Sunday, July 7, 2019

Leave the Shiny Things at Home (my final sermon in Madison)

The readings for Sunday, July 7, 2019. My final sermon in Madison, preached at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, at the invitation of my colleague and friend, the Rev. Don Fleischman.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton, chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison, go Badgers! For those keeping count at home, SFH is the 104 year old mission and ministry of the Diocese of Milwaukee. It’s always wonderful to be at St. Luke’s and to see so many familiar faces. If we haven’t met yet, I hope you’ll introduce yourself after the service. I say this every time I’m here, because it’s true: I’m deeply grateful for the friendship that St. Luke’s and St. Francis House have historically shared through the years - hopefully not one-sided, but on the SFH side highlighted by scores of delicious meals (I'm look at you, Diane Brown!) - and for personal friendships across seven years, with Fr. Don and others, gifts of God in this season. (I think you'll like my successor a lot.)* It is likewise a gift to be invited to preach and preside this morning, to be with you as we worship the living God together.

This is probably my last sermon in Madison, at least before my family moves to Texas, where I have accepted a call to serve at a church near the neighborhood in which I grew up. Which for our practical purposes this morning means I tried really hard all week to think of a flashy, catchy intro to make this The Very Best One, to assure you from the outset that you are in trustworthy homily hands, and to assure me from the get go that I can count on the illusion of your fixed attention for the remainder of twelve minutes. 

But then I read the readings. And especially the gospel, where Jesus sends seventy disciples to proclaim the Good News this way: Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. It’s a shorter version of what he told the trial-run twelve just a chapter before: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.” 

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Take nothing with you. Travel light. But not just travel light, travel empty. Leave the shiny things at home. Don’t worry about credentials. Bring nothing to compete with, distract from, get in the way of, the message you’ll proclaim. So much for an entertaining introduction. But, wait, it gets worse. Travel vulnerably. Rely on the hospitality of strangers for your shelter, for your food. It all feels eerily connected to what Jesus will tell them later, in the garden, as the soldiers are closing in: put the swords away. Travel without violence or defense.

Clearly, Jesus was not a Boy Scout, compass attached to his belt loop or pack strap. You know, “Be prepared.” Or a gear guy. Most folks where I’m from are raised such that they count it a personal failing to be found without a pocket knife. Not Jesus. I wonder, is he Marie Kondo before his time? A worthy question. Maybe. But the instruction to leave the purse, bag, and sandals behind doesn’t seem to depend on whether these things bring the disciples joy. Why, then? To what end does Jesus send his disciples out this way?

Bring nothing to compete with, distract from, get in the way of, the message you’ll proclaim. And what is the message, do you remember? The kingdom of God has come near. Put the rest down. It's the same logic that leads Paul to write in Galatians, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And again in 2nd Corinthians: 

It is not ourselves that we proclaim; we proclaim Christ
Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants, for Jesus' sake.
For the same God who said, "Out of darkness let light
shine," has caused his light to shine within us, to give the
light of revelation--the revelation of the glory of God in the
face of Jesus Christ.     

It’s weird, I think, how Jesus and the first followers of Jesus saw some things as distracting from their witness to Jesus that most of us don’t think that much about. Take for example the feast of Pentecost. Peter, preaching the church’s first sermon as tongues of fire spread everywhere and the whole thing comes unhinged, is chaos, so many languages; the people understand the words, if not at all what’s happening. And Peter begins that first sermon with those three stirring and immortal words, “We’re not drunk.” It’s only nine o’clock in the morning. Evidently, one reason to value temperance is that it might protect you from alcoholism, but another - and seemingly equally important - reason is that avoiding drunkenness insures that alcohol will not obstruct your witness, your ability to see and tell others about the work of the Spirit in the common life of God’s People.

Similarly, the first Christians took literally Jesus’ instruction to put away the sword. What gain of the sword could be worth the price of the witness they stood to give for the reign of the Prince of Peace?

Most obviously, and frequently, Jesus talked about wealth. Not only is wealth an apparently poor indicator of righteousness, except perhaps inversely (though not always), but it seems to warp a person’s ability to grow one’s trust in God.

The kingdom of God has come near. Put the rest down. Trust nothing else. How can a person make this proclamation with pockets full of shiny things that so clearly don’t believe it?

