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**

The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

What is Holy Week?

Holy Week begins Sunday, and is often called Palm Sunday or The Sunday of the Passion. The Passion [of the Christ] biblically follows Jesus’ last moments through Jerusalem, the Roman courts, and the streets on the way to the cross. Holy Week is exactly what it says: It is the holiest season within the Christian calendar.

On Palm Sunday, many congregations will gather outside the doors of the church with literal palms in hand and will welcome The Messiah – Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem through a Biblical reading, as well as with songs and shouts of Hosanna’s, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; but once the congregation enters into the space of the church building the drama will heighten around the reading of the Passion of Christ (This year’s reading comes from the Gospel according to Matthew). Listening to this Gospel, one will quickly notice the joyous Hosanna’s sung outside have turned into angry shouts to ‘crucify him’ on the inside. Although the joys of The Lord’s Supper will continue to be celebrated on this day, the liturgical service will end somewhat solemnly as those gathered remember that our Lord was betrayed [into the hands of sinners].

Next comes Maundy Thursday – the first of three services that make up what is referred to as The Triduum. Although there are three different services on three different days, don’t be fooled into thinking they are separate services. The Triduum is one service divided up into three parts (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil of Easter). Think of The Triduum as a three-act play where each act has its own theme, but points to a greater whole.

Act I is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is the 38th day of Lent, and sets the tone that the end [of Lent] is near, and resurrection is on the horizon. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday celebrates the initiation of the Church’s Holy Eucharist – a.k.a. Holy Communion, and this supper is the last communion before Easter. Maundy in Latin means command, and this day the Church remembers Jesus’ command to his disciples to, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ His command ‘to love’ is made explicit in the service of The Lord’s Supper, as well as when those gathered participate in foot washing – a further reminder that Jesus acted as servant to his friends, and asked his followers to never forget this (‘Love one another as I have loved you’). Finally, the evening ends with the stripping of the Altar. All the fashions found in and around the sanctuary will be taken away – symbolic of the clothes and dignity that were stripped away from Our Lord. After the Maundy Thursday liturgy is concluded, some churches hold an all-night vigil until Good Friday morning where the remaining bread and wine that was consecrated (or blessed) on Maundy Thursday will be consumed Good Friday morning. Stations of the Cross (another tradition within the church) usually takes place at Noon, Good Friday. The symbol here recollects the Passion of Christ once more, and the hour in which this liturgy takes place is the traditional hour of Jesus’ time on the cross.

Act II is Good Friday. There is no Eucharist because there is no Lord. Put bluntly: God is dead, and this service is a day of great solemnity, devotion, self-examination, and prayer; however, it is also a day of restrained anticipation, promise, and hope (to paraphrase Bishop J. N. Alexander). It is also a day the Church remembers the cross in all its messiness, and at the same time its glory pointing us heavenward.

Act III is the Great Vigil of Easter, but before this evening service begins a small morning service called Holy Saturday is administered. Holy Saturday is a service asking us to simply slow down and take all of what has happened and is happening into consideration before we participate in the Vigil. The evening Vigil is a long, but a powerful liturgy in 4 parts: 1. There is the Service of Light. 2. The Service of Lessons. 3. Christian Initiation (a.k.a. Holy Baptism). 4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion. I won’t go into detail about this service, but it is one not to miss. To me, the Vigil captures everything that is good, holy and beautiful about Christianity and Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If you are curious about any of these services, I invite you to read them before hand. They can all be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Palm Sunday liturgy begins on page 270. A link can be found here.

This is a small introduction to the ceremony, liturgy, drama, and pageantry of Holy Week. It is truly a gift of the Church, but words and descriptions of the services do not do it justice. To truly get a feel for its beauty, you have to participate in it for yourself, and let each day help to mold and make you into who God already knows you to be. May Holy Week remind us all of the mystery of Christ and His Church, and that there is still mystery wrapped up in the world around us.

Happy Advent

The Advent Season

What is Advent, and what does this transitional season represent to Christians? How do the traditions, liturgy, and prayers of the Church allow hearts to be transformed during this time of year? Why does the Church caution Christians not to jump into Christmas after Thanksgiving Day? Let us live into these questions as we remember the counter-cultural expression of this beautiful season called Advent.

