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

In Your Mercy, Hear My Prayer

**Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020 by The Rev. Brandon Duke, Rector of St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. To see a video of this sermon click here.** 

 “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”   ~Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60

 St. Stephen is the patron saint for deacons in the church. A deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons inspire all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen had just preached a lengthy sermon to the Sanhedrin counsel where the chief priests and other religious elders gathered. It was a scene not unlike where Jesus found himself at the beginning of his Passion. Like Jesus, Stephen was condemned for his teaching, dragged outside the city by an angry mob and murdered. Like Jesus, Stephen, asked God to receive his spirit while at the same time begged God to forgive his executioners. Today’s story remembers the realities faced by the early Christian community, and the paradoxical experiences of grief and hope founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it introduces a “young man named Saul” religious historians would label as the progeny for the spread of Christianity itself through his letters to various Christian communities in first century Palestine. Before any of these letters were penned; however, The Acts of the Apostles portray Saul as another King Herod hunting down the innocent and scapegoating them because of his own deep, unconscious insecurities and ignorance. Later, Saul would be confronted on the road to Damascus by none other than the living Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4) The resurrected and ascended Jesus did not ask, “Why did you approve of Stephen’s murder,” or “Why do you hunt and kill my followers?” No. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me” and in doing so joined himself with all those who suffer from the injustices of this world.

This week, many of you now know the name, Ahmaud Arbery.[1] Mr. Arbery was a resident of Georgia, the state I call home. On February 23rd of this year in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, Ahmaud was out for his daily jog when he found himself being stalked, assaulted, and killed by racist vigilantes out of their own deep, unconscious insecurities and prejudicial ignorance. On February 27, the Brunswick district attorney recused herself from the case because of a professional tie to one of the perpetrators, Gregory McMichael. Then in early April, another prosecutor a town over (in Waycross) found no reason to charge Gregory and his son Travis claiming they were acting in self-defense. On April 13, the case was transferred to a third prosecutor who serves the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. It’s my understanding that this is currently where Mr. Arbery’s case resides. On Tuesday, May 5th of this past week a video circulated online that showed the visceral hunting, attacking, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The horrific video ignited cries for justice all across the state of Georgia and the United States, as well as revealed the hubris of local officials for not taking the McMichael’s into custody back in February. Because of the outcry, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in, the McMichael’s were finally arrested two days later on May 7 – Thursday of this past week, over two full months since they murdered Mr. Arbery. On Friday, May 8, the Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich, runners all over Georgia and the United States gathered to walk and run 2.23 miles to commemorate Mr. Arbery as well as to remember what would have been his 26th birthday. Personally, I have been heartbroken over this story and horrified by those images found on the video, and deeply grieved that a modern day lynching happened so close to my own home. My heart aches for Ahmaud and the way he died. My heart aches for his family who have already born the burdens of intolerance, disinterest, and collective silence even before this case will be tried in a court of law.

What is the Christian’s response?

One of the reasons why “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is because it ignores Christ.[2] When St. Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” the Son of Man referred to is Jesus Christ serving as the glorified heavenly judge. The scriptures continue with, “But they covered their ears [when they heard him say this], and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They couldn’t hear the truth. They were not interested. They held Stephen in contempt rushed upon him, and had him killed. After his death, the scripture reads that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In other words, they believed the murder of this man was justified, a reverent act of defense approved by the violent complacency of the pious. This piety was put on trial by none other than the heavenly judge himself. The will of God was revealed to Saul on that road to Damascus. His charge was persecution and murder of Jesus Christ himself (Again, “Why do you persecute me.”) His penitence was told to the disciple Ananias that “he (Saul) must suffer for the sake of my name” – the name of Jesus Christ. Saul was baptized Paul three days later and immediately began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. So again, “What is the Christian’s response?”

The Christian’s response is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility. When a Christian confesses their sins to God, we claim that our sins are against God and our neighbor. The two are so closely related that to deny the dignity of someone’s humanity is to deny the very ground being itself – that is, God. The reason why we confess is not to be condemned by God. We confess in order to be forgiven by God. The very act of confession frees us to get up, try again in imitation of Christ as the suffering servant. For over a thousand years recalling one’s sins has been the practice of generations of Christians. Through scripture, preaching, teaching, participating in the church’s sacraments, and fellowship, one is able to self-examine one’s life, which leads to a contrite heart, as well as the freedom found in receiving God’s forgiveness.

