The False Idol of Peace

It is startling to read it.  I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to hear.  The Rabbi who had made a career out of bringing people in, no matter what it was that had put them out, now stands before the disciples and says, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  They didn’t even have 150 years of the Christmas Industrial Complex messing up their heads with saccharine images of radically counter-cultural events capped, without any sense of irony, with the phrase “Peace on Earth” boldly emblazoned above or below.

33106_w

This idea of peace has, in many ways, become an idol for modern, western Christians.  That following Jesus would mean power, privilege, and comfort is so beyond the pale of what it meant to be a disciple in the first three centuries after Christ’s resurrection that I’m not sure Jesus would have any idea what he was looking at if he met the average white, middle-class, American Christian on their way to church on a Sunday morning.

Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to bring peace to the earth.  Even before he said it, we should have known.  By breaking bread with notorious sinners and tax collectors, he challenged the status quo.  By healing on the sabbath, he challenged the status quo.  By talking with women, by challenging the religious authorities, by speaking in parables, bringing the dead back to life, and by preaching the Kingdom of God, he challenged the status quo.  Everything Jesus did and said pushed against the notion that God is supposed to work for us, making our lives peaceful, and challenged future disciples to be prepared for difficulties that would come when they tried to follow his example.

Living out the Law of the Kingdom that Christ came to inaugurate means loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  It means loving your neighbor as yourself.  It means laying down idols like peace, security, comfort, power, and privilege.  It means putting the needs of the other ahead of your own.  It means sharing with those who are in need.  It means calling to account systems of oppression and degradation.  I means voting based on something other than “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It means shopping based on something other than the cheapest price tag.  It means, as our exemplars in the faith like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Jeremy Taylor, Florence Nightingale, and Clare of Assisi can attest, being downright uncomfortable because the living out of our faith puts us at direct odds with the leaders of our time.

As one whose livelihood depends upon the gifts of others, I’m preaching to myself here.  Peace is an idol for me because it means keeping my family fed, clothed, and housed.  I’ve not always said what the Gospel would have me say or lived the way that Christ would have me live, but day-by-day, my faith grows a little stronger, my trust grows a little deeper, and the ledge feels just a little bit safer.  May each of us find that place where the idol of peace can be set aside and the revolutionary Gospel of Jesus Christ can be fully proclaimed.

Advertisements

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.

Called to be better

At my ordination to the priesthood, I had to make several promises.  I declared before God, my bishop, and God’s people, that I felt called to a ministry that, among other things, requires me to “love and serve the people among whom I work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  I vowed to “undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom I am called to serve, laboring together with them and with my fellow ministers to build up the family of God” I try, to the best of my abilities and with God’s help, to help make the “reconciling love of Christ be known and received” in the world (1).  I take this work very seriously as I pastor a community that is very diverse theologically and politically.  It is my duty as a minister of the Gospel to offer the kind of care, compassion, and love to the members of my congregation who are stringent supporters of the President and his loudest critics.  It is my sincere hope that anyone you might ask here at Christ Church, Bowling Green or back at St. Paul’s in Foley, AL would tell you that I treated them with respect and compassion.

Of course, I have my own opinions on things, but I work hard to keep them to myself.  My political inclinations are based on both my own life experiences and my reading of the Scriptures, especially the words of Jesus who summed up the law in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  I don’t dare tell others how to vote, knowing that their life experiences and religious convictions will never be the same as mine.  I do, however, think that I am obliged as a minister of the Gospel to speak up anytime that the inherent dignity of any human being or group of people is being denied them.  I’ve done it before, at the death of Osama Bin Laden, after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and about certain draconian immigration reform policies.  I feel compelled to do it again as there seems to be a distinct uptick in the racist rhetoric of xenophobia, islamaphobia, and white supremacy spreading throughout our nation, beginning in Washington, DC.

1

As a disciple of Jesus Christ, who believes that all are made in the image of God, and is called to be a faithful pastor to all I serve, it would be a violation of my ordination vows to be silent in the wake of language that denigrates whole communities of people from Somalia to Baltimore as being less than.  In line with the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral, I affirm that the language being used by our President and several of his supporters has no place in a country that likes to consider itself Christian.  God loves us just as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us there.  Instead, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to a higher calling, lifting up those in need, caring for the marginalized, and allowing the love which we have experienced in Christ Jesus flow out into the world.

