Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Memorial Homily For Sherry

Monday afternoon, the day after Sherry’s death, her family sat down with me to consider what we would do today at this service. I had with me the usual resources I bring to such a moment: a hymnal, a prayer book, a volume of suggested readings. Into the room came Nicole, holding a slim clothbound journal. “I found this on Sherry’s shelf,” she said, “It seems to contain some of her favorite quotations.”

This was as if Sherry were still helping us.

In monasteries and convents, such a book is called a liber scintillarum, a book of sparks. Each person in the community might keep one to record words that have spoken with power and clarity, quotations not to be forgotten, discoveries fresh from experience. This was Sherry’s book of sparks. From it came the scripture portions we’ve heard this morning.

What ignites one person’s spirit may not set the next person’s soul on fire. That’s not the purpose of such a book. It’s to keep one’s own feet to the fire, to remember what it was that kindled the heart and mind and will. Even the book’s owner may not know what patterns emerge in these keepings of private contemplation, not meant for the public eye.

But as I handled those pages, as I glanced from entry to entry, I couldn’t help wondering, “How did these ideas, these visions, spark Sherry to be who she was and do what she did?”

And what I specifically had in mind was how she embraced her own experience, these past three months, so positively and courageously and without complaint. How did she do that? Just asking that question made me realize that Sherry had been doing exactly that over many years, not in this season only. To be in awe of how she handled these recent months is to remember one of her traits we most admired.

As we have heard eloquently today, there was so much to admire. Sherry was gifted at making friends, and keeping friends. And more, inspiring friendships around her, wherever she was. Her deep openness to her friends anointed each day of this recent ordeal with the oil of lovingkindness.

Death has come so soon to one so full of sparks. This may feel to be beyond understanding and, perhaps, beyond acceptance. For me, it does not help to assign this to the will of God. I believe we saw the grace of God in how swiftly and peacefully her circle was drawn whole, once it was clear that therapies were not working. And I am certain we saw the grace of God in her sweet courage, in how she treated us, how to the very end she kept drawing people in, how she soared on wings like an eagle.

And I am sure that we have seen, in the strength and tenderness and attentiveness of Bud and Erik and Cam and Nicole and Ethan and Elise, what grace can look like in action.

Our scriptures—Sherry’s scriptures—tell us today that action is what matters. She is in the book of sparks that each of us has collected in these years of our loving her. And I believe she has told each and every person here (and so many beyond, who cannot attend today) that each of us is bound into the great volume, the magnum opus, of her love.

I notice that, at the start of Sherry’s verses from the Book of Isaiah, stars appear in the night sky. God is said to bring out the starry host one by one, calling each by name.

To us, Sherry is a star.

It’s said that the minerals of our bones come from the far-flung dust of stars, one more testimony that nothing in our experience can be lost or wasted. Today we celebrate what rich life we have within us, among us, by the sparks of our friend, Sherry. Our tribute to her will grow as we keep finding ways to inspire friendship, keep treasuring old friends, keep introducing new friends in the making, keep relishing the stories that mustn’t be forgotten, keep including, keep drawing-in, keep sending sparks into the universe.

June 18, 2010
St. John's Parish, Williamstown, Massachusetts

No Turning Back

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Galatians 5:1, 13-25, and Luke 9:51-62

To read a Gospel is like paging through a family scrapbook. Today, we point to a snapshot of Jesus and his disciples as they head to Jerusalem for his final days, the stormy days of his arrest and crucifixion. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village. Though they were ethnic cousins, Jews and Samaritans did not get along.

Let me tweak something I just said. To read a Gospel, we should imagine the earliest apostles and the children of those apostles poring over the family scrapbook, and listen-in on what they might have said.

“Do you remember that day? It was your father Andrew and his brother Peter who ran on ahead to arrange rooms at the inn, but the Samaritans slammed the door in their faces. ‘You’re going to Jerusalem, that whore of a city? Then you’re the wrong kind—be off with you!’ Isn’t that what they said?”

“Oh, and what an explosion came next! James and John, those sons of thunder, witnessed it all and threatened to command lightning to strike ‘em all dead, those hard-hearted Samaritans…”

“Yes, and the air was blue when the Master let ‘em have it, the two boneheads! No wonder his words aren’t kept, this time—he was really disappointed in those two loudmouths. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Old Simon here says he was there, and the Master was just as sharp with them as he was with those money-changers in the Temple, whittled them down right to their knees, took them down a peg or two.”

