Freedom in-Dependence

Today is July 4th. Independence Day. Hundreds of years ago, our forefathers fought to free themselves and future generations from state sanctioned tyranny, control, and abuse. Today is a day to celebrate. Today is a day to let loose, and let go.

If today is a day for Americans to remember independence, it is also a day for American Christians to remember their dependence – dependence upon their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for even in our freedom we rely on God.

This dependence is first learned in the family. A child is totally dependent upon her parents to nurture, care, and to receive love. There is very little freedom for the child (not to mention the parents as well), and everyone involved is utterly dependent upon love. As we get older, we are introduced into a new family: the Church family. It is here where we learn about the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to love as God has loved us. Even in this grace, we find a total dependence upon God like a child with her parents.

Today, I will celebrate Independence Day with my fellow Americans, but I will also continue to pray and contemplate on how dependent I am upon my Savior. It is only in this paradoxical dependency that I am free to love as I have been loved.

Lead With Love

Last Saturday billions of people tuned in to watch The Royal Wedding. It was a beautiful celebration that captured the hearts of so many. As a Christian who finds his Biblical, theological, and traditional roots in the Anglican Church, I was proud to be an Episcopalian that day. My heart swelled when I heard my presiding bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, deliver the homily. For a moment the world was led to remember Love – specifically, the love of Christ and how families, nations, and the earth are forever changed by the reality of this love. It is a love founded in truth and grounded in relationship.

Outside the Church, society does not lead with love grounded in relationship. These days, society finds its lead through identity (republican/democrat, rich/poor, gay/straight). Within these various tribes ‘the other’ is quickly identified as enemy number one. Those that are on the ‘right side of history’ scream for their rights as egotism, individualism, and hedonism are on full display.

Theologically speaking, the Church leads with identity as well; however, it chooses to go deeper than party affiliation, skin color, or sexual orientation. Instead, it leads with love where we are identified first and foremost as children of God in relationship with God, self, neighbor, and creation. St. Paul may have put it best when he said that it is in Christ where we live, and move, and have our being.

Bishop Curry helped the world to imagine what leading with love and relationship to ‘the other’ might look like. Jesus Christ reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to pray for those who persecute us. Although it may be tempting to lead off a conversation identifying as part of this or that tribe, why not avoid that temptation and enflesh the love of God founded and grounded in Jesus Christ? His message was a world changer in the first century and harnessing the power of God’s love today continues to change the world.

Noticing the Holy

Henry and Brownie
Above: Henry and Brownie

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

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

Mindfulness

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

Responsibility

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

Beauty and Compassion

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

Matthew 9:35-10:8

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

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

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

For Us

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

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

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

 

The Church at Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reality of the Resurrection

A redacted sermon preached on Easter 2 and inspired upon readings from 1 Peter 1: 3-9 and John 20: 19-31

The word liturgy literally means, “The work of the people,” and participating in the liturgy – specifically the Holy Eucharist – gives us a glimpse of what it means to live into the reality of the resurrection. At its best the Eucharist will show us how to remember resurrection reality out and about in the world, and gives Christians a model of how God participates in His creation. For a moment, let us focus on the reality of the resurrection through the lenses of relationship, renewal, and resurrection as Ultimate Reality.

Resurrection Reality through the Lens of Relationship

Many of you know my affinity for spiritual direction. Put simply, spiritual direction is the art of holy listening, and when invited, the spiritual director offers questions and suggestions as to where God may be present in the directee’s life. Like the disciples who locked themselves up in a room out of fear, persons often come to spiritual directors with locked hearts. Just as the resurrected Christ bypassed the locked doors and offered His peace, the spiritual director reminds the directee of the peace of Christ found in the midst of locked doors, fearful storms, and broken hearts. The peace of Christ is always there; however, we need faithful friends in our lives to remind us of this reality. Any spiritual director will tell you there are some people who find the peace of Christ through the lens of faith, while others have the healthy skepticism of Thomas within them. Whether by faith or something more tangible, the peace of Christ is found out of the relationship that is grounded in Christ.

