Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Promise of Fire: A Homily for the Baptism of Harold Isaac David Mowers

Here are the readings for Dec 16, 2018, Advent III, Year C.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. (Go Badgers!) I am blessed to call Fr. Dave not only my colleague in this diocese, but also my dear friend. It’s a joy to be invited to be with you this morning, to share the 3rd Sunday of this Advent season, to be present to young Harold Isaac David’s baptism into the Body of Christ, and to worship the living God with you today.

I have a trivia question / favor to ask. Does anyone know the fancy Latin name this Sunday goes by? I’m pretty sure I can say it right, but I want someone else to say it first. Gaudete Sunday. Pink candle Sunday. The “we’re more than halfway home to Christmas” Sunday. Rose Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. Joy Sunday. Lemme ask you, if you got put in charge of setting aside one Sunday a year given over to joy, and they stuffed that Sunday full of scriptural references to joy, like today’s readings, say… Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Canticle 9 from Isaiah: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” Philippians, Paul, exhorting the church: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” And then they told you to pick a biblical character, a mascot, if you will, for the day, a person who personifies every aspect of joy, you’d go with John the Baptist, too? Amirite?

Who wouldn’t go with John? It’s not really close, is it? That joyfully, itchy camel hair. Those joyfully crunchy insect appetizers. Scratching, crunching, joyfully pointing fingers, and yelling, “You brood of vipers!” Charming those around him just comes naturally to John.

No, no, no! What is going on here??

When John bursts onto the scene today it’s like a Christmas pageant gone awry. All the other characters are in place, know their parts, are wearing perfect and coordinated costumes made by their mothers by hand. Conscientiously whispering their lines under their breaths. It’s all so well choreographed, each motion expertly fitted for the one before and after. And then, the performance. A hush. Lights dim, music starts, dramatic, sentimental, sweeping. But then this one rogue sheep decides he’s had enough...NO, I will NOT stand idly in the fields. Suddenly, he’s on his feet. A teacher calls out to him, but he does not hear it. It’s not his fault the director has unjustly miscast him AGAIN and, for his part, the injustice will not stand. He was every bit as Joseph as Billy was in auditions. But what can he do? His friends are already in the place of the shepherds, standing out in their fields. The Holy Family is taken, too. What’s left? Hmm. YES. It dawns on him. A prophet! He stands up, sheep skin turned camel hair, now hanging from his shoulders. No more will he be silent. A voice! He marches toward center stage, tripping and pushing over toddling animals, who fall and tear their costumes. “FIRE!” he shouts. “FIRE!” The director stands dumbstruck, scanning the scene, searching in vain for some semblance of order. It’s too late. Children are screaming. Mary faints and nearly drops the baby. What, in God’s Name, is going on?

"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. That’s right. This is John’s Good News. Merry not-quite Christmas. This is John being joyful.

So this is the question we are given today: what does fire have to do with joy?

I don’t know about you, but I’m used to it going the other way. Fire as punishment. Here, there’s room for that sense, too, potentially, but even the wheat in the granary gets baked into bread eventually, according to John. The fire is not just for the bad girls and boys. Fire is for everyone.

It’s funny, because for us fire is so quickly hellfire. But there are alternative interpretations in Scripture. In fact, fire has something of a storied history in the Bible.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light (fire)”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Fire can signal a new creation.

What else do we know about fire? Where else does it pop up in the biblical narrative?

Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed; think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels; think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father - admittedly, this fire is implied, not stated outright, but the earliest pictures drawn by the earliest Christians show Mary inside a flame, carrying the presence of God and, think back to Moses, yet not consumed; think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. Pentecost! The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism. Think even the flames of the New Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fire, not first as our punishment, but - throughout the resounding witness of Scripture - first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

If you’ll humor me, turn to page 285 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the New Fire is lit. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:

First, the fire, “The Light of Christ,” the deacon sings. Then…

Rejoice now.
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.

Do you see it? The response of the People of God to the fire, to the presence of God, is joy. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  Rejoice.