In his letter to the Colossians that is appointed for this Sunday, Paul implores the community to follow the example of Christ by giving up their old ways of “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.”  As the inheritors of that Christian tradition, all who claim to follow Jesus should endeavor to do the same.  So you, dear reader, whether a preacher, a dedicated lay person, or someone just dabbing into the waters of the Christian faith, I invite you to join in modeling for and expecting from our elected leaders a basic respect for all of our siblings in the human family.  We do not need to agree on everything to still love one another as Christ loves us.  Rather, in the renewal of our hearts and minds through the cleansing waters of baptism, all of us whether Republican or Democrat, recent refugee or Daughters of the American Revolution, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Roman Catholics are called to lives our lives following the example of Jesus Christ, who is all and in all, in the world that desperately needs the restoration and redemption that comes from God’s saving love.


(1) BCP, 531-2, emphasis mine.

The Church’s Earthly Things

It has been more than a dozen years ago now, but I remember it quite vividly even today.  It was late fall in my final year of seminary and the diocesan deployment officer came to town.  At my seminary, there were six of us from the same diocese getting ready to graduate.  I was the youngest by at least 20 years.  I was the only person not already drawing a pension from somewhere else or independently wealthy from some other means.  This meant, that while all of us would have liked full-time employment in the church, I was the only person who couldn’t live without it.  The deployment officer got the rest of the guys started on their profiles (we were all dudes), and then he said to me, “Steve, you’re young [he didn’t add white, straight, and married, but I heard it] and you probably plan to be a bishop or cathedral dean someday, so here’s how your career should go.”  He then told me how I would lily pad my way to “success” in the church.

p10_career-ladder-738x470

As he spoke, my heart began to pitter-patter, my head began to swell, and my competitiveness began to engage.  “Yes! Of course I want all of these things,” I thought to myself.  It was in that moment that Mrs. Sekel’s voice rang through my head.  Mrs. Sekel is the mother of my childhood best friend.  She’d known me since I was six or seven years old, and she served on my congregational discernment committee.  At one point in the process, we were talking about what it meant to become a priest at such an early age, and how my life goals were going to have to change.  As a business administration major in college, my stated goal, awful as it may have been, was to crush fingers on the corporate ladder, and Mrs. Sekel, who was often quiet, but always discerning, asked me, “Steve, isn’t the church just a smaller latter to climb?”  Her words exploded again in my mind as I listened to the deployment officer’s motivational speech, and I realized that I was going to have to be very careful in discerning call in my vocation and not career advancement in my job.

In his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul implores the Christians there to “put to death whatever in them is earthly.”  It is advice that is well heard by every succeeding generation of believers.  It is advice that is well heard by the Church as well.  It isn’t just in the hearts of individuals that earthly things live, but they are alive and well in the systems that we human beings create.  Clergy who are working on a career arc rather than focused on where God is calling them and the all-too-easily laughed off notion that “the Holy Spirit never calls someone to a smaller church or less money” is emblematic of larger systemic sins that are at play.  Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, among others, are systemic issues in the Church because the earthly things of bigotry, fear, and anger live in the hearts of her members, her leaders, and her clergy.  We have, as Paul notes, held parts of ourselves back from the new creation that God has inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Changing these systemic sins begins by repentance in our own lives.  We change the Church and change the world only when we are willing to allow God to change us, every part of us, by first putting to death everything that is in us that is earthly.

He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.

Vestiges of Rite I

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of my GOE scores and comments arriving by USPS.  I can still remember the power that silly day held over so many of us.  In the two years I studied at VTS before I took the General Ordination Exams, we were all but told to walk on egg shells around the seniors on GOE score day.  These Exams held our futures, and whether we passed or not could mean huge delays in the ordination process.  Of course, by the time January 2007 rolled around, several dioceses had started ordaining folks to the transitional diaconate in the fall semester of their senior year, thereby neutering the power of the GOEs for many.  As I am wont to do, I engaged in some of the anxiety around it all, after all, I wouldn’t be ordained a deacon until after I had successfully graduated from seminary, but I was also keenly away that the GOEs were wearing no clothes.

