What Then Should We Do?

~A meditation on Luke 3:7-18

What then should we do?” It’s this question that gets me every time I read today’s Gospel. “What then should we do?” is a deeply human question. It’s personal, hopeful, and courageous. And John the Baptist being the prophet that he is actually answers the question. He gives the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. He instructs them to examine their lives and repent. He asks them to take responsibility for one’s actions speaking, living, and growing in truth…to even stop seeking for a moment; instead, taking the time and concentrating on what has been found. Use what you have, and what has been given you; and what the people have are God’s promises, morality, faith, and hope, and love. So what exactly were the people repenting of, and what made them forget these promises? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their pride, and their vanity. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold as soldier, citizen, and state. These oaths represented something virtuous, and virtues are truths bigger than us.

With the help of John, the people are redirected to a life of virtue and virtuous living. This redirection leads to a need to self-examine. Self-examination leads to repentance. Repentance prepares the heart to receive truth incarnate, the One even John feels unworthy before. Repentance gives us permission to pay attention. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” How can we tell who doesn’t have a coat if we’re not paying attention? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, not for the sake of busy-ness, but for the sake of Being.

The Advent message is always John’s message to be on guard, to repent, turning to God time after time. It’s repenting, and accepting the peace of Christ before being invited to the altar. Once at the altar, one can honestly realize that what we are about to receive is something all of us are unworthy to receive, and yet we do receive it because we worship a God who is worthy, virtuous, and true. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. A Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fires of justice.” “I’m unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals, but he’s worthy, so pay attention, be alert, snap out of it, sleepers awake…he’s coming.”

Perhaps, “What then, should we do?” is a life or death question. The question gives us permission to take a look in the mirror and to be honest. It allows us to caliber and recalculate the dials, to turn the temperature up or down, braving reality as we face what is instead of what isn’t. What is real? What is truth? What is virtuous? These are the questions of Advent. These are the deep, deep mysteries we are preparing our hearts to receive. And the answer lived is even more mysterious for reality, truth, and virtue turn out not to be a philosophical statement, or a theological treatise. Reality, truth, and virtue turn out to be human; and not just any human, but the One who is most alive. Anything less is death, an ax lying at the root of the trees, or chaff being burned away. This season is a season where we exchange our unworthiness to the one who is worthy. Today is the day we wake up from fantasy to face the music. Advent reminds us to look truth in the eye and say, Yes to life; thus saying No to death. Yes to Christ and No to anything less than.

What then should we do?” but to incarnate being, to bring forth life to a life-less world, and there find joy in the midst of suffering. “What then should we do?” is not a happiness code, but a mantra of meaning – a question that acts as a divine chariot riding us out to the 7th heaven that just so happens to reside in our hearts. I speak abstractly today because what this season represents is hard to put into words. I speak theologically today in the hope that Christ coming again can come to be a truth in your own life. You know beauty when you see it. You understand truth when you experience it. You come into contact with goodness daily. What these virtues point to; however, transcends all thought and contemplation of them. They land you in the realm of the Divine, and the land of the Divine is personal. It has a name. It is conscious. It is with us. So come O come Emmanuel. Come into our world. Come into our hearts. Come into our lives. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well; and yet, make yourself known, again.

Give us something.

Give us anything, Emmanuel.

Give us God.

Give Out of Your Abundance…Out of your Poverty

The below sermon was preached on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost – 2018 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. An outline and interpretation of today’s Biblical readings relied heavily upon the sermon, “A Tale of Two Widows” by Bishop Robert Barron. Here’s a link to his sermon for further reference.

When I was going through the formal discernment process for the priesthood, my fellow discernment candidates and I were asked to spend one night out on the streets of Atlanta. We spent the day walking the streets, talking to our homeless brothers, sisters, and siblings. We had Holy Eucharist at a local shelter, then we gathered up sleeping bags found an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and slept – or at least tried to sleep. I wish I could say it was a humbling experience in that I learned an important lesson in humility and poverty and charity. Perhaps I can lift up those virtuous things in hindsight to a certain degree, but in that moment, it simply was not pleasant to say the least. The parking lot that was chosen for us was beside a MARTA station whose trains came in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank littered the parking lot as well as our senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution were openly witnessed. Even though our bodies were worn out and our feet aching from walking all day, sleep simply did not come. Two weeks later I would find myself becoming extremely ill from a deadly bacterium strand I picked up that night. I was hospitalized twice, lost 10 pounds, and it took me one whole year to regain the weight back. I remember being frustrated and angry with the Diocese of Atlanta for my illness. I wrote a hostile letter to one of the Canons in the Bishop’s Office expressing my anxiety, hostility, and anger towards the ordination process, and blamed them for my illness that was still inflicting my body. More on that later…

Today’s first reading from the Book of Kings sets up a similar tone in power dynamics. The context is this:  We’re in Sidon in the 9th century BCE. The notorious Ahab and Jezebel sit on the thrones. Famine and draught are in the land, which the prophet Elijah attributes to the sins of the King and Queen. There is a lowly widow, and she (as well as her son) are down to their last meal. She has no future. She sees no hope. Then Elijah comes to her and says, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she walks away in order to fill his request, he further orders her to bring him something to eat as well. He is asking for something she cannot give. Upon first glance the beginning of this story strikes me as cold. It was Elijah himself who ordered others to take care of the widow and the orphan. Why, then, would he kick this widow while she was down not following his own advice? I find no comfort in his words; and yet, the story continues with a miracle. She acquiesces, gets him his water as well as makes the cake, and her family is fed (and continues to be fed) from the abundance it produces even as the land remains stricken with famine.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When we are down to our last meal, and have hit rock bottom, God (like Elijah) comes in. But did you notice what happened? Elijah did not comfort the widow; instead he asked her for something. She’s in dire straits, has nothing to give, and yet is still asked to do so. Why give something when in reality she needs to receive? And yet: Reality isn’t all what we see is it? The further lesson is this: Elijah asks her to give, and in doing so she receives Divine grace. Abundance comes from the willing gift.

