A Cloud of Witnesses

Here at Christ Church, Bowling Green, along with Episcopalians in the Diocese of Kentucky and Christians around the country, we are engaged in 40 days of prayer leading up to August 20th and the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States.  The Angela Project, developed by Simmons College of Kentucky is intended to raise awareness of how slavery has impacted and continues to be a part of the experience of African-Americans.  Simmons College of Kentucky as developed three resources leading up to the anniversary date: a 40-day prayer journal, a 6-week Sunday School curriculum, and a liturgy resource for the actual anniversary date.

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Included in everyday of the 40-day prayer journal is an excerpt from an 1872 text, The Underground Railroad Records, written by William Still, the son of two enslaved persons who had escaped to freedom in the north.  The stories of those who escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, are, as you might imagine, heart-rending.  Everyday, one reads of another human being who has been treated a less-than human.  Beatings, whippings, humiliation, rape, and being sold away from family were just some of the tools employed to keep millions of humans in bondage.

As I read these stories, especially in light of Sunday’s appointed lesson from Hebrews 11 & 12, two thoughts come to mind.  First, with each page turn, I prepare myself to read my last name among the stories.  According to family history, which I am hoping to delve further into, the Pankey family owned a tobacco plantation in southern Virginia that relied on the labor of enslaved persons for its economic prosperity.  I think about those members of my cloud of witnesses who were a part of this despicable system, and pray that I might find some way to make a positive impact on the world I’ve inherited to, in some small way, chip away at the enormous pile of damage my people inflicted on others, even as they came to Virginia as Huguenot refugees escaping persecution.

More importantly, I give thanks for the witness of our siblings in Christ and in our common humanity, who, despite nearly insurmountable odds to the contrary, risked it all to seek freedom.  The choices they had to make – leaving behind family, risking torture or death if found, leaving for the totally unknown – are harrowing, but faith in something greater and hope for something better motivated each of them.  As I think about their place even in my cloud of witnesses, I lament that their story exists even as I’m grateful that it continues to be told so that we might learn from our past, and hopefully grow into the fuller stature of Christ as we seek Christ in our neighbors.

The cloud of witnesses is a complicated one, filled with sinners redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I guess that’s maybe the point Paul is trying to make.  We’re all complicated.  We each have sins we must set aside.  But with the aide of our ancestors, we press on, running our portion of the race toward the world’s redemption as best we can.

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The Signs of the Times

As I looked outside this morning, it was well past time for the sun to be up, but a lower, lingering gray continued to hold court in the sky.  Snow flurries were dancing along the tops of the leaves that are begging me to rake them toward their final resting place.  The trees, through which I’d normally see the sun coming over the horizon, are mostly bare, with only the last few holdouts just barely hanging on.  Looking outside, it wasn’t hard to tell that today was going to be a cold, wet, and dreary kind of day.  No matter how much I might wish for a sunny day in the mid-50s, it isn’t going to happen, and this morning’s snapshot out my front window betrays that reality.

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As a new Church Year begins, we move the focus of our Sunday Gospel lessons from Mark’s brevity to Luke’s more expansive theological story-telling style.  On this First Sunday of Advent, we jump deep into Holy Week for another foray into apocalyptic literature.  Unlike in Mark, where Jesus offered his eschatological reflections from the Mount of Olives to only a select few hearers, here, Jesus is in the Temple, talking to whomever will listen about what is to come.

“When you see the fig tree come into bloom, you know summer is at hand,” Jesus tells the crowded Temple court, “so pay attention, for you will see the signs of the times for the coming of the Kingdom of God.”  As with most visions of the End Times, Jesus’ imagery is full of war, famine, fear, are foreboding.  He tells the audience that in those moments, they shouldn’t cower in fear, but rather, “raise up your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”

In the 2,000 or so years since Jesus said these words, there hasn’t been a time without war, famine, fear, and foreboding.  If one were watching out the window for the signs of the times, it might always look like Jesus is getting ready to hop on that cloud and enter with power and might.  Many a charlatan, of the sort that Jesus warned the crowds about earlier in Luke (a version of which we heard from Mark two weeks ago), have made themselves rich and powerful by a false reading of these signs.  Many have been made to shrink in fear that the end is nigh, but that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  In a world that constantly looks like it is coming to an end, and most often so due to the sinfulness of humanity, are we able to read the signs and raise up our heads?  Will we be willing to stand up and invite others to join in the work of restoration to which we are invited?  Are we able to see that the great revealing that will take place isn’t meant to harm and destroy, but rather, to build and restore?

