Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost homily from service at Morningside Ministries (assisted-living center)...

The Rev. Jonathan R. Melton+
St. Helena’s, May 31, 2009
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104: 25-35,37
Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

+++
It would have to be Peter. Wouldn’t it? Jumping headlong into water, Peter. “Get behind me, Satan,” Peter. Peter, who on his best days, is as hard-headed, stubborn, and will-full as me. Peter, who, at the time of crucifixion, the moment of his revelation, denied his Lord and Savior.

In the reading from Acts on this Holy Day of Pentecost, the Spirit falls from the heavens, descends on all people--it’s the birth of the Church!--and as people line up--the new Body is shaped--a living people is formed, it is Peter who is asked in the midst of it all to give the first Christian sermon.

We should have known better.

We should have seen it coming.

Do you remember--way back--student elections, all the rest, voting to determine which one of your peers would have the privilege of representing the whole? Which one would speak for you? And do remember the fear of that one? The one whose nomination is a joke? What if he wins? What if she really does it?

But here he comes, brimful with Spirit, a wild look in his eye, standing before the people, he pauses, and preaches--and these are his words:

“We’re not drunk, you know.”

“No really--we’re not drunk.”

At least it was short.

And before he steps down--three thousand--three thousand!--have been added to their number.

You’ve seen it happen. Locked up in church on days the preacher didn’t have a clue. Didn’t know where to start. Bright sun calling out to you through the windows. You had all but checked out, when suddenly, Spirit. A Word meant for you that hit the right spot. As if God was talking to you. Suddenly, you get nervous about the preacher. For someone so clueless, she sure seemed keyed in. But it wasn’t her all; it was Spirit.

Spirit.

Your friend looking at you strangely, oddly, gratefully across the table; so grateful for your listening; for your presence. You feel awkward, humbled, because you didn’t do much at all--in truth, had a hard time stifling a yawn--but your words spoke the peace, the forgiveness, the mercy, he needed to hear.

Spirit.

Not Peter; not preachers; not even you. But Peter, and preachers, and, yes, even you. Because the Spirit has come as the life of God’s people. The Holy Spirit of Christ as the life of God’s people; borne in God’s people; birthing God’s people.

And very much just as for Peter, the work of the Spirit is to remind us and empower us to believe the story of God above and beyond the story of us; better still, to believe the story of God as the story of us; God’s story for us. The story of the Risen Jesus made true for us: light over darkness; forgiveness over sin; joy over despair; life over death.

Do you know what a people who have forgotten to fear death look like? Do you know what what it looks like when people remember to forget the failures and shames that used to define them? Do know what it looks like when people engage one another as if the God of creation was with them?

Drunk.

Not really, but they do look like Peter; a little wild in the eyes; they look a little bit strange; any why not--they live by the Spirit.

This day and every day, may it be so with us.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Free Lunch Experiment: Official Rules

A random experiment in relationships and good food, run by the Assistant to the Rector at St. Helena's Church...

HOW TO PLAY:

1. A tweet will be issued (and relayed to Facebook); this tweet announces an opportunity for 3 people to enjoy a free lunch on the Assistant. The tweet will announce the day and time of the upcoming lunch.

(Example: On Tuesday, a tweet might announce a Free Lunch Experiment on that Friday, at 12:30pm.)

2. The first 3 folks to respond in the 48 hour period following the initial tweet will be notified of the restaurant location by email.

3. It takes 3 folks responding to "make" a free lunch. Winners will be notified as to whether we have a quorum by 5pm of the day before the free lunch.

4. "Winners" of a free lunch are not eligible for the next free lunch; after sitting out a turn, they become eligible again.

