On Earth as it is in Heaven

**Sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on February 11, 2018.**

Human beings are fascinated by the mystical – those mysterious experiences that are difficult to put into words. In our post-enlightenment world there are many who scoff at miracles and throw off all notions and dealings with the divine. Others are skeptical and prefer to regard such obscurities with rational caution. Still others like to pick and choose what miracles to believe coming up with supernatural categories of most creditable down to the least likely. The problem often lies in language itself. Mystical experience may be best regulated to the realm of the ineffable and wordless, and yet we can’t seem to help ourselves. For centuries, humans have captured these experiences in story, art, music, and dance. Millions go on pilgrimages to holy sites where apparitions have been seen, or relics are there waiting to be touched. For all the progress humanity has made, there still seems to be an innate desire to give credit where credit is due. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ may be the subconscious petitionary prayer of the human psyche; but what if the will of God does indeed continue to be done on earth as it is in heaven? Perhaps today’s story – the story of the transfiguration – provides us with that hope of God’s providence.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote that “In the transfiguration, what the disciples [saw was] Jesus’ humanity ‘opening up’ to its inner dimensions.” (The Dwelling of the Light, p. 4). The church places today’s story at the end of the season of Epiphany while looking toward the new beginnings of Lent. This placement in the church’s calendar, along with Williams’ keen interpretation beautifully connects the human condition – that is, one of suffering, sin, and a lack of omniscience – with the one who took on sin and suffering for our sake looking upon us fully with the eyes of love. We need this hopeful reminder as we put to sleep Epiphany, and bring into the light those darker parts of ourselves within the Lenten season. Today’s Collect reiterates this hope:

“O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”

It should be said that the transfiguration is first and foremost about Jesus. So many times persons who have religious (or spiritual) experiences try to recreate them in all sorts of oddities and addictions. When this form of adultery is practiced, the receiver of the initial gift forgets about the giver, and grace is grieved. When we acknowledge the correct ordering of all things – on earth and in heaven – we are then able to say that we participate in the ongoing grace of God. We behold the light of Christ’s countenance in order to bear our crosses, and be changed into his likeness instead of our own ideological images. One of the most beautiful truths of the transfiguration is that others were invited to participate in it. This was enlightening for those involved, and prophetic for us all. It was enlightening to Peter, James, and John because this experience could not be captured in words until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They were invited to participate in Christ’s resurrection, not in their own time, but in the perfect timing of God. The transfiguration is prophetic for us because we too are to participate in Christ’s resurrection. If Williams is correct, and the disciples saw Jesus’ humanity opening up to its inner dimensions, then we too are invited to share in that eternal promise.

Throughout Epiphany, we have seen that discipleship consists of repentance, obedience, and participation in the divine life. We have seen Jesus going to places and meeting people that many of us would be uncomfortable mixing and mingling, and yet, his ministry still calls out to us. His ministry is one that says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” His ministry says that “nothing can separate you from my love.” If we believe these faithful truths, then why can’t our faith compel us to invite others into the ongoing participatory life of God? In other words, “walking in love as Christ loves us” means that we are to share the resurrected life of God with others because Jesus has shared his love, light, and life with us.

At its core, the transfiguration paradoxically reminds us what it means to be human. Paradox must be involved because the transfiguration expresses both what is now, and what is yet to come; that is, the consummation of a new heaven and a new earth, and a fuller expression of what being human ultimately will be like while at the same time living in our current state. The transfiguration (as well as the resurrection of Jesus Christ) points us to this truth. It is with the transformed eyes of faith we believe this, and hope is not too far behind.

‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ not only petitions God to make this transfiguration prayer a reality, it also reminds us (in the words of N. T. Wright) that heaven and earth were made for one another, body and spirit are one, and a transfigured existence awaits all of God’s handiwork. Unlike the disciples; however, we are not to keep silent because we now know the rest of the story. It’s a prophetic story we’ve been gifted and invited into. It’s a providential dance of faith, hope, and love. It’s an illuminating prayer of revealed glory, perpetual light, and transformed creation.

