Sunday, August 25, 2013

Praise & Great Gladness:
A Homily for SFH's 1st Eucharist "Back" Home

(Intro for St. Andrew's:)

Disclaimer: I didn’t exactly write this sermon for y’all. But when Father Andy called on Friday and said the congregation had suffered two deaths this week and that Mother Dorota was away - could I preach this Sunday? - I was happy for the chance to help a friend and serve my family’s congregation. But, I didn’t write this for you. Tonight, the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center celebrates her very first Eucharist in the new, old building - it’s a really special occasion. You can clap. I know, right? It’s pretty exciting. We’re kinda stoked. 5 p.m. tonight, and everyone is welcome. Not the same as our two-day September kick-off and celebration of ministry - but a pretty cool ‘first.’ Anyway, these words are my reflection to our students both on the moment itself and the light the Gospel sheds on this moment. My prayer, of course, is that these words might also find a double resonance with you, but who knows? May the Spirit speak.

(St. Francis House beginning:) 

We made it. It’s a marvelous thing to be standing at the edge of a shiny, new semester and to be here in this space with you. A building to call your own. A place, a space, to support you as you grow in Christ at the University of Wisconsin, as you discern and use your many gifts for the building up of the Body. A place to crash when you need a holy space - or an irreverent space - or whatever kind of space you need when the rest of life is closing in and feeling claustrophobic. It’s a good space. A beautiful space. I hope you check it out before you leave - all four floors of it - if you haven’t already, tonight. It is your space to be yourself, with God’s help. And tonight is our very first service back in this wonderful, prayer-soaked space. But. It’s messy. Sparsely furnished. Pretty dusty. My office is a wreck. There’s still a lot to do. The cardboard moving boxes haven’t stopped doubling as our trash cans, and you should always, always check for toilet paper before you lock the restroom door behind you. 

That’s just to say, we haven’t made it. Or, having made it, we discover that what looked like a finish line turns out to mark a new beginning. Like when you’ve bought the last textbook listed on your coursework syllabus or finally sat down and made the house rules with your roommates - the supplies and structure come together, are in order - and now the great adventure, the living question, with all its promise and uncertainty, is what comes next.

When I came back from vacation a couple of days ago, I did a walkthrough of the building, and all I could see was how much this finished unfinished space is a kind of mirror of our lives. You have the promise and excitement of a beautiful space in which to grow: another day begun at a world class institution of higher learning, a new semester with fresh challenges and new friends. On the one hand, you could not dream it up better. But. Some days you are more aware than others of how the cardboard moving boxes still double as your trashcans, so to speak. You perceive an incompleteness in yourself that it feels like only you can see. And so you find it difficult to fully receive the excitement that the others have for you - family and friends - because you look around at yourself in this moment and wonder still about the toilet paper, if there’s any in there. You see the messy parts and how unfinished it all feels. And most of you have been down this road long enough to know that the end of the semester now beginning will not bring the kind of end that clears away the untidy boxes or broken pieces. Like SFH, your life - with all its promise and uncertainty - is a work in progress.

All of which is why it is necessary to remind ourselves tonight that, for Christians, it is not really good news that we can finally share the Eucharist together in this building. It is really good news that the first thing we do together in this building is share the Eucharist. 

In the Eucharist, we remember that unfinished, messy, and weaker than we would like to let on, we have been met by and made able to sing the praises of the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. 

In Luke’s gospel tonight, we discover a woman bent over and crippled, possessed of a spirit, healed by Jesus. We are told the healing freed her - Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free...” - and healing takes the shape of her being made able to stand upright and sing the praises of God. For eighteen years, or slightly more than the average freshman is old - for the better part of a young lifetime, she had known and deeply felt her inability to free herself. But now, even in her powerlessness, she's free. Because he came to her. Despite the rules and all expectations to the contrary, God fashions of this woman - God fashions in this woman - an occasion for praise. At a time when no one was expecting God to act - indeed, at a time when no one would allow to act - God acts and sets her free. And the woman’s response to this freedom is praise. 

So the new semester is not quite upon us. Some of you have moved this summer and others of you have not. But in the sense we’ve been describing, I wonder what you think your cardboard moving boxes are: those permanently temporary places in yourself where you feel most unfinished, at a loss, most impatient or perhaps despairing of hope for true and lasting change; places where you’ve tried to effect change and found yourself stuck. I wonder where you are not free. And I wonder what you hope freedom looks like. I wonder what you hope real joy is. 

