Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Celebration of New Ministry (for Dad)

Good evening.

Bishop Sumner, Father and Mrs. Melton, sisters and brothers in Christ of St. James on-the-Lake, other friends from around Cedar Creek Lake and other neighbors - a special shout out to the folks from St. John’s, the church of my childhood, and my momma’s childhood, for that matter - grace and peace. It’s all joy to be with you tonight for this Celebration of New Ministry.

I had the good fortune of meeting Father and Mrs. Melton early on in my life. I don’t know if it’s needed, but I suppose I can vouch for them both. I mean, sure, his pinewood derby car skills leave something to be desired (it’s fine, Dad, my therapist says it’s gonna be fine), and Momma may have painted my room pink and sold the bed the day I left for college, but on the whole, they’re great people, no hard feelings.

From the 11th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “…no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

That’s a joke! Not blasphemy. We’ll, it’s been real.

No, but for real, before we get going, uh, you have to know a PK has his suspicions about nights like this. I remember as a kid, this same service, in South Bend, Indiana. And it came time for the gifts, you know, a Bible, chalice, the usual things. And the whole family’s up front. And someone marches up to the front and presents Dad with a brand new, bright yellow snow shovel. And Daddy takes it and smiles and thanks everyone with characteristic heartfelt thanks. But no one hears his thanks. They are all too busy laughing at us. Laughing, because we thought that toothpick of a shovel was an honest to goodness gift, but “we” were fifth-generation Texans for whom the words “lake-effect snow” had not yet been introduced to our vocabulary and so for whom the comical inadequacy of that shovel wasn’t in any way yet clear.

So before we go on, Daddy, you don’t go accepting any gifts that aren’t on the list tonight, you hear? I mean the prayer book list - and don’t go thanking folks for things you don’t understand yet. Someone gives you an alligator leash or some nonsense like that, you just hand it right back. It’s not on the list. That’s why the good bishop is here. He’s the bouncer for the list. That’s not true. But, still, Dad, for Pete’s sake, don’t go thanking folks tonight for a thing you don’t understand.

Except. Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing here tonight? Aren’t we exactly giving God our thanks for a thing we don’t understand, namely, that it is God’s delight to take strangers and make them into friends? Making ordinary folk like you and Mom and Dad friends of God and one another and giving you good work to do together for the building up of the church and the glory of God. God calls it reconciliation. It is the ministry of Jesus. It’s the ministry of bringing together, mending. Making whole. Casting nets and being gathered. 

Jesus kicked it off around a lake, kinda like y’all. He made some invitations, and they didn’t know what they were signing up for, either. They dropped their nets. They got up. And next thing you know, we’re here, saying yes one more time, thanking God for a thing we don’t understand, putting us in the very good company of the first disciples. He says, “Follow me,” and they say yes. The beginning of a living trust and the joy of God. And that delight - taking strangers and making friends - is exactly what he promised those first fisherfolk. Whether you know it or not, you and this night are a part of that promise Jesus is keeping to his first friends, which is really a continuation of the promise God made to Abraham, that his descendants and God’s people would be like the stars in the sky, which is a promise I learned to take more seriously when Mom and Dad moved us out to this neck of the woods, to Athens, when I was a kid. On really dark nights I discovered that you really can’t count them at all. Sometimes it’s enough to be overwhelmed by the love that made and moves them.

Belonging to one another and to God. A thing God does with us, between us and God, pouring forgiveness in the cup, to make belonging true. Making us friends of God. And also a thing for which God gives us all that we need, most especially himself, to do with one another. Made friends with God, God makes us friends of each other, and others, too. Strangers into friends. While we were far off. Reconciliation. Gathering and gathered into nets. And we’re told this work gives Jesus joy. That it makes Jesus’ joy complete.

I think that’s why we call it a Celebration of New Ministry. It can’t be because he’s a spring chicken. And y’all, well, y’all are crazy. Mom and Dad are blessed by you. But it’s not like reconciliation is a thing Christians don’t have some practice at already. The ministry of reconciliation isn’t new. Although. I suppose, maybe new is relative, how you count it. A lot of folks still call the 1979 prayer book the new prayer book. I’m not saying we should replace it - I’m not one of those - but we can maybe stop calling it new. I mean, I stopped getting carded ten years ago, and the new book is older than me.

It’s not that reconciliation is new. And yet, this one, this friendship is. This holy expression of God doing God’s new thing over and over and over, faithfully from generation to generation, this occasion of the Spirit being present to God’s people in this place at this time in this way - this invitation to corporately inhabit the kingdom of his life, death, and resurrection - it’s new. It’s new because God in Christ is never not doing new; the man who said “follow me” is still moving, still seeking, still finding. If anyone is in Christ, bam! There. New creation.