Now, I realize this account of the fire risks ruining the mainstream idea of faith. Ask even the non-religious on the UW campus what religion is for and they’ll tell you, almost to a person: faith is for making you a better person. So fire is for threatening you into being a better person. But no, the Christian faith is for making us truer, not better, and the truth begins with the news that we have not been forsaken by God but that God is with us and for us and we know the face of this presence in Jesus. Canticle 9 again. “Surely, it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid….the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.” We discover who we are as we discover ourselves as beloved of God and together in Christ. Our task is to be present to the One who has promised to be present to us in and through the love of Jesus.

We who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus touch fire; like Moses, like Mary, the presence of God does not consume us. But as Martin Luther liked to say, “We are baked into one cake with Christ.” What burns away, what is challenged as chaff, are our other stories about ourselves - failures, successes, insecurities, and fears, and God knows we have some - that get in the way of, distract from, or otherwise challenge the truth of this promise: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Harold Isaac David, we’re about to pray this fire on you, on us again. Burning bush, new creation, power of God, light to lighten our every darkness. You will be baked with us into the one cake of Christ. Your baptism will open us again to this fire and these familiar promises by which each of us and all of us together are reminded that God’s love is the most true thing about us. With God’s help, we will do our best to help you remember this, too. So without knowing it yet, you have asked us to reexamine our trust in this love, to turn our backs on false stories and every practice that endorses them, to recommit ourselves to the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. In a world in which it is so easy to feel overwhelmed, lost, and alone, your baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus this morning becomes for us this wonderful reminder and shaping promise: The best of all is, God is with us.

Rejoice.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Good News and...Fire?

Here are the readings for Advent II, 2018 (Year C).

Preachers are supposed to be carrier pigeons of Good News. But by now you’ve already figured out that today’s scriptures are full of dubious looking “Good News.” I’m not saying it’s not Good News, I’m just saying it all sounded painful to me. Malachi, perched at the end of the Christian Old Testament, at the end of the beginning - standing therefore in maybe the most Advent position imaginable, waiting, watching, proclaiming -  promises a refiner’s fire, gift of God to purify each and every one of us. Oh boy. Just what I wanted for Christmas. Then, Luke’s gospel, recalling Isaiah, proclaims the return of the cosmic chiropractor, making crooked things right, so that the cracked patches of individual pavement we’d like to call our individual lives can be made again into the way of the Lord. Realignment as Good News?

And not just our individuals lives, but our communal and religious lives, too. After all, Jesus is very much in keeping with the Jewish prophetic tradition before him when he challenges the religious leaders with respect to the ways they distort God’s intention, sometimes on purpose, sometimes without even trying. That’s just to say, God knows things get twisted.

But the Chiropractor’s coming! There's your Good News. The high will be brought low. The low brought high. Not for the sake of the exalting or humbling but for the sake of the road’s restoration: prepare ye the way of the Lord. Call it judgment if you want to, but the bottom-line is that potholes spoil a good parade. Smooth out the streets. Prepare for the Presence. Let everyone with a lamp to light keep it lit in anticipation of the coming Christ. From every corner of our holy texts today the Advent promise is that things that have forgotten what they’re for will be reminded and, in the reminding, be made whole.

There are parables that have warned us about Good News like this. Jesus, telling the story of vineyard workers who forgot that they’d been hired by the vineyard owner. They didn’t exactly forget. They adapted to their situation and then preferred their adaptation. They’d replaced waiting for the owner’s return with hoping that the owner might never return, justifying all kinds of exploitation and violence, toward other people, toward the land, by their hope. They were accommodated to crookedness. No, it’s not like they forgot, exactly, but more that they buffeted their lives with busyness and other things expressly designed, sometimes, to make it harder to remember. Maybe because there’s profit to be made in the forgetting. Maybe because it’s painful to wait for another when the wait seems long. In any case, they’ve long since grown ambivalent, if not hostile (and sometimes downright hostile), to anything that would change the status quo. Question: do other things distract us from remembering or does remembering distract us from the other things? It’s a question of where you start, I guess, or where you have in mind to go.

I recently read, in a birding memoir of all things, this remarkable observation. Dan Koeppel writes, “I found myself wondering how much of what we end up doing - or being - is inevitable, and how much is choice?...Most of us have met that moment where we suddenly realize the things that we once sought are now falling into a different order of priorities. Sometimes, we have to find a way to change our lives, to re-embrace that which seems to be vanishing. Other times, we simply abandon our dreams.”

We forget who we are. What we’re for.

