Sunday, June 30, 2013

Temples and Tennis Balls
(a sermon about following Jesus)

The collect of the day for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, today, includes this wonderful and challenging request of God: “[Grant, Almighty God,] that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you.” And it’s an interesting thought: I imagine each of us as bricks, living stones, cut, hewn, placed and ordered on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, on Jesus himself, constituting, together, a temple for the praise and presence of God.

You will sometimes hear Christians say that the Church is not the building; the Church is the people. And that's absolutely right. (I know we're Episcopalians, but can I get an 'amen' for the Church is the people?) You are the Church - not these walls. The people are the Church. But listen to this: while the Church is not the building - the Church is the people - according to this prayer, the people are also a building, a temple. “Grant that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you.” 

Let me tell you a story, then, about how, once upon a time, temples came to be. (1)

Once upon a time, it took seven days, more or less, to make a temple, once you had the pieces, the main ingredients together. Inaugurate might be a better word, but seven days, again, more or less, is what it took. Six days of organizing, ceremonially arranging and bringing in different things with different functions to equip and decorate the temple so that the temple could do what temples were made to do; lamps and lamp stands for light, curtains, veils, to divide the holy spaces. Each item brought in, blessed, put in place over six days, to create a place where, on the last, or seventh, day, the divine could enter and rest. Temples in the ancient world were places in which gods rested and from which they ruled.   

I wonder if this story doesn’t begin to sound familiar. Six days of organizing, arranging, in the beginning. Light and the dividing of night from day, waters from land. The arranging, right ordering, of creeping things and birds of the air, blessing each thing as it is brought in and positioned for its purpose. By day six: the appointing of stewards, priests, on the earth. And, on the seventh day, God resting, taking up residence in God’s temple, the place in which God dwells, from which God will exercise God’s rule.

When the Hebrew people first heart the creation story involving six days of putting things together and a last day of rest, this is what they heard: the universe, the whole created order, made to be the living temple of God. The ancient Hebrews heard this revelation as the answer to the question, “What’s it all for, anyway?” The universe in which we live and move and have our being is the place where God chooses to dwell. And humanity’s vocation, her special function within this temple, was as priests, the ones who made the offerings, who lifted up creation in the context of this temple for God’s good blessing. 

Our worship has taught us this: “Lift up your hearts!” we say. And all that is with them. Lift them up, put them here, invite God to bless them. We were made to be made a living temple, a place, a holy people, of rest and encounter with the living God. And the New Testament scriptures, alongside our worship, present Jesus as the perfect priest who frees us to join him in the act of offering the world to God for blessing.

A friend of mine has a picture for this freedom; a picture for our function as priests in the temple of creation. (2) The picture is of you and me as God’s big, yellow, labrador retriever, engaged in an unending game of fetch. This is how the game works: when you go out from this place and when you come back and when you go out and come back and then, before God’s table, offer your selves and souls and bodies, when you acknowledge God’s claim on every inch of your life and the whole created order, even the odd and untidy bits like lawyers and dirty diapers and awkward friendships, you are like the labrador that brings back the tennis ball that has been thrown out into the field. 

You bring back the ball, but anyone who has ever played fetch knows that it doesn’t come back clean. It comes back with mud, bits of earth, and slobber, caked on the ball. All of it enters this space. And then, with the dismissal, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!”, the tennis ball is flung out the doors again; it flies through the air where it lands in new dirt. New dirt that likewise will come back to this place, caked to the ball, as we continue to offer our selves and souls and bodies, as we lift up our hearts, and ask God to bless, to transform, what we bring. And then we go out and do it again.

And, if you have a dog, and do much of this fetch business, you know how pointless it can feel some days. But you also know how this seemingly inane rhythm bears unexpected fruit, and chiefly in two ways: First, there are the paths that begin to be worn on the earth as the dog practices the rhythm of this dance over and over and over. Bare patches in the dirt, skid marks, and clear evidence of the game over time. Spiritually speaking, some people call these thin places. Places where the prayers of people over time have worn paths across the landscape that illumine the presence of God; the stone cathedral steps made soft by the steady, faithful steps of God’s ordinary people. The second fruit of this back and forth dance is the relationship itself between the dog and his master: the bond forged across the time they spend together around this single pursuit, and in witnessing the joy of the other in sharing the game. 

