Sunday, August 30, 2015

Happy New Year!
(Believing is Seeing & Seeing Changes the Way We Move)

Sermon for St. Francis House, Aug 30, the first Eucharist of the fall semester.

Happy new year! (Fire the confetti popper!)

It’s 1st Eucharist Sunday! Good to see you. Time to celebrate! Fireworks on the patio after the blessing. If only, right? It’s not that straightforward. At least that’s what the fire marshal told me on Thursday. 

No, the academic new year is more parts restraint than splash, and for some good reasons. It’s not just that the new year on campus occasions excitement and challenge in equal measure; the return both to rhythms of friendship and disciplined routines of study - there’s some natural anxiety that comes with this beginning. It’s also that we’re not all in town yet! Classes don't start until Wednesday. The RSO fair is the week after that. Kick-off is still two weeks away. Fall retreat, a whole month from today. So has your chaplain jumped the gun?

No. Definitely not. Well, maybe. Especially if I have to sweep this all up by myself. I mean, it’s possible. I don’t think so.

Yes, it is the case that our beginning tonight looks less like New Year’s Day and more like Advent - less ball drop in Times Square and more an Advent wreath on a family table with just one candle lit - but it’s still a beginning. Every oak tree needs its acorn and every virtuoso learned a first major chord. 

Beginnings are like this. Like an angel’s conversation with a teenage girl that no one else can see. Mary. Like work and prayer without a spotlight, requiring a heart of faith and patience. A first step is not a journey but every journey has first steps.

So the new academic year begins. And you wait. Wait for old friends to arrive and new friends to be made. Wait for the start of classes and their attending syllabi. Wait for work and school schedules to fall into place. Wait for the weather to change. Wait, no. Don’t wait for that. Soak it all in. Dinner tonight on the Terrace!

Here’s the point, though: just because we are waiting doesn’t mean we're not already beginning, because - and you know this - the best beginnings aren’t always big. They seldom are, actually. Five loaves and two fish. Twelve disciples. A handful of women with some incredible news. A mustard seed. Bread and wine in a red brick chapel. Innocuous, mundane. As ordinary as eating. Mixed in with the everyday earth and dirt of life. There, in the mud, the unexpected movement of God, the beginning of something that, years later, you will look back on and say was the moment, an encounter, that changed everything.

God shows up before things get big. Before we feel ready or have ourselves put together, God is there. The first words of Scripture are, “In the beginning, God…” Even before things begin, God’s on the job. All things belong to God. Even better, as James reminds us, all things are beloved of God. Even the seemingly insignificant place, person, or moment belongs to God. And, in the economy of God, nothing is wasted. My mom would yell out at my brothers on me (on well-deserved occasions), “What, were you born in a barn?” No, but Christ was. Nothing is God's economics is wasted.

To begin to trust that God is with us before we are with it is to pray to see things differently. So Christians ask, even in small and ordinary things, how is God at work? Believing that God is at work. We ask God’s help to take our time differently, in our tasks and with one another. We promise, with God’s help, to live and move and breathe distinctly in this world. To love our neighbors. Our enemies, too. To pray. To serve. To forgive. To ask for and trust God’s forgiveness of us. To walk gently in this world; because we are beginning to live in the world as God is teaching us to see the world. As God sees the world. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

So most nights, Rebekah goes to bed before I do and turns out the lights in the house as she goes, long before I get off the couch to begin my own bedtime routine. She usually leaves one light on, with instructions to turn it off last. The tricky part of that simple instruction is that that last light is still three rooms from our bed, which leaves a couple of ominous corners for me to maneuver in the dark. So I can attest to the fact that seeing things changes the way we move. When the lights are on, I am a picture of elegance, grace. A better looking Fred Astaire. When the lights are out, my goals quickly become more modest: don’t break the furniture, or my nose. I walk like a zombie: arms out and no elbows. Lights on, different story. But lights off, it’s bad news. It is sometimes said that seeing is believing but Christians have also long said the opposite: that believing is seeing. And seeing changes the way we move.

Each of our readings today, in separate ways, ask Christians to consider whether we will allow our worship and religious practice to change the way we move: to open up our hearts. It’s possible, say the scriptures, to go about life with locked arms and no elbows. Even in church, to show up to be seen - by others or God - and to lose sight of the dance to which God invites us. And there’s a beautiful reminder in even that sad possibility. The reminder is that our worship on Sunday is meant to inform and connect to our movements on Monday, on sidewalks, with neighbors. Sam Wells writes about the Eucharist as a game of fetch with God in which we bring a tennis ball, covered with bits of earth and dirt and saliva and life - all that we are - into this place and lift it up high with our hearts in thanksgiving to God. God blesses these bits of earth and dirt and life and transforms them in the presence of Christ and then - the best part - the deacon sends us back out, launching the ball out into the world again, where we’ll go out and find it, caked with new bits of earth, and bring them back here to this place. For the worshiping community, worship isn’t a performance for the impressive, it is the first part of the rhythm of breathing with God: the inhale of praise joined to the long, slow exhale of daily life, lived in relationship with God. Worship helps us see the world the way God sees the world, and the way God sees the world is meant for joy as beloved of God.

