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.

1

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

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


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

The Church’s Earthly Things

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

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

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

The Myth of the Melting Pot

As shown in Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, a ton of damage was done to the future United States of America through the preaching that happened on ships like Arbella as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1630.  Setting the colonial experiment up as the choice grain, sifted from the evil chaff in England and planted by God in the New World, the foundational narratives of colonialism (and therefore the United States from which they were born) has been one of eisegesis, presupposing God’s blessing upon the colonies and a fictional biblical narrative for our expansion and development.  As such, it isn’t too far of a stretch to see how some of Paul’s most famous words, found in Galatians 3 and appointed for this Sunday, have been used to create this image of American homogeneity, commonly referred to, at least since 1908, as “the melting pot.”

In the play, “The Melting Pot,” that popularized the term, the Galatians 3 passage is expanded upon to include all kinds of ways in which we might divide ourselves as people. “Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—/Jew and Gentile—/Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross…”  The vision of David, the play’s hero, is a world in which all ethnicity fades away such that we are all one in the “Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God.”  In contemporary society, we often hear this dream articulated by those who “don’t see color.”  While I would agree that the telos of racial healing is a world in which we all share power equally and in which all are born with the same opportunities available to them, this idea of a melting pot falls short when the base into we are all expected to melt is white, male, heteronormativity and all other cultural expressions are expected to just evaporate away.

Despite Paul’s deep Jewish roots, I think it is safe to say that his image of being one in Christ Jesus isn’t based on an assumption of assimilation to a prevailing culture. Rather, as we hear through his letters and the stories about him in Acts, Paul seems quite comfortable adapting the message of Jesus to the cultural context in which he finds himself. So, as you prepare to preach Galatians 3 this week, dear reader, please be careful not to assume Paul is defining Christianity exclusively in a way that looks, acts, sings, and loves like you do. Rather, I encourage you to lift up the vast diversity that is welcome within what it means to be one in Christ Jesus.

The Power of a Direct Antecedent

Studying homiletics at Virginia Theological Seminary in the early aughts was a distinct challenge.  As middlers, we were required to take three-quarters of a year of homiletics, split between a semester with one professor and a third quarter class with another.  At that time, the two different professors were nearly diametrically opposed in their understanding of the task of preaching.  One was focused on argument and rhetoric, giving a list of preaching rules which shall not be violated and assigning a book suggesting a hard and fast way to organize a sermon.  The other was interested in the art of preaching, focusing on presentation and at times, bordering on theatrical.  The preaching gods smiled upon my type-a personality, and gave me a semester with the former.  I can’t say I remember all the rules, and I certainly don’t organize my sermon in “Four Pages,” but I am keenly aware of the Rev. Dr. Judith McDaniel’s deep dislike of pronouns.  If there wasn’t a direct and very obvious antecedent, you had better just repeat the noun because “this” and “that” just weren’t going to cut it.

meatloaf

I wish Paul had taken a class from Judith McDaniel because, like Meatloaf in his classic rock anthem “I would do anything for love,” Paul was pretty bad at having a direct antecedent for every pronoun.  Couple that with a real hack job by the RCL, and we have a lesson from the Philippians on Sunday that ends with a powerful line that makes little, if any, real sense.  Paul completes his thoughts on the goal of discipleship with these words “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”  To which, many who hear the lesson read and don’t know the larger framework of Philippians will ask “in what way?”

If we take into account the whole section from 3:12 to 4:1, which would make sense and one has to wonder why the RCL decided to skip the first six verses, then we find two occurrences of the same word I wrote about on Mondayteleios, to be made perfect.  The goal, the “in this way,” then is striving after God’s will for our lives, the perfection of our creation, which, if we go back just few verses further, is summed up in 3:10-11, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”  The teleios of the Christian life, at least according to Paul in his letter to the Philippians, is to share in Christ’s suffering so that we might share in his resurrection.  It is taking up our cross by choosing to care for the poor, the lost, and the hopeless more than we care about our own comforts and desires.  In so doing, by standing firm and living lives of agape love, we share in the resurrection of Jesus in the joy of abundant life and the peace that passes all understanding not in some far off time and place after we die, but right here and right now as the Kingdom comes to earth.

The Most Excellent Way – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Every Sunday [at the 10 o’clock service] we sing this song as the children leave for Follow the Word.  For years, I haven’t given this little ditty much thought.  I just enjoy singing it.  It is a cute song that reminds me of the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth, but as I spent this week immersed in the lessons, I found myself reflecting on this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  These are words of comfort and hope.  That the Son of God loves me means that I’m included in those who are his brothers and sisters.  It means that I’m an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.  It means that I’m a part of the people who Jesus was anointed to save.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of last Sunday’s in which we heard Jesus read words of comfort and hope the from the Prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The crowd that was gathered in the synagogue was excited at these words.  They heard the promise that God loves them, that God cares for them in their hardship, and that one day, God will restore everything and make the world right side up again.  They stared at Jesus with eager expectation, hoping for a clearer picture of what this could possibly mean for them.  And so Jesus sat down, as preachers did in those days, and uttered his first public words in Luke’s Gospel.  His first sermon is only nine words long, but it would forever change the course of human history. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today?  As in, right now?  As in, no more boot of Rome on our throats, no more heavy taxes, no more fear?  Today!?!  Luke tells us that the crowd moved beyond excitement to wonder and amazement.  They were thrilled at these words from Jesus and began to murmur among themselves, “Can it be?  Could this really come from Joseph’s son? Can he really be the anointed one who has come to save us?”

