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.

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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.

Running with a cloud of witnesses

My sermon for Proper 15, Year C can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I do not enjoy running.  I dislike it so much that recently Cassie bought me my own version of one of those 26.2 marathon stickers that people put on their cars.  Mine says “0.0 I don’t run.”

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Still, I can’t seem to get away from running.  Cassie loves to run.  She completed her first two half marathons last year and has hopes to run a full marathon someday in the near future.  She has a friend who is an ultra-marathoner, and we’ve been known to track his progress as he spends 24 or more hours running 100 mile endurance races.  Today’s New Testament lesson has a running theme, and with the Women’s Olympic Marathon happening this morning, I had little choice but to preach about the long race of the life of faith.

Unlike many Olympic marathons over the years, the marathon course in Rio will not end inside the track and field stadium, but instead the athletes will make their way to the famous Sambadrome, a parade ground built for the annual Carnival celebration in Rio.  As many as 90,000 spectators will line both sides of the last half mile to cheer on the racers from first place to 171st.  Having only run a few small 5K events, I can only imagine how it must feel to be absolutely exhausted at the end of a 26.2 mile run having given your all in the hopes of an Olympic medal to turn the final corner and see tens of thousands of fans cheering you on.  The adrenaline rush must be spectacular as you push harder than you thought possible to complete the course.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews was no doubt familiar with Olympic running competitions.  Like the modern day Olympic games with a whole lot less advertising and a whole lot more nudity, every four years from about 776 BC until 393 AD athletes from around the Greek speaking world would gather in Olympia to compete in events like track and field, boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing.[1]  Back then, the longest running race was called the Dolichos and was roughly equivalent to a 5k.  Runners would begin the race inside the stadium and then travel the Olympic grounds, passing by the shrines to Greek gods like Zues and Nike before reentering the stadium to cross the finish line with 50,000 fans cheering them on.[2] [3]  It must have been with that experience in mind that the author encourages the Greek speaking Christians in Rome to gain strength from the great cloud of witnesses, to run with endurance the race that was set before them, and to hold fast to their faith despite ongoing persecution.  Last Sunday, we heard the first part of his exhortation on faith as “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen.”  The author then goes on to describe Old Testament hero after Old Testament hero who lived their lives in devotion to God.  Noah withstood a flood of the entire world because he had faith enough to build an ark.  Abraham picked up his family and moved them to an unknown faraway land just because God asked him to.  Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt because he had faith enough to take off his sandals in front of burning bush.  As we heard this morning, the list of heroes who lived faithfully in the Old Testament is too long to name, but they are worthy of our attention because they show us what it means to live lives of faithfulness: in assurance of things hoped for and confident in things unseen.

What is striking about this long list of heroes is that all of them lived before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  None of them knew the saving love of the Messiah, and yet, the author notes, in the end, all of them will enter the Promised Land alongside those of us who have come after them and claimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  We will all finish the race together, regardless of when we began.  This mind-boggling characteristic of God’s grace reminded me of a running story we heard from that ultra-marathoner friend of Cassie’s.  Paul is one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not designed to run for 24 hours non-stop, and so, these events often include pacers who run a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from getting lost or doing real damage to themselves.  Paul’s last event was the Hard Rock 100 mile race but he didn’t compete for a medal, his job was to set the pace for the final 40 miles.  He waited at an aid station until his group arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly exhausted.  What was unique about this year’s Hard Rock 100 is that the two leaders actually paced each other – running together for 80 of the 100 miles.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, having run the last 80 miles side-by-side, it didn’t seem right for either one of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  Jason Schlarb and Kilian Jornet had survived the 22 hour, 58 minute and 28 second journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

The life of faith is kind of like the ancient Dolichos, the Marathon, or sometimes even an ultra-marathon.  It can be a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we might grow increasingly exhausted and, perhaps, delirious.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, and one day we will all be gifted with the chance to cross the finish line together when we all join hands with Jesus Christ who will come again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

In the meantime, we cannot go about this journey alone.  We are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  It doesn’t matter if you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  When the race feels like it has gone on too long, when exhaustion sets in and you want to do nothing more than quit chasing after the dream of “things hoped for” and still “unseen,” remember that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on.  Tap into the adrenaline rush that comes from recalling the stories of faithful heroes of the past.  Invite God to open your eyes to see their hands out-stretched, inviting you to join them as together we pursue the finish line of the Kingdom of God brought to earth as it is in heaven.  Ready? Set. Let’s go!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolichos_(race)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadium_at_Olympia

Only Together

SHW went to high school with a guy who has gone on to become an ultra-marathoner.  He’s one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not particularly designed to run for 24 hours non-stop. We were designed for the rhythm of day and night; sleep and awake; and so, these events usually include pacers who run only a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from doing real damage to themselves.  P’s last event wasn’t a race but rather his task was to set the pace for the final 40ish miles.  He waited at an aid station until the leaders arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly tired.  The two leaders ran together every step of the way.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, it didn’t seem right for either on of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  They had survived the journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

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The life of faith is kind of like an ultra-marathon.  It is a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we too might grow increasingly delirious and exhausted.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds his readers and us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, but even those who have died have not yet crossed the finish line.  Instead, we will all be gifted with the chance to cross over together when as one, we join with Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead, comes again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

We cannot go about this journey alone.  Instead, we are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  Whether you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like really good news.

Jesus came to bring what?

