God is a God Who Gathers

At the Feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany we remembered God coming into the world in the form of a child. The Spirit of God took on flesh, sanctified it, and made it holy. It is God’s dream that all people will eventually come to know him through his beloved son. With his Son, God is eternally “well pleased” because he chose to identify with us in our sin and in our nature. This was why Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the River Jordan – to identify with us in our sufferings. Last week began the call narratives of Jesus which extend into today’s Gospel as well. God continues to preach repentance as he gathers his twelve. This morning, I want to expand on the revelation that God is a God who gathers. I’ll be using an argument put forth by Bishop Robert Barron in his chapter Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man from his book “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.”

Ever since humanity’s first parents fell out of paradise, that is, broke their relationship with God, God has been hard at work trying to mend that brokenness. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that Yahweh, the God of Israel, gathered his people with covenants, commandments, and kings. The relationship with Yahweh and Israel is a complicated history to say the least; however, the prophets taught that right relationship with God was to have a posture of both amazement and fear when approaching the Divine for when we approach God, we humbly approach the very essence of being and life. This morning’s Psalm had that beautiful opening line, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Silence, so it seems, captures that awesome, and oftentimes fearful relationship we have with the God of the universe. Christians go one step further to claim that the God of Israel, the God that created the Cosmos is also Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Put differently, Jesus “was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people. [1]

Hear Bishop Barron’s words on God as a great gathering force:[2]

“When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message [found in today’s Gospel reading]: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of “Kingdom of God,” but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus’s first audience understood by that term. N. T. Wright argues that [1st century Jews] would have heard, “the tribes [of Israel] are being gathered.” According to the basic narrative of the [Hebrew Scriptures], God’s answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be “peculiarly his own,” and he shaped them by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God’s intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet for the rest of humanity, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mount Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for “all the tribes of the earth.” But the tragedy was that more often than not Israel was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the eighth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and even more so in the devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel could never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.”

It’s no accident that in John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It’s with this image that we can reimagine today’s reading and the calling of the twelve disciples. When Jesus preached repentance, and that the kingdom of God was near (while at the same time calling the twelve), he was acting as Yahweh who gathered up his sheep from the twelve tribes of Israel, called them to repent once again, and brought them into the fold of his Divine love. Is it no surprise then, that God continues to do this with us today? He calls us by name saying, “Follow me.”

This morning’s collect reads, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” When we answer the call of Jesus (the call of his “Follow me”) we sacrifice a lot. The prophet Jonah didn’t want to go to the city of Nineveh initially. Today’s reading starts out saying, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I love this because is not God a God of second chances? Doesn’t God give us grace and mercy when we would rather be scattered rather than gathered? The people of Nineveh were a gathered people, but they were gathered in sin. In other words, they were gathered for the wrong reasons. God had to correct this, and it required sacrifice. It required repentance. If Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God is it any surprise that Jesus is proclaiming the same message as he did to Jonah? Is it any surprise that he is still giving his people another chance? When Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets to follow him, they were symbolically giving up their livelihoods for God. They were even putting God above their families, and not because Jesus was a good teacher, healer, or prophet; but because for God alone their souls had been waiting in silence like the prophets of old, and in Jesus they saw and experienced God. Like a moth to a flame they drew near, and by doing so God was gathering up his people once again. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the [Gospel. Believe in the] good news.”

We are now fully embedded in the Season of Epiphany. It is in this season that Christ (through his church) is calling us. It is in this season where we get to drop our nets, our anxieties, our fears, and follow him. When we do this, we make certain sacrifices and are called to repent. The church in her wisdom understands this, and so we are given the gift of Lent – the season that follows Epiphany, the season that reminds us that if we are to be gathered in we are to confess our sins and receive the Gospel. The Gospel in its entirety points us to Easter where God gets to make the sacrifice for the sins of the world, thus fully and finally making a way for all people to experience the kingdom of God.

What nets do you need to drop in order to prepare for repentance? What nets need to be discarded in order to follow Christ? For God alone, our souls in silence wait, but is it not also true that God is constantly waiting on us to respond to his call, to his life, to his light? Trust him, and not because he’s a good teacher, preacher, or prophet. Trust him because if he is who he claims to be, he is that great gathering force of old. He is Yahweh. He is the Word. He is God. Trust him with this truth, and in this season of Epiphany, may that truth set us all free.

