In Your Mercy, Hear My Prayer

**Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020 by The Rev. Brandon Duke, Rector of St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. To see a video of this sermon click here.** 

 “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”   ~Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60

 St. Stephen is the patron saint for deacons in the church. A deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons inspire all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen had just preached a lengthy sermon to the Sanhedrin counsel where the chief priests and other religious elders gathered. It was a scene not unlike where Jesus found himself at the beginning of his Passion. Like Jesus, Stephen was condemned for his teaching, dragged outside the city by an angry mob and murdered. Like Jesus, Stephen, asked God to receive his spirit while at the same time begged God to forgive his executioners. Today’s story remembers the realities faced by the early Christian community, and the paradoxical experiences of grief and hope founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it introduces a “young man named Saul” religious historians would label as the progeny for the spread of Christianity itself through his letters to various Christian communities in first century Palestine. Before any of these letters were penned; however, The Acts of the Apostles portray Saul as another King Herod hunting down the innocent and scapegoating them because of his own deep, unconscious insecurities and ignorance. Later, Saul would be confronted on the road to Damascus by none other than the living Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4) The resurrected and ascended Jesus did not ask, “Why did you approve of Stephen’s murder,” or “Why do you hunt and kill my followers?” No. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me” and in doing so joined himself with all those who suffer from the injustices of this world.

This week, many of you now know the name, Ahmaud Arbery.[1] Mr. Arbery was a resident of Georgia, the state I call home. On February 23rd of this year in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, Ahmaud was out for his daily jog when he found himself being stalked, assaulted, and killed by racist vigilantes out of their own deep, unconscious insecurities and prejudicial ignorance. On February 27, the Brunswick district attorney recused herself from the case because of a professional tie to one of the perpetrators, Gregory McMichael. Then in early April, another prosecutor a town over (in Waycross) found no reason to charge Gregory and his son Travis claiming they were acting in self-defense. On April 13, the case was transferred to a third prosecutor who serves the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. It’s my understanding that this is currently where Mr. Arbery’s case resides. On Tuesday, May 5th of this past week a video circulated online that showed the visceral hunting, attacking, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The horrific video ignited cries for justice all across the state of Georgia and the United States, as well as revealed the hubris of local officials for not taking the McMichael’s into custody back in February. Because of the outcry, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in, the McMichael’s were finally arrested two days later on May 7 – Thursday of this past week, over two full months since they murdered Mr. Arbery. On Friday, May 8, the Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich, runners all over Georgia and the United States gathered to walk and run 2.23 miles to commemorate Mr. Arbery as well as to remember what would have been his 26th birthday. Personally, I have been heartbroken over this story and horrified by those images found on the video, and deeply grieved that a modern day lynching happened so close to my own home. My heart aches for Ahmaud and the way he died. My heart aches for his family who have already born the burdens of intolerance, disinterest, and collective silence even before this case will be tried in a court of law.

What is the Christian’s response?

One of the reasons why “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is because it ignores Christ.[2] When St. Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” the Son of Man referred to is Jesus Christ serving as the glorified heavenly judge. The scriptures continue with, “But they covered their ears [when they heard him say this], and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They couldn’t hear the truth. They were not interested. They held Stephen in contempt rushed upon him, and had him killed. After his death, the scripture reads that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In other words, they believed the murder of this man was justified, a reverent act of defense approved by the violent complacency of the pious. This piety was put on trial by none other than the heavenly judge himself. The will of God was revealed to Saul on that road to Damascus. His charge was persecution and murder of Jesus Christ himself (Again, “Why do you persecute me.”) His penitence was told to the disciple Ananias that “he (Saul) must suffer for the sake of my name” – the name of Jesus Christ. Saul was baptized Paul three days later and immediately began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. So again, “What is the Christian’s response?”

