The Church Has Left the Building

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
~Lamentations 1:1

One definition of sin is that it’s a twisting of the truth. Like a conspiracy theory there’s just enough facts on the ground to get through the door, but once inside the place is crawling with lies. Sin is deceptive and dissonant. Like an addiction or a bad habit we grow accustomed to it until eventually an apathetic attitude of amnesia creeps in. What was once shunned is now welcomed, and there’s no effort to get shut of it. Every now and again something drastic happens that wakes us from our slumber. Our eyes are opened, and our ears can suddenly hear that the music just isn’t right. We adjust our glasses while turning the dial to find another station wondering why we ever tolerated that song in the first place.

Currently, the United States is revealing its lesser angels to the world. It’s a superpower that has been brought to its knees in the wake of COVID-19. We’ve lost over 100K souls in the short span of 3 months due to this virus. Racism, riots, poverty, perpetual war, and unemployment (to name a few) sadly reveal the moral bankruptcy of empire. Ideologies are being destroyed like golden calves while society falls in on itself in self-destructive behaviors. We’ve condemned ourselves and thrown away the key. Our city’s in ruins.

There is a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church door’s thrown open
I can hear the organ’s song
But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
~Bruce Springsteen

The Boss may be onto something. Churches are empty these days, but our ears remember “the organ’s song.” At once “the congregation’s gone” because the city is in ruins; and yet, could the pews be empty because the church has left the building? Perhaps the church finds herself walking alongside and listening to others in the ruins, waiting for the appropriate time to reveal the organ’s song? But what is this song? From where does it come?

“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.

The song, according to Dr. King, has only been heard by a few; or worse, the wrong songs have been taught to the masses. Like bubble gum pop, these songs hold up “tranquility and the status quo” like it’s Gospel. The better songs go deep into the human condition and can be hummed by everyone. They’re laments. They’re bluesy. They’re real. They’re freedom songs. They’re songs that remind us to do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.

We’re getting daily reminders to call on our higher angels. Keep awake. Keep listening. Keep praying. Keep acting. Keep advocating for truth, justice, and mercy. If we can agree that the church has left the building, then where does the church find herself these days? May we all recognize the ruins lamenting them with our neighbors. May we all keep awake. It’s time to rise up, church. Come, Holy Spirit. Our city’s in ruins.

My City of Ruins – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Live in Dublin, 2007

In Your Mercy, Hear My Prayer

**Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020 by The Rev. Brandon Duke, Rector of St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. To see a video of this sermon click here.** 

 “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”   ~Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60

 St. Stephen is the patron saint for deacons in the church. A deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons inspire all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen had just preached a lengthy sermon to the Sanhedrin counsel where the chief priests and other religious elders gathered. It was a scene not unlike where Jesus found himself at the beginning of his Passion. Like Jesus, Stephen was condemned for his teaching, dragged outside the city by an angry mob and murdered. Like Jesus, Stephen, asked God to receive his spirit while at the same time begged God to forgive his executioners. Today’s story remembers the realities faced by the early Christian community, and the paradoxical experiences of grief and hope founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it introduces a “young man named Saul” religious historians would label as the progeny for the spread of Christianity itself through his letters to various Christian communities in first century Palestine. Before any of these letters were penned; however, The Acts of the Apostles portray Saul as another King Herod hunting down the innocent and scapegoating them because of his own deep, unconscious insecurities and ignorance. Later, Saul would be confronted on the road to Damascus by none other than the living Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4) The resurrected and ascended Jesus did not ask, “Why did you approve of Stephen’s murder,” or “Why do you hunt and kill my followers?” No. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me” and in doing so joined himself with all those who suffer from the injustices of this world.

