Monday, May 28, 2012

You Are Not a Leftover

I wonder if you’ve ever heard a close friend, when talking about his or her professional occupation, say something like this: “I feel guilty, you know, in this line of work, doing what I do.  Early on, I never could have imagined that I could paid for this - would get paid for this - that someone would give me money to do what I do - to get up each morning and do what I love.”

Have you ever heard some version of these words from a friend?  I wonder if you’ve ever said them yourself.

Strangely, these words give you no hint as to what your friend actually does.

Has to be a ballplayer, right?  I can easily imagine those words from a big league star - millions of dollars to run around, play a game.  “I get paid to do this?”   A rush, no matter the team, unless of course it’s the Cubs, and then that’s another matter...  That must be it; these words belong to the major league baseball player.  But can these words equally belong to a teacher?  (Maybe this is a bad time of year to ask.)  Can they belong to a small business owner?  A seamstress?  An accountant?  A lawyer?

It may be obvious to the one who feels like she’s cheating the system - the scandal of her occupation, that she gets paid to do this - but the scandal is hidden from the eyes of the rest of us, just as the one who loves what she does equally cannot see why we don’t resent her for taking the opportunity from us, even though it is not at all clear that hers is an opportunity we would take if we could.

Take Jorge Flores.  Jorge doesn’t get paid to lead our youth at the Sea City Work Camp, but every time he talks about it, that’s the vibe he gives, that he’s stealing from the rest of us: that he treasures the gift of climbing up on a hot roof in the South Texas mid-summer for a week, stripping and laying shingles, joined by twenty or so of his closest, smelliest and sweaty, high school friends.  “What a gift,” he says, with no obvious signs of sarcasm.  “I so look forward to that time...”  He literally pays to do it.

Similarly, we’re sending Deb Gardiner out this morning on a two-week mission to Uganda, where she will work with women, leaders in their churches, from across two dioceses; Uganda, where her husband says Deb left her heart the last time she was there.

And that’s the way it is sometimes: the things you couldn’t pay one person to do for all the money in the world, someone else will sacrifice everything to do - for the blessing she finds in that same work.

Moreover, blinded by her passion, her love, her great respect for the work she’s been given, such a person will frequently lack the ability to see the uniqueness of her passion - loving what others find unlovable - as the first, clear evidence of God’s gift at work in her. 

As your priest, I resonate with those who feel privileged to be doing what they love.  (Most of the time.)  As your priest, I also have a unique perch from which to see the many ways the church’s members - you - are sometimes tempted to discount your own gifting.  I hear things like: “Me?  Surely you can find someone more gifted/experienced/deserving.  Yes, I’ll help...if you can’t find anyone else.”  And maybe you’re just busy.  Maybe you don’t want to do it.  But I wonder if, maybe, like the person in love with and in awe of the work set before him, you doubt yourself more than God does. 

If that’s the case for you, listen here: you are not a leftover in the economy of God's Kingdom.  You are already a light set fire in the darkness.

So today is the great Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the giver of spiritual gifts, and I am reminded of those throughout the generations of the church who have shirked from the life-giving work of the Spirit because of fears like inadequacy - who am I? - and insufficiency, knowledge of their own smallness.  I think of our reading from Romans this morning, Paul writing that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not even know how to pray as we ought.  We are all too well aware, most of us, that we don’t know what do to next.  To show up, to step out, in love when you don’t feel particularly gifted, prepared, or equipped might be the greatest gift of all.

“I don’t speak in tongues,” says one.  “I speak in tongues,” says another.  Depending on the person’s tradition of origin, either one could be grounds for your feeling out of place, doubting yourself.  “I’m new,” says one. “I’ve been here so long that my season has passed,” fears another.  “I’ve never taught, I’ll never know what to say.”  “I’ve never taught, I never know when to shut up.”  “I don’t have experience in the world.”  “My experience in the world leaves me no time to participate in Bible studies.”  A cacophony of conflicting voices all finally collecting in the unanimous chorus: “I just don’t have that much to give.”  

Notice how these fears of not being enough project on to the Kingdom a sense of scarcity, of a god who demands things of you that you don’t have to offer: insecurity and fear projecting on to God’s estimation of you; but, listen, insecurity and fear are not the truest things about you; they are not how God sees you.  The truth is that you are not a leftover in the economy of God's Kingdom.  The truth is that you are already gifted for the good work of loving God and embodying that love with others in the world.  If you can give yourself permission to love this work in spite of your fears about yourself, you will in time discover that you are already and richly blessed, deeply gifted, beyond all measure.

Theologian Thomas Smail writes about the Holy Spirit, whose gift the Church receives at Pentecost.  He writes that “...the initial evidence of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community is not the manifestation of spiritual gifts but the confession of the Father and the Son.” 

Lest you doubt the Spirit’s commitment to you, in you, see that you are here, lifting, singing, raising the praises of the Father and the Son.

I pray that you are never so blinded or intimidated by your love and regard for the good work before us as Christians that you lack the ability to see the uniqueness of your passion for God as God’s gift already at work in you.

Not everybody has it.  Not everybody cares enough even to worry about their insufficiency for the task.  In case you were wondering, the rumors you've heard are true: we live in a post-Christian world.  There are plenty of people who don’t love the Lord, who don’t share your desire to love him with your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  There are at least as many people who know the Lord but prefer all manner of pain-numbing fillers to the disciplined opportunity that is worship of the living God, the opportunity that you have availed yourself of this morning.  Never mind whatever else you think you don’t have, if you’re here, you have that.  You love him.  And that is the first great gift of the Spirit in you.

