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.

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