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.

Go

**Sermon preached at the midnight mass Christmas Eve service at St. Julian’s**

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. ~Luke 2:7

 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” ~Luke 9:58

It’s been said that Jesus’ shortest sermons ever can be boiled down to one word, “Go.” “Go, your faith has healed you” (Mark 10:52). “Go. Teach all nations. Baptize” (Matt 28:19). “Go. The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers, few” (Luke 10:2). At one point in Jesus’ ministry, he told his disciples, “I am going away. Where I am going you cannot come” (John 8:21). In tonight’s Gospel, the shepherds get a positive reinforcement of the command, “to go”. The angels persuaded them in this regard, and they replied, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” The scripture continues, “So they went with haste… and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”

Tonight, we go. We travel, making haste with those shepherds the journey to see the Son of Man lying in the manger because there was no room in the inn…because the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. In this regard, the Son of Man slept underneath the stars like a lowly shepherd. No wonder the two related; and the scene of the manger foreshadowed it all for us:  The Son of Man would suffer, die, and be buried in a tomb that was not his own. It is a story of poverty as common as breathing, and as old as the wind; and yet this night shepherds and angels join in a chorus proclaiming holiness. In that manger scene was the man who would one day say to the poor, those that mourn, the meek, hungry, and merciful, “You are blessed, and you will be a blessing.” Not much nostalgia tonight, is there? No reminiscing here. In fact, there are two different reactions/responses we gain from the characters in our story this evening. The shepherds go again, making “known what had been told them about this child.” The scriptures continue, “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Put sequentially: The shepherds were doing the work they had always done. They stopped this work; discerned a word from the Lord; acted upon that word which transformed their lives; and then went and told others about it. This is the call of a convert and disciple – a classic call to repentance: To turn from something to something (all together new) by the power of God. This process of repentance is ongoing. It’s not one moment in time, but a lifetime of giving up oneself for the service of God and a chance to participate in His holy story.

The other reaction/response came from Mary. The scriptures read, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” I think Mary needed something to hold onto. In the season of Advent, we learned that Mary’s very soul would be pierced. Pierced, possibly by despair as she kept giving more and more of herself, and eventually her son to the world that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. At that moment when lowly shepherds sang out the music of angels, she knew that Jesus was going to be bigger than her. She knew she would have to let go and let God time and time again. As a mother, these selfless acts would be piercing. As a follower of God, she understood them to be necessary. “Where I am going,” said Jesus, “you cannot come,” would later be directed at his disciples, but I wonder if he didn’t have his mother in the back of his mind while commanding this?

Tonight, you will leave. Go to the parking lot. Get in your vehicles, and go. Some of you will go home. Some of you will go to a place that welcomes you, be that another family’s home, or a hotel. In other words, you have a place to lay your head. But if you will, I’d like for you to do something. When you walk outside, and feel the cold brushed up against you, look up. If you don’t do it immediately after church, look to the sky on your drive home. This is the night where angels once gathered in those skies, but it is also the night where the one they proclaimed had no place to lay his head. When thinking on these things, I believe we carry with us the two responses mentioned earlier. We have the response of the shepherds who could relate to this holy family bundled up in a manger. Their response was one of repentance and praise. The other response is treasuring these things in our hearts. Not in some nostalgic, worldly way, but in a Godly way. That is, recognizing the holy in the mundane and being grateful. This Christmas why not be grateful? Return to the manger. Sing with the angels. This Christmas, join Mary, the shepherds, the disciples, and Jesus in his mission and ministry…
and “Go”.

 

 

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

The Challenge of Love as the Challenge of Faith

Reflection on Christ the King Sunday
Matthew 25:31-46

The past two weeks, we have listened to Jesus teach about the ending of days where Christ will come again in glory. In the parable of the wedding feast, we were reminded to be prepared (Matt 25:1-13). In the parable of the Talents, Jesus taught his disciples to use (not waste) the gifts God has given (Matt 25:14-30). Today’s narrative speaks about Christ coming again in glory, and gets more specific as we imagine what judging the living and the dead potentially looks like.