One of the first spiritual directors in my life was my Memom (my paternal grandmother). Every time I speak with Memom she always tells me, “Brandon, I pray for you every day.” In my younger days I said to myself, “Yea Yea, that’s just what Memom does. I’m thankful, but maybe not as grateful as I should be.” These days I’m extremely thankful and grateful for her faith, and for her prayers. What I did not realize back then that I see today is that Memom prays for me and my family everyday because of her thankfulness and her gratefulness for Jesus Christ. She has a relationship grounded in love through Christ that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but is an extension of Christ’s love for all. In other words, my Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of the resurrection. My Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of her relationship with Ultimate Reality. In her life, in her prayers, and in her very being I experience the peace of Christ.

Resurrection Reality as Renewal

From our reading out of I Peter, the author writes, “By [God’s] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” What does it mean to have a new birth into a living hope? Hope, so it seems, is alive and well through the resurrection of Christ, and if we are participating in the reality of His resurrection, then cannot new births happen all the time? The truth of the resurrection is that love has conquered death, and because of this we are born anew in that same love which Christians boldly proclaim as Christ. Ultimate renewal is found in and by and through our relationship with Christ. When we display these renewals in the form of peace, forgiveness, or mercy then God is revealed through us.

Getting back to my relationship with my Memom: I said that her relationship was grounded in love through Christ (so much so) that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but an extension of Christ’s love for all. Putting this in the context of renewal: Anytime we pray (or through our actions) we bring forth peace, forgiveness, or mercy, those small renewals of peace, forgiveness, and mercy point, reveal, or renew our sense of Ultimate Peace, Forgiveness, and Mercy. In other words, these acts remind us that what is ultimate is Resurrection. What is Ultimate is Love. Through these tangible acts and through the lens of faith, we pull back the curtain and true reality is revealed to us. That’s why the love of God is a peace beyond our understanding. We understand it through the action of resurrection, but we do not fully understand this reality. The moment we seem to grasp it is the moment in which it disappears leaving us longing for something that cannot be explained except with prayerful words, liturgies, and actions of faith.

Resurrection Reality as the Ultimate Reality

I strongly believe that there is homelessness, hunger, war, famine, and exploitation (to name a few) in the world today because we forget, “He is Risen.” We forget love has already conquered death. Roofs over heads, bellies that are satisfied, peace, conservation of the earth, and the dignity of every human being can be a reality now when we choose to remember the reality of resurrection. Did you know that the word “sin” comes out of the archery community? When an archer pulls the arrow back with the help of his bow, takes aim and fires, he either hits his target, or he sins. Sin literally means missing the mark, or missing the target, and like the arrow forgetting its bull’s-eye, humanity is constantly forgetting resurrection. Humanity is constantly sinning. The mark is already there. The mark is Christ. The mark is Love, and Love is the Ultimate Reality. When we try to tackle the problems of our world without an eye on Love, we also miss the mark. We cannot solve the problems of the world on our own. We need Jesus. We need his teachings. We need his healing. We need to remember His resurrection.

I believe the Church (not just our own) but all churches throughout the world are going through some birth pangs right now, and are about to experience renewal, rebirth, and resurrection. The Church of the past was tied up in the culture. The Church of the past was part of the establishment and status quo. I believe the resurrected Church must always be counter to the culture or else it miscarries. What this means for liturgical churches such as ours is to do liturgy – to do the work of the people on Sunday – as an example of how to do the work of God Monday through Saturday. Parish churches can no longer exist for the purpose of self-preservation. Parish churches must exist for the purpose of reminding the world “He is risen.” We cannot do it on our own, so small churches must join other small churches, dioceses, and provinces that extend beyond denomination. Through partnerships with religious institutions, non-profits, and philanthropists small churches can make big differences in the lives of people that extend beyond their walls. We do this together and through our relationship with the Resurrected Christ. The world can no longer rest in dogmatic formulas that only assure the faithful as to the resurrection of Jesus Christ; instead, the world needs Christians who actually live into this belief, this love, and this reality. The future Church is a missional church grounded in the relationship (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. The future Church will worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually, and by doing so live into the resurrection reality here and now.