We come in and go out, and over again, and each time we return we bring more of the world into this space to offer for the blessing of God. The coming and going are not two separate realities, but they are the inhale and exhale of the very same breath. This is what it means to be a holy, living temple.

It might sound beautiful. It might sound exhausting. Maybe you can relate to our yellow lab, panting at the master’s feet, on the edge of collapse, still with that sparkle in her eye that says she can’t resist another toss.

In Luke’s gospel, a disciple tells Jesus he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. Jesus’ response suggests that the disciple underestimates the vigorous nature of that commitment: “...Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ [And t]o another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”

Jesus is not a stagnant Savior. He’s on the move. Constantly throwing the ball. Himself set like flint, toward Jerusalem and the way of the cross. Single-mindedly. Relentlessly. Sometimes uncomfortably. As with any commitment worth making, following Jesus will exceed the present ability of the ones who set out to do it, will leave them breathless, and will finally transform their imaginations for what it means to follow Jesus. And isn’t that what they were looking for, what they longed for, all along?

Jesus seems to say to the men in Luke’s gospel, “If you have sought the pearl worth selling everything for, the possibility that life could be actually different and not simply rationalized or repainted, know that the kingdom is here, and this is that moment. That’s what you wanted, and by the definition of your longing, you can’t have known all it would entail. But you see it now. You are free to live it. Go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Single-mindedly, relentlessly, and, yes, sometimes uncomfortably.

We come in and go out, and over again, eyes fixed on our Savior, we follow his lead, and each time we return we bring more of the world into this space to offer for the blessing of God. The coming and going are not two separate realities, but they are the inhale and exhale of the very same breath. This is what it means to be a holy, living temple.

Let us pray. 

Lord, you promise never to leave us or forsake us. Since we are always in your presence, help us always to keep our eyes fixed upon you that we might follow your lead in the never-ending dance of your life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (3)

Amen.

SFH. 6.30.13


______


(1) I am deeply indebted in the section that follows to John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (2009)..

(2) I first learned this picture from Sam Wells at a small group session of the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies at Duke, but you can read about it his book, God's Companions (2006).

(3) Prayer taken from the excellent prayer resource www.commonprayer.net, which is the online version of this book.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Priority of Prayer

"The ongoing witness of the Taize community is..."

A little more than two weeks after the adventure in Pine Ridge, I find myself surprised by this Captain Obvious insight: the ongoing witness of the Taize community is... prayer. Not pilgrimage. Not candles. Not even silence or singing, though of course the character of Taize touches all of these things. Prayer: in community with Christ at the center; in daily rhythm; the conviction that prayer orders all else, informs all else. 

Prayer as Scripture-prompted conversation with the risen Christ.

Not always sexy. Sometimes boring. Frequently simple obedience. Patience. Receiving the Word that comes from outside of ourselves. Prayer: leading to listening (silence). Prayer: leading to speaking (song). But first, the simple commitment to pray.

On the last day of our time in South Dakota, Brother Emile met with a group of us to debrief the days and look forward to the future. His interest was surprising and instructive: he wanted to know about the groups that were committed (or committing) to regular prayer back home.(1)

The priority of prayer may be the hardest thing Christians are asked to maintain in our daily lives.

In recent years, a popular interpretation of the missional church movement (to which my own ministry is greatly indebted) has lead congregations to swap Sunday morning worship for ministry in the world, usually some kind of outreach or service project. Without presuming to know - much less judge - the intent of those who have trialled this practice, I have wondered what the exchange conveys about the relationship between prayer and action. The exchange seems to pit as enemies - or at least as trade-offs - two activities that normatively play for the same team.

