It is all about love

b55a2759dfaeeb0be8161b957b6aac7a

Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.

Advertisements

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

0f16869f90be739e0b6f844f766764ca9fbf0e06bb25cbd176763c601a82b571

Staying out of Politics

2017-08-16 10.24.23.jpg

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.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

racism20is20sin

True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Searching for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday

Every few months, Episcopal priests on Facebook feel the need to get uppity about something.  Recently, we’ve had a newfound interest in Prayer Book revision to get snarky about, but one perennial favorite is the topic of Trinity Sunday.  There are those who will suggest that one might not need to preach the doctrine of the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, while others will get very emphatic in saying that one must preach the Day.  I honestly don’t have an opinion on the matter.  If you can preach the doctrine of the Trinity without steering your congregation into heresy, then by all means, please do so, and share your wisdom widely.  If that is not possible for you, either because of a lack of time, a lack of enthusiasm, or clarity of understanding, please steer clear of this notoriously difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain in 12 minutes topic, and preach the texts.

There are a brave few who will attempt to do both this Trinity Sunday.  These preachers will take the bait of the Revised Common Lectionary and assume, probably unwisely, that the men (let’s face it, it had to be a bunch of dudes) who threw darts in that smoke filled room to set the RCL had benevolent motives.  They will dig into each text, searching for the kernel of doctrinal truth about the Trinity for Trinity Sunday.  As they search for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, they will notice that Psalm 8 is simply a response to the Genesis lesson.  Canticle 13 simply names the Trinity, as do the lessons from 2 Corinthians and Matthew.  While it is important to notice that the Triune name of God has been in use since the early part of the second half of the first century.  Unfortunately, one cannot extrapolate much about the doctrine beyond that.

Which leaves us with the first Creation story from Genesis.  This is the story with which we are most familiar.  It has the cadence we have come to look for, “there was evening, and there was morning, the first day.”  It affirms again and again that God sees creation as good, and only when everything had been set into place, does God declare it very good.  It is also the only place in the lessons for Trinity Sunday, Year A, that we might find some insights into the nature of the Trinity.  While it is doubtful that poet who wrote Genesis 1 had the doctrine in mind, the first three verses can be informative for our understanding of God to see how the three co-eternal Persons are at work even as the one nature is to create.

God, the name we often conflate with the Father, is the creative force behind it all.  The Spirit, called the “wind from God,” hovers over the face of the deep, waiting to take her place as guide in the hearts of humankind, and to teach them what it means to “have dominion.”  And then, God speaks, and God’s creative Word goes about the work of bringing the Father’s ideas into being.  Even now, I’m teetering on the edge of Modalism, so I’ll stop here.

wear-your-modalism1

No! Not Modalism!

My point is, preaching the Trinity is difficult.  Let’s cut each other some slack.  Let’s pray that we don’t lead our congregations down a path toward heresy.  And let’s invite God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to guide us as we search for the Trinity on Trinity Sunday.

Preaching Pithiness

I’ve noted this interesting tidbit before, but according to a recent study by the good people at Microsoft, the smartphone age has brought with it a decline in the average attention span of an adult to less than that of the common goldfish.  Since the year 2000, our ability to focus on any single item has dropped from a measly 12 seconds to a minuscule 8 seconds.  For those who can’t focus long enough to do the math, that’s a 33% decline in 15 years!  The outside world has continuously been adjusting as well as adjusting to this decline.  We see it everywhere.  Billboards that were once static are now digital and ever changing.  Our television screens are full of information crawling across the bottom, cluttering up the corners, and sometimes filling a third of the screen.

lebronsc

This bit of trivia came to mind for me this morning as I re-read the lessons appointed for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany and realized that from beginning to end, the preacher is dealing with one pithy soundbite after another.  As I tried to find a chunk of scripture to focus on, I felt my mind jumping back and forth, here and there, up and down.  I began to wonder what it will sound like to the average Christian on Sunday morning?  Will it just be a series of sound bytes that one can take or leave at one’s pleasure, or is there something of a cohesiveness to all the lessons?  More practically, though I am not preaching this week, I’m wondering how one would go about preaching pithiness?

There are probably several ways to deal with this conundrum.  Despite my mind’s inability to track with a single passage, there are several sections of these lessons that deserve some deep mining.  The section dealing with the harvest and leaving gleanings for the poor would be a fascinating study in 21st century America.  The admonition against hate and reproach could be studied under a microscope.  Paul’s play on wisdom and foolishness could take 45 minutes to unpack, as would each of the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses.  The other option would be to hopscotch one’s way through the lessons.  Perhaps there is a theme – holiness or love – that could serve as a thread that is pulled through a pithy quote or two from each lesson.

No matter which path the preacher chooses, the battle is uphill but not waged alone.  As the Psalmist reminds us in yet another series of decent one-liners that is thread together into a prayer, it is ultimately God’s work to teach us the Law of love.  As preachers, our task is to do the work of study, to be prepared, and then to get out of the way and let the Spirit to its work through our words in the hearts of the faithful.  Best wishes this week, dear friends.  I’ll be praying for you eight seconds at a time.

Are you ready for Jesus – a sermon

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

If statistical research and everyday conversations are any indicator of real life, then the most important thing I do in my work is preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon.  Hours of study, prayer, and writing go into each fourteen hundred word text.  This summer, I took a class on preaching that was co-taught by Duke Divinity professor and Episcopal Priest, Lauren Winner, who noted that preaching presents a unique opportunity in modern life.  With TVs and iPhones and cars that have Internet access, the average American will rarely, if ever, choose to sit and listen to another human being talk for 15 minutes, except for Sunday morning.  Dr. Winner was adamant that “There is no excuse for not taking seriously the extreme privilege that preaching is.”  I get that, which is why I work so hard to craft the sermons I preach.  I also know that a 2007 study from LifeWay Research says that 87% of church-shoppers say preaching is the most important factor in their deciding where to worship.  Again and again, studies by Episcopal seminaries say that the number one thing people want their priest to be able to do it preach a decent sermon.  I really don’t think human beings have changed much over the last two or three thousand years.  I think preaching has always been an important part of the religious life of the faithful.

