Seeing and Being Seen

I am more and more convinced that the primary goal of Christian discipleship is learning how to see the world through the eyes of God.  The means to that end – Bible reading, prayer, worship, and acts of loving service – are all intended to open our eyes to see God’s hand at work in the world around us, which should, it would seem, compel us, as the hands and feet of Christ, to get about that work.  To me, there is perhaps no better example of this calling than the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday from Luke 13.

The deck is stacked against the woman with the crippling spirit.  It has been 18 years since she was able to stand up straight.  18 years is a long time to live with a disability, and, if we are honest, it is a really long time for people to maintain compassion.  In the early days, I’m sure many saw her and had pity.  As the months went by, fewer and fewer people even saw her.  Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her.  Maybe even her family, weary of carrying her burden, fell away.  In modern times, we hear stories of those confined to a wheel chair who, because they sit below the typical line of sight, feel invisible even in the hallways of hospitals.

When Luke tells us that his woman “appeared,” it isn’t that she just fell out of the sky, but rather, for the first time in years, she was seen, known, cared for, and loved.  The Greek word that gets translated by the NRSV as “appeared” is horao, which means, variously:

  1. to see with the eyes
  2. to see with the mind; to perceive, to know
  3. to see, i.e. to become acquainted with by experience
  4. to see, to look to
    1. to take heed
    2. to care for
  5. to appear
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Barbara Schawrz, OP, “Jesus and the Bent Over Woman,” acrylic on canvas, 2014.

After 18 long years of being invisible, Jesus arrived at the Synagogue where, presumably, she had gone to pray at least weekly, likely daily, for her healing.  A new set of eyes raises the chances that she is seen, but she is still a woman in the first century, it is the Sabbath, she is still crippled, a sign of uncleanliness.  Yet, Jesus saw her, the same Greek root for her appearance, called her over, and declared her healed.  She didn’t come seeking Jesus.  She didn’t ask to be healed.  She had more than likely given up hope by now.  But, she was seen, and in being seen, she was healed.

Much of the world remains invisible to me.  There are people I can’t see, and people I choose not to see.  There are stories that ares systematically hidden.  There are motives that are well hidden.  As followers of Jesus, as we deepen faith and grow as disciples, more and more will be revealed to us.  It is dangerous work, this seeing business, but it is our calling.  To see, to perceive, to experience, and to care for the world around us.

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The False Idol of Peace

It is startling to read it.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to hear.  The Rabbi who had made a career out of bringing people in, no matter what it was that had put them out, now stands before the disciples and says, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  They didn’t even have 150 years of the Christmas Industrial Complex messing up their heads with saccharine images of radically counter-cultural events capped, without any sense of irony, with the phrase “Peace on Earth” boldly emblazoned above or below.

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This idea of peace has, in many ways, become an idol for modern, western Christians.  That following Jesus would mean power, privilege, and comfort is so beyond the pale of what it meant to be a disciple in the first three centuries after Christ’s resurrection that I’m not sure Jesus would have any idea what he was looking at if he met the average white, middle-class, American Christian on their way to church on a Sunday morning.

Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth.  Even before he said it, we should have known.  By breaking bread with notorious sinners and tax collectors, he challenged the status quo.  By healing on the sabbath, he challenged the status quo.  By talking with women, by challenging the religious authorities, by speaking in parables, bringing the dead back to life, and by preaching the Kingdom of God, he challenged the status quo.  Everything Jesus did and said pushed against the notion that God is supposed to work for us, making our lives peaceful, and challenged future disciples to be prepared for difficulties that would come when they tried to follow his example.

Living out the Law of the Kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It means loving your neighbor as yourself.  It means laying down idols like peace, security, comfort, power, and privilege.  It means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  It means sharing with those who are in need.  It means calling to account systems of oppression and degradation.  I means voting based on something other than “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It means shopping based on something other than the cheapest price tag.  It means, as our exemplars in the faith like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and Clare of Assisi can attest, being downright uncomfortable because the living out of our faith puts us at direct odds with the leaders of our time.