Present Yourself to the Lord – A Meditation on Candlemas

**The following was featured on the blog, Modern Metanoia in January, and preached at a Candlemas Service at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on Feb. 2, 2018.**

There’s a house on my block that sold weeks ago. No one has moved in. It sits empty; and there are still Christmas lights hanging from the roof. Its purgatory-like presence both intrigues and annoys. Annoys because the house and its yard are untidy. Intrigues because today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Let me explain:  Today marks the 40th day after Christmas, and with this feast the Church closes out the “Incarnation cycle.” In other words, it’s time to put away those Christmas decorations. We’re two weeks away from Lent…Shouldn’t we be tidying up the yards of our hearts, climbing a ladder to the roofs of our souls tearing down those Christmas lights? “Not so fast,” says this Feast Day. In fact, some Christian traditions hide away the light bulbs while the candles come out. For this reason, The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes referred to as Candlemas. It’s the day when the candles used in worship services will be blessed. It’s also a reminder that the long winter’s nights are still around, yet the light of Christ eternally radiates the darkness.

Luke 2:22-40 gives us three presentations to consider on this feast day. The holy family presented sacrifices of thanksgiving in accordance with the law of Moses (“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”). They also presented their newborn son, Jesus, who “suddenly comes to his temple;” thus fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy found in Malachi 3:1. The third presentation is that of Simeon and Anna, two pious and patient Jews, who waited their whole lives to present themselves to the Messiah.

Luke’s story also captures the tensions and realities found in new things. A new child was born as the Messiah, yet old thoughts and formularies about what this meant had to pass away. Mary, like any mother, was proud of her new son, yet she learned “a sword [would] pierce [her] heart” when new revelations about her child would be exposed (Luke 2:35). For each beginning, there is an ending; and the transitions in between are often messy and confusing.

As we transition out of Christmas and Epiphany into the season of Lent, may Candlemas be a day to honor what has come before, and to ready ourselves as to what may lay ahead. If the lights are still on your roof, know that the house of your heart does not stand empty, but is filled with God’s “wisdom and favor” (Luke 2:40). If the Christmas decorations are down at your house, take out a candle, light it, and present yourself to the Lord in prayer as Christ presents himself to you in illumination.

Below, please find the prayer that will be said in Episcopal churches and homes today. I offer it to you in thanksgiving for your ministry to Christ. Use the prayer as you light a candle, then find a word or phrase that sticks out to you, and meditate on its meaning. As for me (and my soon-to-be neighbor) who knows? I may go over to their sold, yet unkempt house, plug in those Christmas lights one last time, praying and contemplating something similar.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 239)

 

 

God is a God Who Gathers

At the Feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany we remembered God coming into the world in the form of a child. The Spirit of God took on flesh, sanctified it, and made it holy. It is God’s dream that all people will eventually come to know him through his beloved son. With his Son, God is eternally “well pleased” because he chose to identify with us in our sin and in our nature. This was why Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the River Jordan – to identify with us in our sufferings. Last week began the call narratives of Jesus which extend into today’s Gospel as well. God continues to preach repentance as he gathers his twelve. This morning, I want to expand on the revelation that God is a God who gathers. I’ll be using an argument put forth by Bishop Robert Barron in his chapter Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man from his book “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.”

Ever since humanity’s first parents fell out of paradise, that is, broke their relationship with God, God has been hard at work trying to mend that brokenness. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that Yahweh, the God of Israel, gathered his people with covenants, commandments, and kings. The relationship with Yahweh and Israel is a complicated history to say the least; however, the prophets taught that right relationship with God was to have a posture of both amazement and fear when approaching the Divine for when we approach God, we humbly approach the very essence of being and life. This morning’s Psalm had that beautiful opening line, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Silence, so it seems, captures that awesome, and oftentimes fearful relationship we have with the God of the universe. Christians go one step further to claim that the God of Israel, the God that created the Cosmos is also Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Put differently, Jesus “was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people. [1]

Hear Bishop Barron’s words on God as a great gathering force:[2]

“When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message [found in today’s Gospel reading]: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of “Kingdom of God,” but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus’s first audience understood by that term. N. T. Wright argues that [1st century Jews] would have heard, “the tribes [of Israel] are being gathered.” According to the basic narrative of the [Hebrew Scriptures], God’s answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be “peculiarly his own,” and he shaped them by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God’s intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet for the rest of humanity, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mount Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for “all the tribes of the earth.” But the tragedy was that more often than not Israel was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the eighth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and even more so in the devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel could never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.”

It’s no accident that in John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It’s with this image that we can reimagine today’s reading and the calling of the twelve disciples. When Jesus preached repentance, and that the kingdom of God was near (while at the same time calling the twelve), he was acting as Yahweh who gathered up his sheep from the twelve tribes of Israel, called them to repent once again, and brought them into the fold of his Divine love. Is it no surprise then, that God continues to do this with us today? He calls us by name saying, “Follow me.”