[1]                Robert Barron, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries: 2011), 15-16.

[2]                The below is a full paragraph from above’s reference. Ibid., 15-16.


Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti/El Salvador/Africa/Nazareth?

Preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on The Second Sunday after The Epiphany (Also, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday Weekend) by: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke, 2018

John 1:43-51

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 August 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth century author and apologist for the Christian faith, once compared the church as a place that holds a thousand doors. What he meant by this was that we come across the church in a variety of ways. Some of us are born into the faith; others converted – usually by some degree of truth, beauty, or goodness. For example, one may hear a theological argument grounded in intelligence, another sees an icon, a stained glass window, or a Christian praying the rosary. Maybe the door that was found was one of healing, music, or liturgy? Maybe the door was a grandparent, a friend, a casual invitation, or a saint? Maybe it was simply looking up into the night’s sky wondering why there is something rather than nothing?

This morning’s collect points to the light of the world, that is, Jesus Christ. In the prayer prayed a moment ago, we asked Almighty God to illumine us by God’s Word and Sacraments. No matter what door we take into the life of the Church, once inside, we participate in the ongoing grace of illumination. Illumination defined is a participation in the life of God. Think of it as a new way of seeing. Illumination can occur through the liturgy of the Word, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, and all for the benefit of being in right praise and relationship with God. The consequence of illumination is that the light of Christ is made manifest through us as walking sacraments out and about in the world. As walking sacraments, we take on a vocation of prayer continually asking that we (as God’s people) may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

God is made known in a whole host of ways. Again, think of those thousands of doors. God is worshipped not only with our lips, but in our lives. Finally, God is obeyed to the ends of the earth. This morning, St. Paul stated, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. This sentiment is grounded in humble obedience to God. We are given freedom, but true freedom participates in the will of God, not the will of mankind. Discerning the difference takes a lifetime, and a lifetime of contemplative focus and relationship with God can lead to illumination.

There are two beautiful phrases found in today’s Gospel that captured illumination. The first phrase was addressed to Philip, and was said by Jesus. Jesus called out to Philip, “Follow me.” Today, Christians enter into the life of the church through one of those thousands of doors; however, when we do so we are still responding to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” We remember this call every time we participate in the sacraments, and every time Christ is worshipped and obeyed.

The other phrase comes from Philip. Here, he has answered the call of Christ, has told another (Nathanael), and Nathanael questioned him, asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Instead of elaborating or arguing with Nathanael, Philip responds, “Come and see.” In other words, “I’m not going to convince you that Jesus is the Son of God through argument or reason (that’s probably not your door); instead, come and see for yourself, and that’s what happened. Nathanael met Jesus. Jesus performed a miracle. Nathanael was amazed and believed; then Jesus promised a deepening of the spiritual life and relationship with him – that is, illumination. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Illumination will occur, Jesus could have easily said, and not because of you, but because of me. Nathanael, like Philip was called, each in different ways, and because they responded to the Lord new promises would be fulfilled.

This week, I had the opportunity (as dean) to gather the priests of your convocation (the SW Convocation) at Iglesia El Buen Pastor where Fr. Ramón Betances serves as priest. Fr. Ramón serves parishioners that hail from Mexico, El Salvador, as well as other Latino countries. In our own pews here at St. Julian’s, we gather as Christian brothers and sisters with one another. Our nationalities bring us here from America, Trinidad, Barbados, Australia, Jamaica, and Haiti – to name a few. We speak English, French, French-Creole, and Spanish. We stumble through the Way of Christ together, and with God’s help we have answered the call of Christ, and encourage others to “come and see” even while prejudices abound. This week, when I heard that our President – the President of the United States, a President whom I pray for, – allegedly muse, “Why are we having all these people from [poor] countries come here” referring to Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, Africa, and beyond [and not using the word “poor” but an expletive], I was reminded of Nathaniel’s questioning to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, can anything good come out of Haiti? Mexico? Africa? The Islands?

Yes. The answer is, “Yes”. How do I know this? Because I see you. Because I know you. And when I see you I see Christ. In my own prejudices, and when I’m walking out and about in the world, I run across folks who make me nervous, folks that look differently than me, that dress differently than me, that talk differently than me – and when I catch myself being nervous – when I catch myself in my prejudices – you know what I do? At my best, I remember you. I remember Haiti. I remember El Salvador. I remember the islands, food, culture, music, truth, beauty, goodness; and it is through these virtues and the relationships I have with each and every one of you where the Church opens up her doors to me; Christ illuminates me; and I repent.

