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.

 

 

Happy Advent

The Advent Season

What is Advent, and what does this transitional season represent to Christians? How do the traditions, liturgy, and prayers of the Church allow hearts to be transformed during this time of year? Why does the Church caution Christians not to jump into Christmas after Thanksgiving Day? Let us live into these questions as we remember the counter-cultural expression of this beautiful season called Advent.

Traditionally, the Season of Advent represents the preparation and coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the word, Advent, literally means, Coming, and its readings, liturgy, and music all point to Christ coming into the world with three different expressions: We remember Christ coming into the world at Christmas, within our hearts, and the expectation of Christ coming again at the end of time. The mood of the season fills the soul with great mystery, tension, and anticipation. For four weeks, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings grace the liturgy with metaphor, simile, and prophetic signs. Words such as restoration, prophecy, and repentance will help to enhance this tension filled season. There will be reminders to keep awake – to not get distracted by all the noises around us – and to remember and reflect on the eternal. Advent invites all to melt into its spell where senses develop an awareness of light and darkness, evergreen trees and deciduous ones, mountains and valleys, the future and The Now.

The Advent Wreath

We can thank our 17th century German sisters and brothers for the development of the Advent wreath (Bishop J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time, 44-45). What started out as a domestic devotion was later adapted (and adopted) by the Church as its own countdown clock (Ibid.). That is why there are four candles in Advent wreaths representing the four weeks of this season. The Advent wreath, like the Tenebrae services of Lent, reveals humanity’s fascination with the lengthening and shorting of days (Ibid). Advent occurs during the Winter Solstice where the earth’s Northern hemisphere tilts from its sun making the nights longer and the days shorter. Advent is a transitional season anticipating Christmas where the son, or the light of the world will be revealed making His light more abundant on earth, and within the hearts of mankind.

Advent wreaths are made up of evergreen tree branches. Evergreen trees are symbolic of eternity because they do not change with the seasons. They are firm, steadfast, and constant year round. When Christians put Advent wreaths on their doors or in their homes, they symbolically point to both the eternal and the now – or better – the Eternal Now.

The Readings of Advent

In the readings from Advent I, we symbolically remember what it is like to experience the daytime (light) and the nighttime (darkness). Paul says, in his Letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11). Jesus echoes this when he teaches, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:42).

The Experience of Advent

You know those vacation or holiday nights when you’re visiting a friend, relative, or loved one you haven’t seen in a long time, and you stay up all night talking and catching up? You might have a good drink in your hand, and a fire going on in the fireplace. Table lamps are lit instead of overhead lights. There’s some soft music on in the background that mixes with your moments of conversation yet leaves room enough for those still small moments of nonanxious silences. “You say it best when you say nothing at all” yet when a word is spoken your beloved, perhaps, says it better than you because they know you…you have a history together, and being in the moment is more important than being right. It’s with this revealing picture that I envision Paul and Jesus’ words. Even though it’s dark outside, even though the world is a big fat mess, and when I’m out in it (half the time) I’m distracted by competing voices, for this moment and with my friend, I’m living in the light of Now with God, with my loved one, with the music, and I’m soaking up every simple yet complex thing because for that moment I’m awake. I think that that’s a different type of anticipation, a different type of tension where one can honestly and in the moment stomp on fear and anxiety because there is no fear and anxiety. Something deeper is going on. These are Now moments of anticipation where everything has changed; yet, everything has stayed the same. In Advent, we say that Christ has come into our lives…that the light of the world has come into our hearts yet again. The world is still the same; yet the world is vastly different. And that’s as much as I can describe (with words) the experience of Advent. Paul did it one way. Jesus another. Me another; and you have your own as well.

An Invitation

This Advent, contemplate the mystery of God in your life. Look back on where God seemed to have been holding you, or carrying you, or even dragging you along life’s path. Observe the novel that is your life. Observe the song, or the hymn that is your life intricately wrapped up in the life of the Divine. We only have four weeks, so let’s use our time wisely, anticipating where we know we will be distracted, and don’t be (with God’s help). It’s only four weeks. Instead, focus and occupy your mind, your body, your soul on God, self, and neighbor. Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? These questions provide an appropriate meditation for a few weeks that could start out for 4, and turn into a lifetime of living into those questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? Advent, by it’s very nature of light and dark, mystery and metaphor, comings and goings will enhance these questions, question your answers, and help you find that friend you have (perhaps) always been searching for, and longing to stay up the whole night chatting and catching up. As today’s Collect reminds us to pray: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life… [and] in the life immortal.” Happy Advent!

