Friday, February 26, 2016

B Knot A Frayed

Sermon preached February 21, 2016

Texts: Genesis 15:1-2, 17-18a; Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

            Morris Albert, “Feelings”
            We are getting into our Lenten series on “challenging emotions.”  Last week we discussed how we are tempted to work badly with our emotions, but also noted that our emotions are good things, for the most part.  It is a good thing that we feel.  Our feelings are an important part of who we are.  Working with them is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  Our feelings are an important part of what make us human.  The French philosopher Rene Descartes famously wrote, ‘I think, therefore I am.”  He thought that was a certainty on which we could base our knowledge of the world.  In a way, he was also saying that this is what makes us human.  I think it is as true to say “I feel, therefore I am.”
            It is good that we feel.  Working with our feelings is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  And some particular emotions are good only in the most narrow sense.  In a couple of weeks we will be discussing jealousy.  What good is jealousy?  Not much, except in a sort of diagnostic sense.  If we are feeling jealousy, it is like a symptom that should help us ask what is going on in our lives – our hearts, our minds, our souls.  But that is a sermon that is yet to come.
            What about fear?  Is fear just like jealousy, something that is only good as a sort of symptom to which we have to pay attention, or is there some even larger sense in which the feeling of fear can be good?  I think there is a more positive dimension to fear than there is to jealousy, but fear is only minimally helpful as an emotion.
            Fear can alert us to real danger.  It can be a warning that we need to watch out.  When I was a teenager, there was a swimming hole on Amity Creek, “the deeps,” that many like to go and swim in.  There were also some places on the rocks from which one could jump into the water.  I was afraid to do that, particularly when one had to run before jumping to make sure you cleared the rocks below.  Fear was probably not such a bad thing in that circumstance, though it wasn’t exactly a prized emotion in adolescence.  I only made that running jump one time, and that was quite enough, thank you.  There are stories of kids getting hurt doing that.
            Fear can be a good thing when it slows us down a bit, when it gets us thinking a bit more about what it is we might be doing.  There are real harms and dangers in the world, and it is a good thing to be aware of them, to pay attention to them.
            That said, fear is only a minimally helpful emotion, one which should have a relatively small place in our feeling repertoire.  Yet it is an emotion which seems everywhere, one actively encouraged in many quarters.  That makes fear a challenging emotion.
            Think a bit about our current politics.  Fear is prevalent.  Some encourage fear of big banks and big corporations.  Beneath the fear there are significant issues which need to be taken seriously, there is some important social analysis happening.  We should be asking some serious questions about the place of money in our politics and about our economy.  Yet it is often the fear that motivates, and we never get to some of the important questions.
            Some encourage fear of the stranger, the immigrant.  This issue arose again this week when Pope Francis questioned the depth of faith of those who only want to build walls but never also talk about building bridges.  Again, beneath the fear there are serious issues about immigration that need to be discussed and addressed, including how we maintain safe and secure borders.  Yet it is often the fear that motivates, and we never get to asking about the adequacy of particular plans to work with immigration and border security.
            Beyond politics, fear of the stranger also manifests itself in deep fear of Muslim people.  Some talk as if we should be deeply afraid of anyone who prays to Allah, wears a head scarf, or is part of a mosque.  The threat of terrorism is real, and we need to take it seriously.  Fear often prevents us from having good conversations about dealing with that threat, let alone having good conversations about living together with Muslims in our community, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than to live peaceably with their neighbors, to raise their families, to practice their faith, and to be good citizens and neighbors.
            Fear is all around us, in part because it seems an effective way to move human beings to action.  Typically fear-based actions are not our best or most thoughtful or most creative.  Fear seeps in to our hearts and souls.  Of course, there are also a host of inner fears that are already in our hearts and souls.  We fear our own inadequacy.  We fear failure.  We fear the unknown.
            Fear, when it is working well, slows us down to help us think.  It alerts us to potential dangers.  Yet fear can also shut down our best thinking and our most creative selves.  When fear gets out of hand, we not only consider real dangers, we magnify them, and even invent them.
            Fear, then, is a challenging emotion that needs to be challenged.
            We challenge fear, and manage it well, when we pay attention to it, when we draw near and listen.  Perhaps what we fear is the mysterious and unknown.  In the story of Abraham, as he is paying attention to God it says “a deep sleep fell upon Abram and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”  Sounds frightful, yet it is in that mysterious darkness that God shows up.
            Parker Palmer, in his profoundly insightful essay “Leading From Within” writes about fear of the unknown.  A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life.  Many of us – parents and teachers and CEOs – are deeply devoted to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world.  But Palmer notes, “chaos is the precondition to creativity” (Let Your Life Speak, 89)
            Pay attention to feelings of fear, and ask that feeling questions.  Don’t simply take a short-cut around the feeling.  What are you afraid of?  If it is the unknown or uncertain, perhaps that is a moment of chaos preceding creativity.  Perhaps God is inviting you to something new.
            The other wonderful insight Parker Palmer offers about fear in his essay is that we need not be defined by our fears.  This is how he puts it.  All the worlds wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy.  And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways, “Be not afraid.”  As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection.  “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear.  Everyone has fear….  Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have.  We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (93-94)
            Some Pharisees come to Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees so rarely come off well, but here they seem genuinely concerned about Jesus.  They warn him that Herod wants to kill him.  They are filled with fear, and think Jesus should know that same fear, and out of fear, should change his plans to go to Jerusalem.  Jesus remains resolute.  “Tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.
            Is Jesus immune to fear?  I don’t think so.  Rather, Jesus has a stronger sense that his mission requires the risks he is taking.  He will not be driven by fear, but rather by his responsiveness to his mission to heal and teach.  Jesus chooses courage over fear.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but it is choosing not to be the fear we feel.  It is too choose to act from places call trust, hope, faith and love.
            Facing fear is part of the spiritual journey.  It is a challenging feeling that needs to be listened too, and challenged.  We need not let our fear tie us into knots.  We need not let our fear fray us.  We need not be the fear we feel.  Places of fear can be the doorway to places where we meet God in new ways.

