Welcoming the Questions

Preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020. For a video of this sermon, please click below. 

In Matthew Chapter 10 Jesus says this, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As I take a look around my neighborhood, zip code, city, state, country and world I find myself being invited and welcomed into a whole host of conversations. I’m also being invited to listen, to get curious, and to wonder where both my place as well as the church’s place is being called to engage in these conversations. It’s some hard work, this discernment. There’s a lot of loud voices out there all competing with one another. I’ve never seen so many banners in yards, and bumper stickers on cars in my life, each and all pointing in different philosophical and creedal directions. So what are some of these conversations? I can think of four right off the bat. Economists are warning that the United States is either in (or soon and very soon will be in) an economic recession. It’s also an election year here in the U.S., and pride and presumption are on full display in American politics – on both sides of the isle. There’s social unrest unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Those of you I have talked to about this, and are old enough to remember, are having flashbacks to the 1960’s. Finally, there’s still a global pandemic infecting and killing large populations of people. The numbers are especially distressing in our own beloved country. How are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming? Or better, what are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us to participate in? Here’s how I answer that question: I believe what these realities welcome is a chance for deep introspection and self-reflection grounded in our relationship with Christ.

Many of you have shared with me how your own relationship with God has deepened during this time. You’re praying more, getting rid of stuff you don’t need, and contemplating on eternal things that we all need and long for. You’re working in your gardens, going on more reflective walks, and listening to that still small voice inside like you may have never done before. Even though many of us are being tempted with the demons of despair and his friends – loneliness and anxiety – through your prayers, in your gardens, and every time you hit the pavement you’re reminded of how God has your back, suffers alongside you, and guards your heart as you learn and practice trusting God, yourself, and your neighbors. All of these learnings are holy and good. They call us out of ourselves and into deep conversation, confession, forgiveness and repentance.

I had someone share with me this week that they are missing Holy Eucharist. They are missing the Body and Blood of Our Lord; and yet, they are finding Christ’s Body and Blood everywhere they look – in the bodies of people whose skin is a different color than theirs, in their neighbors, and even hints of Christ’s Body in their enemies. It’s been said that if you can’t find the Body of Christ in the bread and wine, you probably won’t be able to find it in your neighbor. In not participating in Holy Eucharist for so long, I’m beginning to wonder if this statement is backwards? I wonder now that if I cannot find Christ’s Body first in my neighbor, stranger, and enemy then can I really ever accept Christ as bread and wine? And what about the very purpose and meaning of church as Christ’s Body? Jesus said today, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is a collective ‘you.’ The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is none other than his followers – his church. Jesus once said that you are the light of the world. Light doesn’t exist for itself. It exists in order for us to see things by it. Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt doesn’t exist for itself either. It preserves and enhances meat and other foods. In other words, you/me/the church do not exist for itself. It exists as light so others can come to the eternal light of Christ. It exists as salt to preserve and enhance the spiritual virtues and values worth preserving. This is good news. This is welcoming news.

Getting back to my earlier question: What are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us (the church as salt and light) to participate in? How can you/How can we/How can the church shed light, for example, on the economic hardships that happen because of greed, corruption, and indifference found in our economic systems, while also addressing the greed, corruption, and indifference found within our own hearts? How can you/How can we/How can the church be salt in our political systems where pressure is put on politicians and policy makers to preserve truth over victory, and sacrifice over self-interest while asking and modeling these same principals ourselves? How can you/How can we/How can the church continue to shine light on social sins so that justice and mercy may be cultivated in conversation, and tangibly brought forth in personal, spiritual, and collective action? Finally, how can you/how can we/how can the church find new imaginative and innovative ways of loving neighbor during COVID-19?

Jesus also used the images of salt and light to warn his followers that salt can lose its saltiness, and light can be hidden under baskets. In other words, the salt and light forget why they were created, as well as why they exist. When these things forget their purpose, food begins to rot and people bump into the furniture trying to rediscover the light source. I sometimes wonder if the institutional church is not salty enough? I sometimes wonder if the church hides the light of Christ behind its piety? I sometimes wonder if the church has become too domesticated?

