Racism has no place in the Kingdom of God – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are evil, they are sinful, and they are from the devil.  They are lies straight from the pit of hell, and I can say this with full confidence because each of these things seek to separate human beings into us and them, in and out, right and wrong.  Our Prayer Book teaches that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[1]  This is the mission of the Church because it is the mission of God, the dream that God has for the creation he saw living in perfect harmony at the end of the sixth day of creation and declared it “exceedingly good.”[2]

From that moment forward, the devil has been sowing seeds of division among God’s good creation.  First, it was to separate humanity from God through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then, he began to tear down human relationships through pride, envy, and deceit.  When Cain killed his brother, Abel, the first fruits of sin had come to harvest, and in every generation thereafter, God has been hard at work trying to help us restore the unity that existed in the very good beginning.  In the fullness of time, the Father sent his only Son to live among us.  God took on human flesh, and in so doing, took within the Godhead things which God had never known.  Through the full humanity of Jesus, God experienced human pain: a scraped knee, a hammer to the thumb, a nasty splinter.  God experienced emotional pain: the stress of the temptation, the worry of that first miracle at a wedding in Cana, the deep sadness of the death of a friend.  God experienced the fullness of our human existence, up to and including, suffering and death.  Hard as it might be for us to believe, in every new experience, the Godhead learned something that God had never known before.  Harder yet to believe is that by living in a specific time and a specific place and as a particular person with race, creed, color, and nationality, God even learned from the depravity of human sinfulness

The devil has been hard at work, trying to separate us from God and each other, since the very beginning.  He uses individual temptations, to be sure, but often, the devil’s best work is done through the systems and institutions that human beings naturally create.  As a first century Jewish person, Jesus was born into one of those systems, just as we were born into our own system of beliefs, assumptions, and ways of looking at the world as twenty-first century American Christians.  In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear a story about the power those systems can exert, even over the Son of God.  After Jesus tells the crowd that it isn’t what goes into our mouths that makes us unclean, but what comes out from the heart, the story immediately turns to Jesus and his disciples leaving the safety of Galilee for the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.  There, Jesus encounters a woman of Canaanite descent who desperately wants Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter.  After initially ignoring her pleas, Jesus engages her with these difficult words hear, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Matthew presents us with something of a problem.  Canaanites no longer existed by time Jesus walked the earth, but by naming the woman as a Canaanite, Matthew cues his readers that this woman represents all the enemies of Israel: Canaanites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Samaritans, you name it.  In this story, this woman stands in for all those whom any human system, be it first century Judaism or 21st century America, looks at as outsider, unclean, and less than.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.”[3]  I think this story is as close as Jesus ever got to succumbing to temptation and falling into sin.  Such is the power of systemic evil.  The pressures of the system into which Jesus was born were nearly too much for the Son of God.  Racism is evil, it is sinful, and it is of the devil, even when it comes from the lips of our Savior.  In that moment, when Jesus calls the woman descended from the ancient enemy of Israel a dog, the devil is there tempting Jesus to allow the system of separation, prejudice, and enmity to continue.  Jesus is tempted to keep his eyes closed to her suffering, to ignore the cry of another human being, and to relegate her to the dog pound.  Also present in that moment however, was the power of God’s reconciling love, and God’s love, my friends, is always, always, stronger than the devil’s divisive hate.

Through the Canaanite woman, God the Father confronted the systems of racism, sexism, and fear.  By opening her mouth to challenge Jesus, God once again opened the Kingdom of heaven to the whole world.  It is because of this encounter and others like it that Paul could later write, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”[4]  In this encounter, Jesus learned something about his ministry, God learned something about the insidious nature of the devil’s influence within human institutions, and we learn that there is power in confronting the racist, sexist, and classist systems of this world.

Let’s be honest.  Saying racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are evil is the easy part.  What’s harder is taking a hard look at the systems we love, like this great nation or our beloved Episcopal Church, and asking how these institutions continue to perpetuate the evil of separating human beings from God and from each other.  Harder yet, is the task of looking at ourselves, and being honest about how we allow this evil to continue through sins known and unknown; things done and left undone.  This isn’t about white guilt, but rather the hard realizations that we benefit from systems over which we have no control, that our silence for fear of upsetting someone else perpetuates those systems, and that our fear keeps us from overcoming the devil’s efforts to divide us from each other and the reality of God’s all-encompassing love.

As it was for Jesus, coming to terms with the reality of our own complicity in racism will not be easy.  It requires first that we see the sin within ourselves, admit it, repent of it, and seek God’s forgiveness.  It will mean leaving our comfort zones to name racism, hate, and prejudice when we see them.  We cannot move beyond the sin of racism in silence, but we must we willing to speak out on behalf of those who for centuries have had their voice silenced.  I say all this not to condemn anyone for where they are, but because, I’m afraid, this is where I have been for too long.  The time to rest in relative comfort because racism doesn’t affect me personally is long over.

