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.

40daysofprayer

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.

Advertisements

Comfortable Words

It may seem morbid or a sign of the slow decay of Episcopal relevance, but I am of the opinion that the Burial Office is the best thing the Episcopal Church has to offer the world.    Its language is beautiful, though I think those who find the pronoun usage in the various anthems to be troublesome have a salient argument.  It balances well the tendency to err too far to one side or the other between “this should only be about Jesus” and “this should only be about the deceased.”  Even the rubrics, which yes, we should read and abide by, help make an Episcopal burial service an opportunity for reflection, prayer, and celebration.  For example, the requirement that the coffin “be covered with a pall or other suitable covering” ensures that whether prince of pauper, every soul buried from the church is brought in under the cover of their baptismal gown.  As and aside, for which I am well known, I have seen, on occasion, the use of the Episcopal or American flag as “other suitable covering”  I can understand the impetus for this, but would argue against so as to expand beyond “prince and pauper” to include “priest and solider” as well.  All are the same in death, for, as Paul writes to the Christians in Rome, “whether we live or, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s.”

news-012417c-lg

Astronaut Gene Cernan’s burial at St. Martin’s Church, Houston, TX. Note the pall covering his coffin

If you were reading Sunday’s New Testament lesson and the middle portion sounded familiar to you, it is probably because you have attended an Episcopal Burial service sometime since 1979.  Romans 14:7-8 is an option among four anthems in both the Rite I and Rite II services.  Often strung together as one long anthem, said in procession, these words at the opening of the Burial Office set the tone for the rest of the service to follow.  These are words of comfort.  These are words of hope.  These are words of resurrection.  These are, in the parlance of our Rite I Eucharist, “Comfortable Words” meant to place the hearts and minds of the bereaved in the hands of the resurrected Lord through whom we all have access to the Kingdom.

In a world that seems to be disintegrating around us, these words might come just at the right time this Sunday.  With a major earthquake in Mexico, the 16th anniversary  of 9/11, Charlottesville, and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma weighing heavy on our hearts, it seems prudent that we hear these words from Paul and have the Burial Office brought to mind.  In the same way that, in death, all of us come to the altar under the garment of baptism, so too, in life, we are all here on earth because of the gift and grace of God.  As Fitzmeyer puts it in his Anchor Bible Commentary, “This passage implies the service of God in all things, and it is the basis of life in the true Christian sense.  In life and in death, the Christ exists to Kyrio, i.e. to praise, honor, and serve God” (p. 691).  So, whether we feast or fast, whether we keep the Kalendar or honor everyday as a Feria from God, our lives are to be lived under the banner of our baptism, to the honor and glory of God.

Paul’s Commandments

Last week, in dealing with Paul’s call to “not be conformed” to the ways of this world, I wrote a post that invited us to think less about the “thou shalt nots” and more about the “thou shalts.” That post received some good traction on Facebook because it resonated with people’s unfortunate experiences with the modern day Church of Paul.  In doing some reading on the history of the Church of England last night, I learned that this really isn’t all that new.  In describing the rising tide of Puritanism during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), Moorman noted that the draw to the Puritan way of thinking was natural after the rapid changes of the first half of the 16th century.

There is no doubt that, to a large number of people the Puritan way of life held out great attractions.  In a period of considerable confusion, Calvinism provided a clear-cut and authoritative system both of thought and of governance which gave a sense of security.  To many people the attitude of the government seemed deplorably vague and ambiguous.  It seemed to be ‘halting between two opinions,’ unable which to accept and what policy to follow.  After a generation of rapid changes, people felt lost and insecure. (A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed.)

I tend to think that this was the cause of the mega-church movement in the latter part of the 20th century as well.  Following the 2nd World War, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement, Americans were in need of some stability and so they sought out churches that were Reformed and Calvinist, eager to know precisely what the rules were.  This lead, in my opinion, to the rise of Pauliantiy as the national religion of the United States.  Rather than focusing on the Red Letters in their pew Bibles, members of these churches focused on the morality codes that Paul had tried to impose on the fledgling churches in Asia Minor.  They refused to let women preach and got strict about human sexuality.

calvinism

 

As I’ve grown out of that tradition, I’ve been grumpy about Paul for the last 10 years or so, forgetting that it really wasn’t Paul I was mad at, but a particular interpretation of Paul.  In fact, Paul wasn’t just about “thou shalt nots.”  This week’s lesson from Romans 12 is full of “thou shalt” moral teaching that sounds an awful lot like what Jesus was concerned about during his time on earth: Love one another, show honor, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of others, show hospitality, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, live peaceably with all, and overcome evil with good.