If you are like me, you are not even completely aware of all of the things you trust in place of trust in God. Bank accounts, privileges, knowing it all, having reading all the books, fancy clothes, nationalities - like Texan - true and false beliefs about myself. Which is to say, if Jesus is going to send us out taking nothing, if I am going to need to empty my pockets of all that I’m carrying before I go, and let’s say we imagine the line for emptying pockets like some better version of TSA, well, you don’t want to be stuck behind me in that line. It’s gonna take a while. I got full pockets. Some shiny things I’m partial to, others I’m oblivious of. That is, I don’t even know about some of the junk that's in there. At least not by myself.

I wonder, is this why Jesus sends them out two by two? Or what does that accomplish? Put everything down, but pick up a friend? Maybe friendship is a source of strength and courage for the journey ahead, and surely it is, but what if friendship is also actually the one thing you pick up that empties your pockets of everything else you forgot - or neglected - to leave at home?

Here’s what I mean. Henri Nouwen, prolific Christian writer and member of the L’Arche community, was highly sought after as a speaker and teacher. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We could all stand to read more of him. Everywhere he went, Nouwen brought another member of the L’Arche community with him. The idea was partly pragmatic: L’Arche is a community in which folks with physical and intellectual exceptionalities live on equal footing with able-bodied folks. It’s the kind of beautiful and challenging reality that one can only talk about so much. The presence of a friend made the community present in a way Nouwen couldn’t accomplish alone, no matter how well he spoke about it. But the idea to bring a friend along, according to Nouwen, also had everything to do with making sure his pockets were empty, so that he didn’t try even subconsciously to exaggerate, impress, or misrepresent reality.

Nouwen knew the deep truth that you can’t know yourself by yourself. True being and belonging only happen in community, in holy friendships of vulnerability and trust. Nouwen brought a friend along in his travels because he believed that the presence of someone who knew the truth about him and the community would make him more truthful and keep his identity grounded in the community of faith through which God had shown him more of himself than he would have ever known alone, most especially the certainty of God's love for him. Consequently, Nouwen would be less likely to idealize either himself or the community as people who did not regularly depend on mercy, forgiveness, and grace not their own for the good work of being present to one another. He would look for the way of God's making, not his own. His proclamation would be less obstructed. It is not ourselves that we proclaim, we proclaim Christ Jesus... Carry nothing, Jesus said. But travel together, and together proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Who could have guessed that the intimate work of knowing another person and being known by other people in the community of faith has everything to do with being able to proclaim the truth that the kingdom of God has come near? That is to say, the hard work of community here, your perseverance in love with one another, ripples out, it overflows and goes out from here into the world. Which is another way of saying that our friendships are not our own. Even our most intimate friendships are gifts for the making known of God’s love in this world. 

Finally, then, if you were going to speak in front of others, like Nouwen, or visit a strange land, or make some other risk of proclamation, convinced of Nouwen’s insight about the gift of bring a holy friend, which friends would make your shortlist of those you’d want to bring along? Whose presence would communicate the life of the community and ground your being in the truth of God’s love? No more shiny things. All that put away. Trusting and delighting in God. Can I ask you, do these friends, who are gifts to you, know this about themselves, that by their friendship you know yourself more clearly in the light of God’s love, such that you can more nearly proclaim God’s love without distraction, self-deception, or fear? If you could share this news with your friends and then venture to ask them where they thought God might send you both next, to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God, what do you think they might say? Vulnerable, empty, and traveling light, proclaiming our Lord, hand in hand with each other, to whom might God send you next?


It was really moving to be surrounded by the saints and sent off with prayer today at St. Luke's, and to receive this icon of Luke, which is traditionally given to their graduates. I *guess* seven years is like a PhD in campus ministry!  In addition to occasional supply visits, I spent 3 months with St. Luke's during a time of transition in 2016, the first of 3 extended supply tenures to different Madison churches during my time at St. Francis House. I will cherish this gift, and God knows I carry the people of St. Luke's in my heart in the season ahead.

* Funny because my successor is their current priest. haha Get it?? 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Your Love is Like Yogurt (a wedding homily for Kate & Kevin)

Wedding homily for Kate Schneider and Kevin Sampson. The readings they selected were Ruth, 1:6-18, 1 John 4:7-16, and Mark 12:28-34. Additionally, they had read the following meditation from Madeleine L'Engle (from the Irrational Season):

But ultimately there comes a moment when a decision must be made. Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take…It is indeed a fearful gamble…Because it is the nature of love to create, a marriage itself is something which has to be created, so that, together we become a new creature.

To marry is the biggest risk in human relations that a person can take…If we commit ourselves to one person for life this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession, but participation…It takes a lifetime to learn another person…When love is not possession, but participation, then it is part of that co-creation which is our human calling, and which implies such risk that it is often rejected.

