Spiritual Growth

“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree” ~Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

The writer, Nora Ephron, died in June of 2012 at the age of 71. Ephron was a prolific writer known mainly for her screenplays focused on strong female leads. Some of the movies she was best known for were Julia and Julia, You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sallie. In 2010, she published the book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. The book was a memoir that focused on her eclectic life as a writer, but also her love of life. HBO produced a documentary in 2016 on Ephron entitled, Everything is Copy, where many excerpts from her memoir were brought to life through pictures, video, and voice over. The movie ends like the memoir – with a list. The first list made up the things Ephron would not miss in this life. The second are the things she would. In a moment, I’ll offer her lists to you because scattered throughout reveals the contents and constants of one person’s life. As humans we desire constants, both seen and unseen that give our lives meaning, bring order out of chaos, and comfort us when the bottom seems to drop out. Sometimes we are trees planted beside still waters, while at other times are uprooted without warning. In today’s lessons, we get fresh, green imagery of seeds, trees, mountains, and forests. In other words, today’s lessons have us imagining growth; growth firmly rooted in the soil of God’s Spirit.

The Prophet Ezekiel had God speaking when he wrote:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.

In Psalm 92 we imagine:
Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God;
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be green and succulent;

 And finally, in The Gospel of Mark, Our Lord shares parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to the growth of grain readying itself for harvest, or a tiny mustard seed bursting forth from the earth eventually providing shelter and shade for the birds of the air.

Although Ephron’s lists are mostly made up of creature comforts, there are certainly moments of depth when she muses on about the concept of this or the idea of that. It is here where she takes a dip into the eternal. It is here where there are hopeful moments of faith. It is here where we get to experience one person’s anxious heart – restless, until it rests in Thee, O Lord. Below are Ephron’s two lists:

What I Won’t Miss
Dry skin
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
E-mail
Technology in general
My closet
Washing my hair
Bras
Funerals
Illness everywhere
Polls that show that 32 percent of the American people believe in creationism
Polls
Fox TV
The collapse of the dollar
Bar mitzvahs
Mammograms
Dead flowers
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
Bills
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Small print
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night

What I Will Miss
My kids
Nick
Spring
Fall
Waffles
The concept of waffles
Bacon
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
Fireworks
Laughs
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Butter
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Paris
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie

As Christians, we have lists of our own:  The 10 Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, cardinal virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit to name a few. We take vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and with God’s help experience the dignity of every human being. What are your lists of constants? What won’t you miss about this life? What will you? Would your lists be made up mostly of creature comforts, or is there some depth to them? Do you still have a longing to grow deeper in God’s Spirit? If so, how do you keep your roots planted no matter the stillness of the waters or the wind as tempest?

As the Church enters her green season why not use this ordinary time to focus on growing taller, diving deeper, and putting forth large branches where new friends are found and old neighbors remembered? How we practice spiritual growth is more attitude than aptitude, more focus than function, and intentionality over intensity. It’s gaining sea legs to weather the storms, and eagle eyes to spot the pitfalls. It’s becoming shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves. It’s telling stories with an eye on Our Savior, and counting our blessings naming them one by one. It’s faithfully knowing that God is the ultimate constant in our lives forever pointing us to Love. It’s a list too long but a faith full of hope. It’s imitating God…by being human.

~Click here for the trailer to Everything is Copy.

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.

 

Taking Bible Verses Out of Context is Bad Theology – Please Stop Doing It

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” said Jesus, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” ~John 14:6

In Sunday schools, ecumenical gatherings, and living rooms all across America there have been arguments about what this one verse says, or doesn’t say. It is such a controversial statement to so many, and for this reason, let’s take a hard look at it. In order to do this, I am not going to treat Jesus’ statement as a sound bite. Instead, I’m going to put it into the context of the entire passage (John 14:1-14), as well as within the overall theme of John’s Gospel.

