The Church as Ark

Matthew 14:22-33

Since the pandemic began I have found comfort in the image of St. Peter keeping his eye on Jesus, for in doing so he’s able to walk out and greet Our Lord. When Peter allowed his focus to shift to the winds of anxiety and waves of despair he began to sink. I also find comfort in his frailty for there have been many times when my own misery desired tempestuous company. Throughout these many months I’ve also been humbled by my own limitations, and have dug deep within my soul to give mercy to others who may not be able to acknowledge their own.   

For these past four months, I’ve also watched as institutions and their leaders have given way to a spirit of fear allowing their foundations to fall like houses of cards while truth revealed them for what they really were. I’ve observed power struggles between institutional and ideological tribes that seek validation for their very existence, when all they are really doing is crying out for their dignity to be acknowledged. How tempting it is to be distracted by the unnecessary and seduced by slogans. How tempting it is to ignore the peace that is right in front of us whose very eyes search our own.

Within Biblical imagination, the boat represents the Church. Like Noah’s Ark, it is a place of comfort, safety, and order stowing away the values and necessities of life for a time. Once the time for remembering eternal virtues is formally over, the doors of the ark open, and the gangway is placed allowing for the disembarking to occur. During COVID-19 I’m finding comfort in the Church as ark. There is order and discipline within the Church’s prayers and practices, along with providing safety to others in Her works of mercy. While Her disciples are found around dinner tables instead of altars these days, the Church’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy are being administered (physically) in neighborhoods and (virtually) online.

As we continue to weather the storms in our lives, how do you maintain your gaze upon Jesus? What mountaintops do you climb in order to pray to the true Son of God? How has the Church provided comfort, safety, and order to you and your family? In many respects, COVID-19 has opened our eyes to many things – good and bad. Today’s Gospel compels us to keep a steady eye not on the wind and the waves, but on the one who has true power over them. Come to Him today. Come to Jesus.

Lord, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.  

Welcoming the Questions

Preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020. For a video of this sermon, please click below. 

In Matthew Chapter 10 Jesus says this, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As I take a look around my neighborhood, zip code, city, state, country and world I find myself being invited and welcomed into a whole host of conversations. I’m also being invited to listen, to get curious, and to wonder where both my place as well as the church’s place is being called to engage in these conversations. It’s some hard work, this discernment. There’s a lot of loud voices out there all competing with one another. I’ve never seen so many banners in yards, and bumper stickers on cars in my life, each and all pointing in different philosophical and creedal directions. So what are some of these conversations? I can think of four right off the bat. Economists are warning that the United States is either in (or soon and very soon will be in) an economic recession. It’s also an election year here in the U.S., and pride and presumption are on full display in American politics – on both sides of the isle. There’s social unrest unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Those of you I have talked to about this, and are old enough to remember, are having flashbacks to the 1960’s. Finally, there’s still a global pandemic infecting and killing large populations of people. The numbers are especially distressing in our own beloved country. How are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming? Or better, what are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us to participate in? Here’s how I answer that question: I believe what these realities welcome is a chance for deep introspection and self-reflection grounded in our relationship with Christ.

Many of you have shared with me how your own relationship with God has deepened during this time. You’re praying more, getting rid of stuff you don’t need, and contemplating on eternal things that we all need and long for. You’re working in your gardens, going on more reflective walks, and listening to that still small voice inside like you may have never done before. Even though many of us are being tempted with the demons of despair and his friends – loneliness and anxiety – through your prayers, in your gardens, and every time you hit the pavement you’re reminded of how God has your back, suffers alongside you, and guards your heart as you learn and practice trusting God, yourself, and your neighbors. All of these learnings are holy and good. They call us out of ourselves and into deep conversation, confession, forgiveness and repentance.

I had someone share with me this week that they are missing Holy Eucharist. They are missing the Body and Blood of Our Lord; and yet, they are finding Christ’s Body and Blood everywhere they look – in the bodies of people whose skin is a different color than theirs, in their neighbors, and even hints of Christ’s Body in their enemies. It’s been said that if you can’t find the Body of Christ in the bread and wine, you probably won’t be able to find it in your neighbor. In not participating in Holy Eucharist for so long, I’m beginning to wonder if this statement is backwards? I wonder now that if I cannot find Christ’s Body first in my neighbor, stranger, and enemy then can I really ever accept Christ as bread and wine? And what about the very purpose and meaning of church as Christ’s Body? Jesus said today, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is a collective ‘you.’ The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is none other than his followers – his church. Jesus once said that you are the light of the world. Light doesn’t exist for itself. It exists in order for us to see things by it. Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt doesn’t exist for itself either. It preserves and enhances meat and other foods. In other words, you/me/the church do not exist for itself. It exists as light so others can come to the eternal light of Christ. It exists as salt to preserve and enhance the spiritual virtues and values worth preserving. This is good news. This is welcoming news.

