Ritual and Rules of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Get a prayer book and read it

* Go to Eucharist every Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Lead With Love

Last Saturday billions of people tuned in to watch The Royal Wedding. It was a beautiful celebration that captured the hearts of so many. As a Christian who finds his Biblical, theological, and traditional roots in the Anglican Church, I was proud to be an Episcopalian that day. My heart swelled when I heard my presiding bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, deliver the homily. For a moment the world was led to remember Love – specifically, the love of Christ and how families, nations, and the earth are forever changed by the reality of this love. It is a love founded in truth and grounded in relationship.

Outside the Church, society does not lead with love grounded in relationship. These days, society finds its lead through identity (republican/democrat, rich/poor, gay/straight). Within these various tribes ‘the other’ is quickly identified as enemy number one. Those that are on the ‘right side of history’ scream for their rights as egotism, individualism, and hedonism are on full display.

Theologically speaking, the Church leads with identity as well; however, it chooses to go deeper than party affiliation, skin color, or sexual orientation. Instead, it leads with love where we are identified first and foremost as children of God in relationship with God, self, neighbor, and creation. St. Paul may have put it best when he said that it is in Christ where we live, and move, and have our being.

Bishop Curry helped the world to imagine what leading with love and relationship to ‘the other’ might look like. Jesus Christ reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to pray for those who persecute us. Although it may be tempting to lead off a conversation identifying as part of this or that tribe, why not avoid that temptation and enflesh the love of God founded and grounded in Jesus Christ? His message was a world changer in the first century and harnessing the power of God’s love today continues to change the world.