The dream of God for unity among human beings, God, and all that God has created will not come into being through violent rhetoric, through fist-fights, or through war.  Violence does nothing more than take Jesus again to the cross.  Instead, the mission of God has already been won through the life of Jesus, in which God took upon himself the fullness of our human condition, the death of Jesus, through which God showed the violent work of the devil to be an impotent farce, and the resurrection of Jesus, by which all of humanity has been restored to right relationship.  We who live as a people of the resurrection must take seriously the reality of that victory, and work with intention, compassion, and love to achieve God’s dream of unity not only for ourselves, but for all God’s children: male and female; Black, White, Hispanic, and southeast Asian; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

Saying that racism is from the devil is the easy part.  God is calling us to move beyond easy and become active participants in the restoring of all people to God and to each other in Christ.  May God bless us with the grace, power, and courage we will need to answer that call.  Amen.

[1] BCP, 855

[2] Genesis 1:31, my translation

[3] Hebrews 4:15

[4] Galatians 3:28

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The Lenses We Use

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Nick Cage is a National Treasure

I’ve read the lessons for Sunday three times this morning.  I tell you this not so you’ll think I’m Super-Bible-Man, but as a confession that I can’t, for the life of me, find something to write about today.  My sermon came crashing in on me yesterday morning in the last minute frenzy of getting kids off to school.  I came to the office, I wrote it and the blog post that flowed out of it, and now today, I’m left wondering, what else is there to say?

As I  considered what it meant that my well had run dry, I remembered the now eleven years of blogging that I’ve done.  That’s almost four full Lectionary cycles of blog posts on lessons that I read again and again and again.  Sometimes, the thoughts come easily.  Other times, I have to work at it.  There are even a few times when I work at it and the resulting post is nothing but a rambling mess (see also, Tuesday’s post).  What gives me the chance to write on these lessons again and again is that I always manage to see them with a different set of lenses.  Each time I approach the scriptures, I do so as a different person.  Something has changed in my life, even if it is only the date on the calendar, and a story that I’ve read a hundred times is brand new again.  The Bible is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “living and active” in that way.

I realized this morning that my lens hasn’t changed much this week.  Sometimes, weeks are like that, I suppose.  Sometimes, we need to spend some extra time thinking on things we haven’t considered deeply before.  I’ve been privileged not to have to think much about racism and white-supremacy before, but this week, it is where the Spirit has called me to focus.

The lens will change in time.  It always does.  God does not allow us to stay in one place very long, but instead invites us to open the scriptures in a new and exciting way.  So, like Nick Cage in National Treasure, today I’m using this set of lenses to see what I need to see, and maybe tomorrow, I’ll flip down another.

Staying out of Politics

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THE UNIVERSITY OF THE SOUTH
To all who read this diploma
Greetings in the Lord,
Steven John Pankey
a very worthy young man, an alumnus of this University who
has conducted himself uprightly and who has duly and lawfully
completed the course of study leading to the degree of
Doctor of Ministry
We the faculty and Senate have by unanimous consent advanced to this degree
and have given and granted to him all rights, privileges, and honors which in
any way pertain to it.

One of the great privileges that comes with being a highly educated, white, middle-class, Christian in 21st century America is the ability to ignore, by and large, what is happening “out there.”  Several years ago, I gave up watching the news for Lent, and it was freeing.  No longer did I have to carry the stress of the 24 hour news cycle.  No longer would I be addicted to the adrenaline rush of a breaking news alert.  No longer would the vitriol of talking heads impact my life.  It was as delightful as it was sinful.

The reality is, my life isn’t much impacted by what happens in the news.  My retirement is far off, so the daily fluctuations of the stock market aren’t my concern.  My health insurance is really good and it is mandated that my employer pay for it.  My children go to an affluent school with plenty of resources and have never known what it means to be in want.  It doesn’t much matter what happens in the world around me, and increasingly, I’m realizing how privileged a way this is to live.

The same is true for my preaching as well.  Ever since I listened to a Convocation sermon at VTS that blamed George Bush for Hurricane Katrina – not the aftermath, but the very storm itself, at least that’s how I hear it – I have subscribed to the school of thought that says politics have little, if any, place in the pulpit.  My congregations have been mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly educated folks.  They have run the political spectrum from Tea Party Republican to Bleeding Heart Democrat.  They have, with few exceptions, been quite content for me to not get into those topics which make us uncomfortable.  Additionally, I take seriously my call to minister alike to young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, and so I work hard to teach people how to think theologically and come to their own discerned conclusions.  I preach the text first, and only with great caution consult the newspaper.  In light of current events, however, I’m beginning to see just how privileged a posture this is as well.