Getting back to my earlier question: What are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us (the church as salt and light) to participate in? How can you/How can we/How can the church shed light, for example, on the economic hardships that happen because of greed, corruption, and indifference found in our economic systems, while also addressing the greed, corruption, and indifference found within our own hearts? How can you/How can we/How can the church be salt in our political systems where pressure is put on politicians and policy makers to preserve truth over victory, and sacrifice over self-interest while asking and modeling these same principals ourselves? How can you/How can we/How can the church continue to shine light on social sins so that justice and mercy may be cultivated in conversation, and tangibly brought forth in personal, spiritual, and collective action? Finally, how can you/how can we/how can the church find new imaginative and innovative ways of loving neighbor during COVID-19?

Jesus also used the images of salt and light to warn his followers that salt can lose its saltiness, and light can be hidden under baskets. In other words, the salt and light forget why they were created, as well as why they exist. When these things forget their purpose, food begins to rot and people bump into the furniture trying to rediscover the light source. I sometimes wonder if the institutional church is not salty enough? I sometimes wonder if the church hides the light of Christ behind its piety? I sometimes wonder if the church has become too domesticated?

Jesus once told a story about a man on his way to church who crossed the road in order to practice his piety instead of attending to the robbed and beaten man in the ditch as a way of practicing his faith. The institutional church may know that this is the story of the Good Samaritan, but the church founded and grounded in Jesus Christ doesn’t care what the name of the story is. Jesus never named the story. Jesus lived that story and asked his followers to do the same. Again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” How are we welcoming, really? What do we believe, truly? What is our purpose, and what is our mission, right now with the doors of the church closed, but the Body of Christ resurrected? We don’t have pews, but we have prayer. We don’t have communion, but we have compassion. We’re not saints, but we can suffer alongside fellow sinners. How can we be a bit more salty these days and worship God instead of worrying. How may we be light, and collectively speak truth? How can the church emphasize a life of holiness instead of posturing. These are just some of the questions I’m having now. As you think about the church’s purpose in these times, as you wonder what welcoming looks like what images come to mind for you? What innovations and experiments might we run? What is the welcoming work God is calling us to do right now? I invite you into the conversation, and into prayerful discernment as we continue to live in this new reality with God, neighbor, and world.

The Church Has Left the Building

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
~Lamentations 1:1

One definition of sin is that it’s a twisting of the truth. Like a conspiracy theory there’s just enough facts on the ground to get through the door, but once inside the place is crawling with lies. Sin is deceptive and dissonant. Like an addiction or a bad habit we grow accustomed to it until eventually an apathetic attitude of amnesia creeps in. What was once shunned is now welcomed, and there’s no effort to get shut of it. Every now and again something drastic happens that wakes us from our slumber. Our eyes are opened, and our ears can suddenly hear that the music just isn’t right. We adjust our glasses while turning the dial to find another station wondering why we ever tolerated that song in the first place.

Currently, the United States is revealing its lesser angels to the world. It’s a superpower that has been brought to its knees in the wake of COVID-19. We’ve lost over 100K souls in the short span of 3 months due to this virus. Racism, riots, poverty, perpetual war, and unemployment (to name a few) sadly reveal the moral bankruptcy of empire. Ideologies are being destroyed like golden calves while society falls in on itself in self-destructive behaviors. We’ve condemned ourselves and thrown away the key. Our city’s in ruins.

There is a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church door’s thrown open
I can hear the organ’s song
But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
~Bruce Springsteen

The Boss may be onto something. Churches are empty these days, but our ears remember “the organ’s song.” At once “the congregation’s gone” because the city is in ruins; and yet, could the pews be empty because the church has left the building? Perhaps the church finds herself walking alongside and listening to others in the ruins, waiting for the appropriate time to reveal the organ’s song? But what is this song? From where does it come?

“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.

The song, according to Dr. King, has only been heard by a few; or worse, the wrong songs have been taught to the masses. Like bubble gum pop, these songs hold up “tranquility and the status quo” like it’s Gospel. The better songs go deep into the human condition and can be hummed by everyone. They’re laments. They’re bluesy. They’re real. They’re freedom songs. They’re songs that remind us to do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.