This Easter and beyond let us all use our imaginations, our gifts, and our relationship with Christ to truly be a liturgical church doing the work of God with our hands, hearts, and minds. Let us seek out partners who proclaim in thought, word, and deed, “He is Risen.” The reality of the resurrection is now. Together, may we never forget.

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. For one, we do not imagine Jesus sermonizing on a mount, or teaching in synagogues and Jewish homes. We do not imagine him debating with other rabbi’s, healing the sick, or instructing his disciples. Instead, we bear witness to Our Lord’s suffering, pain, and death – our hearts closing in like the sealing of the stone over his tomb. Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other remembrance of Jesus because the Passion of Christ demonstrates to all that the teacher has become the teaching. For example, Jesus taught forgiveness. He said, “Pray for those who persecute you.” His Passion revealed this teaching when he prayed, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus taught, “There is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for their friends.” His Passion revealed this teaching from his cross at Noon that first Good Friday. For Christians, Jesus’ teachings are not ideologies; instead, they are truths pointing to the ultimate Truth that Jesus is Lord. The Passion narrative painfully draws the conclusion that the world would rather destroy Truth rather than be in relationship with It.

Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus because we are reminded of our own capacity for great evil. Nihilism, narcissism, and pride make their home in the basement of our souls. Anger, greed, and sloth seep through the cracks of these basements seeking to destroy us one drip at a time. In order to overcome these, we must first acknowledge them as Jesus did, and with His help we can cut off the life of these sins by sacrificing one’s pride for humility, choosing forgiveness over revenge, and kindness instead of envy. Our death to these parts of ourselves ultimately comes when we realize we cannot live into the virtues of Christ without God’s help. “Save yourself,” may be the mantra of the world, but I am with you always is the promise of God.

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. Perhaps this year, it calls to you with new insight and depth. Like the teacher becoming the teaching, it may be inviting you (the reader) to become the read-ing. What characters within yourself, and in and around your world do you need to acknowledge as Pontius Pilate, the angry mob, or the Roman soldier? Where is grace to be found in the messiness of life? Where is relationship when isolation wants to spend the night?

Finally, this week is unlike any other week we have throughout the year. As you enter into the truths of Holy Week be open to what God may be revealing to you. Be accepting that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all. Live into your questions with God at your side. Lastly, do not fully concentrate on the Easter destination, but be present where the journey of this holy week will take you. Take the time to pause this week. Make the time to consider why this week – above all others – is unlike any other throughout the year. Do this in remembrance – of Christ.

 

 

Balancing the Bigger Picture of Christmas

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. ~John 1:14 

“Take a step back,” my Dad called out to me. “You’re standing too close. Take a step back, and you can see it better.” We were visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, and what IT turned out to be was Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting’s iconic because up close one realizes the whole piece was painted with little dots. Artists call this technique pointillism, and at the time I wasn’t so interested in the bigger picture. I had studied this painting in school, and I wanted to experience the dots myself, so my face was as close to the painting as I could possibly get without making the security guard standing to my left suspiciously nervous. I eventually backed away, marveled at the size and scope of the painting, but for some reason, I kept focusing in on those silly dots.

The dramatic lead up to Jesus’ birth is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Within Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel, Gabriel, visiting Mary and revealing she is with child; while in Matthew, we take a step back from the pregnancy and begin with the genealogy of Jesus. (Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. It begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult). It is only with the Gospel according to John where the largest step away from the nativity scene happens. From its angle, the bigger picture, the idea, the point, and the revelation all stand revealed. John steps all the way back to the genesis where we discover that God, through the person of Jesus Christ, has always been and always will be. (What a picture John paints for those who believe). And what is this belief? The belief is what theologians call the Incarnation, what the prophets of old named as Emmanuel, and why worshippers celebrate Christmas. God took on flesh and walked among us. This is the Christmas miracle. This is the new beginning.

