Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2 Great Reads!

The Courage for Mediocrity.
"We all have our strengths and weaknesses. And yet we try to hide our weaknesses as if they were shameful secrets. Who among us has not trained ourselves to answer that age-old job interview question 'What are your strengths and weaknesses' by turning our negatives into positives? 'My weakness is that I work too much, and also the quality of my work is so high that it oftentimes causes coworkers to be jealous, which sometimes leads to office-wide rioting.'

The Trinity, Leadership and Power.

"When Christian leaders, in the power of the Spirit, cultivate and guide communities of unity and diversity, mutuality and openness, creativity and concern, passion and participation, they live into the promise of Jesus' prayer: 'As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that they world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.'"

Monday, January 25, 2016

God's Heart and Jubilee:
Living the Life that Trusts God


Sermon preached at St. Francis House, January 24, 2016. Read the scriptures appointed for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany here. Listen here! Read last Sunday's sermon here.  

A group of St. Francis House folks had just finished a TaizĂ© service with several hundred others at a large church in Austin, over Spring Break. It was the first of two days we would spend together in prayer, small groups, and friendship, all on the heels of the week prior, spent alongside organizations locally addressing challenges of homelessness, immigration, and incarceration in South Texas. The theme that week was reconciliation. The service was beautiful; we were all glad to have finally arrived, and with the first service behind us, people were now mingling in the way of lost friends rediscovered. 

Unexpectedly, I found myself in conversation with one of the brothers, Emile. He vaguely remembered our group from the year before at Pine Ridge, but that we had traveled down from the tundra of Wisconsin this year, to Texas, clearly left an impression. Later, our pilgrim crew would cash in our newfound celebrity status for unlimited selfies with the brothers. But just then, with this unexpected one on one time, I chose instead to ask Emile about the large cross icon that inevitably appears on retreats with the Taizé community, both at their home in France and when they make pilgrimage elsewhere. Always on Fridays, they drag it out. Always with the invitation to break from the usual service, each of us in our turn having the opportunity to kneel with others and kiss, touch, or simply rest our heads on the cross. What was the point, the intention? I asked. How did this beautiful practice come to be?

“Well,” Emile said, “some Russian Christians, friends of our community, were facing persecution. They sent us this icon and asked us to remember them in our prayers on Fridays. Truthfully, the whole thing felt a little clumsy at first; we weren’t at all sure how visitors would receive it or that it was even a good idea. But we wanted to honor our friends, at least once. We did it on a Friday and it worked, and we still remember our sisters and brothers on Fridays.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s beautiful. But y’all never say that. I would never have guessed. In fact, my own guesses were nowhere close to the truth, mostly because the people it turns out it’s about are never in the room. That’s amazing.”

Brother Emile was unimpressed by my amazement. He shrugged, then nodded in simple agreement. “Sometimes, it’s good to know," he said.

Tonight, I’ve got a little something for you to file under, “Sometimes, it’s good to know.” It’s something that came up at Bible Study on Wednesday: it has to do with this strange phrase at the center of the scroll Jesus unrolls in the gospel lesson tonight. Jesus is reading and preaching for the first time in his hometown, and his sermon is short. In fact, the whole of his sermon is to point to the passage he’s just finished reading and say, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That is, “I, in my speaking, make this complete. The end.”(1) And the strange phrase at the center of the thing Jesus says he’s completing is that he’s proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” But what is that? Where did it come from? Or is it just a fancy way of using words to express a general sense of kindness? 

The thing it’s good to know is that the year of the Lord’s favor is a phrase with a history for the people of Israel. The phrase refers to the year of Jubilee. The Jubilee was the year in Hebrew Scripture, occurring after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - in which debts were forgiven, slaves freed, and property rights reset. Physical forgiveness of debts. If you had lost your future to a string of bad decisions, today it would be returned to you. If you had cost someone you loved their livelihood by the choices you’d made, today they would be restored. If you had cheated your neighbor and not gotten caught, this day of Jubilee would come as a reminder and judgment that illicit gains could only take you so far. 

It’s important to note that scholars aren’t at all sure Israel ever actually observed the Jubilee; only that Scripture records God telling Israel to observe the Jubilee. So Jubilee isn’t so much an insight into Israel as an insight into the God of Israel. Jubilee reveals God’s heart and desire for God’s people and their common life together. In God’s desire, there is forgiveness of heavy debts. In God’s desire, there is mercy for stupid choices and bad luck alike. In God’s desire, there is an open-handed posture to which God’s people are invited, one that models that all things come from God and that these things are not our own. In God’s desire, most of all, there is a deep trust of God. Because the people trust God, the people can give back even the things the law says they’d won. Because God’s people belong to God, they learn that they belong to one another. It is into this celebration, this self-revelation of God — bizarre to us and to them - that Jesus enters and self-identifies. Jesus is perpetual, embodied Jubilee. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Sometimes, it’s good to know.