This week, many of you now know the name, Ahmaud Arbery.[1] Mr. Arbery was a resident of Georgia, the state I call home. On February 23rd of this year in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, Ahmaud was out for his daily jog when he found himself being stalked, assaulted, and killed by racist vigilantes out of their own deep, unconscious insecurities and prejudicial ignorance. On February 27, the Brunswick district attorney recused herself from the case because of a professional tie to one of the perpetrators, Gregory McMichael. Then in early April, another prosecutor a town over (in Waycross) found no reason to charge Gregory and his son Travis claiming they were acting in self-defense. On April 13, the case was transferred to a third prosecutor who serves the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. It’s my understanding that this is currently where Mr. Arbery’s case resides. On Tuesday, May 5th of this past week a video circulated online that showed the visceral hunting, attacking, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The horrific video ignited cries for justice all across the state of Georgia and the United States, as well as revealed the hubris of local officials for not taking the McMichael’s into custody back in February. Because of the outcry, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in, the McMichael’s were finally arrested two days later on May 7 – Thursday of this past week, over two full months since they murdered Mr. Arbery. On Friday, May 8, the Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich, runners all over Georgia and the United States gathered to walk and run 2.23 miles to commemorate Mr. Arbery as well as to remember what would have been his 26th birthday. Personally, I have been heartbroken over this story and horrified by those images found on the video, and deeply grieved that a modern day lynching happened so close to my own home. My heart aches for Ahmaud and the way he died. My heart aches for his family who have already born the burdens of intolerance, disinterest, and collective silence even before this case will be tried in a court of law.

What is the Christian’s response?

One of the reasons why “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is because it ignores Christ.[2] When St. Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” the Son of Man referred to is Jesus Christ serving as the glorified heavenly judge. The scriptures continue with, “But they covered their ears [when they heard him say this], and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They couldn’t hear the truth. They were not interested. They held Stephen in contempt rushed upon him, and had him killed. After his death, the scripture reads that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In other words, they believed the murder of this man was justified, a reverent act of defense approved by the violent complacency of the pious. This piety was put on trial by none other than the heavenly judge himself. The will of God was revealed to Saul on that road to Damascus. His charge was persecution and murder of Jesus Christ himself (Again, “Why do you persecute me.”) His penitence was told to the disciple Ananias that “he (Saul) must suffer for the sake of my name” – the name of Jesus Christ. Saul was baptized Paul three days later and immediately began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. So again, “What is the Christian’s response?”

The Christian’s response is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility. When a Christian confesses their sins to God, we claim that our sins are against God and our neighbor. The two are so closely related that to deny the dignity of someone’s humanity is to deny the very ground being itself – that is, God. The reason why we confess is not to be condemned by God. We confess in order to be forgiven by God. The very act of confession frees us to get up, try again in imitation of Christ as the suffering servant. For over a thousand years recalling one’s sins has been the practice of generations of Christians. Through scripture, preaching, teaching, participating in the church’s sacraments, and fellowship, one is able to self-examine one’s life, which leads to a contrite heart, as well as the freedom found in receiving God’s forgiveness.

If you’re like me, it’s so much easier to see the sin in another than to turn that mirror upon myself revealing my own. Saul, for example, was guilty of the sin of pride. Pride defined, “puts the self at the center, and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family.”[3] Some subsets of pride are presumption, distrust, impenitence, and arrogance. When we disobey God by neglecting our neighbor, pride can also show itself with a resentful or retaliation-type mindset while malice, contempt, and domination are not too far behind. All of these prideful sins can be attributed to the McMichael’s from Ahmaud Arbery’s case. In fact, it is fairly easy to see these sins in them. The hard part is naming our own part of the mess.

As Christians, we often stumble into the sin of irreverence. Irreverence defined is “being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality while not striving to know and do God’s will.” It’s so much easier to believe we are serving God by saying nice prayers than it is to live out the virtues found in those prayers and putting them to practice in our lives. We suffer from the sin of presumption when we “fail to recognize that our work, as well as our relationships are the means by which we serve God and forward [God’s] kingdom.” All of this can lead to a distrustful relationship with God and neighbor where timidity or cowardice are accepted more than the courage to face difficulty, suffering, or responsibility.” Finally, a slothful favoritism toward others who are just like us shackles one to “silence in the face of prejudice, abuse, bullying, or cruelty for fear or for desire of favor, or acceptance” within one’s group, family, or connections.

Put simply we combat sin by naming our sin. When we own up to our little messes in the midst of bigger messes, we’re able to be forgiven and move on. Saul, who later became St. Paul, said it this way, “Grow up. Grow into the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This leads us back to St. Stephen and the inspirational ministries of deacons. Again, a deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons encourage all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. If the Christian’s response to sin is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility then we’re only going to find mercy, justice, and healing when we’re able to claim that we have received these gifts, and they are gifts to be given away. If you have received mercy in this life. Give mercy to another as a gift knowing exactly what it feels like to receive that gift. Do the same with the gifts and graces of justice as it leads humanity to healing and wholeness. Living out these virtues for the common good is Christian activism.