We’re getting daily reminders to call on our higher angels. Keep awake. Keep listening. Keep praying. Keep acting. Keep advocating for truth, justice, and mercy. If we can agree that the church has left the building, then where does the church find herself these days? May we all recognize the ruins lamenting them with our neighbors. May we all keep awake. It’s time to rise up, church. Come, Holy Spirit. Our city’s in ruins.

My City of Ruins – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Live in Dublin, 2007

Change Your State of Mind

**Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ~ Acts 2:42

 American movies and music have always been influential to me. When I was young I was obsessed with Christopher Reeve playing Superman. I wanted to be him. I had the blue pajamas fit with a detachable red cape. My family had the VHS tapes that I would watch over and over compulsively, and the John Williams’ soundtrack to the 1978 film was epic to my little imagination. When I was a teenager, there was a 9 out of 10 chance that I would be revving my car engine in the parking lot of the cinema plex after seeing The Fast and the Furious or the latest James Bond film. Music has had a similar hold on me. The 1990’s Country Music star, Clint Black, wrote this chorus to one of his songs:

“Ain’t it funny how a melody
can bring back a memory.
Take you to another place in time
completely change your state of mind.”
~Clint Black, “State of Mind,” 1993

Children are excellent teachers in presenting this new state of mind. If art imitates life, then children imitate their surroundings, specifically their parents and siblings. If mommy is stirring the pot in the kitchen, baby wants that spoon. If brother is playing Nintendo, baby wants his controller. Maybe the child is seeing mom or brother having fun, and he wants in on the game? But if he’s notallowed to be in on the game, watch out. Crying happens. Fussiness ensues. There’s potential for breakdown. What now? I don’t believe it is a young child’s responsibility to stop fussing. Little kids fuss. That’s what they do. Instead, I believe the onus is on the parent to recreate the child’s environment so that the crying abates and all is well – at least for that moment. Instead of the child trying to get on the level of the parent, why not have the parent get on the level of the child? Children are constantly looking up at things and people that are larger than they. They get confused when daddy’s not paying them attention. Here lately, I’ve noticed a complete change in disposition when I simply crouch down and get on my child’s level; or better, get on the floor and play a while. If anything, a fussing child is inviting the adult in their life to play. “Sit down with me and stay a while, Daddy, let me “take you to another place in time…completely change your state of mind.””

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verse 42 we get a glimpse into how the early church lived into Christ’s state of mind. Through the waters of baptism, they were changed. Not just for that moment, but for eternity. Because Jesus Christ had modeled for the disciples how to live, move, and have their being they were the first ones to imitate their spiritual father. It was Jesus who showed them how to preach, teach, and heal. It was Jesus who taught them how to pray, and when breaking bread to remember him. It was Jesus who came down to their level and washed their feet. His eyes looked up and into theirs. Not the other way around. In fact, a quick scan of the Gospels may reveal Jesus either looking up or into the eyes of all the people he encountered as he met them where they were. The only time when Jesus actually looked down at his followers was when he was hanging on the cross giving the world the ultimate sacrifice out of pure (Fatherly/Motherly) love.

Even though today’s churches look and feel different than the ancient one, all Christians at all times and in all places are still called to remember one’s baptism. We’re still called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. When Christians do these things we’re like children imitating good parents. What child doesn’t like to play in the bathtub? Baptism is the church’s way of playing in the water. What younger child doesn’t look up to his older sibling? The apostles’ teaching and fellowship is like playing in big brother’s (or sister’s) room. Christian devotional practices bring “back the memory” of Christ. Not only this, it is Christ who gets down on our level loving us, comforting us, remembering us.

I wonder…How or when do you remember Christ best? What spiritual siblings and saints do you look up to? Do you believe that there are others who are looking up to you? What is the spiritual soundtrack to your life? Has Christ completely changed your state of mind?

Rising to the Occasion

**Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday in Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

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Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd
~Acts 2:14

This was the same Peter who only last week was bent over, cowering with a combination of fear, shame and anger. Who was he cowering to? Was it the mob mentality of the crowd? No. It was a little girl who asked him a simple question, “Do you know Jesus? I’ve seen you with him. Are you not one of his disciples?” Peter’s answer was the same when he was asked two more times. “The answer is no. I do not know the man.”

What a difference a week makes. For today, Peter is not cowering in shame. He’s standing with the eleven. He’s their voice. He’s their preacher. He’s been chosen to speak on their behalf. He raised his voice. He didn’t mumble under his breath a lie. No. He addressed the crowd with truth. No. Today, Peter rises to the occasion, represents his constituents well, and gives the crowd the prototype of every sermon that has ever been preached since then: “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” For millennia Christians have said this liturgically as well: “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” Christians have confessed it in the creeds of the church, “He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again.” We sing it. We pray it. We proclaim it, and we summarize it with that beautiful word, “Alleluia.”

