A growing list

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There is a well worn trope, whenever the 10 Commandments come around, for the preacher to stand before her/his congregation and say, “I must confess that I have violated one of the ten commandments.”  Their congregation gets itchy, assuming, of course, that it is the adultery or stealing bit, but then everybody gets a laugh when the preachers says, “I’m not great at keeping the Sabbath.”  Every time the 10 Commandments comes around, I think of the sermons I have heard start in just that way, and I chuckle while I roll my eyes.

This year, as I read the Commandments that God gave to Moses, the basic tenants of living in the Kingdom of God, I realized that I think my list of 10 Commandment failures is growing.  The Sabbath is nigh on impossible in 21st century America, but I am probably guilty of my fair share of coveting as well.  If Jesus is right, and holding anger against a brother or sister is equivalent to murder, well, I’ve probably done that too.  This might be the most popular sin in the social media culture in which we live.  Above all else, however, I know that my chief sin is the sin of idolatry.  In that way, I guess I’m more Pauline than I’ve ever realized as the entire Letter to the Romans deals with the human proclivity toward idolatry.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about Romans, but rather a realization that there are so many things in this world that would be a god in my life.  My to-do list is high on that list.  My desire to make things right.  My wish that others would live by the same set of rules that I try to live by (I’m looking at you people who park in the fire lane at the grocery store and clog up the flow of traffic in an already to small parking lot).  Wanting to be liked, to do my job well.  Excellence.  Me.

It being Lent, when 10 Commandments week rolls around, it seems like a good opportunity to do this sort of self-examination, so long as repentance follows shortly thereafter.  That’ll be my prayer this week.  For you as well as myself.  That the 10 Commandments might give us a chance to reflect on the ways in which we fall short of God’s dream, to seek forgiveness, and to move forward in a new way, eschewing idolatry and covetousness and seeking Sabbath and God’s refreshment.

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Racism has no place in the Kingdom of God – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website.


Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are evil, they are sinful, and they are from the devil.  They are lies straight from the pit of hell, and I can say this with full confidence because each of these things seek to separate human beings into us and them, in and out, right and wrong.  Our Prayer Book teaches that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[1]  This is the mission of the Church because it is the mission of God, the dream that God has for the creation he saw living in perfect harmony at the end of the sixth day of creation and declared it “exceedingly good.”[2]

From that moment forward, the devil has been sowing seeds of division among God’s good creation.  First, it was to separate humanity from God through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Then, he began to tear down human relationships through pride, envy, and deceit.  When Cain killed his brother, Abel, the first fruits of sin had come to harvest, and in every generation thereafter, God has been hard at work trying to help us restore the unity that existed in the very good beginning.  In the fullness of time, the Father sent his only Son to live among us.  God took on human flesh, and in so doing, took within the Godhead things which God had never known.  Through the full humanity of Jesus, God experienced human pain: a scraped knee, a hammer to the thumb, a nasty splinter.  God experienced emotional pain: the stress of the temptation, the worry of that first miracle at a wedding in Cana, the deep sadness of the death of a friend.  God experienced the fullness of our human existence, up to and including, suffering and death.  Hard as it might be for us to believe, in every new experience, the Godhead learned something that God had never known before.  Harder yet to believe is that by living in a specific time and a specific place and as a particular person with race, creed, color, and nationality, God even learned from the depravity of human sinfulness