In my own life, I have little doubt that I have much room to grow with respect to loving actions toward my neighbors. But when I consider the things in my life that prevent a fuller living out of love toward my neighbors, I confess that worship is not among them. I regret the days I spend too much time on Facebook. I regret the days I spend too much time insulating myself from need of God by my worry and lame attempts at fool-proof, long-term plans. I regret the days I overextend myself and hurry too much. But I have yet to end a day lamenting, "If only I had not prayed so much today."

_________


(1) "Taize is not a movement," Brother Emile said. "We don't mind you advertising 'with the music of Taize', but we aren't about furthering Taize." Just behind his spoken words, an echo of St. Paul: 
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:5-6)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Bloom on the Tree of the Cross
(Life We Did Not Expect)

Sermon preached at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie, WI, June 9, 2013.

Good morning. My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry of our diocese at UW-Madison. Madison, that erstwhile suburb of Sun Prairie. So we are neighbors. And not only neighbors, but Good Shepherd and St. Francis House share a special bond: Fr. Mike offered supply at St. Francis House year before last, during our recent interim, and several of you are responsible for some of the finer meals (and a few extra pounds) our fellowship enjoyed this past year. Thank you for that. There may even be a St. Francis House alumni or two in the house this morning.

Some of you will remember - you were there with a wonderful meal and a giant cake - this past semester, the Sunday after Easter, when one of our students was baptized using - at his request and with the bishop’s permission - the baptismal rite for such as are of riper years from the Prayer Book 1662. A wonderful night, a true highlight of my first year with the student ministry, and you were there, joining our prayers, as friends known to our community. I thank God for that. And thank you for inviting me into your worshiping life this morning. 

On April 26, 1986, a series of explosions in reactor number four at the  Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the southwest corner of the then Soviet Union, left a graphite moderator exposed to air. The exposure of this moderator caused a subsequent fire that released the equivalent radiation of four hundred Hiroshima bombs, making Chernobyl the largest and most devastating nuclear power plant accident in the history of the world. Over 400,000 citizens were evacuated and permanently relocated. Despite initial and ongoing efforts to address the presence of radioactive materials, the region surrounding the meltdown was quickly abandoned, formally restricted, determined to be no longer fit for life of any kind.

Twenty-seven years later, however, strangely, the area around Chernobyl is not a nuclear wasteland; is not devoid of life. Radioactive, yes. Abandoned by humans, absolutely. But, to the astonishment of scientists and others, teeming with life. Plants. Animals. Birds. In startling and rich abundance. In fact, wildlife that never thought to live in the region before the accident, is now present and thriving. One author describes the area as “the largest, if unintentional, wildlife sanctuary in Europe.” In a land literally left for dead: everywhere signs of new and unexpected life.

All throughout our scriptures this morning, also: signs of new and unexpected life. Each lesson containing a kind of post-meltdown Chernobyl: life where normal people don’t expect to find life. Life in a funeral parade at a city gate. Life on the death bed in a widow’s home. Gospel life in a man who had helped kill members of God’s Church, now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy. 

And each of these three lessons from Scripture has a similar ending: some version of the people who witness this unexpected life giving glory to God. So in the gospel we’re told “they glorified God.” Paul, telling his own story in Galatians, says, “they glorified God because of me.” In 1 Kings, the widow says simply, “Now I know...” Now I know.

Signs of new life. And new and unexpected life is the miracle at the heart of the Church. We gather, after all, around a cross and meet God. Crosses are not places where normal people find life. But the Church is not normal people. The Church is people called to worship the crucified and risen Jesus. So we learn to pray the Prayer Book’s prayer, that we may walk “in the way of the cross...[and]... find it none other than the way of life and peace...” Like the women at the tomb that first, dark Easter morning, we walk into a wasteland: cold, desolate, the shadow of death. And here, quite unexpectedly, we find new and unending life.