There are lots of places in the Christian life where love of God and love of neighbor connect, overlap, and intersect; this is an important one of those times. Jesus shows us how relative categories like status, success, possessions, and positions make it hard to remember to trust; make it hard to be honest about our need of God and our neighbors. But to forget our need of God and our neighbor is to forget what it is to be made in the image of God; it is to forget both who we are and the abundant life to which God calls us. It is easy to forget. We gather to remember. And we bind our other days throughout the week with daily prayer to heal our memory and make it holy. In Jubilee, God keeps resetting the score because God wants each of us to reimagine the game we are living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God makes known to us in Jesus.

All of this means that when we hear Jesus say he is bringing good news to the poor, we know that we will be called to do likewise, to go out and proclaim, but also that we are being called to give back those things we have taken at the expense of our sisters and brothers in order to keep from trusting God. After all, we worship, we follow, the God who gives us new bread each day, but just enough for the day, who invites us, each morning, to trust God all over again. Likewise, we may join Jesus in proclaiming release to the captives on Monday and by Tuesday discover and confess that the captives he freed were our captives. Somedays we will proclaim sight to the blind; on other days, it will be our own blindness that he touches and heals. However humbling, this healing and trust is Good News; it's part of Jubilee, too.

On Tuesday, February 9th, St. Francis House will be one of eighteen faith-based student organizations at UW coming together to talk openly about race and faith. As we gather, we will be remembering our need of God and one another. That day will certainly touch blind parts of us. I pray it will also be a day for renewing trusts and the beginning of healing. I hope you will come. The next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of the holy season of Lent, and we’ll gather that night at St. Francis House for prayer, joined by sisters and brothers from other traditions. As we consider our relationship to God and our neighbors that night, we will be asking God to show us more of what Jubilee requires of us. 

Jubilee that is humbling, healing, and involves our self-emptying can be scary (remember, Israel may or may not have ever done it), but Jesus calls himself the Jubilee, and so we know this is where we’ll go. We remember that, in Jubilee, God resets the score because God wants each of us to reimagine the game we are living as one of being held by, rooted in, and made to share the love God has made known to us in Jesus.

As a prayer then, to end, I want to share these words from a favorite hymn (2):

There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior; 

there is healing in his blood.

_____

(1) In truth, the text leads us to believe Jesus went on to say other things - that his sermon wasn't this short - but it makes Episcopalians happy to believe that short sermons are biblical, and we don't get any hints in the text as to what the unabridged version might have been.
(2) Hymn text by Frederick Willian Faber, 1814-1863, appearing in The Hymnal 1982, hymns 469 and 470. I like 469 better. Calvin Hampton forever!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The New Wine Is Better
(Drinking in the Uncertainty of New Creation)


A homily preached on these lessons, February 17, 2016, at St. Francis House.
Listen here!

First things first: I am not the guy your waiter brings the wine to for inspection at the fancy dinner; I’m not the one to waft and swirl the full glass with its dark-red, purple hues and report that this particular vintage “delivers complex varietal flavors of cherries and blackberries, with a promise of herbs.” So I can’t speak to the steward’s assessment that the miracle wine at Cana of Galilee is qualitatively better than the wine that came before it that night. You’ve already impressed me when the bottle price hits double-digits. I’m betting most of you, dear college students, feel me. Not finding myself in a position to challenge the steward, I accept his verdict without protest and proceed to posit to you tonight that the wine’s being better - that the wine is good wine - is as significant to the miracle as the discovery that there’s new wine in the jars at all.

I should start by confessing that, for most of my life, the detail of the wine’s quality has largely struck me as beside the point of the story, save for the obvious that, if Jesus was going to go to the trouble of turning water to wine, of course it would be good. I largely followed Mary on this count, sharing her concern that running out of wine would have been an embarrassment to the bridegroom. Good wine or bad, at least now there’s enough. There’s enough to cover up for the bridegroom who didn’t plan well - after all, hadn’t the bride warned him that certain individuals of his family could really throw them back? Or maybe, as the bridegroom realized they were down to the dregs, he began to wonder if his dad hadn’t been right after all, that if he had applied for that corporate position and forgone a career in nonprofits, he would have had more than enough to fund this tenuous open bar. Maybe he got himself caught in the place that is familiar to us, somewhere between satisfying social conventions and putting on airs. Money, status, proving one’s worth - I’m sure you can add to the reasons folks worry that they might not have enough for the party. Might not be enough for the party. Never mind that deep down he knows what you and I know, too, that being a good spouse, father, mother, sister, brother, friend entails more than picking up a tab. 

