Spiritual Growth

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree” ~Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The writer, Nora Ephron, died in June of 2012 at the age of 71. Ephron was a prolific writer known mainly for her screenplays focused on strong female leads. Some of the movies she was best known for were Julia and Julia, You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sallie. In 2010, she published the book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. The book was a memoir that focused on her eclectic life as a writer, but also her love of life. HBO produced a documentary in 2016 on Ephron entitled, Everything is Copy, where many excerpts from her memoir were brought to life through pictures, video, and voice over. The movie ends like the memoir – with a list. The first list made up the things Ephron would not miss in this life. The second are the things she would. In a moment, I’ll offer her lists to you because scattered throughout reveals the contents and constants of one person’s life. As humans we desire constants, both seen and unseen that give our lives meaning, bring order out of chaos, and comfort us when the bottom seems to drop out. Sometimes we are trees planted beside still waters, while at other times are uprooted without warning. In today’s lessons, we get fresh, green imagery of seeds, trees, mountains, and forests. In other words, today’s lessons have us imagining growth; growth firmly rooted in the soil of God’s Spirit.

The Prophet Ezekiel had God speaking when he wrote:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.

In Psalm 92 we imagine:
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God;
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be green and succulent;

 And finally, in The Gospel of Mark, Our Lord shares parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to the growth of grain readying itself for harvest, or a tiny mustard seed bursting forth from the earth eventually providing shelter and shade for the birds of the air.

Although Ephron’s lists are mostly made up of creature comforts, there are certainly moments of depth when she muses on about the concept of this or the idea of that. It is here where she takes a dip into the eternal. It is here where there are hopeful moments of faith. It is here where we get to experience one person’s anxious heart – restless, until it rests in Thee, O Lord. Below are Ephron’s two lists:

What I Won’t Miss
Dry skin
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
E-mail
Technology in general
My closet
Washing my hair
Bras
Funerals
Illness everywhere
Polls that show that 32 percent of the American people believe in creationism
Polls
Fox TV
The collapse of the dollar
Bar mitzvahs
Mammograms
Dead flowers
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
Bills
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Small print
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night

What I Will Miss
My kids
Nick
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

As Christians, we have lists of our own:  The 10 Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, cardinal virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit to name a few. We take vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and with God’s help experience the dignity of every human being. What are your lists of constants? What won’t you miss about this life? What will you? Would your lists be made up mostly of creature comforts, or is there some depth to them? Do you still have a longing to grow deeper in God’s Spirit? If so, how do you keep your roots planted no matter the stillness of the waters or the wind as tempest?

As the Church enters her green season why not use this ordinary time to focus on growing taller, diving deeper, and putting forth large branches where new friends are found and old neighbors remembered? How we practice spiritual growth is more attitude than aptitude, more focus than function, and intentionality over intensity. It’s gaining sea legs to weather the storms, and eagle eyes to spot the pitfalls. It’s becoming shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. It’s telling stories with an eye on Our Savior, and counting our blessings naming them one by one. It’s faithfully knowing that God is the ultimate constant in our lives forever pointing us to Love. It’s a list too long but a faith full of hope. It’s imitating God…by being human.

~Click here for the trailer to Everything is Copy.

Hands

We hold hands. We shake hands. We pump our fists and give ‘high-5’s’. We labor with our hands, as well as use them to give (and receive) comfort. We use our hands for eating and drinking. We take care of our hands with water, lotions, and massage. When we are surprised or even scared we use our hands to cover our mouth, our eyes, or our ears. We pop our knuckles and clip fingernails. We use our fingers to turn pages in a book, or to scroll up and down on our smart phones. We decorate our hands with rings, or henna tattoos. We fold our hands into our lap, or in posture(s) of prayer.

Our hands can also be violent. We can punch and push with them. We can strangle, slap or hit with them. They also come to our defense. We can block a punch, push, slap, or hit with them.

Hands can be bruised, mangled or disfigured. Some people have no hands at all and do the most extraordinary tasks with other parts of their body.

Hands can reach out. Hands can withdraw. Hands can be creative. They play instruments, draw, paint, or make pottery. Put a tool in the hand and yard and house work gets done, crops are planted, and cities are built.