First, let’s look at what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not making a statement for or against one religion. In fact, this passage has nothing to do with religion. Through the years, and when this passage is read in Bible study settings, it is inevitable that someone in the group will make the leap of what is actually said by Jesus (which is a statement about himself) to the religious realm. Usually this person (or persons) are uncomfortable that Jesus would make such an exclusive statement, thus leaving out every other major religion in the world. “What happens to them?” (read Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists here) it may be asked, and after such a question the Bible study is led down a rabbit’s hole where the text is forgotten and speculation rules the day. Let’s be clear. This “I am” statement is not about religion (Christianity or otherwise). If one wants to discover Jesus’ various attitudes toward religiosity, there are plenty of other passages in which to explore. This is not one of them.

That being said, what this text can lead to is far more interesting in that it takes the believer to a deeper understanding of Christ through our questioning and prayers. First, John Chapter 14 and following is a farewell address from Jesus to his friends. When people say ‘goodbye’ to one another, and the goodbye is a permanent one, naturally we grieve. This grief was expressed with Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus gives the famous answer, and famously his disciples do not understand. Take a moment and ponder if you yourself have not said some variation of Thomas’ question at a funeral? His question is painfully human. Secondly, and pulling the camera back from this scene scanning the whole of John’s Gospel, Jesus (you’ll remember) is the Word made flesh (John 1:1). All of creation flows through Christ (the Word), and out of Christ (the Word), we recall the Way, the Truth, and the Life. How could Christ be otherwise? From John’s scene today, God’s Word in the person of Jesus the Christ was displayed in his very being as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way, the Truth and the Life is not just a theological statement; it is the same reality in which our own prayers live, move, and have their being “in the Father.” Finally, St. John’s theology is often referred to as “insider language” and rightly so. Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense to the believer – nobody else.

Next time you’re in your small group, Bible study, or batting theology around and this passage comes up, understand

  1. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends.
  2. His “I am” statement is in response to Thomas’ grief.
  3. His statement belongs to those who believe in him and pray in his name.

Hope this helps.

 

The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

The Reality of the Resurrection

A redacted sermon preached on Easter 2 and inspired upon readings from 1 Peter 1: 3-9 and John 20: 19-31

The word liturgy literally means, “The work of the people,” and participating in the liturgy – specifically the Holy Eucharist – gives us a glimpse of what it means to live into the reality of the resurrection. At its best the Eucharist will show us how to remember resurrection reality out and about in the world, and gives Christians a model of how God participates in His creation. For a moment, let us focus on the reality of the resurrection through the lenses of relationship, renewal, and resurrection as Ultimate Reality.

Resurrection Reality through the Lens of Relationship

Many of you know my affinity for spiritual direction. Put simply, spiritual direction is the art of holy listening, and when invited, the spiritual director offers questions and suggestions as to where God may be present in the directee’s life. Like the disciples who locked themselves up in a room out of fear, persons often come to spiritual directors with locked hearts. Just as the resurrected Christ bypassed the locked doors and offered His peace, the spiritual director reminds the directee of the peace of Christ found in the midst of locked doors, fearful storms, and broken hearts. The peace of Christ is always there; however, we need faithful friends in our lives to remind us of this reality. Any spiritual director will tell you there are some people who find the peace of Christ through the lens of faith, while others have the healthy skepticism of Thomas within them. Whether by faith or something more tangible, the peace of Christ is found out of the relationship that is grounded in Christ.

One of the first spiritual directors in my life was my Memom (my paternal grandmother). Every time I speak with Memom she always tells me, “Brandon, I pray for you every day.” In my younger days I said to myself, “Yea Yea, that’s just what Memom does. I’m thankful, but maybe not as grateful as I should be.” These days I’m extremely thankful and grateful for her faith, and for her prayers. What I did not realize back then that I see today is that Memom prays for me and my family everyday because of her thankfulness and her gratefulness for Jesus Christ. She has a relationship grounded in love through Christ that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but is an extension of Christ’s love for all. In other words, my Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of the resurrection. My Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of her relationship with Ultimate Reality. In her life, in her prayers, and in her very being I experience the peace of Christ.

