Sunday, July 27, 2014

Women's Ordination Turns 40!
Telling the Story to My Daughter and Son


Yesterday, our family joined sisters and brothers from across the Episcopal churches of Madison to celebrate the Eucharist on the (almost) 40th anniversary (it's Tuesday) of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. While forty years represents a history recent enough that many people in and outside of the Episcopal Church still have concrete memories around these events, I am increasingly convinced that we should remember to tell stories like this one as if to those who were not aware of the history at the time of the history, and especially to those in the church who were not yet alive. The Jewish tradition has much to teach in this respect, because the community's chief practice in telling its most important stories is to its children.

So, if you're new to the Episcopal Church - as in, having come into the church (or the world) in the last 30 years, give or take - you may not know that, once upon a time, women were not ordained as priests in this church.(1)  That you do not know this should not be for you a source of embarrassment. Rather, the extent of your surprise may be a witness to the tremendous work of the Spirit through women clergy in and for the whole Church since the day of those first ordinations.

I think, for example, of my own life in the Church and the women priests whose unique ministries opened me to God's possibilities at important moments in ways for which I am forever grateful and that changed me deeply: the joyful and exuberant priest who oversaw my campus ministry experience, invited me into positions of leadership, introduced me to the community at Taizé, and - as much as any of these things - taught me by her example the freedom to sing songs of praise when she was the only one in the church, even when she wasn't, lost in the sometimes invisible work of making holy preparations; the supervisor of my clinical pastoral education (CPE) at a psychiatric hospital, who gave me permission to love hymn 463, challenged my presumption "to be good enough to mess up your patients more than they already are," taught me that "the mentally ill are just like us, only more so," listened to my honest voice more than I knew how to listen to it myself, encouraged me with images that spoke fire and water and the adventure of God into my soul, and, thank God, never answered all my questions; my advisor and the director of the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, whose knack for discernment and truth telling compelled me to be more truthful with myself and others and whose belief in me challenged the convenient excuses insecurities can supply, who lived compassion alongside challenge in the very best ways.

So I attended the service last night as two people at once. One the one hand, I came as a white, straight, thirty-something dad. In thirty more years, I'll be the caricature of a fallen Christendom's last hurrah. One more white old man at the theology conference. On the other hand, I came as a Christian whose vocation, life, and commitments have been shaped, even midwifed, by women priests who loved me and taught me the way of Jesus, how to live it more faithfully.

That my story is not unique I take to be one of the great graces God has worked over and through these last forty years. By definition, before there were women priests, lives shaped by the faith and witness of women priests were not possible. The beginnings of women's ordination in the Episcopal Church were difficult, and we rightly continue to tell the story of these difficult beginnings. But/and/also we also rightly tell the story today as if this difficulty, while still real and present in certain respects, is not as obvious as it once was. Because the Church has known the faith and witness of women priests. Put another way, I am not just grateful for the gifts of women clergy; I am the work of women clergy.

For many Episcopalians - those new to our pews in the last 30 years and those more recently born - this is the only version of the Episcopal Church we've ever known. This is the Church that made us. If this depiction seems overly optimistic and a bit of reach for my own generation, it is surely no reach at all for my daughter's. She will never not know a time when Mother Dorota and others like her were not an integral part of her weekly experience of worship and the Body of Christ. I wonder how this awareness changes the way the story gets told over time.

That younger adults and folks just arrived in the church have never known other surely does not diminish the importance of anniversaries like this one; rather, I believe this new reality points us to the best hope and prayer of changes in the Church's life that, in their day, came - and will come - with difficulty: namely, that the Spirit would use them to build up and flourish all of God's people in the simplicity and joy of the Gospel and more fully equip Christians in each generation a) to witness Christ's love for the world and b) for the good work of praise.

_____________________


(1) Similarly, I was born in 1980. It's not just weird that we call the 1979 Prayer Book the "new" prayer book because it's old; it is also weird because it is the only prayer book of the Episcopal tradition in my lifetime. Note: most of my students think I'm old. 


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reading the Gospel (Together)


"When we open the Gospel, each of us can say, 'These words of Jesus are rather like a very ancient letter written in an unknown language. But since it is written to me by someone who loves me, I am going to try to understand its meaning, and to put into practice right away the little I have grasped...'

"No one is able to understand the entire Gospel in isolation from others. Each person has to say, 'In this unique communion which is the Church, what I do not understand of the faith is understood by others who are living from it. I do not rely on my faith alone but on the faith of Christians of all times, those who have gone before us, from the time of Mary and the apostles to those of today. And day after day I prepare inwardly to put my trust in the mystery of faith.'"

