Welcoming the Questions

Preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020. For a video of this sermon, please click below. 

In Matthew Chapter 10 Jesus says this, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As I take a look around my neighborhood, zip code, city, state, country and world I find myself being invited and welcomed into a whole host of conversations. I’m also being invited to listen, to get curious, and to wonder where both my place as well as the church’s place is being called to engage in these conversations. It’s some hard work, this discernment. There’s a lot of loud voices out there all competing with one another. I’ve never seen so many banners in yards, and bumper stickers on cars in my life, each and all pointing in different philosophical and creedal directions. So what are some of these conversations? I can think of four right off the bat. Economists are warning that the United States is either in (or soon and very soon will be in) an economic recession. It’s also an election year here in the U.S., and pride and presumption are on full display in American politics – on both sides of the isle. There’s social unrest unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Those of you I have talked to about this, and are old enough to remember, are having flashbacks to the 1960’s. Finally, there’s still a global pandemic infecting and killing large populations of people. The numbers are especially distressing in our own beloved country. How are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming? Or better, what are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us to participate in? Here’s how I answer that question: I believe what these realities welcome is a chance for deep introspection and self-reflection grounded in our relationship with Christ.

Many of you have shared with me how your own relationship with God has deepened during this time. You’re praying more, getting rid of stuff you don’t need, and contemplating on eternal things that we all need and long for. You’re working in your gardens, going on more reflective walks, and listening to that still small voice inside like you may have never done before. Even though many of us are being tempted with the demons of despair and his friends – loneliness and anxiety – through your prayers, in your gardens, and every time you hit the pavement you’re reminded of how God has your back, suffers alongside you, and guards your heart as you learn and practice trusting God, yourself, and your neighbors. All of these learnings are holy and good. They call us out of ourselves and into deep conversation, confession, forgiveness and repentance.

I had someone share with me this week that they are missing Holy Eucharist. They are missing the Body and Blood of Our Lord; and yet, they are finding Christ’s Body and Blood everywhere they look – in the bodies of people whose skin is a different color than theirs, in their neighbors, and even hints of Christ’s Body in their enemies. It’s been said that if you can’t find the Body of Christ in the bread and wine, you probably won’t be able to find it in your neighbor. In not participating in Holy Eucharist for so long, I’m beginning to wonder if this statement is backwards? I wonder now that if I cannot find Christ’s Body first in my neighbor, stranger, and enemy then can I really ever accept Christ as bread and wine? And what about the very purpose and meaning of church as Christ’s Body? Jesus said today, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is a collective ‘you.’ The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is none other than his followers – his church. Jesus once said that you are the light of the world. Light doesn’t exist for itself. It exists in order for us to see things by it. Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt doesn’t exist for itself either. It preserves and enhances meat and other foods. In other words, you/me/the church do not exist for itself. It exists as light so others can come to the eternal light of Christ. It exists as salt to preserve and enhance the spiritual virtues and values worth preserving. This is good news. This is welcoming news.

Getting back to my earlier question: What are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us (the church as salt and light) to participate in? How can you/How can we/How can the church shed light, for example, on the economic hardships that happen because of greed, corruption, and indifference found in our economic systems, while also addressing the greed, corruption, and indifference found within our own hearts? How can you/How can we/How can the church be salt in our political systems where pressure is put on politicians and policy makers to preserve truth over victory, and sacrifice over self-interest while asking and modeling these same principals ourselves? How can you/How can we/How can the church continue to shine light on social sins so that justice and mercy may be cultivated in conversation, and tangibly brought forth in personal, spiritual, and collective action? Finally, how can you/how can we/how can the church find new imaginative and innovative ways of loving neighbor during COVID-19?

Jesus also used the images of salt and light to warn his followers that salt can lose its saltiness, and light can be hidden under baskets. In other words, the salt and light forget why they were created, as well as why they exist. When these things forget their purpose, food begins to rot and people bump into the furniture trying to rediscover the light source. I sometimes wonder if the institutional church is not salty enough? I sometimes wonder if the church hides the light of Christ behind its piety? I sometimes wonder if the church has become too domesticated?

Jesus once told a story about a man on his way to church who crossed the road in order to practice his piety instead of attending to the robbed and beaten man in the ditch as a way of practicing his faith. The institutional church may know that this is the story of the Good Samaritan, but the church founded and grounded in Jesus Christ doesn’t care what the name of the story is. Jesus never named the story. Jesus lived that story and asked his followers to do the same. Again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” How are we welcoming, really? What do we believe, truly? What is our purpose, and what is our mission, right now with the doors of the church closed, but the Body of Christ resurrected? We don’t have pews, but we have prayer. We don’t have communion, but we have compassion. We’re not saints, but we can suffer alongside fellow sinners. How can we be a bit more salty these days and worship God instead of worrying. How may we be light, and collectively speak truth? How can the church emphasize a life of holiness instead of posturing. These are just some of the questions I’m having now. As you think about the church’s purpose in these times, as you wonder what welcoming looks like what images come to mind for you? What innovations and experiments might we run? What is the welcoming work God is calling us to do right now? I invite you into the conversation, and into prayerful discernment as we continue to live in this new reality with God, neighbor, and world.