Resurrection Reality as Renewal

From our reading out of I Peter, the author writes, “By [God’s] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” What does it mean to have a new birth into a living hope? Hope, so it seems, is alive and well through the resurrection of Christ, and if we are participating in the reality of His resurrection, then cannot new births happen all the time? The truth of the resurrection is that love has conquered death, and because of this we are born anew in that same love which Christians boldly proclaim as Christ. Ultimate renewal is found in and by and through our relationship with Christ. When we display these renewals in the form of peace, forgiveness, or mercy then God is revealed through us.

Getting back to my relationship with my Memom: I said that her relationship was grounded in love through Christ (so much so) that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but an extension of Christ’s love for all. Putting this in the context of renewal: Anytime we pray (or through our actions) we bring forth peace, forgiveness, or mercy, those small renewals of peace, forgiveness, and mercy point, reveal, or renew our sense of Ultimate Peace, Forgiveness, and Mercy. In other words, these acts remind us that what is ultimate is Resurrection. What is Ultimate is Love. Through these tangible acts and through the lens of faith, we pull back the curtain and true reality is revealed to us. That’s why the love of God is a peace beyond our understanding. We understand it through the action of resurrection, but we do not fully understand this reality. The moment we seem to grasp it is the moment in which it disappears leaving us longing for something that cannot be explained except with prayerful words, liturgies, and actions of faith.

Resurrection Reality as the Ultimate Reality

I strongly believe that there is homelessness, hunger, war, famine, and exploitation (to name a few) in the world today because we forget, “He is Risen.” We forget love has already conquered death. Roofs over heads, bellies that are satisfied, peace, conservation of the earth, and the dignity of every human being can be a reality now when we choose to remember the reality of resurrection. Did you know that the word “sin” comes out of the archery community? When an archer pulls the arrow back with the help of his bow, takes aim and fires, he either hits his target, or he sins. Sin literally means missing the mark, or missing the target, and like the arrow forgetting its bull’s-eye, humanity is constantly forgetting resurrection. Humanity is constantly sinning. The mark is already there. The mark is Christ. The mark is Love, and Love is the Ultimate Reality. When we try to tackle the problems of our world without an eye on Love, we also miss the mark. We cannot solve the problems of the world on our own. We need Jesus. We need his teachings. We need his healing. We need to remember His resurrection.

I believe the Church (not just our own) but all churches throughout the world are going through some birth pangs right now, and are about to experience renewal, rebirth, and resurrection. The Church of the past was tied up in the culture. The Church of the past was part of the establishment and status quo. I believe the resurrected Church must always be counter to the culture or else it miscarries. What this means for liturgical churches such as ours is to do liturgy – to do the work of the people on Sunday – as an example of how to do the work of God Monday through Saturday. Parish churches can no longer exist for the purpose of self-preservation. Parish churches must exist for the purpose of reminding the world “He is risen.” We cannot do it on our own, so small churches must join other small churches, dioceses, and provinces that extend beyond denomination. Through partnerships with religious institutions, non-profits, and philanthropists small churches can make big differences in the lives of people that extend beyond their walls. We do this together and through our relationship with the Resurrected Christ. The world can no longer rest in dogmatic formulas that only assure the faithful as to the resurrection of Jesus Christ; instead, the world needs Christians who actually live into this belief, this love, and this reality. The future Church is a missional church grounded in the relationship (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. The future Church will worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually, and by doing so live into the resurrection reality here and now.

This Easter and beyond let us all use our imaginations, our gifts, and our relationship with Christ to truly be a liturgical church doing the work of God with our hands, hearts, and minds. Let us seek out partners who proclaim in thought, word, and deed, “He is Risen.” The reality of the resurrection is now. Together, may we never forget.