The sense of touch can be found within our hands. With our hands we can tell the difference between the softness of velvet or the hardness of rock. We understand that the texture of sand is certainly different than the wetness of water. Left to the elements our hands can be burned or frozen. One can have calloused or soft hands usually as a result of one’s work, vocation, or hobby. Finally (but not exhaustively) hands with their fingers can leave behind prints letting the world know that you and I were most certainly here.

So where do these images of hands show up in today’s scriptures? The first one can be found in the Book of Deuteronomy:

…the Lord your God brought you out from [Egypt] with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…

The Psalmist tells us:

I heard an unfamiliar voice saying *
“I eased his shoulder from the burden;
his hands were set free from bearing the load.”

From our Gospel according to Mark:

…a man was there who had a withered hand…then Jesus said, “Stretch out your hand.” [The man] stretched it out, and his hand was restored…

Finally, from Paul’s 1stletter to the Corinthians: (here I quote mid-sentence)

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Even though today’s reading from the Epistle doesn’t explicitly mention hands, it helps me contemplate the hands of Jesus that were crucified upon the cross. It also invites me to remember the hand and finger of St. Thomas who reached out and touched Jesus’ side and Jesus’ hands. In Thomas’ curious act his body mixed and mingled with Christ’s body and his hands were able to remember the death of Jesus. I believe Thomas’ act made the resurrected life of Jesus visible and tangible in his body in the way he carried himself from then on out – The way he was changed by a touch of the hand.

Where are the hands that shaped you? Are they still around, or do only their prints remain? How do your hands shape you and the world around? Do you (like St. Thomas and St. Paul) carry within your body the death and life of Jesus? If so, where is Jesus leading you now? What is Jesus inviting you to pick up? What is Jesus asking you to put down? Is the voice of God a familiar one, or an unfamiliar one saying “I eased [your] shoulder from the burden; [your] hands were set free from bearing the load.”?

How grateful we are to worship “…the Lord our God whom brought us out from the land of Egypt/the land of slavery/the land of despair/the land on isolation/the land of loneliness/the land of grief/the land of sin and dis-ease with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…”

How marvelous that Our Savior Jesus Christ sees our withered hands and hearts…and responds by saying, “Stretch out your hand.” AND “Lift up your hearts” and when we do, our hands are stretched it out, our hearts are lifted up to the Lord, and they are restored…

Finally, my friends, know that the life found within you is not your own. Just like the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath, so too is he Lord of our lives. In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land. Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord Our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of this hand. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalm 95:4-7) Oh, that today you would hearken your life into his hands.

Lead With Love

Last Saturday billions of people tuned in to watch The Royal Wedding. It was a beautiful celebration that captured the hearts of so many. As a Christian who finds his Biblical, theological, and traditional roots in the Anglican Church, I was proud to be an Episcopalian that day. My heart swelled when I heard my presiding bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, deliver the homily. For a moment the world was led to remember Love – specifically, the love of Christ and how families, nations, and the earth are forever changed by the reality of this love. It is a love founded in truth and grounded in relationship.

Outside the Church, society does not lead with love grounded in relationship. These days, society finds its lead through identity (republican/democrat, rich/poor, gay/straight). Within these various tribes ‘the other’ is quickly identified as enemy number one. Those that are on the ‘right side of history’ scream for their rights as egotism, individualism, and hedonism are on full display.

Theologically speaking, the Church leads with identity as well; however, it chooses to go deeper than party affiliation, skin color, or sexual orientation. Instead, it leads with love where we are identified first and foremost as children of God in relationship with God, self, neighbor, and creation. St. Paul may have put it best when he said that it is in Christ where we live, and move, and have our being.

Bishop Curry helped the world to imagine what leading with love and relationship to ‘the other’ might look like. Jesus Christ reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to pray for those who persecute us. Although it may be tempting to lead off a conversation identifying as part of this or that tribe, why not avoid that temptation and enflesh the love of God founded and grounded in Jesus Christ? His message was a world changer in the first century and harnessing the power of God’s love today continues to change the world.

He Ascended into Heaven

The Ascension of Christ is one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith, and it is in Christ’s Ascension that we simultaneously remember his Passion, death, decent into Hell, as well as his resurrection. Let’s move through each of these mysteries one-by-one with the hope of finding and remembering the greatest mystery of all – that God so loved the world that he gave and continues to give.