The Christian’s response is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility. When a Christian confesses their sins to God, we claim that our sins are against God and our neighbor. The two are so closely related that to deny the dignity of someone’s humanity is to deny the very ground being itself – that is, God. The reason why we confess is not to be condemned by God. We confess in order to be forgiven by God. The very act of confession frees us to get up, try again in imitation of Christ as the suffering servant. For over a thousand years recalling one’s sins has been the practice of generations of Christians. Through scripture, preaching, teaching, participating in the church’s sacraments, and fellowship, one is able to self-examine one’s life, which leads to a contrite heart, as well as the freedom found in receiving God’s forgiveness.

If you’re like me, it’s so much easier to see the sin in another than to turn that mirror upon myself revealing my own. Saul, for example, was guilty of the sin of pride. Pride defined, “puts the self at the center, and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family.”[3] Some subsets of pride are presumption, distrust, impenitence, and arrogance. When we disobey God by neglecting our neighbor, pride can also show itself with a resentful or retaliation-type mindset while malice, contempt, and domination are not too far behind. All of these prideful sins can be attributed to the McMichael’s from Ahmaud Arbery’s case. In fact, it is fairly easy to see these sins in them. The hard part is naming our own part of the mess.

As Christians, we often stumble into the sin of irreverence. Irreverence defined is “being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality while not striving to know and do God’s will.” It’s so much easier to believe we are serving God by saying nice prayers than it is to live out the virtues found in those prayers and putting them to practice in our lives. We suffer from the sin of presumption when we “fail to recognize that our work, as well as our relationships are the means by which we serve God and forward [God’s] kingdom.” All of this can lead to a distrustful relationship with God and neighbor where timidity or cowardice are accepted more than the courage to face difficulty, suffering, or responsibility.” Finally, a slothful favoritism toward others who are just like us shackles one to “silence in the face of prejudice, abuse, bullying, or cruelty for fear or for desire of favor, or acceptance” within one’s group, family, or connections.

Put simply we combat sin by naming our sin. When we own up to our little messes in the midst of bigger messes, we’re able to be forgiven and move on. Saul, who later became St. Paul, said it this way, “Grow up. Grow into the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This leads us back to St. Stephen and the inspirational ministries of deacons. Again, a deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons encourage all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. If the Christian’s response to sin is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility then we’re only going to find mercy, justice, and healing when we’re able to claim that we have received these gifts, and they are gifts to be given away. If you have received mercy in this life. Give mercy to another as a gift knowing exactly what it feels like to receive that gift. Do the same with the gifts and graces of justice as it leads humanity to healing and wholeness. Living out these virtues for the common good is Christian activism.

In a moment we’ll pray a small set of intercessory prayers simply called “Suffrages A” in the prayer book (BCP, 97).[4] These prayers speak of God’s mercy and salvation. We will petition God to afford us the privilege to be on the march for righteousness, joy, peace, and safety. The prayer then makes a turn to nation states, asking God to care for our nation and all nations guiding us in the way of justice, health, and truth. Finally, it ends with us petitioning God to help us not to forget the poor, and to clean and sustain our hearts by the power of God’s Spirit. Suffrages A is an active prayer which has the potential to lead to prayer in action.

This week, repent confessing your sins to God taking responsibility for your piece of the mess. Then, pray Suffrages A looking for those strong verbs that will compel you to get up, get out, and do something in the name of justice, mercy, and peace. Finally, try putting yourself in the mind of St. Stephen as well as Saul from today’s story. What comes up for you? Let that be your prayer. Let that be your meditation. Let that be your action and catalyst for change which leads to God’s deliverance.

Justice & Mercy Links:

Suffrages A [5]

V.     Show us your mercy, O Lord;
R.    And grant us your salvation.
V.    Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
R.    Let your people sing with joy.
V.    Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R.    For only in you can we live in safety.
V.    Lord, keep this nation under your care;
R.    And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
V.    Let your way be known upon earth;
R.    Your saving health among all nations.
V.    Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R.    Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
V.    Create in us clean hearts, O God;
R.    And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[1]                The sequence of events I used in the sermon are taken from “Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case” from The New York Times found here: https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-timeline.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-georgia-shooting&variant=show&region=TOP_BANNER&context=storylines_menu

[2]                Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned April 16, 1963: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3]                The following definitions and listing of sins come from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Revised Edition, 2014, prepared by Forward Movement on behalf of The Order of the Holy Cross. The editor is The Reverend David Cobb and the liturgical editor is Derek Olsen, PhD. “A Form of Self-Examination Based on the Seven Deadly Sins” can be found on pages 122 – 132 in the book.

