A Spirit of Hospitality

After I graduated from college, while in discernment for the priesthood, I worked for about six months waiting tables at a Red Lobster.  It was worse than it sounds.  Anyway, one lunch shift, one of my fellow servers was complaining that her check engine light had come on.  Back in the kitchen, we debated what might have caused it.  The chef was convinced that her car was about to die.  “Pontiacs are junk,” he told her, “you might as well get ready to buy something new.”  I also drove a Pontiac at the time, and I didn’t think they were junk.  I knew that there were lots of causes for the check engine light to illumine, including something as simple as forgetting to replace the gas cap.  “Nah, man,” the chef reiterated, “it’s a garbage car.”  And with that, we all went back to work.

Now, I’ve not always been a good loser.  I like to think that I’ve grown up a lot since then, but there was a time when I could get pretty petty about proving that I was right.  I have no idea why I cared so much about it, but my blood was boiling at the way that my suggestion had been simply dismissed by this guy who didn’t know anything more about cars than I did.  I stewed and festered on it for a while, until finally, when I had a minute, I marched out the front door, around the side of the building to the employee parking lot, and found, much to my delight, the gas cap, dangling from side of the young lady’s car.  I screwed it back on, and waited until the next time the three of us were back in the kitchen to let her know, or more accurately, to let the chef know, that I was right, and he was definitely wrong.

Actually following the way of Jesus is a lot harder than simply being like his disciples.  Like me, James and John didn’t like to look bad in front of other people.  We have several stories of their trying to one up the other disciples.  Even their mom got involved at one point, asking Jesus to make sure her boys got the best spots in his kingdom.  Our Gospel lesson this morning might be James and John at their best worst. Just days after they joined Peter in seeing the transfigured Jesus talking about the next steps in building the Kingdom of God with none other than Elijah and Moses up on the mountain, James and John were already deep in it.  They got involved in a dispute over which disciple was the greatest.  John, always worried about the Jesus brand had just proudly rebuked a man, who was not a part of the twelve, for casting out demons in the name of Jesus only to get rebuked by Jesus himself.

Luke tells us that at this point, with his disciples still far from understanding what he was about, Jesus began his final journey to Jerusalem.  In the Gospel, it’s a ten-chapter jaunt through the Palestinian countryside.  For us, it’ll be the focus of every Sunday Gospel from now until the end of October.  Along the way, Jesus will teach any who would follow him what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  As Jesus heads steadfastly toward the cross, we will witness miracles, sit at his feet as he teaches, be privy to private conversations with his disciples, and, hopefully, deepen our commitment to Jesus’ call to discipleship.  Before we get there, however, the Luke 9, “James and John show us how not to do it” episode has one last act.

The Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies.  In modern religious terms, it’d be like Louisville versus UK basketball or Auburn versus Alabama football on steroids.  The Samaritans were the descendants of those who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile.  Ethnically, it is likely that they ended up inter-marrying with slaves who were brought in from modern day Iraq.  Religiously, the Samaritans contended that they, rather than the exiled Jews, held most closely to the faith of their ancestors.  The key source of animosity between the two was upon which mountain God wanted the Temple to be built.  The Jews said Mount Moriah in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans argued it was Mount Gerizim situated some 45 miles to the north.  These two groups hated each other to such a degree that Jews travelling south from Galilee to Judea would go well out of their way to avoid Samaritan territory.

Jesus, however, was on a mission.  Despite the fact that it’ll take months for us to get from here to there, Jesus, having set his face for Jerusalem and the cross, didn’t have time for detours.  He and his disciples made their way straight through Samaria.  One late afternoon, as they sought a place to rest for the night, Jesus and his disciples found themselves unwelcomed in a certain Samaritan village.  Luke doesn’t give us much insight into why they weren’t invited to stay.  It could have been that the villagers hoped Jesus might stay for a while and he refused.  It might have been because Jesus and his entourage were Jewish and generations of hard feelings won the day.  We can’t be sure, but what we do know is that a lack of hospitality was a huge deal in the ancient world.  There were no Super 8 Motels in Jesus’ day.  When Mary and Joseph found “no room in the Inn” in Bethlehem, it wasn’t that the hotels were all full, but that every guest room in the city was occupied.  It was common for folks to offer food and lodging to travelers en route to major cities because one day, it might be you and your family in need of a meal and a safe place to rest for the night.

