Ritual and Rules of Life

Preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 2018 – at St. Julian’s

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my summer, particularly traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in June and to the big island of Hawaii in July, by summer vacation’s end, I was more than ready for the consistency of the school year to begin anew. The school year is a rhythm that brought me comfort as a student for so many years, and now I bear witness to its cadences watching my son, Henry, discover its many layers of melody. Being a parish priest, I am privileged to watch children and young adults get excited (and somewhat anxious) about starting back to school. St. Julian’s parish gifts us with active and retired teachers, school board members, custodians, and bus drivers whose anticipation for new students, classes, and curriculum is contagious to any lover of knowledge and truth. The school year renews rituals forgotten by summer. In August there is a resurgence of carpools and buses, bikers, and walkers. Our streets and neighborhoods are patrolled by crossing guards and parent’s alike. Teenagers who turned sixteen over the summer now not only have driver’s licenses, but parking passes displayed in mirrors evoking their driving legitimacy to anyone who cares to take notice.

All of the hustle and bustle of getting to and from school each day is something my own family experiences first hand. We live a block away from Fernbank Elementary, a K – 5th grade primary school located in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Dekalb County, and each morning I have the privilege of walking (my now 2nd grader) to school. I enjoy accompanying Henry to school immensely. We get to catch up on dreams, wonderings, anticipations, and anxieties. We occasionally join in with other parents and students who walk or ride bikes. Together, we comment on the weather, the recent weekend, or plan out a play date. Once kids are dropped off, pods of parents continue these conversations on our way back to homes, or away to the office until the next morning. For me, the very definition of community and neighborliness are found in these morning rituals as we share a piece of one another’s life journeys. As in all relationships that broaden and deepen, certain vulnerabilities occasionally surface: a parent may disclose a worry about a playground bully, the lack of volunteers for an upcoming PTA event, or more immediate realities like grief over a family member, a recent diagnosis, or expressions of overextensions and a general tiredness every parent knows well. Last week I had one of those meaningful conversations.

While I am mostly known in the walking circle as “Henry’s Dad,” attached to no other vocation but parent, there are a few couples who know I am a minister and they occasionally inquire into what it is -exactly- that an Episcopal priest does – or even is? Last week was one of these occasions. It started out simple enough: a few parents acknowledged my birthday, plans for it, and so on; but then came a reflection back to me. “On my birthday,” this person confessed, “I look back over the year thinking about what I’ve done, but I end up focusing on all the things I’ve left undone. I tend to compare myself to others too much and end up in grief because my life is not theirs.” Another parent who was in on the conversation couldn’t stand the heat (and heart) of this confession and tried to redirect, “Well,” they said a bit awkwardly, “today is Brandon’s birthday and I’m sure he’s going to have a great day.” The confessor, now somewhat humiliated, apologized with words but their facial expression gave them away. In other words, he was glad for his disclosure and confession. It was now out in the open, in the light for all to see. It’s okay not to be okay was written all over his face.

The next day our morning ritual of walking our kids to school brought us together again, this time without the well-intentioned friend who wanted to redirect the conversation, and we simply picked up from where we left off.

“Thanks for the birthday reflection yesterday,” I started.

“Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been searching for answers lately. I’m trying to find some spiritual direction in my life right now.”

“Don’t apologize. Your instincts are good. Many saints of the Church have asked such questions themselves.”

We then discussed his faith journey a bit, his struggle to pray with consistency, and wondering where to turn for such guidance. I was thrilled when he shared with me that their family had recently started attending the Episcopal Church just down the road in Decatur. I left him with some straight forward advice:

* Get a prayer book and read it

* Go to Eucharist every Sunday

* Get into a prayerful rhythm with the community, then talk to one of the two priests about your struggles with individual prayer like you talked with me today. They can help guide and direct you.

“You must get these types of questions all the time, huh,” he wondered?

“Not near as much as you’d think.” We wished one another a good day, and that was that.