How do we as Christians boldly proclaim that same “Alleluia” to a world that still finds herself in Good Friday? What goods and gifts do we have to address the crowd, and like Peter to rise to the occasion?

First, we have God’s word. We have the Bible, and in God’s holy word we find wonderful stories of the faith and faithful people like you and me. These are ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things on God’s behalf and they said “yes,” or “Lord, here I am”, or “Send me.” Most of these people were flawed in so many ways, but if we look at the pattern of God (and to quote our bishop) “So many times God takes our garbage and turns it into gold.” God takes our weaknesses, our burdens, our failures, and uses them for God’s purposes. Quoting Peter again, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power…you crucified…but God raised up.” That’s the story of our life in Christ, right there in a nut shell. Our purpose is the proclaim in thought, word, and deed the risen life found in our savior Jesus Christ. We have God’s word to help us with this. We have God’s word who was made flesh to guide us through this. Use this time to dive into the Exodus story, the Noah story, the Jonah. Use this time to remember Sara, Rebecca, and Ruth, the two Marys, and all the other flawed saints found in God’s holy word. We are a part of a great cloud of witnesses. May they witness to us once again in our own time of exile and uncertainty.

Secondly, we have a gift in the form of our prayer books. I love the image of Anglicans and Episcopalians down through the ages who held Bibles in one hand and the prayer book in another. Now is the time to get reacquainted with your Bibles and your prayer books. In fact, 3/4ths of the prayer book is the Bible put in a prayer and liturgical formats. The whole of the Psalter is in their too. There’s been a cartoon going around social media that has the devil and God sitting at a table together. With a smirk on his face, the devil claims, “I finally closed the church!” With a compassionate smile of his face, God counters, “On the contrary…I opened up one in every home!” Let that image sink in as it pertains to our moment in history. God has opened up new churches at breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables as well as beside every bedside. Did you know the prayer book has prayers for morning, noonday, evening, and night? These are invitations for us to stop what we’re doing, and to pray with the prayer book in one hand and our Bibles in the other. I’ve been modeling this method on Facebook Live every morning and evening for you for the past few weeks. So, do what I do. Pray. If these prayers are a bit overwhelming to you, the prayer book can calm your anxiety because there are simple prayers for individuals and family devotions. These are meant to be prayed around the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table before the family meal. They’re short, concise, and to the point. Fathers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the breakfast table. Mothers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the lunch table. Children: Teach your parents how to pray in this way around the dinner table. Live and lean into your baptisms during this time. Live and lean into God’s holy word. Combine this with what’s been handed down to you in the form of the prayer book. May the family in all its forms, shapes, and sizes be a little church gathered together in Jesus’ name.

Like Peter, and thirdly, we rise to the occasion when we face reality head on. The reality of the resurrection for Peter kindled a boldness that he could not find within himself only a week ago. He let his grief get the best of him back then. He forsook hope. His ordering was wrong because he was disrupted, disordered and disillusioned. Sound familiar? The order is this: Face and name reality first. Then out of the grief found in that reality, name what has been lost even as you hope for what is to come. Put differently. Be truthful. Be bold. Be hopeful. I invite you to name those things that are real for you right now. I invite you to name those things that have been taken from you right now. I invite you to grieve your losses as well as to imagine a real and hopeful response.

Let me put some hope in the room: Over the past month I’ve been encouraged by so many of you. I’ve been encouraged by those of you who put your head down, go to work, and get the job done – even when it may cost you something. I’ve been encouraged with your imagination and the hopefulness in your voices when you call me up and say I have a check, or a giftcard, or food (I even had someone check in with me who had furniture) to give away as a response to the common reality we are all facing. I’m encouraged that more phone calls to one another are being made, that new technologies are being discovered and implemented for the common good. I’m encouraged that many of you have learned that you can’t do everything, but you can do something. Some of you are encouragers. Some of you are joy-filled. Some of you are numbers people. Some of you are artists. Some of you are teachers, prophets, and providers. Some of you are healers, peacemakers, and have the gift of generosity. Did you know that these are gifts of the Spirit? Did you know that when you use the gifts God has given you, you’re facing reality and leaning into hope? I’m encouraged by you. I’m inspired by you.

