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.

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.

Intimacy Requires Commitment

Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.

Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!

Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.

We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.

All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.

 

 

By Erasing Art We Forget Our Flaws and How it Mixes with God’s Grace

Art evokes many things: Truth, beauty, goodness – emotion, controversy, pleasure, and contemplation. Artists can be a bit more complicated. They can be mystics, manic-depressives, manipulators, or murderers. They have been lovers, fighters, pedophiles, perverts, and prodigies.

Often times we equate the work of art to the artist (think Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel) but this oversimplifies the complexities of the human condition. Michelangelo, for example, not only painted and sculpted masterfully, he also ate, drank, slept, had relationships, emotions, and longings. By virtue of being human he also made mistakes. You might say Michelangelo was flawed even though his work (arguably) was not.

The same line of thinking could be said for all mankind. No matter what one’s vocation may be, that vocation does not ultimately define a person – it’s simply a part of the person, an extension of the (flawed) self. For example, popular characters from the Bible – Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul – were all murderers in their lifetimes; yet, for billions of Jews and Christians these are three of the most respectable men in the Bible. Moses freed a people, King David ruled with valor, and Paul wrote masterful letters to the early Christian communities. Again, these were flawed individuals, but (arguably) their life’s work was not.

Could we not make the same argument for the founders of this country? They most certainly were flawed, but their life’s work was not. Taking down statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers forgets the complexities of being considered great (and flawed) all at the same time.

  • Augustine was a sex addict; yet because of his work is now a saint. Should we burn his writings?
  • Lewis Carroll was a pedophile; yet because of his work his stories are read in nurseries around the world. Should we ban “Alice” from “Wonderland”?
  • Martin Luther once suggested a child with a mental disorder be drowned because he had no soul. Should all Protestant Christians return to “Mother Church”?
  • Jesus Christ often told parables where many of the characters were slaves. Should we edit these stories out of the Bible because Jesus did not object?

Why do we leave the statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers up? I would argue – You leave them up because of grace – amazing grace, dare I say?[i] You leave them up to help people and parishioners remember that great women and men make mistakes – sometimes huge – yet grace and mercy are still available. And if grace and mercy are still available to them, then they are available to us as well. Personally, I like remembering flawed people because I am a flawed person. I especially enjoy remembering them and their work knowing that they were sinners just like me; and yet, by the grace of God they were also loved.

As a Christian, I don’t define myself solely on who I am, but whose I am. In other words, I am a child of God. That is what ultimately defines me. The same can be said for Moses, Augustine, Washington, Jackson, or Lee. We can choose to label them good or evil, but ultimately they too are children of God – warts and all. As citizens in our country debate tearing down, building up, or leaving art where it stands, consider your own flawed nature compared with the goodness of God. Nobody stacks up; therefore, it is by grace that we can all be called children of God.

[i]           Slave ship captain, John Newton, wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. Should we get rid of his music in our churches too? Sterilizing history is a slippery slope. At what point do we cross the line?

Statement on #Charlottesville

Every Lord’s Day, we gather as a community of faith to proclaim what all Christians believe. The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty.” When we claim that God is “Almighty” we reveal a very powerful God (God of powers or Lord of powers may sum up “Almighty” well). Yet, this all-powerful God chose to relinquish all power and became powerless in the form of a human child. This child eventually grew up and taught us how to “walk in love”. We know the rest of the story: The world rejected his teachings, sought truth elsewhere, and “He suffered death and was buried.” But in a twist of fate, look what happened: “On the third day He rose again.” That’s a surprise, and is still surprising today if we allow its truth to sink into our bones. What this means is that love has won and death has been conquered.

Living into the faith of the Christian Creed sneaks up on us. There are times when it is simply words, but at others God seems to reveal its words (and meaning) to us when we least expect it. In Charlottesville, VA this past weekend the worldly powers that be were on full display that reminded us of the mob violence that killed our Lord (“He was crucified under Pontius Pilate”). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that He set us free to love without fear. Any thing, group, ideology, or politic that does not allow freedom to love is anti-Christ. When we are shackled to hate, stereotyping, and ignorance we run the risk of binding others to us in a show of vengeful force. Ultimately, the chains can be released but only by the grace of God. It is by His grace that we are saved.

Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI once stated this about our All-Powerful God:

“The highest power is demonstrated as the calm willingness completely to renounce all power; and we are shown that it is powerful, not through force, but only through the freedom of love, which, even when it is rejected, is stronger than the exultant powers of earthly violence” ~ from his Introduction to Christianity, p. 150.

As Christians it is our duty to continue to seek, experience, and reveal this “freedom to love”. Everything else confines us to the powers of this world. Pray for those who are shackled by hate. Lift up those who have been injured or died. Renounce the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and instead “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.”

Remember: We protest hate, bigotry and violence by our very lifestyles. This week, style your life around the freedom to “walk in love as Christ loves us” and continue to pray for those who persecute this love. When we do this we are in heavenly company.

Noticing the Holy

Henry and Brownie
Above: Henry and Brownie

2nd Sunday After Pentecost: Matthew 9:35-10:8

At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, Ann, Henry, and I got a dog and named him Brownie. Brownie is a Morkie, or a cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a Maltese. In other words, he’s super cute. Ann and I have never been dog people, but every time we visited friends with dogs, or came across dogs on evening walks our hearts softened towards them. This softening of the heart combined with Henry telling us he wanted a dog made us finally give in and get our little Brownie. Since Brownie has entered into our lives, I have observed something about our family. We have started to notice more. Perhaps having a dog in one’s life helps us to cultivate a slower pace of life? This slowing down and noticing happens on our evening walks with Brownie, and going for a stroll has helped to cultivate at least four things. Walking a dog helps to cultivate mindfulness, responsibility, beauty, and compassion.

Mindfulness

When we are out and about in our neighborhood, and when the walking pace is slow and steady, I start to notice the smell of the air, the softness of the breeze. Ann may notice a new house for sale, and that Henry has his shoes on the wrong feet – again. Brownie is aware of the grass. He makes no distinction between the tall or the freshly cut even though humans are drawn to the order of a well manicured lawn. Also, voices in conversation sound different outside, and even if we have seen each other all day long, there is something about changing the context that makes conversation fresh, new, and rewarding.

Responsibility

The second thing noticing cultivates is responsibility. Mondays are the neighborhood trash pick-up days. After pickup, many times trash bins are left in the middle of driveways or dangerously close to the road. Lids could be in yards, and left over pieces of paper may be wet, sticking to the sidewalk. Henry has told us that littering is ‘rude’ so he’s drawn to the paper. Ann may go for a lid, and I go for the actual trashcan. We often find ourselves noticing the disorder, and try to order it in our own little way. Who knows, maybe it helps the next walker or jogger going down the sidewalk? Maybe it helps the neighbor?

Beauty and Compassion

Noticing also cultivates beauty and compassion. There’s beauty in slowing one’s pace down that enhances compassion for one’s self and others. Since our family has added Brownie to it, we have met more of our neighbors than ever before. We’re stopped by moms with strollers, jogging dads, and walking couples. We exchange names, talk about local schools, and brag on our children, grandchildren, and animals. There is great beauty in small talk, and being able to notice this has increased my own capacity for compassion.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Today’s scripture has Jesus walking. He’s walking around first century Palestine preaching and teaching. He’s curing diseases and healing the sick. This is classic Jesus. This is what he does, but looking at the text a little closer, I couldn’t help but notice what he noticed. Listen to the text, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…” This isn’t an ordinary type of seeing (the crowds), or even looking (at them). Instead, I believe Jesus was noticing them (maybe for the first time). There is a different between seeing and noticing. When we see something, we usually name it, or make a snap judgment about it, and seeing in this way stays at the surface. If I look out and see you, I may register your name and make a quick observation: “That sweater Joe is wearing is red. It looks warms. I’m cold. I wish I had a sweater.”

Noticing is all together something different. Noticing goes below the surface of things where there is an emotional connection that has the potential to lead to compassion. Joe may have that red sweater, and it looks warm to me, but I get to go deeper when I take a moment to remember a conversation we may have had earlier, or know that Joe is in church because he shared with me that he is searching for God in his life again. I am then moved to compassion out of simply going deeper in my noticing.