Let’s be honest, the times don’t look that good these days.  Signs of the end are as prevalent as they’ve ever been.  Will we cower in fear?  Will we resign ourselves to anger and sadness?  Or, will we raise up our head, roll up our sleeves, and join with God’s redeeming work?

Me, Baptism Excited – a sermon

Back when I was in seminary, before anyone could even read a lesson in the chapel at VTS, they had to pass LTG4 – The Oral Interpretation of Scripture.  Somewhat un-affectionately referred to as “Read and Bleed,” this course was offered during the August term before my first year.  It was an hour a day for a week, and in it, we learned how to read the Bible out loud.  As you’ve learned over the past eighteen months, I’m not one to be overly animated in my tone, and so my experience in LTG4 was more bleed than it was read.  In my small group there was a former actor, a professional clown, and a man who grew up in the Black Baptist tradition, and so, comparatively, I was less expressive than a doorknob.  At one point, as my small group leader tried to coax me into a more excited interpretation of Matthew 22, I said to her, “I’m sorry, I’m trying, but this is me, wedding day excited.”  That expression has become something of a recurring joke for me over the years.  Never one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, I can be hard to read, which isn’t always helpful.  At times, when my expression doesn’t betray my joy or exuberance, I have to tell people, flat-out, that I am excited.

So, in case you can’t tell this morning, this is me baptism day excited.  I love baptisms, especially when those being baptized have asked for it to happen.  There is just something extra special about hearing someone take on faith for themselves, especially when it is a child who has been a part of this community for a while, who has grown in the faith thanks to the many role models they have seen here at Christ Church – staff members, Sunday school teachers, children’s church volunteers, and other members of the community.  As we prepare to formally welcome Zoë and Wyatt into the Body of Christ [at 10 o’clock] this morning, we do so with excitement and joy for what the future holds, both for them and for us.

One of the places where this excitement and joy really becomes clear is in the prayer that we pray after the baptism itself.  Despite my tendency away from emotional expression, this prayer catches me short every time I have the opportunity to pray it.  New to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, this particular post-baptismal prayer uses more modern language to ask God to impart upon the newly baptized the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have been prayed for since the prophet Isaiah roamed the earth nearly three-thousand years ago.  For Zoë and Wyatt, we will pray for wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and awe.

It is by sheer coincidence this week, as we baptize Wyatt and Zoë into the family of the Church, that our appointed epistle lesson is from the opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians.  These words of affirmation read, in many ways, like post-baptismal prayer.  One long, run-on sentence in the original Greek, these words flowed forth from their author’s pen as an excited, joy-filled, admonition for the faithful in Christ Jesus.  Unlike last week’s lesson from Second Corinthians, which Mother Becca rightly reminded us was written by a particular person, to a particular community, in response to a particular set of needs and never meant to be read as a universal letter containing comprehensive truth, the letter to the Ephesians, in its earliest form, never actually mentions the Ephesians.  This text seems to be the antithesis of the Corinthian letters, written for more general consumption by Christian congregations around the known world.  Its goal, it seems, isn’t to address particular issues in one church community, but rather, to encourage all the faithful to seek unity in Christ, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit that was promised to us by Jesus himself and bestowed upon every disciple at their baptism.

Through this ancient exclamation of praise, Paul reminds his audience of God’s great power to restore all things.  Despite the fact that Zoë and Wyatt have asked to come to baptism today, Paul reminds us all that we are, first, passive participants in God’s redeeming work.  That any of us comes to faith is only because of God’s invitation.  It is God’s will that all of creation might be returned into right relationship with God, and each time a new believer comes to faith, we rejoice, alongside God and the heavenly chorus, that another breech has been repaired by the grace of God whose will it is to gather up all things.

