Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Proclaiming God's Peace in All Things
(A Prayer to be Shaped by the Gospel of Luke)


Sermon for the 2016 patronal feast celebration at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Madison, WI. These are the readings appointed for the feast of St. Luke: 
(singing) Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear People of God at St. Luke's. Happy birthday to you! And many more.

So, St. Luke’s is 69! And though not founded today - that is, on this date - we celebrate the life of this congregation today on the feast of St. Luke, transferred to this Sunday from the 18th of October. And it’s a special thing to have a patron saint who can signal the celebration. Now, you and I didn’t pick Luke, but through their identification with him, the founders of this church, this faith community, communicated to themselves and future generations something of the way of Jesus they found beautiful or striking or compelling. When the first founders named this place “Luke,” they named charisms, gifts, qualities of that saint that they prayed, as a people, we could share and around which we might build life in Jesus together. “St. Luke’s” names a particular imagination for living the Christian life.

Of course, it take imagination to live the Christian life. In 1948, a year after Grace Church began the Lake Edge mission church that would become St. Luke’s, the first church building was built on this property. It was a Quonset hut. If you are like me, you might appreciate at this point a definition of a Quonset hut. A Quonset hut is a half-cylinder building made of corrugated metal. They are light-weight, all-purpose, and can be shipped and assembled anywhere. They were first designed and produced for the Navy in World War II. 

After the war, say around 1948, Quonset huts were abundant and cheap. But that’s not enough to account for the imagination of a priest who secured a Quonset hut to be the first chapel of the mission community that would become St. Luke’s. What I’m telling you is that some Episcopalians, followers of Jesus, looked at a former instrument of war and saw potential for a redemptive future. They weren’t afraid to say that God works in all things, even hard things and terrible things, for good. Channeling Isaiah and the prophecy that God’s people would beat their swords into ploughshares and practice war no more, a building made to be lightweight, portable, cheap, and not lasting, would become a strong taproot of prayer and constancy and a visible witness to God’s faithful presence on the east side of Madison. What I’m telling you is that a feature of war would become a lasting proclamation of peace, made part of the reconciling purposes of God in this world, announcing the Good News of the kingdom of God. 

St. Luke would have loved that. St. Luke was all about announcing Good News. All about telling the story of the new thing God is doing. All about proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. Luke’s is, after all, one of the four accounts of the story, one of four gospels, we remember and tell, and I want for the next few minutes to take a look at the peculiar ways Luke tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, because I think those peculiar ways form the foundations of this community that bears his name, whom God first gathered under a Quonset hut, and whose future is bright in God. The four peculiar ways of living the Gospel I want to highlight in Luke are singing, the Spirit, stories, and sending.

Luke’s gospel begins with singing. I sometimes teach classes on the first couple of chapters of Luke, and I call it, “Luke, the Musical.” As the story opens, there’s Mary’s song, sung to Elizabeth, the Magnificat. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. But even before that, there’s Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be unto me,” which would collect no small fame years later when it was clever remixed by Sir Paul McCartney and an obscure little band called the Beatles. There’s Zechariah’s beautiful prophecy, then the angels singing to shepherd, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” The message first given to the very poor. And then, Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple, the prophet Simeon sings the song that we still sing at every Compline, “Lord, you now have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised. That’s what, four/five songs in two chapters! Luke’s gospel starts like one of those musical movies in which every poignant moment threatens to turn into song. Each time, it is song in joyful response to God’s unexpected presence. Luke’s gospel reminds us that to sing is to be joyfully tuned to the presence of God in our lives.

Luke’s gospel continues with Jesus’ first sermon, and the sermon is God’s pouring out of the Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus says, to bring good news to the poor. The Spirit on Jesus means the favor of the Lord, and that’s familiar language for Israel. It’s the language of Jubilee. Jubilee is the Jewish name for the every fifty year feast and the forgiveness of debts: the healing of relationships between rich, poor, and the land. And above all with God. But now it’s not a party saved for every fifty years. Jesus is the Jubilee. Jubilee is wherever he is.

After the songs and the Spirit, Luke’s gospel continues with stories. Stories of God’s notice of and love for the poor. Stories of healing. Stories of calling. Stories of the kingdom and what it’s like. Stories of Jesus’ disagreement with the ones who’d forgotten the story. Stories of mercy and love that reaches farther than any reasonable imagination. Stories of challenge, rejection, death, and resurrection. Stories of faithful women who left the grave in response to the mandate: “Go, tell!” Go tell the story, and I’ll meet you there.

