Monday, August 12, 2013

Lost and Found: Stability, Obedience, Conversion of Life

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Think twice about opening your door to someone who has pulled his pickup into your driveway and says he’s a photographer for National Geographic.

That sets the stage for a musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County” that some of us have enjoyed—or will—as the Williamstown Theatre Festival rounds out its season. Think twice about opening your door to someone asking for directions—not because your life will be in danger, but because what has been posing as your life may be in danger.

Now, bringing this particular love story into the pulpit today may be a tricky affair, so to speak. It would be too simple to say that the play suggests that some extramarital affairs are made in heaven. And that’s not a message I plan to leave you with. Nor would it do justice to the play.

But I’ll take my chances, because there are some bridges between Madison County and today’s readings from scripture.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” asks God in Isaiah’s vision. In the play, Francesca Johnson must answer her own version of this question: What to me is my lifetime of sacrifices as a daughter, a lover, a wife, a mother, a neighbor? She is defined and confined by choices she has made—going back to her youth in wartime Italy, where she waited for the return of her fiancĂ© Paolo, who never came back from the front, and in the shadow of that loss she placed her life in the hands of an American GI, Bud Johnson.

The play opens two decades later, a generation of what has become of Francesca, and Bud, and the two children around whom their never-quiet farmhouse rotates; and what has become of their imbedded life in a farming community where being neighbors extends family into one another’s kitchens, and, through their windows, keeping an eye on one another.

In the four summer days of this drama, Bud and their teenaged children go off to the State Fair. Francesca welcomes being alone; the farmhouse has gone quiet. Until Robert the photographer approaches her door. He seems more cautious than she does, as she treats this stranger much as St. Benedict ordered his disciples to welcome the guest as though he or she were the Christ, a bit of a stretch in this musical… But soon his photography prompts her to reach for her old sketchpad. His way of seeing and recognizing the power of now, the way light moves and opens in ways that we call inspired, this heightened awareness of presence moves Francesca, and stands in sharp contrast to her stable, predictable, and in some ways neglected life.

Robert has had a recent gig in Naples, photographing the postwar reconstruction of the city. His photographs reacquaint Francesca with her roots, allow her to revisit her losses while also freeing her to reclaim a sense of desire—the razor’s edge along which the rest of the action runs.

This awakening of soul, this quickening of spirit, has something in common with conversion of life. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… blessed are the poor in spirit… Our need may draw us to God, our emptiness open us to be filled with what is good and holy and true. Empty hands are required, if it is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

If you have taken part in the foundations course here, you’ve met a concept called the Benedictine promise. Think of a triangle, representing your life in Christ: At one of its points is stability, good old stability. We find God in the here and now of our relationships and patterns of life within our congregation, in the daily, weekly, seasonal rhythms of our spiritual practice.

At another point is obedience. We find God as we listen deeply to the world, to scripture, to the church, to each other, to the creation, and to the deep longings and the prayer of our heart.

At the third point is conversion of life. We find God on the journey and in the new place, in losing life to find life, in our openness to transformation.

This model for understanding and appreciating our own spiritual life says that we find ourselves at all three points, and are in constant motion among these points on our compass, which is why we are no strangers to the occasional sense of having lost our way. For Robert, this state is chronic, represented in the play by his itinerant career, while Francesca has lost her deepest bearings right in place, staying at home.

There are times when we must dig our feet and hands deep into one of those points of the triangle to do the work and become the person we are called to do and be. Robert is brought to the point where he must acknowledge his desire for stability, a state on which he’d turned his back.

Francesca moves from her engagement with stability to a new confrontation with obedience. Her infidelity is presented in such a winsome way that we’d be disappointed if she did send Robert packing… sooner, that is, than she does. Her wrestling with obedience moves from a discretion-less captivity to other people’s expectations, to a fling of indiscretion, and on to a discrete discerning of what she believes her best choice to be in the reality of now.

Where are the bridges to scripture? Isaiah testifies that God does not delight in a religion, a life, built of endless sacrifice. Getting stuck and staying stuck in lifeless patterns of relentless duty is not the will and pleasure of God in whose image we are made to be alert, compassionate, creative, flexible, joyful, faithful, and agile enough to keep learning to do good, keep seeking justice, and keep rescuing the oppressed, including oppressed aspects of ourselves.

To exercise faith, says the writer to the Hebrews, requires not knowing where you’re going. Those three points on the triangle of the Benedictine Promise are constantly influencing us, and we are constantly moving and changing around them. What is promised is not a roadmap or a rule book, but that God is in the journey, will hallow the whole journey, and guide us to a better life than we can desire or pray for (though the desiring and the praying are very much our parts in navigating the journey).

The bridge in the play seems to be a metaphor that represents the movement of becoming, a stepping through the moment of now into what shall be. It is the bridge that brings Robert to town, that brings him and Francesca together. It is on the bridge that he gives her a memorable tutorial in how to be open to illumination, how to free oneself to anticipate the movement of light. And I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that it is on the bridge that Francesca discovers that love is strong as death, fulfilling the promise that where one’s treasure is, there one’s heart will be also.

It’s not a neat ending, from a moral standpoint. Francesca’s heart has also been with her husband, and with their children, and with their community. But, you know, the parables of Jesus challenge us with reversals from the conventional. And, to borrow an image from Luke, “The Bridges of Madison County” closes with an image of two people who have had their lamps lit, and having lamps lit is requisite for readiness at the wedding banquet in Luke’s parable.

You bet. This would be a good moment to insist that there are better ways to get your lamp lit than having an affair. Even four days of heaven are no protection from the two-edged sword and the pain that cuts both Francesca and Robert as she makes her choice.

But at the heart of Luke’s parable is a pair of plain truths: that to be faithful to the one who deserves our allegiance, we must recognize when it is time to open the door to the one who frees us for love. And to keep what is dearest to us from being stolen, a certain vigilance is needed to ensure that our stability, our obedience, and our conversion of life have God as our goal and guide.