Sunday, December 8, 2013

God Almighty, Party Pooper
(When the 2nd Coming Comes Too Soon)

In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday mornings, when I was a kid, my mom would frequently take a much needed leave of us boys and my dad and the house and find some time away for herself. That left us, the boys, with - what we saw at the time as - some much needed leave of our Mom. No rules. No stifling injunctions to keep the place clean. No limits on the sugary cereals and candies and their amounts. Just out and out rowdiness. Domestic anarchy. 

For a morning, anyway. 

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and these Saturday mornings were never long enough. “Tell me about it,” I can hear Momma saying. We would enter our man-time in the knowledge that a dawn would come, that the curtain would drop, that we better have the place looking nice when she walked back through the door. So formed the crucial dilemma: how much time to flit away, and how much to save for the necessary acts of tidying up the house? It wasn’t uncommon for us to repeatedly rationalize “just a few minutes more” even until the moment of the engine’s announcing that the car had returned in the driveway.

Madness in that moment. Chaos. Heathen prayers for a neighbor’s neighborly intervention. Some tomatoes dropped off, perhaps, from a backyard garden. Something. Anything. Just a few seconds more. Futility. Futile, because some things simply take the time they take and can’t be made up for with twenty second’s effort. Footsteps up the walk. A hand on the knob. Turning.

Judgment and the second coming.

I suspect this is actually how most of us think about the second coming of Jesus. That is, we don’t mind that we don’t believe Jesus will return anytime soon (if ever), because - if/when he does - his coming will be an unwanted interruption of the lives we were more than content to live without God. 

Case in point, an evangelical friend of mine was engaged and one week away from his wedding date. Another good friend decided to have some fun and spook my almost married friend. So one day he poked his head outside the apartment window and cried, “Christian, Christian, the moon is turned to blood! I think this is the end!” My friend’s face went white. “But I’ve never had sex!” he exclaimed. “Why can’t the Almighty give me just a couple more days!” Just a couple days more.

That’s the working image: God Almighty, party pooper.

If you imagine Christ’s coming again as a parent returning to bust up your party, then you will naturally imagine preparing for the coming of Christ as a desperate mad scramble to clean up the house. Put if off for as long as you will, but one day, at least, you’ll need to get right. And, if you can’t get it right, at least look like you’re trying. Thus the great Advent t-shirt which reads, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” 

The world is full of Christians attempting to stave off the judgment of God by their busyness. “What beef can God possibly have against me?” we wonder. “Look at all the good we’re doing.” At the heart of this busyness is the conviction that the Kingdom is our assignment to produce for God before the dreaded deadline - a divinely commissioned term paper due at the end of the semester.

What else can it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?

“Be prepared,” the Baptist cries. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And his warning seems to reinforce our fears that God is in the driveway. John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees who came seeking baptism that the axe is at the root; Christ will come with fire.

And maybe it’s as straightforward as that; get your act together or feel the burn. Generations before us came to faith with some version of that message. Of course, it’s significant - and uncomfortable - that Jesus doesn’t threaten fire to the ones who haven’t perfected, or cleaned up, their acts, but exactly to the ones who have, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the righteous, religious leaders. And the fruit he demands of them is not the fruit of a finished, polished, mostly accomplished kingdom, but the fruit of repentance. The fruit of “I’m sorry.” The admission that the Pharisees and Sadducees had gotten the story wrong.

That’s absurd. Holy people don’t get things wrong,  says the preacher. It’s the riffraff God came to burn. Is Jesus really suggesting that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ various attempts to produce the kingdom as an independent study project apart from relationship with God are really things of which to repent? But if God doesn’t want us to be doing the work by ourselves, what exactly does God expect us to do? What should we be expecting God to do?

Christ will come with fire. And fire, throughout the scriptures is a sign of the presence of God. Light in the darkness. Back at the very beginning, when God first appeared to a young Abram, and Abram expressed disbelief at the promise God had given him, God appeared as a fire pot and a flaming torch and passed between the pieces of the sacrifice to seal God’s covenant with the one who would leave everything in pursuit of God’s promise. And God is still calling Abraham’s children to leave what is known for the unknown and surprising promises of God. Fire is the bush that burned but wasn’t consumed; God telling Moses that God’s desire was to set his people free. God’s desire is still to set his people free. Fire is the pillar that led the Hebrews out of Egypt through the darkness of the night, into the land of promise. God is still about the work of bringing people through the darkness, into promise. Fire is how the early church depicted Jesus born to Mary; Mary who, like the bush, held the presence of God, and was not consumed. God’s desire is still to be borne by his people, that all who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life. Fire is how God poured out his Spirit on his people at Pentecost and gave them the power to give their lives in the proclamation of the Gospel, so that the presence of God might reach, heal, and transform to the ends of the earth. God’s heart is still to reach, heal, and transform through the Body of Christ, for the good of all people and each, last cherished person, to the ends of the earth. 

Fire is the presence of God for the people of God, the desire of God to be in relationship with us. The fact of God to be in relationship with us. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, Friend, the Comforter, the One who intercedes for God’s people with sighs to deep for words. The presence of God is the help of God that burns with mercy; “the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” “…A signal to the peoples…” “God is our refuge and strength,” sings the psalmist, “a very present help in trouble.”

At the Advent workshop this past Wednesday, Pres House and SFH together, we talked about God’s promise to help. I told the group about a friend of mine who intentionally sets one goal every week that won’t work without God’s help. We talked about how my friend’s goal made most of us uncomfortable; it felt irresponsible; it felt strangely conceited - why would God care?; it felt frightening - to ask for God’s help would be to surrender the vision and direction of my life as I presently imagined it. But then we wondered: we who have been planted in Christ and his story, didn’t we answer every promise of our baptism with, “I will, with God’s help”? 

What should we be expecting God to do? We should expect God to show up, to be present; to be God for God’s people. What exactly does God expect us to do? God expects us to expect God to be present for us - with eyes to see and ears to hear - and to be passionately present to God’s presence among us; to adopt a posture of expectation for the salvation that we need. 

Prepare the way. Not perfection achieved apart from God so much as forgiveness, sought and received, at the hand of God. Not the distorted art of not needing God, but in choosing to end the hiding from God. Hiding was the first fruit of sin, of Adam and Eve. Shame at their nakedness. The sin we never quite got over, belief that God, in the end, would not love us as God found us.

Easier to act like God won’t find us. But here’s the Good News we’ve feared all along: God has found us. To free us. To save us. To send us. To love us. Praise God. We’ve been found.

In the Name of the living and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 


Sermon preached at SFH, 12.8.13.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Word Became Flesh:
Reflections - and Questions - for a Fruitful Advent

A conversation of the St. Francis House and Pres House communities. December 4, 2013.

This is a lot of fun, to be with you tonight. Wonderful to have friends from Pres House and St. Francis House together like this. Thank you, Amy, for inviting us, and for inviting me to speak with you tonight about Advent.

Just quickly, Mark has been a great friend to me in my time on this campus, and a few of our crew had the recent pleasure of traveling with some of you from the Pres House on the TaizĂ© Pilgrimage of Trust at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, so the friendship between St. Francis House and Pres House is more than on paper, and I’m grateful for that. It’s really good to be with friends tonight.