In a moment we’ll pray a small set of intercessory prayers simply called “Suffrages A” in the prayer book (BCP, 97).[4] These prayers speak of God’s mercy and salvation. We will petition God to afford us the privilege to be on the march for righteousness, joy, peace, and safety. The prayer then makes a turn to nation states, asking God to care for our nation and all nations guiding us in the way of justice, health, and truth. Finally, it ends with us petitioning God to help us not to forget the poor, and to clean and sustain our hearts by the power of God’s Spirit. Suffrages A is an active prayer which has the potential to lead to prayer in action.

This week, repent confessing your sins to God taking responsibility for your piece of the mess. Then, pray Suffrages A looking for those strong verbs that will compel you to get up, get out, and do something in the name of justice, mercy, and peace. Finally, try putting yourself in the mind of St. Stephen as well as Saul from today’s story. What comes up for you? Let that be your prayer. Let that be your meditation. Let that be your action and catalyst for change which leads to God’s deliverance.

Justice & Mercy Links:

Suffrages A [5]

V.     Show us your mercy, O Lord;
R.    And grant us your salvation.
V.    Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
R.    Let your people sing with joy.
V.    Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R.    For only in you can we live in safety.
V.    Lord, keep this nation under your care;
R.    And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
V.    Let your way be known upon earth;
R.    Your saving health among all nations.
V.    Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R.    Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
V.    Create in us clean hearts, O God;
R.    And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[1]                The sequence of events I used in the sermon are taken from “Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case” from The New York Times found here: https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-timeline.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-georgia-shooting&variant=show&region=TOP_BANNER&context=storylines_menu

[2]                Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned April 16, 1963: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3]                The following definitions and listing of sins come from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Revised Edition, 2014, prepared by Forward Movement on behalf of The Order of the Holy Cross. The editor is The Reverend David Cobb and the liturgical editor is Derek Olsen, PhD. “A Form of Self-Examination Based on the Seven Deadly Sins” can be found on pages 122 – 132 in the book.

[4]                BCP is short for The Book of Common Prayer. An online version can be found here: https://www.bcponline.org/. Suffrages A can be found after the Justice & Mercy Links below.

[5]  “V” means “Versicle” which is a short verse from scripture (usually taken from The Psalms) sung or said by a leader of public worship. “R” stands for “Response” where the people gathered answer or continue the prayer begun by the prayer leader (called an Officiant in Morning & Evening Prayers).

Change Your State of Mind

**Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ~ Acts 2:42

 American movies and music have always been influential to me. When I was young I was obsessed with Christopher Reeve playing Superman. I wanted to be him. I had the blue pajamas fit with a detachable red cape. My family had the VHS tapes that I would watch over and over compulsively, and the John Williams’ soundtrack to the 1978 film was epic to my little imagination. When I was a teenager, there was a 9 out of 10 chance that I would be revving my car engine in the parking lot of the cinema plex after seeing The Fast and the Furious or the latest James Bond film. Music has had a similar hold on me. The 1990’s Country Music star, Clint Black, wrote this chorus to one of his songs:

“Ain’t it funny how a melody
can bring back a memory.
Take you to another place in time
completely change your state of mind.”
~Clint Black, “State of Mind,” 1993

Children are excellent teachers in presenting this new state of mind. If art imitates life, then children imitate their surroundings, specifically their parents and siblings. If mommy is stirring the pot in the kitchen, baby wants that spoon. If brother is playing Nintendo, baby wants his controller. Maybe the child is seeing mom or brother having fun, and he wants in on the game? But if he’s notallowed to be in on the game, watch out. Crying happens. Fussiness ensues. There’s potential for breakdown. What now? I don’t believe it is a young child’s responsibility to stop fussing. Little kids fuss. That’s what they do. Instead, I believe the onus is on the parent to recreate the child’s environment so that the crying abates and all is well – at least for that moment. Instead of the child trying to get on the level of the parent, why not have the parent get on the level of the child? Children are constantly looking up at things and people that are larger than they. They get confused when daddy’s not paying them attention. Here lately, I’ve noticed a complete change in disposition when I simply crouch down and get on my child’s level; or better, get on the floor and play a while. If anything, a fussing child is inviting the adult in their life to play. “Sit down with me and stay a while, Daddy, let me “take you to another place in time…completely change your state of mind.””

