Mindset

Peter is a pretty easy punching bag. Taking from the book “Lamb,” I once preached a sermon riffing on Peter’s name meaning “rock” and called him “dumb as a box of rocks Peter” throughout. That may have been too strong. He is certainly impetuous, but maybe not dumb. He’s quick to jump out of the boat, quick to answer Jesus’ questions, and in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, quick to tell Jesus he is wrong. It is pretty easy for the preacher to point to Peter and Jesus’ rebuke of him and say, “don’t be like Peter,” but the truth is, most of the time, most of us are right where Peter is.

His sin, you see, isn’t rebuking Jesus, but having his mind set on human things rather than divine things. I suspect most of us spend most of our time focused on the things of this world: money, power, success; rather than the things of God; justice, peace, and restoration. This seems particularly true the longer pandemic restrictions linger and more and more of us grow impatient. From our national leadership the focus on human things has trickled all the way down to the minimum wage worker. The mindset of our nation has been focused not on how to take care of one another, but how to keep the economy going so that money, power, and success can continue. Billionaires have made billions, but by making the powerless work to sell people the things they need and shorting the stock market to sell things they never owned. The most vulnerable have had to work, often without the necessary protections, in the name of the economy.

Our mindset is clearly set on human things. So, let’s stop short of laughing at Peter’s rebuke and wonder instead what Jesus might say to us in these (hopefully) waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. How might we change our mindset? How can we focus on divine things, even as we still have to pay bills, feed ourselves and our families.

Don’t Fall for It

Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe.  Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it.  We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized.  While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now.  One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel.  In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished.  Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan.  [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”  In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician.  While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type.  He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”  A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

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Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history.  Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question.  The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for.  In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe.  These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.

Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham.  After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people.  Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them.  He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God.  He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.”  Life is the way of love.  Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah.  Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”

Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.

In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church.  In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ.  He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness.  It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes.  They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand.  They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.

Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads.  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here.  Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point.  As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.

History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good.  We are suckers for instant gratification.  Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification.  We’ve fallen for it.  The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without.  That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money.  We’ve fallen for it.  The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy.  We’ve fallen for it.  Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.

Jesus invites us to stand up.  Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.  So, what do you stand for?  Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days?  Choose life.  Choose the way of love.  Choose to stand with Christ.  Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol.  The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Amen.

A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.

Rejecting our Createdness

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While it is in no way controversial to say that humanity is created in the image of God, there is plenty of room for debate on what that reality actually means.  Some would say that the imago Dei is our ability to reason, which up until recent scholarship, was thought to be what set us apart from other animals.  Some argue that we bear the image of God in our ability to imaginatively create new things, be they tools, art, or technology; a form of creation ex nihilo.  Still others would say that the image of God in each of us is the ruah, the breath, the Spirit of God at work in our lives.  In reading the Acts lesson appointed for Sunday, I began to wonder if part of what it means to carry the image of God is that we were created to be impartial, just as God is.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul argues that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry, not as the worship of money or power, but of self, by placing one’s self in the seat of God and acting as judge against our neighbor.  If God shows no partiality, which scripture affirms in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, then when we are partial to ourselves, to our what we assume to be normative, to lift up the sin of another while ignoring it in ourselves, to turn a blind eye to our our prejudices and biases against those who differ from us is in color, gender, sexual identity, religion, or mental or physical capacity.  All that run on Pauline stuff to say that every time we might choose to judge our neighbor is, in fact, rejecting our creation in the image of God.

Ultimately, this may be the sin of Adam and Eve that we carry within us to this day.  It isn’t sex or nakedness, as the Puritans who founded this country would have us believe, but rather, it is that we were not equipped with the proper lenses required to discern good from evil.  With the forbidden fruit consumed and passed on generation to generation, in coming to know the difference between good and evil, our understanding is inherently flawed.  We can’t see as God sees, and so what we see through our own lenses as good might very well be evil, and what we see as evil, might very well be good.  It is in the very act of making those determinations, of showing our partiality, that we fall into the sin of idolatry and reject the imago Dei within us.

In his sermon, Peter is clear, God shows no partiality, and that God is the only rightful judge of human beings.  It seems like it would behoove us as followers of Jesus, made in the image of God, if we reclaimed that understanding, to give up our bigotry, and to seek to do what is right in the eyes of the one who created us in their own image, God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Seen and Set Free

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Image from project1619.com

On August 20th, 1619, “twenty and odd” men and women of the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo, kidnapped by Portuguese traders in Angola, loaded onto a slave ship headed for New Spain and later stolen on the high seas by English Privateers, pirates operating by permission and under license of the British Monarchy, landed in Jamestown, Virginia aboard the ship the White Lion.  The pirates aboard the White Lion, who saw those human beings as nothing more than cargo, were hungry, and so they traded the futures of more than twenty people for some food and other provisions.  Of those women and men, Angela was the first enslaved person to be listed, by name, in the census. Angela and the “twenty and odd” other people were the first of more than half a million enslaved Africans who would be sold in the American colonies and the United States.  By 1860, the number of enslaved people in the United States was counted at 3,953,760 – thirteen percent of the US population.[1]  To borrow language from our Gospel lesson this morning, on August 20th, 1619, America became bound by a spirit of evil that has kept us crippled, quite unable to stand up straight, to the fullness of our potential, for more than 400 years.