Palestine was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, something of a military state with soldiers common on the streets. So perhaps it’s idealistic to picture the disciples as pacifists. Just don’t ask me to give up my understanding of Jesus as peacemaker, and in keeping with that I see him patiently—sometimes impatiently—coaching his companions in non-violence. He can’t let James and John have their thunderstorm without it soaking the whole of his public ministry.

He knows there are storm clouds ahead, gathering over violent Jerusalem. The sky will turn black on Good Friday before the sun’s rising on the third day reveals his empty tomb. And this is as it must be, that he will take upon himself the animosity and violence that even his disciples would visit upon others, showing themselves still slaves to the old evils.

St. Paul tells us today, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Powerful words—seditious words-- in a land under military occupation. Powerful words in a religious culture yoked to laws that tell people what they must not do, laws that prohibit but do not empower, laws that evoke fear rather than inspire love.

“Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Commentators say that in this first verse of the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul presents the core of his Gospel. And it is a revolutionary modern message: that people may choose, in the face of oppression, to exercise their conscience and resist evil, to insist on a way of life that bears the fruit of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “There is no law against such things,” he says (and I wonder if his apostolic tongue wasn’t in his cheek). These are the powers within the reach of everyone.

Or maybe not everyone. The Gospel scrapbook today has three more snapshots. In each, Jesus is in conversation with a different person. First is the fellow who approached him on the road, gushing, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The Master picks up the truth, that here’s someone running away from home, someone who needs kinds of security that aren’t part of the missionary call. Jesus doesn’t say no, but makes it clear that the benefits package may disappoint him. There will be lots of people like this first fellow, ready to greet Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem, hoping for some excitement, ready to shout Hosanna-- but that’s it.

Second is someone Jesus approaches, saying, “Follow me.” This person replies, “I like the idea of following you, but it’s going to have to wait.” Why? Because he must first bury his father. Has his father died? Or is this man saying, “Maybe in a year or two --you know, my parents are elderly and I’m obligated to take care of them until they die.”

Jesus won’t wait. We know why, with his warm front about to collide with that cold front in Jerusalem, Jesus sees how few are the days left in his public ministry. His words sound harsh, but the context of his own impending death gives our Lord a unique voice when he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; your call is to go and proclaim the reign of God. That kingdom is about to break in upon all the ordinary processes of living and dying, when my death opens the gates of eternal life to all who will choose to live fully now by the Spirit that I give them.” But this second person seems fixed on what might be called obligations of biology, and isn’t receiving on the level of spirit.

Third, not unlike the second, promises (like the first) that he will follow, but right now has a to-do list at home. Does he mean only say farewell to his family, or does he also mean paint the front porch and while he’s at it fix the gutters?

“If you’re plowing a furrow and you look back, it will go crooked,” suggests Jesus.

Not a one of these three would-be followers shows even enough promise to follow, let alone lead. But step across from chapter nine in Luke to chapter ten, as we’ll do next Sunday, and we’ll see that Jesus has recruited seventy-two disciples beyond the twelve, and will send them out ahead of him to the towns he will visit en route to Jerusalem.

So why these three stories of apparent failure? If they are stories of failure, perhaps they illustrate the conventional wisdom that, while everyone may choose, in the face of life’s oppressiveness, to exercise conscience and resist evil, to insist on a way of life that bears the fruit of the Spirit of God-- nonetheless, a person must choose. No one can do it for me. Nor can I inherit it. I must choose.

Now, what if these are not three vignettes of failure, but snapshots of the moments when each person resisted grace because it felt scary? Can you relate to that? Who among us has not resisted grace, pushed away an invitation to change?

We aren’t told what became of these three. We assume that each headed home. Along the way, were there changes of heart? Did these three come to terms with their call, catch up with Jesus, and join the seventy-two? Were their resistance snapshots kept to humanize the story of the Jesus movement? Did apostles find their own experience in the shrinking-back of these three? Did some say, “I had moments like that…”? Did some say, “That was me…”?

Or did these three come to terms with their call precisely by returning to their homes, one to face whatever he might have been running away from, one to be a caregiver to his father, and one to paint that front porch? Our lesson from Galatians today does say, “through love become slaves to one another.” Doesn’t such love start at home?