Turning to today’s Gospel we discover the scribes and the Pharisees milling around the Temple. Bishop Robert Barron describes them as being in a hording mode. They are hording and garnering for attention, honor, privilege, titles, etc. Mark’s Gospel contrasts the professional religious with the widow. She gives the last thing she has for the gift and glory of God. Unlike the widow in Elijah’s story, however, we do not know what happened to her. We do know that in the very next chapter, Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction. This was telling in that the widow gave all she had for a building that (historically) would not be there in a few decades. Put differently, she gave out of her poverty to what would one day be an impoverished place; and yet, we know God received her gift with pleasure for he knew her heart, and would give her grace in His Son whose Body became a grace-filled temple for all.

The great spiritual truth from both of these stories is one of paradox; that is, we have and obtain love by giving love away. Want more love, give it away? Want more faith, share it? Want more joy in your life, make other people joyful. It’s not about clinging to power, but contributing out of our abundance as well as our poverty. It’s not about holding on, but letting go. It’s not about hoarding but sharing.

It was these hard lessons that I personally learned in another street encounter in downtown Atlanta. Discernment candidates were at a local homeless shelter celebrating Holy Eucharist again. After the service, a homeless man came up to one of the deacons, shared a bit of his story with him, then asked the deacon to pray over him and bless him. The deacon laid hands on him, prayed, then pronounced a blessing upon him. Just as the man was turning to walk away, the deacon grabs him by the shoulders and orders the man, “Now it’s your turn. Give me a blessing.” The man (as well as myself) was shocked. Worlds collided. Heaven was awakened. I was humbled. Here was a man who spent his days walking the streets. He got to experience Holy Eucharist that day, but where I was able to go home, he (later that evening would have to) gather up a sleeping bag (if he had one) find an abandoned parking lot in downtown Atlanta and sleep – or at least, try to sleep. It would not be pleasant to say the least. The parking lot would be beside a MARTA station whose trains come in and out of the terminal at all hours of the night. Sounds of sirens from nearby Grady Hospital would interrupt any chances of sleep. Trash, drug paraphernalia, and smells so rank would litter the parking lot as well as his senses. Late night drug deals and possible prostitution would be openly witnessed by him. Even though his body would be worn out and his feet aching from walking all day-everyday, sleep simply would not come. He had no status in society to write hostile letters to his representatives, expressing his anxiety, hostility, and anger towards his situation. He had hit rock bottom; and yet, the deacon (like Jesus) asked him to give. “Give me a blessing.” And he did.

At that moment, all my anger towards the diocese left me. I understood that I was hording title, power, privilege and prestige. In that man’s blessing I was broken and in my newfound brokenness I was asked to give. Later, my gift would be to humbly apologize to my elders, not complain about my illness, and pray that one day I would become the priest that God (not myself) had in mind. This morning, I wonder what your rock bottom is? I wonder where you find yourself impoverished. Perhaps Elijah and Jesus get to experience your weakness, and yet ask you for something you think you can’t give, but hope to discover that you can. Give away a blessing today, perhaps out of your abundance, perhaps out of your poverty.

Ritual and Rules of Life

Preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 2018 – at St. Julian’s

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my summer, particularly traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in June and to the big island of Hawaii in July, by summer vacation’s end, I was more than ready for the consistency of the school year to begin anew. The school year is a rhythm that brought me comfort as a student for so many years, and now I bear witness to its cadences watching my son, Henry, discover its many layers of melody. Being a parish priest, I am privileged to watch children and young adults get excited (and somewhat anxious) about starting back to school. St. Julian’s parish gifts us with active and retired teachers, school board members, custodians, and bus drivers whose anticipation for new students, classes, and curriculum is contagious to any lover of knowledge and truth. The school year renews rituals forgotten by summer. In August there is a resurgence of carpools and buses, bikers, and walkers. Our streets and neighborhoods are patrolled by crossing guards and parent’s alike. Teenagers who turned sixteen over the summer now not only have driver’s licenses, but parking passes displayed in mirrors evoking their driving legitimacy to anyone who cares to take notice.

All of the hustle and bustle of getting to and from school each day is something my own family experiences first hand. We live a block away from Fernbank Elementary, a K – 5th grade primary school located in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Dekalb County, and each morning I have the privilege of walking (my now 2nd grader) to school. I enjoy accompanying Henry to school immensely. We get to catch up on dreams, wonderings, anticipations, and anxieties. We occasionally join in with other parents and students who walk or ride bikes. Together, we comment on the weather, the recent weekend, or plan out a play date. Once kids are dropped off, pods of parents continue these conversations on our way back to homes, or away to the office until the next morning. For me, the very definition of community and neighborliness are found in these morning rituals as we share a piece of one another’s life journeys. As in all relationships that broaden and deepen, certain vulnerabilities occasionally surface: a parent may disclose a worry about a playground bully, the lack of volunteers for an upcoming PTA event, or more immediate realities like grief over a family member, a recent diagnosis, or expressions of overextensions and a general tiredness every parent knows well. Last week I had one of those meaningful conversations.