The Ascension first calls to mind Jesus’ Passion and eventual death on the cross. It is in the Passion where Jesus offered his whole self – body and spirit – as an oblation. Through the loss of dignity, Jesus took on humility as flesh and blood were stripped away, beaten, disregarded, and left for dead. It was on the cross where even Jesus’ divinity was emptied out. It was in this state of rejection that ordinary words could not capture; therefore, Jesus choose poetry with his last breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22).

The Ascension then calls to mind Jesus’ decent into Hell. If the cross was the place where body and spirit were given for the present, it was in Hell where this offering was extended back into the past. God’s decent into Hell reminds the faithful that there is no place in which God will not go. God cares about our past, our present, and our future. It is the future and at the same time the past where Christ’s resurrection and ascension are made present. The reality of the resurrection is that we are invited to live into it. We are to participate in the risen life of Jesus Christ. Fr. Thomas Keating has stated that the reality of the ascension “is the triumphant faith that believes that God’s will is being done no matter what happens. It believes that creation is already glorified, though in a hidden manner, as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.”[1]Keating continues this line of theological thinking in his book, The Mystery of Christ,

The grace of the Ascension enables us to perceive the irresistible power of the Spirit transforming everything into Christ despite any and all appearances to the contrary. In the misery of the ghetto, the battlefield, the concentration camp; in the family torn by dissension; in the loneliness of the orphanage, old-age home, or hospital ward – whatever we see that seems to be disintegrating into grosser forms of evil – the light of the Ascension is burning with irresistible power. This is one of the greatest intuitions of faith. This faith finds Christ not only in the beauty of nature, art, human friendship and the service of others, but also in the malice and injustice of people or institutions, and in the inexplicable suffering of the innocent. Even there it finds the same infinite love expressing the hunger of God for humanity, a hunger that [God] intends to satisfy.”[2]

Keating concludes with these words,

Thus, in Colossians, Paul does not hesitate to cry out with his triumphant faith in the Ascension: “Christ is all and in all”[3]– meaning now, not just in the future. At this very moment we too have the grace to see Christ’s light shining in our hearts, to feel his absorbing Presence within us, and to perceive in every created thing – even in the most disconcerting – the presence of his light, love, and glory.”[4]

Perhaps I can offer my own phase and summation to Keating’s beautiful words: Perhaps what Keating is trying to get across is that God has not given up on us. God has not given up on me. God has not given up on you. There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God, and it is in the Ascension of Jesus Christ where past and future are made present in an eternal act of love.

After Christ’s Ascension, St. Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). When we worship joyfully we are participating with all God’s glorified creation even “as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.” [5]This week follow in the disciples’ footsteps and intuit the joy of the Ascension in your worship, in your work, and in your lives. Seek out the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love in all aspects of being; and finally, remember love found its way into the world through oblation. Live into all these things and there will be joy in your life; joy in the Ascension; joy in all the earth.

[1]               Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience (The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 2003) Copyright: St. Benedict’s Monastery, 1987. Pages, 86 – 88.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Colossians 3:11

[4]               Ibid., Keating.

[5]               Ibid.

Relationship Makes Us Strong

**Sermon delivered on the Feast of Lady Julian, 2018 Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of  St. Julian’s Episcopal Church as a Parish**

For 40 years, Jesus is the one who has been speaking to us as an Episcopal worshipping community in Douglas County. Many of you know we were not always called St. Julian’s. We were once St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. Those of you who pray Morning Prayer know that there is an optional collect at the end of Morning Prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom. One of the lines taken from A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (BCP, 102) is this, “You [God] have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…” At the heart of this prayer is relationship. At the heart of this parish (no matter its name) is relationship – relationship to God who speaks to us as we listen, and our relationships one to another as we listen andrespond to God’s Spirit working within us.

Tonight, I’d like to look at three different questions. These are questions that I have answered myself about this parish community, but I am only one person. You undoubtedly will answer them another way. I invite you, therefore, to take these questions seriously, and like the above Collect referred to it is my hope that these questions (and your answers) will be discussed at coffee hours, Vestry meetings, and the various ministries, committees, and counsels throughout this year. Here are the questions,[1]then we will go through them one-by-one:

Question 1: Who are we?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Question 3: Who is our neighbor.