But it wouldn’t be enough that such love remain at home. The Jesus movement is not primarily about increasing satisfaction at home, not about improving quality of life for me and mine. It is, as Paul observes, about implementing the great love, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

And on that day when the twelve entered a village of the Samaritans, their Master intended to teach them how all-embracing a word “neighbor” must be. All told, it turned into a rather scary lesson. Our three would-be recruits pick up on exactly that fear that will always be evoked by the Christ who calls us to exceed biology and culture and religion by recognizing and choosing the way of the Spirit, whose fruits alone satisfy, and whose truth alone sets free.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Crazy Thing about Demons

Bible readings for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost include Galatians 3:23-29 and Luke 8:26-39

Am I the only one who thinks it’s wickedly funny that this should be our Gospel, on the day we complete the church school year?

Do you think this story causes our church school teachers to smile, when they think of their little herds running down the church school hallway?

Could this story possibly explain occasional episodes when behavior runs amok? No, couldn’t be…

It is an amazing story, isn’t it? For one thing, St. Luke tells other stories where the disciples keep wondering who Jesus really is… is he God’s special agent, the Messiah, or isn’t he? But here, the demons know exactly who he is.

Do we believe in demons? Two thousand years ago, the time of this story, people understood the world to be populated with many invisible powers: demons, spirits, nymphs, centaurs, and angels, all of them in charge of things people couldn’t understand yet. Demons, they thought, were the cause of mental illness. To ward them off, people wore charms and performed rituals that we today would call pretty crazy.

Because people thought you could catch a demon from someone who had a demon, the fellow we hear about today was forced to leave his family home and go live in a cemetery. People had the idea that that’s where demons and spirits ought to live. And no one ever went there, except when they had to, like to bury someone who had died. And that was kind of crazy, wasn’t it?

Please don’t get me wrong in what I’m about to say. Jesus is not Superman. But I watched a Superman move the other night, and in one way they remind me of each other: Just like Superman, Jesus knows precisely who needs him. As if having radar, cries for help are heard, noticed just in time to save a life. Jesus doesn’t change his clothes in a phone booth, but off he goes to help this suffering man, even though it’s to a cemetery (and I expect his disciples were none too happy in being made to go along, for I imagine them to be superstitious, themselves).

“What is your name?” Jesus asks him. Did you notice that when the answer comes, it’s not a name at all? “Mob… I am called Mob.” Or, in another translation, “Legion… my name is Legion.”

A legion was a big company of Roman soldiers, five or six thousand strong.

You know, in all our Gospel stories, words count. Details and names mean things. Here, this poor tormented man, kicked out by his people, hasn’t any sense of identity left. No name. Just a nickname, a label, like “crazy person”.

Mobs are big batches of crazy people. We can all think of examples, from lynching mobs to shopping mobs.

Before the World Cup games in South Africa, at an exhibition match, people started stampeding. That was a mob—people panicking either to get in or to get out, losing all manners, breaking rules, breaking bones as well.

And that other nickname, Legion. What if St. Luke wanted the people hearing this story to imagine that the struggle going on in this man was as if he had five thousand soldiers fighting inside himself? What a powerful image!

And what if St. Luke was being very clever, weaving in a story within the story? Could he be saying that this struggling man was like our Lord’s homeland, possessed by the demonic Roman army that controlled daily life for everybody in those days, driving everyone crazy by taking away all their freedoms? Is Luke showing us how truly powerful God is, sending Jesus to bravely face down the truly bad guys? This poor troubled man they called Legion wasn’t the bad guy—but the Roman legionnaires, they are remembered in the New Testament as being violent and greedy and arrogant.

Maybe so: maybe this is a story on two levels. We learn to hear the Gospels on more than one level. But we’ve still got the simple story to appreciate. And we haven’t gotten to those pigs yet.

Pigs weren’t big in Israel. The dietary rules of Israel prevented the eating of pork. But that doesn’t mean that Wilbur the pig would live a long cushy life without ever having to become supper. It means that by and large people looked down on pig farmers (who might likelier be foreigners than Jews), and didn’t want pig farms near their backyards (which, come to think of it, I’m not sure I would either). It means that a lot of people believed they’d be better off without pigs, period. And that attitude may help explain the unfortunate fate of all those piggies in the story.

“Demons and pigs go together,” they might have said, “Good riddance to them all!”

