The Society of Campus Ministers

No gods that we know

We have now entered the one-month period wherein I will be installed officially as the rector of St. John’s (hooray!) and then get married (also hooray!).  I figured out today that this series of events is the equivalent to an out-of-season Christmas/Holy Week scenario–copiers will run out of ink, computers will die, the building will […]

Discerning the Good after Conversation with the Philosopher Barber



Sunday’s readings.  My barber is a philosopher. (I know, I know, aren’t they all?) At least he struck me as particularly philosophical the day I sat down in his chair and asked for his help with my beard. This was a couple of years ago and I’d grown what was my first significant beard for charity. Charitably, I didn’t know what I was doing and desperately needed help. Now that the money had been raised, the parameters of the agreement followed for the allotted length of time (namely abiding an alarming degree of hygienic negligence), I needed the beard trimmed into respectability. The barber nodded knowingly as he listened, taking in my situation. When he finally picked up his scissors and began to go to work, he broke a thoughtful silence with this truth:

“Beards,” he said, “are remarkable achievements of inaction. You did a thing by not doing a thing, am I right? People gave you money not to shave. But,” he went on, “the verb is active. That’s the madness. We say you grew a beard because of this thing you stopped doing. And we notice. We say to people with beards, ‘I see you grew a beard.’ But we never say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you decided not to grow a beard today.’ Every day we should say to the clean-shaven folks, ‘I see you opted yet again not to grow a beard. How interesting. Well done.’ They’re the ones day in and day out giving honest time to their invisible decisions.”

There was no judgment in my barber’s words, although had they been intended to communicate humility to me, they certainly would have been effective.

I marveled at the barber/philosopher’s consideration of the matter, but then decided that this was not really that surprising. Hair and hair cutting are kind of his thing. Still, as a good Episcopalian, his words stayed with me. After all, in the list of all-time favorite and famous phrases of the liturgy, right up there with “The Lord be with you” and maybe also “Guide us waking, O Lord,” from Compline, is that line from the corporate confession of sin. We name “things done and left undone.” That line has always struck me as beautiful and true, calling me to a more fulsome imagination for what might have been done and how I might have lived. Now, though, post conversation with the philosopher barber, I was haunted. While not a sin, maybe, which was a beard? A thing done or left undone? Was it both? And what about other similarly ambiguous acts of inaction? When someone talks about turning the other cheek, for example, the cheek may have been turned, but the real accomplishment was the retaliatory punch not thrown. Similarly, to make space for another’s pain is a very active thing facilitated, in large part, by certain words not spoken. When John the Baptist looked at Jesus and said, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we can recognize decreasing as an action that definitionally doesn’t take much action, even if in a peculiar sense John’s is a difficult and intentional action to take.

An especially relevant contemporary application appears in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s remarkable book, “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion,” in which he astutely observes that “‘Just shut up and listen’ might be the most important instruction for anyone committed to unlearning whiteness.” Sometimes to act is to roll up your sleeves and throw your hat the ring. Sometimes to act is to grow the beard.

The complication is that it’s not enough to fall back on sayings like, “Don’t just stand there, do something!” because, the line between action and non-action is difficult to spot, if it exists at all. If I say that to you – “Don’t just stand there, do something!” – it’s actually not possible for me to know that you were not doing something by standing there. It would probably be more honest then for me to say, “I don’t like what you’re doing. Do something else.” In other words, many times we call on people to act when we simply don’t like how they are acting. But precisely for all its reliance on these arbitrary judgments, parsing action from non-action is an insufficient and reductive way to tell if we’re doing the right thing.

Was the thing I did done or left undone? It depends on what you’re trying to do and therefore also on what you recognize as the good for which you’re aiming. For Christians, the good is not an abstract judgment made for the purposes of filling out the scorecard of faith. Ten points and you’re in. For Christians, goodness has to do with discerning where God is, what God is doing, and tending to God’s presence with our own. So Christians gather around the table to discern the Body. Having been gathered by God in this way, we continue from this place in the baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help. In this way, our worship of God and our care for one another are inextricably bound up in each other. So in the letter that bears his name James can ask a question that appears to blur moral and theological categories, the question he asked in his letter last week, “Do you, by your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James can question his hearers’ belief in our Lord Jesus Christ on the basis of their treatment of each other and the stranger because James sees that goodness is not a dry application of an arbitrary assessment but has everything to do with where and in whom they believe the living God will show up. Goodness has everything to do with employing the discernment they receive as gifts of this table as they leave from this table and encounter all of those who bear the image of God.