If you’re like me, it’s so much easier to see the sin in another than to turn that mirror upon myself revealing my own. Saul, for example, was guilty of the sin of pride. Pride defined, “puts the self at the center, and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family.”[3] Some subsets of pride are presumption, distrust, impenitence, and arrogance. When we disobey God by neglecting our neighbor, pride can also show itself with a resentful or retaliation-type mindset while malice, contempt, and domination are not too far behind. All of these prideful sins can be attributed to the McMichael’s from Ahmaud Arbery’s case. In fact, it is fairly easy to see these sins in them. The hard part is naming our own part of the mess.

As Christians, we often stumble into the sin of irreverence. Irreverence defined is “being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality while not striving to know and do God’s will.” It’s so much easier to believe we are serving God by saying nice prayers than it is to live out the virtues found in those prayers and putting them to practice in our lives. We suffer from the sin of presumption when we “fail to recognize that our work, as well as our relationships are the means by which we serve God and forward [God’s] kingdom.” All of this can lead to a distrustful relationship with God and neighbor where timidity or cowardice are accepted more than the courage to face difficulty, suffering, or responsibility.” Finally, a slothful favoritism toward others who are just like us shackles one to “silence in the face of prejudice, abuse, bullying, or cruelty for fear or for desire of favor, or acceptance” within one’s group, family, or connections.

Put simply we combat sin by naming our sin. When we own up to our little messes in the midst of bigger messes, we’re able to be forgiven and move on. Saul, who later became St. Paul, said it this way, “Grow up. Grow into the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This leads us back to St. Stephen and the inspirational ministries of deacons. Again, a deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons encourage all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. If the Christian’s response to sin is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility then we’re only going to find mercy, justice, and healing when we’re able to claim that we have received these gifts, and they are gifts to be given away. If you have received mercy in this life. Give mercy to another as a gift knowing exactly what it feels like to receive that gift. Do the same with the gifts and graces of justice as it leads humanity to healing and wholeness. Living out these virtues for the common good is Christian activism.

In a moment we’ll pray a small set of intercessory prayers simply called “Suffrages A” in the prayer book (BCP, 97).[4] These prayers speak of God’s mercy and salvation. We will petition God to afford us the privilege to be on the march for righteousness, joy, peace, and safety. The prayer then makes a turn to nation states, asking God to care for our nation and all nations guiding us in the way of justice, health, and truth. Finally, it ends with us petitioning God to help us not to forget the poor, and to clean and sustain our hearts by the power of God’s Spirit. Suffrages A is an active prayer which has the potential to lead to prayer in action.

This week, repent confessing your sins to God taking responsibility for your piece of the mess. Then, pray Suffrages A looking for those strong verbs that will compel you to get up, get out, and do something in the name of justice, mercy, and peace. Finally, try putting yourself in the mind of St. Stephen as well as Saul from today’s story. What comes up for you? Let that be your prayer. Let that be your meditation. Let that be your action and catalyst for change which leads to God’s deliverance.

Justice & Mercy Links:

Suffrages A [5]

V.     Show us your mercy, O Lord;
R.    And grant us your salvation.
V.    Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
R.    Let your people sing with joy.
V.    Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R.    For only in you can we live in safety.
V.    Lord, keep this nation under your care;
R.    And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
V.    Let your way be known upon earth;
R.    Your saving health among all nations.
V.    Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R.    Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
V.    Create in us clean hearts, O God;
R.    And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[1]                The sequence of events I used in the sermon are taken from “Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case” from The New York Times found here: https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-timeline.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-georgia-shooting&variant=show&region=TOP_BANNER&context=storylines_menu

[2]                Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned April 16, 1963: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3]                The following definitions and listing of sins come from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Revised Edition, 2014, prepared by Forward Movement on behalf of The Order of the Holy Cross. The editor is The Reverend David Cobb and the liturgical editor is Derek Olsen, PhD. “A Form of Self-Examination Based on the Seven Deadly Sins” can be found on pages 122 – 132 in the book.

[4]                BCP is short for The Book of Common Prayer. An online version can be found here: https://www.bcponline.org/. Suffrages A can be found after the Justice & Mercy Links below.

[5]  “V” means “Versicle” which is a short verse from scripture (usually taken from The Psalms) sung or said by a leader of public worship. “R” stands for “Response” where the people gathered answer or continue the prayer begun by the prayer leader (called an Officiant in Morning & Evening Prayers).

Keeping a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, typically reminds me of two things:

  1. Don’t forget I’m going to die.
  2. While alive, to be grateful for the gift of life acknowledging that life itself comes from God. When I acknowledge God as Giver of Life, it frees me up to love my neighbor as myself asking both God and my neighbor’s forgiveness when I forget.

Jesus teaches me to give credit where credit is due, but don’t make such a fuss about it.

  • Step 1: When I fall down, get up (with God’s help).
  • Step 2: When I pray, pray in secret (for the love of God).

Note to self: Don’t dare to presume to pray in public without first doing Steps 1 & 2!