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. For one, we do not imagine Jesus sermonizing on a mount, or teaching in synagogues and Jewish homes. We do not imagine him debating with other rabbi’s, healing the sick, or instructing his disciples. Instead, we bear witness to Our Lord’s suffering, pain, and death – our hearts closing in like the sealing of the stone over his tomb. Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other remembrance of Jesus because the Passion of Christ demonstrates to all that the teacher has become the teaching. For example, Jesus taught forgiveness. He said, “Pray for those who persecute you.” His Passion revealed this teaching when he prayed, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus taught, “There is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for their friends.” His Passion revealed this teaching from his cross at Noon that first Good Friday. For Christians, Jesus’ teachings are not ideologies; instead, they are truths pointing to the ultimate Truth that Jesus is Lord. The Passion narrative painfully draws the conclusion that the world would rather destroy Truth rather than be in relationship with It.

Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus because we are reminded of our own capacity for great evil. Nihilism, narcissism, and pride make their home in the basement of our souls. Anger, greed, and sloth seep through the cracks of these basements seeking to destroy us one drip at a time. In order to overcome these, we must first acknowledge them as Jesus did, and with His help we can cut off the life of these sins by sacrificing one’s pride for humility, choosing forgiveness over revenge, and kindness instead of envy. Our death to these parts of ourselves ultimately comes when we realize we cannot live into the virtues of Christ without God’s help. “Save yourself,” may be the mantra of the world, but I am with you always is the promise of God.

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. Perhaps this year, it calls to you with new insight and depth. Like the teacher becoming the teaching, it may be inviting you (the reader) to become the read-ing. What characters within yourself, and in and around your world do you need to acknowledge as Pontius Pilate, the angry mob, or the Roman soldier? Where is grace to be found in the messiness of life? Where is relationship when isolation wants to spend the night?

Finally, this week is unlike any other week we have throughout the year. As you enter into the truths of Holy Week be open to what God may be revealing to you. Be accepting that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all. Live into your questions with God at your side. Lastly, do not fully concentrate on the Easter destination, but be present where the journey of this holy week will take you. Take the time to pause this week. Make the time to consider why this week – above all others – is unlike any other throughout the year. Do this in remembrance – of Christ.

 

 

A Lenten Meditation

Step 1: Find a cross. Notice that it is made up of a vertical beam and a horizontal one. Meditate on one beam at a time. Let the vertical beam represent your relationship with God. Let the horizontal beam represent your relationship with the world (family, friends, God’s creation)

Step 2: Read John 3:1-17

Step 3: Read the below meditation. What sentences are vertical relationships with God? What sentences are horizontal relationships with God’s creation?

When we encounter Christ as Nicodemus did, we are offered an invitation to deepen our relationship with Christ. What at first may start out as a surface level relationship can be extended out deeper and wider within us as we learn how to trust and obey God. With the deepening of the relationship, greater healing and wider faith is extended from our hearts to having a heart for others. For God so loved the world… God loves the world because it is God’s creation. Because we are part of creation, this must mean that God loves us, and when we can acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe, the love God has for His creation can be easily found within each one of us. If this is the case, we are called to love as God loves us. This may seem simple enough at first, but if we look at the world within us and around us, it is anything but simple. For starters, when we enter into relationship with God, we are inviting God into all aspects of ourselves –those parts we acknowledge and are proud of as well as those parts we dismiss and are ashamed or fearful of. God penetrates our hearts and souls so deep that it takes our senses, our faculties, and our brains a very long time to even register God’s healing presence. What can be experienced as ambiguous and partial on our end is made whole in Christ. In other words, we don’t see the whole picture, but only a part of the puzzle. It takes faith to trust and obey God wherever he may be leading our bodies and souls. Mystics call this experience of God a deep knowing that is very different from knowledge. Put simply, it’s a difference in knowing God rather than knowing about God. When this type of knowing is experienced, God gets to view the world through us, and visa-versa. Everything has changed in these moments; yet everything is the same. It’s as if a shift has happened in our very perspective, and God has settled in nicely to a comfortable warm heart. This was the deeper invitation Jesus was extending to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was impressed with the knowledge of God represented in the signs Jesus was performing; however, his spirituality was arrested and he could not move past the signs. He stayed in the flesh instead of moving deeper into God’s Spirit.