As a preacher, I don’t need to make direct claims about the President of the United States, that’s beyond my constitutionally protected (OK, IRS statute protected) status.  I do, however, realize that I can’t stay out of the political system in which we live and move and have our being.  I have to be willing to name sin, no matter where I see it, and right now, that sin that needs to be named is racism, a topic which some see as political.  I need to name it, not for my congregation, for my blog readers, or so I can look good on social media, but rather, I need to name it for myself so that I can bring it to the cross, repent from my silence that perpetuates it, and begin to be transformed so that I can be a part of the transformation that God has begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As I wrote on Monday, if ever there was a week to deal with this, to venture into that which some will consider politics, this is the week to start.  I continue to pray for you, dear reader, as I hope you will for me.

What goes in

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In the realm of “there’s nothing new under the sun,” middle-class America has become obsessed with what they put in the body of late.  There was time when it was just about whether or not one could eat eggs and maintain basic health,

but now a days, there are open, ongoing, and often long-winded conversations about the merits of gluten, meat, lactose, soy, paleo, and Whole30 related dietary needs, just to name a few.  We are, of course, not the first generation of human beings to worry about such things, though ours probably stems more from luxury than it did in bygone eras.

One such time when the conversation about what one ate raged loudly was in and around the time of Jesus and the rise of the Pharisaical sect of Jewish priests.  Their main theological goal was to return Judaism to ritual purity as described in the Torah.  As such, they placed a high value on the purity code that included avoiding certain foods, cooked in certain way, in certain pots, and, given their Roman occupied context, offered as sacrifice to certain gods.  While today they are an easy punching bag, especially in interpreting Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had good intentions at heart.  In their promised land, occupied by a foreign, pagan, empire, the only way that the Jews could really maintain their identity was to live by the strict code that God had given them through the 10 Commandments and the Levitical law.

Whether it is to the privileged white dude ordering his non-fat, half-caf, organic, soy, three-pump, sugar free, locally-sourced vanilla, latte or the Pharisee who might be overly concerned with whether or not one’s mixing spoon was used in two different pots, Jesus offers a counter-point in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Not as a matter of health or even as a point in the conversation about the ethics of food sourcing, but rather as part of the ongoing human question about what does or does not make someone clean in the eyes of God, Jesus offers this advice, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  In modern idiom, it might be, it’s not how fair trade your coffee is, but how you treat your barista.

Jesus is much more concerned with our relationships with other human beings than he is with how fussy we are about the rules.  This isn’t to say that buying coffee from responsible growers isn’t a good thing, but that even there, it is about concentric circles of relationships.  How we treat one another, whether it is face-to-face or three thousand miles apart, is what matters in the Kingdom, and how we treat each other comes forth from the heart rather than the other way ’round.  So, the next time you feel like patting yourself on the back for that organic head of lettuce, stop and give thanks for the growers who have chosen to use earth friendly farming techniques, pray for the laborers who do the hard work of harvesting, the scientists who are making trucks more eco-friendly through the discover of DEF, and the grocer, who, one hopes, has paid a just sum for the product.  And, as always, don’t forget to smile at your cashier, tip your waiter, and thank your barista.  These are the things that come from the heart.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

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True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Suicide, Sin, and Modern Tribalism

It has been a couple of years now since a man pulled his car diagonally across the busiest intersection in south Baldwin County at AL-59 and US-98, got out, took a seat on top of the trunk, and, in broad day light, shot himself in the head.  Traffic was backed up for hours as locals tried to figure out what had happened to shut down the road.  Rumors swirled, but all we heard was that an incident had occurred which required the intersection to be closed for several hours.  Ultimately, the final say on the matter was “The media does not report on suicides.”  This is still, by and large, the case.  The media does not report on suicides, unless it is the death of a major figure in politics or entertainment.

There was a time, a very long time, in the not too distant past, in which the Church (I use a capital “C” very intentionally here) condemned suicide as an unpardonable sin.  The theology, such as it was, behind it stated that because suicide is a blatant violation of the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) and is therefore a sin and because the sinner cannot ask for forgiveness after the sin was committed, then one who commits suicide died as an unrepentant sinner and was therefore condemned to hell for eternity.  Let’s be clear about something, this is a terrible and damaging theology.  Nevertheless, it was the prevailing understanding of suicide in the the Church for about 1,960 years (+/-).

