March 1, 2009

I had the great joy to visit with students from two schools during my visit here. Epiphany began 11 years ago, and serves more than 80 kids in 5th through 8th grade who have struggled in school. The school promises they will 'never give up on a child. They keep kids in school 12 hours a day, 11 months of the year, and their families have to volunteer 2 hours a week. Three meals are served each school day, and there are cooking classes on Saturday. In order to enter school each day, a child has to shake the hand of the director and look in his eyes. If a kid decides to leave, they keep a space open for him, because those kids almost always come back. They hire young people as teacher interns, and provide them with housing. They've renovated the train stop right outside their door, and they're beginning to think about how to turn an old repair shop next door into housing for students to board during the week as well as families in transition. They've developed a conversation with the whole community, and they're transforming the community in the process.

It's not too great a stretch to say that everything we've heard this morning is about conversation. I don't know about you, but I treasure the times when I get to have a deep and probing conversation with somebody ' a conversation that gets beyond superficialities into some real meat, where each of us is changed in the process. Together, the partners in a conversation like that make more of life and thought than either of them could do alone.

Conversation is what Christian community is really meant to be about. That word conversation doesn't just mean talking, or at least it didn't when it first began to be used in English around 1300. It meant to have dealings with, to be in relationship with. Today, we'd say it means to 'hang out. Conversation is what prayer is about, and prayer is far more about spending time with God than it is about using words. Christian community is not about wordplay or debate; it's about encountering each other in a deep enough way to begin to see the image of God in our neighbors.

The word conversation has such deep roots in that idea of relationship that in early English usage it's really a synonym for the fullest sense of marriage. So much so that there's a legal term in English law, 'criminal conversation, which is a technical term for adultery. It means spending too much time with the wrong person. .

[The great conversation between God and Noah is about re-ordering relationship. God says, 'well, maybe I got it wrong. I won't do that again. And I'm so committed to not destroying the world again in a flood that I'll hang up my bow, that thing I use to shoot thunderbolts. That's my covenant, my sign that I will mend this relationship.]

Most of the psalms are conversations with God ' spending enough time to express the reality of the psalmist's existence. 'I'm looking to you, God, to keep me safe and dignified and unconquered. Keep teaching me, stay in relationship with me; I need you to remember that you love me, not what I've done wrong.

The letter of Peter is about the way that God's relationship with humanity and the rest of creation has again been renewed in Jesus. God's presence among us in Jesus is a conversation that didn't just last a year or three years or even 33, but continues now and into the future. That conversation goes on day by day, baptism by baptism, holy meal by holy meal, prayer by prayer, and through each encounter we have in our daily lives.

We get a glimpse of God's relationship with Jesus in the verbal conversation that takes place at his baptism. This is really the most foundational thing we claim about God and Jesus, that Jesus is beloved, and it's a claim that continues in us as we recognize it and are baptized. God calls us beloved as well, and God goes further to say that, like Jesus, in us he is well pleased. It's an astonishing place to start, that God loves us before we do anything, that God loves us just because we are. God calls Jesus beloved before he is driven out into the desert to be tempted, and God calls us beloved before we get a chance to go astray. Our belovedness does not disappear when we mess up or wander off.

God's conversation with us begins before our birth and continues past the grave. That's part of what it means to say that Jesus as the Word was with God from the beginning, from before creation. And it is what it means to say that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.

Our job in this conversation is to be God's partners, to respond and receive that good news, and not just hear it with our ears, but with the ear of our heart, as Benedict of Nursia would say. Our job is to give our hearts to that understanding, which is what believing means. When Jesus says, 'the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news, that's exactly what he's talking about. God's in an eternal and blessed conversation with each one of us, so get with the program and act like you have taken it to heart. Repent, turn around and move back into conscious relationship with God. Believe in the good news ' take this belovedness into the depths of your being and let it transform you. Then you can begin to live in the world as though you see the other parts of God's creation as equally beloved.

Is it easy? No. It wasn't easy for Jesus, there in the desert. He may have had angels to feed him and wild beasts to keep him company (or maybe to frighten him), but his struggle with his own belovedness was not simple or easy. One of the ways to wander off, to leave the conversation, is to believe that your belovedness means that nobody else matters ' that you are the center of existence and can use creation for your own ends. Ultimately, that's idolatry, it's insisting that God's image can't be found anywhere else.

The other way of cutting off the conversation is to deny the truth of your own belovedness, to assume that God really couldn't love me because I'm such a creep or screw-up, because I'm so inadequate, or completely hopeless. Well, the problem there is missing the image of God with which each and every one of us is endowed ' it's the same sin or turning away from the image of God, but we've missed that godly reflection in ourselves rather than in others.

Jesus' temptations were not and are not new. They may have been tougher, because he seems to have come to the desert with a strong and deep relational conversation with God already well underway. The cure for our temptations, as for his, is recognizing that the conversation continues, and it means remembering or discovering the presence of God around us and among us and within us, and responding by opening up to the conversation from our end once again.

Conversations don't need a lot of words. A congregation in San Francisco had an unusual Ash Wednesday service this year. They processed half a mile down the street to the exit from a nearby BART station (think MBTA). They held their service there on the sidewalk and offered ashes to commuters passing by. Their conversation included a much larger congregation ' all those with whom they live, and move, and have their being, even if they don't recognize their interconnectedness most of the time.

How can we get back into the conversation? Spend some time and listen to the voice ' 'you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. Close your eyes, settle in, and hear God saying it to you. Spend a few minutes each morning and evening this Lent, and notice how your other conversations change. Spend some time.