In today’s lesson, James is still talking favoritism, partiality, that thing that God does not have that makes God so generous, but he’s writing about speech and the ways people sometimes talk poorly about the ones who are not their favorites. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” James writes. “And the tongue is a fire…a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My sisters and brothers, it should not be so.” Now, if it sounds to you like James is channeling Ralphie from A Christmas Story, threatening to wash our mouths out with soap until we go blind if we don’t watch our speech, you can be forgiven the impression. “Only I didn’t say fudge,” Ralphie memorably confesses some decades later. But the context is more insidious than bad words; the context is cursing others; the context is the tendency in followers of Jesus to separate love of God from love of those God also loves; the context is an indefensible separation of the discernment of Body at the table from the care with which we speak of about people we have learned to despise and in whom we do not acknowledge the image of God. James doesn’t say what Dorothy Day would later say, but you get the sense he would have very much approved when she confessed, “I only really love God as much as the person I love least.”

It is really easy to imagine morality as the things we do to impress God apart from God for the approval of God. James will have none of it. Instead, James presents a sacramental world in which goodness only finds substance and direction and meaning as it attends to the presence of God and in which the people who fill our ordinary days bear the image of God, as we give one another by our being opportunities to honor the goodness of the God we have discerned in worship here. So James invites us to consider that the mouths that sing God’s praises here might well consider these prayers and praises to be our mouths’ true vocations for all the other days as well. In other words, how might the ways we have learned to speak to God and, maybe most importantly, the ways we have heard God speak to us, inform the ways we speak to one another? I think for myself that works like gratitude, encouragement, generosity, and forgiveness might find new prominence in my day to day vocabulary. In any case, this is James’ question for us. Our answers are free to take the shape of words and silence, both, because the answer is not in the words alone. Remember, there is no logic to things done or left undone apart from God’s first call to us and the good work of tending to where and with whom God is. Our answer to James lies in the discernment that is God’s loving gift, in the discernment of where God is, what God is doing, and, with God’s good help, tending to God’s gracious presence there, and here, with our own.

Amen.


Funny story…

Hey Megan, why isn’t last week’s sermon up on the website yet? Oooooh, funny story.   See, last week, I made it back to Ithaca around 11:30pm on Saturday night.  I had been in Kansas City, finishing up wedding planning (pies ordered, BBQ selected, all set!) and I wrote my sermon on the plane.  I […]

Rambling Obvservations about Passing Period

It’s so quietIf not for the traffic of skateboardWheels and cars, almost silent.Today, any and all conversational laughterHas inexplicably chosen the other sideOf the road, no exceptions.It comes and goes with a Staggered unpredictability, almostL…

"Don’t Wash Your Hands!" And Other Things My Kids Are Delighted Jesus Said

A homily for Proper 17, Year B. These are the scriptures appointed for the day. When asked why his disciples do not wash their hands before eating, Jesus replies to his accusers, quoting Isaiah, “Don’t you see how you have abandoned the commandment of God to hold on to a human tradition?”

One way to hear what Jesus says this morning is that it’s not what you do that matters. As long as your heart is clean, you don’t need to wash your hands. To make this interpretation of Jesus’ words the basis of your regular hygienic practice at public restrooms and highway rest stops across the country would be really, really gross. Candidly, you might lose friends. You would almost certainly contract myriad of otherwise completely avoidable diseases. This is not what Jesus has in mind.

Jesus is talking about what makes people unclean in the ritual sense and, even beyond that, in the “worthy to stand before God” sense. The traditions of Jesus’ day had a long list ready of things that would make you unclean for admittance in the worship of God’s people. Some uncleanliness could be remedied. Some couldn’t. This is why the story, for example, of the good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel is so powerful and poignant: the religious leaders literally step over the body of a traveler left for dead, in part because to have touched him would have made them unclean and unable to perform their duties in worship. Interestingly, interaction with a Samaritan was also on the list of things that would make a person unclean. And yet is is from the Samaritan traveler that the broken body on the road finds reception, love, and healing.