Dearly beloved, friends, Kevin and Kate,

To name the obvious, the watchword of the day, the watchword of this moment, is love.

Kate and Kevin, go ahead and look behind you, at these people. They’re here to witness love, but they’re also here because they love you.

People looking at Kevin and Kate looking at you, you came to witness love, but the truth about today is that your love for Kate and Kevin has shaped their imaginations for what love is and what it is to love. Each of you is a real part of the love they are about to promise to one another.

Weddings are unusual as church services go, because the readings aren’t predetermined. If they want to, the couple picks them. I have seldom encountered a couple who picked the readings as thoughtfully and conscientiously as Kate and Kevin have. The scriptures and meditation we just heard, read so beautifully, reveal something of the love the rest of you have shown them, to which you have opened them. You are the reason some texts jumped out at them and others didn’t. And the world of love reflected in what we just heard is pretty amazing. You get some credit for that.

But lest you get big heads about yourselves, you didn’t make it up, either. Someone else showed you, too. Sometimes they showed you in hurtful ways and you learned love by doing the opposite of what was done to you. But more often, I bet, something about the word someone spoke to you or the hand they extended to you or the silence someone shared with you communicated something of love that you received as a revelation of love. And it’s all being collected just now in a particular way, as the fire that burns in the hearts of the two pretty people at the center of this day. Their receiving love that you received and that was received before you by the people who made love known to you, in every generation, in each iteration, made new.

So Kevin and Kate come here today, as Madeleine L’Engle hinted, as participants in and not possessors of love. Love is active, comes to people, moves through them, too. We touch, receive, and share in love; we are always holding love that comes to us from somewhere else. Love has a source.

In this way, Kate and Kevin, your love is like yogurt. The two of you know as well as I do that it is not uncommon on the UW campus to come across students who make their own yogurt, and who want to see you do it too. It’s sweet, the determined enthusiasm of the yogurt enthusiasts. To make your own yogurt, you need milk and jars and, well, yogurt. This is where they always lose me. You need yogurt to make yogurt? If I had yogurt why would I need to make yogurt? But the yogurt you need is the starter, not the whole thing. In his letter, John celebrates the Divine as the yogurt that needs no starter, the source of the love to which all other loves belong, from which all other yogurt comes: “Beloved,” he writes, “let us love one another, because love is from God...God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” That love, like a starter yogurt strain, claims all the love that ever after comes from it. And so your love is a victory not its own.

In a commencement speech, that great theologian of the church Stephen Colbert said to a lawnful of college graduates, “You cannot win your life.” It’s the kind of thing that sounds true and sensible enough until some jerk cuts you off in traffic. Or you find yourself making a sacrifice that you know no one else will see. You cannot win your life. Not one of us gets out alive. If love is a victory not its own, then what is true of life is also true of love. You cannot win your love. There’s no doing love best, and certainly no doing love better than your partner or your parents or the privileged or the poor. Every victory of your love is a victory for all the loves that came before it and every love that follows it. Every victory of love is for the others. It’s true that love wins, but the victory of love comes not from vanquishing enemies, even on some days your spouse, but in celebration and remembrance of the source; in connection to and thanksgiving for the source.

Kevin and Kate, about that promise to love one another, the one you are both about to make, in the sacrament of marriage. My experience of you both is as people of the highest character and tremendous integrity. So - I’ll be honest - it is a little surprising that you would make a promise as risky, to use Madeleine L’Engle’s word, and as reckless as marriage. To promise love is to make a promise for which you cannot know beforehand what you’re promising. Except you do know you have promised to love. So you are committing yourselves, as far as I can tell, in the same way that improv comics commit themselves. They don’t know the lines or scenes ahead of time, but they promise to be generous players with each other and those around them. They know the only way to lose is to try to win the scenes. As stewards of a love you have received, give generously to one another and those around, forgive generously each other and those around you. Thank you for committing yourselves to love even what you don’t control, namely each other, and so becoming beacons for us all of the Love that is our home.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Love, the Bible, and Other Things We Pretend are Easy to Understand

Back in the day, hanging on a wall just inside the doors on the way to the college post office at the school I attended, was a theological disagreement board. On it, students and faculty would post thoughtful and sometimes less thoughtful theological positions, but the exciting thing about the board is that responses were invited and encouraged. In a given week, if you were lucky, you could watch two or three really interesting discussions unfold, on day at a time, as red ink filled the margins of the original post or, if we were really lucky, someone channeled their inner Martin Luther and thumb-tacked amendments or official disputations to the end of the preceding post. 