The first work of the Spirit - and so the Spirit’s central movement in us - is praise of the Father and the Son and partnership with the living God in the proclaiming and practicing of the Gospel in the world outside these walls.

The other gifts are important, but this one comes first.  Without a passion for praise and proclamation and living practice of the Gospel, the other gifts are like boats without bearings.  That’s why the Spirit finds the disciples in a locked room this morning, because Jesus told them to wait.  “Don’t even try to do this on your own; it’s not enough to be busy; be patient,” he told them.  I think here of Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians - and here I’m using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase from The Message - Paul writes:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love. 

And love in this context is the love of the Father, sent through the Son, the very Spirit of God in you: the movement by which we share and return the love we have known in Christ Jesus, whose love is for the whole world, whose partner in love we have become by his Spirit. 

What I’m trying to say is this:
Your love for God is the greatest gift God has given you - will ever give you.

A great and terrifying gift.  And this is what makes the great gift so terrifying: if God has given you the greatest gift you will ever need - the gift of the Spirit’s love for the Father and the Son in you - you are right to ask yourself what it would mean, what it looks like, to see all your other gifts re-scripted, reoriented, overshadowed by, in light of, this first great gift, such that in every gift you feel the claim of the living God.  Of every, single gift in your possession, asking how it might serve the proclamation of the Father and the Son and the embodiment of God’s own love with one another.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 


Sermon preached Pentecost Sunday, 5/27/2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Hearing the Holiness"
reflections on Annie, Joy, & Buechner

I grew up singing the Lord's Prayer.  One day I stopped singing it because the church at which I worshiped stopped singing it.  In place of the singing, the congregation simply said it together.  This was not a big deal to me.  The priest at the church was my dad, and he had a habit of letting me in on his liturgical thinking.  This one was convincing: "The Episcopal service is strange," he explained, "and the Lord's Prayer might be the only part of the service that the guest or newcomer feels comfortable joining."  In the overwhelming context of the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer stares back at the stranger like a solitary familiar face in the midst of the unfamiliar throngs.  "Good enough for me," I thought to myself, and I never looked back.

I should probably pause long enough to say that I am not one who gets bent out of shape much over questions of liturgy.  I grew up in a Rite I Anglo-Catholic parish with a parochial school whose rhythm was daily prayer.  After high school, I went to Wheaton College (God's good sense of humor, and after a brief but formative time in a Canterbury Community engaging the Taize tradition in South Bend, Indiana), subsequently enrolled at Duke Divinity School (a Methodist school with an Anglican Studies program), and have happily lived out the first five-plus years of my ordained ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.  That is to say I've "gotten around" about as much as is possible for a life-long, cradle Episcopalian.  Rather than feel pulled in many directions by these experiences, I have grown to find my patch-work history shaped and centered by the gravity of St Paul's words when he writes:

There is one Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God’s call to us;
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
One God and Father of all.

I remember these words and I particularly remember, too, the image of our div school chaplain, Sally Bates, breaking the bread time and again as light streamed in the chapel and speaking the reality that "we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf."

All of that is to say that I don't find myself interested much in the "freshman jostling" of inflexible liturgical decision making - life is too rich, and my economics background is always thinking "trade-offs" before absolutes anyway, and so my main point just now is not whether it is right or wrong to sing the Lord's Prayer in corporate worship.  But we did stop singing it, and I never looked back...until one day this past week.

Annie is two and a half, more or less.  She'll be three in August.  She "reads" books voraciously, memorizing the pages and speaking the words, often to other books.  Recently she's taken to singing.  She has always sung - a favorite past-time the two of us have shared together from her beginning - but she has recently taken to singing songs to tunes with the original words kept intact.  This is new.  This has mostly happened suddenly: one day she wasn't, the next day she was.  This past week she unexpectedly interrupted my knitting and sang the Lord's Prayer to the heavens.   As Bek and I listened in, my heart was swallowed by the prayer that I would never forget the awe and the magic and my jaw-dropped disbelief in that moment.

She was singing to God, but grace found our ears.  And every word was there: this ritual ending to our family's evening prayers, sung at Bek's whim one night, continued because Annie enjoyed her parents' singing, and two months later she's belting it out from the heart and from memory.  Maybe that's what I am striving to appreciate in this post: how music stains the memory; how prayers so sung make ready homes in us.

A few days later, this moment very much alive in my memory, I was listening to a speaker at our diocesan clergy day.  He was telling us about Frederick Buechner's encounter with mystery in the space of a "particular Episcopal church he attending while lecturing at Wheaton College."  My heart quickened as he spoke.  I also went to a particular Episcopal Church while at Wheaton...  "In Glen Ellyn," the speaker continued.  My eyes went wide - "Saint Barnabas!" we nearly said together.  And I wondered how many times I sat in Buechner's pew, two decades after his visit.  Anyway, I looked up the book, Telling Secrets, from which the speaker's story came, and found the following words that helped me make sense of the joy that flooded my being as Annie flooded our home with her song.  Before I share them, my point, the moral, my main advice to the patient reader who has nearly made it to the end of this long and winding post: sing as much as possible. 

