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Monday, March 26, 2007

Scenes from Sunday, March 25, 2007

In his sermon, Fr. Curtis quoted from two books, which he recommended:

Home by Another Way by Barbara Brown Taylor

Wellsprings: A Book of Spiritual Exercises by Anthony de Mello

It was a Parish Family Sunday, which means lots of good food after the service!

The seeds planted by our Church School have sprouted.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sermon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
March 18, 2007

Lent IV: Year C

Joshua 4:19-24; 5: 9-12
Psalm 34
2 Cor 5:17-21
Luke 15: 11-32

Remember last week when I talked about Moses and the burning bush that kept on burning without consuming the wood, and how any Yankee would love that?! Well, there I was last night, feeding the fire at my parents home and enjoying the dance of the flames, and wishing I wouldn’t have to get up and feed the fire. Too bad they don’t have burning bush at Home Depot! Well, to coin my own Yankee truism, having a relationship with God is like tending a fire--you have to keep choppin’, haulin’, pokin’ and proddin’, and most of all, feedin’. So today I want to talk to you some more about feedin’ the fire. Unfortunately, after the Nor’easter on Friday, it’s something we are still too intimately concerned with!

In my office on my computer monitor I have a little bookmark taped with the words:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me

Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

This is, of course, from the hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, because the words are attributed to St. Patrick. It begins with the great line, “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.” It is rather nice to quote from this hymn the day after St. Patrick’s Day, but it lends itself nicely to a theme I want to build with the Scriptures today. That theme is Reconciliation. When we are about the business of reconciliation, we are tending the fire.

When you read the Christian Scriptures, especially Paul’s letters, you become very aware of how Paul and the early Christians saw their role in spreading the Gospel as one of reconciliation. Over and over again, Paul writes and ministers to congregations and communities with the underlying theme of making peace with each other and with God--and especially how you do this through following Christ. This is very powerfully said in the 2 Corinthians passage when Paul says, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” We make so much out of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the way to eternal life, but do you think about it in terms of reconciliation?

Again, building on the Lenten discipline I have been elaborating on the last several weeks, if we think of accepting Jesus or becoming a Christian as just a ticket to heaven, then we really haven’t gone deep enough. So far I have talked about contemplative or centering prayer as a way to begin to find that peace with God. I told you the story of my experience in a monastery years ago and how profoundly that centering prayer confronted me and required me to identify those things that kept me from God. It was in the practice of that prayer that those things became so self-evident. My ‘repenting’ of them, or turning away from them, was all about the desire then to be reconciled.

Last week I talked about Moses and the burning bush and how God, the great I AM, calls us into relationship from which flows an essential reconciliation process. There is something about the walk with God that calls us into being all we were meant to be--in essence, to be reconciled with our true selves. Have you been on this path this Lent? Have you found odd little moments in your work-a-day world to pause and find your center--to be reconciled with yourself and God.

But that is not where it ends of course. We are not on a journey to find some blissful state and let it go at that. We are a people that live out our reconciliation with God in the world. Indeed, we are called to proclaim our reconciling God--to share the Good News. In this passage from Corinthians, Paul goes on to say that, “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Wow, have you ever thought of yourself as an ambassador? What good are we as ambassadors if we don’t know the culture, people, laws, and the joys of the country from which we come? And of course Christ is the country from which we come, and our brothers and sisters are the people. Are we reconciled with him and with them? The St. Patrick’s Breastplate is my little reminder always to be longing to be intimately connected with Christ: Christ within, behind, above, before, beside, in quiet, in danger ... and ah, this great line, “Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.” St. Patrick knew the importance of the reconciling ministry particularly in the witness of this line--he looked for Christ in all who he came across. Now truth be told, sometimes it is a lot easier to see Christ in the stranger, and much more difficult to see Christ in a family member with whom we seem to have constant tension or bickering. Yet this is what we are called to see.

Erich Fromm,
a psychologist and Christian, in his book “The Art of Loving: An Inquiry into the Nature of Love,” writes of this kind of reconciliation and centeredness when he writes about all the types of love and how they are formed and manifested. In a section called Brotherly Love he writes this:

If I have developed the capacity for love, then I cannot help loving my brothers. In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human at-onement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core. If I perceive in another person mainly the surface, I perceive mainly the differences, that which separates us. If I penetrate to the core, I perceive our identity , the fact of our brotherhood. This relatedness from center to center—instead of that from periphery to periphery--is “central relatedness.”

