Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.


The Saints of Advent

John 1:6-8,19-28

Today we contrast John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord with inquisitors searching for their own meaning within tradition. John revealed a new interpretation on an old custom teaching those inquisitors to get outside themselves, and to practice new riffs on old songs through the art of preparation.

What is Preparation?
Preparation is laying down a foundation to be built upon. It is the task of planning; a lesson from the virtue of prudence. It’s a recipe for a meal, a practice swing before hitting the ball, a deep breath before jumping in. Preparation is a means to a greater end; the vehicle that gets you to your final destination. It’s a map and a menu, a first step on a hike, and saying ‘yes’ to a task that is difficult.

Remember Your Preparation as You Look for the Goal
Preparation ultimately gives witness and testimony to the goal. Starting on February 9th, we will begin hearing much language around these notions of goals. February 9th begins the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the goal of every Olympian is to capture the gold. In order for an athlete to accomplish victory, she must put nutritious foods into her body, strenuously exercise, and practice her sport daily. She must also be aware of those substances, temptations, and time that could hinder her workout. St. Paul put it this way, “hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21). When I watch the experience of the athlete finally winning the prize, and standing upon that podium there seems to be a moment when the very persona of the athlete goes away. What remains is an attitude of humbleness, a posture that’s almost prayer-like. Perhaps she is remembering her preparation while the rest of the world bears witness to a champion.

John & Mary – Advent Saints
John the Baptist was a champion of sorts, and yet when faced with a barrage of questions asking if he was the goal – if he was ‘It’ – he answered in the negative, and quickly pointed to preparation, training, and practices. He pointed to water that not only cleansed one from sin, but humbled the heart toward ongoing repentance. He pointed to straight roads, and narrow paths, as well as voices of longing drowned out and crying inside the wilderness of the world. John was not the celestial sun, but the awakened moon whose only source of light came from its closest star. And like the moon that steadily snuffs itself out every 29 1/2 days, John understood that he must decrease in order for the light of the world to increase.

Advent’s hero and heroines of preparation most certainly are St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. While John revealed preparation, it was Mary, the Mother of God, who said, ‘yes’. What did she say yes to? None other than the goal itself – the telos, the lamb, the Christ, the Messiah. It is John’s preparedness and Mary’s paradoxical passivity that reveal their saintliness to us (and for us). Christ certainly calls us all to imitate him; yet every Advent I have this overwhelming desire to imitate these saints of the Church. To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest who they are all the while teaching me whose they are.

This morning’s collect began, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” John understood from where the power came, and taught that this power is mighty among us when we get out of the way, when we cry out, and when we make room within the inns of our hearts because all the inns of the world hold no vacancy. Mary knew that the mighty would be thrown down with this power, not because it’s war-like, weaponized, or violent, but because its yoke is easy and its burden, light (Matt. 11:30).

It is this light-heartedness along with the shining light in the darkness that this week of Advent now turns. We not only turn to the saints of Advent, these eternal saints of the Church, but we also turn to eternity itself. And if we turn to eternity, if we let these saints point us in the right direction, then we must prepare our hearts to receive it. We must prepare our minds to think differently. We must prepare our souls for revelation. God is about to reveal new things. God is about to disclose his secrets. God is about to unlock a great mystery, and if we honestly intend God to “stir up His power” then for heaven’s sake may we all be prepared.


The Counter-Cultural Christ

Mark 1:1-8

St. Mark’s Gospel

Today, liturgical churches around the globe begin reading St. Mark’s Gospel. This Gospel will be heard periodically throughout the entire year, and it’s a gospel I always enjoy exploring at deeper levels. Two thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing today’s blog. The first has to do with the truth claim that Jesus is Son of God. The second will explore John the Evangelizer as he prepared the way for the Son.