Here's Buechner:

I also found myself going to an extraordinary church or, with my rather dim experience of churches back home, one that was extraordinary at least to me.  Its name was Saint Barnabas, and it was described to me as an evangelical high Episcopal church, and that seemed so wonderfully anomalous that what took me there first was pure curiosity.  What kept taking me back Sunday after Sunday, however, was something else again.  Part of the service was chanted at Saint Barnabas, and I discovered that when a prayer or a psalm or a passage from the Gospels is sung, you hear it in a whole new way.  Words wear thin after a while, especially religious words.  We have spoken them and listened to them so often that after a while we hardly even hear them any more.  As writer, preacher, teacher I have spent so much of my life dealing with words that I find I get fed up with them.  I get fed up especially with my own words and the sound of my own voice endlessly speaking them.  What the chanting did was to remind me that worship is more than words and then in a way to give words back to me again.  It reminded me that words are not only meaning but music and magic and power.  The chanting italicized them, made poetry of their prose.  It helped me hear the holiness in them and in all of us as we chanted them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Alcoholism and the Episco-Baptist Phenomenon

I just got home from a really fantastic diocesan workshop on the role of alcoholism in families, congregations, and clergy life.  This post is a partial-processing of that experience.

All denominations in Texas are functionally Baptist.  That was the observation Stanley Hauerwas made somewhere I can't find just now.  There are in Texas, he contended, Lutheran-Baptists, Episcopal-Baptists, Methodist-Baptists, Catholic-Baptists, and even a few Baptist-Baptists.

If this is true (and I believe that, on the whole, it hits close to the mark) then it follows that - over against whatever imagined distinctiveness a given denomination sets out to achieve - each denomination inadvertently picks up unintentional and unique marks which emerge out of the otherwise homogenous sea of denominational anti-diversity.  Moreover, these unintentional marks are probably more empirically decisive than the ones we imagine for ourselves.

For Episcopalians, the most notorious example of an unintentional mark in the church's common life is our friendly disposition toward alcohol.  If Episcopalians in Texas are really Episcopal-Baptists in terms of congregational polity, interpretation of Scripture, and even worship (which is at the very least plausible as evangelicals continue to discover the liturgy and as Episcopalians - at least in West Texas - regularly seek new ways to re-imagine the words "snake-belly-low") then the lay person floating between the two is left with only this question of practical observation: "Why do/don't you drink?"

Importantly, I think there is a great deal more that distinguishes the Baptist and Episcopal traditions than drinking, but when you dilute all the rest, booze is what's left.  I know a great many individuals who would not find offense in the description of an Episcopalian as a Baptist whose church lets her drink in front of others openly.  Captain Obvious point: Drinking is probably a dangerous reason to prefer one denomination to another.

Two quick things to say in the interest of full-disclosure:

1) I drink, to borrow a favorite phrase of my tradition, "in moderation."  Mostly beer, and only good ones; as a hobby in diversity, I try one new six-pack each week.  Two beers is my limit in a single sitting, and that would indicate a special occasion.

2) I teach confirmation classes, and I unapologetically begin with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  That is, I believe there is a great deal more distinctive about the Episcopal Church than the room she provides for moderate drinking.  (Ironically, the distinctiveness of the Episcopal tradition relative to other Protestant traditions is often our grounding in Jesus' prayer from John's gospel: "that they all may be one.") 

But here we are, in Texas, where everybody's Baptist, and so #2 gets washed away by #1.

[Aside: In a similar vain, how many Catholics does the Episcopal Church attract because Catholics are not permitted to remarry?]

Drinking, which the Episcopal Church permits on good and theologically sound grounds - grounds like the goodness of God's gifts used for God's purposes - is decidedly not the focal foundation for the Anglican identify Thomas Cramner first envisioned.  But that, I suppose, is the whole point: stripped from its grounding in the foundations Cramner did have in mind, all we're left with is the assumption of moral laxity from a Baptist perspective that increasingly makes its home inside the Episcopal Church, just to the extent that there exist Baptists who enjoy moral laxity.

All of this leads me to two goals for the Episcopal Church, which I'll only have space to mention briefly:

1) Don't shy away from your Episcopal foundation!  And don't let the Baptists fool you: you are a far richer tradition than Schlitz Malt Liquor on a Saturday.  If you go to an Episcopal Church and don't feel as comfortable with that foundation as you'd like to, ask a friend whom you suspect of usefulness in this department out to coffee.  I would pee my pants if you asked me.  I love my church because Jesus met me here - long before my first beer.  Most Episcopalians would be honored to share what they have gleaned of God's mercy, love, and presence in and through the Episcopal Church.  (Parenthetically, among other things, you will find there spiritual foundations for recovery from addiction.)

2) Be aware that the world (or at least Texas), without the time for more than sound-byte stereotypes, sees you/me/us (the Episcopal Church) as the Baptists who drink.  Be mindful that this stereotype leaves you/me/us especially vulnerable to abuse of alcohol, precisely because we already have the reputation for doing so openly.  It is more difficult for us to say things to one another than it would be for a Baptist, and it is far easier for us to rationalize our abuse of alcohol on theological grounds.  In this, we must be loving in our care for each other, vigilant in our exercise of Christian freedom, and so formed in the community created by the promises of baptism - the death and resurrection of Jesus - that we can speak or hear the truth with our brother or sister in the crucial moment and - hopefully - long before it.

I say, "long before it," because, honestly, we have a lot to share with one another about the unfathomable and unexpected gift of this new life in Christ, long before we get to drinking.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Request on Behalf of a Friend

Sisters and Brothers,

A dear family friend - one of Jude's godparents - has been caught in a legal battle stemming from false allegations made while he and his wife served as foster parents. Apparently, it is not uncommon for the legal process in instances like his to be so cumbersome and financially restrictive that many families simply succumb to the allegations because they cannot afford to pursue justice. At the outset of this journey, friends and strangers alike encouraged our friend to fight the allegations not only for his own sake, but for those who cannot afford to do so.

