Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What Hope Is

A journal reflection at the end of Day 2 of the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth in Red Shirt, South Dakota.

Our Scripture studies have touched, in our small groups, on listening, despair, and hope: "Behold, I am doing a new thing" (Isaiah), and the appearance of the risen Lord on the way to Emmaus in Luke's gospel.

As we in my group discussed our respective relationships with hope - and its obstacles - it become clear that despair often comes out of our inability to right the wrongs of the world. One approach/response offered in the group was to refrain from judging the world, and so to resist calling things "wrong" in the first place. But as we continued to speak about these things, we came to reaffirm that the scriptural witness of lament and grief is a gift to the Church, that we might speak to God honestly from our places of pain. We observed how the risen Lord listened patiently to the disappointments of the disciples with whom he walked on the road.

As we considered this story's ending - the acknowledgment of burning hears and the discernment/recognition of the risen Jesus - we named the hope that generations of Christians before us prayed for and taught us: not that we would be spared a world in which our children suffer (and cause suffering) but that they and we will one day see the face of God.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pentecost and the One-Sunday Wordle

A student at St. Francis House recently called out the limited benefit of my Wordle kick. He reminded me that Wordle works best with lots - as in thousands - of words. That's when the math kicks in. So he likes the One Year Wordle, for example, but cringes to remember the time I used Wordle in a Board meeting to reflect back the input of nine members. Singular sermons, he says, fall somewhere in between, though he's inclined to be charitable.

This student is right, of course. There are times Wordle is a sifting tool to help us access what we could not otherwise see or access and other times in which it is simply a colorful mirror. His observations, though - and particularly his appreciation of the One Year Wordle - left me wondering about other multi-sermon word cloud projects that might be fruitful.


Pentecost is perfect, right? I mean, the whole idea is many tongues made things clear.

So I pilfered four sermons (three from Madison colleagues, plus my own) from my Facebook feed and let Wordle do the rest. Four sermons preached within six miles and a couple hours of each other. And the product, if not surprising, is rich and full in a way that leaves me grateful for the Communion we share, as if the task of preachers is both (as Lauren Winner recently suggested) to "love the scriptures in public" and to sing the Word in harmonic parts across the world. The richness of the resulting word cloud likewise reminds me of the incompleteness of any individual church's ministry not properly located within the context of this Communion. Thus Jo Wells' encouragement to me to always be imagining and re-imagining my local church's regional, national, and international identity and relationships. And though the word cloud was all-Episcopalian, it can't help but whet an ecumenical appetite among its readers. The denominational/congregational parts we sing are wonderfully distinctive, peculiar, and one of a kind. But/and we were made to sing these unique parts together.

Click on the image to make it bigger.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"We're not drunk."

The Spirit descends, like fire, the Church is born, and Peter - blessed Peter - stands up and gives the first sermon of the newborn Church. The Church’s first sermon. No training, no M.Div. degree, no pastoral care seminar in advance, and it starts like this: “We’re not drunk. It’s only nine in the morning.” A buddy of mine one time told me you could be reasonably sure you had a drinking problem if you were drinking before 11 o’clock in the morning. Noon, to be conservative. Unless you were in an airport, he said. Or watching soccer. Or, best of all, watching soccer in an airport - then, all bets were off. “Hey! We’re not drunk,” Peter says. A modest beginning to the Church’s first sermon. And yet, three-thousand hearers became believers with these words. Depressing for the rest of us. Evidently, the people just needed an assurance that the preacher wasn’t sauced. But why would they think that he was? 

As a kid, I use to assume it was because of the languages. A whole mess of incomprehensible speech, thrown out all at once. If we were to speak in different languages tonight over dinner, with one another, an outsider might rightly suggest we were drunk. And yet, the whole point of the Pentecost event is the opposite of the insinuation that the languages got in the way; Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. The miracle is precisely that their speech was made comprehensible. For this reason, one theologian suggests that the Church’s imagination for the charism of speaking in tongues should include teachers, because each heard in her own language, and understood. The Spirit makes things plain, accessible. The Spirit points to Christ in simplicity and truth. Each one heard, in her own language.

