Category: Dialog

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 […]

Outrage, Secrets, and Bread

A homily preached at St. Dunstan’s, Madison. Proper 13, Year B, Track 1.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan. I am a priest, the chaplain at SFH, the 103 year old Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. Go Badgers. I am Mother Miranda’s friend. Put better, she is my good friend. Wonderfully, I am blessed to count many of you as friends, too. And the ones I don’t know yet, I hope to count as future friends – it’s been my happy discovery that God is generous like that. Miranda has invited me and my family – my wife, Rebekah, our 3 kids, Annie, Jude, and Dorothea – to journey with y’all during this sabbatical time, and I can’t tell you how honored we are to be invited to walk with you like this. There are opportunities for get-to-know-you times between the services today and after the second service next week, there will likely be other times, too, and I hope you’ll risk friendship. It’s one of the many good gifts God means to give us. It’s a gift for me, Bek, our family, to worship the living God with you in this season.

So, uh, yeah, right. Next order of business. David and Bathsheba. I thought all week and finally gave up hope for finding a good segue.

Can I be honest? I said that once to my therapist and he looked at me with a kind of disbelief, like, “Why else are you here?” Can I be honest? There are a bunch of things that bother me about this story, which is maybe an awkward first story with which to begin three months together. First, as my dear friend Mother Dorota has powerfully preached, Bathsheba was not somebody else’s pet, or sheep, or any other kind of property, which is confusing given that when Nathan comes on the scene today to set David right, this is exactly what he seems to say, not entirely surprising given the cultural norms of the time, but today we would not hesitate to say, and absolutely should make clear, that the power differential between Bathsheba and the king of Israel is so great as to make a consensual relationship impossible. This was rape. Not only a violation of Uriah’s marriage, but a violation of Bathsheba’s person.

Second, David is a fool. You might be thinking, David is a lot of other things in this story, too, but let’s not miss also that David is a fool. He doesn’t have Uriah killed in order to run away with Bathsheba for the rest of their lives. That’s a little too forward thinking for David. David has Uriah killed only after several attempts to keep his secret one night stand fail; excruciatingly, David’s attempts to keep his secret fail exactly because Uriah is such a loyal friend.

David is not the first or last politician to remind us that the powerful are often every bit as frightened as the powerless. David kills to hide. He kills to hide from the truth; to protect his reputation; to run from what is real. On the one hand, this is not surprising. The one with the most to lose in the story goes to the greatest lengths to protect what he has. On the other hand, the most powerful person in the story hides from anyone and everyone around him, manipulates conversations and behaviors, leaves no room for laughter or other surprises of grace. Everything is scripted, and the world must act his script. Meanwhile, the king is the one who cowers and lives in a perpetual fear that turns even the loyalty of his friends into a thing he learns to despise. The pressure he feels to hide his failures causes him to hate his people. His world, his relationships, and his deepest hopes for both of these things are distorted, twisted, and mangled by his devotion to the secrets he must guard. But David is the king. If another way were possible, an alternative to this hiding, this hiding which is crippling his way of being in the world, surely it would be possible for him. But fear rejects all possibilities except mistrust and isolation. David of all people has the power – I would think – to live differently and yet he fears all but his own shadow. Maybe there are some things even power cannot change. Maybe David is a fool.

A third thing that bothers me about this story: David’s story stokes outrage in me. I am appalled by David. But then Nathan shows up and tells David a story that outrages David. A story so outrageous even David is appalled. Nathan tells David that, surprise!, David is really outraged at a picture of himself. Suddenly, I feel nervous about my own outrage. What I had mistaken as a two dimensional text that doesn’t care that you and I are looking in, that you and I are listening, now seems to be aware of our presence in the room, daring us, you and me, to be as oblivious as David, sitting there ready to yell to us, “Surprise, it’s you!”