When we intentionally see others with an eye of empathy, we also start to notice things within us that need attention. For example, when Jesus noticed the crowds, he also noticed that he needed help ministering to them. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the neediness of the crowd. Remember what he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” He realized that his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry was not sustainable on his own. He needed helpers, so he called the Twelve and gave them authority, not only to preach and teach, but gave them permission to notice – specifically to notice the harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The disciple’s ministry became part of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ ministry was grounded in a holy noticing. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to proclaim the Good News: “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” This proclamation expanded the ministry of Jesus to the people. In other words, not only are the disciples to take up the ministry of noticing, but also the people were invited to notice the kingdom found in Jesus and one another. The people not only were invited to notice this, but also were healed by it. Jesus, as head of this kingdom welcomed the crowds into it through his healing ministry. When one was healed by Jesus in body, mind, or spirit, they became part of this kingdom. They became part of his story, and other people started noticing.

For Us

What have you noticed in your life and in the life of your parish lately? In Lynda Barry’s book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, she shapes an interesting exercise in noticing. She has the one noticing draw a cross. After drawing the cross, and in the upper left hand corner she asks you to write down 5 things that you saw today. In the upper right-hand corner, she asks you to write down 5 things you overheard today. In the bottom right corner, she asks you to complete this sentence “Lately, I’ve learned…” and you write a sentence or two about what you’ve learned. Finally, for the lower left corner, she asks you to doodle or sketch something you saw today. What a great exercise in noticing. What a great exercise in remembering the kingdom of heaven. What a great exercise in cultivating an awareness and compassion for the world around you.

July 1st will be my 3-year anniversary serving alongside you in Christ’s ministry. In order to honor our time together, and to take the time to notice God’s Spirit at work in the world, I want to invite you to 1 of 2 listening sessions. The 1st will take place on Tuesday, July 11th at 7 PM, and the 2nd one on Sunday July 16th after the coffee hour. Please choose 1 of those dates and come to the listening session. I will share with you what I have noticed over my 3 years with you, and where and what I believe God is calling us to pay attention to. I will then stop noticing, and ask you to share your own thoughts as to where you believe we as a parish are being called. In the Winter I sent out a parish-wide survey asking for feedback on topics like Leadership, Stewardship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Worship. I will report back on some of those findings and these topics will also guide our conversation and time together. In the meantime, if you want to use the above Lynda Barry exercise I just shared with you, and tweak it to fit in with our parish context, please do so. Like Jesus, I hope to foster a church culture that notices a whole host of things – be they virtues or vices that need our attention, love, mercy, and compassion.

Until then, I challenge you to start noticing more because the world is anything but boring, and as you are noticing, take the time to proclaim this good news – the kingdom of heaven has come near.

 

Taking Bible Verses Out of Context is Bad Theology – Please Stop Doing It

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” said Jesus, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” ~John 14:6

In Sunday schools, ecumenical gatherings, and living rooms all across America there have been arguments about what this one verse says, or doesn’t say. It is such a controversial statement to so many, and for this reason, let’s take a hard look at it. In order to do this, I am not going to treat Jesus’ statement as a sound bite. Instead, I’m going to put it into the context of the entire passage (John 14:1-14), as well as within the overall theme of John’s Gospel.

First, let’s look at what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not making a statement for or against one religion. In fact, this passage has nothing to do with religion. Through the years, and when this passage is read in Bible study settings, it is inevitable that someone in the group will make the leap of what is actually said by Jesus (which is a statement about himself) to the religious realm. Usually this person (or persons) are uncomfortable that Jesus would make such an exclusive statement, thus leaving out every other major religion in the world. “What happens to them?” (read Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists here) it may be asked, and after such a question the Bible study is led down a rabbit’s hole where the text is forgotten and speculation rules the day. Let’s be clear. This “I am” statement is not about religion (Christianity or otherwise). If one wants to discover Jesus’ various attitudes toward religiosity, there are plenty of other passages in which to explore. This is not one of them.

That being said, what this text can lead to is far more interesting in that it takes the believer to a deeper understanding of Christ through our questioning and prayers. First, John Chapter 14 and following is a farewell address from Jesus to his friends. When people say ‘goodbye’ to one another, and the goodbye is a permanent one, naturally we grieve. This grief was expressed with Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus gives the famous answer, and famously his disciples do not understand. Take a moment and ponder if you yourself have not said some variation of Thomas’ question at a funeral? His question is painfully human. Secondly, and pulling the camera back from this scene scanning the whole of John’s Gospel, Jesus (you’ll remember) is the Word made flesh (John 1:1). All of creation flows through Christ (the Word), and out of Christ (the Word), we recall the Way, the Truth, and the Life. How could Christ be otherwise? From John’s scene today, God’s Word in the person of Jesus the Christ was displayed in his very being as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way, the Truth and the Life is not just a theological statement; it is the same reality in which our own prayers live, move, and have their being “in the Father.” Finally, St. John’s theology is often referred to as “insider language” and rightly so. Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense to the believer – nobody else.