Okay. Advent. 

Raise your hand if you grew up around Advent - you have memories spanning years that come to mind specific to this season. Now, raise your hand if you discovered Advent more recently. Finally, anybody for whom the word Advent is altogether new?

Describe Advent for me - in a sentence or so. What do you see when you think about Advent? What sounds do you hear when you think about Advent? What comes to mind?

Does anybody have scriptures that come to mind when you think about Advent? What is the best part of Advent?

[At this point, we spent a good amount of time talking informally about Advent's basics - what it means, history, background of the liturgical year, etc.]

Lots of variety in practice across the Church with respect to an Advent season or its equivalent, but all Christian traditions agree that the coming of Christ is something for which to prepare. All Christians agree that Christ’s coming takes time.

One of the things people will tell you about the holiday season - by which they usually mean Christmas, not Advent - is that it has gotten too materialistic. But when you worship a God who was born to a Jewish, teenage mother in a food trough hid in a dusty Middle Eastern town, surrounded by the kinds of animal smells you and I would have to drive to Waunakee to enjoy, you wonder if materialism doesn’t get a bad rap. Jesus born to Mary. Which is why, in part, we have Advent. Because a virtual Savior might have come overnight. Peace on earth could have shipped via Amazon Prime, I suppose, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t quick. It’s wasn’t tidy. It was more embodied than that. The Savior was born to Mary, which means long after Joseph and Mary had settled on a name and painted the nursery, but well before the Christ child was born, there were weeks of difficult nights in which Mary couldn’t ever get comfortable and Joseph either held her or slept on the couch, and the day couldn’t come soon enough. Advent is about waiting exactly because the Word became flesh, material. To borrow an old clichĂ©, whose age proves its truth, matter matters. 

I want to push on this point. Buying stuff on Black Friday doesn’t make you a materialist (1); material gluttony and instant gratification don’t draw you into the present moment and a keener sense of the material world around you. Which is more materially compelling: buying beef wrapped in cellophane at the local grocery store or raising a calf on the farm to market weight? Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that buying too much stuff isn’t a a major challenge to your spiritual life; it’s just a lousy way to become a materialist, because the major challenge to the spiritual lives of many of us is not that consumerism makes us too material, but that, in consuming stuff, we become numb to materials - we become not nearly material enough.

Some examples: an atheist friend of mine is driven batty by the number of Christians who take out their social justice frustrations on Facebook, liking every cause they can click-on, turning potential real-life sacrifices - that might leave marks on their bodies - into cleverly packaged, disembodied trends designed to manipulate emotions and generate hits. Easy to pick on Facebook, I suppose, but the same objection could be made to those of us who over-fixate on partisan politics and different levels of public policy and forget the call to us - the Church, Christians in community - to love the neighbor next to us in word and deed; to model, as Church, a compelling alternative to the structures of the world. Finally, few things are more sad and confusing than the disregard of so-called materialists for the state and well being of the earth. If consumerism has made us materialists, it has made us very bad materialists.

Of course, I’m using materialism and materialistic in ways slightly outside of common usage. Most of the time ‘materialistic’ means an over-concern with possessions and/or money. It’s ironic that materialistic has come to mean overly concerned with money, I think, because few things have come to be less material than money. Hours of very real work, at very specific tasks, for which you study and spend your lives, reduced to slips of paper or - more commonly - debit card balances and online transactions. 

Even consumption - the thing that ostensibly money is for - is not as concrete as we imagine. William Cavanaugh, Professor of Theology at DePaul University, reminds his readers that “…pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit” (Being Consumed, 48). That is, once you have the thing, you lose what you were in fact after. According to Cavanaugh, what you were after is an abstracted attempt to “escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over” (Ibid.).

The significance of all of this, for Christians, is just to say that the Son of God born to Mary cannot be reduced to an abstracting slip of paper, a sort of dollar bill of the divine representing some other reality. When Christians say ‘God,’ we mean the God who revealed God’s self to the world in Jesus. We mean the Word became flesh - particular, muddy, Jewish flesh - and dwelt among us. This is why Christians need Advent and also why Advent needs Israel. If you like your faith precut and wrapped in cellophane, you won’t have room for Israel. But Advent takes us back, behind the grocery store, to the stall, where the animals are. Advent is about the longing of Israel: 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel,
shall come to thee o Israel!

Jesus fulfills the hope of Israel. And the people born of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope is called Church. And this makes sense. You can’t talk about Jesus born to Mary for very long without talking about the Body of Christ, in all of its senses. And anyone who thinks this is over-spiritualizing materiality hasn’t tried very long to live in the Body of Christ. As messy and full of asses as that very first manger. As material as goods shared in common, enemies embraced, and real sins forgiven.

Advent is about the Body. About Jesus, born to Mary. About the Eucharist - the bread and wine - and about the Church, the Body of Christ, and her waiting for Christ’s coming again. Advent is about the Body and what the Body is for: a light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people, Israel. To prepare for Christ’s second coming is to live lives that physically point to, expect, and embody the lordship of Jesus; lives that turn old and cluttered storage rooms into actively waiting nursery rooms. Rooms that won’t make sense until the child makes a home there. And the child we receive is for the life of the world. This is where Advent gets dangerous.

One day, Augustine says he hears God talk to him, and God says this to Augustine, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me” (Ibid., 54-55). Cavanaugh, again, says that “[in] the consumption of the Eucharist, we cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient; we are simultaneously fed and become food for others” (Ibid., 56).

Christians are fed and become food for others. Advent is about the Body. And because Advent is about the Body it cannot dissolve into disembodied contemplation and cannot be lived without friends. To be food for others is to understand that Christian materialists are called to use the materials we’ve been given for both the building up of the Body and the exercise of the Body, both caring for the Body and reaching out beyond the Body, with Christ, pointing Christ, seeking Christ, using our materials in ways that bring us closer to the flesh and blood suffering, joys, and utter materiality of the people around us. Along the way, our things become more valuable, not less, because our lives and all we have carry in them the potential to glorify God and facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God.

I realize that ending with instructions like ‘be food for others’ and ‘facilitate the flourishing of the whole family of the Kingdom of God’ risks sounding like a hopelessly poetic abstraction of a message whose point is to be concrete. Part of my reluctance to trot out a concluding “10 ways to be a Christian materialist this Advent” list is that I think you are capable of a greater imagination than what I would give you. But we’ll connect after the small group question time to make sure, and we’ll see that we’ve at least got a start.

Some questions:
  • What is the best part of Advent?
  • What scriptures does Advent call to mind?
  • What concrete disciplines might help us be living food for others?
  • Remembering the particularity of Jesus at his birth sets us up to pay attention to the particularity of his whole life. What do you find most challenging/exciting/disturbing about the life of Jesus
  • What practices help you stay present to the material world around you?
  • How is your faith journey presently and positively engaged with the Body of Christ called the Church?
  • A friend had a practice of setting one goal each week that could not possibly be met without God’s help. What practices help you live expectantly in relation to God?
  • What other question do you wish had been asked? (After answering this question, ask yourself that question.)