But Jesus didn’t stop there either.  He kept talking, opening up their imaginations to a more excellent way.  He invited the crowd to see a world where God’s love isn’t confined to the Sinai Peninsula and the people of Israel, but is available for everyone, everywhere.  Remember the Widow at Zarephath?  She lived in Gentile country, but Elijah ministered to her and her alone in the midst of a famine.  She lived in the wrong town and worshiped the wrong way, but, Jesus says, she is included in the year of the Lord’s favor.  Namaan the Syrian, was an ungrateful leper.  He talked harshly about the waters of Israel, even as he had come to Elisha to be healed.  He was a Gentile and not a very nice one, and Jesus says, he’s included too.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We love that song.  “Jesus loves you, this I know…” is less popular.  That other person might be nice and pleasant, but what if they aren’t?  What if they’re a jerk?  Jesus loves jerks.  I know because I can be one sometimes.  What if they’re Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are a banker on Wall Street or a drug dealer in Aaronville?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are my ex-husband or my emotionally distant mother or my annoying neighbor?  Jesus loves them, too.  For the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach, that was just too much to handle, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably too much for us as well.  So what do we do?  How do we come to grips with the reality that God’s favor rest upon many who we consider to be undesirable?

We follow Paul’s more excellent way.  The Christians in Corinth were singing a different version of this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know because I have the gift of tongues, but I’m not so sure he loves you because you only have the gift of prophecy.”  That pretty awful song threatened to tear the young church apart, and so, in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul took a pause to teach them how to love one another.  From verse four to the first half of verse eight, Paul uses 45 words to describe love.  Sixteen of them are verbs.  Love is something that requires work.  Love is busy.  Love is active.  Love is always finding ways to lift up and care for the other.[1]  Remember that this is being written to a church that was on the verge of divorce.  The Corinthian church was being torn apart by envy and bitterness and to them Paul says:

Love is patient, but it isn’t passively patient.  Love means being slow to avenge when someone does you wrong.  Love isn’t just kind in the polite “hi, how are you” kind of way.  Love is kind even to those who have hurt you.  Love is not being envious of the gifts that someone else has.  Love is not being boastful about the gifts that you have.  Love is not being rude or puffed up with an overinflated sense of self.  Love is the most excellent way because love is the ultimate dream of God for all flesh.  “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will never fail.”[2]

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the bishop talk about how heaven isn’t some place that is far from here in time and space.  Instead, he says, heaven exists somewhere right here (waves hand at side of face).  When we love one another in the way that Paul suggests the Corinthians should love each other, heaven comes right here.  God is love, and so when we love one another, God is right here.  Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way of love; the way of self-sacrifice; the way of God’s holy restoration of all creation, and when we follow his example of love, Jesus is right here.  It doesn’t matter what else we might do, if we don’t have love, heaven stays out of view, God remains absent, Jesus is not among us.  But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we usher in nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.”  These are words of comfort and hope, but if that is all they are, then they are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Because of God’s love for us, we are called to show that love to the rest of the world.  By showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us. With some practice, who knows, one day we might even be comfortable enough to turn to our neighbor and sing, “Jesus loves you, this I know.”  That kind of love will change the world.  Love really is the most excellent way.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

[2] Ibid.

The Extremes of Love

Every third year, on Proper 23B, we hear the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  You are probably familiar with the story, but as a reminder, a young man approaches Jesus wishing to become a disciple.  After a brief back-and-forth on what that actually means, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  The young man leaves disheartened; Mark tells us it is because “he had many possessions.”  Every third year, on Proper 23B, preachers wring their hands about whether or not this requirement was specific to that which was holding this particular person back or the more frightening option, that Jesus was thinking this was a requirement of everyone who followed him.

The latter can easily be argued based on how Jesus’ disciples are  called in Mark’s Gospel.  Andrew, Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi all drop everything: job, family, inheritance, and presumably wealth; in order to follow him.  The former often gets argued based on gut feeling – a feeling that often aligns with the American Dream of getting money and buying stuff, which is less than convincing in the Kingdom politics.  As one who lives in a comfortable home, drives a comfortable car, and enjoys the comforts of good food, decent clothes, and the occasional Apple product, all while giving more than tithe to the building of the Kingdom, I find myself stuck in the dissonance between these two arguments.  I want to think that I’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus, but I know that there is some decent justification happening on the side.