            And that is the bottom line in our faith conversation about facing fear, God is with us.  God is always with us.  God is our light and salvation.  God is our stronghold.  Light, space, zest – that’s God (The Message).  God goes with us always, even into those fearful places and with God, we can keep fear in its place – feel it, know it, question it, but not be it.  Like Jesus, we have better things to do than be our fear.  Amen.

Friday, February 19, 2016


Sermon preached February 14, 2016

Texts: Luke 4:1-13

            Lent is often a time for honest confession, for coming clean.  So let me begin by acknowledging that I know not all of you are thrilled when I play music as part of my sermons.  Now some of you really like it, but I know some don’t, or some are not too thrilled by my choices.  I really try to be sensitive, but I will also push the envelope sometimes.  When I have gone too far for you, I hope you will forgive me.           
            Those who rather enjoy the music sometimes guess which song I might play with a sermon.  So what are you thinking today?  “Tempted” by The Squeeze?  “Temptation Eyes” by the Grass Roots?  Anything by The Temptations?  Here is something that comes from a different era, something that will be more to the liking of some of you than others.
Perry Como, “Temptation”
            Temptation.  Just as with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, this story of the temptation of Jesus rolls around every year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent.  This year we have Luke’s version of the story.  And we are going to read this temptation story in the context of the idea of digging deep and of our theme for Lent which is “challenging emotions.”  I think this story of Jesus temptation has something to say about being tempted to deal with emotions badly.
            The underlying premise here is that working with our emotions is a good thing, that to feel is a good thing.  I am kind of fascinated by this idea, that our feelings are an important part of who we are, and that working with them is an important part of our spiritual journey, our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  I am interested in this because there has been a part of our Christian tradition that thinks spiritual progress has to do with denying our emotional self, our feeling self.  St. Maximus the Confessor:  Pleasure and distress, desire and fear, and what follows from them, were not originally created as elements of human nature….  These things were introduced as a result of our fall from perfection (Philokalia, II: 178).  Not the most positive view of feelings.
            In wanting to explore this more for myself, I have done some reading, including a book entitled Lust.  I read it behind closed doors with the shades pulled!  The author, Michael Eigen, a therapist, writes, “Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good” (1) – “Lust as celebration, gift, grace, part of life’s great bounty” (25).  This is a celebration of feeling as human beings, and it is not foreign to the Bible.  Have you ever read the Song of Songs?
            Theologian Wendy Farley reflects on the importance of feeling.  Living in the world is difficult, and we hide from ourselves from one another, and from the gracious Beloved who longs for us so earnestly.  Desire is the emissary of the Beloved, and it lends us the courage and strength and hope we need for this work of healing (xviii).  Farley also links this connecting with feeling to the work of justice in the world.  Attention to interiority can resuscitate our capacities for relationship and ignite in us the desire for compassion and delight in life.  In this sense it is integral to the desire for justice (xviii).
            So feelings, emotions, rightly integrated, rightly ordered, dealt with in a healthy way are important to our developing spirituality, our relationship with God and the world.  The problem is that things can go awry.  I only read part of the Michael Eigen quote earlier.  Here is a longer version.  Lust enlarges, enriches, makes life taste good.  Lust damages and grows from damage.  The temptation story of Jesus gives us insight into how we are tempted to deal badly with our emotions.
            Our feelings are an important part of us and need to be woven together into our lives, but we can be too driven by them, tossed about as on a rolling sea.  Jesus first temptation is to be defined by the feeling of being hungry.  After forty days of eating nothing, “he was famished.”  The temptation comes to turn stones into bread.  Apparently there were no drive-throughs in the area in Jesus time.  Eating when you are hungry makes some sense, but Jesus has sought hunger for a reason.  He is fasting for a purpose, and while he knows his hunger, while he feels his empty stomach, it is not the only thing going on in him, and he wants to keep that feeling in its place.
            Our feelings are an important part of who we are.  They are part of the goodness of God’s creation, but they are also multiple and we need to have some sense that we can order them.  The temptation to be driven by a feeling as if we can really do nothing more than feel that feeling and react to it, that temptation is real and strong.
