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?? 

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