Some ideas toward a Christian materialism:

Read the Old Testament. You can’t be a materialist without genealogies.  
Make your own stuff.
Know the people who make your stuff.

A few years ago, I set a modest goal: I would walk home for lunch and, on my walk, I would think only about the walk to and from the office, checking the time when I first noticed that I had become distracted.  The next day, over the course of two eighteen minute walks, I never made it longer than two and a half minutes.  This confirmed my suspicion that I was all but handed over to fantasies: focused on the 'unreal' and not present even to myself.

In order to step back from "the great system of collusive fantasy", I began talking out loud to myself, in order to put a leash on the wandering mind - I think faster than I can speak.  Next, I made an eighteen minute covenant to only speak true things about my immediate and visible reality.  I wasn't very good at this at first.  I started simply: blue car, unkempt lawn, flag pole, etc.  But after a few minutes, I began noticing my reality in greater and greater detail.  The house with no cars and the front porch left on.  The boat left out for cleaning after yesterday's fishing expedition.  The teachers wrangling up  children on the playground.  In all of this, I refrained from ascribing motivation or intention: what is actually happening?  Strangely, if you do this long enough, you ending up sounding a lot like Garrison Keillor.

This practice helped me see and stay present to the material world, what is. It helped me better see the material needs of those around me as well as the material possibilities with which to serve others. To be food for others begins with discerning the Body of you receive and in seeing the others around you, where you are.


(1) At no point in the above does "materialist" refer to the formal term in the context philosophy; here, we're going for the dictionary's 3rd definition: "a great regard for worldly concerns."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Exit 1069
(On Eager Longing and Baby Barf)

Last Sunday's was a note-less homily. Here's a paraphrase...

If I asked you to condense the gist of it into just two words, I wonder what two words you would use to capture the heart of the season called Advent. Maybe your two words will change as the season unfolds. Undoubtedly, they will. Just now on the front end - with new colors and candles, new prayers, and what you've heard of the Scripture - which two words would you choose to describe Advent?

(A time of sharing as folks shared their two words - which were probably as good or much better than anything good in the rest of what follows.)

Here are my words: Eager longing.

Let me tell you a story about eager longing.

Back before Rebekah, the kids, and I moved to Madison and joined the community of faith at SFH, I served a parish just outside of Corpus Christi, Texas - a coastal city a few hours south of Houston. Corpus Christi is a wonderful city, but it's not on the way to much of anything. You go there to go there. If you are headed to other places, the road to Corpus Christi is the longer way to go.

One of the reason people do go to CC is fishing. It's a big reason why a lot of folks live there. If you love to fish and live in Texas, Corpus Christi is the place to be. While I enjoyed living on the coast, I don't care for fishing, and I am deathly allergic to fish. Ah well...

Anyway, every year there was this diocesan fishing tournament hosted at a town two up from ours on the coast. The cause was tremendous - funds for the World Mission efforts of the diocese - and folks from all over the diocese - which spanned from not quite Austin to the Mexico border - would come out to participate.

Though I don't care for fishing, and couldn't eat the fish, I would usually look for a couple of regular fishing guys to go out with, confident that at least I probably wouldn't drown. And they were great friends with which to share a boat. Better than this anti-fishing fisherman deserved.

But fishing starts early - we'd meet up at 5 a.m. And fishing is smelly - we'd have a couple buckets of shrimp as bait. And fishing is not always rewarding by the traditional "catching fish" measure. In a few years of tournaments, my prized haul totaled one sock and a string ray. One year we skipped lunch in hopes of better luck, leaving us sunburned, fishless, and hungry at day's end. My bishop that year said I looked like Tom Hanks from Castaway. Har har.

There was a highlight, though. Even when the fishing was bad (and it usually was), there was this banquet at the end. And more than the bacon-wrapped-shrimp at this banquet, I looked forward to the banquet for the gathering of amazing friends from all over. I had the privilege of serving two churches in that diocese over just less than six years. Throw in a Cursillo, Vocare, and some other diocesan events, and to be in the presence of most of those friends at one time was something close to an overwhelming joy. You have friends like this, too. The "I don't even have to think about how I am with you" friends. Those kinds of friends.

So the last year we did the tournament, I came home from the a morning of not catching fish, sunburned. I showered, cleaned up. Rebekah and a baby Annie joined me in the car. And we headed up the highway for a twenty seven minute ride. And I had that "can't wait to be there" bug.

After what seemed like an eternity - minute twenty-five - I spotted the sign on the horizon, about a mile away, saying that Rockport, our exit, was just a mile after that. Two more minutes until the banquet.

And then a sound - not a mechanical, vehicular, or car crunching sound. But a bodily sound. A baby, bodily sound. A liquid, projectile, across the backseats kind of sound. I pulled over. Rebekah jumped out and started mopping up the mess, which was everywhere. After sometime, we saddled back up. I took a wistful glance back at the sign. One more mile. I looked at Rebekah, and smiled, and we turned around and, at drove the twenty-five minutes back home.

Eager longing. The reality was fully present. And yet we would have to wait.

Advent is about coming, Christ's coming. Which means it is about our waiting. And I've wondered how our worship can be marked in ways that reflect this. That the doing that needs doing is not ours, can't be filled with words, leaves us wondering what it means to wait with love and patience.

And so we'll pray our prayers of the people this Advent in silence. There are stations around the chapel. You can paint prayers on rocks, write words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication on the marker board, especially your intentions for the Church and the world. You can sit in silence. Light a candle before the icon of Christ. Come up and kneel before the altar. One theologian invites us to imagine the candles on the altar as Mary and Joseph and shepherds and oxen, all come together around the presence of Jesus. That's how we come to the altar, too, in this season, I guess. As sheep around the creche. Together in silence, we'll wait.

We'll start the silence with singing (the first verse of hymn 66) and end it the same way.

Just now, a closing reflection from Augustine, on eager longing:
"My soul pines for your salvation," that is, it languishes in its expectation. This is a happy weakness, for though it points up the desire for a good that is not yet obtained it also shows the eagerness for which it is sought. From whom do these words proceed - from the origins of humanity until the end of the world - if not from the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the purchased people, every one who, on this earth and in their time, has lived, lives, or will love in the desire of Christ? 
The witness of this longing is the saintly and aged Simeon, who in receiving Christ in his arms exclaims: "Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed." For "it was revealed to him by theHoly Spirit that he would not experience death until he had seen the Anointed of the Lord." 
The desire of this old man is, according to our faith, the desire of all the saints of the previous ages. Thus, the Lard himself said to his disciples: "I assure you, many a prophet and many a saint longed to see what you see but did not see it, to hear what you hear but did not hear it." Hence, they also must be numbered among those who chant: "My soul pines for your salvation." 
This desire of the saints was not fulfilled in the past and it will not be fulfilled in the future until the consummation of the ages, when "the Desired of all the nations" will come, as promised by the Prophet. Thus Paul can write: "From now on a merited crown awaits me; on that Day the Lord, just judge that he is, will award it to me - and only to me, but to all who have looked for his appearing with eager longing." 
The desire of which we are speaking arises from the love of Christ's appearance, and it is about this that Paul further states: "When Christ our life appears, then you shall appear with him in glory." 
In the first ages, before the child-bearing of the Virgin, the Church counted saints who desired the coming of Christ in the flesh. In the post-Ascension ages in which we live, the same Church numbers other saints who desire the appearance of Christ to judge the living and the dead. Never, from the beginning to the end of times, has this desire of the Church known the slightest diminishment, except during the period when the Lord lived on earth in the company of his disciples. 
Thus, it is the entire Body of Christ, groaning in this life, whom we must fittingly understand as chanting in this psalm: "My soul pines for your salvation; I hope in your word." His word is the promise; and hope enables us to wait with patience for that which is not seen by those who believe.

