Disorienting Dilemmas

A sermon preached on the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Rockland, ME.

Lections: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48.

I meet on occasion with folks in youth ministry around the diocese and we’ve been reading about the experiences of young people who make mission trips and pilgrimages, who spend some time away from home and come back seeing their own world with new eyes. Almost all of them recount a process of going through a disorienting dilemma.

Disorienting dilemmas are events, natural or constructed, that pull the rug out from under us far enough to make our existing cultural toolkits inoperable. They can be as ordinary as

  • adjusting to a Mac after years of owning a pc
  • or as profound as traversing a ropes course,
  • adopting a child,
  • changing jobs
  • or going to therapy

Now, not every disorienting dilemma is positive:

  • a parent’s death or divorce
  • a friend’s drug use or suicide attempt

disorient us as well.

Yet disorienting dilemmas go hand-in-hand w/ spiritual transformation

  • a burning bush
  • an angel in the living room
  • Saul’s 3 days of dark

All of these disorienting dilemmas shifted the recipient’s attention away from themselves and riveted their attention on God.

And when I think about the Sermon on the Mount and especially today’s Gospel, with its mind-blowing, radical 3 word core: love your enemies, I think this is the kind of thing that gets written only AFTER someone has experienced a disorienting dilemma. Love your enemies is an ethical command but it is more than that, I think. It’s an invitation

  • an invitation to a deeper truth
  • an invitation into a disorienting dilemma
  • an invitation to make our own spiritual journey

Let me tell you about Gabrielle. After graduating from high school, in that summer between high school and college, Gabrielle went on a youth group trip for 5 days to Mexico.

During the trip, in one of the many discussions about the young ruler who must give up his possessions to follow Jesus, the youth group leader issued a challenge: give away your most prized possession – not necessarily the most expensive but the one with the most sentimental value and do it by the end of the summer:

there were sharp inhalations and an outbreak of mutterings
and, as G tells it, people began racking their brains some knew they couldn’t do it (wedding ring, something to pass down to daughter
but G wanted to accept the challenge but didn’t know what her most precious possession was
The story and her trip launched a disorienting dilemma for G, unmasking her identity as a consumer and achiever.

“One of the saddest things I saw all day was an old woman sitting on a blanket. She was trying to sell these unappetizing little pellets of gum, gross little turds of chicle, and I felt so bad for her that I was going to stop and pull out some money for her. But my group didn’t stop and neither did I. How much would I have given her? Would I have given her my lunch of rice cakes and peanut butter? Probably, because I wasn’t too hungry that day. But would I have given away my dinner at the campsite? Would I have given up my sunshower had she needed it, and as a result been filthy overnight? I don’t know.”

The trip in the end changed G’s attitudes towards material possessions:

“It didn’t so much make me hate opulence as it made me realize how I don’t need material goods to be happy. It’s funny, that’s what [yg leader] has been trying to tell us with his Bible passage about the young ruler all week…. But it took this trip to make it real. I don’t feel repulsed by what I have. I feel sickened by how little it does and how long it took me to share.”

There is something here that speaks of what our Gospel command must mean. Love your enemies, says Jesus. Love your enemies. Not just your kin, tribe, clan. Not just your neighbors. Yr enemies.


Jesus does not promise that love will turn your enemies into friends
Jesus does not pretend that turning the other cheek will save the wicked
Jesus does not say love is required because it’s the thing that will make the world right.
Instead, Jesus is calling for a love that does not depend on some THING,  some particular outcome, any particular goal. “Love your enemy” seems to call for us to do good to the enemy, despite the circumstances, and without regard for any particular result.

Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go the extra mile, lend, love the enemy. Why? Because this is how God loves. Full stop. This is how God loves.

Gabrielle’s journal makes few references to Jesus and offers little in the way of doctrinal awareness. In the end, she is won by the trip, by Mexico

She insists, without really understanding why, that it was the trip, the experience, the doing of the trip, that made all the difference for her. And that “just do it, Nike-like” response feels very much like gospel truth: pick up your mat and walk, love your enemies: pray for them, do good to them, salute them.

It’s action, not emotion, that Jesus calls for. And the action of her trip meant that she was put in situations that disoriented and opened up new possibilities for her.

The second important element is her own reflection – but that, too, was a thing done. Her journal. And, at the end of the summer, she knew what possession she’d need to give up:

not her phone
not her class ring
not her photos
She gave up her journal

her record of her own disorienting dilemma
an account of her own transformation

Doesn’t this sound like what St. Matthew will have done? I can see Matthew working at his papyri:

I have been transformed by Jesus in ways I can barely articulate,
but will recount for others to experience in this shocking account
This was key to my spiritual journey, says St. Matthew, my disorienting dilemma,
that it could be possible, one step at a time, to be confronted by a love so outrageous it included his enemies

If you want to follow Jesus, be prepared for your own disorienting dilemma. It’s okay. Let yourself be transformed.

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