This morning’s collect reads, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” When we answer the call of Jesus (the call of his “Follow me”) we sacrifice a lot. The prophet Jonah didn’t want to go to the city of Nineveh initially. Today’s reading starts out saying, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I love this because is not God a God of second chances? Doesn’t God give us grace and mercy when we would rather be scattered rather than gathered? The people of Nineveh were a gathered people, but they were gathered in sin. In other words, they were gathered for the wrong reasons. God had to correct this, and it required sacrifice. It required repentance. If Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God is it any surprise that Jesus is proclaiming the same message as he did to Jonah? Is it any surprise that he is still giving his people another chance? When Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets to follow him, they were symbolically giving up their livelihoods for God. They were even putting God above their families, and not because Jesus was a good teacher, healer, or prophet; but because for God alone their souls had been waiting in silence like the prophets of old, and in Jesus they saw and experienced God. Like a moth to a flame they drew near, and by doing so God was gathering up his people once again. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the [Gospel. Believe in the] good news.”

We are now fully embedded in the Season of Epiphany. It is in this season that Christ (through his church) is calling us. It is in this season where we get to drop our nets, our anxieties, our fears, and follow him. When we do this, we make certain sacrifices and are called to repent. The church in her wisdom understands this, and so we are given the gift of Lent – the season that follows Epiphany, the season that reminds us that if we are to be gathered in we are to confess our sins and receive the Gospel. The Gospel in its entirety points us to Easter where God gets to make the sacrifice for the sins of the world, thus fully and finally making a way for all people to experience the kingdom of God.

What nets do you need to drop in order to prepare for repentance? What nets need to be discarded in order to follow Christ? For God alone, our souls in silence wait, but is it not also true that God is constantly waiting on us to respond to his call, to his life, to his light? Trust him, and not because he’s a good teacher, preacher, or prophet. Trust him because if he is who he claims to be, he is that great gathering force of old. He is Yahweh. He is the Word. He is God. Trust him with this truth, and in this season of Epiphany, may that truth set us all free.

[1]                Robert Barron, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries: 2011), 15-16.

[2]                The below is a full paragraph from above’s reference. Ibid., 15-16.

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.” 

The Questions Epiphany Bring

During Epiphany we remember three miracles: The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with the voice of God the Father giving approval for this act, the wedding feast in Cana where ordinary water was turned into extraordinary wine; and finally, the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. These Epiphany miracles remind us Jesus’ ministry has begun. They also foreshadow his death and resurrection, and how we are compelled to take up our crosses and follow him. The Season of Epiphany invites us to find the miraculous in the mundane, and to walk alongside Christ as a disciple.

During what is sometimes referred to as the “Octave of Christmas” – those 8 out of the 12 days of Christmas – the Church’s calendar begins to reveal what following Christ truly entails. December 26, the day after Christmas, is St. Stephen’s feast day. The irony in the placement of this feast is clear. On December 25th, we remember the birth of Christ, the Messiah into our world, and the very next day we remember the death of Stephen, one who followed him. St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christendom, and revealed what the cost of discipleship can sometimes entail. The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

On the second day of Christmas, we remember St. John the apostle and evangelist. John takes us away from martyrdom for a moment and helps us focus on Calvary’s cross in a very intimate way. From the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his Mother Mary; he then looked to John, and again at them both and said, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26). A classic interpretation of this story is that Mary represented the Church. John was to be joined to her, and the Church to him. Christ compels us to do the same through the graces his Church offers.

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocence. Here, we are reminded that those who stand in the way of the State (represented by Herod in the story) will be punished and even killed for the sake of Truth. It is Jesus Christ that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not emperors, kings, congress, or presidents. Historically it is the State that is willing to sacrifice the least of these in order to gain power; whereas, Christ lifts up the least of these as the ones who will inherit the true Kingdom founded upon Him.

Finally, on the octave of Christmas the Church remembers Christ’s Holy Name. Here, we remember the name the angel gave him – the name Emmanuel – which means God with us. This name is important because if the call to discipleship is to loose our self for the sake of Christ (again, represented in St. Stephen) then Christ (as Emmanuel) is always with us. He’s with us in our joys and our sufferings. He’s with us corporately in His Mystical Body – the Church. He’s with us whether we are Jew or Gentile as St. Paul reminded us in his letter to the Church in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God is with us is a great Christmas truth that continues into this season of Epiphany. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, the apostle. Peter confessed to Jesus that he was indeed who he said he was. Jesus is the Christ, and Peter would spend the rest of his life stumbling around trying desperately to figure out what following him meant. Peter, in other words, is very much like you and I.

