The Society of Campus Ministers

You get an empire, and you get a…nope, no, you don’t.

First up, have we talked about how there’s a podcast now? Because there is. If you go to my delightful parish’s delightful webpage, we now have a podcast feed, where we record and publish the sermons each week. So if you want my voice talking to you in your ears, as well as in your […]

Bad at Math, Good at Rapping

Over Thanksgiving, Ben and I went to visit his family. I had introduced my nephew and nieces to the wonder that is Hamilton over the summer, so we were listening and singing along as we cooked the meal. When I broke into “Guns and Ships”** my niece stopped and stared at me, open-mouthed. “I told […]

All the saints means all the saints

All Saints is the freaking best. I had come down with a sinus infection, but no illness nor fever on earth was going to prevent me from singing “For All The Saints” as if I could raise Vaughn Williams from the grave myself.** All Saints is when we throw down our level Episcopal best and […]

Stewardship Roundup

I like talking about stewardship. This is not because of my childhood experiences of money in church. (Protip: don’t put the 15 year old who keeps showing up to church on the Stewardship Committee. This will frustrate and confuse them.) It’s more because when we talk about stewardship well, it becomes a way to live […]

Dear Bishop Sumner,

Grace and peace!


I am writing to request the renewal of my license to officiate in the Diocese of Dallas for the coming year. 


Of course it is reasonable that the diocese request a summary of ministry as a part of the renewal process, but of course I am also sheepishly mindful that for me to make too much of my (whole) two and a half months assisting Holy Trinity runs the risk of self-deception and/or wishful thinking. Ha. But the people have been wonderfully welcoming, and it has been a gift to begin building relationships together. Father Keith regularly reminds me that for these first six months, I retain the ability to ask interesting questions of the status quo here, before my total assimilation, and I am glad for the regular invitation to share these questions and observations.


That’s just to say my first work has been listening and prayer, and learning to listen to and join in the prayers of the community of faith. Already we have had the delightfully human opportunity to discover that most of our invisible assumptions of each other don’t hold up to reality, but I have more commonly experienced a deep gratitude, both of a general and deeply local kind. 


Take Linda, for example. Although I do not believe I knew her prior to coming to Holy Trinity, Linda, who organizes the knitting group I frequent on Tuesday mornings, used to attend St. John’s, Dallas, where my family has a long history and my grandfather has been a mainstay for something like sixty-five years now. Just a couple of weeks ago I learned that, beyond that surface connection, back in the day Linda had been the lead designer for the kneeling cushions that adorn the side chapel at St. John’s. When my brothers and I were children, tasked with the thankless work of waiting for Dad to wrap things up elsewhere, we enjoyed the chapel, where we successfully named each cushion after the professional sports team most evoked by the unique combination of color and symbol. 


Far more intimately than most sermons I heard there (which were mostly wonderful), these symbols of faith have been imprinted in my memory for most of my life. I can close my eyes and see the stitches. And now I am given the gift to tell Linda that part of our shared story and name my thanks to God for so knitting together the lives and works of God’s friends. (That’s a small example, but dear to me, and Holy Trinity is full of thousands like it, both because our shared history as well as the many ways God has used Holy Trinity to build up and bless the greater church far beyond HT’s own walls for generations.) It’s like finally meeting the people who have been working on your class’s shared group project for years, and so whose lives are a part of your own, despite your not knowing each other. Which of course for members of the Body of Christ is exactly the case.


At this point, I want to interject that this fullness of communion is very much what I see the diocese encouraging in many and powerful ways, living into the desire to be present as church at once locally, nationally, and internationally. It’s a desire I share and for which I am grateful.


Back at Holy Trinity, I’ve taken my share in the teaching and preaching of the congregation, as well as pastoral care and hospital visits. I manage a good deal of our social media presence and have taken the lead on newcomer ministries (a new work in progress) and certain other aspects of formation for adults, children, and youth. I have been told by some vestry folks that my job is to bring some professional relief to Father Keith, but my experience of Father Keith’s work ethic makes me reluctant to accept that measure for evaluating my effectiveness. Free up some time for Keith, and he will simply find himself some new work for the spread of the Gospel. Sue me. 


In each of these things, my basic approach is to need as much help as I can and not know as much as I can afford not to know. Fortunately, I come by these qualities more or less naturally. 


My wife says these last remarks bother her and are terribly misleading, that my tendency toward self-depreciation drives her nuts. What I mean is something like what Pope John Paul II arrived at when he first became the priest in charge of a parish. Overwhelmed by the responsibility of it all and the task of convening meaningful meetings, he resolved to ask two questions of every gathering he convened: “Who can we ask for help?” and “What light do the scriptures shed on this challenge?” If the mission we share in Christ is reconciliation, needing help keeps us on task, that’s all.


Most recently, I enlisted the aid of a youth at our community-wide trunk or treat; together, we carved a pumpkin that would have roundly defeated the other entrees in its category, had there been any. I say, a win is a win, and at the urging of a staffer I enclose a photograph of myself and Parker with said pumpkin. 


