The Martyrs of Uganda

Today, the Church remembers the Martyrs of Uganda, killed on this date in 1886.

Let us pray.

O God, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: Grant that we who remember before you the blessed martyrs of Uganda, may, like them, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ, to whom they gave obedience, even to death, and by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A reading from Matthew 24:9–14

Jesus said to his disciples, “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

The story of Christianity in Africa is messy, to put it mildly.  During the 33 year “Scramble for Africa,” European powers simply drew lines on maps, portioning off control of a continent that was not theirs for the taking, the Church played a lamentable role as missionary zeal mixed with political desire and a hunger for natural resources to create a toxic situation.

In Uganda, a nation claimed by British Empire, Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society focused their attention on converting the King and his Court beginning in 1877.  When the sympathetic King Mutesa I died in 1884, his son, Kabaka Mwanga II took the throne.  Mwanga was concerned that his court was filled with pages who put loyalty to Jesus Christ ahead of loyalty to the king.  He feared that this religious influence would have a political impact as he felt the powers of Europe closing in around him.  On October 29, 1885, King Mwanga ordered the execution of Bishop James Hannington and his companions as they made their way from Lake Victoria out of fear of a British invasion.

Eight months later, on June 3, 1886, Mwanga ordered 32 young men, between the ages of 15 and 30, to be burned to death for their refusal to denounce their faith.  In the following months, many more were burned or tortured to death for their faith as Mwanga tried to eradicate the Christian faith and its European influence from his kingdom.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.  Under the threat of certain death for those who preached and sought out the preaching of the Gospel, Christianity began to grow in Uganda.  The example of martyrs, who walked to the flames singing hymns and praying for their enemies sparked a desire for such faith in many who witnessed those horrific events.  With no white, European missionaries to turn to, these new Christians were taught the faith by their neighbors, people who looked and spoke like them and shared their traditions, history, and customs.  As a result of this Christian faith that came from the voices of an indigenous population, today Uganda is the most Christian nation on the African Continent.

As inheritors of a Christian faith that has been used by empires to subjugate people, enforce political control, and rob people of their cultures, we should be cautious about thinking that Jesus is talking to us when he warns his disciples of the coming persecution.  Our faith tradition has often been the persecutor, not the persecuted.  We should, however, be all in on the commitment to endure in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.  This Good News, as Matthew portrays it in his Gospel an impossibly simple one sentence sermon that Jesus preached again and again, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

If we are to learn anything from the Martyrs of Uganda, it is that the work of repentance is ongoing.  We must choose daily – and sometimes hourly or even minute by minute – to turn from the ways of self-preservation, anger, and bitterness and toward the way of love that Jesus showed us in this life and that the Martyrs of Uganda showed us in their deaths.  During these fearful and troubling times, may we all choose to follow the way of love and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

What are we looking for?

I am a walking dichotomy.  On the one hand, I write a blog that I hope a lot of people will read.  I post on instagram and facebook, hoping for lots of likes.  I lead a congregation that I hope will grow.  On the other hand, I have deep misgivings about the rise of religious celebrity and the cult of personality that seems to be at the root of much of what calls itself Christianity in 21st century America.  The world in me wants to be somewhat church famous (with the justification of, it’ll lead more people to follow Jesus in what I’ve deemed to be the right way).  The Holy Spirit in me wants to be anonymous and to let God take care of the soul saving work.  The world in me looks down my nose at folks like Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, and people still using the Royal Wedding sermon to prop up our Presiding Bishop.  The Holy Spirit in me argues that there is no competition in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a struggle I deal with on a regular basis.

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Being rich because of the poor is a lot of fun.