Jesus is the Son of God

Mark’s gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After this sentence, he proceeds to tell his story, but I want to pause for a moment and help us understand just how controversial this opening line would have been when it was first read, performed, or said over 2,000 years ago. Putting the title, Son of God, into the context of the ancient Roman Empire ruled by dynasties of emperors, the ancient Romans would have attributed the title to Caesar. There were certain formalities and rituals that not only held Caesar in high estate, but it was commonly held and believed that Caesar was divine – thus holding the title, the Son of God. So when Mark’s opening lines were read claiming another emperor, ruler, and king, it got people’s attention in the town square, house churches, and eventually within the court of Caesar himself represented through the historical Pontius Pilot. Right off the bat, Jesus was considered an enemy of the state, and a threat to the ruling class. When St. Mark’s gospel was written, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, but his disciples, apostles, and other followers were still around, their very lives being threatened in similar ways because they claimed Jesus was the Son of God – not Caesar. For the early church to preach against Caesar, or the State for that matter, and to claim Jesus Christ as the Son of God or Lord of Lords was to combat Roman idealism and patriotism. The Church countered this ideology in the person of Jesus Christ whose very body was maimed, mutilated, mocked, and destroyed by political, worldly powers only to be raised up by God. Mary, the Mother of God, understood this truth in her own body, and before Jesus was born she sang out, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones… he has scattered the proud in their conceit… and the rich he has sent away empty.

Jesus Christ, as Lord of Lords, chose and chooses powers that the world mocks. He does not give into the temptation of ruling as emperor, or an empire that conquers by force, but rather as a servant who reveals the power of virtue in a song. In other words, Jesus’ choices of virtues are eternal. They outlast this kingdom or that kingdom revealing (again, in his very person) what the true kingdom is like. Let’s now turn to John the Baptist.

Preparing the Way

Preparing a way for this kingdom to come near is something John the Baptist showed others how to do. He does this in two ways, through repentance, and humility. John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He understood that part of the preparation process was making crooked roads straight, and getting one’s house in order. “Turn away from what you’re doing, and go another way – a way that is more holy awaits you”, he might have said. Furthermore, the very act of repentance that allows forgiveness to be accepted puts one in a state of humility. There’s a realization that, “my life is not all about me.” John showed this type of humility when he proclaimed, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John understood it was his gift to prepare a way for Christ in the hearts of his followers, and within his own heart in order to humbly receive God’s grace found in his Son. That’s the classic Advent message right there: to clean out one’s heart, to make room, and to welcome the Son of God coming into our lives.

So whether it’s a tangible act of resistance toward the State, or a cleaning out of one’s heart, may this season of Advent be for us a holiday counter to the culture, and when necessary, counter to selfish drives, and be a crucible toward setting out on the straight and narrow again as if for the first time.


The Priority of Christ

Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”.
~Mark 13:31

A Theology of Advent
Things that are eternal – by definition – cannot pass away. Everything else does and will as Jesus reminds us today. In the opening lines of John’s Gospel, we are reminded that “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh”. The Word Made Flesh is none other than Christ, the eternal one. All things that were created were created through the Word. Put differently, all things were created through Christ. Heaven and earth were created through Christ; yet, they too will pass away. Why? Because God’s crea-tion can never be God – the Crea-tor. If we believe otherwise – that the created order is the same as God – we would be considered pagans. Instead, we are Christians, and the priority of Christ is front and center because Christ (the Word of God) will not pass away. With this beautiful theology and divine truth, we begin our journey through another season of Advent. Without this truth, we are lost in the dark – left to our faltering senses.

The Cycle of Darkness is a Cycle of Change
Darkness. This time of year there is more darkness than light. The days are short. The night is long. This too shall pass.

Change. This time of year deciduous trees shed their leaves while in the fir tree we recognize changelessness. Although these created things (i.e. light/dark; trees and their leaves) are indeed, normal; they are not eternal – so “keep awake”, says Jesus, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” Isn’t that just like God; that is, to come at us suddenly? It’s been said that life happens when we are making plans. Christ coming into the world was sudden, and there were only a few who were awake enough to receive him. Christ coming into the world in the future will be similar; yet the difference is that all will see him but not all will be gathered up; therefore keep awake.

How do we keep awake? How do we acknowledge the humbling truth that heaven and earth will pass away? The appropriate response is to focus, to practice, and to live into the eternal – those eternal things that will not pass away. When we practice these eternal virtues, we awaken more and more each day. We prepare our bodies, minds, and spirits to receive the love, life, and light found in the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

So let’s stay focused on Christ today. To help us, listen to this: For centuries the Church has traditionally found the symbols of “priest”, “prophet” and “king” as appropriate archetypes for describing Christ and his priority. Bishop Robert Barron in his new book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age describes the various archetypes attributed to Christ like this:[1]

Christ as Priest
“The priest is the one who gives right praise. That’s the Biblical way of naming who we are. What goes wrong is that we praise the wrong things. Augustine said that too, that we end up worshipping creatures rather than the Creator. We become priests of the wrong god. From bad worship flows everything else, meaning the disintegration of the self, sin, violence, and so on.