The questions surrounding how we handle suicide as a culture have come under the bright light of the news media in the past few days as we’ve collectively mourned the loss of comedic legend, Robin Williams.  From the international back lash surround Shepherd Smith’s suggestion that Williams was a “coward” to a local op ed piece on the unpardonable sin, Williams death has opened up a long overdue conversation about depression, addiction, and suicide.  Thankfully, the Church has walked alongside advancements in psychology and physiology over the past half century, and, at least on this matter, we don’t sound like barbaric cave men spouting ignorance in the name of Jesus.  We can now say that depression can kill just like cancer can, and respond with compassion and grace rather than condemnation and law.

What I’ve found most interesting over the last 48 hours however, is how Social Media has created something of a neo-tribalism that gets exacerbated in the aftermath of large scale life events.  I think it has been largely unintentional, but watching as groups have worked hard to address the grave issues behind Williams’ death, celebrate his life, and drive traffic to their websites has been intriguing for me.  Whether it is the TODAY Show sharing clips of all of his visits to their set or the local Top-40 station inviting me to check out something they’ve shared on their Facebook Page or the scores of Episcopalians sharing Robin Williams’ Top 10 Reasons to be an Episcopalian

or the San Francisco Giants holding a moment of silence for one of their greatest fans, there has been a rush to have Robin Williams included among at least one of almost every tribal grouping you can imagine: church, sports team, local radio stations, even morning “news” shows.  Heck, even this blog post can be looked as with suspicion.  Am I writing this with entirely pure intentions?  Probably not.

What is really interesting isn’t searching out the motivations behind all of the internet traffic that Robin Williams’ death has caused, but how we have so drastically changed the way suicide is viewed, and rightfully so.  60, 100, 1,000 years ago, Williams’ name would have been shunned from society.  There would have been a rush by groups he was associated with to remove themselves from the shadow that his suicide would have cast on the culture.  Today, as we know more about depression, as more of us have experienced it, as we’ve become more open to removing the stigma of mental illness, we are able to actually learn something from what is really a national tragedy.  That a man who brought so much joy was paralyzed by such deep pain boggles the mind, but it helps to remind us that depression doesn’t look like what we think it should, and to be on guard, watching for signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.  People still want Robin Williams to be included among their tribe.  They want all of him: manic stand-up comedian, gifted actor, hilarious talk show guest, and yes, even depressed and cash strapped mega-star.  We want him to be included among us because now, more than ever, we’re able to say, “none of us is perfect, we’ve all got demons, we all struggle from time to time, and we’re all in this together.”  I rejoice that we’ve come so far.  Anything to find some good in the midst of such a sad story.

And please, if you find yourself having thoughts of suicide, know that there is help available and things really can be better.  Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

A house of prayer for all people

I seem to recall a time when the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, aka the Washington National Cathedral, called itself “a house of prayer for all people.”  These days they see their calling as “a spiritual home for the nation,” welcoming people of all faiths.  This is a good and noble vision, but as the Nones continue to grow, now comprising nearly 1 in 5 Americans, I wonder how it is that the National Cathedral or the Church she represents, can claim a space for those seeking for spirituality without religion.

Certainly, the prophet Isaiah didn’t have Nones in mind when he wrote of the great restoration of all people in the Old Testament lesson appointed for Sunday.  Not having faith in something wasn’t really an option until the last 100 years or so.  Prior to that, human beings were so dependent upon nature and the God (or gods, depending on one’s faith) that created it, that the risk of not having faith and not taking your part in the religious activities of the era were entirely too great.  It is only with the rise of science and the advent of industrialization that human beings are able to, in theory at least, rely on themselves, their own physical and cognitive abilities.

How is it then, in the growing post-religious society (at least in the West), are we called to meet the needs of those who are seeking a relationship with God, or as Isaiah puts it those “who join themselves to the LORD” outside of the traditional structures of laws, prophets, holy writ, and ritual?  This is, in some way, the crux of the conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.

Jesus has the role of the tradition in this story, arguing, rather impolitely, “this is the way things are supposed to be done.”  In response, the Canaanite woman argues the side of the Nones, suggesting that perhaps there is another way.  A better way.  I don’t have any answers as to if the Church can meet the needs of the rising Nones, let alone how we might do it, but I do know that the starting place isn’t entrenchment.  “This is how we do it,” should not, in fact must not, be our answer.  Instead, this week’s Gospel lesson seems to suggest that a certain openness to the other, seeing them not so much as someone to be converted or treated with suspicion, but rather as one who, like every human being ever made, was created to be in relationship with God and is seeking that out, just a way that is very different than my own.

I’m not sure how God is going to create a Kingdom that is a house of prayer for all people.  I just know I hope I’m a part of it, and I hope my actions haven’t pissed off those who will likely be standing right beside me on that great and glorious day.