(The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm, Harper and Row, NY, 1956, p. 47)

In this passage I think that Fromm gets the essential lesson of reconciliation when he says that “Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one.” When we can really fully appreciate that, then there is no option but to pursue reconciliation.

In the Gospel lesson today, the well-known parable of the prodigal son, we see this theme of reconciliation developed beautifully in the context of family: the prodigal son, who comes home begging forgiveness and asking only to be treated as a servant, is reconciled to his father who celebrates his homecoming. This of course mirrors our relationship with our loving God from whom we seem to stray too often.

It might be worth a little Lenten meditation to spend some time thinking about who you identify with in this parable: the prodigal son, the father, or the good son, or maybe at different times all three! I think too often I relate to the good son and I struggle to find forgiveness and reconciliation in my heart.

Soon we will be celebrating the Eucharist. One way of looking at the Eucharist is a weekly celebration of reconciliation, because in the prayer we recite how God, through Christ, brings us to reconciliation. In fact in the first Eucharistic prayer in Rite II after the Sanctus, the prayer begins, “Holy and Gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself; and , when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.

The seriousness about Holy Communion is about the desire to be reconciled with God and our brothers. If you have no intention of being reconciled, why bother coming?

Clearly our world needs reconciliation. Our church is in the midst of trying times that challenge the spirit of reconciliation. Iraq grinds on and the need for reconciliation between Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd is all too apparent. One of the most profound and simple things I heard in this war was from a US General who simply said that the bloodshed would cease when Shiite and Sunni decided they loved their children more than they hated their enemies. Let us pray that more Iraqis quickly see the wisdom of that.

Now I’ve talked a lot here about some ideas and concepts and it might have been just a bit too much. I‘m reminded of the not-too-clever music critic when, after hearing a new symphony, responded, “It was OK, but there were too many notes!” And maybe I’ve just had a few too many "words"! So I want to leave you with something a bit more concrete, something I call a "feeling image." My feeling image for reconciliation can be something like last Friday night being holed up at home with family safe, food in the cupboard, and feeling safe and warm as the snow storm howled around you. This is the sense of being centered and at peace. But one more touch is necessary—-a candle in the window for the stranger. This may be a bit too passive of an image for reconciliation, but it seems to capture for me, an attitude of the heart that allows us to be reconcilers.

The other image I want to share with you is a tangible one [pass around the new dollar coin]. I’m sure that preachers all across the country are making hay with this and I just couldn’t resist. The new coin has been in the news recently because the phrase “In God We Trust” that is engraved on the side of the coin was missing from some of the early editions. This too is an image of being a reconciler--having “In God We Trust” engraved all around us. Sometimes it gets rubbed off or goes missing from our reconciling efforts, yet one can never get far in the work of reconciliation without that trusting relationship with God surrounding all that we do.

So, I hoped I’ve stoked your fires a little and encouraged you to tend your fire that will warm and brighten the spirit of reconciliation in you. But remember, I might blow on the flame a little, but you have to tend the fire every day. As we come to the altar, let’s recommit ourselves to a Lenten dedication to reconciliation.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sermon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
March 11, 2007

Lent III: Year C

Exodus 3: 1-15
Psalm 103
I Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13: 1-9

This morning we begin our lessons from Scripture with the great passage from Exodus about the burning bush. I began to think about what Moses might have been thinking in encountering this burning bush, when he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great site, and see why the bush is not burned up.” I think, unfortunately, our distance from tribal and agrarian living has sometimes left us a little impoverished as we approach scripture. As I contemplated what the burning bush might have meant to Moses, I tried to imagine what fire meant to him and his people.

What are the two things that fire would have meant to them, that for us have little significance anymore? Light and warmth of course. We live with the convenience of electric lights and oil or gas burning furnaces, but to them, fire meant warmth, and in the evening, a source of light. For those of you who burn wood as a primary or secondary heat source, what is the significant chore related to wood fire? Chopping, splitting, and carrying wood! What a chore! And what would you do if you saw a stack of wood that continued to burn, but it didn’t consume the wood? Well, I’d imagine that you would want some of that wood. Think of the convenience! So certainly Moses would be interested in this phenomenon; and he drew close to investigate to find that the bush could burn without consuming the branches...but it also talked!

