Monday, February 9, 2009

Changing the World

The propers for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany include Isaiah 40:21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; and Mark 1:29-39

Last Thursday, this campus community engaged itself in a question. More or less, it is this: What will it take of us to be a more truly inclusive community? Stefanie Solum was among those who helped shape Claiming Williams Day. Jim Kolesar convened a panel, Justin Adkins served on another, and I’ll bet yet more members of St. John’s played roles supporting this adventure of exploring privilege, responsibility, and respect at Williams. Their goal remains active: to engage this campus in ongoing dialogue about mindsets, habits, choices, and actions that can create or disrupt community.

“Y’all must’ve screwed up big,” drawled novelist Dorothy Allison, mincing no words as her personality filled the stage of the ’62 Center. She said she knew it, if a college was flying someone like her cross-country, and several other motivating speakers from around the land, something big must have gone wrong. She was inviting honesty, not breast-beating; and yes, there have been incidents when community was disrupted by a few immature voices intending to disrupt community. And there has been magnificent and mature response across the campus that is blossoming now in renewed commitment to see that all at Williams practice skills of self-knowledge and appreciation of others in their otherness. “Go deeper,” urged Dorothy Allison, “Deeper than claiming Williams: Claim yourself, and let the shame be on anyone who has a problem with you in your self-claiming.

She also made clear her belief that screwing-up may be the prerequisite for getting it right. Screwing-up can invite honesty and change.

Oh, she was good. She gave me a line that’s a real keeper: “When you are trying to change the world, you seek out others who are trying to change the world.” You might guess that this got me thinking about the Church.

Do you think of yourself as someone who is trying to change the world?

It is screwed-up in certain big ways, isn’t it, our world? And… oops…who has screwed it up? That prompts me to ask a related question.

Do you think of yourself as someone who is trying to change yourself?

I’m wondering if one or both of these driving forces may account for us being here today, whether this ragtag army of us is a result of Dorothy’s keeper: When you are trying to change the world (or yourself) you seek out others who are trying to change the world (or themselves).

I’m not claiming that we’re good at it. Either one. In fact, a parade ground drill might not impress the casual observer that we’re ideal candidates to change the world, or show all that much evidence that we’re excelling at conversion of life.

I’m not even claiming that we are the ones to change the world, or ourselves.

But when those two forces drive us to seek out others who are driving those same roads, look what happens. We receive a roadmap to somewhere else. We get invited to turn our attention two, three thousand years back in time so that what is old and wonderful may bless what is new and wondering. We get asked to use language not our own in order to know ourselves and appreciate one another. We get drawn into silence, our racing thoughts stilled, our agendas reduced, our doors and windows thrown open to a fresh breeze blowing through.

We hear the good news that God is at work changing the world. We learn to welcome the diagnosis that we are part of the problem and part of the remedy. And so we repent to allow God to deal with our part of the problem, and we commit to learn God’s terms of change, commit to offer the gifts and to learn the skills useful to God in changing the world. And we pray to gain the courage to pay the cost of discipleship. And so we allow God to change our lives.

We do that waiting upon God that allows us to renew our strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint.

We learn what Paul had to learn, that there are at least two pathways to faithfulness. One is to proclaim and live the Gospel when we want to (which carries its own reward), and the other is to proclaim and live the Gospel when that is not of our own will—and that is to be entrusted with a commission.

What is that commission? To answer that, it takes a Gospel. It takes a Gospel to raise a parish, and in this season it’s the Gospel of Mark, brimming over with stories of healing. There’s a partial answer: we’re entrusted with a commission to heal in the name of this Jesus of few words and vast respect.

There is where changing ourselves overlaps with changing the world: before we meet the call to heal, we are called to be healed.

You can see that twinning of divine purposes in other mandates of the Gospel. We are fed so that we may feed. We are taught that we may teach. We forgive because we have been forgiven.

For God so loves us that when the oxygen masks drop, we are instructed first to strap on our own before trying to help the person next to us. And God so loves us that in giving we shall receive.

That is the Church’s deep wisdom presented in Lent. Yes, as a famous church misprint once announced, “The Lentil season is soon upon us.”

It is a season when the oxygen masks drop from above. Our flight is in peril, there’s no denying it: the journey is riskier than we had hoped. While the pilot deals with the aircraft, our responsibility is to take responsibility first to keep our wits and consciousness about us, then to use those very powers to practice responsibility for those around us.

Right in keeping with this wisdom is the Church’s desire to retrace on each forehead the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, offering us perspective on life and death, reminding us of eternal life opened to us in baptism.

And recognizing the importance of each new day, Lenten handbooks of scripture, reflection, and prayer will be set out for you to browse and choose, just two Sundays from now.

Three Sundays out, we’ll have the privilege of learning from a seasoned teacher, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Mikelson, who on the five Sundays of March will soak us in the life and witness of 20th century heroes of faithfulness who paid the cost of discipleship, and will help us understand how forms of liberation theology rose around some of these bright witnesses.

And speaking of Sundays in Lent, will you consider arriving here five minutes earlier than you usually do, and use that time to consciously prepare for worship? We’re calling this an invitation to “add five”, and we’ll get more specific about mindful preparation.

March will also bring the opportunity to study with The Rev. Dr. Hannah Anderson, who will lead a course on ten Tuesday evenings, “Money: From Cultural Bondage to Spiritual Freedom”, a course to explore “the liberty of that abundant life” that we named in the collect we prayed, this morning. If that speaks to you, it’s time to enroll.

All that, and Holy Week, too! We take Lent seriously and joyfully here, and the only giving-up you’ve heard implied so far is to give your time to invest in your own growth as one whom God has commissioned to help change yourself, and the world.
And to give up any illusion that we can have the change we need without God, without at the root of it all a conversion of life, and without truly inclusive community surrounding and supporting us.