When James and John realized that a Samaritan village had dared to reject the group, they became indignant.  A lack of hospitality was a violation of the Law.  The sin that resulted in Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by fire and brimstone was a lack of hospitality to the angels of the Lord.  Certainly, James and John thought that they were doing the righteous thing in trying to show that they were right and these Samaritan were wrong. Following with what they knew about a lack of hospitality, they asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Now, we have no reason to believe that James and John could actually call down from fire from heaven.  But, wouldn’t that be tempting?  Scorched earth victories are a pretty popular pastime on social media these days.  People are willing to lose friends and alienate family members over being loud right on whatever the topic of the day might be.  Even at our highest levels of government, there is a willingness to, almost with ease, completely write-off anyone who disagrees with you on any particular issue.  The desire to be right, and to win at all costs, is slowly destroying our ability to live in community, to offer grace, and to love our neighbors.

One of the things that made Christ Church Bowling Green so attractive to me in the search process was how purple it is.  Not just your typical red congregation in the south.  Not just your average blue congregation in a college town.  Christ Church is a community of Christ’s servants who genuinely seek to learn and grow together, despite our conflicting opinions and understandings.  We are a congregation who, despite very profound differences is able to come to the altar each week and receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation side-by-side.  Scorched earth doesn’t work here.  Instead, in order to live with one another, we have to offer hospitality in our hearts and minds to those who differ from us.  As a result, at our best we are a community that is open to being changed, to growing in our faith, and unafraid to lose or admit that we are wrong from time-to-time.

This hospitable mindset is a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in this place.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, warns the fledgling church that things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarreling, dissension, and factions mean that the Spirit is not being followed.  Rather, the way we know that we are living in the Spirit of God is a life marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  May we continue to live in that Spirit, to grow in compassion and hospitality, and to remember always that we are not called to be right or to win, but simply with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus in the way of love and grace.  Amen.

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Distracted by Power

The story of the wise men, kings, or magi from the east is an interesting one.  Often conflated with the Christmas story, the events described by Matthew in Sunday’s Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany seem to have taken place well after Jesus’ birth.  Given Herod’s reaction with the slaughter of the innocents, it seems likely the wise men showed up upwards of a year or even two later.  Matthew indicates that the Holy Family are still in Bethlehem at this late date.  From other Gospels, we can assume they had travelled to Jerusalem for a short visit to the Temple to offer the proper sacrifices for the birth of their son and the purification of Mary.  Oddly, at least according to Matthew, they didn’t return back to Nazareth after the census was over, thus allowing the priests and scribes to interpret the prophecy of Micah with the declaration of the people that David and his lineage would rule as king and shepherd from his hometown in Bethlehem.

What’s odd about all this is how the magi end up in Jerusalem at all.  They have been following the star that alerted them to the birth of this new King of the Jews for quite a while by the time they reach the capital city.  Matthew doesn’t seem to indicated that the star suddenly disappears when they arrive in town, but rather, it would seem that these powerful religious leaders from the east became distracted by power and prestige.  Suddenly, the star that had been leading them for months was not the source of the answers they sought.  In a move that would baffle modern political strategists, the “wise” men detour off course to ask the sitting king where the new king was to be born.  This deviation from their primary role as star-gazers leads to the death of many innocent children, causes the Holy Family to have to flee to Egypt, and is even quickly realized as a mistake by the magi who receive a dream that warns them to return home by another road.

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The Wiser Women wouldn’t have made the same mistake

How often it is that we get distracted by power and prestige.  As the new Congress takes office today and the government shutdown nears its third week, Americans are keenly aware of the role that those in power can have over their lives.  Like the three kings, however, when we focus on the powerful, we tend to forget the things that have grounded us in ages past.  We can lose focus on our call as members of what was originally a persecuted sect of an impoverished and oppressed religious group to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  Like the “wise” men, when we lose that sense of our original purpose, the collateral damage can be quite severe.  The details of the Epiphany story are worth noting, dear reader, as they remind us to keep our eyes not on the powerful and the privileged, but on how God’s specific call to each of us can work toward the restoration of this world.