An example of this forming process at work. In the epistle today, James wants to help us see better, by resurrection light, and so he directs our attention to our speech: the words we speak. James thinks words and those who speak them should be generous because every good gift comes from God. So James thinks worship of the God who, in Christ, poured out God’s self in love for us on the cross, should make us generous, especially toward those on the margins of economic viability. James is talking about habits - like speech habits - the instincts that reveal the inner disposition of the heart, suggesting that these are worth tending and cultivating. Eucharist can be practice in giving away your life.

James’ concern, like Jesus’ in the gospel, is that observances meant to open our hearts sometimes disconnect from our non-Sunday lives, where God also has plans. Observances can turn into passive nouns for people of faith. As in, I’ll observe from a distance. I’ll watch. Or I’ll perform the act but keep closed my soul and the rest of my life. At their best, though, the observances of Christians are more than either watching others passively or performing for others vainly; when Christians come with hands outstretched to life up our hearts and beg our bread, to find new life, these living observances can align one’s life with what one sees and receives.

So here’s the million dollar question: what do you see and receive when you look at Jesus? If you were able to gaze upon Jesus and sustain that gaze - throughout an hour, a day, a life - and then align your life with what you saw, what would you become? What has the Eucharist taught you to see about God and the world? What has the community of faith, here or back home, given you that helps you to seek and serve God in the world more clearly?

What God has shown you, what God has given you to see God and the world by, is a treasure to be tended. Don’t take it for granted. Take time to know it. Keep tokens of Christ’s joy in you always at hand. After all, dynamic observance - or aligning one’s life - is not about whether or not you have achieved the end of perfect love - as if love was a test you or I could take once and pass - a video game level to complete. Instead, observances that grow the life of faith are about the daily act of showing up in love, beginning each day in conversation with God, noticing and taking a single faithful step ten thousand times across a lifetime, keeping the tennis ball in play. This kind of observance is not about what you’ve done up until now or what you will do with your degree once you’ve got it; it’s about how God is inviting you to follow Jesus today; is about tuning your soul in each moment to the seemingly insignificant place, practice, or person before you, that belongs completely to God.

A single step. Made over and over again. In love. Without fear. Because, - and here’s the best part - you, too, belong to God. By the waters of baptism, you are Christ’s own. You are God’s beloved.

Thanks be to God. And happy, new year.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Washing Feet Out Of Season
(When Every Day Is Maundy Thursday)

My daughter Annie's foot. I've washed it more than any other, save her other one and my own.
God knows she's poured her balm on me as well.
Christians wash each others' feet. Symbolically. Metaphorically. Once-a-year literally. As a kid, the once-a-year occasion was the one I most remembered. The church, all in shadows, all awash in the singing of hauntingly beautiful song. The church leader bent over on one knee, expectant, towel in hand. The approach, the sitting there, the embrace. Then cheeks flushed with fire. A slight tremble at the miracle of another's foot held in my hand. Cleansing a child of God. Pangs of unworthiness. Another embrace. The life God intends for the people of God's table. The pathway to Easter.

Later, in college, I took a summer job as a residential counselor for the physically and mentally challenged. I learned to feed paraplegics and assist campers in tending to basic bodily rhythms in ways that were profoundly holy, entirely ordinary, and most decidedly not once-a-year. Every minute was service. The posture of a heart bent to serve and towel in hand became less act and more disposition. That summer was at once impossibly difficult and one of the greatest privileges I have ever known.

Years later, Rebekah was stretched out on the floor of our birth-instructor's home, with a dozen other women and their partners. I held my hand to her back as we breathed to relax while our leader conveyed the message with which she began every class: "Remember. You are about to give birth to a twenty-four hour a day need." More than once since that day, I'm smiled, cried, laughed, and/or screamed at that truth. "Parenthood. Where it's always Maundy Thursday," I sigh.

Last night, my three-year old son comes into the dining room with mud-covered feet. A day well-lived, I think to myself, smiling. My son's not amused. "I want a bath!" he demands. "You've had a bath and a shower the last two nights..." I offer. "I WANT A BATH!" "You're clean!" I shout back like a madman, "You don't need a bath. A clean person doesn't need a whole bath. Just your feet - " Huh. Maundy Thursday, indeed.

On the Thursday before Easter - Maundy Thursday - Christians gather to do two things that, on the night before he died, Jesus asked his first disciples to do: 1) we celebrate the Eucharist, the holy meal of bread and wine at and in which Episcopalians (not uniquely) believe Christ is present and 2) we wash each others' feet. In the course of the Christian year, we'll celebrate the Eucharist a lot: most of us do so every Sunday, plus at other feasts and occasions throughout the week. Foot-washing, however, is mostly reserved for Maundy Thursday, with the possible exception of youth retreats like Happening, which is awesome and - if you're a teenager - you should totally go.