I was an economics major in undergraduate school at a small, Christian, liberal arts college. During my junior and senior years, I spent the bulk of my time working with a professor on a project called Business as Mission. The idea was simple: identify examples of people and businesses living out their Christian callings, uniquely, and in secular vocations. Dr. Ewert put it this way: most everyone is sure that clergy can do their jobs as faithful Christians. Most of us are sure that teachers and doctors can perform their duties well as faithful Christians. We get increasingly skeptical along the spectrum by the time we get to bankers. And lawyers? Well. Good luck with that. 

But our project ran on the assumption that God works in the unexpected places. 

Our three lessons take us into three places in which life was not expected, for different reasons in each case; all places of traumatic meltdown in which normal people do not expect to find new life. 

In the Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings, new life finds the widow of Zarephath unexpectedly in the midst of sins remembered and her anger at God, occasioned by the death of the widow’s son. We are not told that God is in fact angry with the widow on account of her sins, or that her son has died because of these sins, only that, after losing her son, the widow is angry at God for remembering her sins. We sense in the widow an abiding guilt, perhaps an inner despair, turned to anger. When God restores the boy to life through the prayers of Elijah, the widow experiences the truth that sin and even anger at God are not enough to keep God from bringing new and unexpected life. I wonder how you hear the news that sin and even your anger at God do not prevent God from bringing new and unexpected life.

In our reading from Luke’s gospel, new life finds another unnamed widow unexpectedly in the midst of the funeral procession for her son, outside the city gate. This is the place of unspeakable loss. Loss of hope and provision for the future (because she was a widow). Loss of an only child. Loss of one’s heart. This is the place of bitter tears and grief. It is hard not to see Jesus’ compassion for this woman without imagining that Jesus sees in her a picture of his own mother’s coming grief. “Do not weep,” he says. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And I wonder how you hear the news that bitter tears and aching loss do not prevent the new life of God.

Finally, in the lesson from Galatians, new life shows up unexpectedly and ominously in the face - the presence - of an enemy. Paul, the one time persecutor of the Church, claiming a role and identity within the Church he says Jesus gave him. “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” This is a kind of new life that makes us hesitant, perhaps, to live it. Why would God show us salvation through our enemies? It is much easier to move from hate to pity than it is from hate to loving and learning from those who once tried to destroy us. I wonder how you hear the news today that God uses enemies to make known the life of the Kingdom. 

In a few moments, we will we one more time break bread, share the cup, what our prayers call the “holy food and drink of new and unending life.” Simple bread. A sip of wine. A moment quickly passed. Another unexpected place to find new life. But we have learned - we have been shaped by the Scripture - to expect new life in unexpected places. 

In the aftermath of that radioactive meltdown we call Golgotha, a bloom on the tree of the cross. And we remember that the very things that made new life impossible to imagine in each of our three lessons today - sin, anger at God, loss of hope and material provision, even enemies and death - are all here in his story. We hear these things as he calls out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And again, “Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.” The new life we see in glimpses elsewhere, he is and is for us. So it is his life, death, and resurrection that constitute our hope. And it is in his own body, broken, that we partake of his new life. 

Life we did not expect. 


Amen.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Red Shirt Table: Telling the Story

In addition to my initial post of reflections on the Taize Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth at Red Shirt Table, I am collecting in this post the reflections of others - video and written - in an effort to give those who have asked about the trip and those of us who will seek to remember it, as fulsome an account as is possible.

A local article, and interview with Brother John, from Rapid City, SD.





Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Trust is at Hand"
(The Post on Pine Ridge
I Have Been Afraid to Write)

"Do not be afraid, trust is at hand, and with it a happiness." - Brother Roger

I have been putting off this post for not quite a week now. I have been putting it off because I know it will fail. Like the countless failed photos my fellow pilgrims and I snapped of the Badlands - none of them up to the task, each one powerless to capture even an inkling of the majesty before it - this post will fail, will not do justice to the four days I shared with six hundred others on a windblown plateau of the Pine Ridge Reservation in remotest South Dakota.