An Election Week Reminder

One of the unintended consequences of cutting the cord on our satellite dish has been the return of local commercials as we watch network television via an antenna.  This time of year, local commercials means only one thing – political commercials.  With almost every local official up for re-election and several key state and national races in play, my Saturday SEC on CBS was inundated with adds begging me to vote, occasionally for someone, but, more often, against someone.  The timing seems about right.  Races tend to turn negative in the last 10 days or so as a candidate tries to motivate his or her base to get out and vote.  Negative ads all seem to turn around one key question, can my opponent be trusted? From the perspective of the ad maker, the answer should be an obvious no, and they’ll do pretty much whatever they can to ensure it.

Turning the question around trust is an interesting tactic, as once again, RCL Track 2 congregations will find themselves reading Psalm 146 during an election week.  It shouldn’t take you long to realize that the Scriptures don’t have much time for modern political campaign strategies.

146:2 Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

Despite what TV and radio ads, door hangers, and an entire rainforest full of mailers might suggest, God knows that the empire is not the means to the ends of the Kingdom of God.  Despite the reality that Christianity has essentially been the state religion for more than 1,600 years, followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have never really been intended to fit within the parameters of the empire.  Our’s is a higher calling than Republican or Democrat, but rather, as the Psalmist goes on to say “Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! * whose hope is in the Lord their God”

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Every election season, this seems to be harder and harder to remember.  Granted, it is also increasingly clear that candidates and their supporters have no qualms with muddying up their theology with partisan politics.  When any politician is made out to be on par with the eternal Word of God, things have gotten a skewed.  As followers of Jesus, our call is above and beyond that fray.  Our call, again in the words of the Psalmist, is to righteousness, which is defined by such actions as caring for the stranger, sustaining the orphan and the widow, and frustrating the way of the wicked.

It is ok to allow your faith to inform your vote, but when we get turned around and make our vote our faith and place our trust in the rulers of the earth, then we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.  So, pray for all candidates for political office.  Vote your conscience.  But always remember, that God’s kingdom and its righteousness is where your trust is more properly aligned.

Spanger

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Nope, not that Spanger

This morning’s God Pause from Luther Seminary, written by Joe Natwick, introduced me to a new word, more a portmanteau, that I had never heard before: spanger.  Just as one can become hangry -hungry and angry – when they have not had enough to eat and their blood sugar begins to drop, the author suggest that those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus can experience spanger – spiritual anger – when we see the world around us falling so short of the dream of God.  Natwick goes on to suggest that the only cure for spanger is a heaping helping of the truth.  That is, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to speak the truth in the face of injustice, oppressing, and degradation.

A quick Google search shows that Natwick cannot take credit for having created the word, spanger, however, he might be the first to use it as a combination of spiritual and anger.  Ironically, according to that ever-trusted resource, wiktionary.com, spanger’s previous use is as a pejorative term to describe a beggar.  Again a portmanteu, this earlier usage comes from combining spare and change, as in, one who begs for spare change.  This older usage, which dates all the way back to 2007, actually creates a scenario in which both uses of the word would work.

“My encounter with that spanger outside the coffee shop left me feeling spanger.”

This rather long introduction can be blamed on the Apostle Paul (or one of his disciples), who, in the letter to the Ephesians gives the Christians there permission to get angry, but with the strong caveat not to fall into sin.  This anger that the author of Ephesians speaks of is that righteous indignation that comes when we look around and see a world full of corruption, violence, and oppression, often under the guise of Christian virtue, that is so obviously not what God had in mind at the beginning of Creation.  This righteous anger should, as Natwick suggests, lead us to action.  It should spur us to speak the truth in love.  It should motivate us to work toward justice and peace.  It is God at work within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that propels us out into the world to break the bonds of oppression, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, classism, etc.

The portion of the letter to the Ephesians that we will hear on Sunday is the perfect response to those who would suggest that Christianity isn’t political.  Christianity, because it is interested in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, is, by its very nature, political, calling the kingdoms of this world to leave behind selfish desires and to remember the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow.  May our spanger over this world being so out of sorts compel us to good work to glory of God.