Why, then, did the people think the disciples were drunk? I wonder if it wasn’t a function of the Gospel itself:

Each in her own language, hearing the witness - the strange, Good News that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. The upside down story in which the poor our blessed, the meek inherit, and the slaughtered Lamb is the reigning King. You have to admit, the story has some tipsy to it. We take the language for granted, maybe. The people heard the disciples speaking about God’s deeds of power - power that didn’t look much like power they knew - and they didn’t hesitate to say that these words had the vibe of a mostly incoherent drunken rant.

You understand. Love your enemies is less something you hear from the socially mobile, promising, and adept-at-advancing-in-the-ways-of-the-world entrepreneur and more on the lips of the melancholy cowboy slouched beneath the jukebox, broken with regret, an evening’s worth of whiskey on his breath. The contention that death has been defeated and is no longer to be feared; the proclamation that forgiveness, mercy, and the peace of the Lamb have dawned, have become the watchwords of the in-breaking Kingdom; well, good luck selling these in the malls of the Empire. 

These men are filled with new wine.

Notice: that the Gospel seems foolish is not our objection tonight through post-modern lenses from the pinnacle of our present, enlightened perspectives, but on the Church’s very first day. From the Church’s beginning. These men are drunk.

There is this tendency, from our side of post-Enlightenment Christianity, to applaud ourselves for seeing the outlandishness of stories that the ancients, in the credulity of their day, simply (we assume) accepted without question. That is, we take for granted that the Gospel made sense in its original context and only seems strange later, with the benefit of post-Darwinian scientific knowledge. But it is not so. Day one, the hearers called “BS,” said this is a profession that finds no basis, no application, no relevance in a world in which rulers rule, the sword metes out judgment, the dead are not raised, and in which kingdoms worth following do not find their kings up on crosses.

Over against the doubt of every age, their own and ours, Peter stands up in the crowd and preaches this sermon, “We’re not drunk.” That is, “We know what we preach. We are not unaware that this proclamation renders the lives of those who preach it unintelligible, nonsensical, unless Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.”

The story of this moment and this sermon is remembered in the physical appearance of our bishops. Our bishops wear purple shirts, rings with purple stones, and other purple things. The color is a particular shade of purple derived from the amethyst stone. Amethyst, from the Greek, meaning “not drunk.” Not drunk being a witness to the Church’s self-understanding: we may look goofy, sure, but it’s not what you think; the Spirit in our lives proclaiming Christ, and him crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

On my bolder days, I wish people would look at me and say, “If he’s not drunk, what is he?”

[Quick aside: the not-drunk/amethyst tradition gives Christians something other than old-fashioned moralism to consider in our relationship with alcohol. It’s a theological issue. At stake is the credibility of the Church’s mission and witness, especially when living the life of Christ leaves us, in the eyes of the world, looking foolish. If we are drunk, we lose the opportunity to account for our upside-down lives by proclaiming Christ crucified.]

The Spirit proclaims Christ and, with Christ, the upside-down Kingdom. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and whoever loses his life will keep it.” 

Finally, Peter tells his listeners that the same Spirit who proclaims this upside-down kingdom will be poured out on daughters and sons, women and men, young and old, slave and free, and they shall prophesy.

I wonder if you know that you are the daughters and sons on whom God has poured out God’s Spirit. I wonder what visions and dreams God will give you with which to challenge the old world to whom the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the Spirit have come.

I wonder what it means for Becca to graduate and begin her work at St. Mary’s with this Spirit upon her. I wonder what it means for Terri and Zach, working this summer back home, to have this Spirit upon them; I wonder for each of us, here, what it means that we move with this Spirit; that you carry this Spirit; that the Holy Spirit of the living God carries you.



Thursday, May 16, 2013

The One Year Wordle

Frequent readers of the blog will know that I have an inordinate affection for word clouds and especially for, which make producing word clouds easy. I have used word cloud in board and vestry meetings. I make a regular practice of turning sermons into word clouds. In both cases, the results are more or less predictable; that is, the benefit is less the revelation of the words - which tend to be clear themes of the lessons, for example - but more the visual display of those themes. The word cloud is an artistic medium.

