Preach the Gospel at All Times. Use Words if Necessary

On Sundays, Christians gather proclaiming fullness with God’s Spirit (Acts 2:4/Eph. 5:18b). Christian worshippers sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs together (Eph. 5:19) . We sing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts (ibid). We give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (ibid). We do these things, and by doing them and praying them, we are practicing wisdom, being careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise (Eph 5:15). Gathering ’round the altar Christians feed off the very Body and Blood of God (Jn 6:55). Finally, worshippers exit the church having God abide in them, and we in God. Having just experienced the “gifts of God for the people of God,” Christians may ask, “How do we continue to do these things?” (Jn 6:56) One of the answers is given to us in Psalm 34. We devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42) in order that we may seek and pursue peace (Psalm 34:14). It is a peace first experienced in God delivered to the heart, and proclaimed to the world around us. It is a peace the world doesn’t understand because it is beyond understand-ing. It is a peace that hangs out more in the heart than it does the head. It does not involve negative fear or manipulation, but a healthy, positive fear of the Lord grounded in wisdom and wonder. It does not see scarcity but points out abundance. It seeks out goodness while studying evil no more.

Each and every Sunday we remember that the godly life is an imitation of God’s Son our Savior Jesus Christ joining in with the communion of saints to be inspired by the ways in which they chose to imitate Him. That same invitation is open like it is always open when Christian’s gather: To take the Bread of Life out and about to the world. You have been filled with God’s Spirit, now go; share this peaceful Spirit with everyone. This is wise. This is holy. This is the good life.

Last Saturday night the parish community of St. Julian’s gathered to display our gifts and talents to one another. We showed gratitude when we appreciated one another’s talents through words of encouragement as well as with our pocket books. Put differently, what gives us peace and a sense of purpose was shared and there was nothing lacking. We didn’t remember scarcity, but abundance. We didn’t remember war, but peace. We didn’t remember our differences but our unity in Christ as His Body. When we choose to be vulnerable and share a piece of ourselves with one another in love, we do this in response to God’s love that has been given to us. We give grace, encouragement, compassion, honor, and dignity because we have been gifted with these things by God and with God and in God. Church, (and whether she gathers formally or informally) is a place to remember these things, but also a place to challenge us to share the peace that the Church gifts us with with others, and bringing them into the fold. One of the optional prayers for mission found in the prayer book reminds us of this challenge every day during morning prayer, that Jesus “stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name” (BCP, 101). What this prayer helps me visualize is Jesus giving me a big hug, that his pain joins with my pain and in that hug I find peace. In his saving embrace he invites us to embrace others so that he is known, peace is known, love is known, tangibly experienced, and remembered. Peace, love, mercy: These are the things we wisely remember when we come into church. God’s peace, love, and mercy are the things we are invited to display with God’s help out and about in the world, with our gifts and talents, as well as the way we live, move, and have our being.

This week, share with someone the peace, love, and mercy you experience at St. Julian’s. Invite them to a small group that meets weekly, or to a pot-luck lunch. Have a parent bring a new child in to experience Godly Play on September 9th. Remind them that like any church we don’t have all the answers or everything figured out, but what we can offer is the loving embrace of Christ found in each one of your embraces. I thank God that we’re not perfect, but we practice peace. I thank God that Jesus doesn’t falter even though we do. I thank God for the Bread of Life that came down from Heaven in order that new life may be lived, experienced, and reflected in the light of His glory and grace. The churchy word I’m trying to get across is the word, “evangelism” and an evangelist is someone who preaches the good news or The Gospel, and before your mind goes to an itinerate country preacher/evangelist, let me remind you of a phrase that is often associated with St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition has him saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” This week think of the words of Jesus Christ, as well as the words of the saints, but never forget the action and image of Jesus when he was nailed to the hardwood of the cross. Let that image guide and direct you and embrace the world with peaceful arms as you have been embraced with his.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.