Getting us back on track means we’re like Adam before the Fall…[Adam]’s a priest because he’s in the attitude of right worship. [One of the paintings] on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel [has] Eve [coming] forth from the side of Adam…she has her hands folded in an attitude of prayer. That’s humanity before the Fall; it knew how to worship right”.

Christ as Prophet
“Before the Fall, Adam names the animals, that is to say he catalogs them. He names them according to the Logos [Word] that God has placed in them. [Adam]’s not making up their meaning, he’s recognizing (re-cognizing, to use the term of Joseph Ratzinger). He’s thinking again what’s already been thought into them [by God], so he’s a prophet. From that prophecy, correct speech flows, the whole range of literature and science, philosophy, everything.”

Christ as King
“The idea of king is that Adam…is made to expand out. Now that Eden’s okay, let’s move out and turn the whole world into a place of right praise. What it gives you is the whole vocation of Israel. [Israel] is a priestly people, a prophetic people that knows the divine truth, and then, finally, a kingly people that will go on the march.

These vocations of priest, prophet, and king were not fully achieved until Christ, Barron argues. Barron says, [Christ], in his own person, is the place of right praise. It’s humanity turned to divinity. He’s not just the speaker of truth, he is the [Word] incarnate, so he’s prophet in the full sense. Then he’s king, because he’s going on the march to ‘Edenize’ the world, to ‘Christify’ the world. What goes wrong with us…is that we get all three of those things wrong. We worship the wrong things, we start making up our own meaning, and then we also privatize the faith. A restored focus on Christ…is the only exit strategy from those temptations.”

Re-Order Your Life around the Priority of Christ 
Advent is the season to re-order our lives – not around ourselves – but around the eternal Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ. Doing anything else in this season deprives us of re-cognizing, or thinking again on the things that are eternal. Doing anything else puts to sleep those eternal longings that are tangibly felt and experienced during the mystery of Advent. Sure, it’s dark – but the light of Christ is eternal. Sure, things are changing – but what about the changelessness of God? Sure things are scary – but fear not, for Christ is with us. These are the teachings of Advent. These are the teachings of the Church that pour forth from the Divine Word of God – Jesus Christ.

This Advent, challenge yourself to re-organize your life around the priority of Christ coming into the world, then think on the things that are eternal. Think on, and then practice love, forgiveness, humility, patience, hope, joy, gratefulness, and compassion. Practicing these virtues of the Spirit helps prepare your hearts to keep awake, even as the rest of the world has fallen asleep dreaming of the wrong gods.

[1]          This section describing Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King is a full quotation from the book, To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr., Image Publishing, New York, 2017, pgs. 101-102.


A Cry in the Wilderness

It’s been said John the Baptizer had one foot in the past and another in the future. The foot held in the past was not one of pure nostalgia, but of integrity – integrity that realized the work of God in the lives of God’s people in spite of themselves; and, for that foot in the future, John (like the prophet Isaiah) worked as an artist that envisioned a new age, a new city, a new dawning. This New Way was made explicit in the very location of John’s preaching. Matt. 3:1 reads, “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” All you studious Biblical scholars out there can remind us that the Hebrew people appeared in the wilderness, and it was there that God revealed God’s Holy law, or Torah. It was also in the wilderness that the people ebbed and flowed in and out of their faith, and were either judged or blessed by God according to their thoughts, words, and deeds. It was in this wilderness and through its struggles that the Israelites grew in holiness with the help of God and Torah. The people would later be led out of the wilderness into the Promised Land where the great City of Jerusalem would be built, and eventually God’s Holy Temple with it. This new city would be central in the lives of the Jewish people.

Matthew’s Gospel takes this beautiful history of The Exodus, and does a clever role reversal. Instead of the people going into the central city of Jerusalem; instead of the people making sacrifice and confession with the Temple priests; instead of the clergy staying in Jerusalem – Matthew has them all going out into the wilderness. Going out and into the margins where a strange looking artistic, itinerate preacher was preaching repentance and baptism. Like moths to a flame, the people came. Why – Maybe because preaching repentance worked – Maybe because baptism worked? Dare I say both still work today?