It’s the allure of outrage, in every age. Hate the other in order to distance yourself from that brand of evil. To assure yourself of your difference. Prop yourself up. Subsequently be confronted with your own not unrelated wrongdoing and now take your pick between two doors: door number one, Rationalization and Denial, or door number two, Shame that leads to the isolation and self-loathing of David.

None of this is to say that we cannot speak out with confidence when power is abused, misused, etc. Indeed, we must. To spot the story’s invitation to see ourselves in the pattern of outrage is not to make the case for moral equivalencies. It is to say that secrets that must be held at all costs – get this – will cost us, and those around us, depriving us of the world in which God first planted us, in which we were first gifts and not threats to one another. A world in which we did not need to hide. Think of Adam and Eve before their meetup with the snake.

But such is no longer our world. Like David, like Adam, like Eve, my life has come to be determined by secrets that threaten to distort my relationship with God, my neighbors, and the world around me. My life is determined by secrets I am still learning to speak. Not so secret secrets like white privilege. Not so secret secrets like my nation’s indebtedness to and dependence on the military industrial complex. No nation in the history of the world has ever spent more to produce peace through mastery of war. Not so secret secrets like I don’t have all the answers. Or even many of them. Not so secret secrets like my consumer practices do not reflect a willingness or ability to fully act upon my understanding of my consumptive impact on this world or the generations that will come after me. Not so secret secrets like I sometimes substitute selfishness that mimics love for real love. Sometimes I do this by mistake. Sometimes I don’t. My life is determined by secrets I am still learning to speak.

So David is a fool. I am not David, but I am sometimes also a fool. Taking good gifts of God and imagining them into threats, still protecting some fantasy idea of myself. And maybe you are familiar with this experience.

David is an important figure in the New Testament. The New Testament authors want to emphasize that Jesus comes from the line of David. But the really Good News is not just that Jesus comes from, but that Jesus comes to, people like David whose lives have been twisted by the lies they live out toward others, themselves, and God. Knowing everything about me, David says, the living God sets a table before me. Psalm 23, one of David’s greatest hits. That we are here today is a sign that we have learned to sing David’s psalm; we are learning to trust the One who sets the table before us and insists on God’s love for us.

The bread that Jesus offers, and is, at the table set by God becomes the feast that makes us the Beloved Community in which we find space and grace to become untangled, untwisted, and made whole. Space to discover God’s love for us as the most true and determinative thing about us. Space to begin to trust this love and to grow in trust of this love, with God and one another, even to the point of being able to speak more truthfully about ourselves and the world and God. No more secrets! No more hiding. Instead, the generous exchange of mercy and forgiveness, given and received. Worship of the true God begins and generates this true speech in us. Likewise, worship of the God who is our judge begins and generates the heart of true justice in us. From this bread we receive all we need to become God’s bread for others.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “All who come to me will never be hungry.”

Gracious God, give us this bread. Today and always.

Amen.  


Red Shoes, Funny Shirt 2018-08-01 18:43:41

Several things collided this week to create a sermon.  One was the ever-wise Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writing about David and Bathsheba. (If you don’t read her work, you should.  Stop reading this and go read Dr. Gafney.  Just go.)   Ok, I am assuming if you’re reading this then you’ve already read what Dr. […]

Take a break

I feel like I preach this gospel every time I return from vacation, but guys: Vacation is a WONDERFUL thing. This year, I broke my own precedent and took 6 days off of work after General Convention.  6 days where I could just sleep, knit, watch British murder mysteries, and sleep some more.  (And also […]

What Happened

I am well and truly back from General Convention now. I have taken enough naps, petted my cats enough, knit enough, and reflected enough to be back from the headspace of 10 frantic days in Austin. I always approach General Convention with the same sense of creeping dread.  “Oh dear God, this will be awful. […]

Snapshots from July 21st’s Thrive! Gathering

Over 30 people representing more than fifteen communities visited St. Francis House this past Saturday for Thrive, an annual gathering of children’s, youth, and young adult ministry leaders from across the Diocese of Milwaukee. The goal of this summer gathering is to connect leaders, build bridges from our the areas where we spend our time (for example, junior high Sunday school) to consider where students come to us from and where they go next in order to be present to the whole of a student’s lifelong formation, and resource each other, firmly convinced that the wisdom is in the room. 