Relationship Makes Us Strong

**Sermon delivered on the Feast of Lady Julian, 2018 Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of  St. Julian’s Episcopal Church as a Parish**

For 40 years, Jesus is the one who has been speaking to us as an Episcopal worshipping community in Douglas County. Many of you know we were not always called St. Julian’s. We were once St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church. Those of you who pray Morning Prayer know that there is an optional collect at the end of Morning Prayer attributed to St. Chrysostom. One of the lines taken from A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (BCP, 102) is this, “You [God] have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…” At the heart of this prayer is relationship. At the heart of this parish (no matter its name) is relationship – relationship to God who speaks to us as we listen, and our relationships one to another as we listen andrespond to God’s Spirit working within us.

Tonight, I’d like to look at three different questions. These are questions that I have answered myself about this parish community, but I am only one person. You undoubtedly will answer them another way. I invite you, therefore, to take these questions seriously, and like the above Collect referred to it is my hope that these questions (and your answers) will be discussed at coffee hours, Vestry meetings, and the various ministries, committees, and counsels throughout this year. Here are the questions,[1]then we will go through them one-by-one:

Question 1: Who are we?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Question 3: Who is our neighbor.

Question 1: Who are we?

In order to fully answer this question, I believe we have to go way back (like 2,000 years way back). If we do this, we will find that we were started because of God’s relationship to God’s very self expressed theologically as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Out of this self-love came a self-giving love and the relationship of Father to the Son and to the Spirit poured out into the universe and God became man. God entered into a fleshy relationship with us. God gathered around him disciples who served him, and towards the end of their time together were no longer referred to as servants but as friends. These friends continued the relationship with God through his resurrection, and eventually in a different way – through God, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit breathed new life into all aspects of these friends of God eventually forming the Church of Jesus Christ. That Church is still alive today. That Church is still in relationship with God in very tangible ways through the gifts God has given us, and it is these gifts that he gives to his friends (water, wine, bread) that empowers us to invite others to receive these gifts of God taking on new friends, new acquaintances, new relationships. This is all expressed succinctly in the Nicene Creed when it states that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. So, who is St. Julian’s Church? That one. (That church).

I chose to answer the first question ontologically; in other words, I wanted to describe how we have our being in the world by virtue of the relationship we have with God. Who we are are persons in relationship. These relationships give us purpose. Purpose leads to mission. This is expressed weekly in the post-communion prayer: “And now, Father [there’s the relationship] send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is the work of relationship one has with God, with self, and with one another. The work is also to invite others into that relationship, not as a witness to the self (or extensions of the self), but as a witness to something greater than the self – a witness to Christ our Lord. So what does this theology look like in the context of this parish? The specifics can be answered in the next question: What has God called us to do?

Question 2: What has God called us to do?

Since the MAP committee is currently looking at the Mission Statement of St. Julian’s parish, I’m going to use the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Purpose Statement to help me answer the question: What has God called us to do? The Purpose Statement of the diocese is this: “We challenge ourselves, and the world, to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.”

At St. Julian’s we worship in a variety of ways. As Episcopalians we have a prayer book spirituality. We worship with Holy Eucharist each Sunday, morning prayer during some Sundays during the summer, evening prayer a few times a year, Advent Lessons and Carols, Red Letter days on Wednesdays when applicable, and healing services and Holy Communion here and at the Benton House once a month. Many of you say one or more of the Offices daily – morning prayer, noonday prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Our adult choir program is large and in charge. I believe our Christmas, Holy Week and Easter services to be beautiful, meaningful, and joyful to many. The longer I am with you, the more I see that our worship has the potential to experiment in a variety of directions. We’ve tried Rite I during Lent this year. We occasionally bring out the smells and bells. We also are blessed to have parishioners who grew up in the Anglican church in Africa, Haiti, and the Caribbean. I wonder what traditions we can bring into our worship from these liturgical and musical expressions of the faith. I hope you will wonder with me.

We not only challenge ourselves to worship joyfully but to also serve compassionately. For 20 years this parish has supported (in thought, word, and deed) the Starting Over program that meets here every Thursday and Saturday. Starting Over is a court appointed visitation program that not only puts us in relationship with the larger community, but also calls our attention to injustices that can happen in the family unit itself. Starting Over promotes justice through a supportive environment, first to the children who are “the least of these” within these scenarios and has now began (recently) to support the supporters – those who are on the ground working with the families. Many on the Starting Over board took a day last month to take donuts to the DFCS offices of Douglas County to show this support. This act was a ministry of presence, and the beginning of new relationships.