Sometimes, to remember, we have to find a way to change our lives, to re-embrace that which seems to be vanishing. That sounds so very Advent. So very Malachi to God’s People. So very John the Baptist on the river’s edge.

What John the Baptist was doing on the river’s edge was proclaiming a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance means to change one’s mind, which is another way of saying, I think, that repentance is the ability to be surprised by God. "Once I was sure that God’s love meant only X, Y, and Z. But look, a new thing! Who knew?" You still get the full force of the mind-changing word, but I hope this take on repentance gets us past all the turn and burn characterizations to which the word is so often prone. Most of all, I hope you see that if repentance is the ability to be surprised by God, you can only exercise this ability by tending with your life to the presence of God. This is why repentance, for Christians, is ongoing. It’s only partly because we stubbornly turn our backs on God from time to time. It’s just as much or more about the reality that God isn’t static. God moves! Behold, a Savior is born of Mary in Bethlehem!

When was the last time you were surprised by God?

John the Baptist proclaims a baptism of repentance, which is a turning, an attuning, like a flower turning to face the sun that soars across the sky; is a turning that sometimes gets reduced to moralism, see the naughty/nice list referenced by insipid crooners on your radio dial this time of year, but true repentance names a greater turning, a careful tending to light and life. So Advent measures time in candles and prayers and songs and silence. For a few pregnant weeks, we make a clock of these things. So it follows that the baptism of repentance proclaimed by John is the farthest thing from an exercise in should-ing or shaming: it is the reorientation of the heart toward what is real and true and lasting. Repentance is relational attention, the changed and changing understanding of one who lives in a relationship of love with God.

The repentance - and the surprise - in Luke’s gospel today is that the new thing God is doing doesn’t start with the list of the pompous and powerful that precedes the introduction of John. In fact, it’s almost like we get a comprehensive people and places where the new thing is not beginning. Emperor Tiberius? Nope. Pontius Pilate? Try again. Herod the ruler of Galilee? Not there, either. The ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis? Getting colder. Lysanius, ruler of Abilene? Sigh. Oh, I know. We’re in church. It must be the religious folks. The high priests! Annas and Caiaphas. No, not them. But there, in the wilderness, you’ll have to turn to see him, John. Proclaiming the baptism of repentance, of turning toward God and so away from the kingdoms that make it harder to remember.

Sometimes, if you want to see where God is moving, watch the news. See who’s making headlines. Then, turn away. Look elsewhere. Maybe to the sidelines, but maybe in the opposite direction. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. This, after all, is what we’re for. It’s a vocation we share with John. The high will be brought low. The low brought high. Call it judgment if you want to, but the bottom-line is that potholes spoil a good parade. Prepare for the presence. The promise of Advent is that things that have forgotten what they’re for will be reminded and, in the reminding, be made whole.

As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Amen.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Parent/Curmudgeon Overthinks Trick-or-Treating




My son is nervous about trick or treating tonight. Honestly, I don't know why he shouldn't be. "Don't take candy from strangers," he hears. "Except today. They'll be LOTS of candy. Oh, and the candy givers, like the candy takers, will be anonymous, you won't know who it is, but she or he will be dressed as the kinds of things that inspire the fears that lead adults to instruct children not to take candy from strangers."

"C'mon! It'll be fun!"

We've told him he doesn't have to, but he doesn't want to miss out on the candy. He's determined to go. Shaking with fear. Despising the whole thing. Willing to do what it takes. This breaks my heart.

[For all you "fixers" out there, relax. J's gonna be just fine, and we're going to help him find a path tonight that feels good and right to him. My point is to appreciate his dilemma from his vantage point.]

It's an interesting question for grown-ups, too: what principles are you willing to grow accustomed to breaking against your better judgment, what values are you committed to compromising, because you wouldn't want to miss out on the candy, metaphorically speaking, because "it's just what it takes"?

I'm not suggesting that mistrust of strangers is a principle worth building a life around. I am only observing that children have often been formed around this one. I am suggesting that adults often insert children into confusing conflicts of self-contradiction, and that it takes an alarming lack of self-awareness not to confess these predicaments to our children. 

