Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Celebration of New Ministry (for Dad)

Good evening.

Bishop Sumner, Father and Mrs. Melton, sisters and brothers in Christ of St. James on-the-Lake, other friends from around Cedar Creek Lake and other neighbors - a special shout out to the folks from St. John’s, the church of my childhood, and my momma’s childhood, for that matter - grace and peace. It’s all joy to be with you tonight for this Celebration of New Ministry.

I had the good fortune of meeting Father and Mrs. Melton early on in my life. I don’t know if it’s needed, but I suppose I can vouch for them both. I mean, sure, his pinewood derby car skills leave something to be desired (it’s fine, Dad, my therapist says it’s gonna be fine), and Momma may have painted my room pink and sold the bed the day I left for college, but on the whole, they’re great people, no hard feelings.

From the 11th chapter of Matthew’s gospel: “…no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

That’s a joke! Not blasphemy. We’ll, it’s been real.

No, but for real, before we get going, uh, you have to know a PK has his suspicions about nights like this. I remember as a kid, this same service, in South Bend, Indiana. And it came time for the gifts, you know, a Bible, chalice, the usual things. And the whole family’s up front. And someone marches up to the front and presents Dad with a brand new, bright yellow snow shovel. And Daddy takes it and smiles and thanks everyone with characteristic heartfelt thanks. But no one hears his thanks. They are all too busy laughing at us. Laughing, because we thought that toothpick of a shovel was an honest to goodness gift, but “we” were fifth-generation Texans for whom the words “lake-effect snow” had not yet been introduced to our vocabulary and so for whom the comical inadequacy of that shovel wasn’t in any way yet clear.

So before we go on, Daddy, you don’t go accepting any gifts that aren’t on the list tonight, you hear? I mean the prayer book list - and don’t go thanking folks for things you don’t understand yet. Someone gives you an alligator leash or some nonsense like that, you just hand it right back. It’s not on the list. That’s why the good bishop is here. He’s the bouncer for the list. That’s not true. But, still, Dad, for Pete’s sake, don’t go thanking folks tonight for a thing you don’t understand.

Except. Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing here tonight? Aren’t we exactly giving God our thanks for a thing we don’t understand, namely, that it is God’s delight to take strangers and make them into friends? Making ordinary folk like you and Mom and Dad friends of God and one another and giving you good work to do together for the building up of the church and the glory of God. God calls it reconciliation. It is the ministry of Jesus. It’s the ministry of bringing together, mending. Making whole. Casting nets and being gathered. 

Jesus kicked it off around a lake, kinda like y’all. He made some invitations, and they didn’t know what they were signing up for, either. They dropped their nets. They got up. And next thing you know, we’re here, saying yes one more time, thanking God for a thing we don’t understand, putting us in the very good company of the first disciples. He says, “Follow me,” and they say yes. The beginning of a living trust and the joy of God. And that delight - taking strangers and making friends - is exactly what he promised those first fisherfolk. Whether you know it or not, you and this night are a part of that promise Jesus is keeping to his first friends, which is really a continuation of the promise God made to Abraham, that his descendants and God’s people would be like the stars in the sky, which is a promise I learned to take more seriously when Mom and Dad moved us out to this neck of the woods, to Athens, when I was a kid. On really dark nights I discovered that you really can’t count them at all. Sometimes it’s enough to be overwhelmed by the love that made and moves them.

Belonging to one another and to God. A thing God does with us, between us and God, pouring forgiveness in the cup, to make belonging true. Making us friends of God. And also a thing for which God gives us all that we need, most especially himself, to do with one another. Made friends with God, God makes us friends of each other, and others, too. Strangers into friends. While we were far off. Reconciliation. Gathering and gathered into nets. And we’re told this work gives Jesus joy. That it makes Jesus’ joy complete.