Yesterday on my plane ride back to Atlanta, I finished a wonderful book, “Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality” by Julia Gatta. Julia was one of my dear professors of pastoral care at Sewanee. In this, her new book, she outlines the two main sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Holy Communion – within the context of the Holy Eucharist. Baptism and Holy Eucharist form the first part of the book while the second reveals numerous Christian spiritual practices from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions that practitioners can do both corporately and individually. In other words, Julia lays out options for what is sometimes referred to as a Rule of Life – something my neighbor was perhaps longing for but didn’t have the words to articulate. A Rule of Life is something our Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, has recently challenged all Episcopalians to uphold and practice. He made this challenge explicit in his opening address to General Convention this year. Bishop Curry titled his sermon, “The Way of Love” and The Episcopal Church’s website has a link to both his inspirational sermon as well as what the church deems are “spiritual practices for a Jesus-centered life.” What Christians – new and mature alike don’t realize – is that many already practice a Rule of Life, but simply don’t call it that. For some, a Rule of Life may be categorized as a ritual, or a hobby, or even a physical activity that brings one into a posture of prayer. What makes these practices Christian is an intention to grow deeper in relationship with Christ, and by faith growing into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Starting on Sunday, September 23rd, I will be teaching a class entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry at the 9:30am Sunday School hour. Two books will be required: The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those interested in a deeper dive into the graces of these two sacraments as well as those who desire a Rule of Life or a Rule of Prayer in one’s life are invited. Also, anyone who seeks to be baptized or confirmed in the Church are invited as well. My hope is that by starting with a deep dive into Baptism and Holy Eucharist this will wet appetites to other intentional ways of praying in Christ that are all very much grounded in our Anglican Tradition. A sign-up sheet will be forthcoming in the narthex starting next week. Just like we prayed in today’s collect: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples,” may we always find new and old ways of being gathered together in unity as a Church that prays without ceasing even while our hearts are still searching.

The Dream is Still Alive

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. (BCP, 134 – 135)

The above is the Antiphon, or short prayer, found towards the end of night prayers, or Compline, in the Daily Office of the prayer book. It’s also the prayer I recite when tucking Henry (our 7-year old) into bed each night. For me, the theology found in this short prayer is deep and wide. Alternatively, the popular, “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer many of us prayed as children seems shallow and dreary in comparison.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

For centuries, humanity has been fascinated with sleep and what dreams may come. In every culture there are stories and fairy tales that help make sense of what happens to us when we sleep. Practically speaking, sleep is associated with rest and relief, but within the realm of storytelling, sleep serves greater purposes. When a character from a novel, play, or movie sleeps this often signifies their innocence, while waking up is leaving behind one’s innocence (i.e. Sleeping Beauty). Sometimes when a character sleeps, this signifies an internal struggle – something that must be conquered in their waking life (i.e. Macbeth or Hamlet). Sleeping and awaking also signifies enlightenment (i.e. Buddha), dying and rising (i.e. Elijah under the tree), as well as our place within the passages of time (i.e. Rip van Winkle). Our dreams become montages of the subconscious and whether we pay attention to these flashes of insight hinders or helps the gods of providence.

It’s been said that the stories from the Bible as well as the ancient liturgies of the Church are the dreams of God. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams. We read and read into these dreams weekly as a community, and daily as individuals or families. When we wake up from sleep, sometimes we ask our partner or our children, “What did you dream last night?” Sometimes dreams can be remembered; but oftentimes, not. I believe the best ways to remember a dream is to, upon waking, immediately write the dream down, or name it out loud. I had a professor in seminary who said her first words upon waking from sleep were always, “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the opening lines to Morning Prayer as well as the 15th lyric in Psalm 51. On my good days, I try to follow this practice of hers for in my mind when I recite those lines, I’m not waking up from the dream of God, but continuing in it with more awareness. I am continuing where I left off before sleeping: “Guide us waking, O Lord…” (and now that I’m awake) “may watch with Christ.”

Not all dreams are good. Young parents learn about night terrors from their toddlers. Soldiers often complain of nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD within their waking and sleeping lives. Sometimes we are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night with a deep intuition that something is wrong. In the morning, we learn the truth of this suspension with shock and confusion. If the overarching dream-like theme of the Bible is love, and the overarching theme of Christian liturgy is love incarnate, then our world around us filled with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth are the villains found in the nightmares of these dreams. These characters assault love; and yet, we must pay attention to them. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams whether they comfort or scare us. How do we do this? How do we combat the nightmares and terrors of our lives?

The first step is to remember the true dream. The true dream is God’s love for us and God’s invitation to participate in His Love. This is not merely an ideal. It is ultimate truth. Love is the way, the truth, and the life. Love grounds the very fabric of the universe. There is nothing as deep and wide as love.

