Monday, February 19, 2018

The Bow Is Turned Around: Freed for Conversation and Conversion

Guest post! This is the closing homily from this year's Province V young adult retreat, for which I had the privilege of serving on the design team with an incredible group of folks. One of those folks, the Rev. Beth Scriven, preached this beautiful word at our closing Eucharist.

Spiritual ninjas.

We haven’t talked a lot about that overarching theme this weekend, but it’s been present on my mind. Early in the planning process I remember Jonathan saying something about how if you’re a ninja, you have to have more than one move, right? And that’s sort of what the life of faith calls for, and even the idea of fierce conversations - every conversation can’t be identical. You need different moves for different situations.

So as we’ve gone through this weekend, there have been a number of moments when those different ninja moves have come up for me, from Courtney’s “hiding from feedback” move to the variety of kinds of fierce conversations that Jesus has in the different scriptures we’ve read, to one of my favorite memories from when my nephew W was really little.

When he was about 18 months old, we put on some music we could sort of ignore while he played and we did the adult thing of sort of half-talking to each other and half-playing with him. Until we tried to figure out why he was suddenly turning himself in circles, around and around, and realized it was the song from the musical Cotton Patch Gospel where Jesus is teaching things like “if someone asks you for your shirt, give him your coat as well” - and the chorus playing was “Turn it around, turn it around. Surprise ‘em a little, start shifting the ground. To get right side up, turn upside down. Now is the time to turn it around.” We weren’t listening, but he was. Turn it around. Turn it around.

Yesterday in our discussion of prayer as a fierce conversation with God and last night during our wrap up session, I heard people name the ways that fierce conversations and our practicing for them felt like confession, like repentance, like turning around and, by the grace of forgiveness, starting anew. And it reminded me of little W, turning around and around - and of the God of humankind’s early years, turning around and around as well.

“Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth… I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth… When I see the bow in the clouds, I will remember the covenant I have made with all flesh on earth.”

We are so accustomed to the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise that it is easy to forget that it is so named because it is God’s bow, and the purpose of a bow is to be a weapon. But God has turned that bow away from the earth. If it were to fire now the arrow would simply fly up into the heavens. The bow set in the clouds, turned away from the earth, reminds God - reminds God! - that while a fresh start can help, God has promised not to start fresh in quite that way again.

So God finds new ways to pursue justice and mercy, righteousness and peace, new ways to start fresh without destroying all flesh. Every time God sees that the wickedness of humankind is great, and is grieved in the Divine Heart, as I have to believe God must be fairly often, God sees also the the bow has been set in the clouds. The bow has been turned around.

And from this point on, God turns largely to conversations. Through patriarchs and matriarchs, God continues to make and keep the covenant of love and relationship. Through judges and prophets, God continues to renew the covenant. Through the very Word of God becoming flesh and living and conversing among us, God renews the covenant of love.

Again and again, the bow is turned around. Again and again, we are invited, we are urged, we are tempted - just as Jesus was - to become chained to the way the world is. The world requires that you feed yourself, protect yourself, secure your own position, because you cannot help the world if you don’t play by the world’s rules.

And again and again and yet again, Jesus turns that reality around. Yes, nourishment is important, but I will find it from God. Yes, I am God’s Son, but I don’t have to prove it on your terms just because you asked for it. Yes, I love these peoples of this world God has made and loves, but real love is of God and casts out fear. Their redemption is in God and not in the power of this world.

Again and again and again, the world forges weapons and chains and terror; but again and again and again, even in the midst of God’s grief, the bow is turned away from the earth, the swords are beaten into ploughshares, the chains are broken, and justice and peace are brought together by this love so fierce and unyielding that it can afford to find and meet us where we are (and if you have not yet spent time with this window here entitled “Our Human Struggle” I encourage you not to miss this incredible visual summary of the gospel of love).

