Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Promise of Trees
(Goodbye to Dear Friends)


Sermon preached at St. Francis House on the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B. The readings for the day are these: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26Psalm 11 John 5:9-13John 17:6-19. Tonight was also the last worship service of the 2014-15 academic year.

Tonight’s readings - assigned by the lectionary, which is completely oblivious to this being graduation Sunday - are nevertheless chock full of reminders, naming the truth that tonight we say good bye to good friends; tonight we say good bye to one another. Call it God’s sense of humor; maybe a wink from God to us through the scriptures this evening.

A mentor of mine, a long time ago, said to be sure to always say good bye. “That way,” he said, “you’ll know what to say when you see each other next: ‘Hello!’ If you don’t say good bye, though, you’ll wonder what to say later because you’ll wonder what you said last. When you inevitably come across each other in an unexpected moment, your hesitation will steal your joy.”

In our first reading, from Acts, we find the disciples, staring blankly at each other in the absence of the one that chose to leave them, Judas, wondering how they’ll ever replace him. Wondering if they can. He had been like a brother to them. He’d even kept the books! Replace the treasurer? Impossible. Unthinkable. Then, in a moment of brilliance, someone decides to draw lots. Done. Huh. Replacing a dear brother in Christ turned out to be easier than any of them imagined.

Of course, none of you is Judas. And if only it was that easy.

Sarah observed to me, as we walked out of the Engineering Building Monday morning - after watching Noah become Dr. Van Dam - that our community will have a Noah-shaped hole moving forward. Indeed. A Claire-shaped hole, too. With any luck, your friendship in the lives of our graduates will leave a you-shaped hole in them. A St. Francis House community-shaped hole in them. I hope so. That’s what love does. I hope you’ll stay in touch with each other. You better believe I’ll stay in touch with you, too.

So there’s Judas and the lots, in the first reading tonight. Then, in the gospel, the stakes of tonight’s good bye moment are ratcheted up, because Jesus is praying before leaving his friends. But, let’s be clear: you may be leaving, you might even be praying; none of you is Jesus. And yet, we aren’t without connection to this passage: as a faith community, sharing ordinary life together one semester at a time, God has sanctified us - has made you holy - in truth. And the God who once sent you into the world when you first landed here is sending you out once again, just like in Jesus’ prayer, out, into the world. Into the summer for some, before returning next fall. Into new jobs, new careers, for others. So tonight’s gospel reminds us that the love of Jesus’ prayer in these verses - the love that makes God’s children holy and sends them out into the world - is the same love that we share tonight.

Next week is the feast of Pentecost - the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. So the readings today are really only secondarily about sending off friends, however well the theme fits. It’s not unrelated, but the primary theme is God’s promise not to leave you alone in the moment or place of your friendlessness - even the friendlessness that comes, for the disciples, with the departure of Jesus. 

Friendlessness doesn’t just happen when it feels like you don’t have friends. Friendlessness sometimes happens when your life’s journey begins a new chapter, when the adventure begins a new leg, or when a friend begins her new chapter and her adventure begins a next leg. Of course, even there, you are not without friends. They just aren’t as readily visible or accessible. 

When you begin a new chapter, a new leg, that feels daunting, unknown - toward the uncertainty of faithful next steps - God gives God’s promised Spirit. The Holy Spirit. So we prayed to God this evening, saying, “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before…”

You may think you don’t know where you're going. In fact, you may be certain you don’t know what comes next. But your prayer, already, is to go, with God’s help, to the place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Your prayer, already, is to be made nearer and more like Christ. As you embark on the next leg of that journey, the Spirit of the living God goes with you. Promise. You are not alone.

I think that is why, for all the coming and going of friends in the scriptures tonight, the image that stirs my heart most comes, finally, from the psalms. 

Not surprisingly - when you look around this building, at the art - it’s a tree.

Strange, maybe, to appeal to a rooted tree in the heart of a season of transition and rootlessness, but I believe it is for exactly the rootless season, the time of transition, that the psalmist gives us the symbol of the tree, planted by streams of water, yielding fruit, flourishing, with un-withering leaves, and prosperous; a symbol for those being uprooted, in transition, because, after all, it is to the thirsty that our Savior comes as living water, and it is to the ones between homes that Christ comes, promising to make his home with them. This is the promise of trees.