One of my own realities is that my sacramental ministry as a priest, has been taken from me. I can’t baptize. I can’t hand you our Lord’s Body and Blood. I can’t lay hands on you, or anoint the sick or the dying with oil. A priest takes vows to be a pastor, a priest, and a teacher. One of those – the priestly, sacramental aspect of my call – has been put on hold. I can mourn that. But I can also see it as an invitation to lean into the ethos of pastor and teacher, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. Some of you may be surprised that we’re praying Morning Prayer at both the 8:30 and 10:30 services. Why aren’t we having Holy Eucharist today, you may ask? Because, Holy Eucharist is a liturgical rite best expressed when we are together physically. It’s best expressed when we can all ask God’s blessing upon the bread and wine as God consecrates them into his very self. It’s my belief (as well as the church’s belief) that this cannot be done virtually, but what can be done virtually is to share in our common prayer practices. In our tradition that translates into Morning and Evening Prayer, or the Daily Office. From now on we will be praying in this way as a recognition of our reality that we all share in our common life as Christians. We will pray this way until we can meet again in our physical building and with the physical elements of Christ’s Body and Blood. As your priest, and as your pastor I feel it is best that I stand in solidarity with you and abstain from Holy Eucharist until we meet again. I will mourn the Eucharist. Her words captivate me, as well as the way she moves. Until then, I remain hopeful. I remain encouraged. I remain steadfast in the faith that St. Peter preached on that day so long ago, and has been preached 2000 years since then. Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd. We, standing on the shoulders of the saintly giants in our tradition, get to raise our voices around the new churches that are being formed around supper tables as a way to address the noise of death, disease, dying, and posturing in order to boldly proclaim, “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

Keeping a Holy Lent

Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, typically reminds me of two things:

  1. Don’t forget I’m going to die.
  2. While alive, to be grateful for the gift of life acknowledging that life itself comes from God. When I acknowledge God as Giver of Life, it frees me up to love my neighbor as myself asking both God and my neighbor’s forgiveness when I forget.

Jesus teaches me to give credit where credit is due, but don’t make such a fuss about it.

  • Step 1: When I fall down, get up (with God’s help).
  • Step 2: When I pray, pray in secret (for the love of God).

Note to self: Don’t dare to presume to pray in public without first doing Steps 1 & 2!

If I was to add a third item to my list of what Ash Wednesday reminds me to do it would be to take stock (or take inventory) of my life. Where is all my energy going, and why? Where is all my money going, and why? “For where your treasure is,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also,”

[I think I may have to add another item to my list for Ash Wednesday]; that is, to contemplate on this phrase: “God is God; and I am not.” God is God, and I am not. Oh how I fall short of perfection, but if I’m honest with myself I do try – that is – to be perfect. Perhaps Lent gives me permission not to try to grasp at perfection, but to find joy in the one who perfectly loves?

I’m a priest. This means a lot of things, but one thing it means on Ash Wednesday is by virtue of my ordination and office in the church I get to read (out loud and to anyone that is present) An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent, and The Litany of Penitence found in our prayer books. I enjoy reading the Ash Wednesday liturgy  (I really do); however, reading (especially “An Invitation to Observe a Holy Lent”) out loud convicts my own soul. It reminds me (publicly) of where and how I fall short. It reminds me (publicly) of my death. It reminds me (publicly) to love my neighbor. It reminds me (publicly) that I forget to remember these things; thus, God is God and I am not. Oh how humbling. Not humiliating; but humbling. It’s humbling to be reminded that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. It’s humbling to be reminded that God is ready to forgive but I hesitate to ask. It’s humbling to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness; then in the very next breathe God goes on and gives more of himself! He gives me/us/you his Body and Blood as pure gift, life, and love.

So maybe I’ll try and get more sleep over these next 40 days. Give up chocolate, or meat, or wine. Take on what I feel is necessary to observe a holy Lent. I’ll do what I need to do to practice my piety, knowing full well that these practices reward me more than they do God. Perhaps I’ll simply do what Jesus says; that is, to practice them quietly and in secret; then in 40 days the greatest secret held in plain sight will be revealed again so that even at the grave (even in my death) I’ll make my song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Questions From The Wilderness

Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest, was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler, and wrote a meditation on Advent from his prison cell shortly before he was hanged in 1945.[1] When contemplating John the Baptist, or “The One Who Cries in the Wilderness,” Fr. Delp wrote this, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.”[2] Here was a man lamenting the fact that faith in Jesus Christ was rapidly becoming a private matter reserved only for pious individuals. This safe sentiment sterilizes, leaving the once faithful now impotent unable to mobilize for the cause of Christ.

April 16, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s addressed to his fellow clergyman who were criticizing King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.”[3] Answering these criticisms, he wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[4] King was not only “cognizant of the interrelatedness of communities and states,” he was also reminding his colleagues of Jesus’ own words from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40). Put differently, how we treat one another represents how we care and treat Christ.