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verse 42 we get a glimpse into how the early church lived into Christ’s state of mind. Through the waters of baptism, they were changed. Not just for that moment, but for eternity. Because Jesus Christ had modeled for the disciples how to live, move, and have their being they were the first ones to imitate their spiritual father. It was Jesus who showed them how to preach, teach, and heal. It was Jesus who taught them how to pray, and when breaking bread to remember him. It was Jesus who came down to their level and washed their feet. His eyes looked up and into theirs. Not the other way around. In fact, a quick scan of the Gospels may reveal Jesus either looking up or into the eyes of all the people he encountered as he met them where they were. The only time when Jesus actually looked down at his followers was when he was hanging on the cross giving the world the ultimate sacrifice out of pure (Fatherly/Motherly) love.

Even though today’s churches look and feel different than the ancient one, all Christians at all times and in all places are still called to remember one’s baptism. We’re still called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. When Christians do these things we’re like children imitating good parents. What child doesn’t like to play in the bathtub? Baptism is the church’s way of playing in the water. What younger child doesn’t look up to his older sibling? The apostles’ teaching and fellowship is like playing in big brother’s (or sister’s) room. Christian devotional practices bring “back the memory” of Christ. Not only this, it is Christ who gets down on our level loving us, comforting us, remembering us.

I wonder…How or when do you remember Christ best? What spiritual siblings and saints do you look up to? Do you believe that there are others who are looking up to you? What is the spiritual soundtrack to your life? Has Christ completely changed your state of mind?

Rediscovering the Friendship of Jesus

**Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday of Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

Lately, I’ve been taking a lot of walks. Not by myself, but with our boys. Our house gets tiny after lunch, so an afternoon walk allows it to grow into something we all want to go back to. People walk for all kinds of reasons: To get out of the house. For one’s health. To visit a neighbor. To see a site. Sometimes we walk to raise money for a worthy cause, to go to the bus stop, to run an errand, or to go to work, or out to eat. When we go on long walks, we call it hiking. We when we go on short walks, it’s called a stroll. Not all walks are created equal. The ones I just mentioned are on the positive end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of bad walks. Those on death row, for instance, have to take the longest walk of their lives. Mass migrations of people walk in order to flee. Usually they’re fleeing from something frightful such as violence, political unrest, famine, disease, or war. When we walk, we usually walk from somewhere to somewhere else – point A to point B; and usually, we know where we’re going, as well as how to get there.

At the beginning of today’s Gospel story we discover that Cleopas, and another (unnamed) disciple of Jesus’ were walking from the city Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, but by the end of the story we (as well as they) realized that they were walking the wrong way. With great irony this masterpiece of a story unfolds so that by the end our hearts (like the hearts of Jesus’ disciples) burn within us as we have re-discovered God in new ways.

Once on a trip to Boston, I found myself merging my car onto an onramp only to realize that it was one-way, and I was the one driving in the wrong direction. I discovered that the alleged onramp was actually an exit ramp when another car’s headlights hit my eyes. Thank God I was able to quickly turn my car around and find another way back into the city. 7 miles outside the city of Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples encountered the light of the world that guided them back in the right direction. That light was not a judging light. It simply revealed itself, and upon its revelation changed hearts, minds, and directions. The light of Christ empowered them to turn around, and to go back being changed by God’s presence. I find it considerably comforting that God is a God that comes out to walk with us, even when we’re heading in the wrong direction. Because of the encounter with God, our hearts are changed. We stop. We turn around. We go back to the old places; yes, but as new, refreshed, and renewed people.

Another way God is re-discovered are in the simple things. I take walks with my boys every day now, and our entire family prays and eats around the table – sometimes 3 meals a day we gather. If God is a God who walks with us, then God is certainly a God who eats with us too. Some of the best stories in the Gospels has Jesus eating and drinking at tables. He enjoys himself alongside the company he keeps – no matter what one’s station in life. Scholars call this ‘open-table fellowship’ which simply means Jesus chose to eat with saint and sinner alike. His open-table was not complicated in other words. It was extremely simply because he sat and ate out of love, care, and compassion for those around him. What the resurrected Christ showed his disciples that day is that God is known to us in all our walks in life, as well as in a simple meal where bread and wine are served. God takes what is ordinary and transforms it into the extraordinary.