But you and I would call that worse than crazy. We would call that cruel. Not to mention what it must have been like for those pig farmers to lose their herd, and their livelihood.

If you’re down on pigs, like many of the first hearers of this story, you wouldn’t find the story troubling. But how do we feel about Jesus allowing this to happen? Actually he made it happen, the story says.

If you’re asked that question by a five-year-old, you might answer, “Hmm… I don’t know how to resolve that. Do you?” Perhaps, being a five-year-old, she will.

Was Jesus showing everybody how crazy and destructive our customs and attitudes can be?

It seems to me that he wanted to heal not just this one tormented man, but the whole troubled society that bought-in to the powers of magic and believed more in the powers of demons than they believed in the power of God. But make no mistake: this story shows those demons getting deep-sixed…evicted… gone.

But I guess we’ll put this story down without being satisfied why those pigs had to lose their lives in the bargain.

No wonder, though, that the city fathers didn’t give Jesus the key to the city. They asked him please to leave. Their economy was bad enough without this new crisis in pork futures.

Notice how the man, when he has been healed, wants to become one of Jesus’s disciples.

“I’ve got a better idea,” says Jesus. “Go home, back to your own town, and tell the story of how much God has done for you. The more you do that, the deeper you’ll be healed.”

That man is remembered for being the first apostle to the Greeks. His hometown was one of several settled mostly by Greeks. If it hadn’t been for him, people outside the homeland and culture of Israel might never have even heard about Jesus and the loving power of God at work in Jesus.

And wouldn’t that have been crazy?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Upstaging a Dinner Party

Readings appointed for this 3rd Sunday after Pentecost are I Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

Talk about being upstaged! Here’s a Pharisee—a very proper fellow, a man with pretty rigid standards, a host who would insist on certain manners at his table—who has Jesus as his guest.

If you were this Pharisee, how would you want the evening to go? That could depend on who else is reclining at the table with you, and while St. Luke doesn’t tell us who else was invited, we can be sure they’d all be men. The woman we hear about was not an invited guest. She was a walk-in.

But back to the guest list. At some social events Jesus attended, we’re told that his disciples were invited also, but not this time. I’d guess, though, that there were other Pharisees present, and what they were staging at this meal was an opportunity to Meet the Messiah. (That’s what I imagined got said behind the scenes, behind people’s backs, as this host invited his guests, poking each in the ribs and chuckling, “At least he thinks he’s the Messiah! Let’s hear what he has to say for himself.”

One other thing we know about these men gathered around this low table: each would be reclining on a cushion, perhaps side-saddle, legs out to one side, or legs stretched out full, feet bare because sandals have been left at the door.

And all of a sudden there is a woman in the room. She stands behind Jesus at his feet. She is crying.

You are the Pharisee. How is your dinner party going? What do you do?

We’re told that the first thing this host did was to judge the character of this woman. The words may be Luke’s, but he’s conveying the judgment of the host when he says that she is “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” This woman had a reputation.

And she is fearless. She knows she’s not welcome there, but there is where she must be because there is where he is, Jesus, and she is a woman on a mission: to love him, because he has loved her. We’re told no details, but she must have been among the women mentioned by Luke at the close of his story, women who, having been used and abused by men and their society, had met healing at the touch of Jesus. This woman was one of many pioneers of the new life that is found when Jesus Christ is trusted to set us right with God, when we are (in St. Paul’s language) justified not by how good we try to be, but by how good we let him be for us and in us and through us.

Her story is told in two places, here in Luke and, with some variations, late in Matthew’s Gospel. As the early Church came to tell and appreciate the story, this woman’s mission was to anoint him for his burial, says Matthew. That’s the sense they made of this story, at least as an allegory. But there’s something more inspiring that’s happening, and we see it in the moment when she upstages the Pharisee.

She has brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. Doesn’t that sound expensive? Can you imagine one of the guests muttering, “Wonder how she got the money for that?”?

She bends over Jesus’s feet, bathing them with her tears. At the Last Supper, Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples and they would balk at that because it was the role of a servant to wash the dusty feet of guests. This woman does that for Jesus with immense intimacy.

And she uses her hair to dry his feet. When I read this Gospel during the week, I found myself thinking of the human hair being used in the booms to absorb the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico. No more, I’m told: it’s too labor-intensive to do the job now. But for a while, didn’t it feel like a humanizing of that vast tragedy? Some small part of me might play some small role in making right something so wrong… Something like that is going on here.