In the beginning, the tree marked the center of the garden. In the shade of this tree, Adam and Eve knew friendship with God. Later, with Jonah, the tree served as a symbol that God’s friendship was meant for more than just Jonah. When Noah set the dove loose to bring back some sign of hope in a turbulent time, the sign of that hope was a branch from the tree, stretching high against the receding waters of hopelessness and despair. For Zacchaeus, a tree was the perch from which he found a view of the Savior he couldn’t have managed alone.

Friendship with God and one another. Hope in high water times. A perch from which to see the salvation of God. The cross of Christ, that most holy tree, became all these things for us and made possible John’s vision in Revelation in which we see the restoration of the friendship of that first tree’s shade:
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.
Anticipating this vision in his mustard seed parable, Jesus tells about how, once upon a time, a seed grew up and into a tree in whose branches all the birds of the sky found a home. 

All of our homes before the final home we find in God are echoes and foretastes of the life we will only fully know beneath the shade of that tree by the crystal river. Along that journey, the community of faith is, with God’s help and through the rhythm of Word and sacraments, a miracle in which anticipation touches our current reality, where we experience friendship with God and one another. Signs of hope in high water times. A perch from which to see the salvation of God, and we nest in the branches of the love of God and the community of faith, love which calls each of us outside of ourselves and into the daring of love for others.

I thank God for the opportunity to have lived that rhythm with you in this place. 

Good bye. Christians say good bye because Christians expect the Spirit to move us. Grow us. Lead us. We are rooted pilgrims. Planted wanderers. Wandering and yet rooted. You are rooted as you leave. Planted by the stream. Remember the One whose waters sustain you, whose love for you goes with you, and whose life we have shared together. Thank you for trusting God’s love with one another.

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 whither;
everything they do shall prosper.

Amen.





Friday, May 8, 2015

I Have a Lot of Moms
(Grocery Shopping In Your Collar Can Be Complicated)

I do the shopping for our family. Friday mornings, mostly. The Friday morning grocery event occasions my weekly encounter with Yerba MatĂ©, which is a carrot at the end of the week for which my friends sometimes tease me. 

I'm okay with it, though.

It's the shopping itself that sometimes is awkward. Like the time I picked up - in addition to the family haul - some Shabbat candles for worship at St. Francis House. We place them in a sand-filled dish in the chapel, as a marker of our intention to be present to the God who has so wonderfully promised to be present to us. It's mostly pragmatic: short of a deeper dish and Ethiopian beeswax candles, the Shabbat candles work best in the sand.(1) But one day the cashier surprised me when she kindly asked, "So you're Jewish?"

Um, no. But I like the candles?

I lamely said something about using them for friends of different faith backgrounds, which is true, though our ecumenical night prayers are decidedly Christian. I do like the candles. She smiled without judgment and sold me two boxes. 

Today's embarrassment came along these lines. 

Background: the kids had invited us to parent appreciation day at school, which was wonderful but/and/yet/also meant I would have no time to change before going to work. 

So it was that I was wearing my collar as I arrived at the co-op for my weekly shopping event. While not a big deal in itself, it did make me pause as I picked up my candles. Then, as I picked up the candles, I remembered the need to buy flowers for St. Francis House. We don't always use flowers in worship, but we make a point of having them throughout the season of Easter. (We talk a lot about remembering - and we look for lots of ways to visibly remind ourselves - that Easter is longer than Lent.) Because the Easter flowers are for St. Francis House, I make a note to myself as I pick them out that I will need to put in on the church credit card and make two purchases (the candles are inexpensive, so I usually buy them with the groceries and donate them to the Episcopal Center). 

As I'm picking out the flowers, too, I think of Mother's Day and decide to buy several bouquets for Rebekah, from the kids.

Shopping cart full, I make my way to the register. I am now a clearly marked priest praying I can smuggle the Shabbat candles past the cashier without interrogation and also that I'll be allowed to purchase inordinate amounts of flowers on two different cards without smirking or comment. (It happens. For all the imagined awkwardness my friends speculate about wearing the collar in public, it's really only the unexpected romantic references - handholding, etc. - that, from my perspective, cause people to act in uncomfortably weird ways). 

Thankfully, the bagger remembers the context of the weekend. "So you've got a lot of moms, huh?"

I laugh. Thank God for good humor.

Yeah. Something like that.

And, actually, she's dead on - she's inadvertently nailed this Episco-priest's reality: every week, shopping for my family and shopping for my family; living in the often beautiful and sometimes complicated space between Jesus' strange words about who is his family, really, and the wonderful gift Episcopalian clergy are afforded to marry, and raise children.