Last night, however, I decided to test Wordle's power in a less predictable exercise. So I entered every sermon from my first year at St. Francis House and pushed the "create" button. While the results are not, perhaps, a whole lot less predictable than those from a given Sunday's homily, I do think the they are insightful in a slightly different way. Without further ado, then, here it is: my sermon Wordle from my first year at St. Francis House.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Forward in Faith
A Student's Response to the Gospel

Becca Hennen, our graduating senior at St. Francis House wrote this Response to the Gospel for our worship tonight, the last Eucharist of the academic year. Unfortunately, Becca got sick last night and this morning, and was unable to speak at the service; her words were shared in her absence.  JRM+

So, let me start by saying that when Fr. Melton asked me to guest preach, I was as skeptical as many of you probably are. I’m no priest or deacon – what do I know about the readings and gospel if a priest or deacon isn’t teaching me about them? So I took some time with the readings and will try to give you a fresh idea of what we can learn from them, which I hope will be as close in layman’s terms as we can get, since I am after all just one of you. (1)

In the first lesson taken from Acts, Paul and Silas come across a slave girl whose trade is fortune telling. What first struck me about this reading was the fact that Paul was very annoyed with her for acting as somewhat of an advertisement for the very thing they were there to do. Maybe he didn’t want the attention, or maybe she was just really bugging the crap out of him – I don’t know, but he casts the spirit out of her. Now, it would seem to me that this would be something to praise – the woman is no longer possessed and is free to live as she pleases. But her owners were basically like what the heck did you do that for? You took away our prime money maker. This seems to oppose what should morally be so. The freedom the Gospel meant for this girl was at odds with her owners’ personal agenda. They imprison Paul and Silas, but then the earthquake sets them free. They proclaim “believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” and the jailer believes. It is a wonder that it takes something literally earth-shattering to get the people to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But the point is – the jailer does end up believing.

Based on what I took from the jailer’s belief, I then thought about this reading in relation to John’s gospel. It’s Maundy Thursday and Jesus is praying for his disciples. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” This gospel makes me think about the relationship between a parent or someone we look up to as a child. Jesus is telling us what we should believe, but we answer Him with doubt. I remember when I was younger having older cousins tell me to “enjoy being young, quit wishing your life away, quit wishing you were older, yadda yadda yadda.” Of course, it is that odd sensation of hearing what they are saying, but not believing it and not wanting to believe it. But then, lo and behold, you grow up and wish you would have done exactly what they had said. I remember being in high school, and my little sister who is 7 years younger than me would always try to be older. We were ‘cool’ and she wanted to be just like us. I found myself being that older person who wished she would just stop and enjoy her youth. It’s the cycle that continues with each generation, and inevitably the younger ones will never believe us until they have experienced it on their own. In this way, I think Jesus is praying for us to believe before we experience. That is what faith is after all, isn’t it? If I could, I would go back to my young self and have that blind faith and belief in what my older cousins and parents were telling me. But I didn’t. I learned as I went. Which is okay – you know, that whole free will thing. But Jesus is praying for us to believe before we experience. That we have faith.

I then turn to the reading from Revelation. “See I am coming soon.” “And let everyone who hears say ‘come’, and let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Are we not the ones who are thirsty? Do we hear the call of Jesus? The night before he was handed over, he prayed for us to believe in him. And here in Revelation he is telling us he is coming. Have we found our faith? Do we follow when he comes? These readings and the gospel especially give me a sense of ‘moving on.’ Jesus is moving on to heaven and hopes his teachings were successful. As the semester is ending, we find ourselves in a state of moving on. Summer jobs. Continuing work in grad school. Vacations, trips. It’s considered a ‘break,’ but we really are just moving forward. I’m graduating and am scared to death of what the real world holds. I’ve never been anything but a student. And now it’s my turn to listen to the others who have gone before me who say I’ll survive. It’s time to have faith in the future and the fact that the Lord is with me, as he is with all of you as you continue on this journey. The Lord’s prayer for our belief in Him is one of most importance. It gives me comfort, and I hope it gives you comfort, because he knows us. He knows we need that prayer, and that like the jailer, it may take something earth shattering to shake/find/form our faith, but we will believe. Amen, come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. 