This is the way God encountered Moses to give him his mission. Moses was respectful and awed by the experience, but when it came time to understanding what it was he was supposed to do, he asked who should he say has sent him. I guess you have to imagine that Moses was searching for away to convey to his family and the Israelites in captivity what had transpired without sounding like a total idiot. Can you hear him trying to convince his family? Yeah, I had been out with the goats for a long time, and it was rather lonely, but I really hadn’t gotten into the wineskins too much...and then there was this bush that was on fire, but didn’t burn up, and it started talking to me. I can hear his relatives giving him something of an equivalent of, ”Yeah, right!” Well, he probably did have a tough sell.

But of course what is so interesting about the seminal passage from Exodus is how God chooses to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asks who shall I say sent me, God replies, tell them “I am has sent me to you.” What an intriguing way for God to respond.

Now you have to understand that for cultures in this time and period, the naming of something carried with it a certain kind of power, and, to a certain degree, power over the thing or person. In telling Moses to tell the people ‘I am’ has sent me, God was refusing to be named by Moses and the people. As an illustrative diversion, I want to bring us all back to our high school grammar (do they still teach grammar?!) This is the conjugation of the verb to be in the present tense: I am, you are, he/she/it is, they are, we are. God, refusing to be named or characterized simply said ‘I am,’ not ‘I am holy, I am good, I am beautiful, I am eternal, etc.’ just ‘I am.’ In some translations they have it as ‘I will be who I will be.’ And in every generation we carry on this battle of trying to name God, and thereby, in some way, sometimes unintentionally, we try to box God in.

I think there is something also useful about us taking some refuge in this statement, and, to the degree that we are created in God’s image, it is important to remember that first and foremost ‘We are’, we just are. Not ‘we are this’ or ‘we are that’, just ‘we are’, or I AM. Or, to play with the verb a little, “I be who I be!” So often we become so obsessed with what we do, what we own, or who we’re related to that sometimes we just forget that the very fact that ‘we are’ is so important—-and that it is important to remember sometimes to just ‘be’! All you baby boomers need to help here, but we had a great iconic song in our generation that sang this message. Any guesses?

Here’s a hint, Paul McCartney wrote this song after a dream where his mother, Mary, who died from cancer when he was 14, came to him to sooth him during a troubled period.

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

Well, I suppose this is a bit of a hokey way to try to get a point across, but the sentiment of the song is definitely in line with the lesson I’m trying to convey-—at the end of the day, God is much more interested in how we are a human BEING, rather than a human DOING!

It is said that once, when the archangel Michael was complaining to God of the racket and jumble of voices from the earth that Michael suggested God had made a mistake by giving humans the power of speech. God replied, “I don’t listen to their voices, I listen to their lives!”

This provides me with a good segue to the Gospel lesson this morning. This was a hard lesson—-a rather good one for Lent. In it Jesus teaches the valuable lesson that people who suffer calamity are not more sinful than we are just because something terrible happens to them. He says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners?” And, “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—-were they worse sinners?” He answers his own questions with, “No, I tell you: but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

What was Jesus teaching here? Well, clearly he was teaching that calamity is not related to sinfulness; but the ending of his teaching is the most troubling and enigmatic. Why did he say, ‘Unless you repent, you will end up like these poor souls? I suppose we could simply say that he wanted to put the fear of God into them. But I think to be consistent with Jesus’ life and teaching we have to look for something deeper.

And here we can develop that good Lenten theme: repentance. What does it mean to repent? To repent literally means to ‘turn away from.’ So the fuller, deeper meaning for repenting in Christian life is not just that we are sorry for something we might have done, but it means to turn from it and turn toward God. Repentance, in good Christian understanding, is to identify those things that cheapen who we are, that tarnish the glory with which God made us; and to turn from them so we might be whole again.

Jesus was teaching that if we don’t repent, or turn from those things that cheapen and tarnish the God-image in us, then we are worse than just dead. When Jesus tells us we will perish, he is talking about our ‘being-ness’ with God. It is as if by not acknowledging those things that separate us, we are being bled dry spiritually by them and there is no wholeness to our being.