Preached December 1, 2013.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Myths of Black Friday
(It's Worse Than You Think)

From the looks of the Facebook feeds, it's the violence that unnerves us.  Sure, there are those people who don't like the idea of stores being open at all on Thanksgiving Day and/or the day after - more than a few folks believing that to require employees to show up at all on these particular days is a shameless grab for the almighty dollar played out at the expense of those who can't afford to say "no." The awkwardness of that outrage is that it is often voiced the loudest by those who can afford to say "no," that is, by those who have other jobs, presumably jobs that give paid holidays. The alternative to working Thanksgiving Day for many of those who do so is not a day of joy spent with family but a week of stressors, wondering how bills will get paid with an involuntary day off. Similarly, it can be easy to forget that to be able to afford to sit out the 50% savings and thus spare one's self exposure to the mobs is likewise a privilege of wealth. 

Which brings us back to violence. "Sickening," said one poster, capturing in a word the sentiments of countless others. It's hard to disagree. Death tolls ought not, we rightly contend, be a part of the after-turkey shopping experience. 

But there is a difficult truth in the reality of Thanksgiving Day melees. The difficult truth is that these days are not aberrations, but are rather visual manifestations of the violence that marks our consumption on all the other days. I don't mean that you and I or others are always pushing people over in the check out lines at grocery stores, but that it is disingenuous to pretend that the price of the consumerist "success" in America is not as violent in terms of global impact and exploitation of the poor as the stories that come out of Black Friday - even the success that allows some of us, yours truly included, to sit at home, from our couches, and bemoan the lack of humanity unfolding before us, from the pedestals of our laptop computers.


What does separate the consumerism of Black Friday from the year's other 364 days is that it takes place, ostensibly, for others; these are gifts we are buying for those whom we love. 

Nick Offerman (a.k.a., Parks and Rec's Ron Swanson) recently used a guest platform on the Conan O'Brien show to make the case that every mother everywhere has made a million times before him: to make something for your loved ones, he said, is the best gift of all. Steal a sheet of paper from the copier at work, he said, and make a card. Glue a piece of nature on the card, for extra points. 

Offerman's interview was at the same time sincere and crass/contrived, but it got me thinking: how many times has my desire to give a handmade gift been stymied by my lack of ability - real or perceived? I mean, you can only make so many stolen-paper Christmas cards. Maybe Black Friday is as much about the limits of our skills, knowledge, and imaginations as it is about violence and immorality. Maybe violence and immorality, in this instance, names our frustration with ourselves. What if the self-perceived paucity of our capacity for homemade gift-giving is rooted in our inability to see ourselves as worthy of the love and investment necessary to be people capable of giving good gifts?

The challenge and reminder that skills and knowledge are worth cultivating exactly because they are most appropriately used to serve others leaves me with a Black Friday lesson more interesting and engaging than "there but for the grace of God, go I."

“There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.” Bernard of Clairvaux


I am aware that to reframe the Black Friday issue this way - and to have cited the fabulously mustachioed Nick Offerman's call to handmade gift giving - will strike some as drenched in the privilege I decried at the start. "Who has time to take up wood shop?" There may be some truth in that, but I believe such an objection grossly misjudges the capacity and desire of people in all socioeconomic positions to grow toward and give simple, beautiful gifts that strengthen the bonds between one another. I remember John Paul II saying of his pastoral visits with the homebound that he never left a person without asking the continuing prayers of the one he was visiting. Because relationship is not a one-way street. He saw in those moments the responsibility both to serve and encourage the other's heart and capacity to serve in love. JP II understood that consumption alone - whether full-price or half-off - degraded the dignity of the one who is made in the image of the self-giving God whose love has carved us on the palms of his hands.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tax Law, Exemptions, and Discerning the Body Politic

You've heard last week's news already: a federal district judge (my federal district judge) found the clergy housing allowance tax exemption, established in 1954, unconstitutional. I'll let others cover the legal bases. In sum: no action until the appeals process plays out, though each level of the appeals process raises the jurisdictional stakes of the outcome. Lots of reactions from anger to joy to resignation, depending on whom you talk to. 

Some individuals have wondered out loud if the vocal level of response to the decision, among clergy, isn't telling of the Church's true priorities, but I do not think clergy should feel embarrassed by their interest in this decision. The majority of clergy I know do not prioritize, or obsess over, the accumulation of wealth. Like most wage-earners, clergy simply want clarity as to if/how they can care for their families, given this potentially drastic change in real income.  

At least as significantly, however, clergy should not allow themselves to be shamed away from making theological observations about something so mundane as tax law. 

At this point I should add that I am not at all sure churches should have, and/or rely on, tax exemptions - fully realizing that the Church as it exists would go underground without them. Indeed, the practical effect of tax exemptions probably compromises the Church's witness far more than the integrity of our nation's civil political order. But I also think it is either deceptive or delusional to say that many of the "secular" causes subsidized by tax breaks and/or exemptions do not involve objects of popular worship. (I'm looking at you, NFL - amazingly, a government-recognized non-profit, Monsanto, and the American civil religion of patriotism.)

The truly interesting question raised by the judge's decision has to do with what counts as religion. Indeed, the name of the plaintiff organization - "Freedom From Religion" - at the same time raises the question of what counts as religion and presumes to have identified a clear answer for what I am not at all sure is clear. 

Moreover, the answer to the question, "What counts as religion?" has everything to do with what we understand to be political and, by extension, worthy of presence and discourse in the public sphere, because the State of civil politics is widely (and, I would argue, uncritically) understood to be legitimized by its ability to protect the public peace from the destructive impulses of things like religion. (1) In other words, to be counted as religion is to be counted out of politics, which is to jettison de facto any understanding of politics involving God. 