Once we know the dream, we are to participate in it. Like Elijah we are to “Get up and eat.” We take our fill from the Bread of Life whom gives us strength for the journey up to Mount Horeb or Calvary – whichever comes first. Participation in the dream of God is anything but easy. The dragons of sin and the beasts of burden, despair, and apathy are all along the hero’s path wanting to destroy the Dreamer that is bigger than the hero; and yet, the hero must act on behalf of the Dreamer.

The third step is to realize that everything belongs to the Dreamer. Everything belongs to God. Give God your hopes, but also give God your nightmares. God is big enough to take them. As Christians we liturgically practice giving our hopes and nightmares to God when we prayer the Prayers of the People collectively, and call on God in intercessory prayer individually. We practice forgiveness because we have been absolved. We practice peace because it has been given to us by Christ. We do these virtuous acts of worship and prayer in order to practice love and remember the truth found in the dream of God.

Denying the dream of God – saying it isn’t real; or worse, actively and intentionally going against the dream and Dreamer – turns heroes into villains and saints into sinners needing redemption. Hell, it seems, is made real, and one is tempted to wonder if Satan wins out in the end. When we find ourselves in these moments of existential unclarity what we must do is to remember the dream. Remember love. What we are to do is pray that God will guide us waking and guard us sleeping. Like a sentinel of Advent, we are to watch with Christ so that in the end, and whether it is sleep or death, we are to rest in peace.

The more I communally participate in the liturgies and practices of the Church – Daily Prayer, weekly Eucharist, monthly confession, and yearly feasts and fasts – not to forget the occasional baptism, and Christian weddings and funerals – the more I am convinced that these ancient practices work. They are not quick fixes, that’s for certain. They are not glamorous or sexy. They do not fit in with any business model or have an entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, they remind me of the dream of God and how I am invited to play a part in it.

As someone who loves the Church and her practices, it saddens me that many in my own generation and younger no longer find its practices and liturgies beneficial. Church is boring; It doesn’t feed me or my soul; I cherish my Sundays – are just some of the responses I get from friends or acquaintances who graciously and candidly share these things with me. Gandhi once famously said that he loved our Christ, but disliked our Christians. “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” he quipped. There is some truth to this saying of Gandhi’s as well as the opinions from my own generation; and yet I find hope because the dream of God is still alive. Jesus once invited others to come to him, those who were weak, tired, and weary, and he would give them rest. So many times, people who have been away from the practices of the Church come back out of this sense of tiredness. Like prodigals they return, but I often wonder about the ones who never even had a chance. The ones whom our grandparents would call “lost”. What about them? This isn’t just a problem of our time. It was a struggle for the Church from its very inception. The original Church was made up of Jews (read here insiders) who wondered if the dream of God extended to the Gentiles (read here outsiders). Thank God, the early Church through the theology of St. Paul decided that all were invited to participate in God’s dream through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The early Christians gave their lives for this dream – often bypassing Mt. Horeb to get to the cross of Calvary.

My invitation to you is simple. It’s to ask another person what they dreamed last night? If they can’t remember their dream, get curious about their hopes and dreams for themselves or their families. The point is to get them to talk and for you to listen. It’s to pray for them, but also to keep an ear out for the dream of God in their subjective dreams. If you are so bold, point out where you see God moving in their hopes and dreams. If you are even bolder, share the Church’s dream of God with them. Invite them into full participation into the love, life, and light of God’s dream. If, on the other hand, someone shares with you a nightmare wonder with them if they believe God to be with them in their despair? Wonder with them if they believe God to be suffering alongside them? If the Church is to survive (and I believe She will) it is to not only practice her prayers and liturgies, remembering her dreams and the Dreamer, but it’s also inviting those who don’t yet know her dreams and ultimately her Dreamer into the life of the Church. Introduce someone to the Dreamer this week by asking, “What did you dream last night?”

Get Out of the Way

The prophet Isaiah challenged the followers of God to, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near” (Isa 55:6). This opening line is sometimes referred to as The Second Song of Isaiah and for Episcopalians, it is Canticle 10 found within Morning Prayer. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the early Christians were reminded that once God had been found they were to pray that their inner beings be strengthened in love so that the fullness of God would fill their spirits. In today’s Gospel, a great multitude of people were seeking after Our Lord as he drew near to them displaying the will of God to be abundant – 12 baskets of leftovers – abundant. Gifts of God for the People of God – abundant. Today’s lessons remind us of the abundance of God within our interior lives – what Paul described as the breadth and length and height and depth– as well as our exterior lives – what Jesus asked of his followers; that is, to “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I can imagine the will of God finding within our own lives, fragments –mundane fragments as well as infinite ones. It is always our prayer to so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.God wants to gather it all up, bless it, and give it away.

