Get Out of the Way

The prophet Isaiah challenged the followers of God to, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near” (Isa 55:6). This opening line is sometimes referred to as The Second Song of Isaiah and for Episcopalians, it is Canticle 10 found within Morning Prayer. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the early Christians were reminded that once God had been found they were to pray that their inner beings be strengthened in love so that the fullness of God would fill their spirits. In today’s Gospel, a great multitude of people were seeking after Our Lord as he drew near to them displaying the will of God to be abundant – 12 baskets of leftovers – abundant. Gifts of God for the People of God – abundant. Today’s lessons remind us of the abundance of God within our interior lives – what Paul described as the breadth and length and height and depth– as well as our exterior lives – what Jesus asked of his followers; that is, to “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” I can imagine the will of God finding within our own lives, fragments –mundane fragments as well as infinite ones. It is always our prayer to so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.God wants to gather it all up, bless it, and give it away.

It’s amazing how fragmented our lives can be. So many times we are pulled in all different directions that our bodies aren’t remembered. We eat on the run. We rush from this place to that. We are quick to care for others, but neglect ourselves. We become chauffeurs of children and secretaries for parents. We overload our schedules. Visit offices we’d rather not. We get caught up in the cult of worry, loose sleep, and feel as if we are loosing out. We pass through things temporal with the potential of forgetting our sense of things eternal. We might label our fragmented lives pragmatic and practical. All the above has to get done. There’s no way around it. We must go through it. These are our crosses to bear; and yet, I sense a loss somewhere – a loss of things eternal.

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him when he draws near (Isa 55:6). Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost (Jn 6:12). Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever (Eph 3:21-21). The eternal is here. The eternal is with you, always. When we eat and when we sleep. When we are in traffic or on the phone. When we’re in a waiting room, or another sleepless night. The Lord is with you. Seek him while he wills to be found. He desires to be a part of every aspect of your lives – sacred and profane.

There’s a beautiful story taken from the Gospel of Ramakrishna that may sum all of this up. It goes something like this, There was once a holy man and his disciple traveling down a road. The disciple asked his master, “Teacher, is God everywhere?” The teacher bowed his head and said, “Yes. God is everywhere and in all things.” The teacher looked up to observe their surroundings. “Look there,” he said. “There is a tree. God is in the tree. Look over here. Here is a pond. God is in its water.” After making note of the lay of the land, the disciple asked another question, “Teacher, is God within me?” “Of course,” exclaimed the teacher. “God is in all things, and all things are one.” This teaching excited the student so much that he pushed his teacher aside, and seeing an elephant and its rider coming toward him on the road told himself, “God is in me, and God is in the elephant; therefore”, he reasoned, “God cannot harm God. I will stand my ground and observe this wonderful teaching.” While the student was thinking highly of his ideological insight, the rider of the elephant was shouting, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.” Locking his feet to the earth, the disciple held steady knowing in his heart God would not harm God until the elephant came upon him, and with her mighty trunk knocked him unconscious and out of its path. Once he regained consciousness, he found his master looking concerned hovering above him. He pushed him aside again and said, “Master, you told me God is in everything including you and I. Why then, would God do God harm through the elephant’s strength?” “You foolish boy,” his master scolded. “God was trying to do no harm by exclaiming, “Get out of the way. Get out of the way.”

As disciples of Christ, we must learn how to get out of our own ways knowing that God wills to be found; and yet, seeking his will is a practice that takes a lifetime. God honors us with his mercy no matter where we are on life’s path, and what God most desires is that we honor him in everything we do. We seek him out from the moment we wake until we close our eyes at night.

On last week’s post I reminded us that God still speaks to us through Holy Scripture, as well as through one another, and within the prayers of His Church. God also speaks to us through his creation and through the neighbor, and enemy. God can most certainly be found in elephants, but may we never forget to listen for his voice in a stranger who wants us out of harm’s way. May the fragments of our lives – both sacred and profane – be offered up to God as a living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to the One who is constantly seeking us out so that nothing (and no one) may be lost.