If we contemplate this theological space of new beginnings, the world opens up its mystery to us. We begin to experience within us and all around us those creative aspects found in God’s creation. A sense of awe, wonder, and imagination pricks the senses as we surrender ourselves to truth, beauty, and love. John’s Gospel reveals that God’s master plan has always been incarnation; and now, with the living breathing person of Jesus his mark on the painting is now complete. It is God’s most important point. The one holding the whole picture together; and yet I find myself torn between wanting to focus my whole attention on the dot that is Jesus Christ while at the same time feel compelled to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In that delicate space of contemplation is where the greatest mystery opens itself up to me. It is in the tension of the manger where I also find the cross of Christ. It is in the details of Jesus’ life where God is fully revealed to me. In this Christmas season, I know that I am called to the one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive our sins. I know that I am called to love like Jesus for in doing so I realize the same love God finds within me is found in the other, the stranger, and the neighbor. These are crucial and oftentimes overwhelmingly crushing details where I feel compelled to take a step back and remember the larger picture. I wonder if that is the point of Jesus? That is, to remind us how to love, while at the same time pointing us in the direction of Love itself? I suppose it is a balancing act for us. A discernment. A knowing and an un-knowing all at the same time.

This Christmas, marvel at the point on the picture. Take notice that the security guard standing to your left is supposed to be a bit nervous. After all, institutions and those in charge do get nervous when we all start taking our art, our religion, and our Lord Jesus Christ seriously. Get close to the dots and at the same time don’t forget the picture as a whole. Each dot is important. Dare I say we can find our own dot within the picture, for in doing so, we discover God within us. How humbling it is to know incarnation was part of the plan the whole time. How sobering it is to know we are all part of the bigger story – a story within a story – the art and painting of God.

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.”

Dancing with Trinity

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday. Although there are many explanations, allegories, and metaphors for what the unity of Trinity expresses, my favorite has always been the image of the Holy Trinity in an eternal, cosmic dance. Think the three muses of antiquity skipping and dancing with one another, or children clasping hands dancing in a circle to Ring Around the Rosies.

One of the many grace-filled miracles held in this Cosmic dance is we are invited to participate in it. Sometimes we stand or sit in the middle while Father, Son, and Spirit dance around us. Other times, we are invited to hold hands and sway in both clockwise and counterclockwise rotations dancing, twirling, swirling, laughing. Still there are other, more intimate times when the dance calls for a lift, and the Trinity acting as One lifts us up, and pulls us close like a mother to her child.

Unlike Trinity who dances for eternity, we get tired. When this happens, we are invited to sit, stand, or kneel at holy tables gathering strength for journeys ahead. Even at table, the Trinity greets us as Host, as Substance, and even as the One whom we are praying- humming along with our words, smiling because of their familiar pace and cadence. 

Whenever you feel lonely, or anxious – whenever you feel happy, even joyful – Trinity is always inviting you to join in the dance; and when you get tired, Trinity holds you, sits you down, and nourishes you with God’s very self. The invitation is always open, and the music never stops. Come. Dance. Take. Eat. Go.

Remember Holy Week

Holy Week is upon us. It is the most sacred time of the church year; one filled with great anticipation, hope, and longing. If the Season of Lent has been a time of reflection, reconciliation, and remembering, Holy Week helps build upon these, and asks us to continue remembering in specific ways.

On Maundy Thursday, we remember how Jesus instituted Holy Communion with bread, wine, and the washing of his disciples’ feet. On Holy Friday, we remember the system of violence that killed a man of peace. On Holy Saturday, we remember our grief as we recall life’s transitions from old places to completely new ones. At the Great Vigil of Easter on Saturday night, we remember our baptism, our hope, and the joy of resurrection. The Church remembers all these acts during these most holy times. The challenge of Holy Week is to do your own remembering. To remember the least of these among us, and within our midst, as well as to remember God’s love through our hands, hearts, and minds full of God’s grace and mercy. This week remember alongside the Church, and in doing so, we can leave this place, go among the weak, weary, and torn of the world…and remember them.

#LoveLikeJesus EDA
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