It’s amazing how fragmented our lives can be. So many times we are pulled in all different directions that our bodies aren’t remembered. We eat on the run. We rush from this place to that. We are quick to care for others, but neglect ourselves. We become chauffeurs of children and secretaries for parents. We overload our schedules. Visit offices we’d rather not. We get caught up in the cult of worry, loose sleep, and feel as if we are loosing out. We pass through things temporal with the potential of forgetting our sense of things eternal. We might label our fragmented lives pragmatic and practical. All the above has to get done. There’s no way around it. We must go through it. These are our crosses to bear; and yet, I sense a loss somewhere – a loss of things eternal.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near (Isa 55:6). Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost (Jn 6:12). Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever (Eph 3:21-21). The eternal is here. The eternal is with you, always. When we eat and when we sleep. When we are in traffic or on the phone. When we’re in a waiting room, or another sleepless night. The Lord is with you. Seek him while he wills to be found. He desires to be a part of every aspect of your lives – sacred and profane.

There’s a beautiful story taken from the Gospel of Ramakrishna that may sum all of this up. It goes something like this, There was once a holy man and his disciple traveling down a road. The disciple asked his master, “Teacher, is God everywhere?” The teacher bowed his head and said, “Yes. God is everywhere and in all things.” The teacher looked up to observe their surroundings. “Look there,” he said. “There is a tree. God is in the tree. Look over here. Here is a pond. God is in its water.” After making note of the lay of the land, the disciple asked another question, “Teacher, is God within me?” “Of course,” exclaimed the teacher. “God is in all things, and all things are one.” This teaching excited the student so much that he pushed his teacher aside, and seeing an elephant and its rider coming toward him on the road told himself, “God is in me, and God is in the elephant; therefore”, he reasoned, “God cannot harm God. I will stand my ground and observe this wonderful teaching.” While the student was thinking highly of his ideological insight, the rider of the elephant was shouting, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.” Locking his feet to the earth, the disciple held steady knowing in his heart God would not harm God until the elephant came upon him, and with her mighty trunk knocked him unconscious and out of its path. Once he regained consciousness, he found his master looking concerned hovering above him. He pushed him aside again and said, “Master, you told me God is in everything including you and I. Why then, would God do God harm through the elephant’s strength?” “You foolish boy,” his master scolded. “God was trying to do no harm by exclaiming, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.”

As disciples of Christ, we must learn how to get out of our own ways knowing that God wills to be found; and yet, seeking his will is a practice that takes a lifetime. God honors us with his mercy no matter where we are on life’s path, and what God most desires is that we honor him in everything we do. We seek him out from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night.

On last week’s post I reminded us that God still speaks to us through Holy Scripture, as well as through one another, and within the prayers of His Church. God also speaks to us through his creation and through the neighbor, and enemy. God can most certainly be found in elephants, but may we never forget to listen for his voice in a stranger who wants us out of harm’s way. May the fragments of our lives – both sacred and profane – be offered up to God as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to the One who is constantly seeking us out so that nothing (and no one) may be lost.

Listening for the Voice of God

On page 853 in The Book of Common Prayer there is a question: Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God? The prayer book answers this question in the following way: We call [the Holy Scriptures] the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. I stumbled upon an interesting picture this week. It was one where a young man sat anxiety laden, body stiffened, and hands tightly clasped at his breakfast table. Opposite the table laid a closed Bible. The caption below the picture angrily asked the question, “Why won’t you speak to me God?” Perhaps God was wondering a similar question in regards to the young man; that is, Why aren’t you listening to me, dear one? If we are to believe the Church when she says the human authors of the Bible were inspired by God, and that God still speaks to us through its poetry, prose, Gospels, letters, history, laws, and stories, then this tells us at least two things. One, be open to God’s inspiration both in yourself and of others. Two, open your Bibles and read them. Don’t leave them sitting at breakfast tables gathering dust. The truth is that God still speaks to us through God’s creation and through God’s inspired Word. We might even take that extra step reminding ourselves The Word of God was made flesh – that is, Jesus Christ is the personified Word of God whom still speaks to us today if we have the ears to hear him, the experience to see him in the other, and continue to listen for his voice throughout Holy Scripture.