This is, of course, not any easy religion to practice.  Loving and serving and caring and blessing is a whole lot harder than judging and cursing and bitching and moaning.  We can barely pull it off for ourselves, let alone those we love, and “God forbid” our enemies.  But alas, the claim of Christ on our lives is a call to loving service for the whole world, even a rapidly changing world that we would like, more than anything, to pull under control.  So to make amends for my decade long discomfort with Paul, I’m taking on a new mantra for life and taking it directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

168 Hours of Worship – A Sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

        The past couple of weeks here at Saint Paul’s have sounded like a non-denominational staff meeting as we’ve talked about praise and worship, praise and worship, praise and worship.  You might recall a couple of weeks ago, with the story of Jesus walking on the water, how what struck me wasn’t that Jesus or Peter was able to defy gravity, but that it was the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that the disciples worshipped Jesus and called him “the Son of God.”  Last week, Keith invited us to look at the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman through a new lens.  Focusing less on the interaction between the two, Keith probed into the meaning behind her words, “Lord, Son of David!”  Seeing them not as a prayer of supplication, he wondered instead if they could be words of praise to Jesus the Christ.  They were both good sermons, if I do say so myself, coming at fairly well known gospel stories from a different angle.  If you haven’t heard them yet, you really should check them out on the website under the “Reaching Up” tab.

        Where we both fell short, however, was that we didn’t really take the time to talk about what it means for us, as 21st century American Christians to do the work of praise and worship.  As I alluded to in my opening sentence, I think these words have been co-opted over the past 20 or so years to mean one particular thing: a rock band on a big stage leading songs with questionable theology that repeat their chorus no less than nine thousand times or for forty-five minutes, whichever comes first.  As you might have guessed, I’m not a fan of that particular understanding of “praise and worship,” and so, I am grateful for this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans as it opens for us a deeper and richer understanding of praise and worship.

        Even though we’ve been hearing excerpts from it all summer long, we haven’t talked much about the Epistle to the Romans.  This really is a shame because Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome is one of the highlights of the New Testament.  My favorite Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright says that Romans is

… neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece. It dwarfs most of his other writings, an Alpine peak towering over hills and villages… Not all climbers have taken the same route up its sheer sides, and there is frequent disagreement on the best approach. What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.[1]

This morning, we find ourselves at the turning point in Romans.  Paul has spent eleven chapters dealing with the theological issues that are at play in the Roman Church.  Just ask our lectors about the Mobius strip like prose that Paul has used, folding word upon word, phrase upon phrase, to try to lay out a theology of the grace of God that fits the worldviews of two very different types of Christians.  The first Christians in Rome, like everywhere else, were Jewish converts.  They had been raised with the Torah, followed the sacrificial rules of the Temple, and knew their Hebrew Scriptures inside and out.  As time went on, others became interested in this new religion, and so Gentiles, non-Jews, started joining the ranks.  These Christians had been brought up in the pagan cult of Rome, worshipping a pantheon of gods.

        The Jewish Christians were highly incarnational people.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat and how to do the dishes; what to wear and with whom to do business; and so on.  Their religious system was designed, in part, to keep God’s chosen people alive in a world where life was extremely fragile.  There were constant threats against one’s body in the first century: infant mortality was near 25% and roughly 50% of children died before age ten.[2]  For the Jewish people, an oppressed minority for almost their entire history, life was so full of death that their religious system necessarily worked to protect them as best it could.  It makes sense, then, that these Jewish Christians focused on Jesus’ humanity as a living, breathing, first century Jew.

        The Roman Christians, on the other hand, had been raised on Plato, and saw the body as nothing more than “an embarrassing encumbrance.”[3]  They thought of the body as the tomb of the soul, which waited to finally escape the filthiness of this world for the glory of the afterlife.  Their focus would have been Jesus’ divinity and the call to give their hearts over to God rather than to focus on the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ life and ministry.  After eleven chapters of working to reconcile these two disparate worldviews, Paul turns his attention to what he sees as the only proper response to God’s grace.

        “Therefore, in light of all that I’ve said and in view of the mercy of God, I urge you brothers and sisters to present your bodies, fragile and corrupted as they might be, to God as a living, breathing sacrifice, which is your only reasonable act of worship.”  He then goes on to describe just what that living sacrifice of worship looks like: being transformed by the will of God; living in humility, serving as members of the body, and exercising the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the Kingdom of God.  You’ll note that there is nothing in there about music on Sunday morning.  The worship, to which Paul calls the Church in Rome and us, is about living from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night as disciples of Jesus Christ.  True worship is about being here on Sunday only insofar as it equips and empowers us to go forth from this place to “love and serve the Lord.”

        From there, our worship becomes about building the Kingdom of God. We worship God when our lives align with his will. We worship God when we treat others with the dignity and respect we all deserve. We worship God when we put aside our own selfish desires to seek after the greater good. We worship God when we use the gifts he has given us to build up the body.  Those who are called to be prophets worship God by calling people to abundance of life with conviction.  Those who are called to ministries of service worship God by reaching out in care and love to those in need in their communities and in the world.  Those who are called to be teachers worship God by being students of the faith who are then able to help others grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord.  Those we are called to exhortation worship God by encouraging others in their life and faith.  Those who are called to be givers worship God by giving of themselves and their resources sacrificially.  Those who are called to be leaders worship God by leading in the Church and in the world with grace and humility.  Those who are called to be merciful worship God through cheerful compassion.

