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”.

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.

Respond to Evil with Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#growforlent

 

 

 

 

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.

God is a God Who Gathers

At the Feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany we remembered God coming into the world in the form of a child. The Spirit of God took on flesh, sanctified it, and made it holy. It is God’s dream that all people will eventually come to know him through his beloved son. With his Son, God is eternally “well pleased” because he chose to identify with us in our sin and in our nature. This was why Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the River Jordan – to identify with us in our sufferings. Last week began the call narratives of Jesus which extend into today’s Gospel as well. God continues to preach repentance as he gathers his twelve. This morning, I want to expand on the revelation that God is a God who gathers. I’ll be using an argument put forth by Bishop Robert Barron in his chapter Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man from his book “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.”

Ever since humanity’s first parents fell out of paradise, that is, broke their relationship with God, God has been hard at work trying to mend that brokenness. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that Yahweh, the God of Israel, gathered his people with covenants, commandments, and kings. The relationship with Yahweh and Israel is a complicated history to say the least; however, the prophets taught that right relationship with God was to have a posture of both amazement and fear when approaching the Divine for when we approach God, we humbly approach the very essence of being and life. This morning’s Psalm had that beautiful opening line, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Silence, so it seems, captures that awesome, and oftentimes fearful relationship we have with the God of the universe. Christians go one step further to claim that the God of Israel, the God that created the Cosmos is also Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Put differently, Jesus “was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people. [1]

Hear Bishop Barron’s words on God as a great gathering force:[2]

“When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message [found in today’s Gospel reading]: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of “Kingdom of God,” but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus’s first audience understood by that term. N. T. Wright argues that [1st century Jews] would have heard, “the tribes [of Israel] are being gathered.” According to the basic narrative of the [Hebrew Scriptures], God’s answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be “peculiarly his own,” and he shaped them by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God’s intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet for the rest of humanity, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mount Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for “all the tribes of the earth.” But the tragedy was that more often than not Israel was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the eighth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and even more so in the devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel could never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.”

It’s no accident that in John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It’s with this image that we can reimagine today’s reading and the calling of the twelve disciples. When Jesus preached repentance, and that the kingdom of God was near (while at the same time calling the twelve), he was acting as Yahweh who gathered up his sheep from the twelve tribes of Israel, called them to repent once again, and brought them into the fold of his Divine love. Is it no surprise then, that God continues to do this with us today? He calls us by name saying, “Follow me.”

This morning’s collect reads, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” When we answer the call of Jesus (the call of his “Follow me”) we sacrifice a lot. The prophet Jonah didn’t want to go to the city of Nineveh initially. Today’s reading starts out saying, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I love this because is not God a God of second chances? Doesn’t God give us grace and mercy when we would rather be scattered rather than gathered? The people of Nineveh were a gathered people, but they were gathered in sin. In other words, they were gathered for the wrong reasons. God had to correct this, and it required sacrifice. It required repentance. If Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God is it any surprise that Jesus is proclaiming the same message as he did to Jonah? Is it any surprise that he is still giving his people another chance? When Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets to follow him, they were symbolically giving up their livelihoods for God. They were even putting God above their families, and not because Jesus was a good teacher, healer, or prophet; but because for God alone their souls had been waiting in silence like the prophets of old, and in Jesus they saw and experienced God. Like a moth to a flame they drew near, and by doing so God was gathering up his people once again. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the [Gospel. Believe in the] good news.”

We are now fully embedded in the Season of Epiphany. It is in this season that Christ (through his church) is calling us. It is in this season where we get to drop our nets, our anxieties, our fears, and follow him. When we do this, we make certain sacrifices and are called to repent. The church in her wisdom understands this, and so we are given the gift of Lent – the season that follows Epiphany, the season that reminds us that if we are to be gathered in we are to confess our sins and receive the Gospel. The Gospel in its entirety points us to Easter where God gets to make the sacrifice for the sins of the world, thus fully and finally making a way for all people to experience the kingdom of God.

What nets do you need to drop in order to prepare for repentance? What nets need to be discarded in order to follow Christ? For God alone, our souls in silence wait, but is it not also true that God is constantly waiting on us to respond to his call, to his life, to his light? Trust him, and not because he’s a good teacher, preacher, or prophet. Trust him because if he is who he claims to be, he is that great gathering force of old. He is Yahweh. He is the Word. He is God. Trust him with this truth, and in this season of Epiphany, may that truth set us all free.

[1]                Robert Barron, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries: 2011), 15-16.

[2]                The below is a full paragraph from above’s reference. Ibid., 15-16.