When I was in the eighth grade I was inspired to read through the Bible in a year. This was all made possible by a trend in Christian publishing houses of the 1990’s – mainly, a resource entitled, The One Year Bible. One Year Bibles were very popular then; the covers coming in a variety of primary colors, the text in an assortment of translations – NIV, NKJV, KJV, NRSV – to name a few. Southern Baptist Churches at the time were preaching and teaching out of the New International Version, so my parents purchased an NIV One Year Bible for me on my birthday. All I had to do was wait until January 1st and start. I don’t know where the inspiration came to read through the entirety of the Bible in a year, but looking back I do remember being in a Bible study class where it was mandatory that certain Bible verses be memorized weekly. The very first Bible verse of those lessons was Psalm 119:11. I still remember it, and even have a memory of the room I was asked to recite the verse in. The Psalm was not in the NIV or NRSV translations, but the King James. Psalm 119:11 had the poet proclaiming to God, “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee.” It’s a verse that has been with me ever since. The poet’s words usually surface at times in my life where life is really giving me (or someone I love) a real beating. When my heart is open enough to listen to God speaking to me, I usually hear God’s voice through a Psalm here or a Gospel passage there. Nowadays prayers from the prayer book bubble up as well as the Our Father or even the Hail Mary. When God speaks to me through the ancient words of the Bible or from the prayers of His Church – that Psalm – Psalm 119:11 usually comes to mind after my anxieties have finally fallen away, and my soul has been restored. “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee” is then delivered to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, and with a spirit of gratefulness. I’m thankful that God was and is with me even in the valley of the shadow of death, and acknowledging his presence with that simple verse from the Psalms turns my head and gives attention to the virtue of joy even in the midst of sorrow.

As I have matured in the faith I have recently found God’s Holy Word in God’s Holy People. I am thankful for spiritual friendships, fellow disciples of Christ, and strangers and neighbors disguised as Jesus himself (Matt 25:35-36). It hasn’t always been this way. I used to find comfort, solace, and relationship with God only through the Bible and a few close friends or relatives here and there. St. Paul’s metaphor of the Church as The Body of Christ was always abstract to me. I felt and experienced the power of its image; and yet, couldn’t fully grasp it. Intentional life within a parish community has broadened Paul’s imagery for me, and the gifts of God found in the people of God help point to a larger lesson of love – that is, all were created in the image of God so that when we see, experience, live, and love one another, we see, experience, live, and love Christ’ body in the world. If this is the case, then “Thy word I have treasured in my heart” is the word of the Lord witnessed in Holy Scripture and within one another – the Body of Christ, the Church. With that insight, getting to know my Bible is just as important as getting to know my neighbor. Both introduce and reintroduce me to new life found in Jesus Christ. Both remind me of the faithful promises of God. Both remind me that God is always reliable when I am near to peace, and when I am far off (Eph 2:17).

This week, dust off your Bible and get to know God through it. Starting with the Psalms or St. John’s Gospel are always good places to begin again. If reading God’s Holy Word is a constant practice of yours, try listening to God’s Holy Word in a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, or even an enemy knowing all were and are created in His Image. In doing these two things – seeking inspiration in God’s Word and one another – you are living out the two commandments Jesus said were the greatest; that is, love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:30-31). Treasure these relationships in your heart; and joy (even in the midst of sorrow) will be near.

Freedom in-Dependence

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

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

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

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

Thy Will Be Done

Lectionary Readings: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24
Lamentations 3:21-33
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

We find hope in Christ (Lam 3:21). We find mercy in Christ (Lam 3:22). We find rest in Christ (Heb 4:1). We find creativity, imagination, and love in Christ (Wis 4:13/1 Cor 13:13). We find healing and wholeness in Christ (Mk 5:34). We find compassion in Christ (Lam 3:32). We bear all things in Christ (1 Cor 13:7). We find our very existence in Christ (Wis 2:23).

We obey Christ (Heb 4:11). We wait for Christ (Lam 3:25). We are desperate for Christ (Mk 5:23). We press in on Christ (Mk 5:24). In fear and trembling, we fall down before Christ revealing our thoughts and intentions found deep within our hearts (Mk 5:32, Heb 4:12).