I realize you and I don’t know each other well, so I feel compelled to note that I don’t write any of the above glibly. The examples that have come to mind here are probably my way of naming what my life in the church and these dozen years of ordained ministry have shown me, namely that most of what it means to be the church happens in the spaces between the plans and programs, which is just to say Bonhoeffer was right. “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” 


I confess I have dreams for this community – like developing a team to keep bees on a portion of the land, and so to make visible a Christian witness with respect to care of the earth – but wonderfully it’s a dream that’s not mine uniquely, but one I am learning we share in community. Happily, it is a dream shared by people determined by the waters of baptism and so committed to trusting God’s love for us to grow in us the love God would have us share with each other. In such a community, maybe there is room for forgiveness, mercy, and bees.


Thank you for affording me a place in the shared ministry of this diocese at Holy Trinity by the Lake. Please know you are in my prayers, even as Rebekah, the kids, and I are grateful for yours. We have a lot of settling still to do and friendships to build, but we are glad, expectant, and grateful that God has called us to sing praises with the People of God in this place. 


Peace,

The Rev. Jonathan Melton


Gratitude

There was a recent thread on a FB colleague group about sharing sermons. The consensus among this particular group was that SERMONS SHOULD NEVER BE SHARED, which….surprised me. I’ve known clergy who didn’t make public their manuscripts because they either didn’t have them (which is a feat I cannot pull off) or because they strongly […]

Dad Jokes & Xenophophia (Or ‘The Story that Giving Helps Us Remember’)

Per usual, this sermon was preached from lessons I did not choose. Here they are. If it’s a half-decent sermon, it will make only modest sense without them.

What are you up to today? I’d ask him. Five foot ten and a quarter, Dad would answer. Every. Single. Time. I asked him. He was lying about the quarter inch. But let me ask you, all dad jokes aside, what are you up to today?


Most of the time, we know what we’re up to. We know where to be, or where we want to be. We know where to go, or where we want to go. Societal norms direct us. Self-interest, too. If I want this, I’ll go there, if I want that, I’ll go here. Concerns about safety, rational concerns – and irrational ones, also – direct us. Expectations of benefit. Accrual of social capital. The desire for good reputations. When someone remarked to my friend one time the old cliche, “It’s a small world,” my friend answered, “Actually, it’s a rather large world, filled with strange things and wonder. But it’s easy,” he conceded, “to confine oneself to just a familiar cow path or two within the wonder and come to believe that it’s small.” My friend’s popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is unclear.


But he’s right. 


Everywhere, the invisible calculus. Everywhere, a thousand considerations go into taking this step and not that one. Saying “yes” to one friendship and “no” to another. And as much as we’d like to think we’re up to the task of independently and accurately assessing each step on its own, we develop invisible patterns until without even knowing it we’re walking in only the thinnest slice of the pasture and the possibilities provided us. By the way, that’s what – among other things – therapists are really good for; helping us spot the invisible patterns. Of course, if your therapist shares your blind spots with you, good luck. You may both stay on the same cow path together, and not even know it.


This brief and disputable account of one part of our shared human nature is helpful for spotting the mischief of Jesus in the gospel today. Jesus is traveling through the region between Galilee and Samaria. He’s traveling along the border. The border, which is the edge of a cow path decided by peoples. And the invisible patterns that constitute borders are not the same everywhere, but here – between Jews and Samaritans, in the region between Galilee and Samaria – the invisible pattern is the familiar mutual disdain of people each side is certain they are better than. Think Texas/OU weekend at the fair. Or any group of people your family of origin taught you to count as less than, especially if it wasn’t clear to you when they spoke that they were joking.


The highlight of the story today is of course the healings, but also Jesus’s own astonishment that only one of the ten people Jesus heals of leprosy comes back with a thank you card. Guess what, the one who came back? He came from the wrong people. From the people despised by Jesus’s people. But hey, says Jesus, at least he came back. At least he said thanks. Where are the others? The silence that follows as Jesus’s question hangs in the air is a judgment of ingratitude for the people who thought of themselves as being on the side of the good, even on the side of God. As better than the one who came back. Where are the others? he asks. 


Will Willimon has observed that gratitude is not an emotion that comes easily to people, generally speaking. Life moves fast and there are temples to get to, religious or otherwise. The crisis resolves and it’s back to the rat race. Business as usual. No time to lose. But a friend of mine one time gave me sage advice I cherish. He said you’re never running too late to go to the bathroom. Because what good are you, really, if you show up on time but full of – stuff, or so urgently occupied that you are unable to be present to the people around you? It’s probably the same with gratitude. We’re never too busy or running too late to lift up our hearts, to give voice to our thanks, but sometimes we forget or tell ourselves otherwise. What was the healing for, we wonder, if not to help us get back on the hamster wheel of running ourselves into the ground? 


So we move on. Maybe we find ourselves incentivized to get on with things because the gift we were given and the dependence it reveals wound our pride. Maybe we view God’s help, when it finds us, through the lens of entitlement, as a possession we were owed, even a kind of personal achievement, because we’re, you know, really pretty swell. Self-righteousness kills gratitude, because it claims as its own what is really God’s gift. What we’re talking about is learning to speak truthfully about the world, about our lives.