Over a year later, this friend and his wife have invested $60,000 of their own funds and have seemed to be making progress, yet they do not have resources to continue beyond what they have already given. I ask to you to please read my friend's situation in his own words and consider setting aside a donation for his cause and the cause of those he represents.

You can donate/read his appeal here:

I've also included his words at the end of this email. If any of you would like to be in contact with him directly, where he is able to talk more freely about details of his situation, please let me know. I am happy to make that connection.

Gratefully, and in Christ's Peace,

The Rev. Jonathan Melton
St Christopher's by the Sea
"Grace exists, therefore, only where the Resurrection is reflected." Karl Barth


"Many of you have walked with us and supported us as the "village" during our fostering of children in Durham County. This year we have been wading through unchartered territory. I will not get into details in this space about the tragic and troublesome road we have been on and continue to travel down this year in our fostering experience. Many of you have asked about ways in which you could support us during this time. We welcome your prayers for justice and peace and for our well-being.

"Another way you could offer support is by donating to our cause. As we continue down this road that we have been forced to travel down, legal fees have been and will be substantial. We ask for your support as we seek out justice, not only for ourselves, but for others that might find themselves in similar situations.

"We pray for a speedy resolution. If we have funds remaining, these will go to support L’Écôle de Nôtre Dame, an elementary school in the mountain village of Molas in Haiti. This is a school and community that our church has been the primary support of for years.

"I will be posting updates when possible. We have such incredible family and friends. We are grateful for all of the ways you have shown love to us during this time.

"Grace and peace."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Christians Don't Need Institutions in Order to Screw Up

In an earlier post we looked at Lesslie Newbigin's contention that denominational institutions are a particular kind of anti-sacrament. An odd thing, maybe, for a Protestant to contend, but the idea that schism is bad is not new, either.  What IS new is Newbigin's subsequent contention that a) institutions AND b) unaffiliated individuals (oftentimes perceived as the opposite or alternative of institutions) ironically share the same doomed trust in the prevailing secular ideology that relegates spirituality to the purely private sphere.  This insight should challenge anti-institutional folks to nuance their surface critiques and look for real and developed alternatives of hope.

Plainly, Newbigin believes he has discovered the flaw that makes institutions worthy of suspicion, and it happens to be the same flaw that those not committed to institutions often make.  Such a revelation is vitally important to explore since the goal is the flourishing of the Church's mission and eliminating an identified challenge is not the same as constructing a positive solution.  

Not surprisingly, Newbigin believes this hope has as its source the Gospel of Christ, and especially here he makes an appeal to reclaiming a "true apocalyptic".  Notice what is happening: the flaw is no longer the mere existence of institutions (a clumsy thing to blame since institutions refer to people working together in any kind of organized way) but is now located in how we relate and respond to the action of the living God - the hope we have in Christ.  Here is Newbigin:

There can be no missionary encounter with our culture without a biblically grounded eschatology, without recovering a true apocalyptic.  The dichotomy that runs through our culture between the private and the public worlds is reflected in the dissolution of the biblical vision of the last things into two separate and unrelated forms of hope.  One is the public hope for a better world in the future, the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century French philosophers, the utopia of the evolutionary social planners, or the classless society of the revolutionary sociologists.  The other is the private hope for personal immortality in a blessed world beyond this one.  This dissolution is tragic.  It destroys the integrity of the human person.  If I pin my hope to a perfect word that is to be prepared for some future generations, I know that I and my contemporaries will never live to see it, and therefore that those now living can be - and if necessary must be - sacrificed in the interests of those as yet unborn; and so the way is open for the ruthless logic of totalitarian planners and social engineers.  If on the other hand I place all my hope in a personal future, I am tempted to wash my hands of responsibility for the public life of the word and to turn inwards towards a purely private spirituality.

That tragic split runs right through our lives and our society, and only the biblical understanding of the last things can heal that dichotomy.  The apocalyptic teaching that forms such an important part of the New Testament has generally in our culture been pushed to the margins of Christian thought.  It has been treasured, of course, by small oppressed groups on the margins of our society, but it has been generally silenced in the mainstream of our established Christianity.  Essentially this says to us: If I ask what in all my active life is the horizon of my expectations, the thing to which I look forward, the answer, it seems to me, cannot be some future utopia in the future and cannot be some personal bliss for myself, it can only be, quite simply, the coming of Jesus to complete his Father's will.  He shall come again.  He is the horizon of my expectations.  Everything from my side, whether prayer or action, private or public, is done to him and for him.  It is simply offered for his use.  In the words of Schweitzer, it is an 'acted prayer for His coming.'  He will make of it what he will.  My vigorous and righteous actions do not build the holy city.  They are too shot through with sin for that.  But they are acted prayers that he will give the holy city.  And that embraces both the public and the private world.  The holy city, as its name indicates, is on the one hand the crown and perfection of all that we call civilization.  Into it the kinds of the nations bring their cultural treasures.  But it is also the place where every tear is wiped from our eyes and we are the beloved children of God who see him face to face.  Only in that vision and hope is the tragic dichotomy of our culture healed.

Are Denominations Anti-Sacraments? (and who do they worship?)