The theology board had so much potential, but sadly most of it went unrealized. That is because the most common response scribbled in the margins was a three word kiss-of-death that would shame most posters into silence:

"That's not biblical."

(I know, I know. Four words, if you count the apostrophe.)

At an evangelical college, one of the worst things to be accused of was departure from scripture. For all we knew, the recipient of such an admonition might soon find herself on the slippery side of the slope that led to reading the notoriously liberal Karl Barth. I hope my intended sarcasm/humor comes across, but it was also our situation.

Even as an undergraduate student much intimidated by the theology board, I found the suggestion that one's theological opponents, because they did not read the Bible the way you did, did not read or value the Bible, absurd. Of course, there are violent and inaccurate ways to read/twist scripture. But it's also true that the Bible is not self-interpreting. Much is plain, much is not, and within its pages are myriad disagreements and tensions of scriptural interpretation. It is a heavy and cruel burden to be saddled with an outside directive to encounter the Bible and not find it wondrous, mysterious, and strange. Moreover, such a directive wreaks of misused power dynamics and the desire to intimidate, limit, bully, and/or control another person's faithful imagination, which might have become a gift even to the one so directing. So the directive usually comes from those heavily weighted by fear.

I share the story of the theology board and the assumption that my understanding of the Bible is the understanding of the Bible, and should be obvious to everyone, because I have noticed a tendency to apply the same dynamic to the exhortation to love one another. Before I go on, let me say clearly that I believe in the exhortation to love one another! What makes me nervous, however, is the frequent assumption that what it is to love in a given situation is everywhere obvious. In such a moment, love is presented as the one thing we can all agree to do. But agreeing to love has never been my problem with love. 

Some days I want to love, but I don't know what to love well would look like. It's the lesson of ally-ship, for a white, straight, cisgender, male, that pretending to know how to love apart from vulnerable relationship and difficult conversations and similarly difficult feedback is but another way of insulating myself from discomfort while reinforcing the status quo. It's the impotence we feel when we enter the hospital room with a dear friend who is dying. It's a compassionate reading of the foolish things Job's friends say to Job, which we sometimes mock, even as we thank God we weren't put in their shoes. To borrow from a Sam Wells sermon I can no longer locate, quoting the 80s band Foreigner, some days 

I wanna know what love is.

Dismissing other details while appealing to the obvious baseline of love is little different from appealing to one's own "biblical" reading of scripture, with all of its attending dynamics of power and coercion. Both love and sacred texts are not always easy to know. Both are regularly wondrous, mysterious, and strange. Both, I would argue, are projects enhanced by, and which require, the company of holy friends, for surely if, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have shown us, we cannot know ourselves by ourselves, we cannot by ourselves learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such a community of holy friends, if they were Christian, would remember Jesus' commandment to love as Christ has loved us, that challenging transformation of the Golden Rule, and so turn to the scriptures in the expectation of being shown more and more about the nature of the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus, most chiefly on the cross. Such a turning and expectation, with much prayer, might protect us from claiming as love that which is merely sentimentality. 

But all in its time. To begin, I would be much relieved to find consensus in the modest contention that there are times and situations in which what it is to love is not obvious. I imagine a circle of friends, meeting semi-regularly, each bringing to the circle one occasion in their life for which love's expression is not clear. Each would speak and be received in turn. The ones who receive would have previously foresworn offering solutions or "should." Instead, they would be invited to offer images of scripture which the Spirit calls to mind, or verses from hymns of the community, or wisdom of the saints. No debates or formal conversation, just offerings until they're done, received as gifts to pick up or put down, but locating the difficulty in the resources of faith, of which the circle, the gathered Body of Christ, is not least. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Wendell Berry on Climate Change