SFH. 5/12/13

Becca Hennen is a graduating nursing student who has spent the last 4 years as part of the St. Francis House Community. She served on the SFH Board of Directors these past 2 years. Becca begins her new position (and post-school life...though she has plans to eventually return for graduate work) at St. Mary's Hospital this summer.

(1) Becca is excessively modest here. In addition to no small amount of prayer and thought, Becca met with her Chaplain twice for extended times in preparation for and review of her homily. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Forming Scriptural Imagination

This blog (and St. Francis House) have devoted considerable energy in the past year toward reexamining the relationship of Christians and the Church to Scripture, particularly the Christian Old Testament. Duke Divinity School recently sat down three of its current professors (and a former one) to share dialogue around the theme "Forming Scriptural Imagination."

Here is that conversation, with Richard Hays, Ellen Davis, Stanley Hauerwas, moderated by Greg Jones.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Christ the River

The end is upon us. I know, it’s a touch melodramatic, and, more than that, it feels irresponsible to say with a full week of class and exams still to go - let’s not get ahead of ourselves, right? But think with me here: there’s this Sunday, next Sunday, which is our last before exams - Becca, our lone graduate will preach - then the exams themselves. And exams can be a lot like death - not in that sense but in the sense that it can be hard to coordinate the exit. You finish. Some folks are still here. Some aren’t. Some are still studying. Others have “passed on.” There’s no going out together. Some of you will be here to celebrate Pentecost on the Sunday after exams, graduation weekend; others of you will have gone home already, to begin summer jobs and other adventures. So this weekend and next, really, is what’s left. Saying goodbye to one another, and to a year that I pray has been good for you. A year in which I pray you have grown, been challenged and blessed.

With closure and the getting ready of goodbyes in mind, it would seem natural to gravitate toward John’s gospel tonight, where Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends. But I’m not Jesus, and you aren’t, either. And besides, there’s another image in our scriptures that - all week long - has been compelling me to follow it. It’s the image of the river, bright as crystal in the book of Revelation: 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 

How can a river be bright, I’ve wondered. And this river runs through the middle of the road, we’re told. There’s this camp in the Texas hill country that requires of those who would access the camp that they drive up a shallow creek. The road literally is the river, or the river is the road. And I’ve thought this week about that road. Only brighter. And this river flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, sustaining fruit-bearing trees, planted along its banks, and the leaves of these trees are healing.

These trees are the Tree of Life, but it’s hard not to think, also, of the first psalm: 

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of 
the wicked, *
 nor lingered in the way of sinners,
 nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
 and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
 everything they do shall prosper.

Tonight, at the end, I want us to plant ourselves beside this water for a moment, remembering as early church father Apringius of Beja once said, “The living water [of this stream] is the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“For we have been buried with him by baptism into death.” Therefore, the living water which is like crystal and is perfectly clear is the washing of the holy font and the resulting brightness of most blessed faith. It is said to flow from the throne of God and the Lamb because the cleansing is from him, life is from him, and all righteousness and holiness of baptism flows from and proceeds from him.

We gather at the river, and Christ is the river. All year long, we have gathered at this river, where we have found food and drink, new and unending life. We have gathered at this river where we break bread, share the cup, remember our baptism. Gathered at this river as Jimmy was baptized. Gathered at this river singing hymns, asking prayers: let all who are thirsty, come, we sang. And I wonder if you remember the year’s very early beginning, the first Sunday after Labor Day, when we gathered around the waters of baptism and you traced a cross on your sister’s forehead and said to your brother, “My life and death is with my neighbor.” 

The Christian life is learning to put down roots at this river. Christ is the river. Because, says Apringius, “the cleansing is from him, life is from him, and all righteousness and holiness of baptism flows from and proceeds from him.”