And because this friendship belongs to the Christ of new creation, this friendship can never belong to itself. It belongs to the Lord who, God willing, will use the memory of his saving deeds and the memory of past strangers-into-friends, past new creations to inspire you and keep you, even in friendship, open to strangers. Even as your own friendships deepen, become holy - in fact, exactly because they deepen and become holy - they will stay and still be open to strangers, because you have learned to see in the strangers the world calls interruptions an unexpected gift, just as the disciples saw in Jesus’ interruption of their lives an unexpected gift. That gift is the new possibility, the new thing God would do. At parties. In prisons. Everywhere in between, learning that Paul was on to something, that the word of God, like his love, like his mercy, like his gentleness, like his generosity, like his patience, like his joy, like his presence isn’t far off, but is up close and near. Near to you. Up to something. Always moving. Inviting you to see. Inviting you to hear. Inviting us to follow.

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

Welcome and Weakness: Needing God with One Another

It’s the last Sunday of the Church year, of the Christian calendar. Christ the King Sunday, it is sometimes called. Next week comes Advent. Blue and figures of Magi slowly trekking across the nave. A new year. So today’s readings are a bit like a season finale. Words on which you’ll want to hang until next season rolls around, until the next season, only you only have to wait a week. No sweeps season or a summer of reruns.

Unfortunately, as words to hang onto go, these are hard words. This is a difficult gospel. Or a hopeful one, maybe. It depends, I guess, on your appetite for judgment. Not unlike Jesus’ summary commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself, it is tempting to be thankful that Jesus has at least made the expectation clear and at long last given us a tidy list of duties we can handle. Or, if not handle, at least keep track of. Or, if not keep track of, at least aspire to. Maybe fall short of. Okay, so, as with the summary of the law, it is not exactly as if the surprise ending, that those who tended to the least of these did it unto Jesus, increases the likelihood that you and I will do the same. Indeed, the story’s surprise is exactly that those who did unto the least of these didn’t know what they were doing. How can we? Isn’t the unintended effect of using these words of Jesus as a measuring stick for ourselves the accumulation of unverifiable guilt for every time we pass a stranger on the street? Isn’t it a bit like strapping on the insatiable need of the world and then tiptoeing toward the fault-line of despair that knows full well the limitations of even our best actions, either individual or collective? Better to never go out doors and never encounter the need. Better to not know, to plead ignorance. But that can’t be right. Or true. What’s worse, read in this way, doesn’t the whole thing put a wrinkle into what had looked like Jesus’ project up to this point, which has been the gathering and sending of a people called church with the good news that the powers of this world have been defeated with the overthrow of death in Jesus’ forthcoming death and resurrection? I thought the whole last several weeks were about getting the disciples ready to see the crisis of the cross as the good news of God's kingdom. But if Jesus isn’t swapping out the whole Gospel project for a moral checklist on which to embark tonight, what exactly is he doing?

A possibility. “Least of these,” sometimes translated “little ones,” is used in only one other place in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends the disciples, two by two, into the world to announce the kingdom of God. He sends them out with instructions to need help. Pack light. Don’t book hotels, but stay with others. Don’t buy fancy shoes. Don’t carry anything. In other words, rely on those around you. Even the ones who haven’t heard the news yet and so who can’t, strictly speaking, be on your side. Trust the ones you come to help. Be vulnerable and need people to open their homes to you. In other words, be sent and be opened.

A possibility. What do you think? Maybe. But. Well. If it were true, this would be hard to hear, much less to live. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught self-sufficiency. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught not to impose. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught that strength is found in not needing assistance. I don’t know about you, but - if I am honest - I have been taught not to trust, not to put myself at the mercy of others. Maybe we should go back to the reading in which Jesus is telling us to give every panhandler a five spot in exchange for a reserved place at the table of the kingdom. But, no, here is Jesus, speaking to the nations, trying to put in a good word for the ones he sends not only with the mission of serving the poor but - watch this - being poor, to announce the kingdom of God. The strength of God is to be made known in the weakness of the ones God sends. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

What if Jesus is giving instructions to those who welcome the ones he sends? What if the word to us is about trusting and being sent in weakness and poverty?

Now, I’m not about to glamorize or romanticize poverty. And I refuse to separate this passage from the New Testament expectation that followers of Jesus live in community such that no one among them has needs. Matter matters. Material generosity matters. Christians are people who have discovered in a new way how we belong to one another and to God, and we respond to this discovery materially with our lives.