As one whose livelihood depends upon the gifts of others, I’m preaching to myself here.  Peace is an idol for me because it means keeping my family fed, clothed, and housed.  I’ve not always said what the Gospel would have me say or lived the way that Christ would have me live, but day-by-day, my faith grows a little stronger, my trust grows a little deeper, and the ledge feels just a little bit safer.  May each of us find that place where the idol of peace can be set aside and the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ can be fully proclaimed.

A Cloud of Witnesses

Here at Christ Church, Bowling Green, along with Episcopalians in the Diocese of Kentucky and Christians around the country, we are engaged in 40 days of prayer leading up to August 20th and the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States.  The Angela Project, developed by Simmons College of Kentucky is intended to raise awareness of how slavery has impacted and continues to be a part of the experience of African-Americans.  Simmons College of Kentucky as developed three resources leading up to the anniversary date: a 40-day prayer journal, a 6-week Sunday School curriculum, and a liturgy resource for the actual anniversary date.

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Included in everyday of the 40-day prayer journal is an excerpt from an 1872 text, The Underground Railroad Records, written by William Still, the son of two enslaved persons who had escaped to freedom in the north.  The stories of those who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, are, as you might imagine, heart-rending.  Everyday, one reads of another human being who has been treated a less-than human.  Beatings, whippings, humiliation, rape, and being sold away from family were just some of the tools employed to keep millions of humans in bondage.

As I read these stories, especially in light of Sunday’s appointed lesson from Hebrews 11 & 12, two thoughts come to mind.  First, with each page turn, I prepare myself to read my last name among the stories.  According to family history, which I am hoping to delve further into, the Pankey family owned a tobacco plantation in southern Virginia that relied on the labor of enslaved persons for its economic prosperity.  I think about those members of my cloud of witnesses who were a part of this despicable system, and pray that I might find some way to make a positive impact on the world I’ve inherited to, in some small way, chip away at the enormous pile of damage my people inflicted on others, even as they came to Virginia as Huguenot refugees escaping persecution.

More importantly, I give thanks for the witness of our siblings in Christ and in our common humanity, who, despite nearly insurmountable odds to the contrary, risked it all to seek freedom.  The choices they had to make – leaving behind family, risking torture or death if found, leaving for the totally unknown – are harrowing, but faith in something greater and hope for something better motivated each of them.  As I think about their place even in my cloud of witnesses, I lament that their story exists even as I’m grateful that it continues to be told so that we might learn from our past, and hopefully grow into the fuller stature of Christ as we seek Christ in our neighbors.

The cloud of witnesses is a complicated one, filled with sinners redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I guess that’s maybe the point Paul is trying to make.  We’re all complicated.  We each have sins we must set aside.  But with the aide of our ancestors, we press on, running our portion of the race toward the world’s redemption as best we can.

The Kingdom is Now

One of the problems with being a lectionary-based preacher who doesn’t preach every week is that the appointed passages can begin to take on a life of their own, independent of the larger story.  They become bite-sized morsels, almost as if they are proverbs that you can just dust off for a week, only to eventually place them back into their slot in a compendium of vaguely spiritual ideas.  One week, it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Another week, we read about Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.  Next, we get the Lord’s Prayer or the Rich Fool.  Taken separately, each of these short passages offers us a lesson.  Love your neighbor.  Focus on the Kingdom.  Prayer deepens our relationships.  Be rich toward God.  None of these are bad things, but taken in isolation, we learn only in part what it means to be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I really struggled this week with what seemed like the most isolated of all the lessons we’ve had lately.  On Wednesday, I was in the car, driving to make a hospital visit, when I heard a quote from one of my favorite modern philosophers, Nicholas Lou Saban that put it all together.  Nick Saban is, for those who don’t know, the head football coach at the University of Alabama.  Coach Saban is one of the most fluent coach-speakers in the history of coach speak.  He can spend 20 minutes talking and say nothing at all.  Yet somehow, in this case, as I listened, I began to realize that, put back together, the last five weeks of Gospel lessons have had a consistent theme running through.  With the ubiquitous bottle of Coca-Cola Classic placed in the sight of the camera, Coach Saban spoke to reporters about the importance of his players focusing only on today.

