Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost: the sermon I don't entirely understand

I have to begin by telling you that I don’t completely understand this sermon.   This sermon is apparently being written under the influence of the Holy Spirit and I am quite sincere as I tell you I have had very little to do with it.  

Last night I went to bed, the sermon still unformed, and I began to pray for the Spirit to come in, as she always seems to do, and guide me as I worked on these ideas about Pentecost in my sleep; and just as I closed my eyes, a very clear little dream came to me: I saw a rope, coiled, on the ground, ready for use; and a set of keys resting on top of it.  It was so clear I woke up and started asking, like the disciples in our lessons from Acts: What does that mean?  And the answer was this: the rope: that’s the key.  Rope?  What's with the rope?  

And then I went downstairs and sat at my desk and started writing this sermon.  And I don’t really understand it.  In fact half way through I thought, this is going nowhere, I don’t get this, I should just stop and try a different approach – but I just couldn’t get off it.  It just kept writing itself.  And eventually I just said, you know what?  It’s Pentecost.  If this is what the spirit is saying, this is what I have to preach, even if I don’t get it myself.

So I think it’s entirely possible that, of the 250 or so people who hear this sermon by the end of our last service today, there might be just one person who understands it – and the rest of us will just have to put up with it. 
So here it is:

Sometimes, it seems, no matter what we do to avoid it, we can’t escape the sensation that we are in freefall.
Maybe you know what I mean.

It’s like this: our lives are like we’re climbing a mountain; and when we’re young we are happily dancing up the foothills and skipping over rocks without much thought of danger; and then as we get older the air becomes thinner and the slope becomes steeper and we have to start being more careful; after awhile we find we have to use crampons and ropes; and before we know it we’re 70 years old and there we are, near the summit, acutely aware of the void – and we’ve got this whole elaborate system of ropes that keeps us from falling off the edge.  

I’m talking about the rope of financial security, if we’re lucky enough to have any; the rope of a roof over our heads, if we are blessed with that; the rope of family ties; the rope of friends and church and clubs and even Facebook friends – all of these ropes tying us to earth, linking us to safety and connection and comfort  – even as we find ourselves breathing the thin air at 15,000 feet and we can imagine death with every step.

And then finally something gives way – we have a stroke, a heart attack, a complicated surgery; we lose our house; we go bankrupt; our marriage ends; our spouse dies – and suddenly we’re in freefall.  And that’s when all our preparations – all our impressive ropes with their fancy knots – that’s when they’re tested.  We find out who our true friends are; we see who it is who comes to our rescue – who visits us in the hospital; who cares about the fact that we’re in crisis and who doesn’t – or at least, who doesn’t seem able to express their care.

So we find ourselves in crisis.  And between the moment when our foot slips on the ice and the moment the rope grows taught and catches us, there is this infinity of time; we’re in freefall; we’re clutching at the air; we realize there is nothing we can do now but trust in the rope.  We wonder, is our health insurance paid up?   Does anyone know where we are?  Do they know to check on us if they haven’t heard from us?  Would they know where to look?  Have we prepared our children or our spouse or our neighbors for the possibility that we might need them some day?  Have we invested in those relationships so that they might be willing to help us when we need them?  Have we spent enough time helping others that there might be someone out there willing to return the favor?  Is anyone connected to us?  Are they tied down and ready to take hold of the rope as it flies by?

All of these thoughts race through our heads as we’re in freefall.

And then we realize: when we’re in freefall, there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.  There’s nothing we can do now but trust – in the ropes we have knotted; in the doctors and nurses; in our children if we have any; in our community, our church.  If we have invested well during the course of our lives, we might just have a safety net beneath us.  Or we might not.  We might be falling too fast for anyone to catch us.  We might be too far out in the wilderness for anyone to find us.  It really doesn’t matter at this point, because there’s nothing we can do about any of it anymore.  What will be will be.  

And that’s when we call upon the name of the Lord.

A friend of mine sent me this little poem yesterday, by Denise Levertov – maybe this has something to do with all of this:

I had grasped God's garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The 'everlasting arms' my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

If you’ve ever been in freefall, I think you might know what she’s talking about.  

We call out to Jesus – only to find out he isn’t here; he’s ascended to the Father – and we find, instead, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  It seems that the Holy Spirit comes to us when we’re in freefall.   When the disciples went on the road, carrying no money and no extra clothes, and threw themselves on the benevolence of the people they were with – they were in freefall.   When, as a young man, I went hitchhiking through the US and the British Empire and threw myself on the mercies of those who would stop to pick me up – I was in freefall – and the Holy Spirit found me there.   When the disciples realized that Jesus was no longer with them, and that they were now on their own, they were in freefall.  And that’s when the Spirit came to them, giving them meaning, giving them energy, igniting their passion for this gospel of love.