Wendell Berry, wreaking havoc again in his brilliant essay 'Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend,' from his collection, The Art of Loading Brush. Hoping this provocative teaser inspires folks to read the full thing, which is about as profound an exploration of the relationship between presence, character, and activism as I have yet come across.
I feel no discomfort in saying that to require people to 'believe in climate change' as a test of their human worth is both a pointless snobbery and a meaningless distraction....Our time's great wrongs of waste and pollution are wrong in themselves. They would be wrong whether or note they cause climate change. They are wrong according to the economic measure of thrift. They are wrong according to the measure of the sanctity of the living world, and because of their immediate practical harms to nature and to human nature. Their first damage is to the character of the perpetrators (emphasis mine).
A case very much in point is that of a large coal-fired power plant that was planned not long ago for western Kansas. Its construction was successfully opposed by appealing to people's intuitive and inherited disapproval of waste and pollution. The plant's potential contribution to climate change was intentionally never mentioned, because there was no reason to do so and a very good reason not to do so: To do so would have divided the otherwise undivided opposition to the plant. For those aware of the local particulars, the problem declared itself this way: Both the believers and the disbelievers in climate change believed in conservation, in doing 'the right thing.' Their agreement on conservation defeated the power plant. Their disagreement on climate change was irrelevant. 
In other words, if we are only concerned about our relationship to the environment when the stakes are existential, we are completely lost already. Ironically, lowering the moral bar so low requires a consensus whose absence makes room for greater environmental injury. Note: Wendell Berry is no denier of climate change - his argument is wholly practical. Nurturing and sustaining local communities capable of having character to damage in the first place is another question, which he alludes to elsewhere. Predictably, the examples to which he points are local ones, specific ones, which maybe at least occasions for us reflection on the nature of the character to which our own local communities aspire.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

An Urgent Appeal to the U.S. Postal Service

I've found myself recently puzzled by the divergent paths of libraries and post offices in the Information Age. On the surface, both should have been done in by the advent of computers. To that end, one has lumbered along like a dinosaur with a fatal injury, whose days are desperate and numbered. But, unexpectedly, the other hosts elections and remains the lifeblood of the neighborhood, facilitating recreational and informational events for neighbors (game nights!), organizing programs that engage community members, while remaining a desirable third spaces for folks who are simply looking to do work in a quiet space. Why the difference?

Before I go on, I want to say - sincerely - how much I value postal workers. It's a thankless thing to be engaged in work people assume and take for granted as a part of the fabric of daily life, even if those same people seldom avail themselves of the service. Indeed, my desire to see the postal service flourish stems in part from my gratitude for it and my desire to see others come to know the joy of handwritten correspondence.

I know, I know. That refusal to embrace the future is exactly what has landed USPS in the predicament it's in. Fair. But hear me out...

A friend and I recently recommitted to written correspondence ("letter-writing"), but when I sat down to write my first letter to him, I was embarrassed to discover that I had exactly no paper in my house appropriate to the task. Just scraps of envelopes and "computer paper." I get that USPS needs to "get with the times," and increasingly it does feel like they are moving in that direction, but my suggestion is that the post office, if we are to have a physical space designated as such, has an opportunity to be a place that lifts up the value of, and makes accessible, the practice of writing letters.

Here are a few proposals:
  • Host community activist letter-writing nights, with supplies available for purchase at a discount, with politicians' addresses provided. Invite folks to bring snacks. Pick bipartisan issues and introduce folks to each other. (I just received an invitation today from Rabbi Bonnie, inviting folks to write letters of encouragement to the Lutheran pastor recently relegated to a local detention center. Let's get together and build friendships while we write!)
  • Host write-your-favorite-author children's days, along the same lines. Cross-pollinate with the local library and have them bring contact information for the Judy Blumes of the world.
  • Facilitate pen pals.
  • Carry fountain pens and inks! Stationary, too. And at price points that make sense for children.
  • Make space for the local gathering of stamp collectors. 
  • Host waste-management and paper repurposing programs.
  • Card-making events.
  • Introduction to wax sealing!
  • Promote books of famous letter exchanges! Personally, I'd start with The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, but there are lots of possibilities here. Inspire imagination.
I know, I know. None of it's happening. But the libraries these days have become spaces for those applying for citizenship to work with community members on their applications; have become spaces for game nights!; have become tutoring hubs. And don't tell me the idea of gently weening the USPS as it is off of it's gross and financial dependence on generic junk mail flyers isn't at least a little enticing. Yes, I get that the main difference between USPS and libraries is that one is a federal program, the other local, but if the foundation of your business model is delivering letters, doesn't it make sense to invest in and encourage the practice of writing, I don't know, letters?

And if it really isn't going to happen, please let me know. I might see about the availability of some post office-adjacent land and explore an exercise in community building and reciprocal relationship. :)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Why I'm Not (Even Trying to Be) the Greatest Parent

My daughter likes to tell me I'm her favorite dad. We laugh. I tell her she's my favorite Annie. And it's true. Occasionally, she'll tell me I'm the BEST DAD EVER (don't worry, she's not afraid either to tell me the opposite - haha). I don't always dispute her in real time, but she knows I don't agree, on principle. Even if she doesn't completely understand it yet (although I would not put it past her), she's heard me tell the story of Stanley Hauerwas' response to being named "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine. "Best is not a theological category," he famously quipped. 