It’s in this literary and liturgical structure of repentance and baptism that Matthew introduces a Third Way. This third way wasn’t an act on their part. It wasn’t even a belief. Instead, the third way, the new center, the new city is found in a Person. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (you’ll remember Jesse was King David’s father), “and a branch shall grow out of his roots [and] the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (Isa. 11:1). In Matthew’s Gospel, the family tree of David gets expanded in the person of Jesus Christ, and this tree is firmly planted not in a centralized location, city, or state; but on the outskirts of town, on the margins of society where if you come to see it, it does not discriminate whom seeks comfort among its shade. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give thee rest” (Matt. 11:28). It is underneath the shade of this tree, and later the shadow of its cross where helplessness found hope, and meaninglessness discovered its significance.

One of Bishop Rob Wright’s favorite lines when he is among clergy is that, “all the answers are not found at 2744 Peachtree Road.” (This is the address of the Bishop’s offices and the Cathedral of St. Philip). Instead, he empowers us all to seek out answers and innovations from one another. There’s a great collective wisdom within the room that is our diocese, and a lot of that wisdom is OtP (Outside the Perimeter). The Church is best when it worships joyfully, serves compassionately, and grows spiritually; when it loves God, self and neighbor (in that order), and understands that going out to the margins and marginalized of society does not necessarily mean going into the big city. There is wisdom in the wilderness. In fact, one of the reasons I personally love this Gospel passage is because of Matthew’s portrayal of John the Baptist. Matthew, I believe, pegs John as an artist. He’s a very talented artist in performance (i.e. preaching repentance) and with his props (i.e. water). And what do good artists do? They draw people to them and to their work; but John was not only a good artist, he was a great artist. And what do great artists do? They point beyond themselves, and even beyond the art, itself. The people from the center of the city go out to John believing they are there to see and experience him and his ministry; but when they show up John tells them, “it’s not about me.” Great art never is; instead, it is a vehicle and vessel that is used for transcendence. That’s some creativity.

As a kid I would go and visit my grandparents quite often. At the time, my Memom and Granddad were attending a small Missionary Baptist church on a farm-to-market-road in East Texas. Getting to this tiny church, where most of the cemetery was made up of my relatives, we would pass by other small churches. Since it was a very rural part of the state with no neighborhoods, I wondered why there simply wasn’t one church? Why did it have to be 3 or 4? It seemed to me that if people pulled their resources together, they could come up with a centralized church that saw one another as family and supported each other in the good times and the bad. (I guess even as a kid, I felt a strong pull to a more centralized church – how very Episcopalian of me). Serving in Douglasville has brought back some of this childlike curiosity. There seems to be a church on every corner in this county. Why aren’t we talking with one another? Or maybe we have, but we haven’t been invited to the party in a while?

Are churches guilty of self-preservation so much so that coming together, and sharing our assets and resources not a priority? I often times wonder what a town like Douglasville would look like if all the churches got together and tackled one major community problem each year? What if we all got together and started asking artistic questions that pointed beyond ourselves, and our egos? I have a feeling that important conversations would get started if we came together around common causes. Perhaps the teenage pregnancy rate would go down? Perhaps the thousands of kids in the foster care system would find homes? Perhaps no family would go hungry, and no child would be left behind to recycle their family history of poverty?

John the Baptizer was a big burly man who revealed simple truths in an artistic way that made God the center of everything no matter where one resided. Of course God was in Jerusalem, but God was also in the margins. Of course God is at 2744 Peachtree Rd, but He’s also at 5400 Stewart Mill Road along with the hundreds of other churches found within this county who have more similarities than differences…who still believe (collectively, and like John) that repentance and baptism work. I do honor the differences in theology, and in worship, and in the reading of scripture (this is good art), but don’t you think God gets tired of the same old arguments denominations and ‘nondenominations’ have with one another? The one thing that brings us all together is not found in a theology, in a city, or in a song, but in a Person – the person of Jesus Christ who Christians boldly claim is God. And if we’re all reading the same book together, I believe God tells us to love. And God tells us to give. And God tells us to serve, and the person of Jesus Christ lived and continues to live out these virtues of the Spirit within all of us.

Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church is a little church on the margins surrounded by other denominations. We’re also a little church that’s part of the bigger Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. Let’s continue to balance love of self and focus on our parish community, its building and its people alongside the people out there. Let’s get curious with the greater community. I can’t do it on my own. You can’t do it on your own. We need one another. We need to better define our neighbors. We need to repent of apathy, and we need to remind the world it still needs Jesus. This was John’s message. This has always been the Church’s message, and this is society’s message as well as its cry for help out in the wilderness.