My daughter, Annie, turned four this past Thursday. As I was tucking her in bed Wednesday night, as I was dropping her into the covers, she stopped me and looked up, said, “Daddy, it’s the last night you tuck me in as a three year old.” Then she smiled and squeezed me extra tight. I loved that moment, but, truthfully, I’ve come to love all the bedtime moments: sometimes she’s singing and full of the love that first moved the sun and the stars, and sometimes she’s just melting down. And on those melting down days, on the days she feels herself most spinning out of control, she’s likely to stop me and say, “Daddy, pray for me.” And I will. I’ll hold her hand, lift her up in prayer - for whatever has gotten hold of her - we’ll pray for healing, and the prayer almost always ends the same way: “so that she may love and serve you with her whole being, with joy and great gladness.” Inevitably the same “so that” - “so that she may love and serve you with her whole being, with joy and great gladness.” These prayers we share carry for us an echo of the woman in Luke’s gospel who stood up, being healed, and praised God; in the woman's healing, praise is revealed to be what healing is for. So only as we begin to be healed do we come to really understand what it was to be crippled. Wonder, love, and praise is what Annie was made to do best. To be bent and crippled is to be severed from the high calling of praise.

It is a wonderful, difficult mystery that only in the healing do we discover that for which we are made.

The woman in Luke’s gospel enacts this reality for us, and for the people of Israel: reminding the people of Israel of the slavery Israel could not end for itself in Egypt, calling to mind the bondage that was ended through the Exodus, as the people were delivered by God into the land of promise. And just as the woman in Luke’s gospel points back to God’s action for Israel, she points forward to Israel’s fulfillment in Jesus, who - as our baptismal liturgy reminds us - “was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Only so delivered can we love and serve with our whole beings, with joy and great gladness. Only as we come to this table and consume the holy food that consumes us - the Body and Blood of our Savior - can we fully stand upright and sing the praise for which God made us. 

It is a wonderful, difficult mystery that only in the healing do we discover and find the strength to perform that for which we are made. And the name for this healing is Christ.

I am so very excited to begin a new semester at St. Francis House. I cannot wait to see what God has in mind for each of you, and for us. I am always interested to see what you do with the vocation you have been given as “student.” And, of course, I am ecstatic to have a nice place to call home. All of which is why I need reminding tonight - and why I remind you, too - that, for Christians, it is not really good news that we can finally share the Eucharist together in this building. But it is wonderfully good news that the first thing we do together in this building is share the Eucharist.

Let God’s People say,



Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Gospel of Unjust Feasts
(a homily for St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church)

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry at UW-Madison. It is a joy to be with you this morning and, being with you, to be among friends. I was reminded of our special friendship walking up the hill from the parking lot this morning and passing the altar that stands in that beautiful, shaded spot under the trees; that altar, around which generations of SFH students - including many of you - worshiped in years past, now a gift and sign of our friendship in Christ. And without having to go back generations, I have my own fond memories of you from my first year as chaplain: St. Dunstan’s brought several (sinfully) delicious meals to share with our students on Sunday evenings; additionally, it was a great pleasure to lead your Advent Quiet Day, with folks from this community and SFH coming together in simplicity and prayer. It is good to be with friends.

In the gospel last week, the disciples screwed up the courage to ask Jesus how they should pray. Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer and then encouraged his disciples to be bold, fearless, even obnoxious: pounding on the door in the middle of the night, and never to give up. So compelling is the brazen perseverance commended in the story it’s easy to miss what might be considered a minor detail, namely, the occasion for the one friend’s knocking. 

“Suppose one of you has a friend,” Jesus says, “and you go to him at midnight and say to him -” and already you and I are consumed by the central suspense: the waking up of the friend. But notice what comes next: “you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” So let’s get this straight: the man is knocking at the the middle of the throw a party for a friend. He’s waking up his neighbor for a midnight snack.

Now, suppose for just a moment that this is not a minor detail, but a central detail or - better - a recurring theme of Luke’s gospel: the celebration meal that just can’t wait. All throughout Luke’s gospel, examples of the party that must be thrown, must risk accusations of impropriety, irresponsibility, even injustice: generosity given lavishly especially to those who don’t deserve it. Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves; to make the case for Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts, we need considerably more evidence; we need to think of some other examples. I bet you can. Exhibit A: the feast the father throws for the prodigal son. The fatted calf and all the rest. The eldest son stewing in the background. Exhibit B: how about Jesus’ inviting himself over to a corrupt tax collector’s house for dinner? Yes, bring Zacchaeus to the stand. The feeding of the five thousand on the hillside is not necessarily unjust, but it is certainly unexpected - and remarkable. Then there is the parable of that great dinner - the marvelous feast - where the host invites the A-list celebrities, but all of them say ‘no’! They’ll all at home that night clipping toe nails or something. Maybe the Packers were playing. So the host orders his slaves to go out to the streets, to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Finally, the last supper, shared with those who would betray and deny our Lord, and Easter meal shared in Emmaus, the risen Lord eating with friends who won’t even recognize him until he’s vanished from their sight. 