When you catch a sniff of self-righteousness in yourself, if you’re quick, you can grab a hold of the frayed end of a single, sacred thread. It’s the thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor. They’re on the same thread because God is always giving for the benefit of others, for people like you and me. And for people unlike you and me. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).”

Love of God and neighbor are on the same thread because it’s hard to be thankful to God for the good gifts of God without becoming generous by extension. Theologian Miroslav Volf writes that the true God gives so we can become joyful givers.” But it’s hard to be thankful to God when I’m pretty sure what I have is because I am better or more deserving than you, whether you’re a Sooner or Samaritan. It’s hard to be thankful and take what was meant to be a continuing blessing for me as well as all those around and beyond me and instead dam the waters around myself, where the waters grow stagnant by my imagined superiority, deserving, and/or self-importance. The same walls that keep me at a lofty and self-satisfied distance from the other side also keep me from seeing the truth about my life. These walls keep me from knowing my life as a gracious gift of the living and generous God. 


So let’s cut to the chase. If you pull that thread tight, the one connecting love of God and love of neighbor, if you pull it tight, all the way, you end up with something truly terrifying. Something like what Dorothy Day, that great saint and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, realized. She put her realization this way, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” Ugh. Dorothy’s  popularity at social gatherings and dinner parties is similarly unclear.


Why does he do it? Why does Jesus insist on traveling in the land between regions? Along borders. Off familiar cow paths? Can’t we all just stay away and mind our own? But watch this, says Jesus. Follow me. And then, as they do, as we do, Willie James Jennings describes it, “The disciple of Jesus Christ (becomes) a surprise to the world, especially to the cultural and economic worlds where people live in…segregated spaces and sequestered living places…” We become a surprise to the world exactly as we follow the One who goes through the region between Galilee and Samaria.

The thread that connects love of God and love of neighbor is the same thread that connects generosity and gratitude. Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that everything we enjoy is a gift for which we rightly give thanks to God. “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Nothing so much as generosity – giving and forgiving – reminds us that the good gifts of God are meant for sharing even across borders, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people. Generosity and gratitude are what humans do when we are, with God’s help, most fully alive. 

So what do you do when someone or something does something beautiful and humbling and you realize you are not yet as alive as you could be? What do you do when someone you have learned to despise – or simply not care about – becomes a sacred window through which you glimpse the abundance of life and, in order to grow closer to God, you find yourself with no choice but to draw close to the infidel? What happens when no one comes back, except for this foreigner?


In the reading from Jeremiah, God gives God’s people the unimaginable instruction to live out their faith in a foreign land. Among the oppressor. As foreigners. They will be the foreigner they have feared and despised. It will feel like the end. But God is evidently okay with this situation in the interim, an interim which will last for most of their lives. Even through they will find themselves involuntarily removed from their cow paths and comfort zones in ways that will test their faith to its limits, even there, God will repeat the blessing and instruction of Eden – “be fruitful and multiply” – and even in a strange land, as strangers, God will be with them.


So, it’s stewardship season, and you’ll hear a lot more about that from people other than me in days ahead, but did you know that the practice of tithing, of giving a percentage of one’s income away, finds its roots in Deuteronomy 26, where the people are entering the promised land for the first time in their history not as foreigners?

It’s an instruction that begins “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess,” in other words, “when you are no longer foreigners, either as your wandering ancestors or as slaves in Egypt, to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, be generous, set aside a portion for the poor and those just traveling through.” It’s the same deliverance at the heart of the Easter Vigil, the exodus Christ completes by his death and resurrection, and so the word is true for us, also: in order to keep you living and located in the story of God’s deliverance, at the heart of God’s promise and mission in the world, to tend the flame of faith with your life, be generous. Give to the ones most unlike you, because they are like you. Remember that you were once them, that you are them, that though you have a place now, remember that you are still pilgrims on a journey, believers in a promise, remember that your true home is in God.


You don’t have to. Do you want to?

It is important for me to give because generosity does not come naturally to me and it is easy to lose sight of my place in the story of God. It is easy to trade the single, sacred thread of Christ’s love for acts of self-deception. But practicing generosity has given me a heart that is grateful for it. In other words, I have come to see that even what I regard as my generosity is really one of God’s gifts. I might have had a much smaller life. I might have declined opportunities to grow in trust of God. I might have continued fearing loss in the many forms it takes, declining border travels and fearing those whom God has made my friends. But, thanks be to God, I am learning to speak truthfully about the world and about my life. Thank God I didn’t wait to feel generous before I tried it. Mostly, thank God I married a woman more generous than me. 


And so I thank God for the gift of generosity. First God’s own, made known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Second, the generosity God gives the church to share, as the living God who makes God’s home in us works in us and through us for the blessing of others, for the restoration of all things in God. And finally, I pray that God will not stop emptying my hands of the things I would otherwise hold onto.

What else do you do, what else do you pray for, when you realize you are both wonderfully loved and yet not as alive as you could be? As alive as you will be.

Amen.