No electricity. Two rows of port-a-potties with matching hand sanitizing stations. We slept on the ground in tents. And none of this was a hardship. Rather, our accommodations unexpectedly invited the rest of creation into the conversation, the pilgrimage of trust of earth. Naming, from the beginning, that the rebuilding of trust begins with the land.

Looking out along the ridge of the Badlands
and the Two Bulls family's land.
Our gathering was made possible by trust. The Two Bulls family risked much in inviting six-hundred-plus strangers to their land. At the end, they thanked us for trusting them, too. It was remarkable to me that our gathering was simultaneously 1) made possible by the invitation of a single family - giving to our days a kind of familial intimacy - and 2) much larger than many of the cities we had driven through on our respective paths to Red Shirt Table. We were both great and small. We were a city on a hill.

On the first night, one of the students asked me why, having traveled 850 miles to be with the Lakota people, we were - with the Taizé community - singing songs in Finnish. "I don't know," I confessed. Later, we learned that some Lakota and Finns had become friends while on pilgrimage at Taizé;  that the Lakota had visited Finland on a subsequent Pilgrimage of Trust and had been astonished to hear the community singing songs in the Lakota tongue. The Finns had been eager to welcome their new friends from South Dakota with their whole hearts. Now, years later, the welcome was being returned: a friendship four or more years in the making, evolving in tenderness before us: their love, a humbling gift and vision of trust in its fullness for the rest of our community.

The trip was about trust, broken and restored; about peoples divided and peoples reconciled; about the God who asks our trust, too. Brother Emile, standing before us, speaking softly and surely: "We are not compelled to be faithful to our divisions."

At the beginning of the hike
to the first grave of Asampi Bleza
To choose infidelity to our divisions required their honest naming. On Sunday afternoon, members of our small city embarked on three simultaneous journeys: some of our number made the long drive to Wounded Knee, where over one-hundred-and-fifty Lakota men, women, and children were massacred on December 29, 1890; others of us hiked separate journeys to Stronghold and the first grave of Asampi Bleza, respectively, both cites closely linked to the tragedy at Wounded Knee. Unrest and the resulting massacre had come in response to the prohibition and practice of the Ghost Dance, which a growing number of Lakota had adopted, in part, as a peaceful means to end white expansion. As one of the Lakota, a youth, told us through tears: "My people are positive. We try to look forward and not dwell on the past. Sometimes, that can be hard."

On Saturday, I attended a workshop on forgiveness where one of the speakers offered that "forgiveness was giving up all hope of a better past." Another speaker spoke of his Lakota grandmother and how she taught him that creation modeled forgiveness: "The flower that you crush underfoot does not withhold its fragrance. Indeed, it shares its fragrance all the more for being crushed." His grandmother, he said, lived Jesus' prayer before him: "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do."

God is forgiveness, we sang, dare to forgive and 
God will be with you. Love and do not fear.

Love without fear marked our days. While waiting in line for food or at the port-a-potty, strangers viewed each other as friends not yet introduced. Community was as simple as the knowledge that Christ had called us together and made us a people of peoples.

On the way home, over supper at a diner, a student observed that there are different kinds of silence. There is the silence of the lonely; no one to talk to. There is also the silence of community. Our prayers and singing named us as community; so named, we were enabled to enter the silence of community. Some silences can be hopeless, but the silence of God's people is patient, pregnant, and transforming.

I marveled at how well our students navigated the several cultural adjustments required by the trip. We were guests of the Lakota. We worshiped following the practices of Taizé.  Readings and songs were mostly, but not always, in the English language. The friendly confines of the Episcopal liturgy were only present at Sunday morning's Eucharist. It is a rare gift to receive one's faith again, from the outside, especially after years of assuming its familiarity. That this is a gift does not mean it is easy.

For myself, there was of course the adjustment to silence; there was the joy in the Taizé worship and the rhythm of life that has become, for me, more familiar than not. In addition to these, the brothers themselves - as icons of holiness - made a deep and penetrating impression on me over our four days at Red Shirt Table. They give us by their lives both challenge and encouragement in and for the pursuit of holiness. Their humility and gentleness befits vessels of grace. The truthfulness and simplicity of their speech fills the heart with the hope of the Gospel.