I am currently on the home-stretch of Paul Weston's Lesslie Newbigin Reader. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The more I read, the less patience I have for any missional/emerging conversation that is not in knowledgeable and active conversation with Newbigin's writings. Newbigin consistently asks the difficult questions upon which the missional church rightly insists, but he steadfastly avoids Pelagian solutions that would turn missionary efforts into technical attempts to "get it right." Better said, Newbigin perceives the theological resources available to the whole system, rather than zero in on a particular perceived "issue", read in isolation of the whole. And "the whole" for Newbigin is always the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A great example of this Christ-centered perspective at work comes in his consideration of denominational institutions. Rather than pit institutions in the bad camp and all other forms on the good, his analysis lands him at the heart of the challenge: a gospel-based rationale for freedom of thought that is capable of stepping outside of the inherited basis for that freedom in Western thought, which comes via the Enlightenment. So doing, he saves us the embarrassment that occurs when well-meaning Christians change everything only to realize that they have really changed nothing, because we have not been able to accurately see ourselves, much less sufficiently see ourselves.

Here are some highlights from his observations:

"...the denomination is simply the institutional form of privatized religion. It is a voluntary association of individuals. It is to put it simply - the outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture."

"They cannot confront our culture as Jesus confronted Pontius Pilate with the witness to the truth, since they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who hold the same opinion."

"I believe that it is possible to act effectively in each local situation in such a way that the Christians together in each place begin even now to be recognizable as the Church for that place."

"If we are to escape from the ideology of the Enlightenment without falling into the errors of Corpus Christianum, we must recover a doctrine of freedom of thought and conscience that is founded not on the ideology of the Enlightenment but on the gospel."

Holiness, Virginity, and Texas Football

The gospel lesson for this coming Sunday - Easter 7 - contains this marvelous phrase from Jesus' prayer to his Father: "Sanctify them in the truth."  The words imagine a fundamental unity between the life of holiness and truth so that - as Newbigin, Hauerwas, and others have long contended - there is no such thing as truth that is not embodied truth.  This is not novel, only easily forgotten.  Sanctification - the life of holiness - is necessarily embodied for Christians, realized in the Body of Christ, the Church, whose head is the Incarnate Son of God.  Truth is this Son with whom God's People are in living relationship.  The Truth has a name and makes claims on our embodied lives as Christians.

So Hauerwas, in his book entitled Sanctify Them in the Truth, cites Bruce Marshall in the following footnote:
"Bruce Marshall rightly argues that believes which identify Jesus and the Triune God cannot be held as true except by engagement in worship and prayer in the name of the Trinity.  As he puts it, holding such beliefs as true 'changes your life and unless it changes your life, you are holding true some other beliefs'" (p5).

All of which leads to the following hilarious introduction to Hauerwas' chapter, "Gay Friendship: A Thought Experiment in Catholic Moral Theology."  What I particularly appreciate about the humor in the introduction is the way Hauerwas borders on irreverent with respect to Mary in a way that is not intended to be disrespectful, I think, so much as highlight the greater irreverence that occurs when Christians do not faithfully embody what we say we profess.  Our beliefs are not static, but represent claims of the Triune God on us.  Anyway, here it is:

"'Do you believe in the virgin birth?' That was the question we were asked in Texas in order to test whether we were really 'Christian.'  At least that was the way the challenge was issued during the time I was growing up in Texas.  I confess I was never particularly concerned with how that question should be answered.  I was not raised a fundamentalist, but I believed in the virgin birth.  The problem for me was not believing in it but what difference it might make one way or the other whether I did or did not believe in it.  My preoccupation was not with Mary's virginity, but with my virginity and how I could lose it.  In the meantime, of course, we Texans had football to keep us from being too torn up by any anxieties that might come from questioning the virgin birth" (p105).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mommas and the Love that Lays Down Life

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

From the first letter of John this morning: "Everyone who loves the parent loves the child."

What apt words, and a beautiful image, for Mother's Day - a providential coincidence of our lectionary this morning - God's good sense of humor.  The author of John observing that the relationship between parent and child is such that love for the one necessarily must entail love for the other; that it makes no sense to talk about loving the one without loving the the other, so deeply united are the persons of the parent and the child in their own mutual love. This is love at its contagious best, where love without condition begets love without condition: "everyone who loves the parent loves the child."

On a personal note, the providential coincidence that gives us this scripture to consider on Mother's Day is especially sweet to me because I have the especially rare gift of sharing this Sunday morning with my mother, whom I never have called "mother" but mostly "Momma," whose love for me is a gift beyond describing.

Everyone who loves the parent loves the child. In this verse's particular context within John's letter, we learn that God the Father is the Parent and Jesus is the Child; that you can't have the Father without the Son. "I am the way and the truth and the life," we remember Jesus saying. "No one comes to the Father except through me." Love of the Father necessarily entails love of the Son. And this is the beginning of the mystery we call the holy Trinity.

But John's logic isn't finished: if God the Father is the Parent and Jesus is the Child, and if everyone who loves the Parent loves the Child, John's gospel won't let us miss this important, climactic point: that in the person of Jesus, we worship the Child who makes us God's children.

We worship the Child who makes us children of God. From now on, when we hear the words, "everyone who loves the parent loves the child," we are moved toward one another. We become a people in the process of learning that love of God and love of each other have become inextricably united in the person of Jesus: the Child who makes us God's children. So now all who love God are given the privilege of loving one another.

This is how the author of 1st John can say elsewhere, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their
brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."

So you can't have the Father without the Son; neither can you love - and this has been a great disappointment to many people for more than 2,000 years now - neither can you love the Father and/or the Son without the tawdry group of sinners called the Church, even priests; and the Church in turn cannot truly love the Triune God without relationship with the ones outside her walls for whom Christ also died.

Everyone who loves the parent loves the child. And this room and the world are filled with the children of God.

That we are called to love one another may seem obvious. But then, that we struggle with the call to love one another should be equally obvious. As one humorous example, the 17th century French physicist, mathematician, and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal once wryly observed that "if everyone knew what others said about him (in his absence), there would not be four friends in the world." We can fail quite cruelly in our love for one another.  There is always room for each of us and all of us to grow more deeply into the simple call to love one another as children of the God we love.

