Sunday, August 25, 2019

Ain't No Children's Table in the Kingdom of God

This sermon was preached August 24 and 25 at Holy Trinity by the Lake. Here are the weekend's readings.

I wonder if you grew up, like me, in a family where at large family gatherings, especially dinners, generous use was made of The Children’s Table. Capital T. Capital C. Capital T. The Children’s Table was occupied mostly by, well, children, although the youngest adults were fair game and might find themselves there, too, if The Main Table ever ran out of room. Youngest adults, of course, was a relative phrase but if you made it to forty you were more or less safe. Probably. The situation was mostly practical. More bodies than seats means something has to give. Split ‘em up! Divide and conquer. Banish them to … The Children’s Table.

Of course it was more well-meaning than that. And of course nobody who made the table assignments would have thought about it as banishing. But of course, also, to divide the tables by age over against some other arbitrary qualification, feature, or interest (like musical tastes, biggest ears, or most memorized lines from The Princess Bride) was to make silent assumptions about who was interesting to whom and from whom you might expect to hear either entertaining or edifying things. 

The silent assumptions often made things more predictable, people knew where they stood in advance, even as the assumptions made in silence silently shrank the family’s imagination for what was possible. And this is a longstanding pattern with precedent: think Jesus’s disciples when they tried to keep the kids away, lest the kiddos interrupt what Jesus was about to show the “true followers” in a space protected from noisy, smelly, inquisitive children. Think the feeding of the five-thousand, when the disciples shrugged their shoulders, unconvinced that the gifts of a child could be of serious use or constitute a genuine blessing for the life of the community. “All we’ve got is this child. And his lunch box. How can what he brings to the table possibly be enough?”

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic for a while, the assumptions we make about age and who is worth listening to. Different generations of people have been thinking about it recently, too. I’m sure you’ve seen or read the mostly unhelpful articles. Millennials wonder when Boomers will hand over the reigns. Boomers for their part are understandably in no hurry to be written off by Millenials. Meanwhile, Generation X invisibly wonders why the Millennials and Boomers are fighting as if they don’t exist and aren’t also standing in line. Did you know that, astoundingly, three of the previous four presidents, including our current one, were born in the same month of the same year, 1946?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this, a zero sum game, one generation, winner take all, guarding against the others. But choosing to witness the alternative, a community that collaborates, listens, honors, and shares real and vulnerable space in common life, one that fosters relationships of mutual blessing - mutual gratitude, amazement, and wonder - in the midst of our differences, well these spaces take intention and effort. More than that, these spaces require the belief that each of us has been given true gifts that would truly bless and build up the others; it requires the belief that being in community opens us to the possibility that God might change us from the people we were before we opened our hearts to each other. If we are lucky, we come to more than make room for this possibility; we come to pray for and delight in it.

These sorts of spaces take work. Never finished work. But it’s good work, holy work, and work worthy of the time and energy it takes. Especially for Christians. After all, Jesus refuses the disciples’s refusal of the children, and he even blesses the lunchbox of the boy, to feed a hillside of people. A friend said to me one time, “I want to give a talk about friendships and significant others. But then I realize that that was absurd. For Christians, there are no insignificant others.” One of the things being a Christian is to discover is that we belong to each other, because we belong to God; that my life and death is with my neighbor. We who are many are one body, says St. Paul, because we all share the one bread.

But each of us, I suspect, has days when we do wonder if we belong to each other or what kind of place we can have in the body. After all, love and belonging, in a world as determined by humiliation and competition as this one, are hard things to trust.

In the first lesson today, we find the prophet Jeremiah evidently in need of some convincing he belongs to the body. Specifically, he needs some coaxing to speak up. He’s been at The Children’s Table for so long he has come to believe it’s his true place. Why should The Main Table listen to him? What would he have to say to Israel that anyone in Israel should take seriously coming from his mouth?

As I listen to my own very vocal toddler at home, it occurs to me that of course Jeremiah’s doubt about his voice and its place in the body is not a doubt with which he was born. He learned it when he was young. From others who taught it to him. Even others who cared deeply for him. But then one day Jeremiah hears a voice that gives him voice. The voice belongs to God.

