Open Doors, Open Hearts

The parish where I serve as priest is named, Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church. We have a parish hall where members can gather and rehearse choral music, cook up delicious food in the kitchen, and fellowship while breaking bread with one another. St. Julian’s also lends meeting space out to community groups like political parties (Republicans and Democrats), Master Gardeners’ of Douglas County, and the Girl Scouts of America. This past “Super” Tuesday, St. Julian’s was a polling place, and about 600 folks walked past the church and into the parish hall where they could cast their ballots in the presidential primary race. This was not unusual. St. Julian’s is normally a polling place in Douglas County. What was different; however, were the doors of the church. They were not closed. They were opened. Not only were they visibly opened up, I parked myself outside the doors of the church on one of our porch benches dressed in my cassock and clergy collar reading a book. I was not there to suggest anything political. I was just present; and the doors of the church were simply opened up for any and all who passed by to get curious, wonder, and possibly explore a space that had not been opened up to them before. Through this simple act, I was able to listen, overhear, and take part in conversations and actions that I never would have been gifted had I decided to read my book behind the doors of the church that day. Below are a few of the things I witnessed. Thank you for making my Tuesday truly a “Super” one. I am forever touched.

“May we come in? We’d like to see how your church compares with ours.”

“Can I stop in and pray?”

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Look, the church doors are open. Maybe we should go in and pray?”

“I need all the prayers I can get.”

“This country needs all the prayers it can get.”

“Can I stop by and clip off some fresh rosemary next time I’m cooking?”

“God bless you.”

Someone, upon seeing me in a cassock,

“Are you from this country?” She then continued, “I am from Paris, France. I joined a Roman Catholic convent to escape the Nazi Army in WWII. They had us wash their clothes. They were nice to us, but not the Jews. My husband is Episcopalian…how do you say it…Episca?… Epis??…such a hard word…Oh well; now, we’re both Baptists.”

“Now that’s what I like to see…a man of God outside the walls of the church. Good for you, brother.”

“Nice socks…my mom would love them…they are her sorority colors…have a blessed day.”

“I think what you’re doing is just great.”

One man, upon seeing a hopscotch board outlined on the pavement in chalk, jumped through the game like a child in play. He then turned to me, and simply smiled, waved, and went on his way.

Finally, what a little girl said to her mom while pointing to the building, “Mommy, what is that?” Her mom replied, “It’s a church, sweetie. It’s a church.”

Even though the people I came into contact with on Tuesday were truly amazing, if I am completely honest about that day, I would have to say that I’ve been haunted by the image of those open doors. I’ve been haunted by them because although I would like to say that the doors of the church have always been open; in reality, I know that they have not. Upon deeper reflection of those doors, I’m reminded of the Church’s long, long history of shutting out, shutting down, and shutting up prodigal sons and daughters everywhere. This saddens me, but I also have faith and hope in the Church’s future. Here’s why:

We now finds ourselves in the Season of Lent. Lent calls us to repentance, but it is also begs us to remember: To remember all the isms and phobias and illusions we create that separate us from God, ourselves, and others; but like the doors of an open church, we are also called on to remember that God’s grace and mercy are the same grace and mercies that can be given out and gifted to ourselves and others as we try to live into the abundance of God’s love; or better, to live into the reality of God’s love. True repentance is turning from what we are doing, and turning to God. Turning around, and with God’s help, we are called to the discipline to contemplate how we possess, and try to be possessive (and controlling) of others – How we label others as “less than” in order to build ourselves up because our illusions of scarcity might be mitigated by fear, anger, and anxiety. Once we start contemplating these things, we are invited to pray for forgiveness, and once we start praying for forgiveness, we are then invited to start practicing forgiveness, grace, and mercy as we listen to others tell their stories, come together and work for social change, and take prophetic action against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the rest.

Last Tuesday was a day to remember, to seek forgiveness in a stranger’s smile, and to practice loving like Jesus loves. For a moment, the world was not divided up into parties, tribes, or ideologies. For a moment, tender hearts were opened, and new doors remained unlocked.

~The Rev. Brandon Duke proudly serves Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA. In this season of the Church, he is trying to #GrowForLent and #LoveLikeJesusEDA.

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

Relationship Over Rules. Love Over Laws.*

An amazing fact about the God we serve is that God chose to limit God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. Now we don’t usually think of God as limited, do we? But the truth is, the all-knowing, all-powerful God freely choose a limited body, a limited context in history, and a limited creation in order to express to us those limitless aspects of God’s divine love.

The great mystery of the Judeo-Christian God is that this God who is all-powerful, and all knowing chose to speak, specifically to Abraham, and in doing so, started the process of limiting himself to be part of a people’s history. This same God freed an enslaved people from Egypt, brought up prophets and kings in Israel, and seems (according to my reading of Holy Scriptures) to be very fond of the widow/widower, the orphan, the migrant, the oppressed, and the enslaved. But God didn’t and doesn’t stop there. God chose to come among us, to be with us more fully (not more powerfully…but more fully) to be with us in a way that changed history. God, through the person of Jesus Christ, came among us to live, to suffer, and to ultimately die not for a cause, not for any rule, but for a relationship. For love: A love so powerful that three days later, death could not hold to it.