While I am mostly known in the walking circle as “Henry’s Dad,” attached to no other vocation but parent, there are a few couples who know I am a minister and they occasionally inquire into what it is -exactly- that an Episcopal priest does – or even is? Last week was one of these occasions. It started out simple enough: a few parents acknowledged my birthday, plans for it, and so on; but then came a reflection back to me. “On my birthday,” this person confessed, “I look back over the year thinking about what I’ve done, but I end up focusing on all the things I’ve left undone. I tend to compare myself to others too much and end up in grief because my life is not theirs.” Another parent who was in on the conversation couldn’t stand the heat (and heart) of this confession and tried to redirect, “Well,” they said a bit awkwardly, “today is Brandon’s birthday and I’m sure he’s going to have a great day.” The confessor, now somewhat humiliated, apologized with words but their facial expression gave them away. In other words, he was glad for his disclosure and confession. It was now out in the open, in the light for all to see. It’s okay not to be okay was written all over his face.

The next day our morning ritual of walking our kids to school brought us together again, this time without the well-intentioned friend who wanted to redirect the conversation, and we simply picked up from where we left off.

“Thanks for the birthday reflection yesterday,” I started.

“Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been searching for answers lately. I’m trying to find some spiritual direction in my life right now.”

“Don’t apologize. Your instincts are good. Many saints of the Church have asked such questions themselves.”

We then discussed his faith journey a bit, his struggle to pray with consistency, and wondering where to turn for such guidance. I was thrilled when he shared with me that their family had recently started attending the Episcopal Church just down the road in Decatur. I left him with some straight forward advice:

* Get a prayer book and read it

* Go to Eucharist every Sunday

* Get into a prayerful rhythm with the community, then talk to one of the two priests about your struggles with individual prayer like you talked with me today. They can help guide and direct you.

“You must get these types of questions all the time, huh,” he wondered?

“Not near as much as you’d think.” We wished one another a good day, and that was that.

Yesterday on my plane ride back to Atlanta, I finished a wonderful book, “Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality” by Julia Gatta. Julia was one of my dear professors of pastoral care at Sewanee. In this, her new book, she outlines the two main sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Holy Communion – within the context of the Holy Eucharist. Baptism and Holy Eucharist form the first part of the book while the second reveals numerous Christian spiritual practices from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions that practitioners can do both corporately and individually. In other words, Julia lays out options for what is sometimes referred to as a Rule of Life – something my neighbor was perhaps longing for but didn’t have the words to articulate. A Rule of Life is something our Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, has recently challenged all Episcopalians to uphold and practice. He made this challenge explicit in his opening address to General Convention this year. Bishop Curry titled his sermon, “The Way of Love” and The Episcopal Church’s website has a link to both his inspirational sermon as well as what the church deems are “spiritual practices for a Jesus-centered life.” What Christians – new and mature alike don’t realize – is that many already practice a Rule of Life, but simply don’t call it that. For some, a Rule of Life may be categorized as a ritual, or a hobby, or even a physical activity that brings one into a posture of prayer. What makes these practices Christian is an intention to grow deeper in relationship with Christ, and by faith growing into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Starting on Sunday, September 23rd, I will be teaching a class entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry at the 9:30am Sunday School hour. Two books will be required: The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those interested in a deeper dive into the graces of these two sacraments as well as those who desire a Rule of Life or a Rule of Prayer in one’s life are invited. Also, anyone who seeks to be baptized or confirmed in the Church are invited as well. My hope is that by starting with a deep dive into Baptism and Holy Eucharist this will wet appetites to other intentional ways of praying in Christ that are all very much grounded in our Anglican Tradition. A sign-up sheet will be forthcoming in the narthex starting next week. Just like we prayed in today’s collect: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples,” may we always find new and old ways of being gathered together in unity as a Church that prays without ceasing even while our hearts are still searching.

Preach the Gospel at All Times. Use Words if Necessary

On Sundays, Christians gather proclaiming fullness with God’s Spirit (Acts 2:4/Eph. 5:18b). Christian worshippers sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:19) . We sing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts (ibid). We give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (ibid). We do these things, and by doing them and praying them, we are practicing wisdom, being careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise (Eph 5:15). Gathering ’round the altar Christians feed off the very Body and Blood of God (Jn 6:55). Finally, worshippers exit the church having God abide in them, and we in God. Having just experienced the “gifts of God for the people of God,” Christians may ask, “How do we continue to do these things?” (Jn 6:56) One of the answers is given to us in Psalm 34. We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42) in order that we may seek and pursue peace (Psalm 34:14). It is a peace first experienced in God delivered to the heart, and proclaimed to the world around us. It is a peace the world doesn’t understand because it is beyond understand-ing. It is a peace that hangs out more in the heart than it does the head. It does not involve negative fear or manipulation, but a healthy, positive fear of the Lord grounded in wisdom and wonder. It does not see scarcity but points out abundance. It seeks out goodness while studying evil no more.

Each and every Sunday we remember that the godly life is an imitation of God’s Son our Savior Jesus Christ joining in with the communion of saints to be inspired by the ways in which they chose to imitate Him. That same invitation is open like it is always open when Christian’s gather: To take the Bread of Life out and about to the world. You have been filled with God’s Spirit, now go; share this peaceful Spirit with everyone. This is wise. This is holy. This is the good life.

Last Saturday night the parish community of St. Julian’s gathered to display our gifts and talents to one another. We showed gratitude when we appreciated one another’s talents through words of encouragement as well as with our pocket books. Put differently, what gives us peace and a sense of purpose was shared and there was nothing lacking. We didn’t remember scarcity, but abundance. We didn’t remember war, but peace. We didn’t remember our differences but our unity in Christ as His Body. When we choose to be vulnerable and share a piece of ourselves with one another in love, we do this in response to God’s love that has been given to us. We give grace, encouragement, compassion, honor, and dignity because we have been gifted with these things by God and with God and in God. Church, (and whether she gathers formally or informally) is a place to remember these things, but also a place to challenge us to share the peace that the Church gifts us with with others, and bringing them into the fold. One of the optional prayers for mission found in the prayer book reminds us of this challenge every day during morning prayer, that Jesus “stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name” (BCP, 101). What this prayer helps me visualize is Jesus giving me a big hug, that his pain joins with my pain and in that hug I find peace. In his saving embrace he invites us to embrace others so that he is known, peace is known, love is known, tangibly experienced, and remembered. Peace, love, mercy: These are the things we wisely remember when we come into church. God’s peace, love, and mercy are the things we are invited to display with God’s help out and about in the world, with our gifts and talents, as well as the way we live, move, and have our being.