The Church Has Left the Building

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

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

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

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

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
~Bruce Springsteen

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

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

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

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

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

An Adjustment of Love

5th Sunday of Easter Readings

 In 2011 I started watching NASCAR. One of the things that intrigues me most about stock car racing is what happens at the pit stop. From the race track, the driver signals to his crew chief that his car is either too tight or loose. This diagnosis, determined with driver and chief calls for a much needed adjustment. When the driver pulls in for his pit stop, his pit crew make the necessary alignments, and off the driver goes –  back onto the racetrack to report new findings within the cockpit of his car.

When a pit crew makes an alignment they are adjusting the suspension of the racecar. A car’s suspension is an intricate system of “tires, [air pressure of those tires], springs, shock absorbers, and linkages that connects [the racecar] to its wheels allowing a relative motion between the two.[1] According to Wikipedia, “Suspension systems must support both road hold/handling and ride quality, which are at odds with each other. The tuning of suspensions [therefore] involves finding the right compromise.”[2]

Communities, like racecars and pit crews, have their own suspension that allows for a relative motion. Within community, the motion is relationship; and adjustments to relationship happens when persons are able to communicate freely and effectively. Ask any child which parent is more likely to buy them ice cream, and one can immediately take a guess as to which adult is the disciplinarian in the family based upon their answer. Ask a teacher which student they would put in charge if they needed to leave the classroom for a moment, and we might be able to infer something about that teacher’s values. Ask anyone what truly brings them joy, and we start to experience hearts opening up.

The relative motion in a church community is Christ, and depending upon the community each church has its own suspension engineered into it. Just like a Ford’s suspension is different from a Chevy’s, and is different than a Toyota’s, the suspension of The Episcopal Church (TEC) is different from a monastic community is different from the Roman Catholic Church. However, even though the suspension differentiates between brands of cars the goal is always to get from point a. to point b. with relative security. We might add that even though churches are broken by denominationalism they all claim Christ as the goal. For example:

We might say the suspension of TEC is reliably grounded on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason whereas our RC sisters and brothers find its authority through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (made up of the Pope and his Bishops). In Joan Chittister’s commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict she shows us what the suspension looks like underneath the hood of a Benedictine monastery. There are four essentials to monastic life in these communities of faith:

  1. The Gospel.
  2. The teaching of the prioress or abbot.
  3. The experience of the community.
  4. The Rule of St. Benedict itself. Chittister writes that:
    • The Gospel
      • “gives meaning and purpose to the community”
    • The Teaching of the abbot
      • “gives depth and direction to the community”
    • The Experience of the community
      • “gives truth to the community”
    • The Rule itself
      • “gives the long arm of essential definition and character to the community”

She continues, “No matter how far a group goes in its attempts to be relevant to the modern world, it keeps one foot in an ancient one at all times. It is this world that pulls it back, time and time again, to the tried and true, to the really real, to a Beyond beyond ourselves. It is to these enduring principles that every age looks, not to the customs or practices that intend to embody them from one age to another.”[3]

In each of our readings this morning, the Church gives us Biblical examples of what an adjustment to the suspensions of our hearts looks like. For St. Peter, he had to adjust who he thought was included and excluded within the Kingdom of God. He had to rethink what was considered clean and unclean, as well as sacred and profane. He’s reminded by God that all of God’s creation is good; therefore, “take up and eat.” He’s also reminded not to make a distinction between Jew and Gentile, but to remember them with the love of Christ whose cross is for all. Then in St. John’s Revelation new adjustments to the created order help to align a new heaven and a new earth where the destructive powers of death are no more. Finally, Jesus asks his disciples at the Last Supper to align themselves with love. In doing so, he says, “everyone will know you are my disciples.”

I wonder if you could name what the “enduring principles” within your own family are? Could you perhaps name these principles at your work, or school, or within your politics, and within your practices? Put differently, Who’s in your pit crew? Once we start to honestly probe the depths of our hearts alongside the enduring principles found in our pit crews of influence and our communities of faith we can better adjust the suspension of our souls aligning ourselves with Christ; thus aligning ourselves to the way, the truth, and the life whose north star is always love. This week, pay attention to how your engines are running, and how your suspension feels. Then reach out to your pit crews to not only report what is going on within you, but to also listen to their suggestions, observations, and realignment advice. Together, and with God’s help, your heart (as well as the heart of the community) will be filled and full for another lap or two ’round the track of life.

[1]          Wikipedia article accessed on 5-18-19. Article refers to: Jazar, Reza N. (2008). Vehicle Dynamics: Theory and Applications. Spring. p. 455. Retrieved 2012-06-24.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for he 21stCentury, (New York: Crossroads, 2016), 55-56.

What Then Should We Do?

~A meditation on Luke 3:7-18

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

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

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

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

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

Give us something.

Give us anything, Emmanuel.

Give us God.

Give Out of Your Abundance…Out of your Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.