Question 1: Who are we?

In order to fully answer this question, I believe we have to go way back (like 2,000 years way back). If we do this, we will find that we were started because of God’s relationship to God’s very self expressed theologically as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Out of this self-love came a self-giving love and the relationship of Father to the Son and to the Spirit poured out into the universe and God became man. God entered into a fleshy relationship with us. God gathered around him disciples who served him, and towards the end of their time together were no longer referred to as servants but as friends. These friends continued the relationship with God through his resurrection, and eventually in a different way – through God, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into all aspects of these friends of God eventually forming the Church of Jesus Christ. That Church is still alive today. That Church is still in relationship with God in very tangible ways through the gifts God has given us, and it is these gifts that he gives to his friends (water, wine, bread) that empowers us to invite others to receive these gifts of God taking on new friends, new acquaintances, new relationships. This is all expressed succinctly in the Nicene Creed when it states that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. So, who is St. Julian’s Church? That one. (That church).

I chose to answer the first question ontologically; in other words, I wanted to describe how we have our being in the world by virtue of the relationship we have with God. Who we are are persons in relationship. These relationships give us purpose. Purpose leads to mission. This is expressed weekly in the post-communion prayer: “And now, Father [there’s the relationship] send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is the work of relationship one has with God, with self, and with one another. The work is also to invite others into that relationship, not as a witness to the self (or extensions of the self), but as a witness to something greater than the self – a witness to Christ our Lord. So what does this theology look like in the context of this parish? The specifics can be answered in the next question: What has God called us to do?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Since the MAP committee is currently looking at the Mission Statement of St. Julian’s parish, I’m going to use the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Purpose Statement to help me answer the question: What has God called us to do? The Purpose Statement of the diocese is this: “We challenge ourselves, and the world, to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.”

At St. Julian’s we worship in a variety of ways. As Episcopalians we have a prayer book spirituality. We worship with Holy Eucharist each Sunday, morning prayer during some Sundays during the summer, evening prayer a few times a year, Advent Lessons and Carols, Red Letter days on Wednesdays when applicable, and healing services and Holy Communion here and at the Benton House once a month. Many of you say one or more of the Offices daily – morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Our adult choir program is large and in charge. I believe our Christmas, Holy Week and Easter services to be beautiful, meaningful, and joyful to many. The longer I am with you, the more I see that our worship has the potential to experiment in a variety of directions. We’ve tried Rite I during Lent this year. We occasionally bring out the smells and bells. We also are blessed to have parishioners who grew up in the Anglican church in Africa, Haiti, and the Caribbean. I wonder what traditions we can bring into our worship from these liturgical and musical expressions of the faith. I hope you will wonder with me.

We not only challenge ourselves to worship joyfully but to also serve compassionately. For 20 years this parish has supported (in thought, word, and deed) the Starting Over program that meets here every Thursday and Saturday. Starting Over is a court appointed visitation program that not only puts us in relationship with the larger community, but also calls our attention to injustices that can happen in the family unit itself. Starting Over promotes justice through a supportive environment, first to the children who are “the least of these” within these scenarios and has now began (recently) to support the supporters – those who are on the ground working with the families. Many on the Starting Over board took a day last month to take donuts to the DFCS offices of Douglas County to show this support. This act was a ministry of presence, and the beginning of new relationships.

God has also called us to serve hungry children. The Backpack Ministry here at the parish continues to serve Annette Wynn Elementary each week, and whether you give a check, drop off food in the narthex, pack the backpacks or deliver them, you are serving Christ in very tangible ways through the unseen blessings this ministry allows.

This year, the St. Julian’s Youth wanted to “serve compassionately” through another ministry of presence with our homeless population here in the county. You helped the youth and their leaders live into this ministry by giving life essentials to the men and women who live in our county in different ways than most of us are used to. It was without judgment that you and the youth shared what you had as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

For a parish of this size, it is my hope that we will continue to support these three ministries of outreach by striving for excellence in how we serve as well as continuing to build relationships – which leads me to my final question: Who is Our Neighbor?