That is, until this morning.  As I read Paul’s great love poem from 1 Corinthians 13, I noticed something I had never seen before.  Paul begins his great sonnet by listing the extremes of the faith life: speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels; understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge; having all faith; giving up all possessionsand handing over the body.  Paul writes that he could take the life of discipleship to its farthest extremes, but without love, it would be useless.  Giving up all possessions makes that list of extremes, which leads me to think that this type of living was being discussed in Paul’s day.  Some must have been suggesting that all disciples called to sell everything and give it to the poor, while others, presumably those who were beginning to realize that Jesus probably wasn’t coming back tomorrow and plans had to be made to sustain the fledgling community that was following the Way, were arguing for a more modest stewardship plan.

1 Cor 13-3

Everyone loves a good faux needlepoint.

Paul suggests that even those who live at the extremes of the life of faith, if they don’t have love, their fruit is rotten.  By including it on this list, the call to sell everything seems to fall into the category of optional observances.  That is to say, it isn’t the rule of faith, but rather the exception.  The rule of faith, at least as Paul sees it here in 1 Corinthians 13, is the extreme of love, about which I will write more in the days to come.

Pure and Blameless

Another week of Advent, and another opportunity to preach an Epistle lesson that is full of joy rather than doom and gloom.  In fact, thanks to the RCL’s decision to keep the introduction of JBap short, other than an almost sidebar reference in the Gospel lesson, you don’t have much of a chance to preach repentance at all on Advent 2C.  As you might guess from my constant complaining about Advent, this doesn’t bother me much.  Still, if I were preaching both Advent 2 and 3 in Year C, I’d save my JBap sermon for next week and focus on Paul’s joy for the Church in Philippi.

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One of the chief complaints about Paul’s letters is that they are overly moralistic and, as such, they are heavily dependent on time and place.  We hear this often in the conversation around human sexuality, especially the three of “Those 7 References” that occur in the Pauline Corpus.  While this is probably a fair critique of the way Paul gets used in contemporary Christianity, I’m not sure that it is really Paul’s fault.  In fact, while Paul did spend considerable time calling the early Christians to live lives worthy of the Gospel, his focus wasn’t so much on self-sanctification, but on the power of Jesus at work in the lives of believers.  We get a glimpse into that hope in Sunday’s lesson from Philippians 1.

While it is true that Paul calls the Philippian Christians to lives that are “pure and blameless,” he makes no mention of a moral code of discipleship.  There is no law in his call to sanctification, save the law that Jesus gave, “that you love one another.”  For Paul, the key to living lives that are pure and blameless is living lives of love.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:9-11

By modeling Christ’s life of love for the world and following his commandment of love for our neighbor that our lives our changed.  Sanctification doesn’t come by beating the sin out of ourselves, but by living lives of love empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will become pure and blameless as the sinful desires of our hearts slowly melt away.  Discipleship, or as the Season of Advent would have me say it, being ready for the return of Christ, need not be about following a strict codes of ethics.  Instead, if we choose to live lives that overflow with love, the moral life will naturally follow.

A Commandment from Paul

Over the years, I’ve been fairly critical of what I’ve deemed “Paulianity,” that is, the preeminence of Paul’s letters in the development of Reformed theology over the past 500 years.  I say this as a recovering Pauline Christian.  There was a time, early on in my faith, when the rules that Paul set out in his letters made the world an easier place to live.  As one AL.com letter to the editor writer suggested this weekend, the Law of Paul is clear, and we like things that are clear.

The problem, of course, is that the world is not black and white, but rather full of vibrancy, color, shade, and tone.  When we attempt to place black and white thoughts upon the beautiful world, we end up with a very gloomy world indeed.  Certainly, that kind of world isn’t the one Jesus came to save.  Additionally, even those rules from Paul, the ones that seem so straightforward, are rarely quite as cut and dry as we make them out to be.  Remember, Paul’s letters were written in response to real life situations in real life churches, they aren’t to be taken as abstracts about life for everyone.

Except.

Except, of course when Paul says something like, “we command you…”  Then, I suppose we ought to pay closer attention.  In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, Paul commandment to the Church in Thessalonica  has nothing to do with sex, women in Church, or slavery: the juicy stuff of Paul; but instead, it is an admonition against laziness.

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness…”  I have to be honest and say that I’m pretty surprised that Paul would use so much of his leadership capital on this issue.  Perhaps I’m more surprised that it was such an issue that Paul had to.  Of course, idleness has been a point of contention in Christianity throughout the generations.  Was Simeon the Stylite just being lazy, or were his 37 years standing atop a pillar the work of God?  Do ivory tower theologians do work?  Should clergy be employed by the Church on a full-time basis?  These are just a few of the compounding questions regarding the role of work in faith, and yet Paul is very clear.

Do not be weary in doing what is right.

I’m thinking that the fact that this post took over 4 hours to write thanks to the various distractions of parish ministry, at least for today, I’m doing something right.