The Cult of Why

**Below is an adaptation of Fr. Brandon’s sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on June 25, 2018.**

The Church gifts us with another lesson in spiritual maturity today. Through her poetry, prose, and prayer we discover that suffering is real; and yet, the one who calms the storm is the same one who will see us through it.

Psalm 107
Psalm 107 is a poem describing a rescue; specifically, a rescue at sea. You may have noticed the Psalm was not given to us in its entirety. This is due to the fact of its length; therefore, it is cut short for worship. Reading the whole of the Psalm we would soon discover other themes of rescue – rescues from the desert, prison, sickness, and death. In each of these contexts, God was able to rescue because God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever(107:1). God, so it seems, rescued the troubled gathering them in from the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south (107:3). Couple this beautiful imagery with today’s Gospel, and God is personified in Jesus so that when we hear Psalm 107:28,29, the disciples are echoing the voices of the oppressed but it is the voice of God that has the final say: Then they cried to the Lord in their troubles, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Mark’s Gospel
We’ll continue our deep dive into the Gospel of Mark through the summer and up until Advent. It was at this year’s Advent when we learned St. Mark’s thesis of who Jesus was. You’ll remember the opening line of Mark’s Gospel: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). St. Mark’s opening line seems tame to our 2,000-year-old Christian ears, but if we were to go back all those years we would discover that this opening line was highly political and highly controversial leading many who believed (and lived) it into the role of martyr. 2,000 years ago in Rome the title, Son of God, belonged to Caesar. It was Caesar, and Caesar only who was the Messiah – the anointed one, the son of God. Anyone who claimed otherwise was labelled an enemy of the state, and if found would be called traitor and executed a criminal. Put differently, to claim Christ over Caesar was to make a political statement claiming that it is God (and God alone) who is good, and his steadfast love (mercy and grace) endures forever. Power, The Song of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel reminds us, shows its strength by scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Power that comes from God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away – empty. The power of God remembers his promise of mercy. Mary’s soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God our Savior because of these promises and more. Therefore, when St. Mark in his opening line proclaims that Jesus Christ is Son of God and not Caesar, we bear witness to Christ as Son of God when he heals, when he forgives, when he teaches, and today – when he calms the storm. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar who has control over life, death, wind and rain. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, who acknowledges the oppressed, the fearful, the lonely who come at him like a tempest blowing in from the east, the west, the north, and the south.

The Forest of Why
As a priest I often bear witness to persons who suffer – suffer in body, mind, and spirit. One common thread I’ve noticed through the years is that persons often begin their story and situations with questions of “Why”? Why has this happened? Why now? Why me? I usually try to point them to the “Why Poetry” of the Bible – mainly, the Psalms whose corpus makes up an extensive amount of lamentation, suffering, and longing. It’s always good to find others who have asked similar questions and surround ourselves with them.

The question of Why, I’ve noticed is like entering into a forest. For a long time, you take a path and the path seems normal enough, but if one stays on the path long enough they will start to question the path. They will notice a rock and think to themselves, “Didn’t I see that rock a moment ago?” Then they will notice a bird’s nest and ask, “Did I not just pass by that same tree and nest two miles back?” Suffering persons who remain on this path will discover that it is not a hike through the woods, but a trail that simply circles. Once this is realized, a new path through the woods must be discovered. That path, I believe does not ask the question of “Why” but of “What”. What’s next? What do I do now? What am I called to be? I believe we cannot fully understand the question of Why because of our mortal nature (See today’s reading from the Book of Job); however, we can live into the questions of our lives by asking the right questions at the appropriate times.

The Path Out of the Woods
The past two weeks have been dark times in our country that have left us with questions of Why. On our southern boarders we have wondered with millions of Americans why are children being separated from families? Why are there so many refugees here and all around the world? Why is there so much suffering especially to the least of these? Within our own borders images of children not usually seen have been remembered with questions of Why. Why are there so many children in foster care, orphanages or find themselves homeless? Why are children exploited and objectified? We can travel into the woods a bit and spot reoccurring rocks, trees, nests, and streams. We can point to adults – the parents and guardians in their lives. We can point to policies and the politicians. We can also name hard truths like incompetency, divorce, addiction, mental illness, abuse and neglect. When one discovers that they are lost in the woods all kinds of emotions happen. Fear captures the senses sending the mind and heart racing. Anger usually sets in masking the fear a bit asking “Where did I go wrong?” “Why did I make that turn?” When we turn on the T.V. or scroll through our news feed it is usually the question of Why that brings out similar emotions. Anger and fear are made manifest in opinion pieces, blog postings, and in comment lines raising a fist with questions of Why. Then, all of a sudden, we remember that God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Then we remember that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. Then we calm down, admit that we are lost, and cry out for peace. Cry out for mercy. Cry out for help. The stillness comes when we have an eye on Our Savior who helps us start to answer a new question – the question of What.