The small salvation history I just revealed is revealed further to us every time we release ourselves into the mystery of God’s love. Its results are always the same, although its situations are without end. And what are the results? Relationship. Love. Humbleness before our God, to name a few.

The best example of God asking us to limit ourselves in the name of relationship and love is found in the words of Jesus in Mark 8. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (or quite possibly, let them limit themselves) and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice here, we must give up something in order to follow Christ. We must limit ourselves in order to be in full relationship with God. I don’t think God would ask us to limit ourselves if he didn’t do this himself already? And because he did this through the person of Jesus Christ, God is revealing to us what love looks like: When we look upon our Savior Jesus Christ, we are looking at a God who limited God’s self for the sake of love, so that we may do the same. Why? Because it’s about relationship, not rules. It’s about love, not law.

A great example of this happened early last week. Pope Francis called upon all European churches (starting with the two within Vatican City) to host Syrian migrant and refugee families who were fleeing their country because of Civil War. Now, the secular rules talked about quotas, and space, and policy and procedure, but in the freedom of God, the Pope reminded us that if we all start from an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship, then the refuges would be taken care of. Rules (in many situations) are put into place because the relationship is not fully there from the beginning; it’s torn and tattered by sin and complex situations.

But let’s look at the order of correct relationship for this type of Christian hospitality to take root. The root of Christian hospitality does not start with an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship to our fellow man. No. The root of Christian hospitality starts with the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship we have with Christ. In the negative sense, if that relationship with Christ is broken, then the relationships we have with one another (be it biological family or church family or refugee family) are also broken. To be fair, this isn’t totally our fault. I mentioned sin earlier, and the complexities of sin I’ll have to write on another day, but the bottom line is that our relationship with Christ is key to our relationship to ourselves and to others.

Jesus again, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” So what are the European Churches loosing? Well, lots of things: They may see community as a loss. They may see status quo as a loss. But what Christ reminds us is that in His freedom, in God’s freedom to love, we are set free to lose the life we think we should have in order to live a life of full freedom in Christ. If we give up some things, if we take up our cross, if we lose and let go of things we think are precious – be that a tangible thing, or a ideal, or a politic – what we gain is Christ’s love, and the Gospel of Christ guides us to salvation. The classical word for all of this is repentance. We repent, and turn to God. Repent is best translated as “turning around”. So we quite literally turn around from something to something, and that “to something” is God. Then and only then are we completely free to love God, self, and neighbor (in that order). Now, the frustrating thing to me is that this is not a one-time deal; instead, repentance happens constantly, and confession and reconciliation are part of the process of salvation. But, we can only turn toward God if we experience the grace of God inviting us to turn away and repent, or give up what it is we must give up to experience His Love.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury before Justin Welby said that meditation on the Gospels is a matter of “coming to know ourselves through Christ.” So, in order for Pope Francis to call on all European Churches to take in folks is assuming that all these church bodies are on a continual path of “coming to know [themselves] through Christ.” So, there will probably be resistance if this isn’t the case for these churches. Why: Because the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship is out of order, and people don’t actually believe, or experience, the love of Christ in their lives.

That’s why the universal church founded in Christ is so important. That’s why receiving a prophetic call like the Pope delivered last week is so important to pay attention and live to. The church, through its liturgy, proclamations, and actions reveal (to all) the importance of relationship over rules. It is bold when it proclaims justice to immigrants, whether that be from Mexico, Latin America, or Syria. That is why we will never hear the Church talking about building walls. Instead, it is about breaking them down, and not for the sake of rules, and not even for the sake of order, but for the sake of relationship because the Church, and only the Church reveals to the world the love of Christ in the stranger, neighbor, and even to its enemies. Now that’s crazy. That’s counter-cultural, and we are certainly not hearing this kind of talk in the marketplace of ideas.

So picture this: What if the clarion call sent out from the halls of the Vatican actually catches on worldwide? What will the churches in Europe look like? How, by giving up some comfort, how, by loosing a status-quo life, how, by taking up Christ’s cross will they look? If the churches in the America’s catch this revival of putting Christ first in order to serve the world, what would it look like over here? What do we have to give up in order to follow Christ? Is it something tangible? Is it an ideal? Is it a philosophy? All the above?

Well, I believe we will be better equipped to answer what the church will “look like” if we continue to repent, and continue to turn around and constantly face God. If we are constantly turning around and facing God, then eventually we see Jesus, and if we see Jesus, we have relationship, and if we have relationship with Jesus, we experience true freedom, and if we experience true freedom, then we are free to freely love God, ourselves, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

So, I’m excited. I feel revival in the air. I feel God’s love spoken and lived out in high profile Christian leaders like Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Curry, and Bishop Wright, but also in everyday people such as you and I. And all of these leaders, be they known or unknown, get their charisma and boldness from Christ, and they (like us and as sinners) must continually repent, to turn around and to lovingly limit ourselves, in order to take up our crosses, and follow the God of Love.

So, is there revival going on? My faith points me to Christ to help answer that question, and hope is always pointing me to God’s answer of, “Yes.”

*This is a redacted sermon preached on the Eve of Holy Cross Day, September 13, 2015.