But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."

Like Moses before him, like just about every other character in the whole daggum book, young, old, and in between, the ones who wonder out loud if they’re cut out for the call and the invitation God gives them, God insists to Jeremiah that the most important thing about him, the assurance he should have that he is enough, so that he can speak without fear, is that God is coming with him.

Trivia time! Did you know, by your baptism, this is true of you, too? That the most important thing about you - more important that you’re greatest failure, more important than your biggest win - is God’s love for you and presence with you? You, beloveds, children of God. Sealed by the Spirit, marked as Christ’s own. Just like Jeremiah, called out of fear. 

I pray we can all receive this reminder today and each new day remember the good news that God’s love is our belonging and that we have a full place at the table, and that we are called to lift up this Good News to one another and others, but Jeremiah’s call asks us to particularly notice and consider the young ones among us and the ways we as Christ’s body visibly communicate the fullness of their belonging, or not. In other words, Jeremiah is, yes, a general reminder to see, encourage, and make room for each other, but Jeremiah is also the very specific reminder that children are very often among the marginalized and invisible, even if we don’t always think of them this way. Like the man Jesus found covered in chains that other people had put on him, whom, like the woman in today’s gospel, Jesus nonetheless healed, when children are found on the margins it is very often because we put them there.

That’s why I don’t think it’s too much to call Jeremiah’s story a healing. So many healings in the Bible have to do with people set free from the rule and rules of those in power. Of course, it takes help sometimes to see in the first place that we possess the kind of power a person might do well to be freed from. A person at The Main Table might not think much about The Children’s Table. But Jeremiah did. Thank God, Jeremiah trusted the voice that gave him voice. Jeremiah spoke up. Thank God, Israel listened. Thank God, the Word bridged a void. Praise God redemption took root. 

So we who follow Jesus and seek to take him at his word go out of our way to listen to our children. Children like Greta Thunberg, fifteen years old when she spoke of climate justice at a conference organized by the U.N. last year. We listen to the students of Stoneman Douglas High School who became voices in their community, locally and nationally, in the days after a gunman wreaked hellish havoc on their lives and on their school. It is one thing of course to say we disagree about the strategies or proposals that speak to the concerns to which our children give voice. It is quite another to dismiss their voices as naive or unseasoned or anything else. Dismissing the voices of children is the one thing, it turns out, our Savior expressly forbids.  

On the Day of Pentecost, when fire fell on the first disciples, the Holy Spirit, on what we’ve come to call the Birthday of the Church, scripture tells us that these words from the book of Joel were coming true:  the Lord said, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29).

Yes, even on the ones who don’t drive the local economy, the retired and those at recess, both alike, that’s where the Spirit is painting new pictures, showing salvation, revealing the new things of God in this world, bestowing blessings with the power to give life to the whole church, to all of us. That’s why a friend likes to tell me it’s smart to get yourself at least two mentors, 30 years in both directions, one older and one younger. Because, look. You and I worship a God who emptied the grave - who are we to pretend to know where or in whom God won’t show up?

So we come to this table today. And we notice there’s just one table to share. There is no children’s table. Or maybe there’s just one children’s table. Because we only come to the table at all as God’s children. Either way, as God calls us to this meal together, around one shared table, God calls us to become a dinner party unlike any other in town. Where there are no insignificant friends. Where the host invites the young and old alike to speak out loud the visions and dreams God gives them.

Because it doesn’t have to be the way the world imagines, a zero sum game, one generation, winner take all, guarding against the others. Baloney. But here we commit - and already in two short weeks I have been so inspired by the breadth and depth of our particular church family’s commitment - here, we commit, we choose to witness an alternative life together, a community that collaborates, listens, honors, and shares real and vulnerable space in common life, one that fosters relationships of mutual blessing. Because one of the things it is to be a Christian is to discover is that we belong to each other, because we belong to God. 

Thank God, and amen.

Monday, August 19, 2019

What Did Baptism Get Us Into?

Sermon preached at Holy Trinity by the Lake, August 18, 2019. Here are the readings appointed for the day.