            This is Valentine’s Day weekend, a celebration of love.  Love is pretty complicated, but it has a strong feeling dimension to it.  And we often play that dimension of love up.  We “fall” in love.  We are swept away by love.  We have no choice about who we love, and we can “fall out” of love.
            I relish the feeling dimension of love.  I also recognize that we can feel attracted to beauty in many people.  Is that a love we should act on?  I know what it is like to work on a project with someone and feel a certain closeness to that person.  Is that a love one should give in too?  I have seen enough of married couples and know that feelings can ebb and flow.  Do we assume at a low ebb that we have fallen out of love? 
I think we can enjoy the kinds of feelings when we see beauty, or when we get to know someone well, and we can stay committed to the long-term relationship we have committed ourselves to.  Long-term love is feeling, but more than feeling, or rather more than the feeling of attraction and good chemistry, as enjoyable as they are.  It is also developing feelings of loyalty and trust and affection.  Certainly there are times when love seems to exit a relationship, when there is nothing left.  Typically that has a lot more to do with lack of attention over time, and the eroding of trust over time, than with the fickleness of love as a feeling. 
Part of my interest in the whole topic of the place of feeling and desire in the Christian life is sparked by the intriguing idea that one of the fruits of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5, is “self-control” (v. 23).  We have some ability to challenge our emotions and need not be driven by them or reactive to them, though the temptation to be reactive is real and present.
A second temptation to deal with feelings badly is seen in the third temptation of Jesus, and that is the temptation to take short-cuts in dealing with our feelings, to try and go around them instead of working with them and going through them.  Jesus is tempted to get things going more quickly in his faith and ministry by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, creating a spectacular opportunity for a miraculous rescue by God.  Jesus refuses.  He will be about God’s work through the long road of teaching, and calling, and healing, and, eventually being put to death.
We are particularly interested in taking a short-cut around challenging emotions like grief, jealousy, fear, and disappointment.  This week I was part of a conversation with a young musician and someone asked him, “Did you ever want to quit music?”  The young man thought briefly and said, “I think if you asked any young musician, they would say there was a time when they wanted to quit.”  The young man was glad he didn’t, but he knew what it felt like to want to stop.  He understands that to get to the place he is in his music just takes time and practice.  There are no short-cuts.
The same holds true for our emotions, working with them in a healthy way, integrating them well into our life and learning, weaving them into our souls so we can be the people God would have us be.  There are no short-cuts.  We have to be willing to stay with some of these emotions for a time if we are to learn from them, and revisit them from time to time to grow through them.  Therapist Francis Weller, from whom I am learning in recent months through an interview he did says, In traditional cultures people were often given at least a year to digest a major loss.  In ancient Scandinavia it was common to spend a prolonged period “living in the ashes.”  Not much was expected of you while you did the essential work of transforming sorrow into something of value to the community….  In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction.  (The Sun, October 2015, 5)  There is no simple pattern or answer for how long we may need to stay with certain emotions, but there are no short-cuts either.
Finally, we are tempted to warp some of our emotions.  Jesus is tempted to become great by worshipping Satan, who is tempting him.  The feeling of the need to be important, significant, to make a difference is a vital part of the human experience.  Super hero fantasies are so popular because they speak to that feeling that we have that we want to be great in some way.
That feeling can be warped.  It can become a feeling which leads us to try and become significant not by developing our own powers and skills, but by diminishing or demeaning others.  History is filled with examples of people who find significance mostly by understanding themselves to be better than some other group.  I think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” in which he preached about this.  Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct?  A need that some people have to feel superior.  A need that some people have to feel that they were first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first….  And think of what has happened in history as a result to this perverted use of the drum major instinct.  It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man. (Testament of Hope, 262).  Instead King suggests that a right use of the feeling of the need to be significant should lead one to seek to be first in love, first in moral excellence, first in generosity (265).