But we cannot assume that our role in the story could only have been as the ones with potential charity to give to others. We have been sent in such a way that needs others to open their homes to us, even to carry us, so that God’s grace might abound in our weakness. This way, being opened, we might become occasions for new communion in Christ, not simply because they need what we have but because we have learned to live our God-given belonging to each other and to make space in our lives for trust in the mercy and provision of God.

Pope John Paul II, describing his early life as a priest wrote about the moment he realized it was not enough to bless the homebound to which he made visits, but that the one-sided nature of the exchange was leaving both sides somehow impoverished. In time, he learned he says to entrust the homebound with prayers for the church and for himself. He risked specificity in his prayer requests, claiming his real and continuing need for God's help, and the mercy of God began to flourish in them both.

The baptismal covenant of our prayer book talks about it this way, that God calls us to seek and serve Christ in our neighbors. We who know our need of God are learning our need of one another in ways that emphatically refuse any misguided superiority over the others but instead call us into the kind of relationship that makes clear our mutual dependence on God.

It's all very strange. But then, we should have suspected a strange calling from a crucified King, and we got one. The church is called and sent to receive mercy. Christians are called and sent to receive mercy. This may strike you as obvious, but as Western American people, I doubt it. Even if it does strike you as obvious, it goes against the grain of your daily training. And my daily training. Which may be why God in God’s wisdom gives us the gift of one another and the rhythm of this table - to which we are gathered, as beggars for bread, and from which we are sent, both to proclaim and to need God in this world. Indeed, our lived reliance becomes our proclamation. We proclaim and trust the one who died for us, that we might live, all together, with God.

Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Extra Oil: Prepared not to Know, Becoming Friends of Uncertainty

What if it doesn’t go the way you planned?

What when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

The college admittance or job promotion you unexpectedly landed. Or unexpectedly didn’t land.

The big break years in the making that - while exciting at the time - in retrospect, didn’t in fact break the way you had thought it might, and has left you looking for a bigger one. And uncertain what you’re looking for, exactly.

The season when friendships stopped coming easily.

The death of a loved one.

The once-upon-a-time breathtaking romance that abruptly turned into hard work.

Unwanted interruptions of physical and mental health, others and your own.

What do you do when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

When it takes longer? Or goes faster? Or misses some other mark of your expectation?

What meaning do you make of such moments?

Are they signs that you are doing life wrong?

Are they punishments for past decisions, actions, inactions, or neglect? 

Are these moments the interference, the fault, of other people, from whom you need only to be freed?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of his second coming, his making things right. And there are two ways to miss the coming, it seems. One is to not expect. To not show up with a lamp. To not stay up for the bridegroom with the others. Just stay at home, business as usual, as if there’s not a party in the offing. The first way to miss the coming is to not expect it. The second way to miss the coming is to expect it. Or at least to expect that it will go as you expect and not run late. Expect that you won’t need extra oil, but presume that God’s working things out will unfold exactly according to the schemes and schedules in your heart and head. Extra oil is another way to name the difference between expectation and what happens. Extra oil names the gift and capacity to be trustingly present, even when the expected doesn’t happen like we expect. As one scholar notes about this story, “the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay.”

To expect what we don’t expect puts us in the terrible bind of never knowing when we can writing something off. Never knowing whom we can safely discard, which may be why Jesus follows this story by telling his disciples that whatever they do to the least of these they do unto him. When you don’t know the end, you can’t dismiss the now.

When Jesus’ disciples ask about the end, the only thing Jesus says with reliability is that no one knows the time, it won’t be as soon as they think, there will be a lot of suffering between now and then, but that suffering is not itself the end. In other words, make friends of uncertainty, be prepared not to know. Pack extra oil.

To prepare for a delay is, definitionally, a tricky thing. But then, maybe that’s what airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms are for, to give us practice. Practice for the surrender that necessarily must happen when we are not in control of the timing. What does it mean to be present when you don’t know the timing? Or to stay present when you’re out of gas and weak? Them’s the fault-lines of patience and hope. Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”

"In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do." What have you been taught to do? 

What does it look like to consider these things, what you’ve been taught to do, not as a one-off performances you can schedule, but rather as the character to which you commit your life, with God’s help, such that it becomes the you you are even when you’re not even trying, or when you’re too tired to try? What have you been taught to do? Could God make these things, things like turning to and resting in, the grace of him who died for you, the default of who you are? What does it mean to be taught to watch for Christ? And how can you watch for Christ with your life?

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen. (BCP, p100)


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Socially Selective Decency and the God Whose Compassion Makes No Exceptions

If I ask you about the Hebrew Scriptures - the Old Testament - what comes to mind? How would you summarize the Law and the Prophets, in a nutshell? Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob and Rebekah. Ruth. Job. Jonah. What else? Lots of violence, maybe (almost certainly).

