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.

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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.

He who dies with the most toys still dies

Today’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


When I was in high school, there was a popular T-Shirt brand called No Fear.  It was the early days of a professional class of extreme sports like skate boarding and many teens in the late 90s found some freedom in their no fear attitude.  No Fear T-Shirts were a perfect way to share a pithy philosophical slogan of teenage angst and rebellion with the world.  I had one No Fear shirt, and I can still remember the slogan on the back, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”  My favorite slogan, however, had deep scriptural roots, even if the designers and wearers didn’t realize it.  “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  This is the perfect slogan for Proper 13, Year C, though I doubt it would make a compelling church ad campaign.  “Join Saint Paul’s in Foley as we talk about two taboo topics: death and money.  And remember, He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  Of course you wouldn’t lead with that, but since I have you here already, and since Jesus seemed perfectly comfortable talking about money and death, it seems wise to talk about these two less than desirable subjects here this morning.

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The story we heard from Luke’s Gospel is a strange one.  As you’ll recall, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem.  All along the journey from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, Jesus entered village after village, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  As you might expect, his popularity grew immensely during this time, and by the start of chapter 12, Luke tells us that the crowd following Jesus numbered in the thousands.  There were so many people that they began to trample on one another.  In the midst of this sea of humanity full of crying babies and shouting adults, a man comes front and center with a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  As a rabbi, Jesus would have been qualified to interpret the laws dealing with inheritances, but Jesus is clear that he is not a judge.  He did not come to settle family squabbles.  He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God most certainly does not look like greedy family arguments over a dead man’s money.  The message of Jesus does, however, have a lot to say about how we spend our money and what sort of preparations we should make for when we die.

Let’s start with the money piece.  Jesus warns the crowd, including the argumentative brother, to be on guard against greed.  He is very clear that the goal in life is not the accumulation of more stuff.  So what is the goal in life?  Jesus answers this question by way of a parable about a rich man whose land produces abundantly.  When this rich man realizes that he has become even richer, the only person he can think of is himself.  He doesn’t stop to thank God for good soil, for seasonable weather, or for rain.  He doesn’t consider the many others who made this abundant harvest possible: the sowers of the seed, the tenders of the plants, the harvesters of the produce, the picklers of his okra, nor the builders of his barns.  He doesn’t think about sharing the harvest with anyone: not family, not friends, and certainly not the poor who probably lived just outside the walls of his estate.  Instead, the man thinks only of himself.  Eleven times in his soliloquy, the man uses a first person pronoun!  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

This man is so self-centered that in the midst of a conversation with himself, he interrupts himself to have a different conversation with himself!  His problem wasn’t really money or possessions or power, but that he worshiped only one wrong thing: himself.  There was nothing outside of himself that he cared about, and so, his money afforded him the luxury of spending years and years not having to worry about anything or anyone.  Clearly, this is not what Jesus would have us do with our money.   The Kingdom of God is not about accumulating things, but rather accumulating relationships.  The accumulation of wealth is of no value if it can’t be shared with love and joy with those around us.  In the Kingdom of God, money is not bad, in and of itself, because money allows us to build relationships.  It allows us to build familial relationships as we use it to nurture, nourish, and educate children.  It allows us to build friendships by inviting people to share a meal with us.  It allows us to build co-working relationships by engaging others in work.  It allows us to build neighborly relationships as we pay our taxes for the upkeep of society and the common good.  It allows us to build relationships of mutual respect when we minister to the poor and the poor, in turn, minister to us.  Money can be a good thing when it is used to build relationships, thereby building the Kingdom of God.

Still, as that old No Fear t-shirt said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”  It doesn’t matter whether you have the most money, the most influence, or the most friendships; you can’t take any of it with you when you die, which is at the heart of God’s harsh words to the rich man, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  That question, “whose will they be?” rang in my ears all week.  Some commentators suggested that because this man had no family or friends, that the abundant supply of his storehouses would end up being given to the community of people around him that he never even noticed.  Some even suggested that he might become a hero by default; feeding the community for years after his death.  Others think that perhaps the grain in his silos would do nothing but rot away after his death, that all his selfishness would continue, even in death, as the hungry continued to be hungry while years’ worth of grain went to waste.  None of these seems like a comfortable ending to the story, which is precisely the point of a parable.