The early Christian saint and theologian Irenaeus once wrote, The glory of God is a human being fully alive. (quoted in Gerald May The Dark Night of the Soul, 181).  Because we follow God’s Spirit, because we seek to be fully alive and thus give glory to God, we will dig deep and deal with challenging emotions.  The temptation to deal with them badly never goes away.  “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (13).  The temptations may never go away entirely, but neither does God’s Spirit.  In the very next verse, Jesus is in the power of the Spirit.  God goes with us always, empowering us to acknowledge our emotions without being driven by them, empowering us to hang with our emotions so we can learn, empowering us to focus our emotions rightly and not let them get warped.  God’s Spirit is always with us and we always have each other.  We take this Lenten journey, we walk the way of Jesus, together.  Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Digging Deep

Sermon preached Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2015

Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

            Robert Bly is a Minnesota poet.  I first read one of his poems in a college English class, and found it intriguing.  I thought it was pretty cool that there was this poet from Minnesota being taught in college.  The poem itself was about waking from an afternoon sleep where the poet thinks about an old Norwegian bachelor farmer who sold his farm and left town.  When he wakes up he goes out to the old farm place where he finds in the abandoned house old books including “instructions to Norwegian immigrants.”  I was fascinated by abandoned houses, and that drew me into the poem.
            When I was a doctoral student at Southern Methodist University, Robert Bly gave a poetry reading on campus.  I went, and loved the way he read.  After the reading I introduced myself and told him I was from Minnesota.  He asked me what I was studying and I told him “Religious Studies.”  He said that could be good, “if you have the right teachers.”
            When I was a district superintendent, Bly’s hometown of Madison, Minnesota was in my district.
            A few years ago at UMD, Robert Bly gave another poetry reading.  This time I brought a couple of his books and now have two signed books of his poetry.
            I would like to share a poem from this Minnesota poet who I have had the privilege of hearing twice.  The poem is entitled “A Home in Dark Grass.”  Bly’s poems don’t always tell a story, rather they often move from image to image in ways that suggest a deepening of experience.  This poem is about challenging emotions, our theme for Lent.  It is about digging deep.  I will suggest that it has something to do with the words of Jesus in Matthew 6.
In the deep fall, the body awakes,
And we find lions on the seashore—
Nothing to fear.
The wind rises, the water is born,
Spreading white tomb-clothes on a rocky shore,
Drawing us up
From the bed of the land.

We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our leaves like the trees,
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing up on great roots;
Like mad poets captured by the Moors,
Men who live out
A second life.

That we should learn of poverty and rags,
That we should taste the weed of Dillinger,
And swim in the sea,
Not always walking on dry land,
And, dancing, find in the trees a saviour,
A home in the dark grass,
And nourishment in death.