 - Brother Roger of Taizé, from the introduction to The New Testament: Selected Readings (Fount, 1993), 8-9).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Dirt on Church Plants
(Jesus, Disappointment, and Love Without Control)


Sermon for St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, July 13, 2014.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the campus minister at St. Francis House, UW’s Episcopal Student Center, where we are enjoying our summer rest. I hope you are too. It’s good to be with you this morning. Reverend Miranda is a dear friend, going back to our time together at Duke. Celia Fine and Charles Ver Hoeve, along with Miranda, are members of the St. Francis House board, supporting Episcopal campus ministry at UW on behalf of St. Dunstan’s and all the Madison-area churches. Throughout the morning, I come across other familiar faces, which is a testament, I think, to the good friendship between this place and St. Francis House, for which I am grateful. It’s good to be with you, God’s people, this morning. It is a privilege to worship the living God with you this morning.

No need for a clever beginning. Not today. You’re a sharp bunch. This is not your first ride ‘round the lectionary, most of you. I mean, within reason, once the preacher gives the green light toward the gospel, you know the dance: a farmer throwing seed left and right. Some of it growing, others of it not. Later, alone with his friends, Jesus blames the ground. Some of it’s hard and shallow. Some ground is weedy. And then there’s the plain truth that seed is just not gonna grow well on sidewalks, except maybe in the cracks between the pavement squares, where ambitions to become more than birdseed are not wholly illusory.

Some of the soil is good soil. Fertile soil. And the seed on the good soil becomes plants, yielding grain, in different amounts. Even in good soil, though, some plants yield more grain than others. I don’t know why.

But we do know, from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and your regular or occasional flirtations with the stock market, that a high yield is good. We know this. You know, because AT&T and Viagra are forever reminding you, that more is better. It follows that, having acknowledged Jesus’ set up with seed and soil and probable yields, the preacher has just one good question to ask you on a Sunday like this one: what’s your soil type, baby? What’s impeding your yield? Are you dry and shallow? Are you choked in the weeds of wealth and the cares of the world? Or are you otherwise mostly good seed, stuck on a sealed path, with urban sparrows circling ominously overhead?

Your self-soil-sample analysis will help us determine the appropriate next step for you: weeding for some; improved soil chemistry for others (thank God for good universities and friends in permaculture); for still others, nothing short of a wholesale transplant to more fertile ground will do. Pick yourself up by the roots and move to the valley. Or Door County. Or wherever. But, for God’s sake, do something. Whether for fear of God’s judgment of your present lacking condition or, as is increasingly more respectable to admit, your fear of humanity - other people’s judgment of you, i.e., ending up on the wrong side of history - put yourself in position to grow. Increase your yield. What’s your soil type, baby?

But, can we be frank? I don’t think you need the gospel to impart to you the fear that you’re not growing fast enough, that you’re not yielding enough. I don’t think you need Jesus to believe you’re not producing enough and, played to its extreme, that you might not be enough, either for God or anyone else. A reading of this mornings gospel that would compel you to pick a soil type, pick up the slack, and finally realize your untapped potential smells too much like warmed-up leftovers from the world of YOLO and FOMO (“you only live once” and “fear of missing out”, respectively). So if we’re lucky, I guess, the preacher can take a swing this morning at moving a chunk of the guilt you already feel about your work or marriage or children or parents or broken promises or pending broken promises or repeated failures to live a life worthy of your life and move just an ounce or two of that guilt and sense of insufficiency onto your relationship with God. Perhaps the successful preacher today can play off the insecurity the secular world has already bred in you and mercilessly sells back to you; maybe we can shake that, stir that, fold that, onto, into your relationship with God. But that I’m not producing enough - that I might not be enough - isn’t just not Good News, it’s not news, period. And it surely isn’t from God.

If we come to Scripture looking for homework assignments toward self-improvement — some small but significant task you can take home and work on to forgo your need of grace (whether for or in spite of God), then we’ll want to take a soil sample this morning of ourselves and consider actions toward becoming a less barren field. Assuming God’s disappointment in us and wanting better for God - or, equally, assuming God doesn’t care enough to notice and we have only the others to impress - we will either dutifully or vainly take on the project of improving the soils of ourselves and those around us, all to the end of increasing the yield. Because we know more is better.

Quick aside, in the interest of full disclosure, there is plenty in Scripture to suggest that a poor yield is genuinely displeasing to God. God calls Israel God’s “choicest vine,” and earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire and burned. So the Christian’s instinct toward flourishing to stay clear of the fire is not altogether out of line.