What to make, then, of the generalization of parenthood that occurs with Mother's Day and Father's Day? And the subsequent and unavoidable awkwardness of invoking absurd titles like, "World's Greatest"? The subsequent and poisonous insinuation that every movement, moment, decision, is taking you closer to or farther from the title? The demonic logic that would suggest that the success of your relationship with your parent or your child is comparatively determined? 

In a favorite Robert Earl Keen song of mine, What I Really Mean, the singer/songwriter describes to someone close to his heart but far from his travels the incredible adventures he's experiencing in his life on the road, each time saying something like, "You should have seen the crowd we drew in there!" Each time, though, he catches himself and says, "What I really mean is, I wish you were here." It's such a gift in any relationship when we catch ourselves leaning on clich├ęs we don't mean, come to our senses, and then say the next true thing we can only truly say to that one. On the same token, the thing about titles like "the greatest" that's so sad is that they invite us to say the thing we didn't mean and sit silent on the things we did. 

It's been refreshing to see the cultural pushback against the Hallmark holidays this year, with the sensitivity that recognizes that these days can be painful for lots of reasons. I think the holidays are potentially as harmful, though, for the message they communicate to those for whom the days are pure celebrations; the relegation of a relationship to a comparative context can only confuse the multi-faceted uniqueness that makes a particular relationship special. And it turns out what really makes the relationship special many times has a tremendous capacity to hold pain and brokenness, incorporate forgiveness, growth, and/or redemption, and invite us toward a place of knowing and being known, even as we disappoint and, sometimes, deeply wound each other.

In a recurring theme of The Jesus Storybook Bible, the author says over and over that God's people were lovely. And they were lovely, because God loved them. It is such a wonderful description of relationship rightly valued, and cherished, from the inside out. May we know ourselves beloved of God and be known in love to one another, where "to me you will be unique in all the world."

St. Francis House Students Gather Friends, Give Away $3,000 for Children & Youth

It started with the observation of one of our student leaders: "You know, Jonathan, I'm only here at St. Francis House - I only walked through these student center doors the first time - because of people who invested in me and made opportunities for me and shared the life of faith with me when I was in middle school."

Middle school? I asked.

"Folks in my parish and people in my diocese, they made spaces for me, when I was a kid." He looked at me directly. "What's going on in this diocese?" he asked. Intuitively, he knew that it is hard to adequately capture the self-destructive effects of a church that does not visibly value and invest in the lives of children, youth, and young adults. Moreover, he recognized the commitment to do so as a central feature of every single baptism in the Christian church.

So, what is going on in this diocese? Wonderfully, there are many good things happening. Challengingly, these efforts can be difficult to coordinate and/or leverage across congregations. It is easy to miss the existing efforts. It is easy to feel discouraged. So many of carry in our hearts the adamant conviction that more is possible.

It's an interesting and important observation, that campus ministry is in some ways a rain gauge for waters that fell nine years before. Kind of how we observe the light of stars whose lives have already run their courses. In other words, we're all connected, both to one another and, within each person, across the seasons of a lifetime. All of the specialized silos of ministry we imagine unravel at the insight that the seasons belong to unified lives in the one Body of Christ, unfolding, growing, and flourishing in God's time.

What to do with this student leader's insight? We gathered the St. Francis House student leadership team and discussed possibilities. We landed on an outreach gathering in which we would invite friends from other "silos" across the diocese to help us give money away. It wasn't a fundraiser - the students were prepared to give away $3,000, no matter who showed up. Instead, it was a wall-leveler, a friends-in-ministry-locator, an evening to strengthen and encourage. The gift would be the people gathered and their help in directing our funds. And we would try to have as much fun as possible.

All of that is the backstory for how we ended up hosting 30 something folks from 16 churches and other faith communities from across the diocese on April 11 for an evening of creative outreach. Attendees helped us disperse $3,000 in 3 directions:
      • Camp Webb scholarship money for first time attendees
      • Resource money for the St. Francis House middle and high school lock-in, November 2-3
      • Funds for students to attend the national Episcopal Youth Event in 2020
​We heard testimonies (yes, testimonies!) from a student who attended several EYEs, summer camp veterans, and parents who gave thanks for the Christ-centered support of others in the lives of their children. We shared photos and stories about the children who have shaped us and the people who made God's love known to us when we were children. We made sure everybody knew about the upcoming and 3rd annual Thrive conference, a summertime gathering of children's, youth, and young adult leaders at St. Francis House, this year featuring the Rev. Nurya Love Parish on July 20. (Spoiler: you can register here.)