        We spend an hour each week worshipping God in song, scripture reading, prayer, and communion here on Sunday morning, but more important is the 167 hours a week we spend worshipping God by exercising our gifts, showing forth God’s power among all peoples, and building his Kingdom here on earth.  That is our living sacrifice, our reasonable response to God’s grace. That is a truly spiritual act of worship.  Amen.

 

[1] Leander E. Keck and others, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 395

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Many-Members-Alyce-McKenzie-08-18-2014.html

[3] John Stott, “The Message of Romans” The Bible Speaks Today p. 322

The Peskiness of Paul’s Body Metaphor

Alyce McKenzie, in her weekly post at Edgy Exegesis, points out that Paul must have chosen the image of the Church as a body very intentionally.  Knowing what I know about Paul based on his corpus of letters, I think he chose the body image because it would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.23).  Having spent 11 chapters dealing with the internal struggles of the Church in Rome, specifically spending extra time to help smooth the riff between the Jewish Christians on the one hand and Gentile Christians on the other, Paul calls them both to unity through the image of the body.

Judaism was, and is, a very incarnational religious tradition.  The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat; how to wash the dishes; what to wear; and so on.  This was necessary in those days because of the fragility of life.  There were constant threats against one’s body in first century Palestine.  Pregnancy and childbirth were the cause of many a death, as were food borne illnesses, and a myriad of other diseases we take for granted these days.  Life was so full of death, that the Jewish system of Torah was at least partially built to keep people alive.

The Romans, on the other hand, were very much anti-body.  They were so focused on the spiritual that they saw the body as “an embarrassing encumbrance” (Stott, “Romans” BST, 322).  Their goal was to find their way out of their filthy bodies and into the incorruptible spiritual realm.

And so, when Paul uses the body image to explain the make up of the Church, he forces both sides to think hard about their understandings of the flesh.  Isn’t the body simply too fragile to be a good metaphor?  Isn’t it just too earthy?  No, says Alyce McKenzie, it is the perfect image.  “It’s better than family or team.  You can take a break from being a member of a team.  You can go on vacation without your family.  But you can’t take a break from the parts of your body.”  To further that understanding of unity, I would add that it is precisely because the body can feel pain, because bones can break and skin can be gashed and bruises can form, because scars develop to remind us of past hurts, that the image of the body is the ideal image for the united Church.  It isn’t perfect.  It doesn’t always work like it should.  Sometimes parts (white blood cells) attack other parts accidentally, but we can’t run away from each other.

That’s the peskiness of the body metaphor for modern Christians who are, rather unfortunately, used to tens of thousands of different flavors of church.  A new sign on the church down the street this week tells me that we have two “Church of Christ” congregations within a block of each other.  No matter how many walls we build, the truth of the matter is that we are still united, members of the same body, called to show forth the power of God to all people.

This might be the best religious image ever.

The Landing was Rough and Now the Breaks aren’t Working

In yesterday’s post, I wrote on the difficult lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, suggesting that it was a rough way to land in Ordinary Time. Today, I’ve got a little bit more time and so now having read through all the lessons, both Track 1 and Track 2 (more on that in another post), I’ve decided that the landing might have been so rough as to knock out the breaks as well.

In Genesis, we are welcomed into the semi-continuous reading with the story of a jealous Sarah convincing Abraham to cast off Isaac and Hagar into the wilderness. It is prime example of God’s steadfastness, as he stays with and protects the boy in the wilderness, but I’m pretty sure that fact will get lost in the minds of most hearers as they ponder this odd “beginning” to the story of Israel’s founding family.

Meanwhile, the Romans lesson is, well, a typical lesson from Romans: dense theologically and deeply rooted in the controversies of its time. Since many congregations probably saw a pretty baby in a flowing white gown get sprinkled with water on Pentecost a few weeks ago, the Romans lesson offers us a chance to reflect theologically on the role of baptism in the life of faith. It is helpful that the baby baptism is somewhat removed from the theology since no one likes to think about that adorable baptism as a death to the life of sin. This is another lesson that requires a good bit of back story.

Track 2 preachers, which is where Saint Paul’s in Foley falls this year, are invited into the theme of the day with a lesson from Jeremiah. While it, like the Genesis lesson, gets off a rough start, there is at least no casting off of innocent children. Instead, it is yet another reminder of why nobody wants the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy. Being the mouthpiece of God when God’s people are disobedient is not a pleasant experience, and Jeremiah cries out for help from the Lord. As the passage ends, the prophet has found the solace his is looking for and cries out to God in songs of praise. At least one of the lessons has a nod to the Collect’s theme of God’s lovingkindness.

What I have spent the last two days being snarky about, however, can be a real opportunity for the preacher. The Bible is full of hard to hear passages, and historically, the Lectionary has worked hard to skip past them. The problem, of course, is that when our people do read the Bible, they will see these things: stories of concubines, slavery, murder, and poor life choices; and be totally unprepared for how to handle them. It would behoove the preacher to land in the minefield of Proper 7A and honestly talk about how difficult Scripture can be. Afterall, if we want to create biblically literate congregations, then we have to invite them into the fullness of the story of God’s steadfast lovingkindness to often despicable people.