Let this be a lesson to us, and the lesson is this: God is constantly calling us into deeper ways of knowing and being in relationship with Him. Why not let go, give in, and say, ‘Yes.’

Step 4: Call to mind the cross in Step 1. What do you believe your default beam to be – the Vertical or Horizontal one? Is your relationship with Christ where it needs to be (regular prayer, worship, accountability group/mentor(s)) represented by the Vertical Beam? Is your relationship with the world where it needs to be (you, your family, your society – God’s creation is taken care of in your neck of the woods) represented by the Horizontal Beam?

Step 5: This Lent, work on the beam that is not your default one. Notice when the two beams are joined a cross is made, and a center formed. Crucify your self/ego on the cross. What remains is only Christ in the center of your life calling you into further relationship with him and his creation.

 

Looking into the Mirror of Temptation

A Sermon from Lent 1 – Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matt. 4:1-11 delivered By The Rev. Brandon Duke on March 5, 2017

In mirrors I see myself. But in mirrors made of glass and silver I never see the whole of myself. I see the me I want to see, and I ignore the rest. Mirrors that hide nothing hurt me. They reveal an ugliness I’d rather deny…Avoid these mirrors of veracity! ~In Mirrors by Walter Wangerin

 In Chapter 12 of J. K. Rowling’s world famous children’s novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the protagonist, Harry, comes across The Mirror of Erised. The mirror revealed “the deepest, most desperate desire[s] of [the] heart…” [1] Harry’s desire allowed the mirror to reveal his mother and father in its reflection. Seeing his parents weighed heavily on his heart because they died tragic deaths leaving him orphaned at a very young age. Harry was mesmerized by the reflection of his deceased family who stood in front of him alive, if only by the power of the magical mirror. The power was addicting, but Harry eventually returned to reality, fetched his best friend, Ron, and instructed him to stand in front of the mirror thinking he would see Harry’s parents too. To Harry’s surprise, Ron did not see his parents. Instead, Ron got to see his own deepest, most desperate desires of the heart. The mirror reflected Ron as a popular boy in school and at home. In reality, Ron lived in the shadow of his older brothers. Although not totally forgotten like the orphaned Harry, Ron longed for more attention and recognition from just about everybody – including his own mother and father.

A scene or two later, we find Harry sitting in front of the magical mirror when all of a sudden his narcissistic gaze is interrupted by the school’s headmaster, Professor Dumbledore. Dumbledore asked Harry if he had figured out the mirror’s purposes yet. Upon hearing Harry’s partial answer, Professor Dumbledore continued his lesson. He said, “…this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible…It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that”.[2] Towards the novel’s ending, Harry remembered Dumbledore’s advice, and instead of falling under the mirror’s enchantment again, used the mirror’s potential in order to make a decision that ultimately saved his life, and the lives of countless others.

In reality, stories involving mirrors and their variations are tales as old as time. Echo and Narcissus (in the water), Snow White and the Evil Queen (Mirror, mirror on the wall), Dorian Grey (in his self-portrait), Alice in Wonderland (through the looking glass), and in the Bible – The story of Adam and Eve, where the serpent acts as mirror, and the temptation of Christ, where Satan reflects a reality that is ultimately rejected by Jesus.