Next time you’re in your small group, Bible study, or batting theology around and this passage comes up, understand

  1. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends.
  2. His “I am” statement is in response to Thomas’ grief.
  3. His statement belongs to those who believe in him and pray in his name.

Hope this helps.

 

God Desires to be Seen, Sought, Expected, and Trusted

If you pray Morning Prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer you may have noticed the collect for guidance found on page 100. This prayer reads, “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight…” St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote these words, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:26-27). The imagery of being found out in Christ, discovering Christ in our very being, and being clothed with Christ are all beautiful, ongoing images within Christianity. Lady Julian of Norwich, whom the church remembers each May, picked up on a similar theme as well. Listen to her words,

“God does not despise what he has made…For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness…For it is so preciously loved by him who is highest that this surpasses the knowledge of all created beings. That is to say, there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us…God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.”[1]

For a moment, let’s focus on this image of God desiring to “be seen, sought, expected, and trusted.” I don’t want this to be an exercise in individualism, or have any pietistic notions. Instead, I want us to imagine God desiring these things through us as a community of faith, a church, a holy fellowship. So a first question to ponder might be, “How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” Two Sundays ago we walked down the road to Emmaus together where God was made known in the breaking of the bread. Jesus, you’ll remember, also wanted to be seen in Holy Scripture; however, the story did not end there. After Jesus disappeared, the disciples who were just with him went and told others about their experience. The lesson that Sunday was simple: God is made known to us through the liturgy of the word, and the holy sacrament of Eucharist as well as when we “go tell it on the mountain” so to speak – when we reveal the love and presence of Christ to others. So again,

“How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” God wishes to be seen through liturgical worship and Holy Eucharist; but another question to ponder is, “How do we as a community of faith see and share our stories of his presence?”

God wishes to be seen, and secondly, God wishes to be sought. “How does God wish to be sought through the parish?” There’s that great verse from the prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him while he draws near” (Isa. 55:6). Lady Julian wrote, “For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him…” “How might a faith community assist in the realization of God’s desire [to be sought]?”[2]

Third, “How does God wish to be expected through the parish?” There’s a sense of expectation very similar to hope here, but there’s also a reality of the eternal here in the Present. Put another way, there’s the expectation that God will one day unite heaven and earth together, consummating all creation to himself, while at the same time living in a time and place where that vision is currently taken on faith as hope. God has redeemed the world; yet, there’s still some expectation that there’s more to come. What can a parish do to acknowledge this paradox?

Fourth and finally, “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Many persons have issues of trust through their own experiences of someone abusing trust. This mistrust eventually forms an understanding of the world that was not intended by God; therefore, God calls out to us like a mother to her child to trust again with all the heart because our own understanding has been damaged by sin. “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “What does trusting in the Lord with all of our hearts look like?” Are we brave enough, do we trust enough to ask such questions?

I’ve briefly laid out these questions for us all to ponder. How might we, as a faith community, assist in the realization of God’s desire to be seen, sought, expected and trusted? I invite you to take these questions with you to your small groups, to your Bible studies, to your prayer circles, to your families, and beyond. If these questions sparked your own imagination around living into these desires of God as Lady Julian imagined, make your comment known below.

Julian’s legacy lives on in her writings. From these we can ponder questions both individually and communally. As we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost, let us ponder these questions in our hearts asking God to reveal himself to us in tangible ways as we grow into His Son’s likeness. As the prayer for guidance stated earlier, “God, in you we live, and move, and have our being.” Let us pray this prayer of guidance together as a community of faith.

[1]           Lisa E. Dahill, 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 22.

The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

Christian Morality Remembers Love

~Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 preached on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.

God is always calling us to deeper ways of being and presence with Him. We “keep the commandments of God” when we “walk in love as Christ loved us”. This love does not take sides; instead, the two or more sides are either joined together or cast away revealing only Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was inviting his listeners to stop hearing the Holy Scriptures as ends in themselves. He was instead inviting all to experience Scripture as a new beginning – a new beginning to draw nearer to God’s purpose, plan, and will which in turn draws us closer to one another.[1]

I believe God calls us to these deeper ways of being and presence through the act of remembering. Remember when you were slaves in Egypt. Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember me when you come into your kingdom. Remember I am with you, always. The act of remembering does not necessarily have to look back. Instead, remembering can be something we are reminded of here in the present. My spiritual director says that most persons who come to her for guidance and spiritual direction are suffering from one underlining thing: They have forgotten that God loves them. Her task then becomes helping persons through their spiritual amnesia, and to recover what memory they may have lost remembering that they are indeed, loved.