I think that’s why we call it a Celebration of New Ministry. It can’t be because he’s a spring chicken. And y’all, well, y’all are crazy. Mom and Dad are blessed by you. But it’s not like reconciliation is a thing Christians don’t have some practice at already. The ministry of reconciliation isn’t new. Although. I suppose, maybe new is relative, how you count it. A lot of folks still call the 1979 prayer book the new prayer book. I’m not saying we should replace it - I’m not one of those - but we can maybe stop calling it new. I mean, I stopped getting carded ten years ago, and the new book is older than me.

It’s not that reconciliation is new. And yet, this one, this friendship is. This holy expression of God doing God’s new thing over and over and over, faithfully from generation to generation, this occasion of the Spirit being present to God’s people in this place at this time in this way - this invitation to corporately inhabit the kingdom of his life, death, and resurrection - it’s new. It’s new because God in Christ is never not doing new; the man who said “follow me” is still moving, still seeking, still finding. If anyone is in Christ, bam! There. New creation.

And because this friendship belongs to the Christ of new creation, this friendship can never belong to itself. It belongs to the Lord who, God willing, will use the memory of his saving deeds and the memory of past strangers-into-friends, past new creations to inspire you and keep you, even in friendship, open to strangers. Even as your own friendships deepen, become holy - in fact, exactly because they deepen and become holy - they will stay and still be open to strangers, because you have learned to see in the strangers the world calls interruptions an unexpected gift, just as the disciples saw in Jesus’ interruption of their lives an unexpected gift. That gift is the new possibility, the new thing God would do. At parties. In prisons. Everywhere in between, learning that Paul was on to something, that the word of God, like his love, like his mercy, like his gentleness, like his generosity, like his patience, like his joy, like his presence isn’t far off, but is up close and near. Near to you. Up to something. Always moving. Inviting you to see. Inviting you to hear. Inviting us to follow.

Let us pray.

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Welcome and Weakness: Needing God with One Another

It’s the last Sunday of the Church year, of the Christian calendar. Christ the King Sunday, it is sometimes called. Next week comes Advent. Blue and figures of Magi slowly trekking across the nave. A new year. So today’s readings are a bit like a season finale. Words on which you’ll want to hang until next season rolls around, until the next season, only you only have to wait a week. No sweeps season or a summer of reruns.

Unfortunately, as words to hang onto go, these are hard words. This is a difficult gospel. Or a hopeful one, maybe. It depends, I guess, on your appetite for judgment. Not unlike Jesus’ summary commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself, it is tempting to be thankful that Jesus has at least made the expectation clear and at long last given us a tidy list of duties we can handle. Or, if not handle, at least keep track of. Or, if not keep track of, at least aspire to. Maybe fall short of. Okay, so, as with the summary of the law, it is not exactly as if the surprise ending, that those who tended to the least of these did it unto Jesus, increases the likelihood that you and I will do the same. Indeed, the story’s surprise is exactly that those who did unto the least of these didn’t know what they were doing. How can we? Isn’t the unintended effect of using these words of Jesus as a measuring stick for ourselves the accumulation of unverifiable guilt for every time we pass a stranger on the street? Isn’t it a bit like strapping on the insatiable need of the world and then tiptoeing toward the fault-line of despair that knows full well the limitations of even our best actions, either individual or collective? Better to never go out doors and never encounter the need. Better to not know, to plead ignorance. But that can’t be right. Or true. What’s worse, read in this way, doesn’t the whole thing put a wrinkle into what had looked like Jesus’ project up to this point, which has been the gathering and sending of a people called church with the good news that the powers of this world have been defeated with the overthrow of death in Jesus’ forthcoming death and resurrection? I thought the whole last several weeks were about getting the disciples ready to see the crisis of the cross as the good news of God's kingdom. But if Jesus isn’t swapping out the whole Gospel project for a moral checklist on which to embark tonight, what exactly is he doing?

A possibility. “Least of these,” sometimes translated “little ones,” is used in only one other place in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends the disciples, two by two, into the world to announce the kingdom of God. He sends them out with instructions to need help. Pack light. Don’t book hotels, but stay with others. Don’t buy fancy shoes. Don’t carry anything. In other words, rely on those around you. Even the ones who haven’t heard the news yet and so who can’t, strictly speaking, be on your side. Trust the ones you come to help. Be vulnerable and need people to open their homes to you. In other words, be sent and be opened.