In the Genesis story, I find it extremely interesting when the serpent asked Eve about the tree in the middle of the garden because Eve seemed to reply with little or no insight. It was as if she had never thought about the instructions God had given her. Perhaps she was playing the role of good student trying to please the teacher? Regardless, the serpent became a substitute teacher for God, and tempted her to look again at the statement just spoken with more reflection. When she did this, she saw differently. “You will not die,” said the serpent, “Instead, your eyes will be opened” [emphasis mine].[3] It’s here where the scripture reads, “So [Eve] saw that the tree was good…it was a delight to the eyes.”[4] Getting back to our mirror metaphor, the serpent was revealing a desire that was deep inside her yet it had never been brought to the surface. When she looked into the mirror of the serpent she saw her deeply buried narcissistic desire – a desire that had the potential to separate her from God and others. She forgot about potential separation with her eyes fixated on the pleasing images of the fruit tree. She’s tricked. She’s fooled. She was given a half-truth. Adam and Eve then acted upon the temptation set up before them. The deed was done. What was in their hearts transferred to the mind. What the mind fixated on soon became action. Their world would never be the same.

When we turn to today’s Gospel a similar mirror is set up in front of our Lord.[5] Even though he was tempted in related ways as Adam and Eve, he remembered his relationship with God the Father. At Jesus’ baptism a chapter earlier, Jesus was given the title, Son of God, by his Father in Heaven.[6] In the desert, Satan takes this title and lays out three visions on how to live as Son of God. Christ ultimately rejected these three visions. Instead he revealed a more excellent way to live as both Son of God and Son of Man, vocations that call Jesus into a life fully lived and full of “compassion and solidarity with [a] needy [and] failed humanity”.[7] At first, the tempting vision of using his power as Son of God to transform a world that was hungry, a world whose spirituality was lacking, and a world whose politics were disordered were very powerful, almost utopian visions. History has shown us that utopian dreams can quickly become dystopian because they reflect a belief that some are called to stand over others instead of standing with.[8] “Jesus’ surrender to the Spirit [of God] allowed him to break through to the truth that his specialness as the Beloved Son [of God] gave him the freedom to take human suffering upon himself and to be the Servant of all”.[9]

Walter Wangerin once wrote, “In mirrors I see myself. But in mirrors made of glass and silver I never see the whole of myself. I see the me I want to see, and I ignore the rest.”[10] His opening line should give us pause in this season of Lent: In mirrors I see myself. He’s not talking about mirrors made of glass and silver, but of mirrors made of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood mirrors (I believe) are the best mirrors. These mirrors are our spouses, our children, our best friends and family members. These mirrors reveal parts of ourselves we’d rather ignore. We have complicated relationships with these mirrors, and at our best we pay attention to them. Sometimes, and when they reflect what we don’t wish to see, we yell at them, we ignore them, we turn away ashamed, or fearful, or anxious. At our worst we abuse them, assault them, and try and break them down, or tear them off the wall. We do this because we have forgotten something. We have forgotten that we are loved. We have forgotten that we are forgiven. We have forgotten that we (like our flesh and blood mirrors) are all children of God. It is only an illusion that we are separate. Instead, and if we are honest with ourselves, when we look into those flesh and blood mirrors what is reflected back is what needs to be healed within us. If we are brave enough to seek out healing within our hearts, we are then able to have compassion on others who are going through similar trials. Jesus taught and teaches us not to stand over, but to stand with. His ultimate act upon the cross was to not only live out this teaching, but to tangibly show us what love (in truth) looks like. Remember your own flesh and blood mirror (or mirrors) this Lent. Dust them off if you have to. Choose humility and be vulnerable and honest with them, and with what is reflected back at you. Then, ask God to heal what is revealed to you. Ask God to show you the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.[11]

If the shoe is on the other foot, and you find yourself being the mirror for somebody else, before you react to the person in front of you, search your heart asking God to remind you of His patience, gentleness, and compassion towards you so that you may deliver a similar compassion to the other.

Harry Potter learned that The Mirror of Erised revealed, the deepest, most desperate desire[s] of [the] heart. This Lent, take your own desires give them to God asking that they become not our own selfish desires, but the desires that are most holy, that is, the desires of God.