There are a few interesting scenes to consider in today’s story as it describes God’s final judgment. The first has to do with exactly who is being judged. Verse 32 describes God judging “all the nations”, then separating the “people one from another” like a shepherd. We might ask, “Does this shepherd-like judge separate the people as individuals, and/or does he separate the people into their respective tribes/nations thus judging the people as a whole?” These are important questions to consider, and I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had similar questions as these? For example, the disciples were still part of the nation of Israel even though they were also individual disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. As part of Jesus’ disciples they would have fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, put clothes on the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison (v. 35-37). But if God also judged the nations, how would the rest of Israel hold up? In other words – and as a whole – how did Israel take care of the least of these?

The second interesting detail within this scene has to do with faith and love. St. Matthew’s gospel has always focused on right living as prescribed in Jesus’ teaching (Orthopraxy). In comparison, St. John’s gospel has a focus on right belief in Jesus as Lord (Orthodoxy). Some scholars have said that the community who composed The Gospel of Matthew was a community that had become too focused on orthodoxy, and had grown weary of waiting on Jesus to come again. Perhaps giving a prescriptive description of the judgment would have awakened this community out of their stupor, and set them back on the way to actually following the teachings of Jesus (i.e. feeding, welcoming, clothing, caring for, and visiting one’s neighbor in need). These actions (or inactions) of the faithful were to be the merits in which they would be judged; however, it is interesting to ponder God as a judge of the nations that have no belief system in any of this – yet, and at the same time – feed, welcome, cloth, care for, and visit those in need. This begs the question, “Do we (as followers of Jesus) do these good things because we want to be judged as righteous before God?” Or, “Do we do these things out of the gifts that we have been given?”[1] Put differently, “Do we do the right things out of love, or out of fear?” Pope Benedict XVI answered in this way,

[T]he profession of faith in Christ demanded by the Lord when he sits in judgment is explained as the discovery of Christ in the least of men, in those who need my help. From here onward, to profess one’s faith in Christ means to recognize the man who needs me as the Christ in the form in which he comes to meet me here and now; it means understanding the challenge of love as the challenge of faith.[2]

I can’t help but think that these parables and narratives found in Matthew 25 are there to give us a snap shot of where we are on our spiritual journeys. Bill Brosend, in his commentary of Jesus’ parables writes this,

The three stories in chapter 25 are about the consequences of actions, or, more often, inaction. The foolish maidens not only could not light their lamps; they failed to join the bridal procession in a ridiculous midnight search for oil. The third servant in the parable of the Talents buried his master’s money, and perhaps sat on it like a brooding hen…The “goats” in the third narrative saw human need, but failing to recognize in whose image the needy were created did nothing to relieve that need.[3]

Again, thinking about these stories as a snap shot of where we are on the spiritual path, you may ask yourself, “How am I doing?” “How are we doing – as a parish, as a diocese, as a denomination, city, state, and country?” If we are to follow Jesus out of love and not fear, how can our love grow deeper and wider within ourselves so that that same love extends into the image of God found in the stranger, the neighbor, the other?

If we are honest with ourselves, and stay true to the teachings found within this narrative, I believe we can judge (right now) whether we are a sheep or a goat, and whether our nation (right now) is a sheep or a goat. The truth may be within us – in that – we have the potential to be both: Sometimes we are sheep. Sometimes we are goats. Sometimes we are righteous. Sometimes we are unrighteous. Again, the key is love – not fear. As followers of Jesus we are to walk in love as Christ loves us, not walk in his love out of fear of his judgment (Eph 5:2). As followers of Jesus we are given a spirit of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Tim 1:7). Fear blinds us to the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Fear won’t allow us to experience the dignity found in every human being. The bottom line is this: If we are loving our neighbors, we are loving God. In today’s narrative, Jesus equates the two, and by doing so gives us a measure of his teachings through our thoughts, words, and deeds; our faith and actions; our understanding and modes of operation. After pondering this text all week, it still brings up many questions. As I continue to seek and serve Christ in my neighbor, I pray that God’s grace will lead me deeper into the love and knowledge of him whom I serve, that is Christ – Christ the King.

[1]                 The ultimate gift being Christ himself.

[2]                 Joseph C. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pg. 208-9.

[3]                 William F. Brosend, Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, 2006, pg. 68-9.

Intimacy Requires Commitment

Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.

Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!

Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.

We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.

All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.

 

 

A Review of Rod Dreher’s, The Benedict Option

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In Rod Dreher’s new book on Christian ecclesiology, The Benedict Option, remembering the holiness of order paves the way for Christians to direct their lives through regular prayer, fasting, repentance, and the holy sacraments. These ancient practices are orthodox, but Dreher argues that Christians have forgotten that these practices are vehicles that point to the Divine. They are holy technologies that ground the practicing Christian in faith, hope, and love.

