too little of our faith, we lose our way.  Patrick Henry reminds us:  Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around….  Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity….  An ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all.  (The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8, 9, 10)

            More on surprise next week.  For now recognize the roadblocks.  Risk a little craziness in Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Close To You

Sermon preached May 31, 2015

Texts: Romans 8:12-17

            The Carpenters, “Close To You”
            I remember that song from Junior High dances at Ordean.  It was one of those songs that had you looking for that cute girl in your math class.  When you found her, it took all the courage you could muster to walk across the floor to see if she might want to dance this slow dance.  The song brings back the anxiety, the quickened heartbeat, the sweaty palms, and then the stabbing pain when you were told “no.”  Funny how powerful feeling memories are.
            So I don’t want to be standing up here alone in a puddle of feelings.  I am going to ask you to join me.  Are you ready?
            Recall a time when you felt something very deeply, when your feeling penetrated the depth of your heart and soul.  I hope it is a good feeling memory, but it may not be.
            Recall a time when you felt some deep insight into yourself, life, the world.
            Recall a time when you felt close to God, when you felt touched by God in some deep place in your life.
            Ask yourself, “Are there deep places where I need the touch of God – places of hurt, places where I need forgiveness, places of joy, places of wonderment, places of discernment?”
            This past week the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church met together in St. Cloud.  This is the thirty-first time I have attended.  For me it is a time to connect with old friends, to see long-time colleagues, to greet people I don’t necessarily know well but still enjoy greeting.  I have some leadership responsibilities so I get to make some presentations.  I help the bishop with parliamentary procedure, but frankly our bishop does not need a lot of help.
            Over the years, I have had many memorable experiences at Annual Conference, times when I have felt deeply and been touched by God in deep places in my heart and soul.  I recall Annual Conference 1987, held at Gustavus.  I knew I would be leaving Roseau, my first church appointment to go back to school.  We were moving to Dallas so I could pursue my Ph.D.  During the final worship service, we sang “Here I Am, Lord” and I was filled with emotion as I wondered quietly with God, “How am I now going to hold your people in my heart?”  I was leaving a place and would hold those people in my heart, but I was leaving.
            In the summer of 1998, after I was appointed a district superintendent I attended training for those new to that position.  Somewhere along the line I found that if I was going to be at an event or retreat, I enjoyed reading one of the New Testament letters for my personal spiritual reading.  It often works well, four or five chapters over four or five days.  I will never forget reading Colossians, as I was being overwhelmed with all the information about what it meant to be a district superintendent in The United Methodist Church.  At the end of the first chapter Paul is writing about helping people become “mature in Christ.”  Then he writes, “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that [God] powerfully inspires within me” (Colossians 1:29).  It was as if those words were written just for my heart.  That’s what being a superintendent would be for me, that’s what ministry would be for me, “toiling and struggling with all the energy God powerfully inspire within me, to help people grow in God’s love in Jesus Christ.
            There are moments in worship here that touch me deeply.  I know I am part of planning worship, but there are things that happen that take me by surprise, send chills, leave me lost in wonder.  May 17 we scheduled a time to welcome new members into the church.  That is always a joy, especially following confirmation Sunday by one week, another highlight in worship.  I also knew that on that same morning we were going to show a slide show as a way to thank you for all you do to make this church the special place it is.  I had not seen the slide show before that morning.  It was beautifully done, and then to follow that by welcoming new members –WOW!  It was a wonderful moment of being church.  We let people know who we are, what we do, where we want to go, and we welcome them to join us.
            Writer and former pastor Brian McLaren talks about this kind of deep openness and deep encounter with God’s Spirit as “naked spirituality” – “the possibility of being naked and not ashamed, naked before God and naked before one another too, so we have no need to cover up, to protect, to posture, to dress to impress, just the freedom to be who we are, what we are, as we are.  At their best religious and spiritual communities help us discover this pure and naked spiritual encounter.” (Naked Spirituality, vii-viii).  We hear this in the first part of the purpose of United Methodist Women: The organized unit of United Methodist Women shall be a community of women whose purpose is to know God and to experience freedom as whole persons through Jesus Christ.
            McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality describes that kind of spiritual journey as a life with God in twelve words: here, thanks, O, sorry, help, please, when, no, why, behold, yes, […].  The goal of all spirituality is to lead the “naked person” to stand truthfully before the naked God….  All we can offer to God is who we really are [Richard Rohr, quoted, p. 3].  True religion helps us grow….  There has to be a movement toward the still center, the depths of our being, where, according to the mystics, we find the presence of God [Kenneth Leech, quoted, p. 13].
            The late priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen talked about spirituality as moving into the house of love and one part of that journey is intimacy.  The home, the intimate place, the place of true belonging, is therefore not a place made by human hands. It is fashioned for us by God, who came to pitch his tent among us, invite us to his place, and prepare a room for us in his own house. (Lifesigns, 36-37)
            Therapist Michael Eigen, a writer from whom I continue to learn a lot, speaks of faith as “a vehicle that radically opens experiencing and plays a role in building tolerance for experience” (Faith, 124).  He also writes about the center of our being which needs to be sustained by “an unknown boundless other” (Contact With the Depths, 93).  “Once the aloneness at the heart of our beings is allowed to develop well enough, one draws sustenance from it all through life” (Contact With the Depths, 94).
            For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption.  When we cry, “Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:15-16).
            When have you felt close to God, felt touched by God in some deep place in your life?  Are there deep places where you need the touch of God – places of hurt, places where you need forgiveness, places of joy, places of wonderment, places of discernment?
            God invites us into a more intimate relationship, this God who is as close to us as our heartbeat, as near as our every breath.  We are known and loved and invited to grow.  There is this lovely line from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘Grow, Grow.’”

            The Spirit touches the deepest places in our lives, if we are open to God, aware of God.  Let the Spirit do the Spirit’s work in your life.  You are known.  You are loved.  You have an angel that whispers “Grow, Grow.”  God is always close to you.  Amen.