Let us pray,

Spirit of Jesus, give us the courage to take our hearts and look it in the face! It is absurd to be surprised to see there cravings to be special, to be invulnerable, to dominate. Only if you deepen our awareness of your indwelling and the priceless gift of intimacy with the Father which is already ours can these desires give way to the truth that we belong to others and can serve and embrace them. Amen.[12]

[1]                 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Scholastic Press, 1997, pg. 213.

[2]                 Ibid., 213-14

[3]                 Gen. 3:4

[4]                 Gen. 3:5

[5]                 Matt. 4:1-11

[6]                 Matt. 3:17

[7]                 Martin L. Smith, “The Wind in the Wilderness” from A Season for the Spirit: Readings for the Days of Lent, Church Publishing, New York, pg. 11.

[8]                 Ibid., 13

[9]                 Ibid., 13-14

[10]               Walter Wangerin, “In Mirrors,” from Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, Plough Publishing, Walden, NY, 2003, pg. 11.

[11]               The Serenity Prayer from 12-Step Programs

[12]               Martin Smith, 14.

Graceful Time, Graceful Prayer

A Meditation on Keeping a Holy Lent – delivered at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church this Ash Wednesday.  

Sometimes, prayer is like an inside joke between you and God. An inside joke between lovers – A pillow talk intimacy – A full disclosure of full-er grace. Jesus doesn’t ask us to dress for success in order to please others, but to please him. “Why are you spending all your time trying to impress this group or that group,” he might ask? “Why are you defending the indefensible? When you give, when you pray, when you fast give all of it, your whole lot and life of it to me. Loose yourself in me,” says Jesus.[1]

The Season of Lent is a time to re-order one’s life; a time to think where one’s priorities might lay. J. Neil Alexander once wrote, “I used to believe that the important thing was what I believed about God. I have discovered that the really important thing is what God believes about me. I used to believe that the purpose of being a Christian was to learn to live a good and righteous life. I now believe that I am good and righteous, not of my own doing but as a gift of grace by faith in Jesus Christ. I used to believe that if I said my prayers and lived an obedient life, when I died I would inherit eternal life. Now I believe that eternal life begins at the [Baptismal] font and goes on forever. My experience of God has shifted from fear to love, from conditional to unconditional, from judgment to mercy. I used to believe that being a Christian was about me…I’ve discovered…that being a Christian is about God. That’s grace.”[2]

Grace. Maybe that’s at the heart of our inside joke between the two lovers – A history of giving and receiving grace in one another so that grace might be extended out and about to others. May Lent this year be for us graceful – further learning how to give it, how to take it. Remember, don’t flaunt it. Instead, let it be an inside joke between you and The Divine.

[1]           Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[2]           J. Neil Alexander, This Far by Grace, A Cowley Publication Book, Lanham: 2003, 6.

Christian Morality Remembers Love

~Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37 preached on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.

God is always calling us to deeper ways of being and presence with Him. We “keep the commandments of God” when we “walk in love as Christ loved us”. This love does not take sides; instead, the two or more sides are either joined together or cast away revealing only Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was inviting his listeners to stop hearing the Holy Scriptures as ends in themselves. He was instead inviting all to experience Scripture as a new beginning – a new beginning to draw nearer to God’s purpose, plan, and will which in turn draws us closer to one another.[1]

I believe God calls us to these deeper ways of being and presence through the act of remembering. Remember when you were slaves in Egypt. Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember me when you come into your kingdom. Remember I am with you, always. The act of remembering does not necessarily have to look back. Instead, remembering can be something we are reminded of here in the present. My spiritual director says that most persons who come to her for guidance and spiritual direction are suffering from one underlining thing: They have forgotten that God loves them. Her task then becomes helping persons through their spiritual amnesia, and to recover what memory they may have lost remembering that they are indeed, loved.