You and I live in an age that, to put it mildly, does not like to be commanded, and so it is easy, perhaps, to hear the whole struggle over commandments and cleanliness as the maybe necessary, but embarrassingly rudimentary, progress of an archaic, ancient time. How sad, we think, that once upon a time people believed those kinds of things. How unfortunate, we think, that people ever allowed themselves to be commanded. A bit like watching somebody else rescued from a trap we know better than to step in. But that is also to miss the point that Jesus is making. The point is that Jesus is drawing a line of distinction between the commandments and the tradition, clearly delineating them as separate realities, alleging conflation and abuses by religious authorities, and, finally, Jesus is remembering for the whole people of Israel that these commandments had been given by God in order to shape the people as a people, to keep them ordered, connected, aware of the ways they belonged to God and, belonging to God, to keep them mindful of the ways they therefore belonged to each other. The point is that invoking the commandments that connect the people of God to God and each other in order to divide the people into the haves and have nots is maybe the worst abuse of the commandments, to Jesus’ mind, imaginable. All while pointing to themselves as exemplars of holiness. Like the churchgoers in Corinth, showing up to the feast, gorging themselves, not noticing that some at the table have nothing to eat, the Pharisees who take offense that the disciples don’t wash their hands cannot see how what they believe to be their saving grace is actually their sin, because it turns out there’s not much grace at all in ritual purity that requires distance from the dirty ones. The point is the calling out of an emerging market, even a religious market, for being well regarded by others, a piety production line that skips over the hassle and mess of actually belonging to one another. So, for example, in the verses that immediately follow this passage, Jesus observes that adult children are using the law in ways that allow them to shirk their responsibilities to their aging parents.

Twenty-first century western culture may no longer stress cleanliness in the same sorts of ways as ancient Judaism (though, to be sure, our society possesses its own modern variations on the theme), but we do very much share the plight of people who would like to do life without belonging to others, without living life in such a way that others can make claims on us. Conversations about how to care – and who should care – for aging parents or children with exceptionalities or those without homes are still difficult conversations to have. What’s worse, like the ones Jesus calls hypocrites this morning, we sometimes use religion to protect ourselves from, and turn a blind eye to, the claims other people might make on our lives, our money, our time.

Now, to be clear, to use religion in this way – in such a way as to protect oneself from the claims of other people, to make it look as if love of God and love of neighbor play for opposite teams or, maybe better, to somehow communicate that the two are different sports entirely – you have to twist it some. Almost to the point of breaking. But it can be done. And there are plenty of examples from which to learn this dreadful art, plenty of examples from history in which Christians have exchanged belonging to each other as one Body for the appearance of individual goodness, over against or sometimes simply indifferent to the unclean, even the unclean we are subsequently happy to help. In describing what he calls “the insufficiency of goodness,” Rowan Williams puts it this way:

So much work and (even) ministry…had been predicated on the assumption that it was about good people doing good for other people. Goodness is the problem. We do things in order to be good, or perhaps to seem to be good. We do things knowing who we are to those we define as different from us. And the result very often with the best and most generous will in the world is that people’s sense of isolation, powerlessness, and rejection is intensified rather than healed.

Nevermind the problem of evil, the religious leaders in Mark’s gospel confront us with the problem of goodness, of reputation and self-regard, and it is a problem, a dynamic, with which people in our time are more than familiar, even if, in a particularly challenging moment, that the problem is goodness sometimes escapes us. Of course we want to be good. It’s what good people do! Goodness, though, can be a way by which we assure ourselves that we are doing this thing called life in a way that matters. But playing for goodness, so understood, underwrites the lie, the fiction, that our lives are games to win.