There are hundreds if not thousands of pages of letters of the faithful written from jail cells throughout Christianity’s history. This tradition goes back to the Bible itself where St. Paul wrote many a letter from prisons while held captive by Roman Empire. In today’s Gospel, a letter was not physically written but a message sent from one. This message was not addressed by a prophet to the household of God, but to God himself; and, surprisingly, God answered. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another,” John asked? This was a condemned man’s question as John would soon be put to death by the authorities of the day. Perhaps it was a dying man’s last request for a blessing, an anointing, or a sign of comfort. Jesus’ response to John was pastoral in this regard. Pastoral in that he quoted scripture. John knew the scriptures well, and could relate to Jesus’ quotation. Instead of answering directly, Jesus allowed John to determine for himself what the answer might be. In other words, Jesus validated John’s question and in doing so remembered his humanity in a dignified way. The Gospel then has Jesus turning to the questions of the crowd which differ in substance when compared with John’s because the crowd cannot articulate a proper question; therefore, Jesus does it for them naming possible answers to help guide the people. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at,” Jesus asked the crowd in referencing John’s ministry? He asked this question three times, “What then did you go out to see?” “Was it to watch a reed blowing in the wind? Was it to find someone wearing soft robes? Was it a prophet?

Finding a reed blowing in the desert wind would not be surprising. Given this line of thinking we may ask ourselves, “When was the last time God surprised you?” When was the last time you came to church not knowing what was going to happen, anxiously anticipating a Word from the Lord? Maybe that Word came at coffee hour instead of in the liturgy? Does that ever happen to you? When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised by joy?

And what about finding someone wearing soft robes out in the desert heat? They don’t belong in the desert do they? “Were you expecting John the Baptist to be like all the other preachers of the day,” Jesus might have asked? In turn, we might ask ourselves, “When was the last time you were headed to church and found church along the way?” Where have you been lately expecting people to play their part, and found God acting like a holy fool for you?

Finally, Jesus asked, “Did you go out to the desert to find a prophet?” Now we’re on the right track, but the answer doesn’t end here. It’s only the beginning. You found a prophet that pointed beyond where you thought you were going. You came out to the desert and found living water. You wanted to plant yourself in some small sentiment, and ended up discovering that the expansive kingdom of God was there, and you didn’t even know it.

Like a good teacher guiding his students into deeper reflection, Jesus was guiding the crowd into the same answer that John intuited. The great irony here is that John was the one in prison while the people were free, but given the ignorance of the people they were the ones imprisoned, held behind by the barred doors of obliviousness. It’s here where Fr. Delp can be helpful again, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.” Perhaps the prophetic voice has fallen silent because we have covered our ears and numbed our consciousnesses. What the intoxication of progress always forgets is that even if all our means and wellbeing were taken care of there still would be a great longing for God within our shared humanity. It’s here where Dr. King comes alive again, “I,” King wrote, “am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” Here, King is like John the Baptist from his prison cell. He recognizes and is cognizant of the Messiah. It was the people who did not share this reality. It was the very people who should know but who were blown about like chaff in the wind (Matt 3:12). And yet; what the Messiah also brings (besides himself) is his kingdom. The kingdom interrelates with heaven and earth calling all of us back to creation. The doctrine of creation reminds us all that we were made to be in relationship with God and each other. We’re not here for progress. We’re not here to be fearful. We’re not here to divide ourselves into this or that tribe. We’re here to express God’s love in the world:

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…
He will come and save you.”
(Isa 35:3-4)

Hope is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is lived out by participating in his kingdom, and his love grounds it all. This week ask yourself what are some of the questions Jesus may be guiding you to live into? What answers have you come across that you intuit, but are also realizing that you have only scratched the surface? Are you brave enough the ask such questions, and dwell on deep answers in community, or will you keep them to yourself? Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Don’t let the bars of fear and ignorance keep you from the freedom found in Christ Jesus.

[1]                Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (“The Shaking Reality of Advent,” by Alfred Delp, Plough Publishing House: Walden, 2001), p. 82.

[2]                Ibid., 92.

[3]                The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed online on 12/13/19 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[4]                Ibid.

The Feast of Saints Philip & James – A Trinitarian Reflection

John 14:6-14

In tonight’s Gospel we have Jesus identifying himself with God as The Great “I AM”. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” our ears should burn as we remember YAHWEH, the God of Israel, telling Moses who He is. Out of the burning bush God says to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disbelieving Sadducees that because the great I Am is the same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. This is the same spiritual life force that is God, and this life force is One.