The devil has been hard at work, trying to separate us from God and each other, since the very beginning.  He uses individual temptations, to be sure, but often, the devil’s best work is done through the systems and institutions that human beings naturally create.  As a first century Jewish person, Jesus was born into one of those systems, just as we were born into our own system of beliefs, assumptions, and ways of looking at the world as twenty-first century American Christians.  In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear a story about the power those systems can exert, even over the Son of God.  After Jesus tells the crowd that it isn’t what goes into our mouths that makes us unclean, but what comes out from the heart, the story immediately turns to Jesus and his disciples leaving the safety of Galilee for the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.  There, Jesus encounters a woman of Canaanite descent who desperately wants Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter.  After initially ignoring her pleas, Jesus engages her with these difficult words hear, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Matthew presents us with something of a problem.  Canaanites no longer existed by time Jesus walked the earth, but by naming the woman as a Canaanite, Matthew cues his readers that this woman represents all the enemies of Israel: Canaanites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Samaritans, you name it.  In this story, this woman stands in for all those whom any human system, be it first century Judaism or 21st century America, looks at as outsider, unclean, and less than.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.”[3]  I think this story is as close as Jesus ever got to succumbing to temptation and falling into sin.  Such is the power of systemic evil.  The pressures of the system into which Jesus was born were nearly too much for the Son of God.  Racism is evil, it is sinful, and it is of the devil, even when it comes from the lips of our Savior.  In that moment, when Jesus calls the woman descended from the ancient enemy of Israel a dog, the devil is there tempting Jesus to allow the system of separation, prejudice, and enmity to continue.  Jesus is tempted to keep his eyes closed to her suffering, to ignore the cry of another human being, and to relegate her to the dog pound.  Also present in that moment however, was the power of God’s reconciling love, and God’s love, my friends, is always, always, stronger than the devil’s divisive hate.

Through the Canaanite woman, God the Father confronted the systems of racism, sexism, and fear.  By opening her mouth to challenge Jesus, God once again opened the Kingdom of heaven to the whole world.  It is because of this encounter and others like it that Paul could later write, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”[4]  In this encounter, Jesus learned something about his ministry, God learned something about the insidious nature of the devil’s influence within human institutions, and we learn that there is power in confronting the racist, sexist, and classist systems of this world.

Let’s be honest.  Saying racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy are evil is the easy part.  What’s harder is taking a hard look at the systems we love, like this great nation or our beloved Episcopal Church, and asking how these institutions continue to perpetuate the evil of separating human beings from God and from each other.  Harder yet, is the task of looking at ourselves, and being honest about how we allow this evil to continue through sins known and unknown; things done and left undone.  This isn’t about white guilt, but rather the hard realizations that we benefit from systems over which we have no control, that our silence for fear of upsetting someone else perpetuates those systems, and that our fear keeps us from overcoming the devil’s efforts to divide us from each other and the reality of God’s all-encompassing love.

As it was for Jesus, coming to terms with the reality of our own complicity in racism will not be easy.  It requires first that we see the sin within ourselves, admit it, repent of it, and seek God’s forgiveness.  It will mean leaving our comfort zones to name racism, hate, and prejudice when we see them.  We cannot move beyond the sin of racism in silence, but we must we willing to speak out on behalf of those who for centuries have had their voice silenced.  I say all this not to condemn anyone for where they are, but because, I’m afraid, this is where I have been for too long.  The time to rest in relative comfort because racism doesn’t affect me personally is long over.

The dream of God for unity among human beings, God, and all that God has created will not come into being through violent rhetoric, through fist-fights, or through war.  Violence does nothing more than take Jesus again to the cross.  Instead, the mission of God has already been won through the life of Jesus, in which God took upon himself the fullness of our human condition, the death of Jesus, through which God showed the violent work of the devil to be an impotent farce, and the resurrection of Jesus, by which all of humanity has been restored to right relationship.  We who live as a people of the resurrection must take seriously the reality of that victory, and work with intention, compassion, and love to achieve God’s dream of unity not only for ourselves, but for all God’s children: male and female; Black, White, Hispanic, and southeast Asian; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

Saying that racism is from the devil is the easy part.  God is calling us to move beyond easy and become active participants in the restoring of all people to God and to each other in Christ.  May God bless us with the grace, power, and courage we will need to answer that call.  Amen.

[1] BCP, 855

[2] Genesis 1:31, my translation

[3] Hebrews 4:15

[4] Galatians 3:28

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.

Sermon: Have you heard the Good News?

After some website delays, you can now listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read along here.