Do you remember that time in the gospels when Jesus and his disciples are watching people put their money in the box outside the temple? Rich folks dropping bank. A widow with a coin. And some preacher one time shared that story as the basis for understanding God’s preference for percentile giving. It might have been stewardship season. But that only makes sense if our lives are games to win, if holiness comes in points to accrue and hold over others. Record high scores. But did you ever notice in that story that Jesus never calls the widow the winner? He simply makes the observation of what transpires and lets the irony that the money box outside the temple had been instituted to support the widow and orphan hang in the air like a stench with the potential to wake people up.

It’s like the smugness I sometimes feel when I take my extra clothes to Good Will, proud of my generosity, when I’ve forgotten the words of saints like Basil who say that, when I find myself with coats to give it’s only because I have stolen the extra coat in my closet from the one who has none that I have some to give. Because life is not a game to win. Because belonging, for the faithful, comes first.

But it’s tricky, right? Tricky because it’s as easy to become self-righteous about belonging as it is to be self-righteous about anything else. It’s very, very easy to find oneself perpetually wondering out loud why the other guy didn’t wash his or her hands or do the right thing. But the belonging doesn’t come from the washing of hands, yours, mine, or others. It comes from the love of the One who, on the night before he died, washed the feet of his friends, and whose love for us, as well as his love for the ones we despise, remains the truest thing about us all. This belonging names the truth about God’s love. This One feeds us here at this table; this One who is the food we are fed. And so we who are many are one body, we belong to each other, for we all partake of the one bread.

Amen.

Kinda-sorta about capitalism

At long last, we screech to the end of John 6, and the Never-Ending Ode to Bread.  I have an ambivalent relationship with the Revised Common Lectionary, but this has to be one of the stranger choices it made–to devote 6 solid weeks in midsummer to reiterating and tiptoeing through John’s sixth chapter. As a […]

Ode to a Pelican

When I was a kid, I liked to watch for pelicans at the beach, because my grandfather would recite a poem about them.  “Oh what a bird is the pelican! His beak can hold more than his belly can!” (Same went for whenever the wind blew in the winter, at which time we were treated […]

Righteous Anger

As I said before, I don’t generally preach about the Pauline Epistles.  This isn’t due to my ambivalence about Paul–it’s mostly due to the fact that Paul tends to preach fine on his own; he mostly doesn’t need my help.  (In fact, he’d probably object to it.) Paul’s letters are essentially theological discourses connecting the […]

Baked into One Cake: Bread and the Body of Christ

A homily preached at St. Dunstan’s, Madison. Proper 14, Year B, Track 1.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton (still). I’m the chaplain at St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madson, with you through October in this sabbatical season both for Mother Miranda and St. Dunstan’s. Still delighted to be so invited. And equally delighted to be with you as we worship the living God this morning. Are you glad to be here? Turn and tell a neighbor – I’m glad to be here! Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this evangelism 101 – turn and tell someone something about something.

In the gospel today, the people are put off that Jesus calls himself bread from God. For many of the people listening to Jesus, his claim is more than illogical; this bread rises to the level of blasphemy. Some Wonder, Bread from God? This is Mary’s boy. They’ve watched him grow up. And now he’s God’s bread, come down from heaven? Some of the people, let’s call them the upper crust, like the Pharisees, suspect that something is a rye. Kneading to get to the bottom of it, to drive Jesus oat, they press in on the crowds. But then, in the moment of crisis, in the heat of the oven, Jesus doubles down on his claim, that’s right, just now, in the story before us – when his antagonists yeast expect it.

And how could he not? The disciples, like Pita, loaf around on the sidelines. We search the scene for someone willing to go against the grain, to speak up for Jesus, but alas we find naan. So Jesus speaks for himself. In words grilled deep into the heart of faith through generations, he speaks up. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says.

You’re safe, I’m done.

The offense the people take at Jesus’ divine bread-ness may surprise you. It’s honest and maybe necessary to ask, what’s the big deal behind this claim to be bread? You and I are familiar with this bread that offended the people. We probably take it for granted. Of course there’ll be bread when we come to this space. We may take as a matter of course that this bread and holy meal stand at the center of our common life and all that we are in Christ. Or, conversely, for all the familiarity, we may forget from time to time what the bread is about, why it matters, what it’s for. For example, St. Paul one time said that we who are many are one body, because we partake of the one bread; and yet, it is easy to come to the table simply to satisfy an individual need. And God knows we have our individual needs. One of them, it turns out, is to be saved from being left as individuals. But it is easy to forget what this bread is about.