The jettisoning of God from politics is problematic for Christians, but not for the reason many Christians think. That is, a truly theo-political imagination does not lead to more Christian politicians, but to an understanding of the Church - the body of Christ - as the basic unit of politics. On this point, Rowan Williams writes that Augustine "engaged in a redefinition of the public itself, designed show that it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political." To this, William Cavanaugh adds that 
what is crucial for a true politics, Augustine argues, is that a commonwealth must be based on justice, and justice depends on giving each his or her due, but that is impossible where God is not given God's due in sacrifice. A true social order is based on sacrifice to God, for only when God is loved can there by love of others, and the common acknowledgement of right. The true story of the world as revealed in the Scriptures is not one of the restraint of a primordial violence, but of a peaceful creation fallen and restored in Christ's self-sacrifice. A true social order is based not on defeat of enemies but on an identification with victims through participation in Christ's reconciling sacrifice. According to Augustine, then, the true sacrifice on which a true politics is based is the Eucharist: 
"This is the sacrifice of Christians: we, being many, are one body in Christ. And this also is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, known to the faithful, in which she teaches that she herself is offered in the offering she makes to God" (Cavanaugh, 10-11).
I confess that remembering that politics begins with the Eucharist probably does little to change the reality that changing tax policy could, in the (perhaps near) future, create financial duress sufficient to force the Church underground. But I believe that remembering that politics begins with the Eucharist is to remember that "[to] participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God's imagination. It is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ" (Ibid., 279).

And I believe that to be so caught is enough.


(1) Helpful here is William Cavanaugh's astounding Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (with which many readers of my blog, being nerds, will already be familiar). In it, Cavanaugh details how "[the] rise of the modern centralized state is predicated...on the transfer of authority from particular associations to the state, and the establishment of a direct relationship between the state and the individual" (10), and how
In modernity, we have been scripted into a drama in which state coercion is seen as necessary to subdue a prior violence already inherent internally in civil society and externally in the form of other nation-states. Given that the state arises in conjunction with the atomization of civil society and the creation of national borders, however, it can be said that the state defends us from threats which it itself creates. The church buys into this performance by acknowledging the state's monopoly on coercion, handing over the bodies of Christians to the armed forces, and agreeing to stay out of the fabricated realm of the "political" (9).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Thief & His God
(A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

Sermon preached at Grace Church and SFH, November 24, 2013, for Christ the King Sunday.

[Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I serve as Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry just down the street. It is good to be with you. I have to remember to introduce myself to you because this space and your faces are so familiar, for which I am grateful. As you may remember, SFH officed out of and worshiped at Grace Church last year, while the apartment and relocation project on University Avenue was completed. So it is especially sweet to be back with you, to be able to express the thanks of our community for you - your graciousness and hospitality - and to worship the living God with you. It is good to be with friends.]

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the Church year. Next week is Advent I, the Church’s New Year. No firework fanfare for the Christian's new year, but the quieter new beginning of wreaths and candles and nervous preparations for a child. That Thanksgiving is this Thursday will cause most of us to forget between now and then that next Sunday is Advent I, but once we emerge from the Black Friday smoke, Advent I it will be. Again. Like an unnervingly predictable thief in the night. We Christians like to complain that the Christmas music hits the airwaves too soon, that the decorations come out the day after Halloween now, but then we’re surprised how quickly Advent finds us. Ah well… You've been warned. :)

But all that is next week. Just now, today, it’s Christ the King Sunday, a day to collect the year that has brought us to this place, to the edge of the Promise. Of course, mid-to-late November is a strange place to end a year - it doesn’t fit any of our academic, fiscal, or terrestrial rhythms - but I suppose this is good practice for remembering that the end seldom comes on our terms. 

So we stand at the back end of the year that was. We stand tall. We stand tired. We stand every which way in between. We stand remembering the celebrations and sorrows this year has received. Great feasts and joys. Trials and tears. Both here, corporately, and in your soul, personally. In your life: both bright horizons and painful losses. We remember the carols we sang in late December and our Lenten preparations for the Paschal feast. We remember pancakes, flipped and devoured, and laughter. We remember the Great Fire of the Easter Vigil and the champaign reception afterwards. We recall those who have come into our communities, and those who have departed. We think back to countless meals shared with one another and others, even in shelters. Bread broken around this table with friend and stranger. We bear the soft impressions of several hundred daily prayers. And, looking back, we become acutely aware of the many and steady ways this life of faith has shaped us, is shaping us, even if we don’t see it at the time. And many times in spite of ourselves. But today we glimpse it, if however briefly: the accumulation of a thousand tiny, broken steps, walked prayerfully, in the midst of ordinary life.

Moments like this - the occasional glance back over the shoulder - they help us take stock, spot progress, and so inspire the patience of the ones who would endeavor to walk the way of the cross. Inspired patience is important; without it, one easily loses sight of the long view; like Peter, walking on the water’s waves, fear or desperation can overwhelm us; we panic. Without the long view, we might well forget the One whose crucified hands hold us on this journey. 

Without inspired patience, the call back, and long view, we will inevitably find ourselves arriving at exasperated questions like, “Lord, when do we finally get to slough off all this holiness and be the honest-to-goodness, son-of-a-gun sinners we have wanted to be all along? When can we finally take off the neckties and just be ourselves? Stop pretending. Maybe you aren’t that crass. Put another way, with respect to the life of faith, what do you sometimes wish you were doing instead? Even on your good days, what kinds of things push up against your patience? What things have you given up to follow this Jesus, maybe against your better judgment? 

A good friend of mine pulled me aside one day, said, “It’s strange, Jonathan. All these conversion stories, these guys like Augustine. They get converted, follow Jesus. And you listen to their stories, and there’s no originality. Two-thousand years later, they’re still Augustine all over. Some version of ‘You know, I used to sleep around, had as many women as I wanted; used to have money, more than I could spend, but I tried to spend it anyway - on drugs, power, the wrong kinds of friends. I’m telling you, it was terrible. But, thank God, I’m free from that now. I have Jesus. Thank God, I am free.” My friend would roll his eyes. He’d say, “Women, money, power, and fame. Yeah, must have been really miserable for you, before Jesus came along.”

Some people come to the cross because they find there a living hope, a true alternative to the violence of the world; a peace that passes understanding; a simple joy in the presence of Jesus. They leave everything and follow, like the old song says, “No turning back. No turning back.” But others of us have trouble letting go of the things the life of faith would have us sacrifice. Some might go so far as to imagine a heaven full of all the vices they were asked to swear off in this life. A well-earned payoff for those who, in this life, bit their lips, bottled up their resentments, and took the high road more times than they remember. But, boy, do they remember. And they wonder: when will it all pay off? 

If ever there was one, Christ the King Sunday would seem like a day - the day of all days - on which the victory of God’s people could be celebrated at long last, in all its oft-postponed, unmitigated, raucous, and self-indulgent glory. No more need for false modesty. No need to fake niceness. A day when we can finally call things like we see ‘em, open up the throttle, and celebrate the victory that, as Christians, belongs to us. Our vindication. The King in his glory, mighty to save. The justice we had prayed for, demanded, and on the terms we had demanded and prayed for. A kingdom of our own making. So close we can taste it. Enemies crushed under our feet. Maybe the Church could even unveil a fight song for the day - an ecclesiastical riff off of the old university tradition. An Episcopal ‘On Wisconsin’ - yes, our very own fight song! That’s what kings do, right? They fight. They conquer. They win. 