God has also called us to serve hungry children. The Backpack Ministry here at the parish continues to serve Annette Wynn Elementary each week, and whether you give a check, drop off food in the narthex, pack the backpacks or deliver them, you are serving Christ in very tangible ways through the unseen blessings this ministry allows.

This year, the St. Julian’s Youth wanted to “serve compassionately” through another ministry of presence with our homeless population here in the county. You helped the youth and their leaders live into this ministry by giving life essentials to the men and women who live in our county in different ways than most of us are used to. It was without judgment that you and the youth shared what you had as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

For a parish of this size, it is my hope that we will continue to support these three ministries of outreach by striving for excellence in how we serve as well as continuing to build relationships – which leads me to my final question: Who is Our Neighbor?

Question 3: Who is Our Neighbor

Two out of the three outreach ministries identified children as our neighbors – Starting Over and the Backpack ministry. But watch this: In the Fall, St. Julian’s will be starting the Godly Play ministry on Sunday mornings – also a children’s ministry. I think something is going on in the life of the parish with this latest move. Let me explain: We’ve already talked about the challenges in the purpose statement about worshipping joyfully and serving compassionately. What we left off and now what I’d like to discuss is the last one – to grow spiritually. It is this last piece that I believe answers the immediate future of St. Julian’s and the question, “What has God called us to do?” I believe God has called St. Julian’s to grow spiritually, and we are living into this calling by taking on the Godly Play ministry. Godly Play invites both children and adults to take part in God’s story. We are invited into the stories of old and at the same time learning how to find God in our own stories out and about in our lives. God wants to be in relationship with us in all aspects of our lives – not just on Sunday mornings, but Monday through Saturday, sacred and profane, the good the bad and the ugly. There is a sense of pride in this community that we reach out to the least of these through Starting Over and The Backpack Ministry. Now, the least of these are reaching back to us. Our children our teaching us how to grow spiritually. Our children are leading. Our children are pointing out the kingdom of God, are calling us to pray and play and in doing so we live out God’s mission, we grow deeper in our relationship with God and one another. We worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually with the song and sense of childlike wonder.

If you can get behind me and see that the future of St. Julian’s relies on a parish environment that wants to grow spiritually, then this will touch every aspect of our communal life together. Again, it’s already happening. The youth wanted the serve the homeless. Two young families wanted to start a Godly Play ministry. I wonder what else God is calling us to do? Perhaps it’s to take a look at our various ministries and meetings and to always begin and end with prayer, a Bible study, or a devotional. Perhaps it’s not doing business as usual, but being about and wondering about God the Father’s business, Christ’s ministry and mission, the Holy Spirit’s work? It’s not just asking how you and yours are doing, but how’s your relationship with God? What’s your prayer life like? It’s asking for prayer. It’s wronging your neighbor, but then seeking out the peace of the Lord within the relationship.

Some of you may be saying, “Father Brandon, come on…we already do that.” Good. Tell me about it. Let me know. Let one another know how you are being faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. And know this: I’ll be modeling these questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do? Who is our neighbor? Again, I gave you my answers but I want to know yours. I’ll start with your Vestry. On Tuesday, this is how the Vestry will begin (right after our opening prayer). We’ll have a discussion. The Beloved Community Book Group meets on Mondays. Vestry on Tuesday. Sisters of St. Julian’s, Choir, and Backpacks on Wednesday. Starting Over and Contemplative Outreach on Thursday. I invite all these ministries to have a discussion about these questions. How do you answer them? If you get a good discussion going, report back to me or Sam Hudson (Sr. Warden) or Terri Frazier (MAP chair).