[4]                BCP is short for The Book of Common Prayer. An online version can be found here: https://www.bcponline.org/. Suffrages A can be found after the Justice & Mercy Links below.

[5]  “V” means “Versicle” which is a short verse from scripture (usually taken from The Psalms) sung or said by a leader of public worship. “R” stands for “Response” where the people gathered answer or continue the prayer begun by the prayer leader (called an Officiant in Morning & Evening Prayers).

Ash Wednesday – A Call to Observe a Holy Lent

Do not think that saintliness comes from occupation; it depends rather on what one is. The kind of work we do does not make us holy, but we may make it holy.
     ~Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)

Today begins a 40-day journey. A journey into Lent. A deep expedition into the life of the soul. I pray that you find comfort that the church gifts us with this season of Lent, and may be bold enough to count those blessings over the course of these 40 days. What are some of the blessings that this saintly season allows?

The first blessing is that today is not a feast day, but one of fasting. This is a rarity in our tradition given that the prayer book only names 2 days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (BCP 17) – as times to make fasting a priority. Put differently, because fast days are such a rarity, we should pay attention to what a day like today truly reveals. Again, I claim it anticipates blessing for today, the church grants us permission to un-plug. To experience…to dig down and really see the world around us. Maybe today you will begin fasting from consumerism or television, social media, or tobacco. Will you be giving up meat on Fridays, or resisting chocolate on Mondays? No matter what your self-discipline will be, try to understand that abstinence and fasting are helpful for recalling us back to God, and can serve as specific practices that allow us to stand in solidarity with those who are in need. For example, when you are hungry today, remember and pray for those who are chronically hungry. If you are trying to live more simply, live simply so that the least of these may simply live. Remember not only your flesh-and-blood neighbors, but also your neighbor trees, flowers, forests, and fields asking such questions as: How do I love all of God’s creation? As well as, “How do I neglect these creations?” Finally, remember Lent allows us to pray for God’s creation and our neighbors but also gives us space to serve them in specific ways too.

The second blessing of Lent is that it allows for routine. We all have routines upon waking, sleeping, and everything in between, but Lent reminds us that our daily schedules can be grounded in an intentional life of prayer. Take these 40 days to experiment with a regular routine of prayer. Specifically, and with intention, divide your day up into times for prayer and meditation. Eat your meals with friends or family. Take time to labor and live into your vocations, but also find the time for learning and rest. When was the last time you truly went on retreat? When was the last time you took up something new simply for the joy of learning something new? Remembering afresh the ways in which we order our lives will harness that extra sense in which God also has his own ways-and-means in which God orders, guides, and directs our souls.

The third blessing of Lent is that we are obligated to confess our sins to God and our neighbor more frequently. We confess, not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. When we are forgiven, we are reminded of the peace of Christ. Forgiveness is a gift for it lifts up our heavy hearts allowing them to praise God, and to be in thanksgiving, honoring and adoring the One who grants us forgiveness of our sins. At once, confession gives us access to God’s judgment as well as his mercy. There is no season in the church calendar that emphasizes the graces of confession more than in the season of Lent.

Finally, Lent allows for further conversion of spirit. When we convert to something, we stop doing what we’re doing. We turn from it and pursue something altogether different. Conversion doesn’t necessarily mean we turn from something bad to something good. More times than not conversion happens when we turn from something good to something better. During this season of Lent, I invite you to start paying attention to your choices choosing the greater one that helps you live into the person you desire to be while acknowledging God’s graces that are there to assist you.

