Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Permaculture & the Subversive Promise of Passions Lived Generously

The St. Francis House student org leaders gathered for the first meeting of the new year year yesterday. Our first-ever program intern made the us dinner and shared a new way to connect over food. It was really beautiful.

At the outset, we connected over my new favorite thing: the 10 questions from Inside the Actors' Studio, shamelessly stolen from one of my go-to podcasts, who stole it first from IAS.

One of the 10 questions is "What turns you on, creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?" My answer is "When people open their lives and share their unique passions in ways the rest of us can engage and touch." I love being invited into the beauty another person sees in something that I wouldn't have seen that way by myself. And it's amazing, I think, how contagious vulnerable beauty-sharing can be, even when that passion is very different from my own. 

Enter Mark Shepard, whose video I'm watching today. He calls his work "easy," and I'm glad it is for him. And I'm so glad he is sharing his passion. And while the prospect of his work catching on in a global way feels like climbing 10 Everests put together, he makes the impossible feel possible and accessible before adding this tantalizing and subversive promise to his project at the end: "The whole doom and gloom fear industry might go broke."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Gift of Conversions & the Upside-Down Kingdom

Sermon preached at St. Luke's and St. Francis House, for the 12th Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A. Here are the readings.


“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it got late, and the shopkeeper put things in order and called it a day. He closed shop and went home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves broke into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves didn’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearranged all the labels, the price labels, on the items in the store. So cheap things now had four digit tags. And really precious things were made to look cheap. The next day, the shopkeeper arrived at the store and didn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appeared any less in order than it had the night before. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundaneness of the rhythms of life, it was just another day. Then the customers started arriving. They, too, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them began interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now were, as if the mislabeled labels reflected true values of things. And they’re still doing that now, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

Kierkegaard says that our world is that shop.

Cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). We sometimes attach our lives to these cheap things. We make too much of them. Meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them, so we miss them altogether. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.

And yet. Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. Sometimes, a person finds herself doing double takes between twin mismatched realities, and she thinks to herself, “Well, that can’t be right.” You peel off a label of a precious thing called cheap and you decide to elevate its place in your life. Likewise, you peel the high-priced label off of the cheap thing and make room in your life accordingly. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles.

An MD/PhD student came to me at the start of a year like this one a few years ago and said, “Jonathan, I’ve realized something. I can be first in my class or I can be a person who takes care of herself and those around her, engages the community of faith, nurtures her soul, and gets nine hours of sleep every night. I can't do both. I’m not sure being first in my class is worth what it will cost. I’m not even sure it will make me a better doctor. I’m making the choice not to pay it.” True story, years later, I was sitting at a table at a mutual friend’s wedding reception with this student and her fiancé, and one of the other guests at the table - new to both of us - says to this student, out of the blue, “You look so well rested!” And I thought, “Who says that??” But then, I thought, if anyone did deserve to have it said of them, it was this student.

Maybe you have had one of these life-relabeling moments in your life. Something you had thought was worth everything, you came to question or reevaluate. Another thing you hadn’t valued very much at all emerges, unexpectedly, as precious and beautiful in a way you hadn’t seen before, and you know you will, from this moment on, commit your life to it in a particular way; that is, you can see already how the distance from where you are starting from to the place where that beauty will call you will mean a change in your life, and it might even be hard, and you say yes anyway. You feel yourself to be on the edge of willing alterations to the ways you think about and move within the world. And ordinarily such a prospect would have been scary, if not terrifying, but instead you are energized by and made open to the possibility of the new thing you could be. Christians have historically called these moments conversions, when God moves us to bring our lives into line with true labels, and these conversions happen even from within the life of faith.

It’s not that the confusion is news. You might have suspected that something was up, that some of life’s labels had been swapped. The trick is discernment, which ones go where, how to undo the mess and make things right, and we are here in part because we believe discernment is a team sport. Together, weekly, we open our hearts and the scriptures and ask God to make our imaginations more like God’s imagination. We watch throughout the stories of Scripture as Jesus pulls “cheap” labels off of people on the margins and puts the cheap labels on performances of prayer that are just for show. We marvel as so-called weak things like patience, generosity and vulnerability, gentleness and humility, self-giving and forgiving get raised up in his story above traditionally big-ticket items like power and wealth. And this episode from Matthew's gospel is maybe one of the biggest’ bandaid-ripping, label-switching moments in the whole story of Jesus.

They’re in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus and his disciples. The place is named after Caesar, the emperor. They’re standing near a temple named for the emperor, who sometimes goes by the title, “Son of the living God.” Sounds familiar. In other words, Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is about to get political. Peter is about to call Jesus a king, and the thing about calling certain people kings is that it can un-call other people kings, even when you don't say it exactly that way. Because when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. But Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which may be why one theologian has observed that, these days, we ask the state to give us the things we used to ask God for. Because Jesus doesn’t look much like a king, which is why Jesus calls Peter’s answer, Peter’s attempt to rearrange the labels, a miracle. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

What does he mean when Peter calls Jesus king? What does it mean when we, too, call Jesus the Messiah?