Happy Advent

The Advent Season

What is Advent, and what does this transitional season represent to Christians? How do the traditions, liturgy, and prayers of the Church allow hearts to be transformed during this time of year? Why does the Church caution Christians not to jump into Christmas after Thanksgiving Day? Let us live into these questions as we remember the counter-cultural expression of this beautiful season called Advent.

Traditionally, the Season of Advent represents the preparation and coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the word, Advent, literally means, Coming, and its readings, liturgy, and music all point to Christ coming into the world with three different expressions: We remember Christ coming into the world at Christmas, within our hearts, and the expectation of Christ coming again at the end of time. The mood of the season fills the soul with great mystery, tension, and anticipation. For four weeks, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings grace the liturgy with metaphor, simile, and prophetic signs. Words such as restoration, prophecy, and repentance will help to enhance this tension filled season. There will be reminders to keep awake – to not get distracted by all the noises around us – and to remember and reflect on the eternal. Advent invites all to melt into its spell where senses develop an awareness of light and darkness, evergreen trees and deciduous ones, mountains and valleys, the future and The Now.

The Advent Wreath

We can thank our 17th century German sisters and brothers for the development of the Advent wreath (Bishop J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time, 44-45). What started out as a domestic devotion was later adapted (and adopted) by the Church as its own countdown clock (Ibid.). That is why there are four candles in Advent wreaths representing the four weeks of this season. The Advent wreath, like the Tenebrae services of Lent, reveals humanity’s fascination with the lengthening and shorting of days (Ibid). Advent occurs during the Winter Solstice where the earth’s Northern hemisphere tilts from its sun making the nights longer and the days shorter. Advent is a transitional season anticipating Christmas where the son, or the light of the world will be revealed making His light more abundant on earth, and within the hearts of mankind.

Advent wreaths are made up of evergreen tree branches. Evergreen trees are symbolic of eternity because they do not change with the seasons. They are firm, steadfast, and constant year round. When Christians put Advent wreaths on their doors or in their homes, they symbolically point to both the eternal and the now – or better – the Eternal Now.

The Readings of Advent

In the readings from Advent I, we symbolically remember what it is like to experience the daytime (light) and the nighttime (darkness). Paul says, in his Letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11). Jesus echoes this when he teaches, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:42).

The Experience of Advent

You know those vacation or holiday nights when you’re visiting a friend, relative, or loved one you haven’t seen in a long time, and you stay up all night talking and catching up? You might have a good drink in your hand, and a fire going on in the fireplace. Table lamps are lit instead of overhead lights. There’s some soft music on in the background that mixes with your moments of conversation yet leaves room enough for those still small moments of nonanxious silences. “You say it best when you say nothing at all” yet when a word is spoken your beloved, perhaps, says it better than you because they know you…you have a history together, and being in the moment is more important than being right. It’s with this revealing picture that I envision Paul and Jesus’ words. Even though it’s dark outside, even though the world is a big fat mess, and when I’m out in it (half the time) I’m distracted by competing voices, for this moment and with my friend, I’m living in the light of Now with God, with my loved one, with the music, and I’m soaking up every simple yet complex thing because for that moment I’m awake. I think that that’s a different type of anticipation, a different type of tension where one can honestly and in the moment stomp on fear and anxiety because there is no fear and anxiety. Something deeper is going on. These are Now moments of anticipation where everything has changed; yet, everything has stayed the same. In Advent, we say that Christ has come into our lives…that the light of the world has come into our hearts yet again. The world is still the same; yet the world is vastly different. And that’s as much as I can describe (with words) the experience of Advent. Paul did it one way. Jesus another. Me another; and you have your own as well.

An Invitation

This Advent, contemplate the mystery of God in your life. Look back on where God seemed to have been holding you, or carrying you, or even dragging you along life’s path. Observe the novel that is your life. Observe the song, or the hymn that is your life intricately wrapped up in the life of the Divine. We only have four weeks, so let’s use our time wisely, anticipating where we know we will be distracted, and don’t be (with God’s help). It’s only four weeks. Instead, focus and occupy your mind, your body, your soul on God, self, and neighbor. Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? These questions provide an appropriate meditation for a few weeks that could start out for 4, and turn into a lifetime of living into those questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? Advent, by it’s very nature of light and dark, mystery and metaphor, comings and goings will enhance these questions, question your answers, and help you find that friend you have (perhaps) always been searching for, and longing to stay up the whole night chatting and catching up. As today’s Collect reminds us to pray: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life… [and] in the life immortal.” Happy Advent!