In our collect tonight, we asked God to pour love into us, so that we might love. Here again, the recognition that Christ is the source, even of our ability to love God. So also, Christ is the source of our love for one another. 

When we love one another, we share the love of Christ the river. We find all that we need to love one another in him.

As we begin to end this good year at St. Francis House, I want to invite you to join me and wash one another’s feet with the waters of baptism. As we do so, we remember that our love has its source in the river whose waters are bright and come from the throne of God and the Lamb, sustaining fruit-bearing trees, planted along its banks, and that the leaves of these trees are healing.



Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Get To The Root"
Reflections On Peace While Pulling Weeds

Despite the title of this blog, John Howard Yoder was not my first introduction to the Mennonite faith and/or the idea that Christian discipleship might entail non-violence. I was reminded of this today, while pulling garlic mustard at Frautschi Point with the Friends of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. "Don't just pull 'em," Marcia told me. Marcia is a regular at these volunteer days, and had kindly taken some time to give me the lay of the land. Now we turned our attention to the task at hand. "Don't just pull 'em. Be sure you get the root!" I nodded dutifully as she gave me my gloves and weeder. Off I went.

Later, I overhead one of my colleagues - a fellow first-time volunteer - muttering to Marcia, "You do this every year? It doesn't end? I guess it gives us the illusion of making a difference." 

In truth, it makes a huge difference. Because volunteers in years past committed to digging up garlic mustard, none of the plants I pulled today were more than two years old. That's good news because, by year three, the plants are capable of dispersing five-hundred seeds each, completely overwhelming and shading out the native vegetation of the nature preserve.

"Be sure you get to the root!" Marcia said. And then my honest colleague's observation that of course we couldn't get to the root, in the biggest sense. Someone will be doing this forever. Marcia has been doing this for more than fourteen years.

Gradually, my mind wandered back to my undergraduate days as a strikingly handsome student of Economics at Wheaton College. One day, one of my favorite Econ profs, Jim Halteman, asked us about the coming war in Iraq and the nuclear game of hide and seek that was to eventually legitimize America's military action in that region. On the one hand, said Halteman - who was a Mennonite and a pacifist - getting to the root of the problem will be used to justify military force. On the other hand, what is the problem? 

If the problem, he said, is securing the safety of people by ensuring that Iraq's nuclear capabilities never develop into serious threats against those people, then years of seemingly futile U.N. inspections may not be - in terms of larger objective - futile at all, exactly to the extent that constantly disassembling and relocating one's nuclear facilities in order to hide them from inspectors on a monthly basis effectively prevents the development of those resources. "Why," he asked, "is this solution viewed as less satisfactory than military intervention?"

Dr. Halteman's point was that at least part of our military instinct is less about securing objectives than insisting that those objectives be achieved on our terms.(1) But that our objectives could also be obtained on terms we choose to reject for other reasons challenges us to be honest about ourselves and our objectives. To choose war over peace where peace means the international equivalent of pulling weeds that will surely grow back is an act of impatience, not security. 

To be sure, I have since learned from Yoder (and Hauerwas) that Christian non-violence is imaginable even where security is not as easily imagined. Indeed, security is not the end-game for either of those prophetic voices. But what Dr. Halteman named for me was the need to examine why I find living in the messy middle - in the absence of tidy resolution - so unappealing. Getting up every morning knowing that the weeds will require tending, and will 'til the end of time, is painstaking, frustrating, and patient work. It is also faithful work. God knows, it is the work of those who follow the crucified and risen Christ. 


(1) Only somewhat relatedly, Dr. Halteman once asked the class whether we thought we should give the homeless money if we knew they would spend it on beer. "What is your objective in giving the person money?" he asked. He went on to observe, without telling us what our objective should be, that if our objective was increasing the short-term happiness of the recipient, and if booze would increase that happiness the most in the short-term, we might hope that the person use the unexpected windfall to buy a brew. Maximize utility. (And this at a college where we did not drink.)

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

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