To call someone like Jesus a king is a little bit like Peter’s saying he found God’s kingdom in the produce aisle, just behind the bananas. It’s not just that the kingdom’s been mislabeled, in terms of value or worth, it’s been mis-shelved altogether. Because Jesus doesn’t look anything like the usual label called, “king”. Kingdom labels play by the usual kingdom rules of political territories, patriotism, and securing a place above the others. This label is so well known it's in our bones. What was the old, thoroughly misogynistic game we used to play as kids? King of the hill? You know, where someone stood over the others on a pile of something until someone else pushed them off of the pile, and one empire gave way to another, but nothing was new, because the old rules applied, where the point of the game was still to push others down in order to rise up and secure yourself a kingdom for as long you could. That's the label we all learned for kingdom.

Of course, Jesus is nothing like this. What on earth made Peter call Jesus a king? A gift from the Father, Jesus says. The beginning of a conversion Peter himself doesn’t yet understand. The revelation of what the true kingdom, God’s kingdom, is.

In Luke’s gospel, this question will come up again. Jesus’ followers will be playing by old label rules, jockeying for position in the kingdom of Jesus, and Jesus will say, enough. Them’s the world’s rules, but that ain’t how we roll in this kingdom. And then he will confer on them a kingdom that looks like a table at which there is room and food enough for everyone. This table. Where old kingdoms coerced, this one opens up. Where old kingdoms secured the prosperity of the monarch, this monarch freely dies on the cross to free his subjects who had become subjected to sin and death. Jesus inaugurates this new kingdom when, on the night before he died, he breaks the bread he calls his body and gives his life for them. God’s kingdom is made known at this feast and this table on which is poured the cup of forgiveness, for you and for many.

And if this is true kingdom, what do we make of the others? After all, when it comes to allegiance, you only have one pledge to give. Will we really pledge allegiance to the kingdom of the crucified king and all it entails? And if we do, what does this undo about the way we think about the world and how we move within it? A world in which cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and sometimes our devotion). In which we attach our lives to these very same cheap things, and we make too much of them. A world in which, meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.

Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles. They are the mercy of God.

Amen.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

"Come Closer to Me" (Discerning Faithful Presence after Charlottesville)

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. 
Sermon preached at St. Dunstan's, Madison, on these readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 in Year A. 

It feels like this morning’s psalm is haunting us today, and I don’t like the feeling of that. “How good and pleasant it is when brethren or kindred live together in unity.” I used to love that psalm. Who knows, maybe I will come to love it again. While I appreciate the comparison that follows that celebration of unity, what with its shoutout to fine beards and beard oils dripping down off of them (sounds kinda awesome), the celebration of unity named by the psalmist feels hollow this week. It may be good and pleasant when we do live in unity, but it doesn’t feel like we do very much of that right now. Not that Charlottesville represented a new thing, but Charlottesville is yet another in an exhaustingly long line - and now not even the latest - but belonging to a long line of honest and painful things that name the violence we do to the unity that God would give us. And the “we” who do violence refers to humanity, but “we” also refers to white people in America. For those of us miles from Charlottesville and the South, here in Dane County, it may be helpful to remember that you don’t need guns to do violence. I don’t say that as a way of shaming folks for things over which we may feel little control, but to begin to make our repentance specific. I take it as foundational to the Christian faith and counter-cultural to the world that there is life and hope in our repentance. And we need life and hope because unity worth oiling beards for feels a very long way away.

Speaking of unity. I saw a t-shirt the other day that said - it had this big heart in the middle and across the heart it said - I tolerate you. Now society has sometimes named toleration as a kind of virtue we want to promote, but limits to the virtue of toleration become obvious the moment someone tells you they tolerate you. Nobody wants to be tolerated. Toleration is for mosquitos. That should be a t-shirt! Still, one thing the deplorable white supremacy on display in Virginia reminded us is that, if toleration can be seen as a desirable goal, it is only because the human desire to end the lives of those we despise is something real.

But then there’s Jesus, calling us to something deeper than the noble restraint we show when we do not kill one another. Inviting us to a table with those we have wronged and with those who have wronged us. Pouring forgiveness in the cup. Washing our feet. Inviting us to the same. How do we get there from here?

Remembering Jesus’ words at that first last supper, Catholic priest James Martin tweeted out last week that, "Jesus asks us to love one another, to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another. 'Supremacy' is absurd to Jesus,” he said. Jesus invites us to gather at the table, where submitting to the reign of the crucified king also means making room for each other. That’s what unity is.

If a psalm extolling the goodness of unity is painful to read today, it at least comes with stories to encourage us for the difficult, good work of loving and making room for each other.