By the end of the evening, despite our best efforts to not be a fundraiser, folks had added several hundred dollars to our efforts. We left a community connected (the lock-in found a music leader!), united, and inspired. And very much aware that the most important step was the next one. And the next one after that. And the one after that, as we continue to show up with hearts open and ready to actively engage the new possibilities of God and the new things God is doing among those who can so easily become invisible among us.

We want to keep the momentum moving forward. We want to support one another. We want to make it as easy as possible for a cash-strapped congregation with a plate full of challenges to nonetheless say 'yes,' to ministry that puts children, youth, and young adults at the forefront, even if they aren't a part of Sunday mornings. We want every church in the diocese to be a part of this circle, even if they're not sure they belong or what their place in the conversation is.

One of the things we discovered that night at the outreach gathering is that the Episcopal Youth Event allots 20 openings (give or take) to each diocese every time it happens. For the last several EYEs, our diocese (understandably, and like a lot of others) didn't use the full 20 spots, but relinquished them to dioceses that had more folks wanting to go than they had spots. Over the course of the evening, this became like a rallying cry for our community, "No more charity for other dioceses!" Ha. The rally cry only works in the one context, but it remains a goal that inspires me, mostly because it's a goal that will take us all to realize. Which means we'll have to move the conversation from the periphery to the center, where Jesus is. "Let the children come to me," he said. Wonderfully, the good work of that relocation is alive and well among us. If you haven't already, I dearly hope you and your church will join the circle! There is joy and blessing in it.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Psalm 23: the Psalm that Exactly No One is Excited to Hear a Sermon About

We never preach about the psalms. But if we ever preach the psalms, I suppose it’s on days like this one. Psalm 23 contains some of the most familiar words in all of holy Scripture. Words most of us came to know before we were aware of our knowing them, even if we did not grow up in church. The Lord is my shepherd. Let me ask you, where did these words first find you? Or better, when did you first become aware that these words were inside you? When did you first feel the support or the intimacy of the images lifted up in this psalm? Which of the visuals first spoke to you, opened something of the life of God up to you? Or maybe it was someone close to you whose affection for this psalm you came to know through their sharing.
1 The Lord is my shepherd; * I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures * and leads me beside still waters.
3 He revives my soul * and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; * for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; * you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
6 Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

My relationship with psalm 23, in a lot of ways, is a picture of my relationship with the rest of the Bible. Mostly, the things I notice in it change over time. Things that jumped out as a kid - I mean really jumped out, they were THE ONLY POINT of a story - are still there, but they no longer demand center stage, at least not always. Some of those things have receded in importance, some things have showed themselves to be connected to other things I hadn’t yet seen over time, and so my understanding of their meaning has grown or been transformed. None of the seeing is wasted. All of it shapes. All of it contributes. Sometimes one image builds on another. Occasionally, a new thing here appears to undermine an old thing there, but mostly the landscape continually opens up, deepens, and layers. It all points to God, who is at once unchanging and surprising.

The Lord is my shepherd. “I shall not want.” Right off the bat, that was a problem phrase for six-year old me. The language was hard to follow; it felt somewhat antiquated (a forgivable feeling, it turns out, this being the KJV), , but I couldn’t have told you how. “Lack for nothing” is closer to the meaning, but that’s how exactly nobody memorizes the verse. Some of the confusion came from the sequencing, combined with the old-timey language: not wanting came after mention of the Shepherd, whom I was pretty sure we were supposed to want, which confused me. Moreover, it was not clear to my six-year old heart why not wanting anything was good. I am not sure age or experience in this world of being sold to has entirely resolved that tension, although time and exposure have certainly highlighted the stakes of it.

As a kid, it was hard to miss, too, the VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH (all caps) - there was an eye-opener! - and, with it, the stakes of the trust. That the shepherd wanted life for the sheep was a simple but important thing for me to hear. And that the shepherd wasn’t above walking in valleys. Downward mobility toward the pain of another was a feature of this shepherd’s love. And of course it foreshadows the cross. If Jesus was this Good Shepherd, who knew my name, I discovered in the shadows an invitation to trust that that love would walk with me there. And also that I could go into another’s shadow without fear, even if I could do nothing to make things better for them or dispel the darkness by myself.

This part of the psalm - the shepherd’s refusal to abandon the sheep, even to death - prepared me, I think, to cherish the eucharistic hymns that talk about Christ the victim, Christ the priest. The most famous of these are Easter hymns. And of course they’re not original. Today we heard from Revelation, some of the source material: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." The lamb will be their shepherd. The shepherd becomes the lamb.