Here's Jesus' take on that question, admittedly sharpened to the question of law [see today's lessons]: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Is this Jesus taking a red correcting pen to an Old Testament most of us lost respect for a long time ago? Making it simpler. More accessible? Is he taking welcome, creative, and surprisingly contemporary liberties with respect to the 613 (give or take) commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures? Not exactly. He’s quoting. He’s citing Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus’ originality is his simplicity, the framing, the organizing when he says these two are the source of the rest, but the content itself isn’t his. He’s using words pulled from memory - and specifically from the Hebrew Scriptures that, as a faithful Jew, he carries in the memory of his bones.

Who cares, you might say. A good thing’s a good thing, you might say. Six hundred and thirteen was way too many, anyway, you might say. Can’t keep up with that. I’ve got a life to live. Let’s be honest, even ten was a stretch. Right, Moses? I’m on the clock. Keep it pithy. But two? Two, you got my attention. Two, I’m all about. And these two? Totally got it. Thanks, Jesus. I’m all over it.

But are you?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

C’mon, if we’re talking likelihood/probability of your followthrough, you’re telling me you wouldn’t trade those two doozies for a couple hundred commandments of busywork? 

I would! In a heartbeat.

Some days I do.

What these two summarizing commandments lack in quantity, they more than make up for in degree of difficulty. Even our society appreciates the difficulty of what Jesus is asking because, as much as society wants to value things like love and inclusion, notice the words we use to expand on what love and inclusion might mean when we descend to the level of details in our civil discourse: we use words like tolerance and coexistence. But tolerance is an admittedly low bar. Tolerance is for mosquitos. Tolerance is for immune systems with respect to outside toxins and pathogens. As in, “he’s developed a tolerance to the mold and asbestos in his apartment.” And coexistence simply names our past failures to restrain our real desire to choose a future in which the other has no part, violently if necessary. Is this what love is? Love the Lord your God. Tolerate the Lord your God? We say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are trying to be a basically good person, but have you noticed how, in recent conversations like #metoo, and with respect to the insidious and relentless evils of racism, even that bar has been lowered of late? The new word, the new goal is decency, which in part is meant to communicate there are no gold stars and cookies awarded to those people, especially white men, who manage to simply do the right thing on occasion - and that this is an important corrective to hear can't be emphasized enough, over against the privileged, self-protecting posture of the ally who is more concerned for how he appears than the words and well-being of his sisters and brothers - but if we relent after that, if we stop after that, if that’s as far as we go, if we aim at decency and hit it squarely, if we settle for a prophetic word spoiled and turned only into one more opportunity to shame or conquer each other, if we don’t still press on together beyond prerequisites toward something like actual, living human respect, if we aren’t bold enough to risk submitting pictures of what the good life is and so also what the common good might be and, with these, to give accounts for what true love and mutuality look like, do we only underwrite the pervasive, general ambivalence for what it means to be a good person, much less what it is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?

And are you really telling me you wouldn’t trade all of that mess for something far less complicated, more straightforward, like a grocery list, even if it was a thousand items long? Or what if, instead, I could give you an endless list of outrages to like, dislike, or share on Facebook and other social media? What I’m saying is it’s a trade many of us already make, maybe because we can’t imagine what the two commandments would look like, here and now, not just in 2017 but in the corners of my neighborhood that overlap my life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love God and your neighbor. If only it were so easy. But love is complicated. In society’s terms, love is for the deserving. Which means you can score exemptions from loving some people. It sounds like a deal you should take, at first hearing. But then you realize that rules used to exempt you from loving the indecent people will eventually be used to justify someone’s exemption from loving you. Now, relax, you’re not necessarily unloved yet. You’re just condemned to the terror of potentially becoming unloved at any moment. Relax, maybe you can channel that fear that love will not leave you at the slightest or gravest misstep. Just don’t mess up. Ever. No, you don’t need to be perfect, well, maybe you do, but decent’s a start. You can promise me that much, can’t you?

Can you?

I can’t. I can’t promise you I am decent. 

And if I can’t promise you decent, isn’t it getting ahead of ourselves to think about the far off land of soul-deep, self-emptying love? What if I’m not decent? Where would I get some cover, I assume you can get it somewhere, some counter-exemption for things like the literal slavery of other people that makes our smartphones possible? I know, that’s just it, some things we can’t change. But that’s the point, that if I’ve got to land on the platform of decency, can we all acknowledge that it will have to be selective? And what if I find myself internally convicted for something for which there doesn’t yet exist a popular social critique? Dare I confess it? Introduce it? Better to hide it. Keep it quiet in a silence that numbs my soul of feeling and settles for a semi-salvation for which there’s sufficient social agreement.

