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

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

John 1:43-51

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

Dust Your Self Off and Try Again

Last year I suggested to the parish I serve not to create New Year’s resolutions. The gentle challenge had a practical application: Most New Year’s resolutions end in failure, and what follows is personal guilt and blame. Instead, I recommended taking on New Year’s experiments. Experiments, by definition, welcome failure in order to learn something new. There is no guilt involved – only an adjustment or tweak here and there to run the experiment again. The message got through to some, and throughout this year I have had several parishioners share with me their various experiments, and what seemed to work or not.

As I ponder 2016, and look towards 2017 I will be running some new experiments of my own as well as continuing some of the experiments I ran this past year. I’d like to share a few of these with you, and challenge you to come up with your own.

My first experiment I will be continuing into 2017 is to read and listen to the “other side”.

Last year during the season of Lent and Easter, I challenged myself to read books on conservative thought, as well as to bend my ear towards many of my politically conservative friends. The immediate result of studying the history of conservative thought in England and America was that my political leanings drifted from the left into the middle. For me, this is a good place to be since my vocation lends its ear to those who wept during the presidential election (Democrats) and those who rejoiced (Republicans). Although the president-elect does not necessarily fit into the traditional mold of American party politics, through my reading and conversation, I have a better grasp of where his proposed policies or political appointments stand on the spectrum of the conservative/liberal spectrum.

Where I will continue this experiment on into the new year is to get my news from newspapers and in-depth books – not social media, or television. For 2017, I have subscribed to two local papers, The Douglas County Sentinel and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. I have also subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post. These newspapers not only hold to the code of sound journalism, but by subscribing to them, I am also supporting this important medium of news reporting. Thus far, my reading and understanding of the issues that are important to my community and our world have been enlightening.

My second continuation of 2016 experiments is to read fiction and poetry.

Reading is a life-long love of mine, so this will probably never change; but as I get older I am realizing more and more the power of novels, poetry, and short-stories on the imagination, the soul, and how they can inform me in totally different ways than a newspaper ever will. I read 28 books this last year. I’m challenging myself to do 30 for 2017.

My final experiment is to continue to practice my vocation of the priesthood.

This means praying the Daily Office everyday, reading and studying the Bible weekly, writing sermons that challenge, loving the parishioners I serve, as well as serving ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger,’ and ‘the neighbor’ outside the walls of the parish. I feel all of this begins at home. I practice my calling to the priesthood by practicing my vocation to marriage and parenting. This translates into all walks of my life; so to be a good father, husband, and son means being a good priest and visa-versa. I thank God for my family (and extended parish family) everyday. This gratitude is something I want God to remind me of more and more in the coming years.

These are simple, yet doable experiments, and please take notice that none of my experiments have anything to do with fear or anxiety. These two vices played roughly in 2016, but will be sidelined in 2017 as far as I’m concerned. I have no time for them.

In closing, these are experiments – not resolutions. I won’t necessarily complete them in the way I may imagine them now, but that’s okay. I will dust myself off and try again. So, here’s to 2017 – another year to dust your self off and try again – And try again we must.


Identity Politics in The Body of Christ

Today at the 110th Annual Council meeting of The Episcopal Church of Atlanta in Middle and North Georgia, Resolution 16-7 passed after a two-hour floor exercise that included countless amendments, amendments to amendments, debate, anxiety, and opinions.

Let me go ahead and show my cards on matters such as these, and say I oppose the Church involving itself in what is sometimes labeled, ‘identity politics.’ The Episcopal Church’s slogan is, “All are welcome,” and I have come to the simple conclusion that all means all when it comes to welcoming the stranger, the neighbor, the enemy, and the other. Where I felt a ping of sadness was that the Church felt it necessary to specifically name and label groups of people instead of letting “all” stand as is. Let me give you some background and context for my sadness.

I believe the Church’s genesis point of where we meet one another in Christ has shifted. It has shifted from experiencing each individual person as divine mystery, created in the image of God to a group identity politic. The original identity politics held the Church as the Body of Christ, with Christ being the head (Col. 1:18). The telos of Christ’s Church, then, was to allow the Body to grow into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Put another way, we used to believe in the content of one’s character instead of the color of one’s skin, one’s sexual orientation, one’s disability, one’s rights, etc. I sometimes wonder… What if The Episcopal Church got out of the rights business and back into the relationship business?

I understand the context of why Resolution 16-7 was written. The United States is still recovering from a tumultuous election, and half the country is in a panic. The proposal wanted everyone to know that the Episcopal Church welcomes all no matter what, but with acknowledged  skepticism, I wondered if the resolution would truly get outside the echo chamber that is The Episcopal Church.