This week, share with someone the peace, love, and mercy you experience at St. Julian’s. Invite them to a small group that meets weekly, or to a pot-luck lunch. Have a parent bring a new child in to experience Godly Play on September 9th. Remind them that like any church we don’t have all the answers or everything figured out, but what we can offer is the loving embrace of Christ found in each one of your embraces. I thank God that we’re not perfect, but we practice peace. I thank God that Jesus doesn’t falter even though we do. I thank God for the Bread of Life that came down from Heaven in order that new life may be lived, experienced, and reflected in the light of His glory and grace. The churchy word I’m trying to get across is the word, “evangelism” and an evangelist is someone who preaches the good news or The Gospel, and before your mind goes to an itinerate country preacher/evangelist, let me remind you of a phrase that is often associated with St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition has him saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” This week think of the words of Jesus Christ, as well as the words of the saints, but never forget the action and image of Jesus when he was nailed to the hardwood of the cross. Let that image guide and direct you and embrace the world with peaceful arms as you have been embraced with his.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.

The Dream is Still Alive

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. (BCP, 134 – 135)

The above is the Antiphon, or short prayer, found towards the end of night prayers, or Compline, in the Daily Office of the prayer book. It’s also the prayer I recite when tucking Henry (our 7-year old) into bed each night. For me, the theology found in this short prayer is deep and wide. Alternatively, the popular, “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer many of us prayed as children seems shallow and dreary in comparison.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

For centuries, humanity has been fascinated with sleep and what dreams may come. In every culture there are stories and fairy tales that help make sense of what happens to us when we sleep. Practically speaking, sleep is associated with rest and relief, but within the realm of storytelling, sleep serves greater purposes. When a character from a novel, play, or movie sleeps this often signifies their innocence, while waking up is leaving behind one’s innocence (i.e. Sleeping Beauty). Sometimes when a character sleeps, this signifies an internal struggle – something that must be conquered in their waking life (i.e. Macbeth or Hamlet). Sleeping and awaking also signifies enlightenment (i.e. Buddha), dying and rising (i.e. Elijah under the tree), as well as our place within the passages of time (i.e. Rip van Winkle). Our dreams become montages of the subconscious and whether we pay attention to these flashes of insight hinders or helps the gods of providence.

It’s been said that the stories from the Bible as well as the ancient liturgies of the Church are the dreams of God. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams. We read and read into these dreams weekly as a community, and daily as individuals or families. When we wake up from sleep, sometimes we ask our partner or our children, “What did you dream last night?” Sometimes dreams can be remembered; but oftentimes, not. I believe the best ways to remember a dream is to, upon waking, immediately write the dream down, or name it out loud. I had a professor in seminary who said her first words upon waking from sleep were always, “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the opening lines to Morning Prayer as well as the 15th lyric in Psalm 51. On my good days, I try to follow this practice of hers for in my mind when I recite those lines, I’m not waking up from the dream of God, but continuing in it with more awareness. I am continuing where I left off before sleeping: “Guide us waking, O Lord…” (and now that I’m awake) “may watch with Christ.”

Not all dreams are good. Young parents learn about night terrors from their toddlers. Soldiers often complain of nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD within their waking and sleeping lives. Sometimes we are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night with a deep intuition that something is wrong. In the morning, we learn the truth of this suspension with shock and confusion. If the overarching dream-like theme of the Bible is love, and the overarching theme of Christian liturgy is love incarnate, then our world around us filled with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth are the villains found in the nightmares of these dreams. These characters assault love; and yet, we must pay attention to them. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams whether they comfort or scare us. How do we do this? How do we combat the nightmares and terrors of our lives?

The first step is to remember the true dream. The true dream is God’s love for us and God’s invitation to participate in His Love. This is not merely an ideal. It is ultimate truth. Love is the way, the truth, and the life. Love grounds the very fabric of the universe. There is nothing as deep and wide as love.

Once we know the dream, we are to participate in it. Like Elijah we are to “Get up and eat.” We take our fill from the Bread of Life whom gives us strength for the journey up to Mount Horeb or Calvary – whichever comes first. Participation in the dream of God is anything but easy. The dragons of sin and the beasts of burden, despair, and apathy are all along the hero’s path wanting to destroy the Dreamer that is bigger than the hero; and yet, the hero must act on behalf of the Dreamer.

The third step is to realize that everything belongs to the Dreamer. Everything belongs to God. Give God your hopes, but also give God your nightmares. God is big enough to take them. As Christians we liturgically practice giving our hopes and nightmares to God when we prayer the Prayers of the People collectively, and call on God in intercessory prayer individually. We practice forgiveness because we have been absolved. We practice peace because it has been given to us by Christ. We do these virtuous acts of worship and prayer in order to practice love and remember the truth found in the dream of God.

Denying the dream of God – saying it isn’t real; or worse, actively and intentionally going against the dream and Dreamer – turns heroes into villains and saints into sinners needing redemption. Hell, it seems, is made real, and one is tempted to wonder if Satan wins out in the end. When we find ourselves in these moments of existential unclarity what we must do is to remember the dream. Remember love. What we are to do is pray that God will guide us waking and guard us sleeping. Like a sentinel of Advent, we are to watch with Christ so that in the end, and whether it is sleep or death, we are to rest in peace.