So the Spirit is like a rope when we’re in freefall – we throw ourselves into the ever-loving arms of God.  But the Spirit is not like a rope anchored to the mountain; it’s a rope connecting us to the ones we love, and to God; it’s not a rope that keeps us from falling, but instead it brings our loved ones to our bedside as we fall out of this world.  It’s a rope that brings casseroles to our doorstep when we’re too sick to cook for ourselves; it’s a rope that makes the phone ring when we’re alone – or perhaps even more helpfully, it’s a rope that inspires us to pick up the phone ourselves and speak words of love before it’s too late.
In the end we learn that it’s not about climbing the mountain and reaching the summit; in the end it’s about the inevitability of the fall, and learning how to trust the fall.  

I think this is why we say we are “falling in love.”  

It turns out we’re all in freefall, all the time.  After all, what is holding up the entire universe?  Nothing at all.  The entire universe is falling through the infinity of space.  The fact that we don’t realize it is simply because it’s all falling at exactly the same rate – so that as far as we can see, it’s all standing still.  But it’s not – we’re all in freefall.  Everything is.  And in that weightlessness, the Holy Spirit finds us.

So that’s the sermon I was directed to write.  Like I said, I don’t exactly know why.  But maybe there are some interpreters of the Spirit here in the congregation.  Maybe you have a story about being in freefall triggered by this sermon.  Maybe there’s something here that speaks to you somehow.  If so, let’s have a conversation.  Tell your story.  What does this mean to you?

[At this point Fr. Matt moved around the congregation with a microphone and people offered their own interpretations and stories.  Some were very tearful and profound.]


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Another Marilynne Robinson sermon: on Fear

Somebody said to me last week that she was still getting used to the idea that Christians can be strong in their faith and yet not exclusive of other people who might have a different faith.  She found it refreshing that we here at Incarnation refuse to waste our time worrying about whether or not Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Atheists are going to hell – but she admitted that it was a hard to fully trust it – that we can really be Christians who also respect and love and learn from other spiritual paths.  

She reminded me that, just because it’s obvious to those of us who have been Episcopalians for awhile, we can’t assume that it’s obvious to everyone.   The power and influence of exclusive forms of Christianity has been so great that we can unconsciously find ourselves reading the Bible through their eyes, rather than through the eyes of the people who originally wrote it.  

A good example is this statement in John’s first letter, which we read this morning:
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.   (1 John 4:15)

When we read this in Scripture, a lot of us can’t help but interpret it as the evangelical Christians have done, which is this: if you say, out loud, that Jesus is the Son of God, then you will abide in God and be saved.  I mean, that’s what it says, right?  

But I think what he is actually saying is this: “Those Christians – you know, the ones who confess Jesus as the Son of God?  Those ones?  Man, they really abide in God.”  

It’s like saying, “Those folks who live around Harvard Square?   Wow, they’re really smart.”  That may be true as a general statement – but what it doesn’t mean is that moving to Harvard Square will raise your IQ!  

Just saying the words “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” does not necessarily make you a better person.  I grant you, it’s an excellent start – but God knows the world has seen its share of people confessing Jesus as the Son of God who are clearly so afraid of the rest of the world that they find it nearly impossible to love it. 
Apparently this was a problem in the earliest days of the Christian community as well.  Apparently there were members of the early church who not only failed to love their neighbors – they actually hated them.  So much so that the disciple John has to call them out: “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” 

The problem, John says, is that we are afraid of one another.  But “perfect love casts out fear…, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  (1 John 4: 18)

Last week I talked about one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson; I talked about how I had gone to a writing conference in Michigan and she had given a couple of talks that were quite inspiring.  So I was tickled by the fact that, this week, our readings include the very phrase that she based her keynote speech on: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  Apparently the Holy Spirit wants me to talk about her just a little bit more.

Robinson’s point in the talk was to challenge the culture of fear that she sees all around her.  She talked about the professional fear-mongers who seem to be cropping up everywhere these days; people telling us to be afraid of the immigrants; be afraid of the liberals; be afraid of the President.  The most extreme things are being said nowadays about our neighbors that if you were to believe all of it, you’d think America is populated by teeming hordes of brown-skinned homosexual atheists intent on depriving us of our lives, liberty and happiness.  She said that we can’t seem to get over the idea that we are under attack:“We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters,” she said,  when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” she said.  “If there have ever been people on earth who should have been able to take a deep breath and say, `Thank God,' we are that people.” 

She referred to the folks who feel it necessary to carry guns around with them, and that people are feeling so “justified in fear” that they see nothing wrong with shooting a man simply because he felt threatened.   And so people with no training in police procedure and no sworn oath to protect and serve, accountable to no one, are allowed to carry guns and shoot other people simply because they felt frightened.  

“We’ve begun to rationalize preemptive defense,” she said.  “People feel justified in fear that they can take preemptive violence….  Who do you want to shoot?  Which image of God has been getting on your nerves lately?”  I mean, let’s face it, “There are a lot of people who are not good judges of the degree to which others are a threat to them.”

This is what happens when people start to believe in fear over faith.  When we’re afraid, she points out, we are no longer objective observers of reality.  People who are afraid have a distorted view of the world.  And so, the more we let fearful people make our public policies, the more we’re letting the inmates run the asylum. 

So: what do we, as Christians, need to do to make a difference in this world?  She said the first, we need to “Talk ourselves out of our crouch of fearfulness.  If you’re frightened, you’ve already given in.”

