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.

 

The Great Vigil of Easter

I’m a big fan of irony. I love it when she decides to come out and play. Tonight, perhaps, she is having some fun with us. On one hand, we are having an elaborate celebration full of bells, candles, lights, fantastic music, baptisms, Alleluia’s, chanting, processionals, and recessionals while on the other hand we get this simple, simple story from Mark’s Gospel. So what’s all the fuss about?

The two Mary’s and Salome (very practical women with the practical responsibility to anoint the dead body of Jesus) finds the stone to the entrance of the tomb rolled away. In it is a young man in a white robe giving very practical advice and observation. Upon seeing the tomb empty of Jesus’ body, and not initially taking the advice to go and tell Jesus’ disciples to meet up in Galilee because the women were seized with terror and amazement, makes tonight seem like we may be over doing it. Did you read the same text I read? Why all the pomp and circumstance?

And yet….the tomb is empty. Jesus is not there. He has been raised. He said he would meet up with his disciples in Galilee and that is what he is doing.

And yet…Peter and the other disciples were scattered like sheep. They denied, betrayed, and abandoned him.

And yet…Jesus still loves. Jesus still desires reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. And should this be a surprise to us after all the readings and remembering’s we encountered during the Lenten Season? It’s the same old story AND the greatest story ever told all at the same time:

God loves us in spite of ourselves. God loves us because he is our God and we are his people. God loves us even when we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness:  when we deny him, when we abandon him, when we hurt him. In those dark moments in our lives and when the stone tombs of our own hearts remain closed, it is he who opens it up. It is he who seeks us out. It is he who is utterly dedicated to us.

Tonight, the message is very simple and yet the message is profound. Tonight, God is being God in an old/new way. God is not where we think he should be (looking for love in all the wrong places), but where God needs always to be: Searching us out. Meeting up at our old stomping grounds. Making all things new. That’s the business of God. That’s who and what he does.

So I’m glad that tonight is one of celebration, and I’m also happy that the message we are celebrating is a simple one. As we look to more Alleluias tomorrow on Easter Sunday as well as over these next 50 days, live into the simple message of God’s love for us. Seek out the practical things that are of God’s and live boldly (with a little terror and amazement) that the tomb is empty, Jesus will gather instead of scatter, and He is risen. He is risen indeed!

**Preached at the Great Vigil of Easter at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, 2018**

Maundy Thursday

A philosopher and a theologian sat down for drinks one evening. After staring into the dark liquid conforming to the shape of the highball, and listening to the ice clink against its glass while raising the rim to his lips, the philosopher asked this question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The theologian mimicked the movements of his philosopher friend. Then after some time, and staring out the window into the night’s form answered the philosopher’s question with one of his own, “How does God love?”

The philosopher was taken aback once the second question sank in, for he realized that both questions pointed to the same answer, and although the answer was never plainly put forth that evening both parties spent the rest of the night discussing stories, tales, and heroic feats where the underlining theme pointed always to love.

“Take. Eat. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Take. Drink. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Tonight is a special night. Tonight, we get to be both philosopher and theologian; and yet, we also get to transcend those labels. We get to remember, remain, and reflect, but we also are invited to participate in something rather than nothing. We get to share in God’s love. This is no easy task, for by remembering and sharing we also are commanded to love one another as Christ loves us. The theologian would then ask, “Then how (indeed) does God love?” Answer: With his substance, and with his very life.

It is in God where we live, move, and have our being. As Christians, we don’t find our way to God so much as we realize that we have been in God and God has been in us from the very beginning. Once this realization takes place, everything around us seems to change. Life is experienced as a gift, and all that we have, and all that we are, and all that we ever will be is experienced (or at least can be) experienced as grace. Grace, we find out, is received. Once received, we want to offer it back up to the one who gifted us with it. God obliges this instinct found within us, takes our offerings and multiplies them, transcending the original gift into one of abundance. And should these acts and attributes of God really surprise us? As catholic Christians perhaps not. After all, this is all played out each week during Holy Communion. We offer up the gifts we have been given symbolically through the bread and the wine. They are then brought to the altar, prayed over, and offered back to God. God takes these ordinary elements of bread and wine and transcends their realities into the very Body and Blood of Christ. This night is special because this is the night we remember how and why God instituted the sacrament of his Body and Blood.