Again and again, we are changed by the conversation. Gradually, then suddenly, we are shaped by justice, by love, by compassion. We are converted, as we will hear at the Eucharist, from the patterns of this passing world, and freed to become part of how God now loves and liberates our struggling, painful world.

As that perfect love casts out our fear, we are freed to have the real conversation - one ninja move at a time. As loving conversation changes our hearts, we are brought back home to rest in love.

Again, and again, and again, God is faithful.
Again, and again, and again, we are changed.
And this is the sign of the covenant between God and all flesh: a bow that has been turned around, a broken light that has been made beautiful in its brokenness.

My prayer for each one of us as we go out from here is that we might see and remember that we too have been made beautiful in our brokenness and equipped to renew and pursue loving relationships, one fierce conversation at a time.

The Rev. Beth Scriven is in her third year at Rockwell House Episcopal Campus Ministry, a ministry of the Diocese of Missouri serving the campuses of Washington University and St. Louis University.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Remembering Baptism, Learning to Die: a homily for Ash Wednesday

I was honored and humbled to be asked to preach this year's noonday Ash Wednesday service at Luther Memorial Church, our next door neighbor. While, wonderfully, we were joined by other sisters and brothers in Christ, the ecumenical moment was coordinated by Geneva Campus Church, St. Paul's Catholic Church, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center, Luther Campus Ministry, and Luther Memorial, who extended characteristic warmth and hospitality. I thank God for the gift of so many genuine friendships collected by the occasion. These are the readings for the day.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I wrote you a poem.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Remember you’re dust
And you’ll return to dust, too.

You’re welcome. I count myself as standing just now in the great, proud tradition of Anglican poets.

Today’s readings give Christians somewhat conflicting instructions for how to proceed on Ash Wednesday: the Old Testament says to sound the alarm, blow the trumpet. The gospel says to go to your room and lock the door. In a strange kind of compromise, you ended up here. Lutherans, Catholics, Christian Reformed, and even, Lord have mercy, Episcopalians. And, make no mistake, this is God’s mercy. It is a gift to be gathered together as we set out on this Lenten journey. For those of you who don’t identify with one of the four organizing faith communities today, your presence is all the more gift for that - you show us in a special way the generous heart of Christ. Jesus prayed for gatherings like this one. I thank God for you.

Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into these ancient days and, therefore, into God's time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God's story.

Contrary to prevailing narratives, or at least what I was taught as a kid, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher's task on a university campus difficult because many of you are students and, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are beginning to establish personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; your education is full of loving gifts from a loving God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of these gifts matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son's life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God's people.

Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the very beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God's new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And later, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.

The question that drives Lent is what trusting God's love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.

A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. "I am thankful!" she would say every time I'd visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. "I am thankful," she said, "and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don't see my family as much as I'd like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can't remember as much as I want to." Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. "My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can't knit. And I loved to knit." She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. "Tell me," she said. "Why would God take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?"

Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, "No! God forbid!" And neither have those whom you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God's love without condition, the Spirit's breath and mercy. In this light, as it proclaims God's love before all else, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.

So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on what she considered spiritual busywork. You know, giving up things like chocolate and sodas. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, "What if you gave up reading?"

There was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, "What if you gave up your wealth?"

I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, your love-ability, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?

Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God's love for us and the call to trust God's love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God's gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by our moral performance, being good, but by trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Monday Musings: Colbert Theology for the Church

"Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Karl Barth
"Don't be afraid." Jesus 

I finally found some (not even remotely close to) actual research-based backing for my heretofore mostly ignorant instinct that most churches would be well served by space for more laughter: check out Colbert, below. (I skipped to the relevant portion in the link. If you don't offend easily - politically - the first part is great, too, just not relevant to the fear-fending function of laughter).

I found it helpful. I think UW forgiveness scholarship Robert Enright is mostly right when he says that no one goes to church to grow the church (paraphrase). So laughter can also reconnect folks to the joy through which God first spoke abundant life to them.

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