Just then, I remember the language of the (especially Catholic) tradition: "mother Church." Of course I would have two flower orders for the day. I start to laugh again.

Taking my receipt, I consider my Church as mother, and also the mothers I've had through the church:
  • My mom (whom I love to the moon and past it, and who is getting something other than flowers this year)
  • The Church
  • My godmothers
  • The many women of and in the church who lived, without the title, the baptismal responsibilities of god-parentage toward me
  • The women clergy - colleagues, friends, and mentors - who have chosen the title "mother" and worn it in ways that have drawn me deeper into the love of God
I also depend a lot on moms who aren't mine, notably - though not exclusively -
  • My beyond words amazing and wonderful wife, Bek
  • The godmothers of my children
  • The many women of and in the church who are living, without the title, the baptismal responsibilities of god-parentage toward my children
As I wheel the shopping cart to the car, I abruptly remember this quote, which 1) may not be an actual quote and 2) has aged into offensiveness and toward deserved critique (my own included), but which nonetheless names that to call the Church "Mom" is not to say that any of us have ever or always found her to be the ecclesial Mom we needed or that she might, in a perfect world, have been for us. 

Some of us have felt more pain or distress at the hands of the Church than others. I remind my wife constantly that to raise children without the need of some kind of future therapeutic counseling is not a realistic goal. That reminder aside, the counseling some members of the Church would require from their dealings with the Church we rightly call the sin the Church is called to confess. The Church is lovely because God loves the Church. But/and/yet/also, all of the difficulties that come with finding way ways to pray for all manner of mothers and women on Mother's Day (2) - and which we will visit again with respect to fathers and men next month (3) - also arise when we talk about the Church as our mother. 

In all that it implies, it is true: the Church has been a mother to me. And, within her, I have a lot of mothers. I thank God for mothers from which I've learned, and with which I've lived, the mercy and forgiveness of God. To say this is in part to remember that the Church is a mother we are called to forgive. That the Church would need our forgiveness is not fatal to the life of the Church; the Spirit's gift of forgiveness is the life of the Church.

Moreover, and finally,

the Church - and all we who are members of her - can pray, says the 12th century monastic Bernard of Clairvaux, to be made more holy mothers through imitation of Christ our Mother. Bernard frequently wrote about Christ as a mother who nurses us with his wounds, as breasts, and exhorted those who would be leaders of the faith to likewise seek to love as Christ:
Learn that you must be mothers to those in your care, not masters; make an effort to arouse the response of love, not that of fear: and should there be occasional need for severity, let it be paternal rather than tyrannical. Show affection as a mother would, correct like a father. Be gentle, avoid harshness, do not resort to blows, expose your breasts: let your bosoms expand with milk, not swell with passion. (p50)
"So," she said. "You've got a lot of moms?"

I laugh. 

Yes.

Yes, in fact. I do. 






_________

(1) A part of me is glad to be kept mindful of the Church's indebtedness and kinship to the People of Israel, particularly as embodied in the early Jewish-Christians like Peter and Paul who braved an openness to God's openness, living a flesh and blood generosity toward all people. "God shows no partiality," they said. Still, I know that's not what the candles are sold for. I draw my own line at purchasing the candles on the Jewish Sabbath (I won't), for obvious - if insufficiently coherent - reasons.

(2) By way of example, here's a good prayer my friend and colleague Rev. David Simmons uses:

On this Mother's Day, we give thanks to God for the divine gift of motherhood in all its diverse forms.  Let us pray for all the mothers among us today; for our own mothers, those living and those who have passed away; for the mothers who loved us and for those who fell short of loving us fully; for all who hope to be mothers someday and for those whose hope to have children has been frustrated; for all mothers who have lost children; for all women and men who have mothered in any way - those who have been our substitute mothers and we who have done so for those in need; and for the earth that bore us and provides us with our sustenance. We pray in remembrance of the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who although pierced by a sword of anguish at your crucifixion, now rejoices in your glorious resurrection.  With her and with all the saints in heaven and on earth, we praise you, Holy God, who gathers us together as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  Amen.

(3) No less theological for the children whose biological experience makes calling God "Father" a challenge.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

When Does a Church (Building) First Feel Strange?

The question is one my first boss liked to ask at staff meetings. It's important to say he was asking through the perspective of visitors. First-timers or travelers. Equally for people who would come to make the church their home and those who would never visit town again. For all of these, on a Sunday, when does a church first feel strange?