And it’s not what our Pharisee had in mind. The upstaging is even greater when this gate-crashing woman kisses Jesus’s feet and anoints them with her oil. Talk about making a statement! Anointing had meaning: she could be claiming the right of family to anoint the body of a loved one for burial. She could be claiming the role of a prophet to anoint a king for Israel.

Or she could be a crazy person, and I’ll guess that was the opinion almost all the way around that table. What’s a host to do?

First, he judges the woman as someone to be dismissed. Then he judges Jesus, grumbling under his breath, “Some prophet! He can’t even read the character of a sinner like this one…”

And here is where the story starts to inspire. Jesus draws a breath, turns to his host, calls him by name: “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” Hear the dishonesty in his calling Jesus Teacher. Hear the arrogance (or is it fear?) in the single word, Speak.

His fear is well-founded. Jesus proceeds to tell perhaps the shortest of his many parables, short sayings with sharp edges.

Is Simon a man of wealth, that Jesus catches him with a parable involving money and debt? What the parable is about is forgiveness, and its power lies in how easy it is to imagine relief and gratitude when Mr. Creditor cancels the debts of two people who owe him, one having a debt of $3,000 forgiven… and then to imagine the impact of Mr. Creditor’s erasing a debt of ten times that amount for the other debtor, $30,000. A denarius was a day’s wage, so my figures are in today’s terms, at minimum wage.

They say a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Two debtors in this parable: two people dominate that room in which it’s told. One is a tight-minded button-down host, the other an effusive expressive uninvited guest.

From where Jesus is coming from, they ‘re both sinners. By the terms of the parable, they’re both candidates for forgiveness. This woman off the street has opened every level of her being to the healing and mercy of God in Jesus. By the terms of the parable, she has already tasted the sweet freedom of $30,000 (so to speak) of grace, unearned and undeserved.

By the terms of the parable, you might say that our self-important host is showing about one-tenth her receptiveness, her honesty, her intensity when it comes to wanting a new life, a change of heart, a revolution at the center of the soul. And that percentage may be giving him more credit than he deserves.

But that’s exactly where Jesus comes from. There’s heaven, his throwing-open the embrace of God to everyone. For heaven’s sake, he preaches a whole short sermon to self-important Simon, hoping to introduce him to an entirely new way to define himself, to understand himself, to be justified, to live his life.

This is not how Simon the Pharisee expected his dinner party to go, is it?

That sharp little parable slices open the inspiration the Spirit has for us in this story. Isn’t it there in that verse, “The person who has been forgiven little loves little…”?

There’s the lens for seeing this story of two human beings. One is stiff, cold, proper, judgmental-- and those adjectives are the terms of his bondage. Pressed by Jesus to decipher the meaning of his parable, the best this man can do is to “suppose” that the bigger debtor was also the likelier to let gratitude breed love. “You have judged rightly,” replies Jesus with, I think, a touch of sarcasm.

And at this point, Jesus takes his gloves off and pummels the man, as if making him the main course at his own banquet, scolding him for stingey hospitality, using every one of the woman’s actions to critique the Pharisee’s chosen frozen attitude and behavior. Ouch!

And the other human being in this story is so much his opposite. It took guts for her to step into that force-field of control, none of which she owned, and there find her freedom to weep and wipe and kiss and anoint, violating rule after rule that would matter to all the men at that table, except one.

At the eucharist at Williamstown Commons last Wednesday, I asked the residents which of these two people they’d prefer to spend the day with. Yes, they chose her, the uninvited guest, the enthusiast, the one with a past who knows how to treasure the present, the deeply open one, the richly forgiven extravagant lover, one who cuts to the chase and gets things done.

That this story has been told, these two thousand years, tells us that we have the choices sketched in the story:

To define ourselves, to be justified, as the Pharisee…

To open ourselves, to welcome new life at the center of the soul, and then act upon that, to the point of risk and sacrifice, as the woman off the street…

To forgive, like Jesus, like God the creditor, to whom we owe more than we can repay… God, who by grace frees us from this realm of debt and obligation, into a
relationship of love, an adventure always just begun.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Scripture appointed for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Galatians 1:11-24 and Luke 7:11-17

Later this morning, a formal procession will make its way across this campus. Some of you will march in it. Many of us will watch, our attention riveted by the music of a marching band, by the sheer energy of so many vital young adults in their gowns and caps, and by the otherworldliness of antique academic costumes.