Living into the truth of being in Christ (Acts 17:28), we start to excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love (2 Cor 8:7). One way to test the genuineness of our love over and against the earnestness of others is to empty ourselves so that Christ may fill us (2 Cor 8:8-9). The act of emptying (kenosis) was first the act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich (2 Cor 8:9). Rich in what? Again, rich in everything – in faith, speech, knowledge, eagerness and love; and yet, the act of emptying oneself requires of us not only to do something but even to desire to do something (2 Cor 8:10). In Christ our desire to give hope, mercy, and rest, to acknowledge creativity, imagination, love, and compassion is to practice hope, mercy, and rest, while acknowledging creativity, imagination, love, and compassion. Put simply, we begin to live in Christ when our beliefs begin matching our actions, we start practicing what we preach, and we give what we have. We believe in Christ and our actions show this (Eph 5:2). We preach Christ crucified and practice resurrection (1 Cor 1:23). We give love because we have it to give (1 Jn 4:7). For if the eagerness is there, the gift [of love] is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have (2 Cor 8:12). Edward Everett Hale (1822 – 1909) once quipped, “I cannot do everything but I can do something, and what I can do I will do, so help me God” (2 Cor 8:13). Hale was not only acknowledging the abundance of gifts God gives us, but also aligning those gifts to the will of God. It is the virtue of humbleness instead of the vice of apathy that allows us to do something but not everything. It is the virtue of prudence instead of the vice of pride that allows us to seek out the will of God with help.

Who was around Jesus seeking out the will of God? Was it not everybody who wanted to know God’s will? It was great crowds that gathered around him (Mk 5:21). It was a religious leader falling at Jesus’ feet (Mk 5:22). It was a great crowd pressing in on him (Mk 5:24). It was a woman who came up from behind him, touched him, and was healed but later (like the religious leader “fell before him” (Mk 5:27, 33). Those that were seeking the will of God were also the people that came from the religious leader’s house (Mk 5:35). It was Peter, James and John whom Jesus invited into the will of God (Mk 5:37).

When we seek out the will of God sometimes we are like the people weeping from grief and despair, and the next minute God makes us laugh (Mk 5:39-40). The will of God had Jesus leaving “the crowd” and his disciples again bringing in only Mom, Dad, Peter, James & John to the young girl (Mk 5:40) revealing healing and wholeness as the will of God. Finally, Jesus healed the girl and in a practical move instructed the parents to “give her something to eat” and to “tell no one” (Mk 5:42-43). Sometimes the will of God is something we treasure, pondering it in our hearts (Lk 2:19).

Who are you in today’s Gospel story? We already know the truth that it is in Christ where we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28); and yet, we still must seek the will of God in our lives. Are you the crowd pressing in on Jesus for a closer look (Mk 5:24)? Are you a leader begging mercy from another leader (Mk 5:23)? Are you the unnamed woman desiring healing, yearning to be named (Mk 5:25)? Are you Peter, James, and John putting your head down, and doing as you are told (Mk 5:37)? Are you the mourners whose weeping lingers night after night (Mk 5:38)? Will joy, indeed, come in the morning (Mk 5:40/Ps 30:5)? Are you a grateful parent or caregiver who has been anxiously grasping for some shred of good news (Mk 5:40)? Are you the little girl hungry for more (Mk 5:43)? Are you overcome with amazement (Mk 5:42)? Are you bursting at the seams to go tell it on the mountain (Mk 5:43/Isa 52:7)?

The abundant will of God is found in each one of those characters tailored made just for them (2 Cor 8:14). The will of God is found in each one of us as well (Mk 3:35). We find hope in God (Lam 3:21). We find mercy in God (Lam 3:22). We find rest in God (Heb 4:1). We find creativity, imagination, and love in God (Wis 4:13/1 Cor 13:13). We find healing and wholeness in God (Mk 5:34). We find compassion in God (Lam 3:32). We bear all things in God (1 Cor 13:7). We find our very existence in God (Wis 2:23). We obey God (Heb 4:11). We wait for God (Lam 3:25). We are desperate for God (Mk 5:23). We press in on God (Mk 5:24). In fear and trembling, we fall down before God revealing our thoughts and intentions found deep within the pounding of our hearts pulsating on the will of God (Mk 5:32, Heb 4:12) praying:

Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done (on earth as it is in heaven) (Matt 6:10). Amen.

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.