            Can you hear the poet diving deep into his soul, daring to dig even deeper inside.  “We did not come to remain whole.  We came to lose our leaves like trees, the trees that are broken and start again, drawing up on great roots.”  One of the things I find really interesting is that in one collection of his selected poems, Bly changes that stanza.  It is not our job to remain unbroken./Our task is to lose our leaves/And be born again, as trees/Draw up from the great roots.
            It is not our job to remain unbroken.  I think of the distinction Parker Palmer makes between a heart broken apart and a heart broken open into a new capacity (A Hidden Wholeness, 178).  I think that’s what Robert Bly is writing about.  Our job is not to remain unbroken but to allow ourselves to be broken open so we can grow.  We did not come to remain whole, but to become whole by digging deep, by not always walking on dry land, but by dancing and finding a home in dark grass.
            Jesus in Matthew seems to be suggesting that digging deep is a vital part of the Christian journey, an important dimension of having a significant and growing relationship with God.  The heart of a relationship with God is not outward piety – the giving of alms so others can see, praying long and loud in public, fasting so everyone notices.  The heart of a relationship with God is a matter of the heart, the inner life.  Digging deep is part of the journey of faith.
            We need to be careful here.  Jesus is not posing an absolute distinction between outer acts and the inner life.  There is not a thick wall between being spiritual and being religious.  Last week when I was looking something up about Abraham Maslow and peak experiences, I came across these words: I see in the history of many organized religions a tendency to develop two extreme wings: the “mystical” and individual on the one hand, and the legalistic and organizational on the other.  The profoundly and authentically religious person integrates these trends easily and automatically.  The forms, rituals, ceremonials, and verbal formulae in which he was reared remain for him experientially rooted, symbolically meaningful, archetypal, unitive. (Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, vii).  The organizational and experiential, the ritualistic and the spiritual can be woven together in a healthy relationship to God, in a healthy life of faith.  And without a doubt, a healthy spiritual heart moves us to live with compassion and a concern for justice and peace.
What Jesus is asking of us is a spiritual discipline to dig deep, to look inside, to find a home in dark grass, to not always walk on dry land so that the experiential and behavioral are joined together, so that the inner and outer remain linked – our behavior shaping our souls, our souls being expressed in our actions.  The problem of those Jesus criticizes is that they lost the connection between soul and action.  They were going through the motions, but their actions were not connected to the heart, to the soul.
This discipline of digging deep is not often or always easy.  We live in a culture that frequently stays in “the shallows,” the title of a book on internet technology (Nicholas Carr).  The author, in response to the first edition of the book had received a number of notes from people about “how the Web has scattered their attention, parched their memory, or turned them into compulsive nibblers of info-snacks” (226).  I enjoy the internet, and I understand how it might keep us in the shallows – moving from link to link to link, never fully digesting the information, never letting it penetrate deeply, never giving us the space to ponder or to muse.  We also live in a culture enamored with the short-term.  Digging deep to ask ourselves about our souls takes time.  It can be counter-cultural.
Yet I think it is necessary for our spiritual health, for connecting more deeply with the God of Jesus Christ.  A few months ago I read an interview with a man named Francis Weller, a therapist about whom I knew nothing.  I continue to be deeply moved by his insights.  It was Weller who wrote about our need to “carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them” (The Sun, October 2015:7).  We will visit that idea later on this Lent.  Weller also offers this: In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction.  Because we cannot acknowledge grief, we’re forced to stay on the surface of life….  We find ways to deny the reality of this rich but difficult territory, and we are thinned psychically (5).  He goes on: Think about how much energy we expend trying to deny and avoid these parts of ourselves.  What if all that energy were available to us again?  We would laugh more.  We’d know more joy (6).

So this Lent we are taking a journey together into the inner recesses of our souls.  We are going to deal with challenging emotions and challenge ourselves to work with them in helpful and healthy ways.  God did not create us to be surface creatures, but people of depth.  We did not come to remain whole.  It is not our job to remain unbroken.  Our task is to lose our leaves like trees and start again, drawing up on great roots.   We should swim in the sea, not always walking on dry land.  We should dance and find a home in the dark grass, storing up treasures of the heart in the deep places of our souls.  We begin that journey with a reminder that we are dust and stardust, and with bread for the journey.  Amen.