Question 3: Who is Our Neighbor

Two out of the three outreach ministries identified children as our neighbors – Starting Over and the Backpack ministry. But watch this: In the Fall, St. Julian’s will be starting the Godly Play ministry on Sunday mornings – also a children’s ministry. I think something is going on in the life of the parish with this latest move. Let me explain: We’ve already talked about the challenges in the purpose statement about worshipping joyfully and serving compassionately. What we left off and now what I’d like to discuss is the last one – to grow spiritually. It is this last piece that I believe answers the immediate future of St. Julian’s and the question, “What has God called us to do?” I believe God has called St. Julian’s to grow spiritually, and we are living into this calling by taking on the Godly Play ministry. Godly Play invites both children and adults to take part in God’s story. We are invited into the stories of old and at the same time learning how to find God in our own stories out and about in our lives. God wants to be in relationship with us in all aspects of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings, but Monday through Saturday, sacred and profane, the good the bad and the ugly. There is a sense of pride in this community that we reach out to the least of these through Starting Over and The Backpack Ministry. Now, the least of these are reaching back to us. Our children our teaching us how to grow spiritually. Our children are leading. Our children are pointing out the kingdom of God, are calling us to pray and play and in doing so we live out God’s mission, we grow deeper in our relationship with God and one another. We worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually with the song and sense of childlike wonder.

If you can get behind me and see that the future of St. Julian’s relies on a parish environment that wants to grow spiritually, then this will touch every aspect of our communal life together. Again, it’s already happening. The youth wanted the serve the homeless. Two young families wanted to start a Godly Play ministry. I wonder what else God is calling us to do? Perhaps it’s to take a look at our various ministries and meetings and to always begin and end with prayer, a Bible study, or a devotional. Perhaps it’s not doing business as usual, but being about and wondering about God the Father’s business, Christ’s ministry and mission, the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s not just asking how you and yours are doing, but how’s your relationship with God? What’s your prayer life like? It’s asking for prayer. It’s wronging your neighbor, but then seeking out the peace of the Lord within the relationship.

Some of you may be saying, “Father Brandon, come on…we already do that.” Good. Tell me about it. Let me know. Let one another know how you are being faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. And know this: I’ll be modeling these questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor? Again, I gave you my answers but I want to know yours. I’ll start with your Vestry. On Tuesday, this is how the Vestry will begin (right after our opening prayer). We’ll have a discussion. The Beloved Community Book Group meets on Mondays. Vestry on Tuesday. Sisters of St. Julian’s, Choir, and Backpacks on Wednesday. Starting Over and Contemplative Outreach on Thursday. I invite all these ministries to have a discussion about these questions. How do you answer them? If you get a good discussion going, report back to me or Sam Hudson (Sr. Warden) or Terri Frazier (MAP chair).

Tonight, we went way back; and we didn’t go way back in a nostalgia-like way. We went way back in a God-centered relationship-like way. I caught us all up on some outreach ministries knowing full well I couldn’t speak on all the ministries this parish has had through the years or currently has even now. I brought us up to speed with how we currently worship joyfully, and serve compassionately, and how (I believe) God is calling us to grow spiritually now and in the future with the help of the children we serve as well as the children who serve us. We’re not St. Chrysostom’s anymore. We’re not even the St. Julian’s of old. No. We are a St. Julian’s who is singing new songs, serving with ministries of presence, and diving deeper into the ongoing relationship of God. Tonight, we remember our story and how it is wrapped up in God’s story. Tomorrow, may we keep the story and relationships moving with the Spirit and into the future.

 

 

[1]               These questions are from Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book, Holy Conversations (Alban, 2003). I was introduced to these questions through a seminar put on by Interim Ministry Network in May, 2018. The seminar was held at The Beecken Center in Montegale, TN and was titled, “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry-Work of the Leader”.

For Good

John 15:9-17

**Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.** 

In 1995, author Gregory Maquire published his novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The book contained an alternative plot to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later made famous by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. In Maquire’s telling of the land of Oz, the protagonist is not Dorothy Gale but Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda – the Good Witch. According the Wikipedia, “Wicked tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (whose name later changes to Glinda the Good Witch), who struggle through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest, reactions to the Wizard‘s corrupt government, and, ultimately, Elphaba’s public fall from grace.” If Baum’s novel was preserved by Hollywood, then Maquire’s novel was immortalized by Broadway for in 2003 it hit the world like a sonic boom winning 3 Tony’s and 6 Drama Desk Awards with the original cast receiving a Grammy.