For the love of darkness

It is almost unfair to make John 3:16 part of a lesson that can be read on Sunday morning.  It has become such a cultural Christian trope that it is basically impossible for us to hear anything other than “For God so loved the world…”  We miss, in my opinion, the far better verse that immediately follows.  The RCL hivemind has tried to help us out, by including Jesus’ passing reference to that really odd story from Numbers 21, but honestly, what preacher in their right mind is going to the “God killed people with snakes and then saved them with an idol of a snake” story?  It seems the best option for this week might be to help people get past the snakes and forget about the man in the rainbow wig and preach the reprise of John’s light and darkness motif.

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The judgment that Jesus came to save us from is this, that the light had come into the world, and people loved darkness instead of the light.  For all the good that Christianity has done in the world, for its music and art, for its (occasional) embrace of peace, for its (purported) sharing of the love of God, this statement about our love of darkness is as true today as it was when Jesus first said it.

It doesn’t take long to see what Jesus means.  A quick scroll of your Facebook newsfeed will show that Christians on both sides of the American political divide have decided to live in darkness, addicted to anger and worshiping the idol of being right.  Some are obvious: the racially motivated meme or the picture intended to poke fun at someone’s appearance.  Other instances of the darkness that we choose to love are less conspicuous.  It is the veiled dig at those who disagree with us; the passive aggressive comment about fellow children of God.

As we enter the middle week of Lent, it seems appropriate that things are as dark as they will get ahead of Good Friday.  Perhaps this week, rather than being enamored with John 3:16 or grossed out by snakes, it is probably a good opportunity to take stock of where we have decided to choose darkness rather than light, to repent of those decisions, and to ask God to help us walk in the true light of grace.

Staying out of Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

When family tears itself apart

As I’ve already mentioned this week, I am really struggling with this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, but I’m only now beginning to get a grasp on why.  Prior to now, I had thought that my dislike for this passage had to do with its lack of relevance to 21st century white middle class “mainline” American Christians.  We who are the majority, who have held a place of privilege in this country for 241 years, who were so tied in with the Colonial government that in many colonies one’s tithe was a government required tax, who know nothing of what it means to be persecuted, how can we dare to begin to think that Jesus’ warning to the disciples has anything to say to us?

I really thought that was what was bothering me, until I started to read my go-to sermon resources, and realized that what I’m really struggling with this week is not that this lesson doesn’t apply to us, but instead that Christians are living out both sides of this dire warning.  It isn’t that non-Christian family members are kicking Christians out of their wills, but that the Christian family, writ large, is tearing itself apart.  For eight years, the conservative members of our family saw themselves as the persecuted ones.  As social structures changed to bring LGBT Americans into equal protection under the law, and denominational structures similarly began to understand that God’s love and sacraments should be made available to everyone, many conservative Christians saw their ability to live out their faith being challenged.  Now, with the other party in the White House, more liberal Christians are beginning to feel that same fear.  They see the rolling back of equal rights protections, cutting of programs that care for the poor, and a seeming disregard for the disabled as a direct attack on their faith in the God of love.

In a time of stark political division, the Church has allowed itself to become a pawn in the political machine.  We are tearing ourselves apart by declaring our sisters and brothers in Christ as anathema, which is precisely what the prince of demons, Beelzebul, would have us do.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Church’s intimate relationship with government, which dates all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313 (culminating in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380), is antithetical to the Gospel.  By embracing the Church’s incorporation into civil governance, Christianity has come to put the love of social order ahead of the love of Christ.  We have given up our ability to preach the sort of peace that divides good from evil like a sword.  We have abdicated our call to take up our cross for the Kingdom by choosing to live as God-fearing citizens of the State.

martyrdom

Today, the Episcopal Church remembers Saint Alban, the first Anglican Christians known by name, and, not coincidentally, the first English martyr, I can’t help but be struck by his willingness to stand up and declare that though the State may have the power to take his life, his core identity wasn’t Roman or Celtic or anything else, but his defining characteristic was “I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”  While his head my have been removed from his body, Alban’s brief allegiance to Christ never wavered, was never corrupted by the idol of power and prestige, which, I’m increasingly convinced, it probably the better place for the Church to exist: the only place from which we can actually speak truth to power.