Listening for the Voice of God

On page 853 in The Book of Common Prayer there is a question: Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God? The prayer book answers this question in the following way: We call [the Holy Scriptures] the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible. I stumbled upon an interesting picture this week. It was one where a young man sat anxiety laden, body stiffened, and hands tightly clasped at his breakfast table. Opposite the table laid a closed Bible. The caption below the picture angrily asked the question, “Why won’t you speak to me God?” Perhaps God was wondering a similar question in regards to the young man; that is, Why aren’t you listening to me, dear one? If we are to believe the Church when she says the human authors of the Bible were inspired by God, and that God still speaks to us through its poetry, prose, Gospels, letters, history, laws, and stories, then this tells us at least two things. One, be open to God’s inspiration both in yourself and of others. Two, open your Bibles and read them. Don’t leave them sitting at breakfast tables gathering dust. The truth is that God still speaks to us through God’s creation and through God’s inspired Word. We might even take that extra step reminding ourselves The Word of God was made flesh – that is, Jesus Christ is the personified Word of God whom still speaks to us today if we have the ears to hear him, the experience to see him in the other, and continue to listen for his voice throughout Holy Scripture.

When I was in the eighth grade I was inspired to read through the Bible in a year. This was all made possible by a trend in Christian publishing houses of the 1990’s – mainly, a resource entitled, The One Year Bible. One Year Bibles were very popular then; the covers coming in a variety of primary colors, the text in an assortment of translations – NIV, NKJV, KJV, NRSV – to name a few. Southern Baptist Churches at the time were preaching and teaching out of the New International Version, so my parents purchased an NIV One Year Bible for me on my birthday. All I had to do was wait until January 1st and start. I don’t know where the inspiration came to read through the entirety of the Bible in a year, but looking back I do remember being in a Bible study class where it was mandatory that certain Bible verses be memorized weekly. The very first Bible verse of those lessons was Psalm 119:11. I still remember it, and even have a memory of the room I was asked to recite the verse in. The Psalm was not in the NIV or NRSV translations, but the King James. Psalm 119:11 had the poet proclaiming to God, “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee.” It’s a verse that has been with me ever since. The poet’s words usually surface at times in my life where life is really giving me (or someone I love) a real beating. When my heart is open enough to listen to God speaking to me, I usually hear God’s voice through a Psalm here or a Gospel passage there. Nowadays prayers from the prayer book bubble up as well as the Our Father or even the Hail Mary. When God speaks to me through the ancient words of the Bible or from the prayers of His Church – that Psalm – Psalm 119:11 usually comes to mind after my anxieties have finally fallen away, and my soul has been restored. “Thy Word have I treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee” is then delivered to God in a prayer of thanksgiving, and with a spirit of gratefulness. I’m thankful that God was and is with me even in the valley of the shadow of death, and acknowledging his presence with that simple verse from the Psalms turns my head and gives attention to the virtue of joy even in the midst of sorrow.

As I have matured in the faith I have recently found God’s Holy Word in God’s Holy People. I am thankful for spiritual friendships, fellow disciples of Christ, and strangers and neighbors disguised as Jesus himself (Matt 25:35-36). It hasn’t always been this way. I used to find comfort, solace, and relationship with God only through the Bible and a few close friends or relatives here and there. St. Paul’s metaphor of the Church as The Body of Christ was always abstract to me. I felt and experienced the power of its image; and yet, couldn’t fully grasp it. Intentional life within a parish community has broadened Paul’s imagery for me, and the gifts of God found in the people of God help point to a larger lesson of love – that is, all were created in the image of God so that when we see, experience, live, and love one another, we see, experience, live, and love Christ’ body in the world. If this is the case, then “Thy word I have treasured in my heart” is the word of the Lord witnessed in Holy Scripture and within one another – the Body of Christ, the Church. With that insight, getting to know my Bible is just as important as getting to know my neighbor. Both introduce and reintroduce me to new life found in Jesus Christ. Both remind me of the faithful promises of God. Both remind me that God is always reliable when I am near to peace, and when I am far off (Eph 2:17).

