Preaching to myself

My wife and I have often joked that we have the two most guilt-inducing careers for outsiders.  SHW is a dental hygienist.  When folks find that out, they immediately start into their excuses for not going to the dentist or uncomfortably laughing at their inability to start a proper flossing regiment.

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When they find out that I’m an Episcopal Priest, the excuses about why they don’t go to church as often as they think they should are surprisingly similar to the reasons they don’t go to the dentist, and I hear all kinds of ways in which they find God in trees or are spiritual but not religious.

One thing we both also hear is how people can’t imagine doing the jobs we do.  “I couldn’t look inside peoples’ mouths,” they say to her.  “How can you think of something to say each week,” i get in response.  While I can understand the desire to stay away from the general ickiness of the average person’s unflossed mouth, I don’t really get this fear of writing a sermon.  First, if one is doing their homework, praying, and listening for the Spirit, sermon topics tend to eventually show up.  It’s not that there aren’t weeks when I wish they’d show up earlier, but I have found that if I am faithful to the homiletical exercise, God will give me something to say.

Moreso, if I am doing the work, God will show me what it is in my own life that needs to be addressed, and often, that thing is pretty applicable to the wider world.  Truth be told, more often than not, I’m preaching to myself.  This is true this morning as I read the lessons appointed for Sunday and found Jesus pushing back against would be disciples who wanted to follow Jesus on their own terms.  “I’ll be right there” is not the an acceptable answer.  That is to say, that comfortable Christianity, though commonplace in contemporary American society, isn’t really a thing.

I know this to be true in my own life.  For all intents and purposes, I’ve got it pretty easy.  I’m serving a congregation that is full of people who want to serve.  I’m well paid.  I have a great staff.  We could very easily do the comfortable Christian thing of minding our own business, writing a few checks to outreach organizations, and patting ourselves on the back for years to come, but that’s not what God would have us do.  It would have been much easier, when Jesus came to sleep on our porches to say, “You can’t stay here,” while writing a nominal check to HOTEL, INC., but God calls us out of our comfort zones.  When Catherine Meeks called to ask if I would take part in a week-long Justice Pilgrimage aimed at racial healing, it would have been way easier to find some kind of excuse.  When the Bishop invited me and two lay leaders to attend a conference to rethink stewardship, it would have been easy to look at our income statement and think, “nah, we’re good.”  But God is not interested in our easy answers and paltry excuses.  God calls us to growth, to change, and to deeper commitment to the Kingdom of God.  So, here I sit, in a hotel room in Asheville, North Carolina ready to once again listen to where God is calling us to go next, reasonably uncomfortable in the reality that this morning, I’m called to preach to myself.

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It is all about love

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.