A final way we re-discover God in new ways is that God is our friend. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” the old hymn sings, “all our sins and griefs to bear. And what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” Jesus’ disciples had a lot of sins and griefs to bear that day, but the resurrected Christ met them in all of it and carried it all for them as they made their way back through the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread, and into that great city of Jerusalem. When we have a friend in Jesus, we have a friend in fellowship . When I’m out on our walks and because we’re all so closed in these days, I’m finding new forms of fellowship with my neighbors that I’ve never had. Like the disciples my own eyes are being opened as I re-discover the importance of paying attention to whose right outside my door. And if I pay particular attention to who’s in my house, as well as who’s outside my door, then could I not find hope in rediscovered new neighbors beyond the neighborhood, city, state, and country? We’re all connecting in very simple ways. We all have a momma. We got a daddy. And we all gotta live in this world together.

Who are you taking walks with these days? Who’s gathered around your supper table? Are you heading to Emmaus? Are you going to Jerusalem? Where is God in all this? And if you can see God in all this, is he a stranger….or do you call him friend?

Rising to the Occasion

**Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday in Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

IMG_0476

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd
~Acts 2:14

This was the same Peter who only last week was bent over, cowering with a combination of fear, shame and anger. Who was he cowering to? Was it the mob mentality of the crowd? No. It was a little girl who asked him a simple question, “Do you know Jesus? I’ve seen you with him. Are you not one of his disciples?” Peter’s answer was the same when he was asked two more times. “The answer is no. I do not know the man.”

What a difference a week makes. For today, Peter is not cowering in shame. He’s standing with the eleven. He’s their voice. He’s their preacher. He’s been chosen to speak on their behalf. He raised his voice. He didn’t mumble under his breath a lie. No. He addressed the crowd with truth. No. Today, Peter rises to the occasion, represents his constituents well, and gives the crowd the prototype of every sermon that has ever been preached since then: “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” For millennia Christians have said this liturgically as well: “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” Christians have confessed it in the creeds of the church, “He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again.” We sing it. We pray it. We proclaim it, and we summarize it with that beautiful word, “Alleluia.”

How do we as Christians boldly proclaim that same “Alleluia” to a world that still finds herself in Good Friday? What goods and gifts do we have to address the crowd, and like Peter to rise to the occasion?

First, we have God’s word. We have the Bible, and in God’s holy word we find wonderful stories of the faith and faithful people like you and me. These are ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things on God’s behalf and they said “yes,” or “Lord, here I am”, or “Send me.” Most of these people were flawed in so many ways, but if we look at the pattern of God (and to quote our bishop) “So many times God takes our garbage and turns it into gold.” God takes our weaknesses, our burdens, our failures, and uses them for God’s purposes. Quoting Peter again, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power…you crucified…but God raised up.” That’s the story of our life in Christ, right there in a nut shell. Our purpose is the proclaim in thought, word, and deed the risen life found in our savior Jesus Christ. We have God’s word to help us with this. We have God’s word who was made flesh to guide us through this. Use this time to dive into the Exodus story, the Noah story, the Jonah. Use this time to remember Sara, Rebecca, and Ruth, the two Marys, and all the other flawed saints found in God’s holy word. We are a part of a great cloud of witnesses. May they witness to us once again in our own time of exile and uncertainty.

Secondly, we have a gift in the form of our prayer books. I love the image of Anglicans and Episcopalians down through the ages who held Bibles in one hand and the prayer book in another. Now is the time to get reacquainted with your Bibles and your prayer books. In fact, 3/4ths of the prayer book is the Bible put in a prayer and liturgical formats. The whole of the Psalter is in their too. There’s been a cartoon going around social media that has the devil and God sitting at a table together. With a smirk on his face, the devil claims, “I finally closed the church!” With a compassionate smile of his face, God counters, “On the contrary…I opened up one in every home!” Let that image sink in as it pertains to our moment in history. God has opened up new churches at breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables as well as beside every bedside. Did you know the prayer book has prayers for morning, noonday, evening, and night? These are invitations for us to stop what we’re doing, and to pray with the prayer book in one hand and our Bibles in the other. I’ve been modeling this method on Facebook Live every morning and evening for you for the past few weeks. So, do what I do. Pray. If these prayers are a bit overwhelming to you, the prayer book can calm your anxiety because there are simple prayers for individuals and family devotions. These are meant to be prayed around the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table before the family meal. They’re short, concise, and to the point. Fathers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the breakfast table. Mothers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the lunch table. Children: Teach your parents how to pray in this way around the dinner table. Live and lean into your baptisms during this time. Live and lean into God’s holy word. Combine this with what’s been handed down to you in the form of the prayer book. May the family in all its forms, shapes, and sizes be a little church gathered together in Jesus’ name.

