[Sermon preached on Sunday, May 28, 2017 (Easter VII) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few years ago I was in a very, let’s just say, “interesting” time in my life.
I had just finished my year of Anglican studies at the University of the South and was anxiously awaiting my first call as a priest. I was ordained a deacon five months prior in the Diocese of Atlanta and at that time the Diocese of Atlanta had a policy that one was not ordained a priest without an actual call to serve as a priest, or at least that’s how I remember it. And four years ago, of the other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon, I was the only one who had yet to receive a call.
To be clear: it was not for lack of effort. I had discerned with churches all over northern Georgia – urban, rural, small, large, conservative, liberal – but none of these searches resulted in a call. After months of interviewing and hearing “no” after “no” after “no,” I began to doubt whether I was actually called to the priesthood in the first place. It wasn’t just “no,” it was a “no” that felt unfair, or a “no” that felt discriminatory, or a “no” that felt heartless. They were “no’s” that resurrected the ghost of a sort-of-pudgy, very unpopular, deeply insecure little boy – a ghost I thought I had exorcised a long time ago. If you’ve ever been in a space in your own life that was defined by an endless chorus of “no’s” then you know what I am talking about – the deep, soul-shaking, debilitating sense of self-doubt that begins to seep through the fraying seems of our world.
One of that hardest things I have ever had to do was to return to Atlanta on June 15, 2013 for the ordination to the priesthood of other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon. I sat in the cavernous nave of St. Philip’s Cathedral spiritually cold, trying my best to go through the liturgical motions, trying to keep a smile on my face, but in actuality I was hurting. People asked me what I had done wrong or where I had messed up so much that I began to feel like something was wrong with me, like God had lied to me or that I had misheard how God was calling me.
Even four years later, after spending close to three-and-a-half of those years as a priest in Kansas City, I would be lying to you if I said that I was completely over that experience. There are some situations that leave scars too deep to ever fully heal. But what I did learn was a valuable lesson in what happens in the meantime – those awkward middle spaces that each of us attempts to stumble through.
This past Thursday the Church marked the Feast of the Ascension – the moment when Jesus ascends bodily into heaven – scars and all – while his disciples stand below wondering what the heck is supposed to happen next. Before he goes, Jesus promises to send them another “comforter” to walk with them. The Ascension was the moment in which Jesus created the necessary vacuum of mission for the Church to step into. It was an act of radical hospitality, the practice of withdrawing to create enough room for the other to emerge more fully.
There is a mystical Jewish doctrine which suggests that in the beginning when God wanted to create, God’s glory filled everything and as such creation was impossible. In order to create, God first had to withdraw in order to leave an empty space large enough to create something that was “not God.” Whether or not this is true, I do not know. But I do like the idea of hospitality not necessarily being what we give and what we do, but the intentional space we make for others. In withdrawing from his early followers 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus was creating space for the disciples to step up and grow, and space to nurture the early church.
That’s the Ascension – Jesus handing the reigns of his fledgling movement into the hands of fragile human beings who he knew would royally screw it up. They would exclude people. They would persecute people. They would get drunk with the wine of worldly power. They would deny people the boundless fountain of God’s abundant grace. But they would also proclaim the good news. The would heal the sick. They would topple emperors and kingdoms. They would bear witness to the inbreaking of the holy Reign of God. They would give themselves away to something far greater than themselves. The Church is complex and messy because we are complex and messy and yet God still dares to believe in us.
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is his earnest petition to God to watch over us in the meantime, in those in-between spaces. 20th century mystic, theologian, and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Howard Thurman says that God places a crown over our “heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.” You and I are here, trying our hardest to step into the fullness of who God knows us to already be.
Our work in the meantime is to discover that for ourselves. Our work is to step into the space created when things don’t go as planned, when things go wrong, when people leave who were supposed to stay, when the world seems to be careening off the tracks or fraying at the edges and to discover over and over again that who we are is not contingent upon a position, a rank, or job, a marriage, a material possession, an achievement, it’s not even about who we once were. At the deepest, most fundamental level of our humanity, we are precious creations of God who loves us so much that it is quite literally ridiculous. When the rations of the world’s congratulations and affirmations are depleted, our work is to rediscover the well of God’s grace that will never run dry.
As much as we might want it to be, life is not an endless series of joys. Life is, well, life. We want so badly what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full solar spirituality” because so many of us are afraid of what we discover in the darkness, in the silence, in the stillness, in the space in the meantime.
As some of you may know, I am a huge social media person. Part of it is who I am as a millennial. I wasn’t quite born with a device in my hand, but at this point, I have spent more years of my life with a cellphone than without. If you know anything about Twitter, it is kind of like walking into a loud room where literally millions of people are talking, exchanging ideas, shouting at one another, arguing over politics, sharing the latest hobbies, or just wasting time. In fact, when people are brand new to Twitter, they often describe it as “overwhelming,” like jumping off the diving board into a cyclone swirling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This constant chatter is a part of the human experience now.
But this chatter isn’t unique to millennials. It wasn’t even invented by millennials. It is everywhere. It’s the music when we shop. It’s the radio in the car. It’s the television as background noise at home. It is persistent noise and constant static.
Now, I am not saying that music and social media are evil. I don’t believe there to be some nefarious plot to destroy the human race by cell phones and earbuds. By no means. But in the context of a society that is growing increasingly anxious while battling secret addictions to drugs, food, and rampant consumerism, the presence of constant noise raises interesting questions that we might need to wrestle with.
I wonder what we might be hiding from.
I wonder what it is in ourselves or in our society that we are so afraid to confront that we numb it with static.
I wonder what it is that we are afraid to discover in the empty spaces.
Our wiring, whenever we encounter one of those awkward in the meantime spaces is to run from it, to chase it away, to fill it, to exorcise it by any means necessary, but I wonder what it might be trying to tell us.
Those between spaces where we find ourselves a lot of the time are not punishment, they are just a part of life. They are spaces where the blessed dew of God’s grace has a tendency of collecting. They are spaces where Jesus has a tendency of showing up in weird and unexpected ways. They might not even be trying to teach us anything aside from how complex life can be and about how we might discover new tools to find our way through.
What Barbara said last week is true – God will not leave us comfortless. It isn’t that the early followers of Jesus were just “up the creek without a paddle” after Jesus ascended. If you follow the story, the community went and prayed. They supported one another.
And sometimes just having friends in the meantime, a community to call home – a place of safety, security, and belonging – is more than enough.