This week, dust off your Bible and get to know God through it. Starting with the Psalms or St. John’s Gospel are always good places to begin again. If reading God’s Holy Word is a constant practice of yours, try listening to God’s Holy Word in a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, or even an enemy knowing all were and are created in His Image. In doing these two things – seeking inspiration in God’s Word and one another – you are living out the two commandments Jesus said were the greatest; that is, love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mk 12:30-31). Treasure these relationships in your heart; and joy (even in the midst of sorrow) will be near.

He Ascended into Heaven

The Ascension of Christ is one of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith, and it is in Christ’s Ascension that we simultaneously remember his Passion, death, decent into Hell, as well as his resurrection. Let’s move through each of these mysteries one-by-one with the hope of finding and remembering the greatest mystery of all – that God so loved the world that he gave and continues to give.

The Ascension first calls to mind Jesus’ Passion and eventual death on the cross. It is in the Passion where Jesus offered his whole self – body and spirit – as an oblation. Through the loss of dignity, Jesus took on humility as flesh and blood were stripped away, beaten, disregarded, and left for dead. It was on the cross where even Jesus’ divinity was emptied out. It was in this state of rejection that ordinary words could not capture; therefore, Jesus choose poetry with his last breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22).

The Ascension then calls to mind Jesus’ decent into Hell. If the cross was the place where body and spirit were given for the present, it was in Hell where this offering was extended back into the past. God’s decent into Hell reminds the faithful that there is no place in which God will not go. God cares about our past, our present, and our future. It is the future and at the same time the past where Christ’s resurrection and ascension are made present. The reality of the resurrection is that we are invited to live into it. We are to participate in the risen life of Jesus Christ. Fr. Thomas Keating has stated that the reality of the ascension “is the triumphant faith that believes that God’s will is being done no matter what happens. It believes that creation is already glorified, though in a hidden manner, as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.”[1]Keating continues this line of theological thinking in his book, The Mystery of Christ,

The grace of the Ascension enables us to perceive the irresistible power of the Spirit transforming everything into Christ despite any and all appearances to the contrary. In the misery of the ghetto, the battlefield, the concentration camp; in the family torn by dissension; in the loneliness of the orphanage, old-age home, or hospital ward – whatever we see that seems to be disintegrating into grosser forms of evil – the light of the Ascension is burning with irresistible power. This is one of the greatest intuitions of faith. This faith finds Christ not only in the beauty of nature, art, human friendship and the service of others, but also in the malice and injustice of people or institutions, and in the inexplicable suffering of the innocent. Even there it finds the same infinite love expressing the hunger of God for humanity, a hunger that [God] intends to satisfy.”[2]

Keating concludes with these words,

Thus, in Colossians, Paul does not hesitate to cry out with his triumphant faith in the Ascension: “Christ is all and in all”[3]– meaning now, not just in the future. At this very moment we too have the grace to see Christ’s light shining in our hearts, to feel his absorbing Presence within us, and to perceive in every created thing – even in the most disconcerting – the presence of his light, love, and glory.”[4]

Perhaps I can offer my own phase and summation to Keating’s beautiful words: Perhaps what Keating is trying to get across is that God has not given up on us. God has not given up on me. God has not given up on you. There is nothing in this world that can separate us from the love of God, and it is in the Ascension of Jesus Christ where past and future are made present in an eternal act of love.

After Christ’s Ascension, St. Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples, “returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53). When we worship joyfully we are participating with all God’s glorified creation even “as it awaits the full revelation of the children of God.” [5]This week follow in the disciples’ footsteps and intuit the joy of the Ascension in your worship, in your work, and in your lives. Seek out the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love in all aspects of being; and finally, remember love found its way into the world through oblation. Live into all these things and there will be joy in your life; joy in the Ascension; joy in all the earth.

[1]               Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience (The Continuum Publishing Company, New York, 2003) Copyright: St. Benedict’s Monastery, 1987. Pages, 86 – 88.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Colossians 3:11

[4]               Ibid., Keating.