UA Coaches Press Conference

“It’s really important that they focus on what they control today.  We have so many players here who get frustrated about what happened yesterday, or they get a little complacent because they had success yesterday.  And then we get some players who get worried about what is going to happen in the future.  Really, what you do today, correctly, making the right choices and decisions… that’s what really prepares you for the future… You know, all of us are a little bit addicted to tomorrow. I’ll quit smoking tomorrow. I’ll go on a diet tomorrow… I’ll start studying tomorrow, but really making it happen today is the way you improve. That’s the way we’ll get better. That’s the way you’ll create more value for yourself and that’ll really help our team get a lot better as well.”

Dan and Stu, the sports-talk guys I was listening to, unpacked what Coach Saban was saying, noting that he was actually tapping into something that is taught in many of the world’s religions.  “It’s not just great coaching.  You will find… there is great wisdom in that that you will find in a spiritual quest.  Eckhart Tolle [who, by the way, changed his name due to the influence of the 13th century Christian Mystic, Meister Eckhart] has written about the power of now.  The two things that happen in life that contaminate a human… are regret, which is yesterday, and fear, which is tomorrow.”[1]  As I listened, I realized that over the last five weeks, as we’ve walked with Jesus all around the Galilean countryside, the larger lesson that Luke is trying to convey to his readers is to focus on the now in order to be present to what God has given you and to what God is calling you in this moment.

It began two chapters ago with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  A lawyer, who was fearful about the future, asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  The response, that the law is summed up simply in “love God and love your neighbor,” is totally dependent on the now.  True love, the sort of love of which Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection serves as an example, can only exist in the now.  As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “true love keeps no record of wrongs” – it is not worried about the past, and “true love does not envy” – it is not focused on what I can get next.  Real love exists in this moment as you choose, minute by minute, to seek what is best for the person God has placed right in front of you.  In the parable, the priest and the Levite live in fear and worry, focused only on the future, and so, they pass by the injured traveler.  The Good Samaritan, however, was present to the need that God had placed right in front of him and thereby loved his neighbor.

Again, in the story of Jesus being welcomed into Martha’s home, we learn about the power of now.  In the hustle and bustle of the day, Martha was distracted by so many things that her worries were actively pulling her away from the gift that was sitting right in front of her.  When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he stressed the importance of hoping for the Kingdom to come, and that they should seek forgiveness for the sins of the past, but that their prayer should be focused on what God has set before each of us today, “give us this day our daily bread.”  Even last week, in the parable of the rich fool, we hear about the importance of being thankful in the present moment.  There is no wisdom in storing up treasures for tomorrow, but instead, we are called to share what we have right now with those whom God has set before us.

That theme continues into this week’s Gospel lesson with Jesus encouraging his disciples using the words that the spokespeople of God have used since the very beginning, “Do not be afraid.”  The Lectionary skipped us over similar teachings about worry, and Jesus’ famous line about the lilies of the field, “how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”  During the long journey toward the cross, I have no doubt that the disciples were wracked with fear and filled with worry.  Where would they sleep?  How would they find food?  Had they hitched their wagon to the wrong leader as it seemed clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in political leadership or military power.

In the midst of it all, Jesus looked at them and said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  There is nothing that can be done about the sins of the past, but to seek forgiveness.  You have no power of the future, other than what you can do right now to make it better.  So, be present to the possibility of today.  Sell your possessions in order to meet the needs of your neighbor.  Put your trust in the Lord who will supply all your needs.  The Kingdom of God is available to you right now, if you will only be present to it.

As Coach Saban so wisely observed, the world is addicted to tomorrow.  The 24-hour news cycle, which blares at us in every waiting room, dining room, and gas pump, is dependent upon our fear of what tomorrow might bring.  Advertisers and lobbyists make their obscenely comfortable livelihoods by getting us addicted to the regrets of the past and the fear of the future, and then selling us on their particular solution to it.  Fear is the foundation of all the -isms which plague our nation: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia, to name a few.  Fear is the root cause and the goal of the proliferation of violent acts that terrorize us on an almost daily basis.  The Kingdom of God, into which Jesus invites each of us, offers something completely different.  In the Kingdom of God, peace surpasses fear, love outweighs anger, and forgiveness overcomes regret.  It truly is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, but you have to be present to win.  Your eyes must be open to the needs of your neighbor and to the gifts God has given you.  It is what each of us chooses to do with the now that will help bring the Kingdom just a little bit closer to earth as it is in heaven.  Do not be afraid, my friends, for it is God’s desire to bring forth the Kingdom through you: right here, right now.  Amen.