For the last month and a half, more than two dozen members of Christ Church have been a part of a 40-day prayer journey developed by Simmons College of Kentucky.  The Angela Project, named after that first enslaved woman counted in the census, seeks to raise awareness, call for repentance, and pray for the liberation of the descendants of slavery.  In our reading and prayers, we heard the stories of more than 40 men, women, and children who risked everything, often having to leave family behind, to escape bondage through the help of the Underground Railroad.  We learned about the ways in which the enslavement of black people has evolved, through convict leasing, Jim Crow, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration, long after the ratification in 1865 of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States, “except as punishment for a crime.”  In our prayers, we were invited to consider the lives of the enslaved.  We held in prayer the trauma of being stolen from your home, held in jail, and crammed into the cargo hold of ships for no other reason than being a dark-skinned African.  We lamented what it must have been like to watch your neighbors die in those harsh conditions; their bodies simply tossed overboard to restrict the threat of communicable disease.  We mourned the practice of slave auctions, the use of physical violence, and the inhumanity of entire systems created to keep black people subjugated even today.  We prayed for healing.

In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, two things had to happen in order for the woman bound by a spirit to stand up straight again.  First, she had to be seen, and then, she needed to be set free.  The deck was stacked against her.  Eighteen years is a long time to suffer.  If we are honest, it is a long time to maintain compassion as well.  In the early days, I’m sure many people looked upon her with pity.  I’m certain she received all kinds of offers to help.  Maybe her family was able to support her financially at the start.  As the months and years went by, however, fewer and fewer people even saw her.  Eventually, even her closest friends began to forget about her.  Her family, likely convinced that her condition was the result of something she had done to herself, grew weary of carrying the burden, and eventually, she was all alone, seemingly invisible to the world around her.  Luke says that she “appeared” in the synagogue.  Not that she hadn’t been there every day for years, but rather that one who had for so long been invisible, suddenly became visible again, and in appearing, she was once again seen, known, loved, and cared for.

Jesus saw her.  It’s a thing that Jesus seems to have done better than everyone else in history.  He saw people.  He knew people.  He perceived what people needed.  And he cared for people.  Jesus was unafraid to see the things and the people that the world would much rather avoid seeing.  The bent over woman didn’t seek Jesus out.  She didn’t ask to be healed.  But she who had been made invisible was seen, known, loved, and healed.

The first step toward healing our national sin is being willing to see it and name it.  For 400 years, white Christian America has done everything it can to make slavery invisible. We must do the hard work of seeing our collective complicity in the sin of slavery.  On Tuesday, 400 years to the day that Angela and more than twenty other human beings were traded like commodities off a ship, Christ Church, Bowling Green said prayers and rang our bell 24 times in commemoration of the “twenty and odd” people sold 400 years ago.  Honoring the request of the National Park Service and our Presiding Bishop, at 3pm today, the bell will ring in remembrance again.  In a letter explaining the tolling of the bell, your clergy noted that “ringing bells won’t bring about racial healing. It won’t undo the 400 years of systematic oppression, but it can be another step along the long journey of healing and reconciliation. By simply making noise, we overcome the tendency to remain silent, fearful to say the wrong thing, to admit complicity, or to lose one’s position of power or prestige.”  We cannot heal what we cannot name, and we cannot name what we cannot see.  The first step toward being healed is being seen.

Once we are able to see what is holding us back, be it an evil spirit or a system of oppression, the next step toward healing is to be set free.  In my first year of seminary, I took three quarters of New Testament Greek.  I don’t remember much of those studies, just enough to be dangerous, but I do remember how confused we all were when the first verb we learned was luo, to be loosed.  Nobody uses the verb “loosed” anymore.  Why would that be worth learning?  Well, it is because that’s precisely what Jesus came to do.  Jesus looses the bonds of oppression and sets people free from the bondage of evil spirits and their enslavement to sin.  Having seen the woman who had been bent over for 18 years, Jesus called her over, laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free (luo) from your ailment.”  In his debate with a leader of the Synagogue, Jesus argued that if it is lawful to “untie” (luo) and ox or donkey on the Sabbath in order to keep it hydrated, then certainly it was permissible to set the woman free (luo) from her own kind of bondage.

It is God’s desire to set us free from bondage, be it imposed upon us by others and self-inflicted.  I am certain that on December 6, 1865, all of heaven rejoiced at the notion that slavery had finally been outlawed in the United States, even as I’m certain there is still mourning in heaven that the 13th amendment came with any kind of caveat.  I am also quite sure that 400 years after Angela and the others were sold into slavery, God desires to loose our nation from the ongoing bondage of that particular sin, among many others.  The dream of God is that all of humanity might be set free from bondage.  The Way of the Jesus is the way of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.

At the end of each day of the 40 days of prayer and at the end of our service of commemoration, we made a declaration called “We are the Voice of One.”  In it, we declared our hope that with God’s help, the world might be restored, renewed, set free.  It was our prayer for each of those 40 days, and as a likely descendent of slave owners, it continues to be my prayer now and into the future: that with God’s help, we might see our sin, name it, repent, and be set free to the honor and glory of God.

We are the voice of one that cries out in Bowling Green:

“Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make straight in Bowling Green, a highway for our God

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be brought low.

The crooked places of this nation shall be made straight

And the rough places shall be made smooth

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed in all the world

And all of Bowling Green and all nations shall see it

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for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”[2]

Amen.

[1] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony

[2] Adapted from The Angela Project Liberation Ceremony

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.

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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.

A Cloud of Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.