Tonight, we went way back; and we didn’t go way back in a nostalgia-like way. We went way back in a God-centered relationship-like way. I caught us all up on some outreach ministries knowing full well I couldn’t speak on all the ministries this parish has had through the years or currently has even now. I brought us up to speed with how we currently worship joyfully, and serve compassionately, and how (I believe) God is calling us to grow spiritually now and in the future with the help of the children we serve as well as the children who serve us. We’re not St. Chrysostom’s anymore. We’re not even the St. Julian’s of old. No. We are a St. Julian’s who is singing new songs, serving with ministries of presence, and diving deeper into the ongoing relationship of God. Tonight, we remember our story and how it is wrapped up in God’s story. Tomorrow, may we keep the story and relationships moving with the Spirit and into the future.

 

 

[1]               These questions are from Gil Rendle and Alice Mann in their book, Holy Conversations (Alban, 2003). I was introduced to these questions through a seminar put on by Interim Ministry Network in May, 2018. The seminar was held at The Beecken Center in Montegale, TN and was titled, “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry-Work of the Leader”.

What is Our Work? Thinking about Adaptive Challenges in the Age of the Technical Fix

On Tuesday, July 11th at 7pm, and then again on Sunday, July 16th, Saint Julian’s will participate in a formal “Listening Session”. The primary question behind these sessions is to start to explore the question, “What is our Work (as a parish)?” Put differently, “What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work?”

Bishop Robert C. Wright through Ron Heifetz  divides work into two categories: Technical and Adaptive.

Technical Work: is work not involving shifts in values, norms, loyalties and world views. This work has a clear diagnosis and clear solution. This work is accomplished by logic and authority. There is already considerable expertise in the system to complete this work.

An Example of Technical Work is as follows: Mr. Jones has a heart attack. Mr. Jones goes to his doctor. His doctor determines that bypass surgery is needed. Mr. Jones undergoes bypass surgery and the heart starts to function at full capacity again.

Adaptive Work (on the other hand): is work that intends on shifting norms, world views, loyalties and values. Diagnosis is complicated and solutions are not easily found because there are no clear solutions. Part of Adaptive work consists of identifying the gaps between the Current Reality and the stated Aspirations of an institution, community or family. Adaptive work is often misdiagnosed as Technical work. Adaptive work requires the unique resource of leadership behavior.

Remembering our above example of Mr. Jones – After the heart attack and surgery, Mr. Jones examines his lifestyle choices (i.e. eating, drinking, and exercise habits). He realizes he is eating too many fatty foods, drinking alcohol in excess, and not exercising with regularity. Mr. Jones makes a decision to eat healthier foods, curb the alcohol usage, and make exercise a part of his regular routine. This adaptive work, combined with the technical know-how of his doctor’s expertise changes the reality of Mr. Jones in new, healthy ways.

One more: What’s an example of an adaptive challenge that is misdiagnosed as Technical work?

Let’s look to the life of an imaginary parish from the 1990’s: The aging church congregation looks around and sees there are no young people and young families attending the church. Traditional work and financial giving is at an all-time low. This is the problem diagnosed; however, the congregation chooses to apply a technical fix to what is really an adaptive challenge. They say things like, “Young people want a more contemporary style of worship. Let’s get a few guitars and a screen and put it up. While we’re at it, let’s ask the pastor to throw on some skinny jeans. They’ll start coming then.” Instead of actually getting out there and speaking to young families in (mostly) informal ways –  listening to what their dreams, hopes, and challenges are as well as what they desire in a church community, the congregation thinks in stereotypical ways and purchases a few of those guitars, a screen, and the jeans. And guess what? Nobody shows up. Why? They’re trying harder, but they’re trying harder and their energy is contained in an echo chamber instead of going outside their doors and listening, watching, and discerning.

Adapting to the way and work of Jesus asks us to be open to letting the work of Christ form and shape us into who God already knows us to be (as individuals AND the Body of Christ). For certain there are technical challenges (i.e. a light bulb is out, the yard needs mowing, the toilet needs fixing), but if we can all agree that the life of a disciple of Jesus is ongoing, adaptive work (on God’s part and ours), we can all support one another in our individual journeys as well as with the parish as a whole.

