Spiritual Disentanglement

Sermon Preached: Lent 2A
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois

I’m in the middle of two books right now. The first is an older book – written about 30 years ago by a Jesuit priest, John Kavanaugh . It is called Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance. In it he describes two forms – the commodity form and the personal form. The Commodity Form is one which I daresay is recognizable to each of us in this room. It is the predominant form of our culture, a form which is dominated by the marketplace. Kavanaugh refers to the “commodity-hucksters” – those individuals and corporations that spend their energy and resources convincing us that their product will be everything we need to feel lovable, beautiful, important, powerful, and otherwise worthwhile.[1] What’s more, Kavanaugh writes that these same hucksters convince us that without the very “things” they are selling “We might be ‘found out’ as we really are.[2] We might be rejected and certainly wounded.” He quotes a 1980s Cosmopolitan article which seems to capture the essence of the commodity form: “Clasp a sensuously soft cashmere as tightly as you like. . . . It will never walk out on you.”[3] The Commodity Form works to convince us that we do not need people, we need possessions. And it is only possessions that will give us the comfort and stability we need in our lives. The problem, of course, and we know it all too well, is that the products being sold, never really deliver. That “I love what you do for me” Toyota eventually breaks down leaving you and me, once again, with that feeling of incompleteness. A feeling that we’ve been taught can be filled with the next great thing.

And this is where the other book I am reading comes into the picture. It is called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Its author, Kenda Creasy Dean, has been studying the data from the extensive National Study of Youth and Religion and has reached some conclusions which should be a major wake-up call for all Christians. In the first place, she suggests, that most teens, despite their notoriety for being rebellious, do, in fact, in many areas actually mirror the views of their parents. For churches, this should be great news as we pass our faith from one generation to the next. However, she continues, if this is true, then the lack of commitment churches often find among many teenagers is not due to lack of interest or rebellion on the part of teens, but is, in fact, an indication of the very lack of commitment on the part of the adults whom our younger members are mirroring. Dean asks,

“What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?”[4]
As I read Kavanaugh’s book and Dean’s book side-by-side, I wonder if the faith we are practicing, if the faith we are preaching, if the faith we are passing on to the next generation has become no different from other commodities being sold: a simple be-good-ism in the name of a nice God who can bail us out when we are in a pinch. Have we sold out to the Commodity Form? Have we become indistinguishable from the rest of the culture? Are our church’s worship services, fellowship events, and opportunities to serve our neighbors just one more in a long set of extracurricular options offered alongside concert series, baseball games, and food drives conducted by the Kiwanis, Rotary, or other civic organization? And if not, how are we showing that by the way we live our lives individually and corporately as Christians?

The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[5] This passage from Genesis follows on the heels of the story of the Tower of Babel. As that story begins we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words . . . and [the people] said to one another, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”[6] Let us make a name for ourselves. Isn’t that the message of the Commodity Form? Isn’t that the promise of our culture yet today – the latest gadget will show people that you are on top of the technology curve – it will show people that you have arrived – you will have made a name for yourself. It seems human nature hasn’t changed all that much in these many centuries. And just as the Tower of Babel came tumbling down and the language of the culture was confused so too do the values of our own culture let us down – time and time again. The new car eventually breaks down, the newest gadget is quickly replaced by the even newer gadget, the pursuit of money, power and prestige only leaves us feeling tired and, as the past several years have showed us, disappointed or even empty-handed. The cultural center – the Commodity Form – cannot hold. Dean in Almost Christian suggests “spiritual disentanglement” as a practice to move us away from the false promises of our culture. And perhaps the season of Lent gives us such an opportunity as we are left standing in the wilderness of Lent, naked before our God.

Lenten Tree at St. Mark's
At our Love Life, Live Lent program on Tuesday evening we began to explore what it might look like to engage in practices which deliberately draw us closer to one another and to God, practices that nurture and grow Godly relationships.[7] We planted this Lenten Tree in the barrenness of the wilderness and we prepared leaves – each leaf representing a practice – a spiritual action – that we might do during this time in the wilderness, actions which by their very nature – collaborative, other-focused, self-giving – offer a counter-cultural alternative to the ways of the world.[8] There are actions for everyone: share a smile with another person, remember to say please and thank you all day, have a screen-free evening - no television, no computer, no Blackberry, iPhone or other gadget - and do something with your household instead.

We have more leaves and sheets with action ideas in the Parlor and I hope that everyone will take a few moments to prepare some leaves and make some commitments to nurture relationships during Lent – commitments to disentangle from the false gods that call out to us. Each Sunday, as the bread and wine, are brought forward, we will bring our completed action leaves forward and hang them on the tree. Because here in this wilderness called Lent our God calls out to us: "Go from your human-constructed country of broken promises and false gods to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . .”

“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.”[9] Will you and I recommit to going to the land that God will show us? Can we afford not to?

Postscript: there is some irony in my posting links to purchasing the two books referenced in this sermon; and yet, isn't this indicative of the challenge of "being church" in the midst of a commodity culture - how do we live in the world of our creation and in the world of God's calling?