This night is also special because Christ has taught us that he is not only present when we gather in this place, and do these liturgies in remembrance of him, but he is also made manifest when we perform the same acts of mercy that he has performed. Jesus said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Tonight, we not only wash one another’s feet in imitation of Christ, but we also do it to remind us to love our neighbors as ourselves when we take our feet and get up and get out of this place. Where have your feet been this week? Whose house have you visited? What sights did you see? Did your feet take you to places you wanted to be as well as places where God needed you to be? This is the attitude, I believe, Jesus was getting at when he was teaching his disciples. “Remember,” he could have stated, “all the places I have been, and all the people I have seen, healed, taught, dined, conversed, argued, loved, prayed, forgave. These are the same places and faces that you must now go. Do not worry, for I will be with you. Have no fear. Take up courage with your cross, and may your feet follow me – always.”

Finally, tonight is a special night because we remember God’s sacrifice. Theologian Matthew Levering once stated, “In a world gone wrong, there is no communion without sacrifice.” This Lent, we learned that God’s promise to us and to his people is that, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” We also learned that covenants and promises always require sacrifice. After Abraham learned that he would be the Father of many Nations, he made an animal sacrifice in remembrance of this. After Moses gives the law of God to the people, he does the same thing as Abraham. He sacrifices an animal and sprinkles its blood onto the people. God promised King David that his line of descendants will last forever. David’s son, Solomon later built the Temple – a place where sacrifices were made daily. On Palm Sunday, we read and recited Christ’s Passion, and how he like an animal was sacrificed for the sins of the world. Up until this point, all sacrifices to God (at least liturgically) were observed by the people. Bishop Robert Barron has stated that, “After Jesus (and with the institution of the Lord’s Supper) Christians don’t just watch the sacrifice happening, but we eat it and drink it. In other words, we take the sacrifice of Christ within our very bodies; thus experiencing the communion that God desires.” And doesn’t this fit in with our instincts as human beings? Do we not hurt either physically, mentally, or spiritually (sometimes all 3) when sacrifices are made in the short term for some greater glory in the long? In order to do this; however, our egos must be stripped away and left discarded having faith that we will be robed in new garments sometime in the future.

Tonight, we are philosophers and we are theologians, poets and prophets, sacrifices and the sacrificed stripped naked and laid bare before the mercies of God. Tomorrow may we be lovers and forgivers, explorers of truth and beauty, and neighbors who seek out one another just as Christ seeks and has always sought us out…for only in him do we will live, move, and have our being.

*Sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, Maundy Thursday, 2018.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

**Sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on February 11, 2018.**

Human beings are fascinated by the mystical – those mysterious experiences that are difficult to put into words. In our post-enlightenment world there are many who scoff at miracles and throw off all notions and dealings with the divine. Others are skeptical and prefer to regard such obscurities with rational caution. Still others like to pick and choose what miracles to believe coming up with supernatural categories of most creditable down to the least likely. The problem often lies in language itself. Mystical experience may be best regulated to the realm of the ineffable and wordless, and yet we can’t seem to help ourselves. For centuries, humans have captured these experiences in story, art, music, and dance. Millions go on pilgrimages to holy sites where apparitions have been seen, or relics are there waiting to be touched. For all the progress humanity has made, there still seems to be an innate desire to give credit where credit is due. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ may be the subconscious petitionary prayer of the human psyche; but what if the will of God does indeed continue to be done on earth as it is in heaven? Perhaps today’s story – the story of the transfiguration – provides us with that hope of God’s providence.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once wrote that “In the transfiguration, what the disciples [saw was] Jesus’ humanity ‘opening up’ to its inner dimensions.” (The Dwelling of the Light, p. 4). The church places today’s story at the end of the season of Epiphany while looking toward the new beginnings of Lent. This placement in the church’s calendar, along with Williams’ keen interpretation beautifully connects the human condition – that is, one of suffering, sin, and a lack of omniscience – with the one who took on sin and suffering for our sake looking upon us fully with the eyes of love. We need this hopeful reminder as we put to sleep Epiphany, and bring into the light those darker parts of ourselves within the Lenten season. Today’s Collect reiterates this hope:

“O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”

It should be said that the transfiguration is first and foremost about Jesus. So many times persons who have religious (or spiritual) experiences try to recreate them in all sorts of oddities and addictions. When this form of adultery is practiced, the receiver of the initial gift forgets about the giver, and grace is grieved. When we acknowledge the correct ordering of all things – on earth and in heaven – we are then able to say that we participate in the ongoing grace of God. We behold the light of Christ’s countenance in order to bear our crosses, and be changed into his likeness instead of our own ideological images. One of the most beautiful truths of the transfiguration is that others were invited to participate in it. This was enlightening for those involved, and prophetic for us all. It was enlightening to Peter, James, and John because this experience could not be captured in words until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They were invited to participate in Christ’s resurrection, not in their own time, but in the perfect timing of God. The transfiguration is prophetic for us because we too are to participate in Christ’s resurrection. If Williams is correct, and the disciples saw Jesus’ humanity opening up to its inner dimensions, then we too are invited to share in that eternal promise.

Throughout Epiphany, we have seen that discipleship consists of repentance, obedience, and participation in the divine life. We have seen Jesus going to places and meeting people that many of us would be uncomfortable mixing and mingling, and yet, his ministry still calls out to us. His ministry is one that says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” His ministry says that “nothing can separate you from my love.” If we believe these faithful truths, then why can’t our faith compel us to invite others into the ongoing participatory life of God? In other words, “walking in love as Christ loves us” means that we are to share the resurrected life of God with others because Jesus has shared his love, light, and life with us.

At its core, the transfiguration paradoxically reminds us what it means to be human. Paradox must be involved because the transfiguration expresses both what is now, and what is yet to come; that is, the consummation of a new heaven and a new earth, and a fuller expression of what being human ultimately will be like while at the same time living in our current state. The transfiguration (as well as the resurrection of Jesus Christ) points us to this truth. It is with the transformed eyes of faith we believe this, and hope is not too far behind.

‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ not only petitions God to make this transfiguration prayer a reality, it also reminds us (in the words of N. T. Wright) that heaven and earth were made for one another, body and spirit are one, and a transfigured existence awaits all of God’s handiwork. Unlike the disciples; however, we are not to keep silent because we now know the rest of the story. It’s a prophetic story we’ve been gifted and invited into. It’s a providential dance of faith, hope, and love. It’s an illuminating prayer of revealed glory, perpetual light, and transformed creation.

The Questions Epiphany Bring

During Epiphany we remember three miracles: The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with the voice of God the Father giving approval for this act, the wedding feast in Cana where ordinary water was turned into extraordinary wine; and finally, the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. These Epiphany miracles remind us Jesus’ ministry has begun. They also foreshadow his death and resurrection, and how we are compelled to take up our crosses and follow him. The Season of Epiphany invites us to find the miraculous in the mundane, and to walk alongside Christ as a disciple.