What I’ll personally be looking for on Tuesday and next Sunday are reoccurring themes as well as distinguishing between technical and adaptive work. After the listening sessions, I will take all that I have heard, and the Vestry and I will be separating our work as a parish into those two categories (Technical/Adaptive). It will then be the Vestry’s continued work to focus on the adaptive challenges facing us, and in their teams/subcommittees calling on each and every one of you to step into the work that is needed. A lot of the work will be technical, but some of it will require us to “shift our norms, world views, loyalties and values.” This is exciting work for the Vestry because so much of our time in monthly meetings these past three years have been discussing technical work (i.e. changing out light bulbs, repairing this and that). This will no longer be the work of the Vestry, and I’m proud of them for being open to these past few months at adapting to a new form of behavior – that is – the work of the Vestry and other leaders of various ministries here at St. Julian’s will be to diagnose adaptive challenges. It will be the role of the subcommittees and teams associated with the Vesty and other ministerial leaders to do the technical work.

What is our Work (as a parish)? What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work? Come Tuesday night, or Sunday afternoon and let’s discern these questions together (and with God’s help).

~Fr. Brandon

God Desires to be Seen, Sought, Expected, and Trusted

If you pray Morning Prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer you may have noticed the collect for guidance found on page 100. This prayer reads, “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight…” St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote these words, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:26-27). The imagery of being found out in Christ, discovering Christ in our very being, and being clothed with Christ are all beautiful, ongoing images within Christianity. Lady Julian of Norwich, whom the church remembers each May, picked up on a similar theme as well. Listen to her words,

“God does not despise what he has made…For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness…For it is so preciously loved by him who is highest that this surpasses the knowledge of all created beings. That is to say, there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us…God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.”[1]

For a moment, let’s focus on this image of God desiring to “be seen, sought, expected, and trusted.” I don’t want this to be an exercise in individualism, or have any pietistic notions. Instead, I want us to imagine God desiring these things through us as a community of faith, a church, a holy fellowship. So a first question to ponder might be, “How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” Two Sundays ago we walked down the road to Emmaus together where God was made known in the breaking of the bread. Jesus, you’ll remember, also wanted to be seen in Holy Scripture; however, the story did not end there. After Jesus disappeared, the disciples who were just with him went and told others about their experience. The lesson that Sunday was simple: God is made known to us through the liturgy of the word, and the holy sacrament of Eucharist as well as when we “go tell it on the mountain” so to speak – when we reveal the love and presence of Christ to others. So again,

“How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” God wishes to be seen through liturgical worship and Holy Eucharist; but another question to ponder is, “How do we as a community of faith see and share our stories of his presence?”

God wishes to be seen, and secondly, God wishes to be sought. “How does God wish to be sought through the parish?” There’s that great verse from the prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him while he draws near” (Isa. 55:6). Lady Julian wrote, “For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him…” “How might a faith community assist in the realization of God’s desire [to be sought]?”[2]

Third, “How does God wish to be expected through the parish?” There’s a sense of expectation very similar to hope here, but there’s also a reality of the eternal here in the Present. Put another way, there’s the expectation that God will one day unite heaven and earth together, consummating all creation to himself, while at the same time living in a time and place where that vision is currently taken on faith as hope. God has redeemed the world; yet, there’s still some expectation that there’s more to come. What can a parish do to acknowledge this paradox?

Fourth and finally, “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Many persons have issues of trust through their own experiences of someone abusing trust. This mistrust eventually forms an understanding of the world that was not intended by God; therefore, God calls out to us like a mother to her child to trust again with all the heart because our own understanding has been damaged by sin. “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “What does trusting in the Lord with all of our hearts look like?” Are we brave enough, do we trust enough to ask such questions?

I’ve briefly laid out these questions for us all to ponder. How might we, as a faith community, assist in the realization of God’s desire to be seen, sought, expected and trusted? I invite you to take these questions with you to your small groups, to your Bible studies, to your prayer circles, to your families, and beyond. If these questions sparked your own imagination around living into these desires of God as Lady Julian imagined, make your comment known below.

Julian’s legacy lives on in her writings. From these we can ponder questions both individually and communally. As we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost, let us ponder these questions in our hearts asking God to reveal himself to us in tangible ways as we grow into His Son’s likeness. As the prayer for guidance stated earlier, “God, in you we live, and move, and have our being.” Let us pray this prayer of guidance together as a community of faith.

[1]           Lisa E. Dahill, 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 22.