"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Please, God, a New Kind of Computer Game: A Family Homily for a Celebration of St. Francis in Violent Times

          My eldest son loved computer games when he was growing up. He's a successful professor of computer science today, so parents, take heart—gamers can end up with interesting careers! Anyway, he loved computer games so much that he would invent new games and draw them out with a pencil and paper when his "screen time" was up. Actually, many a church bulletin ended up full of little people running around and jumping over obstacles or collecting jewels.
Today, I invite the children among us to draw two computer games for us during the service. You can use your bulletin, or the paper that's in your worship bag. First, I want you to draw, as a computer game, the story that Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson.  It totally reminds me of the games my sons used to play. In Jesus' story, the game creator first sets up his world, his "lands," choosing what the playing field will look like and what buildings and people and defenses it will contain. Here, the world is a vineyard, a place where they grow grapes to make wine. The creator gives it everything you need for making great wine, including lots of skillful workers who live there. Once the land is all set up, people from the outside start arriving to collect the harvest for the landowner. This is an opportunity for the little workers inside to start running around and squashing the outsiders with a variety of weapons. They feel like they have to protect what's theirs at all cost, until all of their lives are used up. The creator sends in more and more of his agents, and those get attacked, too. Finally, he sends in his top weapon, his own son, the boss with the most lives and power. But the determined workers even kill the son. The creator is going to have to come up with something even more powerful to win this game.
          This is a game based on violence. It's a game based on keeping others out, on keeping everything good for yourself, on the survival of the fittest. It sounds like so many of our computer games. Sadly, it sounds so much like our world. Already in Matthew's day, Christians saw the Jewish people as the violent workers, and they put themselves on the side of the divine landowner. They turned Jesus' story into a story about vengeance. Later Christians used this text to justify their own violence against the Jews.  And these days … these days … I don't know about you, but I'm O so tired of violence. I'm O so tired of a world of walls and defenses and threats and looking out for number one.
          I think we need to join in another kind of game. Children, I'd like you to draw it for us. This game is going to be harder to draw, though, because it's a lot less familiar to us. To imagine this game, we have to look again at the Creator who set up the game. How the Creator loves the world that he has created! He provides it with all the best tools and buildings and plants, and he puts workers there with the capacity to give it the best of care. Even when the workers forget his loving care and turn violent, he keeps reaching out to them in peace, again and again. He even sends his own Son and heir to them. And when they kill his Son, does he really rain down violence upon them? No, not our Creator. As Christians, we know that the Son, crucified and dying, prays to the Creator, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Creator gives us resurrection, new life in the place of death, and forgiveness in the place of vengeance and violence.
          Children, the Creator in God's new game loves each game character like the dogs who sit with us today in church love us. The one who makes the rules in this game is always ready to run to us like a puppy, wagging his tail with joy whenever we come through the door, even if we have been gone forever. He brings us the ball to play with him, over and over again. He licks the tears from our cheeks when we cry and reads the sadness in our hearts before we ever say a word. He will bark and bark until he gets our attention. He would even jump in an ocean full of sharks to pull us to safety, and he would walk a thousand miles to find us if we were lost. Children, can you set up a game for us where the rules follow from this kind of powerful love?
          St. Francis, whom we remember today by bringing our pets to church for a blessing, would be a great model character to include in our new kind of game. Francis believed in a God of peace. During the Crusades, Francis went on a peace mission to Egypt. The Crusades were a low point in Christian history. European Christians were sending wave after wave of soldiers into the Middle East to convince Muslims to convert or die. Francis thought that by talking to the Muslim leader, he could perhaps convert him to Christ in a non-violent way and stop the fighting. What happened was that humble, bare-footed Francis and the powerful Muslim Sultan made friends. Talking and spending time together, they came to understand and respect one another. The Sultan didn't convert, but he and Francis drew up a peace treaty, and both pledged to put an end to the violence. Unfortunately, the Christian war-makers didn't want peace, and they condemned Francis and his new game, and he was forced to flee.
          That didn't stop Francis from playing his new game of peace, however. You perhaps know the story of Francis and the wolf of Gubbio? The villagers of Gubbio were at war with a big, mean wolf who prowled around their town, killing their sheep and frightening their children. Like the workers in the vineyard story, the villagers only knew to use threats and violence to chase the wolf away, but he just kept coming back. So Francis headed out barefoot into the forest to talk with the wolf and to find out what was really going on. What Francis found out was that the thin, shaggy-haired wolf just didn't have enough food to eat. He was starving, in fact. So Francis promised the wolf that the people of the village would leave some food out for him every night. And he made the wolf promise not to bother the villager's sheep or scare their children any more. The wolf and the people of Gubbio became friends, and they took care of one another from then on.[1]
          Children, we adults long for a game where people work together to solve problems. Where they tear down walls and build trust. Where the characters give away riches that never run out. Where they help one another to open a treasure chest brimming with peace. We long for the game that the barefooted Son was carrying into the vineyard when they killed him. We long for the game that St. Francis played so faithfully. The one where the 3 main rules are to console, to understand, and to love. The one where winning lies in giving, and living lies in dying to self, and forgiveness lies in forgiving. Please, draw that game for us, and teach us how to play.
 Image found at http://nightflight.com/an-animated-one-tin-soldier-remembering-an-early-70s-anti-war-hit/

[1] The idea of using these two stories together comes from Don Richter's book, Mission Trips that Matter (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008), 101-103.