[1] The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, August 6, 2019, Podcast “Hour 3: Ron Magill”

Called to be better

At my ordination to the priesthood, I had to make several promises.  I declared before God, my bishop, and God’s people, that I felt called to a ministry that, among other things, requires me to “love and serve the people among whom I work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  I vowed to “undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom I am called to serve, laboring together with them and with my fellow ministers to build up the family of God” I try, to the best of my abilities and with God’s help, to help make the “reconciling love of Christ be known and received” in the world (1).  I take this work very seriously as I pastor a community that is very diverse theologically and politically.  It is my duty as a minister of the Gospel to offer the kind of care, compassion, and love to the members of my congregation who are stringent supporters of the President and his loudest critics.  It is my sincere hope that anyone you might ask here at Christ Church, Bowling Green or back at St. Paul’s in Foley, AL would tell you that I treated them with respect and compassion.

Of course, I have my own opinions on things, but I work hard to keep them to myself.  My political inclinations are based on both my own life experiences and my reading of the Scriptures, especially the words of Jesus who summed up the law in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t dare tell others how to vote, knowing that their life experiences and religious convictions will never be the same as mine.  I do, however, think that I am obliged as a minister of the Gospel to speak up anytime that the inherent dignity of any human being or group of people is being denied them.  I’ve done it before, at the death of Osama Bin Laden, after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about certain draconian immigration reform policies.  I feel compelled to do it again as there seems to be a distinct uptick in the racist rhetoric of xenophobia, islamaphobia, and white supremacy spreading throughout our nation, beginning in Washington, DC.

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As a disciple of Jesus Christ, who believes that all are made in the image of God, and is called to be a faithful pastor to all I serve, it would be a violation of my ordination vows to be silent in the wake of language that denigrates whole communities of people from Somalia to Baltimore as being less than.  In line with the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral, I affirm that the language being used by our President and several of his supporters has no place in a country that likes to consider itself Christian.  God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us there.  Instead, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to a higher calling, lifting up those in need, caring for the marginalized, and allowing the love which we have experienced in Christ Jesus flow out into the world.

In his letter to the Colossians that is appointed for this Sunday, Paul implores the community to follow the example of Christ by giving up their old ways of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.”  As the inheritors of that Christian tradition, all who claim to follow Jesus should endeavor to do the same.  So you, dear reader, whether a preacher, a dedicated lay person, or someone just dabbing into the waters of the Christian faith, I invite you to join in modeling for and expecting from our elected leaders a basic respect for all of our siblings in the human family.  We do not need to agree on everything to still love one another as Christ loves us.  Rather, in the renewal of our hearts and minds through the cleansing waters of baptism, all of us whether Republican or Democrat, recent refugee or Daughters of the American Revolution, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics are called to lives our lives following the example of Jesus Christ, who is all and in all, in the world that desperately needs the restoration and redemption that comes from God’s saving love.


(1) BCP, 531-2, emphasis mine.

The Church’s Earthly Things

It has been more than a dozen years ago now, but I remember it quite vividly even today.  It was late fall in my final year of seminary and the diocesan deployment officer came to town.  At my seminary, there were six of us from the same diocese getting ready to graduate.  I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  I was the only person not already drawing a pension from somewhere else or independently wealthy from some other means.  This meant, that while all of us would have liked full-time employment in the church, I was the only person who couldn’t live without it.  The deployment officer got the rest of the guys started on their profiles (we were all dudes), and then he said to me, “Steve, you’re young [he didn’t add white, straight, and married, but I heard it] and you probably plan to be a bishop or cathedral dean someday, so here’s how your career should go.”  He then told me how I would lily pad my way to “success” in the church.