Intentional community is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book. Here, he lifts up the importance of orthodox teaching, preaching, theology, and liturgy in today’s churches. Also, nothing is left out for the individual, family, or community; all aspects of life are to be ordered around following Jesus Christ. Anything other than a reordering of one’s life to Christ calls into question one’s seriousness toward Christianity, its tenants, and its founder.

The ongoing metaphor of the book is found in the story and image of Noah’s Ark. The church, Dreher argues, is both “Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the waters of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238). The church as Ark is to keep the orthodox teachings and liturgies alive and well, and not to water down theology for the sake of progress. The church stands as a symbol counter to the culture around it. If the church simply mirrors society, it ceases to be the church. The church as “a place to drown our old selves” is an aged old teaching, first by Jesus Christ himself, then by St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). The dying to self metaphor is more clearly in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…” (Rom 6:4).

Christianity has always been a religion of paradox; the main paradox being that dying to self brings newness of life through Christ’s resurrection. I believe Dreher is arguing that life is found in Christ through the church and through the Spirit’s holy ordering. The world has forgotten the ordering; thus progresses along with an eventual death by nihilism and narcissism in its various forms and technologies (i.e. individually, corporately, institutionally, and systematically). This begs the question: Is God’s creation good? Well, it certainly was “in the beginning,” but what and how do we experience goodness now? Jesus famously said, “None is good but God…” (Mark 10:8). This may be our answer, and ultimately Dreher’s point: If nothing is good but God, why not order all aspects of our lives toward the entity that created goodness? After all, is God not the creator of truth, beauty, and goodness?

How one responds to Dreher’s questions (and thesis) will depend on one’s theology, the church one attends, and even how one reads the Bible, and taking Dreher at his word is to fall in line with one expression of Christianity over another; however, in a world that is more and more polarized, knowing what “the other side” says, or has been saying for millennia is important when approaching the debate table. After all, what brings all Christians to the table in the first place is Christ, and arguing over what is best in any given tradition may ultimately be a matter of unity over and above uniformity.  I would recommend this book to both my conservative and liberal Christian friends. It’s an honest look on how Christians can live into the goodness of God with the gift of the church, community, and prayerful discipleship. I agree with Dreher that many have forgotten what relationship with God, self, and neighbor looks like, and it is up to Christians to get this ordering right. It’s an option worth considering. It’s an option worth practicing. It’s an option worth living, even in the midst of death.

Noticing the Holy

Henry and Brownie
Above: Henry and Brownie

2nd Sunday After Pentecost: Matthew 9:35-10:8

At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, Ann, Henry, and I got a dog and named him Brownie. Brownie is a Morkie, or a cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a Maltese. In other words, he’s super cute. Ann and I have never been dog people, but every time we visited friends with dogs, or came across dogs on evening walks our hearts softened towards them. This softening of the heart combined with Henry telling us he wanted a dog made us finally give in and get our little Brownie. Since Brownie has entered into our lives, I have observed something about our family. We have started to notice more. Perhaps having a dog in one’s life helps us to cultivate a slower pace of life? This slowing down and noticing happens on our evening walks with Brownie, and going for a stroll has helped to cultivate at least four things. Walking a dog helps to cultivate mindfulness, responsibility, beauty, and compassion.

Mindfulness

When we are out and about in our neighborhood, and when the walking pace is slow and steady, I start to notice the smell of the air, the softness of the breeze. Ann may notice a new house for sale, and that Henry has his shoes on the wrong feet – again. Brownie is aware of the grass. He makes no distinction between the tall or the freshly cut even though humans are drawn to the order of a well manicured lawn. Also, voices in conversation sound different outside, and even if we have seen each other all day long, there is something about changing the context that makes conversation fresh, new, and rewarding.

Responsibility

The second thing noticing cultivates is responsibility. Mondays are the neighborhood trash pick-up days. After pickup, many times trash bins are left in the middle of driveways or dangerously close to the road. Lids could be in yards, and left over pieces of paper may be wet, sticking to the sidewalk. Henry has told us that littering is ‘rude’ so he’s drawn to the paper. Ann may go for a lid, and I go for the actual trashcan. We often find ourselves noticing the disorder, and try to order it in our own little way. Who knows, maybe it helps the next walker or jogger going down the sidewalk? Maybe it helps the neighbor?