As Christians, it’s our job to risk respect.  “What about risking respect of everyone,” she said. 
“If you’re frightened, you don’t trust God.  God told us he would protect us.  Trust God and abandon fear.”
This, of course, is much easier said than done.  Fear is not something that we can just will ourselves to overcome.  If we’re afraid, we’re afraid – and sometimes that fear is justified; sometimes fear really is nature’s way of saying, “Hey, eyes open.  Be careful.”

A few days ago, I was in here with the band, rehearsing for today.  And the front doors were open and during the rehearsal a guy wandered in; he was obviously drunk and disoriented.  At first I watched him, and thought I’d just keep my eye on him.  And he seemed okay at first.  But then he started interrupting the rehearsal and saying crazy things so I explained to him that this was actually a closed rehearsal and he would have to leave.  Then he started getting belligerent and so I started over: I introduced myself as Fr. Matt, and I said, “What’s going on with you?”  And suddenly he opened up; he gave me a hug; he poured out all his troubles and concerns.  I prayed with him and blessed him and sent him on his way.
It was only later that we realized he had stolen the saxophone player’s wallet, which had been left on one of the pews!

So as Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”  We don’t have to be afraid of the ones we seek to serve – in fact that will make it impossible for us to serve them.  We are called to have the deepest respect for every person who comes in these doors.  But at the same time, well, you know, keep an eye on your wallet...

Jesus would have us challenge our fear every step of the way.  When the food servers at Open Table decided to come out of the kitchen and interact with the men and women who come here for food, not only did they send a life-giving, gospel message of love to the folks they were serving – they also radically decreased the chances of violence actually breaking out.  As we demonstrate respect and civility, we find that other people are grateful to follow our lead.

And the second thing we can do is just turn off the TV or the radio.  This Lent Rose and I cancelled our TV cable service.  We killed our TV.  And I think it has helped us to see and appreciate the respectable reality around us, rather than having it interpreted for us by people who make enormous amounts of money off of our fear.  It is unbelievable to me how often we mistake reality for the reality represented on the TV.  The TV is not reality.  Nothing in there has much of anything to do with truth.  God is truth; God is not Bill O’Reilly and God is not Stephen Colbert (as difficult as that is for me to admit).

God, in other words, is all around us, right here.  

Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches.  I think of how the branches in a vineyard go laterally, parallel to the ground, not vertically; they look like an altar rail, traveling across the field.  That's how we find God - not so much by looking up at the sky, but by looking around us.  God travels along the horizontal plane.  

God is in the miracle of life that turns those vineyards green; that miraculous combination of water and sun and earth and photosynthesis and millions of years of evolution. and that spark of life that is God.  God is in the miracle of life here, turning oxygen into life-giving red blood cells, giving us strength to serve, and courage to lead.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Progress with 'Cello

My progress with the 'cello thus far (we've been togther now a week) can be summed up in the words of an old song I made up:

I'm a long way away from where I used to be
And that wasn't far at all.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Can This Deanery Live?

Well, the cheerfully obliging Episcopalians of the Wingfield Deanery showed up en masse today, while the clergy and congregants of the Deanery of the West had a rather more tepid showing at the first convocation for the two new deaneries.

Whether the difference was due to difficult geography, negligent leadership (mine), or the possibility that members of the Deanery of the West have better things to do on a brilliant Saturday morning than wade through the arcana of rules of order and by-laws, the outcomes of which had been pre-determined by last Diocesan Convention, our attendance barely moved the meter above zero (5 congregations were unable to send anyone; only 3 clergy came, including me).  Fortunately, there was no minimum requirement for a quorum, and the impressive turn-out among the Wingfield Wing-Nuts made up for the absence of Western Woo-Woos.  (No one dares defy Jeanne Forte!)

The one thing we did that made the trip worthwhile, in my opinion, was the wonderful half-hour we spent at the end of our time, when we broke into groups according to our interests and connected with other Episcopalians across congregational lines.  We tapped into the expertise in the room as people with experience in local ministries connected with other people genuinely excited by what they were doing.   Health ministries, small groups, breakfast programs, youth in worship: these and many other small groups were spontaneously created.  It was exciting to feel energy as we organized around our competence and lived faith. 

Anyway, thanks to all 15 folks who made the trip, and I promise that in the future, you will have adequate notice, and maybe even a reason to attend!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Prayer requests at the homeless shelter

At our day shelter for homeless women and children, we have a box for prayer requests.  Every once in a while we collect them and pray over them.  Sometimes they are so poignant and truthful you want to weep and laugh at the same time. 

Here are some of them - names have been covered to protect identities.  Please pray with me:

Let someone beautiful come into my life.

 Please help me God to make my life better and find some clarity and a new direction.  Take away all fears.  Bless me.

That my craving for the needle subsides...  If not, that unto me falls a pressed and sealed brick of hydro-morphone weighing no less than 40 grams.
Please let me thrive.
I need prayer for to get off the streets; also for my boyfriend some work at Labor Ready; and maybe for my Ex to let me talk to my kid.  Thank[s] for all the prayer.