There are reminders, of course. Reminders that we are being made into one body by this bread. Reminders like the breaking of the bread at the end of the Eucharistic prayer: the priest holding up the bread and saying, “Behold the Body of Christ!” And the Assembly (that’s y’all), channeling Augustine, replies, “May we become what we receive.”

Martin Luther put it in a typically Martin Luther way; he said we are baked into one cake with Christ. My Granny one time explained to me that there’s just no un-caking a cake. We are made a part of one another in Christ, by this bread. This bread, the bread Jesus gives us, the bread that Jesus is, stands at the heart of our common life. But then what does it mean in 2018 to have a common life?

Enter the book of Ephesians. In it, you’ll find Unusual Reasons, capital U, capital R. Not unusual things, but Unusual Reasons for alarmingly usual things. Usual things like not lying, telling the truth. Unusual Reasons like, because we belong to each other. Not because you might get caught. Not because it will further your good name, your reputation, or your prospects for the future. Unusual Reasons like we belong to each other.

If all we had to go on was the part of the letter we read today, the Unusual Reason for telling the truth might have been harder to spot. Sure, there’s the initial line about being members of each other, but apart from that today’s reading looks a lot like one of the long list of rules you and I have come to expect from the Bible. If you go back a chapter, though, to chapter 4, there you’ll find the words our prayer book uses to mark the mystery of the cake we have become. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, they are the words that begin our worship whenever someone is baptized. These are the words that you already know:

There is one body and one Spirit; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.

Page 299. All of the rules that follow these words are not rules at all in the traditional sense; they are invitations to live the gift the Ephesians have been given, which is membership in the one Body of Christ. It’s a body chock full of people who all claim significant differences. Gentiles and Jews. Rich and poor. Misers and spendthrifts. Quiet and loud. Snarky and sincere. People with homes and people without them. Wisconsinites and Texans. People who floss and people who brace themselves for the hygienist’s bi-annual lecture. Folks who belong to the correct political party and those who subscribe to the side that inexplicably lacks all real sense. People who’ve got it together and people like me. We who are many are one body, because we partake of the one bread.

Ephesians gives more Unusual Reasons. Unusual Reasons for things like not stealing. Unusual reasons like making sure you can earn enough to give away some goods to those in need. How wonderfully odd. No mention here of respecting personal property or the upholding of constitutional property rights. No, the moral logic of the letter takes as its starting point the waters of baptism and that pesky, transformative bread. Waters and bread that break down fences and walls and give us again to each other as gifts; waters and bread that invite us into a love that is learning not to fear and is willing, even looking, to be surprised. If you’re not careful, Unusual Reasons for usual things can give you a new imagination for what is possible and what is real.

Parenthetically, have you wondered how the thieves that Paul addresses could have found themselves needing to steal apart from the body’s failure to be as generous toward the thieves as Paul hopes the thieves can learn to become toward the others in need? It’s beautiful, I think, how Paul hides within his words to thieves an injunction that, in singling out the thief does not single out the thief at all, but calls out the community, too, uprooting any judgements we might have apart from our own realization, again, that we belong to each other. Put another way, maybe we are all of us thieves. Maybe we are all thieves invited to trust God to share what we had thought was ours alone to possess. As we do so, we discover that our fears of not being enough for the other people in the life of this body were unfounded. Even better, in the vulnerable offering of ourselves to God and one another, imitating Christ’s self-giving love for us, this is where we have know the belonging made possible in Jesus, for even on our worst days, when we are sure there is nothing of value in us to give, there is forgiveness in the cup.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” This bread is Good News. But is easy to forget what this bread is about. There are reminders, of course. Ephesians whispers some of them. Reminders that we are being made into one body by this bread.

Amen.

New Hobby

One of the reporters at the Hutto prayer service asked me, as serious as could be, “So, these large outdoor prayer meetings–I assume this is a weekly tradition for Episcopals?” Oh my sweet, summer child. “No,” I replied, quite emphatically. “We are an indoor people.  My people do not venture forth out of doors.  Do […]