Good morning! My name is Fr. Jonathan, and - speaking for my wife and kids, as well as for myself - it is so wonderful to be with you. I have been carrying a heart full of gratitude these last several weeks for Holy Trinity, for the process by which God has called us to walk the life of faith with you, for the many of you who tended to that discernment, and for the even more of you who have extended a welcome whose warmth is more than worthy of the outdoor temperatures. Thank you, and I thank God for you. I look forward to our getting to know one another, and I thank God that as people like you and me seek to draw near to God, we are not left on our own; God gives us the good gift of one another; the good gift of holy friends with which to break bread and share the cup. What a gift that God in Christ has made us friends of God and each other.

I’ll be honest, Fr. Keith and I are still working together on the particulars of my position’s responsibilities, but Christian formation is at the top of the list, especially formation of children, youth, and young families. So you can imagine my delight when I spotted the Spirit-inspired gospel lesson appointed for today. Did you catch it?

Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, asking the disciples a question he’ll answer himself:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

A good beginning.

Now, stop. Can we be real for a second? You and I need Jesus for lots of reasons, but most of us don’t need Jesus to have conflict with in-laws. Most of us can manage that on our own. Amirite?

Same with the other family dynamics. Sometimes, the father/son and mother/daughter stuff clears up with age, but not always. Any therapist worth their salt will eventually want to talk to you about what they call your family of origin because, even in the best of circumstances, that’s where the deepest wounds lie. We all have them, followers of Jesus or not.

Jesus knows this, but apparently Jesus is unwilling to promise that following him will not add to the challenge. After all, Jesus’s first followers left their families to become his disciples. Jesus’s own relationship with his family was not without its difficulties. By contrast, many - though not all - of us were introduced to Jesus through our families, but even if that was the case for you, this does not mean you aren’t familiar with the waters the first disciples navigated. In seven years of campus ministry, I shared space with countless young adults going or not going to church for the very first time as a decision independent of their families. No one looking over their shoulders. In fact, if a parent endorsed me to their college student child, it was very often the kiss of death for our relationship. Because families are complicated. In six years of parish ministry, too, I’ve met a lot of folks for whom the words “grow my church” really meant “please help my family members want to be here, too.”

Jesus doesn’t promise that following Jesus won’t add to the challenge. But neither does Jesus ask us to add to the challenge for its own sake. The main character in today’s gospel is not division; the main character in today’s gospel is the God who comes to ordinary, mostly boring folks like you and me and shouts the life-changing invitation: “Follow me!”, giving us far more interesting lives than the ones most of us would have managed on our own, left to our own devices, had we not been found and called by the God who delivered Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. So we follow, not just once, not just a couple of times, but each day, every day, every hour, filled with new wonder and expectation, ready to be called out and surprised. The Methodist pastor Will Willimon says, “The (whole) Christian life is spent figuring out what baptism got us into.”

Will Willimon knows something about what baptism got us into. Willimon comes from the deep South. South Carolina. His family had been a family of considerable wealth until it was destroyed near the end of the Civil War. He describes the way the day salvation found him in the person of an African-American roommate who one day began a conversation he would later call a conversion by asking, “Does it bother you that there are laws to keep us separate?” (1)

Can I ask you, when was the last time God called you in a way that invited you to leave the space of what you’d known before God called you into something new? Can you think of a time when God invited you to leave the familiar, to cross an unknown threshold or enter a brand new metaphorical land?

In the 12th century, a young man named Francis was busy minding his own business, coming of age in a wealthy family, when God called him to repair God’s church. He showed up to the church the next day with a hammer and a bucket of nails, ready to do his part, but God had a good laugh and said, “That’s not what I mean.” Instead, God called Francis to give up his wealth. Francis stripped naked in the middle of town, and an embarrassed bishop covered him up with his coat. Francis left the family inheritance behind and went on to start what we now know as the Franciscan order. He lived on the kindness of others, preached to birds and wolves alike and, less well known - while the rest of Christendom went off to war, to fight the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed the battle lines; he traveled to Egypt to befriend the Muslim sultan there, to seek and proclaim the peace of Christ.

