Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

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But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

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JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?

Fame

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“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:28

In our celebrity obsessed culture, it seems odd to me to think of Jesus as being famous.  Surely, he was well known and well respected, but famous?  Famous seems somehow unflattering or lacking the dignity and respect that it seems Jesus would deserve.  If Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are famous, then I’m not sure I want Jesus to be.  Yet, this is how he is described very early in Mark’s Gospel narrative.

The Gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4B follows immediately on the heels of last Sunday’s lesson in which Jesus begins his ministry and calls his first disciples.  This week’s story is about his first miracle in Mark.  It is the Sabbath and Jesus and his presumably less than 12 disciples have made their way to the Synagogue in Capernaum. As Jesus is teaching, an evil spirit speaks up from within a man possessed, and Jesus immediately rebukes the spirit, returning the man to wholeness.  It is the combination of his teaching with authority and his ability to rebuke the unclean spirit that leads Mark to tell us that Jesus’ fame began to spread.

Because of my discomfort with this word, I decided to look at it a little more closely.  I found that here the NRSV follows both the King James Version and Young’s Literal Translation in choosing fame, while more modern translations, perhaps with my concerns in mind, translate it as news.  The Greek word is akoe which is the noun form of hearing.  Idiomatically, it connotes news or word about something.  That is, after this miraculous event, people began to share what they had seen and heard.  Word spread rapidly, and yes, some might even say that Jesus began to become famous.

It is interesting to think about how this happened in a word so flush with information.  At any given moment, we have the opportunity to share within our sphere of influence news about all sorts of things.  Our social media feeds are basically giant evangelism machines.  We share reviews products, both good and bad.  We share posts that betray our political leanings.  We share stories of our kids and grand kids.  Some might even share news of their favorite famous person.  (How else would I know that Kim and Kanye’s second child is named Chicago?)  We share all kinds of things, which leads me to wonder, how might we effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ through social media?  In the midst of all that is famous in our world today, what does the Gospel of Jesus have to offer?

This is not asking a question into a vacuum.  For the last two years, I have had the pleasure of serving on the General Convention Task Force for Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism.  In our meetings, these were the questions we pondered.  In our work, we tried to offer practical theology and real-world advice on how to continue to facilitate the spread of fame of Christ.  Our Report has been filed, and will be published soon.  I’ll share it as soon as I see it, but in the meantime, will you join me in considering what it means that Jesus was famous and consider how we too might share his story?

The Call to Follow

Why preach?  I don’t mean this existentially, although there are some who would ask this question that way.  Why, in a world that is increasingly skeptical of “experts” do preachers think they have the right to stand before their congregations and tell them anything?  That’s not the question I want to ask.  As a preacher, you’d assume that I am fairly well convinced of the power of the homiletical craft.  Rather, as one who preaches, I have to regularly ask myself, why?  Why is this sermon worth hearing?  Why this text?  Why these words?  More often than not, the why question comes down to asking myself, “what is the goal of the sermon?”

For many these days, the goal of a sermon is to offer a practical lesson from Scripture that is applicable for our lives.  This is a good goal, by and large.  Sermons that get stuck in the past – historical lessons on what was happening in the context in which Jesus lived – can be interesting, but won’t get much traction over time.  It is helpful to bring the story forward and to help our people and ourselves understand what this particular bit of holy writ has to do with life in 21st century America.  The downside, of course, is that we tend to over emphasize ourselves in the text.  Eisegesis and vapid moralization aren’t all that far away when the goal of the sermon is to make the text offer some lesson for our congregation today.

These questions and concerns came to mind this morning as I read the short Gospel passage appointed for this week.  It is the familiar story of Jesus calling Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John from their family fishing boats to become “fishers of people.”  My initial reaction was to think about what was happening in the hearts and minds of the four newest Disciples that would allow them to drop everything and follow Jesus.  I wondered about the reactions of their families.  I worried for their livelihoods.  I pondered what it might take for each of us to respond immediately when Jesus says, “Follow me.”  While I think these are all worthwhile questions and would make for a decent sermon on the text, I found myself wanting something more.