Blinded By the Light

Sermon preached February 7, 2016

Texts: Exodus 34:29-35; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

            Bruce Springsteen, ‘Blinded By the Light”
            November 29, 1978, St. Paul Civic Center, I heard Bruce Springsteen live.  It was a wonderful concert, so full of energy and joy.  Springsteen did not play this song that night, but it was a blinded by the light kind of night.  It was a transcendent experience of sorts, a mountaintop experience of a kind.
            Every year, on the Sunday before Lent, and yes, this is the Sunday before Lent – Ash Wednesday worship will be Wednesday night at 7 p.m. we are given in the Revised Common Lectionary one of the versions of the transfiguration of Jesus.  It is not the easiest text to preach on.  What can be said about this wild experience had by Peter, James and John as they accompany Jesus up the mountain to pray.  Just on the verge of sleep, they see Jesus’s face change.  There is brightness and light.  Moses and Elijah show up.  A cloud overshadows the scene and from the cloud a voice.  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
            We are not helped much by the accompanying texts.  In the passage from Exodus we have the story of Moses coming down the mountain, his face shining because he had been “talking with God.”  So disconcerting is this to the Israelites that Moses covers his face, until he goes back to speak with God.  In II Corinthians Paul refers back to this story of Moses, and uses the image of the veil to imply that some don’t quite understand what God was up to in Jesus.  He then goes on to write: “Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
            Year after year, just before Lent, we have the story of the transfiguration of Jesus to grapple with, to make sense of, but maybe there is some sense to this.  In Lent we are encouraged to dig deep, to tackle tough subjects, to grow in self-awareness even when that growth is difficult.  This Wednesday, we are going to be hearing about digging deep.  The theme for Lent this year will be “challenging emotions.”  We will look at difficult emotions and how to work with them, sometimes how to challenge them in order to incorporate them more fully into our lives.  This is tough stuff.
            So maybe before we begin to dig deep, to wrestle with ourselves and with God, we need some reminder of those moments where we have experienced God as close to us as our own heartbeat, where we have known God deep in the marrow of our soul, where we have felt God as near as our own breathing.  Each of the Scripture texts we read is a witness to experiencing God intimately, to being “blinded by the light” as it were.  Each offers a glimpse of the kind of experience the psychologist Abraham Maslow termed a “peak experience.”  The emotional reaction in the peak experience has a special flavor of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender before the experience as before something great. (Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed., 87-88)  At the same time a person having such an experience “usually feels himself at the peak of his powers, using all his capacities at the best and fullest” (105).  Maslow argued that a peak experience “can be so profound and shaking an experience that it can change the person’s character… forever after” (Religion, Values and Peak Experiences, 59).  Other writers describe these kind of experiences as being in a thin place, where our sense of the boundary between ourselves and the Spirit is thin.  “Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 156).  Just before we enter Lent, perhaps it is good and wise to be reminded of these kind of experiences, moments when we know the goodness of God in the marrow of our souls, moments where we are touched deeply by wonder, mystery, hope and joy, where we are “blinded by the light” only to find we see ever more clearly.
            I have had such experiences and in hopes of helping you touch some of your own, I want to share a few of mine.  I’ve shared some of these before, I know so please bear with me.  This week I spent a number of days with the Minnesota Conference Board of Ordained Ministry interviewing persons for commissioning or ordination.  I could not help but think a bit about my own ordination experiences.  When I went through the process, clergy were ordained twice, as a deacon and as an elder.  I remember both ordinations as moments that touched something deep within, as marking me profoundly.
            There was a snow storm in parts of the state this week, though it did not affect me much.  I recall a time when I was on the road as a district superintendent driving home in a heavy snow north of Park Rapids, on the border of Itasca State Park. I was the only car on the highway, and at one point I had the overwhelming feeling I should pull over and get out of the car for a while.  I did.  In the blowing snow, when I simply listened to the snowy winds whisk through the pines, I felt wonderfully close to God.
            On another drive as a superintendent, I was making my way early on a Sunday to the town of Hawley.  I was listening to a cassette tape of John Coltrane.  One side of the tape had some of his wonderful ballads – “Naima” and “Central Park West,” along with his version of “My Favorite Things.”  The other side of the tape had his album length work “A Love Supreme.”  The sun shone brightly on Highway 10, and I was touched deep inside by a feeling of the closeness of God, this God I know in Jesus.
            You know that later this year I will be one among a number of persons considered for election as a bishop in The United Methodist Church.  This is not the first time I have been endorsed by the Minnesota Conference.  We went through that together in 2008.  My first time through it was 2004.  I was obviously younger then, really on the young side to have a realistic chance of being elected, but I was in the process.  I will never forget a moment in the shower a couple of months before that election process.  I was beginning the day in the shower, thinking about the weeks ahead, and I had this deep sense, this audible sense, that I was not going to be elected, and that it was going to be just fine.  The sense of peace at that moment was indescribable.  I never really made a splash in that election.
            I have been to the Rosebud Reservation a couple of times, and there is something about that place that feels very thin to me.  I don’t know if it is the wide open spaces where you feel like you can see for miles, or if it is the deep sense of history, some of it deeply painful history, but with the prairie winds I have often also felt the winds of the Spirit.
            There are more moments I could talk about – moments of deep joy with my family, including the birth of each of our children; holy moments of caring for someone as a pastor, including standing with a large family as together we watched their father take his last breath.  There are moments on Sunday mornings when a song chosen weeks earlier, suddenly sneaks up on me while we are singing.  Something in the words resonates with something I’ve said and I get a chill down my spine.