Look out, you’ve been warned. God only knows what absurdity God might call us to next. So we Christians stay ready, we continue to grow, to move, to expect God in strange things, unknown people and unlikely places, because God continues to call us. Not once or even a couple of times, but each day, every day, across a lifetime, so we get up, we go out, filled with that wonder, trust, and expectation. Made alive to the resurrection truth that more is possible. Made alive to the Good News that God is doing a new thing, a new thing that, with childlike eagerness, God really wants to show us.

I remember the day I met Phil Stevenson in West Texas. Phil was a former JAG officer turned small town mayor turned priest. Now he was coming up on 40 years in the priesthood. Because his path struck me as a strange one, I asked him about his journey, what led him to his change of vocation, his present calling.

He told me about another man, a cattle rancher, he met while serving as a JAG officer, post-WW II, overseas in Japan. The man raised cattle and gave away nearly all of the cattle he raised, to peasants mostly, asking nothing in return, with the lone stipulation that they also give any offspring cattle they raised to others. He’d left his family, his county, all he knew to become a wellspring of life for strangers, and to become poor alongside them. Philip asked the man why he did this. What had led him to this change? The man filled and broke my good friend’s heart with his answer; he’d seen another’s life transformed by the Gospel and God’s call, he began to believe God’s Good News might call him, too, and he found himself one day willing to be made open. He spoke about having found a great treasure; he talked about abundant life.

You can almost hear the author of Hebrews wanting to break in at this point… And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, Rahab, David, Samuel, and the prophets, Mary, Sarah, Rebekah, and Elizabeth, the heavenly hosts with all the saints, all those with whom we keep the feast; those who wait to eat until we join them, all those of the great family of faith, the cloud of witnesses we know and to which we belong through the wonder and waters of baptism.

No life, it seems, is beyond God’s imagination for holiness, beyond God’s capacity to transform, redeem and, even God help us, be made interesting.

We leave our old lives behind, true. We lay down our tired swords of self-righteousness, self-preservation, and fears that our gifts aren’t enough, that we can’t be enough. But with those swords laid down, our hands free and empty, God gives new and unexpected life. We lift up our hearts. We are fed at this table. We are met here by Christ. Christ Jesus "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8).

As surely as the risen Jesus bears his wounds, we will bear wounds, too, by our following. The Good News about our wounds is that God knows them. Your pain is not hidden to God. The God who calls you, sees you, knows you, and loves you. And as we continue to know ourselves more truly in the light of this love, we know we cannot help but continue to turn toward the one who calls us his own, lest we betray the burning God has placed upon our hearts for God.

Question: what has this turning looked like in your life? What might it look like still? What visions, dreams, and holy words has God shown to you? How has God surprised you? They’re rhetorical questions right now, but I’d love to hear about it, if you’d be willing to share it. It’ll be the best coffee or other beverage of my week. Question: who else knows the story of your turning, of your seeing? Of God’s speaking, and your response, with God’s good help? Of considerations and hesitations and half-grasped decisions that maybe didn’t make sense to others - or even to you - apart from their pointing to Jesus, crucified and risen.

My wife pulled me from the bedtime routine some nights ago to share the magazine story of Katie Davis, twenty-two, living in Uganda, founder of a child sponsorship program, local feeding program, and self-sustaining vocational program - empowering local women to make and sell bead necklaces. Oh, and she is mother to thirteen of the children, whom she’s adopted. Says Katie, "People tell me I am brave. People tell me I am strong. People tell me good job. Well here is the truth of it. I am really not that brave, I am not really that strong, and I am not doing anything spectacular. I am just doing what God called me to do…”

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose Mary-like beauty compels our attention, give us hearts that jump within us with the good news of your salvation. We confess that amid the tedium of the everyday our worship of you sometimes feels like a job - just “one more thing.” Thank you for the unsettling of our lives, wherein we discover the splendor of the kingdom made possible by your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you will ever be here, unsettling our attempts to domesticate the wildness of your Spirit. (2)



(2) From Prayers Plainly Spoken, by Stanley Hauerwas.

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