Making ourselves gods

Last year, I had the pleasure of leading a real-life Draughting Theology study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I had read it several times.  I had walked Romans road.  I felt like I knew the lessons embedded in Paul’s letter pretty well, but until one spends time really digging into a text, commentaries in hand, with the goal of being able to teach it, one can not even begin to fully comprehend the complexities of a Biblical book like Romans.  One of the key lessons that I learned early in my study came from Jay Sidebotham’s commentary on Romans from the Conversations with Scripture series.  The thesis, or at least one of them, of Sidebotham’s commentary is that, for Paul, the core sin of humanity is the sin of idolatry.  There are a myriad of ways in which we offer worship to something other than God, but more often than not, the focus of that attention isn’t work, money, sex, or power, but ourselves.  The most common idol that distracts our attention from God is the idol of self.

This sin is no more evident than when we judge one another.  When we judge our neighbor, we put ourselves in the place of God.  This is why, in Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, hoping to escape a famine and full of lies, Joseph essentially cannot treat them harshly.  Instead, he makes it clear that judgement is not the purview of a faithful human.  “Am I in the place of God?”  This theme shows up in the New Testament lesson as well.  The lesson is from Romans 14 (hence the introductory paragraph to this post), and in it, Paul’s seems to wonder aloud why it is that human beings, all of whom stand under the judgment of God, work so hard at passing judgment on one another.

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This all leads to Peter’s question to Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ answer, which he expounds by way of a parable about an unforgiving slave, seems to broaden the expectation that we forgive rather than pass judgment beyond members of the church to all, who like us, are slaves, either of God’s grace or of the power of sin.  Forgiveness is the antithesis of judgmental idolatry because to forgive is to obey the command of God.  We don’t make the choice to forgive, which means we are not trying to control our own surroundings.  Instead, we obey by forgiving, allowing God to be God.

It seems that every year on or around the 11th of September, these lessons come back around.  Some sixteen years after the day on which terrorists attacked America, it is still tempting to put ourselves in the place of God and make judgments, not just on the men who planned and carried out these attacks, but on the entire religious system which these men perverted for their own selfish ambition.  It is hard to talk of forgiveness on September 11th, which is precisely why leaders of the Christian faith must do so.  We must warn our people of the temptation to make our country or our way of life the idol of our worship.  We must caution them against the more insidious sin in which we act as judge, thereby making ourselves as gods.  We must repeat the refrain that because we have been forgiven so much, we too must forgive, for it is not our choice to make, but the commandment of God that we humble ourselves and offer forgiveness to all who have sinned against us.

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Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

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.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

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True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”