If I was to add a third item to my list of what Ash Wednesday reminds me to do it would be to take stock (or take inventory) of my life. Where is all my energy going, and why? Where is all my money going, and why? “For where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also,”

[I think I may have to add another item to my list for Ash Wednesday]; that is, to contemplate on this phrase: “God is God; and I am not.” God is God, and I am not. Oh how I fall short of perfection, but if I’m honest with myself I do try – that is – to be perfect. Perhaps Lent gives me permission not to try to grasp at perfection, but to find joy in the one who perfectly loves?

I’m a priest. This means a lot of things, but one thing it means on Ash Wednesday is by virtue of my ordination and office in the church I get to read (out loud and to anyone that is present) An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent, and The Litany of Penitence found in our prayer books. I enjoy reading the Ash Wednesday liturgy  (I really do); however, reading (especially “An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent”) out loud convicts my own soul. It reminds me (publicly) of where and how I fall short. It reminds me (publicly) of my death. It reminds me (publicly) to love my neighbor. It reminds me (publicly) that I forget to remember these things; thus, God is God and I am not. Oh how humbling. Not humiliating; but humbling. It’s humbling to be reminded that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. It’s humbling to be reminded that God is ready to forgive but I hesitate to ask. It’s humbling to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness; then in the very next breathe God goes on and gives more of himself! He gives me/us/you his Body and Blood as pure gift, life, and love.

So maybe I’ll try and get more sleep over these next 40 days. Give up chocolate, or meat, or wine. Take on what I feel is necessary to observe a holy Lent. I’ll do what I need to do to practice my piety, knowing full well that these practices reward me more than they do God. Perhaps I’ll simply do what Jesus says; that is, to practice them quietly and in secret; then in 40 days the greatest secret held in plain sight will be revealed again so that even at the grave (even in my death) I’ll make my song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

This New Year Recall the Light of Christ in Your Life

The Prayer Book defines 7 “principal kinds of prayer” being adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition (BCP, 856). These are all defined on page 857; however, there are two – thanksgiving and penitence – which I would like to focus on as we approach the New Year.

For 4 weeks, the Season of Advent gifted us with John the Baptist’s invitation to repent in order to prepare our hearts for the light of Christ coming into the world at Christmas. Christmas is a season of thanksgiving as we stand thankful for the gift of light within our lives being called (like John) to witness to this light (Jn 1:7,8). This act of thanksgiving is symbolized on Christmas morning when someone gives you a gift to open. You open it; thus acknowledging the gift. Then you thank the person for the gift by actually using the gift – be it a toy, or something practical, or monetary. Again, you use the gift that has been given to you.

Taking these two prayers, thanksgiving and penitence, and thinking about the closing out of one year and the opening up of another, let us recollect, counting our many blessings naming them one by one through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledging and confessing sin in our lives – not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. This is a great way to not only end a year, but to also live into the next one with grace, mercy, and integrity.

God Moments
When a God Moment occurs, we usually tell somebody about them, or we serve Christ in tangible ways because of all our recognizable moments with God. We are like John the Baptist “testifying to the light” when we participate in these God Moments. Prayers of repentance as well as thanksgiving help to recall those God Moments in our lives, and the church has gifted us with spiritual tools to help recollect both our sins and our thanksgivings. It’s important to balance confession with thanksgiving. Only confessing sin leaves us dull, and boarders on obsessiveness and morbidity. On the other hand, continually thanking God without confessing sin puts us out of touch with the reality of sin, and ignores real problems within our own lives, the lives of others, and even the life of our planet. Having balance with these two types of prayers is a sign of Christian maturity, and spiritual longevity.

Self-Examination & Confession
When there is a God Moment that convicts you of a sin, or sins, in your life this is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pray. Tradition calls this movement of the Spirit, self-examination. We examine our lives in the light of God’s mercy and love, while seeking forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds done and left undone where we fell short. There are multiple manuals within the tradition of Christianity that have helped countless Christians recall and confess their sins. I want to look at 2 of them in the English/Anglican/Episcopal Tradition: The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The Bible
One way to examine our lives is to put it up against Judeo-Christian practices, specifically the moral and aesthetical practices found within the Bible. Within the Old Testament, we could turn to the Decalogue, or The 10 Commandments, meditating on them and observing where we are convicted of sin. From the New Testament, we might consider reading and meditating on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel or when Jesus summed up the law. Let’s take this last one (Jesus Summing up the Law) and treat it as an example of self-examination. Jesus said,

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

During self-examination we might get curious as to how we understand and experience love within our lives (“Thou shalt love”), and how our love extends from our self, to those around us, including God. Reversing this, we might ask how we believe God extends his love to us, those around us, and in fact, to all God’s creation. This love extends out through our “hearts,” “souls,” and “minds.” This gives us pause as we can now recollect the awesome power of God’s love, and where we fall short giving expression of this love to ourselves, neighbors, and the world. What starts out as a broad meditation on God’s love and the feeling of falling short can now turn into specifics: “I didn’t love God with my mind when I…” “I neglected my neighbor just yesterday when I…” Being specific is important when confessing sin, and reveals to God your desire to be forgiven.