As I got older I noticed other things. I had always liked the thought of a feast, but one day I read the whole sentence. A feast prepared in the presence of my enemies (or those who trouble me). As our kids have learned to say when they find a possibility repulsive, “No, thank you.” Just, why? While I suppose the point of the story was that a feast in such a context would bring humiliation to my enemies, there was an honest part of me that wondered why they had to be there. And then a fearful part of me that wondered if they had been invited as more than spectators to witness the fruit of my divine favor or success. Was this all a part of that love your enemies business? I began to grow suspicious. What if my enemies had a place at the table, too? Worse still, what if my presence was to them what I had assumed theirs was to me? And what did such a party say about God? What if God wasn’t just with me in discomfort - what if God brought about some of my discomfort, you know, on purpose? What if God’s ends included - but did not center on - me, with my ideas for how things should go? It was blasphemy to imagine.

My nervousness increased years later with a thoughtful consideration of still waters. What I had earlier assumed to be a poetic repetition of the goodness of green pastures now struck me as a detail that could go either way - toward green, lush goodness, on the one hand, or equally toward the way of shadows and enemies at the table, on the other. For context, I was fresh off a family camping trip in which my brother, dad, and I had gone tubing down a river. After a few runs of the chute, we let confidence get the better of us and we floated down past where the signs said we should definitely get out. The pace slowed down suddenly. The quick-moving waters, that had made the chute so much fun, were nowhere to be seen. Before long, things stopped completely. The banks of the river weren’t accessible and it seemed like we’d be lost forever. Our imaginations filled with images of snakes - both in the water and dropping from trees - snakes and stagnation as we strained our muscles hard to keep hands and feet out of and above the water, which of course was to seal our fate as stuck, without the capacity to paddle. Was still water the gift of the oasis in the desert, the match for green pastures, or was still water more like the valley, more like enemies at the table? More like Lauren Winner, the Christian author of Girl Meets God and Mudhouse Sabbath, who followed up these books with an unlikely successor, her memoir Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis? In an NPR interview for All Things Considered, Winner described the situation in which she found herself, her mother dying, her marriage failing, this way: “In my life, I had this dramatic conversion to Christianity and it had lots of intense emotions. I thought that those feelings would just endure, and that those feelings would sort of sustain me in the life of faith forever. And then I came to a place where I was no longer in the glow of the young adult new Christian conversion; I was now just in the middle of my faith life.” She found herself where things got still. He leads me beside still waters. It’s a harder sell on campus, where it is possible that I am talking to at least some students for whom the waters have not yet stopped, but it is maybe easier for us to know that faith that is faith must be faith when things get still. Where it is still, still God is there.

That Easter is fifty days long invites such an observation. If Easter were just the one day, we could maybe imagine that Easter is all confetti eggs and Alleluias, that Easter marks the end of grief, but fifty days - no one can pretend that long. The promise in Revelation, after all, is not the end of the tears, but that God will wipe every tear away. We are right to rejoice and to sing our songs loud, but at some point we also get to let God be God when we are tired and wounded. Yes, Easter is true celebration. And Easter is also the risen Christ finding Thomas one week later in the excruciating anguish of his doubts. Easter is true resurrection, yes, and Easter is the risen Christ seeking, finding, breathing forgiveness on Peter and Paul, walking in the valley of the road to Emmaus when understanding fails his friends and they lose the way, consoling Mary outside the tomb, among the rocks, in the depths of sorrow, grief, and loss. This is all a part of Easter, because this is all the landscape on which, to which, the risen Christ visits us. This is Easter, his touching every broken place, the shepherd calling his sheep by name; the movement of the love Jesus has for his friends, to whom he returns with healing and life.

There is no friend or stranger, however strange they seem to us, who is not in herself the location of the presence and reign of the risen Jesus and so who is not a person for whom we are not called to show up in hope. And on those days when you seem strange to yourself, and you wonder, the love of the risen Christ is already near, the cup already overflowing with forgiveness, the psalmist tells us, the oil prepared already for your head.

Whom then shall we fear?

The Lord is our Shepherd, we shall not want. To dwell, to trust, to rest in the care of the Shepherd/Lamb/King is to meet the wonder, love, and praise of the age-old, anonymous hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true,
No, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,—
'Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love, but, O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.

Leave the Shiny Things at Home (my final sermon in Madison)

The readings for Sunday, July 7, 2019. My final sermon in Madison, preached at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, at the invitation of my co...