Loving neighbor as self is hard. Praying for those who persecute you may be even harder. As Christians, we are called to do both. Why? Because we are called to obey Christ. At Christmas we were reminded that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or the State. Here in the Season of Epiphany, we live into our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons- loving neighbor as self. This week, be like St. Philip. Don’t get into an argument when prejudice is proclaimed and ignorance abounds. Instead, try another door. Try prayer. Try forgiveness. Try compassion. Let these virtues guide you to the love and light of the world, to Jesus Christ – the illuminator, the sanctifier…the one standing at the door….your door….knocking.

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” 

The Questions Epiphany Bring

During Epiphany we remember three miracles: The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with the voice of God the Father giving approval for this act, the wedding feast in Cana where ordinary water was turned into extraordinary wine; and finally, the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. These Epiphany miracles remind us Jesus’ ministry has begun. They also foreshadow his death and resurrection, and how we are compelled to take up our crosses and follow him. The Season of Epiphany invites us to find the miraculous in the mundane, and to walk alongside Christ as a disciple.

During what is sometimes referred to as the “Octave of Christmas” – those 8 out of the 12 days of Christmas – the Church’s calendar begins to reveal what following Christ truly entails. December 26, the day after Christmas, is St. Stephen’s feast day. The irony in the placement of this feast is clear. On December 25th, we remember the birth of Christ, the Messiah into our world, and the very next day we remember the death of Stephen, one who followed him. St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christendom, and revealed what the cost of discipleship can sometimes entail. The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

On the second day of Christmas, we remember St. John the apostle and evangelist. John takes us away from martyrdom for a moment and helps us focus on Calvary’s cross in a very intimate way. From the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his Mother Mary; he then looked to John, and again at them both and said, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26). A classic interpretation of this story is that Mary represented the Church. John was to be joined to her, and the Church to him. Christ compels us to do the same through the graces his Church offers.

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocence. Here, we are reminded that those who stand in the way of the State (represented by Herod in the story) will be punished and even killed for the sake of Truth. It is Jesus Christ that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not emperors, kings, congress, or presidents. Historically it is the State that is willing to sacrifice the least of these in order to gain power; whereas, Christ lifts up the least of these as the ones who will inherit the true Kingdom founded upon Him.

Finally, on the octave of Christmas the Church remembers Christ’s Holy Name. Here, we remember the name the angel gave him – the name Emmanuel – which means God with us. This name is important because if the call to discipleship is to loose our self for the sake of Christ (again, represented in St. Stephen) then Christ (as Emmanuel) is always with us. He’s with us in our joys and our sufferings. He’s with us corporately in His Mystical Body – the Church. He’s with us whether we are Jew or Gentile as St. Paul reminded us in his letter to the Church in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God is with us is a great Christmas truth that continues into this season of Epiphany. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, the apostle. Peter confessed to Jesus that he was indeed who he said he was. Jesus is the Christ, and Peter would spend the rest of his life stumbling around trying desperately to figure out what following him meant. Peter, in other words, is very much like you and I.

The following week, we have the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s story is a conversion story in the extreme. It was he who by persecuting the Church was persecuting the very Body of Christ. Christ appeared to him and told him this. Paul repented of his sin, and followed Christ. He then went on to produce most of the canonized letters found in the Bible’s New Testament.

On the 40th day after Christmas, and really the day that ends the Christmas stories, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here, we remember Jesus being presented by his parents to the priest; and yet like Anna and Simeon who were waiting on him in the Temple, we too must ask how we are to present ourselves to him. Again, do we fight against him and recollect our egos like Herod; or do we die to our egos, take up our crosses and follow him? These are short questions, and the Church gives us 40 long days in which to contemplate them.

After tomorrow, which is the Baptism of Our Lord, the Church will change its liturgical colors from white to green. Green signifies growth, and Epiphany truly is a season in which we are invited to grow into the likeness and image of Christ. Will you be like Peter this season, proclaiming Christ is Lord, yet wondering how to follow him? Will you be like Paul, in need of conversion from this or that in order to truly follow in his path? Ponder these questions that the Church naturally gives at this time, then live into their answers knowing God as Emmanuel is always with you.