You don’t need Facebook to know you fall short of decent. You have a conscience. Better, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection. But while seeing your brokenness and the ways you miss the mark are themselves gifts of God, our very baptisms can confound us for the pain of the brokenness and struggles we see but cannot simply, for seeing, change by ourselves. And Facebook can inflame the muscle spasm of the soul, but it cannot speak its healing. Nor does it know the stakes of the pain it inflames. But you know the stakes. Not decency or reputation. But life that participates in God’s mending of the world. And that participation begins with the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. But not in the way you think. Your participation in God’s mending of the world does not begin with your doing these things. It begins with Jesus’ doing these things. While you and I were still broken and a mess (way back then and an hour ago), he loved you as the neighbor he loved as himself. The law and the prophets hang on these two commandments because the law and the prophets hang on Jesus. May we learn, with God’s help, to do the same.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

When We Don't Have Words Adequate

"What do I do?"

A student spoke these words into a beginning-of-the-year group conversation in early September. The group was collecting topics and questions our community wanted to explore over the course of the semester. We were popcorn-naming topics like pluralism and salvation and the psalms and liturgical practice and Colin Kaepernick and racial justice and it was the same day hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. This student's question, she said, was specifically about her concern for her abuelo, who was then-lost to the blackout that engulfed the whole island. "What do I do?" she said. "That's my question today."

This student's abuelo has since been accounted for; he survived the storm and is well. But her question, "What do I do?" hasn't gone away.

Systemic racism, police brutality, and flag controversies/liturgies. What do I do?

The U.S. upholds its steadfast commitment to the death penalty over against its newfound commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. What do I do?

The military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned us more that 50 year ago now determines us and our livelihoods in ways we can't even see anymore, much less change. What do I do?

Las Vegas and so much horrific, senseless death. What do I do?

Thoughts and prayers are popularly dismissed as insufficient, and it's important to both see and name how politicians have hidden behind these words. Still, the invalidation of thoughts and prayers in a world in which the direct ability of the citizen to shape public policy is not always clear or believable, even if it is finally true, raises existential anxiety to a thundering crescendo of the soul: what can I do?

There are senators to call, and we should, but the phone calls don't lift the haunting question from our shoulders, don't make the crises go away. Neither does the self-righteous other-shaming that saturates our social media. Gun laws will help, and it is hard to argue with grief that takes the shape of calls for legislative action in the face of the unthinkable, but even then, there will be steps forward and steps backward, and it will be one day, even if it is not this day for you, difficult to know what to do when one of the things we are doing along the way is discovering the limits of what we can do. 

Which isn't to say we should stop. Which isn't to say passivity is an option. But it is to say, says the preacher, that we need, daily, new and renewed imaginations sustained by the God who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Please hear me now. We should not stop, but we should sometimes pause. We should make time and space to reflect, to recenter, so that the future passage of background check legislation, for example, doesn't represent the full victory, doesn't stop us short of critically examining and challenging the American culture of war and military might which gun violence imitates, as if this country's unique propensity for gun violence and her unprecedented-in-the-history-of-humanity levels of military spending were distinct and separate realities. Lest we settle for and lazily celebrate our bipartisan shortcomings. Lest we give up on the prophets' dreams that do not fit either party's platform. Lest we come to believe that it really is us versus them and not one family in need of deep listening, new life, and healing that neither "side" can accomplish for or apart from the other.

What if, for healing, it is okay to be empty? To not be sure what comes next? What if clinging to the answer I am sure of prevents the new possibility I do not see? (Which is not to say one shouldn't risk submitting the answer, only that to submit an answer with an open hand is a special kind of love). What if, for healing, we need to be empty? What if being empty involves being present to God and one another when, without answers or certainty, we show up anyway? Empty of answers, full of our exasperation and grief. But, then, it's a real question: without the certainty of solutions for the things that grieve us, what do we possible have to give one another?

In Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes,
Some people, who cannot see what nourishment they could be bringing, do not realize that they can become bread for others. They have no confidence that their word, their smile, their being, or their prayer could nourish others and help them rediscover trust. Jesus calls us to give our lives for those we love. If we eat the bread transformed into the Body of Christ, it is so that we become bread for others.
Others find their own nourishment is to give from an empty basket! It is the miracle of the multiplication of the bread. 'Lord, let me seek not so much to be consoled as to console.' I am always astonished to discover that I can give a nourishing talk when I feel empty, and that I can still transmit peace when I feel anguished. Only God can perform that sort of miracle.
Vanier hints at the possibility that our emptiness itself can be a gift of nourishment for others. In Silence and Honeycakes, Rowan Williams tells the story of a desert monk who seeks out one of the elder (and legendary) desert monks. The elder asks the young monk about his spiritual shortcomings and temptations. The younger denies having any, for which the elder names his thanks before confessing his own shortcomings and temptations. "To tell the truth," says the younger, "it is the same with me." Exactly by not having the right answer, the elder opens space for what was, until then, unimaginable movement forward. I do think humility and the self-emptying that is confession will play an important role in the diffusing of our present antagonisms.