As Christians we believe that God the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is one of the lines from the Nicene Creed we recite on Sundays. So, when Philip asks Jesus to show him God the Father, Jesus replies He/Jesus is One with the Father. If you know the Father you know me. Since this is a deep theological truth, and Philip doesn’t necessary get it, Jesus offers, “at least believe on the evidence of the works [of God] themselves.” And what are these works? Well, going back to the Moses story, God is the great gathering force who desires to once again gather his people Israel so that He may be their God, and they His people. That’s the work; and this is the same work, the work of God being done by Jesus. Jesus is gathering his people once again, and those who recognize his divinity recognize the way, the truth, and the life. His work is to gather up those who are on their way to him as well as invite those who do not know him into his Being, or into his “I Am-ness.”

When we remember all the above, Jesus’ words, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” makes more sense. If we have been gathered up by God who is the way, truth, and life then our actions, and our works have the potential to be one with the actions and workings of the living God! This is what is meant by the words in The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, when we align ourselves with the will of God, we are asking for what God has already deemed a triumphant, ‘Yes.’ God is glorified in saying ‘Yes’ to His will – always. So what does all of this “look like” on the ground? That’s where the saints come in – two of which we are celebrating today. The saints of the church show us through their lives what the workings of God look like, and the workings of God are as diverse as the saints themselves. St. Philip is certainly different than St. James, or St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, or Theresa. Throughout space and time, it is the saints who inspire us to focus our lives on the will of God the Father, and in doing so find Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Tonight, as we all seek out health, healing, and wholeness may your prayers align with the Spirit of Christ who is constantly praying within you to the Father in heaven, and in doing so revealing God’s will in your life.

Ash Wednesday – A Call to Observe a Holy Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This New Year Recall the Light of Christ in Your Life

The Prayer Book defines 7 “principal kinds of prayer” being adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition (BCP, 856). These are all defined on page 857; however, there are two – thanksgiving and penitence – which I would like to focus on as we approach the New Year.

For 4 weeks, the Season of Advent gifted us with John the Baptist’s invitation to repent in order to prepare our hearts for the light of Christ coming into the world at Christmas. Christmas is a season of thanksgiving as we stand thankful for the gift of light within our lives being called (like John) to witness to this light (Jn 1:7,8). This act of thanksgiving is symbolized on Christmas morning when someone gives you a gift to open. You open it; thus acknowledging the gift. Then you thank the person for the gift by actually using the gift – be it a toy, or something practical, or monetary. Again, you use the gift that has been given to you.

Taking these two prayers, thanksgiving and penitence, and thinking about the closing out of one year and the opening up of another, let us recollect, counting our many blessings naming them one by one through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledging and confessing sin in our lives – not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. This is a great way to not only end a year, but to also live into the next one with grace, mercy, and integrity.

God Moments
When a God Moment occurs, we usually tell somebody about them, or we serve Christ in tangible ways because of all our recognizable moments with God. We are like John the Baptist “testifying to the light” when we participate in these God Moments. Prayers of repentance as well as thanksgiving help to recall those God Moments in our lives, and the church has gifted us with spiritual tools to help recollect both our sins and our thanksgivings. It’s important to balance confession with thanksgiving. Only confessing sin leaves us dull, and boarders on obsessiveness and morbidity. On the other hand, continually thanking God without confessing sin puts us out of touch with the reality of sin, and ignores real problems within our own lives, the lives of others, and even the life of our planet. Having balance with these two types of prayers is a sign of Christian maturity, and spiritual longevity.

Self-Examination & Confession
When there is a God Moment that convicts you of a sin, or sins, in your life this is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pray. Tradition calls this movement of the Spirit, self-examination. We examine our lives in the light of God’s mercy and love, while seeking forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds done and left undone where we fell short. There are multiple manuals within the tradition of Christianity that have helped countless Christians recall and confess their sins. I want to look at 2 of them in the English/Anglican/Episcopal Tradition: The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The Bible
One way to examine our lives is to put it up against Judeo-Christian practices, specifically the moral and aesthetical practices found within the Bible. Within the Old Testament, we could turn to the Decalogue, or The 10 Commandments, meditating on them and observing where we are convicted of sin. From the New Testament, we might consider reading and meditating on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel or when Jesus summed up the law. Let’s take this last one (Jesus Summing up the Law) and treat it as an example of self-examination. Jesus said,

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

During self-examination we might get curious as to how we understand and experience love within our lives (“Thou shalt love”), and how our love extends from our self, to those around us, including God. Reversing this, we might ask how we believe God extends his love to us, those around us, and in fact, to all God’s creation. This love extends out through our “hearts,” “souls,” and “minds.” This gives us pause as we can now recollect the awesome power of God’s love, and where we fall short giving expression of this love to ourselves, neighbors, and the world. What starts out as a broad meditation on God’s love and the feeling of falling short can now turn into specifics: “I didn’t love God with my mind when I…” “I neglected my neighbor just yesterday when I…” Being specific is important when confessing sin, and reveals to God your desire to be forgiven.