5. Of course you can always make an appointment with the Assistant--at any time--just not this randomly, and with 2 other random folks too!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

unpolished questions on friendship and fear

Right behind the popular myth of the person who is 100% bad or 100& good (without sin, for the sake of provocation) is the crippling fear of your and my not knowing the difference. What if he deceives me? What if she fools us? And so, wary of obtaining unnecessary scars from untrustworthy people, we keep our vigils of all kinds on all comers: friends, spouses, political and religious leaders, media operations, medical institutions. [Importantly, and most of the time, it is only a let-down or similar failure that can constitute this sort of personal revelation--primarily because we know better than to hang around the criminals and wait for revelation.] Our cynicism names our mistrust, but it also (if inadvertently) carves out a false space: "us" against "them" means that I'm (for the moment) very much in the good, and, subsequently, that the greatest emphasis rightly falls on what one stands to lose, and its protection. After all, we, too, stand to be revealed, and loss of personal self-protection threatens the bleakest despair--if we are no longer untainted, we are likely with the "all bad." This mindset is culturally convenient and shared in a society that believes (or, better, wants us to believe) that it can sell us its protection. But an emphasis on preservation and protection is a problem for those enjoined to lose their lives to find it. So the Christian must ask, but in the sincerest kind of way, "What do we have to lose?"

What if I didn't fear corruption at the hand of another? (What exactly am I fearing when I do? Death? Something greater?) What if I didn't fear that her corruption would reveal my own? What if the only story that could ever define me has defined me, and defined me with the promise of unending life? Who would my friends be? (Or, too, who wouldn't?) And what would be our purpose? What, as friends, could we expect?

Monday, May 18, 2009

from 'Blue Like Jazz': me and my supporting cast

Here's a short and insightful clip about the hard-to-break tendency to view the world through the lens of 'me.' The humor stems directly from the honesty--which is ample. The honesty also has the effect of revealing those people who are otherwise painted into corners by our not-as-honest self-narrations. I'd be keen to hear your thoughts.

From the author of 'Blue Like Jazz,' Donald Miller.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

more thoughts on presence: loneliness, leadership, and love

This link is an easy-reading interview that picks up on the previous video's theme (presence); it moves in the direction of God's promise to be present and human feelings of loneliness. The connection at the end between leadership and, as I read it, love are really well put:

http://faithandleadership.com/qa/samuel-wells-we-are-never-alone

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Body Language and the Kingdom of God

Low-end estimates indicate that body language is 75% or so of total communication. The irony of this statistic for blogs (and other gnostic media) notwithstanding, body language stands to tell us more about the people with whom we communicate--and what it is they're desiring to communicate to us--than anything else.

But that's not all...

The individual who would become more self-aware has long been coached to listen to her own body. This would suggest that sometimes our bodies know more about us than we do--or at least that what our bodies do is as real a part of who we are as what we formally acknowledge in the consciousness of our heads.

All of which is my physical case for the importance of posture, especially when we relate it to prayer and the embodied love to which God calls us: posture stands to help us live in truth with our intentions.

Noticing my clinched fists, for example, I might discover with greater honesty my difficulty in listening to the person before me. Becoming aware of what turns out to be my unnamed resentment, I find myself confronting two options: 1) recognize my resentment and end the conversation; 2) let go of the resentment and unclench my fists. In this case, the physical act of un-clinching allows my head and my whole self to share the same desire--and to be honest (truthful) within myself.

At this point, I think of the epistle from last Sunday (yesterday), the 5th Sunday of Easter: "Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars..."

I read these words, just now, with the physical reference point of Christ's Body, the Church, and I wonder what postures stand to make the Church more truthful? Where are our fists clenched tight to each other? Where might we open our white-knuckled fists to our God?

And lest I leave you in rhetorical silence, here's a provocative start:
http://willimon.blogspot.com/2009/04/passing-plate.html

And a teaser:
"No church that expends 90% of its money on itself is a faithful congregation. There is no way to follow Jesus with a closed hand. Jesus’ great gift makes givers of us all."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Addendum to Imitation

On the imitation theme, from an old newsletter article...

O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon us the Spirit of love, that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From The Book of Common Prayer, p125.

My wife is a terrible challenge to me.

Let me explain.

Today I write from the Mustang Island Episcopal Conference Center, at a program for newly ordained clergy of the diocese. That, anyway, is my professional explanation for how, some seven hours ago, I found myself walking the beach, just a tad before sunset, dabbling at my photography hobby, and singing songs through the air to our God. Birds danced around me; sunlight burned the sand a gentle orange--which only made the waters seem more blue. It was not just peaceful; it was peace.