What Should We Do In Our Culture of Fear?* A Lesson from Luke 3:7-18

What then should we do?” The question, coming from a people to a prophet. I can tell John the Baptist is indeed a prophet, not a philosopher, because he does give the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. Isn’t that what any prophet, or preacher, or even a politician desires? That the people whom they serve will actually live into that which they have been called? The trick, I believe, for any prophet, preacher, or politician is to examine themselves, and make sure before they say, or proclaim, or preach, that they are indeed doing the things that they are asking other people to do. They preach what they practice, and they practice what they preach, in other words. Society formalized this practicing what we preach in the form of liturgies, ceremonies, and services. And somewhere in the middle of these ceremonies an oath, or a vow is taken. It’s not taken in private, but in front of God and everybody else. This morning, I thought it be fun to look at a couple of vows and oaths that professionals take. I tried to keep it in the context of today’s story. So, for example, the question, “What then should we do?” Was asked by a crowd first, then specific professionals within that crowd. We have a tax collector and a soldier that forms part of that crowd. Since crowds don’t usually take oaths, I took the artistic liberty to think that maybe there was a couple in the crowd who was married. So, this morning, I’ll be reading marriage vows, an oath of office for a tax collector, and an oath of enlistment for those serving in the United States Army, and finally, since this group has been in the news so much this year, I found a police officer’s “oath of honor” to read to you this morning.

The Marriage Vows (Taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 427)

In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to

have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse,

for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to

cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

Each tax collector before entering on the duties of his office shall take and subscribe to the following oath in addition to the oath required of all civil officers:

“I, , tax collector of the County of , do swear that I will

faithfully discharge the duties required of me by law as tax collector, and

that I will diligently collect all taxes required by law for me to collect

and faithfully pay these over to the persons authorized to receive the

same. So help me God.” (

The wordings of the current oath of enlistment [in the United States Army] are as follows:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962). (

Police Officer’s Oath of Honor. Slightly different than the oath taken at office. (

On my honor,

I will never betray my badge,

my integrity, my character,

or the public trust.

I will always have

the courage to hold myself

and others accountable for our actions.

I will always uphold the constitution

my community and the agency I serve.

Many of my own, personal heroes and heroines, are the day-to-day people who put their head down, show up, and do the work that they are supposed to do. They don’t get a lot of praise, mainly because they don’t want the attention. Often times, they don’t even get recognized for the little and the big things that they do to make life a little easier for all of us. The people I’m referring to are definitely not the ‘brood of vipers’ that John is referring to. No. The brood of vipers was those persons and professionals who had forgotten the oaths that they took, had easily misinterpreted the vows that they made, or all together forgot who and whose they were. They were a people whom God had a covenant with, but for some reason, and somehow, they had forgotten this covenant, this promise, this peace. And along comes John the Baptist, and he calls them out. What a good friend John was for not letting the persons he was closest to get away with what they were doing, or how they were acting and reacting. In fact, he called them to repentance. And what exactly were they repenting of? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their egotism, and narcissism. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold. And what do oaths represent? They represent something that is huge. Some thing that is bigger than us. Something that is bigger than the person taking the oath. The sin (or at least the temptation) is to identify us as It. “I am the one true soldier/tax collector/citizen; therefore, I can take the law into my own hands. I can choose to share when it’s convenient for me. I can do whatever I want.” But like an oath that is bigger than we are, and will be around long after we are gone, John points to the ultimate promise, the ultimate covenant, and the ultimate peacemaker. He points to something paradoxically outside himself, but somehow and some way experiences it as a part of himself; and not only a part of himself but also a part of his brothers and sisters. He points to the Messiah; the anointed one; the Christ: Who was and is and will be forever and ever. Repentance reminds us that we are not It. We are not the center of the universe. That part’s already covered for us. So, when I feel unworthy, I look to God who is worthy. John reminds us of that. When I have forgotten the vows and oaths that I have taken, I turn to God who is still keeping His side of the deal. This is good news. This is grace. This is promised to all. And what a relief. Instead of pushing people to do what you think is right; you are invited to walk alongside of them. “Don’t just do something – stand there,” Bishop Neil Alexander used to say. In other words, 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 are caught up in the cult of busy-ness? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, but it was not for the sake of busy-ness. It was for the sake of Being: Being that which God already knew one to be, as well as standing there and living into the oath, the vow, the covenant one had promised to uphold.