During what is sometimes referred to as the “Octave of Christmas” – those 8 out of the 12 days of Christmas – the Church’s calendar begins to reveal what following Christ truly entails. December 26, the day after Christmas, is St. Stephen’s feast day. The irony in the placement of this feast is clear. On December 25th, we remember the birth of Christ, the Messiah into our world, and the very next day we remember the death of Stephen, one who followed him. St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christendom, and revealed what the cost of discipleship can sometimes entail. The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

On the second day of Christmas, we remember St. John the apostle and evangelist. John takes us away from martyrdom for a moment and helps us focus on Calvary’s cross in a very intimate way. From the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his Mother Mary; he then looked to John, and again at them both and said, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26). A classic interpretation of this story is that Mary represented the Church. John was to be joined to her, and the Church to him. Christ compels us to do the same through the graces his Church offers.

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocence. Here, we are reminded that those who stand in the way of the State (represented by Herod in the story) will be punished and even killed for the sake of Truth. It is Jesus Christ that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not emperors, kings, congress, or presidents. Historically it is the State that is willing to sacrifice the least of these in order to gain power; whereas, Christ lifts up the least of these as the ones who will inherit the true Kingdom founded upon Him.

Finally, on the octave of Christmas the Church remembers Christ’s Holy Name. Here, we remember the name the angel gave him – the name Emmanuel – which means God with us. This name is important because if the call to discipleship is to loose our self for the sake of Christ (again, represented in St. Stephen) then Christ (as Emmanuel) is always with us. He’s with us in our joys and our sufferings. He’s with us corporately in His Mystical Body – the Church. He’s with us whether we are Jew or Gentile as St. Paul reminded us in his letter to the Church in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God is with us is a great Christmas truth that continues into this season of Epiphany. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, the apostle. Peter confessed to Jesus that he was indeed who he said he was. Jesus is the Christ, and Peter would spend the rest of his life stumbling around trying desperately to figure out what following him meant. Peter, in other words, is very much like you and I.

The following week, we have the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s story is a conversion story in the extreme. It was he who by persecuting the Church was persecuting the very Body of Christ. Christ appeared to him and told him this. Paul repented of his sin, and followed Christ. He then went on to produce most of the canonized letters found in the Bible’s New Testament.

On the 40th day after Christmas, and really the day that ends the Christmas stories, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here, we remember Jesus being presented by his parents to the priest; and yet like Anna and Simeon who were waiting on him in the Temple, we too must ask how we are to present ourselves to him. Again, do we fight against him and recollect our egos like Herod; or do we die to our egos, take up our crosses and follow him? These are short questions, and the Church gives us 40 long days in which to contemplate them.

After tomorrow, which is the Baptism of Our Lord, the Church will change its liturgical colors from white to green. Green signifies growth, and Epiphany truly is a season in which we are invited to grow into the likeness and image of Christ. Will you be like Peter this season, proclaiming Christ is Lord, yet wondering how to follow him? Will you be like Paul, in need of conversion from this or that in order to truly follow in his path? Ponder these questions that the Church naturally gives at this time, then live into their answers knowing God as Emmanuel is always with you.

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”.

 

 

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

The Challenge of Love as the Challenge of Faith

Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Matthew 25:31-46

The past two weeks, we have listened to Jesus teach about the ending of days where Christ will come again in glory. In the parable of the wedding feast, we were reminded to be prepared (Matt 25:1-13). In the parable of the Talents, Jesus taught his disciples to use (not waste) the gifts God has given (Matt 25:14-30). Today’s narrative speaks about Christ coming again in glory, and gets more specific as we imagine what judging the living and the dead potentially looks like.

There are a few interesting scenes to consider in today’s story as it describes God’s final judgment. The first has to do with exactly who is being judged. Verse 32 describes God judging “all the nations”, then separating the “people one from another” like a shepherd. We might ask, “Does this shepherd-like judge separate the people as individuals, and/or does he separate the people into their respective tribes/nations thus judging the people as a whole?” These are important questions to consider, and I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had similar questions as these? For example, the disciples were still part of the nation of Israel even though they were also individual disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. As part of Jesus’ disciples they would have fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, put clothes on the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison (v. 35-37). But if God also judged the nations, how would the rest of Israel hold up? In other words – and as a whole – how did Israel take care of the least of these?