So John's epistle reminds us that God's Child has made us God's children and we as God's children have been given the holy privilege of loving all the children of God; our participation in God's love for his children is an extension of our love for the Parent. More pointedly, our participation in God's love for his children is evidence of our love for the Parent.

Having established on what grounds we ARE to love, Jesus goes on in John's gospel to describe the shape of the love we are to share with one another, and Jesus is the shape and source of the love we are called to share: "no one has greater love has this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." These words are a clear reference to what God in Jesus does for us on the cross: laying down God's own life, making us friends of God. But what can it possibly mean for us to love one another like this? To lay down one's life? And here, in these words, I think of mothers again.

I am thinking especially of the routine sacrifices that mothers learn to make like instinct in ways that leave scars and marks and wounds on their bodies, the results of loving vulnerably, even - maybe especially - when no one else notices the sacrifice or cost.

I think of Glennon Melton (no relation), an online blogger who writes hilariously and from a faith perspective about her life as a mom. Not too long ago she shared this experience - she writes:

"...last week, a woman approached me in the Target line and said the following: 'Sugar, I hope you are enjoying this. I loved every single second of parenting my two girls. Every single moment. These days go by so fast.'

"At that particular moment, Amma had arranged one of the new bras I was buying on top of her sweater and was sucking a lollipop that she must have found on the ground. She also had three shop-lifted clip-on neon feathers stuck in her hair. She looked exactly like a contestant from Toddlers and Tiaras. I couldn't find Chase anywhere, and Tish was grabbing the pen on the credit card swiper thing WHILE the woman in front of me was trying to use it. And so I just looked at the woman, smiled and said, 'Thank you. Yes. Me too. I am enjoying every single moment. Especially this one. Yes. Thank you.'

"That's not exactly what I wanted to say, though.

"There was a famous writer who, when asked if he loved writing, replied, 'No. but I love having written.' What I wanted to say to this sweet woman was, 'Are you sure? Are you sure you don't mean you love having parented?'

"I love having written. And I love having parented. My favorite part of each day is when the kids are put to sleep (to bed) and Craig and I sink into the couch to watch some quality TV, like Celebrity Wife Swap, and congratulate each other on a job well done. Or a job done, at least."

Later she adds, "But the fact remains that (one day) I will be that nostalgic lady. I just hope to be one with a clear memory. And here's what I hope to say to the younger mama gritting her teeth in line:

"'It's (hard as heck), isn't it? You're a good mom, I can tell. And I like your kids, especially that one peeing in the corner. She's my favorite. Carry on, warrior. Six hours till bedtime.' And hopefully, every once in a while, I'll add -- 'Let me pick up that grocery bill for ya, sister. Go put those kids in the van and pull on up -- I'll have them bring your groceries out.'"

Love that lays down its life. Kind of like mothers. Even when others don't see it, appreciate it, how hard it is, how much it costs. And John's gospel is thinking especially of the routine sacrifices that all followers of Jesus are asked to learn like instinct in ways that leave scars and marks and wounds on our bodies, resulting from the vulnerability of Christian love and mission, life in community, even - maybe especially - when no one else notices or appreciates the sacrifice.

It is not uncommon to hear people in the church talk about their desire for their church to feel like family. This is good news because, as we discover in John's gospel, God in Christ has loved us into God's family. That we have been made one family is also hard news because the love that has made us God's family is the love that lays down life. This is a difficult and humbling gift to receive, much less want to learn how to do. For us to learn to act in this love without sowing seeds of entitlement, self-righteousness, or resentment cannot be easy, if it is possible at all. If it is possible, it is surely and only because we know that God has become like a mother to us, that we have been reborn in Christ as daughters and sons in the Kingdom of God, where love without condition begets love without condition as we are miraculously swept up into the love that moves the sun and the stars, even the greater love of the Son. So found in the love of this Child whose Parent we love, we can seemingly do no other than seek, serve, and love the image of the Child who makes us God's children in every member of God's family. What a marvelous and unexpected gift.


Sermon preacher on Easter 6, also Mother's Day, May 13, 2012.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On What Grounds Do We Preach One Flock?

Sermon excerpts from Easter 4, April 29, 2012

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter - we’re going on a full month of Easter now, good practice in becoming an Easter people - and the 4th Sunday of Easter sometimes goes by the nickname “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  We call it Good Shepherd Sunday on account of the prayer assigned to this day and the readings, especially Psalm 23 - “the Lord is my shepherd” - and our lesson from John’s gospel - “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says.

On a personal level, I love these readings.  But if I am honest, I don’t at all know what to do with these readings.  In particular, I don’t know what to do with a gospel that tells us that there will be one flock and one shepherd because, this morning, I am preaching to two services at one church.  Two services for somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy-five combined worshipers.  If statistics prove true, fewer than half of us this morning will be among the seventy-five worshipers who show up next week, which means that our church is really made up of at least three congregations: the two that are here this morning and the one that will be here next week, plus the half of us who will join them.  One flock, one shepherd, three separate assemblies.  Moreover, I am preaching the news that there will be one flock and one shepherd in a town with no fewer than twenty-one churches.

Tell me: can you think of any other business, non-profit, or other public entity that the good citizens of Portland, Texas, have decided we need twenty-one of?  I mean, can we get somebody as excited about bringing in some really good restaurants as our town is excited about founding new churches?

Even this number, though, gets dwarfed when one does a quick search for churches in the Corpus Christi area via the online yellow pages; such a search yields results for some four-hundred churches.