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It can’t just be about me.  The goal of the sermon ought not just be about giving the congregation something they can hold on to or motivating them to change their lives in some way.  Rather than another sermon admonishing them to drop everything and follow Jesus (which isn’t really a thing for 21st century Christians), what if the sermon focused instead on the call to follow in and of itself?  What if, instead of focusing on the response, the sermon looked deeply into the one who does the calling?  Isn’t that what grace is all about?  Not about how I can get myself over the hump to follow Jesus, but how by God’s grace, Jesus brings me into the kingdom.

The text doesn’t give us much to work with, but I think there is something there.  The one who is preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near beckons.  The one who is called the Son of God calls us by name.  The one who is the Good News invites us to share in it.  There is more to dig into here, and time will tell if I can find a sermon that doesn’t devolve into “will you follow Jesus?” but for today, I’m adjusting the goal of my sermon; not to motivate us to follow, for that is God’s job, but rather, to focus on a deepening relationship with the one who calls.

For all the saints who from their labors rest

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via CatholicLane.com (I really hope Popes wear the triple tiara in heaven)

One of the peculiarities of the life and ministry of an ordained minister is the role that place plays in one’s ministry.  Having taken a new call at the first of this year, I am no longer a priest in Foley, AL, but a priest in Bowling Green, KY.  This means a lot of things.  Personally, it means that the beach is no longer ten minutes away, fresh seafood is not readily available, and October mornings in the 30s.  Professionally, what has struck me most profoundly is the immediate switching on and off of pastoral relationships.

While I still pray for and love the people of Saint Paul’s, I am not longer their pastor.  In a social media world, it means being very careful about how I reach out to posts of illness and loss.  It means that I won’t officiate the funerals of people with whom I had long and fruitful relationships.  On the other hand, here in Bowling Green, the move means an immediate beginning to relationships.  I step in to long-term health issues, family dynamics, and restorations.  Reasonably, it takes a while to build these relationships, and sometimes, life short-circuits them.  Officiating funerals in the early stages of one’s tenure is an interesting experience.  I may not know the deceased at all, perhaps we only met a few times, maybe health problems meant that even if we did meet, we were never really able to know each other.

While I may not be able to offer the same sort of personal reflection that I used to in Foley, my role these days isn’t all that different than it once was, to share the good news of the hope of the resurrection in Christ Jesus.  My job at a funeral is to offer thanks to God “for all the saints, who from their labors rest,” while at the same time ensuring that even in our grief the name of “Jesus be for ever blessed” and highlight “their rock, their fortress, and their might.”  Because in the end, the Feast of All Saints’ is less about the millions who have followed the way of Jesus, even Popes in triple tiaras, but the Savior whom they followed in life and in whose rest they now live eternally.

Happy All Saints’ Day, dear reader!

Giving our Lives to God – a sermon

The audio of this sermon is available on the Christ Church website.


Today marks the beginning of three pretty awesome weeks here at Christ Church.  Alongside the other great stuff we are always doing, we get to add a commissioning of our music ministries, a fall festival for our Sunday school, the English Country dancers meet next week, our Youth and Campus Ministries are joining forces for an All Saint’s Day service, and we will rejoice in a successful stewardship campaign on November 5th.  To top it all off, we get to celebrate a baptism each of the next three Sundays.

I am of the belief that baptismal celebration should encompass the entire Sunday.  So, whether we are splashing water at 8, like we are this week, or 10, like the next two weeks, all the signs and symbols will be present at both services.  The Paschal Candle is lit, reminding us that through our baptism, we all share in the light of Christ.  The font is in the crossing as a visual reminder that each of us comes through the font, to the table, and out into the world.  The altar hangings are white, symbolizing the washing away of our sins that occurs in baptism and was secured in the resurrection.  And, no matter which service you attend over the next three weeks, we will all have the chance to renew our baptismal covenant.  In so doing, we are reminded of the basics of discipleship, the minimum requirements of those who claim a stake in the Kingdom of God.