Like Peter, and thirdly, we rise to the occasion when we face reality head on. The reality of the resurrection for Peter kindled a boldness that he could not find within himself only a week ago. He let his grief get the best of him back then. He forsook hope. His ordering was wrong because he was disrupted, disordered and disillusioned. Sound familiar? The order is this: Face and name reality first. Then out of the grief found in that reality, name what has been lost even as you hope for what is to come. Put differently. Be truthful. Be bold. Be hopeful. I invite you to name those things that are real for you right now. I invite you to name those things that have been taken from you right now. I invite you to grieve your losses as well as to imagine a real and hopeful response.

Let me put some hope in the room: Over the past month I’ve been encouraged by so many of you. I’ve been encouraged by those of you who put your head down, go to work, and get the job done – even when it may cost you something. I’ve been encouraged with your imagination and the hopefulness in your voices when you call me up and say I have a check, or a giftcard, or food (I even had someone check in with me who had furniture) to give away as a response to the common reality we are all facing. I’m encouraged that more phone calls to one another are being made, that new technologies are being discovered and implemented for the common good. I’m encouraged that many of you have learned that you can’t do everything, but you can do something. Some of you are encouragers. Some of you are joy-filled. Some of you are numbers people. Some of you are artists. Some of you are teachers, prophets, and providers. Some of you are healers, peacemakers, and have the gift of generosity. Did you know that these are gifts of the Spirit? Did you know that when you use the gifts God has given you, you’re facing reality and leaning into hope? I’m encouraged by you. I’m inspired by you.

One of my own realities is that my sacramental ministry as a priest, has been taken from me. I can’t baptize. I can’t hand you our Lord’s Body and Blood. I can’t lay hands on you, or anoint the sick or the dying with oil. A priest takes vows to be a pastor, a priest, and a teacher. One of those – the priestly, sacramental aspect of my call – has been put on hold. I can mourn that. But I can also see it as an invitation to lean into the ethos of pastor and teacher, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. Some of you may be surprised that we’re praying Morning Prayer at both the 8:30 and 10:30 services. Why aren’t we having Holy Eucharist today, you may ask? Because, Holy Eucharist is a liturgical rite best expressed when we are together physically. It’s best expressed when we can all ask God’s blessing upon the bread and wine as God consecrates them into his very self. It’s my belief (as well as the church’s belief) that this cannot be done virtually, but what can be done virtually is to share in our common prayer practices. In our tradition that translates into Morning and Evening Prayer, or the Daily Office. From now on we will be praying in this way as a recognition of our reality that we all share in our common life as Christians. We will pray this way until we can meet again in our physical building and with the physical elements of Christ’s Body and Blood. As your priest, and as your pastor I feel it is best that I stand in solidarity with you and abstain from Holy Eucharist until we meet again. I will mourn the Eucharist. Her words captivate me, as well as the way she moves. Until then, I remain hopeful. I remain encouraged. I remain steadfast in the faith that St. Peter preached on that day so long ago, and has been preached 2000 years since then. Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd. We, standing on the shoulders of the saintly giants in our tradition, get to raise our voices around the new churches that are being formed around supper tables as a way to address the noise of death, disease, dying, and posturing in order to boldly proclaim, “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

What a Week

This week has been horrible, messy, complicated, confusing, and disorienting.

This week has been honorable, life-focused, love-focused, and simple.

I’ve hugged my kids.

Yelled at my kids.

I’ve hugged my wife. Gotten frustrated with her. (And she with me).

I have stayed in control.

I have lost it.

I continue to pray.

Now I watch (on a screen) my friends pray.

Now, everybody who has a screen can watch me pray.

Weird.

I take a walk with my kids every afternoon.

When I see my neighbors we chat briefly but at a distance.

We distance automatically!

I do it. They do it.

It’s unspoken. It’s eery.

Nobody names it.

Should I name it?

Not today, I tell myself.

What a week has been my prayer.

Thanks be to God.

Keeping a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, typically reminds me of two things:

  1. Don’t forget I’m going to die.
  2. While alive, to be grateful for the gift of life acknowledging that life itself comes from God. When I acknowledge God as Giver of Life, it frees me up to love my neighbor as myself asking both God and my neighbor’s forgiveness when I forget.