Beauty and Compassion

Noticing also cultivates beauty and compassion. There’s beauty in slowing one’s pace down that enhances compassion for one’s self and others. Since our family has added Brownie to it, we have met more of our neighbors than ever before. We’re stopped by moms with strollers, jogging dads, and walking couples. We exchange names, talk about local schools, and brag on our children, grandchildren, and animals. There is great beauty in small talk, and being able to notice this has increased my own capacity for compassion.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Today’s scripture has Jesus walking. He’s walking around first century Palestine preaching and teaching. He’s curing diseases and healing the sick. This is classic Jesus. This is what he does, but looking at the text a little closer, I couldn’t help but notice what he noticed. Listen to the text, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…” This isn’t an ordinary type of seeing (the crowds), or even looking (at them). Instead, I believe Jesus was noticing them (maybe for the first time). There is a different between seeing and noticing. When we see something, we usually name it, or make a snap judgment about it, and seeing in this way stays at the surface. If I look out and see you, I may register your name and make a quick observation: “That sweater Joe is wearing is red. It looks warms. I’m cold. I wish I had a sweater.”

Noticing is all together something different. Noticing goes below the surface of things where there is an emotional connection that has the potential to lead to compassion. Joe may have that red sweater, and it looks warm to me, but I get to go deeper when I take a moment to remember a conversation we may have had earlier, or know that Joe is in church because he shared with me that he is searching for God in his life again. I am then moved to compassion out of simply going deeper in my noticing.

When we intentionally see others with an eye of empathy, we also start to notice things within us that need attention. For example, when Jesus noticed the crowds, he also noticed that he needed help ministering to them. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the neediness of the crowd. Remember what he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” He realized that his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry was not sustainable on his own. He needed helpers, so he called the Twelve and gave them authority, not only to preach and teach, but gave them permission to notice – specifically to notice the harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The disciple’s ministry became part of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ ministry was grounded in a holy noticing. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to proclaim the Good News: “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” This proclamation expanded the ministry of Jesus to the people. In other words, not only are the disciples to take up the ministry of noticing, but also the people were invited to notice the kingdom found in Jesus and one another. The people not only were invited to notice this, but also were healed by it. Jesus, as head of this kingdom welcomed the crowds into it through his healing ministry. When one was healed by Jesus in body, mind, or spirit, they became part of this kingdom. They became part of his story, and other people started noticing.

For Us

What have you noticed in your life and in the life of your parish lately? In Lynda Barry’s book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, she shapes an interesting exercise in noticing. She has the one noticing draw a cross. After drawing the cross, and in the upper left hand corner she asks you to write down 5 things that you saw today. In the upper right-hand corner, she asks you to write down 5 things you overheard today. In the bottom right corner, she asks you to complete this sentence “Lately, I’ve learned…” and you write a sentence or two about what you’ve learned. Finally, for the lower left corner, she asks you to doodle or sketch something you saw today. What a great exercise in noticing. What a great exercise in remembering the kingdom of heaven. What a great exercise in cultivating an awareness and compassion for the world around you.

July 1st will be my 3-year anniversary serving alongside you in Christ’s ministry. In order to honor our time together, and to take the time to notice God’s Spirit at work in the world, I want to invite you to 1 of 2 listening sessions. The 1st will take place on Tuesday, July 11th at 7 PM, and the 2nd one on Sunday July 16th after the coffee hour. Please choose 1 of those dates and come to the listening session. I will share with you what I have noticed over my 3 years with you, and where and what I believe God is calling us to pay attention to. I will then stop noticing, and ask you to share your own thoughts as to where you believe we as a parish are being called. In the Winter I sent out a parish-wide survey asking for feedback on topics like Leadership, Stewardship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Worship. I will report back on some of those findings and these topics will also guide our conversation and time together. In the meantime, if you want to use the above Lynda Barry exercise I just shared with you, and tweak it to fit in with our parish context, please do so. Like Jesus, I hope to foster a church culture that notices a whole host of things – be they virtues or vices that need our attention, love, mercy, and compassion.

Until then, I challenge you to start noticing more because the world is anything but boring, and as you are noticing, take the time to proclaim this good news – the kingdom of heaven has come near.