            Where have your peak experiences come?  When have you felt the close presence of Jesus like a shining light, the breath of God’s Spirit warming your heart?  It is good and wise that we have Scripture readings as we head toward Lent that help us remember to touch again, to taste again, to feel again these moments.  It is good and wise because there is work ahead in these forty days of Lent – inner and outer work, challenging, difficult, perhaps even bruising soul work, but it all brings us back to knowing God more deeply in Jesus Christ, to knowing ourselves more deeply and knowing ourselves as loved by God and being transformed by God’s Spirit, to living more joyfully, more authentically, more lovingly, more freely.  Amen.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

Sermon preached January 31, 2016

Texts: I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

            Paul Stookey, “The Wedding Song”
            There was a time when this was among the most popular songs to have at your wedding.  Julie and I had it sung at our wedding in 1982.  My sister had it sung at her wedding a couple of years earlier.  You could almost pair this song with the reading read by Diane, I Corinthians 13.
            To hear that song, and hear that reading, one can be transported to a delightful summer day with a bride adorned in a beautiful gown, accompanied by friends in lovely dresses, a handsome groom outfitted in a tuxedo, with some best friends also so dressed.  There would be flowers and lace, images adorned with gossamer.  There might be a recollection of a romantic proposal.  There might be dancing.  There would be joy and passion.  On a cold January day, it is kind of fun to simply think about such times.
            Romantic love is wonderful.  That’s why there are songs and poems and movies that celebrate it.  Yet love is more than romance.  Even married love, if it is to be lasting, must be more than gossamer and lace, candles and flowers.  Love not only carries us to places of ease and delight, love carries us to tough places.
            What an interesting pairing of readings for today.  I Corinthians 13 with its celebration of love and Jesus in his hometown synagogue where not all goes well.  It starts off nicely enough.  Jesus offers a wonderful reading from Isaiah.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
            Then things turn, almost inexplicably.  You get the feeling that there must have been more to the story than is told here.  You get the sense that the people, amazed at Jesus eloquence, are now waiting for some special treatment because they are his hometown folks.  If he has done such wonderful things elsewhere, think of what we have coming.  Jesus will have none of that.  He reminds the people of two stories in their tradition.  There is the story of Elijah during a deep famine, who offered help only to a Gentile woman, a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon.  There is the story of Elisha, who healed only a Gentile leper, Naaman, the Syrian.  Suddenly the eloquent hometown boy has become unwelcome.  The reaction against him is filled with rage, and teeters on violence.
            Jesus was talking about love.  His reading from Isaiah 61 was about a God of love who acts to heal and free, who is at work in the world to make human lives more free and whole and the world more just and free. Yet this God of love is always widening the circle of love.  There are no claims to special favors, and that part of the good news of love the people don’t get.  When Jesus presses the point, they turn on him.
            Love calls us to the things of this world.  If you have not already read this, you will soon in our church newsletter.  Love calls us to the things of this world is a wonderful phrase and the title of a Richard Wilbur poem.  In his poem Wilbur imagines a line of laundry hanging out to dry, flapping in the breeze.  It is an image with which we are much less familiar these days.  Wilbur imagines the wind-whisked laundry as our souls, Spirit blown above the earth, reluctant, in a way, to engage again with the everyday.  Yet as the sun acknowledges/With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,/The soul descends once more in bitter love/To accept the waking body.  Love calls us to the things of this world.  The love of God we know in Jesus calls us to enter into the mire, to engage in the messiness of life.  This love is not simply sweetness and light, gossamer and flowers, lace and lilacs.  It asks of us our best gifts and strengths.  It requires of us a willingness to dig deep inside.
            The love of God Paul writes about and Jesus speaks about, this love calls us to the things of this world.  If we are going to try and follow Jesus, if we are going to be Spirit-led people of love, we cannot avoid engaging in issues that may make us uncomfortable sometimes.
            Love calls us to the things of this world.  Love pushes us to ask about poverty.  We celebrate a world in which extreme poverty has been diminishing.  We wonder about a world with growing inequality, where moving toward even more economic security for many is becoming more difficult.