Plenty to go on; but largely circumstantial evidence to this point. The case for Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts still needs, I think, character witnesses that can pin the claim squarely on Jesus. We will need, for example, to bring to the stand the Pharisees who, in Luke’s 5th chapter, complain that Jesus’ disciples eat and drink to much - or at least appear to eat and drink far more than they fast and pray. (Maybe you can relate.) These Pharisees would be happy to remind you that Jesus’ answer to their complaint was to call himself the bridegroom at a party occasioned by his presence. “You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” he asks.

Jesus’ self-referential answer might also call to mind for you his first sermon at that synagogue in Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the scripture he claimed to be fulfilling - do you remember it? 

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

“The year of the Lord’s favor” are especially special words here. They are words familiar term to Jewish ears, referring to the Jubilee year, and it’s the biggest feast, the biggest party, of them all. It happened after seven sets of seven years - every fifty years - so, once, maybe twice, in a lifetime: the unforgettable party in which debts were forgiven, slaves set free, and property returned to original owners. Small wonder “Jubilee” translates roughly, “Shout for joy!” It named relief for the poor, the oppressed, for all who had played the game and lost. And this party of parties Jesus claimed to fulfill by his presence. So Jesus is the living Jubilee - the one in whom forgiveness, abundance, and mercy reside, and this with tangible implications for the lives of those whom he calls. 

Which brings us to this morning’s gospel. Only having established Luke’s as the gospel of unjust feasts, with Jesus at the center - Jesus as the feast - does this parable about a successful man whose wealth has outgrown his barns stand out, I think, as much as it is meant to. The followers of Jesus all throughout Luke’s gospel, following Jesus’ lead, are feasting with unexpected friends. But this man is neither feasting in the moment nor surrounded by any friends. His feast is bread not made - but stored in barns - and friends not met - perhaps he fears them, is threatened by them, imagines his insulation as a kind of safety from them. The man’s isolation takes on the character of comic tragedy when he attempts a conversation with the only one he’s kept close by - his own soul. “I said to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods...’” 

The barn builder’s isolation is named again by the question God gives the man at the end: “These things that you’ve prepared, whose will they be?” Of course, there is no one, but also, it’s a question of inheritance. And in the context of this party-in-progress gospel - the great Jubilee - we are reminded that inheritance - property rights handed down through generations - is fundamentally in some tension with the Jubilee, in which property rights are reset, and which Jesus has come to announce. Indeed, when we think back to the story of the prodigal son - another inheritance story - we remember the truth that even the heirs of inheritance end up requiring grace of the Jubilee kind. So the barn builder’s sin, greed - as St. Paul reminds us - is really idolatry, because it prefers another reign to that of God’s; the barn builder’s hope lies in the table not spread, the invitation not made, and forgiveness neither offered nor received. 

By contrast, Jesus wonderfully describes God’s reign elsewhere as a dishonest manager who, after being told that he will lose his position, summons his master’s debtors and cuts their debts without checking first with the boss. Jesus ends the parable exhorting his disciples to go and do likewise. Quote: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

The efforts of the barn builder, emphatically, will not be eternal, we’re told. But the one who makes friends even with the boss’ money, will be welcomed into eternal homes. There’s that theme again, echoes of the feast: the gifts of God used recklessly in friendship with each other; God announcing a feast that lasts.

What does this mean? How do we do this, we who are trained to be responsible, strategic, self-preserving, self-promoting, hard-working, American barn builders? I don’t know. But try this: once a year, or more if you are brave, take time to think of the most reasonable, logical, strategic, and self-promoting plan of action for a given situation in your life. Then do the opposite. The exact opposite. Not partly - all the way. We need practice in mimicking the decidedly not reasonable and stringless grace of God.

In a few moments, we will baptize dear Edith into the household of God. Talk about grace. How will this change her? Will she glow? Will she hover? Will she say the family’s meal time prayers henceforth and with perfect eloquence? No. The only visible change we will see is the feast on her tongue - Christ on her lips. Holy Communion. She will come to the table and eat. And she will not eat this feast alone. Already, you are welcoming her as fellow friends at the feast, this feast made for sharing. And the feast is for now. Let God take care of your tomorrow, says Jesus. Trust God’s promise to remember you, always. And, embracing your baptism, live richly toward each other.


Me, with Kate, Mark, and their dear daughter Edith.

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