The second interesting detail within this scene has to do with faith and love. St. Matthew’s gospel has always focused on right living as prescribed in Jesus’ teaching (Orthopraxy). In comparison, St. John’s gospel has a focus on right belief in Jesus as Lord (Orthodoxy). Some scholars have said that the community who composed The Gospel of Matthew was a community that had become too focused on orthodoxy, and had grown weary of waiting on Jesus to come again. Perhaps giving a prescriptive description of the judgment would have awakened this community out of their stupor, and set them back on the way to actually following the teachings of Jesus (i.e. feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring for, and visiting one’s neighbor in need). These actions (or inactions) of the faithful were to be the merits in which they would be judged; however, it is interesting to ponder God as a judge of the nations that have no belief system in any of this – yet, and at the same time – feed, welcome, cloth, care for, and visit those in need. This begs the question, “Do we (as followers of Jesus) do these good things because we want to be judged as righteous before God?” Or, “Do we do these things out of the gifts that we have been given?”[1] Put differently, “Do we do the right things out of love, or out of fear?” Pope Benedict XVI answered in this way,

[T]he profession of faith in Christ demanded by the Lord when he sits in judgment is explained as the discovery of Christ in the least of men, in those who need my help. From here onward, to profess one’s faith in Christ means to recognize the man who needs me as the Christ in the form in which he comes to meet me here and now; it means understanding the challenge of love as the challenge of faith.[2]

I can’t help but think that these parables and narratives found in Matthew 25 are there to give us a snap shot of where we are on our spiritual journeys. Bill Brosend, in his commentary of Jesus’ parables writes this,

The three stories in chapter 25 are about the consequences of actions, or, more often, inaction. The foolish maidens not only could not light their lamps; they failed to join the bridal procession in a ridiculous midnight search for oil. The third servant in the parable of the Talents buried his master’s money, and perhaps sat on it like a brooding hen…The “goats” in the third narrative saw human need, but failing to recognize in whose image the needy were created did nothing to relieve that need.[3]

Again, thinking about these stories as a snap shot of where we are on the spiritual path, you may ask yourself, “How am I doing?” “How are we doing – as a parish, as a diocese, as a denomination, city, state, and country?” If we are to follow Jesus out of love and not fear, how can our love grow deeper and wider within ourselves so that that same love extends into the image of God found in the stranger, the neighbor, the other?

If we are honest with ourselves, and stay true to the teachings found within this narrative, I believe we can judge (right now) whether we are a sheep or a goat, and whether our nation (right now) is a sheep or a goat. The truth may be within us – in that – we have the potential to be both: Sometimes we are sheep. Sometimes we are goats. Sometimes we are righteous. Sometimes we are unrighteous. Again, the key is love – not fear. As followers of Jesus we are to walk in love as Christ loves us, not walk in his love out of fear of his judgment (Eph 5:2). As followers of Jesus we are given a spirit of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Tim 1:7). Fear blinds us to the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Fear won’t allow us to experience the dignity found in every human being. The bottom line is this: If we are loving our neighbors, we are loving God. In today’s narrative, Jesus equates the two, and by doing so gives us a measure of his teachings through our thoughts, words, and deeds; our faith and actions; our understanding and modes of operation. After pondering this text all week, it still brings up many questions. As I continue to seek and serve Christ in my neighbor, I pray that God’s grace will lead me deeper into the love and knowledge of him whom I serve, that is Christ – Christ the King.

[1]                 The ultimate gift being Christ himself.

[2]                 Joseph C. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pg. 208-9.

[3]                 William F. Brosend, Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, 2006, pg. 68-9.

Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives

Matthew 25: 14-30

Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.

5 Talents
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.

The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.

2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.

With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.

Application
Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.

So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.

We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.

On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.

Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.

Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.