Remember a couple weeks ago I told you that story about my experience in the monastery. Learning to sit in silence and pray was all about my repenting, my turning away from those things that keep me from being grounded, centered, and whole. This is why the journey of Lent is so important. It’s not about self-mortification and recalling our sins as some weird exercise of piety. Self-examination and self-mortification are a means to reclaiming the blessing and grace that God created us for. It is a time of calling us to wake up to the beauty of God who is the Great I AM, and calls us to be, in God’s image who we are too.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Semon by the Rev. Curtis Metzger,
February 25, 2007

Lent 1: Year C

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11
Psalm 91
Romans 10: 5-13
Luke 4: 1-13

Let’s talk about temptation! So, yesterday I was at the gym, and I have tell you, after two weeks of being sick and not going, it really hurt! And there I was being tempted, being the competitive male that I am, the little devil on my left shoulder saying to me, “Hey, you could look like him, just one more work out a week.” And the angel on my right shoulder, I call him my ‘reality check’ angel, says, “Hey, he’s 25 and probably competes in local weight lifting competitions—-get real. . . And no, you're not 40-something, you're 50-minus-one, and if you don’t wake up I’ll shake you around by your love handles!” And then there’s the food temptation and that little devil says, “Go ahead don’t worry it’ll never show." And ‘reality check’ says, “Yeah, don’t worry, your flab will cover it!” And then there is the power temptation, and the little devil says, “You are a fabulous preacher and pastor, before long your reputation will extend so far that local service clubs will call you to be their guest speaker." (OK, well even my little devil knows my limits!—nothing too grandiose!) and my reality check angel kinda looks over his shoulder and with an ever-so-slight touch of sarcasm, says, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

Ok, probably a bit too humorous a take on the temptations of the Lord we read about in the Gospel lesson, but I wanted to use myself as an example of how the temptations of the world can so easily wiggle their way into our consciousness. And perhaps none of these examples is something so terrible in and of itself, but that is always how it begins, isn’t it? Just a little pride, a little gluttony, a little lust for power and recognition and suddenly we start spinning off center like a top that is soon to be tumbling across the floor having lost its balance.

Now I want to take you on a little journey with you back to a moment in my life where I began to appreciate the power and beauty of contemplative prayer. Some call contemplative prayer ‘centering prayer.’ And in my case, as is so often the case, the draw to this way of prayer was largely due to my own sense of spinning off center. There were no dramatic events, only a deep and abiding sense that I was missing the heart of the Gospel—and this at the ripe old age of about 21. After I tell you this story I’m afraid that it will add to the pile of weird things I have shared with you about myself that might, at the end of this priest-in-charge year, leave you saying “What were we thinking?” Well, bear with me. If I am to be your pastor and teacher, some of the best I can offer you is sharing my own journey which I hope will bring light to the gospel, and something you might reflect on in your own lives.

The year was about 1978. I was nearing the end of my college career in Oklahoma, before transferring and finishing at UNH. I was struggling with what God was calling me to do and be, and a friend gave me a book. I’m sure many of you are aware of books in your lives that, not necessarily because of their fantastic literary worth or evocative prose, but more to do with how they hit you where you were, have had deep and abiding meaning in your life.

This was true of this book, The Genesee Diary. It is a book by Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite pastoral theologians; and was a diary written during his 7-month stay in a Trappist monastery in Upstate NY. What is important to understand is that the Trappists, of all the religious orders, are deeply committed to silence and contemplative prayer.

The book had this effect on me. It made me long for the silence and solitude that are part and parcel of contemplative prayer--it made me long for space to find my center as it were. And I have to tell you, silence is very uncomfortable! My life was school, but whenever I could, I retreated to a small Roman Catholic monastery on the edge of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, founded by a Polish Franciscan priest, Father Robert Dubrowski.

Hitler believed Providence intended Slavs to be serfs to the godlike Aryans; after all, medieval Latinists had used the word sclavus for both slaves and Slavs. Thus all educated Slavs, especially members of a clergy Hitler had vowed to "crush like a toad" after the war, were to be liquidated--by a year or two of humbling starvation and slavery. As Martin Bormann put it: "All Polish intelligentsia must be exterminated. This sounds cruel, but such is the law of life. . . .(Polish priests) will preach what we want them to preach. If any priest acts differently, we will make short work of him. The task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid, and dull-witted."

Ten thousand Poles were liquidated in the first four months of the occupation. Seven hundred Polish priests were shot, and 3,000 were sent to camps, where 2,600 of them died. The majority perished slowly and methodically from medical experiments and starvation labor — compared to which a quick, horrible death in a gas chamber might have seemed a perverse kind of mercy.

(Priests of the Holocaust, by William J. O’Malley, S.J., Pius XII and The Holocaust, A Reader, A Catholic League Publication.)