The more I communally participate in the liturgies and practices of the Church – Daily Prayer, weekly Eucharist, monthly confession, and yearly feasts and fasts – not to forget the occasional baptism, and Christian weddings and funerals – the more I am convinced that these ancient practices work. They are not quick fixes, that’s for certain. They are not glamorous or sexy. They do not fit in with any business model or have an entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, they remind me of the dream of God and how I am invited to play a part in it.

As someone who loves the Church and her practices, it saddens me that many in my own generation and younger no longer find its practices and liturgies beneficial. Church is boring; It doesn’t feed me or my soul; I cherish my Sundays – are just some of the responses I get from friends or acquaintances who graciously and candidly share these things with me. Gandhi once famously said that he loved our Christ, but disliked our Christians. “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” he quipped. There is some truth to this saying of Gandhi’s as well as the opinions from my own generation; and yet I find hope because the dream of God is still alive. Jesus once invited others to come to him, those who were weak, tired, and weary, and he would give them rest. So many times, people who have been away from the practices of the Church come back out of this sense of tiredness. Like prodigals they return, but I often wonder about the ones who never even had a chance. The ones whom our grandparents would call “lost”. What about them? This isn’t just a problem of our time. It was a struggle for the Church from its very inception. The original Church was made up of Jews (read here insiders) who wondered if the dream of God extended to the Gentiles (read here outsiders). Thank God, the early Church through the theology of St. Paul decided that all were invited to participate in God’s dream through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The early Christians gave their lives for this dream – often bypassing Mt. Horeb to get to the cross of Calvary.

My invitation to you is simple. It’s to ask another person what they dreamed last night? If they can’t remember their dream, get curious about their hopes and dreams for themselves or their families. The point is to get them to talk and for you to listen. It’s to pray for them, but also to keep an ear out for the dream of God in their subjective dreams. If you are so bold, point out where you see God moving in their hopes and dreams. If you are even bolder, share the Church’s dream of God with them. Invite them into full participation into the love, life, and light of God’s dream. If, on the other hand, someone shares with you a nightmare wonder with them if they believe God to be with them in their despair? Wonder with them if they believe God to be suffering alongside them? If the Church is to survive (and I believe She will) it is to not only practice her prayers and liturgies, remembering her dreams and the Dreamer, but it’s also inviting those who don’t yet know her dreams and ultimately her Dreamer into the life of the Church. Introduce someone to the Dreamer this week by asking, “What did you dream last night?”

Get Out of the Way

The prophet Isaiah challenged the followers of God to, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near” (Isa 55:6). This opening line is sometimes referred to as The Second Song of Isaiah and for Episcopalians, it is Canticle 10 found within Morning Prayer. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the early Christians were reminded that once God had been found they were to pray that their inner beings be strengthened in love so that the fullness of God would fill their spirits. In today’s Gospel, a great multitude of people were seeking after Our Lord as he drew near to them displaying the will of God to be abundant – 12 baskets of leftovers – abundant. Gifts of God for the People of God – abundant. Today’s lessons remind us of the abundance of God within our interior lives – what Paul described as the breadth and length and height and depth– as well as our exterior lives – what Jesus asked of his followers; that is, to “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I can imagine the will of God finding within our own lives, fragments –mundane fragments as well as infinite ones. It is always our prayer to so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.God wants to gather it all up, bless it, and give it away.

It’s amazing how fragmented our lives can be. So many times we are pulled in all different directions that our bodies aren’t remembered. We eat on the run. We rush from this place to that. We are quick to care for others, but neglect ourselves. We become chauffeurs of children and secretaries for parents. We overload our schedules. Visit offices we’d rather not. We get caught up in the cult of worry, loose sleep, and feel as if we are loosing out. We pass through things temporal with the potential of forgetting our sense of things eternal. We might label our fragmented lives pragmatic and practical. All the above has to get done. There’s no way around it. We must go through it. These are our crosses to bear; and yet, I sense a loss somewhere – a loss of things eternal.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near (Isa 55:6). Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost (Jn 6:12). Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever (Eph 3:21-21). The eternal is here. The eternal is with you, always. When we eat and when we sleep. When we are in traffic or on the phone. When we’re in a waiting room, or another sleepless night. The Lord is with you. Seek him while he wills to be found. He desires to be a part of every aspect of your lives – sacred and profane.

There’s a beautiful story taken from the Gospel of Ramakrishna that may sum all of this up. It goes something like this, There was once a holy man and his disciple traveling down a road. The disciple asked his master, “Teacher, is God everywhere?” The teacher bowed his head and said, “Yes. God is everywhere and in all things.” The teacher looked up to observe their surroundings. “Look there,” he said. “There is a tree. God is in the tree. Look over here. Here is a pond. God is in its water.” After making note of the lay of the land, the disciple asked another question, “Teacher, is God within me?” “Of course,” exclaimed the teacher. “God is in all things, and all things are one.” This teaching excited the student so much that he pushed his teacher aside, and seeing an elephant and its rider coming toward him on the road told himself, “God is in me, and God is in the elephant; therefore”, he reasoned, “God cannot harm God. I will stand my ground and observe this wonderful teaching.” While the student was thinking highly of his ideological insight, the rider of the elephant was shouting, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.” Locking his feet to the earth, the disciple held steady knowing in his heart God would not harm God until the elephant came upon him, and with her mighty trunk knocked him unconscious and out of its path. Once he regained consciousness, he found his master looking concerned hovering above him. He pushed him aside again and said, “Master, you told me God is in everything including you and I. Why then, would God do God harm through the elephant’s strength?” “You foolish boy,” his master scolded. “God was trying to do no harm by exclaiming, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.”