Finally, the thing that sets Luke’s gospel apart from the others is the sequel Luke wrote. The part two. The book of Acts. Acts is the continuing story of the Spirit. Acts is the story of the church. Acts is the spilling over of the Spirit onto the ones who had grown close to Jesus, the sending of the ones who had grown close to Jesus into the world, equipped with the Spirit as a new kind of people; a people through whom the Spirit would do mighty things in the world, in the name of the Savior and to the glory of God.

Singing, the Spirit, stories, and sending. These four elements of Luke’s gospel have been foundations of the people of God in this place. You can see these four marks in the history of this church. These four elements of Luke’s gospel will continue to be the foundations of the people of God at St. Luke’s whenever we are most mindful and remembering of who and whose we are. 

And if you were here last week, you know how this people loves to sing. Absent an organist, armed with just a harp and some handbells, the people of God at St. Luke’s woke up the angels with beautiful, vulnerable song, the praise of expectant people lifting hearts high to God, living our joy to the faithful surprise of God’s presence. Each week, too, you enjoy the feast of the Spirit and drink the cup of forgiveness. You’ve heard me say these past months what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed, that the first task of Christian community and for each person in it is to forgive and be forgiven. Most of the world gets nervous about forgiveness, as if even naming the need for forgiveness is to somehow admit that we’re already messed up beyond all hope. But we who come to the feast of forgiveness, drink the cup, we know better. You know how rhythms of forgiveness are just the beginning, opening you up to the fullness of God’s hopes for you, this community, and the world. We come to the feast, and we ask God to help us seek and share forgiveness as generously as we can, in imitation of the one who died for us. At the feast, we retell the story of God’s mighty acts. We listen. We steep in the story. You recover your place in the story. And at coffee hour you tell more stories. Stories of God at work in our lives and this world. Stories of what you’ve seen of the Spirit who goes out before us, preparing the way. Finally, you’re sent every week and you go. Like the first women at the tomb, you go and tell. Bravely. With words and actions you point with your lives to the mercy we are learning together as God’s people here. We are learning to live in the way that first brought us to life! After all, the miracle of the Quonset hut people is that we are only a people because the people before us said yes to God’s sending. Being sent isn’t just something we do. Being sent is how we came to be.


Singing. Celebrating the Spirit and the feast of forgiveness. Telling the sweet, sweet story. Being sent out again and again and again in the Spirit, out and into the world with the eyes and heart of God for the poor and the new possibilities of God. This is the four-fold imprint of Luke in the life of this church. It’s what is true of you already and what we pray to be. What a gift. Praise God! And happy birthday.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Radical Commitment To Listening:
Elizabeth O'Connor On the Difficulty Of Dialogue


The 'House Team' at St. Francis House (made up of our three residential house fellows, office coordinator, and me) sets aside an hour every Tuesday to check in, coordinate house life, discuss an aspect of Christian community, and pray. This year, we are using 'Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People' as a spring board for the discussions about Christian community. Each week, someone selects a short passage, we'll read it, and then the selecting person will ask a few questions the passage brought up for them. Today's passage comes from a chapter entitled 'Dialogue' by Elizabeth O'Connor, and seemed to me especially worth sharing.
Dialogue demands of each participant that we try to live into the other's world, try to see things as another sees them. We do not enter into dialogue in order to persuade another to see things our way. We enter into dialogue because we are open to change and are aware that our lives need correcting. Dialogue requires a clear, radical, and arduous commitment to listening. Essential to that listening is knowing in the deepest recesses of our being that we really know very little about most things, and that the truth may rest with some unlikely soul. God says to the most gifted among us, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways" (Isa. 55:8). When we know that, when we are truly seeking God's will, we have to be persons of dialogue. The person of dialogue knows that no matter how mean, or hurt, or angry a person may be, he has something important to contribute to the dialogue. Each person in the recesses of his heart knows this about himself. He wants to speak his word and when he is not allowed to do that he feels in his being that a violence has been done to him. True listening requires that we not only listen to words, but also pay heed to feelings and acts.... 
True dialogue is difficult for everyone. They listen well who know they have been listened to, but few of us feel really heard. I think that I can let the other go when I believe that the has truly heard my story, or point of view, or opinion. If I think he hasn't heard me, I am apt to hold him with my "glittering eye," and tell my tale over and over. The ache caused by the inability to communicate can become a kind of throbbing pain that finds expression in too many words or conversely in the silence that locks oneself in and others out, or, even more unacceptably, in the outrageous deed....