Hands

We hold hands. We shake hands. We pump our fists and give ‘high-5’s’. We labor with our hands, as well as use them to give (and receive) comfort. We use our hands for eating and drinking. We take care of our hands with water, lotions, and massage. When we are surprised or even scared we use our hands to cover our mouth, our eyes, or our ears. We pop our knuckles and clip fingernails. We use our fingers to turn pages in a book, or to scroll up and down on our smart phones. We decorate our hands with rings, or henna tattoos. We fold our hands into our lap, or in posture(s) of prayer.

Our hands can also be violent. We can punch and push with them. We can strangle, slap or hit with them. They also come to our defense. We can block a punch, push, slap, or hit with them.

Hands can be bruised, mangled or disfigured. Some people have no hands at all and do the most extraordinary tasks with other parts of their body.

Hands can reach out. Hands can withdraw. Hands can be creative. They play instruments, draw, paint, or make pottery. Put a tool in the hand and yard and house work gets done, crops are planted, and cities are built.

The sense of touch can be found within our hands. With our hands we can tell the difference between the softness of velvet or the hardness of rock. We understand that the texture of sand is certainly different than the wetness of water. Left to the elements our hands can be burned or frozen. One can have calloused or soft hands usually as a result of one’s work, vocation, or hobby. Finally (but not exhaustively) hands with their fingers can leave behind prints letting the world know that you and I were most certainly here.

So where do these images of hands show up in today’s scriptures? The first one can be found in the Book of Deuteronomy:

…the Lord your God brought you out from [Egypt] with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…

The Psalmist tells us:

I heard an unfamiliar voice saying *
“I eased his shoulder from the burden;
his hands were set free from bearing the load.”

From our Gospel according to Mark:

…a man was there who had a withered hand…then Jesus said, “Stretch out your hand.” [The man] stretched it out, and his hand was restored…

Finally, from Paul’s 1stletter to the Corinthians: (here I quote mid-sentence)

…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Even though today’s reading from the Epistle doesn’t explicitly mention hands, it helps me contemplate the hands of Jesus that were crucified upon the cross. It also invites me to remember the hand and finger of St. Thomas who reached out and touched Jesus’ side and Jesus’ hands. In Thomas’ curious act his body mixed and mingled with Christ’s body and his hands were able to remember the death of Jesus. I believe Thomas’ act made the resurrected life of Jesus visible and tangible in his body in the way he carried himself from then on out – The way he was changed by a touch of the hand.

Where are the hands that shaped you? Are they still around, or do only their prints remain? How do your hands shape you and the world around? Do you (like St. Thomas and St. Paul) carry within your body the death and life of Jesus? If so, where is Jesus leading you now? What is Jesus inviting you to pick up? What is Jesus asking you to put down? Is the voice of God a familiar one, or an unfamiliar one saying “I eased [your] shoulder from the burden; [your] hands were set free from bearing the load.”?

How grateful we are to worship “…the Lord our God whom brought us out from the land of Egypt/the land of slavery/the land of despair/the land on isolation/the land of loneliness/the land of grief/the land of sin and dis-ease with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…”

How marvelous that Our Savior Jesus Christ sees our withered hands and hearts…and responds by saying, “Stretch out your hand.” AND “Lift up your hearts” and when we do, our hands are stretched it out, our hearts are lifted up to the Lord, and they are restored…

Finally, my friends, know that the life found within you is not your own. Just like the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath, so too is he Lord of our lives. In his hand are the caverns of the earth, and the heights of the hills are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands have molded the dry land. Come, let us bow down and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord Our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of this hand. Oh, that today you would hearken to his voice! (Psalm 95:4-7) Oh, that today you would hearken your life into his hands.

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”.

Stop. Reflect. Listen.

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My family and I recently made a retreat to San Antonio, TX visiting Mission Concepción and Mission San José. Henry (aged 7) is usually a bit wiggly in church (although it is my understanding that he is fully participating in the Eucharist albeit in his own 7-year old way). When we entered into the nave of the parish, Henry was arrested by its beauty and immediately took a seat in the nearest pew and stared up at the sanctuary/chancel wall full of art, symbol, and mystery. As a family, we prayed the Collect of the Day then sat in silence letting our little one “lead us” as he was being led by God’s Spirit. It was a holy moment. As we enter into the deep mystery of Easter, find those holy moments to stop, reflect, and listen.