Toward the end of the musical the song, For Good, plays out like a farewell discourse between Elphie and Glinda. One Wicked fan described the song For Goodlike this: “For Good” stands as one of the most iconic songs from Wicked… It stands as an anthem of forgiveness and also gratitude for the ways that other people can influence us and change our lives. Before the song starts, Elphaba gives Glinda the Grimmerie, a magic book of spells. Glinda says she does not know how to read it, but Elphaba trusts her to keep it safe. Although the song begins with a fight, Elphaba and Glinda come to forgive each other, sharing their final farewells. They ultimately wish each other well in their futures.” It’s a touching song because the audience knows the rest of the story – for the genius of both the novel and the musical is that we ultimately know what happened to both Glinda and Elphaba in the land of Oz. Hearing the song, one can’t help but think of how Dorothy Gale would one day stand in the middle of these two – two persons that were once friends. I’ll share the lyrics (and a link to the performance) to the song below, but first let me tell you a story.

When I was a hospital chaplain working in the Long Term Acute Care (LTAC) unit, many patients came to that unit in need organ transplants. Sometimes it was a lung. Other times it may have been a heart or a kidney. No matter what organ was needed, there was always the same sort of tension. The tension was in the waiting – a waiting game that was anything but tepid. The tension was sometimes spoken. Sometimes not. The reality that a physical part of someone else would have to be sacrificed for the benefit of their loved one whether by the death of a stranger (who was an organ donor) or matching a friend or family member for the donation – it did not matter. The tension was thick. Life required sacrifice. Sometimes it is partial. Sometimes it is fully present.

In 2007, this everyday hospital waiting game happened in an extraordinary way (here’s a link to the entire story). The Campbells of Horsehead, New York, had an 11 week-old son, Jake who was not going to make it. After a family consult with the hospital staff the Campbells made the hard decision of accepting the death of their son while at the same time wanting life for someone else to continue. Jake’s Mom, Holly, later reflected on that moment with these words, “Jake’s life was ending, but this does not have to be the end.”

Eight hundred miles away in Iowa, 2 week-old Beckham needed a heart. Because of Jake and his family’s sacrifice, Beckham got the heart he needed. These miraculous stories happen everyday, but this story did not end there. Several years later the families met one another, shared their stories, and the two Mom’s (Holly and Kim) realized they had something in common: They both loved the musical Wicked. Not only did they love the musical, but both unknowingly sang the song, “For Good” to their boys. Holly sang the song to Jake just before he died, and Kim sang the song to Beckham after he received his new heart. This beautiful story and reunion of Jake’s heart was told and retold at Golisano Children’s Hospital. To top it off, both Holly and Kim were able to sing the song, “For Good” at that gathering and in honor of their two very brave sons (again, here’s the link). As promised, here are the lyrics to the song (Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Performed below by: Kristen Chenoweth & Idina Menzel)

[Elphaba]
I’m limited
Just look at me
I’m limited
And just look at you
You can do all I couldn’t do

[Glinda]
So now it’s up to you
For both of us
Now it’s up to you

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I’ve been changed
For Good.

[Elphaba]
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend.

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you

[Glinda]
Because I knew you

[BOTH]
I have been changed
For good
______________________________________________

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

Listening & Responding

It’s been documented that the desert in which Moses lived for a time had tumble-weed like bushes that would spontaneously burst into flame. This was due to a perfect mixture of climate and the precision of heat (usually in the form of lightning) onto the dead leaves of the bush. It was not unlike the starting of forest fires in the hot summer forests of California. For Moses, then, to see a burning bush from time-to-time would not have meant much; but to see a burning bush in which the leaves were not consumed in flame would have caught his eye, peaked his curiosity, and no doubt would have compelled him to investigate the unexpected miracle. Remembering the story, Moses did exactly that. He investigated the miracle and the miracle-worker’s voice was also heard. The voice was none other than the commanding voice of God’s compelled to teach and inspire Moses so that the glory of God would be known within the land again. Fast-forward to John’s Gospel where the voice of God is personified in Jesus Christ, and this voice (or Word of God) seems to be doing what God has always done – showing up in unexpected ways, and teaching us the way of discipleship.