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Thank God I'm Not Like You"
(On Resisting A Bad Prayer)

Most of us know better than to pray the Pharisee's prayer, "Thank you, God, that I am not like this other person." Still, the prayer can be surprisingly tempting in, among other things, an election year. So our certainty that the prayer is not to be a wise one to pray is not always enough. It is worth our time to ask - and answer - the good question, "Why not?"

Here are 3 reasons (not exhaustive) to be wary of the prayer that begins, "Thank you that I am not like..."

  • It might not be true
  • It forgets our connectedness and interdependence
  • It leaves no room for God's love of you (and the other) to be the most important thing about you, which is supposed to be the beginning of love without fear.
Where have you experienced the truth of any of these 3 observations? What would you add to the list? When have you known and lived out of God's ocean deep love for you and the other?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Beard Balm, God, and Other Good Things to Expect


Sermon preached at St. Luke's, Madison, and the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. These were the readings appointed for the day: Genesis 32:22-31Psalm 1212 Timothy 3:14-4:5Luke 18:1-8.

I am expecting a package. Or I was. It came yesterday. A beard brush and two ounces of beard balm with scents of vanilla and a hint of tobacco aroma. I don’t smoke, but it makes for great balm, and so I was excited to get this particular package. And, thanks to the miracle of the internet, I could watch my package make its way from Virginia across the mountains and then the corn fields on up across rivers and here, to east Madison. Each day, I’d click in, I’d check it out. Watch the map. Waiting for those three magical package-status words to appear: “Out for delivery.” Yes.

They say you can tell when a person’s expecting something. Anything. That an invisible anticipatory reality makes its presence known to the room. They say that it’s palpable. You can feel it.

From a new mother’s glow to 

the agonizing holding period that begins after the last of the grad school applications has been, finally - praise the Lord! - submitted to 

a child’s euphoric welcome of a parent come home from work after a long and wearying day to 

the anxious waiting by the phone in a place with good reception to make sure you’re in position to answer the scheduled call of a dear friend separated by miles and time and even to

a loved one’s last breath, when through tears and loss and grief and bedside hymns and hands held tight, the expectation of rest and peace from the illness that has riddled her life for so long is brought close; the prayer that she’s now to be made whole and held by the living Christ of our resurrection hope. 

Of course, expecting things is not always so rosy. Which is just to say it works the other way, too. Sometimes good people go around expecting, just waiting, for the other shoe to drop. Expecting the worst. There are all kinds of expecting. But no matter the occasion, for good or for bad, they say you can tell when a person’s expecting.

Much of what Jesus says in the gospels, and particularly in Luke’s gospel, is a critique of the religious system and what it’s expecting. The religious leaders, especially, appear to have stopped expecting that God will show up. In fact, the religious leaders have become, to Jesus’ eye, so good at not expecting divine interruption that the system works better if God doesn’t show up at all. Jesus’ own ministry, his life and crucifixion, can be understood in this way, as the rejection of God’s presence by the religious leaders of Israel in an attempt to protect the religious system of Israel. For all the shortcomings of the status quo, it is at least predictable. Israel’s self-preservation has become a priority, for some, over against the priority of responsiveness in living relationship to God. 

Now, this is important: to say that Jesus is challenging the religious leaders to wake up and lead out of responsiveness in relationship to God is not to say that Jesus is challenging the religious leaders to abandon the institution or religious system altogether. That would be our 21st century wishful thinking. On the contrary, Jesus is calling the system back to its foundations in relationship to God. Jesus is asserting that relationship with God is what gave life to the system in the first place and that in relationship with God is also how the system is rightly sustained. So, for example, time and again in the Bible any of the more than 600 laws of the Hebrew scriptures are explained this way: by doing this law, you will remember how God delivered Israel out of bondage in Egypt. So when you do this, do this to remember the Exodus. Do this to remember that God delivered you when you didn’t have hope. Do this to remember that when there was no way, God made a way. Do this to remember that the same God who did these things is still with you and cares for you. Always.