What You Can Do
Wednesday was World Refugee Day. What you can do for a refugee is to support them because Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. The good folks at The Episcopal Migration Ministries can help you answer the question of What. The Starting Over ministry serves children and reunites them with their families in this space every single Thursday and Saturday. What you can do is give your time, talent or treasure to this ministry here. S.H.A.R.E. House is a ministry in Douglas County serving women and children who are victims of abuse and neglect. The S.H.A.R.E. House provides a safe place for women and children to rest from the addictions of abuse. Also, in Douglas County is Youth Villages, a place where children with mental and physical impairments can remember what it’s like being a kid without scorn or judgement. These are just some of the What’s in our midst when we are surrounded by a cult of Why’s. They are tangible ways to (as Bishop Wright says) “Not only [be] fans of Jesus, but also followers of him.”

Spiritual maturity combines the contemplative with outreach, the poetry with the prose, the fans with the followers. Our prayer life informs our family life, community life, and our life in this country; and yet, we pray not to Caesar but to the one who says peace, to the one who continues to calm the storms in our own lives, who continues to invite us to not only worship him in the beauty of his holiness, but to follow him.

Relationship Makes Us Strong

**Sermon delivered on the Feast of Lady Julian, 2018 Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of  St. Julian’s Episcopal Church as a Parish**

For 40 years, Jesus is the one who has been speaking to us as an Episcopal worshipping community in Douglas County. Many of you know we were not always called St. Julian’s. We were once St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. Those of you who pray Morning Prayer know that there is an optional collect at the end of Morning Prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom. One of the lines taken from A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (BCP, 102) is this, “You [God] have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…” At the heart of this prayer is relationship. At the heart of this parish (no matter its name) is relationship – relationship to God who speaks to us as we listen, and our relationships one to another as we listen andrespond to God’s Spirit working within us.

Tonight, I’d like to look at three different questions. These are questions that I have answered myself about this parish community, but I am only one person. You undoubtedly will answer them another way. I invite you, therefore, to take these questions seriously, and like the above Collect referred to it is my hope that these questions (and your answers) will be discussed at coffee hours, Vestry meetings, and the various ministries, committees, and counsels throughout this year. Here are the questions,[1]then we will go through them one-by-one:

Question 1: Who are we?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Question 3: Who is our neighbor.

Question 1: Who are we?

In order to fully answer this question, I believe we have to go way back (like 2,000 years way back). If we do this, we will find that we were started because of God’s relationship to God’s very self expressed theologically as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Out of this self-love came a self-giving love and the relationship of Father to the Son and to the Spirit poured out into the universe and God became man. God entered into a fleshy relationship with us. God gathered around him disciples who served him, and towards the end of their time together were no longer referred to as servants but as friends. These friends continued the relationship with God through his resurrection, and eventually in a different way – through God, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into all aspects of these friends of God eventually forming the Church of Jesus Christ. That Church is still alive today. That Church is still in relationship with God in very tangible ways through the gifts God has given us, and it is these gifts that he gives to his friends (water, wine, bread) that empowers us to invite others to receive these gifts of God taking on new friends, new acquaintances, new relationships. This is all expressed succinctly in the Nicene Creed when it states that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. So, who is St. Julian’s Church? That one. (That church).

I chose to answer the first question ontologically; in other words, I wanted to describe how we have our being in the world by virtue of the relationship we have with God. Who we are are persons in relationship. These relationships give us purpose. Purpose leads to mission. This is expressed weekly in the post-communion prayer: “And now, Father [there’s the relationship] send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is the work of relationship one has with God, with self, and with one another. The work is also to invite others into that relationship, not as a witness to the self (or extensions of the self), but as a witness to something greater than the self – a witness to Christ our Lord. So what does this theology look like in the context of this parish? The specifics can be answered in the next question: What has God called us to do?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Since the MAP committee is currently looking at the Mission Statement of St. Julian’s parish, I’m going to use the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Purpose Statement to help me answer the question: What has God called us to do? The Purpose Statement of the diocese is this: “We challenge ourselves, and the world, to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.”

At St. Julian’s we worship in a variety of ways. As Episcopalians we have a prayer book spirituality. We worship with Holy Eucharist each Sunday, morning prayer during some Sundays during the summer, evening prayer a few times a year, Advent Lessons and Carols, Red Letter days on Wednesdays when applicable, and healing services and Holy Communion here and at the Benton House once a month. Many of you say one or more of the Offices daily – morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Our adult choir program is large and in charge. I believe our Christmas, Holy Week and Easter services to be beautiful, meaningful, and joyful to many. The longer I am with you, the more I see that our worship has the potential to experiment in a variety of directions. We’ve tried Rite I during Lent this year. We occasionally bring out the smells and bells. We also are blessed to have parishioners who grew up in the Anglican church in Africa, Haiti, and the Caribbean. I wonder what traditions we can bring into our worship from these liturgical and musical expressions of the faith. I hope you will wonder with me.