But then, as I turned to walk the just-more-than a half-mile back to camp, a single piece of sand-covered trash--litter--caught my eye. No sooner did I register the thought and I was three steps past it. “If only I had seen it two steps sooner,” I began to rationalize. And then, by way of hypothetical observation and cerebral instinct, I thought too, “You know, if Rebekah were here--even now, eight steps beyond it--she’d turn back. She’d pick it up.” And so I did; before my brain had time to think my lived response, I turned back for the trash.

I was--am--humbled, without resentment. It’s funny, in that moment, guilt was not my motivation; now, as I tell it, pride is not my satisfaction. (Indeed, after that moment of reflective action, I abruptly realized that I had committed myself to the other trash around me, too--my walk became much longer.) Instead, that vesper instant joined me to the person--the living witness--of one whose love undid me. Stripped of every thought save thankfulness and love, the words of Scripture filled me: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

It is said (by St. Paul, among others) that we learn the Kingdom of our God by imitation. But listen close, also, to a second paraphrase of Paul: we cannot imitate the virtues of the Kingdom and remain apart from love. That is, you and I, we do not imitate at distances, hoping, as it were, that we might somehow get, acquire, the qualities we covet in God’s saints. No, the objects of our imitation are not so self-contained--but they exude the love of Christ.

Repeatedly, I have known--been challenged by--this love in the person of my wife--but not only in her person. You, also--each of you, and together--consistently make demands on my imagination for Christ-like-ness. You challenge me when you remember the homeless on days I’d forgotten; when your joy in our worship re-inspires my own; when you model forgiveness and, on other days, seek it; when, as in Bethlehem, you walk out into visions you can’t yet perceive--and do so with joy, that our joy might be shared.

I wonder: how has imitation shaped you in this place? Do you find the holy friends whose imitation draws you closer both to God and one another? When, in our common life, do you feel the clenched fists of the lives we control held out flat, opened wide, to the Spirit of God in our midst? How, here, has loved shaped you, even beyond your own desire to be shaped?

"Imitate Me"

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the sincerity is in the witness to the other, obvious, still often unspoken, goal: to become like the one we imitate. Children are good at it; we adults find it harder: "I want to be like you."

Of course, imitation does not imply wholesale duplication--one may imitate this or that footwork or approach without imitating any of the number of inevitable flaws the imitated one possesses. Yet even here, an intentional orientation or response to limitation and failure might be found imitable by some (e.g. the ability to seek out forgiveness).

I think what I find most compelling (and sincere) about human imitation in particular is the irrationality of it all. For example, I don't necessarily imitate you because I understand you; most of the time I imitate you as a means of understanding. This means that the sort of intentional imitation of which I'm speaking requires a trust most often founded on love--the child-like desire to "become just like you", again. I remember especially a priest from my time as an undergraduate student who, in the course of administering the blessed bread and wine at Communion, knelt to eye level when he blessed a small child. Every small child. Deeply admiring the priest for the faith I knew in him from elsewhere, I instinctively trusted the action and longed to see what he saw from that crouched vantage point. Now sharing that vantage, I find myself shaped.

The particular thing that has me returning to the phenomenon of imitation today is a baby bird, found last night, next to dead, by our porch--and my wife's unmovable compassion for said baby bird. I wasn't as stirred, but out of obedience to (and love for) my wife, began sharing some of her bird-tending duties (dropping small beads of water onto the bird's beak from the end of a spoon). I still don't see the bird in the same way--with the same love--she does, but I'm closer than I was before I raised the spoon.

A million thoughts just now from a seminary class on Imitation and Paul, led by Susan Eastman (a summary of her theological take on imitation can be found here ), as well as so many from Hauerwas and Wells and the shaping role of the liturgy and, most importantly, the centrality of moving, understanding, and learning from within the embodied faith--the People of God. It is frustratingly simple to most that the best way to understand a thing is to put your feet in the fresh imprints of others. That kind of trust is much harder to learn.

I remember a near-senile priest who filled-in at my college church one Sunday. He didn't say much that made sense to us (acolytes) before the service, but just prior to beginning, he looked at me with every seriousness and asked, "What do you think--am I ready for the dance?" He checked the mirror, smiled approvingly, and we were off--off and dancing the living dance of the Triune God. I pray I never forget the unexpected joy of just that moment--and that I never grow too old to trust the lead of the saints of God.