[5]               Ibid.

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**

Good Friday

Before all the processionals, and recessionals. Before all the robes, vestments, and liturgies. Before all the music, art, and architecture. Before all the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance. Before all the religions (splintering of religions), theologies, and ideologies in His name. Before all of this and more, there was the cross.

Jesus famously said, “Don’t call me good. There is nothing good but God alone” and yet today we call this Friday of all Fridays – Good. Why? Because it is God alone who centers himself into the very navel of the universe where life and death are joined. It is God alone who did a good thing even though the people who loved him the most abandoned him in the end. Nobody but God himself could have gone to the cross, and that is why nothing is purely good but God alone. The Psalmist once quipped, “For God alone my soul in silence waits” and yet today, tonight, and tomorrow, we wait no more because all was finished, all was accomplished, all was poured out on the cross.

Tonight there are no robes. The vestments and decorations have been put away. Tonight there is no Holy Eucharist. Like sheep, we are scattered. Tonight we don’t get to think of ourselves as taking up our own crosses because tonight we remember only the cross of Christ – Christ crucified. Christ dead. Christ buried.

**This reflection was preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on Good Friday – 2018.**

Maundy Thursday

A philosopher and a theologian sat down for drinks one evening. After staring into the dark liquid conforming to the shape of the highball, and listening to the ice clink against its glass while raising the rim to his lips, the philosopher asked this question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The theologian mimicked the movements of his philosopher friend. Then after some time, and staring out the window into the night’s form answered the philosopher’s question with one of his own, “How does God love?”

The philosopher was taken aback once the second question sank in, for he realized that both questions pointed to the same answer, and although the answer was never plainly put forth that evening both parties spent the rest of the night discussing stories, tales, and heroic feats where the underlining theme pointed always to love.

“Take. Eat. “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Take. Drink. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Tonight is a special night. Tonight, we get to be both philosopher and theologian; and yet, we also get to transcend those labels. We get to remember, remain, and reflect, but we also are invited to participate in something rather than nothing. We get to share in God’s love. This is no easy task, for by remembering and sharing we also are commanded to love one another as Christ loves us. The theologian would then ask, “Then how (indeed) does God love?” Answer: With his substance, and with his very life.

It is in God where we live, move, and have our being. As Christians, we don’t find our way to God so much as we realize that we have been in God and God has been in us from the very beginning. Once this realization takes place, everything around us seems to change. Life is experienced as a gift, and all that we have, and all that we are, and all that we ever will be is experienced (or at least can be) experienced as grace. Grace, we find out, is received. Once received, we want to offer it back up to the one who gifted us with it. God obliges this instinct found within us, takes our offerings and multiplies them, transcending the original gift into one of abundance. And should these acts and attributes of God really surprise us? As catholic Christians perhaps not. After all, this is all played out each week during Holy Communion. We offer up the gifts we have been given symbolically through the bread and the wine. They are then brought to the altar, prayed over, and offered back to God. God takes these ordinary elements of bread and wine and transcends their realities into the very Body and Blood of Christ. This night is special because this is the night we remember how and why God instituted the sacrament of his Body and Blood.

This night is also special because Christ has taught us that he is not only present when we gather in this place, and do these liturgies in remembrance of him, but he is also made manifest when we perform the same acts of mercy that he has performed. Jesus said, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Tonight, we not only wash one another’s feet in imitation of Christ, but we also do it to remind us to love our neighbors as ourselves when we take our feet and get up and get out of this place. Where have your feet been this week? Whose house have you visited? What sights did you see? Did your feet take you to places you wanted to be as well as places where God needed you to be? This is the attitude, I believe, Jesus was getting at when he was teaching his disciples. “Remember,” he could have stated, “all the places I have been, and all the people I have seen, healed, taught, dined, conversed, argued, loved, prayed, forgave. These are the same places and faces that you must now go. Do not worry, for I will be with you. Have no fear. Take up courage with your cross, and may your feet follow me – always.”