Similarly, Dean Cynthia Kittredge, quoting Ellen Davis, rightly sees the ancient practice of lament - modeled in the psalms, inhabited by Christ - as the possibility of emptiness that, spoken in the presence of God, can nourish, can "trace a movement from complaint to confidence in God." 

What do I do? If you are empty, be empty. Be empty in the presence of God. I believe the student did that when she asked the question she couldn't answer answer in the presence of her sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ. If you are empty, be empty. And trust God enough to share that, too. For the sharing, even of emptiness, is the beginning of the Offertory movement that begins the Eucharist, is the beginning of blessing, new life, and hope. The lifting up of brokenness for which we have neither words or answers is itself a gift of God that leads to the banquet of God.


Monday, September 25, 2017

Unpopular Thoughts, Part II

"Thinking NFL players are 'protesting the flag' is like thinking Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation." @jeffisrael25

Relatedly. It's a hard conversation, but I am deeply grateful for the charitable friends with whom I have shared it and from whom I have learned. The conversation is the one that opens itself to exploring that and how it is both possible and good to
  • support the remarkable people who serve this country in the military AND 
  • grieve and challenge the military-industrial complex that increasingly defines this country's relationships with the rest of the world, its own land (read Wendell Berry!), its approach to education, policing, incarceration (watch 13th!), and a bunch of other issues through which - significant among other problematic things - white supremacy is systematized and habituated. 
To confuse these tasks is to fail one another in the basic human obligation to listen and tend to each other. Moreover, to pit these tasks against each other is to leave the military-industrial complex, an ailment common to both "sides," unnamed and spared our critical reflection. Indeed, one of the glaring holes of the military-industrial complex is that it leaves little to no space for veterans to talk about the sacrifices this country asked of them (google '22 Kill'!). The absence of such a space is not patriotism; it is politically and financially incentivized dishonesty, very little of which has to do with the military personnel of this country and which hides behind other people's public disagreements over whether to stand or kneel. 

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It does not dishonor one's country to pray for its healing and the making right of broken things anymore than it dishonors our military to pray for peace and the flourishing of people. Moreover, I do not know anyone who prays prayers for peace more fervently than my friends who have served in the military.

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But the flag carries multiple symbols for people, and so the president is retweeting photos of amputee veterans in an attempt to shame those who would help us see the incompleteness of our freedoms. It is hard but important for white folks to see and own that no one is free in the charade of white supremacy, 
  • which I do not wish to uniquely attach to the present administration (lest the nation become complacent) and 
  • which simultaneously mocks the flag, our conception of freedom, and those who have served the military of this country for or under both. 
It has taken too long for white athletes (and many others of us who are white but not athletes) to join the human chains (actual and metaphorical), but they are there now, which is a significant step. 

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Prophets come to heal our blindness, and the reactive response of the powerful reveals that our blinding has not been an accident. You know you have been made a pawn in someone else's game when the subversive next step that threatens to undo it all is the befriending of the side you are being told to despise.

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Postscript: It is entirely possible that this short post takes too much for granted the story of Nate Boyer and Colin Kaepernick's remarkable friendship in ways that would have been better to make explicit. If that's the case, here's the story to compensate for the deficit.

PPS The above analysis is only implicitly Christian, in its valuation of friendship and its desire to see discourse shaped by truthful speech, but the post largely punts the still more difficult conversation about allegiance with which Christians are obliged to wrestle. As a student one time said to me, "Allegiance in the church? How would that work? We only have one pledge to give." Right. Another post, maybe, would consider the relative generosity of the Book of Common Prayer's rubric "The people stand or kneel" and the undeniable discomfort that comes from recognizing that the present debate is about how not if national liturgies should be performed. 

I do think it is important to name here on that score the work of folks like David Fitch, who would contend that mutual submission under the Lordship of Jesus, as we come together and listen to discern Christ's presence in our midst, is important to understanding the kind of friendship God in Christ has opened to us and so also the kinds of friends we might hope to become, even with people who are not Christian.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Wendell Berry Quote I Can't Shake from My Head

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):
Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.
So, on the one hand, Berry's words could be read (though I believe it would be a misreading) to suggest that church that is true to itself doesn't have bills or financial concerns. In other words, one could walk away from Berry's challenging thesis bent toward an overly spiritualized gnosticism that is simply the mirror opposite of the one Berry is naming.

