So, the last time I preached here
next fall’s freshman class was in utero.
According to the Beloit College “Mindset List”
next fall’s freshman never shared the planet with
or Notorious B.I.G.
They have never licked a postage stamp either.
In fact, since they were born
there has always been Hybrid cars
For next fall’s incoming,
Email has always been the “formal” way to communicate
while tweets and texts are casual methods.
Well, you get the idea –
it’s been awhile.
But I have to say,
those of you who were here back in the 80’s and 90’s,
you don’t look a bit older than I do.
It has been seventeen years to the month
since we parted,
and I feel deeply grateful to be here.
I have gazillions of sweet and wonderful memories
of our ten years together;
and an exceptionally deep well of gratitude
for the experience of being your priest
and for the great friendships and learning we shared.
It all presents a great temptation
to wander down memory lane
and laugh and cry about those times.
But this is a sermon about here and now,
and what has always been.
So I will simply say this: Thank you.
Thank you for teaching me
more than you can possibly imagine,
and for laying the foundations within me
for everything I have had the opportunity to do since.
It is crystal clear to me
that St. Stephen’s molded me
and nurtured me
and prepared me
for the ministry I was given in Buffalo
and for what I am doing now
as an author and parish priest.
So thank you, thank you, thank you –
for more than you will ever know.
Now, to Mr. Tolkien.
“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’ s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way…”
And isn’t that the way with us too?
Our adventures take place in life as we live it –
we don’t have to go out looking for encounters with God
because the presence of God is in our midst
even here and even now.
In this moment…
So our task is not going places
and doing things in order make God present,
as if rubbing an oil lamp
and saying an incantation
to provoke a genie to appear.
That is superstition and wishful thinking.
Our task is to wake up.
Our task it to wake up
wherever we are in the moment,
and to open up
to everything in the field around us
in order to perceive
what has been there all along.
It isn’t magic
and it isn’t supernatural
and it isn’t even all that extraordinary.
It is the ordinary presence of the sacred
and our ordinary ability to perceive it.
That, by the way,
is what my novel, “The Steam Room Diaries” is about,
as is a great deal
of what I write and preach about these days.
The reason for that is:
next fall’s freshman class
and their millennial generation cohort.
Only a third of them
grew up with any meaningful affiliation
with a religious community.
A third, and that means
we haven’t done a very good job
of offering them a place
and an opportunity
to encounter the holy in our midst.
It also means
we have a tremendous opportunity going forward
to voice the gospel for a new generation
and to voice it in something that sounds
much more like their voices than ours.
So that’s what I brought with me
to talk about today:
waking up to the ordinary presence of the holy
in our midst –
or more plainly,
an encounter with God.
I learned that here at St. Stephen’s.
I suspected as much when I arrived
but it was being here
and encountering God in the midst of this community
and seeing that take place
among a wide variety of people
with a great diversity of beliefs,
that convinced me that it was likely true everywhere.
And so I want to say out loud the obvious,
something that you also know to be true:
that the reason anyone walks in those doors
is not for the coolest, best Sunday School;
or the most fantastic choir;
or a radical outreach program;
or the most intellectually challenging adult classes.
We may say that is what we want
when we walk into a spiritual community
and those things may even be on our mind;
but what we are actually aiming at
is not programs and ideas
but rather, to be touched
and have our lives transformed.
We’re not here because we are looking for
ideas about God
or even for good ideas
about how to live life more meaningfully.
Rather, the reason we are here
on some elementary and basic level
is to encounter with God;
to actually bump up against the holy somehow.
We are here in hopes of experiencing the holy.
People walk in the doors of a place like this
knowing on a visceral level
that all we have,
and all we know,
and all we have seen
does not add up to the sum total of life,
and the holy mysteries
swirling within and around us.
Most of us are never quite sure
how to talk about such things
and so we ask,
“Well, what programs do you have?
Clearly it would be little scary and whacky
to walk into a strange place like a church,
or anywhere for that matter, and say,
“Yeah, we’re looking for an encounter with God,
do you have any?”
Instead, we are a lot more like the people in John’s story
going about our business
when something happens to change our direction.
Something opens our eyes
to what we had not seen before
and then suddenly we see opportunities present
that somehow didn’t seem to be there
just a moment ago.
It isn’t the hero’s journey either.
It is more like the farmer
living through the seasons
and doing what needs to be done
and amazingly, miraculously even,
green shoots come up from dark earth
and it begins all over again.