We not only challenge ourselves to worship joyfully but to also serve compassionately. For 20 years this parish has supported (in thought, word, and deed) the Starting Over program that meets here every Thursday and Saturday. Starting Over is a court appointed visitation program that not only puts us in relationship with the larger community, but also calls our attention to injustices that can happen in the family unit itself. Starting Over promotes justice through a supportive environment, first to the children who are “the least of these” within these scenarios and has now began (recently) to support the supporters – those who are on the ground working with the families. Many on the Starting Over board took a day last month to take donuts to the DFCS offices of Douglas County to show this support. This act was a ministry of presence, and the beginning of new relationships.

God has also called us to serve hungry children. The Backpack Ministry here at the parish continues to serve Annette Wynn Elementary each week, and whether you give a check, drop off food in the narthex, pack the backpacks or deliver them, you are serving Christ in very tangible ways through the unseen blessings this ministry allows.

This year, the St. Julian’s Youth wanted to “serve compassionately” through another ministry of presence with our homeless population here in the county. You helped the youth and their leaders live into this ministry by giving life essentials to the men and women who live in our county in different ways than most of us are used to. It was without judgment that you and the youth shared what you had as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

For a parish of this size, it is my hope that we will continue to support these three ministries of outreach by striving for excellence in how we serve as well as continuing to build relationships – which leads me to my final question: Who is Our Neighbor?

Question 3: Who is Our Neighbor

Two out of the three outreach ministries identified children as our neighbors – Starting Over and the Backpack ministry. But watch this: In the Fall, St. Julian’s will be starting the Godly Play ministry on Sunday mornings – also a children’s ministry. I think something is going on in the life of the parish with this latest move. Let me explain: We’ve already talked about the challenges in the purpose statement about worshipping joyfully and serving compassionately. What we left off and now what I’d like to discuss is the last one – to grow spiritually. It is this last piece that I believe answers the immediate future of St. Julian’s and the question, “What has God called us to do?” I believe God has called St. Julian’s to grow spiritually, and we are living into this calling by taking on the Godly Play ministry. Godly Play invites both children and adults to take part in God’s story. We are invited into the stories of old and at the same time learning how to find God in our own stories out and about in our lives. God wants to be in relationship with us in all aspects of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings, but Monday through Saturday, sacred and profane, the good the bad and the ugly. There is a sense of pride in this community that we reach out to the least of these through Starting Over and The Backpack Ministry. Now, the least of these are reaching back to us. Our children our teaching us how to grow spiritually. Our children are leading. Our children are pointing out the kingdom of God, are calling us to pray and play and in doing so we live out God’s mission, we grow deeper in our relationship with God and one another. We worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually with the song and sense of childlike wonder.

If you can get behind me and see that the future of St. Julian’s relies on a parish environment that wants to grow spiritually, then this will touch every aspect of our communal life together. Again, it’s already happening. The youth wanted the serve the homeless. Two young families wanted to start a Godly Play ministry. I wonder what else God is calling us to do? Perhaps it’s to take a look at our various ministries and meetings and to always begin and end with prayer, a Bible study, or a devotional. Perhaps it’s not doing business as usual, but being about and wondering about God the Father’s business, Christ’s ministry and mission, the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s not just asking how you and yours are doing, but how’s your relationship with God? What’s your prayer life like? It’s asking for prayer. It’s wronging your neighbor, but then seeking out the peace of the Lord within the relationship.

Some of you may be saying, “Father Brandon, come on…we already do that.” Good. Tell me about it. Let me know. Let one another know how you are being faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. And know this: I’ll be modeling these questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor? Again, I gave you my answers but I want to know yours. I’ll start with your Vestry. On Tuesday, this is how the Vestry will begin (right after our opening prayer). We’ll have a discussion. The Beloved Community Book Group meets on Mondays. Vestry on Tuesday. Sisters of St. Julian’s, Choir, and Backpacks on Wednesday. Starting Over and Contemplative Outreach on Thursday. I invite all these ministries to have a discussion about these questions. How do you answer them? If you get a good discussion going, report back to me or Sam Hudson (Sr. Warden) or Terri Frazier (MAP chair).

Tonight, we went way back; and we didn’t go way back in a nostalgia-like way. We went way back in a God-centered relationship-like way. I caught us all up on some outreach ministries knowing full well I couldn’t speak on all the ministries this parish has had through the years or currently has even now. I brought us up to speed with how we currently worship joyfully, and serve compassionately, and how (I believe) God is calling us to grow spiritually now and in the future with the help of the children we serve as well as the children who serve us. We’re not St. Chrysostom’s anymore. We’re not even the St. Julian’s of old. No. We are a St. Julian’s who is singing new songs, serving with ministries of presence, and diving deeper into the ongoing relationship of God. Tonight, we remember our story and how it is wrapped up in God’s story. Tomorrow, may we keep the story and relationships moving with the Spirit and into the future.

 

 

[1]               These questions are from Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book, Holy Conversations (Alban, 2003). I was introduced to these questions through a seminar put on by Interim Ministry Network in May, 2018. The seminar was held at The Beecken Center in Montegale, TN and was titled, “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry-Work of the Leader”.