What is compelling, however, is the givenness Berry sees in the dependence of the church's identity on economic norms and the extent to which that situation robs the church of an identity and vocation that was never its own to choose, but which is and has always been its gift from God for the world.

As a priest, I have many times come to the realization, in conversation with someone come to me for counsel, that if I don't ask this particular question, it is very possible that no one else will. For example, the priest must be counted on to ask about the prayer life. It is a question that belongs, perhaps not exclusively but no less definitively, to the vocation of priests.

With respect to humanity's right relationship to the earth, Berry likewise sees the church as that peculiar people whose vocation it is to live proper love and respect for creation, as creatures of God. Consequently, such a people must seek awareness of the givens that have challenged its vocation by compelling us into concessions we did not even realize we had made.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

No Way! Way! The Impossible Possibility and Thanks for Robert Jenson

Readings for today. Sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie.

The Christian theologian Robert Jenson passed away this week. He was an amazing man, pastor, and scholar. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re normal. Even if you’ve never heard of Robert Jenson, his work almost certainly shaped the life of someone else who helped shape your life for the good. Globally regarded and a Minnesota Lutheran. A mentor and fellow Texan one-time told me that there, in Texas, all the denominations are at least partly Baptist. You’ve got Baptist Baptists, Methodist Baptists, Episcopalian Baptists, even Catholic Baptists. Episcopalians are Baptists who can drink. It’s the same kind of thing up here, Wisconsin/Minnesota, but instead of Baptists it’s a cultural tug of war, a tie between the Catholics and Lutherans. Lutherans like Robert Jenson, who shaped us for the good. It’s good to thank God for such a lover of Jesus. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. 

Theologians write a lot, and not always plainly, but one of Jenson’s most famous sentences was alarmingly simple: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”

In that simple sentence, Jenson does a couple of things. First, he connects the Old and New Testaments, saying that it is the same God at work through the same people all throughout. One persistent, stubborn, beautiful mission working its way to fulfillment in Jesus. Israel, made a light to enlighten all people, salvation unfolding. Second, Jenson recognizes in Jesus the second exodus. You remember the first exodus: that’s Israel being delivered out of slavery in Egypt. Charlton Heston, walls of water, Pharaoh, plagues, and all the rest. Resulting in freedom for God’s people. Not just freedom, but impossible freedom made possible. The kind of freedom most of God’s people didn’t think to hope for any more because the lengths it would take to get there from where they were seemed utterly unattainable. Better to eat cucumbers in slavery. But over and over in the days after that impossible day, the scriptures would talk about what happened this way, “When there seemed to be no way, God made a way.”

You remember that exodus. Much later, when Jesus takes his buddies up on the mountain, and there is a terrifying cloud, and Moses and Elijah, and Jesus turns all glow-bug on them, do you remember that? The gospels tell us that Jesus was about to accomplish his departure, but the word for departure is exodus again. In other words, it’s the same God, persistently, stubbornly, beautifully working God’s mission to fulfillment, one more time. In other words, slaves are about to be set free again. In other words, the impossible is about to become possible and the freedom the disciples couldn’t even think to ask or hope for is about to become accomplished for them and for us. Freedom for God’s people one more time. This time from death. From death? How? Death is the original dead-end. But when there seemed to be no way, God made a way. So Christians come to this table and have learned to proclaim, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Time and again, this is the way of God’s people, remembering, proclaiming, living: once there was no way, but God made a way!

Think about that. Think about how this refrain, this faithful chorus, runs counter to how, even Christians, often talk about life and how it works. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “Well, one door closed, but another one opened,” as if the naturalness of the path was a validation of it? As if the path of least resistance bears the stamp of divine approval. But Jesus, when he talks about doors at all, doesn’t talk about moving from door to door until you find the unlocked one. He talks about a widow, persistently banging on a neighbor’s door, in the middle of the night, until the neighbor gives up and comes down. And after the day faith died for the disciples, after that dark Friday they hadn’t yet learned to call Good, and they’re there, gathered in a room behind locked doors because of their fear, Jesus doesn’t find the door locked and move on. Where there seemed to be no way, God made a way. He stands before the the ones who’d cried, lied, and denied him and they tremble in his presence and he breathes his peace and forgiveness on the ones he is determined to call his friends. Impossibilities be damned. Christians don’t make a way by ourselves, but we have learned that our God has a knack for showing up at dead-ends, God has a heart for dead-ends, even us. And because God has a heart for dead-ends, Christians pray that, with God’s help, we are unlearning the fears that control us. Because when there was no way, God made a way.