1. John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, 2006), 9.
2. Ibid, 9.
3. Ibid, 9.
4. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teens is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press: New York, 2010), 12.
5. Genesis 12:1-2.
6. Creasy Dean, 159.
7. Love Life, Live Lent: Transform Your World began in Birmingham (UK) in 2006 as a campaign to encourage people to mark Lent in a different way. Booklets for individual (children and adults) and family study are available at their website.
8. Our idea for "planting" a Lenten Tree stemmed from the Lenten Tree individual project described in Love Life, Live Lent Family Book: Transform Your World (Church House Publishing: London, 2008), 12-13.
9. Genesis 12:4a.


What Are You Giving Up for Lent This Year?

Sermon Preached March 9, 2011 - Ash Wednesday
St. Mark's Episcopal Church (Evanston, IL)

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent – a season which takes us from this day through to Easter. It is 40 days long (we don’t count the Sundays) and is linked to Jesus’ time in the wilderness.[1] The Reverend Margaret Jones calls Ash Wednesday “a wake-up call.” She writes:
“Ash Wednesday hits us squarely between the eyes, forcing us to face mortality and sinfulness. We hear Scripture readings that are urgent and vivid. We have black ashes rubbed into our foreheads. We recite a Litany of Penitence that takes our breath away, or should. . . .On Ash Wednesday we come to church to kneel, to pray, and to ask God’s forgiveness, surrounded by other sinners. Human sin is universal; we all do it, not only Christians. But our church tradition sets aside Ash Wednesday as a particular day to address sin and death. We do this mindful that ‘God hates nothing God has made and forgives the sins of all who are penitent.’ We are ALL sinners, no better and no worse than our brothers and sisters. This is not a day to compete ("my sins are worse than yours are"), but to confess…. Ash Wednesday is the gateway to Lent. We have forty precious days to open ourselves up most particularly to God, to examine ourselves in the presence of one who created us, knows us, and loves us. We have forty days to face ourselves and learn to not be afraid of our sinfulness. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, but with God’s grace we can learn to live this life more fully, embracing our sinfulness, allowing God to transform us.”[2]
In a little while you will be invited to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” These words, directly from our Book of Common Prayer, explain what types of things we ought to focus on during Lent. Most of us are familiar with the “fasting and self-denial” aspect as we vow to give up chocolate or coffee or a night at a restaurant with friends. In fact, But I’ve often wondered if this type of fasting – giving up of special treats - during Lent helps us to focus on God, helps us to become more aware of God’s message of forgiveness and a love that trumps all. I suppose each time you think about reaching for a candy bar or another cup of coffee, you are instead called back to your Lenten journey and your focus on God – or are you instead focused on a countdown of days until you can have that next bite? Or, if you are like me, wondering if it counts if you sneak a piece of chocolate on Sunday – after all Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent. So much for my focus on God’s love. To be sure, our “giving up” of something we enjoy is a way in which we join – albeit in a VERY small way – join in the suffering Jesus went through as he was tempted by Satan – suffering that readied him for his great calling. But I am hard-pressed to believe that my denying myself coffee, chocolate or a variety of other vices is really preparing me for whatever great calling God has in mind for my life. Does our denying ourselves a piece of cake even remotely compare to the life Jesus gave up for our salvation?

What if instead of giving up a “treat” of one sort or another, we instead focused on giving up one or more of our less than desirable behaviors or character defects? Here are just a few possibilities taken from the book of Proverbs:
eyes that are arrogant, a tongue that lies, hands that murder the innocent, a heart that hatches evil plots, feet that race down a wicked track, a mouth that lies under oath, a troublemaker in the family[4] -
or perhaps you are more familiar with this list: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.[5]

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Greed: next time I go to my closet, instead of lamenting my inability to decide what to wear, perhaps I should instead thank God that I am so fortunate to have clothes to choose from. Or, an even bolder step, perhaps I should go through those clothes and choose a couple of items in new or like-new condition and donate them to a local thrift shop so that I might rid myself of the vice of pride and greed and, at the same time, share the generosity of God with a neighbor in need.

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Gluttony: next time someone suggests that we go out to eat, what if instead, I invite them to come over for a simple meal. Or, an even bolder step, what if we join together for a simple meal and give the money we would have spent on dinner out to a local pantry or soup kitchen so that our neighbors in need might eat a simple meal as well.

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? A mouth that lies under oath: Next time a colleague asks what I did this weekend, instead of saying, “oh, nothing much” – what if instead I said, “I joined my friends at church where we encountered God through singing together, praying together, reading Scripture together, and listening together.”

What might it look like if we were to give up just one of these habits this Lenten season? Just one. . . and who knows but maybe this bit of self-denial, this type of fasting, will become so habit-forming during these 40 days that you will find that God has transformed your life for ever. What are you giving up for Lent this year?