"When you go up to communion," one of us offered one time. "Our ushers are great, but that's a cumbersome moment. Sometimes even I forget which way to go up...and equally which way to go back to my pew."

Someone else chimed in: "Before communion! In the narthex. You walk through a door into another room, dimly lit, and there are people to greet you, but they kind of surprise you. And usually there's a turn to make, once you've got your bearings. Come to think of it, our narthex has grown just a little untidy."

"You know, we ask a lot of anyone anytime we ask them to walk into a space they can't see beforehand," another one agreed.

"What about before that?" he asked.

"What? Parking? Finding the door?"

"There are some churches that label the parking spots," he offered. "Communicating that certain spots are for the existing members."

"Sure, just like pews. You try to find a free spot, then you're left to wonder if the spot wasn't free because it was being saved for (or belonged to) someone else."

My boss never said it in these meetings, but he made a habit of parking a block and a half away on Sunday mornings.

"And doors," one of us continued. "Unlocked is a given, glass would be good, and opened is best!" At this, I remembered the clergy lunches I'd attended in my convocation, at various churches. Many times I'd felt like Joshua, bumbling my way from the parking lot, circling the walls of a strong city,  searching unsuccessfully for an unlocked door through which to enter.

"And signs," the boss added. "Not just signs, but signs to things that are important to a person visiting for the first time. What are those things?"

We started thinking. The signs would come, though admittedly not quickly. The signs were already important, however: clear to all of us around the table that day was the reality that the signs had already begun their main work - daily inviting us to look through the eyes of the others; daily reminding us, the "regulars," that we didn't exist for ourselves.

Over time, we would realize that it would be hard to implement the physical changes our conversation had raised without becoming, ourselves, reoriented - relationally and personally - to the neighbors, strangers, and friends around us. In other words, imagining our church for others was to simultaneously imagine a space of conversion for ourselves with respect to the Gospel's call to serve, proclaim, and love.

One of us attempted a summary: "It's about honesty and seeing the truth about ourselves - learning to see yourself first as a neighbor, through the eyes of your neighbor. Understanding and reevaluating your place in your neighborhood, being present to our neighbors in intentional ways.

"And inviting them into a shared future, with us, imagined from their perspective."





Sunday, May 3, 2015

Riding with the Ethiopian:
On Baltimore, Scripture, and Being Christian in Public


Sermon preached at St. Francis House on the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B. These are the readings for the day: Acts 8:26-40Psalm 22:24-301 John 4:7-21John 15:1-8.

In the logic of the national public square, the U.S. Constitution exists, in part, to protect me from your faith. You can’t just impose your faith on me. Neither am I permitted to impose my faith on you. Sometimes this protection is physical, as from fundamentalists who may turn violent. Other times, the protection of the state simply preserves your right to shape your own life, without unwanted interference or help. So, if my god says to tie unwanted Sponge Bob balloons on the shoelaces of unwilling strangers at bus stops, the Constitution intervenes and says, “Hey! Stop! You can’t do that.” If you believe that all unbelieving people - however you define that - should have their eyebrows shaved off and replaced with adhesive gummy worms, you are not able to impose your conviction by force, either. 

Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing. It is one of the remarkable hallmarks of the American democratic experiment. In what follows, I don’t want to question Freedom of Religion. As my caveat probably gives away, though, I do want to question something. What I want to question is how typical people, like you and me, sometimes come to think or not think about the religious protection our Constitution affords, such that we subsequently and perhaps subconsciously shape our interactions with one another in unfortunate and limiting ways. 

For example, if I uncritically fixate on the Constitution’s protective role, with respect to my life and religion, I may conclude that religious interactions with others are inherently negative, if not threatening, in the same way that stationing machine gun toting soldiers by the entrances of public restrooms would send me certain implied, nonverbal signals about how someone, anyway, regards the safety of using that particular restroom.

Of course, most of us don’t need constitutional protections in order to feel the permission to close the blinds when we see the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses approaching the front door. But I wonder if some combination of civic messaging, personal experience, and fear don’t collaborate to play a powerful, adverse role in our lives when we think - if we think - of sharing our faith with others.

“Of course it would be unwanted,” we say. “That’s why we have a Constitution. To protect us from the conflicts - if not wars - religion occasions. I should just shut my trap. Give him his space. Don’t mention your faith to her. And if she asks, don’t let it sound too strong. Certainly not compelling. It’s better, this way, for everyone.”