But here’s the catch and the interesting thing, I think, about this morning’s parable: Jesus, here, doesn’t judge the soils. He doesn’t follow the parable with further instructions or warnings detailing what to do next. There is no call to action. Jesus just tells a story: a sower threw some seed; some seed fell here, others fell there. Some grew for reasons easy to understand. Some failed for reasons just as easy to understand. Some put down roots. Some got snatched up. Some persevered through inevitable hard seasons. Some wilted. Some focused on flourishing. Some got distracted. The end. Roll credits. 

There are no shoulds in the soil this time. Indeed, no suggestion that things could have turned out other than how they did. In what comes almost, to us, as a disappointment, Jesus isn’t preaching his disappointment, but maybe he’s noticing ours, giving light to the raw questions we have, not when we disappoint God, but when life disappoints us. When the plants of our lives don’t produce the yields we were expecting.

A parent’s disappointment in the choices of a child that leave so much potential unopened on the table. A child’s disappointment in the intrusion of a parent, leaving the child feeling frustrated, thwarted in her attempts to be all that she believes she can be. An unexpected layoff. The early and untimely death of a lifelong friend. A spouse’s feigned surprise at her loved one’s latest relapse.

Sometime shortly after my daughter turned three, she looked out the window on a rainy day whose rain had changed her plans without consulting her first. I marveled at her wisdom when she stopped and said simply, “Daddy, this is not the day I was hoping for.” 

It’s tempting to want to say more. Tempting to equate one’s disappointment with an affront to justice - even divine justice - and often there is injustice in the things that disappoint us. But I’ve grown to believe that my daughter’s words are more true than the things I’m often tempted to say after them. Moreover, there’s a simplicity in her words, I believe, that can heal. “Daddy, this is not the day that I was hoping for.” 

Jesus’ description of the seed on the soil is mercy. “I see it,” he says. “No, it didn’t come out the way you were hoping. There were reasons. Not all of those reasons were up to you. Some of them were. No matter. I want to honor your pain, but I will not make an idol of your brokenness. This is disappointing to you. I hear that. And this is not the end.”

It would be convenient in the short-run for God to be as unforgiving of us and circumstances as we are of ourselves and our circumstances. A self-made cranky god might give us a puppet through which we could name the disappointments - even in God - that we dare not claim for ourselves. Our disappointments. Not God’s. Of course, every day, God’s heart breaks, too. And it’s one thing to have one’s heart broken by the things that break the heart of God. But the psalms give us permission, also, to name even our unholy disappointments (for the extended conversation on this, see Jonah). The disappointment God didn’t pre-approve. Did you know, God doesn’t have to sign off on your grief? Which is to say, God doesn’t need to control you to love you.

Similarly, Jesus’ description of seed falling on all kinds of soil, given careful attention but no condemnation, gently asks us a question that lies near the heart of God. This is the question: “Can you also love that which you do not control?” Can you love without the promise of victory on your terms? Can you love without assurance that the outcome for which you hope, for which you pray, will receive the validation of power, success, or respectability? Thus the audacity with which Jesus preaches love of the enemy. Love for the poor and the destitute, but/and also love for the rich and the threatening, love for the ones too clever for their own good and love for those, as with dementia, literally losing their minds. All of the ones you can’t fix. Will you love even these? Even, when you’re honest, yourself. Can you love even the you you do not control?

God does. 

“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

God knows, God does. It’s what the Church through the ages has come to receive and understand as love without condition, and it is God’s love for you. Love placed on outstretched hands and on your lips, that it may soak and fill your life. This day, and always, may the love of our Christ for you and your parents and your neighbors and your acquaintances and the strangers and your children and your enemies and this whole complicated world - may the love of our Christ for you and for these - give you joy and strengthen your heart.

Amen.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

WHEN INCLUSION IS NOT ENOUGH:
TOWARD A THEOLOGY OF INCLUDED


I've been wrestling with the idea lately that the "theology of inclusion" rightly valued and espoused by my tradition is incomplete. While its spirit is commendable - the courage, hospitality, generosity, and vulnerability required to welcome strangers move us nearer the heart of the Gospel through an active "seeking and serving of Christ in all persons" - the theology of inclusion is incomplete because it presumes the position and power - the status - of the one who throws the party, the one who includes. So long as you are one of the captains picking teams or the bouncer at the nightclub, a theology of inclusion works pretty well. In such instances, a theology of inclusion can buttress the souls of those with the power to preach it, because it lends a nobility to their inclusion of those whom, it is implied, the ones doing the including have the power to exclude.

That Episcopalians would make such presumptions of power and position is understandable: 27% percent of American presidents have professed to be Episcopalians, easily the highest percentage of any single denomination or religious tradition (the Presbyterians are next closest, at 18%). Moreover, the Church of England, to which American Episcopalians are deeply historically indebted, has long had the luxury of assuming when she prays, "God save the Queen," she is praying for an Anglican. Of course, as an evangelical friend helpfully reminds me, Episcopalians do not hold the trademark on the presumption of power, so an imagination truncated by the presumption of power is not the exclusive property of Anglicans. The fall of Christendom, therefore, is a refreshing and challenging reality for us all.