Jesus once told a story about a man on his way to church who crossed the road in order to practice his piety instead of attending to the robbed and beaten man in the ditch as a way of practicing his faith. The institutional church may know that this is the story of the Good Samaritan, but the church founded and grounded in Jesus Christ doesn’t care what the name of the story is. Jesus never named the story. Jesus lived that story and asked his followers to do the same. Again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” How are we welcoming, really? What do we believe, truly? What is our purpose, and what is our mission, right now with the doors of the church closed, but the Body of Christ resurrected? We don’t have pews, but we have prayer. We don’t have communion, but we have compassion. We’re not saints, but we can suffer alongside fellow sinners. How can we be a bit more salty these days and worship God instead of worrying. How may we be light, and collectively speak truth? How can the church emphasize a life of holiness instead of posturing. These are just some of the questions I’m having now. As you think about the church’s purpose in these times, as you wonder what welcoming looks like what images come to mind for you? What innovations and experiments might we run? What is the welcoming work God is calling us to do right now? I invite you into the conversation, and into prayerful discernment as we continue to live in this new reality with God, neighbor, and world.

Rising to the Occasion

**Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday in Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

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Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd
~Acts 2:14

This was the same Peter who only last week was bent over, cowering with a combination of fear, shame and anger. Who was he cowering to? Was it the mob mentality of the crowd? No. It was a little girl who asked him a simple question, “Do you know Jesus? I’ve seen you with him. Are you not one of his disciples?” Peter’s answer was the same when he was asked two more times. “The answer is no. I do not know the man.”

What a difference a week makes. For today, Peter is not cowering in shame. He’s standing with the eleven. He’s their voice. He’s their preacher. He’s been chosen to speak on their behalf. He raised his voice. He didn’t mumble under his breath a lie. No. He addressed the crowd with truth. No. Today, Peter rises to the occasion, represents his constituents well, and gives the crowd the prototype of every sermon that has ever been preached since then: “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” For millennia Christians have said this liturgically as well: “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” Christians have confessed it in the creeds of the church, “He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again.” We sing it. We pray it. We proclaim it, and we summarize it with that beautiful word, “Alleluia.”

How do we as Christians boldly proclaim that same “Alleluia” to a world that still finds herself in Good Friday? What goods and gifts do we have to address the crowd, and like Peter to rise to the occasion?

First, we have God’s word. We have the Bible, and in God’s holy word we find wonderful stories of the faith and faithful people like you and me. These are ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things on God’s behalf and they said “yes,” or “Lord, here I am”, or “Send me.” Most of these people were flawed in so many ways, but if we look at the pattern of God (and to quote our bishop) “So many times God takes our garbage and turns it into gold.” God takes our weaknesses, our burdens, our failures, and uses them for God’s purposes. Quoting Peter again, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power…you crucified…but God raised up.” That’s the story of our life in Christ, right there in a nut shell. Our purpose is the proclaim in thought, word, and deed the risen life found in our savior Jesus Christ. We have God’s word to help us with this. We have God’s word who was made flesh to guide us through this. Use this time to dive into the Exodus story, the Noah story, the Jonah. Use this time to remember Sara, Rebecca, and Ruth, the two Marys, and all the other flawed saints found in God’s holy word. We are a part of a great cloud of witnesses. May they witness to us once again in our own time of exile and uncertainty.

Secondly, we have a gift in the form of our prayer books. I love the image of Anglicans and Episcopalians down through the ages who held Bibles in one hand and the prayer book in another. Now is the time to get reacquainted with your Bibles and your prayer books. In fact, 3/4ths of the prayer book is the Bible put in a prayer and liturgical formats. The whole of the Psalter is in their too. There’s been a cartoon going around social media that has the devil and God sitting at a table together. With a smirk on his face, the devil claims, “I finally closed the church!” With a compassionate smile of his face, God counters, “On the contrary…I opened up one in every home!” Let that image sink in as it pertains to our moment in history. God has opened up new churches at breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables as well as beside every bedside. Did you know the prayer book has prayers for morning, noonday, evening, and night? These are invitations for us to stop what we’re doing, and to pray with the prayer book in one hand and our Bibles in the other. I’ve been modeling this method on Facebook Live every morning and evening for you for the past few weeks. So, do what I do. Pray. If these prayers are a bit overwhelming to you, the prayer book can calm your anxiety because there are simple prayers for individuals and family devotions. These are meant to be prayed around the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table before the family meal. They’re short, concise, and to the point. Fathers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the breakfast table. Mothers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the lunch table. Children: Teach your parents how to pray in this way around the dinner table. Live and lean into your baptisms during this time. Live and lean into God’s holy word. Combine this with what’s been handed down to you in the form of the prayer book. May the family in all its forms, shapes, and sizes be a little church gathered together in Jesus’ name.