Please note that I am not saying that any of this a good thing or a bad thing; it’s simply the thing.  And the thing makes me wonder on what grounds I stand before you and preach one flock and one shepherd.

Importantly, I do not think that these things necessarily mean that we Christians have missed the point of the Gospel.  I cannot say for sure that we have missed the point of the Gospel because I know that each and every one of you, and me, and all of us together have very dear friends in every one of those twenty-one churches - and even at our other service (that’s a joke).  Friends whom we love, friends with whom you have worked and laughed and served closely.

Still, it is a strange thing that on the morning we gather to worship the God who has made it possible for us to be friends of God and one another, we worship without many of our dear, neighborhood friends, a good number of whom are worshiping in separate buildings just down the road, even as I speak.

I know better, but - at least on the surface - rather than God making our friendships possible, it sometimes looks like Jesus gets in the way of our friendships.  Like we get along better - Monday through Saturday - when we just don’t go there.  And I wonder: what does it tell us about the nature of our friendships when we discover that Jesus is getting in the way of them?

Many times, as Christians, we find friendship with others as we rally together around shared causes.  Causes like breast cancer, poverty, addiction, justice and wealth - and we are right, I believe, to hear God’s call to action in all of these things.  We tell ourselves that it is enough that we do these things because of Jesus.  We collect our friendships around these causes or lesser ones, like our children’s soccer and gymnastics practice schedules, our common love or hate of take-your-pick Texas universities, golf, biking, ceramics, whatever.  And again, here we are exactly right to imagine friendships in such a way that allow us to partner with people of all types and persuasions...

And yet, I wonder if even a small part of our souls is still bold enough to hope for the possibility of friendships centered on Jesus.


Good Shepherd Sunday - and John’s gospel in particular - mean to call us back to the miraculous possibility of just such friendships.

The grounds for our preaching one flock and one shepherd is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who calls his sheep by name.  Because he calls them to himself, he also calls them together, and he becomes their center.  The flock is one because the Shepherd is one.  The unity of the Church becomes a mirror of the oneness of God.  This is the vision of St John’s gospel.

I do not think this vision of Christ-centered friendship means that everybody in a given church must or should be soul-mates.  But I do think that all Christians should set as our goal friendships with Christ at the center.  And so I feel the gentle but persuasive nudge to ask myself these questions:

Am I willing to ask my brothers and sisters here: “How is your spiritual life?” as often as I ask, “How are you?”  Am I willing to listen charitably when they answer?  I think of the question Cursillo small groups ask each time they gather: “When in this past week did you feel closest to Christ?”  Do I offer to pray with people as often as I commit to pray for them?  Do our leaders - do I as a leader - take time in the midst of our planning to ask the question out loud, “How does this plan connect to what we know about the God of Jesus Christ?” or “What image from Scripture inspires our understanding in this moment?”   Do I talk to my children - whatever their age - about my own life’s direction and how I understand it in relation to God’s call?  And even with folks I haven’t seen in some time, perhaps this is the question: “What has God revealed to you about who God is since last we sat down and spoke?”

I put these questions out there to hold myself accountable in asking them to you.  I hope they can be questions that rescue daily life from the stale, safe, default settings.  I believe they are questions of the living Kingdom and an Easter people.  I hope they are questions you can use not just at St Christopher’s, but with friends in the other twenty-one churches and even in our other service.

Because Good Shepherd Sunday - and John’s gospel in particular - means to call us back to the miraculous possibility of just such friendships.  Christ-at-the-center friendships.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.


Vacation Bible School Registration

The Original Occupy Movement

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Abide in me, Jesus says.  What does Jesus mean when he says that, I wonder?  The picture Jesus gives his disciples to help us understand is a vine with branches.  We are the branches, and that is what Jesus says abiding looks like: branches on a vine.  So one grape says to the other grape: “You know, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be in this jam.”  The other grape replies: “You know I’ve about had it with you.  All day long with you it’s wine, wine, wine.”  (I know, I know...I'm 'pressing.')

“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says. 

That we are the branches tells us that Jesus is our source and our center - and we talked about friendships centered on Jesus last week.  But the image of branches is also somewhat confusing because branches do not decide to be centered on a vine - that branches are at all rests solely on the action of the vine - the vine acts and makes it so.

If a branch could un-choose her connection to the vine, not only would that branch not be a branch, the branch wouldn’t be anything else, either.  She simply would not be.  Everything it means to be a branch comes from being grown out of and connected to the vine - the good work of the vine.  Branches are not independent agents apart from this work.

So instead of “What does it mean to abide?” maybe the question is “If we are like branches, and branches are automatically dependents of the vine - always abiding - why is abiding something Jesus has to tell us to do?”  And maybe the most honest question behind both of the others is, “What is the point of abiding?”

As a beginning of the answer to that last question especially, we need to back up a bit to the chapter just before this morning’s lesson, where there’s an important back-story that today’s lesson picks up.

In chapter 14 of John’s gospel, we find Jesus telling his disciples that he is about to leave his disciples.  Jesus is about to die.  Jesus explains that, by the departure he will achieve through his death, he goes to prepare a dwelling place for his friends - “in my Father’s house there are many mansions (we might also use the word “rooms” or “dwelling places” here)” and the word used for dwelling places shares a root-word with our word “abide” in John 15. 