It was certainly important for Mark and his Church.  This morning we hear Mark’s story of Jesus’ first public act, and what do you know, he preached a sermon.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to the congregation gathered at the First Synagogue of  Capernaum, but we know their reaction: “they were amazed at his teaching for he taught as one having authority.”  I imagine the people in the crowd that morning weren’t that unlike you and me.[1]  They’d come to Synagogue for all sorts of reasons.  Some where there hoping to find healing from a deep hurt.  Some were there hoping to see and be seen.  Some where there because their grandmother had made sure they went to Synagogue on Saturday and their grandfather had built the place with his bare hands.  They’d come to the Synagogue in all sorts of conditions.  Some where there hoping to hear the voice of God.  Some where there hoping to shake off the cobwebs of a late Friday night with friends, hoping for forgiveness for another week.  Some were hopping mad at their children for putting up such a fuss about getting dressed.

No matter the reason, no matter the mood, the congregation in Capernaum headed off to Saturday morning services expecting what most of us expect on a Sunday morning, routine.  Whether you’re a Baptist, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a non-denominational type, a Muslim, or an Episcopalian, everyone heads to their weekly worship service expecting it to look like it did last week.  The folks in Capernaum, like most of us this morning, came ready for a fairly predictable liturgy: a reading from the Bible, some prayers, a few songs maybe, and a sermon that would either make them feel warm and fuzzy or make them think, just a little bit, but not too much.  What they certainly didn’t expect was Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus is exactly what they got.

It wouldn’t have been unusual for a guest preacher to be asked to speak.  Travel wasn’t easy, so when you had someone from out of town, especially a Rabbi, it made sense to invite them to share a word.  Presumably, Jesus would offer greetings from the Synagogue in Nazareth, news he had learned on his journey, and a brief reflection on a safe text.  I’m sure when he was introduced as being from Nazareth; the reaction was not unlike Nathaniel’s from two week’s ago: a groan or two, maybe some eye rolls, and someone muttering under their breath, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” But then Jesus began to preach, and it was unlike anything they had ever heard before.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, but a few verses earlier, he did offer the crux of Jesus’ message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  It wasn’t that this was a new teaching, but it was the way he said it.  It wasn’t like the preaching of the Scribes: who had to rely on their brains, their studies, and the Holy Spirit for the words they said.  No, Jesus spoke with conviction, with a new authority.  He spoke as if the message about the kingdom of God was fulfilled in his speaking – as if his saying it made it so.  There was a depth and a power to his teaching that was unrivaled, even by the best preachers: the John the Baptists, the Billy Grahams, the Michael Currys.  Jesus spoke and immediately everyone sat up at attention, amazed at what they heard.

I wonder what would happen if Jesus showed up to preach at Saint Paul’s this morning.  Would we be inclined to listen?  Would we sense the same authority and depth the folks in Capernaum realized?  Would we find ourselves amazed?  Or would our experience be more like Jesus’ first public act in Luke’s Gospel, also a sermon.  This time, he isn’t in Capernaum as a guest preacher; he’s in his hometown of Nazareth.  Having preached my first sermon in the congregation in which I grew up, I can tell you how that goes.  As you stand up to preach, the people start to smile.  The congregation is transformed into proud adopted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles as they await your first word.  My first sermons there were awful, but the people were so kind.  “Great job,”  “I’m so proud of you,”  “You’ll do great things,” they said to me.  Jesus looked out on that hometown crowd and said to them basically the same thing he said in Capernaum, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”  “Great job,” “I’m so proud of you,” You’ll do great things,” they said, but Jesus kept talking.  The kingdom wasn’t going to look like what they thought it should look like.  He wasn’t going to bring his hometown buddies riding in on his coattails.  Much like in Capernaum, the crowd in Nazareth recognized the authority of Jesus, they sensed his conviction, and they felt the weight of his words, but in Nazareth things went south quickly.  The room flipped from proud smiles to enraged scowls in seconds, and Jesus was run out of town.

Are we ready to answer the call of Jesus to repent and believe in the good news?  Can we hear about freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the forgiveness of sins for all people without getting nervous?  Are we willing to let Jesus challenge our preconceived notions about what the world should look like?  Or are we hoping that he’ll offer us a safe word, one that might make us feel warm and fuzzy, or at worst make us think, just a little bit, but not too much?  Are we ready for the sort of authority that Jesus claims over our lives: about how we vote, how we shop, and more importantly, how we treat our neighbors and our enemies?  Are we willing to have our lives changed by Jesus, or are we stuck in the same old ways of living that lead only to death?

We are all here this morning for different reasons.  We’ve arrived here having dealt with all sorts of different things.  Some of us are tired and in need of rest.  Some of us are excited and looking for a way to channel our energy.  Some of us are here to get our card punched for the week.  Some are hoping to be changed.  Ideally, all of us are here expecting to encounter Jesus of Nazareth.  In word and song and bread and wine, we come and ask God to enter into our lives, to usher in his kingdom and to set us free from anger and sadness; from routine and boredom; from the way of selfishness and death.  Are you ready to hear the voice of Jesus?  Or would you rather keep things safe and easy?

[1] I’m grateful to Scott Hoeze for helping me imagine this scene.  http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel#sthash.5WeKqYDU.dpuf