Finally, tonight is a special night because we remember God’s sacrifice. Theologian Matthew Levering once stated, “In a world gone wrong, there is no communion without sacrifice.” This Lent, we learned that God’s promise to us and to his people is that, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” We also learned that covenants and promises always require sacrifice. After Abraham learned that he would be the Father of many Nations, he made an animal sacrifice in remembrance of this. After Moses gives the law of God to the people, he does the same thing as Abraham. He sacrifices an animal and sprinkles its blood onto the people. God promised King David that his line of descendants will last forever. David’s son, Solomon later built the Temple – a place where sacrifices were made daily. On Palm Sunday, we read and recited Christ’s Passion, and how he like an animal was sacrificed for the sins of the world. Up until this point, all sacrifices to God (at least liturgically) were observed by the people. Bishop Robert Barron has stated that, “After Jesus (and with the institution of the Lord’s Supper) Christians don’t just watch the sacrifice happening, but we eat it and drink it. In other words, we take the sacrifice of Christ within our very bodies; thus experiencing the communion that God desires.” And doesn’t this fit in with our instincts as human beings? Do we not hurt either physically, mentally, or spiritually (sometimes all 3) when sacrifices are made in the short term for some greater glory in the long? In order to do this; however, our egos must be stripped away and left discarded having faith that we will be robed in new garments sometime in the future.

Tonight, we are philosophers and we are theologians, poets and prophets, sacrifices and the sacrificed stripped naked and laid bare before the mercies of God. Tomorrow may we be lovers and forgivers, explorers of truth and beauty, and neighbors who seek out one another just as Christ seeks and has always sought us out…for only in him do we will live, move, and have our being.

*Sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church, Maundy Thursday, 2018.

Present Yourself to the Lord – A Meditation on Candlemas

**The following was featured on the blog, Modern Metanoia in January, and preached at a Candlemas Service at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on Feb. 2, 2018.**

There’s a house on my block that sold weeks ago. No one has moved in. It sits empty; and there are still Christmas lights hanging from the roof. Its purgatory-like presence both intrigues and annoys. Annoys because the house and its yard are untidy. Intrigues because today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Let me explain:  Today marks the 40th day after Christmas, and with this feast the Church closes out the “Incarnation cycle.” In other words, it’s time to put away those Christmas decorations. We’re two weeks away from Lent…Shouldn’t we be tidying up the yards of our hearts, climbing a ladder to the roofs of our souls tearing down those Christmas lights? “Not so fast,” says this Feast Day. In fact, some Christian traditions hide away the light bulbs while the candles come out. For this reason, The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes referred to as Candlemas. It’s the day when the candles used in worship services will be blessed. It’s also a reminder that the long winter’s nights are still around, yet the light of Christ eternally radiates the darkness.

Luke 2:22-40 gives us three presentations to consider on this feast day. The holy family presented sacrifices of thanksgiving in accordance with the law of Moses (“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”). They also presented their newborn son, Jesus, who “suddenly comes to his temple;” thus fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy found in Malachi 3:1. The third presentation is that of Simeon and Anna, two pious and patient Jews, who waited their whole lives to present themselves to the Messiah.

Luke’s story also captures the tensions and realities found in new things. A new child was born as the Messiah, yet old thoughts and formularies about what this meant had to pass away. Mary, like any mother, was proud of her new son, yet she learned “a sword [would] pierce [her] heart” when new revelations about her child would be exposed (Luke 2:35). For each beginning, there is an ending; and the transitions in between are often messy and confusing.

As we transition out of Christmas and Epiphany into the season of Lent, may Candlemas be a day to honor what has come before, and to ready ourselves as to what may lay ahead. If the lights are still on your roof, know that the house of your heart does not stand empty, but is filled with God’s “wisdom and favor” (Luke 2:40). If the Christmas decorations are down at your house, take out a candle, light it, and present yourself to the Lord in prayer as Christ presents himself to you in illumination.