Loss, Intentionality, and Grace – Part I of II

A sermon (somewhat redacted for this blog) that was preached on Sunday, November 6 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA. The lesson was Luke 20:27-38.

Loss

The Christian tradition teaches God has gifted humanity with great freedom. We have agency (sometimes referred to as free will), but agency does not necessarily translate into control (Gen 1:27-29; Gen 2:16-17). Rules, laws, and boundaries are created, but as any parent, or grandparent, or citizen knows, control of the situation is oftentimes an illusion, a farce, a wicked game that demands loss. Ironically, with the various experiences of loss, we find ourselves not only like broken containers – emptied; yet full – full of grace: A grace not dependent upon ourselves, our faculties, or our resources, but a grace utterly dependent upon God. It is at those times when we begin anew, and create out of the chaos new ideas, new evolutions of the Spirit that point us to transcendence, yet include what is important here and now (Gen. 1:1).

The fallacy of the Sadducees’ question was that their hearts were in the wrong place (Luke 20:27). Jesus saw right through their questioning. They were more concerned with the technicalities of the Law of Moses instead of the Spirit of the law. These technicalities led to a morbid sense of the finality of death; yet as Jesus pointed out, “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).

The Christian Church is a church that honors death, and allows those who must mourn to mourn. Mourners are gifted with prayers, liturgies, rituals, and an intentional community to walk alongside. These are technicalities that do indeed help, but at the end of the day God has the final say. When the noise of loss finally settles, and silence starts to stir, one gets the feeling of utter abandonment (Luke 22:42; Matt 27:46). It is with this feeling of loneliness where; ironically, God is closest to us. The Scriptures reveal that, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning,” but those of us who understand significant loss oftentimes pray not for joy, but for relief (Psalm 30). When we find ourselves on the opposite end of grief, there is a childish temptation to give advice to those who mourn thinking your good word, deed, or even intentionality will be enough to stop the pain. This way of thinking reveals an ignorance of the self instead of the other. Any family, church, or society that does not let the mournful grieve, will be hindering the griever more than helping. Again, it goes back to God – not us. Just about the time we think we cannot take more, our empty and cracked container, our broken heart begins to be filled once again. Relief seems to come from outside ourselves and a sense of peace beyond our understanding is graced upon us (Phil 4:7). “I am with you always,” Jesus said, “even until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Hope, grace, gratefulness, and yes – maybe even joy – start to return once our sense of God has been restored, or better, deepened through our experiences of grief and loss.

Intentionality

Last Monday, the Church marked its 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This gradual and grace filled re-formation released the stranglehold of the status quo built around the illusion that the Church was “too big to fail.” The Episcopal Church’s theology is rooted in this protest, and is forever thankful for the reforming work of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Thomas Cranmer – to name a few. Because the Protestant Reformation was such a fulcrum in world history, it is little surprise that another movement within the Church did not get the same historical attention; however, both contributed heavily and influenced all manner of life that brought about a Renaissance of art, culture, religion, economics, science, philosophy, and politics. The beautiful nation we live in today finds its roots firmly planted in this time period history labels, The Renaissance. But what is this other movement that does not get much play? Historians have labeled it the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation was a Roman Catholic response to the protesting Protestants, and the Counter-Reformation can be summed up with the phrase, “an inward turn” or as some like to say, “an inward move” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 336).

Carter Lindberg, in his book, The European Reformations sums it up this way, “What unites the various forms of Counter-Reformation spirituality can be said…to be the stress on the individual’s relation to God,…whose first object was not to ‘reform the Church’…but to order their own lives to the doing of God’s will and the bringing of the benefit to their neighbor. It was exacting, in that it demanded continuous heroic effort at prayer and self-control and self-improvement and good works.”