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

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Even if Jesus came to bring long division to the earth, I wouldn’t like this passage.  As I’ve said all week, these words from Jesus are difficult to hear.  This isn’t the Kumbaya Jesus of modern day prophets – you know, the kind that the prophet Jeremiah spoke against in Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson – who wants to give you “your best life now.”

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No, this is the Jesus who has come to stake his claim on your life so that the world might come to know the kingdom of God now.  Living a life of the kingdom of God in a world hell-bent on the successes of the kingdoms of power, privilege, money, and self-interest will cause division, of that there is no doubt.  However, this reality seems to be difficult for many preachers to name.  Instead, we hem and haw about how in the time of Luke’s Gospel, following Jesus might mean getting kicked out of the Synagogue or your family business, but we don’t really know those struggles today.

What we do know is that there continues to be an ongoing battle between the kingdom of God and the powers and principalities of this world.  Following Jesus in 21st century  American means doing such unpopular things as caring for the poor, showing hospitality to immigrants, honoring the sanctity of all human life, forgiving those who have hurt you, praying for your enemies, showing compassion to the weak, respecting those with whom you disagree, and generally loving your neighbor as yourself.  This is 100% counter to the politics of this age that are built upon fear, mistrust, anger, and self-preservation.

Those who are called to live lives of the kingdom today will, no doubt, find themselves at odds with the rhetoric of the day.  They won’t fit in with the Republicans or the Democrats, which will make them seem as strange outsiders.   It will cause division in a world that is increasingly bipolar; seeing the world only in black and white, or red and blue, with no room for the beautiful color palette that makes up the middle.  Jesus came to bring division, but not the sort of division that  FoxNews and MSNBC have come to create.  Jesus came to tear us away from hateful rhetoric of this world in order to see the beautiful peace of the kingdom of God.

A Very Long Walk

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a tricky one.  It is a lesson full of apocalyptic imagery, difficult teaching, and enmity.  I’ll deal with that portion of it more in the days to come, but what I’m drawn to this morning is a glimpse into what brings Jesus to this point of seeming frustration.  Jesus gives us a clue as he begins this diatribe by turning his attention to himself, saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This journey from Mount Tabor where Jesus was Transfigured and enjoyed fellowship with Moses and Elijah to Jerusalem where he will turn the tables in the Temple, engage in intense debate, and ultimately be arrested, abandoned by his closest disciples, tortured, and killed has been going on for quite some time, and there is a pretty good hike left to go.  For days on end, Jesus has been thinking about what is to come, wondering how it will all play out, but certain that death on a cross is just over the horizon.

Jesus has been stressed out for as long as he can remember, and here lets his disciples know that he is ready for this period of intense pressure to be over.  Here we find Jesus in his full humanity; feeling the effects of long term stress just like we all do.  High blood pressure, lack of sleep, upset stomach, headache, trouble focusing, irritability, and even a speeding up of the aging process are all effects of ongoing stress in someone’s life.

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Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem was probably not unlike seven years as President of the United States.

Jesus is clearly ready for this very long walk to Jerusalem to be over, but there is still more to come.  More teachings.  More healing.  More parables.  More encounters with the least and the lost.  More controversy with the religious powers-that-be.  The road to Jerusalem is long and winding, and today, we see Jesus at his most vulnerable and yet his most determined.  He may wish the fire was already kindled and the waters of baptism already troubled, but he can read the signs, he knows that his hour has not yet come, and so he will continue on, faithfully proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

The Purse Seine of Sin

Let’s get this out of the way early on.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy. It’ll take a good preacher a lot of time to deal with the harsh words of Jesus in this eschatological passage.  It’s Monday, it’s cloudy, and I’m just not up for it yet.  I promise I’ll get there, but at least for today (and maybe tomorrow too), the Hebrew’s lesson seems much more appealing.

For the first time in a while, I found myself drawn to a word as I read the long passage on faith from Hebrews 11-12.  Skipping past the stories of Old Testament heroes of faith who trusted in God, even when God wasn’t their God, I find myself focusing on those famous words about the Great Cloud of Witnesses.  I’m especially keen on what that Great Cloud motivates us to do.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

Those saints who have gone before show us what a life of faith looks like.  Whether they’ve done it heroically like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or been symbols of God’s ongoing forgiveness like King David, the Great Cloud invites us to follow their example of constantly laying down those things that would hold us back from pursuing the life of the kingdom.  Metaphorically, Paul calls those things weight that should be set aside, but more realistically, it is sin that the NRSV says “clings so closely;” a turn of phrase I found myself drawn to this morning.  The Greek for “clings so closely” is probably better rendered by the NIV as “so easily entangles.”  Sin is kind of like a Purse Seine fishing net.  It surrounds us on all sides, such that we might not even notice its presence, until all of a sudden, we are tangled up in a mess, fighting for our lives.  Unlike the fishing net, the entanglement of sin is often of our own doing, and Paul rightly invites us to lay it aside for our own protection.

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As I read that line, I can’t help but think of Dory and Nemo, caught in a Purse Seine of their own at the tail end of Finding Nemo.  Dory’s longstanding advice to “just keep swimming” proves salvific for Dory, Nemo, and the school of whatever fish that are equally tangled up in the fisher’s net.  Paul suggests a plan better suited for us bipeds, “run with endurance the race that his been set before you.”  Either way, the message is the same.  Just keep moving forward in faith and the sin that so easily entangles you will have a hard time keeping you ensnared.  So, the next time you feel like your sin is all around you, listen or the voice of God, who maybe sounds a lot like Ellen DeGeneres and just keep swimming.