Jesus goes on in chapter 14 to explain that the “room” he is preparing for his friends - which again is a twin for our word “abide” - is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus leaves them in order to send his Holy Spirit.  To those who love and obey Jesus’ teaching, we’re told, Jesus promises his Holy Spirit to the end that “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and  make our home with him.”  So “dwelling place” - which, to beat home the point, shares a root-word with “abide” - is about receiving the Spirit and having the fullness of God come make a home in the life of the one who receives it.  The dwelling place made possible by the Spirit is also about our being made able to find our home in God.

It’s important, I think, that after saying all this Jesus gives his disciples his peace and tells them that, knowing these things, they do not need to be afraid.

So in chapter 14 we learn that Jesus goes to prepare a dwelling place for us, and just because he goes off to prepare it does not mean we have to go off to find it.  Jesus isn’t just talking about heavenly rewards when we die.  Jesus will send his Spirit to his friends, and God will make his home with them.  The word for what’s being prepared is dwelling places, but the effect here is a mutual indwelling.  God’s home with us and our home with God.  In chapter 14, abiding is about the mutual indwelling of God and God’s friends.

And we’ve heard this kind of talk before.  We hear it in our eucharistic prayers, when we pray that “he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  Holy Communion is meant to be a living picture of God in us and we in God.  And this is what it means to abide.

Among other things, abiding is a great relief.  If abiding is about God in us and we in him, then when we abide, we are free to give up our repeated, lame, and tiring attempts to impress God, as if we could do anything good apart from him.  If we do as we’ve been told to do in the gospel this morning - if we keep our home with him, abide in him - we will not have anything with which to impress God for which we will not also be moved to thank God.

And again, we’ve heard this before: in the words we say each week at the early service: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”

And abiding like this makes a certain kind of intuitive sense.  When we welcome someone into our house, for example, and tell them to “make themselves at home” - a crude picture of what we’re calling “abiding” this morning - we are giving both parties a mutual permission not to impress one another.  So I tell you to help yourself to the fridge, by which you understand that I won’t be serving you - if you want it, you get it - and also that I forego the right to complain when you take the last of my favorite beer.

There’s a tender side to this, too.  Rebekah has long counted it the sign of a true friendship when a friend says, “Sure, come on over.  There will be laundry on the sofa but what the heck, you’re family.”

When God pitched his tent and made himself at home with us, he certainly did not come to impress us.  Isaiah tells us he was despised and rejected, that we esteemed him not.  Christ’s coming among us was the beginning of the oblation - the pouring out - of himself, stooping in love, in the end washing the feet of his friends, like a slave, before his betrayal, rejection, and death.

Still, it is one thing to know this and another to live it, to enjoy freedom from the temptation - almost like instinct - to continue putting on a good show for God.  “Lord, did you see that?  Huh?  Huh?  Not so shabby - I mean, you know, for me, all things considered, if I do say so myself.”

But the mistake of our attempts to impress God is that we imagine a distance between ourselves and God that God in Christ has bridged.  God is not simply interested in you; God lives inside you!  Animates you!  Makes his home in you.  Not perfectly, certainly, but that’s the opportunity.  But so often we’re all: “Yo God, did you see how I edged and manicured the lawn?  Those vacuum marks are fresh.”  And God is all: “mi casa es su casa.”

Now, hold on here.  Does this mean that how we live our lives with God is unimportant?  This question is not unlike St Paul’s question to the Romans: Should we therefore sin that grace may abound?  Knowing that God doesn’t care about my laundry, should I just wear the dirty underpants?  And the answer is the same as St Paul’s:  Heck no!

But do you see - can you appreciate - the miracle that has been opened?

The conversation now when it happens, you and God at the table, will not be about dirty dishes or all the chores you’ve complete or smudges on the windows; it will be about the things that dear friends who have given up impressing one another talk about.  Matters that matter.  Come on over, appearances be darned, because there are things beneath appearances that I long to share with you.  So we knock on the door or call too late.  God answers the door with a yawn and a stretch.  And we say, “Your presence does not simply comfort me; your presence is a challenge to me in all the best ways and toward the very best of who I had hoped to become.”  Like Simon Peter, we say “You alone have the words of eternal life.”  And he says to us in reply: “Make yourself at home.”
The Spirit of God making it possible for him to dwell in us and we in him.

Long before Occupy Wall Street, there was what might be called the original Occupy movement.  It went something like this: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  The Word became flesh and literally “pitched his tent” in our camp.  God made a home with humankind.  We are blessed by God’s presence.

God’s abiding presence, his Holy Spirit, poured out on his people, we people, the People of God.

The lessons today teach us that, just as Easter came along unexpectedly and shouted, “Wait, wait, the cross looks like the end but this is not the end,” now we pick up the scent of Pentecost, just a few weeks off now, and it, too, is shouting: “Wait, wait, Easter looks like the end, but Easter is not the end!  The power and life you saw in the risen Lord is power and life meant for you, too!  Jesus himself will breathe his Spirit in you and God will make his home with you.

In your life, in my life, in the life of our church: if the Good News is that God wants to bunk up, then out, out! with everything else that gets in the way.  Out with the idea that we’ve got to do this by ourselves or it doesn’t count.  Out with shame.  Out with fear.  Out with backup plans and safety nets, like stockpiles of wealth and closets full of things we might need someday.  Give them to the ones who need them now, because they need them now, and we need room.

And in this way we offer up our hands, our feet, our work, our lives, our bodies, souls, our minds, our strength, with the expectation that God in us will move them, move us, shape them, shape us, through the great and unexpected fact that God has made his home with us. 

It is because this indwelling is God’s delight, purpose, and stated goal that we too seek to live lives whose delight, purpose, and stated goal is no less than this: that he abide in us, and we in him. 


Sermon preached at St C's for Easter 5, May 6, 2012.

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