All I want to say today is that when Jesus is talking to his church in Matthew’s gospel - and it’s one of a small handful of places where the word “church” comes up in the gospels - when he’s talking to those who gather in his name, and he’s giving instructions for what to do when one person hurts or disappoints another person, he’s not just giving moral rules for civil engagement and getting along, he’s inviting his church - his body - to embody with each other the truth that they worship the God who makes a way when there seems to be no way. Even with each other. In other words, when we pursue reconciliation, we proclaim resurrection. When we step toward the ones that others run from, we proclaim the God “who raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.”

This stepping forward isn’t the same as condoning or ignoring or using platitudes to smooth things over. It is confronting. It is saying, “You hurt me, but I won’t settle for a future in which we both hide from the truth and each other along the way.” Because the opposite of confronting isn’t condoning, but hiding out of fear. And our lives are defined by these attempts to avoid from one another. Call it hating from a distance. You can see this dynamic at work in the antagonisms that drive our society, people separating into “us versus them.” It is as if, from our quarantined perches, we wait, perversely hoping that that side will really screw up, say the unforgivable thing, because then we will be justified in moving on without them. We will talk about, but not to, and it feels almost right on social media screens, but then we remember, we glimpse some part of the person, still there behind the label that has justified our desire for a future in which they don’t exist. Only by now we can’t imagine how we’d ever step back toward the other across the chasm of antagonism. That’s not far-fetched; that’s the way of the world. And it’s not just the way of the world on the cultural meta-stage, but in my heart, too! And maybe yours. One time I noticed myself taking notes every time someone hurt me, let me down, or disappointed my expectations, in a given day. I even made a kind of daily habit of it. Rather than take those notes back to the others with the opportunity for them to help make the situations right, I made the notes so that I could remember to complain to my real friends later. Of course, “real friends” were supposed to be those who would agree with me and justify my righteous anger. And given how painful it can feel to be hurt by another person, you can make the case for what I was doing. Writing others off is a defensible position to take. But Christians have been saved from fear and so where others give up, we show up in hope.

How else can you explain lives like that of Nelson Mandela? Imprisoned in his country for decades. Called a terrorist by our country for organizing military resistance against state-enforced racial oppression. Freed and put in power, elected president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela refused vengeance on his enemies and instead sought a future in which the truth about the evils of apartheid would, case by case, be seen and spoken through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu), pain would be legitimated, forgiveness would be extended and gradually received, and the still-healing people would learn to step toward God’s good future together, making room at one table for everyone.

Sometimes, most times, it would be easier to give up than to do what Jesus says to do in Matthew’s gospel, especially when time and circumstance give you the upper hand on the ones who rejected you. But where others give up, Christians show up in hope. Because the stone the builders rejected (that’s Jesus) has become the chief cornerstone. Because once there was no way, but God made a way. Because to pursue reconciliation is to proclaim resurrection. Because the God we worship today is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before delivered Israel out of Egypt.


Amen.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

House Blessing Vlog: Footnotes & Links

Hey friends! Yesterday, we posted this video (below). Links spontaneously came out of our mouths, and we wanted to share them in an accessible way here. So, without further ado...

  1. Here is Debra Dean Murphy's amazing and challenging article about hurricanes, climate change, and justice here
  2. You can tune into my friend Ekene's radio show, The Blerd, WEDNESDAYS at noon, at 91.7 WSUM in Madison or online, here
  3. You can get Hauerwas' commentary on Matthew here
  4. Pope Benedict XVI says something like what I attribute to him about Peter and forgiveness in this great little book, Called to Communion
  5. Here's a copy of the prayer we prayed at the end: A Prayer for UW-Madison at the Start of a New Academic Year
  6. If you want us to save a House Blessing care package (they came out GREAT!!) for yourself or (even better) someone else on campus, let me know
  7. What else? Oh! We'll be posting a short vlog this afternoon (via FB live) to show you just exactly what the House Blessing care packages look like AND to introduce you to SFH's program intern, Mckenzie, who's going to tell us a little bit about a beautiful new practice that might change your ordinary life. Look for it! We'll see you then, and I hope we get to see some of you this Sunday at 5pm for our annual House Blessing(1) at St. Francis House. 
(1)Nerd note: I know, I know. It's technically "A Celebration for a Home." But you get it. It's beautiful. It expresses the Christian conviction, hope, and prayer that God would meet us in the gift of hospitality extended and received, and that God would help us make good beginnings of our studies, work, and all the rest of life. It's a good thing. See you there.