It seems to me that this is a story not just about the right use of our money in life, but the proper planning for its use after our death.  If we have not given any thought to the question, “whose will it be?” we have failed to see our relationships through to the end.  Even after death, our money and possessions can be used to foster relationships, to build up other people, and to grow the kingdom of God.  The Church suggests this is important, albeit uncomfortable, when, tucked deep in the Prayer Book, on page 445, at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child, the rubrics require that Ministers “instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”[1]  Neither Jesus nor the Church say that having money when you die is a bad thing, but both argue that not having planned for how it will be distributed is.

“Whose will it be?” is a good question to ask, not only as we become parents, but continually as life goes on.  There are other considerations as well.  “What do I want my funeral to look like?”  “Who will have my medical power of attorney?”  “Do I need a Living Will?”  As the parable of the Rich Fool reminds us, our days are never guaranteed, and having made careful decisions today, we can save our families and friends from difficult choices down the road.  Making plans for a future in which we do not exist is one more way to show that we care about something other than ourselves, build healthy relationships, and, ultimately, usher in the Kingdom of God.  One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions, but it can certainly be made better when we make careful, intentional decisions about how those possessions will be use with love and joy with those God has place in our lives both here in this life and after we’re gone.

[1] 1979 BCP, 445.

Christ is [the] all, and in all

A few days ago, a parishioner of mine shared a video with me entitled, “What should Christians do if they dislike both Presidential candidates?”  The show, like most Christian talk shows sits right of center, but the message of discernment is worth hearing.

As the Democratic National Convention nears its ending, with the Republican National Convention having done its work last week, I’ve been thinking again and again about what role the Church has in American Politics.  No, I’m not suggesting that we repeal the Johnson Amendment, but I am suggesting that perhaps instead of letting politicians and talking heads tell us what makes these candidates good or bad, Christian or not, that preachers have an obligation to offer our congregations a glimpse into the Kingdom of God and invite them to discern, prayerfully, which candidate’s life and platform more closely align to it.

The reality is that faithful Christians are going to come up with very different answers to that question.  This is because Jesus doesn’t fit nicely into the box of Democrat or Republican.  Paul, as he wrote the the Church in Colossae, a church that struggled with differences of theological opinion like every other church in the history of Christianity, urged them not to get caught up in partisanship arguments of “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” Democrat and Republican, Libertarian and Green Parry.  Instead, Paul reminder the diverse members of the Colossian Church that “Christ is [the] all and in all.”

If our focus on the reign of Christ, and the work of discernment is taken out of the emotional and the self-serving, and handed over to the Spirit of Christ that dwells within us, then the vitriol and ickiness (a deeply theological word) of modern politics will fade away.  We may still disagree as to whether the ideals of Johnson, Stein, Clinton, or Trump most closely align with the will of God, but if we are focused on Christ, the all who is in all, then we won’t be able to dehumanize and reject the other, but rather be willing to listen, to learn, and, God forbid, to have our minds opened to another possibility than the one truth we have found.

Not only is this way of engaging in politics Biblical, but is the teaching of the Episcopal Church, summed up in the Prayer for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority found on page 820 of the Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The telos of politics is the reign of Christ, and until we remember that, we will continue down the spiral of downright ugliness in which we are currently and seemingly intractably, stuck.  May God grant us grace to seek Christ who is the all and in all.  Amen.

Horse Hockey!

Back before I went to seminary, I served as a part-time, co-youth minister at the Episcopal church in which I grew up.  As is common, there was a non-stipendiary, retired priest who hung around the parish.  He would fill in on the occasional Sunday, maybe teach a Sunday school class, and sometimes visit the sick.  One day, as I was checking my mail, Father S approached me with an offer to teach a short course for our youth group kids on swear words in the Bible.  “When Paul talks about garbage in Philippians, he actually uses the common Greek word for sh*t,” he explained, “the kids will most certainly find that interesting.”

Indeed they would, but so would their parents.  My partner in youth ministry and I agreed to decline the invitation, but I often wish I would have asked him to teach that class just to me.  As Christians, we often get all uppity around words that have come to be known as “curse words,” not thinking that even in our scriptures, we have examples of impassioned authors using harsh words to get their point across.

This Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson is just such an occasion.  While Ecclesiastes is probably best known for its third chapter’s prominent place in The Byrds’ classic “Turn, Turn, Turn,” there is opportunity for bits and pieces of chapters one and two to be read in the duldrums of mid-to-late summer, and the brave preacher will delve into this text and its famous euphemism of “vanity,” which scholars suggest is more accurately translated as “bullsh*t,” or as my favorite Army Colonel would say

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Not unlike the point of Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the author of Ecclesiastes is very clear that when we trust only in ourselves, the result is nothing but calamity, horse hockey, bullsh*t.  We can toil all we want to, but until we invite God’s will into our work, it will amount to nothing more than chasing wind.  We can build bigger barns, but until we follow God’s lead, they will collapse into ruin.  As the Psalmist writes, “Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.”

Less controversial than suggesting all our work is useless crap, the Collect for Sunday turns this idea into is positive by asking God to be present in our work.

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

My, Myself, and I

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Greed is inherently selfish.  My insatiable desire for money and things and the power that goes with them is predicated on the fact that I can not care about the needs and sufferings of anyone else.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, it seems that it is the wonted selfishness of the Greedy Foolish Rich Man that is at the core of Jesus’ parable.

Commentary after commentary this week is highlighting the first person pronouns at work in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After Jesus begins the parable by clearly stating that the land, and not the man, had produced abundantly, he goes on to put first person pronouns in the mouth of the rich fool no less than twelve times!

My crops… My barns… My goods… My soul

This rich man’s sin ins’t that he was greedy, but that he failed to take notice that the abundant harvest was first and foremost the work of the God who created all things.  Beyond that, he also failed to see acknowledge that those crops might be better put to use in caring for the poor and needy who were no doubt in his view.  He certainly didn’t harvest all that produce by himself.  He didn’t build his own barns.  He didn’t pickle his own okra.  All around him were servants and craftsmen, those made by God in God’s image and likeness, who helped make his crops flourish, who helped build his system of storage, who helped ensure that his food would not spoil, but there is no reference to the existence of anyone other than himself.

I will… relax, eat, drink, and be merry

When we lose sight of our neighbor, we fail to live into the fullness of God’s dream for us.  “It is not good for man to be alone.”  In Genesis, these are the first words of God about something that is not good.  Isolation, being out of relationship with those around us, is not good, and selfish desire is a key cause of isolation.  When my focus is on the trinity of me, myself, and I, we are no longer in relationship with the Trinity of Love that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Be on guard…

As the American Dream has evolved, selfish desire has become a foundational component.  We have made all of life a zero sum game, assuming that for others to have more, I would have less.  In God’s economy, it just doesn’t work that way.  Instead, when I give something away, I find myself richer than I could have ever imagined.

Some Context

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson always feels like a non sequitur to me.  Either that, or a story Luke added in to solve a stewardship problem in his church.  It start with a man blurting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  I mean, really?  Throughout the course of the Gospels, we often see Jesus the Rabbi invoked to settle theological debates, but off the top of my head, this is the only time we see Jesus invited to act as a judge.  From the time of Moses on, this case would have been taken to an elder or a judge for settlement, yet here we find a man, obviously ticked off at his brother, asking Jesus to weigh in on a family matter he knows nothing about.

From there, we get Jesus telling the Parable of the Rich Fool, which sort of deals with the question of this man’s inheritance, but sounds a whole lot more like Luke’s church is having trouble raising funds.  As a stewardship text, it comes at a particularly bad time of the year, since many Episcopalians forget that Sunday morning worship exists in the month of July.  I’ll dig into the theological claims of this parable later in the week, but for now, I’m content to try to figure out why Luke includes this story and why the RCL thought it was worth telling in the dog days of summer every three years?

To try to figure this out, having noticed that we’ve jumped from early in Luke 11 to midway through Luke 12, I decided to get my bearings.  Where are we?  What’s been going on?  How’d this man end up so close to Jesus?  Luke answers these questions in the bits we skipped along the way.  It seems that decrying lawyers was a popular in first century Palestine as it is today.

The second half of Luke 11 has Jesus spewing “woe to yous” to hypocritical lawyers and Pharisees, while Luke 12 opens with crowds number in the thousands.  There were so many people following Jesus at this point that they were trampling over one another to get a glimpse of him.  One can imagine the sound of hundred of voices crying out for Jesus to help them.  The sick, the demon possessed, the hungry, and yes, in one particular case, the jealous and greedy, all vying for Jesus’ attention.  It is no wonder this story seems so awkward or out of place.  Luke could have chosen any of a hundred or more these encounters between Jesus and a needy person in the crowd.  Hopefully, as the week unfolds, we’ll understand why he chose this one.