Of course, we know that kings win, but we would like to think of ourselves as too enlightened to be seen fighting religious wars in the public square. But watch how even the commitment not to fight in the name of religion opens us to the desire to finally defeat the other Christians who are not similarly enlightened. The ones who, by their crude incivilities, we imagine as giving the rest of us a bad name. There is always somebody to want to defeat. One priest liked to suggest to his flock that even marriage was, at bottom, daily practice in loving one’s enemies. If Christ the King Sunday is about kingship, and kingship is about victories, then surely today we get to beat somebody, right?

So the climactic, victorious, regal scene we’ve all been waiting for arrives at long last from Luke’s gospel, and it is Jesus, from the cross, mocked and spat upon, forgiving those who put him there. Telling some two-bit thief he’d never met that Paradise is his. The Kingdom in its glory. 

From the beginning, the distinctive thing God envisioned for Israel was that God himself would be Israel’s King. Later, God had somewhat reluctantly given in to the cries of the people and made other kings for Israel, and the kings, on the whole, had justified God’s initial reluctance. Jeremiah says they destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture. 

But just now, with this sordid thief at his side, the King is quietly reclaiming his Kingdom. The true King at long last restoring his reign; refusing the old, tired scripts of this world. Rejecting her stale appeals to power, force, and threat of death. Melting away the terror of Rome with the baffling words, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And with these words, this vagabond thief is admitted entrance before everyone else into the hallowed halls of the heavenly banquet. So much for neckties. So much for standards. So much for any moralistic efforts to wrest the Kingdom away from this insensible, crucified King. 

Truthfully, the whole thing’s embarrassing. You deserve better. How can a preacher be asked to defend this debacle, this absurd abdication, this mockery, of the appearance and actions proper to kings? Kings don’t talk to thieves like this one, much less die with them, give their lives for them. “Jesus, remember me,” says the thief. Tell me, why should you remember the One who remembers this thief? How do Christians account for this reckless admission? It goes against strong-arming come Stewardship season. It risks looking cheap. Let me ask you: how do you tell others the story, when they ask, about this thief and his God?

St. Paul takes a stab at it. He writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

The crucified King, pouring out himself and throwing wide the Kingdom’s doors; entrusting the message of reconciliation to us - even us - we hapless, happy thieves. This is our King. This is the One we will follow. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Live This Prayer: Reflections on Church & Mission

" authentic church is one that lives for others." Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Each morning, in the gentle and well-worn course of Morning Prayer Rite II, "unless the Eucharist or a form of general intercession is to follow," the rubrics invite me to add any one of three prayers for mission to the day's intercessions. Unlike many directives in the prayers, this rubric is not optional. Evidently, to pray to the God of Jesus Christ is to pray for the mission of God. By prayer, Christians learn to love the things that God loves. When we pray, we follow the unpredictably generous God whose love moves in mission.

Three prayers from which to choose. In reverse order: the third of these prayers asks God to pour his Spirit on us, such that we would reach forth our hands in love, bringing those who do not know Christ to the knowledge and love of Christ. The second of these prayers asks God to do all kinds of things to bring about the coming of God's kingdom. The first of these prayers asks God to receive our prayers for the Church.

In a game of "which of these three does not belong," I suppose most of us would pick "Church." Even before it became popular to question the Church, the Church's insular, country club reputation would have made such an association - Church and mission - uncomfortable. But the prayer book simply assumes that to pray for the Church is to pray for the mission of God; that to pray for members of the Church in her members' many vocations is to pray for love shared with strangers and Christ sought and proclaimed in the world Christ came to save; that to gather together as the People of God is already to witness to the God who has called us together, made us God's own, and sent us to proclaim Good News for the life of the world. What can it mean to live this prayer?

Pray for the mission of God. Pray for the Church.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Being God's Children
(Godzilla Returns!)

A guest sermon preached November 10, 2013, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Madison.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I serve as chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry just down the road at UW-Madison. It is wonderful to be with you this morning. I need to tell you, first off, how grateful I am for the friendship of the community at St. Luke’s: for Mother Paula, Diane Brown (who serves on the SFH board), and the many of you whose lives have touched us at St. Francis House, and perhaps been touched by St. Francis House, too, through the years. One thing I’ve learned in my first year-plus at SFH is that, when St. Luke’s brings the dinner, you better not miss. Table cloths, candlelight. Y’all bring a culinary experience. And so, this morning, I bring the thanks of many happy bellies filled. And I thank you for the invitation to worship the living God with you today.

I must confess, this morning’s gospel seems like a strange one to invite a campus minister to preach. Strange because it’s about marriage and resurrection, and I work mainly with students, young adults who aren’t married and can’t imagine themselves dead. 

But you do not need to be married or dead, I think, in order to appreciate what the Sadducees are up to with Jesus today. Hint: it’s a trap. Like this one time in confirmation class when a bold youth stood up and interrupted the priest to ask a question. He said, “Suppose a green dragon - no, Godzilla - ambles into the confessional one day. Godzilla tells you that he’s gonna destroy the whole of New York City. Tomorrow. Eat every last person. This is his confession. You, as the priest, aren’t supposed to tell, are you? What’s the word - confidentiality?  So the monster makes clear he’s gonna eat ‘em all. In the next twenty-four hours. You’re the only one who knows. So here’s the question: would you rat out Godzilla, or not?” The rest of us, twelve-year-olds in the class, sat there, utterly mesmerized by theological eloquence of the questioner. But none of us for a second believed the question was sincere. 

This is the Sadducee's Godzilla question. Two helpful things to know about the Sadducees’ trap is that Sadducees 1) don’t believe in resurrection, and 2) only count the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture as authoritative. So the Sadducees are true to form today when they quote a law from those first five books (because that’s all they quote) to make the idea of resurrection look silly. That’s the setup. Marriage just happens to be the poor, unsuspecting sap the Sadducees use to make their point.

So this guy and this gal marry, the Sadducees say, have no kids; he dies. His brother, following the law, marries the woman, “for his brother,” but they have no kids, either; he dies. And on and on. Seven times. Then comes the sneaky question, probably not a new one to Jesus, “In the ‘resurrection,’ therefore” - wink, wink - “whose wife will the woman be?” 

Now, before we go on, let’s say it out loud: the gist of the Sadducees’ question - to whom will the woman belong? - makes us cringe. (1) It is hard enough for us to process the unthinkable separation death presents to married persons without also having to navigate an ancient understanding of marriage in which the woman functions just a half-step above property. To make things worse, the law the Sadducees cite is clear that the brothers’ obligation to marry the woman is less about the provision of and care for the new widow, even as property, and more about providing an heir for the deceased brother, presumably a son who will carry on the family name. What a mess.

Jesus speaks his answer: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” 

Lots of things in Jesus’ answer on which one might comment, but I want to point out just one, what seems to be the central shift Jesus introduces to the imagination of the Sadducees. Remember that the law that required the brothers to marry the widow each time was intended to give the first brother an heir, a child. So the shift Jesus introduces to the Sadducees is aimed at the single word, “children.” For the Sadducees, who don’t believe in resurrection, the only hope left is having children. For Jesus, who elsewhere calls himself the resurrection, true hope rests in becoming children. Having. Becoming. That’s the shift at work in the assurance when Jesus says “…they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” 

Take a moment to feel the relief of that shift, as women are no longer measured simply by their ability to bear children for men. Feel the relief of that shift, as “having children becomes a vocation for some, rather than an obligation or a necessity for everyone.”(2) Feel the relief in the knowledge that imbalanced structures of power over and property do not, finally in the end, hold back the Kingdom of God in its fullness.