The Prayer Book
Self-examination in the prayer book is best expressed in the liturgical Rite of Baptism. Here, we are reminded of our Baptismal Promises made, or someone made on our behalf at our baptism, if one was baptized as an infant or young child. These promises are on page 304-305. Another resource is St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. In it are specific questions for self-examination using the traditional “7 Deadly Sins.” Once a Christian has practiced self-examination using the Bible and the prayer book for a while, and desires to go deeper, this is an excellent resource for doing so. Getting back to the Prayer Book, once sins have been recollected, there are three ways to seek absolution and forgiveness in the Episcopal Tradition. The first is to confess your sins directly to God in private asking for forgiveness, then praying a prayer of Thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 51 is a classic Psalm of thanksgiving for forgiveness of sins. There are other Psalms that you may wish to say with your own words of thanksgiving as well. The second way is during the General Confession either during Holy Eucharist, or within the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers). The last is a Rite in the Prayer Book called, Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP, 447). This is confession to God with a priest being present to absolve the penitent through his priestly ministry of absolution. Confession to a priest isn’t in vogue like it used to be; however, this sacramental rite of the church is always available. Persons who use this office of the church today are usually wondering if God truly forgave them, and desire some tangible closure. This isn’t always the case of course as many Christians find confession beneficial at certain seasons of the Church, or at regular times in the calendar where confession to God through the priest is particular important and necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity. Traditional times of self-examination and confession during the liturgical year are during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Thanksgivings 
Leaving confession and going over to Thanksgiving: Here you Count your blessings. Naming them one-by-one. A sense of gratefulness and thankfulness can suddenly wash over us as we recollect the many wonders of life and being. When this happens we can pause, taking it all in, and simply say, “Thank You.” When we want to be more specific, a great resource found within the Prayer Book is the Thanksgiving section found on page 836 and 837. This section is divided into A General Thanksgiving and A Litany of Thanksgiving. I’ve taken both of these and put them in question format for better recollection and self-examination. Once the questions have been answered, a proper way of closing out the recollection is to simply pray one of the two prayers. This can be done by yourself, in a small group, or within your family as a wonderful way of thanking God for the many blessings of life and light in our lives now as well as thinking upon this past year. The questions are below. Choose as many or as little as you with. I hope you find them helpful; then, using the Prayer Book, either use one of the prayers of thanksgiving on page 836 and 837, or gather up all your thanksgivings and pray The Lord’s Prayer.

God’s creation is beautiful. Where did you seek out beauty and find it this year?

Where did you remember the mystery of love this year? Who helped you remember?

How were you blessed by family? by friends? How were you cared for? How were you caring?

We can be thankful for our disappointments and failures if we faithfully believe that these missteps can lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. How was this true for you?

 Choose a Gospel story were Jesus is teaching, healing, suffering, being tempted, questioning, being obedient, dying, etc. Place yourself into the story. What do you believe God is showing you today?

 What do you know about Jesus? How do you know him and/or experience him in your own life?

 What gifts did you receive this year? Could any of these gifts be used to “give back” to God?

 Did you travel somewhere beautiful this year? If so, describe it to God.

 Do you pray to God thanking him for the food and drink you are blessed to have, shelter over your head, and friends that support you along the way? Thank God for these now.

 Where did you use your God-given intellect this year? How did it help you or someone else? Did you know thinking critically is a gift?

 How did you serve Christ in “the neighbor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the lonely” this year? How did they serve you?

 Work gives humanity dignity and respect. Are you satisfied with the work you did this year? Will you remain in this work next year, or are you discerning “a new calling?”

 Where did you take the time to make good use of leisure, rest, and play? Do you have tangible plans for these important things in the coming year?

 How are you brave and courageous? Who is your example – either living or past?

 When you suffer or are experiencing adversity, are you patient? Do you experience God’s presence in these times?

 How do you seek after truth, liberty, and justice? How are these Godly attributes lived out in your life?

 Who is your favorite saint, and why?

Conclusion
As we set aside 2018 looking toward 2019 may these two types of prayer – penitence and thanksgiving – give you pause in your life to recall, recollect, and examine your lives in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.

God bless you, and Happy New Year!