There is a procession in our Gospel today. Unlike the one we’ll soon see, this is not a happy procession—not as we first meet it. This is a funeral procession for a fellow who has been survived by his mother, a widow, a woman at least twice bereaved. And he was her only son, her one remaining provider, her social security in her old age.

Let’s not miss the other procession in this story. It’s got all the energy and bright purpose absent from the funeral ceremony. This is the entourage of Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd who went with him from one memorable healing to the next.

At the town gates, these two processions meet.

Don’t they make a strange contrast to the formalities we’ll enjoy this morning? A procession of grief, and a parading crowd journeying in mission. Well, some parallels to Commencement, bittersweet with a touch of loss (even grief) as, with one hand, seniors receive their diplomas and let go the familiar shape of daily life in this purple valley. And now they’re ready for something more, eager to get on with their mission in life.

For sure, those two Gospel companies must be making very different sounds as they move. Jesus’s companions buzz with the thrill of a dramatic healing they witnessed, days ago, and speculate eagerly about what comes next, what lies ahead. Have some of them brought musical instruments—a flute, some pipes, a drum? Are they singing the great processional psalms of Israel? Who knows? But they are not a quiet bunch.

Not until that moment when the two movements meet, the one full of life, the other of death. For sure, that second procession is different from the first. Can you hear wailing? Perhaps nothing else, except the weeping, the scraping of sandals against the stones and dust of their via dolorosa, all this weight of mortality silencing the parade of life, as these apostles in training catch their breath and, wide-eyed, take in silently this encounter of their Master as he meets their enemy, death.

But he is not doing what they might have expected. Some religious leaders they knew would, under their breath, explain how such a sad loss must have been caused by someone’s sin, either the young man’s or his mother’s. Jesus looks right at her and speaks to her weeping.

Some guardians of religion would have known to cross to the other side and not be tainted by contact with the dead. Jesus touches the bier.

And what preacher at a funeral does not expect the dead to remain dead? But Jesus pierces the veil and calls this young man to rise. At a similar moment, Martha of Bethany will object, “Lord, we know that some day he will rise, at the appointed time when all will rise from their graves; but now?”

And he will reply, “Now. I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever knows me will know life the way I do, and will know death the way I do.”

And with that all their mortal silence ended. It is said that it started with the dead man, who sat up and began to speak. Then his mother, receiving him from Jesus, raised her voice to heaven. All this made their spines tingle, but only as long as it took to free their voices to glorify God. And from there the whole town was ignited.

By comparison, our commencement ceremony today will be far more predictable, won’t it? The route is known, the order of service is printed, even what will be said, in general, we might predict. Though you never know, do you? We must always be open to surprise.

Speaking of which, let’s consider our first reading before we end.

From the way St. Paul tells his story today, his whole career as an apostle was a surprise. He had gone to all the right schools to prepare him to be a leader in Judaism. But when that trajectory turned violent in his persecution of the Jesus movement within Judaism, he met the first big surprise of his life: Jesus, the risen Jesus. The Cliff Notes version of this story makes it sound as if he was converted on the spot, but a finer reading suggests that it took whole seasons to make an apostle of him, that long stretch when Christians nursed back to health their wounded mortal enemy, Saul, now Paul. His own illness became his seminary, training him to speak his Gospel to the weeping, to touch the very bier of what people fear, to free with the word of life all who are in the grip of death.

Then came his second big surprise: As he was drawn by God well beyond the borders of his homeland, into Arabia, to Damascus, persuading Gentiles that they were precious to God, the God he had formerly believed to love only Israel, as he became a global apostle he was scolded not only by the leaders of Judaism but also by Christian apostles equally outraged by his marching to a different drumbeat than theirs.

Jesus, at the head of his movement, sets the pace and the direction of the procession of his people in the world. We do not earn our place in this procession: we receive it as surprising gift. This procession we call Church is like that parade of life we meet in Luke today: a movement of very ordinary people energized by the vitality of Jesus Christ, given the extraordinary grace to know him, to know life as he knows it, to know death as he knows it, and then sent on mission to act on that knowledge.