Because Episcopalians log disproportionate reps at the communion rail relative to the foot washing basin, we sometimes act awkwardly when it comes time to strip off the socks and get our soak on. Everyone's a little nervous because we don't wash each others' feet in church often enough to do it without a few hiccups along the way. Of course, infrequency of practice has the primary benefit of  drawing Christians into the Holy Week story of Christ's death and resurrection intimately and thereby conveying a holy reverence. We don't have the luxury of taking the act for granted. Scarcity of practice, with its attendant clumsiness, instills a sense of nervousness and the act's importance.

My children have taught me, however, that an act's importance does not hinge on its scarcity. Witness the realization of the Book of Common Prayer 1979, when its compilers made the Eucharist normative for a faith community's principle weekly worship. Contra the practice of the Middle Ages and even the 20th century church prior to the BCP 1979, sometimes reflective of concerns that frequency of practice would dilute the significance of the act and/or the readiness of the recipient, the BCP 1979 asserted the constancy of weekly Eucharistic practice, habit, and formation.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the Episcopal church opted - as some denominations in the Christian tradition have from time to time opted - from the two commandments Christ gave that night, to make of foot washing a weekly practice, too. What if, instead of a once-a-year occasion that elicited quiet pre-service chuckles about how gross our feet are, the practice was so common as to be assumed. This is what we do. We bare our feet for each other. We sit in the humility of grace received from another. We hold onto each other. Christ's words in our ears, his example before us, Christ's Spirit upon us, we pour out the pitcher for our sisters and brothers again. And again. And again. And again.

With prayer book revision now on the table, is weekly foot washing an open possibility?

This post is not an argument. I am convinced that a church that doesn't wash feet weekly is as fully capable of faithfulness and brokenness as any other. I suppose I'm writing a question mixed with imagination. I write it because, while Jesus gave us the instructions that night to "do this," he was admittedly vague on the particulars. Thus, I'm also not married to literalism: my new deacon and I will walk over to Porchlight - a neighbor non-profit serving men and women transitioning out of prison and homelessness - in a few minutes to talk with the organizers there about more regular rhythms of connection between our two communities.

Of course, the danger is that the literal or metaphorical foot washing act, done weekly, loses its pizazz over time. I would argue, however, that losing pizazz is not the same as losing meaning. Granted, the meaning we discover in the rhythm of the practice may well be different from the one we first thought it would be or the one we first wanted. Maybe, despite our best efforts, the line between act and disposition gradually blurs inside us until we, ourselves, are no longer our own to control, but we are lost to the service of Christ in our neighbor. That was my experience as a camp counselor at summer camp, and it is certainly my experience as a husband and parent. As a priest, also, and as friend and brother in Christ. On my good days, loss of that control names my thanks for my life as a Christian:

"This is the life God intends for the people of God's table. This is the pathway to Easter."

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Defense of Church Shopping

A couple of young adults - and good friends - in different parts of the country have recently and separately asked me about church shopping. Honestly, the integrity with which my friends have grappled with a question I assumed many young adults simply dismissed surprised me. In replying to one of my friends, I thought it might be useful to share a portion of my response (below). As is clear in what follows, I have a lot of personal ambivalence about the question, though not without some strong inclinations. That's all to say I'd be grateful for your own thoughts, insights, etc. in the comments at the end. Thanks!


To my friend, just moved to a new city:

"I'll be honest, I find it confusing when the church at large chides Christians for church shopping - not because I'm for church shopping, but because I wonder how else people are supposed to make sense of the existence, for example, of 6 Episcopal faith communities in Madison, a city that stretches 6 miles, end to end. If 2 churches are equidistant from one's home, it seems arbitrary at best to say one is obligated to only attend the church first produced in the google search. I don't have a good reason for why the church is structurally at adds with its admonitions against church shopping, unless the admonitions really mean loyalty to the Episcopal brand, which I'm all for but which is, in practice, increasingly an illusion of vestries and other denominational leadership. Even if that's the case, the idea that church shopping only refers to denominational infidelity is nowhere reflected in the way most denominational churches regard and/or record membership. 

"So, yes. Church shop. What it means to church shop well becomes an interesting and valid question for me, and I don't pretend to have anything like a satisfactory answer for that one beyond 'shop to buy.' My own short list would be a community 1) centered on the waters of baptism (i.e., Easter Vigil) and the Eucharist, and their attending rhythms of prayer, 2) with Christ the center of the preaching, related to a love of Scripture, 3) in which the gifts of the laity are visibly lifted up and encouraged, 4) and where youth are visibly valued and invested in. Even there, I'm probably forgetting something that puts me close to heresy. My experience does tell me that when most people talk about 'being fed' they mostly mean feeding others - finding a place for their own gifts to bless and serve others in and outside of the community, which is an important part of finding belonging and is probably another name for the opportunity to love and be loved.

"Pragmatically, studies show that - absent a dogged loyalism - most folks also need 6-8 friends in a community in order to call a given church a longterm (more than six months) home. And all of this assumes a monogamous relationship (one person + one community of faith). My brother and his friends attended 6+ youth groups back in the day, which at least calls into question the assumption of ecclesial monogamy as normative. Myself, I'm all for ecclesial monogamy and I am sympathetic to Brother Emile of TaizĂ© and his contention that 'you are not obligated to be faithful to (the churches') divisions.'"

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