(Intro for St. Andrew's:)
Disclaimer: I didn’t exactly write this sermon for y’all. But when Father Andy called on Friday and said the congregation had suffered two deaths this week and that Mother Dorota was away - could I preach this Sunday? - I was happy for the chance to help a friend and serve my family’s congregation. But, I didn’t write this for you. Tonight, the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center celebrates her very first Eucharist in the new, old building - it’s a really special occasion. You can clap. I know, right? It’s pretty exciting. We’re kinda stoked. 5 p.m. tonight, and everyone is welcome. Not the same as our two-day September kick-off and celebration of ministry - but a pretty cool ‘first.’ Anyway, these words are my reflection to our students both on the moment itself and the light the Gospel sheds on this moment. My prayer, of course, is that these words might also find a double resonance with you, but who knows? May the Spirit speak.
(St. Francis House beginning:)
We made it. It’s a marvelous thing to be standing at the edge of a shiny, new semester and to be here in this space with you. A building to call your own. A place, a space, to support you as you grow in Christ at the University of Wisconsin, as you discern and use your many gifts for the building up of the Body. A place to crash when you need a holy space - or an irreverent space - or whatever kind of space you need when the rest of life is closing in and feeling claustrophobic. It’s a good space. A beautiful space. I hope you check it out before you leave - all four floors of it - if you haven’t already, tonight. It is your space to be yourself, with God’s help. And tonight is our very first service back in this wonderful, prayer-soaked space. But. It’s messy. Sparsely furnished. Pretty dusty. My office is a wreck. There’s still a lot to do. The cardboard moving boxes haven’t stopped doubling as our trash cans, and you should always, always check for toilet paper before you lock the restroom door behind you.
That’s just to say, we haven’t made it. Or, having made it, we discover that what looked like a finish line turns out to mark a new beginning. Like when you’ve bought the last textbook listed on your coursework syllabus or finally sat down and made the house rules with your roommates - the supplies and structure come together, are in order - and now the great adventure, the living question, with all its promise and uncertainty, is what comes next.
When I came back from vacation a couple of days ago, I did a walkthrough of the building, and all I could see was how much this finished unfinished space is a kind of mirror of our lives. You have the promise and excitement of a beautiful space in which to grow: another day begun at a world class institution of higher learning, a new semester with fresh challenges and new friends. On the one hand, you could not dream it up better. But. Some days you are more aware than others of how the cardboard moving boxes still double as your trashcans, so to speak. You perceive an incompleteness in yourself that it feels like only you can see. And so you find it difficult to fully receive the excitement that the others have for you - family and friends - because you look around at yourself in this moment and wonder still about the toilet paper, if there’s any in there. You see the messy parts and how unfinished it all feels. And most of you have been down this road long enough to know that the end of the semester now beginning will not bring the kind of end that clears away the untidy boxes or broken pieces. Like SFH, your life - with all its promise and uncertainty - is a work in progress.
All of which is why it is necessary to remind ourselves tonight that, for Christians, it is not really good news that we can finally share the Eucharist together in this building. It is really good news that the first thing we do together in this building is share the Eucharist.
In the Eucharist, we remember that unfinished, messy, and weaker than we would like to let on, we have been met by and made able to sing the praises of the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
In Luke’s gospel tonight, we discover a woman bent over and crippled, possessed of a spirit, healed by Jesus. We are told the healing freed her - Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free...” - and healing takes the shape of her being made able to stand upright and sing the praises of God. For eighteen years, or slightly more than the average freshman is old - for the better part of a young lifetime, she had known and deeply felt her inability to free herself. But now, even in her powerlessness, she's free. Because he came to her. Despite the rules and all expectations to the contrary, God fashions of this woman - God fashions in this woman - an occasion for praise. At a time when no one was expecting God to act - indeed, at a time when no one would allow to act - God acts and sets her free. And the woman’s response to this freedom is praise.
So the new semester is not quite upon us. Some of you have moved this summer and others of you have not. But in the sense we’ve been describing, I wonder what you think your cardboard moving boxes are: those permanently temporary places in yourself where you feel most unfinished, at a loss, most impatient or perhaps despairing of hope for true and lasting change; places where you’ve tried to effect change and found yourself stuck. I wonder where you are not free. And I wonder what you hope freedom looks like. I wonder what you hope real joy is.
My daughter, Annie, turned four this past Thursday. As I was tucking her in bed Wednesday night, as I was dropping her into the covers, she stopped me and looked up, said, “Daddy, it’s the last night you tuck me in as a three year old.” Then she smiled and squeezed me extra tight. I loved that moment, but, truthfully, I’ve come to love all the bedtime moments: sometimes she’s singing and full of the love that first moved the sun and the stars, and sometimes she’s just melting down. And on those melting down days, on the days she feels herself most spinning out of control, she’s likely to stop me and say, “Daddy, pray for me.” And I will. I’ll hold her hand, lift her up in prayer - for whatever has gotten hold of her - we’ll pray for healing, and the prayer almost always ends the same way: “so that she may love and serve you with her whole being, with joy and great gladness.” Inevitably the same “so that” - “so that she may love and serve you with her whole being, with joy and great gladness.” These prayers we share carry for us an echo of the woman in Luke’s gospel who stood up, being healed, and praised God; in the woman's healing, praise is revealed to be what healing is for. So only as we begin to be healed do we come to really understand what it was to be crippled. Wonder, love, and praise is what Annie was made to do best. To be bent and crippled is to be severed from the high calling of praise.
It is a wonderful, difficult mystery that only in the healing do we discover that for which we are made.
The woman in Luke’s gospel enacts this reality for us, and for the people of Israel: reminding the people of Israel of the slavery Israel could not end for itself in Egypt, calling to mind the bondage that was ended through the Exodus, as the people were delivered by God into the land of promise. And just as the woman in Luke’s gospel points back to God’s action for Israel, she points forward to Israel’s fulfillment in Jesus, who - as our baptismal liturgy reminds us - “was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Only so delivered can we love and serve with our whole beings, with joy and great gladness. Only as we come to this table and consume the holy food that consumes us - the Body and Blood of our Savior - can we fully stand upright and sing the praise for which God made us.
It is a wonderful, difficult mystery that only in the healing do we discover and find the strength to perform that for which we are made. And the name for this healing is Christ.
I am so very excited to begin a new semester at St. Francis House. I cannot wait to see what God has in mind for each of you, and for us. I am always interested to see what you do with the vocation you have been given as “student.” And, of course, I am ecstatic to have a nice place to call home. All of which is why I need reminding tonight - and why I remind you, too - that, for Christians, it is not really good news that we can finally share the Eucharist together in this building. But it is wonderfully good news that the first thing we do together in this building is share the Eucharist.
Let God’s People say,