As disciples of Christ, we must learn how to get out of our own ways knowing that God wills to be found; and yet, seeking his will is a practice that takes a lifetime. God honors us with his mercy no matter where we are on life’s path, and what God most desires is that we honor him in everything we do. We seek him out from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night.

On last week’s post I reminded us that God still speaks to us through Holy Scripture, as well as through one another, and within the prayers of His Church. God also speaks to us through his creation and through the neighbor, and enemy. God can most certainly be found in elephants, but may we never forget to listen for his voice in a stranger who wants us out of harm’s way. May the fragments of our lives – both sacred and profane – be offered up to God as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to the One who is constantly seeking us out so that nothing (and no one) may be lost.

Listening for the Voice of God

On page 853 in The Book of Common Prayer there is a question: Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God? The prayer book answers this question in the following way: We call [the Holy Scriptures] the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. I stumbled upon an interesting picture this week. It was one where a young man sat anxiety laden, body stiffened, and hands tightly clasped at his breakfast table. Opposite the table laid a closed Bible. The caption below the picture angrily asked the question, “Why won’t you speak to me God?” Perhaps God was wondering a similar question in regards to the young man; that is, Why aren’t you listening to me, dear one? If we are to believe the Church when she says the human authors of the Bible were inspired by God, and that God still speaks to us through its poetry, prose, Gospels, letters, history, laws, and stories, then this tells us at least two things. One, be open to God’s inspiration both in yourself and of others. Two, open your Bibles and read them. Don’t leave them sitting at breakfast tables gathering dust. The truth is that God still speaks to us through God’s creation and through God’s inspired Word. We might even take that extra step reminding ourselves The Word of God was made flesh – that is, Jesus Christ is the personified Word of God whom still speaks to us today if we have the ears to hear him, the experience to see him in the other, and continue to listen for his voice throughout Holy Scripture.

When I was in the eighth grade I was inspired to read through the Bible in a year. This was all made possible by a trend in Christian publishing houses of the 1990’s – mainly, a resource entitled, The One Year Bible. One Year Bibles were very popular then; the covers coming in a variety of primary colors, the text in an assortment of translations – NIV, NKJV, KJV, NRSV – to name a few. Southern Baptist Churches at the time were preaching and teaching out of the New International Version, so my parents purchased an NIV One Year Bible for me on my birthday. All I had to do was wait until January 1st and start. I don’t know where the inspiration came to read through the entirety of the Bible in a year, but looking back I do remember being in a Bible study class where it was mandatory that certain Bible verses be memorized weekly. The very first Bible verse of those lessons was Psalm 119:11. I still remember it, and even have a memory of the room I was asked to recite the verse in. The Psalm was not in the NIV or NRSV translations, but the King James. Psalm 119:11 had the poet proclaiming to God, “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee.” It’s a verse that has been with me ever since. The poet’s words usually surface at times in my life where life is really giving me (or someone I love) a real beating. When my heart is open enough to listen to God speaking to me, I usually hear God’s voice through a Psalm here or a Gospel passage there. Nowadays prayers from the prayer book bubble up as well as the Our Father or even the Hail Mary. When God speaks to me through the ancient words of the Bible or from the prayers of His Church – that Psalm – Psalm 119:11 usually comes to mind after my anxieties have finally fallen away, and my soul has been restored. “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee” is then delivered to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, and with a spirit of gratefulness. I’m thankful that God was and is with me even in the valley of the shadow of death, and acknowledging his presence with that simple verse from the Psalms turns my head and gives attention to the virtue of joy even in the midst of sorrow.

As I have matured in the faith I have recently found God’s Holy Word in God’s Holy People. I am thankful for spiritual friendships, fellow disciples of Christ, and strangers and neighbors disguised as Jesus himself (Matt 25:35-36). It hasn’t always been this way. I used to find comfort, solace, and relationship with God only through the Bible and a few close friends or relatives here and there. St. Paul’s metaphor of the Church as The Body of Christ was always abstract to me. I felt and experienced the power of its image; and yet, couldn’t fully grasp it. Intentional life within a parish community has broadened Paul’s imagery for me, and the gifts of God found in the people of God help point to a larger lesson of love – that is, all were created in the image of God so that when we see, experience, live, and love one another, we see, experience, live, and love Christ’ body in the world. If this is the case, then “Thy word I have treasured in my heart” is the word of the Lord witnessed in Holy Scripture and within one another – the Body of Christ, the Church. With that insight, getting to know my Bible is just as important as getting to know my neighbor. Both introduce and reintroduce me to new life found in Jesus Christ. Both remind me of the faithful promises of God. Both remind me that God is always reliable when I am near to peace, and when I am far off (Eph 2:17).

This week, dust off your Bible and get to know God through it. Starting with the Psalms or St. John’s Gospel are always good places to begin again. If reading God’s Holy Word is a constant practice of yours, try listening to God’s Holy Word in a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, or even an enemy knowing all were and are created in His Image. In doing these two things – seeking inspiration in God’s Word and one another – you are living out the two commandments Jesus said were the greatest; that is, love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:30-31). Treasure these relationships in your heart; and joy (even in the midst of sorrow) will be near.

Freedom in-Dependence

Today is July 4th. Independence Day. Hundreds of years ago, our forefathers fought to free themselves and future generations from state sanctioned tyranny, control, and abuse. Today is a day to celebrate. Today is a day to let loose, and let go.

If today is a day for Americans to remember independence, it is also a day for American Christians to remember their dependence – dependence upon their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for even in our freedom we rely on God.