Friday, September 29, 2017

A Wedding Homily for My Daughter

Song of Solomon 8:6-7
Colossians 3:12-17
1 John 4:9-12


When Maren and her brothers were very young, one of their favorite activities was to play dress-up. Usually, Maren would dress as the Queen; Etienne would proclaim himself King; and toddler Alex was consistently cast in the role of servant. They had a drawer full of cast-off clothes and old Halloween costumes that they would carefully layer on themselves, piece after piece. It was as if the more they put on, the more elegant and grown-up they felt. I'll let you picture Maren in a tutu over a pair of sweatpants, a flowered pajama shirt covered by a batman cape tied around her neck, all complemented with huge adult shoes, gloves, a plastic purple tiara, and several long chains of beads that reached to her knees.
There was one article of clothing, however, that invariably caused a fight, because each child wanted to wear it. It was the beaded neckline torn from one of Granny's old mother-of-the-bride gowns. Something about that glistening, bejeweled scrap of chiffon was incomparable to any other item that I might offer in its place. Whoever wore that piece, somehow laid claim to happiness and love beyond measure; and those who didn't possess it were cast off into a sea of grief.          
Maren and Dan, as you begin your lives as a married couple, you're going to be layering on lots of dreams. Some of them, you will unpack from the suitcases of things that you bring with you from your childhood: you will put on words and silent expectations that your parents used to wear; you will try on scratchy hurts from your school days and the fondest hopes of your teen years. Some will fit your relationship well, and some will be most uncomfortable.
Our consumer culture will also offer you boxes of items to layer on yourselves: homes, cars, vacations, success, fitness and eternal youth, to name just a few. The world will give you boxes of busyness, along with heavy crates of the expectations of others. And you will be tempted to hang them around your necks like chains.
The bible readings that you chose for your wedding day offer you a different, counter-cultural kind of wardrobe, however. According to St. Paul, God is giving you the garments of compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and gratitude. In marriage, I especially encourage putting on forgiveness and gratitude, day after day without fail, from sunrise to sunset. That important combination will keep you warm in troubled times.
As for the other virtues, I'm not worried. Kindness, humility, patience--they are virtues that I have seen both Dan and Maren share, separately and in their life together.  I actually dug up an old school assignment that Maren did in fifth grade about her dreams for her adult future. There are some hilariously embarrassing bits that I will share later with Dan. But on the serious side, I smiled to see what Maren wrote when asked to describe her adult self: "I will be charitable, kind, and love the earth and everything that inhabits it. I will be extremely concerned with the needs of those who have less than I. I will always be the first one to jump up in the name of a cause …" Fifth-grade Maren knew herself pretty well. And she is blessed to have found a partner who shares her view of the world.
In all of the scripture readings, though, there is one garment that sparkles just like that piece of bejeweled chiffon that the children used to fight so hard for long ago. It is one that is beyond compare, one that indeed brings happiness beyond measure. Of course, that garment is love: The love that God has for all Creation; the love that pours itself out for the sake of the other; the give and take of love that binds humans together; the love that Christians see in Jesus' life and death.
The good news is that we don't need to fight over who gets to wear this beautiful love. It is a gift of God that is, in the poetic words we heard from the Song of Songs, as powerful as unquenchable fire and as inevitable as death. If you try to remove it, it pops up somewhere else. If you try to kill it, it roars up from the grave. Where then can we find this Love? The amazing thing is that you stand before us today, Maren and Dan, as living symbols of that great love. In the Episcopal wedding liturgy, we say that marriage "signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church." That means that, in the strength, faithfulness, and joy of your love for each other, we can get a glimpse of the deep, eternal love that unites us with God in Jesus Christ.  What your love symbolizes is stronger than romance, more eternal than passion. It is God's presence, living in you, in your relationship, and in your relationship with us, your friends and family. As we just read, "no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us."
          Today, you are dressing in Love, for all to see. You sparkle with God's glory. And we all bask in Love's light. May the rest of your lives together be wrapped in that Love, and may you bring all those who journey with you into God's loving presence. Long ago, fifth-grade Maren concluded her essay on the future with a quote: "Do you want your dreams to come true? 'Give [and love] more than you are asked and you will receive more than you can dream.'" May it be so this day, and for every day of your lives together. Amen.