Jesus teaches me to give credit where credit is due, but don’t make such a fuss about it.

  • Step 1: When I fall down, get up (with God’s help).
  • Step 2: When I pray, pray in secret (for the love of God).

Note to self: Don’t dare to presume to pray in public without first doing Steps 1 & 2!

If I was to add a third item to my list of what Ash Wednesday reminds me to do it would be to take stock (or take inventory) of my life. Where is all my energy going, and why? Where is all my money going, and why? “For where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also,”

[I think I may have to add another item to my list for Ash Wednesday]; that is, to contemplate on this phrase: “God is God; and I am not.” God is God, and I am not. Oh how I fall short of perfection, but if I’m honest with myself I do try – that is – to be perfect. Perhaps Lent gives me permission not to try to grasp at perfection, but to find joy in the one who perfectly loves?

I’m a priest. This means a lot of things, but one thing it means on Ash Wednesday is by virtue of my ordination and office in the church I get to read (out loud and to anyone that is present) An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent, and The Litany of Penitence found in our prayer books. I enjoy reading the Ash Wednesday liturgy  (I really do); however, reading (especially “An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent”) out loud convicts my own soul. It reminds me (publicly) of where and how I fall short. It reminds me (publicly) of my death. It reminds me (publicly) to love my neighbor. It reminds me (publicly) that I forget to remember these things; thus, God is God and I am not. Oh how humbling. Not humiliating; but humbling. It’s humbling to be reminded that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. It’s humbling to be reminded that God is ready to forgive but I hesitate to ask. It’s humbling to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness; then in the very next breathe God goes on and gives more of himself! He gives me/us/you his Body and Blood as pure gift, life, and love.

So maybe I’ll try and get more sleep over these next 40 days. Give up chocolate, or meat, or wine. Take on what I feel is necessary to observe a holy Lent. I’ll do what I need to do to practice my piety, knowing full well that these practices reward me more than they do God. Perhaps I’ll simply do what Jesus says; that is, to practice them quietly and in secret; then in 40 days the greatest secret held in plain sight will be revealed again so that even at the grave (even in my death) I’ll make my song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

The Dream of God

A couple of months ago, H. and I finished book 5 in the Harry Potter series – “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Throughout the book the main character, Harry, is having a reoccurring dream. As the novel progresses the dream keeps expanding out bringing with it new images and compulsions for Harry. The dream begins with Harry seeing a long hallway leading to a door. Later his dream envisions a hand (whose hand we don’t know) reaching for the door. Finally, the hand grasps the doorknob only to find it locked. The problem is that Harry doesn’t know if this hallway leading to the locked door is a real place. He senses that it is somehow real, but he’s uncertain. Is it just a dream, all in his imagination? Or is there really a hallway leading to a locked door? He is determined to find out. With the help of his friends he finally discovers that the door and its corridor are actual places attached to a building full of mystery. With courage and a deep sense of longing on his side, Harry and his companions seek out the place discovering what lies behind this peculiar doorway.

Thousands of years ago another hero of sorts, the ancient prophet Isaiah, found himself dreaming. He laid out his dreams in 3 songs, the 3rd of which is the Feast of Epiphany’s first reading:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Harry Potter not only realized that the hallway attached to the locked door was real, he also discovered that the dream was not his own but someone else’s. His mind was a vessel of sorts where another’s dream could pass through. Likewise, the prophet Isaiah wrote down his 3 dreams only to discover that they were not his 3 dreams, but the 1 expansive dream of God. It was a vivid dream of light and illumination; light that was sparked with God’s relationship with the nation of Israel. The dream expanded out into human consciousness revealing that that spark of light which began in Israel would one day attract other nations to its source:

“Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Some 700 years later the dream of Isaiah – which is really the dream of Israel – which is finally the dream of God – would be made manifest. In fact the word, “Epiphany,” which is the season the Church celebrates starting today, literally means “manifestation.” In Matthew’s Gospel we have the Magi representing those nations – all nations and kingdoms – coming to the brightness of God’s Light. Put plainly, the wise men find Jesus; thus revealing the manifestation of God’s dream for all people.