Traditionally, the Season of Advent represents the preparation and coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the word, Advent, literally means, Coming, and its readings, liturgy, and music all point to Christ coming into the world with three different expressions: We remember Christ coming into the world at Christmas, within our hearts, and the expectation of Christ coming again at the end of time. The mood of the season fills the soul with great mystery, tension, and anticipation. For four weeks, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings grace the liturgy with metaphor, simile, and prophetic signs. Words such as restoration, prophecy, and repentance will help to enhance this tension filled season. There will be reminders to keep awake – to not get distracted by all the noises around us – and to remember and reflect on the eternal. Advent invites all to melt into its spell where senses develop an awareness of light and darkness, evergreen trees and deciduous ones, mountains and valleys, the future and The Now.

The Advent Wreath

We can thank our 17th century German sisters and brothers for the development of the Advent wreath (Bishop J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time, 44-45). What started out as a domestic devotion was later adapted (and adopted) by the Church as its own countdown clock (Ibid.). That is why there are four candles in Advent wreaths representing the four weeks of this season. The Advent wreath, like the Tenebrae services of Lent, reveals humanity’s fascination with the lengthening and shorting of days (Ibid). Advent occurs during the Winter Solstice where the earth’s Northern hemisphere tilts from its sun making the nights longer and the days shorter. Advent is a transitional season anticipating Christmas where the son, or the light of the world will be revealed making His light more abundant on earth, and within the hearts of mankind.

Advent wreaths are made up of evergreen tree branches. Evergreen trees are symbolic of eternity because they do not change with the seasons. They are firm, steadfast, and constant year round. When Christians put Advent wreaths on their doors or in their homes, they symbolically point to both the eternal and the now – or better – the Eternal Now.

The Readings of Advent

In the readings from Advent I, we symbolically remember what it is like to experience the daytime (light) and the nighttime (darkness). Paul says, in his Letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11). Jesus echoes this when he teaches, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:42).

The Experience of Advent

You know those vacation or holiday nights when you’re visiting a friend, relative, or loved one you haven’t seen in a long time, and you stay up all night talking and catching up? You might have a good drink in your hand, and a fire going on in the fireplace. Table lamps are lit instead of overhead lights. There’s some soft music on in the background that mixes with your moments of conversation yet leaves room enough for those still small moments of nonanxious silences. “You say it best when you say nothing at all” yet when a word is spoken your beloved, perhaps, says it better than you because they know you…you have a history together, and being in the moment is more important than being right. It’s with this revealing picture that I envision Paul and Jesus’ words. Even though it’s dark outside, even though the world is a big fat mess, and when I’m out in it (half the time) I’m distracted by competing voices, for this moment and with my friend, I’m living in the light of Now with God, with my loved one, with the music, and I’m soaking up every simple yet complex thing because for that moment I’m awake. I think that that’s a different type of anticipation, a different type of tension where one can honestly and in the moment stomp on fear and anxiety because there is no fear and anxiety. Something deeper is going on. These are Now moments of anticipation where everything has changed; yet, everything has stayed the same. In Advent, we say that Christ has come into our lives…that the light of the world has come into our hearts yet again. The world is still the same; yet the world is vastly different. And that’s as much as I can describe (with words) the experience of Advent. Paul did it one way. Jesus another. Me another; and you have your own as well.

An Invitation

This Advent, contemplate the mystery of God in your life. Look back on where God seemed to have been holding you, or carrying you, or even dragging you along life’s path. Observe the novel that is your life. Observe the song, or the hymn that is your life intricately wrapped up in the life of the Divine. We only have four weeks, so let’s use our time wisely, anticipating where we know we will be distracted, and don’t be (with God’s help). It’s only four weeks. Instead, focus and occupy your mind, your body, your soul on God, self, and neighbor. Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? These questions provide an appropriate meditation for a few weeks that could start out for 4, and turn into a lifetime of living into those questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? Advent, by it’s very nature of light and dark, mystery and metaphor, comings and goings will enhance these questions, question your answers, and help you find that friend you have (perhaps) always been searching for, and longing to stay up the whole night chatting and catching up. As today’s Collect reminds us to pray: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life… [and] in the life immortal.” Happy Advent!

Dancing with Trinity

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday. Although there are many explanations, allegories, and metaphors for what the unity of Trinity expresses, my favorite has always been the image of the Holy Trinity in an eternal, cosmic dance. Think the three muses of antiquity skipping and dancing with one another, or children clasping hands dancing in a circle to Ring Around the Rosies.

One of the many grace-filled miracles held in this Cosmic dance is we are invited to participate in it. Sometimes we stand or sit in the middle while Father, Son, and Spirit dance around us. Other times, we are invited to hold hands and sway in both clockwise and counterclockwise rotations dancing, twirling, swirling, laughing. Still there are other, more intimate times when the dance calls for a lift, and the Trinity acting as One lifts us up, and pulls us close like a mother to her child.