Do you remember the first time you heard the Good News that God loves you?  Having basically grown up in the church, I can’t identify the precise moment when I first heard those words, but I do have early memories.  I remember one Vacation Bible School: the theme was some sort of undersea adventure, and inside a giant blown up plastic tube that was painted to look like the ocean, we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  I remember another VBS, sitting the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church singing, “If I were a butterfly,” and thanking God for “making me me.”  I remember Sunday school classes and sermons and confirmation classes that all, in their own way, showed me the love of God.  I also remember those stories, sermons, and lessons that reminded me of God’s judgment as well.  I remember the story of Adam and Eve: how they had eaten of the tree of good and evil and were punished.  I remember hearing the story of Noah: how God had become so disappointed with the world that God decided to start over by flooding it, killing nearly every living thing.  Some of those stories are difficult for us adults to understand, let alone children, but they, like the numerous stories of God’s love, are important for us to hear.  The fullness of God’s story is a story of God’s hope for a full and perfect relationship with humankind, our ongoing ability to screw that up spectacularly, the repercussions of broken relationship, and God’s loving work to restore the hope of a full and perfect relationship.

It is right in the middle of that ongoing pattern that we find ourselves in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this Third Sunday of Easter.  Each Easter season, instead of reading from the Hebrew Bible, we read selections from Acts.  In Year A, we spend three weeks on Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  Last week, it was a pretty in-depth exegetical study of the prophet Joel.  This week we hear a summation of Peter’s sermon and the crux of salvation history.  Because of God’s passionate desire for right relationship, God the Father sent God the Son in the person of Jesus.  Although humanity killed Jesus, God raised him to his rightful place as Lord and Messiah.  Peter preached this sermon to a fairly significant crowd.  It was the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the Passover during which they remember the gift of the Law and offer God the first fruits of the grain harvest.  Jerusalem was teeming with spiritual tourists.  Jews from around the known world were gathered to offer their first fruits in hopes of a successful harvest when the city was brought into confusion by a loud noise like a rushing wind, and a cacophony of voices, each speaking in a different language.  Every visitor for blocks heard the Good News of God’s mighty acts in their own native tongue.  Thousands packed in tightly around the disciples’ house to see what was happening.

There, amidst an increasingly raucous crowd, Peter shared the Good News of God’s love.  They were cut to the heart by his message.  They had never heard such preaching.  Sure, like many generations before them, the crowd gathered had hoped for the Messiah.  They had prayed that God would restore the fortunes of Zion.  They longed to find right relationship with God, but few of them really expected anything to change.  Yet here, on this Pentecost Day, something was different.  This word from Peter was like a word straight from God’s own lips.  This word was both judgment and love.  It cut them to the very core, and they pleaded with Peter and the rest, “Brothers, what should we do?”

As it turns out, the proper response to God’s love is actually quite simple: “repent and be baptized.”  Repent is a ten-cent church word that has lost much of its meaning over time.  After years of only hearing it from television preachers and street corner evangelists, repentance has come to mean something like “feeling guilty because you’re a wretched mess of a sinner,” but that isn’t exactly what Peter meant when he told the crowd to metanoio.  The first step toward right relationship with God is to change your mind, to change your direction, to change your focus, and ultimately, to change your actions.  That’s what repentance is all about.  It has very little to do with feeling guilty or sad, and everything to do with turning away from the old life of sin and turning toward life eternal in right relationship with God.  You can feel sorry for doing something, and go right on doing it.  What God desires is a transformed life.  “After that,” Peter says, “then you should be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins can be washed away and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.”  That’s it.  Repent and be baptized.  Eventually, this two fold action of repentance and baptism was made symbolic in the baptismal liturgy itself.  Immediately before being immersed, the new Christians would face west, the direction of the sunset and gathering darkness, and be asked three times to renounce Satan and the forces of evil.  They would then turn to face east, the direction of the sun rise and the return of the light of the world, and three times would proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ.  To this day, the liturgy for Holy Baptism mirrors that ancient rite, which makes today is a perfect day for a baptism.

