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.”

Christian Leadership

Sermon from 5th Sunday after the Epiphany focusing on Matt. 5:13-20 & Isa. 58:1-12

When I was in high school my Dad got a promotion that required us to move. Even though the place where we settled was only about 40 minutes away, the culture of moving from suburbia to rural was shocking. At my old middle and high schools, I was only involved in a few extra-curricular activities (band and soccer). At the new rural school and with a class size of less than 50, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Through my three years at Harmony HS, I was involved in band, drama, choir, basketball, track, and Beta Club. I seemed to be friends with just about everybody, and was at least respected by those who didn’t necessarily want to hang out with me. My wife, Ann, always jokes that she so would not have dated me in HS because of my Brady-Bunch-like interests but I say, “To each his own.”

Maybe it was because of all the activities I was involved in, maybe it was because my Dad was now a training manager for the company he worked for, or maybe it was a little of both; nevertheless, he got me interested in thinking about leadership. Dad had about a 35-minute commute to work, and on many of those driving days he would listen to leadership books on tape. At the time, Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was popular, as well as anything by Tony Robbins, and the old-time Texas transplant, Zig Ziglar. Dad got me hooked on these leaders’ thought processes, and challenged me not to ever be a follower in life, but to instead, lead.

Nowadays I am still drawn to leadership books and seminars, but have narrowed down the pile somewhat. Out of seminary, I took at two-year leadership course the diocese offers for new priests that focused on what’s called, adaptive leadership. While in seminary, I studied family-systems theory through the lens of Edwin Friedman, and here lately I’ve been interested in thinking about Jesus Christ as a leader with the help of Henri Nouwen. It’s this latter author I want to speak on today because Nouwen has helped me to totally flip my idea and ideas about Christian leadership – something all baptized Christians are called to live into.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen makes this argument, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.”

Let’s look at the first point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer…” Before my family made that move from suburbia to rural Texas, the Baptist Church, the Church where I was raised and that introduced me to Jesus Christ, was concerned with relevance and being relevant. In the 90’s I heard my youth ministers tell me not to listen to certain types of music because similar styles of rock or heavy metal or rap music could be found with a Christian message. For many years, I heeded their advice, went to Christian concerts, bought Christian CDs, and did what I was told because I respected my leaders. This was also the time in the church where suits were ditched for skinny jeans and t-shirts, and a minister wasn’t cool if he didn’t have a goat-tee, tattoo, and crazy stories of redemption. All things considered, and for me, the church was relevant. It made sense to my teenager mind, and I trusted those who were trying to lead me. In hindsight; however, I don’t know if my youth director or even my senior pastor ever taught how to pray. Prayer, and how to pray stays with you, but certain types of music, fashionable clothing, and even a cool story fades with time. While in college, I would ditch all these fads still not knowing how to pray, and take up other things to fill the time – mainly girls, alcohol and parties.

Nouwen makes a compelling argument that the present and future church doesn’t have to be relevant to survive; instead, its leaders must always have a solid life of prayer, and be able to teach that to Christians of all ages. My friend and colleague, Fr. Greg Tallant, has often said that there is something to be said about boring old church. There’s something to say about people still gathering together, praying for one another, and creating fellowship through the person of Jesus Christ. I tend to agree. The Church and her rituals have been around for millennia, and through them we are taught to pray and to remember one another in thought, word, and deed. The question, “How do I pray?” can always be on the minds of Christians, and living into its answer is a journey out of relevance into that of relationship.

Let’s turn to Nouwen’s second point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from…worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry…” Here, he is specifically calling out ministers whose ministry revolves only around them and their celebrity. Through other leadership resources I have learned that good leaders make people believe in them, but great leaders make others believe in themselves. Put in Christian terms – instead of top down ministry, why not operate from the bottom up? What are the gifts and talents of everyone? If you could choose one gift or talent you possess and could teach it to someone else, what would it be? Well, whatever it is could be your ministry, or at the very least, plugging into a group or organization that is already living similar gifts out.

Churches grow, and ministries expand not out of a great priest or bishop. Instead, they grow and expand when resources are pulled together based on need – yes – but also based on gifts and talents. Again, what is it you can do that is also teachable? Great! That is your ministry. The future of the church will not revolve around its paid clergy so much so as it will revolve around all the baptized living out their mission and ministries in the world.

Nouwen’s final point, “[Jesus] asks us to move…from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” My Dad was half-way correct when he gave me the advice not to be a follower in life, but instead, lead. A Christian leader, I would now counter, is perfectly comfortable being led because they are being led closer to God through a life of prayer and community, which in turn, allows them to not only lead people, but to have the humbleness to be led by Christ and others. Nouwen writes, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.”

These three attributes of a Christian leader: not worrying about relevance, not worrying about popularity, and learning how to be led by God (I believe) can best be lived out in a small parish like ours through its ministries, through its liturgies, and through its fellowship. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. When we forget this, we loose our taste and get lost in the dark. The Prophet Isaiah gave specifics around this. He said God wasn’t interested in your piety. Stop being relevant to your religion, and reveal your relationship with God to your neighbor (Isa. 58). How do you do this? “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor into your house, and to cover the naked.” Just last week, the prophet Micah preached, “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Being just doesn’t seem to be relevant these days, loving mercy is certainly not popular, and walking humbly with God isn’t mainstream leadership material. So what are Christian leaders supposed to do? I like what Isaiah said, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! We are most prophetic, we are light and salt, we are leaders when we pray, when we form relationships, when we fellowship, when we are led by God. I believe the Church is best when it’s boring…when it’s doing exactly what its mission is. When we worship joyfully, when we serve compassionately, when we grow spiritually, the church is simply doing what the church does. It may not be relevant to the world, but it is relevant to God. It may not be popular, but that’s okay…Jesus said The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. It may not raise up leaders the way the world defines leadership. That’s okay, Jesus taught us to pray saying God, Lead us not into temptation: The temptation to be relevant, to be popular, to be powerful. Instead, let us empty ourselves, let us serve others, and let us focus on Christ.

Search your heart today. Are you trying to be relevant or popular? Are you trying to lead, win an argument, or be on the right side of history? Instead, check yourself. What does your prayer life look like? What is a gift or talent you have but haven’t shared? Is God trying to lead you somewhere? If so, have you discerned where? The Collect from this morning says this, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” We are free when we love. We let go when we know someone is there to catch us, and we experience abundant life when we are led. May we live into this with a discerning heart this week, and find peace within us so that we can offer the peace of Christ to a merciless world. AMEN.