It is not only our cherished seniors who are called into procession on this Lord’s Day. We are all called into formation by the risen Lord of life.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Crossing Generations

Scripture appointed for Trinity Sunday includes Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; and John 16:12-15

Here we are on Trinity Sunday. Isn’t that just like the Church? For the rest of the world, it’s the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, with celebrations of patriotic service and displays of barbecue skill. For the Church, today calls us to celebrate the fullness of God and the three ways God is shown and known in Christian tradition:

Father, Mother, God who made us

Son, God in our flesh, who redeemed us

Spirit, the intimate over-the-top love between God the Father and
God the Son, the gracious force-field we enter in Baptism,
the movement of God who makes us one, holy, and all-embracing.

And it’s on this day, this year, that we celebrate our high school seniors, all that they mean to us, all the ways they have found to bless us in their years growing up around us, because of us, in spite of us. And we dare to hope that, as they graduate and fashion a larger life, they carry with them some blessing we’ve been part of giving.

So I’d like to start that ball rolling by naming three lessons I’ve learned in their company, with much credit and gratitude to Laurie and Peter, their leaders.

I’ve learned, first, that a good Confirmation program isn’t built on a curriculum that tries to fill adolescent heads with the Church’s language, traditions, doctrines, and attitudes. A good Confirmation program rises out of seasons of trust and familiarity built by and among a circle of young adults allowing some older adults into their lives.

Which quickly brings me to what I’ve learned, second: that a good high school ministry doesn’t require a curriculum, but does require seasons of building trust and familiarity across some generations. If I’m not mistaken, most Sundays in that room of low sofas, sometimes draped full-length with teenagers recovering from the thought of rising that early on a Sunday morning, the structure of their experience together has been to go around the circle offering answers to two questions: What was best in your life this past week? And what was worst? Checking-in can provide just enough real life to reflect on, to identify themes that matter, subjects with traction to them.

And from there, third, I have learned what I am also learning from our Singing Suppers: that real liturgy, life-giving and life-sustaining, happens in settings and in rituals outside this room, without benefit or burden of rules and rubrics. There will be some things in common between liturgy there and liturgy here: the telling of stories, respectful listening, truth-telling, a blending of voices, food, expressing what matters, openness to movements of Spirit, readiness to serve, building of friendships, and enough surprise to leaven the lump of what is otherwise familiar, even predictable.

I had the pleasure of joining, on a few occasions, the circle of most of these seniors as they prepared for Confirmation, last year. We focused on five holy habits, learning what they mean to each person, where we’re already doing some, experimenting with how we could do others. Worship, Prayer, Study, Witness, Action. Skills of the Spirit, ways to be open to God and self and others, holy practices that build a peaceable kingdom.

I was impressed by how much love and respect resides in this circle. And by how interested and receptive they were, when Courtenay visited them to explore meditation. And by how we didn’t rush to turn the lights on in the room, when it grew dark outside. (I recall that we had a single candle burning at the center of the circle, and it was sufficient for that campfire.) I’m sure we’ll hear, later in this service, Laurie’s and Peter’s witness to what is remarkable about these seniors.

I want to pay tribute to what’s special about Laurie and Peter, and how they’ve worked with these young adults.

Like Lady Wisdom in our first reading, “rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s world and delighting in the human race,” Laurie and Peter have delighted in these young friends.

Like the psalm-singer, Laurie and Peter have suggested to them (without citing chapter and verse) that they may understand themselves and their fellow humans as having been made little lower than the angels, adorned with glory and honor.

As St. Paul taught the Christians in Rome, Laurie and Peter have witnessed to these young Christians how their own hope and character have been shaped, sometimes through their own suffering.

And I can hear Peter and Laurie saying to this circle what Jesus said to his disciples: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus had to rely on headquarters to send “another, even the Spirit of truth” to complete his work in the world. In a promise we all receive, he says that when the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will take all that belongs to Jesus and make it clear to his followers and friends.

There’s every reason to expect that these seniors will find, in future seasons, things coming back to them, things coming clear to them, that were shared and discussed in their circle, and find trusted guidance as the Spirit of truth knits together the best of the past with the opportunities and responsibilities of the present, because God’s love has been poured into their hearts, through Laurie and Peter, but also through one another.

They have had a good taste of Christian community, and we celebrate that today. We pray, also, that the Spirit will have whetted their appetites for more. I have a hunch that they’ve learned, in their seasons together, how to recognize, welcome, and build that “more”.