The dream is real. But is it a compelling dream? Are we to be like Harry Potter – not resting until we find out if the story is real? Epiphany is that season where we live into such questions. We might ask ourselves, “How are we participating in the dream of God?” “Where is God being made manifest in our lives?” Throughout the centuries Christians have discovered fingerprints of God’s manifestations. For example where truth, beauty, and goodness are discovered, God is not too far behind. Where there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control there is that Divine Spark of Light. Epiphany compels us to discover and re-discover these spiritual truths. If you find joy in the faces of your children and grandchildren the joy you feel comes from that spark. In those moments take a minute acknowledging the source of that joy and simply pray, “Thank you.” If you lose your patience, but see that your spouse has it for you take a moment to be grateful for their example. Like guiding stars these spiritual manifestations are everywhere. The season of Epiphany compels us to follow them within the mundane as well as the profane moments of our lives. Isn’t it beautiful to know that the dream of God can also be our dream? Epiphany wakes us from our sleep to discover the Dream. Is. Real.

~Happy Epiphany!

The Holy Name: Poetry in the Midst of Prose

Philippians 2:5-11

Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stopped his prose and began quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blessed the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blessed God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels taught lowly shepherds a song of adoration sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. Returning to work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat the church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).

By now the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday – the twelfth and last day of this short season. Unbeknownst to most, the Christian “New Year” was Advent I (December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name the church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” a 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder to not only remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as her answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body both the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?

 

*This blog was originally posted on the website Modern Metanoia on December, 16 2019. *

Silent Night. Holy Night.

This homily was delivered to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, Christmas Eve, 2019

Throughout the season of Advent there have been sacred stories followed by whimsical songs, and remembered lessons echoed by familiar carols that anticipated what was to occur on this most holy and silent of nights. Zechariah was silenced by the angel Gabriel, but soon found his voice again raised in melody announcing the birth of his son, John, who would later welcome the adult Jesus into the waters of his baptism. Gabriel then turned to Zechariah’s cousin-in-law, Mary, announcing that she was pregnant with the one prophet’s poeticized. She too responded to this news with music: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…Tonight’s Gospel (the Gospel of Christmas Eve) follows this pattern of musical response with the shepherds joyfully singing alongside the heavenly chorus, “Glory to God in the highest!” At once we celebrate the songs of angels while pondering the mystery of God within our hearts. We remember the dance of those shepherds while finding God’s treasures in the stillness of the night.

We are further reminded that even in our busy lives, God’s message of love is best heard when we are still; when our ruminating minds are silenced and our tepid hearts awakened. It is those moments when we make ourselves ready to hear songs of the divine. So busy was the government administering a census count that God’s music could not be heard. So busy and closed off was the innkeeper to welcoming the holy family one must wonder if he ever heard Mary’s song at all. We may even imagine Joseph being too nice to argue the point of vacancy with him. Instead, he acquiesced; and like animals made the inn’s stable their lodging for the evening. Meanwhile, the shepherds were entertaining a different set of notes. For them, it was a night like all others with the silence being the pregnant one. Then, all of a sudden new birth sounds out with cacophony. A terrifying startle begins the music of the night, and the shepherds are swept away by its melody sending them from the fields of their own flock to a cramped barn full of others. The band has gotten back together, and they didn’t even know it. New riffs are tried while stock music is remembered. Personalities and personas bleed onto the pages of pencil noted sheet music. There is no rest – until there is. The quarter rest arises as realization. Their music has been inspired by something. It had a muse. The muse was discovered as none other than the Divine – all powerful and all knowing – only more intimate. It is yes/no, both/and, alpha/omega. The muse is all powerful God, and poor helpless baby. It is silent night. It is a cacophony of holiness.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”[1] The food was there lying in a manger that night. Livestock consume mangers when they are full of hay. Tonight, Christians world-wide will consume the muse of love playing as bits of bread in the palms of their hands. It is no laughing matter; and yet, we are filled with joy for tonight we are reminded of hope. Tonight we reminisce on the faith of our great-great-grandparents somehow believing the story – (all of it; at least tonight) – is true. “God,” we may say in the morning, “help me with my un-belief.” “Make me remember the songs of angels. Teach me to be still and truly know you – not as all powerful and all knowing – but as a baby whom I can hold even as I believe you are holding me.”

“So this is Christmas, and what have we done.”[2] I’m sorry, Mr. Lennon, but for once this night is not about you/me/us. It’s about the muse and music of the night: The all-powerful. The all-knowing. The helpless, little Savior (of the world).

[1]                The opening line of William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” said by the character, Duke Orsino.

[2]                The opening lines of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song released in 1971, “So This is Christmas”.