Episcopalians often focus on the second half of the covenant.  We talk a lot about “respecting the dignity of every human being” and “seeking and serving Christ in all persons.”  These are good and noble actions, but we ought not forget that they follow a statement of our faith in and reliance on God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as well as three other questions about the life of faith.  The primary question in that list of five is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”  This question is first in line because if we fail to fulfill these basic practices of discipleship, none of the others is possible.  Without regular study of scripture, the mutual support of other Christians, nourishment at the Table, and an ongoing life of prayer, there is no foundation from which we can persevere in resisting evil, share the Good News, love our neighbor, or work for justice and peace.

I could be biased in suggesting this.  After all, I did spend the first half of this week at the Discipleship Matters Conference, but I don’t think so.  Instead, I think that the very real need that Christians have for study, fellowship, worship, and prayer are in the mind of Jesus as he goes toe-to-toe with the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson.  Lest we forget, this story takes place in Holy Week.  Jesus has already entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna.  He has already flipped the tables and run out the money changers from the Temple court.  Things are getting increasingly hostile between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be.  The Pharisees are intent on ridding themselves of this meddlesome Rabbi, but they know that they have to be sneaky about it, because they fear how much the crowd loves Jesus.  Again and again, they come to him with topics for debate, hoping to trap him in his own words.  Again and again, Jesus outwits them, offering a vision of God’s Kingdom that is grace beyond their wildest imaginations.

In our today’s lesson, we hear of one particularly devious attempt wherein the Pharisees, a group of devout Jewish rabbis intent on restoring the purity of Israel team up with the Herodians, a group of Jews who were friendly to the Greek culture and loyal to the Roman government, to trap Jesus between a rock and a hard place.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  It may seem like a straightforward question, but it is not.  The tax in question is the census tax.  Every year, every occupied person in the Roman Empire was required to pay a denarius, approximately one day’s wage, to Rome to support the occupation forces.  Essentially, the oppressed had to pay for their ongoing oppression.  If Jesus were to say “yes, it is lawful,” he would become wildly unpopular, and the Pharisees would have the opening they needed to get rid of him.  If he were to say “no, it is not lawful,” then the Herodians could turn him in for sedition.  Somehow, Jesus avoided both possible outcomes by asking to see the coin required to pay the tax, noting that it bore the image of Caesar, and answering, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

In the ongoing chess match between Jesus and the religious authorities, this is nearly check mate.  They leave him amazed.  His rhetorical skill is unmatched.  In asking to see the coin used to pay the census tax, Jesus turns the question on its ear.  No longer is it about the tax, but it is about the role one’s religion plays in their life.  The coin bore the image of Caesar as well as an inscription that called the emperor the son of god.  Not only was paying this particular tax financially onerous, but the very act of carrying that coin meant you were guilty of violating the first two of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt have no other gods but me, and thou shalt not make a graven image.  A faithful Jew would take delight in getting rid of that coin as quickly as possible.  “Give it to Caesar because it certainly doesn’t belong to God,” Jesus insinuates, “and give to God that which belongs to God.”

The coin bears the image of Caesar, but human beings, Genesis tells us, bear the image of God.  Everything we are, everything we will become, and everything we have belongs to God.  Our very lives, every breath we take, comes from God.  If we are going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then we must be willing to give our whole lives back to God, which in the end, isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  We give our minds back to God through studying scripture and theology.  We give our hearts back to God by using the compassion that comes from them to motivate us to loving service and by opening them up to God in prayer.  We give our hands back to God by reaching out in care to those in need.  We give our feet back to God by walking into work, school, grocery stores, and hospital rooms radiating the love of God.  We give our wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.

In Baptism, we offer our lives back to God.  For little ones like Jocelyn, her parents do so on her behalf, promising to do their best, with the help of God and the body of the faithful to help her grow in study, fellowship, worship, and prayer.  What about you?  As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What might you be holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is about being a good steward of the gifts that God has given us, then maybe these next three weeks are an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given you, your heart, your mind, your gifts, and your worship.  Jesus invites us to give to God the things that are God’s. by giving God our whole life.  Amen.

Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.