Sunday, March 8, 2009

Thresholds and Stars

Lent 2, Year B
March 8, 2009

It’s late at night; my best friend and I have been staring up at the stars for three hours, sitting on the back porch of a comfortable house in a rural suburb of Boston. The stars have emerged from the dusk into a brilliant spray of diamonds glittering against the black sky. For hours we’ve been watching the sky and talking nonstop; and now it’s around midnight and we’ve fallen into silence.

We sit for some time like that, enjoying what only the best of friends can achieve, which is silence between them.

After a while, I hear my friend let out a long sigh, and then I realize that he is weeping.

He turns to me, despair on his face, and says, “I’m dying inside.”

My friend had been living a life that many of us would envy. I certainly envied it, anyway, though I tried not to show it. He had an impressive job, a beautiful home, a lovely girlfriend of six years whom everyone knew he would marry. He was the wunderkind of his company, a brilliant and rising star in the corporate world: and he was dying inside.

He was like a man who hadn’t stopped growing and his clothes, which used to fit him fine, were now too small.

Over the course of the next year, my friend did what we do when we’re desperately unhappy: he got into therapy. And for a while this only made things worse – because it only made him more aware of his problem. His clothes just felt tighter and tighter.

Then he went to a monastery on a retreat. And again he found himself looking up at the stars and weeping. But this time he also had a prayer: “Help me,” he said. “I can’t do this without you.”

And he felt something shift. Deep down inside, something changed. Later, when he told me about it, he said he felt like he was standing in front of a threshold, and all this time – for years, really – he thought he had to walk through it alone, and he had no idea what was on the other side, and the prospect was completely terrifying.

And then, that night, it felt as if there was a hand reaching out toward him from the other side of the threshold; and he felt a sense of peace and certainty come over him; and he knew at that moment that when he crossed over to the other side, he would not be alone; that, in fact, his long loneliness would be over; and that he would be fine.

It’s a dangerous and beautiful thing, to look up at those stars.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus said that.

Lao Tsu said it with different words, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

All of us have thresholds we must cross; all of us have moments when we have to let go of what we are, in order to become what we might be. Some of us are facing the final threshold. Others among us are just getting started. Some among us have found their peace with this crossing; they have seen the hand reaching out; and they know, deep down inside them, that when the time comes, they will be fine.

Others among us are not so sure; they have some more praying to do, and more talking with trusted friends to do, and more star-gazing to do.

We are not alone. As Paul said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

Abram and Sarai think they know exactly who they are; they are desert people, wandering Arameans; they have scraped together a living out of the sand and sun for almost a hundred years; they are reaching the end of their lives and they are not unhappy.

And then, while Abram is looking up at the stars, an entirely new future opens up.

Sometimes this star-gazing can be surprising.

13 years ago, long before I even heard about the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, I found myself on a pilgrimage to Assisi. It was one of those threshold times in my life and I knew it. My ministry up to that point had gone well enough, but I was restless, and I needed new direction.

And so it was that on a bright sunny day I walked up a hill to the Basilica of St. Claire, and planted myself in front of the cross of San Damiano and began to pray. This of course, was the same cross that St. Francis had prayed before when he, as a young man, was at a threshold time of his life; when God spoke to him through the cross and said, “Francis, rebuild my church.”

I found myself praying for my vocation as a priest; I thought about this beautiful, historic institution we call the Episcopal Church; I thought about how it was losing members, like a patient whose bleeding wouldn’t stop; like the woman in the gospel story who comes to Jesus and asks for her bleeding to stop.

I felt my deep love for our church welling up within me. I thought about all the young people I knew, who had no interest in going to church, and I felt sadness for them, for what they were missing; and I felt a great sadness for the church, for what the church was missing by not having their creativity and fresh energy.

I must have been there about two hours, just sitting before the cross, and breathing, and praying, and feeling all these feelings; and it took that long for the words to come to me, and when they did, they felt like the hand reaching to me from the other side: “Matthew, rebuild my church.”

When I got home from Italy there was a message for me: I had been called as the chaplain at the University of Michigan. I had been called to represent the Episcopal Church to our lost generation of young people.

When I came to that job I brought those words and that passion with me. The campus ministry I inherited had given up on reaching the students on campus. There, at one of the largest universities in the country, in the middle of a place teeming with young people, the Episcopal Church stood empty and impotent, completely confused and stuck and unable to even imagine what kind of a ministry might succeed with the students there.

Within two years we were one of the largest and most active campus ministries in the Episcopal Church.

Seven years passed, and I interviewed for this job, and I spoke about my moment in Assisi, and about my passion for young people, and heads nodded, and the call was made. So I carried that sense of calling here.
But I made a mistake along the way. I thought I could just re-create my experience in Ann Arbor; I didn’t take enough time to figure out how my passion met your passion; how my sense of calling fit with your sense of calling.

And along the way, I never paused to wonder whether, in this particular place, with this particular ministry at Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa, God might have a different word for me. When I traveled across the country to be with you, I knew that God was calling me here. And I thought I knew how that calling might become real in the world. I busily applied myself to the Sanctuary Project, which morphed into CenterPoint, and in retrospect this felt a little like forcing the parish's foot into a shoe two sizes too small, or maybe, to use a more apt analogy inspired by the story of Abraham and Sarah, it felt a little like Sarah trying to have a child through a in-vitro fertilization. Meanwhile, this parish, at the tender age of 137 years of age, woke up one day to find itself pregnant the natural way, and gave birth to a beautiful new child, the Numina Center for Spirituality and the Arts.

And Sarah laughed.

The fact that Numina’s birth came so easily and so naturally is a testament to its fit with Incarnation. Going to the Rilke poetry reading last Saturday was so deeply satisfying; to see this sanctuary filled with lovers of poetry and the spiritual journey. What a thing.

And to be fair, there is a little bit of CenterPoint’s genes in Numina; the Friday night Taize service that Kayleen and Robin are doing is really a continuation and adaptation of our work with CenterPoint. This is a good thing.

And so now we stand at another threshold. What is God calling us to next? In five weeks I will begin my sabbatical with a trip to Utah and Arizona, where I'll be camping in the desert. For three weeks I will be living simply, hiking in the canyons and ravines, and spending my nights alone, staring up at the stars. I will be asking some questions: what's next for us? Where is God calling us to now? And I pray that you, too, as a congregation, will be spending some time with the stars.

We are in this together; we are on a journey of discovery and of blessing. We are not alone; there is God; there is Spirit; there is Jesus, reaching out to us. We will hear God’s voice; we will see that helping hand reaching across the threshold; and we will say, together, Amen.

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