Jesus invites the Sadducees, and us, into the impossible possibility that resurrection makes children, even of the childless; that resurrection gives hope, even to those who have failed the hopes they had had for themselves and those whom life has unfairly disappointed. Jesus invites the Sadducees, and us, to receive the salvation that we could not and cannot make for ourselves, but which comes, in God’s mercy, as gift.

The Sadducees knew that, in the absence of resurrection, the only hopes worth having were the ones they had a hand in. Not unlike them, when we forget we walk as children in God’s sight, in resurrection light, even good Christians will live lives of what one theologian calls “practical atheism,” as we anxiously occupy ourselves with projects that can take or leave the presence and action of God. It’s a kind of self-protection. A kind of insurance against the possibility of God’s not showing up.

It is a difficult thing to be asked to need God. Easier to direct our distracted energies toward ambitions that would keep us from becoming too vulnerable. Easier to seek out achievements of wealth, status, and success by which a we might be remembered as good people who made a difference and left a mark for the better. The general term for all of these pursuits is what we call “legacy.”

And while none of these things are of themselves bad, the words of the psalmist echo over the emptiness of those who spent their lives trusting in these things: “The horse is a vain hope for deliverance,” sings the psalmist. “For all its strength it cannot save.”  

Anglican priest and theologian Sam Wells writes that, “There is no human survival after death. Instead there is real death and astonishing resurrection. And in every case that resurrection is not our human achievement but the gift of a gracious God.”

This morning, I wonder if you can imagine what the Sadducees could not: a gift that transcends even your ability to produce or control it. A gift you don’t have a hand in. I wonder if you can imagine a gift that extends beyond your known limitations and failures. Failures of the past and limitations of your future. I wonder how it feels for you to rest - rest - in the promise that the most important title you could ever hope to earn in this life is already yours: child of God. 

Humor me for a moment, and close your eyes and picture these words. Child. Of. God.

You are God’s child. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, death’s hold on you is ended. You are God’s child; you have been given all that you need to make a home in the generous waters of mercy, love, forgiveness, and peace. You are God’s child.

You can open your eyes.

And hear God’s reminder that, together, we are God’s children, for whom, through our Lord, death has been defeated. We are God’s children, set free from our debilitating attempts to save ourselves, and so we have become a people who can love one another and strangers without hesitation, reservation, or fear.

To live like a child may seem daunting, especially in the trust required to believe it’s true. But take heart. You are loved. God’s child is who you are.



(1) It should be noted that the marriage liturgy of our own prayer book allows for a woman to be, alternatively, presented or given away, usually by her father, reminding us that the idea of women as property, implicit in the Sadducee’s question, is not as historically distant from us as we might like to imagine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Where Did the Episcopalians Hide All the Bibles?
(Reflections on Scripture, Perception, and Prayer)

Last night, the conversation at St. Francis House began with my attempt at humor: "It's crazy how much of the Book of Common Prayer ended up in the Bible," I said. Heads nodded. I playfully reminded the group I was joking.

We proceeded to talk about Episcopalians and our notorious insecurity about our supposed biblical illiteracy. This despite the fact that 80% of the BCP is quoted from Scripture, much of which, in the prayer book's context, our students have memorized. The group noted both that 1) Episcopalians, in fact, read a larger portion of Scripture in worship than some of the traditions most vocal about the centrality of Scripture, and 2) the Lectionary that gives us this breadth of exposure also makes it difficult for Episcopalians to develop a strong sense of scriptural context. Liturgical context, yes. Scriptural context, not so much.

One student pointed out that the normative context for the reading of Scripture is the Church, which led another student to wonder why Episcopal churches, on the whole, have so few bibles in them. Which led her in turn to temporarily abandon the discussion while she gathered up the bibles in our lounge and distributed them throughout the chapel pews.

Some students observed that the prayer book is easier to get around than the Bible. Because I spent the better part of my youth despairing of ever being able to maneuver the many charts and page turns of Morning Prayer, I suspect this claim has more to do with use and familiarity in Sunday worship than superior tables of content.

One of the things we spent considerable time talking about is the idea that the Prayer Book is a concrete claim and creation expression about what Scripture is for. Scripture is God's self-revelation of God's self, and, by showing us more of God, Scripture is meant to help us pray.

We visited the 4-part structure of the collects:(1)

1) An address that names God
2) A descriptive attribute or action of God, rooted in Scripture
3) A petition
4) An ending in Jesus' name, often with a Trinitarian flourish

So the structure and rhythm of our prayers constantly ask us to consider (and reconsider) what God has shown us about God's self in Scripture. We noted that, in practice, we commonly pray this formula backwards, as in, "I want to pray for X. What scriptures can be put to God in order to validate my petition?" And I would stop short of saying this is a bad practice, though I do think the Psalms give us all the warrant we need for being brutally honest in our prayers, without feeling compelled to attribute something to God that doesn't quite fit. But I would also say that there is a tremendous opportunity in coming to Scripture with the question, "How might I pray in response to the revelation of God in these words?" That is, we have the opportunity to begin with God's revelation in Scripture, even before we know what we want from God.

As an exercise in beginning with Scripture, we took sheets of paper on which, at the beginning, the students had written two of their favorite stories from Scripture. "Take one," I said, "preferably not your own, and think about how the action of God in it might shape your petition."

As a group, we pulled the story of Lazarus and the rich man. For a descriptor, we settled on "whose Son became poor for us." How does this revelation teach us to pray? As the poor, to trust in God's provision, said one. As the rich, to seek and serve the poor, said another. What about our honest inclination, said another - even though we sometimes distrust the very rich - to believe that ultimately they got it right? That they are the winners worthy of our admiration? But this story says that God would teach us through those we are tempted, for whatever reasons, to despise. Shane Claiborne has suggested, I noted, that Christians consider the practice of attending a Bible study led by someone less learned than themselves, for exactly this reason. And should the Church ask to be poor? Why don't we pray for the rich with equal frequency?

For what do followers of the One who became poor for us pray?

You have noticed by now that this post is a more or less descriptive record of a free-flowing, only loosely structured conversation. That is, there's no brilliant conclusion coming. Just reflections the day after a conversation about Scripture and prayer books, and what they are for, which turns about to be a conversation about what we are for. And there are many answers, I am sure, to that question, but one at the heart of us: Prayer. For praise of the God who shows us God's self, and waits in loving patience as we prepare our response.