This dependence is first learned in the family. A child is totally dependent upon her parents to nurture, care, and to receive love. There is very little freedom for the child (not to mention the parents as well), and everyone involved is utterly dependent upon love. As we get older, we are introduced into a new family: the Church family. It is here where we learn about the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to love as God has loved us. Even in this grace, we find a total dependence upon God like a child with her parents.

Today, I will celebrate Independence Day with my fellow Americans, but I will also continue to pray and contemplate on how dependent I am upon my Savior. It is only in this paradoxical dependency that I am free to love as I have been loved.

Thy Will Be Done

Lectionary Readings: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

We find hope in Christ (Lam 3:21). We find mercy in Christ (Lam 3:22). We find rest in Christ (Heb 4:1). We find creativity, imagination, and love in Christ (Wis 4:13/1 Cor 13:13). We find healing and wholeness in Christ (Mk 5:34). We find compassion in Christ (Lam 3:32). We bear all things in Christ (1 Cor 13:7). We find our very existence in Christ (Wis 2:23).

We obey Christ (Heb 4:11). We wait for Christ (Lam 3:25). We are desperate for Christ (Mk 5:23). We press in on Christ (Mk 5:24). In fear and trembling, we fall down before Christ revealing our thoughts and intentions found deep within our hearts (Mk 5:32, Heb 4:12).

Living into the truth of being in Christ (Acts 17:28), we start to excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love (2 Cor 8:7). One way to test the genuineness of our love over and against the earnestness of others is to empty ourselves so that Christ may fill us (2 Cor 8:8-9). The act of emptying (kenosis) was first the act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). Rich in what? Again, rich in everything – in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness and love; and yet, the act of emptying oneself requires of us not only to do something but even to desire to do something (2 Cor 8:10). In Christ our desire to give hope, mercy, and rest, to acknowledge creativity, imagination, love, and compassion is to practice hope, mercy, and rest, while acknowledging creativity, imagination, love, and compassion. Put simply, we begin to live in Christ when our beliefs begin matching our actions, we start practicing what we preach, and we give what we have. We believe in Christ and our actions show this (Eph 5:2). We preach Christ crucified and practice resurrection (1 Cor 1:23). We give love because we have it to give (1 Jn 4:7). For if the eagerness is there, the gift [of love] is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have (2 Cor 8:12). Edward Everett Hale (1822 – 1909) once quipped, “I cannot do everything but I can do something, and what I can do I will do, so help me God” (2 Cor 8:13). Hale was not only acknowledging the abundance of gifts God gives us, but also aligning those gifts to the will of God. It is the virtue of humbleness instead of the vice of apathy that allows us to do something but not everything. It is the virtue of prudence instead of the vice of pride that allows us to seek out the will of God with help.

Who was around Jesus seeking out the will of God? Was it not everybody who wanted to know God’s will? It was great crowds that gathered around him (Mk 5:21). It was a religious leader falling at Jesus’ feet (Mk 5:22). It was a great crowd pressing in on him (Mk 5:24). It was a woman who came up from behind him, touched him, and was healed but later (like the religious leader “fell before him” (Mk 5:27, 33). Those that were seeking the will of God were also the people that came from the religious leader’s house (Mk 5:35). It was Peter, James and John whom Jesus invited into the will of God (Mk 5:37).

When we seek out the will of God sometimes we are like the people weeping from grief and despair, and the next minute God makes us laugh (Mk 5:39-40). The will of God had Jesus leaving “the crowd” and his disciples again bringing in only Mom, Dad, Peter, James & John to the young girl (Mk 5:40) revealing healing and wholeness as the will of God. Finally, Jesus healed the girl and in a practical move instructed the parents to “give her something to eat” and to “tell no one” (Mk 5:42-43). Sometimes the will of God is something we treasure, pondering it in our hearts (Lk 2:19).

Who are you in today’s Gospel story? We already know the truth that it is in Christ where we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); and yet, we still must seek the will of God in our lives. Are you the crowd pressing in on Jesus for a closer look (Mk 5:24)? Are you a leader begging mercy from another leader (Mk 5:23)? Are you the unnamed woman desiring healing, yearning to be named (Mk 5:25)? Are you Peter, James, and John putting your head down, and doing as you are told (Mk 5:37)? Are you the mourners whose weeping lingers night after night (Mk 5:38)? Will joy, indeed, come in the morning (Mk 5:40/Ps 30:5)? Are you a grateful parent or caregiver who has been anxiously grasping for some shred of good news (Mk 5:40)? Are you the little girl hungry for more (Mk 5:43)? Are you overcome with amazement (Mk 5:42)? Are you bursting at the seams to go tell it on the mountain (Mk 5:43/Isa 52:7)?

The abundant will of God is found in each one of those characters tailored made just for them (2 Cor 8:14). The will of God is found in each one of us as well (Mk 3:35). We find hope in God (Lam 3:21). We find mercy in God (Lam 3:22). We find rest in God (Heb 4:1). We find creativity, imagination, and love in God (Wis 4:13/1 Cor 13:13). We find healing and wholeness in God (Mk 5:34). We find compassion in God (Lam 3:32). We bear all things in God (1 Cor 13:7). We find our very existence in God (Wis 2:23). We obey God (Heb 4:11). We wait for God (Lam 3:25). We are desperate for God (Mk 5:23). We press in on God (Mk 5:24). In fear and trembling, we fall down before God revealing our thoughts and intentions found deep within the pounding of our hearts pulsating on the will of God (Mk 5:32, Heb 4:12) praying:

Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done (on earth as it is in heaven) (Matt 6:10). Amen.

The Cult of Why

**Below is an adaptation of Fr. Brandon’s sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on June 25, 2018.**

The Church gifts us with another lesson in spiritual maturity today. Through her poetry, prose, and prayer we discover that suffering is real; and yet, the one who calms the storm is the same one who will see us through it.