[1] Mark 1:12-13.
[2] From Margaret Jones, “Ash Wednesday - A Wake-up Call,” Calvary Episcopal Church (Memphis, TN), February 25, 2004, Ash Wednesday accessed online on February 25, 2009.
[3] Isaiah 58:3b-5.
[4] Proverbs 6:16-19 (The Message).
[5] This more familiar list is contained both in the writings of Pope Gregory the Great (6th c.) and Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (14th c.)


Jesus, Touch Us

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois

Transfiguration Sunday - March 6, 2011

My New Testament professor at Boston University, J. Paul Sampley, referred to the period of time in which we live as Christians – that time between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the long-awaited Second Coming - as a period of “walking between the times.” Over the past two weeks, as I have been transitioning from being the Vicar of St. Barnabas by the Bay, Villas and Assistant to the Rector at St. Mary’s, Stone Harbor to becoming the ‘priest-in-charge’ and, God willing and the people consenting, the next Rector of St. Mark’s, Evanston, I have had a micro-level experience of this “walking between the times.” A living in the “already, but not yet-ness” of our future together at St. Mark’s while still processing and sorting through the experiences of my recent past. Which of my “lessons learned” from southern New Jersey should I file close-at-hand and which can I safely place in long-term storage?

At St. Mark’s, you also know something about “walking between the times” – for you, a period that has lasted several years now. Along the way, you also have been making storage decisions. Which aspects of your life together must come with you in this new time? Which aspects of your life together should be placed in storage – or have, indeed, already been placed in storage? And what has been and shall be the basis for those decisions? What is central to who you are as a gathered community – who we are to become as a gathered community? What are some of those central tenets of St. Mark’s that make us who we are as a 21st century community of faith living out the gospel here in Evanston, Illinois?

Today we celebrate the last Sunday of Epiphany, perhaps better known or recognized as Transfiguration Sunday - a day in which we, along with those early disciples – Peter, James and John – are catapulted out of the everyday “between the times” world in which we live into a glorious and awesome vision of the promise, a vision of what shall be. “And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Have you ever witnessed a beautiful sunset or sunrise? Can you think of a time when you’ve found a place at dusk or dawn where you could just be and witness the sky’s transformation over the course of about 30 minutes? Last spring, Andrea and I were vacationing in Acadia National Park and went up to the top of Cadillac Mountain just before sunset to sit and wait. We were not disappointed. The sunset was as spectacular as any I have witnessed. And, like Peter who suggests that three dwellings might be made for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, Andrea and I wanted to capture our moment of amazement. So, 15 – 20 photos later, Andrea and I managed to memorialize the event in a way that is sure to never come close to reminding us of what it was really like. Transformative moments are often like that – profound yet beyond capturing in word, photo, or monument.

But for Peter, James, and John the moment extends beyond the magnificent vision. Matthew’s account continues, “[S]uddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” The same words spoken at Jesus’ baptism, repeated now for the three disciples to hear. Overcome by fear, the disciples fall to the ground and Jesus’ touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And just as suddenly as the vision and the voice appeared, so suddenly it all ends and they remain on the mountain alone with Jesus. And isn’t that typical of transformative moments as well? They simply don’t last long enough.

On Wednesday, a small group gathered for Bible study in the Volunteer Office and considered this passage. A question that guided our conversation was, “What does the glory of God look like to you today?”

• A beautiful blue-sky day when the forecast calls for dreary and drab

• The birth of a 3rd great grandchild

• Just being together

• The people of St. Mark’s

• A child’s 1st birthday

Things that delight us. Things that surprise us. Things that inspire us. Things that change us. All of them, manifestations of the glory of God. Each of them a transfiguration moment in its own right. Moments that we cannot prepare for in any way except by being open to them, by expecting the unexpected, by being open to Jesus’ touch in our lives.

And as we continued to explore the text, we read again the last verse of the pericope: “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’” For a while we struggled with this. Why would Jesus want them to keep it a secret? Was it not the right time? Was Jesus afraid that the cosmic plan would unravel if word got out about who he really was? I suspect those are questions many of us will be struggling with for the rest of our lives – which is one of the reason that reading and studying Scripture together is such a great pleasure – it is filled with surprises and unanswered riddles.

“Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Wait just a minute. That’s us. We are living “between the times” – it is now - today - after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. We can and must tell people about this vision, about this promise, about this future that has been and daily continues to be revealed to us and through us. And it is through this lens of faith – through the knowledge that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, to whom we are to listen - that we are called to live out our faith as disciples of Jesus.

Which aspects of your life together must come with us into our future? Which aspects of your life together should be placed in storage – or have, indeed, already been placed in storage? What are the experiences, the ministries, the hopes, the questions that are central to who we are as a gathered community? What is God inviting us to do, to be or to change in light of the Transfiguration? How can and does the revelation that Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved, change or inform the way in which you live your life? How does that knowledge change or inform the way the gathered community of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Grove and Ridge lives out its faith in the community in 2011 and beyond? How will we tell others about the vision? How will we invite others to be a part of the Jesus movement?

Jesus, touch us, we pray, so that we might get up and not be afraid. AMEN.