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As he spoke, my heart began to pitter-patter, my head began to swell, and my competitiveness began to engage.  “Yes! Of course I want all of these things,” I thought to myself.  It was in that moment that Mrs. Sekel’s voice rang through my head.  Mrs. Sekel is the mother of my childhood best friend.  She’d known me since I was six or seven years old, and she served on my congregational discernment committee.  At one point in the process, we were talking about what it meant to become a priest at such an early age, and how my life goals were going to have to change.  As a business administration major in college, my stated goal, awful as it may have been, was to crush fingers on the corporate ladder, and Mrs. Sekel, who was often quiet, but always discerning, asked me, “Steve, isn’t the church just a smaller latter to climb?”  Her words exploded again in my mind as I listened to the deployment officer’s motivational speech, and I realized that I was going to have to be very careful in discerning call in my vocation and not career advancement in my job.

In his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul implores the Christians there to “put to death whatever in them is earthly.”  It is advice that is well heard by every succeeding generation of believers.  It is advice that is well heard by the Church as well.  It isn’t just in the hearts of individuals that earthly things live, but they are alive and well in the systems that we human beings create.  Clergy who are working on a career arc rather than focused on where God is calling them and the all-too-easily laughed off notion that “the Holy Spirit never calls someone to a smaller church or less money” is emblematic of larger systemic sins that are at play.  Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, among others, are systemic issues in the Church because the earthly things of bigotry, fear, and anger live in the hearts of her members, her leaders, and her clergy.  We have, as Paul notes, held parts of ourselves back from the new creation that God has inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Changing these systemic sins begins by repentance in our own lives.  We change the Church and change the world only when we are willing to allow God to change us, every part of us, by first putting to death everything that is in us that is earthly.

Lord, teach us to pray

I’ve always read Luke 11:1-13 as a two only somewhat related stories.  First, the disciples, jealous that John’s disciples have a prayer they’ve learned from their Rabbi, ask Jesus to teach them to pray, and Jesus gives them the Lord’s Prayer.  Then, sometime later, but within the construct of Luke’s narrative, Jesus tells the parable of the persistent neighbor.  It’s always felt really disjointed to me, as if there was some kind of record scratch in between.

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Luke B All

This reading is probably due to my Episcopalianism.  As a priest in a tradition that is tied heavily to prayers written in a book, my inclination is to hear the disciples asking Jesus for the words to say in prayer, not necessarily how it should happen.  For some reason this morning, however, I read the text as a singular encounter between Jesus and he disciples.  When they ask Jesus to teach them to pray, first he gives them a basic framework of words to use and then he goes on teach them how often they should use them.

Father, hallowed be your name – The prayer begins by addressing God and articulating that God is God.  In the Jewish tradition, this would be in line with Shema which states that the Lord is God and the Lord is one.

Your kingdom come – This is the core message that Jesus came to bring, that the Kingdom of God has come near.  The prayer of Jesus’ disciples, it would follow, should be primarily focused on seeing that come to fruition.

Give us each day our daily bread – The story of the relationship between God and God’s people is one of faith renewed each morning.  As the Hebrews travelled for 40 years in the wilderness, they were given manna, bread from heaven, that was only enough for the day.  If they took any more than that, it would spoil.  As inheritors of that faith tradition, we look only for enough to deal with today, for tomorrow has its own worries.

And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us – Jesus steers clear of the sins/trespasses/debts debate by using two different words here.  We pray for forgiveness of our sins as we attempt to learn what it means to forgive others who we perceive owe us something.  This is the only place in this prayer where we are invited to directly ask God to change us – from those who do not forgive to those who are and can forgive.

And do not bring us to the time of trial – By far the most difficult petition to understand.  Not only do we pray for forgiveness, but we also pray that God might protect us from situations that would lead us into sin.  Maybe, if we are going to take this prayer seriously, we should all delete our Twitter accounts in order to not be led into a time of trial.

What follows then is a parable from Jesus about how often we should pray.  We know that God knows our needs before we ask and our ignorance in asking, so I don’t think that Jesus is saying that God needs us to be pesterful in order for prayers to be answered.  Many a hospital room has been sullied by such bad theology of “if you only prayed harder” or “if you had more faith.”  Rather, if our relationship with God is to develop, we need to approach God in prayer with great regularity, not merely asking for God to fix those things that are in crisis, but above all, asking God for the Holy Spirit to be our advocate and guide.  “How much more willing will your heavenly Father be to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”