For all of the above reasons, it is not hard to see how Episcopalians came to embrace the theology of inclusion reflected in the bumper sticker mantra, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You". To be sure, and as I have written above, a generous welcome reflecting God's own generous disposition toward ourselves and all people is surely a good thing; the question is whether our singular emphasis on welcoming in relationship to other people 1) requires a privileged position and 2) has allowed us to develop the capacity to be welcomed as generously.

A concrete example of what I mean on the point of inclusion: I was recently appointed to a task force charged with exploring a national professional organization for Episcopalian campus ministers and our Lutheran partners in ministry. As the conversation developed, it was decided that the group should not be limited to Episcopalians and Lutherans, though this will be our de facto core community, at least starting off.

With the decision to include members of all faith backgrounds in place, I did some research to see if such an all-inclusive professional organization already exists. It does. They're established. They do good things, including many - but not all - of the things we hope our group will do. Subsequent to this discovery, I had a fruitful conversation with the chair of the task force, wondering if Episcopal campus ministers should not simply be encouraged to join this larger organization. My friend of the task force said he'd found himself wondering the same question, though the decision was ultimately made to move forward with the project.

As I have seen the implementation of the group that resulted from the work of our team, 1) I have no doubt that this is a good thing for Episcopal campus ministers, 2) I am proud to have been a part of the society's founding, and 3) I don't think there's any reason to preclude the possibility that this group joins a larger group at some future date. In short, I see great pastoral value in working with the positive energy God has given the Episcopal Church in this moment, and I am glad for the space in the process to name as a question whether, for Episcopalians especially, it is sometimes easier to include than to be included. I think there is great long-term promise and hope in this question, and, as my evangelical friend noted, not just for Episcopalians, but for the whole Church.

In Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors suggest numerous and helpful practices toward what I'm calling a theology of included, developing the capacity to be welcomed when we, like the disciples Jesus sent out in pairs, go to places depending on the generous gifts - and inclusion - of others. One practice they suggest is participating in a Bible study led by a person with less formal education than yourself. Another practice for which I am grateful is participation in liturgies of traditions foreign to me, even to the point of perceiving the holiness of them. By these and other practices, we identify and confess those resources that have become idols for us, proof of our presumption that the privilege of including others belongs to us, and we ask God to open us to receive the hospitality of Christ on a stranger's terms.

Therein, I think, is the Christological significance of a theology of included: that we cultivate an openness to have Christ be strange to us and, therefore, to surprise us in ways that disarm us, much as when Jesus took off his outer robe, stooped down with the towel, and washed his disciples' feet. Like Peter, we confess that such love can be hard to receive. Thankfully, our difficulty in imagining being loved with this love does not prevent Christ from so loving us.

Having picked at my tradition some at the outset of this post, I want to end with an example of a lived theology of included, owing much to the Episcopal tradition. Two Mays ago, I traveled with a small handful of students to the homestead of the Two Bulls family of the Lakota people at Red Shirt Table, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We met and camped there, on the edge of the Badlands, at the invitation of the Two Bulls family and with 650 other young adults, as part of the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. The family patriarch, The Rev. Robert Two Bulls, Sr., is an Episcopal priest.

In the course of our four days on the land, we learned that the open invitation of the Two Bulls family to those of us who met them there had not been made without cost to them; some of the Lakota people objected to a generous welcome of mostly white strangers onto what they regard as holy land. Strangers who may or may not come with a living knowledge of the many ways the American government has over and over again broken trust with the Lakota people and devastated both their land and their way of life, the hopes they had had for their future. The kindness and steps toward trust made possible over those days overwhelms me still.(1)

Pine Ridge taught me that a theology of included can imagine reconciliation in the absence of power and also innocence. Indeed, a theology of included imagines times when the virtue of humility is joined by well-earned guilt, requiring generous forgiveness. Surely an Episcopal Church seeking to build on moments like Pine Ridge toward diversity in local congregations will need to practice being forgiven. Thankfully, our difficulty in imagining being loved with even the love that forgives does not prevent Christ - and our sisters and brothers in him - from surprising us and so loving us.




(1) The astute reader will rightly point out that my experience at Pine Ridge was exactly made possible by a theology of inclusion. I think this point helpfully clarifies the larger thrust of this post: namely, that a theology of inclusion needs a theology of included, and a larger Gospel context in which we live into both sides of hospitality, because God has made us friends. It is sometimes easier to be generous than to be wrong and in need of forgiveness. We need both to be God's People.