One of the problems with allowing so much energy and resources to filter into identity politics is that groups, by definition are exclusive; whereas, the Church of Jesus Christ is inclusive. There is a certain groupthink that takes place, and anyone outside the groups’ normative ways of thinking is dismissed as a racist, homophobe, bigot, etc. Why would the Church support a construct such as this?

I desire the Church to get back to the basics of Holy Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as a catalyst for furthering our relationship with God, self, neighbor, creation, other, and enemy. At its best, the Church lives into this day in and day out; however, I am growing weary with The Episcopal Church and its strange social justice bedfellows. There are other options, and ways to live, move and have our being in this important work of reconciliation, but I believe the starting point is not with rights. It’s with relationship.

Now that I showed my own biases, and in conclusion, let me simply say the hard work I experienced in the room today was beautiful and inspiring. The way Bishop Robert C. Wright held the tension, yet allowed and made room for the Spirit to move was truly impressive. All the Christians who stood up, spoke from the heart, and truly listened to one another. I believed we experienced one another as the Body of Christ. I believed compassion and spiritual health was strengthened. I believed all were truly welcomed, and why not? Although I disagree with the results of this resolution, I am forever grateful for the journey into deeper relationship one with another, and for that I say, “Thanks be to God.”


Loss, Intentionality, and Grace – Part II

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” ~Isa. 65:17

Last week’s blog was really Part I of II. You are invited to read it here. I spoke of grief and loss, and how it is vitally important to allow the natural processes of grief to take hold. I also spoke of intentionality, and how a life well lived (also called the good life) can be defined by how one makes intentional efforts to better the self, and in doing so bettering society. I ended last week’s message with a quotation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Somewhat reading the tea leaves and anticipating passions being expressed about last week’s Congressional and Presidential elections, I knew that in Part II of today’s blog, I wanted to gift you with tangible ways of evolving one’s passions into com-passion. Put another way (and in question form) “How can we internalize and work through our passions, but with the ultimate goal being to release and transform our passion into compassion?” What helps me is to think about the breath: We breathe in our passions and the passions of others (coming at us from all sides), and if we hold our breath like we hold our anxiety and fear, then our body shuts down, or our bodies get sick. If we work (breathe) out our anxieties and fears with the help of Spirit, then new possibilities open up and compassion for self and society are realized.

I’m currently reading Richard Rohr’s new book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. In it, he helps break down the complicated language of defining God as Trinity, and he gives example after example of how Trinity is best thought of and experienced as – relationship. Not only can we think of God eternally relating and loving God’s self, but Rohr reminds us that God is constantly inviting us into the relationship as well. We are gracefully invited to banquet and be with God in every aspect of our lives. In fact, Rohr argues, this invitation is all around us in the form of God’s creation from the subatomic particles of an atom – proton, neutron, and electron all gaining energy because of how they relate one to another as they orbit around the nucleus – to the planets in our solar system orbiting around our sun, and while the sun orbits around the Milky Way galaxy every 230 million years. He gives an example of how destructive it is when the subatomic particles stop relating one to another. If they suddenly stop relating and the atom is split, then a nuclear reaction takes place. Put in a different context, when relationships are broken, compromised, and dishonored, all too often divisions, detachment, fear, and separation are the results.

On Tuesday night, the poll numbers revealed how split we are as a country. But if we are honest with ourselves, didn’t we already know that? Didn’t we already know, or can we now confess that our society is virtually composed of tribes? We have the Tribe of MSNBC, the Tribe of Fox News, the Tribe of Republicans, and the Tribe of Democrats. There are even tribes within the tribes: Are you a conservative, moderate, or progressive Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green/Independent? Are you a one-issue voter, or not? Research has even shown that the social media platforms we use that are supposed to bring us closer as a society (like Facebook and Twitter) use algorithms that keep us in our own bubbles and echo chambers so that any thought, word, or deed that is open to debate is kept far, far away from us out of “respect” for one’s personal simulation of the world in which the self, the ID, the me/me/me/me has created. These tribes, bubbles, and echo chambers make us literally forget what it means to be in relationship and harmony with God, self, creation, and neighbor. Put differently, we are creating a reality in which we create God in our own images. We are the Hebrew people, and our tribal golden calf is based upon the illusion that the ego is the one, true self (Exodus 32).