John’s Gospel has Jesus performing seven (7) miracles followed by seven (7) “I am” statements. The seven miracles function much like the bush that burned but was not consumed. The miracles are there to get our attention, to get us curious, and to draw nearer to God. The seven “I am” statements found within John are no longer for the seeker, but for the convert – the one who has heard the voice of God and responds – but how is the response made manifest? I would answer it is made manifest by listening and responding to the voice of God in all aspect of one’s life.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we get a story of evangelization and conversion. St. Philip (compelled by the Word of God) is commanded to go on “a wilderness road.” The wilderness may be a metaphor for chaos and at the same time trusting in God to accompany Philip into a place he could not attempt to walk through alone. Put differently, the life of a disciple is being called into those places that are uncomfortable; yet having the faith and hope that God will see you through. The story continues with St. Philip opening up the scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch much like the Resurrected Jesus opened up the scriptures to the two strangers walking on the road to Emmaus. If Christ is the Word of God, then St. Philip reveals Christ’s presence within the scriptures of old. The eunuch is converted by the Word of God found within those scriptures and responds by getting baptized. He then goes on rejoicing while St. Philip continues making order out of chaos by “proclaiming the good news to all the towns.” This story not only teaches us about evangelization and conversion, it also reminds us that Christ can still be heard in Holy Scripture.

Not only can Christ be heard in Holy Scripture, Christ can be known to us in worship. Our Psalm for today reminds us of this when it states, “My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.” Worship is an integral part of the life of a disciple. After the eunuch was baptized the scriptures tell us that he “went on his way rejoicing.” Even though the story of the eunuch ends there, it would have been my hope for him to find a worshipping community that can help him perform the vows he has made to God through the ministry of St. Philip. The life of a disciple isn’t just about a one-time conversion experience, but the ongoing conversions within the life of God found with fellow disciples of God. Like God, known more fully to us through the relationship of the Father to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, we become more fully known not in isolation, but in our relationships to Christ and one another.

The life of a disciple of Jesus not only listens and responds to the voice of God in scripture and worship, but also in the ways in which we love. 1 John 4, “Beloved, let us love one another for God is love…God sent his son into the world so that we might live through him.” Did you catch it? If God is love, then we live through him. If God is love, then we live through love. Not just our own love, but a higher love, a higher ground, a place where the bush burns, but is not consumed. A disciple of Christ is one who lives into this truth, and when he fails to do so, repents and returns to the Lord. God is constantly converting us back to his love time and time and time again which leads to the great “I am” statement found in today’s Gospel.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Apart from love, dear friends, you/we can do nothing; thus, the life of a disciple is one who will let God pluck and prune us – Plucking those branches that have no life in them and pruning those branches that need further training in love. The one who has heard the voice of God and responds makes God’s love manifest by listening and responding to the voice of God in all aspect of one’s life. I believe God wants every part of our being because God wants to purify it in love so that we may be more loving in all the ways in which we live, and move, and have our being.

This week, I invite you to pray today’s Collect daily as a way of remembering that God desires his presence in all aspects of our lives. Looking back to the prayer, we are asking God to be fully known to us as we follow in his footsteps. Also living into the ethos of this prayer leads us into life eternal. Put differently, the amazing relationship we have with God guides us into the deeper waters of love. Let us close this time by praying it again:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Good Shepherd

Poetic Responses to The Good Shepherd imagery found in John 10:11-18.

The Hired Hand
By Brandon Duke

I’m afraid I’m the hired hand. I don’t comprehend the lambs fully.
They are fully known by God alone.
What’s it like to be fully known?
For a moment I imagine
the Good Shepherd circling his gaze towards me knowing I’ve been
hired out by one (or another) yet not defined by it.
Instead, and perhaps for the first time in my life
I am regarded by Being itself.
I straighten my posture, dust off my shirt, becoming as giddy as a little girl,
“He sees me. He really sees me.”
Not only does he take notice, he knows my name
and for a moment I imagine him
loving me more than sheep – precious though they are.

In his gaze I am not hired. I am healed.
On his watch I am not lonely. I am fulfilled.
In time I will come to know him in his fullness.