A possibility. What do you think? Maybe. But. Well. If it were true, this would be hard to hear, much less to live. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught self-sufficiency. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught not to impose. I don’t know about you, but I have been taught that strength is found in not needing assistance. I don’t know about you, but - if I am honest - I have been taught not to trust, not to put myself at the mercy of others. Maybe we should go back to the reading in which Jesus is telling us to give every panhandler a five spot in exchange for a reserved place at the table of the kingdom. But, no, here is Jesus, speaking to the nations, trying to put in a good word for the ones he sends not only with the mission of serving the poor but - watch this - being poor, to announce the kingdom of God. The strength of God is to be made known in the weakness of the ones God sends. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

What if Jesus is giving instructions to those who welcome the ones he sends? What if the word to us is about trusting and being sent in weakness and poverty?

Now, I’m not about to glamorize or romanticize poverty. And I refuse to separate this passage from the New Testament expectation that followers of Jesus live in community such that no one among them has needs. Matter matters. Material generosity matters. Christians are people who have discovered in a new way how we belong to one another and to God, and we respond to this discovery materially with our lives.

But we cannot assume that our role in the story could only have been as the ones with potential charity to give to others. We have been sent in such a way that needs others to open their homes to us, even to carry us, so that God’s grace might abound in our weakness. This way, being opened, we might become occasions for new communion in Christ, not simply because they need what we have but because we have learned to live our God-given belonging to each other and to make space in our lives for trust in the mercy and provision of God.

Pope John Paul II, describing his early life as a priest wrote about the moment he realized it was not enough to bless the homebound to which he made visits, but that the one-sided nature of the exchange was leaving both sides somehow impoverished. In time, he learned he says to entrust the homebound with prayers for the church and for himself. He risked specificity in his prayer requests, claiming his real and continuing need for God's help, and the mercy of God began to flourish in them both.

The baptismal covenant of our prayer book talks about it this way, that God calls us to seek and serve Christ in our neighbors. We who know our need of God are learning our need of one another in ways that emphatically refuse any misguided superiority over the others but instead call us into the kind of relationship that makes clear our mutual dependence on God.

It's all very strange. But then, we should have suspected a strange calling from a crucified King, and we got one. The church is called and sent to receive mercy. Christians are called and sent to receive mercy. This may strike you as obvious, but as Western American people, I doubt it. Even if it does strike you as obvious, it goes against the grain of your daily training. And my daily training. Which may be why God in God’s wisdom gives us the gift of one another and the rhythm of this table - to which we are gathered, as beggars for bread, and from which we are sent, both to proclaim and to need God in this world. Indeed, our lived reliance becomes our proclamation. We proclaim and trust the one who died for us, that we might live, all together, with God.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Extra Oil: Prepared not to Know, Becoming Friends of Uncertainty

What if it doesn’t go the way you planned?

What when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

The college admittance or job promotion you unexpectedly landed. Or unexpectedly didn’t land.

The big break years in the making that - while exciting at the time - in retrospect, didn’t in fact break the way you had thought it might, and has left you looking for a bigger one. And uncertain what you’re looking for, exactly.

The season when friendships stopped coming easily.

The death of a loved one.

The once-upon-a-time breathtaking romance that abruptly turned into hard work.

Unwanted interruptions of physical and mental health, others and your own.

What do you do when it doesn’t go the way you planned?

When it takes longer? Or goes faster? Or misses some other mark of your expectation?

What meaning do you make of such moments?

Are they signs that you are doing life wrong?

Are they punishments for past decisions, actions, inactions, or neglect? 