The following week, we have the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s story is a conversion story in the extreme. It was he who by persecuting the Church was persecuting the very Body of Christ. Christ appeared to him and told him this. Paul repented of his sin, and followed Christ. He then went on to produce most of the canonized letters found in the Bible’s New Testament.

On the 40th day after Christmas, and really the day that ends the Christmas stories, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here, we remember Jesus being presented by his parents to the priest; and yet like Anna and Simeon who were waiting on him in the Temple, we too must ask how we are to present ourselves to him. Again, do we fight against him and recollect our egos like Herod; or do we die to our egos, take up our crosses and follow him? These are short questions, and the Church gives us 40 long days in which to contemplate them.

After tomorrow, which is the Baptism of Our Lord, the Church will change its liturgical colors from white to green. Green signifies growth, and Epiphany truly is a season in which we are invited to grow into the likeness and image of Christ. Will you be like Peter this season, proclaiming Christ is Lord, yet wondering how to follow him? Will you be like Paul, in need of conversion from this or that in order to truly follow in his path? Ponder these questions that the Church naturally gives at this time, then live into their answers knowing God as Emmanuel is always with you.

Christian Morality Remembers Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Leadership

Sermon from 5th Sunday after the Epiphany focusing on Matt. 5:13-20 & Isa. 58:1-12

When I was in high school my Dad got a promotion that required us to move. Even though the place where we settled was only about 40 minutes away, the culture of moving from suburbia to rural was shocking. At my old middle and high schools, I was only involved in a few extra-curricular activities (band and soccer). At the new rural school and with a class size of less than 50, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Through my three years at Harmony HS, I was involved in band, drama, choir, basketball, track, and Beta Club. I seemed to be friends with just about everybody, and was at least respected by those who didn’t necessarily want to hang out with me. My wife, Ann, always jokes that she so would not have dated me in HS because of my Brady-Bunch-like interests but I say, “To each his own.”

Maybe it was because of all the activities I was involved in, maybe it was because my Dad was now a training manager for the company he worked for, or maybe it was a little of both; nevertheless, he got me interested in thinking about leadership. Dad had about a 35-minute commute to work, and on many of those driving days he would listen to leadership books on tape. At the time, Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was popular, as well as anything by Tony Robbins, and the old-time Texas transplant, Zig Ziglar. Dad got me hooked on these leaders’ thought processes, and challenged me not to ever be a follower in life, but to instead, lead.

Nowadays I am still drawn to leadership books and seminars, but have narrowed down the pile somewhat. Out of seminary, I took at two-year leadership course the diocese offers for new priests that focused on what’s called, adaptive leadership. While in seminary, I studied family-systems theory through the lens of Edwin Friedman, and here lately I’ve been interested in thinking about Jesus Christ as a leader with the help of Henri Nouwen. It’s this latter author I want to speak on today because Nouwen has helped me to totally flip my idea and ideas about Christian leadership – something all baptized Christians are called to live into.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen makes this argument, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.”

Let’s look at the first point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer…” Before my family made that move from suburbia to rural Texas, the Baptist Church, the Church where I was raised and that introduced me to Jesus Christ, was concerned with relevance and being relevant. In the 90’s I heard my youth ministers tell me not to listen to certain types of music because similar styles of rock or heavy metal or rap music could be found with a Christian message. For many years, I heeded their advice, went to Christian concerts, bought Christian CDs, and did what I was told because I respected my leaders. This was also the time in the church where suits were ditched for skinny jeans and t-shirts, and a minister wasn’t cool if he didn’t have a goat-tee, tattoo, and crazy stories of redemption. All things considered, and for me, the church was relevant. It made sense to my teenager mind, and I trusted those who were trying to lead me. In hindsight; however, I don’t know if my youth director or even my senior pastor ever taught how to pray. Prayer, and how to pray stays with you, but certain types of music, fashionable clothing, and even a cool story fades with time. While in college, I would ditch all these fads still not knowing how to pray, and take up other things to fill the time – mainly girls, alcohol and parties.