At the end of the four days, Brother Emile reminded us that the Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth is the ongoing work of the brothers; that we had been invited on a short but meaningful leg of a more than thirty-year journey that must cover the earth and that requires each one of us. And of course, the brothers, also, constitute but one leg (albeit a sizable and growing one) of a larger journey, sharing the reconciling pilgrimage of the Crucified King, the Prince of Peace, whose love calls us to give God our trust and to love without fear; even to forsake our faithfulness to our divisions. 

Praise God, may it be so.

"We brothers just want to be present, in Taizé or in the places where we live on different continents, persevering in our community life and prayer. By our presence we would like to be among those in whom you can always find support in your search for trust." - Brother Alois, Berlin, December 31, 2011

Postscript

As St. Francis House traveled home, we stayed - as we had going out - at Calvary Cathedral in Sioux Falls. Dean Simpson, who had been exceedingly gracious in his welcome of us, invited us to pray morning prayer with his staff before heading out that day, and we did. Afterwards, members of the staff invited us to share about our time at Red Shirt Table, how it had gone. They asked about the weather. Apparently, Sioux Falls had received over eight inches of rain while we were away. They were relieved to learn we had been spared that fate. Dean Simpson told how he watched the radar one night from home as a line of storms headed for Sioux Falls and Red Shirt Table, among other places. "We got hammered," he explained, "but the line of storms headed for y'all inexplicably dissipated as they got close. A friend remarked, 'The rain knows better than to interfere with the work they are about this week at Red Shirt.'" And while a student observed to me later that it can be theologically problematic to anthropomorphize the weather, Dean Simpson's words called to mind for me the groaning and eager expectation of creation for our adoption and redemption (Romans 8:19-22), presumably of one piece with the reconciliation made possible by Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). It is humbling to imagine creation as a spectator and cheerleader to our time at Red Shirt; humbling to imagine creation's cynicism of humanity broken - made inexplicably hopeful - by the healing and reconciliation of the days we shared as a people of many peoples, gathered by Christ in prayer.


FAQ: The New Summer Worship
@ St. Francis House

Q. What is a Service of Light?

A. In the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, "service of light" may refer to two things. The first Service of Light refers to the first of four parts that customarily comprise The Great Vigil of Easter, in which the Pascal candle is lit and the Exsultet sung. The introductory rubrics of Evening Prayer: Rite Two also use "Service of Light" to refer to what is elsewhere called An Order of Worship for the Evening. This latter service of light is a versatile, if under-used, service of the Prayer Book that "may be used as a complete rite in place of Evening Prayer, or as the introduction to Evening Prayer or some other service, or as the prelude to an evening meal or other activity. It is appropriate also for use in private houses" (BCP 108). It is as a stand-alone service that St. Francis House is using the Service of Light on Sundays throughout the summer this year.

Q. Why is St. Francis House starting a new service in the summer?

A. Good question. This is the first summer in a long time that SFH has had weekly worship through the summer. We are trialling this weekly summer service at the suggestion of students and with the recognition that the majority of SFH students are staying in Madison this year. 

Last summer, a monthly Eucharist was introduced on the last Sunday of each month. We will continue that practice this year, worshiping with the Service of Light on all other Sundays.

Q. What is a Service of Light like?

A. The Service of Light, as ordered at SFH, is a service of darkness and light, Scripture, simplicity, a lot of singing, and one extended silence. The service begins in darkness and, in time, each participant is invited to light a candle representing both the prayers of the participant and her share in the light and love of the Gospel. The songs we sing, as well as the intercessory prayers, come from the Taizé tradition, which, in addition to echoing themes of simplicity and silence, comes from an international community. So we read and sing in multiple languages familiar to members of the community.

The service is accessible, easily followed, and - by its simplicity - ecumenical in nature. All are welcome. Come and see!