This year’s guest speaker was Melissa Droessler, founding co-director at Isthmus Montessori Academy and Isthmus Montessori Academy Public. She engaged us with dynamic teaching and conversation around the four planes of human development and talked with us about preparation of environment and ourselves. 

Wonderfully, we are developing a strong network of folks with a heart for children and youth and formation in the Church. If you would like to learn more or become a part of this network, please send me a note to let me know.

What follows are some photos from the day, a note from an attendee, and some resources that came up in the course of the afternoon session. I hope they are helpful to you! We are already making initial plans for next year’s gathering. If you would like to receive info about that event, send me a note at the above link.

Very best, and God’s good peace,
Jonathan

The welcome table!

Deanna Clement leads the gathering in music at our opening worship.

Singing the psalms.

In conversation.

Melissa Droessler was a source of encouragement and challenge.

Among those folks who registered, we had 18 first-time
participants this year and 7 returning.

Attendees were lay and clergy, volunteer and paid, representing
more than 15 different churches across southern Wisconsin.

More of the gathering.

One of the attendees and I wore the same clothes, accidentally.
In such situations, I am told that a photo is required.


From an Attendee…

Dear Jonathan,


Just want to take a minute to thank you and the team and St. Francis House for today’s gathering. I found (guest speaker) Melissa (Droessler) to be wonderful and wanted to listen to her speak even more. Even though I am already familiar with the planes of development from my own training in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (and I’ve even taught others about it) her talk was still informative and helpful. And I particularly loved the session on the work of the adult and the adult’s preparation before heading into the “classroom.” These thoughts were exactly the encouragement, and the kick in the pants, that I needed to help me gear up for teaching in the fall. Please thank her for me. If she’s open to the conversation, I’d love to follow-up with her on a few things/questions that came to mind during her talks. 

Thanks again for putting this event together. I believe strongly in the importance of working together throughout the diocese to strengthen each of us individually, and all of our parishes corporately, as we work toward the common goal of advancing the Gospel. 

Many blessings, 

S

Additional Resources…

  • Speaker Melissa Droessler talked about the importance of adults learning to be present without interfering in the learning processes of the children with whom we work. This short chapter gives some helpful examples of what this kind of presence might look like while describing a practice useful to classrooms and families alike.
  • Herbie Hancock gives a very practical example of what it means not to judge an effort in a way that can destroy it but to receive offerings in ways that give life:
Finally,
St. Francis House believes in and knows its unity with children and youth ministries. So each year at this gathering, we offer the following BEGINNING to an imagination for supporting the work you do:
How can St. Francis House support me/my congregation?
• Hosting congregational or diocesan events (lock-ins, youth retreats, vestry retreats – free!)
• SFH’s annual High School Night
• Networking with children’s, youth, and campus ministers across the diocese/state/beyond
• Connecting graduating high school students with campus across the country
• Volunteer opportunities (cooking meals, gardening)
• Taizé spirituality resources

• Brainstorming and trying out ways to be the church outside the walls of the building

Thanks, friends! Maybe we will see you next year!

PS Tremendous thanks to (and for!) this year’s planning team: I was joined this year by Ruth Kearly (St. Andrew’s, Madison), Sharon Henes (St. Francis House Board Member and St. Dunstan’s, Madison), Deanna Clement (St. Dunstan’s, Madison), and Jim Eastman (St. Francis House Board Member).

The Dilemma of Enjoying Fountain Pens

is, what happens when one has no more to write? Do I put the pen down or – and what is worse? -risk flagrant frivolity? Ten pages full of practice signatures anticipating future relevance. But what, in the absence of something clear to say, are the alt…