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.

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