(1) For a fabulous explanation of collects, check out Fr. Matthew Moretz's excellent video blog.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Songs Saints Sing
(A Homily for All Saints Sunday)

I sing a song of the saints of God. This day, All Saints, Day, is all for singing. The emphasis lay on the joyful noise and the song itself, so the untrained ear need not fear the invitation of the psalmist, when he says: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.” Our usual places for singing are few: showers, cars, maybe the 7th inning stretch, if you are a fan of baseball. But nowhere do we sing as often with others as in the congregation of the faithful. So nowhere is our singing so bound up in listening, reconciling, and friendship. It’s as if both 1) to be a in communion is to sing, and 2) the song of God is a song to sing with others.

All Saints’ Day remembers the others, the countless others, who sang the song before us as well as those who sing it still, around us, across boundaries of geography, denomination, politics, even death: remembering that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So All Saints’ grows our imagination for what we mean when we say “Church.” 

I wonder what difference you imagine it makes that the believing faithful are knit together in one communion? And how does one rightly remember the saints now departed? For example, I know traditions for which having died disqualifies you from being prayed for. The idea is “She is with God, what more does she need?" (And, perhaps unspoken, "If she isn’t with God, it’s too late for her now.)” For what it’s worth, I hope you will pray for me after I die. And I hope you will not wait until then. It is good to remember that to sing with one another implies a commitment to pray for each other. 

The Prayer Book gives us prayers for departed saints, a helpful thing for those of us afraid we might accidentally pray the wrong thing. Evidently, good things to pray for include “that your will for them may be fulfilled,” peace, that light perpetual would shine upon them, and “that we may share with all your saints in your eternal kingdom.” 

Another good thing to pray, with respect to saints departed, is prayers of thanksgiving for what they gave you, the things they showed you, the ways they opened up the life of faith to you - the song they taught you to sing. We all have bits of undeserved holiness - little guide posts, virtuous habits, and unaccounted for wisdoms - that have stuck with us or to us in spite of ourselves, and we owe most of them to the lives of saints who modeled these things for us, sometimes without their knowing it. But they let us watch their attempts to love God. I thank God for the imagination and courage with which generations of saints lived their sometimes peculiar loves for God in public. So St. Paul says to the saints in Ephesus, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” 

So the tradition rightfully commends the departed to our prayers, but what about the prayers of the departed saints for us? A variety of beliefs and practices here, but what evidence does the tradition offer for the existence or content of their prayers? Just one thing, really. A small and wonderful thing. Not surprisingly, maybe, it’s a song:

“Therefore we praise you,” we pray, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
    Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Hosanna in the highest.”

The song and prayer of the departed saints is holy, holy, holy. Every time we gather, they meet us in this song. In our worship, the company of heaven are as inevitably present as Christ himself, so trained are they to celebrate his presence. Significantly, it is not they who join us, but we who join our voices to theirs in this thinnest of places, because these are the ones who never stop singing. And it’s the song of the conquering Lamb that they sing: holy, holy, holy.

To sing holiness like this can be daunting. For us, gathered around the table, lifting this marvelous song, to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses is meant to be a gift. The company of the saints is meant to give us encouragement and resources beyond ourselves for the high calling of praise and the good race set before us. But sometimes the effect is the opposite. After all, to be surrounded by an audience can be intimidating, as any little league batter belonging to over-zealous parents can attest. And this effect can be heightened in the Church, because many of us imagine the communion of saints as a kind of Hall of Fame for the faithful. The best of the best. In other words, we aren’t always convinced we belong.

The Beatitudes at the center of this day, especially, can seem frighteningly inaccessible to us. Blessed are the hungry, poor, and weeping? Blessed are the hated? Woe to the rich, full, and laughing? Woe to the well reputed? All of this seems to confirm our suspicion that saintliness is a noble ambition, but one that is hopelessly unrealistic for the rabble like us. But then we remember how the Son of God emptied himself, became poor, that he wept, that the Word by whom all things were made was held of no account. These things point to Jesus as the blessed in whom we find salvation and blessing and an alternative to our clumsy and decidedly un-saintly attempts to not need God. The self-emptying love of Jesus - even his forgiveness of us - reminds us that goodness apart from God is not the goal or object of the saints, but rather the Beatitudes name the gifts given to and found in the community centered on Christ. Like all the saints, then, we find our belonging and blessing around this table, in the presence of Jesus.

So without having to cross our fingers behind our backs, we sing a song of the saints of God as full-fledged saints of God. The emphasis lay on the joyful noise and the song itself, so the unskilled or untrained ear need not fear the invitation of the psalmist, when he says: “Sing to the LORD a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful.” Our usual places for singing are few: showers, cars, maybe the 7th inning stretch, if you are a fan of baseball. But nowhere do we sing as often with others as in this congregation of the faithful. So nowhere is our singing so bound up in listening, reconciling, and holy friendship. It’s as if both 1) to be in communion is to sing, and 2) the song of God is a song to sing with others. So… please stand and sing with me just now. Number 293.


St. Francis House, 11.3.13.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Failure Finds the Spirit

"If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?" George Carlin

So, first there was this video that took the world - and my children's hearts - by storm:

And, then, more stunning than the success of the video itself, comes this startling admission on Ellen: "If we give (the production team) crap idea, and we bring it back it to the talk show in Norway and say, 'Sorry guys, we had our window, we coulda made it big, but we screwed up, and we made a song about a fox. I'm sorry."

Ylvis' explanation of its backfiring self-sabotage reminded me of a friend who was constantly afraid of preaching a bad sermon. One day, he realized that this fear was driving his ministry in unhealthy ways. So he woke up and decided to preach a terrible sermon. "Get it out of the way," he told himself. My friend felt a relief settle over him, simply in the determination to do this: he would never again have to worry that his next sermon would be his first bad one. He would learn to rely on grace.

But then something happened. That Sunday, after the service was over, person after person thanked the preacher for the best sermon he had delivered in years.

So much gets revealed in stories like these: our pride, control needs, grace, the inexplicable resistance to fail more often, the false notions that we know ourselves and others best, the joy of being surprised. In addition to all of these, Christians believe in the surrender that we encounter the Holy Spirit, who has promised to give words and prayers to those who find themselves wordless and unable to pray.

The surprising, innovating, and improvising work of the Spirit is the subject of a conversation at St. Francis House tonight, looking especially at the work of Jeremy Begbie, musician and theologian of the Church. Dr. Begbie invites us to imagine the Holy Spirit as the reality through which God's strength is made perfect in weakness - even our mail-it-in days. Because we are not the main characters in stories about us. But the story and title role belong to God, and that is very good news, indeed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Take Your Chaplain To School Week!

Friends! In case you haven't heard, October 28 - November 11 are National Take Your Chaplain To School Week(s) - or NTYCTSW, for short. This is how it works:

Fr. Jonathan, on the set of Jurassic Park.
Over the next 14 days, invite your chaplain to school...or work...or another place important to you. Why? Because we gather at 1011 on Sunday evenings, but you live the other 99.9% of the life of faith somewhere else. And not just any somewhere - important somewheres! This is your chance to invite Fr. Jonathan to see and appreciate some of the landscapes in which you follow Jesus in the world. 

You make the plans. Propose a time or two. If coffee or lunch are involved, the chaplain buys. No strings. Them's the rules. Have fun, and don't miss out! Click here to get started!

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