            Love calls us to the things of this world.  Love moves us to inquire about the persistence of racism, about our seeming inability to move past racial stereotypes and systems that work against groups, particularly African-Americans and Native Americans.  All lives matter, but we need to honestly acknowledge those places in our society where some lives have historically mattered less.  African-American slaves were considered less than human by their owners, and in our constitution.  Native Americans were seen as wholly other.  The more Indians we can kill this year the fewer we will need to kill the next, because the more I see of the Indians the more convinced I become that they must either all be killed or be maintained as a species of pauper. Their attempts at civilization are ridiculous. (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman)
            Love calls us to the things of this world.  Immigration and refugee issues in our country and around the world need to be considered through the eyes of the love of God who continues to push us to expand our circle of caring.  Secure borders have their place.  Working to prevent terrorism is important.  And we need to consider that the suffering of human persons, people fleeing war-ravaged countries, people fleeing gang violence that riddles many Central American countries, that suffering matters, too.  There are no easy solutions, but we cannot turn away from engaging in the conversation.
            Nor can we simply ignore the issues in the United Methodist Church that are swirling around our inclusion of LGBT persons.  Things can get tense in some of these discussions as we move toward another General Conference in May.  Love calls us to stay engaged.
            Perhaps Jesus’ reminder to his hometown friends is a reminder to us that love calls us to the things of this world in a world of multiple faiths.  Jesus seems to remind the people in Nazareth that God can be up to something in the lives of persons of other traditions.  How might that affect how we think about our Muslim neighbors?
            Love calls us to the things of this world and Jesus words in Nazareth remind us that it is not all about us.  It is about us, for God’s love is there for us – healing and freeing.  God’s love is an expansive love that continues to press us to widen the circle of love, and that can be messy sometimes.  It means we engage in the muck and mire of everyday life.
            There is also a very personal dimension to this love that calls us to the things of this world.  Married love, if it is to be sustained, needs to be a love that also enters into the muck and mire, the ups and downs, of intimate relationships.  I just finished a wonderful novel by Kent Haruf.  Benediction is set in a small town called Holt on the Colorado plains.  To describe the plot of the story does not make the book sound like much.  The story begins with a diagnosis of terminal cancer for the owner of the hardware store in Holt, Dad Lewis.  The book is about his dying, and about the care of neighbors, friends, family and his wife, Mary, for him.  It is a story of how love calls us to the things of this world.
            Mary came into the room with a pan of hot water and set it on the chair next to the bed and brought in a second pan and set it on another chair and went out again and returned with towels and washcloths.  She switched on the bedside lamp and got Dad out of his pajamas and his diaper and covered him with a flannel sheet.  Are you ready to get cleaned up, honey?
            That water isn’t too hot, is it? he whispered.
            No, but I don’t want you to get chilled.
            She began by washing his face and head with a soapy washcloth and rubbed his face and head with a washcloth from the rinse water and dried him with a towel.  She washed his chest and arms and hands and rubbed him warm, and washed his wasted legs and feet and rinsed and dried them.  Roll over on your side now, honey.  Hold on to my hand.  He made a little moan in pain and turned slowly to his side and she washed his back and his gaunt behind and cleaned him thoroughly and dried him, then he turned back and she washed between his legs….  She put a new diaper on him and helped him into his pajamas and drew up the sheet and summer blanket, then he lay back and looked at her.
            I appreciate all this, he said.
            You’re welcome.
            I wish I could do something for you.
            You have.  All these years.  I’ll just clean this up and come back and lay down with you. (223-224)
            One kind of love is passionate and exciting, in turns like fireworks and like lace.  That love is just fine.  It is a joy.  Enjoy it.  It is a gift of God that God celebrates.
            And the love of God in Jesus is a love that calls us to the things of this world.  It calls us to patience and kindness, even when they are difficult.  It calls us to rejoice in the truth, even when it is difficult to discern.  We are called to a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  One rendering of that verse says that “love is always loyal, hopeful, supportive and trusting.”  The love of God in Jesus calls us to widen the circle of caring.  Love calls us to the things of this world.  God give us the courage to love.  Amen.