To sum up, Lent is a time of fasting, and a time of reflection on one’s routine in life. Lent is also a time of confession and ongoing conversion. Given all these blessed realities of this season, take the time to do them and if you cannot commit to all of them this year, choose one and work with God on how you will live into your fasting, routine, confession, or further conversion. Be brave this Lent. Experiment with the tools the church offers. Live out your faith comparing your relationship with God since this time last season. Are you growing stronger in the faith? Is there a greater sense of hope in your life? Are you walking in love more fully and with each passing day? Get curious about these virtuous things, and with intention (along with God’s help), observe a time of Holy Lent.

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.

Go

**Sermon preached at the midnight mass Christmas Eve service at St. Julian’s**

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ~Luke 2:7

 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ~Luke 9:58

It’s been said that Jesus’ shortest sermons ever can be boiled down to one word, “Go.” “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). “Go. Teach all nations. Baptize” (Matt 28:19). “Go. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers, few” (Luke 10:2). At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he told his disciples, “I am going away. Where I am going you cannot come” (John 8:21). In tonight’s Gospel, the shepherds get a positive reinforcement of the command, “to go”. The angels persuaded them in this regard, and they replied, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” The scripture continues, “So they went with haste… and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”

Tonight, we go. We travel, making haste with those shepherds the journey to see the Son of Man lying in the manger because there was no room in the inn…because the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. In this regard, the Son of Man slept underneath the stars like a lowly shepherd. No wonder the two related; and the scene of the manger foreshadowed it all for us:  The Son of Man would suffer, die, and be buried in a tomb that was not his own. It is a story of poverty as common as breathing, and as old as the wind; and yet this night shepherds and angels join in a chorus proclaiming holiness. In that manger scene was the man who would one day say to the poor, those that mourn, the meek, hungry, and merciful, “You are blessed, and you will be a blessing.” Not much nostalgia tonight, is there? No reminiscing here. In fact, there are two different reactions/responses we gain from the characters in our story this evening. The shepherds go again, making “known what had been told them about this child.” The scriptures continue, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Put sequentially: The shepherds were doing the work they had always done. They stopped this work; discerned a word from the Lord; acted upon that word which transformed their lives; and then went and told others about it. This is the call of a convert and disciple – a classic call to repentance: To turn from something to something (all together new) by the power of God. This process of repentance is ongoing. It’s not one moment in time, but a lifetime of giving up oneself for the service of God and a chance to participate in His holy story.

The other reaction/response came from Mary. The scriptures read, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I think Mary needed something to hold onto. In the season of Advent, we learned that Mary’s very soul would be pierced. Pierced, possibly by despair as she kept giving more and more of herself, and eventually her son to the world that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. At that moment when lowly shepherds sang out the music of angels, she knew that Jesus was going to be bigger than her. She knew she would have to let go and let God time and time again. As a mother, these selfless acts would be piercing. As a follower of God, she understood them to be necessary. “Where I am going,” said Jesus, “you cannot come,” would later be directed at his disciples, but I wonder if he didn’t have his mother in the back of his mind while commanding this?

Tonight, you will leave. Go to the parking lot. Get in your vehicles, and go. Some of you will go home. Some of you will go to a place that welcomes you, be that another family’s home, or a hotel. In other words, you have a place to lay your head. But if you will, I’d like for you to do something. When you walk outside, and feel the cold brushed up against you, look up. If you don’t do it immediately after church, look to the sky on your drive home. This is the night where angels once gathered in those skies, but it is also the night where the one they proclaimed had no place to lay his head. When thinking on these things, I believe we carry with us the two responses mentioned earlier. We have the response of the shepherds who could relate to this holy family bundled up in a manger. Their response was one of repentance and praise. The other response is treasuring these things in our hearts. Not in some nostalgic, worldly way, but in a Godly way. That is, recognizing the holy in the mundane and being grateful. This Christmas why not be grateful? Return to the manger. Sing with the angels. This Christmas, join Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, and Jesus in his mission and ministry…
and “Go”.