My friend and colleague, Fr. Zachary Thompson, Rector of the Anglo-Catholic parish in Atlanta, Church of Our Savior, had a passing thought on what some term as ‘identity politics’. He said, “We often use categories such as boomers, millennial, urbanites, conservatives, liberals, ivory tower intellectuals, activists, keepers of the status quo, secularists, fundamentalists etc. etc. to speak of cultural phenomena; and too often we can use these categories to dismiss certain people so that we can advance an argument that is suitable to our way of thinking. We need to be careful to remember that we are talking about particular human beings made in the image of God with fears, hopes, dreams, and failures. A more interesting way to think of ourselves (and one another) is in relation to our development in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, kindness ([these are] degrees of deification [or] growing in the likeness of God).”

So how do we mend our brokenness and division? How do we allow God’s love to enter in through the cracks? How do we compassionately respond to God’s grace that is constantly being gifted to us?

Isaiah Chapter 65 might give us a clue to some of these questions. The context for the chapter is this: We have a broken, exiled people returning to their homeland, but when they arrive home the brokenness, anxiety, and fear continues. The Temple (which was destroyed before the exile) was still in ruins. The cities were still in crumbling disarray, but the compassionate voice of God through the prophet Isaiah uses the language of creation to give hope to God’s people. God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17). This throwback to the scene East of Eden permits the people to reimagine a New Jerusalem, a new city, a new homeland. These words of God also extends an invitation to the people to remember how to relate with God, self, and neighbor. Mary Eleanor Johns sums up this passage from the prophet Isaiah with these words,

“[W]e seek to participate in God’s new creation not as a means of earning it, but as a way of responding to God’s grace extended to us. Through our restored relationship with God and our relationship with all of God’s creations, we are given new lenses of hope by which can experience a foretaste of the new creation that Isaiah prophesies” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4, p.294).

The key word for me in Mary Eleanor’s insight is the word, “respond”.

May our prayers this week ask for the grace to know the difference between re-acting and re-sponding, and passion from com-passion. May God also soften our hearts, and guide us in developing an intentional life that grows in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, and kindness. May our fears turn not into realities as we seek further relationship with God, neighbor, and enemy.


The Similarities of Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter Movement

Imagine a king’s court where the royals sit on elevated platforms, in elaborate chairs made of gold, and comfortably cushion their rumps with red velvet. The king and queen have their crowns and stately attire on. The court itself welcomes the immaculately dressed lords and ladies. Perhaps a string quartet is playing off to the side, and prim and proper dance, food rituals, and status are held in high esteem. There are both spoken and unspoken rules that revolve around attire, speech, dance, food, as well as how to approach and speak to the king and queen. It is a tranquil scene. It is a scene of status quo.

Enter the court jester. He pays no attention to the rules of the court. In fact, he sees it as his job to question the rules through his actions. He jumps up on the large dinner table, grabs an apple from a lord, takes a bite, and then throws it against the wall. He then goes over to the musicians, and plucks violently at the strings of a cello in an abstract form of music. He pays no attention to the royals, but rather makes fun of their clothes, rings, and proper ways of doing things.

The jester plays his part. Many are offended by his actions, but a few understand both his motives as well as his engagements. He is bringing to light the spoken and unspoken rules of the court, and is questioning them. He is curious about the status quo and who its guardians truly are. What will be the result of his actions? Will the ones who are mostly offended rein him in out of fear and/or nostalgia? Will the ones who understand him join in with his questioning and enact change? Perhaps it is not the court jester’s role to provide these answers, but to provide the questions in order for prince and pauper to debate and decide.

In my opinion, the court jesters of today’s political landscape come from two different extremes, but are essentially doing the same task. They are bringing to light both the seen and unseen rules of American society, and are publically questioning them. On the right, we have Donald Trump, and on the left we have the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump invites himself into the American political process, but does not play by the rules that television watching Americans are used to. He disrupts the social rules of order by calling into question, “that’s just the way it is.” By doing so, he is attracting a large following, while those who are used to “that’s just the way it is” are scratching their heads.

This is happening within the Black Lives Matter movement as well. American blacks are showing white Americans that there are spaces that remain “black,” and there are spaces that remain “white.” It is an unspoken rule that has now been exposed. One reason blacks seem to be “disrupting” white democratic presidential candidates is to reveal “white space” and to expose in a very micro-way what is and has happened in this country on a macro level.

The combination of having court jesters on either side disrupts the status quo, and it will be up to Americans to reflect on what this means going forward. What will be the result of their actions? Will the ones who are mostly offended rein these movements in out of fear and/or nostalgia? Will the ones who understand them join in with their questioning and enact change? Perhaps it is not the court jester’s role to provide these answers, but to provide the questions in order for prince and pauper to debate and decide.