Rather than ramp up the anxiety machine by making the next generation of GOE takers scared to death to talk to me, I immediately blogged my scores, comments and all, because honestly, like any comprehensive professional certification exam, the whole thing is process of market manipulation and hazing, and ain’t nobody got time for that in the church.  Back in those days, scores were 1-5, with anything less than a 3 was considered a failing grade.  The Liturgy and Church Music question my year asked us to compare Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching our Worship to Eucharistic Prayer I from Rite I in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  I got a 3 and this was part of the comments, “The limited use of theological terminology inhibits the paper’s capacity to compare and contrast the two prayers.”  So, I guess I answered the question barely, which was enough to pass.

Anyway, my focus in that essay was the basic posture from which the prayer is made.  In EOW, the anthropology is quite high.  We come before God almost in our post-resurrection state.  In contrast, Rite I’s basic anthropology is our sinful wretchedness.  I used to think that EOW missed the boat and Rite I was way more accurate a read of humanity, but over time, I’ve started to realize that depending on they day, sometimes, we might need to be bolstered up in our belovedness rather than weighed down in our brokenness.  That being said, it is helpful to occasionally be reminded that God is God and we are not; that God is good, and by and large, we are not.  Which is why I’m grateful for the collect for Epiphany 6/Proper 1.  This prayer, which dates from the mid-eighth century, is quite clear in where humanity falls on the goodness meter.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,  “The collect reminds us that without the grace of God we can neither will nor do any good thing nor be pleasing to God.”  This certainly doesn’t jive with modern “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology, but let’s face it, that’s got to be ok.  If all we do is good, then there is no need for God.  It doesn’t take too long in the world today to recognize that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, and that, as Dr. Cox would remind us:

de3a352a836918124d436154655d572f

I’m grateful for the vestiges of Rite I, and for the occasional reminder that no matter how good I might think I am, I, like everyone else, am in need of a savior who can lead me into the goodness that God has planned for me.

But who do you say that I am?

In the list of Top 5 Moments in the ministry of Jesus, the average disciple would probably list, in some order:

  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Temptation
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Resurrection

Number six would probably have some significant variation.  Some might include the Ascension.  Others would think of Jesus turning the tables in the Temple, feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, but I would like to submit that event #5a in the ministry of Jesus should be Caesarea Philippi, which we will hear this Sunday.

Before the Transfiguration solidified for Peter, James, and John just how special Jesus really is, this moment in a Roman resort town built to honor Caesar, commonly called the son of god, is the first real opportunity that Jesus and his disciples had to unpack everything they had seen and heard.  Miraculous healings, profound teachings, and all kinds of run-ins with the religious powers-that-be had already happened.  Surely, the disciples were constantly talking amongst themselves, wondering just how powerful this man was to whom they had hitched their wagons.  Could he be Elijah?  Was it somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead and disguised like former Mets manager, Bobby Valentine?  Or was this Jesus character another in the long line of prophets God had sent to proclaim a word of challenge and hope to the people of Israel?

2011-08-23-valentine

JBap, is that you?

It is during this intentional time away, the world’s first vestry retreat, that Jesus invites his disciples to dig deep into that conversation.  “Who does the world think that I am?” he asks them first, to get the ball rolling.  And then, he dives in by asking this group of faithful souls who have dropped everything to follow him, “But who do you say that I am?”  Who do you think you are following?  What does your experience of me suggest is happening here?  Are you able, unlike my own people in Nazareth who tried to stone me, that God’s hand is at work here?

I’m always caught short by this encounter between Jesus and his disciples because I wonder what my answer might have been.  More accurately, I wonder what my answer to this question is.  Yes, I believe in my heart and confess with my lips that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but do I live that reality every day?  Do I choose to follow Jesus as Lord in each moment?  No, of course I don’t.  No one does.  In those moments when I’m following my own path, when I focused on my own selfish goals – when I’m feeling jealous or frustrated or bored or burned out – in those moments, who do I say Jesus is?  This difficult question that Jesus poses to his disciples is a helpful one for us all to remember on our daily journey of faith.  In this moment, as I do this thing, make this decision, walk this path, who am I saying Jesus is in my life?