In any case, the bridegroom is surprised and more than a little relieved when the steward shows up with something other than the not new to him news that he’s been found out for a fraud who didn’t have enough.

As the two men talk, Mary and Jesus watch on from the sidelines. When Mary notices the dread fall off the groom’s face, her shoulders relax, too, and she sneaks a smile up at Jesus. “Thanks.” Jesus, though, continues to watch the steward, the groom, and their exchange with interest. Noticing this, Mary looks up and, as the conversation goes on - as the steward grows more animated and begins to point to the glass with amazement - Mary grows worried. “Oh no.” She looks up to Jesus. “What in God’s name have you done?” Jesus gives a smile of his own and rolls his eyes up to the sky before walking away. “Aw, Mom,” he whispers, “we’re just getting started.”

The miracle of the miracle is not that there’s enough to keep drinking. It’s not enough that there’s enough. This is where the quality - the good wine - comes in. As the steward explains, the tradition of the lesser wine is in part a function of not wasting good wine on drunks, and exactly because it was a function of not wasting good wine on drunks, it is also a signal that the party is, for all intents and purposes, already over. 

We know these cues; we need these cues; and the world is full of these cues. Because one minute you’re sitting at your table waiting for wedding cake and the next minute what had moments ago been a respectable party is now a mosh pit of people in various states of clothed-ness. Because parties don’t adjourn so much as devolve. Nothing wrong with that, but grandma hasn’t come for that. We need cues. Growing up, it was my dad, subconsciously rattling his keys in the doorway to signal he was ready to go. In Beethoven’s day, it was the exaggerated trill that signaled to the orchestra the cadenza was over. I have a friend who, when she’s ready for the party she’s hosting to be over, simply leaves the table and starts to shower. Cues. Lesser wine was a social cue to the respectable types that the party was over.

“What have you done?” Mary whispers. What Jesus has done is thrown social convention a curveball and injected a healthy dose of uncertainty into the partygoers. No one knows what to expect. You don’t have to know where the miracle of where the new wine came from - like the water boys did - to know you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s not that there’s enough to end with dignity; the new gift in their midst has called into question the ending itself. 

As the wobbly attendants pause to drink it all in, the wine in their glasses begins to speak the old stories of surprises by which God had challenged the certainty and imagination of God’s people in generations past, other miracles of non-endings: the laughter of Sarah betraying her fear and disbelief as God announced the promise of new life; the trembling of Joseph’s brothers as they stood before the brother they’d left for dead, receiving through tears the forgiveness that came with Joseph’s conviction that what they had meant for evil God had worked for good, that this was not the end; the waters parting before a terrified Moses, the invitation to walk through the sea. All of these are there, in the cup. They look up from their glasses as if back called home.

And, of course, in John’s gospel, this wedding marks the beginning of a return to the surprises of God that challenge our certainty: there will be the woman caught in adultery, the certainty of sin, Jesus’ protection of the woman from those who would condemn her, and the unexpected forgiveness that will leave her awash with new life and her condemners dismayed; there will be Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the certainty of death, the scorn of the people, the unforgettable words, “I am resurrection and I am life,” saith the Lord. And with them, words that make the new wine sweeter, “Lazarus, come out!” 

Over and again, Christians find ourselves unable to name the end, because we believe the mischievous wedding crasher who wrecked social conventions that night is himself the Beginning and the End, calling us all up and into the story of God.

Desmond Tutu says it this way: “The Christian faith is hopelessly optimistic because it is based on the faith of a guy who died on a Friday and everybody said it was utterly and completely hopeless – ignominious – defeat. And on Sunday, He rose.” 

Where are you certain about the end? Lots of folks this week certain about the end of the Anglican Communion, with plenty of corresponding certainties about the end of where and in whom God will act. More of us, like the groom, are certain that we don’t have enough in ourselves for the things that matter most. Like Mary, we pray for a little extra help, though, like the groom, we may be content simply to receive the little extra that will get us off stage before we get caught. Dare we pray for God to act and lead in ways that both keep us on stage and open up the story beyond our ability to predict it? After all, in the end, it’s not our party. It’s God’s party. Happily, if incredibly, you and I are on God’s guest list.

To receive the new wine at God’s party is to lose our control; is to lose the certainty of the world’s old cues; is to drink from the unpredictable cup Christ calls forgiveness; is to go into places skunked with sin and death and other signs that the party is over and stand expectant of the presence of God. 

For “[t]he Christian faith is hopelessly optimistic because it is based on the faith of a guy who died on a Friday and everybody said it was utterly and completely hopeless – ignominious – defeat. And on Sunday, He rose.”


Amen.