But the present turmoil of our nation is exposing the poverty of this logic. If there is a silver lining to the terrible string of police-involved deaths and protests that this country has recently experienced - alongside the accidental drone deaths of two American hostages overseas - maybe it is that we have been reminded that religion is not the only source of conflict, and that the state is not always, or even regularly, innocent in matters of human conflict, much less in a unique position to protect us from it. That’s to say that diluting or closeting one’s faith, publicly, may not be the failsafe contribution to the public good we once were led to think it was. 

Put more positively, two of the most remarkable responses to the present unrest in Baltimore came from African-American leaders of faith, sharing their faith on the public stage. One of these leaders, Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, invited his people, in a widely shared statement, to weep and pray for their city. Then, toward the end of the statement, he added: “My brothers and sisters, don’t expect me or anybody else to be the savior of this situation we find ourselves in today. I am not a savior…but I serve a Savior. My Savior is not afraid to weep, not afraid to get angry, not afraid to say and do the right thing because it’s hard, not afraid of anyone or any neighborhood – and not afraid of fear. He is strong to save because he’s strong in love, and my Lord God came down from heaven in human form to show us His children the way.”

Bishop Sutton’s words witness to us and our nation that conversations about faith are not always - and certainly not inherently - about imposing on or power over or intrusion in the lives of others. Sometimes conversations of faith are about generosity and love: giving the grieving permission to weep over situations we cannot control. Sometimes conversations of faith are about vulnerably sharing through our tears the living hope God has, in spite of everything, given us. Sometimes conversations of faith open doors for those who see no open doors, but desperately want to keep walking. Sometimes conversations of faith are not impositions, much less violations, but instead are the best kinds of gifts: glimpses of God at work in one another; the gift of living life, not at arm’s length, but together.

In today’s reading from Acts, the Spirit prompts Philip to go meet a stranger: an Ethiopian eunuch, seated in his chariot, meandering down the road, and reading as he goes. In the practice of the day - for reasons that are comical, true, and that we can talk about later - the stranger is reading out loud. Philip overhears and recognizes the book being read - Isaiah - and so he asks the Ethiopian: “You understand all that?” The stranger looks up and smiles - at least I imagine he smiles - and he gives this wonderfully honest, almost coy, answer: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He looks around, for effect. There’s no one else around. He smiles again. He’s talking to Philip. “And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”

Tell me, be honest - does a more beautiful, simple, straightforward illustration exist for considering conversations of faith in public? There, in the honesty of not knowing, the invitation to explain, and Philip’s acceptance of it, we receive a picture of the truth that the life of faith is made with friends - friends who will get in and sit beside us; strangers who invite us to get in, as new friends, and sit beside them. Haven’t you known such a moment, either as one who was assisted in faith through the faith of another or as one who was invited to assist someone else through your faith? Who was it for you? Who came to you? In whom do you seek and find that sort of friendship now?

Then he points to his place on the parchment, and Philip nods to acknowledge the spot; he begins sharing. Drawing on those three rich years with his Savior, Philip lets his life meet the verses before them. He proclaims the good news about Jesus.

I love how it starts with reading Scripture together. Lauren Winner one time asked, “What if our job as preachers is to just love the scriptures in public?”

Of course, I don’t want you to think I’m just talking to preachers. Or, better, that I don’t see you as preachers, too - as proclaimers of God’s good news with each other. What if our job as Christians - as friends in Christ, one to another - is to just love the scriptures in public - is to just share our faith, tell the stories, such that others - and we ourselves - see “the smallest glimpse of the happening of God?”

“…he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” 

The life of faith is personal, but it need not be private, constitutional offers to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, for Christians, personal cannot mean private, if by private we mean “alone.” Bishop Sutton, Philip, and our own lives remind us that conversations about faith are not always - and certainly not inherently - about imposing on or power over or intrusion in the lives of others. Sometimes conversations of faith are about unexpected generosity and love: giving the grieving permission and friends with which to weep; offering the joyful company with which to laugh. Sometimes conversations of faith are about vulnerably sharing the living hope God has, in spite of everything - in Jesus Christ! - given us. Sometimes conversations of faith open doors for those who see no open doors, but desperately want to keep walking. Sometimes your public love of the scriptures does not name imposition, much less violation, but instead is the best kind of gift: a glimpse of God at work in each other; the gift of living life, not at arm’s length, but together. 

Do you know that your trust, as you speak and hear words of faith for each other, is the work of God’s Spirit in you? That it’s one of the ways you abide in Christ? That it’s a good part of keeping Jesus’ command to love one another?

“…he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” 


Amen.