Nouwen makes a compelling argument that the present and future church doesn’t have to be relevant to survive; instead, its leaders must always have a solid life of prayer, and be able to teach that to Christians of all ages. My friend and colleague, Fr. Greg Tallant, has often said that there is something to be said about boring old church. There’s something to say about people still gathering together, praying for one another, and creating fellowship through the person of Jesus Christ. I tend to agree. The Church and her rituals have been around for millennia, and through them we are taught to pray and to remember one another in thought, word, and deed. The question, “How do I pray?” can always be on the minds of Christians, and living into its answer is a journey out of relevance into that of relationship.

Let’s turn to Nouwen’s second point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from…worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry…” Here, he is specifically calling out ministers whose ministry revolves only around them and their celebrity. Through other leadership resources I have learned that good leaders make people believe in them, but great leaders make others believe in themselves. Put in Christian terms – instead of top down ministry, why not operate from the bottom up? What are the gifts and talents of everyone? If you could choose one gift or talent you possess and could teach it to someone else, what would it be? Well, whatever it is could be your ministry, or at the very least, plugging into a group or organization that is already living similar gifts out.

Churches grow, and ministries expand not out of a great priest or bishop. Instead, they grow and expand when resources are pulled together based on need – yes – but also based on gifts and talents. Again, what is it you can do that is also teachable? Great! That is your ministry. The future of the church will not revolve around its paid clergy so much so as it will revolve around all the baptized living out their mission and ministries in the world.

Nouwen’s final point, “[Jesus] asks us to move…from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” My Dad was half-way correct when he gave me the advice not to be a follower in life, but instead, lead. A Christian leader, I would now counter, is perfectly comfortable being led because they are being led closer to God through a life of prayer and community, which in turn, allows them to not only lead people, but to have the humbleness to be led by Christ and others. Nouwen writes, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.”

These three attributes of a Christian leader: not worrying about relevance, not worrying about popularity, and learning how to be led by God (I believe) can best be lived out in a small parish like ours through its ministries, through its liturgies, and through its fellowship. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. When we forget this, we loose our taste and get lost in the dark. The Prophet Isaiah gave specifics around this. He said God wasn’t interested in your piety. Stop being relevant to your religion, and reveal your relationship with God to your neighbor (Isa. 58). How do you do this? “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor into your house, and to cover the naked.” Just last week, the prophet Micah preached, “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Being just doesn’t seem to be relevant these days, loving mercy is certainly not popular, and walking humbly with God isn’t mainstream leadership material. So what are Christian leaders supposed to do? I like what Isaiah said, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! We are most prophetic, we are light and salt, we are leaders when we pray, when we form relationships, when we fellowship, when we are led by God. I believe the Church is best when it’s boring…when it’s doing exactly what its mission is. When we worship joyfully, when we serve compassionately, when we grow spiritually, the church is simply doing what the church does. It may not be relevant to the world, but it is relevant to God. It may not be popular, but that’s okay…Jesus said The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. It may not raise up leaders the way the world defines leadership. That’s okay, Jesus taught us to pray saying God, Lead us not into temptation: The temptation to be relevant, to be popular, to be powerful. Instead, let us empty ourselves, let us serve others, and let us focus on Christ.

Search your heart today. Are you trying to be relevant or popular? Are you trying to lead, win an argument, or be on the right side of history? Instead, check yourself. What does your prayer life look like? What is a gift or talent you have but haven’t shared? Is God trying to lead you somewhere? If so, have you discerned where? The Collect from this morning says this, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” We are free when we love. We let go when we know someone is there to catch us, and we experience abundant life when we are led. May we live into this with a discerning heart this week, and find peace within us so that we can offer the peace of Christ to a merciless world. AMEN.

Remembering Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – Year A – The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.” ~Richard Rohr

 “[T]o understand baptism, we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.” ~Steven D. Driver

Throughout scripture, mainly in the writings of St. Paul, we learn that who we really are and why we are has everything to do with Christ. We live, move, and have our being in Christ. We love and are loved in Christ. We forgive and are forgiven in Christ. It was Jesus – The Christ – who taught these things, and lived out these things in His own ministry. By taking on the mind of Christ, and through imitation of Him, we practice His ministry when we, walk in love as Christ loves us. So it is no surprise that many first century Jews and Gentiles imitated Christ through the two sacraments Jesus instituted: Baptism and Communion. Two sacraments we will remember and renew today. Two sacraments that take meaning out and into the world every time gathered Christians are dismissed to go forth in the name of Christ (BCP, 366).