So how is the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation different from the Protestant one? Luther was more concerned with re-forming the theology of the Church. That was his starting point – if you will. The Roman Catholics put their emphasis on moral and ethical renewal. There was a desire to live a more devout life (Lindberg, 336). What branched out of this movement within Catholicism was a deeper look at the individual lives of the saints, as opposed to grouping them all together. Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila all became extremely popular during this time (Ibid.). Also, the Counter-Reformation way of thinking eventually influenced Roman Catholics in this country within the 20th century. This movement, at the quarter of the last century, was called the Catholic Workers Movement, which emphasized the sanctity of the family, and how a healthy, working family is the basic building block towards a great society.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at intentionality. Luther and the Protestants said intentionality begins with having the right theology. The Counter-Reformers said, ‘no,’ it begins with morals, ethics, and character because the individual has been baptized into Christ’s Church. To put it in philosophical terms: Each group was trying to describe the starting point for the good life. Catholics said the good life was lived out ritualistically through the sacraments of the Church that by their very nature teach us how to live. Reformers put more of an emphasis on faith and belief. Anglicans, with the help of Thomas Cranmer’s, Book of Common Prayer (1549) split the difference: Because of our turn to God through faith (i.e. Baptism), we participate in the Body of Christ through intentional acts of prayer, worship, and meditation that assist us in learning how to love God, self, and neighbor. Without the intentionality of living a life of faith through the rituals of the Church, and bearing witness to Christ through their actions, one was considered lost, one had forgotten God. Put another way, one was not living out the good life because it was a life stripped of intentionality.

With all this history in mind, I believe the Church at its very best models for society what it means to limit itself for the greater good. Within these limitations freedom is found, humility is remembered, and dignity is experienced. The Church can remind us to focus on what matters, mainly the eternal; otherwise, we’re like the Sadducees who got too caught up in the anxiousness of processes, speculation, and hearsay. “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living,” reminds us that a life of faith requires getting comfortable with loss, wanderings, and doubt, but when a life of intentionality is lived out, the good life also remembers resurrection, and teaches it to others through one’s own intentional actions. The very best evangelism a Christian can perform is through their actions, their morality, their character, and their faith. This is what both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation can teach us. Put this all in a biblical phrase from Matthew’s Gospel, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).

On Tuesday, our nation will elect its next president. On Tuesday evening, many in our nation will experience profound loss and grief. On Wednesday morning, Christians have the opportunity to show others what a grace filled faith full of intentionality looks like by answering the call to walk alongside our fellow countrymen as they grieve and heal. Put another way, make up your minds now to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Give one another space. Grant each other grace; and may Lady Julian of Norwich’s famous maxim that all shall be well start in our minds, and with time, love, and care reveal its truth within our hearts.

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 Your Beloved Dustiness

~Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember you…

Remembering is both blessing and curse. We want to remember the good, and forget the bad. We want to pay attention to those happy details in our lives, and dismiss the depressing. But is remembering really that simple? Is life truly divided into good and bad, happy or sad? I suppose for some it is, but during the Season of Lent, the Church invites us to remember with humility, integrity, and sobering honesty. Remembering in this way blurs the lines a bit, and we are called to walk in the gray for 40 days.

are dust…

Take out the biblical truth that we are all created in the image of God, and this will only lead to despair. Lent is a time of holy remembering, and this means that we remember alongside our Creator. We are dust, yes; but we are beloved dust – dust that breathes in the breath of God’s Spirit. During these 40 days, take the time and remember God deemed all creation good.

and to dust…

Holy remembering, and side-by-side with God gives us another partner along our Lenten journey. That partner is the Church. Through the Church we remember that we need forgiveness, and also remember to forgive others. There’s a corporate and cooperative element to our beloved dustiness, and the Church delivers the 40 days of Lent helping us to recall forgiveness together.

you shall return.

During Lent we return to another season of upright reflection that does not stand for individualistic navel gazing. Ultimately, Lent reminds us of our own mortality. We are stricken by the truth that in the end, we all shall return to the ground. We intuitively know this, but do we remember it? The season of Lent implores us to remember. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The Imitation of Christ

Within Holy Communion, we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, as we await his coming in glory. Christ himself compelled us to remember him in a specific way, not as an intellectual assent or idea, but to remember him in a practice – in a sacramental rite that seems to be summed up in the word, “Do.” Do this in remembrance of me. He might even say, “Practice this in remembrance of me.” “Pray this in remembrance of me.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Charles C. Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” It’s a complement to imitate. It’s a complement to remember. But is there a difference in remembering and imitating? Are we to remember Christ – only – or are we called to imitate Christ? Or, are we compelled to do a bit of both?

I grew up in East Texas, and at one time my family owned and rode horses. But before we had horses, we had ideas of what it would be like to groom, ride, and care for a horse. My Mom expressed her interest in horses by going out and purchasing roper boots in a variety of colors. My Dad read and researched how to care for a horse (very practical, right)? But it was my brother who gave our family the most expressive way of remembering horses. He would run through the house on all fours galloping like a horse. He ate Cheerios and juice from a bowl…on the floor…with only his mouth…eating like a horse. He hardly used words when he was in this state of consciousness, but nayed and whinnied like a horse. My brother did not believe he was like a horse; however, my brother believed he was a horse. The way that he best remembered and related to the horse was to be and to become the horse.