Our newest Christian is Christopher James Chaffin [who will be baptized at 10 o’clock this morning]. He isn’t even two months old yet, but I’d be willing to bet that he has already heard the Good News that God loves him more times than we can count.  He’s experienced the love of God through the care of his parents, Justin and Jamie, and his siblings Meredith and Benjamin, his extended family, and the people of Christ Church.  In a few minutes, [it’ll happen at the later service, but you still have a part in this] we will join with his parents and Godparents in promising that we will do all in our power to support Christopher in his life in Christ.  We, the people of Christ Church, on behalf of all Christians, will promise to make sure Christopher knows that God loves him both in word and action.

There isn’t much that a less than two-month old baby gets to decide on his own.  His days are basically made up of automatic bodily functions and being carried from one place to another.  He is not in need of repentance… yet.  Likewise, there isn’t much sin that needs to be washed away from Christopher… yet.  But it will come.  When Christopher does begin trying to walk in his own path, it’ll be his family: nuclear, extended, and church that will be here to remind him of the right pathway to God.

What will come true today is the final promise of Peter to the crowd gathered to hear that Pentecost sermon.  Christopher James Chaffin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit this morning.  The Spirit will work alongside the rest of us to remind him of God’s unending love.  The Spirit will convict him when he begins to stray the wrong way.  The Spirit will help him to repent by making right choices and walking toward God’s love.  And the Spirit will do the work of fulfilling our prayer for Christopher this day, that he might be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

Some of us are blessed to remember the first time we heard the Good News that God loves us, but for many of us, that news has been a part of our lives since before we ever existed.  Christopher Chaffin is blessed in knowing God’s love every day of his life, and we are blessed to be a part of sharing that love with him.  He won’t always do the right thing.  God’s redemption story will be just as true for him as it is for me and you, but in the end, the only truth that really matters is that God loves him, God loves you, and God wants to be in perfect relationship with all of us.  So, repent, remember your baptism, receive the forgiveness of sins, and lean into the gift of the Spirit for discernment, courage, love, joy, and wonder.  Amen.

Repentance Requires Action

A good deal of my personal idiomatic dictionary revolves around the Simpsons, but only really from the period of about seasons 5-9.  I quit watching the show with any regularity while I was in college, but it had long since done its job to embiggen my vocabulary with perfectly cromulent words.  During season 8 there was an episode entitled “Bart after Dark,” in which Bart, after breaking a gargoyle at what turns out to be a burlesque house, has to work the front door in order to pay off the damage.  Hilarity ensues, of course, especially when Grandpa Simpson comes through the front door.

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If you watch that gif closely, you can see in Grandpa Simpson’s eyes the moment that repentance takes place.  Which leads me to the Bible because, of course it would.

Sunday’s Track 2 Old Testament lesson, disjointed as it may be, is a perfect story of repentance.  It even uses the Hebrew word “shoob” that would become the Greek “metanoia,” which is the basis of our idea of repentance.

Naaman was a hard-hearted sort of guy.  He had to be.  As a military leader, his success was dependent upon his ability to lead men into battle.  This task is not for the faint of heart, and the author of 2 Kings tells us that Naaman was very good at his job.  To top it off, he suffered from leprosy, a disease which, under normal circumstances, would have left Naaman ostracized and jobless, but this was not the case for Naaman.  Likely due to nothing more than his own tenacity in sticking up for himself, Naaman was able to keep his rank, his power, and his prestige, despite his unsightly affliction.

Still, Naaman knew that his life would be a whole lot easier if he was cured of his leprosy, and so, when his wife’s slave girl told him of a prophet in Israel who might be able to help him, he swallowed his pride and went.  His stiff-neck was bowed up at the prescription of Elisha, and yet, he was convinced by his servants to try and bathe seven times in the Jordan if it meant he would be healed.  Slowly, in fits and starts, Naaman was making his way toward repentance.