It’s been said imitation is the first form of flattery, and I would argue that humans have been trying to imitate God ever since the beginning. Our ancestors first imitated God by creating. God, the Book of Genesis reads, created the heavens and the earth [and] the earth was a formless void; yet, God formed something out of this void. Likewise, the first humans formed something out of a void through the act of procreation. It can be argued that the family was one of the first expressions of humans creating, and how mind boggling this must have been for earth’s first mother. First there was nothing – then (for Eve) – there was something. A true miracle; and, like all creation God and mankind use what they have around them to create, and in doing so create a new thing.

John the Baptist was creating a new thing out of a very old thing. Just like the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, John the Baptist would wade into the waters of the Jordan, and invite others to do the same. He intuitively knew that water cleansed, that water washed, that water nourished, and anyone who wanted to participate in this new/old thing were welcomed. By baptizing, John’s intention was to publicly name (right then and there) that this person (or persons) have repented. But then, Jesus wades into the waters. They must have been familiar to Him; after all, if we believe in a Trinitarian God, then Christ was present in the very beginning hovering over the face of the deep dark waters. After Christ swept over this water, then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Similarly, Jesus told John, “Let it be so now,” then, the Gospel reads, John consented, Jesus was baptized, and God (yet again) created a new thing. Going back to the book of Genesis, God said that the newly created light was good. Then Matthew’s Gospel reads, that [God] was well pleased with His Son. God always sees the good in His creation and is well pleased with His creativity. God the Father always loves His Son through the Holy Spirit. God, at all times and at all places is constantly inviting us to participate in His goodness. God saved us by becoming just like us. It was a new thing. It was a good thing. It was a holy thing.

This Epiphany, ask yourself what it means to imitate God, to take on the mind of Christ, to live into the waters of creation. Marvel in the miracle of new life, new birth, and new opportunities to co-create with God. Remember your baptism, renew it with Christ’s Body and Blood, then you will be invited to “go forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.” AMEN.

 

 

Epiphany is for Seeker and Believer Alike

Every story we tell represents a light. That light, your story, represents you. But what about all the light we cannot see? What about other people’s story and stories? What about their lives?

Epiphany teaches us that our narratives are wrapped up in God’s ultimate narrative. And even though we cannot see all the light in the world, or know all the stories out there, by following the light of God – the light of the epiphany star – we are being led to Him: The light of the world – who does know the stranger, the neighbor, the other. He knows us all by name; and along that journey to wherever the star leads us, we meet others who bear the light – who know the story – because, really and truly, it’s everybody’s story: both believer and seeker alike.

For centuries the Church has taught that the magi represented the Gospel of Jesus Christ being spread to the Gentiles. They brought him gifts fit for a king, for the Divine, and for his ultimate sacrifice. Nowadays, we might say that the magi represent spiritual seekers who have heard of this person named Jesus, but are unsure as to who he is, or what his church truly represents? But instead of shooing seekers away, the Church must embrace all, and the gifts brought forth – the gifts of mystery, questioning, and humility. The Church must respond with love, compassion, and grace. After all, life together is recognizing the light in one’s self and the other, which then stems from the source of all life and light.

The magi were true seekers: They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew they had to get there. They at least had a guide (represented by the Epiphany star). They had some sort of discernment within themselves to say, ‘Yes,’ to every step along the Way. Like a moth to a flame, like a carnal desire, we often don’t know where we’re going, but we know we have to get to that source, to that light, to that life.

The beauty of the Church, I believe, is that it can help seekers (and believers both) discern where they are on the spiritual path, and not necessarily how to get to where they’re going, but how to get some help stumbling along the Way. The church can be a friend helping you up again and again and again when you trip up and fall down. And the church does this with simple things like a calendar (we mark off days in the middle of the week, where we get together and do strange things with everyday materials like: water, oil, wine, bread, laying on of hands, confession, spiritual direction, centering prayer, silence). That’s some seeker stuff right there, but it’s also some believer stuff too. A believer is a bit more specific or tangible with their faith. A seeker doesn’t want to get mixed up in all the details, but is still intrigued by them. Intrigued by that star, by the mystery of what believers say that water, wine, and bread actually are, or do. That’s some believer/seeker stuff mixing and mingling, showing their light to one another, and wondering if the story is true? They wonder together because they know what it’s like to have something born anew in them. They know what it’s like to have an epiphany. They know what it’s like to start over, and to turn over a new leaf.

Seeker and believer. Jew and Gentile. Human and Divine. Every light has to have a source, just like every person has a story. The Season of Epiphany reminds us that the source of our light – the source of our life – points to the Divine.