Father Robert was one of those priests and a survivor of Dachau prison camp. He had founded this little monastery of St. Anne in Oklahoma after the war. It was there, to his monastery, that I retreated to hunt for silence and solitude--and there be confronted by it! Father Robert let me come almost any time and sit in their chapel in silence. Many weekends I’d go for the whole weekend and just sit in silence. I still remember his warm welcome in his thick Polish accent and his encouragement of me in my life in prayer.

At first it was exciting to enter into retreat. The book had so whetted my appetite for silence that it was so comforting to enter that holy place for prayer. I’d take my prayer book and bible and a note pad, and at first there was such great contentment. Then, as time wore on and I began to realize just how fractured my thoughts were, I would retreat to reading scripture and saying the daily offices from the Book of Common Prayer. Ah, how much holier could you get!

Then I began to realize that when my mind wasn’t wandering during the prayers and readings, that it was trying to run away in them! Have you ever been so terrified by how crazy your own thoughts are, or how fractured they seem to be that you would retreat into some busy activity just to give you and your mind something constructive to do--something to divert your attention.

Allow me to read to you a portion of this book that begins to get at this:

The most persistent advice of John Eudes [his spiritual director in the monastery] in his spiritual direction is to explore the wounds, to pay attention to the feelings, which are often embarrassing and shameful, and follow them to their roots. He keeps telling me not to push away disturbing daydreams or hostile meanderings of the mind but to allow them to exist and explore them with care. Do not panic, do not start running but take a careful look.
It is interesting to mention here Diadochus of Photice’s views on the discernment of spirits. He says that we have to keep the surface calm so that we can see deep into the soul. “When the sea is calm, the eyes of the fisherman can penetrate to the point where he can distinguish different movements in the depth of the water, so that hardly any of the creatures who move through the pathways of the sea escape him, but when the sea is agitated by the wind, she hides in her dark restlessness what she shows in the smile of a clear day.”

(Tuesday, July 23rd, p. 64, The Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen.)

In this passage Nouwen was perfectly describing what I was going through. And as the Holy Spirit began to woo me, I began to let go of the things that tempted me to stay busy. One of the tools I used was the ancient ‘Jesus Prayer.’ Do you know it? “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer goes back into the early centuries of the Christian church and is still used extensively in monastic life as a centering prayer. I began to learn to pray the prayer in time with my breath and my heart beat-—it began to become part of organic experience of my whole being.

And you know what I had to do, I had to leave the Prayer Book and the Bible behind in my monastic cell—-the little room they would give me when I visited the monastery. I had to leave them behind because they became a temptation to distraction. Out of the Jesus Prayer came a deeper and deeper calling just to sit and listen. I would focus on the crucifix over the altar and repeat the Jesus Prayer. I would wait upon God. I did allow myself to take two things in with me—a pencil and piece of paper. I took those in so that when something came across my mind on which I began to worry or plan or ponder, I would write it down as a way of saying to myself, ‘I’ll get to that later." And I would come back to the Jesus Prayer and waiting upon God.

And you know one of the most interesting side effects of this practice—-it raised in me such an incredible sense of exhaustion. I fought it at first, but after awhile I realized that when I had allowed myself to relax to that extent, then I just had to go take a nap, and so I did. I remember in the early days of this practice that I had to nap a lot. (I am my father’s son!) But gradually, the exhaustion passed. I began to breathe more deeply. I began to experience the world in a whole new way. I became so deeply aware of the beauty of everything around me and a longing to tease out love and joy in everyone and every circumstance—-as if Jesus was there, just hidden in shadows with a big smile and stifling a laugh until . . .

      Wait, that passing light, did it catch something?

            I thought I saw someone moving. . .


                        yes, like someone laughing...

Like someone waiting to spring a joyful surprise and can hardly contain himself.
Yes that’s it. It was that kind of laugh.

I wish I could say that I have lived consistently in that space since that time. The sad news is that I have had some very dark days in my life, and times where I have been consumed with the cares of this world. And I still struggle. But, and this is the truth about contemplative prayer, it is not something you achieve, it is something you practice.

And if this sermon challenges you to explore contemplative prayer, I urge you not to go there without a spiritual director or spiritual friend. Contemplative prayer can be very, very intimidating and scary. But at the very least, take this message to heart this Lent, that though we are tempted throughout this life by so many things that would cause us to spin off center, there is a way to come home, to come to center, and that way is discovered and deepened in prayer……Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me a sinner.