Like Peter, and thirdly, we rise to the occasion when we face reality head on. The reality of the resurrection for Peter kindled a boldness that he could not find within himself only a week ago. He let his grief get the best of him back then. He forsook hope. His ordering was wrong because he was disrupted, disordered and disillusioned. Sound familiar? The order is this: Face and name reality first. Then out of the grief found in that reality, name what has been lost even as you hope for what is to come. Put differently. Be truthful. Be bold. Be hopeful. I invite you to name those things that are real for you right now. I invite you to name those things that have been taken from you right now. I invite you to grieve your losses as well as to imagine a real and hopeful response.

Let me put some hope in the room: Over the past month I’ve been encouraged by so many of you. I’ve been encouraged by those of you who put your head down, go to work, and get the job done – even when it may cost you something. I’ve been encouraged with your imagination and the hopefulness in your voices when you call me up and say I have a check, or a giftcard, or food (I even had someone check in with me who had furniture) to give away as a response to the common reality we are all facing. I’m encouraged that more phone calls to one another are being made, that new technologies are being discovered and implemented for the common good. I’m encouraged that many of you have learned that you can’t do everything, but you can do something. Some of you are encouragers. Some of you are joy-filled. Some of you are numbers people. Some of you are artists. Some of you are teachers, prophets, and providers. Some of you are healers, peacemakers, and have the gift of generosity. Did you know that these are gifts of the Spirit? Did you know that when you use the gifts God has given you, you’re facing reality and leaning into hope? I’m encouraged by you. I’m inspired by you.

One of my own realities is that my sacramental ministry as a priest, has been taken from me. I can’t baptize. I can’t hand you our Lord’s Body and Blood. I can’t lay hands on you, or anoint the sick or the dying with oil. A priest takes vows to be a pastor, a priest, and a teacher. One of those – the priestly, sacramental aspect of my call – has been put on hold. I can mourn that. But I can also see it as an invitation to lean into the ethos of pastor and teacher, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. Some of you may be surprised that we’re praying Morning Prayer at both the 8:30 and 10:30 services. Why aren’t we having Holy Eucharist today, you may ask? Because, Holy Eucharist is a liturgical rite best expressed when we are together physically. It’s best expressed when we can all ask God’s blessing upon the bread and wine as God consecrates them into his very self. It’s my belief (as well as the church’s belief) that this cannot be done virtually, but what can be done virtually is to share in our common prayer practices. In our tradition that translates into Morning and Evening Prayer, or the Daily Office. From now on we will be praying in this way as a recognition of our reality that we all share in our common life as Christians. We will pray this way until we can meet again in our physical building and with the physical elements of Christ’s Body and Blood. As your priest, and as your pastor I feel it is best that I stand in solidarity with you and abstain from Holy Eucharist until we meet again. I will mourn the Eucharist. Her words captivate me, as well as the way she moves. Until then, I remain hopeful. I remain encouraged. I remain steadfast in the faith that St. Peter preached on that day so long ago, and has been preached 2000 years since then. Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd. We, standing on the shoulders of the saintly giants in our tradition, get to raise our voices around the new churches that are being formed around supper tables as a way to address the noise of death, disease, dying, and posturing in order to boldly proclaim, “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

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.

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.

Respond to Evil with Good

Last night in my Ash Wednesday sermon, I challenged us to respond with evil by doing a charitable act. In the Litany of Penitence we prayed to God to, Accept our repentance for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty. In light of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida yesterday, we can live out this prayer in tangible ways.

The first step is to look within asking such questions as,

How are you charitable to yourself, or not?
Who do you rely on to give you grace when you fail to live up to your own standards?

The second step is to look outside with such questions as,

How do I respond/react to things that don’t go my way?
What am I indifferent to? Why?
What do I try to control? Why?

The third step is to ask God for help, praying a prayer like,

“Lord God, I am helpless in this situation/act/addiction. Help me.”
“Lord God, I am overwhelmed. Comfort me.”
“God, let me simply rest in you.”

One of the reasons we are violent and have a violent society is because we are not charitable to ourselves as God has been charitable to us. We forget God’s love and compassion; thereby forgetting to find God’s love and compassion in the “other” the “stranger” the “neighbor, and the “enemy”. We take a short-cut and “label” instead of doing the hard work of building relationship.

Lent is a time to name sin and to name evil. Lent is also a time to admit that we are helpless to counter sin and evil in our lives without God’s help. Today, be kind to others by first being kind to yourself. Give this tragedy to God in order to free yourself up to be charitable to self and other. Above all, “walk in love as Christ loves us.”

A Prayer: In Times of Conflict (BCP, 824)

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,
in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront
one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work
together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

#growforlent