This dichotomy is hitting home this week as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Advent 3A.  Eight chapters after we first met John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea last Sunday, this week, we’ll get the continuation of the JBap story.  John has been arrested.  As was the custom of the time, his disciples ministered to him in jail.  As they brought him food and clothing, they also shared news from the outside.  Jesus was on the move.  His fame was beginning to increase.  He was preaching repentance, healing the sick, and his followers were growing.  Something was missing, however.  John had expected the Messiah to do or say something that Jesus wasn’t, and so he asked his disciples to go meet Jesus and to make sure he really was the one they had been waiting for.

In response, Jesus hits this dichotomy of worldly fame and godly faithfulness right on the head.  First, Jesus lays out a vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Despite thousands of years of expectation, both before and after the coming of Christ, the vision set forth by Jesus isn’t about power, prestige, or fame, but rather, its about humility, compassion, and good news for those on the margins.  Second, Jesus challenges all who would wish that God was more interested in political power by reminding them, and us, that what brought people out to see John, and by extension, what brought them out to see Jesus, wasn’t those in the soft robes of the palace, but the messiness of the wilderness.  It is there, amidst the locusts, dust, and the poor that the Kingdom of God will be found.  It is in humility, poverty, and suffering with, not in expensive suits, fancy houses, private jets, and book deals that the Kingdom of God will be found.

Ultimately, I think we are all walking dichotomies.  Our motivations are often mixed.  Our deepest desires are shaped by the world even as we strive to live for the Kingdom.  In Christ, however, we have our exemplar.  In John the Baptist, we have one who came to point to the way, even as he struggled with this dichotomy himself.  Across thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history we have all kinds of examples of those who feebly struggled to live for Christ and not for self, and this Tuesday in Advent, as I’ll once again be asked to leave a room while the Vestry talks my stipend for 2020, I’m grateful for the examples of those who don’t trust in fame or riches, but in the power of the lamb.

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 7 Experiment – Reflections on Food

In case I haven’t said it enough, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley is a cool place to hang out.  From our oldest members to the nursery-aged kids, there is just a lot going on in the lives of the saints that call Saint Paul’s their spiritual home.  One of the coolest things that has happened here recently is the growing interest in lay-led Christian Education.  We currently have two groups that have started, on their own, based on the interests of a few people.

The one that is impacting me the most is a book study on “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” by Jen Hatmaker, mostly because of my wife’s direct involvement in it.  Let me tell you, these young adults are crazy.  Each week, they (and by extension I) will engage in a discipline aimed at extricating ourselves from the rat race that is “work more to buy more.”  I’ll reflect here each week on the experience.

Food.  Why on earth did she start with food?  Here’s this week’s deal, eat only 7 foods.  Thanks to the scheduling gods, SHW and I had a big house blessing/warming party on Sunday afternoon before this started, and it didn’t seem to be within the spirit of the experiment to let a bunch of perishable foods go to waste in the name of simplifying our lives.  So, aside from the left over veggie tray (and the chocolate cake at SHW devoured in 2 days and the open bottle of white wine that I tried to ration over the week), my list of 7 items was: oatmeal, honey, whole wheat bread, peanut butter, apples, chicken, and zucchini.

We’ve all had the experience of taking a mission trip and seeing these people who have next to nothing: one change of clothes, beans and rice once a day, fetid water, and a tin shack; and they are joyful people, eager to share what they do have and love without reservation.  My week of 7 foods made me realize that they are able to live like that because they haven’t been made evil by the demon of privilege.  What eating only simple foods did to me was make me grouchy, with absolutely no patience for my children.  I was hungry, mostly because by Wednesday, I couldn’t imagine shoving another apple down my throat, but that’s not an excuse.  I’m used to eating and drinking what I want, when I want, and I’ve gotten nice and fat because of it.  I lost 10 pounds this week, and could stand to lose 20 more, but the real take home for me was to realize that entitlement ain’t just a government program.  Instead, it lives deep within me as I expect to be satisfied at all times.  I could probably do with less satisfaction.  This week has helped me realize that, and hopefully, it will produce fruit in the weeks, months, and years to come.

This week’s experiment is clothing – 7 articles.  How hard can that be?