When Israel welcomes the refugee or cares for the widow and orphan, these are not to be understood as random acts of kindness. These are ways Israel remembers her story. The story of Israel’s own deliverance as strangers in a strange land into this new land of promise. The story of the Exodus is the story of Israel’s becoming God’s people and knowing this One as their God.

But increasingly and maybe predictably the laws are enforced without reference to the story. The system made to grow the people of God in their trust of God in the face of an uncertain future becomes a series of boxes to check and a busy list to attend to. The life of faith becomes a set of appearances to keep.

Enter Jesus. In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus tells a story about a woman in need and a judge who wants sleep. The judge doesn’t care for the widow, but her petition is granted because he’s got an early appointment the next morning. And the moral of the story is this: God isn’t anything like the reluctant judge! God’s delight is delivering. Be expectant! The parable highlights God’s faithfulness to God’s promise. It’s meant to be an encouragement. But then, at the end, Jesus wonders out loud, “Is anyone expecting God to show up anymore?” In the people’s religious observances, is anyone remembering the story? Is anyone savoring the memory of God’s mighty acts? Is anyone appealing to and longing for the fullness of God’s promise, or is it enough simply to appear respectable and pay the bills? Is there one among us bold enough to pray, on the grounds of that first Exodus, for freedom from the things that truly bind us? And then, set free from those things, to put them down in expectation of the new things of God? Where are the hearts broken and set on fire by all that breaks and delights the heart of God? Where are the prayers of the people who expect Israel’s God to show up and save?

Now, this is important. Expectant hearts are not passive hearts. Expectation is not hands in your pockets waiting for God. But expectations shape the things expecting people do. If you expect me to throw you a ball, you put out your hands. If I expect you to call, I charge up my phone. If you expect your friends are meeting you at Monte’s after church, that’s where you’ll go, too. When God’s people are expectant, they go to the places where God has promised to be in a posture of expectation. And they say you can tell when a person’s expecting. 

Where, then, has God promised to be present? Here, at this table. In bread broken and wine poured out for you. In the cup of forgiveness. “Do this and remember!” In the waters of baptism, of Jesus’ own death and new life. In you! Baptized child of God. God’s beloved. In your burdens and joys. Especially in your weakness. In the Assembly of God’s faithful, gathered for praise and the retelling of the story, God has promised to be present. Also in the lives of the poor and the powerless, because God in Christ became poor for us. In the promise that as we go from this place to seek and serve Christ in each person, Christ in turn is there, in each person. Even in enemies, Christ is there to be found. In the newcomer and stranger. In every act of hospitality. Out there, in this world, which as Genesis tells it is the cosmic temple of God’s reign; where God is at work before we ever show up. What does it look like to go out into that world, expectant of God’s mercy, as if it were a package with those three magic words, “Out for delivery”? 

This life of faith can be used, as it has sometimes been used, to protect God’s people from the need to trust God. You can use the life of faith to save you from your Savior. But you can also live this life of faith to grow your trust in the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. And, indeed, Christ calls us so to live. One is death; the other is life. Today Jesus says, “Choose life.” Come to this place, this people, this table, and all of the places God sends you from here, out in the world between these tastes of the kingdom, expecting to grow in trust of the One whose table this is, expecting to take uncertain steps toward the living God you won’t control. When was the last time following Jesus took you out of your comfort zone, down a path you wouldn’t have otherwise taken? Take the adventure. Step out and trust God’s love of you. Remember the story. Commit to coming and going in expectation of the living God. And, for the love of God, tell the rest of us when and where you see God at work in this world. And we’ll follow together, into those places, singing the songs, with hands held high and open in joy and expectation of our God.

Amen.





Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Postures of Expectation Toward God

This semester, we've been delving into the parables of Jesus in our midweek Bible studies at St. Francis House (the Episcopal Student Center @ UW-Madison). Tonight we're looking at Luke 18 and the parables of 
  • the persistent widow and 
  • two folks who pray very different prayers before God. 
Below are some of the questions we'll be exploring. It's always a good time with awesome people. Everyone is welcome. So come on over at 7pm. We'll meet in the SFH Lounge, followed by Compline in the chapel at 8pm.

Peace.
J