All of us, then, who claim to be disciples of Jesus, are called to claim our inheritance and to work alongside God toward the restoration of all people.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit and gifted with an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and, perhaps most importantly, the gift of joy and wonder, every follower of Jesus who has been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism is encouraged to claim their inheritance and baptismal identity by working with God to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

And so, even as we prepare to pray the postbaptismal prayer for Zoë and Wyatt, in our Collect of the Day, we pray that by God’s grace we might all know and understand the things we ought to do as a result of our adoption as beloved children of God, and not only that, but that God might give us the power to accomplish them.  Both of these prayers aren’t simply about a future looking hope that someday God might fix everything in the great by and by, but rather, they are calls to action for today, that right here and right now, we might respond to God’s amazing grace by rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.  Utilizing the gifts that we receive in our baptisms; our everyday lives are meant to be spent working toward the restoration and renewal of God’s good creation.

I had the joy of spending this past week at All Saints, serving as a chaplain to the New Horizons Camp for 5th and 6th graders.  The theme for the summer at All Saints is “environments around the world,” and alongside seminarian Allision Caudill, we tried to help these young campers see that even at ten or eleven years of age, they too have a part to play in God’s ongoing work in the world.  The overarching narrative for our time together was the first creation story from Genesis 1.  Again and again, we reiterated that at the end of each day, God looked at what had been created and declared it good, but on the sixth day, as God looked over everything that had been made: the sun, moon, and stars; over the earth, its land and seas; over all the plants and every living creature that swims in the water and cattle and creeping things on the land; and ultimately over humankind, which God had made in God’s own image; when God saw everything working together in harmony, it wasn’t just that it was good, but rather, it was very good.  “Good good,” as the Hebrew says.

As baptized disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been set free to work toward making creation “good good” again.  We are encouraged by God to use our gifts to build up the Kingdom of Heaven through acts of loving service, through caring for our neighbor, by treating everyone with respect, and sharing the Good News of God’s redeeming love with a world that desperately needs it.  That is what makes me so excited this morning.  This is me baptism day excited, as once again, we are all reminded of our place as co-workers in the Kingdom of God.  Later on, as we pray for Zoë and Wyatt to take their place in God’s work of redemption, embrace that prayer for you as well.  May each of us this day be encouraged and empowered by the new life of grace to claim our blessedness and build up the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

The Pain of Living

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  I know this seems to go against my Barthian theology of preaching that has “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” but honestly, who subscribes to newspapers anymore?  Of course, the reality is that this isn’t to say that I don’t know what is going on in the world.  I talk to people, I listen to the radio, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I know how to access the CNN.com homepage; I’m aware of current events enough to suggest that I preach with “a Bible in one hand and my smartphone/laptop/iPad in the other.”  I’m also aware of current events enough to know that life is full of pain.  A brief glance at this week’s top stories brings nearly two weeks of waiting to know what became of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; the domestic violence/murder trial of a man who was for two week’s the world’s sweetheart, Oscar Pistorius; the ongoing violent struggle between Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea; and the Rolling Stones’ Tour cancellation as their lead singer mourns the suicide death of his girlfriend; just to name a few.

The reality of life is that it comes with pain, which, to me, is why faith is so important.  If there is no point to all of this other than to be born, experience life, and die, then the pain doesn’t seem worth it, but if there is a God, whose Kingdom is perfect freedom, then the pain is, at the very least, a motivator toward making this world a better place: a world that more closely resembles the Kingdom.

Which is why, as I say all too often, I love this week’s Collect.  We can’t fix the problems of the world.  Laws won’t keep bad people from doing bad things.  Medical advances can’t keep new ailments from springing forth.  Even good intentions can’t keep us for accidentally hurting the feelings of those we love.  Pain is inevitable, but God is there to remind us that even in the midst of our pain and sadness, we are his beloved children.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.