Finally, when he arose from the water the last time and saw that he was healed, Naaman repented, literally he re-turned, making his way back to Elisha in order to give thanks and to declare, unequivocally that there was only one God in the world, and that God resided in Israel.

Naaman’s journey to repentance wasn’t easy.  It required trust, some prodding, a gut check, and finally, following a set of directions that seemed ridiculous, but in the end, he found God.  Sometimes, that how it works in our lives.  In order to find God through repentance, it requires action.  We have to first find ourselves in need.  We have to trust that someone or something outside of ourselves can meet that need.  We might need someone else to help us along the way.  We might even find ourselves in an unknown place following a ridiculous set of instructions. In the end, when we have seen the work of God in the unlikeliest of places, true repentance then is to reorient our lives toward God and give thanks.  None of this is easy, but no one said it would be.  Repentance isn’t just the work of the mind or the heart, but it often requires physical action to find God’s grace.

Repentance isn’t a bad word

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John the Baptist preached repentance, there is no denying that fact, but the myriad of self-proclaimed, English speaking John the Baptists who have followed in his footsteps seem to have missed the point.  Repentance isn’t a bad word, something to be beaten into a would-be disciple, but instead, the baptism of John, the precursor to discipleship under Jesus, was about entering into a relationship of love.

According to Dictionary.com, the English word “repent” means to feel sorry, regretful, or contrite for some past word or deed, which is woefully short of the Greek word “metanoia” that Luke used to describe the Baptism of John.  Even the second definition, which goes on to include felling so sorry as “to be disposed to change one’s life for the better…” misses the mark, in my opinion.

Instead, I’m drawn to the  Young’s Literal Translation of Luke 3:3, which more appropriately captures the depth of meaning behind metanoia. “…and [John] came to all the region round the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of reformation — to remission of sins…”

Metanoia, as you no doubt know dear reader, literally means “to turn around” or “to have a change of heart.”  While it is likely that the impulse for metanoia might well be sorrow or guilt, to place the focus on that is to lose the real meaning.  God isn’t so much interested what brings us to a change of heart, only that it happens.  When the YLT calls John’s baptism a baptism of reformation, it captures that idea wonderfully.  We are called to be remade in the image of Christ, to seek after the will of God in all circumstances, and, ultimately, to a life of love for all creation.

 

Lacking One Thing

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing…”

What I wouldn’t give to only lack one thing in the eyes of God.  Maybe I’m projecting on you, dear reader, but I’m guessing that most of us aren’t in the enviable position of the rich young man who approached Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel story, lacking only one thing.  Instead, most of us are lacking in several areas.  For instance, I often find it difficult to trust God and so I try to do everything myself.  I also struggle to love my neighbor, especially in car line or at a 4-way stop sign.  I worry about money more than I know I should, and loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is a whole lot easier said than done.

Even if I only lacked one thing, I would still probably find myself in the position of the rich young man.  That last thing is what he has held most dear, the only thing he is not willing to let go of, even if it means walking away from Jesus’ promise of eternal life sad and alone.

Notice, however, what happens even before Jesus invites him to leave behind that one thing.  Mark tells us that Jesus loved him.  That, dear reader, is what grace looks like.  Even in the face of this man who Jesus knew couldn’t let go of that one thing, Jesus chose love.  This is, of course, great news for me.  Even as I lack many things that would make me perfect in the eyes of God, God loves me.  God loves you too, even in the face of whatever flaws you might have.

This passage is often read as being harsh and judgmental, and in many ways it is.  Perhaps the fact that the man lacked only one thing made the choice to follow Jesus that much harder.  For those of us who lack much, it seems easier to throw up our hands and say, “Save me Lord.”  So maybe this passage really is full of grace.  Even as the man walks way, Jesus loves him.  He doesn’t chase after him because that’s not how grace works, but I imagine there came a day when the man realized that even if it meant giving up everything, he’d walk the way of eternal life with Jesus, and Jesus welcomed him with open arms.  That’s what the love of God is all about, no matter what we lack, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, God is ready to welcome us into relationship.