Psalm 107
Psalm 107 is a poem describing a rescue; specifically, a rescue at sea. You may have noticed the Psalm was not given to us in its entirety. This is due to the fact of its length; therefore, it is cut short for worship. Reading the whole of the Psalm we would soon discover other themes of rescue – rescues from the desert, prison, sickness, and death. In each of these contexts, God was able to rescue because God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever(107:1). God, so it seems, rescued the troubled gathering them in from the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south (107:3). Couple this beautiful imagery with today’s Gospel, and God is personified in Jesus so that when we hear Psalm 107:28,29, the disciples are echoing the voices of the oppressed but it is the voice of God that has the final say: Then they cried to the Lord in their troubles, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Mark’s Gospel
We’ll continue our deep dive into the Gospel of Mark through the summer and up until Advent. It was at this year’s Advent when we learned St. Mark’s thesis of who Jesus was. You’ll remember the opening line of Mark’s Gospel: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). St. Mark’s opening line seems tame to our 2,000-year-old Christian ears, but if we were to go back all those years we would discover that this opening line was highly political and highly controversial leading many who believed (and lived) it into the role of martyr. 2,000 years ago in Rome the title, Son of God, belonged to Caesar. It was Caesar, and Caesar only who was the Messiah – the anointed one, the son of God. Anyone who claimed otherwise was labelled an enemy of the state, and if found would be called traitor and executed a criminal. Put differently, to claim Christ over Caesar was to make a political statement claiming that it is God (and God alone) who is good, and his steadfast love (mercy and grace) endures forever. Power, The Song of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel reminds us, shows its strength by scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Power that comes from God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away – empty. The power of God remembers his promise of mercy. Mary’s soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God our Savior because of these promises and more. Therefore, when St. Mark in his opening line proclaims that Jesus Christ is Son of God and not Caesar, we bear witness to Christ as Son of God when he heals, when he forgives, when he teaches, and today – when he calms the storm. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar who has control over life, death, wind and rain. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, who acknowledges the oppressed, the fearful, the lonely who come at him like a tempest blowing in from the east, the west, the north, and the south.

The Forest of Why
As a priest I often bear witness to persons who suffer – suffer in body, mind, and spirit. One common thread I’ve noticed through the years is that persons often begin their story and situations with questions of “Why”? Why has this happened? Why now? Why me? I usually try to point them to the “Why Poetry” of the Bible – mainly, the Psalms whose corpus makes up an extensive amount of lamentation, suffering, and longing. It’s always good to find others who have asked similar questions and surround ourselves with them.

The question of Why, I’ve noticed is like entering into a forest. For a long time, you take a path and the path seems normal enough, but if one stays on the path long enough they will start to question the path. They will notice a rock and think to themselves, “Didn’t I see that rock a moment ago?” Then they will notice a bird’s nest and ask, “Did I not just pass by that same tree and nest two miles back?” Suffering persons who remain on this path will discover that it is not a hike through the woods, but a trail that simply circles. Once this is realized, a new path through the woods must be discovered. That path, I believe does not ask the question of “Why” but of “What”. What’s next? What do I do now? What am I called to be? I believe we cannot fully understand the question of Why because of our mortal nature (See today’s reading from the Book of Job); however, we can live into the questions of our lives by asking the right questions at the appropriate times.

The Path Out of the Woods
The past two weeks have been dark times in our country that have left us with questions of Why. On our southern boarders we have wondered with millions of Americans why are children being separated from families? Why are there so many refugees here and all around the world? Why is there so much suffering especially to the least of these? Within our own borders images of children not usually seen have been remembered with questions of Why. Why are there so many children in foster care, orphanages or find themselves homeless? Why are children exploited and objectified? We can travel into the woods a bit and spot reoccurring rocks, trees, nests, and streams. We can point to adults – the parents and guardians in their lives. We can point to policies and the politicians. We can also name hard truths like incompetency, divorce, addiction, mental illness, abuse and neglect. When one discovers that they are lost in the woods all kinds of emotions happen. Fear captures the senses sending the mind and heart racing. Anger usually sets in masking the fear a bit asking “Where did I go wrong?” “Why did I make that turn?” When we turn on the T.V. or scroll through our news feed it is usually the question of Why that brings out similar emotions. Anger and fear are made manifest in opinion pieces, blog postings, and in comment lines raising a fist with questions of Why. Then, all of a sudden, we remember that God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Then we remember that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. Then we calm down, admit that we are lost, and cry out for peace. Cry out for mercy. Cry out for help. The stillness comes when we have an eye on Our Savior who helps us start to answer a new question – the question of What.

What You Can Do
Wednesday was World Refugee Day. What you can do for a refugee is to support them because Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. The good folks at The Episcopal Migration Ministries can help you answer the question of What. The Starting Over ministry serves children and reunites them with their families in this space every single Thursday and Saturday. What you can do is give your time, talent or treasure to this ministry here. S.H.A.R.E. House is a ministry in Douglas County serving women and children who are victims of abuse and neglect. The S.H.A.R.E. House provides a safe place for women and children to rest from the addictions of abuse. Also, in Douglas County is Youth Villages, a place where children with mental and physical impairments can remember what it’s like being a kid without scorn or judgement. These are just some of the What’s in our midst when we are surrounded by a cult of Why’s. They are tangible ways to (as Bishop Wright says) “Not only [be] fans of Jesus, but also followers of him.”

Spiritual maturity combines the contemplative with outreach, the poetry with the prose, the fans with the followers. Our prayer life informs our family life, community life, and our life in this country; and yet, we pray not to Caesar but to the one who says peace, to the one who continues to calm the storms in our own lives, who continues to invite us to not only worship him in the beauty of his holiness, but to follow him.