Unlike Trinity who dances for eternity, we get tired. When this happens, we are invited to sit, stand, or kneel at holy tables gathering strength for journeys ahead. Even at table, the Trinity greets us as Host, as Substance, and even as the One whom we are praying- humming along with our words, smiling because of their familiar pace and cadence. 

Whenever you feel lonely, or anxious – whenever you feel happy, even joyful – Trinity is always inviting you to join in the dance; and when you get tired, Trinity holds you, sits you down, and nourishes you with God’s very self. The invitation is always open, and the music never stops. Come. Dance. Take. Eat. Go.

Crack in the Wall: Guest Blogger – Lindsay Layton

The below essay is from a parishioner at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA where I serve as priest. I asked this parishioner, Lindsay Layton, if she would write down her thoughts and feelings after she shared these with me after service this past Sunday. Some would consider her thoughts on a crack in the church sanctuary a hindrance or barrier to worship; but what Lindsay reminds me of is that one person’s hindrance is another person’s glance towards salvation. Thank you, Lindsay, for taking the time to write, to reflect, and to remember. Enjoy. ~FB

The sanctuary of my church is very beautiful and orderly. There is a perfectly centered communion table adorned with an ornate tapestry tablecloth and symmetrically-placed candles, all surrounded by a symmetrical communion rail. Care is taken so that two fresh flower arrangements complement the colors of the tablecloth. The flowers arrive from the florist on Saturday morning, and I witness our altar guild members placing them on their symmetrical pedestals, and stepping back to enjoy the view. Because I am standing there, I am directed to move this one an inch to the left…(no that is too far) … (back the other way a half millimeter) …(rotate the arrangement another 2-1/2 degrees clockwise) … (there, that is better)!

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Behold! Centered high on the wall behind this display is a large and magnificent circular window, completely filled with the cross of Christ dividing the window into four quadrant-shaped window panes, unequal but still orderly and symmetrical. There are tall and majestic trees visible through this window. As we worship we can commune with God in nature as we witness the foliage responding to the changing seasons, and as we witness dark and light as the Earth rotates on its axis.

All of this is good. Episcopalians thrive when order abounds, not only by recognizing beauty in their orderly surroundings, but in their own proper behavior during their worship services. Perhaps maybe a little bit of spontaneity to defy our rigidity! But not too much to upset the apple cart of our proper decorum! Orderliness is next to Godliness!

Alas! There is a long vertical crack in the drywall in the sanctuary of my church. This crack starts near the top edge of our large Cross-filled circular window about 8 inches to the right of center. Due to the steeply peaked ceiling, this crack is able to extend up the wall to a magnificent height. The juxtaposition of the imperfection that this crack creates in such an otherwise orderly sanctuary holds profound theological and spiritual significance for me. “I belong!” For the years I have worshipped at St. Julian’s, my eyes are drawn to this crack, and I am reminded of my own brokenness. I am also reminded of the brokenness of God, how God freely chose to be broken through incarnation because of the immensity of His love for us. And I am overwhelmingly filled with the love of God, and with tears and gratefulness!

The crack in the wall is also right of center. Being a person who tends to be left of center in most things, this crack reminds me that God is not created exclusively in my own image: that God can be found in the center and both right and left of center. This reminds me to not settle into a fundamentalist position pertaining to left-centeredness.

Oh, you humble crack! I honor your place in our sanctuary. You have done a glorious job of holding God in your crevasses, of reminding us that God is to be found in all places, low and high. God is truly in the cracks (and crackheads) of our world. Our broken world is one of sheer beauty in all of its manifestations!

I glanced through the minutes of the last vestry/business meeting. It appears that the vestry is determined to reestablish beauty and order in our sanctuary. It is deemed, dear crack, that you have got to go. My beloved crack, I will miss you! I grieve for you. I believe that you are beloved of God as well, just as God loves all creation. Being on the fringe of this church with no hope of influencing policy, I feel powerless to save you. But maybe, with God’s grace, your death could be delayed by having you fall a little lower on the priority hatchet list. That would give us more time to say good-bye to one another.

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As you know, dear crack, there is much brokenness in this world and you and I both are to be about the work of Christ. Perhaps unbeknownst to you, you have lived out your life in service to Christ; I am witness to this. You remind me to live for Christ as well. And just as Christ ultimately gave his entire life for us, I have to be willing to allow you to do the same. I will remember you as long as I live. Come, Holy Spirit, that I may give my life more fully for Christ as well. The wall will be “repaired” one day soon, but I will look upon your ghost and remember.

~Lindsay