Are these moments the interference, the fault, of other people, from whom you need only to be freed?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story of his second coming, his making things right. And there are two ways to miss the coming, it seems. One is to not expect. To not show up with a lamp. To not stay up for the bridegroom with the others. Just stay at home, business as usual, as if there’s not a party in the offing. The first way to miss the coming is to not expect it. The second way to miss the coming is to expect it. Or at least to expect that it will go as you expect and not run late. Expect that you won’t need extra oil, but presume that God’s working things out will unfold exactly according to the schemes and schedules in your heart and head. Extra oil is another way to name the difference between expectation and what happens. Extra oil names the gift and capacity to be trustingly present, even when the expected doesn’t happen like we expect. As one scholar notes about this story, “the wise or prudent disciple is the one who prepares not only for the groom’s return, but also for his delay.”

To expect what we don’t expect puts us in the terrible bind of never knowing when we can writing something off. Never knowing whom we can safely discard, which may be why Jesus follows this story by telling his disciples that whatever they do to the least of these they do unto him. When you don’t know the end, you can’t dismiss the now.

When Jesus’ disciples ask about the end, the only thing Jesus says with reliability is that no one knows the time, it won’t be as soon as they think, there will be a lot of suffering between now and then, but that suffering is not itself the end. In other words, make friends of uncertainty, be prepared not to know. Pack extra oil.

To prepare for a delay is, definitionally, a tricky thing. But then, maybe that’s what airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms are for, to give us practice. Practice for the surrender that necessarily must happen when we are not in control of the timing. What does it mean to be present when you don’t know the timing? Or to stay present when you’re out of gas and weak? Them’s the fault-lines of patience and hope. Stanley Hauerwas writes that “the foolish bridesmaids failed to understand that in a time when you are unsure of the time you are in it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do. In the dark you must keep the lamps ready even if they are not able to overcome the darkness.”

"In a time when you are unsure of the time you are in, it is all the more important to do what you have been taught to do." What have you been taught to do? 

What does it look like to consider these things, what you’ve been taught to do, not as a one-off performances you can schedule, but rather as the character to which you commit your life, with God’s help, such that it becomes the you you are even when you’re not even trying, or when you’re too tired to try? What have you been taught to do? Could God make these things, things like turning to and resting in, the grace of him who died for you, the default of who you are? What does it mean to be taught to watch for Christ? And how can you watch for Christ with your life?

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our 
being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by 
your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our 
life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are 
ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Amen. (BCP, p100)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Socially Selective Decency and the God Whose Compassion Makes No Exceptions

If I ask you about the Hebrew Scriptures - the Old Testament - what comes to mind? How would you summarize the Law and the Prophets, in a nutshell? Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob and Rebekah. Ruth. Job. Jonah. What else? Lots of violence, maybe (almost certainly).

Here's Jesus' take on that question, admittedly sharpened to the question of law [see today's lessons]: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Is this Jesus taking a red correcting pen to an Old Testament most of us lost respect for a long time ago? Making it simpler. More accessible? Is he taking welcome, creative, and surprisingly contemporary liberties with respect to the 613 (give or take) commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures? Not exactly. He’s quoting. He’s citing Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus’ originality is his simplicity, the framing, the organizing when he says these two are the source of the rest, but the content itself isn’t his. He’s using words pulled from memory - and specifically from the Hebrew Scriptures that, as a faithful Jew, he carries in the memory of his bones.

Who cares, you might say. A good thing’s a good thing, you might say. Six hundred and thirteen was way too many, anyway, you might say. Can’t keep up with that. I’ve got a life to live. Let’s be honest, even ten was a stretch. Right, Moses? I’m on the clock. Keep it pithy. But two? Two, you got my attention. Two, I’m all about. And these two? Totally got it. Thanks, Jesus. I’m all over it.

But are you?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. 

C’mon, if we’re talking likelihood/probability of your followthrough, you’re telling me you wouldn’t trade those two doozies for a couple hundred commandments of busywork? 

I would! In a heartbeat.

Some days I do.