Below, please find the prayer that will be said in Episcopal churches and homes today. I offer it to you in thanksgiving for your ministry to Christ. Use the prayer as you light a candle, then find a word or phrase that sticks out to you, and meditate on its meaning. As for me (and my soon-to-be neighbor) who knows? I may go over to their sold, yet unkempt house, plug in those Christmas lights one last time, praying and contemplating something similar.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 239)

 

 

God is a God Who Gathers

At the Feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany we remembered God coming into the world in the form of a child. The Spirit of God took on flesh, sanctified it, and made it holy. It is God’s dream that all people will eventually come to know him through his beloved son. With his Son, God is eternally “well pleased” because he chose to identify with us in our sin and in our nature. This was why Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the River Jordan – to identify with us in our sufferings. Last week began the call narratives of Jesus which extend into today’s Gospel as well. God continues to preach repentance as he gathers his twelve. This morning, I want to expand on the revelation that God is a God who gathers. I’ll be using an argument put forth by Bishop Robert Barron in his chapter Amazed and Afraid: The Revelation of God Become Man from his book “Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith.”

Ever since humanity’s first parents fell out of paradise, that is, broke their relationship with God, God has been hard at work trying to mend that brokenness. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that Yahweh, the God of Israel, gathered his people with covenants, commandments, and kings. The relationship with Yahweh and Israel is a complicated history to say the least; however, the prophets taught that right relationship with God was to have a posture of both amazement and fear when approaching the Divine for when we approach God, we humbly approach the very essence of being and life. This morning’s Psalm had that beautiful opening line, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” Silence, so it seems, captures that awesome, and oftentimes fearful relationship we have with the God of the universe. Christians go one step further to claim that the God of Israel, the God that created the Cosmos is also Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Put differently, Jesus “was no ordinary teacher and healer but Yahweh moving among his people. [1]

Hear Bishop Barron’s words on God as a great gathering force:[2]

“When Jesus first emerged, preaching in the villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee, he had a simple message [found in today’s Gospel reading]: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Oceans of ink have been spilled over the centuries in an attempt to explain the meaning of “Kingdom of God,” but it might be useful to inquire what Jesus’s first audience understood by that term. N. T. Wright argues that [1st century Jews] would have heard, “the tribes [of Israel] are being gathered.” According to the basic narrative of the [Hebrew Scriptures], God’s answer to human dysfunction was the formation of a people after his own heart. Yahweh chose Abraham and his descendants to be “peculiarly his own,” and he shaped them by the divine law to be a priestly nation. God’s intention was that a unified and spiritually vibrant Israel would function as a magnet for the rest of humanity, drawing everyone to God by the sheer attractive quality of their way of being. The prophet Isaiah expressed this hope when he imagined Mount Zion, raised high above all of the mountains of the world, as the gathering point for “all the tribes of the earth.” But the tragedy was that more often than not Israel was unfaithful to its calling and became therefore a scattered nation. One of the typical biblical names for the devil is ho diabalos, derived from the term diabalein (to throw apart). If God is a great gathering force, then sin is a scattering power. This dividing of Israel came to fullest expression in the eighth century BC, when many of the northern tribes were carried off by the invading Assyrians, and even more so in the devastating exile of the sixth century BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and carried many of the southern tribes away. A scattered, divided Israel could never live up to its vocation, but the prophets continued to dream and hope. Ezekiel spoke of Israel as sheep wandering aimlessly on the hillside, but then he prophesied that one day Yahweh himself would come and gather in his people.”

It’s no accident that in John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It’s with this image that we can reimagine today’s reading and the calling of the twelve disciples. When Jesus preached repentance, and that the kingdom of God was near (while at the same time calling the twelve), he was acting as Yahweh who gathered up his sheep from the twelve tribes of Israel, called them to repent once again, and brought them into the fold of his Divine love. Is it no surprise then, that God continues to do this with us today? He calls us by name saying, “Follow me.”