But exactly because I don't believe mistrust of strangers is a principle worth building a life around, I'm intrigued by the ritual combination of trust and generosity we exhibit at Halloween and how it might become a building block or door toward something more. Why do we meet each other at the threshold of our strangeness as monsters to each other, our worst fears come true? Does our mutual monstrousness serve to justify the distances we'll keep from each other after the day is over, or does it do the opposite, inspiring us to open doors to even those we're trained to fear? From the other side of the door, how does the practice inform our willingness to ask for help when we need it? Does this night deter us from outing ourselves as monsters in need or inspire us to knock on strange doors, confident in the welcome we'll receive, even when we feel like strangers to ourselves? How does the Christian faith inform our imagination for these things?

I risk over-thinking, I know. But it's not lost on me that a nation wrought with anxiety over refugees at its borders is about to reflexively practice large-scale hospitality without much thought tonight. When it happens, it feels so close to something good, something beautiful, but it also feels so very close to the opposite of good and beautiful, a mockery of the hospitality we would refuse when in matters. What does it mean that we practice the instilling of fear in each other? How might we do otherwise with at least as much intentionality? 

So many questions and, I know, it's *just* trick or treating. But I don't think my son is the strange one tonight; I think the ones (like me) for whom the contradictions are normal have an opportunity just now to grow for the Good.



Monday, October 29, 2018

If Evil is a Hole (A Challenge of Eradicating Hate)


The challenge right now is that, if Augustine is right, evil is a hole. A tear in the fabric. And you cannot tear out a hole. I mean, you can, but only by tearing out the good fabric around it, erasing every good row surrounding the hole. Burn the sweater. Sacrifice the innocents. Even then, you didn't tear out the hole, you tore up the project. You just started over, which is its own kind of hole, or at least constitutes an invisible failure to undo the hole; the emptiness the hole contained still there, made normative and set free.

Eradicating others is hate. Eradicating hate, then, if it is to be the worthy task we believe it is, demands a thoughtful and dedicated subversion of the verb's common usage; demands a new imagination.(1)

"Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that," said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It helps me to consider the eradication of holes. To eradicate a hole is to mend torn cloth, is to pick up dropped stitches, is to reach out across the chasm of disorder until fabric touches fabric again and, there, go to work. Hard work. Good work. It is not work without conflict or accountability, but the work includes these for the purpose of making old things new and making whole things out of holes.  God knows this work is tedious. God knows this work has costs. God calls this work love, says it's patient. It is God's way with us, with me. Holiness is at once our calling and God's gift.

It helps me to remember that we are one fabric. Sometimes I see it, maybe we sense it, but I do not in a given moment have on hand the most true word for it. Others supply attempts at proper names for the fabric we might be. Words like "American" or "patriot," but approaching refugees expose the limits of false words like that, words that fabricate the essence of the fabric, that fabric which is not less than God's love for each of us, and all of us, together; that fabric made known as we discern the ways we belong to each other because we belong to God, which truth I have gleaned, to the extent I have gleaned it, through the love of the one whose garment was seamless.

_______________


(1) Expanding on the idea that "eradicating hate requires subversion of the verb's common usage:" The Rev. Fleming Rutledge once lamented that the church jettisoned too soon military language in our hymns and elsewhere (think, Onward Christian Soldier). The loss, she says, was our ability to reclaim that language in ways subverted and redeemed by the crucified King. As we use our language of fighting and eradicating hate, we must never forget that we are participating in that delicate work of subversion and redemption. My friend Deanna recently unearthed and shared a hymn by Jan Struther that provides a beautiful illustration:

When Stephen, full of power and grace, went forth throughout the land, 
he bore no shield before his face, no weapon in his hand; 
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a sword 
wherewith he smote and overcame the foremen of the Lord.

When Stephen preached against the laws and by those laws was tried, 
he had no friend to please his cause, no spokesman at his side;
but only in his heart a flame and on his eyes a light
wherewith God's daybreak to proclaim and rend the veils of night.

When Stephen, young and doomed to die, fell crushed beneath the stones,
he had no curse nor vengeful cry for those who broke his bones;
but only in his heart a flame and on his lips a prayer 
that God, in sweet forgiveness' name, should understand and spare.

Let me, O Lord, thy cause defend, a knight without a sword;
no shield I ask, no faithful friend, no vengeance, no reward;
but only in my heart a flame and in my soul a dream, 
so that the stones of earthly shame a jeweled crown may seem.