Within St. Matthew’s time, a righteous life was seen as one who obeyed and lived into Holy Torah. Following God’s law was considered a discipline and practice in righteous remembering. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We pick up how righteousness is viewed in the eyes of Jesus when he teaches his first morality course to us today. His ethical topics include such things as anger, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths. When Jesus tackles these topics, he does not interpret them in crude legalism. Instead, one is considered living righteously into the law when they remember the unity of God. For example, Marcia Y. Riggs makes this observation about Jesus’ attitude toward anger. I quote her at length,

The verses on anger offer us an interpretation that enlarges the frame for understanding the prohibition against murder. Jesus enlarges the prohibition by pointing to ways to which the anger of revenge or punishment that can lead to murder is also evident in the course of living. When you judge and insult a brother or sister in the community, as well as when you are in a legal conflict (both ways in which anger surfaces), you have an opportunity to rectify these situations by seeking the other person out so as to apologize (in the former case) or by making amends outside the legal process (in the latter case). In both cases the objective is clear: to restore relationships through acts of reconciliation. Clearly Jesus is not rescinding the prohibition against murder, but he does place murder on a continuum of outcomes related to anger. Furthermore, Jesus is recognizing that humans do get angry; rather than prohibiting anger, he teaches that it can be transformed by living as a peacemaker (cf. 5:9), initiating acts that manifest the reign of God in our midst[2].

Christians are able to practice the act of reconciliation each time we participate in the passing of The Peace during Holy Communion. Fr. Patrick Mallow says this about The Peace, “The Peace is more than a casual hello but it is not an act of personal affection. It is a gesture of mutual acceptance and forgiveness rooted in a shared humanity and the bonds forged by baptism. The Peace expresses and instills a confidence that equality in Christ (and the equality of all people before God) is rooted in something far more basic than whether people personally know one another.”[3] Again, this gets back to remembering – remembering that we are loved by God and can express this love through peace and reconciliation.

The other issues St. Matthew’s Jesus takes up are adultery, divorce, and oaths. With all of these (including anger), Jesus is not only reminding his listeners on what the righteous life entails, he is also revealing the righteousness of God through remembering God’s intention, will, and purpose within the lives of human beings. St. Augustine taught that God is immutable; in other words, God is unchanging, but God’s creation is mutable. It changes. God does not intend for anger to manifest into abuse, slander, or murder, but mutable humans forget this and make both conscious and unconscious choices to let anger get away from us. God does not intend for adultery and divorce to be a way of life, but humans forget their love and unity found in Christ. God does not intend for oaths to be made, but humans forget to let our Yes be Yes, and our No, No.

So, how can we tell what the will of God is? Are we too bold to ask such a thing? The will of God which points us to the righteous life remembers Christ crucified, died, and resurrected. Christ crucified, died, and resurrected points us all to God’s ultimate love, mercy, and forgiveness. When we remember this, we are free to love, free to show mercy, and free to forgive. When we remember the will of God, we are righteous. When we remember God’s intentions, our presence points to The Good, The Truth, and The Beautiful. This is Good News. This is the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is to remind us (and the world) we are loved.

God is always calling us to deeper ways of being and presence with Him. We “keep the commandments of God” when we “walk in love as Christ loved us”. This love does not take sides; instead, the two or more sides are either joined together or cast away revealing only Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was inviting his listeners to stop hearing the Holy Scriptures as ends in themselves. He was instead inviting all to experience Scripture as a new beginning – a new beginning to draw nearer to God’s purpose, plan, and will which in turn draws us closer to one another.[4] We are loved. This week, this day, this moment, try and remember that.

[1]                 Left Behind and Loving It: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[2]                 Marcia Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Ed., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2010, pg. 356-7.

[3]           Patrick Mallow, Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Ceremonial Guide for Clergy and Other Liturgical Ministers, Church Publishing: New York, 2007, p. 111-12.

[4]                 Left Behind and Loving It: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/