This morning’s collect reads, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” When we answer the call of Jesus (the call of his “Follow me”) we sacrifice a lot. The prophet Jonah didn’t want to go to the city of Nineveh initially. Today’s reading starts out saying, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I love this because is not God a God of second chances? Doesn’t God give us grace and mercy when we would rather be scattered rather than gathered? The people of Nineveh were a gathered people, but they were gathered in sin. In other words, they were gathered for the wrong reasons. God had to correct this, and it required sacrifice. It required repentance. If Christians believe that Jesus is the Word of God is it any surprise that Jesus is proclaiming the same message as he did to Jonah? Is it any surprise that he is still giving his people another chance? When Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets to follow him, they were symbolically giving up their livelihoods for God. They were even putting God above their families, and not because Jesus was a good teacher, healer, or prophet; but because for God alone their souls had been waiting in silence like the prophets of old, and in Jesus they saw and experienced God. Like a moth to a flame they drew near, and by doing so God was gathering up his people once again. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the [Gospel. Believe in the] good news.”

We are now fully embedded in the Season of Epiphany. It is in this season that Christ (through his church) is calling us. It is in this season where we get to drop our nets, our anxieties, our fears, and follow him. When we do this, we make certain sacrifices and are called to repent. The church in her wisdom understands this, and so we are given the gift of Lent – the season that follows Epiphany, the season that reminds us that if we are to be gathered in we are to confess our sins and receive the Gospel. The Gospel in its entirety points us to Easter where God gets to make the sacrifice for the sins of the world, thus fully and finally making a way for all people to experience the kingdom of God.

What nets do you need to drop in order to prepare for repentance? What nets need to be discarded in order to follow Christ? For God alone, our souls in silence wait, but is it not also true that God is constantly waiting on us to respond to his call, to his life, to his light? Trust him, and not because he’s a good teacher, preacher, or prophet. Trust him because if he is who he claims to be, he is that great gathering force of old. He is Yahweh. He is the Word. He is God. Trust him with this truth, and in this season of Epiphany, may that truth set us all free.

[1]                Robert Barron, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Word on Fire Catholic Ministries: 2011), 15-16.

[2]                The below is a full paragraph from above’s reference. Ibid., 15-16.

Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti/El Salvador/Africa/Nazareth?

Preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on The Second Sunday after The Epiphany (Also, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday Weekend) by: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke, 2018

John 1:43-51

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 August 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth century author and apologist for the Christian faith, once compared the church as a place that holds a thousand doors. What he meant by this was that we come across the church in a variety of ways. Some of us are born into the faith; others converted – usually by some degree of truth, beauty, or goodness. For example, one may hear a theological argument grounded in intelligence, another sees an icon, a stained glass window, or a Christian praying the rosary. Maybe the door that was found was one of healing, music, or liturgy? Maybe the door was a grandparent, a friend, a casual invitation, or a saint? Maybe it was simply looking up into the night’s sky wondering why there is something rather than nothing?

This morning’s collect points to the light of the world, that is, Jesus Christ. In the prayer prayed a moment ago, we asked Almighty God to illumine us by God’s Word and Sacraments. No matter what door we take into the life of the Church, once inside, we participate in the ongoing grace of illumination. Illumination defined is a participation in the life of God. Think of it as a new way of seeing. Illumination can occur through the liturgy of the Word, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, and all for the benefit of being in right praise and relationship with God. The consequence of illumination is that the light of Christ is made manifest through us as walking sacraments out and about in the world. As walking sacraments, we take on a vocation of prayer continually asking that we (as God’s people) may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

God is made known in a whole host of ways. Again, think of those thousands of doors. God is worshipped not only with our lips, but in our lives. Finally, God is obeyed to the ends of the earth. This morning, St. Paul stated, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. This sentiment is grounded in humble obedience to God. We are given freedom, but true freedom participates in the will of God, not the will of mankind. Discerning the difference takes a lifetime, and a lifetime of contemplative focus and relationship with God can lead to illumination.

There are two beautiful phrases found in today’s Gospel that captured illumination. The first phrase was addressed to Philip, and was said by Jesus. Jesus called out to Philip, “Follow me.” Today, Christians enter into the life of the church through one of those thousands of doors; however, when we do so we are still responding to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” We remember this call every time we participate in the sacraments, and every time Christ is worshipped and obeyed.