In Genesis, Joseph is talking to his brothers. And, actually, he’s been talking to his brothers for several chapters now, but they don’t know it's him. In everything that’s come before, they’ve known him only as the guy Pharaoh put in charge of food distribution during the famine that plagues Egypt and the surrounding region. Like everyone else, they’re just here for the food. The last thing they’re thinking as they negotiate the price is that the shrewd manager staring them down is the very same kid brother with the rainbow coat they had mercilessly left for dead in a ditch and then traded into slavery years before.

Psalm 105 remembers the story this way:

Then God called down a famine on the country,
    God broke every last blade of wheat.
But God sent a man on ahead:
    Joseph, sold as a slave.
They put cruel chains on his ankles,
    an iron collar around his neck,
Until God’s word came to the Pharaoh,
    and God confirmed his promise.
God sent the king to release him.
    The Pharaoh set Joseph free;
He appointed him master of his palace,
    put him in charge of all his business
To personally instruct his princes
    and train his advisors in wisdom.

It cannot be easy to receive wisdom from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. It cannot come easily to be mastered by someone you once sold to a master. But here they are. Joseph dramatically reveals himself to be the brother they had tried to kill. Whose brotherhood they had denied. On whom their lives now depend. Predictably, they are dismayed. Dismayed, because, it was his prediction of this moment, years before, that had caused them to hate him in the first place. They’d dismissed him as “the dreamer.” Now the apparent truth of the dream they’d dismissed is their nightmare. Unthinkably, God has used their hate to create the very situation that had filled them with resentment and, now, fear. Here, in his presence, they are undone. Now, the one they have hated is not only the one with the food they need, but also the one with power and cause to destroy them. Joseph’s brothers have created an either/or world in which either Joseph or his brothers must emerge victorious over the other, and for a while they thought that was them, the victorious, but now it is clear that, barring an unlikely strategic gaffe, victory belongs to Joseph. They brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged.

But then Joseph says the only words that could have made things even worse. “Get it over with,” they may have hoped. Be to me what I have been to you. They had no reason to expect otherwise. But then, these excruciating words: “Come closer to me.” There is another way. An unexpected future, a waiting embrace that will cost them every drop of the either/or logic they have made of their world. Come closer to me, Joseph says. And, remarkably, they do.

In Romans, Paul picks up this age-old struggle: does embracing the other on that side, in this case the Gentiles, undo the integrity of God’s promise to this side? Not at all! says Paul. No. God’s future, illumined by Joseph, refuses the logic by which our struggles with each other finally result in anything other than opportunities for God’s mercy to win us all back to God.

But a warning. In participating in the unity and mercy of God, we may find ourselves invited to a role in the story that is not the role we once had or the role we had wanted. Like Joseph’s brothers, the Canaanite woman in Matthew’s gospel finds herself begging life from a man who, being Jewish, she was raised to despise. It can be difficult to receive wisdom or life from one whom you had counted as a know-nothing slave. But as with Joseph and his brothers, her daughter’s healing comes when the women overcomes the instinct to claim a future without the other side. “Come closer to me,” she insists, and it’s all the more remarkable for Jesus’ gruff treatment of her. But as I’ve wrestled with Jesus’ difficult words to the Canaanite woman of great faith, I find myself uncertain whether I am offended for her or if my offense is simply a disguise for my desire to have a better place for myself in the story. What do you think? What would you do? Would you take Jesus’ offer to find your place in the story of God as a dog at the table? Remarkably, she does. Because she knows in her bones that place and position fail to accomplish what God might do in the space of surrender to the one she calls her king. Whatever her place, she longs for that table. Forsaking all else, she finds the mercy of God.

Our scriptures today are full of people who give me hope for the unity the psalmist names because, against all odds, they speak and accept the challenge to “come closer to me,” to step toward the other, even the despicable other, trusting that God will meet them both in the space of total vulnerability. 

What might it look like to come closer today? Theologian David Fitch thinks it might look like this. He writes, “Racism is a subjectivity formed within a social world. It is a social construct that teaches us (as white people) to think, feel and experience others of color in a way that is not conscious. To think we can change this racism by merely confronting it with words or protest misses the insidiousness of racism. No, we must go the next step and engage the racist with presence (not anger or violence). This may start with face to face nonviolent protest. But it must not end there. This is why addressing racial injustice ultimately requires the church filled by the Spirit to be viscerally present in the world.” Filled by the Spirit, we must be viscerally present. “Come closer to me,” Joseph says to his brothers. 

Finally, of course this will not be the last time in the pages of holy scripture that we’ll see a man left for dead unexpectedly standing before eleven of those whom he called his brothers. Jesus will appear before them on the other side of the walls of the hate and fear and pain they had locked themselves behind, and the disciples, very much like Joseph’s brothers, will see him and be dismayed and undone. They had left their Lord for dead, and so they will know what this moment should bring. They will brace for their expulsion from the future of the one they have wronged. But he will not destroy them. His breath on them will be forgiveness and peace. Their hearts will know his love as they haven't known it before. And we will marvel as we remember. We will find courage to come closer across every line of our hatred, righteous judgments, and fears, remembering that God in Christ has first come closer to us.



Amen.