In a moment, we’re going to renew our Baptismal Vows, our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 292) or promise that we make and made to God, self, and one another. Are there times that we have broken, damaged and dismissed our side of the deal, or even ignored it all together? Are there times when John the Baptist might have called us a “brood of vipers.” Yes. I think so. I’m as guilty as anyone else in this room. But where I find confidence is in remembering who and whose I am. These vows help me to remember this, and challenge me to be on guard, to repent, and to turn to God time and time and time again. And on those weeks where I don’t renew my vows formally, I’m invited to the altar. I’m invited to the table of the Lord to receive something that I am unworthy to receive, yet I do receive it because I worship a God who is worthy. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. Not a politician, policy, or procedure. Not a law, politically correct language, or luxuries. What we need right now is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ to snap us out of our narcissistic ways, to take us by the hand and walk alongside of us in our day-to-day, moment-to-moment mundane lives. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fire 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.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when the whole world is scared, and anxious, and fearful, and falling a part. When hearts are hardened instead of softened, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, I (for my own sanity) have to look outside myself – not to a politician, policy, or new law, but to Jesus – my Savior. Why? Because there is no fear in him. There is no anxiety about him. He is walking alongside of me, and sometimes in my deepest anxieties, he is carrying me, holding me, and loving me. And it’s funny to say I go outside myself, because really I don’t. I go inside myself, to my inner room, to my heart of hearts where Jesus is whispering to me that everything is going to be okay.

It’s hard to follow Jesus in a culture of fear. It’s hard not to give into the temptation to hate, to suspect, and to ignore. And even though I said that my heroes are the ones who put their heads down, show up, and do the work that they were given to do, I also know that sometimes you just have to be, and let be. Sometimes we have to remember that we can’t figure all of this out on our own. That’s giving into our own narcissistic tendencies. Instead, we go outside our egos by going inside our hearts and discovering that still small voice who’s inviting us to keep alert, to keep awake, to be still and know that I am with you…with you [Brandon, Saint Julian’s, United States of America, Syria, Paris, Charleston, San Bernardino, in your cancer, in your broken family, in your loneliness, anxiety and fear]. I am with you always, says Jesus…even until the end of the age.

*Sermon preached at Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church on the Third Sunday of Advent.


Faith. Not Fear.

“It started out as a simple idea,” said my friend and colleague, the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, priest of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, GA. “The idea is this…What if Christians started a Nativity Movement?”

Movements always start with a good question, but what exactly is The Nativity Movement? It’s very simple. When Christians display their nativity scenes, they take a picture, and post it to social media under #NativityMovement. Why is this simple act considered a movement?

Those who participate in the #NativityMovement are recalling the fact that a tyrant named Herod instigated fear in his people by committing murder and infanticide throughout Bethlehem. This was the reason why Joseph, Mary, and Jesus became refugees, crossed the border into Egypt, and stayed there until Herod ruled no longer. The #NativityMovement also recalls Christianity’s meager beginnings. Jesus was not born in a palace, home, or even a hotel. He was not born with any privilege or power. His parents could have been considered disgraceful because Mary was having a child out of wedlock, and Joseph had originally wanted to dismiss her quietly.

For Christians, having these facts on our minds while setting up our nativity scenes can be an exercise in prayer: A prayer for every refugee family who seeks peace in another country, instead of persecution. A prayer for every baby delivered out of wedlock, or in unstable conditions. A prayer for every father who has considered leaving.

I’ve found, when I take the time to pray in this way, touching the figures and figurines from the nativity set, I am touching Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, as well as the created order such as the stars, the animals, and boxes of frankincense and myrrh. But on my deeply prayerful days, I am not only touching Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also all the men, women, and children that they represent. And on my deeper than deepest prayer days, or even when I’m singing, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” I must ask myself if I am truly being a good neighbor to my brothers and sisters in the world whose stories are very similar to this holy family’s?

Our faith is deepened when it is lived out of love instead of fear. The simple act of putting out our nativity scenes in the compassionate way I just described is one way of setting our hearts and minds on peace, love, and joy – those eternal virtues of this time of year. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas to all. May your #NativityMovement be a movement within your body, mind, and spirit during this sacred season.