The other phrase comes from Philip. Here, he has answered the call of Christ, has told another (Nathanael), and Nathanael questioned him, asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Instead of elaborating or arguing with Nathanael, Philip responds, “Come and see.” In other words, “I’m not going to convince you that Jesus is the Son of God through argument or reason (that’s probably not your door); instead, come and see for yourself, and that’s what happened. Nathanael met Jesus. Jesus performed a miracle. Nathanael was amazed and believed; then Jesus promised a deepening of the spiritual life and relationship with him – that is, illumination. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Illumination will occur, Jesus could have easily said, and not because of you, but because of me. Nathanael, like Philip was called, each in different ways, and because they responded to the Lord new promises would be fulfilled.

This week, I had the opportunity (as dean) to gather the priests of your convocation (the SW Convocation) at Iglesia El Buen Pastor where Fr. Ramón Betances serves as priest. Fr. Ramón serves parishioners that hail from Mexico, El Salvador, as well as other Latino countries. In our own pews here at St. Julian’s, we gather as Christian brothers and sisters with one another. Our nationalities bring us here from America, Trinidad, Barbados, Australia, Jamaica, and Haiti – to name a few. We speak English, French, French-Creole, and Spanish. We stumble through the Way of Christ together, and with God’s help we have answered the call of Christ, and encourage others to “come and see” even while prejudices abound. This week, when I heard that our President – the President of the United States, a President whom I pray for, – allegedly muse, “Why are we having all these people from [poor] countries come here” referring to Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, Africa, and beyond [and not using the word “poor” but an expletive], I was reminded of Nathaniel’s questioning to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, can anything good come out of Haiti? Mexico? Africa? The Islands?

Yes. The answer is, “Yes”. How do I know this? Because I see you. Because I know you. And when I see you I see Christ. In my own prejudices, and when I’m walking out and about in the world, I run across folks who make me nervous, folks that look differently than me, that dress differently than me, that talk differently than me – and when I catch myself being nervous – when I catch myself in my prejudices – you know what I do? At my best, I remember you. I remember Haiti. I remember El Salvador. I remember the islands, food, culture, music, truth, beauty, goodness; and it is through these virtues and the relationships I have with each and every one of you where the Church opens up her doors to me; Christ illuminates me; and I repent.

Loving neighbor as self is hard. Praying for those who persecute you may be even harder. As Christians, we are called to do both. Why? Because we are called to obey Christ. At Christmas we were reminded that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or the State. Here in the Season of Epiphany, we live into our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons- loving neighbor as self. This week, be like St. Philip. Don’t get into an argument when prejudice is proclaimed and ignorance abounds. Instead, try another door. Try prayer. Try forgiveness. Try compassion. Let these virtues guide you to the love and light of the world, to Jesus Christ – the illuminator, the sanctifier…the one standing at the door….your door….knocking.

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” 

Fully Human. Fully Divine.

John 1:1-14

Last night we remembered together the infancy narrative of Jesus. We listened (yet again) to God coming into the world as a child. This morning, John’s Gospel expands this story adding an element of theological significance: The Word was made flesh. The Greek literally means, “pitched his tent among us.” God pitched his tent among us, and put on flesh. He became an icon, an image, a body for our sake. Today is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord. We celebrate God becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – not Spirit as software somehow booting up with the body and hardware of Jesus, but Body and Spirit so intricately connected that Christ can only be described as fully human and fully divine. This is good news for us, and what it means is that our very bodies are sanctified and made holy in and by and through Christ. We are made holy because God (and God’s Body) is holy. This is our Christmas gift, and we are to share it with the world as Christ continually (and intimately) shares his body with us each and every time Holy Communion is celebrated. This Christmas, may we all remember the gift that keeps on giving – that is – Jesus Christ Our Lord who in these holy mysteries feeds us with spiritual food made for holy bodies.