Encountering God in the ordinary
and finding ways to utter out loud
what we think we know as a result of it –
is the bottom line of a place like this
and everything else is gravy.
Everything else that happens gets funded by our experiences of God in our midst,
and helping one another awake to that
is what we need to become better at offering
to next year’s incoming freshman –
not to mention one another.
Now to those who are deeply committed
to the Church being engaged in organizing,
advocacy, and social action
that may sound like blasphemy.
But here is what my experience tells me –
not that you have to believe my experience or anything.
If we have been awakened
to the ordinary presence of God in our midst
then whatever activity we are engaged in
will have enormous vitality and sustainability.
But activity funded by our ideas,
even our best ideas,
and only our ideas,
will finally lead to a thinning of hope
and maybe even cynicism.
So it is a both/and proposition
so long as the foundation is our experience of the holy.
When I was growing up in Indiana
there were a couple of summers
when my parents shipped me off to camp
for weeks and even a month at a time.
In the summers before my fifth and sixth grade years
I attended a boys camp in the beautiful and humid hills
of Brown County – not unlike the Hocking Hills.
I don’t remember the director of the camp all that well,
or even any of my counselors;
but I have distinct memories of the man
who owned the land the camp was on.
His name was Tom
and he was Native American
and as far as I know,
the only contact he had with campers
was taking us into the woods to learn how to listen.
Now think about this:
we were twelve and thirteen year old boys.
Tom would hike us into the thick woods
and drop us off one by one
out of sight and sound of each other.
Our task was to squat and listen.
He gave us a piece of paper and pencil
and we were to write down all the things we heard.
Well of course the first time we did it
we didn’t hear much – some bird songs maybe.
I remember being distracted by fear and anxiety.
Listening is difficult
if we are filled with fear and anxiety.
But over time,
and I think we did the exercise every day
or at least several times a week,
the fear and anxiety receded
and the listening got better and better.
wind rustling leaves,
leaves under feet,
an unseen chipmunk or squirrel fifty yards away,
our own heartbeat…
I have discovered the same thing as an adult
when learning to write poetry –
it requires listening
and observing ordinary life more intently.
I am only a baby poet
but even so I have noticed
my seeing and hearing are much more acute
now than before I tried to write poetry.
Encountering God in our midst
is an unveiling
of the filters
and willful dissolving of the cataracts
and build up over time.
It is not magic,
it is not supernatural,
and it’s not even spooky.
It IS engaging in a spiritual practice of acute listening
and keen observation
in the place where we live
and with the people among whom
we live and work and play.
Waking up to notice what lens we wear;
what assumptions have blurred our vision;
what blind spots we haven’t asked for help to overcome;
what growling hungers eat away at our patience for listening;
which anxieties speed up and multiply our thoughts
while dulling our hearing…
awakening to the presence of these things
and learning to listen and observe through them,
is what we need to get good at doing
and offering to others.
If our own spiritual practice
awakens us like that,
other people will notice and invite us to share it.
If our spiritual communities are laboratories of learning
to listen and observe
the ordinary presence of God in our midst,
they will be compelling places to be
even for some of those who have never stepped foot
in a place like this.
And here is one more thing that might happen
if we get really good at listening and seeing:
Church will be different.
We will do church very differently.
You see, we have created church for ourselves,
based mostly on what we like
from what has been handed down to us.
But there has been a radical cultural shift
and very few churches,
mega ones or small ones,
have noticed –
except in the increased stresses
of sustaining church as it has been done.
But if we get good at listening
and at seeing,
and we apply those skills to all those people out there who are not in church yet –
who have never been in church
or who have run for their lives from church –
I believe we will begin doing things differently
out of ordinary compassion
and a sense of solidarity.
Compassion and solidarity
draw us out of ourselves
and out of our own self-interests,
and into a circle of community
even with people who differ greatly from us.
So if we were to spend considerable time
listening and watching
those who thirst for spiritual community
but who don’t find it
in church as we do it now,
I believe it would change us.
I believe it would change us dramatically
and we would do everything about church differently.
I believe that St. Stephen’s
has a front row seat in the classroom
for listening and seeing an entire generation like that.
I believe that if you get really good
at listening and seeing
you will have a great deal to teach the rest of us.
Well, that is what I have been learning while I was away.
I hope it intersects in some way
with your life,
and with the life of St. Stephen’s.
“: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for…
But that’s not the way of it
with the tales that really mattered,
or the ones that stay in the mind…”
My time at St. Stephen’s has very much stayed in my mind.