In the reading from the first chapter in the Book of James we get that famous verse, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Again, the word, “Do” is highlighted. And how can we be and become doers of the word? Well, the Word was made flesh, so that means the Word is Christ. If the Word is Christ, then that must mean that we are all called to be doers of Christ. And doers of Christ are ones who remember him through his Body and Blood, and in remembering him, we are given strength to imitate him.

The imitation of Christ is both a nod to religion and our various religious traditions, but the imitation of Christ also transcends religion because all of our hearts and souls, all of our strength and minds reaches toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life – which our faith teaches is the person and presence of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s comforting to me: That the very person and presence we are trying to imitate is already there…and/or here. And if we are reaching out to Christ, we know that he is reaching back to us.

To be an imitator of Christ holds great responsibility. To be an imitator of Christ, we don’t necessarily take on new things, so much as we give up old things. And Christ seems to be pretty good at revealing to us (deep within our hearts) what those things we need to give up are…what things are holding us back from full participation and imitation of Him. The Church has traditionally called the process of giving up things, the process of sanctification. It’s within this process of sanctification that we are being made holy by emptying ourselves so that Christ may fill us more fully.

This is played out in the liturgy of the Church when we empty ourselves of sin by confessing them to God before remembering and being filled by Christ with His Body and Blood. It’s played out further with the passing of the peace where we remember a brother or sister in Christ that has something against us (or we against them), so we pass the peace of the Lord, and are reconciled with each other before offering our gifts at the altar (Matt 5:23, 24). By doing such things in the liturgy of the Church allots a specific time to practice our faith, to be better Christians, and (ultimately) to imitate Christ, himself. Practicing gets under our skin, and in our pores so much so that if we are used to passing the peace every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, then outside the doors of the Church we will find ourselves being more peaceful and forgiving to those whom are hard to get along with. In other words, we are practicing what we are preaching…that’s remembering Christ. But we are also preaching what we are practicing…that imitating Christ. It’s a both/and, not one or the other.

So our primary gift from God is the gift of Christ, and it is with this gift that we (as Christians) get to share with the rest of the world; and we best share Christ by being imitators of him. What is another gift of God, but is only secondary are the gifts of the Church – mainly the sacraments of holy baptism and communion. It is through these gifts that we get to remember Christ, and practice our faith, and prayerfully commit to something that is bigger than ourselves.

These are the primary and secondary gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving, and ultimately, in the imitation of Him.

Exorcism in the Church

The Church defines a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. One example of a sacrament is Holy Baptism where the outward and visible sign is water. The inward and spiritual grace comes from God, and is an act of love between Creat-or and creat-ed. It is an unconditional love, unearned, and undeserved.

Within the rite of baptism there is a lengthy question and answer portion that the minister asks the candidate. This is followed by another Q&A section where the minister asks those who are present to both remember and renew those same words once spoke during this holy sacrament.

Scholars tell us this portion of the rite is a good old-fashioned exorcism. If you don’t believe me, take a look yourself:

Question     Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer       I renounce them.

Question     Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer       I renounce them.

Question     Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer       I renounce them.

Question     Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer       I do.

Question     Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer       I do.

Question     Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer       I do.

What do you think? Exorcism, or no? Also, did you notice that the things that were renounced have a cosmic, worldly, and a personal dimension to them? Did you notice that you couldn’t defeat these things on your own? That is why we turn to Christ, and say, “I do” and receive His grace and love. In other words, we need a Savior. We need help. We cannot confront these things on our own.

It is humbling to think that there are powers and principalities in this world that have been here since before we were born, and will be here after we’re gone. Personally, there is both institutional and individual sin that I am so caught up in that most of the time I’m not even able to see (much less) acknowledge it. Most of what I’ve done (or left undone) during the day goes on without full awareness, and I find myself confessing my sins while stumbling all over the place.

It is also humbling to know that the powers of love, grace, joy, and peace (to name a few) will also be here after I’m gone. Candidates for holy baptism are reminded of this when the community gathered around them say they will do all they can to support them in their life in Christ. They follow this up by making verbal promises to persevere with these persons with their own strength, as well as with the help of God. Again, we all need a Savior. We all need help.

What in your life needs an exorcism? What in our world needs an exorcism? Are you aware of your own limits, or do you think that you are like God and limit-less? What cosmic, worldly, and individual sins are you/we/the world caught up in now?

We all need a Savior. We all need help.