The Enigma
By Anne Stevenson

Falling to sleep last night in a deep crevasse
between one rough dream and another, I seemed,
still awake, to be stranded on a stony path,
and there the familiar enigma presented itself
in the shape of a little trembling lamb.
It was lying like a pearl in the trough between
one Welsh slab and another, and it was crying.

I looked around, as anyone would, for its mother.
Nothing was there. What did I know about lambs?
Should I pick it up? Carry it . . . where?
What would I do if it were dying? The hand
of my conscience fought with the claw of my fear.
It wasn’t so easy to imitate the Good Shepherd
in that faded, framed Sunday School picture
filtering now through the dream’s daguerreotype.

With the wind fallen and the moon swollen to the full,
small, white doubles of the creature at my feet
flared like candles in the creases of the night
until it looked to be alive with newborn lambs.
Where could they all have come from?
A second look, and the bleating lambs were birds—
kittiwakes nesting, clustered on a cliff face,
fixing on me their dark accusing eyes.

There was a kind of imperative not to touch them,
yet to be of them, whatever they were—
now lambs, now birds, now floating points of light—
fireflies signaling how many lost New England summers?
One form, now another; one configuration, now another.
Like fossils locked deep in the folds of my brain,
outliving a time by telling its story. Like stars.

Psalm 23 King James Version (KJV)
Traditionally attributed to King David

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Collect of the Day

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Stop. Reflect. Listen.

IMG_0453

My family and I recently made a retreat to San Antonio, TX visiting Mission Concepción and Mission San José. Henry (aged 7) is usually a bit wiggly in church (although it is my understanding that he is fully participating in the Eucharist albeit in his own 7-year old way). When we entered into the nave of the parish, Henry was arrested by its beauty and immediately took a seat in the nearest pew and stared up at the sanctuary/chancel wall full of art, symbol, and mystery. As a family, we prayed the Collect of the Day then sat in silence letting our little one “lead us” as he was being led by God’s Spirit. It was a holy moment. As we enter into the deep mystery of Easter, find those holy moments to stop, reflect, and listen.

 

The Great Vigil of Easter

I’m a big fan of irony. I love it when she decides to come out and play. Tonight, perhaps, she is having some fun with us. On one hand, we are having an elaborate celebration full of bells, candles, lights, fantastic music, baptisms, Alleluia’s, chanting, processionals, and recessionals while on the other hand we get this simple, simple story from Mark’s Gospel. So what’s all the fuss about?

The two Mary’s and Salome (very practical women with the practical responsibility to anoint the dead body of Jesus) finds the stone to the entrance of the tomb rolled away. In it is a young man in a white robe giving very practical advice and observation. Upon seeing the tomb empty of Jesus’ body, and not initially taking the advice to go and tell Jesus’ disciples to meet up in Galilee because the women were seized with terror and amazement, makes tonight seem like we may be over doing it. Did you read the same text I read? Why all the pomp and circumstance?

And yet….the tomb is empty. Jesus is not there. He has been raised. He said he would meet up with his disciples in Galilee and that is what he is doing.

And yet…Peter and the other disciples were scattered like sheep. They denied, betrayed, and abandoned him.

And yet…Jesus still loves. Jesus still desires reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. And should this be a surprise to us after all the readings and remembering’s we encountered during the Lenten Season? It’s the same old story AND the greatest story ever told all at the same time:

God loves us in spite of ourselves. God loves us because he is our God and we are his people. God loves us even when we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness:  when we deny him, when we abandon him, when we hurt him. In those dark moments in our lives and when the stone tombs of our own hearts remain closed, it is he who opens it up. It is he who seeks us out. It is he who is utterly dedicated to us.

Tonight, the message is very simple and yet the message is profound. Tonight, God is being God in an old/new way. God is not where we think he should be (looking for love in all the wrong places), but where God needs always to be: Searching us out. Meeting up at our old stomping grounds. Making all things new. That’s the business of God. That’s who and what he does.

So I’m glad that tonight is one of celebration, and I’m also happy that the message we are celebrating is a simple one. As we look to more Alleluias tomorrow on Easter Sunday as well as over these next 50 days, live into the simple message of God’s love for us. Seek out the practical things that are of God’s and live boldly (with a little terror and amazement) that the tomb is empty, Jesus will gather instead of scatter, and He is risen. He is risen indeed!

**Preached at the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, 2018**