An Incarnational Faith

**Redacted from my sermon preached on the 1st Sunday after Christmas**

John 1:1-18

I am convinced that the more the Christian immerses herself into the life of the Church, the more freedom she receives. A fidelity to Christ allows those spaces and places within one’s heart to continually make room for his love and grace. St. John said we must “receive him” – a passive act that does not grip or grasp at truth, but accepts truth “as is.” The Christian then has the opportunity to imitate the will of God not only with her lips, but in her life giving up her very self in service to him. Again, putting this theology into the language of John, “[Christ] gave power to become children of God, who were born, not…of the will of man, but of God.” The will of God is like Mary’s song, a passivity that leads to freedom…the freedom to walk in love as Christ loves us, the freedom to love neighbor as self, the freedom to pray for those who persecute you. As Christians, we point to these graces when we give our fidelity to Christ and his Body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. When we follow the doctrines, disciplines, and life found within the Body, we open ourselves up to a deeper grace that continually gives itself away.

What I am writing the world has never fully accepted, and just a quick look at the latest polls on church attendance and its decline over the past 50 years should give us pause. This is nothing new; however. St. John wrote, “[Christ] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” When we accept Christ we are receiving the reality that we are not our own. We are accepting the revelation that God is in control, and we are not. These truths are hard to shallow, especially to a materialistic, hedonistic, and individualistic society; however, they are still truths that the church holds up for all the world to see.

The Church holds these theological truths up daily, weekly, and seasonally in its common life. Let’s look at all three of these. As catholic Christians we are gifted with a breviary. A breviary is a fancy word for a prayer book. In our prayer book are structured prayers for morning, noon, evening, and bedtime as well as other contextual prayers, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer and The 10 Commandments for other devotionals and meditations. Outside of the breviary, yet part of the traditional practices within the church, are the Stations of the Cross (formally done as community on Good Friday, but open to anyone during the year) mediations, the rosary, and silent forms of prayer – to name a few. These daily forms and practices of prayer help ground a Christian in an intentional way, that is, a way of communicating with God and further discovering his will for us.

In addition to daily prayer, there is weekly worship and participation in Holy Eucharist. Each Sunday, Christians gather together and receive both Word and Sacrament; that is, the story of God as revealed in scripture, song, and prayer and how we participate in the ongoing history of Christ in the world today. At Holy Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ within us that gives us strength for the journey outside these walls as well as puts us in communion with the saints of his church.

The Church also participates in theological truths found seasonally. In Advent, we look for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ into the world in the form of a child, and await his coming in glory sometime in the future. Advent is a season of anticipation. At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of God coming into the world in our own form; thus, sanctifying our very bodies making them holy and acceptable to him. At Epiphany, we acknowledge that the gift of God extends beyond those found on the “inside.” God’s truth is for everyone, and he is constantly calling the world to be united through his son. During Lent, we remember our beloved dustiness, and how these bodies are temporary as we await a participatory resurrection in Christ. During Holy Week, our souls are torn like the curtain in God’s temple. We knew truth, and yet we sacrificed it for our own relative truths. At Easter, we are forgiven for this as God raised Jesus to new life – God has done a new thing and continues to do new things. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost, we further acknowledge that the Church is for all God’s people, and participation in his Church is none other than the participation in Christ’s Body through the Holy Spirit. All of these seasons provide the various moods and colors found on earth as it is in heaven, and when we fully participate in these what we find is a rhythm to life grounded in Christ’s grace and love.

Finally, we have the sacraments and sacramental rites of the church. We have Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. Confession), and Ministration at the Time of Death (a.k.a. Last Rites). When we combine a daily life of prayer with the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist found within the context of the Church’s calendar, and in communion with the sacraments and apostolic teachings of the Church, we are truly letting go and letting God. We are truly entering into the life of the Church as God has revealed it, not egotistically creating it in our own image. All of the above practices are non-rational spiritual technologies, and yet they point to a reality named Christ – the only true reality.

So why am I doing a teaching on the church today instead of talking about Christmas? Well, Christmas reminds us of our incarnational faith. We are spirit mixed in with flesh and flesh with spirit so much so, that they cannot be separated. The above practices use our bodies, minds, and souls to further communicate God’s love within us, and in the world around us. This New Year, accept the invitation Christ has given, and increase in his hope and love within his incarnational faith.