The Prayer Book
Self-examination in the prayer book is best expressed in the liturgical Rite of Baptism. Here, we are reminded of our Baptismal Promises made, or someone made on our behalf at our baptism, if one was baptized as an infant or young child. These promises are on page 304-305. Another resource is St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. In it are specific questions for self-examination using the traditional “7 Deadly Sins.” Once a Christian has practiced self-examination using the Bible and the prayer book for a while, and desires to go deeper, this is an excellent resource for doing so. Getting back to the Prayer Book, once sins have been recollected, there are three ways to seek absolution and forgiveness in the Episcopal Tradition. The first is to confess your sins directly to God in private asking for forgiveness, then praying a prayer of Thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 51 is a classic Psalm of thanksgiving for forgiveness of sins. There are other Psalms that you may wish to say with your own words of thanksgiving as well. The second way is during the General Confession either during Holy Eucharist, or within the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers). The last is a Rite in the Prayer Book called, Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP, 447). This is confession to God with a priest being present to absolve the penitent through his priestly ministry of absolution. Confession to a priest isn’t in vogue like it used to be; however, this sacramental rite of the church is always available. Persons who use this office of the church today are usually wondering if God truly forgave them, and desire some tangible closure. This isn’t always the case of course as many Christians find confession beneficial at certain seasons of the Church, or at regular times in the calendar where confession to God through the priest is particular important and necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity. Traditional times of self-examination and confession during the liturgical year are during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Thanksgivings 
Leaving confession and going over to Thanksgiving: Here you Count your blessings. Naming them one-by-one. A sense of gratefulness and thankfulness can suddenly wash over us as we recollect the many wonders of life and being. When this happens we can pause, taking it all in, and simply say, “Thank You.” When we want to be more specific, a great resource found within the Prayer Book is the Thanksgiving section found on page 836 and 837. This section is divided into A General Thanksgiving and A Litany of Thanksgiving. I’ve taken both of these and put them in question format for better recollection and self-examination. Once the questions have been answered, a proper way of closing out the recollection is to simply pray one of the two prayers. This can be done by yourself, in a small group, or within your family as a wonderful way of thanking God for the many blessings of life and light in our lives now as well as thinking upon this past year. The questions are below. Choose as many or as little as you with. I hope you find them helpful; then, using the Prayer Book, either use one of the prayers of thanksgiving on page 836 and 837, or gather up all your thanksgivings and pray The Lord’s Prayer.

God’s creation is beautiful. Where did you seek out beauty and find it this year?

Where did you remember the mystery of love this year? Who helped you remember?

How were you blessed by family? by friends? How were you cared for? How were you caring?

We can be thankful for our disappointments and failures if we faithfully believe that these missteps can lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. How was this true for you?

 Choose a Gospel story were Jesus is teaching, healing, suffering, being tempted, questioning, being obedient, dying, etc. Place yourself into the story. What do you believe God is showing you today?

 What do you know about Jesus? How do you know him and/or experience him in your own life?

 What gifts did you receive this year? Could any of these gifts be used to “give back” to God?

 Did you travel somewhere beautiful this year? If so, describe it to God.

 Do you pray to God thanking him for the food and drink you are blessed to have, shelter over your head, and friends that support you along the way? Thank God for these now.

 Where did you use your God-given intellect this year? How did it help you or someone else? Did you know thinking critically is a gift?

 How did you serve Christ in “the neighbor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the lonely” this year? How did they serve you?

 Work gives humanity dignity and respect. Are you satisfied with the work you did this year? Will you remain in this work next year, or are you discerning “a new calling?”

 Where did you take the time to make good use of leisure, rest, and play? Do you have tangible plans for these important things in the coming year?

 How are you brave and courageous? Who is your example – either living or past?

 When you suffer or are experiencing adversity, are you patient? Do you experience God’s presence in these times?

 How do you seek after truth, liberty, and justice? How are these Godly attributes lived out in your life?

 Who is your favorite saint, and why?

Conclusion
As we set aside 2018 looking toward 2019 may these two types of prayer – penitence and thanksgiving – give you pause in your life to recall, recollect, and examine your lives in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.

God bless you, and Happy New Year!