Within St. Matthew’s time, a righteous life was seen as one who obeyed and lived into Holy Torah. Following God’s law was considered a discipline and practice in righteous remembering. Last week’s Gospel ended with Jesus saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We pick up how righteousness is viewed in the eyes of Jesus when he teaches his first morality course to us today. His ethical topics include such things as anger, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths. When Jesus tackles these topics, he does not interpret them in crude legalism. Instead, one is considered living righteously into the law when they remember the unity of God. For example, Marcia Y. Riggs makes this observation about Jesus’ attitude toward anger. I quote her at length,

The verses on anger offer us an interpretation that enlarges the frame for understanding the prohibition against murder. Jesus enlarges the prohibition by pointing to ways to which the anger of revenge or punishment that can lead to murder is also evident in the course of living. When you judge and insult a brother or sister in the community, as well as when you are in a legal conflict (both ways in which anger surfaces), you have an opportunity to rectify these situations by seeking the other person out so as to apologize (in the former case) or by making amends outside the legal process (in the latter case). In both cases the objective is clear: to restore relationships through acts of reconciliation. Clearly Jesus is not rescinding the prohibition against murder, but he does place murder on a continuum of outcomes related to anger. Furthermore, Jesus is recognizing that humans do get angry; rather than prohibiting anger, he teaches that it can be transformed by living as a peacemaker (cf. 5:9), initiating acts that manifest the reign of God in our midst[2].

Christians are able to practice the act of reconciliation each time we participate in the passing of The Peace during Holy Communion. Fr. Patrick Mallow says this about The Peace, “The Peace is more than a casual hello but it is not an act of personal affection. It is a gesture of mutual acceptance and forgiveness rooted in a shared humanity and the bonds forged by baptism. The Peace expresses and instills a confidence that equality in Christ (and the equality of all people before God) is rooted in something far more basic than whether people personally know one another.”[3] Again, this gets back to remembering – remembering that we are loved by God and can express this love through peace and reconciliation.

The other issues St. Matthew’s Jesus takes up are adultery, divorce, and oaths. With all of these (including anger), Jesus is not only reminding his listeners on what the righteous life entails, he is also revealing the righteousness of God through remembering God’s intention, will, and purpose within the lives of human beings. St. Augustine taught that God is immutable; in other words, God is unchanging, but God’s creation is mutable. It changes. God does not intend for anger to manifest into abuse, slander, or murder, but mutable humans forget this and make both conscious and unconscious choices to let anger get away from us. God does not intend for adultery and divorce to be a way of life, but humans forget their love and unity found in Christ. God does not intend for oaths to be made, but humans forget to let our Yes be Yes, and our No, No.

So, how can we tell what the will of God is? Are we too bold to ask such a thing? The will of God which points us to the righteous life remembers Christ crucified, died, and resurrected. Christ crucified, died, and resurrected points us all to God’s ultimate love, mercy, and forgiveness. When we remember this, we are free to love, free to show mercy, and free to forgive. When we remember the will of God, we are righteous. When we remember God’s intentions, our presence points to The Good, The Truth, and The Beautiful. This is Good News. This is the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is to remind us (and the world) we are loved.

God is always calling us to deeper ways of being and presence with Him. We “keep the commandments of God” when we “walk in love as Christ loved us”. This love does not take sides; instead, the two or more sides are either joined together or cast away revealing only Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was inviting his listeners to stop hearing the Holy Scriptures as ends in themselves. He was instead inviting all to experience Scripture as a new beginning – a new beginning to draw nearer to God’s purpose, plan, and will which in turn draws us closer to one another.[4] We are loved. This week, this day, this moment, try and remember that.

[1]                 Left Behind and Loving It: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

[2]                 Marcia Riggs, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Ed., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2010, pg. 356-7.

[3]           Patrick Mallow, Celebrating the Eucharist: A Practical Ceremonial Guide for Clergy and Other Liturgical Ministers, Church Publishing: New York, 2007, p. 111-12.

[4]                 Left Behind and Loving It: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/