What these two summarizing commandments lack in quantity, they more than make up for in degree of difficulty. Even our society appreciates the difficulty of what Jesus is asking because, as much as society wants to value things like love and inclusion, notice the words we use to expand on what love and inclusion might mean when we descend to the level of details in our civil discourse: we use words like tolerance and coexistence. But tolerance is an admittedly low bar. Tolerance is for mosquitos. Tolerance is for immune systems with respect to outside toxins and pathogens. As in, “he’s developed a tolerance to the mold and asbestos in his apartment.” And coexistence simply names our past failures to restrain our real desire to choose a future in which the other has no part, violently if necessary. Is this what love is? Love the Lord your God. Tolerate the Lord your God? We say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are trying to be a basically good person, but have you noticed how, in recent conversations like #metoo, and with respect to the insidious and relentless evils of racism, even that bar has been lowered of late? The new word, the new goal is decency, which in part is meant to communicate there are no gold stars and cookies awarded to those people, especially white men, who manage to simply do the right thing on occasion - and that this is an important corrective to hear can't be emphasized enough, over against the privileged, self-protecting posture of the ally who is more concerned for how he appears than the words and well-being of his sisters and brothers - but if we relent after that, if we stop after that, if that’s as far as we go, if we aim at decency and hit it squarely, if we settle for a prophetic word spoiled and turned only into one more opportunity to shame or conquer each other, if we don’t still press on together beyond prerequisites toward something like actual, living human respect, if we aren’t bold enough to risk submitting pictures of what the good life is and so also what the common good might be and, with these, to give accounts for what true love and mutuality look like, do we only underwrite the pervasive, general ambivalence for what it means to be a good person, much less what it is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?

And are you really telling me you wouldn’t trade all of that mess for something far less complicated, more straightforward, like a grocery list, even if it was a thousand items long? Or what if, instead, I could give you an endless list of outrages to like, dislike, or share on Facebook and other social media? What I’m saying is it’s a trade many of us already make, maybe because we can’t imagine what the two commandments would look like, here and now, not just in 2017 but in the corners of my neighborhood that overlap my life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love God and your neighbor. If only it were so easy. But love is complicated. In society’s terms, love is for the deserving. Which means you can score exemptions from loving some people. It sounds like a deal you should take, at first hearing. But then you realize that rules used to exempt you from loving the indecent people will eventually be used to justify someone’s exemption from loving you. Now, relax, you’re not necessarily unloved yet. You’re just condemned to the terror of potentially becoming unloved at any moment. Relax, maybe you can channel that fear that love will not leave you at the slightest or gravest misstep. Just don’t mess up. Ever. No, you don’t need to be perfect, well, maybe you do, but decent’s a start. You can promise me that much, can’t you?

Can you?

I can’t. I can’t promise you I am decent. 

And if I can’t promise you decent, isn’t it getting ahead of ourselves to think about the far off land of soul-deep, self-emptying love? What if I’m not decent? Where would I get some cover, I assume you can get it somewhere, some counter-exemption for things like the literal slavery of other people that makes our smartphones possible? I know, that’s just it, some things we can’t change. But that’s the point, that if I’ve got to land on the platform of decency, can we all acknowledge that it will have to be selective? And what if I find myself internally convicted for something for which there doesn’t yet exist a popular social critique? Dare I confess it? Introduce it? Better to hide it. Keep it quiet in a silence that numbs my soul of feeling and settles for a semi-salvation for which there’s sufficient social agreement.

You don’t need Facebook to know you fall short of decent. You have a conscience. Better, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection. But while seeing your brokenness and the ways you miss the mark are themselves gifts of God, our very baptisms can confound us for the pain of the brokenness and struggles we see but cannot simply, for seeing, change by ourselves. And Facebook can inflame the muscle spasm of the soul, but it cannot speak its healing. Nor does it know the stakes of the pain it inflames. But you know the stakes. Not decency or reputation. But life that participates in God’s mending of the world. And that participation begins with the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. But not in the way you think. Your participation in God’s mending of the world does not begin with your doing these things. It begins with Jesus’ doing these things. While you and I were still broken and a mess (way back then and an hour ago), he loved you as the neighbor he loved as himself. The law and the prophets hang on these two commandments because the law and the prophets hang on Jesus. May we learn, with God’s help, to do the same.

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

Each year, just before Advent, I request the Bishop's renewal of my license to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. These annual le...